6 Words and Power: Piper Huguley's A Virtuous Ruby

This chapter contains “spoilers” for Piper Huguley’s A Virtuous Ruby so if you’d like to read the novel before continuing, here are details about where to buy it. For those who don’t mind spoilers, or who’ve read the book and would appreciate a quick refresher, I’ve included a plot summary here.

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A belief that words have power is implicit in my definition of modern popular romances as

novels whose authors have assumed pastoral roles, offering hope to their readers through works which propagate faith in the goodness and durability of love.

If their words were powerless, the novels could not influence their readers and provide pastoral care. Piper Huguley’s A Virtuous Ruby (2015), however, provides a salutary reminder that however powerful words may be, there can be barriers which prevent them from reaching an audience or limit their impact. Ruby, the novel’s heroine, attempts to use her words to effect change in the town of Winslow, Georgia. Unfortunately for her and her family, Paul Winslow can say with perfect truth that “This is my town. What I say around here goes” (148). Moreover, since it was on Paul’s orders that Ruby was raped by David Winslow, Paul’s son, it is clear that words may be deployed in ways which are actively harmful. Given the US setting of the novel, and the race of its protagonists, in this chapter I wish to examine some of the ways in which the words of African American romance authors, in particular, have had their power limited, and ways in which the romance community, and in particular romance publishing, have failed to counter racism and, indeed, have actively discriminated against Black authors. Moreover, given that Piper Huguley is both a romance author and an academic, it seems appropriate to use insights provided by her novel to critique popular romance scholarship. While the circumstances surrounding the publication, reception and analysis of US romances are less extreme in nature and outcome than some of the events described in the novel, they are shaped by the same underlying processes. As romance author Denise Williams, who has taught a college course on “Romance Novels as Tools for Justice,” has observed,

Racial violence [...] doesn't begin with physical violence. It begins with every day choices like which books to read, to listen to Black voices or justify, rationalize, and dismiss racism concerns as exaggerations. It doesn't begin with physical violence, but it ends there too often.

For this reason, positive, non-stereotyped representation in popular culture matters immensely: the power of romance’s words have not always been used to provide hope and pastoral care to all readers and, indeed, they have sometimes condoned or even encouraged discrimination and oppression.