Pop Culture as Replacement for Religious Ritual?

By Laura Vivanco on Monday, 7 January, 2019

In an article published in 1969 John Cawelti suggested that

In earlier more homogeneous cultures religious ritual performed the important function of articulating and reaffirming the primary cultural values. Today, with cultures composed of a multiplicity of differing religious groups, the synthesis of values and their reaffirmation has become an increasingly important function of the mass media and the popular arts. Thus, one important dimension of formula is social or cultural ritual. (388)

I'm not sure if this is true of all forms of popular culture but the idea that genre fiction could be synthesising certain religious values and beliefs chimes with what Jennifer Crusie has to say about the core narrative of romance and detective fiction:

the romance novel is based on the idea of an innate emotional justice in the universe, that the way the world works is that good people are rewarded and bad people are punished. The mystery genre is based on the same assumption, only there it’s a moral justice, a sense of fair play in human legal interaction: because the good guys risk and struggle, the murderers get punished and good triumphs in a safe world. So in romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice, unconditional love in an emotionally safe world.


Cawelti, John G. “The Concept of Formula in the Study of Popular Literature,” Journal of Popular Culture 3.3 (1969): 381-390.

Crusie, Jennifer. “I Know What It Is When I Read It: Defining the Romance Genre,” originally published in Romance Writer’s Report. PAN March 2000.

Murder and Metafiction

By Laura Vivanco on Sunday, 9 December, 2018

The cover of Running HotThere's a short metafictional passage in Jayne Ann Krentz's Running Hot which manages to make quite a few points about the appeal of popular romance, and implies it isn't less realistic than crime fiction:

He glanced at the cover of her book. The illustration showed the shadowed profile of a woman. She had a gun in her hand. The title was equally ominous.
"Looks like a murder mystery," he said.
"Romantic-suspense," she corrected.
"Meaning it's got both romance and a couple of murders in it."
"You like books like that?"
He smiled. "Thought you said you weren't a romantic."
"I'm not." She turned another page. "Doesn't mean that I don't like to read about romance."
"What about the murders?"
"They get solved by clever sleuthing on the part of the hero and heroine. It's very satisfying."
"You know, in real life the motivation for murder is usually a lot more straightforward than it is in fiction," he said. "Somebody gets pissed off, picks up the nearest gun and shoots the guy who pissed him off."
"Really?" She did not seem particularly interested.
"What's more, the majority of cases get solved because someone talks, not because of forensics or clever sleuthing."
"If I want real police work, I'll read the newspapers, not a book," she said.
"Probably a good idea. Let me know how that one ends."
She turned another page. "I already know how it ends."
"You read the ending first?"
"I always read the ending first before I commit to the whole book."
He looked at her, baffled. "If you know how it ends, why read the book?"
"I don't read for the ending. I read for the story. [...] Life is too short to waste time on books that end badly."
"By badly, you mean unhappily, right?"
"As far as I'm concerned, the two are synonymous." (152-154)


Krentz, Jayne Ann. Running Hot. 2009. New York: Jove, 2010.

Censorship of Popular Romance in Nigeria

Emmanuel Ifeduba's "Book Censorship in Nigeria: A study of Origin, Methods and Motivations, 1805-2018" (Library Philosophy and Practice, 2018) lists the:

Kano Book Burning (2007): In May 2007, A Daidaita Sahu, the Kano State agency for the reorientation, organized a book and film burning at a local girl’s school as a prelude to a proposed anti-publication law against over 300 young writers whose incursion into romance and western-style literature, known as Littattafan soyayya, threatened the conservative male-chauvinistic system operating in the state. Ibrahim Shekarau, Governor of Kano State at the time, publicly burned thousands of copies of Hausa romance novels describing them as pornographic and immoral to the customs and traditions of Northern Nigeria. Consequently, writers in the state sued him and he was forced to settle out of court and to slow down on his censorship. In February, 2016, government officials stopped a popular radio narrator of the novels, Isa Ahmed Koko, from visiting Kano to meet his fans.

laura Tuesday, 4 December, 2018
Strangers and Strategies: Conceptualising the Writing of Sex Scenes

Sociologists Jennifer Lois and Joanna Gregson found, over the course of their research, that "Outsiders often made comments to [romance] writers that suggested they viewed them as oversexed women who documented their personal sexual experiences and fantasies in their books" (466). Romance writers responded to "outsiders leering at their willingness to write about sex [...] in two ways: granting the request by personalizing their sexuality or denying it by depersonalizing the sexual content of their books" (471).

