Romance, Junk, Feminism, and Snow

One more snow picture….That’s me, age 2, sitting on a mound of snow in Buffalo, NY.

I’m pleased to report that the Washington, DC, area easily beat out Buffalo for the most snow this winter. I watched carefully as we inched up to the Syracuse totals…and passed them!!! Yay! We won the city with the most snow for the winter of 2009-2010.

And we totally toasted the 1898-1899 all time record. We’re NUMBER ONE!!!

Being snowed in for a week is a discombobulating experience (Can you tell?). You’d think that I could get lots of writing done, but, then, the neighbors are shoveling and peer pressure demands I get my shovel out. Then there is exhaustion….Lots of looking outside, commenting on how high the snow has gotten, whether the Federal Government (and everything else) would be open or closed…lots of gazing at the Weather Channel.

In between writing, shoveling, checking email, eating, and various other things, I also discovered some interesting discussions about the romance genre, articles that made my brain work AND supported my beliefs (what could be better?).

The is by Jessica Tripler, a romance reader and philosophy professor, whose blog is called Racy Romance Reviews:
Feminist Critique of Romance: Ur Doing It Wrong

Jessica responds to an article in an academic journal. From the article’s abstract:

This article ultimately endeavours to demonstrate that, textually, even the most recent incarnations of the Harlequin Mills & Boon brand fail to withstand feminist scrutiny. … Something of an antidote to the Harlequin Mills & Boon romance, Bridget Jones’s Diary explicitly answers and counters many of the low-brow romance’s perceived ideological failings–from THE BARRISTER’S BEDMATE: Harlequin Mills & Boon and the Bridget Jones Debate” by Rochelle Hurst, Australian Feminist Studies, Vol. 24, No. 62, December 2009

The books Hurst decided to contrast with Bridget Jones’s Diary were the Harlequin Mills and Boon books of Emma Darcy. It may be just me, but I think it’s a bit snarky to put down a fellow Aussie who has been such a phenomenal success. Or perhaps to an Australian who doesn’t read romance, Emma Darcy is the only Australian Romance author, sorta like Nora Roberts…

Anyway, Tripler, with the help of Laura Vivanco of the Teach Me Tonight blog (more about her later) discuss several of Hurst’s misquotes and misteps in her research. Fascinating stuff, even though we hear the same old stereotypes of romance debunked again.

Next, we’re back to Yale. Andrea DaRif (Cara Elliott) and Lauren Willig are still calling attention to the romance genre with their very-first-ever Yale course on Regency Romance. This time The Yale Herald Online has an article by Katherine Orazem called In Defense of Romance: Proving the Stereotypes Wrong . Of course, the article is illustrated with a stereotypic parody of a Romance cover and this teaser: “Katherine Orazem investigates why romance novels do not get the respect (and love) they deserve.” I mean, why stick the “(and love)” in there? Makes no sense when romance outsells all other mass market books.

Orazem’s discussion is interesting and fun and the quotes by Andrea and Lauren and Susan Elizabeth Phillips are terrific. My favorite quote is from Harlequin Historical author, Louise Allen, in response to the feminism vs. romance novel issue: “Among the freedoms I insist upon as a woman is the right to my own fantasies.” Right on, Louise!

By the way, in my previous blog on the Andrea and Lauren’s Yale course, Andrea said she would post the syllabus and reading list when she could. It is now on her website. You’ll notice Amanda’s and Janet’s names on the reading list! I’m just saying….

Laura Vivanco was also quoted in Orazem’s article and has written some of her thoughts about it on the Teach Me Tonight Blog: musings on romance fiction from an academic perspective. Vivanco addresses Romance Novels: Literary Texts or Formulaic Stories? tackling the question of what makes a work literary or what makes it junk.

In her discussion, she quotes from Noël Carroll (“The Paradox of Junk Fiction. Philosophy and Literature 18.2 (1994): 225-241) who says “all cultural products contain a mixture of two kinds of elements: conventions and inventions.” Conventions and inventions! I like that!

Vivanco further mentions another blog discussing Carroll’s article about Junk Fiction–by Jessica Tripler on Racy Romance Reviews. Which brings me full circle. Another stimulating discussion…

What do you think? Do you like academic discussions about romance? Do you have pet peeves about romance stereotypes? Like always discussing present day romance as if they are exactly the same as the “bodice rippers” of the 1970s. Or that all romances are the same. Or that romance is about a woman subjugating herself to a man. What do you think?

