Review/Summary (3 - Amalia Ziv): Women and Erotic Fiction, ed. Kristen Phillips

By Laura Vivanco on Wednesday, 23 December, 2015

The essay by Amalia Ziv is a condensed version of a chapter in her Explicit Utopias: Rewriting the Sexual in Women's Pornography (State University of New York Press, 2015).

Ziv begins "Refiguring Penetration in Women's Erotic Fiction" by outlining the status quo regarding penetration:

Ever since ancient Greek civilization, Western culture has regarded subjecthood as premised on bodily autonomy, and bodily autonomy as incompatible with sexual penetrability. In the modern state [...] penetrability is no longer seen to conflict with political subjecthood, but the conception of sexual penetration as antithetical to sexual subjectivity endures. This conception finds expression most notoriously in mainstream heterosexual porn - in which penetration often figures as an act of domination or humiliation. (59)

Having examined feminist arguments for and against this view of penetration, Ziv comments that:

In a lesbian context [...] the structural impossibility of penetration with an "orgasmic object" predefines penetration as altruistically rather than selfishly motivated, which taken together with the lack of gender hierarchy between the partners eliminates most of the problematic significations of heterosexual penetration and opens the way for radical rearticulations. (67)

One might object that this is probably ignoring possible intersectional ways of creating hierarchy, and the assumption that no "orgasmic object" will be involved in the penetration implies that all involved are cisgender. Ziv's focus, however, is

the terrain of heterosexual sexuality.

My chosen corpus is one of the classic series of women's erotica, Herotica, first published by the independent Down There Press, and subsequently taken up by Plume, a division of Penguin books. [...] I will fous on the first three, published in 1988, 1992, and 1994, and edited by Susie Bright. (67)

In these,

If one strategy is to downplay the importance of penile penetration in heterosexual sex, stories that do represent it often contest its dominant meanings and suggest alternative ones. (69)

The essay looks in detail at only three stories. One of these

suggests a more nuanced understanding of the acts that takes into account a whole array of contextual factors, such as consent, consideration, the power differential between the partners, the power balance within the act itself (who initiates and directs the act, sexual posture, freedom of movement, thrusting, etc.), and the balance of pleasure. (70)

In another "the possession effected by the act is reinterpreted as mutual possession" (76) and in a third a female protagonist has a "phantasmatic identification with gay male sexuality" (76): "sexual receptivity in contemporary gay male culture" (74) has, according to Ziv, "since the '70s has managed [...] to undermine the symbolic equation of sexual receptivity with both femininity and non-subjecthood" (75).


Ziv, Amalia. "Refiguring Penetration in Women's Erotic Fiction". Women and Erotic Fiction: Critical Essays on Genres, Markets and Readers. Ed. Kristen Phillips. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland 2015. 59-78.

Review/Summary (2 - Katherine Morrissey): Women and Erotic Fiction, ed. Kristen Phillips

By Laura Vivanco on Wednesday, 23 December, 2015

Katherine E. Morrissey's

essay outlines key moments in the history of erotic romance in America, beginning with the "hot historicals" produced (primarily) in America in the 1970s and moving to the production of "erotic" media in America and the United Kingdom in the 1990s. Next, I examine the melding of the terms erotic and romance by American publishers over the course of the late '90s and early 2000s, as well as the debate this provoked among online communities of romance readers at the time. [...] I conclude this essay by asking where erotic romance is headed next and identifying a set of questions we need to ask as this process unfolds. (42-3)

Morrissey does argue, though, that:

Rather than seeing the 1970s Avon publications as an origin point for erotic romance, this period should be recognized as a moment where the erotic again becomes visible. Like the sheik romances so popular in America and the West in the 1920s, the erotic romances of the '70s are indicative of a period of reconfiguration across broader Western culture and a moment where the representation of sexual desire in romance was renegotiated. (44-5)


Morrissey, Katherine E. "Steamy, Spicy, Sensual: Tracing the Cycles of Erotic Romance". Women and Erotic Fiction: Critical Essays on Genres, Markets and Readers. Ed. Kristen Phillips. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland 2015. 42-58.

