Friday, October 24, 2014

Reporting from the "Unsuitable #1" Panel at Duke University

It was a honor to be asked to participate in the first of Duke University's Unsuitable panels, a series of "open, frank, and informed conversations about women and popular fiction historically and today." Professors (and romance authors) Laura Florand and Katharine Brophy DuBois (pen name Katharine Ashe) are coordinating this speaker series in conjunction with the course they will be teaching in the spring semester, "The Romance Novel." Here's a brief recap of this first panel, for those who did not have the good fortune to attend:

Laura Florand and Katharine Brophy DuBois opened the program by jointly welcoming attendees and participants, inviting all interested parties to join in the conversation about why books aimed primarily at a female audience are often either ignored or denigrated. Audience members included romance writers, undergrad and graduate students, scholars from related disciplines, and readers of popular romance, a mix that suggests the goal of the series—to get people from different backgrounds but a common interest talking about the most popular (and most financially lucrative) genre being published today—is well on its way to being met.

Rachel Seidman, a historian who specializes in the history of women's activism, opened the program by talking about the "Who Needs Feminism" project that students in her "Women and the Public Sphere" class at Duke created in response to her call for final projects that engaged in activism on behalf of women's issues. Her students, recognizing that if you "identify yourself as a feminist today... many people will immediately assume you are a  man-hating, bra-burning, whiny liberal," decided to create a PR campaign on behalf of feminism, a campaign focused on erasing the assumption that we "no longer need feminism." The project was originally intended to extend no further than the Duke campus, but when students posted the photos they had taken to Facebook, "Who Needs Feminism" went viral. Now, people around the world are writing down the reasons why they need feminism and posting them to the tumblr site the class created.

Seidman spoke about the backlash against the project, initially primarily by men but more recently by women, too. While much of the male backlash was simply offensive or abusive, Seidman found it fascinating that the anti-feminism pictures posted by women often included arguments similar to those made by nineteenth-century women who protested against women's suffrage. Patriarchy often allows women a small degree of power, and feminism has had a difficult time, Seidman suggested, convincing women invested in the power patriarchy has offered in giving up that power in the hopes of gaining agency of their own.

Seidman concluded by asking "How much of this matters? Is this a breakthrough moment for feminism, or an empty gesture?" Seidman suggested that shifting the feminist discourse from "I am a feminist" to "I need feminism because it allows me to do x" might be a positive step, suggesting that those wary of identity politics might come to regard feminism as a tool they can employ to meet their goals, rather than a label they have to wear.

Romance author and scholar Maya Rodale spoke next, recounting the research she had done for her Master's thesis on the history of romance, and the reasons why the genre, and women's reading in general, has so often been stigmatized. She recounted her own mocking attitude towards the genre when she was a college student, until she thought to ask herself how she knew to mock romance when she'd never even read a romance novel? Digging into the history of both romance and women's reading, she discovered that reading, especially reading by women and by the poor, was considered dangerous. Romances developed a bad reputation, a reputation intended to frighten women away from reading that might call patriarchal and class hierarchies into question. 

Rodale points to four reasons why romance novels might be considered dangerous:

• Romance celebrates a woman's right to choose

• Romance focuses on independent women, in the period after they've left the domesticity of their family home and before they've begun to create domestic homes of their own. The "Sex in the City" years of a woman's life, as Rodale terms them.

• Romance asserts women's sexuality is not worthy of punishment, but of celebration. In literary fiction, women who have sex often end up dead (think Anna Karenina, or myriad other 19th century cannonical works). But in romance, women get to have sex and enjoy it. A scary thought for many...

• Romance insists on a happily-ever-after. Literary critics tend to agree with the opening line of the above-mentioned Anna Karenina: "All happy families [or lovers] are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." If a book ends happily, they feel, it must be formulaic, and thus lacking in true literary merit. Romance takes issue with this belief.

Maya is currently at work on a longer nonfiction project about the reputation of popular romance, but if you'd like the details of her past work, check out this uTube video she made summarizing her thesis.

Florand and DuBois saw my work as a bridge between the two earlier speakers' work, and thus asked me to speak at the end of the program. I recounted the genesis of the RNFF blog in my own history of reading"unsuitable" romances (see this early post for details), and then talked about the pleasures of the blog, in particular the cross-section of commenters that have posted thoughts, ideas, questions, and challenges over the two years of the blog's existence.

Katharine Dubois, Jackie Horne, Laura Florand,
Maya Rodale, and Jessica Scott
A short but lively discussion followed our presentations, a discussion which touched upon the state of sex education in our country, how constructions of masculinity in romance have changed far more slowly than constructions of femininity have, speculation about the reasons for the current resurgence in alpha males, the role of sex and sexual pleasure in romance, the tensions between feminism and capitalism, and just how stigmatized romance really is today. I want to thank the audience members for their thoughtful questions and insights; their ideas have given me much food for thought, and for future posts here at RNFF.

One thing I did want to clear up. While the writer from Duke Today who reported on the event quoted me as asking "Why is it that we have to hide our romance novels in our nightstand drawers or under our beds?" (I believe it was actually Katharine DuBois who asked this, and as a rhetorical question), what I actually said was that while as an adolescent I had kept my Harlequin romances in a paper bag in the closet, I now had several shelves in my office devoted to my single-title romance keepers, below my children's literature scholarly books and above my fantasy and science fiction collections.

It's the erotica I keep in the nightstand table...

Friday, October 17, 2014

Unsuitable Reading?

