Directed Reading? The Romance Author and Her Audience

There’s been lots of tweeting about this Ravishly interview with Kathleen Gilles Seidel today, and I said it would be a great topic for further discussion on a blog post, so of course I found myself volunteering to write one that could be a place for discussion.

First Things First

I am not interested in discussing the interviewer or the interviewer’s place in romance criticism in this space. I have not named the interviewer because I am hoping to avoid having that take over the conversation. I also find the name tends to act as a bat signal and then that person arrives and shapes the subsequent discussion and no thank you.

If I have any bias here, it’s that I adored Again and plan to read more of Seidel’s work.

The Parts that Interested Me Most 

(and I think I’m not alone) were Seidel’s comments on her relationship to her audience.

One of the questions was whether her PhD in English helped her write romance or made it harder. [I dislike the framing of this question. Would a person with a PhD in English who wrote anything else get asked this question, or have their scholarly credentials potentially opposed their writing? Maybe, but I’ve never seen it]. Part of her answer is this:

I really liked my “re-entry housewife” students at the community college. So I wrote my next book to them, and it was a romance. I wasn’t trying to change their lives—their lives were fine, thank you. I was trying to change their afternoons. You know how it is—a day isn’t going well, and then you find the right book . . .

I will just leave that there. Or, I won’t. Some of my best community college students ever have been “re-entry housewives” and they read all kinds of things. Presumably they are going to college to change their lives in some way, not just to cheer up a dull afternoon. I don’t think this is meant to seem condescending (her students’ lives are fine, after all) but it does, to me.

Then there is the question of why she writes romance, when often in her books the romantic relationship is not the central one (I’ll leave it to those who have read more of her work to comment on that claim):

Because my relationship with my reader is a romance writer’s. I am not out to challenge her (or him), threaten her, or even change her. I am very controlling of her (or his) experience. The characters may be complex, and the judgment about them may be nuanced, but ultimately there is almost no ambiguity in the judgments. A reader is going to end up drawing the same conclusions that I have. . . .

The subjects of [my women’s fiction books] made them seem ideal for the book clubs, but in fact the books weren’t very discussable. Everyone who liked the books generally liked them for the same reason and had the same reactions.

My semi-considered take on this:

  • Some people saw these comments as anti-intellectual, but I don’t entirely agree. I don’t think she means that there’s nothing in a romance novel that is open to interpretation. She refers specifically to our judgement of the characters, and I think of the hero and heroine above all. (She also seems to me to be assuming that book clubs debate characters and their motivations rather than doing literary analysis. Which is pretty accurate in my experience).
  • This is often my experience when reading romance: that I am being directed to value certain things that are expressed in the HEA. As Laura Vivanco said to me on Twitter, this is a genre in which we refer to the protagonists as “hero and heroine,” which suggests to some of us, at least, that we are meant to see them as embodying some kind of virtue, however flawed and nuanced they may be. The HEA also tends to be a particularly tidy and unambiguous ending, closing down many possible paths for the characters. This, of course, is part of why we read romance.
  • I experience most romances as relatively “closed” texts in terms of the judgements they invite and the “argument” they are making for the rightness of the HEA. I feel they try to answer the questions they raise about love. That doesn’t mean we have nothing to discuss, though, or that readers who like a book don’t experience elements of it differently.
  • Many readers, and I am usually one of them, find that if a romance challenges or threatens us, it does not work for us, at least as a romance. That is, I think that we are not controlled by the author in the way that Seidel describes–we are able to judge differently from her–but if we elude her control the book fails in some way for us. To take a common example, if we interpret the hero as a stalkerish, abusive asshole, not a caretaker alpha, most of us do not like it or find it romantic; we don’t see the HEA as offering “emotional justice.”
  • On the other hand, there are definitely readers who do not read romance this way, and who don’t need to be convinced of the “rightness” of the HEA or share a book’s apparent values to enjoy it. These readers find romance much more “open” than I do. (I’m trying to learn to be more like them). Any time a writer is talking about the genre in a forum like this interview, she’s likely to make sweeping and thus faulty generalizations. Romance readers aren’t nearly as homogeneous–or as discrete a category from “people with PhDs”–as Seidel’s comments imply.

More than enough from me. I hope you’ll chime in if you’re interested.


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36 Responses to Directed Reading? The Romance Author and Her Audience

  1. Regarding the “re-entry housewife” quote, I read that in the context of when Seidel was first published–the early 80s. Granted, being born in this decade, my opinion is based on pop culture and retrospectives, but it sounds like Seidel bought into the intelligentsia’s perception of housewives and romantic/women’s fiction. So on one hand, she immediately recognized that they didn’t need her (or academia) to liberate them from the home, but on the other, she tottered on the thin edge of the wedge in regards to how women’s “escapism” is viewed by society. This is part of my still unformed musings over the “anti-intellectualism” in the romance community.

