This one doesn’t mention feminism, but given recent conversations about editing, quality, and “the rise of the published first draft,” I found Betsy Morais’ New Yorker post, “A Book Is a Startup”
interesting aggravating head exploding. I very much appreciated Morais’ conclusions about crowd-sourced writing and editing (or more likely, “editing”):
The book-as-start-up approach is a convergence of the digital world’s ingenuity with publishing’s ambition, but each side falters in approaching the other. Somehow, the idea of a book in the abstract seems to be edging out a real sense of what makes something actually worth reading.
Perhaps it’s my aversion to hype that explains my lack of interest in Lean In, Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s advice book for women in the workplace. Perhaps it’s my aversion to Facebook. More likely, it’s the fact that I’m roughly Sandberg’s age and have worked these things out for myself.
However, I enjoyed this bookish interview with her. Like Sandberg, I had Madeleine L’Engle’s Meg Murray as one of my heroines and grew up on the Free to Be You and Me album. But here’s my favorite bit:
What are your most cherished books, and where do you keep them?
I keep my books from Helen Vendler’s college class on American poets in my night stand. . . . Professor Vendler says that you don’t own a poem until you memorize it, and I agree. Every year my New Year’s resolution is to meditate for just five minutes a day. I never do it, but when I recite one of the poems I memorized, I think it comes close to having the same effect.
My dad, a Harvard student a generation before Sandberg, studied with Vendler as well, and remembers her as clearly. That’s the mark of a great teacher. I’d be grateful to have some tiny fraction of that impact.
Romance Novels and Feminism, Again
I say “again” because this is a well-traveled topic in Romancelandia, but I appreciated Jessica Luther’s take in her post for The Atlantic, as well as the lively discussions it inspired (elsewhere, that is; the post’s comments are full of the usual trollish dudes). Luther and the writers and critics she interviews avoid sweeping generalizations about whether the genre is feminist or not, and instead discuss the ways it can be feminist or allow readers and writers to explore feminist issues.
My own feeling, at this point, is that even individual books can’t be declared feminist or not–a lot depends on the reader’s interpretation and her understanding of feminism. For instance, the first book Luther mentions is Alice Clayton’s Wallbanger, which she praises as an example of books in which
heroines are adamant that their careers not suffer in order to make a relationship work. They negotiate long-term committed relationships with men who treat them as equals. And, as is par for the course in most romance novels, these women seek out sexual pleasure and they enjoy sex.
But I know a reader who found this book a literal wallbanger because [I haven't read it, so highlight to see what might be a spoiler] the heroine can’t experience an orgasm until she’s married. [ETA: See Ruthie's comment below; my memory seems to be inaccurate, but at least one reader I know was bothered by the depiction of the heroine's sexuality for some reason.] So is the book feminist, or not? The answer would seem to be “both,” or “feminism is in the eye of the beholder.” The genre, and individual books, contain threads that are both feminist and not-feminist, perhaps even anti-feminist, and that’s fine. Luther’s article was picked up by Jezebel, and it’s nice to see such a thoughtful and nuanced take on the state of the genre today get a big platform.
Before I go on, I’d like to note that, thanks to a recent kerfuffle, it’s clear that The Atlantic does not pay for online content like this. It’s a blog post, and therefore unreasonable to expect that it would meet the journalistic standards of the print magazine. In that context, I don’t take issue with Luther’s methods, which seem to have been e-mailing writers she liked and knew from Twitter and blogging.
On the other hand, that approach does produce a pretty flattened picture of the genre, its history, and the relationship between feminism and romance fiction. This is clear in the companion list of “Recommendations for Feminist Romance Novels” from her interviewees that Luther compiled on her site. When you ask a group of new-ish romance authors with similar sensibilities to recommend books, they recommend mostly new-ish books, often by each other (only Olivia Waite dips back before the late 20th century, and most of the suggestions date from the last decade). The books on this list are good, in my opinion, but the range is incredibly narrow.
The flattening problem is also evident in the framing of Luther’s article: back in the 70s, she suggests, there were those rape-tastic bodice-rippers, the “polar opposite” of the feminist movement; “As feminists were fighting patriarchy, romance novels were propping it up.” I’m not sure quite how seriously Luther means this brisk summary. But she is hardly alone in viewing the genre this way (she cites Beyond Heaving Bosoms, Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan’s smart, thoughtful, snarky and fannish tribute to the genre). But given that Luther is a historian by training, this simplistic historical take is disappointing. And it’s high time romance fans abandoned it altogether. Why?
- I don’t think we do the genre a service if to defend it we have to disown our past. “Hey feminist ladies, c’mon in! The water’s fine now. We got rid of the sharks.” What does this say to and about our fellow fans who have loved the genre for 40 years? We’re putting on our “mothers” all the stereotypes about romance-readers that we reject for ourselves when we discuss the genre this way. I don’t think that’s a feminist stance.
- It’s wrong about literary history. The genre pre-dates the epic historical bodice-rippers of the 70s. There were other forms of romance in the 70s. There are books with rape-y heroes today, though they are fewer. There are many books that transmute rape and “forced seduction” into other forms, such as the fated mates and voracious vampires of paranormal and the mysterious Doms of erotic romance. Romance authors and readers are still interested in the problematics of consent. As Robin Lynne says at the end of Luther’s post, “why would it be a surprise that a genre consumed by intimate relationships between men and women would . . . also be consumed by the issue of sexual force (and other types of emotional and physical coercion).” That’s a long way from the opening lines. Update: Robin has a great post on this today.
- It ignores the feminist readings of bodice-rippers, books which often focused on the epic adventures and self-discovery of their heroines. It ignores the experiences of readers, then and now, who love them and find them–or some aspects of them–empowering. I’m not one of those readers, but I follow some of them. They are routinely annoyed, offended, and made to feel diminished by comments that dismiss their reading experience and tastes, and by lists of “feminist books” that leave so many books and readers out, that imply (or state outright) that some forms of fantasy are “not OK.”
Let’s stop with the “not your mother’s romance novels” and throwing our mothers and sisters, and the books they enjoy, under a bus so “we” can feel good about the genre we love. We need to own the genre in all its contradictions, and consider all the complex questions about women, their lives, and their desires that it raises.