About diane

Diane Gaston is the RITA award-winning author of Historical Romance for Harlequin Historical and Mills and Boon, with books that feature the darker side of the Regency. Formerly a mental health social worker, she is happiest now when deep in the psyches of soldiers, rakes and women who don’t always act like ladies.
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18 Responses to Romance, Junk, Feminism, and Snow

  1. Louise Allen says:

    I do get peeved with the criticism from people who have never read a romance. If they’ve read something and don’t like it, fine, they have the right to an opinion about that book – but not to an ignorant prejudice encompassing an entire, diverse, genre.
    As for bodice-rippers, I think the phrase plays into too many male fantasies to ever die. I was interviewed on TV a couple of years ago opposite the editor of The Erotic Review – he mentioned bodice-rippers and I asked if he had any idea how difficult it would be to rip a bodice in most historical periods. I thought he was going to need resuscitation

  2. RRRJessica says:

    Thanks for the link, Diane. I’m not sure if you noticed, but Jay Dixon herself (one of those misquoted in the article) responded, which gave me such a thrill.

  3. Diane Gaston says:

    Louise!!!! How nice to have you come comment. You must be very snappy with the comeback because I love what you said to the interviewer about bodice rippers, just as much as I loved your quote.

    And Jessica! I’m absolutely thrilled that you commented here. As you can see, your blog started me thinking.. and sparked this blog. But now I have to go back and reread the comments to see which one was from Jay Dixon.

  4. Judy says:

    I like the idea of the Yale course, as it seems odd NOT to have one when there are classes in just about everything else. To ignore the highest selling genre seems like choosing to close your eyes, cover your ears, and do the la la la la la thing. If I judged all romance novels by the first book I read (Harlequin), I would say they portray incredibly unhealthy relationships. It helped me realize that my own relationship at the time was even less healthy! Before it was too late. Thank you, Harlequin! Now, most of my favorite authors are published by Harlequin. I own one originally published by Mills and Boon in 1937, and again by Harlequin in 1975, and one that was first published by Harlequin in 1975.

    Before Romance could be judged lacking or not, hundreds of books would have to be read because there are so many subgenres, which can vary as much as the authors themselves. (Love Louise Allen’s comment about how hard a bodice is to rip!) There are books with lots of romance or only a little. Mystery, adventure, fantasy, historical, everyday events. What is their working definition because if they make it too narrow then they’re going to be leaving a lot out. If they make it too broad, then they’ll be comparing apples and oranges. Who, in their right mind, would try to compare erotica and inspirational?

    I learn about different places, foods, traditions, past and present, etc. I’ve learned about unhealthy and healthy relationships. There are romances I disliked so much I threw them away. Others that I didn’t care for but knew someone else would enjoy, so I gave them away. And there are those that I treasure and re-read. I think what bothers me is that someone, as imperfect as I am, believes they have the right to decide what is good or bad on a multilayered subject that is essentially subjective; they are implying that their opinion is of value while mine is worthless. Takes a fair amount of arrogance to declare yourself judge, jury, and executioner.

    Hmmm… bit of a hot button that. Think I’ll go read my latest romance novel. 🙂

  5. Diane Gaston says:

    I think what bothers me is that someone, as imperfect as I am, believes they have the right to decide what is good or bad on a multilayered subject that is essentially subjective; they are implying that their opinion is of value while mine is worthless.

    Wow, Judy! You are so right!! Maybe that’s why I get so mad at people who put down romance!

  6. Jane Austen says:

    I must sheepishly admit to being one of those people who thought romance was lame and not a real genre. I had a friend introduce me only a few years ago and now I must admit that I did not understand the romance genre at all. The romance genre is like every other genre: there is crap and there is amazing stuff and a great deal in between. I will openly admit I read romance now and will take on anyone who mocks me.

    As a side note, romance authors are some of the most generous people I know. I feel I am lucky to count the Riskies as friends and enjoy our daily discussions which give me a great deal of knowledge. And while I have been asking for donations for Reading for the Cure it is the romance authors who have come up with the majority of my prizes. There have been other genres, but I find the romance authors are the most generous. So I say bring on the haters; we’re smart and sassy enough to show them the errors of their ways.

  7. Judy says:

    *blush* After that first introduction to romances, I didn’t read “trashy romances.” Now, when I hear others say it, I’m hearing my own voice and cringe in embarrassment for them and myself. Blessedly, a few years ago, my best friend introduced me to some fantastic writers, and I finally recognized my own closed mindedness. What’s the old saying? There’s nothing like a reformed rake? Well, I learned I was wrong about romance novels, and thank goodness!

  8. The problem, it seems to me, is that despite the growing academic interest in Romance, there isn’t a trickle down into popular perception. But then why should there by? And what sort of trickle down effect is there from academia in any subject?

    So the media persists in the same old stereotypes, and, since Romance is such a huge genre there is plenty of silliness around to pick on. And I’ll say it again, but as long as the mantitty covers rule, it seems something of a lost cause to me.

    Writing well is the best revenge, I hope.

