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The Politics of Dancing



Last week I addressed the issue of gendered and sexualized power dynamics as central to the project of Romance, particularly heterosexual Romance. I almost wish I’d written that post after last night’s Oscar show, because I think Seth MacFarlane’s hosting reflected the kind of white male privilege we so often take for granted, to the point of “banality,” as an article in The Atlantic put it. Take MacFarlane’s joke about George Clooney and younger women, specifically the nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis, which MacFarlane probably intended specifically to satirize Clooney’s May-December relationship pattern. From the Clooney side, the joke is incisive, because it highlights the absurd ease with which the older man, younger woman pairing is accepted. However, switching to the Wallis side of the joke, things get ugly fast, in part because of the historical pattern of inappropriate sexualization of the black female body, and in part because Wallis is nine. I truly believe that MacFarlane did not even think about the joke from that perspective, steeped in the kind of white male privilege that perceives a joke about George Clooney entering the realm of the “dirty old man” to be edgy and fresh.

In MacFarlane’s case (and The Onion’s, for that matter), the stakes are high enough that the privilege is pretty ugly and glaring. But this is not always (or most often) the case. When patterns of perception and behavior become so repetitive as to be expected, they can so easily become invisible to us that we tend to overlook them as distinguished and therefore noteworthy. Take, for example, the ease with which we accept the device of the virgin Romance heroine or the fertility epilogue. The association of childbearing and sexual chastity with morally respectable, even natural, womanhood is very deeply embedded in Western societies, and in turn, the perpetuation of these values in genre Romance seems almost natural to the genre.

Because I began with the MacFarlane example, I think I need to say here that unconscious, unexamined principles, ideas, and values are not necessarily a bad thing. There is a certain extent to which we all harbor unexamined perceptions, and I’m not even sure it’s possible to have complete self-transparency within the society that has conditioned us to function well within its boundaries. Nor do I think we should always strive for that kind of illumination, because the risk of failure outweighs the possibility of insight. For example, sexual fantasies are produced from the unconscious, and while they may be influenced by social constructs, we can’t know how they’d be different in a different cultural context. Rape fantasies are a perfect example of this. Would rape fantasy been so common and prevalent outside a patriarchal context? Would they be so ubiquitous in hetero Romance if women did not face such real life vulnerability to physical violence from men? I’m not sure research is ever going to be fully able to answer these questions, and I’m frustrated that so many women feel shame around sexual fantasies they do not consciously control and that are not harmful to them or others. Personal taste may be another alchemical combination of factors we may never fully understand.

At the same time, I think it’s important that we don’t automatically assume that norms in the genre are beyond intellectual understanding. In so many ways, genre Romance struggles collectively and overtly with many social norms, trying even to think beyond them (subverting rules about class differences, for example, or about sexual identity), while failing to question or even implicitly relying on others. As a genre rooted in social conservativism (e.g. preserving the nuclear family through marriage and children), Romance has struggled with how to accommodate changing social values with the traditional representation of romantic happiness through the marriage HEA and baby epilogue. And this makes sense, when you look at the genre’s literary heritage.

Pamela Regis grounds her Natural History of the Romance Novel in Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel, Pamela. The full title of the novel is Pamela; Or Virtue Rewarded, and Richardson calls his own book a “good, … edifying and instructive little Piece” in order “to shew the World an Heroine, almost beyond Example, in an unusual Scene of Life, whom no Temptations, or Sufferings could subdue.” As Regis notes, Richardson’s novel is a courtship story between Pamela, a teenaged maid, and Mr. B, her “master,” who basically holds her captive and attempts to morally debauch Pamela. The young heroine continues to resist Mr. B’s persistent advances, ultimately falling in love with him and marrying him. Pamela’s virtue is rewarded through marriage and social acceleration, while Mr. B becomes a better man through Pamela’s refusal to accept his morally corrupt propositions (Jane Eyre, anyone?). Pamela’s inherent virtue (identified via her virginity, of course) “saves” mr. B, while Pamela gains social and economic security by surviving the suffering she endures at the hands of the pre-redemption Mr. B.

I don’t want to de-emphasize the importance of the courtship narrative analysis, in part because courtship is at the center of the Romance genre, even though the genre, as we know it, is a 20th century phenomenon. You can certainly move forward from Richardson, through the novels of sentiment and sensation in the late 18th and 19th centuries, and see incredibly strong connections between those novels – which often contemplated “good” and “bad” romantic choices for women – and modern genre Romance. Marriage choices were of upmost importance for women, and while genre Romance has shifted the focus to the happiness effect of the courtship, the courtship elements of the genre have been imported from novels of sentiment and sensation (along with gothic and other elements).

I had originally planned to use this post to make a transition into the captivity device in Romance and its relationship to the historic development of the Euro-American captivity, a genre that shares quite a bit with genre Romance, including massive popularity and blockbuster sales numbers. But before I get to that, I want to talk a little about how genre Romance slides right along that line between the conscious contemplation and unconscious acceptance of social and cultural norms, values, and rules. In part this is because Romance is all about boundaries, in particular those boundaries that continue to affect the most personal emotions by defining rules of identification and conduct. In other words, Romance is a perfect illustration of “the personal as political,” because so often the love that these novels celebrate is socially taboo or even legally forbidden.

So why is this important? In part because Romance is simultaneously bringing the unfairness of certain social norms to our attention, while hiding the artificiality of others from our view. For example, historical Romance that criticizes arranged marriages but reinforces racial homogeny. Or the paranormal that undermines the trope of the physically weak heroine but relies on the sexual double standard that allows the hero more experience than the heroine. And to make it even more complicated, what each of us sees as transparent or hidden may vary, based on the particularities of our own conditioning.

This is a very powerful process. It reflects the way we see issues of sex and gender socially, it shapes the way we see the genre (what is “romantic” and what isn’t), and it serves as a point of intersection between the way we feel (the personal) and the way we represent (the political). When you really think about all of the social boundaries Romance simultaneously crosses and reinforces, is it any surprise that those books that reflect what I’m calling “Extreme Romance” (e.g. Fifty Shades, Motorcycle Man, etc.), are often the most popular and the most controversial?

