Part I - Representations of Romantic Relationships and the Romance Genre in Contemporary Women's Writing (Sheffield, 11 June 2016)

By Laura Vivanco on Sunday, 12 June, 2016


Yesterday I went to a one-day conference/symposium on Representations of Romantic Relationships and the Romance Genre in Contemporary Women’s Writing. There were 5 papers which focussed on romance novels, one on Fifty Shades (I think there have been debates over how to classify that, though it could be considered erotic romance), and various papers which looked at links between romance and other forms of women’s writing.

I’m going to write up my thoughts about each of the papers here but these are very much my thoughts on the papers, rather than an accurate description of each of the papers themselves. That’s mostly because it’s difficult to write fast enough to take accurate, detailed notes which won’t misrepresent the finer points of someone’s argument but also because (a) I’m not sure how much information all the participants want to have shared online about their work and (b) I’m a bit single-mindedly focussed on romance, so even when a paper is primarily about books which are not genre romances my brain will tend to zoom in on the bits of the paper which relate to romance scholarship (as opposed, for example, to scholarship on feminism, capitalism etc).

The first three papers were:

Fran Tomlin, University of Edinburgh - “True Romantic Art”: Love and the Quest in the novels of A. L. Kennedy

Elizabeth Dimmock, University of Lincoln - Fifty Shades of Grey and Late Capitalism

Veera Mäkelä, Independent Researcher (previously studying at the University of Helsinki) - Acting for Herself, by Herself: Learning, Regaining, and Employing Female Agency in Mary Balogh's Dark Angel, Lord Carew's Bride and The Famous Heroine.

In my second post I write about:

Dr. Amy Burge, University of Edinburgh - Beyond the Alpha: Sex, Masculinity and the Exotic in twenty-first century Harlequin Mills & Boon romance.

Val Derbyshire, University of Sheffield - "In these modern times": Reading Harlequin Mills & Boon Romantic Novels as Signs of the Times

Alicia Williams, Independent Researcher - Busting the Mills & Boon Myth: Category Romance as an Instrument for Change

In the final post I attempt to summarise papers by:

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


Fran Tomlin, University of Edinburgh - “True Romantic Art”: Love and the Quest in the novels of A. L. Kennedy


Fran is working towards her PhD, on the topic of "A.L. Kennedy and the Quest for Happy Ever After": "Fran’s thesis focuses on the work of contemporary Scottish writer A.L.Kennedy, examining issues of gender, love and sex in her work, and how these issues relate to the notion of Romance as it appears in British Literature as a whole."

Although Kennedy does not identify herself as a romance writer, the paratext of her books does tend to mention their romantic elements and she has said "I believe in God, I believe in love - they probably make very little sense without meaning much the same thing" (Mitchell 123).

Although Kennedy's characterisations seem very realistic, Fran quoted Robert Louis Stevenson's observation that "True romantic art [...] makes a romance of all things. It reaches into the highest abstraction of the ideal; it does not refuse the most pedestrian realism" (Stevenson, qtd. in Norquay, 60). [As I discussed in For Love and Money, there's nothing preventing romance novels from being written in the low mimetic mode so "realism" doesn't disqualify a novel from being considered a romance. It should be noted, though, that when Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about romance in 1882, he wasn't thinking about the modern romance genre.]

Fran said that Kennedy's novels are structured in such a way that the reader wants there to be a happy ending but although the possibility of one exists at the close of the novels, they haven't got there. [A lack of an HEA doesn't automatically disqualify a novel from being a romance, though, given that the RWA merely require a romance to have "An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending". It would seem, though, that the endings aren't "emotionally satisfying" to Fran because an optimistic potential isn't enough for her, but that could be a matter of personal taste rather than a clear indication that the books aren't romances.]

Overall, the paper raised questions about the definition of a "romance novel". Amy Burge, for example, suggested one could think of romance as a strategy and/or a structure (which might fit with Fran's use of the term "quest" in the title of her paper) and I think referred to Gillian Beer's The Romance.

Elizabeth Dimmock, University of Lincoln - Fifty Shades of Grey and Late Capitalism

Bakhtin suggested that traditionally the carnival is a one-off (though recurring) way in which the status quo can be temporarily transgressed. It's a safety valve which ultimately functions to support dominant structures and relegitimate it. In modern, neo-liberal capitalist society, the carnivalesque has been individualised and commercialised, to similar effect:

In the Fifty Shades trilogy, although the BDSM appears transgressive, the series does end with the protagonists in a fairly traditional (married, heteronormative, with children) relationship.

