Posts tagged with politics

Earlier this year the Disability and Romance Project was launched, with the aim

to start new conversations about disability in the romance community. We’ll be gathering data from romance readers, writers and other industry professionals to explore how readers respond to depictions of disability in romance, what motivates authors to write disabled characters, and if there are any barriers to publishing romance novels featuring disabled characters.

Things have, of course, changed over the decades and perhaps it's helpful to have as reference point the situation in romance writing in the 1960s, when Ann Britton and Marion Collin's guide to writing romantic fiction included disability among the "taboo" subjects:

Deformity is also unpopular. Many of the smaller publications ban it completely and the larger-circulation magazines tend to avoid it unless it appears in an exceptionally good story. Of course, there have been some very moving stories about blind girls, and girls with a slight limp who fear that love is not for them, but this kind of plot is not easy to put over sincerely. It can so easily become mawkish. If it has to be written, at least leave the reader with the hope that the girl may eventually recover, and remember that only one or two markets will even consider the story. But never a heroine with one leg. No one will buy that story. (16)

It's probably worth noting that at the time the heroine was "never 'tipsy'" (15), divorce was a "delicate subject [...] though there have been more in recent years, possibly owing to a slight American trend" (16), "Illegitimate children are out of the question" (16) and there was "a colour bar [...] .To make a mixed marriage the central situation in a story is to invite a definite rejection at the present time" (17).

The reason given for all these taboos was that in order to "appeal to as many readers as possible [...] they must respect the prejudices existing in the minds of large sections of the reading public" (17). The impression I have is that some romance authors have always challenged, or wanted to challenge, the "prejudices existing in the minds of large sections of the reading public," whether in small or large ways. In 1964, for example, Mills & Boon

asked Alex Stuart for major changes to her latest manuscript [...]. In her submission letter, Stuart realized that there might be prolems with this novel. 'Please understand that I want Mills & Boon to publish this one very much but I know your reputation for publishing "pleasant books" is of great value to you and, of course, wouldn't want to damage this' [...]. The problem concerned Stuart's insistence that the heroine's father act as a crusader in race relations in Lehar, a fictional African nation. He publishes a book demanding equal rights for black people, and targets South Africa and its apartheid laws. (McAleer 269)

Stuart, "as Vice-President of the Romantic Novelists Association, often spoke on the future of the genre" and she believed more challenging novels such as this one were "the kind which must come in the future, if the romantic novel is to hold its new, young readers and go forward, rather than backward" (169). Mills & Boon didn't publish the novel, but romances have changed with the times. Whether they've generally led the change, or largely followed in the wake of changes in the prejudices of the reading public, I'm not sure. There's certainly a long tradition of smaller publishers (e.g. of lesbian romance) catering to more niche markets, with stories that did not "respect the prejudices" of a large proportion of "mainstream" readers.


Britton, Anne and Marion Collin. Romantic Fiction: The New Writers’ Guide. London: T. V. Boardman, 1960.

McAleer, Joseph. Passion's Fortune: The Story of Mills & Boon. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.

Someone mentioned an alien romance on Twitter, and I was curious. The title included a pun, the review mentioned a beta hero, and so I decided that this sounded like a fun book to try. Several hours later, having read both The E.T. Guy and its sequel, The New Guy, it was obvious that they're not just about how clueless scaly guys from outer space, with alien mating practices and sexual organs, adapt to human culture while working in IT and the Enquiries department of a branch of government.  As is so often the case with popular culture, the escapism is inextricably linked to the political, and the author, V.C. Lancaster, has written a post which saved me the trouble of speculating about whether or not this was intentional:

The E.T. Guy was semi-politically motivated given the situation in Syria when I wrote it. Since then, Trump has been elected, and he actually did try to effectively close America’s borders, and the situation in Syria and around the world has not particularly gotten better. In Syria, it’s hard to quantify ‘bad’ and ‘worse’, so I won’t say it’s got worse. I can’t pretend that I am anything but pro-immigration, nor do I want to, but I hope that I would write these books anyway because I like the story.

I had a moment a few months ago when I thought “How can I continue? How can I write about refugees when the real world is like this?” and my answer was, go bigger. Say it. Say what you see. Make it political. Try to do good. Try to change minds, convince hearts. I know it’s just a mid-range Kindle romance about aliens, selling for a few quid, but if I can make just a couple of people more compassionate, then it’s worth it. And will I mind if Trump’s army boycott the book? Not really. I’ll miss the money, but I’m not going to collaborate with them. Good riddance.

But at its heart, [the second book, The New Guy] it’s still the same story I thought of last year, before any of this happened. It’s still going to be about Ro and Maggie. This book is going to be full of stuff I would consider a hard sell for a Kindle romance about aliens anyway. The only thing I don’t mind revealing now is that I want to give Ro hot pink highlights on his scales and eyes. He’s not going to be much of a rough-tough alpha, though he is going to have his moments. This book is going to touch on issues of masculinity as well as politics. Maybe I’m overreaching, but it’s my book and I’m going to write it the way I want, so there.

I don't usually mind including spoilers in my posts, since I write analysis rather than reviews, but in this case, since the book was published so recently, I don't want to say anything about how the second book "touch[es] on issues of masculinity." Also, this is an ongoing series, so I'm not sure how the issues around immigration will play out. One anti-immigrant-alien politician has already made an appearance.