Review/Summary (1 - Simon Hardy): Women and Erotic Fiction, ed. Kristen Phillips

By Laura Vivanco on Monday, 14 December, 2015

Simon Hardy's essay in this volume compares the "male tradition of pornographic writing" which made "use of a female narrative voice" to "erotic fiction and memoirs [...] that are genuinely written by women" in order to discover whether "female authors are producing new forms of erotica or simply assimilating patterns of erotic discourse established by the centuries-old tradition of male writers, often masquerading as female autobiographers" (25).

Naturally, he has had to be selective about the number of texts he could discuss in his essay and he acknowleges "right from the outset that the selection of other examples might well lead to different conclusions" (25). This is, I think, a very important acknowledgement. I can't speak about "erotic fiction and memoirs" because that's not an area of literature about which I have much knowledge, but certainly the field of romance fiction is extremely large and very varied and it's quite possible for conclusions which are correct about a certain subset of romances to be inapplicable to many others: one should therefore be very wary before extrapolating from a small number of texts, particularly if one cannot be certain that they are representative of the diversity of the field.

Hardy begins with a very brief overview of male-authored erotic fiction, focussing on John Clelland's Fanny Hill. He observes that:

Cleland's writing represented men and women as equally lascivious. Later, when "respectable" Victorian authorities established the notion of the passionless female, dissident pornographers opposed it by invoking the earlier tradition of female incontinence, but now with a new element: that this underlying female wantonness had to be brought forth as the submissive response to male sexual initiative. (27)

The much more recent Black Lace erotic imprint, although it had a "tag line of 'erotic fiction by women and for women'" (29), would appear to have followed in this Victorian tradition:

Black Lace fictions are stories of female sexual discovery, of women becoming active, pleasure seeking subjects. However, the goal of pleasure is usually attained only when the woman's social self finally yields to the natural lust residing in her body, as it responds to the agency of male sexual conquest. Female liberation is attained only in the act of submission. (31)

Hardy argues that Fifty Shades of Grey is "a hybridization of romance and pornography" (34). [This is an insight explored by Jodi McAlister in her 2013 paper "Breaking the Hard Limits: Romance, Pornography, and Genre in the Fifty Shades trilogy" (which can be found online, for free, here).] Like the (majority of?) Black Lace books, it would seem to follow in the Victorian pornographic tradition:

While Christian's sexuality is elaborately accounted for, Ana's response to and identification with the submissive role is taken for granted; described in endless detail yet never explained, as if it were latent in her nature, or simply because she really is a blank slate to be inscribed by her lover. [...] it is above all in this fundamental essentialist silence that James' text most crucially bears the hallmark of the male tradition of pornographic writing referred to above. (39)


Hardy, Simon. "From Black Lace to Shades of Grey: The Interpellation of the 'Female Subject' into Erotic Discourse". Women and Erotic Fiction: Critical Essays on Genres, Markets and Readers. Ed. Kristen Phillips. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland 2015. 25-41.

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)


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.


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.


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 Readers and Greater Gender Role Egalitarianism

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 13 June, 2015

In the wake of yet another article which warns women to be on their guard while reading romance because

bad romance novels cross a line. They go from being misinformed and silly to being visibly dangerous. [...] Is this really our “porn for women”, our romantic fantasy fulfillment? I think it’s actually a regurgitation of some of the basest forms of sexism sugar-coated with the guise of romance. (Townsend)

I thought it might be reassuring to look at some recent research published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts:

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, although the romance genre is associated with both sexual content and traditional portrayals of gender roles, exposure to this genre was not related to more gender role stereotyping or reduced sexual conservatism in our regressions controlling for other factors. In fact, in raw correlations, exposure to the romance genre predicted more egalitarian gender role attitudes and less gender role stereotyping [...]. A past content analysis might shed some light on why romance novels did not predict less conservative attitudes toward sexual behavior. This analysis found that romance novels contain rather typical depictions of sex, consistent with Western sexual scripts and with little mention of atypical sexual activities [...]. Although romance novels might contain sexual content, the nature of this content does not appear to be inconsistent with traditional Western norms surrounding sex. (Fong et al 6-7)

Maybe those worried about whether romance readers are being brain-washed into accepting patriarchal dominance should take some comfort from this. Even if, in statistical terms, "the association between romance and decreased levels of gender role stereotyping failed to reach threshold for statistical significance" (5) it certainly didn't provide any evidence at all that reading romance increases "levels of gender role stereotyping". As for "attitudes towards sexual behavior", the depictions of sex which you can find in romances do vary quite considerably so the conclusions researchers reach about "attitudes toward sexual behavior" will probably depend on which types of romance they select for study. Townsend's comment that "rape scenes in these books are depressingly common, so much so that it’s noteworthy when there aren’t any" does make me wonder if she was reading only decades-old "bodice-rippers".