Writers who adopted the first type of response were

advertising themselves as sexual beings. Though this strategy was not universally accepted, we saw many examples, such as dressing as dominatrices at book signings; singing sexually suggestive karaoke with romance novel cover models at a readers convention; and hosting “post the sexiest shirtless Navy SEAL” contests on Facebook fan pages, often with the explicit goal of growing readership. (475)

Other authors, however, chose to

resist. They mainly did so by depersonalizing the sexual content of their books and framing it instead as integral to the craft of storytelling. If writers could emphasize that the story sex was not about them, they could decline the invitation to display their sexuality, negate the assumption that they were documenting their own sex lives, and gain control over the leering interactions. (476)

Lois and Gregson found that "Embracing either a personalizing or depersonalizing strategy did not create a fixed division among writers, but some writers had strong opinions about how useful and appropriate each strategy was" (476).

It might not be an entirely "fixed division" but I was surprised when I encountered a vintage guide to writing romance that seemed to to employ both strategies near-simultaneously.

In Chapter 10, titled "Will They or Won't They? Writing Sensual Sex Scenes", of Helene Schellenberg Barnhart's Writing Romance Fiction: For Love and Money (1983), a series of short quotes from editors and established authors break up the text. These quotes are set apart from Barnhart's own words by being placed in what amount to boxes, and the text is both in bold and italicised:

“[...] Although naturally the sensual scenes, like the rest of the book, are basically works of imagination, probably I draw on my personal experiences and preferences more for such scenes than for any other part of the stories.” Lynda Ward, romance author (146)

“All you need to be able to write a good love scene is to enjoy making love yourself. Any good romance writer is a romantic and knows that’s one of the best things in life. It should come pretty automatically.” Joyce Thies, one half of Janet Joyce, romance author (148)

“I look for quality writing – immediacy, intensity, sincerity, good dialogue and action, and a rapid plot development that keeps me turning the pages. Where sex is concerned, emotion and sensuality are important, not clinical detail. Whatever turns the writer on will come off the page.” Jacqui Bianchi, romance editor (149)

Ward and Thies are employing strategy one and Bianchi is encouraging a reading of romance novels that links sex scenes with their authors' sexuality.

As the author of the guide, Barnhart does add a little about how her own experiences affect her writing, in a section concerning symbolism:

I'm particularly drawn to the ocean, since I spent my childhood and adolescent years in a house built on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. In a sex scene, I might use the ocean symbolically [...] Nature can furnish you with an inexhaustible supply of symbols to use in creating sensual sex scenes [...]. I have found, though, that for a symbol to work, you must be emotionally moved by that symbol. It must have a personal meaning to you. (147-48)

Saying that oceans are significant to you because you lived near one in your childhood is not really an example of strategy one, even if you do suggest that there is little "more sensual than the wind sighing through the pines, or the murmur of the waves as they break upon the beach below the bedroom window" (158). The inset comment which follows this extremely minor revelation, moreover, underscores Barnhart's reticence and modesty because it is the most blatant example yet of strategy one:

I’m always in the mood to write sensual love scenes, undoubtedly influenced by my office being in one corner of a very sexy (to me) bedroom. If this isn’t enough, I need only walk down the stairs and seek my husband. After thirty-three years of marriage, his love is still inspiration enough to have fueled several novels.” Alice Morgan, author of contemporary romances (159)

Rather strikingly, the paragraph preceding this quote is addressed to would-be authors who "feel inhibited or embarrassed at the thought of writing sex scenes for your romance novel, or worried over what your family and friends might think" (159). One might, given the number of inset quotations employing or supporting strategy one, think that Barnhart would proceed to advocate this approach. Instead, the reason Barnhart insists the newbie must "purge" themselves "of this feeling if you have decided to write this type of book" is that "you are not describing your own romance, your own erotic thoughts, or your own sexual experience" (159).