I don't think elaan, a commenter at Smart Bitches Trashy Books, is alone in "wondering how recent politics wld/if show up in subsequent romance novels": if you're interested in how contemporary politics are influencing the romances authors create, this series joins the Rogue Desire anthology in answering that question. Anyone come across any other romances which are clearly exploring the issues raised by contemporary politics?

The stories that we tell reflect our culture and, whether consciously or not, encode our opinions, thoughts and beliefs. (Grubert and Algee-Hewitt 1)

Emily Grubert and Mark Algee-Hewitt's short article "Villainous or valiant? Depictions of oil and coal in American fiction and nonfiction narratives"

draws on a corpus of 60 narratives, both fictional and nonfictional, published between 2002 and 2016 by US authors. We [...] posit that American narratives often depict oil as new and exciting, with associated dangers seen as tragic but thrilling. Appalachian coal, by contrast, is portrayed nostalgically, depicted as a nearly familial presence that has betrayed its communities and no longer represents security and prosperity.

I was very happy to see that they mentioned having included romances in that corpus of texts. After all, romance novels make up a very significant proprortion of all popular fiction published.

My memories of reading about oil and coal in romances are a bit vague, but I'd agree with them about coal being associated with communities in financial difficulties. I also remember reading some romances in which oil exploration/exploitation is considered risky but potentially very lucrative.

I've tried to pick out the romances in their corpus and I think they're as follows, though it's possible I've missed a few:

  • Avrile, Parker (2016) - Oil - The Runaway Millions: A Male/male Contemporary Romance Novel
  • Camp, Deborah (2012) - Oil - Vein of Gold
  • Lyn, Tommie (2013) - OIl - The Sands of Santa Rosa
  • Thomas, Marin (2008) - Coal - A Coal Miner's Wife

That may not seem like very many, but there were only 30 works of fiction analysed in total. In the article, specific mention is made of two of them:

Parker Avrile opens The Runaway Millions with the dramatic bankruptcy of an extremely wealthy man as a drop in oil price forces him into default:

‘How can you pop up out of nowhere and take everything just because the price of oil dipped below fifty dollars a barrel for a few days? We all know it's going back up.’...

‘We’re stealing nothing. You gambled, and you lost.’

Coal causes death and oil causes loss of a lifestyle. In these and other texts, both resources repeatedly create major conflict. (5)


close reading confirms that oil is often associated with gambling, where wins and losses are large, exciting, and ultimately out of an individual's control (see, for example [...] Avrile's The Runaway Millions) (8)

The other novel discussed seems to be an inspirational romantic suspense novel and:

Lyn's The Sands of Santa Rosa [...] sets up the opposition of fossil fuel corporation versus environmental nonprofit, though she inverts a common pattern by deploying a disgruntled environmentalist against an oil company to cause a major spill (ultimately, the spill is disastrous because of steps taken by the oil company, however). (6)

It is also mentioned that

stereotypes about indigenous Americans as possessing a privileged relationship to nature [...] are also relatively common (and visible in this corpus in Lyn's 2013 novel, which includes a part-indigenous protagonist who saves the day with his mystical “Sight”). (7)


Grubert, Emily and Mark Algee-Hewitt, 2017. "Villainous or valiant? Depictions of oil and coal in American fiction and nonfiction narratives." Energy Research and Social Science. [Abstract]

In case anyone's following this blog via a feedreader, I thought I'd mention here that I've just put up a new page elsewhere on this site (the topic was a bit long to be just a blog post) about politics and history in historical romance fiction.

In it I refer to Beverly Jenkins, who's one of the authors included in Bowling Green State University Library's new small online display about pioneering African-American romance authors.

Continued from Part I and Part II. In this post I've written up my notes and comments on the final papers:

Fiona Martinez, Sheffield Hallam University - The Romance Genre & Feminism: Friends or Foes?

Lucy Sheerman, Independent Researcher - Charlotte Brontë and Contemporary Representations of Romance Fiction

Deborah Madden, University of Sheffield - Rewriting Romance in 1930s Spain and Portugal: Rebellious Heroines of Federica Montseny and Maria Lamas

Martina Vitackova, University of Pretoria - The Sexual Turn in Post-Apartheid Women's Writing in Afrikaans


Fiona Martinez, Sheffield Hallam University - The Romance Genre & Feminism: Friends or Foes?

Fiona's research focuses on:

the use of romance and the romance genre within contemporary women's literature, and the extent to which its creation of authentic relationships is a feminist endeavour. Combining Jean-Paul Sartre's interest in existential authenticity and his views on the need for authenticity within relationships I will be examining the work of Margaret Atwood, Ali Smith, Zadie Smith and Jeanette Winterson and considering the ways in which they have created representations of 'authentic love' within their literature through the re-writing of the romance genre.With Sartre’s theory, and belief that authenticity within a romantic relationship was possible, I will consider the extent to which contemporary women writers mirror this belief within their literature. I will aim to use this research to question borders between high and low culture through an exploration of the practice of romance writing by contemporary women writers and a consideration of whether the current boundaries are typical of, and help define,a contemporary female aesthetic which re-writes the romance.


In this paper Fiona outlined the relationships depicted in Zadie Smith's NW and Jeanette Winterson's Gut Symmetries. Fiona contrasted the same-sex relationship between women with the heterosexual ones and also looked at the pressure on women within a heterosexual relationship to have children. Fiona suggested these novels question aspects of compulsory heterosexuality and therefore differ from/re-write the romance.

