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You Are What You Read

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The dueling essays featured at The Guardian about Mills & Boons books sparked some significant debate here and here and some name calling. Julie Bindel took to calling the genre trash and argued that it was anti-female propoganda perpetrated by Mills & Boons.

Some readers suggested that she needed to get laid more often (the type of diatribe leveled by Lisa Valdez on readers at AAR for which she was excoriated).

Blah, blah, blah…Barf and give me a great big-ass break. She needs to get laid worse than I do. Thrown on the floor and good, proper dirty done hard. If not, then for god's sake, stop the whining, go read some Plath, and leave the rest of us alone with our Anais Nin kindred souls.

The essay by Bindle was articulate and well formulated albeit lacking in substance and reliability. The romance genre is an easy target, in part because of its questionable marketing techniques such as the embarrassing male torso covers and the even more cringe-worthy titles. (At least anectodal account places the male torso covers on male marketers in the 70s possibly lending some credence to Brindle’s theories of patriarchal propaganda). As commenter Meriam noted:

I don't agree with what she wrote, but I think Mills & Boon in particular lends itself to this kind of critique in the way it brands itself. You can't peddle books like "The sheikh's captive wife" or "Virgin Slave, Barbarian King" and then express outrage when unflattering conclusions are drawn.

Given the fact that these titles are given with a purpose, it must be because they sell. Whether they sell because they have brand recognition as I argue the male torsos do in the genre or whether the readers are avidly looking for the forced seduction book, it’s hard to say. I hardly need to repeat the mantra that generalizations as a basis for any argument is specious: Not all books within the Mills & Boon imprint romanticize rape or forcible seductions. Not all books within the romance genre represent this particular fantasy.

It’s true that the fantasy exists, both in paper and in the hearts and minds of women, but I’m not sure that Brindle was even suggesting that the rape fantasy wasn’t appropriate for women. Rather I saw her arguing that this type of fiction served to provide eroticize and romanticize possibly the worst fate a woman could endure – the violation of her person without consent. And truly, when is that ever sexy?

It seemed that the arguments distilled down to a question of whether we are what we read. Do the books reflect our social values (i.e., a romanticization of rape) or do books set our social values. What is normatizing whom?

I spent the weekend reading three books: Johanna Lindsey’s Secret Fire and two Harlequin Presents: The Virgin’s Wedding Night by Sara Craven and The Frenchman’s Marriage Demand by Chantelle Shaw. All three represented, to some degree, the forcible seduction trope. These books, on their face, represented the “no means yes” stanza.

I was chatting with a couple of readers, one new to the genre and one a long time reader of the genre, about older authors who have seemed to have jumped the shark. (This was presaged by a short worried contemplation of the impending release of Julie Garwood’s return to historicals in late December and how there was been virtually no buzz about the book and no reviews). One of these authors, Johanna Lindsey, was an old favorite of both myself and long time romance reader. Long Time Romance Reader, though, claimed that recent re-readings of Lindsey’s books haven’t evoked the same positive emotional feelings.

In discussing these books, we tried to explain to New to Romance, the allure of a Lindsey novel. Secret Fire is one of my favorites yet it contains, as I explained to New to Romance, sex scenes that are almost always under the influence of cantharides. The plot of Secret Fire is this: Heroine is kidnapped, drugged, loses her virginity while drugged, stuck in a trunk, taken to Russia, drugged again, abandoned, beaten, becomes pregnant, falls in love, succumbs to jealousy that leads to Big Mis, is wooed, has HEA.

When I type it all out, it sounds horrible. How could I admit to liking a book wherein the hero drugs the heroine so she will have sex with him? I’m not a fan of the rape fantasy. I’ll defend an author’s right to write it and have it included in the romance genre, but I don’t really care to read it. I don’t find anything about rape romantic.

I then read The Virgin’s Wedding Night by Sara Craven and The Frenchman’s Marriage Demand by Chantelle Shaw. These books were mirror images of each other in terms of plot and emotional character arcs, yet, one was pulled off so much better than the other. Both featured scenes in which the hero knew what the heroine wanted in terms of sexual intimacy but because the heroines were afraid to admit to their lust, the heroes had to seduce the women into bed. In The Frenchman’s Marriage Demand, I couldn’t stand the mealy mouthed heroine and I hated the hero. I wished the heroine would have grown some backbone and thrown the hero out on his ass. My notes from reading the book were “Freya’s a door mat. Zac is an ass. They belong together.”

In contrast, the heroine in The Virgin’s Wedding Night despised herself because she saw submission in the sexual sense as a self betrayal. She did not love the man she was with and he appeared to despise her as well. She was playing a role to obtain a material object and everything about the masquerade, including her own body’s betrayal, made her ill.

In all three books there was some subjugation of a woman’s will; whether it was done with seduction or with drugs. These three books would only serve to strengthen Brindle’s argument that the themes in romance serve to oppress women, rather that uplift them. I know that I am personally, morally, and ethically opposed to the oppression of women. But I’ve kept Secret Fire for years and I enjoyed The Virgin’s Wedding Night enough that I want to read more by Sara Craven.

