Tragedy, Literary Value, and Theology

By Laura Vivanco on

In an important paper analysing the attitudes underlying critical contempt for popular romance fiction, Pamela Regis drew on the work of Laura Wilder, who stated that

“the critic exhibits an assumption of despair over the condition of society” (85). Moreover “the critic tends to value works that describe despair, alienation, seediness, anxiety, decay, declining values, and difficulty in living and loving in our society” (85)

I was therefore intrigued to read that

Many critics have argued that there cannot be a Christian tragedy. [...] George Orwell claimed [...] that 'It is doubtful whether the sense of tragedy is compatible with belief in God...'; for, he said, tragedy is incompatible with the kind of moral demand which feels cheated when virtue fails to triumph: 'A tragic situation exists precisely when virtue does not triumph but when it is still felt that man is nobler than the forces which destroy him.' (Sherry 88-89)

That sense of being "cheated" is one which romance readers express very loudly when they encounter a novel labelled a romance but which ends unhappily. And there is a moral demand inherent in this: as Jennifer Porter has observed, "ultimately the reason many of us read romance is because we have hope in the real world. We believe in the power of the HEA/FN".


Porter, Jennifer. Tweet from 4 January 2019.

Regis, Pamela. “What Do Critics Owe the Romance? Keynote Address at the Second Annual Conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance”. Journal of Popular Romance Studies 2.1 (2011).

Sherry, Patrick. Images of Redemption: Art, Literature and Salvation. London: T&T Clark, 2003.

Literary Criticism: Emotion and Not-so-Objective Criteria

By Laura Vivanco on

Following up on my last post, which defended happy emotions as not being any less profound than sad ones, here's a quote from a new book by Catherine Butler which discusses the implications of "most literary criticism [...] rhetorical[ly] positioning [...] the critic as an objective observer and analyser" (54):

one method of marginalising affect in criticism is to exclude from serious critical consideration genres seen as designed to elicit strong (or “crude”, or “manipulative”) affective reactions: popular romances and horror stories are obvious examples. When Aristotle kickstarted Western literary criticism more than two millennia ago, he did so in part by analysing tragedy’s affective power over the emotional state of its audience; but one might contend that the mode of affective engagement elicited by Oedipus Rex and Fifty Shades of Grey are sufficiently distinct to warrant a degree of critical triage. However, such arguments, especially when applied to whole genres rather than to cherry-picked texts, tend to be sustained by question-begging assumptions about what kinds of emotional experience are worthwhile, complex, profound, life-enhancing and so on. Approaches of this type are both arbitrary (excess is more critically “respectable” in Gothic texts than in modern horror, for example) and orientated so as to privilege the tastes of certain groups of readers (men over women, educated over uneducated, adults over children). (46-47, emphasis added)


Butler, Catherine. Literary Studies Deconstructed: A Polemic. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

Validation for Happy Books

By Laura Vivanco on

In an essay on "Literature and Happiness" D. J. Moores defends works of literature which are basically happy in nature and their arguments seem relevant to assessments of popular romance fiction, with its guarantee of happy endings and preference for uplifting emotions:

Jonathan Haidt, an influential social psychologist, has demonstrated the complexity of elevation, [...] an emotion that Haidt “discovered” after reading Thomas Jefferson’s account of being uplifted by particular narratives in which a character behaves in admirably moral ways, cannot be dismissed as so much apolitical fluff that distracts us from real sociopolitical evils. It is equally complex, if not more so, as are the Aristotelian fear and pity that culminate in the tragic response. To my knowledge, no compelling arguments exist that prove negative emotions are any more complex than positive ones. The converse, in fact, may be true: recent research indicates that negative emotions might be neurologically and psychologically simpler, as they are implicated in instinctual survival mechanisms by prompting immediate action—fear makes us run, disgust makes us spit, anger makes us fight, etc.—whereas positive emotions exert beneficial downstream effects that prove too complicated to measure in the moments when they occur. Barbara Fredrickson, a pioneering research psychologist at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has discovered that positive emotions are not epiphenomena or mere effects of some other cause but causal agents that serve a valuable purpose by undoing the effects of negative emotions: relieving stress; improving health; strengthening the immune system; providing a sense of meaning and purpose; and broadening and building psychological resources for the future.


According to Haidt, the emotion of elevation is characterized by all of Fredrickson’s downstream effects, and it also prompts us to behave in more altruistic ways, reorienting us away from self-focused concerns to altruistic ones, opening those who experience it to a whole family of other-directed emotions, such as gratitude, love, and empathy. At the least, then, inspiring narratives relying upon elevation for their aesthetic effects rival, in affective complexity, the fear, pity, and catharsis implied in the Aristotelian understanding of the tragic response. (263-64, emphasis added)


Moores, D. J., "Literature and Happiness." Philosophy and Literature 42.1 (2018): 260-77.