We all have different ways of reading and understanding the genre. I tend to read genre Romance through its literary ancestry, particularly sentimental/sensational fiction and captivity narratives. And that’s where I’m heading with these posts, to a consideration of some of the more popular Extreme Romance novels through the lens of the genre’s literary history, which, in turn, is a function of socio-cultural values and norms. I’ve already discussed some of the gender and sexuality issues, and next I’m going to focus on issues of cultural “otherness,” disorientation, acclimation, and hybridization. I’m ultimately trying to get at some of the reasons I think exist for the massive popularity and importance to the genre of some of its more controversial books. I don’t know how successful this will be, but I do hope it opens the door for some good discussions about how the genre is implicated in reinforcing social privilege while also helping us see – and hopefully move – past it.


isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!


  1. carmen webster buxton
    Feb 26, 2013 @ 07:19:51

    Excellent post, especially the part of about male privilege! What upsets me most about Seth MacFarlane is that my 24-year-old daughter thinks he’s funny.

  2. DB Cooper
    Feb 26, 2013 @ 08:02:46

    @Janet , a wonderful read again, and thank you for not only sharing your views, but for explaining a little on how you come to view things and read through the genre. I’m looking forward to your exploration of the captivity device and “extreme romance.”

    …but there’s also something else, your mention of “otherness,” and I think that’s what stuck with me the most. It brings to mind two things. The first is a conversation I had with some friends of mine regarding a person slapping another. Specifically, a man slapping a woman in film (or TV) is no longer considered funny or acceptable (without crossing the line into obvious villainy) and yet I (personally) get the feeling that women slapping men continues to be acceptable, and often times cheered (he had it coming). While I don’t espouse violence against women, I lamented the fact that there was this inequality in message. But it’s the message (he’s showing her “her place” versus she’s punishing him for a point transgression), and the historical situation of violence against women that make this a sort of eggshell subject. I think agreement came down to “While it would be right and perfect with the world if men could slap women and carry the same message and weight and emotional turbulence (or comedic effect) as women slapping men–it doesn’t. The situation here is unequal, the interpretation here is unequal, and therefore the only responsible thing to do is approach it with that inequality (and all of its cultural implications) in mind.”

    Which I suppose is a long rambling way of getting two my second thought, and my question: I took the above thought in mind and put it together with DA’s stance against “fetishizing otherness” and wondered if one can get away with dropping a “minority” or biracial major character in a story and escape the onus of having to address cultural/social differences. I constantly have this feeling of “instant dilemma in a box” regarding this: Either the cultural difference factors in some major way and you get a “multicultural” or “interracial” story, or there are no cultural differences or obstacles of note to surmount at all, and the story becomes “whitewashed” in a way and the references to the minority character’s heritage are regarded as “light fetishistic” as best, and more commonly a missed opportunity for development.

    And yet, as a 2nd generation american, I can’t escape the fact that my experience has been largely “white american normative.” I don’t carry my parents attitudes, fears and perceptions of the society around me, I’ve got a set that’s all my own and largely informed by my ability to “pass” (there’s an old loaded word) without much note. Yes there was teasing in the early stages of school (we mostly grew out of that) and yes I’ve gone through phases of both rejecting my heritage and wanting to explore it–it all makes for a great personal story except that none of it has ever made a major appearance in my attempts to chase after romance, sex, or even just a date. Occasionally, someone has thought “hey, your skin is nice” or smiled a little extra when walking into a restaurant on my arm, but the sense that it should alter the plot of dinner (and the attempt to get to a bed), or that there was something that needed to be addressed and “rightened” has never been there.

    So why do I feel like writing a character who is for example, only “externally Chinese” is like writing a man slapping a woman? Is the fact that the character is non-white so loaded it automatically drives perceptions based on past history and past patterns of acceptance? Hollywood seems to think that is the case. Is it the same with romance stories, or am I just carrying over a sense of paranoia?

    I realize I probably should have waited for the “other article” but this thought just jumped in my head! sorry!

  3. dick
    Feb 26, 2013 @ 08:11:58

    Your essays are often thought provoking, but I sometimes think they also overreach. While authors of romance fiction may reveal, unconsciously, some of the contradictions of our society, I’m doubtful that doing so is their primary intent. I think that, like authors of other genres, their first intent is to tell a story which they hope will sell. Likewise, I think most readers of romance fiction are likewise unlikely to see romance fiction as vehicles of revelation, being, like the authors, most interested in the story.

  4. Lynne Connolly
    Feb 26, 2013 @ 08:32:00

    Wonderfully thoughtful post!
    Of course, there is always a reaction. I can’t think of an exception, although I bet others can because the power of the collective mind is awesome.
    But after “Pamela” came Fielding’s “Shamela” and “Joseph Andrews,” direct responses to “Pamela” and the hypocrisy that Fielding thought he saw in that book. It was published in the age of “The Beggar’s Opera,” and demonstrated what would become middle class values. “Pamela” was a sensation in its day, but so were “Fanny Hill” and “Tom Jones,” published a mere nine years later. And they’re much better books! (I’m currently doing “Tom Jones” for Clandestine Classics, and revisiting it is a joy).

  5. Lynne Connolly
    Feb 26, 2013 @ 08:34:38

    Dick, you need to read more essays. The romance novel is a predominant vehicle of choice, and is the biggest fiction genre sold today by volume. By that alone, it’s bound to have an influence on how people think and act in real life situations. People don’t compartmentalise in that way. Otherwise, the advertising industry, which most people claim to take no notice of, wouldn’t be the multi-million dollar powerhouse it is.

  6. Katie
    Feb 26, 2013 @ 08:45:24

    This post made me so happy. I study nineteenth century popular literature, and the debt that contemporary romance owes sentimental and sensational fiction, captivity narratives, really all popular serialized fiction, is evident. Even in scholarship like The Natural History of the Romance Novel (which I liked quite a bit), I feel like the genre history is drawn in fairly broad, obvious strokes: seduction novels to Austen to the Brontes and then into early 20th century writers. I think a really important early American romance writer is Laura Jean Libbey, who’s famous for writing fairy tales about factory girls who resist evil overseers and marry the mill owner’s son. But I digress.