Fifty Shades is set in the US but the author is British and in the UK BDSM has perhaps traditionally been associated with the ruling elite. More recently there was the 2008 court case involving Max Mosley and just this year there were revelations concerning the Conservative minister John Whittingdale MP, though

According to the former editor of the Erotic Review, Rowan Pelling, Britain is "still known abroad as the 'nation of floggers'".

"A lot of it has to do with the way we have historically treated children," says Ms Pelling, "sending them away to boarding school from an early age. (BBC)

It wasn't working-class children who were sent to boarding schools. And the Marquis de Sade was an aristocrat, of course. So perhaps that would suggest that BDSM has traditionally been a carnival for the elites.

It also occurs to me that female submission is actually fairly traditional (and perhaps therefore not so very transgressive) in the romance genre. It's not always been made explicit, and certainly wouldn't have been expressed as BDSM, but dominant heroes who give heroines "punishing kisses" or more were extremely common at one time. It also fits with traditional gender roles within marriage, in which the wife was expected to love, honour and obey. One romance which made me think more about the extent to which female (but definitely not male) submission has been accepted within the genre was Jill Christian's The Tender Bond (1961). It's a vintage romance in which Martin, a man who is ultimately not chosen as the hero, quite clearly has submissive tendencies and the heroine observes that

He did not stir her to tingling excitement as Dominic did. Dominic roused in her the instinct to surrender, to give herself body and soul into the hands of a lord and master. He would dominate her, and there would always be a certain awe in her love, a desire for meek obedience. She would never, never win the upper hand with him.
Martin would never seek to dominate her.

Martin is eventually paired up with a woman who states that she's:

not an ordinary woman. I'll never be a little, adoring wife. [...] At my wedding there'll be no such words as 'obey.' In the old days, I could have been a queen." She smiled as if seeing a picture of herself, a cruelly satisfied expression that reminded Pamela of a fed tiger in a zoo. "I should glory in possessing and ruling Martin, and he'd glory in obeying."
Pamela shuddered. "It's horrible, like the spider and the fly."
"A lot of insects eat their husbands. I don't find that disgusting. I find it interesting. [...]"

[More details about that book can be found in this post I wrote in 2008.] In that context, a female dominant/male submissive romance would presumably have a lot more subversive potential than one like Fifty Shades.

Veera Mäkelä, Independent Researcher (previously studying at the University of Helsinki) - Acting for Herself, by Herself: Learning, Regaining, and Employing Female Agency in Mary Balogh's Dark Angel, Lord Carew's Bride and The Famous Heroine.

Veera's paper is the heroine-focussed counterpart of the paper she gave to the 2015 PCA/ACA conference:

Alpha, Beta, and the Ambiguous Omega: The Diversity of Heroes 

The heroes examined in this paper exemplify how a successful romance hero is a discussion on the pressures society puts on men and breaks reigning stereotypes. The romance genre almost demands that male protagonists show softness in order to be worthy of the heroine, which renders the stereotypical notion of the brutish Alpha antiquated. It is therefore necessary to update the vocabulary used to describe heroes and to examine the issues they represent in today’s romance writing.

Romance heroes have developed rapidly with the genre. The rapist Alpha is seen to a far lesser extent than it previously was, and the Beta hero’s soft personality is viewed as distinctly positive. However, although the surface division between Alpha and Beta types remain, any closer scrutiny reveals that the modern hero is in fact more a blend of the hard and soft traits than weighed in favour of one or the other.

This paper discusses the diversity and ambiguity this blending causes in romance heroes, using as examples the heroes of Mary Balogh’s novels Dark Angel, Lord Carew’s Bride and The Famous Heroine. The discussion takes into account the criticism of the romance hero, both past and present, and shows the change in basic terminology used to describe these male protagonists, which on close reading of Balogh’s novels proves to be useful as a basic tool regarding reader preferences and the hero’s function in the novel but inadequate in truly describing the wide range of male personalities found in the genre.

Returning to the same three (linked) novels by Mary Balogh, Veera turned her attention to their heroines.

The heroine of Dark Angel initially conforms to gender norms and attempts to please the men in her life but eventually she gains agency in her relationship with the hero.