Seeing Things as They Truly Are

By Laura Vivanco on

"To solve the crime is to reveal the world as it truly is, not as it appears" - @RjurikDavidson #popfic16

— PopFic Doctors (@PopFicDoctors) 6 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.


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.

Romance Series: Surrogate Communities?

By Laura Vivanco on

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

Interesting to think of 'social surrogacy' & apply it to readers relationship with books & rom genre gloms & series https://t.co/n8EpBnrUh4

— Merrian Weymouth (@MerrianOW) December 4, 2015

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)


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.


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.

Racing to the Happy Ending

By Laura Vivanco on


Following on from the rancher's view of the happy-ever-after, here's one presented to a racing driver hero by his friend, Jerry:

"The way I see it, [...] marriage is a lot like racing five-hundred miles at top speed. The only sensible way to tackle that big a challenge is a lap at a time. Right?"

"Of course."

"Well, the only sensible way to tackle marriage and forever after is a day at a time." (Varner 166)

It's a metaphor which suggests that marriage, and the happy-ever-after, will continue to throw up challenges, all the way to the finishing line. Dan, the racing-driver hero, adds an extra touch of realism to the metaphor by observing that some cars are more likely to reach the finishing line than others:

Though he tackled his five-hundred-mile races a lap at a time, just as Jerry pointed out, he did it in a dependable car, with good tires and plenty of fuel. If he and Torie tried to tackle marriage, whether a day, an hour or even a second at a time, they would be doing it unprepared - without the two most important prerequisites: love and a willingness to compromise. They would not be able to survive the long haul; they would not win the race. (172)

Shortly after this, of course, they discover that they do indeed have enough love to fuel them all the way to the end of the race, along with an ability to compromise which will make sure the wheels don't fall off their romance before they reach the finishing line.


Varner, Linda. A House Becomes a Home. New York, NY: Silhouette, 1991.


The photo is of "NASCAR driver Scott Gaylord's car, when he ran in the Winston Cup race at Sears Point in 1991" and was made available under a Creative Commons licence by Jay Bonvouloir. I came across it via Wikimedia Commons.

A down home assessment of the HEA

By Laura Vivanco on

A Rancher's HEA, from Head to Toe


A Rancher's HEA, from Head to Toe


Nancy Cook has observed that,

true to its pastoral and bucolic roots, ranch life in romance novels almost always centers on "husbandry" activities. [...] the ranching activities in a romance novel don't build power or empire for power's sake; they don't speak primarily of sound business practice and land management; they speak of husbandry, of sensuality, of "Nature" as procreative force. [...] Most of the novels set on ranches make the link between animal husbandry and human husbandry explicit" (65-66)

"Husbandry" in this context, then, refers to "The care, cultivation, and breeding of crops and animals" (OED) but, as the existence of the word "husband" demonstrates, can easily be understood to have implications for our understanding of human romantic relationships.

In Robin Wells' Plain Jane Gets Her Man (1997), the hero, Jake Masters, is a rancher who has

only seen examples of what not to do in a marriage. He had no idea how two people were supposed to act behind closed doors in order to have a successful relationship. Could a person exhibit behavior they'd never seen modeled before? He didn't know. He only knew it was a huge emotional risk.

His eyes rested on the shadowed outline of trees across the pasture. He was accustomed to taking other types of risk, of course - that was the nature of ranching. Things like weather and market prices and the health of his herd were all subject to sudden changes, all beyond his control. He'd always accepted the ups and downs of his business, understanding that every drought would eventually end, every bad season would eventually be offset by a good one, every rough spot would sooner or later be replaced by a period of smooth sailing. He'd always taken a long-term view, rationalizing that if he just hung in there, and gave it his best effort, things would all work out in the end.

But marriage was entirely different.

Wasn't it? The question made him stiffen in the saddle.

Maybe it wasn't so different. Maybe he could apply the same principles to a relationship. (181)

Romance may have been accused of giving its readers unrealistic expectations of romantic relationships but this seems to me to be a fairly realistic assessment of marriage, and one which puts into ranching language the old words about a couple taking each other

"for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part" (Book of Common Prayer).


Cook, Nancy. “Home on the Range: Montana Romances and Geographies of Hope.” All Our Stories Are Here: Critical Perspectives on Montana Literature. Ed. Brady Harrison. Lincoln, NE: U of Nebraska P, 2009. 55-77.

Wells, Robin. Plain Jane Gets Her Man. New York, NY: Silhouette, 1997.


The image of "Cowboy Boots and Hat" was created by MaurieF, who made it available under a Creative Commons licence. I found it at Wikimedia Commons.