Fong, K., Mullin, J. B., & Mar, R. A. "How Exposure to Literary Genres Relates to Attitudes Toward Gender Roles and Sexual Behavior." Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. Advance online publication. 27 April 2015.

Townsend, Alex. "Tropes of Love: Gender Roles in Romance Novels." The Mary Sue. 10 June 2015.

A Punishing Kiss

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 30 May, 2015

Rosemary Johnson-Kurek has noted that:

The punishing kiss is generally unique to the hero; however, at least one Temptation heroine indulges in the practice. Driven by a furious jealousy, Nikki grabs a handful of Carter's hair and plunges her tongue into his mouth when he gasps at her action. "Reveling in her power she changed the tenor of their kiss, caressing rather than branding. Rewarding instead of punishing" (MacAllister 119).

The nature of the punishing kiss is a phenomenon definitely open to feminist criticism. It is the intent that is important. Some punishing kisses are passionate, lip-bruising consummations: "He took her lips in a powerful, punishing kiss, pushed beyond gentleness by two days of more frustration than a man should ever have to endure" (Schuler, Passion 172). Joshua's kiss, however, [in Summer Surrender by Abra Taylor] "started in anger, a seal to stop the provocation of her words" (79). The former is physically punishing in that it is a bruising kiss; the latter is a kiss meant to punish the heroine by intimidating her. (134)

If the "punishing kiss" is less common nowadays (and I have the impression that it is), perhaps that's because, as the heroine of Nora Roberts' Cordina's Crown Jewel (2002) acknowledges after having given one to her hero,

She'd pushed herself on him. All but forced herself on him. It meant nothing that she'd been angry and insulted and aroused all at once. Why if a man had behaved as she had, Camilla would have been first in line to condemn him as a brute and a barbarian.

She'd made him kiss her, taking advantage of the situation and her physical advantage. That was unconscionable. (82)

And, as she adds in her apology to him, "A sexual act of any kind must be mutual or it's harassment. Worst, molestation" (86). Of course, the hero's response is to initiate a punishing kiss of his own:

It was an assault, a glorious one that made her weak-kneed, light-headed and hot-blooded all at once. Even as she started to sway toward him, he gave her a light shove. Stepped back.

"There, that clears the slate," he said.  (86)

While I think romance readers are probably a lot less likely to tolerate abusive, sexist behaviour from their heroes than they once were, there are clearly times when the use of force is portrayed as sexy. There is much more recognition, though, of how problematic its use can be. And perhaps that's why, just to be on the safe(word) side, a modern hero is more likely to want to have a signed contract before he initiates any punishing.


Johnson-Kurek, Rosemary E. "Leading Us into Temptation: The Language of Sex and the Power of Love." Romantic Conventions. Ed. Anne K. Kaler and Rosemary Johnson-Kurek. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State U Popular P, 1999. 113-48.

Roberts, Nora. Cordina's Crown Jewel. New York, NY: Silhouette, 2002.

Sex and the Believable HEA

By Laura Vivanco on Monday, 28 April, 2014

Susan Ostrov Weisser suggests that

the value we now put on sexual pleasure requires that we validate passion as the starter yeast for the long-term relationship, with the "meant to be" narrative guiding the tricky transition from mysterious passion to rational choice. If it doesn't go well ... you guessed it; it wasn't meant to be [....]. That is, "first comes the passion," then a more "mature" version of romance, which will develop out of the first stage, and which will be permanent if the object is the One. In other words, the magic comes first, and that enables the rational relationship. Few of my students seem aware that historically this is a rather novel idea. [...] The initial stage is supposed to have features very much like passionate sexual desire: intense, spontaneous, inexplicable, beyond control. The "mature" second act is more akin to friendship, stressing liking, mutuality, compatibility, and loyalty. (8-9)

