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Review/Summary: Women and Erotic Fiction, ed. Kristen Phillips

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 12 December, 2015

Kristen Phillips recently posted me a copy of Women and Erotic Fiction: Critical Essays on Genres, Markets and Readers, an essay collection she edited. Those essays discuss and explore a wide range of texts but it is the publication of, and responses to, Fifty Shades of Grey, which has focused attention on women's erotic fiction. Of course, as Phillips notes,

popular erotic fiction has a significant twentieth-century history as an element of Western culture's popular romance fiction genre. Contextualizing books like Fifty Shades of Grey within this history does more than encourage us to be cynical about the recent characterization of women's popular erotic fiction as a sudden, new sensation. Rather, it allows us to [...] begin asking why and how women's popular erotic fiction suddenly entered discourse as a "problem" and an object of scrutiny at this particular cultural moment. (Phillips 5)

One response to FSoG and other erotic texts for and/or by women, has been to treat it

like "pornography": it is understood to be embarrassing and shameful, and there are certainly ideas in circulation about how some kinds of women's erotic fiction are harmful to women readers (specifically BDSM fiction, as Tanya Serisier discusses in this volume). However, anxieties about the harm caused by women's erotic fiction are complicated by two competing ideas: firstly, that women's sexual enjoyment is not to be taken seriously (it is often seen as something embarrassing, silly or humorous rather than a pernicious social harm), and secondly, that women's erotic fiction is empowering for women and represents an authentic expression of female sexual desire. (7)

A note of caution about this third view is imparted by reference to

Michel Foucault's insight that the compulsion to speak about sex, which is always constructed as a liberation, in fact serves to bring sex into discourse such that it can be subjected to surveillance and control. (Phillips 5)

The

exercise of social power behind a veneer of liberation [...] is a recurring theme across the essays in this volume: see in particular the essays by Eva Chen [on "Contemporary Female 'Body Writing' in China], Jude Elund [on "Feminized Same-Sex Practice as Middle-Class Fantasy"] and Carole Veldman-Genz [on "The Romance of M/M and M/M/F Romantica"]. (11)

She adds that

In making sense of the mainstreaming of women's mass market erotic fiction across Western culture since approximately 2011, it is important to notice that even as this material is being characterized in the popular media as "dirty," subversive and threatening to cultural morality [...], the kinds of texts that are most visible are often, in fact, quite socially conservative in their presentation of the relationship between romance and sex. [...] That is, the privileging of certain kinds of texts [...] tends to reinforce the idea that women prefer their erotic content blended with romance. (7-8)

Then again, given that "An association between eroticism and transgression of taboos is [...] deeply embedded in Western culture" (14), I assume it could also be an "exercise of social power behind a veneer of liberation" to insist that women should not prefer their erotic content blended with romance.

In other words, it would seem that whether women do or don't have sex, do or don't speak/write about it and irrespective of what type of sex we do have (if we have it), we're liable to face criticism from someone.

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I've written a post about each of the essays in the volume and linked to each below. Some of the posts are fairly detailed while others are just brief descriptions.

One theme which emerged for me was the examination of the extent to which sexuality and gender are shaped by culture/society; given that sexual desires and gender identities are not wholly "hard-wired" by nature, to some extent they can be reinforced or reshaped by erotic fictions.

I found Victoria Ong's essay of particular interest because although it's not about popular romance, its discussion of different attitudes to, and beliefs about sex and the strength (or lack) of emotions it's assumed to generate possibly helps explain why erotic romance authors believe they can convincingly depict the development of a committed, long-term relationship primarily via sex scenes.

Hardy, Simon. "From Black Lace to Shades of Grey: The Interpellation of the 'Female Subject' into Erotic Discourse", pages 25-41.

Morrissey, Katherine E. "Steamy, Spicy, Sensual: Tracing the Cycles of Erotic Romance", pages 42-58.

Ziv, Amalia. "Refiguring Penetration in Women's Erotic Fiction", pages 59-78.