I haven't read either of these novels but I wonder if they're maybe closer to some genre romances than others. For example, in Karin Kallmaker's genre romance In Every Port, one of the heroines is involved in a heterosexual relationship when she first meets the other heroine and so there is some discussion/contrasting of lesbian and heterosexual relationships. I'm not sure whether Jane Rule would have classified her Desert of the Heart as a romance but it can certainly be considered one and in it:

Evelyn thought marriage was a way to make herself a real woman, but she was unable to have children and is not sure whether she ever really loved her husband. It is her connection with Ann, finally, that puts her in touch with her femininity and all that it encompasses: "She was finding, in the miracle of her particular fall, that she was, by nature, a woman. And what a lovely thing it was to be, a woman."(After Ellen)

Some romances nowadays depict polyamorous relationships between more than two people. So there may be elements of the two novels Fiona analysed which are, in fact, present in romance novels. Maybe romance has been re-writing itself?

Lucy Sheerman, Independent Researcher - Charlotte Brontë and Contemporary Representations of Romance Fiction

Lucy is a "Writer, gripped by the legacy of the Apollo moon landings and currently at work on a fan fiction project". Her Rarefied (falling without landing) was written

in response to the documentary Apollo Wives, a series of interviews with the wives of the Apollo astronauts. They talked about the experience of being plunged into the media spotlight while their husbands were on the Apollo programme and how they formed strong bonds with each other while living in close proximity on a military housing base.
Structurally I have been using fairly strict constraints to number of lines and number of beats in a line, but these are significantly longer than the palette I used to work with. I find that it has been very liberating to lengthen my lines and it has felt like reintroducing oxygen into the writing to a degree. The ability to let the writing breathe and allow a vestige of narrative provided an entry point into the work which however I felt I could still control. Some of my earlier work had got so sparse that it was almost visual. This shift meant the text became more expansive, capable of including narrative, memory and speech in quite a different way. (Peony Moon)

Lucy's approach to the texts discussed in her paper (Jane Eyre, Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca and Fifty Shades of Grey) similarly mixed the visual and textual. In Jane Eyre fire represents passion out of control. In Brontë's own life, the passionate romances she'd read and enjoyed in the Ladies Journal were burned by her father because he disapproved of their content. In other circumstances he feared fire and therefore kept the parsonage interior rather austere so that it would be less of a fire risk. Nonetheless, her brother, Branwell, set his curtains on fire while drunk. These events may have affected Charlotte's depiction of the destruction of Thornfield Hall by Mr Rochester's wife, who has been hidden in the upper level of the house.

In Rebecca, it is again the influence of the displaced wife which causes the fire that destroys the hero's home and Lucy also noticed the way in which the narrator of Rebecca had earlier burned some text written by Rebecca.

Lucy was intrigued by the similarities between this burning, the burning of the Ladies Journal and contemporary burnings of copies of Fifty Shades of Grey.

Burning of texts/books naturally led us to discuss censorship and I was reminded of Lady Chatterley's Lover,

one the most banned books in history. Infamous for its explicit descriptions of sex and other vulgarities, it was only published openly in the United Kingdom in 1960. The book focused on the illicit affair between an upper class woman and her lower class gamekeeper, and it was received with outrage and intrigue, resulting in numerous abridged versions being published throughout the 1920's, 1930's, and 1940's. [...]

First printings were bound with brown boards with an insignia of a phoenix gracing its front cover. The phoenix has remained a potent symbol for the book, in large part because of the book's victory in the infamous British Obscenity Trial in 1960. (Biblio)

The phoenix, of course, rises from the ashes and it's been suggested that some of the fire in Jane Eyre could be read similarly as a similarly purifying/productive force:

The image of fire might symbolize signifying first sinfulness, then rebirth. Since the passionate love that Rochester and Jane first held was sinful, it was accompanied by images of fire and burning--possibly a portrait of Hell. After Jane leaves Thornfield, and her "burning" desires for Rochester are somewhat subdued, the next and final image of fire occurs. In the fire that destroyed Thornfield, Rochester proved his worthiness to Jane by attempting to save Bertha from the blaze. A feat that indicated that he had tempered his "burning" passions regarding Jane and Bertha and atoned for the wrongs that he had perpetrated on the women in his life. Shortly thereafter, Jane and Rochester reunited and each proved to be reborn. (Vaughon)

Deborah Madden, University of Sheffield - Rewriting Romance in 1930s Spain and Portugal: Rebellious Heroines of Federica Montseny and Maria Lamas

Deborah's "doctoral research seeks to identify left-of-centre Spanish and Portuguese women writers from the early decades of the twentieth century whose works have been excluded from the literary canon. By focusing on novels by politically progressive women in early twentieth-century Iberia, the thesis aims to examine how a selection of female authors used literature as a means of political expression, while uncovering the shared experiences of Iberian women."

That context was dominated by military upheaval. In Spain a Republican government was overthrown after a Civil War which ended with the triumph of the fascists, under General Franco (in power from 1939-1975). Similarly in Portugal

the 28 May 1926 coup d'état, sometimes called 28 May Revolution or, during the period of the authoritarian Estado Novo (English: New State), the National Revolution (Portuguese: Revolução Nacional), was a military coup that put an end to the unstable Portuguese First Republic and initiated the Ditadura Nacional (National Dictatorship), later refashioned into the Estado Novo, an authoritarian dictatorship that would last until the Carnation Revolution in 1974. (Wikipedia)

Federica Montseny

was born in Madrid, Spain, on 12th February, 1905. Her parents were the co-editors of the anarchists journal, La Revista Blanca (1898-1905). In 1912 the family returned to Catalonia and farmed land just outside Barcelona. Later they established a company that specialized in publishing libertarian literature.

Montseny joined the anarchist labour union, National Confederation of Trabajo (CNT). As well as working in the family publishing business she contributed articles to anarchist journals such as Solidaridad Obrera, Tierra y Libertad and Nueva Senda. In her writings Montseny called for women's emancipation in Spain. [...]

In November 1936 Francisco Largo Caballero appointed Montseny as Minister of Health. In doing so, she became the first woman in Spanish history to be a cabinet minister. Over the next few months Montseny accomplished a series of reforms that included the introduction of sex education, family planning and the legalization of abortion. (Spartacus)

Heroínas, the novel by Montseny which Deborah discussed, was published around 1936, is set during a revolution and involves a heroine who has two suitors. The first is a socialist who proposes to marriage to the heroine in the event that they win the revolution because he believes she would be an asset to him in his political career. She turns him down and is rather more attracted to an anarchist who seems to embody the romantic ideal but is, however, already involved with another woman and is therefore also deemed unsuitable. Both men are executed but the heroine survives and continues the fight. [Quite a lot of pages of the novel have been put online here by Margaret Killjoy who found it at International Institute of Social History, which "is the world’s largest repository of anarchist history. Of particular note to me, it houses almost-complete collections of La Novela Ideal and La Novela Libre". Unfortunately Margaret "can’t really read enough Spanish to understand these things. So please, anyone with interest in this stuff, let me know. If the stories are good, I’d be happy to make them available in zine format. And if anyone is feeling really inspired, I’d be happy to print English translations as well." (details here)]

Maria Lamas's novel Para Além do Amor (1935) features a heroine who is unhappily trapped in a loveless marriage to a rich industrialist. She takes a lover who encourages her to work to improve the lives of the workers by setting up medical facilities for them etc. He has the opportunity to move abroad and wants them to go together but she rejects him, saying that she stays in Portugal not out of fear, or even from love for her children, but because she must continue her work.

These aren't the happy endings one would expect in a romance novel. I wondered if they could, perhaps, be thought of as romances in which the ideal partner is not another human being but a cause. Perhaps that's a bit of a stretch.

Martina Vitackova, University of Pretoria - The Sexual Turn in Post-Apartheid Women's Writing in Afrikaans

Martina's paper and current research was prompted by an article which stated that Afrikaans women's romantic fiction features active female sexual characters. While Martina thinks this is true of some women's writing in Afrikaans (for example an autobiographical account by a sex worker), she does not believe it is true of the works of a highly acclaimed author (and academic) whose novels sounded to me like "inspirational" (Christian) romance albeit with mild depictions of sexual activity. These Afrikaans heroines do have pre-marital sex and have even had previous sexual partners before they meet their heroes. However, the sexual passages in the novels are not very explicit, give the heroines rather passive roles in love-making and suggest that true sexual fullfilment can only be found with the right partner (i.e. the man the heroine will marry).

Perhaps these novels are aimed at a different audience from the readers of the far more explicit Afrikaans women's fiction?

It was noted that the "elephant in the room" in these novels is the whiteness of almost all the characters (and certainly all the protagonists). Despite this, these novels are apparently read in townships and that's also despite the existence of English-language romance novels about Black protagonists. I took a look at the covers of the novels written by the members of the Romance Writers Association of South Africa and they mostly seemed to feature White protagonists too, unlike the romances published by Nollybooks and Kwela Press (which are discussed in this article by the BBC and also this academic one).

I've been thinking that some of the observations in Nina Eliasoph's Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life (1998) might be applicable to the romance-reading and romance-writing community, particularly in the US context given that Eliasoph's research was carried out there.

Eliasoph "participated in a wide range of civic groups - volunteer, recreational, and activist groups" (8). She looks at how US citizens discuss (or don't discuss) problems/politics in these groups and she found differences between the "volunteers", the "activists" and the people in the "recreational" groups [she also met some people who fell into the "cynical" category i.e. they were politically aware, critiqued the status quo vigorously but didn't follow this up by becoming activists]. It felt to me as though this might have some relevance to how some people behave in the romance community too, and it might explain some apparent friction between the "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all" people and those who want to discuss problems such as the lack of diversity in 'mainstream' romance publishing, "white-washed" covers and the segregation of African-American romances.

Empowerment through solving small problems

In the "volunteer high school parents' groups", Eliasoph found that members

ignored the political problems that they inevitably encountered in the course of their work - the race riots, caved-in classroom ceilings and flooded classroom floors at the high school, for example. By tuning into their political manners, I realized that volunteers assumed that volunteer groups exist to show that regular citizens really can make a difference, and that talking about these problems would sink the buoyant feeling of empowerment. (21)

Although their lack of political discussion may seem apolitical, Eliasoph suggests it's based on their ideas about what it's possible to achieve and what, therefore, should be focussed on in order to make citizens feel better about their communities:

Volunteers were poised to combat the specter of futility and to convince all newcomers that "You really can make a difference!" and that "Everyone has something to offer," as they often put it. They hoped to communicate that message through the very act of volunteering; and tried not to pay attention to problems that might undermine that message of hope. So, they tried hard not to care about issues that would require too much talking to solve, and tried to shrink their concerns into tasks that they could define as unpolitical, unconnected to the wider world. These citizens thought they could inspire feelings of empowerment within that small circle of concern; and they implicitly believed that helping people feel empowered was, in itself, doing something good for the community. (23)

It struck me that when, in romance, a problem is encountered, this is generally the sort of outcome depicted: the protagonists will find that the problem (a child who needs special medical treatment, an abandoned child, a teen who needs to be turned away from making bad choices) is one not too large for them to solve.

Eliasoph writes that "In trying so hard to maintain their "can-do" spirit, their optimism and hope, volunteers assumed that they had to hush any discussion of political problems" (26). There's certainly an immediate emotional pay-off to be gained from this kind of attitude but perhaps it's easier to maintain for people with a certain degree of privilege i.e. for whom the 'big problems' make less of a difference on a daily basis. That's not to say that they're people with huge amounts of power, just that they're people who

could have thought that they were powerless and been angry about that, but since they wanted to think that they live in a democracy where citizens like themselves have power to work on issues that are "close to home," they assumed that their powerlessness was their own fault. They could have tried to "save face" and blame someone else for their powerlessness, but they preferred to think it was their own fault than to think that there was something deeply wrong with the world. (75)

There will, however, be people whose circumstances are such that they can't really avoid thinking there's "something deeply wrong with the world". And therefore I wonder if there might be more openness to less neat endings in non 'mainstream' romances, depicting (and probably whose intended readership is among) people from communities which are less privileged [at least in certain important respects, because intersectionality means that someone might be privileged in some contexts/areas and not in others]. For example, in the African-American historical romance and the lesbian romance whose community scenes I examined in Pursuing Happiness, I found that in both cases the novels explicitly showed the problems to be ones which could not be shrunk into "tasks that they could define as unpolitical, unconnected to the wider world". [I don't, however, want to imply that all AA or LGBT+ romances are focused on political issues, because there are plenty which aren't.]

Show, don't tell

A common piece of advice given to authors is to "show, don't tell". The idea is that this gets the reader more involved, and I think there are therefore parallels here with the  thinking of Eliasoph's volunteer citizens:

Volunteers said that meetings were a waste of time compared with the groups' real work. Compared to the activist groups, the striking feature of volunteers was just how little time they spent in group contexts. Though volunteers attended many meetings every week, each was very to-the-point, short, and task-oriented. When I said that I was studying "community life - what gets people involved in groups and how to get more people involved," many proudly recounted a long, long list of their volunteer activities, amazing me with how many evenings a week they devoted to volunteering. None mentioned why they were involved. Their point was that activity itself was a matter-of-fact way of demonstrating commitment.

What was missing was respect for discussion itself, willingness to debate about troubling issues that might not be resolved immediately; willingness to risk discouragement. (28)

One of the features of much of romance (with the clear exception of inspirational romance, in which the issue of being "unequally yoked" does come up) is the way in which the believability of the happy future for the central relationship is often established by focusing on issues of practical compatibility (showing compatibility in the bedroom, for example) rather than by showing the protagonists discussing their political views, views on childcare, spending money etc.

There might also be reasons for a lack of discussion which are mentioned by Eliasoph in the context of her "recreational" groups made up of "private people; they believed that what really matters is what is "inside"; that the tender, flickering 'real self' can almost never be expressed in words" (86):

For private people, talk did not legitimately matter. Betsy sounded as if she felt unreasonable to want to know more about the potential boyfriend than "what she could see"; she wanted to be content with what she already knew about his most basic humanness. [...] women often noted that their boyfriends or husbands hardly ever talked, but could "go on a two-hour drive and not say a word except 'You hungry?' and 'Let's stop.'" Women's tentative remarks about their silent husbands and boyfriends were not quite complaints, though, because the women were not sure whether they were justified in complaining about the silence [...]. Women wanted to feel happy just to be in their husbands' or boyfriends' company, side by side in the truck. They did not want to want anything more, since the official belief about talk was that it is cheap. Expecting conversation was not considered legitimate. And so there was very little of it. What group conversation there was, was relentlessly unserious. (97)

There's usually a bit more talk than "You hungry?" and "Let's stop" in a romance, but then, even the "private" people talked in their most romantic moments:

Talking as an activity in itself was a special event. "Staying up till two talking" was one sure sign of love; it happened only at the moment lovers were falling in love, not after and not before. Since talk itself was such a potent sign, reports of these intimate moments focused on the fact that the new lovers talked, not on the content of the conversation. After this proud moment of intense talk, if it happened, there was little to say. (94)

For people from this background, perhaps reading a romance is akin to experiencing this moment of "falling in love" and the happy ending is welcome at the point when the lovers declare themselves because "after this proud moment of intense talk" there would be "little to say". The lack of political content in a romance would not be an issue at all because it would be expected that the book/report on "intimate moments" would focus "on the fact that the new lovers talked, not on the content of the conversation".