    To Dick’s point, I’m not sure it matters what writers think they’re up to. Even if a hypothetical writer eschews the political and thinks she’s “just” writing commercial fiction that does no cultural work at all — and if it’s not obvious, I don’t think any writer devalues her fiction to this degree — that doesn’t stop the reader or critic from thinking about it the work in that way. Criticism is its own enterprise with a history and goals that run parallel to writing and shouldn’t be devalued as overthinking. The reading and writing of fiction is a billion dollar industry, something that thousands of people put time and money into: why shouldn’t we take it seriously?

    To spin it another way, if you found a book on the street that didn’t have an author’s name on it and there was no way to tell who had written or when or why, etc., could you still read it and make sense out of it? If after explicating that book you found the author, why would his interpretation of the text be more worthy than yours? I’m not willing to go as far as Roland Barthes or Michel Foucault and declare the death of the author, but I think there are limits to authorial intention. And whether it’s literary criticism or fan fiction, I’m glad to see the cult of the author losing sway.

    Anyhow, I’m glad to see romance readers being serious about their reading, the genre, and literary history.

  7. Laura Vivanco
    Feb 26, 2013 @ 08:51:09


    Even in scholarship like The Natural History of the Romance Novel (which I liked quite a bit), I feel like the genre history is drawn in fairly broad, obvious strokes

    Pamela Regis is currently at work on a history of American popular romance, so I’m sure she’ll be going into much more detail in that.

  8. Katie
    Feb 26, 2013 @ 08:58:21

    @Laura Vivanco: Yay! I only wish it were coming out sooner. I’m teaching a course on popular romantic fiction this summer, and this part of the literary history hasn’t really been written yet.

  9. Laura Vivanco
    Feb 26, 2013 @ 09:20:10

    @Katie: On the topic of serialized romantic fiction, I had a post written in which I tried to list the few existing items I know of which discuss it. You’ve probably already read them all, but just in case you haven’t, I’ve posted it now.

    At the moment, the most comprehensive account I know of re 19th-century British popular romantic fiction is Rachel Anderson’s The Purple Heart Throbs: The Sub-literature of Love. It was published in 1974, as the title suggests, isn’t exactly complimentary about a lot of the novels it discusses, and I’m sure must leave out a lot of authors. All the same, I found it informative.

    Janet, I’m looking forward to your post on captivity narratives because I know very little about them. Obviously in the UK there’s Pamela and, much later, The Sheik so captivity exists in UK romantic fiction too but I’m wondering how US romantic fiction differs from UK romantic fiction in this area.

  10. hapax
    Feb 26, 2013 @ 10:02:57

    Fascinating and thoughtful essay.

    I must confess, though, that when I saw the title I had expected (and hoped for) a literal discussion of the politics of dancing — that is, an examination of the pivotal trope of “the dance” in the courtship ritual of so many romance novels.

    This is most prevalent in nineteenth century historical romance, of course, but there is something about that device — a very constrained and patterned interaction between the sexes that nonetheless allows the author to show so much about the h/h personalities (exuberant? domineering? independent? awkward? sensual? businesslike? shy? witty?) and level of interest (sexual? friendly? admiring? hostile?) in a few telling gestures and exchanges — that it seems to pop up again and again, in contemporary, suspense, paranormal, sff, other historical periods, where it would seem odd and out of place if romance readers hadn’t been “prepped” to read the cues of the interaction.

    There’s probably a critical analysis thesis in there somewhere. I hope somebody writes it, so I can read it!

  11. Carrie G
    Feb 26, 2013 @ 10:32:02

    @DB Cooper: I don’t know if you’re jumping ahead or not, but I enjoyed your post and it’s making me think. I admit that I have to read these essays slowly and carefully because I don’t think I’m as intellectually adept as these ladies! It’s a different take on what @dick said. When I read I’m generally unconscious of the undercurrent of patriarchy and sexual politics. I love having this all pointed out and discussed, and only wish I knew more and had a more flexible brain so I could jump in and contribute something worth while!

    Carry on, Robin Reader! I so enjoy these essays. I feel myself getting smarter with each one. ;-)

  12. LauraB
    Feb 26, 2013 @ 11:34:29


    Authors write for their audiences, yes. However, they also write for themselves and to interrogate issues that are bugging them. Shakespeare did this, Joyce did this and Loretta Chase did this. Some do it more artfully than others, but all authors do this.

    Additionally, authors are a record of their times. Both in what they write and in their popularity or lack thereof.

    Author’s intent is a canard as it can never be fully recovered (in part b/c some of it is unconscious and much of the record (drafts, notes, etc) never sees the light of day). Therefore, author’s intent can never be proved. The more interesting question (for me anyway) isn’t, for example, “What did Shakespeare mean,” which can never be recovered. Instead, the questions I like are audience interpretive, such as “How might I, a modern reader, construe the relationships Shakespeare presents differently from 17th century courtiers (potential patrons)?”

    @Robin: If you haven’t read him yet, you might get a lot out the social theories of Althusser.

  13. DB Cooper
    Feb 26, 2013 @ 12:41:55

    @Carrie G:

    I’m quite glad to hear it. Speaking from my ego, I tend to write long rambling posts (and I’m usually aware that I bring my own slant to things), so I often wonder if anything meaningful can be taken from all of it. :D

    As for reading and being unconscious of the undercurrent, I hope I don’t sound condescending, but it’s a perfectly acceptable way of enjoying a work. I even dare to say that for many authors, subtlety and “atmosphere” are goals, such that they desire to influence the reader without the reader having to think about what is happening to her or him.

    I also think that’s why it’s so important to have essays and discourse exactly like this. Not only do they provide an environment for those who want to explore “more than just a good story”, but they are also an excellent way for writers (and readers) to understand the significance of certain choices (or unchoices) that go into a manuscript.

  14. Carolyn Jewel
    Feb 26, 2013 @ 13:32:55


    While authors of romance fiction may reveal, unconsciously, some of the contradictions of our society, I’m doubtful that doing so is their primary intent. I think that, like authors of other genres, their first intent is to tell a story which they hope will sell. Likewise, I think most readers of romance fiction are likewise unlikely to see romance fiction as vehicles of revelation, being, like the authors, most interested in the story.