Chen, Eva. "Erotic Pleasure and Postsocialist Female Sexuality: Contemporary Female 'Body Writing' in China", pages 79-95.

Booth, Naomi. "Good Vibrations: Shaken Subjects and the Disintegrative Romance Heroine", pages 99-116.

Serisier, Tanya. "On Not Reading Fifty Shades: Feminism and the Fantasy of Romantic Immunity", pages 117-132.

Veldman-Genz, Carole. "Selling Gay Sex to Women: The Romance of M/M and M/M/F Romantica", pages 133-149.

Elund, Jude. "Permissible Transgressions: Feminized Same-Sex Practice as Middle-Class Fantasy", pages 150-66.

Kustritz, Anne. "The Politics of Slash on the High Seas: Colonial Romance and Revolutionary Solidarity in Pirates Fan Fiction", pages 169-186.

Santos Fermin, Tricia Abigail. "Male Homoerotic Fiction and Women's Sexual Subjectivities: Yaoi and BL Fans in Indonesia and the Philippines", pages 187-203.

Ong, Victoria. "Selling Authentic Sex: Working Through Identity in Belle de Jour's The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl", pages 204-24.

Niccolini, Alyssa D. "Sexing Education: Erotica in the Urban Classroom", pages 225-39.

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Phillips, Kristen. "Introduction: Shattering Releases." Women and Erotic Fiction: Critical Essays on Genres, Markets and Readers. Ed. Kristen Phillips. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland 2015. 1-21.

Romance Series: Surrogate Communities?

By Laura Vivanco on Friday, 4 December, 2015

I've written a chapter about community in my forthcoming book on reading US romance as political fiction so I immediatedly followed the link when Merrian Weymouth tweeted

and it was indeed interesting and it led me to the original academic research, in which the authors

argue that [...] commonplace technologies, such as narrative fiction, television, music, or interactive video games, can [...] provide the experience of need fulfillment. We hypothesize that the facsimiles of social contexts presented in these technologies may be used to satisfy the fulfillment of belongingness needs. Just as Harlow’s (1958) infant monkeys experienced succor from cloth surrogates, satisfying belongingness needs, so too may beloved books, television programs, movies, music, or video games potentially serve as "social surrogates," leading to an experience of belongingness even when no real, bona fide belongingness has been experienced. (Derrick, Gabriel and Hugenberg 352)

and

common themes in [...] narratives are social (Hogan, 2003), and strong initial research demonstrates that narratives engage people in social processing (Mar & Oatley, 2008). For example, engaging in narratives leads to an increase in thoughts and emotions congruent with the ones presented in the narrative (Oatley, 1999), and exposure to narratives is related to more sophisticated social skills and abilities (Mar, Oatley, Hirsh, de la Paz, & Peterson, 2006). Indeed, Mar and Oatley (2008) argue that one core function of narratives is to mentally simulate social interactions, potentially facilitating subsequent social behavior. (353)

They also offer a hypothesis which, if applied to fiction, may partially explain why so many readers describe some books as "comfort reads":

If favorite television programs can yield the experience of belonging, we hypothesized that [...] events that typically elicit belongingness needs (e.g., threats to a relationship, a rejection experience) would elicit a desire to experience a favored television program. (353)

That said, the experiments described in the article provide little support for extending the hypothesis to books. If anything the people studied were less likely to read an "old favorite" than a new book (355) but they weren't necessarily readers who had "comfort reads": they were

Seven-hundred and one undergraduate students (233 men, 322 women, and 146 participants who did not indicate their gender; mean age=18.86) (354)

who were much more likely to turn to music, TV and movies.

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Derrick, Jaye L., Shira Gabriel and Kurt Hugenberg, 2009. "Social Surrogacy: How Favored Television Programs Provide the Experience of Belonging". Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 45: 352-62.