    I watch old movies nigh exclusively, and enjoy reading movie magazines from the 30s and 40s, listening to radio adaptations, and discussing the culture behind old Hollywood on blogs and forums. Then there’s my study of the early 20th century in its many facets. So jumping to the 80s, which birthed Seidel’s romance career, the tension between legitimizing–and profiting from–women’s fantasies, yet believing they make women less rational creatures (ergo, their thoughts must be educated and guided) is apparent in this interview.

    Publishers like Harlequin/Mills & Boon justified their tiny advances because women’s writing was a hobby, and they were primarily supported by their breadwinner husbands (see the recent Salon article on being “sponsored” by a husband). An advance was pocket money for their own frivolous little expenditures. But when you look at the backgrounds of many romance authors, many of them are single mothers, or work multiple jobs, or their professional salary is 50% of the household income. Spinning women’s fantasies into fiction was a potential day job, a potential to be the breadwinner. And being able to declare your romance earnings will allow you to quit your day job garners huge cheers. It’s only been recently where celebrating romance authors with masters and doctorates has become a huge selling/talking point–yet, Nora Roberts’s “bootstrap” story is still a definitive narrative for romance writers and readers.

    The “anti-intellectualism” could be suspicion against societal institutions–against language–that have de-legitimized women’s fantasies and the upward mobility of working class women. Authors will tout their high-powered jobs/background for the respect of outsiders, but inside the romance community, you have to take off your PhD or former beauty queen hat and disassociate yourself from prestige language.

    And I do find romance to be a “closed” genre in comparison to many others, including women’s fiction. I recently read an Elizabeth Chadwick book from the 80s, when she was primarily a “historical romance” author, and was discomfited by the book switching who the hero ended up with. I was surprised by how uncomfortable I was with needing to readjust my response to the text. I didn’t want to like heroine #2 when I’d already made up my mind to root for heroine #1! Ironically, I ended up disliking the hero because of my split loyalties, and I skimmed through the second half of the book because I didn’t want to read his POV. LOL.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Is this where I confess to the high-school essay I wrote in 1983 on Shirley Conran’s LACE and how it was escapism for housewives? (Also educational for naive high-schoolers, OMG). I think you’re right that her comments about her early writing are retrospective and reflect her thinking at the time more than, perhaps/probably, what she thinks now.

      One of the things I always find interesting in Victorian lit is the number of women who supported their families by writing paeans to the proper wifely domestic goddess–that is, by celebrating a role they were not fulfilling “properly” because they had to earn money, but maybe wished they could fulfill. (Betty Neels makes me think about this).

      Your Chadwick experience made me think of first page comments at DA and how many people want to be clear on who the hero and heroine are from p. 1 so they don’t root for the “wrong” person–or get turned off by thinking the hero/heroine is someone they can’t like.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. Janine Ballard says:

    I’m on the fence. I adore several of Seidel’s books and there are very few authors of contemporary romance I feel that way about. It’s not my favorite genre generally but I enjoy her books a great deal so I’m more willing to forgive this author for her flaws than I might otherwise be.

    I think the appeal of Seidel’s books has to do with how much detail she gives us readers and how much depth she builds into her characters. The books are quiet, yet in their own way, the stakes feel momentous. I do find her books and her characters challenging in certain ways, and I think some of the novels have been envelope pushing — for example, Till the Stars Fall with its heroine who lets the hero down in a huge way, Mirrors and Mistakes with its hero who hugely betrays the heroine’s trust a couple of times, and A Risk Worth Taking with its drug addicted heroine. Maybe it’s about semantics, but I don’t interpret “challenging” the same way that Seidel seems to, and I don’t know if you and I are on the same page about the word, either.

    I like most of Seidel’s characters, but they can and have ticked me off and then, with the best ones, she makes me understand why they did what they did, and I appreciate them all the more. I suppose she would say that I end up drawing the same conclusions she has, and maybe I do (at least most of the time– a couple of her books haven’t worked for me) but in the middle there, when the character does something like what Patrick does in the middle of Mirrors and Mistakes or what Krissa does partway through Till the Stars Fall and I’m going “Oh no you didn’t!” — is that not challenging?

