Reading (About) Bodies: Links on the Body, Feminism and Romance

This week was my college’s reading break. I had a big list of Things I Will Do During Break. What I actually did was go to a bunch of meetings and mess around on the internet (plus a few of the things on the list). And on the internet this week, romance, feminism, and women’s bodies were inescapable.

 There was Valentine’s Day of course, and with it articles about romance and romance fiction. There were the comments about embodiment on my last post, and Jessica’s wonderful post about embodiment (don’t miss the comments). And then there were all the outraged tweets and Facebook posts about the birth control hearings where no women spoke and Virginia’s new law requiring a woman seeking an abortion to submit to a trans-vaginal ultrasound.

I think my favorite link from all the political WTF-ery was to a blog post from The Daily Caller (which I’d never heard of before, and which I plan to forget ASAP) entitled “What are women for?” James Poulos’ piece is so poorly written and argued that if it were a student paper, it would be lucky to get a bare pass. (He was slightly less addled when writing the follow-up). The upshot, though, seems to be that since women can bear children, they don’t get to decide individually what to do with their bodies; society does (it’s telling that apparently when he first tweeted the article link, he @ alerted only men to it). 

Poulos also suggests that women’s unique “natural bodies” give them a role in creating a more civilized society (I guess because we are nurturers by nature). There is, he claims, a broad consensus across the political spectrum that this is so. I had thought that consensus was left behind with the Victorian doctrine of separate spheres, the view that women must be protected from the contamination of the public world of business and politics so that they could function as the angel in the house, the moral guide of husbands and children. I guess I was deluded in thinking this an artifact of history.

This view of women’s moral superiority is a kind of benevolent sexism, “a set of interrelated attitudes toward women that are sexist in terms of viewing women stereotypically and in restricted roles but that are subjectively positive in feeling tone.” Merrian linked to in a couple of comment threads, prompting a great post from Heather Massey on benevolent sexism in sci fi romance. Heather asks (and I think she’s posed similar questions before) why writers setting their stories in future worlds often don’t imagine gender and sexuality in ways that look much different from our own.

So the week’s reading brought to the front of my mind a number of issues: the extent to which women’s control over our bodies is under threat, the extent to which our culture defines women as bodies, the extent to which gender is biologically determined (less than a lot of people assume; a great book on this is Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender). That’s partly why, when I read Maria Bustillos’ much-linked piece in The Awl on “Romance Novels, the Last Great Bastion of Underground Writing,” I first tweeted the link and promptly followed up with “Just because something is by, for and about women does not make it a feminist document, FFS.”

This seems to have touched a nerve (see Magdalen’s post for an example). But “by, for and about women” is not the definition of feminist. Not any definition of feminist. Yes, there are lots of debates within feminism, but the definition isn’t content-free, just decide for yourself. Just because a woman chooses something does not make it a feminist choice or exempt from critique from a feminist perspective. Women’s choices can be constrained by society and sometimes by their own conventional views of gender. All-female enterprises can be both empowering in some ways and sexist in others, because they are not separate from the larger, still in some ways sexist culture. College sororities would be one example of this, I think. And I’m pretty sure Romance–individual books, the genre as a whole, and the industry itself–is another. How could it not be?

It’s no surprise that Romanceland is wary and conflicted about its relationship to feminism. There’s a strand of reader-shaming and genre-shaming in some feminist views of romance (“you’re contributing to your own oppression by reading this awful trash, and you’re too dumb to see it,” essentially). It can feel important, then, to celebrate romance as unquestionably feminist (at least now; sometimes this celebration involves a problematic disavowal of the rape-y past). Challenges to that view are often controversial. This post by Laura Vivanco on a Kelly Hunter book in which the heroine disclaims feminism, and the subsequent long discussion thread, gives a pretty good picture of the issues and positions at stake in any discussion of feminism and romance.

I don’t think all romance is entirely sexist. It’s much too big a genre to make such generalizations about (and equally too sweeping to say that every romance novel is a feminist document). I don’t think the whole romance publishing industry is sexist. I think there’s a lot to celebrate in them from a feminist point of view–and setting feminism aside, a lot to celebrate just because romance can be fun, moving, beautiful, and thought-provoking. And the pleasure romance novels have given me can make me reluctant to critique or question them.

But I do have questions. Here are a few:

  • I’m curious about why I enjoy many books whose ideology I find on some level problematic (not every book, no, but plenty). These are hard questions, because they do ask me to consider whether I’ve internalized sexist views, and whether reading which has given me much pleasure has encouraged me to do so. I think these are questions each reader much choose to grapple with, or not, herself. I’m not interested in dictating to anyone else on this point.
  • It’s risky, again, to generalize about such a big genre, but taken as a whole, it can seem fairly conservative. For instance, I’ve never read a romance heroine who considered abortion or even adoption when she had an unplanned pregnancy, though I’ve heard there are a few out there. Why not? Could the genre tolerate more stories that more closely reflect real women’s choices and struggles, not just in this area but in others? Does the focus on courtship which is defined as a key element of romance fiction preclude those stories?
  • The market research of companies like Harlequin is often cited as a sign that the romance industry is giving female readers exactly what they want. I wonder about this, though. I hear a lot of gender-stereotypical assumptions from editors, writers and readers about what readers want: readers read to fall in love with the hero; readers want the hero to be at least a little stronger and more powerful than the heroine, so he has something to offer her. Well, not this reader, or at least not all the time. I realize my online circle is a very small subset of romance readers, but many of us are asking for something different. Are publishers asking questions in their market research that would allow people to ask for something different? (This doesn’t always happen. Today my employer asked me if I wanted to use their wifi to access the Internet. I expect Harlequin surveys are more sophisticated, but how much?) If publishers tried offering more variety, would they create demand for it? Could they broaden their readership? 
  • What about what I understand to be the RWA’s resistance to including smaller e-presses and self-publishers, typically female entrepreneurs, a practice which favors traditional publishing–now mostly multi-national conglomerates which are still male dominated at the top, no matter how female the editorial staff may be? I wonder whether the RWA is really doing all it could to empower female authors, or whether it is afraid to challenge the publishing status quo.
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49 Responses to Reading (About) Bodies: Links on the Body, Feminism and Romance

  1. Magdalen says:

    At what point do we acknowledge that when millions of women opt for something, it seems normative and even oppressive to define that choice as “sexist.” Aren’t we as women supposed to be making our own choices? And having made those choices, is it helpful to say, “Yes, but your choices are doctrinally sexist.” Where does that get anyone? Particularly when those choices amount to a ten billion dollar industry.

