Review/Summary (5 - Naomi Booth): Women and Erotic Fiction, ed. Kristen Phillips

By Laura Vivanco on Thursday, 24 December, 2015

Naomi Booth explores

the idea of shaking, shattering states in relation to radical thought, and I will present a number of theories that describe shaken states vibrating with the potential to unsettle wider social relations, disturbing our connections to the controlling discourses of gender, capitalism and anthropocentrism. Alongside these theories, I consider another frequently depicted literary state of shaking: that experienced by the vibrationally overwhelmed romance heroine. The contemporary romance heroine is preceded by a long line of female characters who reverberate with the disturbance of their erotic entanglements: Samuel Richardson's Pamela, for instance, fits violently at one of Mr B.'s early sexual approaches [...]; the more stately "felicities of rapid motion" are enjoyed by Jane Austen's Emma while dancing [...]; Thomas Hardy's sensual Tess, who is "throbbingly alive," trembles repeatedly, her tremulous state tending her speech toward shattered syllables, "ecstasized to fragments" [...]; and the palpitating body of Bram Stoker's voluptuous Lucy Westenra shakes and quivers and twists "in wild contortions" as her fiancé drives a stake through her heart. (99)

While generalisations can be useful at times, in order to highlight broad trends/themes, I wonder if it's really helpful to Booth's argument to put someone having a stake driven through their heart in the same category as someone enjoying a dance.

As far as modern romance heroines are concerned, the only example given is Anastasia Steele from the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy which, Booth argues, in its descriptions of "jellied legs, [...] blushing, [...] various palpitations" draws on

clichéd tropes within romance fiction, which create a continuity between Fifty Shades and other popular romance novels. We might already, then, be on slightly shaky ground in attempting to read these novels as depicting shaking subjectivity in a radical or progressive sense: these jellifying tropes call backwards toward familiar descriptions of female sexual response in romance fiction, descriptions which often idolize female physical passivity, insufficiency and fragility. (105)

There isn't any analysis here of actual examples from romance novels, and therefore no comparisons between romance heroes and heroines. I can't help but wonder about alternative readings. For example, could it be that in some cases romance heroines' bodies are just reflecting their emotional openness? There are certainly examples of the same kind of language being used to describe heroes' emotional defences being shaken and then destroyed:

The thick, angry barrier around his heart shattered and blew away. […] He knew then that he had to believe her or lose her forever. That he was nothing without her. That he had finally found a safe place to belong.

“I love you,” he told her. […] “[…] I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Please do me the honor of marrying me.” (Mallery 248-49, qtd. in Vivanco and Kramer)

The limited range of primary texts is, however, justified by Booth on the grounds that:

While a full consideration of the contemporary romance genre is beyond the scope of this essay, it seems to me that Fifty Shades of Grey, with its prominent depictions of ecstatic, shattered states, is a particularly important text for romance studies. Fifty Shades, with its spectacular vibrations, might be read as a narrative charting the ways in which disruptive, active female energy is narratively released and then dealt with in romance fiction. We might, therefore, read Fifty Shades as a paradigmatic text. (106)

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Booth, Naomi. "Good Vibrations: Shaken Subjects and the Disintegrative Romance Heroine". Women and Erotic Fiction: Critical Essays on Genres, Markets and Readers. Ed. Kristen Phillips. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland 2015. 99-116.

Vivanco, Laura and Kyra Kramer. "There Are Six Bodies in This Relationship: An Anthropological Approach to the Romance Genre." Journal of Popular Romance Studies 1.1 (2010).