I’ve come to the conclusion, after examining the books that I read, that it isn’t so much that we are what we read, but that we can be made to accept things that we don’t ordinarily find appealing by the strength of author’s writing.

Lindsey, in her heyday, could make me love the totally un-PC, bodice ripping themes. Rather than that book being normative of my social and ethical values, it stands outside of them and it takes Lindsey’s writing to bring them back in. I have read rape fantasy books where I felt that there wasn’t enough fantasy, where the stories were distasteful and I did feel that it worked to objectify women rather than uplift them.

I would much rather read a hundred books about women who are confident, sexually secure, whose sex scenes are ones of mutual consent rather than forced seduction but I am willing to acknowledge that a gifted writer can make me accept, for the space of a book, idea, mores, and tropes that are not to my taste.

I remember reading American Psycho. I was appalled at the subject matter, the seemingly non stop fetisization of violence toward women and the careless, unpunished psychosis displayed by the main character. But I couldn’t stop reading it.

Just because there exists a certain amount of literature that romanticizes a fantasy, albeit a fantasy that objectifies and subjects women, the mere existence of it doesn’t mean that women stand for it in real life. And simply because women read it, doesn’t mean that they condone it.

Perhaps Brindle should be asking a different question and that is whether we, as women, have a social obligation to turn away from literature that projects, affirms, ratifies negative stereotypes even if the end result of that piece of literature of life affirming. That’s probably a better call to arms than excoriating an entire genre on the basis of books read 15 years ago and cover quotes written by the marketing department with no input from the author.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

55 Comments

  1. Shiloh Walker
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 06:33:19

    I've come to the conclusion, after examining the books that I read, that it isn't so much that we are what we read, but that we can be made to accept things that we don't ordinarily find appealing by the strength of author's writing.

    I’d say that sums it up in a nutshell, Jane.

    Reading forced seduction doesn’t mean at all that I want some guy to hear a YES when I say NO.

    Just like reading about a serial killer doesn’t mean I want go out and start my own killing spree.

  2. francois
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 06:50:33

    Female characters subjected to forced seduction in books typically either secretly want it to happen or end up loving it. This is an unusual situation in real life. Romance books aren’t a template for how to seduce women (or be seduced) any more than Poirot is a good model for detective work.

  3. Jennifer McKenzie
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 07:02:11

    Shiloh said what I was going to say. Good writing can make the mundane, the ridiculous and the shocking readable.
    I still remember having a very strong reaction to A.L. Debran’s “Lonely Places” (Cobblestone Press) because the story line pushed all my buttons. I have a very firm stance on infidelity and Deb plunged right in presenting me with (in my mind) emotional infidelity and a very difficult choice for the heroine.
    But her writing was so good and her characters so strong, that I am able to say that book is one of my favorites. If I had seen the bare bones synopsis, I would never have read it.
    Like everything else, good writing trumps all.

  4. Nora Roberts
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 07:27:33

    Smart column, Jane.

    I’m a huge fan of Dexter. I don’t want to be a serial killer or be associated with one. But every week I’m rooting for a guy who cuts and carves people up into pieces. Great writing, marvelous portrayal–and I’m firmly on the side of a murderer.

  5. Gennita Low
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 07:56:03

    I don’t get it. There is more violence against women in crime books and I don’t hear a call for arms against the women who enjoy reading that genre. How many mutilated women must there be by serial killers before we mock those readers for having torture and death fantasies?

    Okay, back to my blueberry muffins and coffee. And if I’m still pissed off, I’ll just go beat up some of my male roofers when I go to work. Brindle would approve that, yes? I live to please these bitches’ expectations, it seems.

    Ooops.

    (((chomping on blueberry muffins)))

  6. Jill Myles
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 09:07:50

    Personally, in reading I *like* the bizarre, the fabulous, and the out of the ordinary. I adore books about people surviving in a harsh situation – be it stranded in the wilderness or on another planet. I would hate that IRL.

    Just like finding an alpha hero rake that’s slept with a hundred women and settles for the bookish miss. In reality, I’d hate to be in that relationship…but I sure like reading about it.

    Conversely, I find books based on ‘normal’ situations exceedingly boring. I think it’s all a matter of taste. For me, romance is on the same level as fantasy or science fiction. It’s escapist fun and I take a sheikh/virgin scenario about as serious as I do elves and dwarves.

  7. Ann Aguirre
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 09:09:51

    I've come to the conclusion, after examining the books that I read, that it isn't so much that we are what we read, but that we can be made to accept things that we don't ordinarily find appealing by the strength of author's writing.

    This encapsulates my feelings very well. I don’t read popular fiction to be enlightened, educated or illuminated, although that sometimes occurs as an adjunct to my real purpose, which is entertainment. Reading choices are not necessarily indicative of things we would find acceptable and/or appealing in real life.

    For instance, how many people would really want their blood sucked, no matter how hot the male who wanted to do it? Eek, count me out. For my money, my image of vampires more closely correlates with the monsters from 30 Days of Night. So just because I read about unPC acts, it doesn’t mean I suffer from sexual dysfunction or want to be stuffed into a trunk — no more than people who read true crime stories or mysteries are necessarily about to go on a killing spree. I too love Dexter, which is quite darkly, gloriously brilliant — but it doesn’t mean I’m using it as some kind of a study manual.