    My take is this: the romance industry is gynocratic, both from above and from below. (I don’t believe that RWA’s reasonable standard for what qualifies as an “official publisher” is an effort to keep a sexist boot on the neck of women entrepreneurs–and I say that as one of the women entrepreneurs.) If millions of women wanted to read stories that were substantially less sexist and more feminist, the market would accommodate them.

    There are feminist battles still to be fought–equal pay for equal work, for one–but I can’t see the battle here. Maybe the concept of a “feminist romance” is oxymoronic. Even if it isn’t, it doesn’t seem to be a standard the market cares a lot about. What I do believe is that the market is made up of, and satisfied by, women. It’s largely separate from larger, male dominated, corporations in the sense that when you have a ten billion dollar market, you let the market decide what it wants.

    Plus, no discussion about Bustillos’s piece mentions the authors. Maybe I’m not listening in the right places, but I don’t hear authors complaining about how they’re being forced to write sexist crap when what they really want to write is…about a woman’s right to choose. (Or whatever.) Ten years ago, a more feminist romance writer might have felt constrained by her publisher’s wishes. Today, if an author writes a book that Harlequin passes on because it’s too feminist, she has all those entrepreneurial publishers to query, or she can self-publish. That could well expand the range of feminist story lines and plot points. I hope it does. I doubt it’s going to shift the current trend of “Billionaire Sexist Tycoon” books.

    I think we’re deluding ourselves if we really imagine that millions of women are reading sexist story lines and plot points all the while longing for more feminism. Women are writing what they want to write and reading what they want to read. In this one regard, we as a gender, are out from under the patriarchy’s thumb. And as a whole, in the aggregate, we’re happy. Call me a cock-eyed optimist, but I see that as the very definition of feminism: women making choices for themselves that increase their happiness.

    • lizmc2 says:

      Well, you and I are never going to convince each other, and that’s fine with me. There’s room for a lot of perspectives on romance, including a lot of feminist perspectives. I would like to repeat, though, that you’re attributing things to me that I didn’t say and didn’t want to say. I am not saying romance is inherently and in all ways sexist, or that women are necessarily making sexist choices by reading romance or any particular book. It’s true the questions I posed at the end are critical ones, but that’s just because I think the positive things one can say about romance from a feminist perspective–and there are many, many such things–are already well-represented in discussions of the genre and books. Perhaps I didn’t make that clear enough in my post.

      My questions really are questions, not assertions. And while I feel equipped to answer some of them (questions about representation in a particular book I have read, for instance), others, I don’t have enough knowledge to answer (questions about the publishing industry). RWA and publishing generally is very straight, white, and middle-class. For sure that shapes and limits the stories that get told. I think other kinds of genre fiction also tend to be conservative (detective fiction is partly about restoring the status quo). Is that inevitable and inherent? I’m not sure.

      I will say that I am much less inclined than you seem to be to see market forces as benign. Walmart gives a lot of people what they want, too, but in doing so contributes to the decline of traditional small-town economies, the exploitation of workers across the globe, and, the data suggest, discrimination against women. I’m not saying there’s an exact parallel to romance publishing; I am saying financial/market success doesn’t mean something is all good.

      A better parallel to romance might be the fashion and beauty industries. I’m glad that feminism has largely moved past condemnation of those things, and of women who enjoy them. I enjoy them myself. Fashion and make-up can be empowering means of self-expression, ways for women to explore and enjoy their sexuality, among other things. But there are at the same time a lot of ways in which we can be critical of that industry: it can objectify women and impose rigid and damaging standards of beauty on them, for instance. A lot of women spend a lot of money–a lot more than many men do–on making their bodies “acceptable.” I don’t think these are either/or questions (it is sexist or it isn’t). I think they are both/and. And my own desire is to ask the critical questions as well as the celebratory ones. For me, that is part of taking the genre seriously.

  2. Danielle says:

    I wonder if there isn’t something else at play here, something valuable that is being missed due to the focus on definitions, in the debate about whether or not romances are feminist documents. In “Women Voice Men: Gender In European Culture”, Alison Finch writes this in her contributing essay, “Men In Early 19th-Century French Women’s Writing”:

    “The French Revolutionand its immediate aftermath had been a time of optimism, then disappointment, for feminists. The Revolution itself had raised hopes that women might now be given equal rights to men’s, only for these hopes to be crushed both by male revolutionaries and by the shortly-following repressive legislation introduced by Napoleon. […] And Napoleon’s laws, which relegated women to the status of minors and made divorce illegal, were felt by many to have put women in a worse position than during the Ancien Régime. Intelligent and imaginative French women of the early part of the 19th century were, then, faced with a doubly disturbing issue. First – from whatever standpoint – they were still thinking through the implications of rebellion by lower against upper orders. Second, they were more aware than ever before that another kind of hierarchy co-existed with the visible one that the Revolution had bloodily tried to overturn: the hierarchy of ‘men higher than women’. Many French women writers in the first three decades of the 19th century do interweave the two issues. In their works, ‘male’ is often identified with ‘noble rank’ while ‘female’ is identified with ‘low social rank’” (p.23).