The heroine of Lord Carew's Bride has internalised oppression by men and so cannot act without reference to the man who left her disillusioned. Eventually she does succeed in throwing off her victim status and physically fights back against her oppressor.

The heroine of The Famous Heroine is of a lower social class than the other two heroines so her concern is with pleasing society rather than individual men. It seems she attempts to fill the traditional womanly roles of mother, wife and homemaker (I think Veera was referring here to the romance heroine as described in Kay Mussell's Fantasy and Reconciliation) but does so in ways which burst out of the traditional limits.

Veera's analysis raised a number of questions: to what extent does the series shows a progressive change in heroines? If it does, does this reflect changes in the genre as a whole? Is it better to want to please individual men or patriarchal society? To what extent is "society" depicted as patriarchal in these novels given the power of the patronesses of Almack's? And to what extent are romance authors like those patronesses as they decide what constitutes appropriate behaviour in a heroine?


Mitchell, Kaye. A. L. Kennedy. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. "A Gossip on Romance". R. L. Stevenson on Fiction: An Anthology of Literary and Critical Essays. Ed. Glenda Norquay. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999. 51-64.

Love: A Risk Assessment

By Laura Vivanco on Wednesday, 8 June, 2016

I've been reading Catherine Roach's Happily Ever After: The Romance Story in Popular Culture, in which she proposes that one of "essential elements of the romantic love story" (21) is that

Romance involves risk. Love doesn't always work out. In fact, it may fail spectacularly. The story of romance novels, which are technically romantic comedies in that they end happily, can all too easily turn into the failure of love in romantic tragedies such as the iconic Romeo and Juliet. This knowledge haunts romance stories as a shadow text, often present within the story as the path avoided: The book opens with a bad boyfriend whom the reader knows is on his way out. A previous generation's failed romance is redeemed through the current characters. [...] Readers feel this risk in the main story itself, which in "real life" would be unlikely to work out but which within the fantasy space of the romance always, miraculously, does: The heroine sleeps with the hero while he's still the emotionally closed-off cowboy or the philandering rake, but instead of the obvious scenario wherein he leaves her heartbroken, her act of giving herself to him opens his heart. (24)

I can't argue with the assertion that "Love doesn't always work out". Whether that makes love feel like a big "risk", though, is another matter. I can think of plenty of things I, personally, would think of as being a lot riskier. In romance, however, quite a lot of characters are happy to do things which I'd categorise as higher risk but are nontheless wary of falling in love: presumably they assess love as something which is much more likely to cause them pain.

Roach suggests that love is risky because it

is never a simple joy or pleasure, if for no other reason than the sure and stern knowledge of the beloved's eventual death. In every moment of love is this proleptic experience of loss, making all deeply felt love poignant and tragic. Such is one cost of love. (128)

The alternative, though, is presumably either to only love things which can't die (i.e. durable material objects) or not to love at all (which has its own costs). Presumably the extent of the risk of loving mortal beings varies according to how much one dwells on the "sure and stern knowledge" and how deeply (and perhaps to some extent how exclusively) one loves.

Another factor in the risk assessment is the nature of the lover. As Roach has suggested, romance as a genre is full of examples of people who are a bad risk and if "what love is really about [is...] accepting people for what they are, and forgiving even the worst in them" (Arbor 191) then it's bound to be riskier if the person one's accepting and forgiving is prone to doing hurtful things.

Roach distinguishes between what happens in healthy relationships and what happens when

Love can and does go dreadfully wrong. Dates turn into rape. Domestic partner abuse batters and kills people [...]. The romance novel rake, in reality, rarely reforms [...]. The cruel truth is, love can break your heart; shred your self-esteem; ruin your finances; leave you with unwanted pregnancy, disease, and social shame; get you killed by a stalker who won't let go. [...] These [...] tragic stories of love [...] are [...] love as the practice of bondage, or, more precisely, what I propose to call love as bad bondage. Such love can entail bondage to an unworthy partner, bondage within cycles of abuse, and bondage to low self-esteem such that one feels undeserving of anything better in one's love life. (127)

In contrast, Roach suggests,

As a true love, I must be willing to act, in an extension of self, in ways that are caring, affectionate, and respectful, in order to nurture my beloved's growth. Such true love also implies that, as I nurture my beloved's growth, I nurture my own as well. We cannot, do not, love another truly if we abandon the duty to love ourselves and to act in our own best interests. True love, in other words, does not make one into a martyr or a doormat. [...] And yet it's not so simple, because true love, or good love, entails its own type of bondage as well.  [...] This bondage or binding involves a restriction of freedom that is key to popular culture's vision of romantic love. To love is to forsake all others, to cleave to a one and only, to tie the knot. (127-28)

Or as one romance hero puts it:

'Love is when you can't live without someone - when everything seems dull and empty because they're not there - when you think of them the moment you wake and they're there in your thoughts as you fall asleep - they fill your dreams [...] But true love is more than that [...]. True love isn't selfish or possessive - it values the other person's feelings more than your own. When you told me about Simon I was furious, I hated the way he had behaved - the selfish, obsessive sort of love that had trapped you - blackmailed you emotionally when you couldn't love him back. If you really love someone you want what's best for them - even if that means letting them go, leaving them free to be with someone else. (Walker 275-76)

That's very noble, but it does sound potentially rather painful if the love is one-sided yet still binding.

So can a risk assessment help us avoid love altogether, or might it only assist us in directing our feelings towards a less-risky love-object? Love itself may be inescapable, if the extremely rational hero of Karen Lord's The Best of All Possible Worlds is correct in thinking that love, although

it comes attended by various physical reactions which manifest as emotions, [...] is one of the drives.'

'Oh,' I said. 'Like hunger, or wanting to procreate, or the desire to protect one's offspring.'

'Yes. I have identified you as the most appropriate mate, probably through an unconscious assessment of pheromones, mental capacity and, of course, social compatibility.'

'So you're saying you like how I smell, you like how I think and you like to hang out with me?' I was amused, but genuinely warmed at such a unique declaration of love. [...]

He drew me into his arms and into his mind. He saw how I valued his selflessness and trusted his integrity, even when he exasperated me by being inflexible. I showed him my admiration for his physical strength, intelligence and psionic abilities, and the gentleness that complemented all those qualities. I even allowed him to see that I had found him physically attractive from the moment we first met.

'So,' he said lightly, and I knew he was teasing me because he was somewhat shaken. 'You believe that I possess certain characteristics which you would like to be passed on, via genetic transfer and mentoring, to your children.'

I began to laugh. (Karen Lord, The Best of All Possible Worlds, 311-312)


Arbor, Jane. 1970. The Feathered Shaft in The Second Anthology of 3 Harlequin Romances by Jane Arbor. Don Mills, Ontario: Harlequin, 1977. 6-203.

Lord, Karen. The Best of All Possible Worlds. London: Jo Fletcher, 2013.

Roach, Catherine M. Happily Ever After: The Romance Story in Popular Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016.

Walker, Kate. Calypso's Enchantment. Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon, 1994.


The heart with the handcuffs came from Flickr and was created by Jason Clapp. It was made "available for download under a Creative Commons license."

"Volunteers" vs. "Activists" in the Romance Community

By Laura Vivanco on Tuesday, 5 April, 2016

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.

Pursuing Happiness: Reading the American Romance as Political Fiction

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 13 February, 2016

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.

Effects of Written Erotica

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 6 February, 2016

A recent piece of research in The Journal of Sex Research, in which a group of male and female readers were exposed to three different types of erotica (male dominant/female submissive; female dominant/male submissive; neither partner submissive or dominant), suggests that:

reading about a sexually submissive woman may have a negative impact on attitudes toward women, including increasing benevolent sexism in women and rape myth acceptance in men. However, erotica also had the power to challenge traditional gender roles. We found that after reading about a sexually dominant woman, men rated dominance as an appealing trait in a potential partner, at least to the same extent that women did. Finally, we found that men and women were similar in their levels of arousal in response to sexually explicit erotica and that different types of erotica are equally arousing, regardless of the dominance and submission roles taken on by the protagonists. In sum, although we highlight some potentially negative consequences of reading erotica depicting male dominance, our findings should not be interpreted as devaluing erotica. Instead, our study hints at the utility and benefit of seeking out a range of erotica that eschews typical gender roles to encourage “eroticizing equality.” (10)

The authors did advise that:

It should be noted that the effects of reading different submission/dominance stories on attitudes were small. We speculate that the potential consequences of reading male dominance erotica on attitudes, such as more negative views toward women, may be exacerbated following repeated exposure to such erotica. Future research might investigate the effects of a longer-term exposure to submission-/dominance-themed erotica by using a diary study to test the effects of reading a full-length erotic novel, or longitudinal work testing male dominance erotica consumption and attitudes over time. Finally, an additional avenue for future research would be to test the effects of reading popular erotica in a nonheterosexual sample. For example, submission and dominance between a consenting lesbian pair would be unlikely to carry with it the same political meaning as male-on-female dominance. It is possible, however, that effects may still be seen on partner preferences. (10)

Here's a bit more detail about their findings regarding the dominant woman/submissive male and neither-partner-dominant-nor-submissive erotica:

It may be that depictions of nontraditional men and women as “sexy” broaden our understanding of what is considered gender appropriate behavior. The battle for less prescriptive gender roles is often fought directly. Our work highlights that change can also occur indirectly via the stories that we tell, including those that sexually arouse us. While erotica has the potential to result in detrimental outcomes for women (i.e., through increased benevolent sexism and rape myths), it also has the potential to make the deviant desirable and prompt a shift toward acceptance of nontraditional gender roles. Although the shifts observed in our study were small and likely to be temporary, more consistent exposure to nonnormative erotica (or even literature more generally) may have a stronger impact on what men and women want in a partner. (9)


Our findings provide promising evidence that a focus away from female submission does not mean a decrease in sexual arousal. Rather, stories describing female dominance or no dominance were equally arousing and perhaps less likely to perpetuate the belief in women that sex and submission are necessarily linked. (9)


Harris, Emily Ann, Michael Thai & Fiona Kate Barlow (2016). "Fifty Shades Flipped: Effects of Reading Erotica Depicting a Sexually Dominant Woman Compared to a Sexually Dominant Man", The Journal of Sex Research.

Female vs. Male Authors on What to Look for in a Potential Spouse

By Laura Vivanco on Monday, 18 January, 2016

From an article in The New Yorker by Adelle Waldman:

attention to a lover’s intelligence—and to those facets of character that fall under the auspices of intelligence and factor into respect, such as fairness, integrity, magnanimity, and sensitivity—is consistent with the way women novelists have long written about love. For as long as novels have been written, heroines in books by women have studied their beloveds’ minds with a methodical, dispassionate eye. The ideal mate, for Jane Austen’s heroines, for Charlotte Brontë’s, for George Eliot’s, is someone intelligent enough to appreciate fully and respond deeply to their own intelligence, a partner for whom they feel not only desire but a sense of kinship, of intellectual and moral equality.

A link between love and respect hardly seems like a unique or daring proposition—until we consider that so many male authors have tended to think about love very differently. Straight male authors devote far less energy to considering the intelligence of their heroes’ female love interests; instead, they tend to emphasize visceral attraction and feelings. From Tolstoy, whose psychological acuity helped to redefine what the novel is capable of, to unabashed chroniclers of sex like Saul Bellow and Philip Roth to contemporary, stroller-pushing, egalitarian dad Karl Ove Knausgaard, men have been, in a sense, the real romantics: they are far more likely than women to portray love as something mysterious and irrational, impervious to explanation, tied more to physical qualities and broad personal appeal than to a belief—or hope—in having found an intellectual peer.

In literature, the desire to find an equal, and the belief that love in its ideal form should comprise a meeting of minds as well as bodies, appears to be a much greater psychological driver for women than it is for men. [...]

Intelligence matters to these heroines because they crave, above almost everything else, conversation, the kind that requires mutual understanding. [...] Austen’s sensitive, intelligent heroines reflexively seek out as love interests those few men who are equally sensitive and equally intelligent, who are capable of meeting them “in conversation, both rational and playful.”

This kind of relationship is my favourite to read about and I can find examples of such relationships in modern romance novels. However, I wouldn't say it's the dominant type of relationship in romances, despite the fact that the majority are written by women.

That makes me wonder if the distinction between male and female authors identified by Waldman is not an absolute one, but has something to do with the fact, acknowledged by Waldman, that the male protagonists in the novels she discusses are intellectuals and traditionally "men may not have expected to find a true intellectual equal in a woman, and so they looked for intellectual companionship among men, and with women sought those qualities they did expect to find—beauty, charm, sex appeal, domestic skill".

Perhaps novelists (both male and female) who aren't writing about intellectuals may all place less emphasis on intellectual compatibility and more on the physical and/or practical aspects of relationships?


With thanks to Vassiliki for the link to "The Ideal Marriage, According to Novels" (The New Yorker, January 15, 2016) by Adelle Waldman.