Moreover, the inset statements from Ward, Thies, Bianchi and Morgan seem entirely incompatible with what Barnhart has to say next about what will happen:

If you [...] attend a professional writers' conference. Listen to the pros. You'll soon discover that as they talk about their stories, it is not of themselves they speak. They talk about their heroines and heroes as if they were separate, living people. You'll have to remind yourself that the subjects of the conversation are fictional. Professional writers have no difficulty in putting themselves aside, and you won't either, with a little practice. (160)

This, it seems to me, implies that all authors employ strategy two. I can't help but wonder what effect these mixed messages had on aspiring authors in the early 1980s. Personally, I feel a bit gaslit.


Lois, Jennifer and Joanna Gregson. “Sneers and Leers: Romance Writers and Gendered Sexual Stigma.” Gender & Society 29.4 (2015): 459-483.

Schellenberg Barnhart, Helene. Writing Romance Fiction for Love and Money. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 1983.


laura Wednesday, 10 October, 2018

Latest (not conclusive) findings about romance and readers' relationship beliefs

By Laura Vivanco on Friday, 24 August, 2018

I thought I'd write up a brief summary of the findings related to romance in

Stern, Stephanie C., Brianne Robbins, Jessica E. Black and Jennifer L. Barnes. "What You Read and What You Believe: Genre Exposure and Beliefs About Relationships." Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. Advance online publication. Abstract here.

Stern et al summarise prior research which found that

People who watch more soap operas, which tend to focus heavily on romantic storylines, have been shown to hold beliefs about relationships that detract from one’s relationship satisfaction and longevity (Haferkamp, 1999). Exposure to romantic comedy movies in young adults has also been shown to correlate with greater support of the relationship ideals common to the genre, such as the belief that love conquers all and the idealization of romantic partners (Hefner & Wilson, 2013). Similarly, in a study by Shapiro and Kroeger (1991), participants who endorsed unrealistic beliefs about relationships scored higher on a measure of exposure to romance novels and movie romantic comedies. Specifically, exposure to romance was shown to significantly correlate with greater support of the belief that mindreading and sexual perfectionism should be expected in a relationship.

Taken as a whole, this body of work is consistent with the idea that exposure to Romance fiction, across media, is associated with a variety of unrealistic beliefs about romantic relationships. However, a majority of the studies cited above relied on voluntary self-reported exposure to romantic films, magazines, and/or novels, and the definition of what qualifies as “romance” media varies significantly between experiments. (4)

Their paper

is focused on the degree to which exposure to seven different literary genres relates to participants’ endorsement of the beliefs that the sexes are inherently different, that all disagreement is destructive, that one’s romantic partner should be able to know one’s thoughts and feelings without being told, that romantic partners cannot change, and that sexual perfection should be expected in relationships (3)

The seven genres were "classics, contemporary literary fiction, romance, fantasy, science fiction, suspense/thriller, horror" (5), later reduced to six because "high collinearity between science fiction and fantasy" (6) led them to combine the two.

For romance, the "association between familiarity with romance authors and the belief that the sexes are difference [sic] was positive: participants who recognized more romance authors scored higher on the sexes are different subscale" (6). In other words, romance readers were more likely than other readers to endorse the idea that men are different from women. However, romance reading was not associated with any of the other "unrealistic" beliefs listed above.