    Acknowledging that “’class’ as a literary device” did not originate with these writers, Finch goes on to say; “Even if they were merely repeating situations and ‘initiating’ discussions already known to be ingredients of successful 18th-century fiction, the mere fact that they have undergone the experience of the 1789 Revolution would differentiate them from their predecessors. […] they do in fact go farther than their predecessors. They link social rank with other forms of advantage in an often bold, and occasionally outrageous, manner; their questioning is more direct (sometimes to the aesthetic qualities of the works). The status of women is now more clearly than before parallelled with that of other lower-class beings who are denied prestige and privilege; and, implicitly or explicitly, ‘maleness’ becomes ‘aristocracy’” (24-5).

    It seems to me there are interesting parallels to be drawn with the situation of women in the USA today and readers and writers of romance in particular. While at least on the surface many romances present scenarios that appear to contradict “feminist agendas” and while these scenarios are repeated on a massive scale in book after book, year after year, each decade brings noticeable changes to (and changes in reaction to) the basic recipe, changes that can be traced to social and political phenomena. That indicates to me that there are other forces, less obvious but significant, at work in what type of romances are being read and written than uncritical pleasure in (benevolent) sexism (although the effects of conditioning cannot be discounted) or ambivalence about feminist goals. Isn’t it possible that the scenarios played out in romances are chosen not because they are embraced as an ideal but primarily because, consciously or not, they offer a forceful literary device for expressing and commenting on how women feel about and negotiate their way in a society that is not equal?

    I am also tempted to speculate that one reason for why romance readers often take away a very different message from romances than critics of the genre is because the former have unscrambled what amounts to a code of sorts, allowing them a much more empowering reading than critics who tend to stare themselves blind on the code (the devices used) and treat that as the actual or only message.

    Apologies for the length and rambling nature of this comment. I don’t have this fully figured out in my own head yet, but I have found the exchanges between you and Magdalen very helpful. Thank you!

    • lizmc2 says:

      Thanks for that really interesting quote and comments, Danielle. I agree that it’s a mistake to assume readers take only the “surface” message from anything they read. One reason criticizing readers for their choices is wrong-headed is that the effects of reading are, I think, often incalculable. I’m sure there are many ways my reading influences me–maybe some of the most powerful ways–that I’m not even aware of. I’m interested in exploring the effects of my reading on me, but don’t think I have tools to comment on anyone else’s.

      I have mixed feelings about how these counter/code-breaking-readings might work in romance. On the one hand, it’s a genre that asks us to root for the protagonists and their HEA, which suggests we are meant to take the endings as straight-forwardly positive. On the other hand, I think romance often works in almost symbolic or allegorical ways, and isn’t always meant to be read “literally.” So readers rightly read all kinds of meanings that aren’t “evident” and that might not be visible to people not familiar with the genre. This is one thing scholars who are also fans can bring to romance.

      Maybe I need to clarify that I don’t want romances to be “feminist documents.” I want them to be good fiction. And as the passage you quoted suggests, too obvious a political agenda is often to the detriment of aesthetic value (or good story). I’ve liked books that clearly come from a feminist viewpoint and explore feminist themes (Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, Ursula K LeGuin, Sara Paretsky, for instance) but only when they are first good stories/books. It’s harder for me to think of romances that are so overtly “feminist,” I think because their focus is the courtship plot and other themes are secondary. One recent example for me is Cecilia Grant’s Lady Awakened, which I think is interested in its heroine’s struggle to be useful and valuable. It’s actually easier to think of historicals, I think because these issues have to be more overtly negotiated there given the constraints of the time period. A contemporary example might be Julie James’Practice Makes Perfect, where the courtship plays out against a professional competition between hero and heroine.

      • Danielle says:

        And here’s more for me to think about, especially in your last paragraph. Love the stimulus and finally feel motivated to take a look at both Grant’s debut and James’s book, thank you 🙂

        I do wonder what an “overtly feminist” romance would look like. Romances deal with women’s emotions and so in some measure they seem, to me, inseparable from women’s issues. The exploration of those issues may not look like feminist manifestoes, but the concerns expressed about and by women in the stories and the way they are dealt with, especially in heroine-centric romances, can and do, I believe, reference or contain aspects of feminism.

        Okay, I am in way over my head here so I am going to stop now!

  3. Danielle says:

    Sorry, the quote “sometimes to the aesthetic qualities of the works” should read “sometimes to the detriment of the aesthetic qualities of the works”.

  4. Janet W says:

    Danielle said, “I am also tempted to speculate that one reason for why romance readers often take away a very different message from romances than critics of the genre is because the former have unscrambled what amounts to a code of sorts, allowing them a much more empowering reading than critics who tend to stare themselves blind on the code (the devices used) and treat that as the actual or only message.”

    I would never make a code breaker and I don’t know what this means. And I don’t want to put words or ideas in any one’s mouth. I have a theory of what it might mean but Danielle, anyone, could you expand on that. Thanks.

    • Danielle says:

      Janet W, I am not a good code breaker and did not mean to imply anything mystical or special analytical capabilities on the part of those who read and enjoy genre fiction. I was thinking, for example, of how the recurring elements in romance can be driven by complex realities and how the texts and their readers and writers are ill served by critical surface readings that insist on fitting romances into negative models. Those who enjoy the genre seem able to read beyond or not get stuck on some of the devices used in telling a romance story. Very clumsily put, when it comes to romance, critics sometimes seem to become fixated on the choice of coathanger instead of looking at the coat itself.

