popular culture

Don't Worry About Women who Read Fifty Shades

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 2 December, 2017

Earlier research on Fifty Shades of Grey had

coded the behaviors in the book according to the CDC’s guidelines for interpersonal violence (IPV). They found pervasive patterns of violence and abuse within the work. This included ‘‘intimidation, stalking, humiliation, forced sex, use of alcohol to lower resistance and isolation’’.

The presence of these behaviours, combined with the massive popularity of the series,

created both confusion and worry in a generation of feminist scholars. We have asked ourselves why this book has succeeded. Is this really what women want? (van Reenen 2014 ) We have worried that the popularity of this story is evidence that the older generation of feminists has failed to inspire feminist attitudes in our daughters, younger sisters and perhaps within ourselves. [...] We have worried whether the characterization in the books reinforces heteronormative patterns of sexuality that may create harm for young readers.

However, as Case and Coventry observe in their recently published paper,

What we have not accomplished to date is to ask men and women what they think about the behaviors of the characters in the book. We make the argument that this series romanticizes abuse and that it should be investigated from this perspective. However, does this necessarily mean that American men and women, especially those that identify as feminists, are longing to engage in abusive behaviors as either the abused or the abusive.

They therefore set out to discover whether Fifty Shades describes behaviours women want in their own relationships and

the answer is ‘No and neither do men’. While the behaviors associated with Christian Grey may have been popular reading for women in the US, this fiction does not translate into acceptability of these behaviors in their real life. These behaviors are also not supported by men.

Furthermore, "both men and women appear to expect to give up relatively equal levels of control to the control that they exert."

One caveat I thought I'd better add is that the people involved in the research were not asked about whether or not they'd read Fifty Shades. However, the popularity of the series and its notoriety were such that I think (a) it might be possible to assume some of the people surveyed had read/heard about the series and (b) nonetheless this research suggests that "the behaviors associated with Christian Grey" have not become widely acceptable in real life.

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Case, Patricia and Barbara Thomas Coventry. "Fifty Shades of Feminism: An Analysis of Feminist Attitudes and 'Grey Behaviors'." Sexuality & Culture, 2017.  [Abstract here.]

Women's Work: Gender, Respect and Cultural Capital

By Laura Vivanco on Thursday, 7 September, 2017

Analysis of reviews of books by women confirms that women authors, and genres associated with women, continue to receive less prestigious coverage in the media. Lori St-Martin

analyzed the book/arts sections of six newspapers of record in three languages and five countries: Le monde des livres (Paris, France), The New York Times Book Review (New York, USA), Le Devoir (Montréal, Canada), The Globe & Mail (Toronto, Canada), Babelia, in El País (Madrid, Spain, and Ñ, in Clarín (Buenos Aires, Argentina). The data covers a 12-week period, from the week of August 20, 2015 to the week of November 8, 2015. (35)

Some of these publications came close to giving equal coverage to women authors:

The English-language papers were the closest to parity, with 41.2% of books by women for The New York Times and 43% for The Globe & Mail. The Spanish-language papers had by far the lowest figures: 21% for Clarín and 24% for El País, with Le Monde (28.6%) and Le Devoir (34%) falling in between. (36)

However, the picture worsens when one considers the nature of these reviews:

Every newspaper has its own way of granting cultural prestige. Certain writers are marked as more important, usually by giving them prime space or extra space [...] perhaps the most important measure of all is the length of articles; giving an author a long article or more than one article sends a powerful message about his importance. I use the word "his" advisedly, since 9 out of 10 authors featured in this way (87.5%) were men. (38)

The language used to describe books is also very significant in terms of granting or withholding prestige. For example, St-Martin

looked at all the brief headers that introduced the in-depth articles in [French literary magazine] Lire. [...] The only positive words used to describe women's books in headers in the entire issue were the following: "fast-paced", "enjoyable", "whimsically multiplies characters and situations". Books by men, however, were deemed "masterly", "magnificent", "fascinating" [...], "powerful", "superb", "brilliant", and even "necessary, indispensable, revolutionary". This is a partial list. Just by leafing through this magazine, one gets the message, subliminally, that books by women do not deserve high praise, that books that are epic in scope ("an American odyssey", "a masterly ode to life") and touched by greatness are invariably by men. There is no need to proclaim that women's books are none of these things; the entire magazine screams it. It is no coincidence that these attributes - power, mastery, greatness, size and scope - are stereotypically considered to be male, and even phallic. (40)