    Dick: I hope you didn’t mean your comment to sound so patronizing. I’m sure there are authors who aren’t deliberately commenting on culture, just as there may be readers who aren’t thinking about such commentaries. Your comment struck me as a rather neat attempt to pack Romance into a container marked “Nothing important here — the writers are clueless and so are the readers.”

    Every other genre is openly recognized as having authors who are making deliberate commentary and readers who are fully cognizant of the commentary. I’m puzzled about why you think Romance is an exception. Again and again, Romance is judged by the bottom, never by the finest examples. Authors who chose story lines and conflict that challenge social norms and readers who enjoy those stories because the work offers that commentary are omitted or set up as not being true in general. (The example that proves the “rule.”)

    So of course, after reading several of Robin’s deep and provoking essays, instead of concluding that Romance is doing all those things you say it’s not, you dismiss Robin and Robin’s points by saying she’s overreaching and that Romance authors and readers aren’t reading in the way Robin contends.

    The evidence is before you and you are willfully ignoring it and instead constructing an explanation that protects a narrow and demonstrably incorrect view of the genre. Are you paying any attention to the comments here? Are you actually reading any of the books that engender robust discussion of cultural issues?

  15. Estara
    Feb 26, 2013 @ 14:02:21

    @Carrie G: I totally echo this comment, so I won’t bore you with writing the same thing with different words. Carry on ladies and spark my braincells! These discussions open up a wider vista than I was aware of.

    Slightly off-topic although the incident is referred to in the essay:
    Authors N.K. Jemisin and Michelle Sagara West address the most problematic aspect regarding the treatment of Quvenzhané Wallis from their viewpoint as poc females.

  16. Lynn S.
    Feb 26, 2013 @ 14:36:40

    Like dancing, I’m not certain where you’re leading with this, but I don’t believe the massively popular or extremes of the genre hold any greater truths. Polarity, yes; truth, not so much. I do look forward to the rest of your posts. Perhaps by the time you arrive, I’ll have some cogent thoughts.

    I’m glad I didn’t watch the Oscars. I have the feeling MacFarlane would have made me stabby. There is only one word for someone so desperate for any type of laugh that he is willing to skim the surface of pedophilia. Idiot and, like most idiots, he is probably unaware.

    Since everyone else has already taken Dick to task, I’ll simply add that all fiction is social commentary/observation at its heart, even if the authors themselves are unaware.

  17. Robin/Janet
    Feb 26, 2013 @ 14:55:26

    I just want to let everyone know that I am reading and enjoying comments. I’m in a workshop today and will respond tonight.

    I did want to make a quick note to @Katie that my two go-to books on popular fiction are still Cathy Davidson’s Revolution and the Word and Lori Merish’s Sentimental Materialism. I can share more resources later, though, if anyone is interested.

    Also, @dick, your comment reminded me of the time Norman O. Brown told me that if I wanted to be “serious” about studying literature (I was an undergrad thinking about grad school at the time), I needed to forget about American literature as anything but a “hobby.” Then, of course, cultural studies became THE thing, and I was so happy I held my ground as an Americanist dealing in part with works of 18th and 19th C popular fiction and culture. I suspect scholars of genre Romance hear a lot of the same, but I do believe that the time will come when that is no longer so much the case.

  18. Liz Mc2
    Feb 26, 2013 @ 15:27:10

    I am really enjoying these posts, and in this one, particularly like your ideas about the conscious/unconscious “work” romance does, or that we do while reading and writing it. I think you’re right that some “extreme” books are popular/polarizing because they bring these issues to the surface or make them more obvious and dramatic. Looking forward to where you go next with these thoughts.

  19. Katie
    Feb 26, 2013 @ 19:47:27

    @Robin/Janet: I’ve read them both, actually. I love the first four chapters of Davidson (the historical context), but I feel like the second half of the book is sort of…reductive? Her basic argument is to show how apparently anti-feminist books are secretly feminist. While I agree that a text like Charlotte Temple is much more complicated than a sentimental screed against disobeying one’s parents and having premarital sex, I also think it somewhat weakens the definition of feminist or subversive to use it when you (e.g., Davidson) really mean anti-bourgeois. The Merish book, however, is flat-out brilliant.

  20. SAO
    Feb 26, 2013 @ 23:47:14

    I wonder if choosing Seth MacFarlane wasn’t related to disdain for romance. Apparently, far more women than men watch the Oscars and, often, things that appeal to women– like Romance — are devalued. Hollywood can’t have that, so, Seth MacFarlane was supposed to bring in the men. I don’t know if he did, but I’m sure he convinced many women to give the thing a miss next year.

  21. Ann Somerville
    Feb 27, 2013 @ 01:23:20

    “While authors of romance fiction may reveal, unconsciously, some of the contradictions of our society, I’m doubtful that doing so is their primary intent.”

    If the eponymous commenter could permit himself to read outside the narrow confines of a subset of het romance, he would discover that there are many authors who consciously try to reveal “some of the contradictions of our society”. They’re the ones writing about non-straight, sometimes non-cis protagonists, in non-traditional settings, and with non-standard assumptions about society and relationships.

    However, m/m authors and writers who use their work as social commentary are certainly not immune from blindness to their own privilege. While Victoria Foyt’s appalling ‘Revealing Eden’ disaster is possibly at the far end of how how badly wrong a campaigning author can get it, I’ve read books with disabled protags which sort of get that right, while being ridden with trans- and homophobic issues, and books which are okay on homophobia, but which are dreadfully sexist, racist or classist. (Naturally I consider all my books completely free from criticism on this aspect ::cough::)

    My point is that even when deliberately subverting the norms, authors can end up reinforcing societal conventions, even heterosexist ones through homosexual romances. As that dreadful Onion tweet shows, intention to satirise or illuminate a given evil, doesn’t prevent one becoming part of the problem.