If you happen to be in the Durham, North Carolina area this coming Monday, October 20, consider stopping by the Duke University campus and joining me and other romance devotees in a conversation about "Women, Fiction, & Popular Perception." I'm honored to have been asked to join historical romance novelist Maya Rodale and professor Rachel Seidman (whose students created the Who Needs Feminism? project) for the inaugural event in Duke's Unsuitable series, a speaker series intended to engage students and members of the wider Durham community in a discussion of women's interests and popular fiction. Duke professors Laura Florand and Katharine Brophy DuBois, who both also have flourishing careers as popular romance novelists (DuBois under the pen name Katharine Ashe), will be joining forces to teach a newly developed seminar on the history of the romance novel this coming spring, and hope to open the conversation beyond the classroom through this innovative series.

The other panelists and I will be giving brief presentations about our work, but the majority of the evening will focus on the questions and ideas that audience members bring to the table. This event is free, open to the public, and includes a buffet dinner! I hope to see a few RNFF readers out in the audience.

For those not in NC, I'll be reporting back about the panel in next Friday's post. In the meantime, those eager for more romance recommendations and reviews should check out the Queer Romance Month blog/website. I've been filling up my e-reader with recommended authors and titles, and am looking forward to reading and writing about ones that share feminist concerns with RNFF readers.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Facing Male Fear: Kat Latham's TEMPTING THE PLAYER

Masculinity in romance is typically all about the brave. Romantic suspense heroes ready and eager to face terrorists' bullets or criminals' fists to protect the women they love.  Historical romance heroes endowed with equal parts gentlemanly valor and laboring-class muscle. New Adult bad boy heroes who never back down from a challenge. Even so-called beta heroes often end up having to prove their courage before their narratives deem them worthy enough to win the hearts of their beloveds.

Maybe that's why I found Kat Latham's contemporary romance, Tempting the Player, such a refreshing change. Twenty-eight-year-old (presumably white) Englishman Matt Ogden has a job that practically screams "tough guy": fullback on London's professional rugby team. In his younger days, Matt's prospects looked promising, even more promising than that of his father, the most famous rugby player of his generation. But ever since a messy divorce and ugly meltdown in front of teammates, Matt has been plagued by an embarrassing, emasculating fear: the fear of flying.

Matt's not just a little anxious when it comes time for the team to take a trip across the English Channel or the Irish Sea; he's knee-knocking, cookie-tossing, faint-in-a-dead-heap terrified. Taking anxiety meds can get him on a plane, but they don't do much for his performance on the field. And now, five years after being traded from his hometown team to the London Legends, Matt's once-promising career looks like it just might be ending on the bench.

The one bright spot in Matt's life is his neighbor and good friend, thirty-four-year-old (presumably white) Libby Hart. Though the two often serve as each other's plus-ones, and even share ownership of a dog, Matt hasn't ever told Libby about his fears:

He couldn't explain why he'd hidden it from her. Something about letting her see where he was most vulnerable made him itch like hives. He'd been vulnerable to a woman one before, and he hd the scars to prove it. He enjoyed Libby's admiring looks and the easy manner of their friendship. Being around her was an escape from his anxiety, so why taint it by releasing all the pent-up shite in his head into their friendship? He didn't want to bare himself to her—not like that, not when she could judge him and find him lacking, or lose respect for him because he struggled with things that weren't rational.  (Kindle Loc 689)

Men are supposed to be rational; to be irrational is to feminine. That Libby has broken through gender barriers in a positive way—by working as an airline pilot, a profession dominated by men—only makes Matt's desire to keep his anxieties a secret from her even stronger. No way does he want to make a fool of himself in front of the one person who thinks he's a carefree, fearless athlete/playboy.

Matt's understandably angry, then, when teasing teammates let the cat out of the bag to an unsuspecting Libby. And he's petrified when a teammate's family tragedy means that he can't hide out on the bench any longer, fear of flying or no.  His coach advises him to see a counselor to work with him on overcoming his anxieties, so he can make a more positive contribution to the team. Matt agrees that he needs help, but isn't quite ready for therapy. Instead, he decides to face his fears head on: by asking Libby to teach him how to fly.

Libby's long been attracted to younger Matt, but knew he'd never fit the bill for the stay-at-home-dad she envisioned as her ideal future mate. Yet when Matt's anxieties have him literally running in the opposite direction before their first lesson, Libby comes up with an unusual stress-relieving distraction: kissing. Her move works so well that Libby decides to repeat it: "Why don't we make a deal, then? Every time we do something new and scary for you, we can unwind afterward by doing something you'd really like to do" (Loc 1172). Something that might just involve a lot more than kissing. Offering a distraction that emphasizes Matt's masculinity does go a long way toward helping Matt overcome his fears. But battling deep-seated anxiety isn't easy, and Latham's story does not suggest that all Matt needs is the love of a good woman to overcome fears years in the making.

Lots of feminist moments pop up as Matt and Libby struggle to overcome Matt's anxiety, and to negotiate the transformation of their friendly relationship into something deeper: Matt self-denigratingly suggesting that Libby call him "Pukey" or "Puss—," only to stop when he remembers how "she wouldn't approve of that last one. She'd had a go at him once for saying it, telling him that women's bits were anything but weak" (Loc 980); Matt and Libby's discussions about the different effects dirty talk during sex have on each of them; Matt's gratitude for "Libby's expectations of mutual pleasure—and her willingness to show him how to deliver it" (Loc 3218). And both Libby and Matt have to make serious choices, about both their careers and their personal lives, in order to face not only Matt's fears of flying, but their own worries about risking their friendship for a chance at love.

I'd not read any romances by Latham before, but I'm looking forward to checking out the earlier titles in this series. And I loved finding her blog post, Confessions of a Feminist Romance Novelist. Cheers to Latham, and to other romance writers who openly declare a commitment to bringing feminist ideas and ideals into the genre.