    • Merrian says:

      I read Danielle’s comment and thought of some of the discussion over the years on SBTB about the ‘rapetastic’ books of the 70’s and 80’s and why women read them (and why we don’t want to read them now). My takeaway from those threads was that the rape in the books was how women in the stories negotiated the possibility of sex and enjoyable sex without taking responsibility for it at a time women readers were living lives created by beliefs that good girls don’t have sex outside marriage, don’t initiate sex and live in a world were men and the expectations of society have power over women.

      To most non-genre readers those are the awful books about rape. They miss the conversation about power, choice and female desire that is going on in the experience that the genre readers have of these books. That is the code talk in play. The code comes as much from the expectations that genre readers and outside readers each bring to the same text. The different start points means they are reading with different code books in hand that translate the text differently.

      I would also say that all romance novels start with the world around the writer. That world is found within the text in what is included or omitted or how things are described which takes me back to Liz’ article. I think what is not represented in romance novels and what is represented are those things which are causes of tension in women’s lives in the real world. The deliberate social conservatism of much of American romance writing actually highlights the faultlines of women’s personal lives and social place. I don’t find the genre didactic – that is trying to enforce ways of being. It is escapist though and in being so strives to be uncritical.

      I think I disagree with Magdalen. The genre isn’t inherently feminist but there is Foucaltian resistance going on, so I think of it as a women’s space. I think it is easy to think of a rights based approach to feminism – equal pay, etc as the only feminism that matters because it is so important. It is one form only, addressing only some of the issues. I thought Liz’ questions about RWA highlight this because how RWA frames its’ agenda frames the choices and actions it takes and whether the possibilities that follow are more or less empowering for women as authors or readers or other workers and entrepeneurs in publishing.

      One of the most powerful things about the genre is that it includes the body and our embodiment as a matter of fact in the romance genre stories of people making good lives. What is interesting is that it is women’s bodies that are the site of struggle at the moment in the social and political world of our times.

      • Danielle says:

        Beautifully put, Merrian. (And your example of the SBTB debate is a great example of what I was trying to say with “code”.)

      • lizmc2 says:

        I think the rape-y heroes are a great example of something that can be read in many, many ways (and those ways may all be basically feminist–there isn’t one feminist lens for reading). I agree in some ways with the “SBTB narrative” about those books, that they gave women “permission” to enjoy sex. I think that I enjoyed dominating heroes more when I was less confident in my own desires. Or enjoyed them in a different way–now I prefer a heroine who enjoys the domination, and am interested in negotiations/explorations of sexual power. But I also have problems with that narrative: it’s based on judging our “mother readers” as less free than we are, which may be true, but is that what they say about their experience? I’m not sure 70s readers are chiming in on those threads, and I’m wary of constructing narratives of their experience for them. Such a story also erases the experience of readers today who love those books. Why? I think they are often afraid to speak up because the books are so often discussed as “something we’ve thankfully grown out of.”

        Janet/Robin at Dear Author has really interesting ideas about how and why readers consent to these scenes, how they are partly “about” consent and how it’s defined and understood. Rape-by-hero, like rape fantasies, can also be read (I guess more or less in a Freudian way) as a way of managing something women fear in real life by turning it into an experience we can enjoy and control. That is, we don’t have to read those scenes as “real” rapes. I think to readers who enjoy them they can also be read as signs of the hero’s overwhelming desire for the heroine–again, not as real rapes, which are not about that at all. Lots of readers like possessive, dominant, jealous, stalkerish heroes in fiction, even though they are well aware, and clearly say, that such a man is not an appealing real-life partner. I think even teenage lovers of Twilight are mostly smart enough to know that too, although tweets about how “Chris Brown can beat me up any time” do make me wonder.

        It’s such a rich area for discussion. And this, to me, is what feminist readings of romance are about. Since I’m trained as a literary critic, I tend to “use”/see feminism primarily as a way of asking new and different questions about cultural phenomena, not as a platform to battle over (feminist goals do, of course, partly function that way in the political realm) or a doctrinal standard to enforce. I think maybe that different view of what “feminist reading/critique” means is at the heart of my disagreement with Magdalen.

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  6. Maria Bustillos says:

    Ahoy! Maria Bustillos here. Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed this thought-provoking and insightful discussion. Danielle and Merrian in particular, thanks for crystallizing some nagging questions for me.

  7. Robin says:

    Liz: I definitely agree with you that not everything written by and for women is feminist. And when you take into consideration the different registers of “feminism” (e.g. as a political movement, a political ideology, a collection of critical theories, etc.) it becomes even more complicated to make those kinds of claims. I do think the genre tends to be female-centric, even when the romantic protags are not necessarily female, but that’s a theory for another day.

    As for the “SBTB narrative,” I think it’s really more the Nancy Friday narrative (http://books.google.com/books/about/My_Secret_Garden.html?id=8vf0sCEdnssC) , in part because her work was so groundbreaking and timely to that period (it was originally pubbed in 1973), and also because I think it’s been very influential, adopted by more than a few members of the Romance community, and pointed to in discussions of sexual force in the genre. FWIW, I’m not sure I agree with all of Friday’s conclusions, although having read a fair amount of research on rape fantasies more generally, I do think her work is important to consider. But I agree with you that overgeneralization seems to be a core issue in all of these discussions, and I wonder if some of that comes from the highly personal nature of reading about love, sex, and sexuality.

    One thing that stuck out in your post was the comment about reading books that fly against your own ideological beliefs. I am often drawn to these types of books, and I think part of the reason is that I love to puzzle out these types of theoretical problems. But I think another reason is that when I enjoy them, I do so two levels: first as a reveling in something that might be more in line with what I see as society’s conditioning, and therefore tempting to entertain, and second as a reaffirmation that I find that conditioning problematic, and therefore a reaffirmation of my own continuously evolving self-awareness. There is satisfaction on both levels, even though it’s a different type of pleasure and a different pay-off. A book has to be somewhat compelling to yield this double pleasure, though, because sometimes the ideological dimensions are just too discordant for me, and my only “pleasure” is in parsing out the source and function of my frustration.