    Also, if I have to pick out one thing that bothers me about Seidel as an author it’s that I feel she stereotypes her characters based on their backgrounds. There’s that whole people from New England are this way, people from the Midwest are like that, and sometimes worse. There’s a Jewish side character in Mirrors and Mistakes for example, who is pretty stereotyped, and a line in More Than You Dreamed that made me see red. Your comments on the “re-entry housewife” paragraph made me think of that tendency.

    I’ve also seen Seidel act classy and self-deprecating online, at least IMO. So my picture of her is two sided, and I plan to keep reading her books, unless she does something that offends me more.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I didn’t find these comments offensive (well, maybe the first quote). I think it’s a really interesting way to think about the author-reader relationship, and worth exploring further. A challenging way to think of it, perhaps, because do we readers want to see ourselves as “controlled” by the book? But when we’re fully immersed, to some extent that is what happens, that we’ve surrendered to the narrative.

      I guess I took “challenging,” in this context, to refer to challenging a judgment of the character that feels comfortable to us? Challenging the reader’s values and assumptions–about love, or worthiness? I took it as saying that romance is meant to be comfort reading, not to discomfit us. But I think her statement itself is rather ambiguous.

      • Janine Ballard says:

        I also didn’t find the interview offensive outside of possibly that first quote and I agree Evangeline had a good point about that. So this interview didn’t ruffle my feathers much.

        Re. your interpretation that challenging meaning challenging the readers’ values and assumptions about love and worthiness. I still disagree with her statement if that’s what she meant, and here’s why.

        I can think of any number of Mary Balogh romances, for example, that start out casting the hero in a role that isn’t very heroic– I’m thinking of books like Thief of Dreams or Dancing with Clara which I loved, or even The Secret Pearl, which I really dislike but many readers adore. In these books, the hero behaves like a cad at first and then he either realizes he needs to change (as in Dancing with Clara) or more likely in a Balogh book, we learn more about him and get a fuller picture of who he is, so that by the end of the book, we’re rooting for him (as in Thief of Dreams, The Notorious Rake, and others).

        But for much of the book, we do ask ourselves– does this guy deserve the heroine? Will they have a good future? Is he loveable? Is he worthy? And then there may very well be a process of assuming the guy is a cad to start with and hanging in there to see what will happen, how that will resolve itself. Sometimes the assumption turns out to be wrong — he was never a cad, and was actually doing a kind of noble thing that the reader and heroine took to be bad because we didn’t have the full picture. So our assumptions get challenged.

        In a book like Dancing with Clara where the hero has multiple addictions and cheats constantly, they are challenged in a different, harder way, but you know what? I was rooting for Freddy by the end, which means my thoughts on what kind of man might be worthy of love changed as I read it.

        Romance has a guaranteed happy ending so there is a contract there that by the end, the reader will feel emotional justice was served. So there does need to be some sense that the characters are better off together than alone, and that they deserve or have earned that happiness. But that doesn’t necessarily mean romance doesn’t challenge assumptions about love and worthiness — I think good romance does that a lot.

        As for challenging values. I can’t think of any book that has truly challenged my values, not in romance and not out of it. My values are what they are. Some books make me think about them, or resonate with me because of them. That’s as true with romance as it is with books outside the genre.

      • Laura Vivanco says:

        “As for challenging values. I can’t think of any book that has truly challenged my values, not in romance and not out of it.”

        I’d say romance quite often challenges my values, so to enjoy it I often have to separate out the personal and the political even though, in fact, it’s part of my “values” to be believe that they’re inextricably linked. For example, a lot of romances feature billionaires. To really find that kind of romance satisfying, I have to temporarily switch off my concerns about increasing global inequality. Or, to take a couple of less obviously political examples, in which it’s simply not possible to switch off a possible challenge to my values by focusing on the personal, there are the romances in which the HEA involves teaching one of the protagonists to love Christmas or forgive a family member who’s done something very bad to them.

      • Janine Ballard says:

        That’s an interesting point Laura and I can relate. I’m vegan and have mixed feelings with cowboy books for that reason, but I’ve enjoyed a few in the past. And there are plenty of other books I’ve read that espouse or portray values different from my own.

        Do I “temporarily switch off” my values to enjoy them? I wouldn’t exactly say so because I know as I’m reading them that those are not my own values. The process is a lot like suspending disbelief. If I read a vampire book, my beliefs about the existence of vampires in the real world aren’t challenged. Same with billionaire, cowboy, or assassin romances.

        I can’t think of a book that has gotten me to change my values, so I don’t see those books as value-challenging. It’s more accurate to say that my values present a challenge to enjoying some of those books, but when I do enjoy one, it’s in spite of the book’s values and doesn’t involve a real alteration in mine.