  22. Helena Fairfax
    Feb 27, 2013 @ 06:22:41

    @Lynne Connolly I admire your reply to Dick, including the fact that: “The romance novel is…the biggest fiction genre sold today by volume. By that alone, it’s bound to have an influence on how people think and act in real life situations.” (And by the way, Dick, if you passed your comment to me in the pub and then told me your name, I’d raise an ironic British eyebrow. I might even laugh, depending on how much I’d had to drink, and say “Good one!”. But since we’re in cyber-space I must assume you are for real.)
    Having said that, in a way I think Dick is correct. People buy romance novels primarily for entertainment. But it’s my belief that all writers (and all entertainers, including comedians like Seth MacFarlane) have an obligation to their audience, since, as Lynne so rightly says, we are in a position to influence what people think. This “obviously” means being non-racist and non-sexist – which isn’t as obvious as one might think, given the instances of racism and sexism to be found in many forms of entertainment.
    Above and beyond the obvious, the best entertainers reflect our society back to us and make us think about it in a new way. I don’t particularly think there’s any need for romance writers to come up with massively different situations to challenge us (have the hero a transvestite, for example, or the heroine a prostitute, or any other twists to the romance story). Jane Austen managed to challenge us perfectly and brilliantly well within her small social setting.
    Dick is wrong, though, when he says romance writers are only writing to sell. Of course I need to earn money, but actually I take my obligation to my audience very seriously. The books I’m having published this year contain heroines who have confidence in themselves (apart from the normal self-doubts we are all subject to), are intelligent, self-reliant and are good at their jobs. They think very hard before accepting the hero in their lives. I’ve made an absolute point of creating heroines like this, since I see so many young women who base their self-worth purely on what a man thinks of them.
    Other commenters have mentioned racial diversity, or lack of it, in romance novels, and I think that’s definitely something that romance writers need to address. The last UK census showed that less than 50% of London’s population is now white. It’s high time this sort of statistic was reflected in romance novels, and as a second generation British citizen myself I’m incorporating this fact of modern life into my next novel.
    Thanks for a most interesting post and for making me reflect even harder on my obligations as a writer.

  23. dick
    Feb 27, 2013 @ 09:17:45

    No, I didn’t intend to sound patronizing. Still, I think the efforts to de-popularize genre fiction by seeking to make it as much like “literature” as possible are counter-productive. Do readers of romance fiction really want to read a romance with the same kind of critical attention readers must give to a great deal of what is called “literature”?
    To my way of thinking, there’s a kind of reverse negative attitude toward genre fiction in thus trying to “elevate” it so to speak, to the glorious level of “literature.” I think some things have value simply because we don’t have to determine what their value is.

  24. Helena Fairfax
    Feb 27, 2013 @ 10:07:59

    Hi Dick, I understand what you mean and I hope you don’t think I was being rude in my last comment. If so, I apologise. In answer to your question whether readers of romance fiction give it in depth critical attention, then yes, in my experience they definitely do.

  25. dick
    Feb 27, 2013 @ 11:32:23

    @HelenFairfax: Well, yeah, I did think part of your comments were rude, especially the ad hominem comment about my name. I thank you for the apology, however, and point out that the vast majority of comments about specific romances by readers on the internet have to do with whether the hero and/or heroine act acceptably and whether the HEA is believable. Those are critical comments, yes, but of the kind most associated with individual taste, not of the kind which are being suggested by the essay to which we’re responding. Most “critical” discussions have to do with romance fiction as a genre–whether the HEA is a requirement, whether m/m, mfm are romances or love stories and so on. I’ve read only a few reviews which critique a romance as an academic critic would do. And, in passing, I’m not sure that it’s possible to do so except on the very basic levels of the elements of narrative, for the primary reaction to romance fiction is, and should be, emotional. I’m sure you would agree that emotional reactions are rarely critical.

  26. Laura Vivanco
    Feb 27, 2013 @ 11:43:25


    I’ve read only a few reviews which critique a romance as an academic critic would do. And, in passing, I’m not sure that it’s possible to do so except on the very basic levels of the elements of narrative, for the primary reaction to romance fiction is, and should be, emotional.

    Dick, that seems a really odd comment to make when you know of the existence of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies. What do you think’s published in the journal if not academic critiques of romance?

  27. Janine
    Feb 27, 2013 @ 13:03:17

    As Regis notes, Richardson’s novel is a courtship story between Pamela, a teenaged maid, and Mr. B, her “master,” who basically holds her captive and attempts to morally debauch Pamela. The young heroine continues to resist Mr. B’s persistent advances, ultimately falling in love with him and marrying him. Pamela’s virtue is rewarded through marriage and social acceleration, while Mr. B becomes a better man through Pamela’s refusal to accept his morally corrupt propositions (Jane Eyre, anyone?). Pamela’s inherent virtue (identified via her virginity, of course) “saves” mr. B, while Pamela gains social and economic security by surviving the suffering she endures at the hands of the pre-redemption Mr. B.

    I haven’t read Pamela, but this description of it made me think of one of my favorite trad regencies, Edith Layton’s The Duke’s Wager. I don’t know if you’ve read it, but for those who haven’t, here’s a link to a review by Sarah Wendell at SBTB. I anxiously await the day it’s reissued in e because I’d love to reread and review it sometime.

    The Duke’s Wager begins with a virginal, virtuous heroine and two villains. There is no apparent hero for a good portion of the novel. The two men spot the heroine at a place a woman of virtue should not appear, decide she is fair game, and make a wager that they’ll both pursue her by means fair or foul with the goal of making her their mistress. The man who succeeds will win the wager.

    Things go from bad to worse for this heroine as one of the men arranges for her to be cast out of her home. Bad things befall her, and by the end of the book she is no longer the same girl she was, but she still has her integrity, as well as her virginity. (There are no sex scenes in this one).

    For a good portion of the novel, we don’t know who of the two men is the villain and who is the hero. Neither of them seems like a viable hero for quite a while. But the evidence of the heroine’s integrity transforms one of the men by restoring his faith in people, and he marries her at the end of the book and thereby elevates her from her position of helplessness to one of social power.

    It’s a very old fashioned, conservative book in many ways. Though published in 1983, it reads older than that, and yet there’s a slightly subversive element to the way the two men are contrasted (I don’t want to say more because I’d hate to spoil it for readers who haven’t read it yet).

    As I say, I have not read Pamela, so when I read The Duke’s Wager I was reminded of another English literary classic — Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. To me The Duke’s Wager read like a riffing on Tess, like rewriting it without the tragic ending. But perhaps if I had read Pamela I would have compared it to that novel.