This may have become "the chief ideology of Anglo-American romance" (51) but

the nineteenth-century press shows deep conflict, apparently fascinating to the Victorian public, about the essential nature of love itself: Is it instinctual or voluntary? Is it under our control, or is it what one writer called a "master passion" that cannot be constrained by choice? [...] The most dominant anxiety in the nineteenth-century press is that love is a desire for gratification, a strong and universal instinct that overrides judgment - analogous to, if not rooted in, sexual desire and other egotistic longings. In this view romance is said to lead to no good except pleasure. (53-54)

In other words, there were concerns that an uncontrollable sexual passion was more likely to be a recipe for disaster than the "starter yeast" for a long and happy marriage.

That there are still differences of opinion about the relative importance of friendship, similar outlooks and beliefs versus that of passion, is evident in popular romance fiction. For instance, in a short story Joanne Rock wrote for the eHarlequin website, her heroine has just been dumped by her fiancé, Ben, who seemed a sensible, rational choice of partner, and promptly gets back together with Myles, a man with whom she had a one-night stand two years before:

He was pure fantasy. The kind of man that had no business in Kasey’s life since, even though she’d always been a bit of a romantic, she knew that lasting relationships should be based on more practical grounds like fundamental compatibility, common interests and values.

That’s what made her so successful as a casting director. She knew how to put believable characters together on–screen. She put together people like her and Ben — both successful, career–oriented people with common goals and dreams.

Her feet paused on the planks of the wooden boat dock, the soft swish of rhythmic waves and the swirl of Saturday morning marina activity fading into the background as she wondered how she and Ben could look so great on paper and still fail so miserably in real life. What if she’d been basing her relationships on all the wrong things? (9)

Just a couple of days, a few sex scenes and only a very limited amount of conversation later, Myles has gained the

knowledge they were meant to be together. [...] For him, nothing was more important than keeping Kasey in his life — now and always. (18)

My impression is that, over the years, popular romance has attempted to identify the necessary ingredients and the order in which they should be mixed, to create a believably happy ending for the protagonists. While one may be able to identify an overall trend in the baked items they produce, the flavourings, cooking times etc can vary considerably from one author to another:

beginning in the 1960s, when sexual attraction began to be depicted as the initial magnetism drawing the protagonists together, there are authors, such as Mary Burchell, who do not follow the trend. This is still the case, with some authors downplaying its importance, and concentrating on other aspects of love. Examples include Jane Donnelly, who sees love as the recognition of one's other half; Betty Neels, who emphasizes the growth of love over time and Leigh Michaels, who stresses the friendship aspect of love. (Dixon 172)

What I conclude from all this is, firstly, that whether a reader finds a romance's happy ending believable may depend on (a) the reader's beliefs about the most important ingredients in a long-term relationship and (b) the author's receipe for love. If one believes, for example, that passion is a pre-requisite for intimacy, and that the first will inevitably lead to the second if the passion is strong and special enough, then a series of sex scenes followed by a declaration of ever-lasting love will provide a convincing HEA. If, however, the reader believes that shared political, religious and moral beliefs are very important to a lasting relationship, or that a shared sense of humour is vital in a marriage, the same HEA is likely to leave the reader unconvinced.

Secondly, I wonder if changing beliefs about the importance of sex in creating and sustaining long-term romantic relationships might help explain the increase in explicit sexual content in the genre from the 1970s onwards. Some readers undoubtedly do read romance primarily for their erotic content, however this is not necessarily the sole or even the main reason for its inclusion: the increasing number of sex scenes can be understood as a consequence of the assumption that passion is the "starter yeast" for long-term relationships and the stronger the starter yeast, the stronger the relationship.


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

Ostrov Weisser, Susan. The Glass Slipper: Women and Love Stories. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2013.

Rock, Joanne. "Girl Gone Solo." eHarlequin, 2004.