    • lizmc2 says:

      Thanks for chiming in on that, Robin. You are far more expert than I am and that’s helpful perspective.

      The reading experiences you describe are ones I have a lot too. The “double register” can be similar to the way I can read both for pleasure and academically/analytically at the same time.

      • Robin says:

        Oh, I’m no expert, but I just wanted to point out that there is actual research behind that claim, and while I don’t believe it’s fully inclusive, I do think its influence rests partly in the fact that Friday is very woman and sex-positive, which has made her work very attractive to Romance readers and students of the genre.

      • VacuousMinx says:

        I wrote a blog entry that will post in a few days directly inspired by your question, on why I read romance novels that run contrary to my real-life experiences and my ideological predispositions. Short answer: I like to read about people who are different from me. For me it’s the equivalent of reading about a foreign country I’d like to understand/know better but don’t really have access to. I find it interesting and rewarding.

        • lizmc2 says:

          I look forward to that. I am now thinking about my own history as a reader. I am a scholar of Victorian fiction much of which is a) high realist and b) trying to act morally on its readers. I have taught a lot of children’s lit, too, which many argue is at heart and inescapably, even if not overtly, a didactic genre. So now I wonder if I am unconsciously approaching romance fiction with the assumption that it is trying to “persuade” me of something. And thus I resist. I need to learn to read more like a social scientist!

          I think somebody–Danielle or Merrian?–already pointed out that romance isn’t didactic.

  8. Merrian says:

    Without getting into the complexities and questions such as appropriation I wonder if it is at the point that this [“All-female enterprises can be both empowering in some ways and sexist in others, because they are not separate from the larger, still in some ways sexist culture….” (LizMc2)] becomes too much, that women who want to read romance pick up an m/m story? Not just to avoid or escape but so the reader doesn’t have to suspend belief about what women’s lives are really like. Also, perhaps the issues often touched on and dealt with by the characters in an m/m story such as coming out and prejudice are enabling for the reader (change can happen) when in an m/f story the nexus of sexism is overwhelming?

    The agency of the heroine is really important to me in a romance story, that this grows, that the relationship strengthen’s it and the heroine owns it.

    • lizmc2 says:

      I have heard a lot of readers–and writers–say things like that about m/m. Though ironically some I have read seems to replicate traditional m/f patterns of romance.

      • Merrian says:

        And those are the books that called out or at least reviewed low on blogs like Jessewave’s. That they exist shows that some authors write as if m/m was simply another romance sub-genre. I don’t think it is.

  9. The market research of companies like Harlequin is often cited as a sign that the romance industry is giving female readers exactly what they want.

    More likely, it’s giving the women who answered the survey what they want….

    • Robin says:

      At the same time, though, Harlequin has historically been the only traditional publisher to DO any market research, in part because they have always had a direct marketing business, no doubt. So while I absolutely agree that their research isn’t all-inclusive, I also think it’s no coincidence that the company that does that kind of actual ‘talk to the reader’ outreach also produces the greatest diversity of books.

      Although there are some fabulous editors in Big 6 publishing, I think there has been and is still a huge disconnect between readers (who have not been pub’s customer base) and publishers in general, who have largely been tailoring their offerings to what retailers want. Which is why, IMO, you’re now seeing the success of many more digital and self-pubbed books. What I think is going to be interesting is how trad publishing is going to manage that. Will they try to profit off of self-pub, will they try to emulate those more successful books, will they keep on with business as usual?

      As readers, we think it should be fairly obvious that what sells isn’t necessarily the best, that readers loyal to a genre will buy books they don’t like (because you don’t know until you read them), and that even though something is well-loved does not mean it satisfies all readers or is the ONLY thing that readers want. But I don’t think the long-cherished, hardcover-first model of traditional publishing is truly compatible with what readers want. The big question, IMO, is whether (and how) that will ever change.

    • lizmc2 says:

      I know next to nothing about Harlequin’s market research, so that was very much a question, but I wonder if what they are doing is giving a core group of readers what they want. And you know, that is fine. They are succeeding at it. I just wonder if they–or romance publishing generally–could broaden their readership if they offered more variety. Capitalists generally like their business to grow, after all. And as Danielle pointed out, romance DOES grow and change. The genre isn’t static.

      Magdalen rightly raised a point about authors earlier: no one should have to write a particular kind of story, of course. People should read and write what makes them happy. I think, though, that there are writers who are not writing exactly what they want, or if they are, they recognize that it might limit their opportunities (for instance, someone tweeted that she got a new contract based on agreeing to write a lighter historical; I’ve heard writers as well as readers complain that flawed heroes are A-OK in the genre but flawed heroines face a backlash). I am more thinking that there are writers out there who want to write and are writing different stories, but traditional publishing isn’t looking at them. I’m thinking about something like Carolyn Jewel’s comments on R Lee Smith’s Heat, as well as the Dear Author thread on that book. Quite likely such books have a very niche market and self-publishing and small e-publishing is where they belong. But if I were an editor I might think about the readers who are increasingly seeking those niches and wonder if they were a sign of larger possibilities.

      • Robin says:

        I’ll be honest in saying that I really don’t understand these “authors being forced to write X kinds of books” statements. Personally, I don’t want books that authors felt forced to write, in the same way I don’t want publishers trying to second-guess what I, as a reader, want. I also get extremely frustrated when I see a book sell well and the next 100 books out of the publisher’s house look just like that book. UGH.