  9. p.s. It’s snowing again…

  10. Jane George says:

    Diane you are SO cute!!!

  11. Diane Gaston says:

    Jane George, I was a bit younger then…..

    Janet, It has stopped snowing (yay). I think you have a point about the mantitty covers and yet I’m ambivalent about them. I think they attract some readers and signal what the story is inside. I think it is a form of branding and I don’t feel something like flowers on the cover would effectively brand certain romance novels.

  12. librarypat says:

    I work in a small library and constantly hear people commenting on romances. Men who read the small serial westerns call romances worthless trash. I read one of their books for comparison. It was an eye opener. Lets just say the book had no character development, lots of stereotypes (especially the saloon girl with the “melons” who sighed as he rode out of town into the sunset), and a totally unrealistic plot.
    Even women refuse to read them (some coworkers at the library), saying they are trash and not good stories. How do you know if you don’t try? The overdone bodice ripper covers haven’t helped much. Hard to take a book seriously with that type of cover. I will admit those covers were the reason I didn’t read romance for so many years. Now we have half naked men “gracing” the covers. Sex may sell, but you can’t expect to be taken seriously if that is the focus and not the quality of the writing.

  13. Judy says:

    In defense of covers: It isn’t the covers. I happen to like them. It might be an excuse, but isn’t what turns people off. It’s the content. The vast majority of people I know do not like romance. When I ask why, invariably the first response is that they don’t want to read porn. Some confess that they’ll read the books occasionally, but they get tired of having to skip the graphic love scenes. When I tell them that there are plenty of romances without that aspect, they complain that they are preachy or fluffy. Here’s the real problem: To enjoy a romance, the reader must be willing to be vulnerable.

    What is one of the biggest conflicts of a romance novel? The characters’ willingness, or more precisely their unwillingness, to be vulnerable. Why does this appeal? Because we all make the decision to be vulnerable to others or not, consciously or not, every single day. If it weren’t such a huge issue, it wouldn’t be a common theme in romance novels.

    When someone reads Dan Brown or John Grisham they aren’t thinking about how that character could be them. They aren’t confronted with the emotional turmoil of everyday living. Even in romantic historical novels or fantasies, it is all about feelings. That is what people object to: the feelings required to engage in the story.

    Men aren’t comfortable with feelings. Isn’t that what we write about all the time as romance writers? So why are we surprised that they voice their dislike? Plenty of women aren’t comfortable either, not when it comes to those tender feelings we so ruthlessly expose, no matter how gently we may explore them.

    Having been a member of the I-don’t-read-romance camp, I know when I was finally able let go of those excuses. I saw the movie Lord of the Rings, and for the first time, I allowed myself to FEEL everything. The surprise of seeing the Shire exactly as I imagined it. The wonder of Gandalf’s fireworks. The fear of the Ringwraiths. The delight at seeing the horses in the water, exactly as Tolkien had described. The sadness at the loss of Gandalf, despite knowing the truth. Frodo’s struggle. I allowed myself to embrace it all.

    I hadn’t allowed myself to feel too deeply because it was too painful, but LOTR opened the floodgates, and I didn’t want to go back. As I explored this vast new world of feelings, I found that it was only in romances novels that I could explore the feelings that hurt the most.

    It isn’t about story substance, plot, grammar, or covers. It’s about tender feelings of love. It’s about the frustration of not being understood. It’s about the anger of being taken advantage of or ignored.

    The question to ask is why do I read romance? I read to help me understand healthy relationships. There are no practical books about fine-tuning emotions. The self-help books are too often far too general in their effort to help everyone. In romance novels, I choose the authors who address the problems I’m dealing with in my own life.

    Why read a romance, which is about hope and growing and changing, if a person likes their life just the way it is? Romance novels require a willingness to look beyond the surface, a willingness to dream for something better. I know some people who feel like they are being disloyal to their spouse if they read a romance. There are plenty of perfectly good reasons, too. There is only so much time in the day.

    Last consideration: People often make fun of what they fear.

  14. Diane Gaston says:

    Wow, Judy. Again, this is really good stuff. I think you are on to something!

    I’m so glad you went to see Lord of The Rings and that it opened you up to so many new experiences, including leading you here!

  15. Jane Austen says:

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=how-fantasies-affect-focus

    According to this article thinking about sex or about love makes you a better and more creative thinker. So apparently reading romance novels with those “bodice ripping” sex scenes has a plus side.

  16. Diane Gaston says:

    That was interesting, Jane Austen!

  17. Diane Gaston says:

    That was interesting, Jane Austen!

  18. Jane Austen says:

    Diane, I read http://www.artsjournal.com every day to get my fix of art related news…it has ideas, publishing, music, visual art and theatre. Everything I want to read about from newspapers all over the world and I only need to visit one site. I find my most interesting articles there.

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