    The best part about a book is that it can transport you to places and events you’d never otherwise experience. And that’s the magic of it.

  8. M.
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 09:39:45

    “it isn't so much that we are what we read, but that we can be made to accept things that we don't ordinarily find appealing by the strength of author's writing.”

    well said. the example i can think of is an older novel called (i think) “same time, next year” i read years ago and was completely charmed by, in which two happily married people meet by coincidence, almost accidentally have an affair, and keep meeting once a year to continue it for the next couple of decades. not only are the main characters written in a very sympathetic way, but the author manages to convince that this relationship actually serves to strengthen their primary relationships.

    but in real life, if someone tried to sell me that concept? no chance

  9. Karen Scott
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 10:05:59

    I don't agree with what she wrote, but I think Mills & Boon in particular lends itself to this kind of critique in the way it brands itself. You can't peddle books like “The sheikh's captive wife” or “Virgin Slave, Barbarian King” and then express outrage when unflattering conclusions are drawn.

    What Meriam said.

  10. Jane
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 10:39:52

    Gennita – I think the difference is that romance is marketed for women. My understanding of Brindle’s argument is that the purveyors of the rape fantasy books are males or done under male directed leadership.

  11. heather (errantdreams)
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 10:41:27

    I can sum up my response to this very easily:

    Word.

    Or to put that slightly more eloquently, I don’t think I could have said any of the above better, would almost certainly have botched the job, and agree quite heartily with your conclusions.

  12. Sarah Frantz
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 10:43:53

    Robin had a brilliant analysis somewhere in all these discussions (that I’m now too lazy and too child-beladen to find) about how the rape fantasy allows the reader some power not only to survive the fantasy, but to exercise some control over it, which gives some psychic control over the fear of the reality (although not over the reality, probably). She said it much better than I did, and I agree with her and with everything that Jane says here.

    (Although some of your links at the top don’t work, especially to the one to TMT! :)

  13. sherry thomas
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 10:45:22

    I remember reading a piece of research some time ago where the “rape fantasy” was studied and mostly debunked. It turns out that rape fantasy is not so much rape fantasy as a romantic fantasy, and the men that the women fantasized would throw them on a bed and do it no matter what were almost without exception men that the women already really, really fancied.

    I.e., the rape fantasy is in reality a sweep-me-away fantasy that we all have, that the man of our dreams, bless him, would know what we want without us having to tell them, including that we are really chomping at the bits to get in the sack but are too shy/reserved/mortified/afraid to let him know by words or action.

    That’s why forced seduction works and works repeatedly. The thought of rape makes me want to puke. The thought of the man with whom I’ve been secretly in lust/love suddenly returning my desire make me turn the pages faster.

  14. sherry thomas
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 10:47:09

    P.S. The lolcat made me giggle. I feel a lot like the cat on the left these days.

  15. Jayne
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 10:54:04

    The lolcat is darling but let’s be honest. Does any cat in the world have a negative self-image? >^-^<

  16. Tracy
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 11:01:45

    Too many people made sense in the first 9 comments I can’t quote you all. ;o) I agree with what all of you have said regarding other genres. How come we don’t read regular columns wondering about the sanity of those that read Stephen King~let alone his sanity?! Or like Gennita said, what about the crimes against women in crime books? Or like Nora said, the show Dexter? Dexter is written so that people are on the side of a serial killer~so does everyone watching the show need to be interviewed by the police for any unsolved murders in their area?

    I know those questions seem silly but why is that any different than saying that women that read romance novels want to be ruled by men? PUH-LEEZE. If my husband tried to control me. . . . ROFLOL

    I have to admit I love reading books about Alpha males. Suzanne Brockmann’s SEALs~*sigh* However, my hubby is your classic Beta and I love that he is. I love reading about Alpha males, but in real life~I don’t think my personality would work well with an Alpha!!

  17. Tracy
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 11:02:44

    WHOA, when I started my comment above, there were only nine comments. I guess getting interrupted by the kids a few times (snow day here) means the comment took a little longer to write than I thought! :o)

  18. A reader
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 11:03:32

    Honestly, this old argument about women and romance is very tiring. Why must romance readers have a social obligation? The war cry of feminism and the flag Bindel waves is in the wrong arena. I doubt readers will think “Oh dear, I must have a social obligation when I go to the bookstore, I'm buying a forced seduction book and what will people think of me, oh me oh my!”

    If Bindel is seriously concerned about the image of women, she should start squawking about real problems in the world, like how women are oppressed in countries like Afghanistan, where many still wear burkas, or Saudi Arabia, where they can't drive, are flogged for being raped, and are oppressed. They'd be happy to have the damn choice to read a M&B book, period.