    I think The Duke’s Wager can be called an “extreme romance,” too, and your article made me thing about the ways in which that trope of “virtue rewarded” plays out in romance — and by virtue I don’t mean just virginity, but also other characteristics traditionally viewed as “womanly virtues” — qualities like kindness, goodness, sweetness, innocence, patience, tolerance, etc. — are so often “rewarded” in heroines with the reward being marriage, often to someone who can protect them whether physically, socially, or financially (even if that “hero” has been abusive in the past).

    From a feminist standpoint, this is problematic to say the least. It may even be fair to call it anti-feminist. This trope (if it should even be called a trope) is so widespread in the genre that it’s a huge part of it. To try to remove it from the genre (not that I think you are suggesting that) would cut a huge swath through romance. Most likely it is here to stay (at least in m/f romance) for the foreseeable future.

    So then the challenge to romance writers (I include myself here) is to think about this and about what if anything we can/should do with it if we take it on. And the challenge to readers is also to think about it consciously.

    As a reader, I can think of favorite books which, like The Duke’s Wager, reward virtue in the heroine via a marriage to someone more powerful than she. There are many books that fit that description which I haven’t loved, and many outside that description which I have loved, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t love The Duke’s Wager, To Have and to Hold, Uncommon Vows and likely some others.

    As a writer, the challenge of how to handle such a trope is thornier… So I’ll just close by saying that even though I haven’t read Fifty Shades and still haven’t finished Motorcycle Man, and even though many other “extreme romances” aren’t my cup of tea, your post made me better understand the appeal of the “extreme romance.”

  28. hapax
    Feb 27, 2013 @ 14:12:00

    Do readers of romance fiction really want to read a romance with the same kind of critical attention readers must give to a great deal of what is called “literature”?

    Sometimes, yes, I do.

    Conversely, sometimes I want to turn to Shakespeare or Eliot or Atwood for a hearty laugh, a cathartic cry, or a rattling good story.

    I don’t think that — outside the posing of pretentious cynicism — “literature” is defined by how hard you have to force yourself to enjoy it.

    YMMV, of course.

  29. Helena Fairfax
    Feb 27, 2013 @ 14:21:17

    @ hapax I wholeheartedly agree
    And @ dick You make some good comments (and thanks for taking my apology in good part.) I agree with you when you say the primary reaction to romantic fiction should be emotional. Any writer, or artist, or musician would want primarily to provoke an emotional response, and not a cool sort of “ooh I wonder is this piece Expressionist?” It’s my understanding from years of literary study that a large part of that academic study involves working out how and how successfully a writer manages to provoke a certain emotional response. This involves the study of characterisation, motivation, phraseology, humour, irony, setting, choice of vocab, the influence of other writers on the text and dozens of other factors. These same factors are discussed with just the same sort of intensity by romance readers as they are in academia-land. And this sort of discussion is not “just” critique to me – this is a major part of literary academic study. Although it’s useful to understand the context in which a writer is writing, what genre a piece of work belongs to (categorisation) is only a minor part of academic study, in my opinion. Sure, we can discuss whether Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy, for example, in the true meaning of the word, but is this the only area of academic study? I don’t think so personally. Critique is a big part of academic study, and romance readers have a massive enthusiasm for critique and great insight in this regard.

  30. Sunita
    Feb 27, 2013 @ 14:44:31

    @Janine: Interesting that you see The Duke’s Wager as conservative and old-fashioned. I read it within a few years of its release and I still remember being struck by how different it was from other books of the time, at least other Regency trads that were also published by Signet and Fawcett. It seemed quite subversive to me, not only in its depiction of the two leads, but in the relationship between the heroine and the two male characters. I also didn’t see the rewards bestowed by the HEA as being tilted toward the heroine (although her material gains were clearly greater), in fact I thought it was one of the more reciprocally balanced exchanges I’ve read in the genre.

    I’ve always thought that Layton didn’t get nearly the credit she deserved for the way she subverted and played with traditional hero/heroine backstories, relationships, and plot lines.

  31. Moriah Jovan
    Feb 27, 2013 @ 15:58:47

    @Helena Fairfax:

    It’s my understanding from years of literary study that a large part of that academic study involves working out how and how successfully a writer manages to provoke a certain emotional response.

    I did my time locked in existentialist angst litrachoor hell, and I have never once had a class that cared about an emotional response. Ever. It’s always been about symbolism, context, historicity, period (e.g., Southern gothic, modern, post-modern), and social commentary (both contemporary and modern).

    Now, that’s not to say other programs don’t study that. I’m just saying I’ve never seen this. Having an emotional response to a work was not only frowned upon, it was discouraged and, occasionally, openly ridiculed.

    (That applied for the stories one wrote in creative writing classes, too.)

  32. Helena Fairfax
    Feb 27, 2013 @ 16:40:25

    @ Moriah I find what you say quite sad and a great shame. I studied in England. Is it because literature study is different here? I don’t know. It’s a long time since I was at uni, but emotional responses were certainly not frowned on. I remember one of my tutors reading a poem by Rimbaud. He was moved to tears, and then proceeded to show us how the poet had managed to provoke that emotion through his choice of words and imagery. Surely Rimbaud would care more about moving someone to tears than his classification as a Symbolist poet? To me the emotional response is what’s important, and I bring that over to my love of romance fiction. It’s useful to be able to classify novels as chick-lit or romance or romantic fiction, or whatever, but as a writer the classification is the last thing I care about. That’s not to say that I don’t think the social issues are also important (see my first comment), but surely fiction-writing has to be primarily about emotion? Otherwise, why not just write an essay?

  33. Moriah Jovan
    Feb 27, 2013 @ 17:21:29

    @Helena Fairfax:

    surely fiction-writing has to be primarily about emotion?

    Well, I think so, but I read (and write) romance for the express purpose of having my innards ripped to shreds and then pasted back together again at the HEA. This is why I did not play well with others during my incarceration.