        One problem, though, is that editors don’t always have the autonomous power to acquire any book they want (http://www.underdown.org/acquisition-basics.htm), which changes the game considerably. Also, I hear authors say they feel there are “rules” that have to be observed in terms of what readers will and won’t tolerate. That always makes me nuts, because I see readers all the time begging for more books that break certain rules. And now, with the proliferation of small presses, digital first presses, and self-publishing options, I think authors have even more power in determining how their books get to readers.

        Of course, trad publishing still has a cache of prestige for many authors, and as long as that’s the case, you may have compromises made for what is perceived as the “market.” But again, I think that’s more about publishing’s disconnect with actual readers than what readers want. And even trying to feed the “what readers want” machine is fraught with peril, because so often readers don’t know what we want until we get something that we love and did not expect. In general, I like the idea of a publisher being more connected to its reader base, although I still think the quality of a book (story, voice, etc.) should be first priority in publishing. I just don’t know if that’s ever going to happen in a genre like Romance, where profit, and not glowing NTRBR reviews, have become the most meaningful marker for publishers of the genre’s success and proliferation.

      • VacuousMinx says:

        I wonder if what they are doing is giving a core group of readers what they want.

        By “core” I assume you don’t mean a small group? Because Harlequin probably reaches more readers in more countries than any other publisher of romance. Certain authors like Nora Roberts reach more readers, perhaps, but overall, I’d put my money on HMB. Harlequin authors regularly reach the US best-seller lists now, and popular authors make a very good income. I saw a figure from 2008 that said worldwide sales of Harlequin were about 35 million.

        • lizmc2 says:

          Oh, I definitely don’t mean small, and as Robin pointed out, partly because they do direct market research they are far more diverse in their offerings than many publishers. I’m not sure quite what I meant. I guess that I think there are readers who will not even try Harlequin, at least the category/series books, because it is Harlequin. I used to be that way and then realized how prejudiced it was and what I was missing. My hunch was that “romance readers” read Harlequin, and that casual readers are not likely to. But now I that I think about it, that seems unlikely. Harlequins can be impulse-bought at the grocery store. And they are on the shelves of B&B’s and summer rentals everywhere. I used to read a few that way. So maybe that’s a really inaccurate assumption.

          I guess maybe what I’m thinking is that though there’s a diversity of lines, there’s also a focus within those lines on developing a consistent type of product, giving readers what they expect. Innovation happens slowly and deliberately. Mostly, if I pick a Harlequin, I know what I’m getting. That’s often why I do pick one, but means I’m less likely to be surprised into finding I like/trying something new. Maybe? Maybe I was just making some faulty assumptions….

  10. willaful says:

    “benevolent sexism in sci fi romance” A timely phrase for me, since I just encountered this in Evangeline Anderson’s Hunted and was rather taken aback by it.

    These are excellent questions, many of which have bothered me for some time. Having been part of Harlequin’s “Ambassador” program, I’m not impressed with their market research overall. I rarely seemed to have the opportunity to express what I most wanted to say. There were also frequent technical issues which didn’t help.

    Look like some fascinating comments here, will come back and read when I have more time.

  11. I participate in Tell Harlequin, their market research program, so I can share a bit of what that looks like.

    There are two forms of feedback there: surveys and forum posts, both time-limited. Roughly once a month we get sent a link to a survey or to a forum thread. Surveys can take on a few different forms. When they’re on our reaction to a specific book they sent us earlier, it asks us dozens of questions that can be answered on a 1-10 agree/disagree scale (“this book was a satisfying read,” “I found the characters actions believable,” “the plot was formulaic”) then asks us a handful of open-ended questions. Other times they show us different varieties of cover art then ask for our reactions. One time it was a multiple-choice survey on our non-romance interests (I hated that one, since none of my interests were listed, only “feminine” ones like cooking, crafting, watching your weight, couponing, reading ladymags, etc. That’s when I realized I was surrounded my middle-aged, suburbanite, moms/grandmothers who subscribed to a traditional and narrow sort of femininity, or Harlequin at least really thinks so.) Forum posts ask people to write about how they discover new books to read or what they look for in a book.

    The surveys are about their books, not romance in general, really. Also, judging by the emails I get, the majority of participants are just fine with the status quo. I’ll read a book and pan it as a tired retelling of white people being wholesome in a crime-free small town, complete with cardboard characters out of central casting. and the next email will say “The majority of readers said they would likely buy another book by this author. Many readers mentioned the likable and realistic characters as a main reason for enjoying the book.” and then send us a “free gift” of two of that author’s books. So Harlequin’s research is to reinforce their brand. It’s not polling a wide selection of romance readers.

  12. GrowlyCub says:

    I got only 1 Harlequin survey and the questions were all leading to the point of being total jokes. There was no way to answer in a manner that didn’t give them the answers they were clearly looking for (babies, conservative, rural better than city, m/f). Basically, if they wanted to be able to say ‘readers want dark-haired men on the cover’ then the question was something like ‘would you prefer dark haired men or pink ponies on the cover of the books you buy’. Can you tell I was not impressed?

  13. lizmc2 says:

    Willaful, Ridley and GrowlyCub, thanks for reporting on your personal experiences of market research.

  14. VacuousMinx says:

    LIz, I’m replying to your reply to me but I think we’ve reach the thread limit so it’s down here! You are definitely right that there are readers who won’t try Harlequins for the reasons you mention. For every reader who compares a category to composing poetry in sonnet form, there are more than a few who see it as a lesser form of fiction, sort of the bastard stepchild of a bastard stepchild genre. Even though we review a fraction of the total categories published at DA, there are commenters who say we review too many or we are shilling for Harlequin. If DA reviewed *every* Avon (or NAL or whatever) release I wonder if we’d get the same type of criticism for doing so.