    When was the last time someone wrote a newspaper column criticizing men for their reading choices? Are men what they read? If a man reads a violent James Patterson book, does that make him desire to go forth and commit homicide? Is he seen in a negative light for reading such a book? Why should authors change what they write, or publishers change their style of branding just because a few snobs demean romance? Romance sells. So do M&B books. Why else would they give them titles like the Sheikh's Secretly Impregnated Captive Virgin Bride? I like M&B books. They're a guilty pleasure. So what? I'd rather read a crappy romance any day than a violent, gory best-seller. To each her own.

  19. Bethany
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 11:05:26

    It’s funny that you used a Johanna Lindsay title in your discussion. I was recalling recently the books that turned me onto romance and Johanna Lindsay’s Fires of Winter was one of the very first that I stole from my mother’s night stand. I’ve always thought Garrick (the hero) to be one of the most vividly imagined and realistic heroes I’ve ever come across.

    This is a Viking novel–rape and pillaging and violence abound, and Garrick is guilty of those things, but one must take into account that he’s a product of a brutal and unforgiving society. Part of the delight of reading Viking, Medieval, Regency, Victorian, even paranormal books, is that you can be wholly submerged in another world, another time. Hell, that’s any good book, not just romance. What captivates is the unknown and the forbidden that is tempered by good writing with the familiar and acceptable. But stimulation comes in many forms–I get just as turned on by L.M Montogomery’s funny and romantic The Blue Castle as by Emma Holly’s Menage–and I think that rather condoning simple pleasures, we should be thankful that we live in a society and day and time where we are free to read what we want and aren’t condemned or thrown into prison.

  20. Lisa
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 11:08:49

    As usual, a thoughtful post. I do find it annoying that people don’t seem to think that women can tell the difference between fantasy and reality.

    Like so many others, the first Romance novel I ever read as a teenager was Woodiwiss’ The Flame and the Flower, renown for its rape scene. There is a place for all sorts of novels in the Romance genre, but that book along with Johanna Lindsey’s Prisoner of My Desire crystallized for me what I didn’t want to read or write.

    “Perhaps Brindle should be asking a different question and that is whether we, as women, have a social obligation to turn away from literature that projects, affirms, ratifies negative stereotypes even if the end result of that piece of literature of life affirming.”

    For me, yes, I do turn away from literature that promotes negative feminine stereotypes. Sometimes the stereotypes are more blatant than others, sometimes a book can be a mix and I use that to highlight the positive and discuss the negative.

    The key phrase here is “even if the end result of that piece of literature is life affirming.” I can’t buy into an ending being life affirming if (1) I think the hero is a jerk or (2) if the hero and the heroine have just spent 300 pages hurting each other, but at the end suddenly they’re in love. It’s been a while since I read it, but I think the latter applies to Lindsey’s Prisoner of My Desire. IIRC, the hero and heroine spent the entire book raping each other (an interesting twist) and I just couldn’t believe that two people could hurt each other that much and want to even look at one another afterward. It boots me right out of the story and I view the characters as victims of Stockholm Syndrome.

    It seemed when I first started reading Romance that these were the only books I could find, so I’ve read many of them. I’m glad the genre has since expanded to include other kinds of fantasy. There’s room for everyone.

    The “forced seduction” story type is only one aspect of Romance and to judge an entire genre by this unrepresentative sample is unfair. There are strong, intelligent women who adore these kinds of books. I’m not one of them, but there are plenty of other books for me to read and enjoy. Many great Romance novels don’t involve rape fantasy and yet provide great escapism. The genre is far broader than just two categories: “rape fantasy” and “boring.”

    Related to this is one of my personal peeves: the story where both hero and heroine have very strong personalities, but rather than a compromise to resolve the conflict, it’s only the heroine who has to subvert her will. At least with a “forced seduction” novel you can pretty much tell from the backcover usually what you’re getting and if it’s not your thing avoid it.

    You also brought up the male torso covers. I can see where those could be embarrassing, but I also think that sometimes these covers are examples of the “female gaze.” It’s the flip of the heroine on the cover or even the classic “clinch,” where a female reader is meant on some level to self-identify, to say “I want to be that woman.” To the contrary, with a male torso cover, it’s the female reader saying “I want that.”

  21. Jackie L.
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 11:25:49

    My husband reads SF/F exclusively. Must ask him if he harbors a secret desire to become an elf.

  22. Lisa
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 11:27:25

    Tracey said:

    I have to admit I love reading books about Alpha males. Suzanne Brockmann's SEALs~*sigh*

    I love Brockmann’s books. I think her heroes are examples of the fact that alpha heroes and “forced seduction” scenarios are not mutually exclusive.

    For me, part of the fantasy is a guy who could really do whatever he wants — that he’s strong enough to take the sex he wants, that he’s smart enough to outwit just about anyone, even that in a paranormal he has the power to live outside of not only the law but normality. The kicker for me is that in key areas (i.e, sex) he doesn’t, that he has self-control.

    Sherry Thomas said:

    [the hero] would know what we want without us having to tell them, including that we are really chomping at the bits to get in the sack but are too shy/reserved/mortified/afraid to let him know by words or action.

    For me, hotter than a “forced seduction” is an alpha hero who can convince the heroine to throw her caution/fear away despite herself.

