Surf’s Up: Links on Reading and Feminism

“Lean” Books

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 Startupinteresting 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.

Leaning Out

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.

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23 Responses to Surf’s Up: Links on Reading and Feminism

  1. I would add that we should stop ignoring the historical context and influence. The bodice-rippers of the 70’s didn’t exist in an isolated bubble, and Romance, as is the case with any other cultural product, has gone through a process of transformation that reflects the changes within the culture that produces it. Not to mention that the books we’re reading now are a direct consequence of those older novels, their tropes and themes, and the conversation generated around them. Also, not every book published in the 70’s and 80’s were bodice-rippers, just as not every book published now is feminist.

    In the end, we all are a bit on camp undecided, because as you said, we can’t make blanket statements about this or any other genre, and that each book should be considered independently. And as I said on twitter, even if some books are clearly not feminist, we are still allowed to read and enjoy them.

    I enjoyed Luther’s post, although I don’t agree with everything she said, but the important thing is that the genre generates intelligent, open conversation, which I think is the sign of a healthy, self-aware community.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I agree with all of this. And yes, I think it’s great to see such an intelligent conversation, from both Luther and her interviewees, about romance. What a refreshing change.

    • Shelley says:

      So agreed! We can’t ignore the fact that, in a world where “good girls” can’t say yes, writers had to find ways to give their characters permission to have sex– which meant taking away their consent, often. It’s more complex than just a backlash against feminism.

  2. I am a feminist (and womanist), but I feel the wide characterization of the genre, its writings, and its authors as “feminist” ignores the intersectionalities authors and readers bring to the table. For example, Jeannie Lin’s comment on Ceclia Grant’s blog is striking in its cultural complexity, and I feel non-white/non-Western-culture voices are often lost in the desire to present the genre as uniformly feminist.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, and Kat’s comment there on the Aayan Hirsi Ali interview.

      Someone pointed out that while some of the recommended books are written by women of color (Milan, Thomas) none feature protagonists of color. I think only Cecilia Grant recommended non-m/f romance, too.

      • Cecilia says:

        Olivia Waite recommended Tipping the Velvet. But yeah, I cringed a little when I saw the sameness of all our recommendation lists.

        Thanks for you articulate-as-always thoughts. To me the big change in the genre has not been in the books, but in the readership and blogosphere. Maybe there were always feminist readers of romance, but the internet has made possible a community of such readers, and a forum for them to discuss, challenge, and analyze romance on feminist grounds, as well as to debate whether ideology has any place in one’s reading experience. That’s one of the reasons I find it gratifying to be writing now.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        Oh, yes, thanks! I missed that first time. I think the similarity of the lists is perfectly natural, because if asked for recommendations people often think of things they have read *recently* (I know I do).

        I agree about the community. I’m not at all sure I’d still be reading romance, or so much of it, without that. I’ve learned so much from other readers about the genre, its diversity, and how to find books in it that work for me.

  3. VacuousMinx says:

    Thanks very much for this post. You hit on (at least!) two of the points that came to my mind when I was reading it. First, there is the incredible narrowing of the range of romance that is implied by the terms “bodice-ripper” and Old Skool. The fact that it made for a fun and enlightening book by Sarah and Candy doesn’t mean we should use BHB as a template for all analysis or pretend the complexity never existed. I am one of those romance “mothers” who has been reading romance since the 1970s, and I never read those books because I DNF’d the first one for purple prose and bad history and I never went back. Instead I read gothics, British contemporary writers like Rosamund Pilcher (pre-Shell Seekers), Harlequins set in Britain, and the Signet and Fawcett Regency lines (which also included Edwardians and Victorians in the latter case). I ignored the Woodiwiss et al. books and still had hundreds to choose from. Those books ranged from retrograde to progressive, like most genres do.