      • Laura Vivanco says:

        Do I “temporarily switch off” my values to enjoy them? I wouldn’t exactly say so because I know as I’m reading them that those are not my own values. The process is a lot like suspending disbelief. If I read a vampire book, my beliefs about the existence of vampires in the real world aren’t challenged. Same with billionaire, cowboy, or assassin romances.

        I feel as though I must be switching something off, because if someone expressed some books’ values in a non-fictional setting, I’d argue with them (or at them, if they were on the radio). But I don’t do the equivalent (i.e. ranting and putting down the book) with most of those romances so there must be something different going on and I think it’s got to do with the focus being on the feelings the characters have for each other. Maybe a better metaphor than “switching something off” would be putting on a set of blinkers, so that I don’t get distracted by the elements which would stop me enjoying the book?

        The blinkers don’t always work, of course, and then I do end up shouting at the book and/or fuming about it.

        I can’t think of a book that has gotten me to change my values, so I don’t see those books as value-challenging.

        The ones which challenge my more impersonal political beliefs (i.e. the ones that relate to society as a whole) don’t stand any chance at all of changing my values. The ones which are about more personal values/politics stand some chance of making me feel bad about myself. That’s maybe not exactly the same thing as changing my values on an intellectual level, but they can make me feel as though I’m a bad/inadequate mother/wife/woman for not doing/being whatever it is that the book implies it’s important for a mother/wife/woman to do/be.

      • Janine Ballard says:

        Maybe a better metaphor than “switching something off” would be putting on a set of blinkers, so that I don’t get distracted by the elements which would stop me enjoying the book?

        That analogy works for me. I do something similar to that too.

        I’m also rethinking my “No book has gotten me to change my values” statement. Diet for a New America by John Robbins is the book that made me go vegan (I was already vegetarian when I read it). So it’s probably inaccurate to say that no book has done that, but I think it’s a tall order to ask of a book.

  3. kaetrin says:

    Don’t mind me. I’m only commenting so I can subscribe to the comments. Carry on!

  4. Robin says:

    You know, I’ve read that interview four times now, and I’m still not completely sure what she means when she’s talking about the reader-author relationship. Taking into consideration the fact that I have no idea how that piece was edited, what I keep being left with is the sense that Seidel has a very narrow view of the genre and its readership, that her own experiences inform that view, and that it’s not a view nor an experience I completely share. Like I think Romances can be just as subversive as any other type of book. And I never had that “primary reading experience” she talks about as separate from how I was reading for scholarship.

    I also think there’s a preservation of the high-low dichotomy, and I thought it was interesting that she says that she had the strongest academic credentials of any Harlequin author in the 80s, rather than saying something like “Harlequin thought” or “Harlequin acted as if” or whatever. I mean, really? No other Harlequin author had that level of education? I just cannot believe that, any more than I can believe that Harlequin would privilege the academic training above all the unique and interesting careers, accomplishments, and backgrounds their authors had.

    As for the whole hero and heroine thing, I think we need to be careful about how automatically we assume a role model or moral exemplar purpose for those terms. Classical Tragedy and Comedy utilize those terms, as well, and Romance has a generic link to Comedy. In fact, as I was reading the interview I kept thinking about Fifty Shades, and all the controversy over whether Christian and Anna are ‘proper’ protagonists in the sense of ‘modeling’ abuse, or whether they are just symbolic of the kinds of power investigations we often see in Romance. I feel like under Seidel’s “author control” model, we couldn’t even have those disagreements. Or maybe she was just reflecting on her voice, and not the genre as a whole?

    Again, taking into consideration the fact that I don’t know the conditions under which that piece was edited, on the face of it I guess I’d say I think the genre is more complex than is represented there. And that readers have more complex responses to it, many of which are absolutely within the bounds of literary analysis, even if they don’t necessarily have the formal vocabulary we often associate with literary criticism.

    • pamela1740 says:

      Well said! Especially agree about the preservation of all kinds of high/low dichotomies that seemed to pervade Seidel’s comments.

  5. Sunita says:

    I’m going to be an outlier here, because I read the interview differently; I didn’t really see Seidel as saying much that she hasn’t said elsewhere, but with far more nuance. I blame the lack of nuance on the interviewer, and frankly, that first set of questions was appalling. Who *asks* that? Why? And it kind of set the tone for the whole interview.