    I agree that Harlequin has a tight formula; consistency is part of what has made it so successful. But I do believe they’re hitting what people want to read. They’re certainly willing to jettison lines and approaches that don’t sell. And within the formulas, they tinker quite a bit.

    • GrowlyCub says:

      I gave up on Harlequin when they tinkered in their lines so that they are all now super rich suspense books; I loved the SSE bec there were ordinary ppl and no stupid suspense plots, now they are all the same from Desire to Special Edition to Superromance, just the covers are different and the word count. Very disappointing

      • VacuousMinx says:

        I’ve never read the Silhouette lines with any regularity, but there are still plenty of non-superrich people in some of the Harlequin lines I read, including SuperRomance. Jeannie Watt had a Super last year with a not-rich rancher and a junior professor. The Marion Lennox HR I recently reviewed had a fisherman and an engineer. HelenKay Dimon’s series for Intrigue had politically connected but otherwise relatively normal people.

        I’m sorry you’ve had such bad luck with them. I do pick and choose by authors and plots, even among favorite lines, so I probably avoid the types you’re talking about. But it is definitely possible to do, in my experience.

  15. Robin says:

    Mostly, if I pick a Harlequin, I know what I’m getting.
    What is that?
    Although I’ve read many Harlequins that reinforce the white middle class suburban status quo, to paraphrase Ridley, I’ve also had some of my biggest surprises with Harlequin books. Like Jo Leigh’s Arm Candy, where the ambitious heroine hires a research (read “geek”) hero to serve as her boyfriend during a weekend retreat in which she wants to fend off her sexually aggressive boss. He takes the gig because he’s doing research on sexual attraction and figures it will be good for his work. Not only does the book look at traditional gender roles and expectations, but the heroine’s career is not seen as something she needs to discard once she finds her man. And there’s a classic scene where the hero’s mother (a Uni professor) tells him that he’s too often let his “little head” do his thinking. Heh.

    Or the Molly O’Keefe book I just read, And Baby Makes Three. Hero and heroine are divorced and majorly angry with each other. Heroine is a depressed, angry, bordering on alcoholic chef, hero an emotionally shut down restaurant manager who builds an Inn in the Catskills with his brother and father and needs a chef. One of the major problems in their marriage was the lack of communication over the miscarriages the heroine had, and while the book makes no bones about both protags desperately wanting children, there is NO TALK about anyone giving up a career to have them. Nor does hero feel emasculated that he’s not the professional chef. Also? Let’s hear it for angry, fucked up heroines, who, even when they get their shit together, aren’t Little Suzy Sunshine!

    Or some of the Michelle Reid and Susan Napier books I’ve read. Like the Napier that featured a virgin hero (who was like 30 something, IIRC), or the Reid book that featured a Sheikh hero who rejected his family and cultural expectations of an heir (heroine had difficulty conceiving). Sure the subject of the book is children (heroine has left the hero because she can’t give him a son and doesn’t want to wait around for him to take a second wife), but the way the subject was handled was, I think, quite interesting (he has to figure out how to balance his culture’s traditions with new ways indicative of his cross-cultural marriage). And let’s not forget Charlotte Lamb’s Vampire Lover, where the heroine ties up and rapes the hero AND leaves him sexually unsatisfied! OMG that book is HP on crack!

    I do, absolutely, wish there was more ethnic, cultural, and racial diversity integrated into the mainstream lines, and it took me forever to deal with the titles and covers, but overall, I find some of the most subversive books among Harlequin’s offerings, often among the books where I expect the most formulaic repetition (e.g. HP’s, where, I think, the books can be so far out there as to turn upside down).

    • lizmc2 says:

      Yeah, maybe I need to walk back that whole Harlequin comment. OK, let me rephrase this way: “mostly, I choose a Harlequin when I want a particular kind of story, because their branding of lines is so successful that I am pretty certain of getting it–if what I want comes in a certain Harlequin package.” Sweet, light story focused on falling in love? Romance. Angstier, with realistic characters and issues? SuperRomance. OTT soapy angsty fun? Presents.

      Other books I buy I am way less aware of publisher because I don’t buy direct from them, so if other pubs have a “brand” identity I am not aware of it. (Maybe Avon?) So maybe my observation is about me, not HQN at all. Plus it isn’t like HQN is more white, etc. than other publishers. Less, considering that they have a line you *know* you will find stories about African-American characters.

      But you are right that I there are HQN books that–I don’t want to say transcend–that stretch the boundaries of what that category can be. There are Presents, for instance, that have pretty much all the gendered tropes I hate most (innocent heroine, alpha hero, surprise! or secret babies that of course mean marriage) that tell that story in a way that upends the gender conventions you’d expect. So yeah, I don’t want to hate on Harlequin.

      • Robin says:

        I agree with you that Harlequin offers a lot of clarity and reliability in certain narrative forms.

        Bringing this back to your question about feminism, I generally see the genre of Romance as socially conservative in its focus on love and often marriage. Plus, I think the Classical Comedy formula of young lovers who represent new social order + antagonist who represents old social order = triumph of lovers and marriage, representing triumph of new social order is very much at work in genre Romance, along with the vestiges of sentimental and sensational fiction, and the concerns around how women make choices in their lives and how they work with certain social structures and judgments.

        Because of that, I look for subversion on smaller levels, I think. I think that Cathy Davidson’s view of sentimental fiction as representing the choice of marriage as the most important a woman could make, with books creating a platform for discussion and contemplation of how to make the best choices is also relevant to Romance, not in the same way, precisely, but in terms of how IMO the genre represents the various struggles and choices and experiences that women face, and how many of its readers enjoy talking about those issues and creating a collective dimension to the experience of reading that has long accompanied the proliferation of books written by, about, and for women.