Politics spoils the mood

When protagonists do express their views explicitly on certain issues, readers often state that they find this "preachy" and that it spoils their enjoyment of the story. This might be because they, like the "private people" felt that

Trying to speak seriously was called "getting on a high horse"; that is, pedantically reciting facts and opinions in a monologue. People [...], women especially - who did this violated the rule of enforced joking [the "private people", when they did talk in groups, tended to joke about, often on the topic of sexuality, so perhaps a bit like some of the conversations in the romance community about male cover models]. (111)

Alternatively, when people attempt to discourage 'strident' discussions about political issues around romance publishing it may be because, as with Eliasoph's volunteers,

To talk about racism would have meant changing their political etiquette, to stop trying so hard to keep up that can-do spirit and let some frightening uncertainty in. Actively ignoring such tensions was considered a positive good, a moral act. Better would be to work on projects that illustrate how easy, effective, and enjoyable involvement is; then, they believed, everyone will get involved and race problems will dissolve in the busy harmony.

Their efforts at ignoring race were also part of their general effort to avoid snobbery; to be welcoming and encouraging meant treating everyone as an equal, not as a member of a category. When I asked on the questionnaire what race they were, many responded as Sherry did: "it doesn't matter what race you are. Anyway, it shouldn't." Having to talk about something, in fact, would be a sign that there is a problem: if things are going smoothly, regular people should not have to sit down and talk. (31, emphasis added)

I wonder if that's one reason why protagonists in 'mainstream' romances might be unlikely to discuss things: it would imply there were problems, or at least potential problems in the relationship. By contrast, in inspirationals, where the intended readers share a belief that people will always sin (i.e. things are always on the verge of not going smoothly), protagonists may be much more likely to sit down and pray.

As far as the romance community, rather than romance protagonists are concerned, it may be worth noting Eliasoph's observation that the volunteers' tactic of:

Avoiding discouragement and snobbishness [...] had costs, among which probably was the community's ability to deal with race problems. Many parents of color came to one or two meetings and then never returned. I spoke to one who had come only once; she had concluded that the Parent League was "a bunch of white people who weren't interested in race." (31)

Tone Judgments and Politeness

"Whining" and "moaning" are very subjective to define, as is "rudeness". For Eliasoph's US volunteers it seemed to be accepted that

talking about problems without immediately offering a solution is just complaining. [...] What was most taboo was speaking about problems in terms of justice - publicly minded speech that was considered wrong, but addressing the same problem in a piecemeal way was considered all right. (33-4)

In addition,

"Requesting" was okay, but holding companies accountable was not. Asking politely was okay, quietly negotiating behind-the-scenes was acceptable; but raising a matter of principle and trying to discuss it publicly was considered unseemly [...] volunteers assumed that talking would not itself produce knowledge or power. [...] Volunteers were not unconcerned or unaware or lacking in the "inner values and beliefs" that feed political concern. [...] Most volunteers were privately obsessed with political worries, but simply assumed that they could not do anything about them, and that volunteer groups were the wrong contexts for discussing them. Combating futility meant, above all, combating the feeling of futility, and especially, combating the expression of such feelings aloud in volunteer group meetings, where such feelings could be most destructive. (34-5)

The RWA: From "Volunteers" to "Activists"?

It's interesting to see the Romance Writers of America's recent posts which suggest that they're moving from a "volunteer" frame of mind to one more akin to that of the "activists". In particular, a post from 4 April 2016 about a historical issue shows that the current board are interested in making explicit their political stance and aren't backing away from conflict in the way that the board did at the time of the event in question:

At the November 2015 Board of Directors meeting, one of the issues discussed was an RWA survey conducted in 2005. Though this occurred eleven years ago, the ill effects of that survey still linger for many members. The survey was included in the Romance Writers Report and asked RWA members to vote on whether romance should be redefined as being between one man and one woman. The survey responses were never acted upon, and RWA’s definition of romance was not changed.

The survey, however, sparked a discussion that compelled our LGBT+ members to justify their existence to others and to participate in debates about their humanity and their capacity to love. This incident was a low point from which RWA’s reputation has never recovered. The organization later reaffirmed RWA’s commitment to making sure that “any definition of romance should be broad and inclusive.” This statement, however, did not make it clear that, in issuing the survey, RWA failed its members, its genre and its mission. We want to make that clear now.

We apologize for letting our members down and for failing to treat all our members with the respect they deserve.

RWA is committed to creating an inclusive, respectful environment where all career-focused romance writers can advance their professional interests, regardless of the happily ever afters they create and celebrate. (RWA)

This comes after their 17 March 2016 release in which they stated that:

In fulfilling its mission to advocate for romance authors, Romance Writers of America would like to update the membership about an ongoing matter of concern.

During the Spotlight on Pocket at the 2015 RWA Conference, an attendee asked Executive Editor Lauren McKenna, “Are you working at all on diversifying your author list?” When McKenna requested clarification, the attendee observed that it seemed most of Pocket’s authors were white. [...]

Pocket’s Spotlight statement was insulting and unacceptable. The response was insufficient. RWA continues to press Pocket for a clear statement on its acquisition policies. RWA is committed to ensuring that all industry professionals participating in our programs embrace and comply with our Code of Ethics. (RWA)

In turn, that follows a post from 5 February 2016 in which the RWA board outlined practical measures they were going to take to improve the experiences of members from a variety of minority groups and also made the more general political statement that:

Unfortunately, the romance industry has a long way to go. At the Pocket spotlight at last year's conference, attendees were told that books written by or featuring African Americans would be referred to another imprint. At several publishing houses, black authors who have submitted books with white characters have had those books slotted into "African American" lines, and African American authors have also had their romances shelved in the "African American" section, even if the characters are not African American. Both practices diminish potential markets for books based on the author’s race.