    I have no idea what the unedited portions of her comments look like, but she’s talked about her community college students, her path to writing romance, and the relationship between her academic training and her fiction writing in other places. I agree parts of this make her look elitist and condescending, but while elitist may be fair (her Ph.D. is front and center in her bio and in interviews), I’ve never before gotten the impression that she looks down on her readers or disdains writers without Ph.D.s. Quite the opposite, in fact, and I’ve seen a lot of compliments about her from her fellow authors. When I read the chapter she wrote for Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, or her AAR interview, or various other interviews, she comes across as enjoying what she does, being proud of her profession, and respecting her readers.

    On the “re-entry housewife” students, I can see why that would put people’s backs up, but I think Evangeline got it right. Seidel was teaching community college in the early 1980s, and that was a transitional time for women. I worked in secretarial jobs and/or women-dominated offices from the late 1970s to the end of the 1980s, and women with BAs were definitely a minority. On top of that, this is the era when divorce took off and alimony started to decline, so women *were* entering or re-entering the workforce. I think that’s what Seidel is talking about, not that the women who went to college and read romance were just looking for afternoon diversions. Romance reading could be a diversion from a demanding, complicated daily schedule for a lot of readers, and Seidel has said as much elsewhere.

  6. Sunita says:

    And of course I wrote three paragraphs without addressing the author-reader relationship. *headdesk*

    Like you, Liz, I find romance texts to be relatively closed. I don’t mean we all interpret them the same way, and we obviously come to the texts with different interests and backgrounds. But I think the HEA and our emotional investment in the characters reaching their HEA (or HFN) means that many of us have certain requirements that the characters need to meet for us to believe in the ending and their future together. I love reading about problematic people in other genres, but in romance I expect to root for the main characters (whether I feel fully invested in them emotionally or not). That means I have a narrower band of acceptable behavior and attitudes for them. Obviously not everyone reads this way, but I think a lot of romance readers do (whether they have Ph.D. training or not).

    That doesn’t mean romances can’t be challenging, or subversive, or boundary pushing, because we can cite examples of all of those things. And it’s certainly the case that authors can exert a lot of control over reader reactions in other genres. But there are types of control that seem specific to romance.

  7. Liz Mc2 says:

    I wrote a long comment that got eaten, but maybe that’s just as well since I’m not trying to argue for any one interpretation as much as offer a space for discussion. Thanks for the great comments, everyone!

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the dichotomies in Seidel’s comments. I think they can seem elitist on the surface, but the more I consider them the more complicated they seem. For instance, the “re-entry housewife” part (and Sunita, I agree that she no doubt did have a lot of students who fit that description; the majority of my community college students, men and women, are not “traditional college age,” though they have usually not been stay-at-home moms given today’s economic realities). On the face of it she is contrasting the “elite” audience of Johns Hopkins profs with these women. But she’s also talking about and poking fun at herself and the grad-school elitist pretensions she had to get over to become a romance writer. And she is respecting that female audience by understanding that they don’t need her to control and fix them, that they can be in charge of their own lives just fine. [I think part of why I reacted to this is that in my experience, students who are returning to school do NOT think their lives are just fine. They want better lives, which is why they have come back to school. And I see my role as, in part, supporting them in the changes they want to make. But I also hope that I offer them challenges that give them an opportunity to change in ways they didn’t anticipate–no, I don’t want to mold them in my image, but I do hope education is more than an instrumental path to a better job. I have seen students transformed by their discovery that they are more competent than they imagined, and can think critically and argue a point effectively]. I’m not sure she really meant to depict this audience as so distinct from her Johns Hopkins audience in terms of what they read–though maybe, which did bother me–as different in how she conceptualized her relationship with them. (that’s problematic in its own way, since she describes herself as disempowered/having to prove herself when writing to her profs, but as in a position of power over the audience when writing romance).

    I also think the literary dichotomies she sketches are not as simple as high-low, or that “low”/genre doesn’t mean bad. I understood her point about romance-reading as a “primary” experience in contrast to her “work” reading to be personal, not about the nature of the text–that was what SHE read for escape and didn’t have to or want to analyze. (I read mysteries that way in grad school, when I got the chance). You could see the use of “primary” there as anti-intellectual in some way, as if the immersive, uncritical reading experience is superior, but I read it more as “my greatest pleasure” or a return to our first childhood reading experiences before we have a lot of critical tools and we’re just enjoying the story. That is, I think (some of) the dichotomies were as much about her personal experience as about objective differences she sees between different kinds of fiction.

    • pamela1740 says:

      I’m reconsidering my response to the interview too, now. I want to be respectful of Liz’s guidance around not focusing the discussion on the interviewer, but I do think the first question, which so distractingly and maddeningly set the framework for putting intellectual pursuits above or apart from genre reading, and in a totally insidious way suggested that having an advanced degree might “get in the way” of lowering oneself to write romance, just put me in a super-annoyed space.