A New Year's Plan: Speaking and Listening

By Laura Vivanco on Monday, 4 January, 2016

Pursuing Happiness: Reading American Romance as Political FictionMy book on reading American romance as political fiction is back with the publisher after another round of edits and I think it should be finished soon.

Coming to the end of a project like this, which has taken several years to finish, is always a bit daunting: there's pressure to decide what the next project will be and yet, writing can be very difficult at times and leave one wanting to take a break.

So I was heartened when I read the following, though I'm taking these sentences rather out of context:

The right to speak is a call to the duty of listening. Speech has no meaning unless there are attentive minds and silent hearts. Silence is the welcoming acceptance of the other.

This year, I'll be "speaking" via my book and I hope others will find it worth listening to. So, before I prepare any more speeches, I think it's time for me to do a lot more "listening" myself. I owe it to my colleagues to spend time reading what they've written. Of course, I haven't been ignoring all their articles and texts, but I do have a large to-be-read pile and there are things I'd like to re-read, too.

As far as a "silent heart" and "welcoming acceptance" are concerned, if I blog about what I read, I'll try to let the texts "speak" for themselves as much as possible.

Zane in the Highschool Classroom: (12 - Alyssa D. Niccolini): Women and Erotic Fiction, ed. Kristen Phillips

By Laura Vivanco on Monday, 28 December, 2015

Niccolini's essay "draw[s] on data from two focus groups with U.S. high school students aged 14-18 who identify as African American, Black, Afro-Caribbean, and Latina to argue that erotica [...] teaches" (225). She "hone[s] in on the work of Zane and her self-termed erotica noir in relation to this pedagogy as her books were the most widely circulated and intensely beloved by the students I taught" (226).

According to Niccolini

Erotica's pedagogy is a pedagogy of the present. Its knowledge is about what the body is capable of now. This present-centered feeling of "I shouldn't be reading this but I am" traverses a range of affective intensities that fall somewhere between a guilty pleasure, flouting of discipline, exciting transgression and sense of shame. As standardized tests are more and more the horizon for curricula in U.S. schools, a curriculum centered on immediate intensities may offer a temporal relief from an insistence on knowledge being tied to futurity. (228-29)


Niccolini, Alyssa D. "Sexing Education: Erotica in the Urban Classroom". Women and Erotic Fiction: Critical Essays on Genres, Markets and Readers. Ed. Kristen Phillips. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland 2015. 225-39.

A "Recreational" not a "Companionate" Sexual Ethic: (11 - Victoria Ong): Women and Erotic Fiction, ed. Kristen Phillips

By Laura Vivanco on Monday, 28 December, 2015

One aspect of Ong's essay which I found particularly interesting, because of its implications for the popular romance novel (and especially the erotic romance sub-genre) is that she mentions

Christine Overall's analysis of identity and sexual relating in "Monogamy, Nonmonogamy and Identity" (1988). Overall argues that "[t]he convention of sexual relating, outside of paid work, is that in that context the woman expresses herself, becomes and is most truly and genuinely herself" (p. 8). As such, a sexual relationship becomes a form of chosen vulnerability. This convention of connecting identity with sexual relating is subverted in the conventions of sex work. Overall writes that sex workers structure sexual relating differently and "define themselves by reference to the paid labour they perform rather than by reference to the men with whom they interact and usually choose not to be vulnerable, self-expressive, or genuinely open" (p.9). (Ong 211, emphasis added)

One definition of "erotic romance" is:

stories written about the development of a romantic relationship through sexual interaction. The sex is an inherent part of the story, character growth, and relationship development, and couldn’t be removed without damaging the storyline. Happily Ever After is a REQUIREMENT to be an erotic romance. (Day)

Sex can presumably only be "an inherent part of the story, character growth, and relationship development" if, at some point (perhaps not in initial encounters but certainly in later ones) the heroine "expresses herself, becomes and is most truly and genuinely herself" while engaged in sex with the other protagonist(s). Indeed, if the narrative is constructed primarily via sex scenes, then the sex must, perhaps, be deemed much more meaningful in, and important to, a relationship than in romances which show the development of the relationship via other interactions.

Perhaps this is one reason why Amanda, a reviewer at the romance blog Smart Bitches Trashy Books, has stated that "my experience is, I have yet to be mirrored, or, or even my viewpoints on sex as a woman in the twenty-first century have yet to be mirrored in a romance that I’ve read". Amanda has:

compartmentalized sex and intimacy –

Amanda:  Yes.