Photo credits:
Airplane window: Carpool Goddess
Piper Warrior cockpit: Navy Annapolis Flight Center

Kat Latham
Tempting the Player
London Legends #3
Carina, 2014

Friday, October 10, 2014

Thoughts on Jayashree Kamblé's MAKING MEANING IN POPULAR ROMANCE FICTION part 2

Last week, I discussed the groundwork Jayashree Kamblé laid in the Introduction of her new monograph, Making Meaning in Popular Romance Fiction: An Epistemology. Today I'd like to focus on the four chapters that build on that groundwork, and which up the body of the book. Each of these chapters focuses on the figure of the romance hero, a figure previous scholarship has,  in Kamblé's view, under-theorized. Rather than the static figure of the stereotypical alpha male, the hero in romance is an ever-changing construction, a construction that not only mirrors the larger changes about ideal masculinity in the society around it, but also reflects anxieties about those changes.

Drawing on Bakhtin, Kamblé reads the romance novel as "as a form that attempts to deal with the explosion of meaning facing a society encountering a new world—meaning that it can only process through a protagonist possessing multiple identities" (30). Unlike the static hero of the epic, the hero of the novel wears "multiple masks" that attempt to navigate this explosion of meaning. For the romance novel hero, these masks typically take on one or more of four forms, what we might refer to as tropes of the genre: the mask of the capitalist, the soldier, the heterosexual, and the Caucasian. Kamblé devotes a chapter to each of these heroic guises.

Chapter 1 focuses on the hero as capitalist, the successful businessman whose repeated appearance in the genre reflects "the repercussions in its [the romance genre's] encounters with the growth of capitalism" (31). Both the "faults" and the "attractions" of Western capitalism are represented in the businessman/hero's "corresponding off-putting or seductive traits" (32). In choosing to love the capitalist hero, the heroine, and through her, the reader, is simultaneously invited to buy into the belief that a capitalist economic system is a "prerequisite for happiness" (33).

Kamblé points out that before World War II, heroes and heroines in most Mills & Boon publications were of the petit bourgeoisie, with the wildly wealthy businessman emerging only in the 1950s, with the rise of the postwar era of free trade. The Mills & Boon romance formula, played out over the course of thousands of novels published between the mid-20th century and the present, is the "fantasy... of financial security, which is guaranteed solely by an alliance with the intruding force of free market capitalism" (35).

As Kamblé notes, it is hardly surprising to find that popular romance, "a highly refined product of consumer capitalism, valorizes the system that produces it" (32). But Kamblé also argues that the genre simultaneously critiques that which it endorses, with romance novels registering the class struggles during the unfolding of the romantic relationship between their (petite bourgeoisies/proletariat) heroines and their capitalist heroes: "the novels contain reservations about the capitalist's ethics, often as anxieties over his [the hero's] conduct in his sexual/romantic life" (36). Such anxieties are inevitably resolved by novel's end, however, with the hero's love declaration, "suggesting that she [the heroine] holds more power over him than he does over her" (36). Symbolically, then, each Mills & Boon novel "neutralizes the threat of the all-powerful capitalist" by making him subject to the taming influences of female love (35); by accepting that her hero is truly, at heart, benevolent, the heroine's fears of him, as well as of the potential damaging impact of free market capitalism, are appeased.

Kamblé argues against reading this narrative pattern as simply "another example of the way mass culture creates false consciousness and encourages readers to accept bourgeois ideology" (38). Instead, she urges us to view the hostility between heroes and heroines before the love declaration climax, as well as the "relatively limited narrative space" the novels devote to their happy endings, not as a wholehearted embrace of free market capitalism, but instead a "voicing of the conflicted British response to the gradual dismantling of the British welfare state, the privileging of employer interests over those of employees, and the increasing bent toward privatization in the postwar years" (38).

Kamblé presents little in the way of specific evidence from Mills & Boon romances to support her claims, perhaps assuming that its capitalist hero is so familiar he needs no introduction. I certainly recall plenty of high-powered businessmen heroes from my own 1970s and 80s Harlequin reading. But I can also recall other types, too: a painter, a playwright, a playboy-about-town. Kamblé's arguments made me wonder: what percentage of Mills & Boon/Harlequins feature the capitalist, as compared to men in other professions? And did that percentage change over time? Or would Kamblé argue that a hero's stated profession doesn't matter, because all the M&B/H heroes are capitalists at heart?

In the second half of this opening chapter, Kamblé's focus shifts from England to America, and from category to single-title romance. Strangely enough, it also shifts from contemporary to historical romance, using novels by Loretta Chase, Lisa Kleypas, Gaelen Foley, and Judith McNaught to suggest that while American romance writers focus far less on cross-class antagonism, their romances still demonstrate an immersion in "business-speak and the ethos of late capitalism" (43). The heroes of English-set historical romances written by Americans may be littered with dukes and viscounts, but these are aristocrats in dress only, really capitalists under their greatcoats and pantaloons. Kamblé's analysis is not always persuasive here—is the prenuptial legal wrangling in which Lord of Scoundrels' Sebastian and Jessica engage truly in the "register of the corporate takeover"? Or rather a historically accurate reflection of the common practice of negotiated marriage settlements between aristocrats in this period? What of the contract negotiations between an aristocrat and his courtesan in Foley's novel? Are these really (or only) reflections of "the pervasive nature of industrial and postindustrial capitalism's worldview," or do they reflect the pre-capitalist systems in place during the periods in which these novels are set? (Kleypas's novels may be the exception, here; they have always struck me as quite different than the majority of historical romances, in their pointed exploration of emerging capitalism and their explicit rejection of the non-working aristocratic male in favor of their more forward-thinking industrialists and businessmen).