  23. Tracy
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 12:11:54

    Lisa said:

    I love Brockmann's books. I think her heroes are examples of the fact that alpha heroes and “forced seduction” scenarios are not mutually exclusive

    Good point.

  24. Leslie Dicken
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 12:22:59

    Honestly, this old argument about women and romance is very tiring. Why must romance readers have a social obligation? The war cry of feminism and the flag Bindel waves is in the wrong arena. I doubt readers will think “Oh dear, I must have a social obligation when I go to the bookstore, I'm buying a forced seduction book and what will people think of me, oh me oh my!”

    These are my thoughts. Yes, what is published is typically generated by the appetite of the reading public, but that doesn’t mean the reading public is the spokesperson of a culture’s morals. Opinions change. Values change.

    Forced seduction CAN be written well, especially if the motivation of both characters is clear and believable. You’ll never find me claiming to be a part of anti-female propaganda because I read and write romances. We are NOT what we read…besides the definition of a romance iincludes “Love” and “Happy Endings” – what’s so wrong with that?

  25. Leslie Dicken
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 12:34:48

    I just couldn't believe that two people could hurt each other that much and want to even look at one another afterward. It boots me right out of the story and I view the characters as victims of Stockholm Syndrome.

    For me, there is a difference between RAPE and FORCED SEDUCTION. A rape is when the heroine says NO, means NO, and is hurt by the action (physically and/or mentally) in the process. I don’t want to read that. I can’t believe ANY hero would do that. How could he actually live up to the term “hero” with those actions?

    Forced Seduction is different for me. I interpret it as when a woman does want intimacy or sex but hesitates for any number of reasons. Her desire has been communicated to the hero at some point, but when the situation occurs, she is reluctant. At this point, the hero feels that he can push the boundary and get her past her resistance. There is an attraction already present between them and he feels that the use of non-violent force will break her mental barrier.

    I don’t think the two terms should be used interchangeably. At least, that’s my own opinion!

  26. Jan
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 12:37:58

    Brindle just doesn’t get the fantasy. The rape fantasy is empowering, allowing women the control in a situation where in real life it’s stripped from them. In romances, that act conquers the male as much as it does the female.

    If Brindle truly supported women’s rights, she’d be for allowing all women free expression of their sexuality, whether she approved of that expression or not.

  27. Lisa
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 12:51:38

    RE: Leslie defining terms, the difference between rape and forced seduction.

    I like how you’ve differentiated between the two, and I’m much more comfortable — in fiction — with your definition of forced seduction.

    I can’t remember if Heather in the Flame and the Flower ever gave any kind of consent. I do remember the hero thought she was a prostitute and her very presence on his ship declared consent from his POV.

    Now in Lindsey’s POMD, the hero is captured first, chained to the bed. It’s clear that he’s not in the mood for sex initially. (I figure there might be under 18ers here, so I’m being deliberately vague.)

    To each her own, even if it’s not what works for me. I just get annoyed when people take a couple books and judge a whole genre based on them, and often their assumptions about those books to boot.

  28. Lisa
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 12:55:00

    Jan said:

    If Brindle truly supported women's rights, she'd be for allowing all women free expression of their sexuality, whether she approved of that expression or not.

    Well said. I do think it’s good if we occasionally examine our fantasies, so we have some understanding of its underpinnings.

  29. Susan/DC
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 12:59:50

    I also think context has a great deal to do with acceptability of almost any plot point. I can remember a trad Regency about a marriage of convenience that began as a white marriage. Something happens, and the hero responds by forcing himself on the heroine. Did I find this act arousing or romantic? No, but I could understand how that man in that time could do this, and the author never meant for it to be Romantic. She had succeeded in creating three-dimensional characters rather than stereotypes. I’ve also read books where the 35 y.o. rake/sea captain/Viking sees the 18 y.o. innocence-personified heroine (often immediately after she’s stomped her feet, tossed her tawny locks, and/or heaved her breasts), decides she’s a slut, and forces himself on her. Did I find those acts arousing or romantic? No, because to me (and I recognize mileage may vary) the characters were flat and represented tropes rather than real live human beings. As others have mentioned, it’s all in the quality of the writing.

    And that for me was one of the greatest weaknesses of Brindle’s piece: while there are certainly romance novels that could serve as examples of poor writing, however you want to define it, there are also romance novels that are beautifully written. Bad novels exist in every genre (including literary fiction). Furthermore, as a number of posts have shown, my definition of well-written, satisfying romance may not be yours, and vice versa.

  30. Jane
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 13:00:12

    I don’t see Brindle excoriating those with forced seduction fantasies but rather the genre (which might not be dominated by males might be led by them, particularly in the marketing and publicity depts) re-enforces the male patriarchal propaganda, particularly the “no means yes” theory.

    Alot of these forced seduction scenarios play on the idea that a man knows the woman’s body better so that if even if she is saying no verbally, her body is voicing its own assent. Or that if the body voices a “no” the man can change the denial into consent.

    I think its one thing to say that feminism is all about choice and another to say that if you truly support feminism you wouldn’t support literature that appears to be degrading toward women.