Discrimination impedes the functioning of the romance market and sends the message to the world that romance is behind the times. Readers of romance should see that romance stories speak to a wide spectrum of experiences and concerns. All romance authors should see RWA as the place to build their careers. (RWA)


Eliasoph, Nina. Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

politics, US

My latest book, Pursuing Happiness: Reading the American Romance as Political Fiction, is now available in paperback, Kindle and pdf formats.

To celebrate its appearance in paperback, I've added some bonus material to my pages about Pursuing Happiness. You can read that here.

The main description of the book is here, with a more detailed description of each of the chapters here and a list of romance novels cited here.


The article discussed in my last post, about fans of yaoi and Boys' Love fiction, argues that these texts had changed their Filipino readers' attitudes. In particular,

Fans' exposure to representations of male homoeroticism, androgyny and coupling were all instrumental in teasing out from fans their dissatisfactions with the dualistic and essentialist constructions of gender and sexuality, as well as intimate relationships in their societies. However, more than that, Yaoi and BL's non-normative representations of masculinity and intimacy also help fans develop a more humanistic and egalitarian vision of men, women and love relationships, rejecting rigid gender norms and oppressive power relationships. (Santos Fermin 200)

Tricia Abigail Santos Fermin suggests that they may therefore be considered sites of cultural/political resistance. The same could be said of the romantic fiction discussed in Mina Roces' Women's Movements and the Filipina 1986-2008.

There isn't enough about romance novels in it for me to feel I can really add it to the Romance Wiki bibliography but it seemed a shame not to note down and share what she has to say about some romances published by "the radical women's health organization Likhaan [which] presented me with a unique source of six romance-style paperback books in the Tagalog language that they had commissioned to introduce the taboo concept of abortion as a reproductive right" (31):

Between 2004 and 2006, Likhaan published six pocketbooks. They were written by two authors; one of the authors, Lualhati Bautista, was an award-winning writer and novelist. The pocketbooks written by Carmen Cabiling were distinguishable from Bautista's because they were grouped under a series called The Scarlett Diaries where the main characters of each book were close friends of one local nonmetropolitan community named Gian. These pocketbooks were packaged in the genre of romance novels much like the Mills and Boon or Barbara Cartland books. But it was the issue of "abortion" rather than "romance" that received "star billing" in these novels. Although romance novels followed the quintessential formula that commenced with "boy meets girl" and ended with "boy gets girl," the pocketbooks by Bautista began with "girl gets pregnant" and was preoccupied with "girl and abortion." In addition, although the visual appearance of the publications were in the trope of the cheap romantic paperback novel, the content of these particular books captured poignantly the women's struggle with the decision to have an abortion - there represented as a decision that involved not just the woman herself, but also her kinship group, the father of the child, and her friends - and the difficulties in finding an abortionist, including complications that might have arisen due to the clandestine nature of it. [...] Carmen Cabiling's The Scarlett Diaries series privileged the "romance plot" over the "abortion plot" (Erika, Serena, and Angelika) [...]

Likhaan commissioned the writing of the pocketbooks based on the stories of thirty women interviewed by the organization for its research advocacy arm. The decision to use this genre was the extreme popularity of romance pocketbooks in the 1990s; they replaced the comics of previous years. The books were written in conversational, colloquial Tagalog, with an emphasis on dialogue rather than on literary description. All were short novels, of around 125 pages long, and were published in newsprint. A print-run of six thousand copies or one thousand per pocketbook was published. Many of the pocketbooks were handed out free of charge to audiences or participants in Likhaan's forums, training sessions, community educational activities, and mobilization events and to patients benefitting from their medical outreach services. [...] In addition, the books were sold at a minimum of 5 pesos each (a few cents), a huge price drop when one compares it with the P40.00 (or US$1.00) price tag on commercial pocketbooks. In addition, Likhaan has sold five hundred copies through consignment with a University of the Philippines writer-artist who sold it to college students and personal friends. By October 2007, only three hundred copies remained. All books brandished the Likhaan name and logo and were sold by Likhaan. The conspicuous absence of any explicit descriptions of sex in the novels themselves was probably intentional, because Likhaan was not shy about discussing sexuality. Because the purpose of the books was to inform, sex scenes that had the effect of titillating readers would only blunt the powerful message introduced by the narratives. Despite the cheap packaging and risqué series title (The Scarlett Diaries), these books handled the issue of abortion in a sophisticated and poignant way, delivering their attacks on the Catholic Church and the state through the intense dialogue of the characters. In this sense, the proverbial "do not judge a book by its cover" was appropriate. These pocketbooks subverted not just the sociocultural and legal mores of their time, but also the romance trope in which they were packaged. Perhaps that is why these books were seen as a potential subversive tool. But the aim was to introduce the delicate issue of abortion to mainstream society, epitomized by the target readers. One could also detect a certain irony in the use of the romance novel as a way of refashioning readers, since readers of romance fiction were not usually perceived to be susceptible to feminist ideas.