      And then I read everything Seidel was saying through that filter, and was disappointed when she didn’t seem to challenge the dichotomizing framework more. She seemed to inject a slight tone of banter or rapport, and addressed the interviewer quite playfully at one point, which, on my first read, just kind of further made me roll my eyes. But of course we don’t know if/how her comments were edited. And there are plenty of reasons for Seidel to try and “lighten up” an interview like this! Days later, skimming her comments again without stopping to read the questions, my response is much more neutral and she sounds more thoughtful to me as I sit back and “listen” to what she’s actually saying, without the interference of the background noise.

      • pamela1740 says:

        And also, I meant to add my thanks, Liz, for hosting this discussion – so much better to have space for it, than to try and have this kind of conversation on twitter. (Not that I don’t still enjoy a twitter convo now and again, but it really doesn’t work for nuance or reflecting and responding in complete sentences and paragraphs…)

  8. janetruckus says:

    Fascinating comments–thanks for hosting this Liz. I haven’t read her recently so I don’t feel competent to comment but I will be reading her new book(s). Janine’s comments about Balogh rang so true to me.

  9. kaetrin says:

    This is a reply to Janine upthread.

    I think it might depend on what one’s definition of “values” is. I know that reading certain romance books has certainly challenged my thinking (sometimes about things I didn’t even know I had opinions on) and made me a more open and accepting person. I’m not sure that’s the same thing as “challenging values” though…

    • Janine Ballard says:

      Kaetrin — I agree that reading romance can do that. One thing the discussion has shown is that there are multiple ways to interpret words like “challenging” and “values.” I’m not entirely clear on what Seidel meant by them, so it’s hard to know how to feel about her statements.

  10. C.M. says:

    I read (misread?) the “I wasn’t trying to change their lives—their lives were fine, thank you” part not as referring to her role teaching at the community college (because I agree that presumably her students were there because at least some part of their lives weren’t, in their estimation, “fine”), but strictly in reference to her novel. I thought she was saying her novel wasn’t trying to fix anything, in contrast to her first novel (“People would read it, pick up their whole lives, and move to Kansas. I was 29, and apparently I knew a great deal about how people should live.”)–and perhaps even more in contrast to her dissertation advisor telling her she had wasted his time.

    Because: ugh. What a weirdly entitled and needy thing for him to say; what a strange implication, that because she had written a dissertation she had to, what, prove she’d been worth his time by going on to an academic career and academic publications?

    I think that might be the real contrast, as opposed to the “serious literature vs. romance novels” opposition the interviewer appears to be trying to set up. Seidel’s dissertation was received with entitled expectations as to how she’d structure her life, whereas the readers for her romance novels let the books stand or fall on their own.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      This is pretty much how I’ve come around to reading it, too–and thanks for putting it so clearly.

      Elite grad programs are all about producing students who get jobs that prove their worth. They care about where they place you. So I almost get that comment, although if it was phrased like that it was awful. After decades of a terrible job market, I think a student would be way less likely to hear a comment like that (I sure hope so, since even people who don’t want to leave the profession often have to).

      • C.M. says:

        Yes, I can sort of see the point of that comment too, when you phrase it the way you have (whereas ready the phrase “wasted his time” brought back an extremely visceral rush of “thank God I left academia!” that definitely coloured my reading).

      • Sunita says:

        As someone who’s been on both sides of the grad-student/professor training divide, I can say with confidence that I and the majority of my colleagues don’t treat “producing students who get jobs that prove [our] worth” as the be-all and end-all of graduate training. Placing students *is* part of our contract with them, so of course we care about that. But believe me, the hundreds of hours and infinite patience my advisors gave me, and the hundreds of hours and not nearly enough patience I give my students, don’t stem primarily from our desires to improve our departments’ rankings, even if job placements were the only things that affected those measure of our worth. Which they are not.

        And for what it’s worth, the era in which Seidel was on the market was a truly horrible one for academic jobs, to the point that many professors debated whether it was ethical to encourage students to get Ph.D.s. To receive two tenure-track job offers as she did was the equivalent of winning the Powerball lottery back in 1979. So I can imagine that there was considerable disappointment and frustration when she not only turned them down but seemed to leave academia entirely (from her bio it doesn’t sound like she immediately started teaching community college). I would never tell a student they had wasted my time, but I recognize the feelings that might lead to that kind of a comment in this situation, inappropriate as those words are.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          Sorry, I said this in a flip way which was obviously offensive; you said it much better. The work towards a PhD is a big investment of time, effort and care for both the student and the professor(s), and the goal of it is intended to be an academic job. What I really meant was that I could understand the frustration behind that advisor’s comment even though it was phrased in a hurtful way. (My own experience of thinking about grad school in the late 80s was that a lot of profs told me “the market is bad right now but it’s sure to get better soon, it has to.” Which, of course, did not happen. I think for some people it took a while for realism to sink in.)

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          Also, I admit my own anxiety that my career trajectory was a “disappointment” both to me and my grad institution came out in my tone here–this is a feeling I am pretty much over and I think was largely imaginary (I mean, I imagined they were judging me; they knew what the market is like) but I guess something is lingering.

      • Sunita says:

        I think that professors feel some of the anxiety and that’s why they visit it on their students. For some it’s a status/worth thing, but for many others it’s the fear that even if they work hard, the student may not wind up in a satisfactory place, however we define satisfactory. It’s hard to admit that five to eight years of intensive, expensive training can turn into a career crapshoot. Also, obviously people in other degree programs and early-career positions change their minds, but the Ph.D. track is particularly intimate, long, and resource-intensive and it’s easy to over-invest in any given student’s future.

        The other thing that struck me about Seidel’s comment, though, especially given the era, was that the advisor could have been a sexist a-hole, or he could have been the opposite of a sexist a-hole. Because it was standard practice to think that women weren’t serious about the academic/professional career opportunities that were becoming available to them, and that they would just get the degree and then not go on and use it but instead get married or have children or both. So he could have thought his (sexist) expectations were being confirmed or he could have been bucking the (sexist) expectations of others and been incredibly disappointed when his star student quit.

    • pamela1740 says:

      I love how there are multiple robust and interesting conversational threads spinning out from Seidel’s comments and Liz’s post. I too have a story of “wasted time” getting a Ph.D. in the late 80s/early 90s, Hoping this will post down below Liz and Sunita’s replies, just to echo many things you have both said in response to C.M.’s insightful comments.

      It *was* a terrible time to contemplate the academic job market, and they *did* keep saying it would get better later in the 90s, and of course it didn’t. I was one of the super lucky ones w/ a full tuition ride for the initial years of coursework, and as much fellowship support as my institution could provide, so the investment in me was tangible. And I felt the pressure, but unfortunately it wasn’t balanced by a strong positive mentoring relationship with my department. When I finished, the job market for an Art History Ph.D. with expertise in 16th-century Italian and Spanish court portraiture was …. limited. And I had personal reasons for not wanting to leave the Boston area, which further limited my options.

      With decades of hindsight, I’ve come to terms with the fact that by the time I finished the damn dissertation I was also disenchanted with the art history establishment and wishing I’d done a different degree. I’d spent upwards of 6 years getting this one, though, and I needed to be working fulltime, so I went into academic & research administration. And not in a related field (I work with social scientists and policy wonks). In spite of having a job I really like, a wonderful university environment to work in, great colleagues, a more regularized work week which better suits my ‘flow’ (and not having to spend my home-time working on journal articles and conference papers…), there are times when I still experience great feelings of guilt/shame about choosing this path. Especially because when you do work in academia, there is such a divide (often experienced as a high/low) between those who produce “content” and those who produce events, programs, grants, and workplaces that support the content creation.

  11. pamela1740 says:

    I also wanted to reply to Laura and Janine, upthread. Because I am really pondering your conversation about values and challenging books. I do think some authors deliberately try to “challenge” readers’ assumptions, and sometimes in romance this makes a book really stand out as a memorable read — I am not as familiar with Balogh but I am thinking here about Jo Beverley, who wrote a hero who hits the heroine (An Unwilling Bride) and used all her considerable powers of authorial “control” (or just plain mad writing skills) to make me, as a reader, still believe in their happy ending.

    What I’m trying to puzzle out is whether a book like this actually challenges my values – eg. makes me rethink my views of domestic violence, or does it do more to create a problem space in which I’m thinking a lot about the nature of the romance convention and whether my enjoyment of the story can withstand something this challenging. I think the questions about how much control the author has, or is seeking, are so interesting. In a genre romance perhaps the control is more built-in, since all roads must lead to the HEA, and that may limit alternate interpretations and responses. I suppose in romance, readers simply have the option to DNF or dislike a book in which, for one reason or another, they are unable to believe or “buy in” to the HEA. I’m also thinking a lot about the ways in which fairytale lifestyles in some romance subgenres (billionaires, dukes, etc) really do require a certain effort to set aside politics. Sometimes I enjoy the characters and the story so much that I’m not bothered by the disconnect with my politics, and sometimes I’m just not in the mood and concerns about inequality and/or class are all I can see. This sometimes depends on the book and the skill of the writer, but sometimes it just depends on my state of mind, when, and why I’m reading.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      This reading experience is, I think, a good example of what I took “challenging” or “threatening” to mean. Don’t know if I can say this clearly because I’m still on my first cup of coffee (look what happened while I was sleeping!) but I took “challenging” to be different from the issue of whether a book tries to change your life. For me, it meant the book is not going to make you deeply uncomfortable. I haven’t read this particular book yet, but I’ve certainly read *about* it, and I think you and Laura are right that it doesn’t try to change the reader’s view of domestic violence. Rather, the “control” of the move towards the HEA where he changes some and, as Laura says below, positioning the reader to align with the heroine (and even the context of a historical romance) all work to shape our judgement the way Beverley wants.

      Obviously there are plenty of readers who escape this control because there are readers who hate this book and find it deeply uncomfortable. So I think we’d want to add a lot of nuance to what Seidel says about control and challenge. For me, romance can be less “challenging” (in the sense of troubling/uncomfortable) because whatever troubling issues like this are raised along the way are meant to be resolved in a way we judge (guided/controlled by the author or not) as satisfactory and emotionally just/right.

      I don’t think romance is the only genre that works this way, either. I have read mysteries, for instance, where I have been “controlled” by the shaping of the plot and characterization to cheer on vigilante violence as just and right. This sometimes works for me while I’m reading but afterwards I feel deeply uncomfortable about where my judgement went. I gave up on a series that always seemed to end up with the cop hero on his own taking down the villain because the proper channels didn’t work for justice. I didn’t want to have my judgement shaped that way anymore. I sometimes have this afterthought experience reading romance, too. And then there are the racist 19th/early-20th century adventure novels I’ve enjoyed. . . . I am certainly mindful of the ways we consciously read “against” books or question the values they seem to express, but I also think that controlling judgement can have insidious unconscious effects. Or that it can be more uncomfortable than Seidel considers here to surrender yourself to the author’s control of your judgement.

      Totally agree about the frame the questions created, by the way, and I thought some of the humor was an attempt to resist/reframe them.

  12. Laura Vivanco says:

    “I am thinking here about Jo Beverley, who wrote a hero who hits the heroine (An Unwilling Bride) and used all her considerable powers of authorial “control” (or just plain mad writing skills) to make me, as a reader, still believe in their happy ending.”

    It didn’t even cross my mind, while reading that, to feel shocked at the hero hitting the heroine. It’s a historical, after all, and I suppose to me, in the context of Othello and Spanish Golden Age honour plays, his response actually felt quite restrained. I’d feel very different about that kind of behaviour if it had taken place in a contemporary setting. But the hero of this book was very much an aristocrat and all along the novel had been contrasting the aristocratic, male-dominated ideology with the proto-feminist beliefs of the heroine.

    Did I believe in their happy ending? Well yes, because the heroine was able to accept his limitations and the hero was going to try to be somewhat less autocratic. If she stuck to her beliefs, though, life probably wasn’t always going to be easy for her, emotionally, whenever their beliefs came into conflict.

    The book didn’t challenge any of my values, however, because I think it positions the reader to sympathise with the heroine’s proto-feminist stance (which, by modern Western standards, is not particularly radical).

    • Laura Vivanco says:

      Having said all that, it’s obviously a romance which has generated a lot of controversy, so maybe it would make a better book club read than Seidel thought her women’s fiction titles had been?

    • pamela1740 says:

      I agree, the Beverley book, and other historicals where the hero behaves in ways that are highly objectionable by contemporary standards but, sadly, fall within an acceptable range for the period, don’t challenge my values, but I do find them challenging to read. In a good way. I always say that my favorite romance novels, especially historicals, are the ones that make me think hard about the most difficult emotions and challenging aspects of the human condition. (Not unlike Othello, I suppose!) I do think this book in particular is notable for the way in which this one act of violence is examined within the novel itself. It’s not a case where the hero is presented as having committed prior bad acts, but the heroine makes him a new, better, different person, as happens in so many romances where the bad stuff is relegated to characters’ back stories. I think many readers can acknowledge, along with the text itself which references the legel disenfranchisement of women in numerous places, the likelihood that a husband of the period might strike his wife in anger as happens in An Unwilling Bride, while still finding it somewhat shocking in the context of the historical romance genre. And this is one of the reasons Beverley is one of my favorite authors, and I view her oeuvre as a magnificent contribution to the genre..

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