  31. Jan
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 13:12:39

    I think its one thing to say that feminism is all about choice and another to say that if you truly support feminism you wouldn't support literature that appears to be degrading toward women.

    I mean that if you truly support feminism, you wouldn’t tell other women what to read based upon your view of it, ie what you think is degrading by your standards towards women. You know that I have for years now refused to buy crime books which feature gratuitous sexual violence against anyone. That is my choice.

    But I wouldn’t dream of telling others what they should and shouldn’t think about. Because that’s what fiction is. Thoughts. And if I truly believe that women are adults, equal to men and capable of making their own decisions, I’ll support their wanting to think about anything they want.

  32. TeddyPig
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 13:24:20

    which might not be dominated by males might be led by them, particularly in the marketing and publicity depts

    You know, I do not know if I buy that generalization to be true in this day and age.
    There has been more than enough time and access where women could change any of the things you see going on these days.

  33. Kalen Hughes
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 13:28:01

    It's funny that you used a Johanna Lindsay title in your discussion. I was recalling recently the books that turned me onto romance and Johanna Lindsay's Fires of Winter was one of the very first that I stole from my mother's night stand. I've always thought Garrick (the hero) to be one of the most vividly imagined and realistic heroes I've ever come across.

    And this is the book that turned me off romance for a decade+. *shrug* It was the first one I ever read (given to me a girlfriend in high school) and I didn’t pick up another one until after I finished graduate school.

    The thought of the man with whom I've been secretly in lust/love suddenly returning my desire make me turn the pages faster.

    THIS pretty much sums up what I think about the topic. It's all in how the situation is presented and in how good the writing is.

  34. Laura Vivanco
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 13:41:06

    I think its one thing to say that feminism is all about choice

    But this may very well not be Bindel’s definition of feminism. My own definition of feminism, (an abbreviated version of bell hooks’s definition) is that “feminism is a movement to end sexism.”

    Incidentally, Bindel’s written an article about why some crime novels are feminist.

  35. Anon 76
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 14:08:09

    Hmmm.

    This all is super interesting. Yes, there are books with flat out rape, but I personally think that the writing of the character’s motivation and time period determines if the hero can still be a hero afterwards.

    And, I think there is a fine line between what could be considered a seduction scene versus a rape scene, again based on all of the other factors that go into the book.

    For instance, if the heroine has the “unwilling at the moment” hero tied to the bed, and then works her wiles on him…is that seduction? Or rape? If he is saying no, and meaning NO, then it is rape. (OH, but he’s a guy, right? So why wouldn’t he love it?)

    Just something for the group to chew on.

  36. Lisa
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 14:15:25

    Lauren Vivanco said:

    Incidentally, Bindel's written an article about why some crime novels are feminist.

    Wow. So, Blindel can understand how violence in crime fiction can be cathartic and “affirms absolutely. . . a feminist to challenge sexual violence,” to quote Denise Marshall from the article — but she can’t understand how at least for some women that as Jan said “rape fantasy is empowering, allowing women the control in a situation where in real life it's stripped from them.”

    The latter might not appeal to me, but I can at least see that it appeals to others. Blindel is applying a double-standard.

  37. Lisa
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 14:27:01

    Anon 76 said:

    For instance, if the heroine has the “unwilling at the moment” hero tied to the bed, and then works her wiles on him…is that seduction? Or rape? If he is saying no, and meaning NO, then it is rape.

    See, for me, I can’t root for a hero who isn’t turned off by a woman who is “unwilling in the moment.” That’s not heroic to me, and there has to be some bit of nobleness in a character for me to want to read about her or him.

    I looked up POMD on Google Book Search to refresh my memory. Only excerpts are available, but it’s clear that the hero was angry afterward, felt like something had been taken from him. His actions are motivated thereafter by anger.

    It’s a very fine line, yes, and I think there are gray areas all around it. That gray area is different for every reader.

    (OH, but he's a guy, right? So why wouldn't he love it?)

    In the POMD hero’s case, there was another woman that he did care about, not in the deep manner we expect at the end of a Romance novel, but a commitment nonetheless. Just because his biology performed doesn’t mean it’s something he wanted. Some of that reaction is involuntary for both men and women, so the whole “body betraying her” notion doesn’t ring true to me.

  38. Anon 76
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 15:09:43

    Lisa,

    You seem to be getting totally the gist of what I was saying. Well, maybe not totally, because if it’s a historical, men could be true barbarians. Redeemed sometimes. But the writer better darn well convince me.

    Thanks

  39. Lisa
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 15:49:38

    You seem to be getting totally the gist of what I was saying. Well, maybe not totally, because if it's a historical, men could be true barbarians. Redeemed sometimes. But the writer better darn well convince me.

    Thanks Anon 76!

    Surely there were men throughout history who were not barbaric brutes? If they were all like that, I imagine we’d have been stuck in the Dark Ages forever. And there are no brutes around these days?

    We excuse many a hero’s barbaric behavior to the time in which he lived, but I think there is a way to stay true to a time period and yet not depict a brute.