Kamblé concludes this chapter with a discussion of more recent novels that voice more overt reservations about the emergence of multinational capitalism than did earlier romances, novels that explore capitalism's dark side: J. D. Robb's In Death series and Judith McNaught's Someone to Watch Over Me. Kamblé's analysis of the McNaught is persuasive, but I did wonder if the In Death books' reservations about capitalism might be due as much to the sub-genre—dystopian futurism—in which Robb has chosen to write as to change in social attitudes toward global capitalism.

Kamblé's second chapter shifts from the boardroom to the battlefield, exploring the proliferation of warrior-heroes in the romance genre. I found this chapter far more persuasive than the book's first, in part because its argument is more complex, and in part because its subject is far narrower: romances with soldiers as main characters.

In part a reflection of capitalism ("if the romance genre is tied to the economy... it would also echo current public rhetoric that calls for a defense of (capitalist) democracy by means of war") (61), the warrior hero has proven far more malleable over the course of the genre's history than his capitalist counterpart. Early twentieth-century romances, Kamblé argues, embraced wholeheartedly the nationalism underlying the heroic warrior romance lead. But the changing environment in the post WWII years "led to the genre's evolution, with heroes (and plots) adapted in ways that break away from the previous wholehearted faith in wars fought by Western democracies" (63). Kamblé's analysis and documentation of the changes the warrior has undergone during the second half of the 20th century, and the opening decades of the 21st, is quite persuasive, highlighting both the continuing presence of a Cold War, America-first attitude in genre romance, even as new elements of self-doubt and self-critique begin to emerge in warrior hero depictions, particularly in books written after the Gulf War and 9/11.

More recent warrior-hero romances, those that look more critically at the costs of war, tend to fall into two recurring patterns, Kamblé notes: those which feature a hero who has been physically or emotionally damaged by war, or, less commonly, those which "motion toward the amorality that jingoistic policy breeds in its enforcers" (64). Most interestingly, Kamblé points out "a fundamental incompatibility between different structures in the mechanism of power instituted by the bourgeoisie—allegiance to the capitalist state and allegiance to the nuclear family," an incompatibility that the genre itself brings to the surface (68). A warrior committed to defending his country is often called to sacrifice companionate marriage and affective individualism, a sacrifice that the romance novel asks its readers to question, if not to reject outright. Paranormal romances, which feature warriors fighting not in the government-sponsored military but as private warriors, "allow the twin desires to be reconciled to some degree; the narrative can symbolically attain the goal of American security but without admitting the potential sacrifice of moral stature on the part of actual US armed forces, that is, the nation itself" (79).

Previous scholars have argued persuasively that increasing demands for gender equality during 1960s and 70s correlate with an increase in the level of machismo displayed by popular romance heroes. In her third chapter, Kamblé suggests another possible cause for the rise of the overbearingly masculine hero: "increasing demands for an end to institutionalized homophobia" (88). Romance attempts to allay anxieties about the (purported) threat posed by homosexuality to the heterosexual family by "adapting its hero trait into the antithesis of the gay male (or the idea of the gay male, at any rate) who is emerging from the closet in the postwar years" (89). This is an intriguing claim, one that I expected Kamblé to demonstrate by comparing romance heroes to their (inevitably wimpy) male rivals. But her analysis overlooks this avenue, making instead a series of more indirect claims about Mills & Boon romances: the "marriage-in-name-only" trope reassures us that "the institution of marriage nurtures love between men and women"; the rise of the alpha male, who embodies no feminine (or, in other words, unmasculine) qualities, as would a stereotypical homosexual; the prevalence of heroes from more patriarchal cultures (especially Latin and Middle Eastern), assuming that patriarchal equates with heterosexism; plots which express indirect anxieties about men's abandoning marriage (and turning toward other men) because of women's refusal (often masked as inability) to give them children.

Two couples in the Castro in the 1960s
During the 1980's, the M&B alphaman acquires a new characteristic: unlike previous heroes, who had no pasts to speak of, the 80's manly man "now has a history that explains his actions to some extent" (105). Kamblé attributes this shift not to feminism's gains, but rather to a waning in panic over homosexuality in the period, particularly in England and Canada: "the hero does not have to be on guard any more against an emotional display that might be viewed as unmanly, a trait popularly associated with homosexuality" (105). In America, in single-title historicals of the 70s and 80s, heterosexual masculinity reaffirms itself against the threat of homosexuality through the trope of forced seduction or outright rape, but by the 90's this trope retreats. "the alpha-male version of heteronormaitvity (i.e., a grim, sexually focused masculinity) turns into a recessive rather than dominant trait whenever homoeroticism is not being repressed (the latter occurring when the gay rights movement is not int he headlines)" (115). The prevalence of romances in the 90s in which men fall for cross-dressed heroines during hints at queer desire, Kamblé suggests, "even if only to use it for comedic effect or as a barrier than can eventually be overcome by straight romance" (111). Allowing heroes to have other male friends also shows a lessening of homophobia during this period.

Kamblé concludes by asserting that the current political debates over gay marriage in the U.S. echo the gay rights activism of the 1960s, and thus "the renewed debate on the right of gay individuals to marry and the swing to conservativism among the American populace on this issue, will see the genre bringing back the mechanism of controlling social anxiety" (124). While she acknowledges the increase in romance novels with gay characters, and makes passing reference to the emergence of a the huge market for gay romance since the turn of the century, she reads the reemergence of the alpha male over the past decade as a clear sign of increasing social anxiety about the homosexual threat to heterosexual marriage.

I found Kamble's theories in this chapter fascinating, but something kept me back from embracing them fully. My own lack of knowledge about the rise of gay rights? Questions about whose anxieties were being addressed (general cultural ones? Publishers'? Female romance readers'?)? Or the fact that correlation (the rise in gay rights movements occurring at the same time as the rise in overbearing heroes) is not always causation? I'm not entirely certain.