    Second, I was really taken aback by reading an article in a major venue that didn’t talk about any books with POC characters and quoted only two POC authors, neither of whom identify as POC in their author personas. There are plenty of such authors and books out there, but instead we had another article that makes it seem as if the romance genre is all about white middle-class women reading books about white upper- and middle-class characters. That’s a disservice in so many ways, and reinforces the idea that when we talk about feminism we’re not talking about POC or their issues. We don’t need more of that.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      The thing is, in general, Luther is well aware of that. Her dissertation is on slavery. I’ve read some of her other posts on the importance of listening to the voices of women of color in feminism. I’m not one to throw stones here, since I don’t think my own romance-reading is as diverse as it should be.

      • VacuousMinx says:

        I know that (about her dissertation research). That’s part of what surprised me and made it seem so odd. Why isn’t that same perspective brought to bear on the topic of romance novels?

  4. Ruthie says:

    Interesting post! I’m enjoying this whole conversation.

    Just a note — that characterization of Wallbanger isn’t accurate. The heroine has experienced orgasms before, with numerous men. She doesn’t have one with the hero until a later point in the book, but they aren’t married when that happens. Or even in a bed, if I remember correctly.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Huh. Maybe I’m misremembering the conversation. Or the reader gave up on the book with a mistaken impression. In any case, it made her mad.

    • *SPOILER FOR WALLBANGER*

      But she did lose her orgasm and didn’t have another until she has sex with the hero. They don’t get married, but it is another situation in which the heroine doesn’t achieve sexual fulfillment until she finds true love. The heroine in that book did have a rich sex life previous to the one incident that killed her orgasms, though, but I found the example of Wallbanger an odd choice in a piece about feminism, unless the author was referencing the lack of slut-shaming associated to heroine’s former sex life.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        Ahh, that makes sense. I misremembered it as marriage, then, but I can still see why that might annoy some readers.

        At least it still supports my point that different readers experience books in different ways, even when they’re coming from a feminist perspective. Phew!

  5. CHURCH! I would add that in the 70’s and 80’s we also defined them as feminist. You have to look at the cultural contexts of the time. The timid secretary in love with the boss? She had career goals. Her work was often recognized. The historical heroine raped by stalkers who ends up with her hero? She is not blamed for the sexual aggression of others, she retains value and is valued by the hero. It is easy to dismiss older works by focusing on the most problematic and discarding the societal context they appeared in, but it is not accurate,

  6. Pingback: Feminism and Romance Novels: Link Roundup | scATX Reads

  7. Kathryn says:

    At Slate XX Factor blogger Alyssa Rosenberg has also written a response to Luther’s article, saying that the real problem is that men just aren’t reading those feminist romance novels. See http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2013/03/19/feminist_romance_novels_they_re_shaking_up_gender_roles_for_men_and_women.html.

    My first response to Luther’s article as someone who has been reading romance novels for 40-some years is that the history of romance genre is way more complicated than presented, but I was also happy to see that almost everyone in the article acknowledged that the intersections between romance novels and feminism are difficult and complex and worth thinking about.

    It’s also interesting because until Beyond Heaving Bosoms came out, I would have said that go-to book that people would talk about when discussing feminism and romance novels was Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women (ed. Jayne Ann Krentz), with Pamela Regis’ more academic study coming second. And yet there was no mention in the article of either book or Krentz , herself, or any of the other contributing romance authors from DMaAW or Nora Roberts or Jennifer Crusie. So maybe in part what this is about is the new generation of writers and readers looking at what it means to be a feminist today and enjoy romance novels.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Kathryn, that’s a great point about generations. I think “generation” has as much to do with when we began to read (and write) romance as with our age, in this case, though both may matter. It was long-time readers who educated me about the breadth of the genre’s past.
      I thought Rosenberg, too, made the case for today’s romance by over-simplifying and dismissing the past, which is really too bad.

      She also over-simplified the present. I don’t know how anyone could look at today’s popular books and not admit that many women still find “jerks,” aka bossy, possessive alpha heroes, attractive to read about. I really liked that Luther raised that issue head on and talked about the difference between fantasy and reality. Now, as then, the idea of this kind of man being brought low by love has a wide appeal. Although I think today’s alpha heroes are generally less cruel and certainly less rape-y, the underlying pattern is not so different.

  8. willaful says:

    Nothing much to add to the excellent conversation, the mention of FTBYaM just made me think of this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1HkdhzqADjk

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