A scholarly romance/academic article

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 31 October, 2015

I came across this quote in an article and I thought I'd share it:

Cultural critiques of romantic narratives in popular culture are anything but romantic, explaining the consumption of romantic popular culture as “heteronormative, relationship-seeking identity” established in a “capitalist structure” that “continues to limit the possibilities feminism affords” women (Stern 430). I would like to see scholars embrace the romance – the love and desire with which we live our lives, extending that same love and desire to our dearest held popular narratives. Despite their common limitations as heteronormative, gendered, raced and classed, these narratives influence and shape the way romance appears in our lives – from our expectations of the romance, to its articulation, and in some cases, its dissolution. (Meyer 261-62)

The article from which it's taken blends romantic autobiography with analysis. I'll let you read it yourself to find out how the author's own story develops. It's available free online here.

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Meyer, Michaela D. E., 2015. "Living the Romance through Castle: Exploring Autoethnography, Popular Culture and Romantic Television Narratives". The Popular Culture Studies Journal 3.1&2: 245-269.

Who's Being Empowered Here?

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 12 September, 2015

For the latest issue of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies Stacy E. Holden's interviewed authors and editors of romance novels featuring sheikh heroes, including Lynn Raye Harris, who,

much like the ten other authors and three editors interviewed for this article—denies an explicit intent to address politics in her romance novels, but both the text of her novels and the transcripts of her interviews belie this unassuming assertion. Indeed, the author reveals a belief that her novels may well contribute to a better American understanding of the Arab world. Analyzing the sheikh, a composite Arab hero that essentializes the region’s political and cultural complexities, she notes that “I think it’s important for romance reader to think of him as a man, to know that he is sexy and desirable as a man from their own culture could be. Maybe that’s naive of me, but I choose to believe having sheikhs populate romance novels makes readers think of them as people, not terrorists or Islamic fundamentalists who hate America” (Harris, email, Follow Up, 11 February 2013).

However, it would seem that part of what these authors do in order to make "readers think of them as people, not terrorists or Islamic fundamentalists", is remove a great deal of the sheikh's non-Western culture, replacing it with "a fantasy that eschews discussion of any factual differences between the US and specific countries of the Middle East and North Africa, instead celebrating an exoticized fantasy about a glamorous Arab culture", and most of his religious beliefs:

authors express the desire to break free from the negative stereotypes of Arabs put forth in other media via the vehicle of romance, a worthy intention indeed. In order to accomplish this goal, however, authors sometimes suppress certain aspects of Arab culture and contribute inadvertently to Orientalist discourse. Islam, for example, is the principal religion of the Middle East and North Africa, and highly misunderstood by many Americans. This religion is not necessarily off limits in romance novels, though the treatment of it by authors exists on a spectrum, one that ranges from complete omission of it to oblique or (occasionally) direct interaction with it.

One of Sandra Marton's sheikhs, for instance, is

ethnically Arab, and yet he is culturally quite Western in his orientation. He is an alumnus of Yale University, and his American mother resides in California. The cover of the book deliberately eschews visual mention of Arab culture, since it features a naked man and woman in bed together. Noting that Arab clothing can be “off-putting,” Marton and her editor “had long ago agreed that my sheikh books would never feature covers in which my character was dressed in Arab garb.” Marton also insists that her stories “deliberately avoided religious discussion or religious rules.” Towards this last, her stories actually upturn the principles of the Islamic majority in the Arab world. She notes that she allows her sheikhs to drink wine, prohibited by Islam, “because I give them a backstory that involves being educated in the West” (Marton, email, sheikhs, 5 May 2-13). Her readers responded to this formula.

Holden concludes that

With its explicit images and arousing fantasies in which Arabs and Americans ultimately live together in peace, the sheikh romance novel can be read as a form of socio-political erotica. [...] Read skeptically, against the grain, these novels present a fantasy in which autocratic leaders of the Arab world—those sheikhly heroes who love American women—embrace the values of their Western fiancées and wives, reconciling their two cultures in a way that secures and privileges American interests. But read more generously, in light of their authors’ intentions, the sheikh romance novel does present a hopeful vision of the world, one which exchanges Huntington’s vision of a Clash of Civilizations for a world in which the clash between individuals from two worlds, now at odds, is ultimately an erotic clash: one which leads them to fall in love, resolve their differences, and live harmoniously together.