Singh's multiracial romance: but
would you know it from the cover?
The final chapter of Kamblé's monograph points out the white protestant ethos that underlies popular romance, even romances published for a global market. Drawing on Richard Dyer's theories of whiteness ("whiteness lies on one end of a spectrum representing beauty, the eternal soul, sexual control, and economic striving, and darkness on the other, suggesting ugliness, a corrupt body, sexual dissolution, and lethargy" [132]), Kamblé analyzes one book by Lisa Kleypas, and many by Nalini Singh, a New Zealander from Fiji who is of South Asian descent. Singh's early category romances for publisher Silhouette conform to white Protestant norms, Kamblé demonstrates, suggesting that "the genre's founding myth of romantic marriage is a particularized white fantasy that has been exported to a nonwhite audience via a global distribution mechanism" (149). Even Singh's single-title paranormal romances rely on the concept of "soul mates," an "affirmation of the preeminence of the spirit over the body" that Kamblé points to as a central component of Protestant belief (151). But Kamblé sees a "rediscovery of ethnicity" in later books in Singh's Psy-Changeling series: more protagonists with skin colors other than white; a focus on the extended family (i.e., the pack) as a trace of non-white social/familial structures; Singh's use of the word "race" to refer to Psys and Changelings as a negation of "the genre's affirmative impulse towards a homogeneous whiteness," one that makes "interracial romance and reproduction the norm, the unmarked state" (154); and a rejection of the "traditional equation of darkness with raging sexuality and of whiteness with ascetic control" (155).

Few critics have been willing to take up the entire genre of popular romance as their subject, wary of falling into trap of making overly simplistic, and thus misleading, generalizations, as the earliest analyses of the field so often did. I applaud Kamblé for her ambition in tackling the entire genre, as well as for her demonstration of the rewarding insights that result when scholars acknowledge that popular romance is far from an unchanging monolithic body, but rather a rich storehouse of shifting attitudes towards vital social, historical, and political change. While I may not always have agreed with her conclusions about particular texts, each of her arguments made me think, and think hard, about my own definitions of, and assumptions about the field and the changes it has undergone over its decades-long history. I look forward to seeing how scholars in the future will build upon (and/or challenge) Kamblé's intriguing claims about the field.

Photo credits:
Castro couples: Crawford Barton, Gay and Lesbian Historical Society of Northern California

Jayashree Kamblé
Making Meaning in Popular Romance Fiction:
An Epistemology
Palgrave/Macmillan, 2014

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Romance in Community: Jandy Nelson's I'LL GIVE YOU THE SUN

In its most typical form, a romance novel focuses tightly on two individuals who meet, fall in love, and establish a new social entity: the romantic couple. Secondary characters, if present, exist primarily in relation to the romance: they serve as obstacles to the development of the burgeoning relationship, or as sounding boards for one protagonist as he or she works out his/her thoughts and feelings about the other's potential as a romantic partner. Or, more and more often, as budding protagonists for the next book in a series.

In the actual world, though, most people's romantic lives are inextricably entangled with the lives of myriad others: friends, family members, co-workers, people in other personal and social groups to which they belong. And those other people have their own interests, pains, and desires, unrelated to the primary couple's development relationship but often influencing it, both directly and indirectly, in many unexpected ways.

While the fantasy of the tight-focused romance has its pleasures, I also enjoy occasionally dipping my toes into romances that hearken a bit closer to reality, those that depict romantic relationships developing within communities of others.

Subject mirrors form in Jandy Nelson's second YA novel, I'll Give You the Sun, with its dual narrators, adolescent twins Jude and Noah. It's not only the (presumably white) narrators who switch from chapter to chapter, but also the book's chronology, the stories of the sibling's thirteenth year (told by Noah) interspersed with those of their sixteenth (told by Jude). Each story contains the missing puzzle pieces to the mysteries of the other, to be untangled and rewoven back into a semblance of order by the reader.

Noah's narration tells of his first summer romance, a romance with the boy who moves in next door. A boy who seems just as weird, as unconventional and revolutionary as does Noah, who paints not only on paper, but also in what he calls the Invisible Museum in his head. When he's with Brian, Noah can almost forget having to think about the Neighborhood Threat Level, about being constantly teased and sometimes beat up for not embodying or enacting conventional masculinity. Nelson portrays the dazzle, the awkwardness, the brain-draining tongue-tied-ness of first love through the eyes of a young artist with both beauty and skill:

Most of the time people look less like you remember when you see them again. Not him. He's shimmering in the air exactly like he's been in my mind. He's a light show. He starts walking toward me. "I don't know the woods. I was hoping..." He doesn't finish, half smiles. This guy is just not an asshat. "What's your name, anyway?" He's close enough to touch, close enough to count his freckles. I'm having a hand problem. How come everyone else seems to know what to do with them? Pockets, I remember with relief, pockets, I love pockets! I slip the hands to safety, avoiding his eyes. There's that thing about them. I'll look at his mouth if I have to look somewhere.
     His eyes are lingering on me. I can tell this even with my undivided attention on his mouth. Did he ask me something? I think he did. The IQ's plummeting. (84-85).

But Noah's story is not just a love story; it's also the story of two siblings in the midst of painful, rage-inducing rivalry. Twins Noah and Jude are in desperate competition for the attention, and the love, of their artistic writer-mother, purportedly under the guise of preparing their portfolios for application to a private high school, the California Center for the Arts. Quiet, oddball Noah's always felt that brash, daring Jude has gotten the lion's share of their family's love, the favorite not only of their Grandmother Sweetwine, but also of their athletic scientist father. Mom has been neutral ground—until she sees Noah's art. Noah is thrilled, but Jude is crushed by her mother's obvious preference for her weird brother and his paintings; teen rebellion, in the form of makeup, revealing clothing, and hanging out with boys are Jude's retaliation against a rejection she's never before experienced.