Sarah:  – into a very convenient option where if you would like to have sex, that’s a thing that happens, and then it’s over and you can go do your other things.  It’s not something that has to be built on a relationship.

Amanda:  It’s like a chore that, you know, like, I tick off my to-do list.

Sarah:  But it’s a nice chore.

Amanda:  It’s a, it can be a very nice chore. (Wendell)

Amanda will also

nickname the people that you have Tinder conversations with.

Amanda:  I do.  I do nickname them.

Sarah:  So it’s almost like making them characters.

It seems as though Amanda is creating a narrative of her sex life which contains nicknamed male characters and differs noticeably in its plot from that of a romance novel. Perhaps it more closely resembles texts like Belle de Jour (Dr Brooke Magnanti)'s The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl which, in foregrounding

modern womanhood [...] humorously and light-heartedly as the texts chronicle protagonists' cosmopolitan lifestyles and their efforts to navigate work life and their personal relationships [make the] enjoyment and pleasure of sex a major theme [...]. These texts align with contemporary chick lit. (Ong 204)

Their emergence, and the life-styles they describe, have perhaps been

facilitated by the emergence of new paradigms of family and community [...] that [...] has resulted in isolable individuals with profoundly transformed models of sexuality, new configurations of intimate life and new erotic dispositions: "[b]oth the traditional 'procreative' and the modern 'companionate' models of sexuality are increasingly being supplanted by what sociologist Edward Laumann and his colleagues have referred to as a 'recreational' sexual ethic" [...].

This recreational sexual ethic is premised upon the depth of physical sensation and emotionally bounded erotic exchange [...]. The authenticity of recreational sex is bounded in the sense that the emotions of erotic exchanges are delimited to their discrete episodes and sex is free of lingering emotional attachments. (Ong 209)

I have the impression that contemporary popular romance (generally) expresses a commitment to the 'companionate' model of sexuality and the view that sex has, or should ideally have, a strong emotional component which, unlike "bounded authenticity", continues to exist long after the sexual encounter is over.

That said, neither Amanda nor Belle de Jour are completely unemotionally involved during sexal interactions. Amanda clarifies that:

sometimes the guys that I find to be really attractive and really pretty are dumb as a box of rocks, and I can’t.  Like, if there’s a spelling mistake in your profile or you can’t string together a sentence with proper grammar and punctuation, I’m not –

Sarah:  You’re not interested.

Amanda:  Yeah, ‘cause I’m not, I’m not emotionally stimulated to carry on a conversation with you.

Sarah:  Right, so it’s not just, hey, you’re pretty, let’s bang.  There are other things at work in creating the connection that you’re looking for.

Amanda:  Yes.  Even though if it’s not, like, a love connection, there’s definitely, there has to be some kind of conversational connection first.

Ong's analysis of Belle's sexual interactions with clients similarly reveals a need for some kind of emotional connection. In one of the two

client interactions where they are uninterested in bounded authenticity and seek only sexual gratification [...the fact that] he [the client] remains unshakeable and disinterested in her efforts to create intimacy or eroticism in the session evidently unnerves Belle. [...] In these two entries, Belle's narrative voice is serious and flat, in stark contrast to her usual light-heartedness. Since humor denotes her ability to process her emotions and indicates her self-composure, the grave tone of these entries suggests that she is unable to fully own these experiences in her reframing of them. She is impacted deeply because her provision of bounded authenticity enables her to find her work meaningful, and their disinterest in bounded authenticity means she is unable to find work meaningful in these bookings. In addition, their disinterest in intimacy and blunt usage of her for their sexual needs removes the distinction of her brand of "meaningful" sex work to that of the merely physical service of street-based workers. (221-22)


Day, Sylvia. "What is Erotic Romance?"

Ong, Victoria. "Selling Authentic Sex: Working Through Identity in Belle de Jour's The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl". Women and Erotic Fiction: Critical Essays on Genres, Markets and Readers. Ed. Kristen Phillips. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland 2015. 204-24.

Wendell, Sarah. "172. Tinder, Sex, Romance, and Relationships: A Frank Discussion of Sexuality with Amanda". 18 December 2015.

Subverting the Romance in the Philippines

By Laura Vivanco on Sunday, 27 December, 2015

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.