Conventional Criticisms of the Happy Ending

By Laura Vivanco on

Given how often criticisms of romance are interpreted as being, at their core, the result of the denigration of a genre associated with women, I was intrigued to discover that many of the negative responses to popular romance can also be found in the critical work on Hollywood movies. The common factor would seem to be happy endings, which are, apparently, commonly supposed by critics to be "a ubiquitous feature of Hollywood cinema" (MacDowell 1).

Here are some of the critiques made of Hollywood movies which sound rather familiar:

  • "Probably the second most common scholarly assumption about the ‘happy ending’ is that it is inherently ideologically conservative" (3).
  • Some critics have resorted to "Freudian psychoanalysis" (4) to understand their appeal.
  • "narrative ‘closure’ is in itself ideologically suspect – a view rehearsed many times in both literary and film scholarship since at least the 1960s" (4).
  • "the ‘happy ending’ is in some sense ‘unrealistic’" (15)

All these quotes are from the introduction to James MacDowell's Happy Endings in Hollywood Cinema and I think I may have to get hold of the rest of his book because he aimed

to broaden our conception of what ‘happy endings’ clearly have the potential to do, and to explore some of the implications of that potential. While I do not in the least intend to imply that ‘happy endings’ never function in the ways they have so frequently been assumed to function, I am nevertheless keen to convince the reader that, at the very least, there is little in the convention that ensures they must always do so. Demonstrating this is the necessary first step towards a much-needed reconsideration of this most famous and maligned of conventions. (15)


MacDowell, James. Happy Endings in Hollywood Cinema: Cliché, Convention and the Final Couple. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2013. [Introduction available in full here.]

Being Admirable, Repressing Complaint

By Laura Vivanco on

In many ways popular romance novels are extremely emotional: they're about love, which is a very strong emotion. And yet, during a recent conversation on Twitter, Meoskop suggested that "there is a strong pressure in the genre to suppress personal emotions for socially prescribed reasons." As evidence, she pointed to the number of times one protagonist will attempt to convince the other to "see what’s good for you" and the plot endorses that emotional coersion.

Pressure to "suppress personal emotions for socially prescribed reasons" may also be applied via the depiction of the protagonists. Take a look, for example, at some of the "magical ingredients" in Adrienne deWolfe's recipe for creating romance heroines who appeal to readers:

She demonstrates a healthy self-respect.  A heroic woman would not let the volatile emotions of bullies or toxic personalities hold her “hostage” for long. She has the courage of her convictions, and she will walk away from personal or professional relationships that sabotage her greater good. 

During times of hardship, she draws upon deep internal reserves (faith, self-love, self-esteem, etc.) to maintain a positive outlook and to maintain her determination to achieve her goals. [...]

She is resourceful and resilient. She puts on her "big girl panties" when she is blindsided by crisis or thrown into situations that are completely alien to her. A heroic woman would never dissolve into a whiny, weepy, neurotic mess under stress!

Elly, the heroine of LaVyrle Spencer's Morning Glory is an example of this type of heroine. Although she does have low self-esteem to some extent due to a childhood full of neglect and bullying, she has walked away from those who hurt her, drawn on her internal reserves to bring up her two children alone and she has stayed strong despite becoming a widow while pregnant with her third child. When Will Parker remarks

"You never complain about anything, do you?"

It was subtle praise, but no poetry could have pleased her more. (138)

I'm sure this kind of heroine is inspiring to many readers but I can't relate very well to her. For one thing, I do complain, frequently, and I know I wouldn't be able to cope well in her situation. I also wonder how healthy it is to remain uncomplaining and maintain the appearance of strength. In Morning Glory itself, Will has trouble coming to terms with the horrors of war until he finally breaks down, cries, and tells Elly about it; this may not be labelled "complaining" but all the same it's stated that "He needed to voice his rage, work it out like pus from a festering wound" (314).

Staying "strong" can take its toll on people. For example,

Traditional notions of masculinity mean that men are supposed to be tough and self-reliant; that they manage pain and take charge of situations. It’s a sign of weakness to need help or depend on someone else, even for a short time or in a time of crisis.

This traditional view of how men should be – always tough and self-reliant – is also held by some women. Some men worry that if they talk about their feelings of depression, their partner may reject them. This can make it hard for men to acknowledge they have a health problem, especially a mental health problem. (Ogrodniczuk and Oliffe)

Men are not the only ones damaged by pressure to remain "strong" and to avoid turning "into a whiny, weepy, neurotic mess under stress":

Black women’s indomitable, unyielding strength in the face of unreasonable privation is one of our most dearly held cultural and national myths. Our ability to make a way out of no way seems like magic. We invoke this façade of strength as though it could actually materially replace the lack of care, the lack of outrage, the lack of social policy that could actually help black women and girls not to repeatedly succumb to severe poverty, mental illness, plain old racism and sexism, and disability. [...] Sometimes that badge of resilience that we hold up with so much pride impedes our ability to get the help we need. (Cooper)

Suffering stoically, then, can come at a serious personal and social price:

When survival is touted as an aspiration, sacrifice becomes a virtue. But a hero is not a person who suffers. A suffering person is a person who suffers.