The stories that were told through the medium of these pocketbooks blurred the lines between fiction, romance, and autobiography. All books carried the following acknowledgement: "Although all the people and events in this story comes from the imagination, we wish to thank all the women who opened their doors and hearts to us who in minor or major ways have been the inspiration of this literary work or book." (189-190)

Roces concludes by stating that

Likhaan's innovative use of pocketbooks [...] create[d] a counter-hegemonic discourse by subverting the romance genre. Even these radical ideas were packaged in the narrative of romance. Perhaps cultural preparation required hints rather than blunt demands. [...] In the meantime, women readers of romantic fiction have been introduced to the serious topic of abortion, although it was accompanied by a happy ending. (196-197)


Roces, Mina. Women's Movements and the Filipina 1986-2008. Honolulu: U of Hawai'i P, 2012.

Santos Fermin, Tricia Abigail. "Male Homoerotic Fiction and Women's Sexual Subjectivities: Yaoi and BL Fans in Indonesia and the Philippines". Women and Erotic Fiction: Critical Essays on Genres, Markets and Readers. Ed. Kristen Phillips. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland 2015. 187-203.

Although less well known than romance novels or feminist porn, slash fan fiction [...] has frequently become embroiled in similar debates over the social meaning of romantic fiction and women's sexual imagination. The pendulum has swung back and forth and back again in the academic consensus on slash's political value over the 40 years since its inception in its current form. Thus, mirroring analysis of romance novels, erotica, and pornography, slash has been at times called anti-female and stridently feminist, radically liberatory and conservative, both queer and heteronormative. This incoherence partly results from a homogenizing impulse to make a single political judgment of the entire practice. In addition, such dueling political pronouncements indicate an inability to navigate cultural objects that simultaneously resist some forms of political domination while ideologically shoring up and reinforcing others, including not only sex/gender hierarchies, but also race, class and geopolitics. Thus, what the field currently needs is an analytical lens of smaller and more specific scope to cope with the ideological complexities across slash genres and even within individual narratives. (169)

Kustritz then proceeds to give an example of this by demonstrating how, while some slash fictions about Captain Jack Sparrow and Commodore James Norrington from Pirates of the Caribbean:

approach the pairing as a madcap affair between a laced-up goody-goody and a free-spirit, others use the relationship to engage directly with the films' suppressed political stakes and to explore the political and philosophical positions that the characters represent. (176)


Kustritz, Anne. "The Politics of Slash on the High Seas: Colonial Romance and Revolutionary Solidarity in Pirates Fan Fiction". Women and Erotic Fiction: Critical Essays on Genres, Markets and Readers. Ed. Kristen Phillips. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland 2015. 169-186.

Eva Chen begins her essay on "Erotic Pleasure and Postsocialist Female Sexuality: Contemporary Female 'Body Writing' in China" with a brief historical overview:

Erotic writing and art have a long tradition in China. Though remnants have been found dating back to the first century, erotic wall murals found at the Dunhuang Budhist grottoes suggest a flourishing erotic art scene around the tenth century. The late Ming Dynasty in the seventeenth century saw a peak of erotic poetry and fiction, as well as erotica portrayed in "pillow books" and Taoist treatises on effective sexual techniques for maximizing life energies [...]. Much erotica of the period also focused on female foot-binding, a practice started among court dancers in the tenth century which later spread to gentry families, brothels and even peasant households, and functioned both to signify female virtue and domesticity and to appeal to male fetishistic pleasure [...]. Attitudes hardened from the time of the Qing Dynasty in the eighteenth century with the resurgence of Confucian moral conservatism, all but bringing to an end a thriving tradition of erotica [...].

The Western understanding of sexuality as an essential, intrinsic component of personal identity first entered China in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries [...] the liberation of women as autonomous, heterosexual subjects [...] was not celebrated for its own sake but was, rather, invoked as the binary opposite of a Westernized, masculine self that needed to be cultivated to "upend" Confucian kinship categories [...]. The origin of this idea in the Western, humanist understanding of an essential human nature, of which sexuality is an inalienable part, partially explains the later socialist criticism of this idea as bourgeois. When the Maoist party swept into power in 1949, the socialist state began to promote a new concept of women [...] emphasizing collectivist public roles rather than sexual difference [...].

It is in this light that the postsocialist celebration of the body, sexuality and "natural femininity" since the market reforms in the 1980s needs to be understood: as a reaction to the perceived socialist distortion of the "natural," gendered human self. (79-80)

Chen's essay then focuses on"Weihui's Shanghai Baby (2000) and Muzimei's sex blogs, later published as Left-over Love Letters (2003), as these texts figure crucially in two major public controversies concerning this Chinese female 'body writing'" (82).

Chen concludes that

an overly optimistic emphasis on emancipation must still take into account the complicated roles played by the state and the neoliberal consumer culture in forging a distinctly postsocialist Chinese female sexual identity. Chinese female "body writers" do assert a form of sexual agency as rights [...] but at the same time they also play into a state-approved discourse of seeking to direct such "freed" sexual energies into consumerism. (94)


Chen, Eva. "Erotic Pleasure and Postsocialist Female Sexuality: Contemporary Female 'Body Writing' in China". Women and Erotic Fiction: Critical Essays on Genres, Markets and Readers. Ed. Kristen Phillips. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland 2015. 79-95.

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