  40. TeddyPig
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 16:01:05

    We excuse many a hero's barbaric behavior to the time in which he lived, but I think there is a way to stay true to a time period and yet not depict a brute.

    In some ways with everything I have read about history and sexual politics. I think it might have been worse actually.

    I just wish that if you are going to make the hero barbaric in his behavior that you actually show the whole setup so that it is in context. The societies views should match the barbaric hero’s and the heroine should not expect any different behavior either.

    I think what makes some of these books worse is that there is a presence of modern thinking in the characters that would not actually exist. So something seen as really jaw dropping wrong in our day and age would be commonplace and accepted then.

    I just went over all this reading about the pioneer era and homosexuality before there was even a term for it and how men treated same sex incidents between friends. Very interesting, very eye opening about how much went on in those shared sleeping arrangements after looking at letters and such.

  41. DS
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 16:43:53

    From Murder, She Wrote by Bindel:

    Last year, a survey in Woman & Home magazine bolstered the notion that women nowadays prefer blood and guts to hearts and flowers. Half of the respondents said that the crime thriller was their favourite fiction genre, with science fiction and romance the least popular.

    Would a survey in the US have the same result? Were the answers to the survey influenced by the low brow reputation of romance? I’ll admit I read far more mysteries than romances.

    I think I would accept the comparison of crime fiction to romance fantasy if the would be victim ended up marrying the serial killer.

    On another note a friend and I were kicking around a bookstore after lunch picking up some winter reading material– Charles Todd and Val McDermid for me although I think the television series Wire in the Blood is better than the books– and she confessed that some of her genre reading embarrassed her– I thought she was going to confess to a secret passion for romance novels but turns out she was talking about Kim Harrison’s Dead Witch Walking novels,

  42. K. Z. Snow
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 17:45:31

    I find I’m infinitely more offended and sickened by what I see on television and movie screens than anything I’ve ever read in a book. Words seem to allow for varying degrees of scene detail within the reader’s mind. One’s imagination can “filter out” what’s particularly gruesome. One’s eyes can skip over it. Not so with life-like (or death-like) images on a screen.

  43. Robin
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 17:50:23

    I think I would accept the comparison of crime fiction to romance fantasy if the would be victim ended up marrying the serial killer.

    Which I think goes back to Gennita’s question about why it’s Romance and not crime novels that are scrutinized the way they are (re. violence toward women). Because the focus on the romantic union ups the ante, so to speak. Not that I think we couldn’t do some of the same kind of ideological analysis of crime novels, but in a genre where violence (in general) and love are so closely entwined, it doesn’t surprise me that Romance comes under the cultural microscope more easily.

    I remember reading a piece of research some time ago where the “rape fantasy” was studied and mostly debunked. It turns out that rape fantasy is not so much rape fantasy as a romantic fantasy, and the men that the women fantasized would throw them on a bed and do it no matter what were almost without exception men that the women already really, really fancied.

    Do you have a reference or even a partial reference for this, Sherry?

    Robin had a brilliant analysis somewhere in all these discussions

    The check’s in the mail, Sarah. ;)

  44. Maria
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 18:58:54

    I’m going to de-lurk and comment because I think this is a pretty important issue. Having read Bindle’s article on M&B, to me it seems that she must have personal experience with abusive relationships–either personally or someone close to her has gone through one. Because abusive relationships often start out like forced seduction: the “hero” pushes the “heroine” further than she wants/is ready to go in the relationship, then uses this to keep her in the relationship.
    I’ve seen too many relationships where the guy kept the girl from leaving him by getting her to have sex with him. These were girls who were waiting for marriage and had been taught to be nice and somehow their boyfriends got them into a situation where these girls wanted to say no, but felt that if they did, it wouldn’t be nice. So while I don’t see forced seduction as rape, reading it in a book makes me very uncomfortable because I know that in real life these girls do not end up in happy relationships. Sometimes it just means that the guy was desperate to keep the relationship going, other times it means that he’s an abusive creep.
    However, I think Bindle is looking at this the wrong way. Romance novels are a reflection of society, not an influence on society. There are still way too many voices telling girls that they need to be nice and that it’s a good thing when a guy is jealous, even if while he’s in a jealous rage he’s yelling that you’re a bitch for not calling him while out with your friends.

  45. Maria
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 19:07:18

    I should add that if forced seduction is a fantasy of yours, that’s cool. But reading about it, even when well-written, usually makes a book a DNF for me. I don’t read crime novels because of the amount of violence against women, either. And K. Z. Snow is right, tv is worse.
    And Teddy Pig, you might want to check out Ann Jones’ Kabul in Winter. Apparently Afghan men go at it like rabbits with each other when away from home.

  46. Meriam
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 19:32:41

    Not in any way related to forced seduction, but does anyone remember the little (non) spat between British crime writers Ian Rankin and the terribly bloodthirsty (The Mermaids Sining still makes me queasy) Val McDermid?

    Rankin said:

    “the people writing the most graphic novels are women”, before going on to specify that “they are mostly lesbians as well, which I find interesting.”