In Jude's story of the twins' sixteenth year, Noah and Jude's positions have flipped, in more ways than one. Now, it is Jude who's the outcast wearing baggy clothes, the one fearful of strange diseases, the one whom nobody talks to, the one who's an embarrassment to her sibling. And it's Noah who fits right in, the normal, heterosexual, athletically-inclined teen boy. Even though Jude knows it's all an act, that he's only wearing "flame retardant," changing his outsides like a toad changes the color of his skin. But she can't call him on it, because Jude and Noah, the other half of each other's whole, are no longer speaking to one another. Because it is Jude, not Noah, who got accepted at CSA? Because there was more (and less) to the shimmering Brian than Noah had seen? Because both Jude and Noah have secrets they need to keep to protect the other, and themselves? Because their own community has imploded, seemingly beyond repair?

Jude's story, like Noah's, is also a love story. Despite the "boy boycott" Jude has declared after her own early adolescent crush goes terribly wrong, Jude finds herself drawn to the resident bad boy at her new sculpture teacher's studio, a boy with a camera, cockiness, and far too much charm for his, or her, own good:

     I like that I made him laugh. A nice laugh, easy and friendly, lovely really, not that I notice. Frankly, I also believe I have impulse-control issues, well, used to. Now I'm very much in control of things. "So what kind of impulses can't you control?"
     "Not a one, I'm afraid," he says. "That's the problem."
     That is the problem. He's tailor-made to torture. I'm betting he's at least eighteen, betting he stands alone at parties leaning against walls, knocking back shots while long-legged girls in fire-engine red mini-dresses slink up to him. Granted, I haven't been to a lot of parties lately, but I have seen a lot of movies and he's that guy: the lawless, solitary, hurricane-hearted one who wreaks havoc, blowing through towns, through girls, through his own tragic misunderstood life. A real bad boy, not like the fake ones at my art school, with their ink and piercings and trust funds and cigarettes from France.
     I bet he just got out of jail.
     I decide to pursue his "condition" as it falls under medical research, not because I'm fascinated by him or flirting with him or anything like that. I say, "Meaning if you were in the room with The Button, you, the end of the world nuclear bomb button, just you and it, man and button, you'd press it? Just like that?"
     He laughs that wonderful easy laugh again. "Kapow," he says, illustrating the explosion with his hands.
     Kapow is right. (175-76).
But bad boys, just like siblings, just like parents, have a way of switching sides, of breaking your heart. Does Jude—or Noah—have the strength to reach both for independence and connection, coupledom and family? To remake their sibling relationship, their family, their community, from the shards anger has left behind?

To do what the very best art does: remake the world?

Photo credits:
Boys holding hands: The Viewspaper
Twins sculpture: Seasonal Living
Boy with camera: Dear Teen Me
Hands/Globe: Wanderthoughts

I'll Give You the Sun
Dial, 2014

Friday, October 3, 2014

Thoughts on Jayashree Kamblé's MAKING MEANING IN POPULAR ROMANCE FICTION, part 1

Over the past twenty years, the study of genre romance by academics and scholars has blossomed. Groundbreaking work during the 1980's by Tania Modleski (Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women (1982]) and Janice Radway (Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Culture [1984]) fostered both scholarly articles in journals of Women's Studies, Popular Culture, and others, and longer book-length projects, such as Pamela Regis's A Natural History of the Romance Novel (2003). Such work, however, has focused more on exploring gender ideology or characterizing narrative elements than on identifying and defining what, precisely, the term "romance novel" means, claims scholar Jayashree Kamblé, a gap her new book, Making Meaning in Popular Romance Fiction: An Epistemology, attempts to fill.

What do we mean when we say or write "romance novel"? In her Introduction, Kamblé points to the two quite different literary genres that make up this compound genre label, and examines what characteristics of "romance" and what characteristics of "novel" the mass-market popular romance has inherited.

From the novel:
• storytelling in prose
• written form, which "permits silent communion with the story"
• the "use of perspectives or point of view that can tap into interiority, particularly through narrative monologue"
• the pleasure of "sentiophilia," or "pleasure in thinking and feeling another's thoughts and feelings"
• an "adaptive tendency," a chameleon-like ability to change in response to social, historical, literary, and/or other change (3, 3, 7, 10, 11)

Kamblé demonstrates these five characteristics quite convincingly in her detailed comparing and contrasting of Nora Roberts' 2001 romance Midnight Bayou with its made-for-TV film adaptation, broadcast on the Lifetime Network in 2009. Her point applies not just to these two specific works, though, but to the two genres in general: narrative cinema is primarily interested in "showing us events and telling us about feelings," while the romance novel is "differently voyeuristic... it is engaged in telling readers about events and showing them how characters think and feel" (10).  I wish that Kamblé had not simply demonstrated this intriguing difference, but had explored in greater depth its implications, both for readers and writers of romance. Is there no scopophilic pleasure in the genre (pleasure in looking), as there is in film? What are we to make, then, of all those descriptions of rippling abs and bulging biceps? Is it simply the pleasure in feeling what someone else (the heroine) feels when she looks at them? Or is there some strange mixture of sentiophilia and scopophilia at play in the genre's emphasis on physical description? Is the romance novel more sentiophilic than other genres? How is its "showing" and "telling" different from (or similar to) the "show, don't tell" dictate of literary fiction?