The correlational findings from this study differ from past research on the romance genre in several ways. For example, Fong and colleagues (2015) found no significant correlation between exposure to romantic books and attitudes about sex and gender, whereas the current research found that individuals who read romance novels are more likely to assert that the sexes are inherently different. Conversely, research on other forms of media has shown various correlations between Romance and maladaptive relationship beliefs, such as the belief that mind reading is expected and stronger idealization of relationships as a whole (Shapiro & Kroeger, 1991; Hefner & Wilson, 2013), whereas our study showed no relationship between exposure to the romance genre and these beliefs. This difference may be due, in part, to the present study controlling for exposure to other written fiction genres, including literary classics, which may be particularly important, given that exposure to the classics— or increased knowledge of them—may reflect education more than reading habits per se. (9)

In addition, the results do not show that romance causes its readers to believe that "the sexes are inherently different":

Another limitation that merits consideration is the correlational nature of the results reported here. The current experiment found a relationship between exposure to certain written fiction genres and relationship beliefs, but it does not and cannot determine the nature of that association. It is possible that repeatedly reading specific genres affects our beliefs about relationships, but it is also possible that preexisting beliefs guide genre preferences. (10)

So more

research is needed to explore whether viewing or reading specific genres of fiction affects relationship beliefs and, conversely, whether priming specific relationship beliefs can influence fiction preferences. Finally, future research is needed to explore the role that other variables, such as education, imagination, prior experience with romantic relationships, and transportation may play in the associations found here. (10)


Separate Church and State, not Families

By Laura Vivanco on Tuesday, 7 August, 2018

Family separation has been, and remains, in the news. At one point


Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, invoked the Bible to defend the Trump administration’s immigration policy of separating mothers from their children.

She was speaking at Thursday’s White House briefing, in response to a question about comments made by the attorney general Jeff Sessions, where he cited a passage in the Bible to justify the policy.

“I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order,” said Sessions. [...]

Sanders said: “I’m not aware of the attorney general’s comments or what he would be referencing, [but] I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law. That is repeated throughout the Bible.” (The Guardian, 15 June 2018)

I don't think Mother Maybelle, a secondary character in Janice Sims's "A Love Supreme" (2005), would agree. Given the novella's publication date, she came into existence long before the arrival of the current US administration and cannot therefore be read as a commentary on it. All the same, Maybelle, who provided the funds to establish a 2000-strong church in Georgia, takes a strong stand in favour of keeping a family together, regardless of the legalities.

When Alex, the heroine of the novella, was fourteen, her father


died from cancer [...], and our Mom was killed by a drunk driver when I was seventeen. [...]
"What happened to you and your brother and sister after your mother was killed?" Jared asked. [...]
Alex's smile never wavered. "We perpetrated a fraud on the state of Georgia. [...] Since we were minors and had no relatives, the state had the right to put us in foster homes. I was in my senior year in high school. Sam was nine, and Vicky was twelve. After Mom's funeral, Sam, Vicky and I sat down and had a discussion. We knew the house was paid for. It seemed to us that if we could earn enough money to pay for food, electricity, and certain other incidentals, there should be no reason why we couldn't stay in the house." (27-28)

Mother Maybelle came snooping around to check on her and her siblings after their mother's death. Mother Maybelle had insisted on seeing the adult who was living with them. Alex had dragged her inside because she didn't want any of the neighbors to overhear what she had to say to her, then she'd confessed to what they'd been doing: hiding from Social Services, even when they should have been collecting their parents' Social Security payments.

After patiently listening to Alex's reasons for not getting in contact with the proper authorities, Mother Maybelle had surprised her by not turning them in. Instead, she'd insisted that they rely on her in case of emergencies, come to church every Sunday except in case of illness, and have Sunday dinner with her so she could see for herself, every week that they were fine. Even though she was a Christian woman, she'd helped them pull the wool over the government's eyes. "Sometimes," she said now, "a person has to listen to a higher power." Meaning God's rules were more important than man's. (60-61)

The novella was published in an volume titled Can I Get an Amen. In the current political context, it gets one from me.


Sims, Janice. "A Love Supreme". Can I Get an Amen. Washington, DC: Arabesque, 2005. 1-108.