        Anyway, I don’t know how completely subversive the genre could be, as long as its focus is on love and marriage. And when it’s revolutionary, I think it’s so in the way of most actual revolutions — that is, it takes you back pretty close to where you started. Some elements — same sex protags, polyamory — are more potentially subversive than others, of course, but ultimately I think the genre works within a pretty traditional and self-preserving social paradigm, and I’m not trying to imply any particular value judgment there (i.e. bad or good). For that alone I wouldn’t identify the genre as feminist, but I also don’t think it’s inherently reactionary or regressive.

        • lizmc2 says:

          I agree with all of that. And as someone who regularly says, only half-kidding, that I would be a depressed crazy cat-lady if I had not met my husband, I would not want to argue that finding a good partner is not still a really important issue for a lot of women. (or, you know, figuring out how to be a happy, not-crazy cat or non-cat lady without a partner. But I don’t expect romance to tell that story).

  16. It’s worth pointing out that I wouldn’t bother with Tell Harlequin if I wasn’t someone who read lots of their books. I’ve found a pretty good variety of stories and characters there, to be honest. Much better than I’ve found in NY published single-title contemporaries. Blaze and Superromance in particular tend to give me fully-fleshed out heroines with lives of their own who are paired with heroes who make them happier without overshadowing them.

    And as a counter to Growly, I don’t read suspense. Romantic suspense and paranormal, in my opinion, have to shortchange either the romance or the suspense/world-building to hit the word count limit and so always feel kinda meh to me. I’ve enjoyed Harlequin because it seems to be the last bastion of non-suspense and non-paranormal contemporaries.

  17. Pingback: On Feminism in Reading and Writing Romance | Lily Daniels

  18. Great, thought provoking post. I started to write a long reply but it got long enough that I decided to post it on my Lily Daniels blog.

  19. GrowlyCub says:

    I gave up on Superromance and Special Editions when every one I tried had a suspense subplot which lead exactly to what ridley mentioned; neither the rom nor the suspense was well done. Admittedly, I haven’t cracked one open in a couple of years (pretty much have been reading historicals exclusively for the last 2 years or so), so maybe they dialed that back, but I distinctly remember listening to the different line editors doing their podcasts and they all said the same thing regardless of line, glitzy, high powered heroes or sheiks with suspense plots. That blew my mind because that was so not what I expected in a Special Edition for ex.

  20. I think somebody–Danielle or Merrian?–already pointed out that romance isn’t didactic.

    In my opinion, some of it is, and some of it isn’t.

    • lizmc2 says:

      Oh, thanks for reminding me of that post, Laura! Since reading it, I have read some of Ros Ballaster’s book and taught Eliza Haywood’s Love in Excess in a history of the novel course (it’s amatory fiction). It was a really interesting experience because my students *wanted* it to by didactic, or were unsure how to read it when it was not. The only thing that sets the hero apart from the “bad” men of the novel is chance–he’s constantly interrupted in his attempts to seduce innocents who are not the heroine. And while his love for the heroine is presented as true and lasting, it’s also totally unmotivated. It just happens. How to read a novel that was no psychologically realistic and did not entirely distinguish between good & bad or always mete out to characters fates students thought they deserved–that didn’t confirm their values and beliefs about love–was a real puzzle for them.

    • Robin says:

      Laura, do you think some novels are intentionally didactic? I re-read your post on the subject and am still torn. Do you think there’s something in the Romance genre, or genre fiction in general that tends toward moral lessons? Or do you think it is an incidental function of the subject matter?

      • Merrian says:

        I personally think it is “…it is an incidental function of the subject matter” although inspirationals are another thing

      • Merrian’s already mentioned inspirationals; here’s part of the guidelines for Harlequin Love Inspired romances:

        The Love Inspired fiction program features wholesome Christian romance that will help women to better guide themselves, their families and their communities toward purposeful, faith-driven lives.

        But I don’t think they’re the only romances which can have didactic aims. Jennifer Crusie once wrote that

        My sex scenes–and my romance novels–are about determined women who go after what they need and get it, which is why I think they’re a feminist act. Naomi Wolf once said that men called women who liked sex “sluts,” but that was okay because “we need sluts for the revolution.” That’s what I’m doing, that’s my mission in life, I’m writing sluts for the revolution. I’m very proud.

        and Beverly Jenkins has said that

        it seems like that it’s been my ministry—tap,
        tap, tap on the shoulder—to do that, to bring that 19th century to life in a way
        that people can access it, people can be proud of who they were, and still see
        the struggle in a real light—you know, a real light, so that it’s not glossed over.

        With other romances and other authors it’s maybe more the case that, as you suggest, any didacticism is “an incidental function of the subject matter.”

  21. Robin says:

    Laura,
    As I think about this, it’s interesting, because I know that Romance emerges from two of the most dogmatic strains of literature, the captivity narrative and the sentimental/sensational novel, yet I’ve always been more interested in the subversive elements of those types of literature than the dogma, because I think some of the most overtly didactic texts ultimately subvert their own aims. But with Romance, I find it both less didactic and less subversive, en masse, but I need to think through how and why that is.

    So here’s what I’m struggling with: what makes Romance any more or less didactic than any other type of fiction that deals with issues of morality and culture and social norms? And maybe you would say nothing. Which brings me to the question of what’s significant, unique, or particular, do you think, about Romance’s didacticism?

    • what’s significant, unique, or particular, do you think, about Romance’s didacticism?

      I don’t read other genres nowadays so I can’t really make comparisons but a long time ago I read science fiction and I suppose the difference was that since none of it was set in the world I inhabit, it didn’t really seem to provide the same kind of direct commentary on my own life that contemporary romances do. Historical romances are possibly part-way between the two, since they’re set in the real world but the social context is very different.

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