Unlike her analysis of "novel," Kamblé's discussion of the second part of the genre's label, "romance," focuses not on the literary genre named by the word— the chivalric romances of the Medieval and Renaissance periods—but instead on "romance" as a synonym for the word "romantic." As an adjective, "romance" in "romance novel" is used, Kamblé asserts, to describe an element that is conducive to feelings of romance (i.e., supportive of a love affair)." It points to the "erotic, the desirable, the pleasurable—for what is 'romantic' to the reader" (15).

Of course, what is "romantic to the reader" is subject to change, not only from reader to reader, but, more importantly to Kamblé's project, over historical time. But because the genre has inherited the "adaptive tendency" from its ancestor the novel, popular romance's assumptions about what is "romantic" are constantly changing, too: the " 'romantic' strand adapts itself to the environment, acquiring versions of traits that are favorable to its survival and discarding ones that are not, aided by the way authors code for them in a new sociopolitial environment" (15). As an example, Kamblé points to the fact that the "sexually forceful and emotionally unavailable hero" was de rigeur in the 1970s, but not in previous decades, or not in later ones.

Again, Kamblé does a more detailed compare/contrast to illustrate her larger point, this time focusing on two versions of the same written text: Lisa Kleypas's 1992 Only in Your Arms, revised and reissued in 2002 as When Strangers Marry. Kamblé proves herself an attentive, focused close-reader here, demonstrating how the "makeover" Kleypas gives her novel is not simply cosmetic, but highlights shifting ideologies about what constitutes desirable masculinity and acceptable racial politics in the ten years between her novel's original publication and its reissue.

I'm not persuaded that this second part of the Introduction conveys any new ideas or opens any real new avenues into how scholars can approach the genre, myself. As Kamblé herself notes, many previous critics have analyzed the ideological content of romance novels (individually and/or in some collective form), and any literary critic worth her salt takes it for granted that ideology is inextricably connected to the time in which a work of literature is created, as well as that ideological content in any literary genre is likely to change over time. This section does, however, provide a strong platform upon which the body of Kamble's book—four chapters focusing largely on ideological analysis—is erected.

More about which next Friday...

Jayashree Kamblé
Making Meaning in Popular Romance Fiction: An Epistemology
Palgrave Macmillan, 2014

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Feminism in Inspirational Romance? Francine Rivers' REDEEMING LOVE

Are feminists less religious than women who do not claim a feminist identity? Sociologist Kristin Aune and blogger Catherine Redfern would say yes. The survey they conducted for their book, Reclaiming the F-Word: The New Feminist Movement, which posed questions to nearly 1,300 British feminists, revealed the following:

• Only one in ten of the women surveyed identified with a major world religion (mostly forms of Christianity)
• Just over half said they were either atheist or had no religion
• One in six identified themselves as agnostic
• One in twelve considered themselves spiritual but not conventionally religious
(See Aune's Guardian article on the topic here)

I've not seen any comparable research on American feminists' religious beliefs, but I'm guessing that they would be similarly, if not as dramatically, skewed toward non-belief as are their British counterparts. With many Western religions' historical investment in patriarchal power, a woman who wants to be both a feminist and a religious believer has a difficult path to tread.

Given the apparent antipathy between organized religion and feminism, I've been tempted to dismiss out of hand books from an entire sub-genre of of popular romance, believing them unlikely to appeal either to myself or to readers of this blog: romances of the inspirational variety. But whenever I remember how easily many people dismiss the entire genre of popular romance without having read a single word of one, I feel a guilty twinge about my own dismissal of the religious romance sub-genre. Over the two+ years I've been writing this blog, I've picked up the occasional Inspy, when its plot description made it sound as it if might have feminist leanings. My reading has not by any means been extensive, but the few inspirational romances I have picked up have not given me any reason to question my original reluctance to engage with the sub-genre.

Last week, though, Maggie Boyd wrote a column for Heroes and Heartbreakers listing her picks for "Top 10 Inspirational Romances," quite a few of which sounded intriguing. If I read the best of the sub-genre, would I find books that were more compatible with feminist thinking? Or less?

My first foray into the list—Francine Rivers' 1991 retelling of the Bible's story of Hosea and Gomar, the historical inspirational Redeeming Love—engaged my interest with its a complex interweaving of both patriarchal and feminist assumptions. (Lots of spoilers ahead, so if you haven't yet read the novel but are planning to, you might want to stop here).

Having just read the chapter on "White Protestantism" in Jayashree Kamblé's Making Meaning in Popular Romance Fiction (more about which in Friday's post), I could easily identify the Protestant threads in Rivers' novel. Sexual control, self-control, and economic striving (in the form of hard farm laboring) are the cornerstones of hero Michael Hosea's character, a devout Protestant who has already accepted God's will at novel's start. 

Choosing a hardened prostitute, rather than a good girl (or even the hooker with a heart of gold), as Michael's love interest is a risky move. Rivers, though, works hard to ensure reader sympathy for her heroine by depicting Sarah's childhood in detail, presenting the innocent child repeatedly sinned against, before ever giving us sight of the unfeeling grown-up whore. Sarah's mother, Mae, is the lover of a married man, a man who regrets being unable to persuade his mistress to have an abortion so that they might continue their burden-free affair without interruption. The novel opens on the day when Mae finally risks allowing father and daughter to meet, a day that proves the beginning of the end of the romantic idyll. Mother and daughter flee to New York City, where Mae descends into prostitution and drink. After her death, Mae's most recent feckless lover finds a home for the eight-year-old girl with a prominent, wealthy man who claims he wants a daughter, but who is really a pedophile in search of a new child to sexually abuse.