The unstated criteria by which brilliance, significance and value are assessed all favour particular kinds of authors and works:

what is neglected? Books by or about women and "minorities", including sexual and gender minorities; feminist, lesbian or "radical" books of any kind; "commercial fiction" defined in such a way as to exclude certain categories identified with women (romance novels) while including others deemed more "universal" (crime fiction, thrillers). The big, the major, the important, are concepts still associated with males. (42)

This is, in other words, the literary equivalent of what we see elsewhere in the labour market: even if women are present in larger numbers, the types of work associated with women continue to be considered (often literally) worth less, while types of work linked to traits associated with masculinity are given higher value. The Fawcett Society recently reported that

80% of those working in the low paid care and leisure sector are women, while only 10% of those in the better paid skilled trades are women. [...] Men make up the majority of those in the highest paid and most senior roles – for example, there are just seven female Chief Executives in the FTSE 100.

As

sociologists such as Judy Wajcman (1998) have highlighted [...] the increased entry of women into the labour market has not been associated with feminising or 'softening' the workings of capitalism, even when women workers make it to high-level management positions. For Stephen Whitehead (2002), even though women have been moving more into paid work, the capitalist system retains values that are associated with dominant discourses of masculinity. Masculine values still pervade organisational cultures, locating femininity - and those who are feminine - as 'other' and marginal to much paid work. (Strangleman and Warren 137)

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Fawcett Society. "Close the Gender Pay Gap." Accessed on 7 September 2017. <https://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/close-gender-pay-gap>.

Saint-Martin, Lori. "Counting Women to Make Women Count: From Manspreading to Cultural Parity." Du genre dans la critique d'art/Gender in art criticism. Ed. Marie Buscatto, Mary Leontsini & Delphine Naudier. Paris: E'ditions des archives contemporaines, 2017: 33-46.

Strangleman, Tim and Tracey Warren. Work and Society: Sociological Approaches, Themes and Methods. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2008.

Seeing Things as They Truly Are

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 15 October, 2016

On 6 October. as part of a symposium at the University of Melbourne on "The State of Play: Australian Popular Fiction in the Twenty-First Century" Rjurik Davidson, who "writes imaginative fiction, speculative fiction, science fiction, surrealism, magic realism and fantasy" apparently stated, I assume in the context of a discussion of detective fiction, that "To solve the crime is to reveal the world as it truly is, not as it appears".

This reminded me of a passage in C. S. Lewis's The Pilgrim's Regress in which the pilgrim meets Sigismund Enlightenment (clearly an allusion to Sigismund Freud) who attempts to show him that all his beliefs are nothing more than fantasies, "the pretence [...] put up to conceal your own lusts from yourself" (59). Mr Enlightenment then leaves the pilgim imprisoned in a place where he can be seen by "the Spirt of the Age" (60), whose "eyes had this property, that whatever they looked on became transparent"(60) and so, with the giant staring at them, when the pilgrim looks at one of the other people imprisoned with him he sees

the skull and through that the brains and the passages of the nose, and the larynx, and the saliva moving in the glands and the blood in the veins; and lower down the lungs panting like sponges, and the liver, and the intestines like a coil of snakes. And when he averted his eyes from her they fell on an old man, and this was worse for the old man had a cancer. (60-61)

What he sees is, indeed, a revelation of things as they are, but it is hardly the only or best way of seeing human beings: we are more than a collection of cells arranged into flesh, blood and bones.

I'm not sure what crime fiction suggests is "the world as it truly is" but romance, which is often accused of being escapist and unrealistic, probably offers a somewhat different vision of how the world "truly is". In Patricia Briggs' Alpha and Omega fantasy series with romantic elements, one of the characters pulls out a romance. Admittedly it is Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, rather than a modern romance, but Briggs' is writing in a modern context, knowing that her readers will also associate the word "romance" with the modern genre:

'Romantic claptrap,' said Bran [...]. 'As well as historically full of holes'.