Novels by Danielle Steel are Not Romances

By Laura Vivanco on Thursday, 12 July, 2018

I recently added the following entry to the Romance Wiki bibliography

Blouin, Michael J., 2018. 
Mass-Market Fiction and the Crisis of American Liberalism, 1972–2017. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.[13] [See Chapter 3 on 'Danielle Steel and the New Home Economics' because Blouin refers to romance scholarship and describes Steel as "the undisputed master of the mass-market romance" (75). This is, however, disputed, both by many romance readers (thanks to everyone who responded to my tweets about this!) and by Steel herself, who has "insisted that her books aren't romantic fiction. 'They're not really about romance ... I really write more about the human condition,' she said. '[Romance] is an element in life but I think of romance novels as more of a category and I write about the situations we all deal with – loss and war and illness and jobs and careers, good things, bad things, crimes, whatever'." (The Guardian)

Just in case that wasn't definitive enough, here's a quote from Rita Clay Estrada and Rita Gallagher's You Can Write a Romance (1999) on the issue:

Danielle Steel-types of books aren't romances. They're known as soaps. Why? Because they're problematic - one heart-kicking dilemma after another. One life-threatening quandary after another. One tear-jerking, emotional death and divorce after another. The romance is secondary to the problems, growth and tears of the heroine. That's a soap. Danielle Steele [sic] created the written form and made it her genre. Many have followed, but few have had the success she has. (3)


Clay Estrada, Rita and Rita Gallagher. You Can Write a Romance. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 1999.

A Little Light Bedtime Reading

By Laura Vivanco on Sunday, 10 June, 2018


Research has [...] demonstrated that ‘pleasure readers’ do more bedtime reading which promotes peaceful sleep at night (Ponniah & Priya, 2014) and reduces stress and anxiety, as the pleasurable activity of reading helps secrete more serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that works synergistically with melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone, to give contentment and peaceful sleep (Buchanan, 2007). (Ponniah 116)

Admittedly there's no mention here of what happens to readers who are so engrossed they stay up late and are then exhausted in the morning when they can't sleep in, but it sounds like a great explanation/excuse for why bed-time reading should be encouraged.

So, here's a very short story by R. Joseph Ponniah about the benefits of late-night romance reading.

Once upon a time, a well-educated woman "approached the researcher asking for assistance and suggestions for improving her telephone conversation skills and language used in business contexts" (118). Her first language was Tamil, and she wanted to improve her English for use at work.

First, the researcher instructed that she watch a series of videos designed to teach business English. However, the videos were too boring, and the woman said so.

Then the researcher suggested that she read a series of novels about war, written by male authors. However, the woman said that these books were not of interest to her.

At last, the researcher thought to ask the woman about the novels she enjoyed reading in Tamil, and asked her to find similar books in English and

She collected more than 50 novels published by Mills and Boon and Harlequin and started reading them one after another without any assistance from the experimenter. In six months she completed 27 novels in [...] English [...], including Song of the wave (Anne Hampson), Scandalous (Charlotte Lamb), Temporary bride (Patricia Wilson), Kiss the moonlight (Barbara Cartland) and Married in a moment (Jessica Steele). She read at bedtime as she had more work during the day, and now she continues to read novels in [English] for pleasure. Discussion with the subject confirmed that reading such novels is a pleasurable experience and this kind of reading gave her not only the confidence to speak on the telephone but also helped her clearly communicate the intended meaning both in written and spoken language. When asked about her L2 reading experience, she said that she read for pleasure and did not feel that she was reading in a second language. [...]


She used to seek the experimenter’s assistance to draft business letters, but once she had been reading English novels for pleasure for about a month she developed the ability to draft without the support of the experimenter. She explained that she never experienced writing apprehensions after reading the novels in L2. Further, her confidence level increased when telephoning in English as she had acquired the skills required for conversation. (119)

And that is the story of how a little bed-time romance reading helped one reader gain proficiency and confidence in a second language!


Ponniah, R. Joseph. "First-Language Reading Promotes Second-Language Reading and Acquisition: Towards a Biolinguistic Approach". The Idea and Practice of Reading. Eds. R. Joseph Ponniah and Sathyaraj Venkatesan. Singapore: Springer, 2018. 113-124.

Literary Criticism: Emotion and Not-so-Objective Criteria

By Laura Vivanco on Tuesday, 29 May, 2018

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 Thursday, 24 May, 2018

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.