The novel's long prologue, entitled "Child of Darkness," ends precisely at the moment that Sarah, renamed "Angel" by "Duke," her abuser, is on the verge of being pushed from innocent to victim. The book proper does not begin until ten years later, the years during which Sarah was abused, then pushed into prostitution when she grew too old to appeal to her abuser any longer not depicted directly, only through the effects those experiences have had on the adult Angel.

San Francisco prostitutes during the Gold Rush
At eighteen, Angel has found the courage to flee Duke, only to find herself forced into prostitution again, this time in a mining camp in Gold-rush California in 1850. This is where she meets twenty-six-year-old Michael Hosea, a hardworking farmer who finds himself as thunderstruck by Angel's beauty as he is by the words he hears God speaking in his head: "This one, beloved" (53). Despite his doubts, Michael offers marriage to the worldly, seductive woman, only to have her rebuff him, over and over again. Only after Angel is beaten within an inch of her life for disobedience to her her procuress is she too weak to protest. "I want you to marry me before we leave together," Michael tells her. "Just say yes." Angel manages a weak "Why not?" hardly realizing the words are legally binding her to the man who would not say no.

Michael tries hard over the course of Angel's recovery to win her trust, persuade her of his love. Yet Michael's romantic love love, pure and devout though it may be, is not enough to heal Angel, as it would be in many another romance novel with a broken heroine. Instead, it takes the arrival of another homesteading family, a family whom Michael takes in for the winter, to lead Angel to take the first tentative steps toward recovery. Angel is befriended by two of the daughters of the family, as well as by their mother: "I've prayed unceasingly that you might learn to love, and now you have." Michael tells Angel. "Only you fell in love with them instead of me." He laughed softly in self-mockery. "There were times when I wished I'd never brought them here. I'm jealous." (274). Learning to give and receive, to accept feminine kindness and to give kindness in turn, proves vital to Angel's recognition of her own feelings, her own wants and needs.

The arrival of the Altman family simultaneously gives Angel a lesson in what a happy Christian/patriarchal marriage looks like: "The Altmans fascinated Angel. They all liked each other. John Altman was clearly in charge and would tolerate no disrespect or rebellion, but it was clear he was not held in fear by his wife and children" (240). When spring arrives, John Altman is eager to move on to Oregon, even though his wife would prefer to remain near the Hoseas. Michael offers to sell Altman some of his land; Altman agrees, but insists that the building of their new house remain a secret from his wife. Up until the day they move out of Michael and Angel's house, Mrs. Altman believes that she's packing for another extended journey. While everyone knows that she's upset and angry, Mrs. Altman makes no protest. The husband in a Christian marriage is the one who is in charge, who makes the decisions, who chooses the path the family will tread.

The issue of choice comes up over and over again in the novel. Does Angel (whom Michael renames Mara, for bitterness, then Amanda, because "it sounds like a gentle, loving name") have any say in how her relationship with Michael will unfold? Michael desires Angel physically, but will not allow her to use his desire to control him, or to keep him at a distance—"You're not going to have it your own way. It's got to be my way or not at all," he tells her (138). Angel chooses not once, but twice, to leave Michael when he gets too close to breaking down her defenses, only to find Michael hot in pursuit. The first time she returns out of desperation, but the second, in fearful hope.

One might have reasonably expected the novel to end here, Angel having healed enough to fall in love with the man who loves her and claims her. Yet God/the narrative forces Angel to leave Michael a third time, this time out of self-sacrifice: Angel believes her leaving will allow Michael to wed a woman who can (unlike her) bear him children. But there's far more to this third abandonment than a veneration of female self-denial. When an anguished Michael begs God to tell him why Angel has left him again, and hears God's response—"You shall have no other gods before me"—Michael is confused. "I love her, but I never made her my god," he cries. God's answer is somewhat at odds with Evangelical Christianity's focus on the husband/father's patriarchal authority: "You became hers"(383). Ephesians 5:23 may assert that "the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church," but in Rivers' narrative, the husband cannot and should not take the place of God. And thus, this time, Michael does not follow Angel to bring her back; this time, he must allow her to choose.

When Angel leaves this third time, she finally does develop her own personal relationship with God, rather than one mediated through Michael. Intriguingly, though, even after Angel has her own spiritual epiphany, she still does not return to her husband. Instead, she remains in San Francisco (for almost three years!), working to establish and then run an institute that teaches prostitutes skills so they can earn a living without having to sell their bodies. When Michael first rescued Angel from the mining camp, she has no such skills: "She was stupid! She didn't know anything! How was she going to manage on her own if she couldn't cook a simple meal? She didn't even known how to build a fire. She didn't know anything necessary to survive" (126). And she was completely at his mercy: "Hosea was the one man she had wanted most to avoid, and now he owned her. She had no strength to fight him. Worse, she had to rely on him for food, water, shelter—everything. Her utter dependency on him chafed bitterly. She was raw with it. And she hated him even more because of it" (109). Over the course of her time with Michael, Angel learned skills, and lessened her dependence on him. Yet it is only after she has built a life for herself, completely independent of Michael, a life focused on helping other women, that the narrative deems her ready to return to him (this is a romance, after all).

The explicit impetus for Angel's return to Michael is hearing from Michael's brother-in-law how her leaving did not help, but instead hurt her husband. Still, Angel is reluctant until she hears that Michael won't "drag you back this time. He said it was your decision, that you had to come back on your own or you'd never really understand that you were free" (453). The narrative may clothe Angel's character arc in the Evangelical ideals of feminine self-sacrifice and submission to husbandly authority, but it simultaneously insists that female self-reliance and self-determination are values of equal importance.

What other inspirational romances have you read that you'd argue contain feminist ideas/ideals?

Photo credits:
Gold Rush Prostitutes: San Francisco digital archive
Inspirational romance: Inspirational romance

Redeeming Love