If you suffer in the proper way - silently, or with proclaimed fealty to institutions - then you are a hard worker "paying your dues". If you suffer in a way that shows your pain, that breaks your silence, then you are a complainer - and you are said to deserve your fate. [...]

People can always make choices. But the choices of today’s workers are increasingly limited. Survival is not only a matter of money, it is a matter of mentality - of not mistaking bad luck for bad character, of not mistaking lost opportunities for opportunities that were never really there.

I'd add that it's "mistaking bad luck for bad character" to assume it's only the unworthy and the non-heroic who find themselves in situations from which they can't "walk away," whose "deep internal reserves" run dry, and who find themselves unable to cope with stress. In addition, as Kendzior suggests, an individual's success or failure cannot be seen independently of the broader social and economic context in which they find themselves.

Spencer's novel is set in an America

just emerging from the jaws of depression, [...] still overrun with tramps, worthless vagrants who'd deserted their families and rode the flatcars aimlessly, begging for handouts at random doorsteps. (29)

Pauline Kael, a film critic who lived through the period, took a rather different view:

When I attended Berkeley in 1936, so many of the kids had actually lost their fathers. They had wandered off in disgrace because they couldn't support their families. Other fathers had killed themselves so the family could have the insurance. Families had totally broken down. Each father took it as his personal failure. These middle class men apparently had no social sense of what was going on, so they killed themselves.

I often feel as though society, and consequently romance novels, take a very individualised view of personal success and failure which discourages social and economic critique. So I won't be putting on "big girl panties" any time soon: I'll be over here, interspersing my praise of the romance genre with complaints.


Cooper, Brittney. "A Black Girl's Constant Fear: Why I Thought I'd Never Live to See 33." Salon. 15 April 2014.

deWolfe, Adrienne. "Writing Heroines Romance Readers Admire." Juanita Kees' Blog, 14 January.

Kael, Pauline, "Campus Life" as excerpted from Stud Terkels' Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression by the Social Studies Help Center.

Kendzior, Sarah. "Surviving the Post-employment Economy." 3 Nov. 2013. Al-Jazeera.

Ogrodniczuk, John and John Oliffe. "The Strong, Silent Type: Is Masculinity Bad for Men's Mental Health?" CrossCurrents 13.4 (2010).

Spencer, LaVyrle. Morning Glory. 1989. New York: Jove, 1990.

Telling Stories About Ourselves

By Laura Vivanco on

Here's another statement about why it's important to study the stories we read:

One of the most significant developments in narrative studies has been the recognition that humans are “storied selves” (Eakin, 1999, p. 99) living in a “story-shaped world” (Sarbin, 1993, p. 63). In this view, we make meaning of our own lives and others' through narrative; we tell stories to make sense of experience and understand the world around us. We are, in the phrase coined by Fisher (1984), Homo narrans.

[...] For literary critics the centrality of narrative comes as no surprise, but work remains to be done theorizing the complex relationships between fictional stories, which are ubiquitous in human culture, and the myriad stories we tell about ourselves and our world. How do the form and content of fictional narratives shape the stories individuals perceive and construct about their own lives? How does the emplotment of events in the lives of fictional characters influence readers' understanding of the possible and permissible plotlines in their own lives? (Harrison 112)

Harrison adds that

Psychologist Jerome Bruner (2004) [...] acknowledged the powerful role of culture in shaping life stories, which “reflect the prevailing theories about ‘possible lives’ that are part of one's culture.” To “construct their own life narratives,” individuals within a culture can draw upon its “stock of canonical life narratives” (Bruner, 2004, p. 694) and combine and recombine elements of cultural narratives in order to construct their own. Thus, individuals do not merely become their own autobiographical stories; they become “variants of the culture's canonical forms” (Bruner, 2004, p. 694). Conversely, a culture can be understood through the array of life stories its members can tell. Together, contemporary and historical life stories and the cultural narratives that shape them help us understand a culture's values, possibilities, and preoccupations. (112-13)

Her article focuses on stories featuring "the marriage plot" so it's of particular interest to those of us who study, read and/or write popular romance fiction. It's also currently available in full for free.


Harrison, Mary Catherine. "Reading the Marriage Plot." Journal of Family Theory & Review 6.1 (2014): 112-131.