Three Steps to Inclusion

By Laura Vivanco on Monday, 31 March, 2014


Maybe I'm simplifying things but it seems to me that there are three stages in the depiction of a minority group in fiction:

  • In the first stage, the group is marginalised, villanised, or even both. I'm thinking in particular of the use of racial minorities as villains, the evil sexualised "other woman," and the gay villain (with extra points if he's a sadist or a masochist).
  • In the second stage, there are somewhat sympathetic portrayals of main characters from a minority group but these are nonetheless still stereotypes and/or use the difference as a way to ramp up the angst in the story. With regards to disability, for example, Martha Stoddard Holmes has observed that "The connection between emotion and impairment has become a kind of cultural shorthand: to indicate or produce emotional excess, add disability" (3).
  • In the third stage, portrayals are nuanced, people from minority groups are treated as individuals, and their differences are not used to generate shock, pity, angst or a sense of the exotic.

Here are some of the rules from 1960, when Anne Britton and Marion Collin wrote their guide to writing romantic fiction. With regards to disability, race and sexuality, things seemed to be mostly stuck in stage 1, with a few examples of stage 2 allowed only if the author was particularly talented:


divorce [...] offends a large number of readers and means that the magazine runs the risk of being banned in Eire, [...] it is only one or two of the top circulation magazines which occasionally run powerful stories about the children of divorced parents and the effect a broken marriage has on them.

Illegitimate children are out of the question. There are probably only two or three publications in England which will touch this subject, and their policy is usually one of shock tactics at any price. (16-17)


Deformity is [...] unpopular. Many of the smaller publications ban it completely [...]. Of course, there have been some very moving stories about blind girls, and girls with a slight limp who fear that love is not for them, but this kind of plot is not easy to put over sincerely. It can so easily become mawkish. If it has to be written, at least leave the reader with the hope that the girl may eventually recover, and remember that only one or two markets will even consider the story. But never a heroine with one leg. No one will buy that story. (16)


There is [...] a colour bar in women's magazines. To make a mixed marriage the central situation in a story is to invite a definite rejection at the present time. (17)

Things have moved on quite a lot since then, of course. In romance novels divorced protagonists  are fairly common and secret illegitimate babies seem to be a positive draw for some readers. Nonetheless, there are still plenty of books stuck on steps one or two.


Britton, Anne and Marion Collin. The New Writers' Guide: Romantic Fiction. London: Boardman, 1960.

Stoddard Holmes, Martha. Fictions of Affliction: Physical Disability in Victorian Culture. Ann
Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2004.


The image of a three-step style on a level crossing (complete with a warning of danger and an admonition to Stop, Look and Listen) was taken by David Anstiss, who made it available under a Creative Commons licence. I've cropped it slightly; the original is available here.

Black Gay Romance

By Laura Vivanco on Thursday, 26 September, 2013

In “What’s Love But a Second Hand Emotion?”: Man-on-Man Passion in the Contemporary Black Gay Romance Novel," Marlon B. Ross states that

The black gay romance novel emerges in the mid-1980s both as a riffing response to the kind of pop heteronorm performed by mass mediated hip hop, as well as to the consolidated white gay rights agenda, the rising homonorm that aims to exclude black man-on-man desire while claiming that its own articulation of same-sexuality is categorical, universal, and biologically ordained. (676)

He focuses on Larry Duplechan's Eight Days a Week (1985), James Earl Hardy's B-Boy Blues (1994) and E. Lynn Harris's Invisible Life (1994).

Ross is critical of "hegemonic, homonormal modes of identification that fix gender-dissident desire in order to legitimate it on par with heterosexual love" (674) and while the novels he's chosen are definitely about romantic relationships, I'm not sure they're strictly speaking "romance novels" as defined by the Romance Writers of America, who stipulate that there should be:

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.

Larry Duplechan's novel was

aimed at the new gay white culture forming in the ghettoes of the urban North. The story of an aspiring twenty-two-year-old black gay singer who falls in love with a blond bisexual ex-football player, Duplechan’s first novel, like his succeeding ones, might be called integrationist fantasies, like the post-Civil Rights narratives of good noble blacks, usually men, single-handedly integrating white institutions. (678)

There is apparently no happy ending for the central couple because, "despite their fierce attraction to each other, their relationship fails" (Nelson 633).