'Is there something wrong with that?' asked Asil. 'Romance is good for the soul. Heroic deeds, sacrifice, and hope.' He paused. 'The need for two dissimilar people to become one. [...]' (Fair Game 21)

and on the final page of a later book in the series Charles concludes:

"Love [...] is always a risk, isn't it? I've always thought that there were no certainties in life, but I was wrong. Love is a certainty. And love always gives more than it takes." (Dead Heat 324).

Are Charles and Asil seeing the world as it truly is? I think so, but then, I'm a romance reader.

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Briggs, Patricia. Fair Game. London: Orbit, 2012.

Briggs, Patricia. Dead Heat. London: Orbit, 2015.

Lewis, C. S. The Pilgrim's Regress. 1933. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1944.

To Sheffield, With Love

By Laura Vivanco on Sunday, 18 September, 2016

The three-person Team @MillsandBoon was joined by Team Romance Scholar to take part in a panel discussion about romance organised by the University of Sheffield's Festival of the Mind. The event was recorded and the plan seemed to be to put up a podcast of the discussion so if that happens I'll mention it on the blog. In the meantime, I'll just write up a few comments focussed on the academic side of the panel discussions. Here's how we were described on the Festival's website:

On Saturday 17 September from 1-2pm there will be a panel discussion (see below), followed by the lecture at 2pm.

About the panel discussion

Can anyone write a romantic novel? What are editors looking for in their next romance? How do the authors come up with their ideas? And is it all just escapism, or is there literary value to be found in these texts?

Our panel of experts will answer your burning questions about Mills & Boon romantic novels.

The panel:

  • Flo Nicoll, Senior Editor for Mills & Boon
  • Susan Stephens and Heidi Rice, popular authors for Mills & Boon
  • Dr Laura Vivanco, whose academic text For Love and Money, published in 2011, explored the literary art of Mills & Boon romantic novels
  • Dr Amy Burge, whose recent monograph Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) analysed race, religion, multiculturalism and gender in romance
  • Fiona Martinez, Sheffield Hallam University’s Vice-Chancellor Scholarship PhD candidate, whose own research explores the romance genre as a feminist endeavour.

Leading the discussion and then giving the lecture on Mills & Boon romance was Val Derbyshire (you can read about some of her M&B research here and here).

Team Romance Scholar fielded a number of questions.

As part of a discussion about heroes, Amy was able to give extremely detailed feedback on the numbers of sheikh heroes in Mills & Boon novels. Anyone wanting more information about that can read Amy's book on Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance. There have also been a lot of Mediterranean heroes (Greek, Italian and Spanish mainly) and Flo Nichols suggested that although in recent years authors had been drawn to experiment with Russian heroes (presumably because of Russian oligarchs buying up UK football clubs etc) they've not been as popular as hoped with readers.

In response to a question about diversity, Amy suggested that although the Cinderella archetype may mean there are a fair number of heroines of working-class origin, there is less balance with regards to ethnicity/race. Flo argued that the company's output is diverse but also suggested that readers' responses have a big impact on Harlequin Mills & Boon's attempts at ethnic/racial diversification beyond sheikhs etc because they pay a lot of attention to sales figures when deciding what works and what doesn't. That said, Flo also felt that the submissions they receive have not varied very much, perhaps because aspiring authors write what they think HM&B want (based on what has already been published). She seemed interested in receiving submissions with heroes and heroines from a wider range of ethnicities/races.

I responded to a question about changes in the novels over time but I'm not the best at remembering dates so I'm afraid I might have been out by a decade or so when making some of my comments. Anyone wanting to know more about the history of Mills & Boon should read jay Dixon and Joseph McAleer's books on the topic but I'll quote a little bit of what they have to say here.

Mills & Boon began as a general publisher but from the 1930s "until the mid-1950s, general books were dropped and the firm concentrated on romance fiction" (Dixon 17):

The 1930s witnessed a major shift in the firm's direction which reflected changes in the marketplace. As library sales increased between the wars, fiction displaced the educational and general lists. At the same time, Mills and Boon specialized in its most successful type of novel, the romance. (McAleer "Scenes" 267)

However, McAleer also observes that:

it is difficult to speak of a specific Mills & Boon editorial policy before the Second World War. The reason is obvious: Charles Boon [...] was still a general publisher at heart. The 1930s was still a time of experimentation, and novels were novels in their own right. Boon did not impose many restrictions on his authors. (Passion's Fortune 145)

Nonetheless, it was "During this decade [that] the characteristics of the archetypal Mills & Boon heroine and hero began to fall into place" (McAleer Passion's Fortune 150).

In the 1940s Mills & Boon "added a strong dose of patriotism and social commentary. John Boon believed that Mills & Boon has not been given sufficient credit for maintaining morale with its novels during the war" (McAleer Passion's Fortune 171-72). I've quoted some of McAleer's thoughts on Mills & Boon and the NHS here and he also mentioned that:

when [Joyce] Dingwell's The Girl From Snowy River (1959) was published, a tale of an English woman emigrating to Australia, Boon sent a copy to the Hon. A. R. Downer, MP (then Australian Minister of Immigration), at Australia House, with the message, 'We feel it is good propaganda for immigration.' (Passion's Fortune 103).

Given that the panel was in Sheffield, it might be worth mentioning here that I contributed a few early Mills & Boon novels to Sheffield Hallam University's Readerships and literary cultures collection (1900-1950),  "a collection of books which reflects the wide range of literary tastes during the period 1900-1950". I think the M&Bs are only a very small proportion of the collection, which "consists of over 1200 novels, most in early editions, by 240 different authors" (Middlebrow Network) and I'm not sure how representative their Mills & Boons holdings are. Certainly, the ones I sent them were acquired on the non-academic criterion of whether they could be acquired cheaply on Ebay. As Amy has discovered, though, even the libraries which might be expected to hold a complete list of all the Mills & Boons ever published (such as the British Library and the National Library of Scotland) have lacunae.

When asked whether the status of romance is likely to improve, Flo suggested that (a) it ought to if people paid attention to the sales figures and (b) that the situation is somewhat better in the US. I suggested that perhaps the emergence of the field of popular romance studies would also help improve the genre's reputation. In the study of popular culture more generally, academics working on crime/detective fiction and science fiction have been able to ameliorate the status of those genres so I'm hopeful that academic study of popular romance will be able to demonstrate that romance novels reward analysis in a variety of ways and do deserve to be treated with respect.

As Fiona pointed out, the lack of respect for romance has seeped into the study of authors in other genres too, making assessement of their oeuvres less than complete. She's studying a range of prize-winning authors including Jeanette Winterson and has found that the romantic elements of their novels have been neglected by literary critics. She, however, is focussing on those elements and her work will therefore demonstrate that romance and its conventions can be found well beyond the covers of novels marketed as "romance". This may, perhaps, help reduce the stigma attached to works which are marketed that way.

Fiona has now written a post of her own about the event.

I'm hoping the booklet which gives a full outline of Val's talk might also be put online but perhaps it won't due to copyright restrictions because it includes a lot of images of Mills & Boon covers. As I said, though, the Festival organisers did promise they'd be making some material available online so when they do, I'll post about it. Here's a glimpse of one page via a tweet from Amy:

 

 

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Dixon, jay. The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon 1909-1990s. London: UCL Press, 1999.

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

McAleer, Joseph. “Scenes from Love and Marriage: Mills and Boon and the Popular Publishing Industry in Britain, 1908-1950.” Twentieth Century British History 1.3 (1990): 264-288.

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.

Keeping an Eye on Love

By Laura Vivanco on Sunday, 26 April, 2015

At the 2015 International Conference on Enabling Access for Persons with Visual Impairment (ICEAPVI) Shi Qiu, Jun Hu and Matthias Rauterberg observed that "Human communication contains both verbal and nonverbal information, which interplay in our daily lives. Nearly 65% of all human interpersonal communication happen through nonverbal cues" (157) and therefore

Nonverbal communication plays an important role in social interactions. However, most nonverbal communication relies on visual signals such as eye contact, head nods, facial expressions and body gestures. Visual nonverbal signals are inaccessible for the blind and hardly accessible for low vision individuals. (157)

These researchers "interviewed 20 blind and low vision participants over [the] Internet" (157); "Ten were from Yang Zhou Special Education School in Chinese mainland and the other ten were from Hong Kong Blind Union" (158). When asked a question about whether "Eyes were important or not in the communication” (161)

one participant said she understood the importance of eye contacts from romance novels, which highlighted the description of the eye contacts between lovers. (161)

It's true that lovers are known for staring into each others' eyes. For example, in 1970 Zick Rubin

predicted that college dating couples who loved each other a great deal (as categorized by their love-scale scores) would spend more time gazing into one another's eyes than would couples who loved each other to a lesser degree. The prediction was confirmed. (265)

The information about lovers' communication via their eyes which can be gleaned from romance novels may, however, be somewhat misleading to blind and partially-sighted readers:

Most participants in the interview gained the understanding of the eyes based on three primary different resources: 1) sighted people tell them (parents, teachers or other people); 2) read novels and other literary works, especially some romance novels described the eye contacts between lovers in details; 3) understand from their own life experiences, which were mostly based on the problems they met due to a lack of visual nonverbal signals. Partially because of using some metaphor and analogy to describe eye gazes or eye contacts in novels and other literary works, participants tend to exaggerate the function of the eyes. For example, one participant stated looking at a person could clearly know he was kind-hearted or not. In fact, it is rather difficult to determine a person’s inner character at the first sight even for the sighted people. (Shi Qiu and Rauterberg 162, emphasis added)

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Rubin, Zick. "Measurement of Romantic Love." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 16.2 (1970): 265-273.

Shi Qiu, Jun Hu and Matthias Rauterberg. "Nonverbal Signals for Face-to-Face Communication between the Blind and the Sighted." Enabling Access for Persons with Visual Impairment: Proceedings of the International Conference ICEAPVI-2015, February 12-14, 2015. Ed. Georgios Kouroupetroglou. Athens, Greece: ICEAPVIA, 2015. 157-165.

[Both the articles cited and the whole conference proceedings are available online, in full, for free, via the links provided.]

A Very Apologetic Non-Apology

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 28 March, 2015

In 1992 Frances Whitehead, at the time the Editorial Director at Mills & Boon, had an article published about popular romance, in which she traced its history back to "the Greek novels of the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD" (62). She goes on to mention Richardson and Austen, then observes that

Throughout the 19th century, romance continued to appear in all guises and those at the top of the literary tree influenced the writers below them. [...] This curious situation, with romance simultaneously occupying the high and the low ground - the literary and the lowbrow - has continued in the present century. (Some romantic passages from D H Lawrence could be said to qualify for inclusion in both categories.) But whereas romantic love is an acceptable theme for a "literary" author, it is often a source of ridicule in more popular, down-market fiction. (63)

This sounded to me like a defence of popular romance novels, so I read on eagerly, and was pleased to see Whitehead comment that "writing romance isn't like painting by numbers" (64). It began to seem as though the main distinction, in her mind, between "literary" and "genre" fiction, was that, in "genre" fiction, the reader can expect the plot to develop in particular ways, according to which genre is involved:

Having followed the fortunes of hero and heroine throughout the book, the reader demands that they are united for all time. To have them decide that they don't want to spend their lives together would be comparable to James Bond admitting defeat or Christie's Hercule Poirot failing to solve a case. Predictability, the cardinal sin in the "literary" novel, is a necessary and reassuring factor for the reader of genre fiction. (64)

I was, therefore, rather dismayed to see the following statement in the closing paragraphs of the article:

Romantic novels are entertainment, not literature, and do not need to apologize for what they are. They serve their purpose and in the process keep countless women amused and happy, off the valium and out of doctors' surgeries. This in itself is justification. (68)

Sometimes, it seems the defenders of romance are indistinguishable from its detractors.

Edited to add: a response on Twitter reminded me of something I'd read before, which makes me think that Whitehead was probably echoing her boss.

Joseph McAleer, in his Passion's Fortune: The Story of Mills & Boon, states that:

The Mills & Boon imprint, like any successful commodity in a mass market, stands for a quality product, a kind of guarantee of an easy, thrilling, and satisfying read with an obligatory happy ending. This flavourful confection, wrapped in a brightly coloured paperback cover with a dreamy scene, is to many addictive in its escapist nature. Alan Boon, the acknowledged genius behind the stylized Mills & Boon romance, admitted the restorative quality of the novels which he edited for some forty years: 'It has been said that our books could take the place of valium, so that women who take these drugs would get an equal effect from reading our novels.' (2)

It's possible that Boon was just quoting something others had said, but with which he disagreed. However, the context in which it's reported, and Whitehead's reference to valium, make me fairly sure he shared her views and, probably, shaped them.

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Whitehead, Frances. "Love Makes the World Go Round (?): The Romantic Novel as a Publishing Phenomenon." Logos 3.2 (1992): 62-68. [The article has recently been reprinted elsewhere, and you can read the whole of it here.]

Legal Minds Taking a Dim View of Romance Novels

By Laura Vivanco on Tuesday, 13 January, 2015

Rebecca Tushnet quotes some exceedingly ignorant and condescending legal views of romance fiction, which I've put in bold. [I've also added links to the articles she cites, where I could find them available for free online.]

Critics, both legal and literary, have often assumed that romance novels are interchangeable consumables, “mass produced” in a way that other books somehow aren’t.  [...] Even fair-use friendly academics can slip into stereotype, treating romances as meaningless commodities, more like chewing gum than literature,9 “wholly lacking in scholarly or research significance.”10 Others see romances, and their readers, as not just meaningless but worthless. 11

There's even legal commentary that blithely writes off romances and fantasies as so trivial and irrelevant to real life that there is no such thing as fair use of them:

The Harry Potter series of books, for example, are works of pure fancy. These books certainly deal with issues of human nature – addressing subjects like the struggle between good and evil, self-awareness, and coming of age – but they are set in a parallel universe. They make no explicit attempt to address important social or political topics, and as such they should be free from subsequent use [for purposes of fair use analysis].

Genre fiction (horror, mystery, romance) is typically about the plot of the story or about the main character’s experience within the setting developed in the story. These works deal with human nature but generally lack social commentary. Romance novels, for example, deal with lust, romance, and human relationships. These works, however, are largely divorced from the issues and problems of the real world.12 (6-9)

9 Glynn Lunney, Copyright, Private Copying, and Discrete Public Goods, 12 Tul J. Tech. & Intell. Prop. 1, 19 (2009) (describing romance novels as examples of "read-and-toss" works whose consumers "might not care about which particular work they receive," but "may simply want another unit in a relatively homogenous stream of works").

10 Pamela Samuelson, Google Book Search and the Future of Books in Cyberspace, 94 Minn. L. Rev. 1308 n. 134 (2010) ("Google's license from the settlement class allows it to scan not only many books for GBS that may be wholly lacking in scholarly or research significance (e.g., say, Harlequin romance novels), but also duplicates of books already in the corpus."). But see Ann Bartow, Fair Use and the Fairer Sex: Gender, Feminism, and Copyright Law, 14 Am. U. J. Gender Soc. Pol'y & L. 551, 581 (2006) (arguing against dismissiveness toward romance novels, especially as compared to other popular genres).

11 See, e.g., M. Todd Henderson, The Nanny Corporation, 76 U. Chi. L. Rev. 1517, 1531 (2009) ("Even reading romance novels, after all, may impose costs on others, since presumably the less well-educated are a net drain on society.").

12 Michael Coblenz, Not for Entertainment Only: Fair Use and Fiction as Social Commentary, 16 UCLA Ent. L. Rev. 265, 302 (2009).

I'm not convinced that Ann Bartow is really all that much less dismissive, at least of category romances, but you can judge for yourself:

Romance novels [...] seem to benefit from apparent female authorship, regardless of the author’s actual gender. Pseudonyms appearing on romance novel covers are usually female and, generally, very Anglo and aristocratic sounding , such as Victoria Aldridge, Ellyn Bache, Elizabeth Bailey, Daphne Clair, Jacqueline Diamond, Olivia Gates, Jillian Hart, Tara Taylor Quinn, Roxanne Rustand, Carol Stephenson, Meredith Webber, and Rebecca Winters.

Some categories of romance novels have a marked tendency to offer the same basic plot lines over and over to an extent that one might expect copyright law to discourage or prevent. Yet it almost seems as though certain romance novel publishers have chosen to either risk or forgo copyright infringement suits premised upon the doctrine of substantial similarity. If it is true that West Side Story would infringe the copyright of “Romeo and Juliet” if that Shakespearian play was currently protected by a U.S. copyright and if the appropriation of a few notes from a copyrighted song without permission for sampling purposes is widely viewed as actionable, one would think that some of the more repetitive romance novels would be routinely enjoined by copyright-holding competitors. However, copyright suits do not appear to be a significant part of the ostentatiously satin and lace fabric of this sector of the romance novel publishing industry. (579-80)

It's true that she goes on to be really quite positive about some single title romances, but that positive assessment comes at the expense of Harlequin/Mills & Boons (and other category romances) and I can't help but think she's a little confused about their content, because category romances are not "bodice rippers":

There are different types of romance novels, and many romance novels are rich, complicated works of fiction, as intricate, sophisticated, and valuable as any other category of literature. These tend to be single-titled romances, lengthier works which are released individually, and not as part of a numbered series. Though often dismissed as inconsequential or frivolous, it is difficult to understand why they are more or less socially important than westerns, political thrillers, spy sagas, or books about sports figures.

There is, however, a subcategory of pulpy, formulaic romance novels, which illustrates an odd intersection between copyrights and gendered book consumption. Their intended and actual audience is overwhelmingly female. Sometimes referred to as “bodice rippers,” these books, often available through monthly subscriptions, feature stereotypical characters, repetitive plotting, and sexual contacts of borderline consensuality. They are often written under somewhat pretentious-sounding pseudonyms and graced with cover art depicting an attractive, well-dressed, heterosexual couple in some sort of romantic embrace. [...]

The successful monthly pulp romance repeatedly tells its readers the same essential story: regardless of contrary initial impressions, beneath distant and foreboding exteriors, the men who pursue them romantically are decent, caring people who are worthy of being loved by female protagonists and by the readers themselves. Both reinforcement of idealized heterosexual relationships and perceived market imperatives may drive publishers’ content decisions. Serial romance novel consumers can only buy, or refrain from buying, the books that contain the content that distributors choose to provide. Copyright law seems to do a poor job of incentivizing originality in this context, and one consequence may be that a patriarchal status quo is effectively reinforced. (581-83)

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Bartow, Ann. "Fair Use and the Fairer Sex: Gender, Feminism, and Copyright Law." American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law 14.3 (2006): 551-584. Available as a pdf.

Tushnet, Rebecca. "The Romantic Author and the Romance Writer: Resisting Gendered Concepts of Creativity" (2015). Georgetown Law Faculty Publications and Other Works. Paper 1419. http://scholarship.law.georgetown.edu/facpub/1419. Available as a pdf. It is due to be published in Diversity in Intellectual Property Ed. Irene Calboli & Srividhya Ragavan. Cambridge U. P, forthcoming 2015.

Overthinking things?

By Laura Vivanco on Friday, 28 March, 2014

When I was young I was read the story of the Elephant's Child

who was full of ‘satiable curiosity, and that means he asked ever so many questions. [...] He asked questions about everything that he saw, or heard, or felt, or smelt, or touched, and all his uncles and his aunts spanked him. And still he was full of ‘satiable curiosity!

That poor little elephant suffers a lot as a result of his curiosity. He's not just spanked: he gets his nose irrevocably stretched by a crocodile. He learns, though, that the growth is a positive development and the story ultimately condemns the family who do the spanking.

I much prefer this story about curiosity and its rewards to the idea that curiosity kills cats or that bad things emerge when Pandora's Box is opened. So in the past when people have mentioned the possibility that the academic study of popular romance could involve overthinking  things, I was just puzzled. Isn't thinking about things always a good thing?

Recently, though, I've seen a couple of things which have got me rethinking the idea of overthinking.

for every person who is interested in interrogating and contextualizing her own choices in reading material, I feel certain there are more people who just want to read what they want without over-thinking it or being questioned in any way. I guess I am trying in a clumsy roundabout way to figure out if there are ways in which academic or “wonky”  incursions into the online romance community are perceived as a negative development and, if so, where, and for whom?
a college writing instructor, [...] offered a course that asks students to examine everyday arguments: that is, to use rhetorical and critical theory to construct academic essays about the arguments that we daily encounter in the news, in popular culture, and online. (1)
When I taught this course in the winter of 2011, I encountered a problem. For their third formal essay of the semester, students wrote a critical analysis of a television show of their choice; not surprisingly, most students picked programs that they regularly watched and enjoyed. This was by far students’ favorite assignment, and in fact these essays were the strongest and most sophisticated of the semester. One by one, however, students turned in written drafts that eviscerated the shows they spoke so animatedly and lovingly about in class. The student who had seen every syndicated episode of Friends scrutinized the show’s lack of socioeconomic and racial diversity. The student who routinely watched The Bachelor each week with her friends interrogated its portrayal of romantic love and marriage. And on the day when the final draft was due, Maria – who wrote a beautiful analysis of how the show Entourage perpetuates hegemonic masculinity – asked me, “Does this mean I can’t watch Entourage anymore?” (1-2)
If Maria’s Entourage essay gave the show a critical viewing, how was she watching it before? Was she viewing it uncritically? If so, how does this characterization of her viewing practices position Maria’s expertise about the show in the classroom? What knowledges, practices, or subjectivities actually comprise Maria’s expertise, and how do they compare to academic ways of thinking? Is there another way to understand Maria’s pleasure from watching Entourage besides saying it is uncritical? What kind of affect is pleasure, and where does it fit in the writing classroom? What happens when texts that students use primarily for purposes of pleasure and entertainment are brought into the classroom for critical analysis? What happens to students in such situations? And finally, how should I respond to Maria’s question? (2)
romance readers take part in shaping how textual conventions are understood, what texts mean beyond their narrative function, and how they circulate. Moreover, some women use popular romance fiction to maintain intimate connections to friends and family members, reflect on and transform their personal lives, and demonstrate collective and civic engagement online. These experiences may remain invisible in classrooms that focus primarily on the role of popular culture texts in reproducing hegemonic ideologies. (15)
critical literacy pedagogies can actually disempower students when such pedagogies invite popular culture texts into the writing classroom but position such texts primarily as ideological artifacts that require critical, academic “tools” to excavate their hidden meanings. (13)
In a post celebrating her blog's first anniversary, Pamela of Badass Romance said that
They're questions which also preoccupied Stephanie Moody who, as
Then
Like Pamela, Stephanie began to ask herself questions about questioning and critiquing:
What, in other words, if academics are not the curious little elephant but are some of the older animals in the story? I've never really taught any students, which makes it hard for me to see myself in this role, but could we be the pompous yet helpful Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake who asks the elephant "questions, in the Socratic mode of instruction" (Meyer)? Perhaps we're the Kolokolo bird, with its mournful cry of "‘Go to the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees, and find out," sending the elephant off on a possibly instructive but also dangerous and painful quest? Or are we the crocodile, forcefully pulling the elephant's nose while trying to turn him into fodder for our careers?

Maybe I'm overthinking things and should just sit back and enjoy some pictures instead?

 
 
 
Pretty, aren't they? But I'm still asking questions. And in case you're wondering, Stephanie Moody concludes that
and so
I'm not sure that academics who are also romance readers "position such texts primarily as ideological artifacts" but I can see how we might come across as doing that. In which case, we might seem to be taking an authoritative position which disempowers other romance readers.

On the other hand, the online romance community isn't being forced into a college composition classroom, and those of us who are both academics and romance readers are still romance readers, so should being an academic (or simply being a reader who takes a more academic/"wonky" perspective) disbar someone from taking "part in shaping how textual conventions are understood, what texts mean beyond their narrative function, and how they circulate"?

 
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Meyer, Rosalind, 1984. "But is it Art? An Appreciation of Just So Stories." Kipling Journal 58 (232). 10-33. Qtd. in Lewis, Linda. "The Elephant's Child." Kipling Society, 30 July 2005.

Moody, Stephanie Lee, 2013. "Affecting Genre: Women's Participation with Popular Romance Fiction." Ph.D thesis. University of Michigan.