Megan Crane's response to Holden, also published in this issue of JPRS, is that

one could as easily substitute “Scottish highlander” or “Greek tycoon” for “sheikh” and make many of these same arguments

Up to a point, I'd agree, but I don't think it in any way undermines Holden's argument.

As someone who was born and lives in Scotland, I've found the US romance novels set in Scotland unsettling. Admittedly I haven't read many of them, but that's because the ones I did read felt as though they were set in a parallel universe. I knew I wasn't the intended reader and I wondered why this version of Scotland appealed to US readers. What is clear to me, though, is that while "Highlander" romances may resemble "sheikh" romances in some respects, I think they do some different political work in others. For example, they presumably have particular appeal to US citizens who have Scottish ancestors.

As someone who's half Spanish, romances with Spanish heroes, written by non-Spanish authors, generally also make me feel as though they're depicting a parallel version of the place inhabited by most of my family. Again, I haven't read many because I find the experience of reading them very strange. However, I've read enough to think romances with Greek, Spanish and Italian heroes play into stereotypes about "hot-blooded", macho Latin lovers. As far as I can tell, they also tend to imply that mediterranean cultures are less advanced than northern European ones in terms of their attitudes towards gender. And I notice that there aren't equal numbers of Greek, Spanish and Italian heroines, which makes this feel like these books' "implied reader" is not a Greek, Spanish or Italian woman.

Crane, however, would

argue that any fantasies in these stories have more to do with the modern woman’s belief in the power of femininity to solve problems and change lives for the better than in any kind of cultural or historical revision. For example, the popularity of this or that band of warriors (see: the alpha heroes of Nalini Singh’s Psy/Changeling series, Julie Garwood’s beloved Highlanders, Kristen Ashley’s almost-outlaw biker gang) who are forever altered once the members begin to fall in love.

I think that's part of it (although since a belief in "the power of femininity" can be deeply sexist, as in the nineteenth-century "cult of domesticity", I'm extremely wary of the idea that any particular gender identity imparts special powers). At least when this belief is played out using paranormal creatures the lines between reality and fantasy are pretty clear and if they're less so when idealised US cowboys or bikers are involved, they're probably offset by news reports etc which inform readers of the realities involved in these lifestyles. Even if they aren't, idealisation of cowboys and bikers isn't likely to cause cowboys or bikers much, if any, harm.

The situation seems to me to be significantly different when romances draw on, and thereby reinforce, racial/ethnic/cultural stereotypes which are accepted by many as being, at least partially, based in reality. Nouha al-Hegelan, for example, has stated that,

As a result of Western misinformation and lack of awareness, Arab women are unfortunately, victims of the stereotyping process. There is little understanding of either our status as women or the total context of our lives.

It is problematic when, in order to bolster "modern women's belief in the power of femininity to solve problems and change lives for the better" entire nationalities/cultures are identified as barbarian/medieval/backward so that they pose more of a challenge to, and make all the sweeter the victory of, the White Anglo woman.

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al-Hegelan, Nouha. "Women in the Arab World." First published in Arab Perspectives 1.7 (October 1980). Republished online by Cornell University. [I quoted her in an earlier post I wrote, at Teach Me Tonight, about sheikh romances.]

Crane, Megan. "Stacy Holden's 'Love in the Desert': An Author's Response". Journal of Popular Romance Studies 5.1 (2015).

Holden, Stacy E. "Love in the Desert: Images of Arab-American Reconciliation in Contemporary Sheikh Romance Novels". Journal of Popular Romance Studies 5.1 (2015).

The Macaroni Magnate

By Laura Vivanco on Monday, 7 September, 2015

A while ago some romance readers/authors decided to write a parody romance set at "the most important hummus industry conference of the year" so I was rather amused to discover a real romance novel which, apparently, has a "macaroni magnate" as its hero.

macaroni magnate

It's a Harlequin Temptation published in September 1986 and for all I know, it's a deliciously spicy read. I'm still amused that someone got the words "macaroni magnate" into this blurb.

Data Mining Harlequin Presents

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 5 September, 2015

Jack Elliott uses technology to analyse novels. His methods are therefore extremely different from mine and I find it very interesting to see how new, computer-based methods of analysing novels in bulk can complement more traditional kinds of literary criticism.

Elliott's methods allowed him to study "every Harlequin Presents novel published from 1999 to 2013—all 1,400 digitally available novels" ("Whole" 2) and he found that

authorship is the elemental organizing principle of the genre. This is surprising given the centrifugal forces exerted on authorship, but these—heavy editorial intervention, mini-series that share settings between authors and sub-genres—fail to find traction in the face of this powerful tendency. ("Whole" 2-3)

In other words, even the Presents line, which is perhaps one of the most stylized of all category lines and "constrain[s] authors in terms of setting, genre, and length [...] allows a huge variation in authorial ‘voice’ " ("Whole" 5):

Authorship overwhelms distinctions of editorial control, mini-series, and sub-genre, pulling novels into authorial groups. This validates the behavior of readers who seek out writing by their favourite authors, and the publishing decisions of Harlequin itself; the publisher reissues omnibus works by particular authors. ("Whole" 6)

He was also able to track certain changes chronologically across the line. For example,

Vivanco’s study of Harlequin Presents from 2000 to 2007 identifies two sorts of hero—the ‘primitive’ (Vivanco, 2013, p. 1068), who has to be tamed by the heroine, and another in which the hero ‘is not sexist, a fact which may astonish a heroine who is prepared for him to think and act like the heroes in the first group’ (Vivanco, 2013, pp. 1073–4). Intriguingly, the primitive hero who must be tamed is more likely to be associated with rage, contempt or cynicism—all flagged by modules that decline in importance from 2004 onwards. It seems that Vivanco’s primitives have reached their zenith and contemporary Harlequin Presents novels are more likely to be of the second category. ("Whole" 9)

He suggests that changes such as this reflect Harlequin's response when

a financial shock impacts Harlequin’s bottom line. At that point, the publisher alters the content of the novels by retasking some authors and redeploying others. ("Whole" 10).

Presumably with regards to hero types, in 2004 when there was such a "financial shock", "which caused Harlequin’s management team to ‘reinvigorate our series romances’" ("Whole" 3), Harlequin identified "changes in taste" ("Whole" 10) (or, perhaps, was seeking new readers from a different demographic?) and implemented changes in "the content of the novels":

Harlequin’s control is realized through its authors. This control exerts itself even within authorial clusters: most writers demonstrate a division in their pre and post 2004 work. Changes within the genre are not directly driven by external cultural events; the proximate cause of these shifts is poor financial results at Harlequin. ("Whole" 13)

While Elliott's techniques are extremely good at identifying trends, the discussion about Harlequin's responses to financial shocks indicates that technology alone cannot identify the causes of those trends.

In another recently published article, Elliott suggests more than one possible explanation for his finding that

As a typical Harlequin Presents novel progresses, the working vocabulary contracts. This phenomenon, a sort of ‘vocabulary decay’, is driven by either the rapid speed of composition or the popular nature of the genre. Tight economic conditions imposed by Harlequin place a premium on the rapid completion of a novel. In this model, writers make their language less and less unique as they hurry through their novel, jettisoning vocabulary variation as they go. Vocabulary decay may also be a deliberate strategy to maintain a rapid narrative pace. Words that obscure understanding, or are potentially difficult are metered down by the author as they seek to keep their readership engaged. ("Vocabulary" 2)

My feeling is that "vocabulary decay" sounds rather pejorative and suggests that authors' attention to detail and word-choice declines as they rush through their writing to reach their deadline.

I'd favour the interpretation of the findings which gives more credit to authors' artistry. What I'd suggest is that it has something to do with a factor Elliott himself mentions: a tendency to set the scene at the beginning of the novels. Once the characters and their setting are firmly fixed in the readers' minds, however, I suspect that the novel focuses ever more closely on the protagonists' emotions as part of a "deliberate strategy to maintain a rapid narrative pace" and keep a reader turning the pages all the way to the end. These are, after all, short novels and, as Presents author Kate Walker has written, it is essential that each of them "grabs the reader and holds them with that vital PTQ  - Page Turning Quality" (1); "Pace is vital to reader interest and to the PTQ that you are trying to create" (134).

My impression is that PTQ created by a narrowing of the focus onto the romance's emotional core is particularly common in the Presents line. That's not to say that other lines don't have PTQ or that they don't focus on emotions, but I think it may be created in different ways and to different extents in other lines. For example, in a medical romance, some of the suspense may be created by patients' medical issues, in romantic suspense it'll be provided in large part by a mystery which needs to be solved. Some lines, such as the longer Superromances and Historicals often proceed at a more leisurely pace. I'd be intrigued to know if they, too, experience "vocabulary decay" and, if so, whether they do so to a lesser extent than the Presents.

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Elliott, Jack. “Vocabulary Decay in Category Romance”, Digital Scholarship in the Humanities. Advance Access published December 8, 2014.

Elliott, Jack. “Whole Genre Sequencing”, Digital Scholarship in the Humanities. Advance Access published September 3, 2015.

Walker, Kate. Kate Walker's 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance. Abergele: Studymates, 2008.

Book Banning: A Romance Heroine's Response

By Laura Vivanco on Friday, 28 August, 2015

Today it was reported that:

The British Library has declined to store a large collection of Taliban-related documents over concerns regarding terrorism laws. [...]

Alex Strick van Linschoten, an author and researcher who helped spearhead the project said it was "surprising and disappointing".

"There's no recipes for making bombs or anything like that," he said.

"These are documents that would help people understand history, whether it's Afghans trying to learn about their recent past, or outsiders wanting to understand the movement.

"Any scholar would realise it's essential to read primary documents related to your subject if you want to understand militant groups, but there is a climate of fear among academics who study this kind of material because UK law is very loose." [...]

The Terrorism Acts of 2000 and 2006 make it an offence to "collect material which could be used by a person committing or preparing for an act of terrorism" and criminalise the "circulation of terrorist publications". (BBC)

In Rebecca Flanders' Second Sight (1984) the librarian heroine argues against restricting library collections and wins because the book-banners are forced to recognise that their definitions of offensive materials are too loose:

"the problem with this library system is that we have no written guidelines for the librarian to follow. It's a small system, and I suppose we always felt that there was no need for written rules, that the librarian's judgment was sufficient. However" - her smile was self-deprecating - "obviously it is not enough. I assure you that I would have been quite willing to abide by such regulations had they ever been presented to me in an official manner, so allow me to suggest, for my sake - or that of my successor - that we erase the ambiguity right now and vote on a standard of criteria by which books should be judged so that this unfortunate situation never recurs [...]

[...] First, [...] I believe you made reference to 'offensive language and sexual themes.' Shall we agree that this should be number one on the list of unacceptable material to appear in a library book?"

There was unified agreement.

Jennifer made a check on her note pad and reached to take a book from the stack she had collected and placed upon the chair next to her. "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, ladies and gentlemen," she said, and tossed it onto the pile of previously rejected books. [...]

Then, matter-of-factly, before anyone could say anything, she went on, "Graphic violence, evil intent, works reflecting the influence of drugs or alcohol or advocating their usage?" [...] Jennifer made another check on her pad and reached for another book. "The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe," she said [...]

She said, "Then, shall we agree that in the future no book containing explicit sex, offensive language, references to improper relationships or perversion, graphic displays of violence, or themes that condone immoral behavior be admitted to the shelves, and that all such books as now occupy space on the shelves of our public library be immediately removed?" [...]

Jennifer stood slowly and placed a copy of the Bible on top of the stack of banned books. (241-5)

In response to the librarian's logical defence, the library committee, recognising that their criteria were far too broadly worded, back down entirely; in the context of the British Library's refusal to give shelf space to a potentially controversial collection, the "Home Office declined to comment saying it was a matter for [the] library" and the loose definitions remain in force.

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BBC. "British Library declines Taliban archive over terror law fears". 28 August 2015.

Flanders, Rebecca. Second Sight. Don Mills, Ontario: Harlequin, 1984.

Chasing the Endnotes: Race and Romances in US Libraries

By Laura Vivanco on Friday, 21 August, 2015

Page 229 of Wayne A. Wiegand's Part of Our Lives: A People's History of the American Public Library (New York, NY: Oxford UP, 2015) focuses on romance fiction. The excerpt below begins by drawing on a 1983 article in the New York Times:

Here are the end notes:

 

 

Following up on them, I think I found some things which were of just as much, if not more, interest than the details quoted by Wiegand.

The New York Times article on "Written Romance in the Stacks" from 1983 is available online here. It's significant that at Westville:

''We keep the collection primarily because it's very popular with the people, the ladies especially,'' says Shirley Moretto, the head librarian. ''We figure that if we get them in to read those, eventually they'll read the other books, too.''

She sounds like a parent trying to sneak some pureed vegetables into the diet of a picky toddler.

An admission of librarian cluelessness can be found in the 1998 Chicago Tribune article (available online - page 1 and page 2):

"We have changed our tune here at the library," said Vivian Mortensen, head of reader services at Park Ridge Public Library, near Chicago. "We used to feel that (romance readers) were sheltered housewives. But we find that many businesswomen read them, and every kind of person, from grandmothers to young mothers. We were thinking that this was a small group of people interested in this, and it's not. There are a lot of women out there who love them, and a few men. Some of my librarian friends say this is their favorite type of reading."

The Chicago-Tribune article on "The Color of Passion is Mostly White" from 1983 is available online here and it's worth reading in full. Here's an excerpt:

ethnic romances never gained momentum, despite the fact that Harlequin, the world's leading publisher of romances, estimated that 25 percent of its subscriptions went to blacks. [...]

Second Chance at Love, a division of Jove publishers, recently shelved plans for an ethnic line. " It was really a distribution problem," said senior editor Ellen Edwards. "If it were a strictly ethnic line, say black, we would have to distribute it only in certain bookstores."

In other words, Jove's management decided that the general readership would not accept ethnic romances.[...]

Editors, writers and readers offer various reasons for the failure of ethnic romances

One of those reasons is that the black romances were allegedly "missing [...] some flavor of the black experience" even though, as one AA author observed, they did reflect her experiences:

"My characters are college educated, professionally successful and well-rounded; they are the kind of people I know," said Stephens, who holds a masters degree from Harvard. "I wanted black characters, but the book is not about the black experience and struggle."

All of which seems to suggest that there was resistance to seeing black characters who were successful both professionally and in their personal lives.

Words Will Never Hurt Me?

By Laura Vivanco on Tuesday, 11 August, 2015

Stephanie Burley, writing about popular romance fiction, asked her readers

to make a theoretical leap of faith based on two premises. The first is that the language of whiteness and blackness, light and dark, constructs the way readers imagine the fictional bodies populating these texts. The second is that this representational spectrum is indeed connected to our everday experience of actual bodies and the racial schemas that condition our understandings of those bodies. This color imagery invokes traditional racial taxonomies and their ideological investments in the erotic possibilities of light and dark skin. (326)

If that sounds fanciful, perhaps the reader would like to consider Lakoff and Johnson's research, in which they argue that although

metaphor is typically viewed as characteristic of language alone, a matter of words rather than thought or action. [...] We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature. [...] Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. (Lakoff and Johnson 3)

So, I was doubly perturbed to learn about "Dark Romance":

Forced seductions popped up fairly often in the historical romance novels published in the 1980s, wherein a lecherous duke or stable boy driven mad with wild lust would overpower a heroine and ignore her (ambivalent) protestations. Unadulterated rape fantasy, all but absent from romance paperbacks through the ‘90s, eventually came back to life through discreet self-publishing and has continued to gain momentum through online sales.

Currently, the taboo genre is thriving online under the banner of Dark Romance, which takes the rape fantasy even further by removing consent and kink. Books like Prisoner and Consequences are straightforward depictions of men taking women hostage and raping them; eventually falling in love with them, and then living happily ever after with their former victim. (Vargas-Cooper)

First of all, I'm finding it difficult to see how this really fits the definition of a romance novel in anything other than a technical sense. It seems to me much more like erotica with a tacked on happy ending. After all, the RWA definition of romance involves:

A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.

An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.

That's not:

A Central Rape Story which centres around one individual forcing themselves sexually on another, who struggles to escape. The writer can include as many violations as he/she wants as long as the rape is ultimately legitimated by the victim's emotional capitulation.

An Emotionally Implausible Ending (unless you factor in Stockholm Syndrome): In a romance, the rapist who risks their victim's mental and physical wellbeing is rewarded with unconditional love.

And yes, perhaps the combination of the two was common in large numbers of romance novels in the past but I wouldn't have liked to read about it in the days of the "bodice-ripper" and I don't want to read about it now.

To get back to where I started, though, I'm also troubled that this is being called "Dark Romance" because I can't help thinking that in the past an association between darkness and rape led to the creation of

the figure of the "black beast rapist." In response to the mere rumor of such an outrage against a white woman, white men formed lynch mobs. They killed hundreds of Black men during the 1890s. (Martin 141)

The association, and the killing continued:

Make any list of anti-black terrorism in the United States, and you’ll also have a list of attacks justified by the specter of black rape. The Tulsa race riot of 1921—when white Oklahomans burned and bombed a prosperous black section of the city—began after a black teenager was accused of attacking, and perhaps raping, a white girl in an elevator. The Rosewood massacre of 1923, in Florida, was also sparked by an accusation of rape. And most famously, 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered after allegedly making sexual advances on a local white woman. (Bouie)

And on 17 June 2015

A white supremacist gunman told his black victims "you rape our women and you’re taking over our country" as he massacred nine people inside a historic African-American church in the southern city of Charleston. (Sanchez and Foster)

Words matter. They shape how people think, often in a subconscious way. Instead of falling back on euphemistic language which has the consequence of reinforcing damaging associations between darkness, violence and rape, why not just call a romance with a central rape story a "rape romance"? And while we're on the topic, can someone come up with alternatives to "dark secrets" "blackhearted", accident "blackspots", "black marks" and the phrase which suggests it's a good thing to be "not as black as one is painted"?

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Bouie, Jamelle. "The Deadly History of 'They're Raping Our Women'." Slate. 18 June 2015.

Burley, Stephanie. “Shadows & Silhouettes: The Racial Politics of Category Romance”. Paradoxa 5.13–14 (2000): 324–43.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. 1980. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2003.

Martin, Joel W. “‘My Grandmother Was a Cherokee Princess’: Representations of Indians in Southern History”. Dressing in Feathers: The Construction of the Indian in American Popular Culture. Ed. S. Elizabeth Bird. Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 1998. 129–47.

Romance Writers of America. "About The Romance Genre."

Sanchez, Raf and Peter Foster. "'You rape our women and are taking over our country,' Charleston church gunman told black victims." The Telegraph. 18 June 2015.

Vargas-Cooper, Natasha. "My Hot, Consensual Introduction to the Rape Fantasy Romance Novel." Jezebel. 19 May 2015.