    See, I think that the danger in treating romance (or any genre) the same way we treat litrachoor in college, is that it strips out the emotional response. On the one hand, we read about Jane’s addiction to admittedly-not-great Kristen Ashley’s work and on the other hand, we question these responses as counterproductive to encouraging “good” romance or rather, romance that’s technically good without being a safe, boring rehash.

    I personally think that with the explosion of self-publishing, we’re seeing a battle emerge, where gut-shredding-angst-with-an-HEA-but-needs-serious-editing storytelling will trump competent-and-well-edited-and-well-researched storytelling every time. NOBODY is going to remember how well edited a book is if the storytelling is merely competent or, God help us all, boring.

    I personally never paid attention to my college professors (other than to regurgitate what I was told to regurgitate and even then I didn’t do that so well) and I don’t pay attention when the self-appointed guardians of litrachoor berate the hoi polloi for what they like to read.

    If I deign to respond, it’s usually just, “Fuck you. I like it.” (TM Teddypig) (And I kinda think that’s what @dick was getting at.)

  34. Sunita
    Feb 27, 2013 @ 17:59:19

    @Helena Fairfax:

    but surely fiction-writing has to be primarily about emotion? Otherwise, why not just write an essay?

    No, it most surely does not. That constsraint would knock out a lot of SFF, historical fiction, philosophical fiction, and more. Of course fiction doesn’t primarily have to be about emotion.

    You’re also using the term “emotion” ambiguously. There’s a difference between exploring human emotions through literature, i.e., as a question in a literary work, and evoking emotions in the reader. The fact that your tutor could demonstrate how a poem moved him to tears doesn’t mean someone else would be moved in the same way, or even moved at all. Emotion is an individual psychological reaction. Some works of art (and/or commerce) create the same types of emotions in a wide range of people. Some evoke opposite emotions within a cinema or room full of relatively similar people.

  35. Janine
    Feb 27, 2013 @ 18:30:45

    @Sunita: I agree the rewards bestowed in The Duke’s Wager weren’t tilted toward the heroine. I didn’t mean to imply they were; in fact the reason I put “rewarded” in quotes was because I think if anything, marriage to such a hero can be a dubious reward.

    And yeah, the book is very different from other books published both then and since. I also agree the way the two men who vie for the heroine are contrasted isn’t the only subversive element in it, although it’s the one that most stood out to me.

    Where I see it as conservative is it derives much of its power from the heroine’s refusal to cede her body to either man. This plays a double role: on the one hand, it shows the heroine’s strength of mind, integrity, and refusal to accept the fate the men have dictated for her (which all argue for a feminist interpretation), but on the other hand, there is also the fact that the vehicle for this is her “unsullied” status, her sexual inexperience.

    I love the book to bits, but I think it falls firmly into the category/type of book in which the heroine endures many a moral transgression by the hero while she herself remains blameless and unblemished, and at the end, they end up together.

    There are many, many books I love that fit this description but I think there’s no denying that these book prescribe very different roles for their heroines than they do for the heroes. He has the freedom to transgress (often against her, but also to flout social rules and conventions), while she is held up as an example of one or more of the virtues I listed above. I see that as problematic from a feminist standpoint.

  36. Robin/Janet
    Feb 27, 2013 @ 22:50:32

    Re. studying genre Romance:

    I think @dick‘s initial comment implicitly conflated a couple of things, namely, authorial intention with the story itself, and reader reactions with critical analysis of the genre.

    I obviously have many thoughts about this, but I’ll try to keep it (for me) short:

    1. Given the number of Romance scholars who are also long-time readers of the genre, I hope it’s clear that one can enjoy a variety of emotional response from reading, while still wanting to conduct more intellectually-based analysis of books and genres.

    2. If you go on to Amazon and read reviews of so-called “great literature,” you will see lots and lots of emotionally-based reader responses. Similarly, there are many wonderfully analytical treatment of genre books. One thing that has always frustrated me is the idea that readers who are not using language overtly associated with literary analysis are not doing that kind of work. Personally, I think the best reviews are those that discuss a book’s success or failure in terms of the reader’s emotional responses, and then provides insights into the way the story and the characters work and some of its thematic, symbolic, historical (or other structural) elements.

    3. As to the issue of what constitutes formal literary analysis, there are different schools of thought, from New Criticism, which treats works as fully contained for the purpose of interpretation (e.g. you don’t need to look to the historical context of a poem to determine it’s “meaning”). I see many of dick’s comments as reflecting New Critical views. Then there are critical traditions that look at what readers bring to texts (reader response theories), how historical power structures shape the cultural production of art (New Historicism), schools of feminism, critical race theories, deconstruction, post-colonialism, etc. etc. etc.

    4. Looking at how an author uses language, imagery, and other elements to produce an emotional response in the reader is definitely part of literary analysis. At the same time, over the last fifty years or so, literary analysis has de-emphasized the person of the author, and has instead focused on the text and its socio-historical context. Trying to discern the intentions of the author is a risky thing, not only because it pre-supposes the ability to read the author in the text, but also because it assumes that a person has absolute control over what s/he is producing and how the reader will interpret it. That’s pretty much impossible. That said, there are some ways in which studying the biographical details of an author’s life or paying attention to their off-page statements can provide insights into their work. The question is really how far any narrowly focused view of a text can take you. IMO, the best analytical works are those that pull from a number of critical theories/traditions and use them in a complementary fashion.

    6. And as to the question of whether Romance novels are *worthy* of this attention? Why would they be any less worthy than any other cultural artifact that holds the attention of the scholarly community, from films to television shows to texts like The Satyricon, Matt Lewis’s The Monk, and Shelley’s Frankenstein, all of which fall well within the realm of popular, even sensational (and in the case of the Satyricon, pornographic) fiction?

  37. Robin/Janet
    Feb 27, 2013 @ 23:16:38

    @Katie: I think Davidson is making a more subtle argument, or rather taking on a more nuanced project, namely to beat back the long tradition of treating fiction written by women as innately oppressive. I must admit, though, that I am very sympathetic to this project, because I undertook something similar in regard to captivity narratives, which had been long treated as pure, purely successful colonialist/imperialist discourse, when, in fact, they contain many moments of rupture and transcultural exchange. As a side note, this is one of my issues with New Historicism and IMO its tendency to doubly disempower those whose oppression it chronicled. There’s a fine line between tracing the effects of power imbalances and acknowledging moments of subversion and resistance. I think Davidson is trying to do that, and I still think her work is stronger than some of that produced by Bercovitch, Tompkins, Gilbert and Gubar, Kolodny, and others who tackled some of the same issues and/or texts. Although I absolutely adore the ways in which Merish critiques her and moves the analysis forward and agree with your assessment of her book.

    You’re probably already familiar with all these, but in addition to Davidson and Merish, I also like Jennifer DeVere Brody’s Impossible Purities: Blackness, Femininity, and Victorian Culture; Mary Beth Norton’s, Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800 (older but still interesting, IMO); Reina Lewis’s Gendering Orientalism: Race, Feminity, and Repression; Sharon Marcus’s, Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England, and some of the anthologized essays in Empowerment Versus Oppression: Twenty-first Century Views of Popular Romance Novels. Reginald Horsman’s older but still interesting Race and Manifest Destiny has some good stuff, too, although it’s more historically-focused, and I love Theodore Allen’s two-volume Invention of the White Race: Racial Oppression and Social Control / The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America. There’s all the crit theory stuff, too, but the more I think about this, the more I realize there’s still such enormous gaps in this area of scholarship. I’m curious to see Regis’s project, because her work on the history of Romance is much, much more formalistic than I tend to be, which makes her book valuable and problematic for me in different ways. I also have Hsu-Ming Teo’s Desert Passions: Orientalism and Romance Novels on my TBR.

  38. Moriah Jovan
    Feb 27, 2013 @ 23:28:52


    Looking at how an author uses language, imagery, and other elements to produce an emotional response in the reader is definitely part of literary analysis.

    Well, here I have to say that in my experience, the highlighted portion of that statement is not true. Take that part out and it’s a precise definition. Again, it’s only my experience, but my experience ain’t too shabby.

  39. Robin/Janet
    Feb 27, 2013 @ 23:33:20

    @DB Cooper: I think your question is reflective of the fact that we haven’t yet gotten to the point where true diversity is the norm in our texts, and so we’re still struggling with questions of how to represent, when if we had already embraced the diversity of lived experience and identity, there would be no sense of “otherness” in that way, and we wouldn’t be arguing over whether certain characters are included in a “token” way, or in a way that creates an expectation of “representing” a broader cultural experience, etc.

    And I don’t really have a good answer, except to say that IMO we’re not going to move forward if people don’t take risks, which, necessarily, will entail criticism and even a sense of failure. But if people remain too afraid to fail in those ways, diversity will remain somewhat taboo, and readers will continue to be conditioned to fictional worlds that are not sufficiently or realistically diverse. And that makes it more and more difficult to re-condition them to reading about characters with so many different cultural, racial, religious, social, etc. backgrounds and experiences. So I’d rather have a bunch of stumbling attempts, because at least that opens the door to eventual progress.

    @LauraB: I’m moderately well-versed in Althusser. In fact, I think I’ve dropped his name a few time in my blog posts and/or comments. I think his whole metaphor of “hailing” to illustrate the phenomenon of interpellation is incredibly useful, but I don’t share his fatalism regarding the impossibility of seeing outside the ideological state apparatus (some of this has to do with my deep ambivalence toward Marxism). Thanks for bringing him up here, though; he was definitely in the back of my mind when I was writing my post last week and responding to comments. ;D

  40. Robin/Janet
    Feb 27, 2013 @ 23:41:56

    @Moriah Jovan: I won’t dispute your experience, Moriah; I can only say mine has been quite different. Some of my most formative memories of learning how to read texts analytically (for poetry, drama, and novels, now that I think about it) entail this kind of interpretive work. I don’t know how you’d teach dramatic tragedy and comedy, for example, or poetry, without it.

  41. Robin/Janet
    Feb 28, 2013 @ 02:11:43

    @Janine: I picked up The Duke’s Wager a while ago, when you mentioned it in another conversation. I haven’t read it yet, but I have read The Fire-Flower, which I think is really envelope pushing in a number of ways.

    In fact, I really disagree with the popular characterization of “old skool” v. “new skool” Romances (like here, in part because IMO some of the older books are — in certain ways — more subversive, challenging, and progressive than many books being pubbed today, and in part because I think the genre is pretty fluid in that trends, devices, tropes, and treatments/themes are moving in and out and around all the time.

  42. Janine
    Feb 28, 2013 @ 12:10:41

    @Robin/Janet: I’m so glad you got a copy of the book, since I love it so. I couldn’t finish The Fireflower, though, for reasons having to do with the balance of power between the hero and the heroine (which brings us back to last week’s topic).

    I will agree that many of the older books push the envelope more (and paradoxically, I think The Duke’s Wager is one of these), although I think they can be conservative in other ways at the same time. I’m not sure if that makes sense. It may be because I read many of them in the decades they were published that it’s hard not to think in terms of old vs. new (though generally minus the “skool” part of it). 1990s romances appeal to me greatly, so I don’t mean this as a slight.

    In any case, I wasn’t trying to get into a discussion about that, but rather to make the point that there is a lot to love about those books, many of which are also “extreme” in terms of the power gap between the characters, and in terms of having heroines who are rewarded for their virtues. All of which makes me feel those aspects of the books are here to stay, and to be thought about.

  43. Robin/Janet
    Feb 28, 2013 @ 13:59:19

    @Janine: I’m glad you made your comment, because it anticipates some things I’m going to be talking about in my next post(s), namely what I see as a perennial fluidity within the genre and between Romance and several other genres, and the way IMO Romances rarely reflect a unified social agenda. So it may be useful to return to Layton later on in the discussion.

  44. dick
    Mar 01, 2013 @ 09:35:40

    @Robin/Janet: Those are exactly the things that I think should be conflated, but which I think the kind of attention your essay suggests is needed will hamper. I think, in fact, that in romance fiction author intention and reader reaction are more closely allied than in any other genre, as the close relationship between authors and readers on sites such as this one or on the iconic AAR suggests. From the point of view of criticism, such a relationship as they have to one another is surely anathema, for isn’t the point of criticism to achieve an aesthetic distance to let reason override emotion?

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