    To which McDermind replied:

    “There is still a funny notion that women should not write violent fiction…and yet women more often than not are the victims of sexual violence. So what are we saying – that the ones most likely to experience it should not write about it?”

    And she rounds off by saying:

    McDermid is the first to admit that there is snobbery in the literary world when it comes to the crime genre. “It is manifestly clear, however, from the kind of critical acclaim we get, that there are now very good crime writers.” It will be a “good day”, she continues, when a crime novel wins the Booker prize.

    I feel the same way about Romance! (This is from an article in The – where else – Guardian.

    I’d love to be intelligent and draw parallels to gender and genre and so on, but I’m sleepy. I just thought it was interesting.

  47. Meriam
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 19:39:22

    Unh! I just lost my post. I was going to make a comment about bloodthirsty lesbians and crime fiction, but I’m calling it quits.

  48. Ann Aguirre
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 19:53:14

    This is rather off topic, but does anyone know whether Lisa Kleypas named her heroine in Dreaming of You as a nod toward Sara Craven’s long and prolific career with HQN? Heroine Sara was even an aspiring author, as I recollect. I believe her name was Sara Fielding to start, but once she married Derek, she became… Sara Craven.

    Coincidence or craft? I ask y’all.

  49. Ann Bruce
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 21:16:35

    I don't get it. There is more violence against women in crime books and I don't hear a call for arms against the women who enjoy reading that genre.

    Because, sadly, we North Americans are a society that more readily accepts violence than sex. Church groups will protest sex, a beautiful and natural act, in the media more often and more vehemently than they do violence.

    Let’s take the movie industry: Too much sex and it’ll be rated 18A/NC-17 and/or it’ll be stuck in the back room of the video store; Hack, shoot, or slaughter people, and it’ll get rated 14A /PG-13 so the general public can still watch it.

  50. Xandra
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 22:01:24

    I’ll toss into the discussion the old idea that romance–especially forced seduction fantasy–is the subversion of an element of the universal female experience. That the framework of the forced-seduction romance represents in metaphor the universal feminine situation of having to submit, and turning it into a victory through achieving something greater.

    The specifics may vary–the sheikh, the Greek Tycoon, the alpha cop…a bargain, a revenge plot, enforced closeness for a number of reasons…whatever. The situation places the heroine at the mercy of something she is unable to control, yet the end result of the story is that through her own charater, that force that is uncontrollable–that alpha male or the rich and powerful male…ends up being tamed by her.

    At one level, I’ve always looked at the paradigm not as an instruction manual for how things are, but rather a re-envisioning of how they could be, and in so doing, they are actually encouraging women to remain conscious of the possibility of things being different and better.

    However, I’d still like to know how reading what Bliedel tells me I should be reading is any less oppressive than reading what some mysterious “they” tell me I should be reading.

  51. Shiloh Walker
    Dec 11, 2007 @ 23:40:02

    The lolcat is darling but let's be honest. Does any cat in the world have a negative self-image? >^-^<

    Heh. Heh. Heh. It’s funny cuz it’s true. ;)

    I doubt readers will think “Oh dear, I must have a social obligation when I go to the bookstore, I'm buying a forced seduction book and what will people think of me, oh me oh my!”

    Again… it’s funny cuz it’s true.

    As far as I’m concerned, I meet my social obligations just fine without having to bring my reading habits into question.

    I mean, I pay my taxes, I’m not a law breaker, I raise my kids to be polite and honest and respectful, I don’t drive drunk, I don’t rarely speed, I have a job that helps take care of my kids. I give to charity, I try to recycle, and I vote.

    If somebody wants to criticize my lack of meeting my social obligations (or their messed up perceptions of), they are welcome to. Just like I am welcome to ignore them. :)

    If I had to consider “social obligations” when picking out my reading material, I’d rather not read.

  52. bettie
    Dec 12, 2007 @ 05:03:21

    For me, the reason the “Romance novels are bad for women” school of thought is so insulting is because its proponents always assume women read romance novels to be the heroine, rather than just to be entertained. At the heart of it, those haters don’t believe we are capable of separating our sense of self, our morals and the beliefs we have held our whole lives from the actions and attitudes depicted in a work of fiction.

    If the haters want to talk about things that are deeply sexist and ultimately harmful to women, I’d say the idea that we poor females can’t hold our own ideas in the face of a bunch of words on a page is pretty damn demeaning, oppressive and harmful.

  53. Idetrorce
    Dec 15, 2007 @ 09:22:14

    very interesting, but I don’t agree with you
    Idetrorce

  54. Lisa Paitz Spindler » Strange Things Are Afoot at the Circle K
    Jan 28, 2011 @ 10:56:45

    [...] Dear Author is discussing the “forced seduction” type of Romance novel. Of course, I had to voice my opinion in the comments. [...]

  55. Lisa Paitz Spindler » Danger Gal Friday: Lt. Theresa Howe
    Jan 28, 2011 @ 15:35:46

    [...] of the Romance genre isn’t the topic of this blog, I won’t go into the details here. Dear Author and SBTB both have great discussions going on right now on this issue, so head over there if you [...]

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