Hardy and Harris's books are both the first installment in series. I have the impression that Hardy's comes closest to the pattern expected of "romances" because

Hardy clings to one signal attribute of homonormative romance, the rule that true love can be manifested only in the heteronormalizing coupling convention, as Ann duCille labels this trend in African American women’s fiction. In addition to ruffneck Pooquie’s eventual self-acceptance as a man-loving man who can take it up the ass with the best of sissy-punks, many of Littlebit’s and Pooquie’s love trials revolve around sexual fidelity not only to each other but more crucially to the ideal of monandrous commitment. (Ross 680)

The relationship begun in B-Boy Blues evidently has its ups and downs since the sixth book, A House is not a Home (2005) begins "ten years since Mitchell and Raheim became lovers, and four since they broke up" (Kirkus). It would seem to conclude with a "happy for now": "They give their relationship a second chance, but not until the last few pages of the book. Whether it'll work or not, who knows" (Grey853).

I haven't been able to find out exactly what happens to the protagonist of Harris's Invisible Life but his relationships are turbulent and over the course of the series he shares the stage with other couples.

Regardless of whether or not one thinks of these three novels as "romance" or "romantic fiction" they're an important part of the history of black and gay romance novels.


Nelson, Emmanuel S. "Duplechan, Larry." The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Multiethnic American Literature: D-H. Ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2005. 632-34.

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

Ross, Marlon B. " 'What’s Love But a Second Hand Emotion?': Man-on-Man Passion in the Contemporary Black Gay Romance Novel." Callaloo 36.3 (2013): 669-687.

Flinging Breasts and Free Books

By Laura Vivanco on Thursday, 22 August, 2013

I was reading Catherine Roach's Stripping, Sex and Popular Culture when I came across something that reminded me of a passage from Sarah Mayberry's Suddenly You which had generated a fair amount of controversy over at Dear Author. It's about breasts and breastfeeding:

Unlike many of the women in her mothers’ group, she had been unsuccessful at breast-feeding. A series of infections and an inadequate milk supply led her paediatrician to recommend bottle-feeding Alice when her daughter was barely a month old. Consequently, Pippa wasn’t nearly as casual about flinging her breasts around as some of her friends. To her, they were about sex and intimacy, not sustenance. (p. 42)

Here's what Roach, a successful breastfeeder, had to say on the topic of flinging one's breasts around:

Tassel-twirling [...] makes me inwardly cringe, it just looks so torturous, although I have to admit that all of the other women in my afternoon workshop seem to be having a blast. I’m one of the few who doesn’t glue on the tassels. I feel too sorry for the nipples. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent two years breast-feeding my child, an experience that was rewarding but also a form of hard labor for the breast. It left me with the sense that you’ve got to be gentle with them; they need nurturance, support, delicate handling. You can’t go swinging them around like a cowgirl looking to rope a steer. A bosom is not a centrifugal lettuce spinner. (115)

Roach came across the tassels while researching burlesque, to see if and/or how it differed from the stripping she'd already seen in stripclubs. She found that in burlesque the

look varies widely, from stunning to butch to art house to clown; from slim to fat; from pin-up polished to deliberately anti-glam. In comparison, the strip club insists on a much more monolithic and conventional vision of female form (slim, big-breasted, pretty, available). These differences illustrate that the definition of beauty and femininity in stripclub exotic dance is a comparatively narrow one driven by men’s pleasure and pocketbook. (111)

She argues that, "To the extent that the stripping industry fuels male fantasy – and female fantasy as well – about how a perfect woman should look and act, the 'average' woman can never measure up" (85).

Jade Beall's "A Beautiful Body Project" celebrates the beauty of more "average" women and, like burlesque, it puts on display bodies in a variety of sizes and shapes:

Beall says many of her clients don't like the images at first, and focus on what they see as blemishes or problem areas - a roll of fat, a wrinkle, a stretch mark.

But she says the more they look, the more they start to see the beauty in the images. (BBC)

Judge for yourself:

[Edited to add: I don't have a transcript of the video, but the gist of what's said in it is much the same as in this article in The Guardian.]

You can download

for free (in pdf format) from OAPEN, whose "Library contains freely accessible academic books, mainly in the area of Humanities and Social Sciences. OAPEN works with publishers to build a quality controlled collection of Open Access books." Some of the other books available are: