Unpopular Opinions

This week saw yet another “what’s wrong with Romance” post. If those posts are written to a script, so is Romanceland’s response, and indeed the predictable cycle followed:

  • tweetstorm erupts
  • critical comments posted on article
  • [optional for online only-publications: half-assed-apology/justification, invitation to Romanceland to write a romance-positive post–for nothing, of course]
  • takedown posts written by one or more bloggers
  • Romance-positive hashtag created; and
  • (Romanceland’s solution to every problem) Books Recommended

It’s not my purpose to criticize these responses, exactly. I’ve done many of them myself (which is why I use the universal “we” in what follows. It might not include you). But I think that Romanceland finds these “what’s wrong” posts useful, so much so that if they didn’t exist, we would have to write them ourselves . . . under a pseudonym.

Because when a post gets some things very, very wrong (Fabio hasn’t been on a cover in decades, and actually it’s quite easy to find a romance novel without a rape in it, and it always was, even in the “bodice-ripper” days), we don’t have to ask ourselves what it might have gotten right. When it makes sweeping generalizations, we can reply with the same. We don’t have to think critically from within the genre about popular tropes or about how we construct the Romance community, because we’re oh-so-busy fending off wrong-headed attacks from outsiders.

Here are some questions we’re not asking:

1. When we circle the wagons, whom, and what, are we leaving outside? I wonder particularly about our response to the claim that romance is full of rape. “It’s not like that anymore!” we cry. “We wouldn’t read that stuff today!” Look, I’m sick of the term “reader-shaming,” but if this isn’t shaming women who enjoy these books and who might be exploring rape fantasies through them, I don’t know what it is. Sorry readers who haven’t “outgrown” your love of 70s and 80s bodice-rippers, or who enjoy the “dark romance” with kidnapper heroes that currently has a devoted fanbase, you’re outside the wagon circle. Romance is about celebrating women’s desires and fantasies! Except for yours, which are wrong. (If you don’t think these readers exist, drop by the Amazon romance forums. Is it any surprise they don’t hang out in the blogging and Twitter circles that condemn their tastes?)

2. If  we’re so sure women are good at telling fantasy from reality, why do we have such a hard time having a meaningful discussion of how rape in romance can function as a fantasy? Why do we insist on sticking to realist readings of these scenes? We can rarely seem to get beyond this to ask what cultural work specific scenes of rape are doing.

3. In what ways are we letting ourselves off the hook by focusing on rape and its prevalence–or not–in the genre? Because rape fantasies are not about rape; they are, at least in part, about submission. And, um, in case you haven’t noticed, BDSM with a female submissive (almost always a female submissive) is a super-popular trope right now. But I guess we don’t have to talk about that, because it’s not rape! To be crystal clear, I am certainly not equating BDSM and rape in real life. But I am suggesting that the fantasies are related, and that BDSM might be doing some of the work in the genre that rape/forced seduction scenes once did. Consider, too, that many readers of BDSM romance are not kinky themselves and would not want to actually do most/all of what they are reading about.

Romance readers like to joke about Magic Doms who know from a single glance that the heroine–who isn’t aware of it herself–is a natural submissive. Given that, I’m not sure why we’re so pissed off at an article suggesting that men in romance are “sex psychics.” This trope is still really, really popular, just in a different form. Let’s not be so quick to throw the baby out with Fabio’s bathwater. (Instead, we might want to explore the representations of this fantasy and consider the ways in which it could be both problematic and empowering).

4. Why do we always seem to recommend the same 10 authors when we counter with examples of “romance that’s safe for feminists” or “actually good”? Do we really have confidence in so few of our authors/texts? Or is it because–back to that small wagon circle that leaves many out in the cold–we online readers exist in a little echo chamber where we recommend over and over a handful of books from authors who are very active online–who are one of us? Do they, and we, really represent the whole of the genre? Best-seller lists suggest otherwise. Do we know what else is out there and whether it reflects the criticisms?

5. Recommendations lists/”your view is outdated” comments don’t require us to defend the books we’re listing in any detail. We can just toss in a few key phrases like “agency” and “heroine-focused” and “female desire” we’re good to go. What if we tried to answer the criticisms in detail, by close reading particular books? (That is, what if we actually engaged in better critical practice than the “bad romance” authors we’re rebutting?) I think we’d find, a lot of the time, that individual books are more complicated than either we or Romance’s detractors like to think. And that they might, you know, be read in more than one way. 

Frankly, I think we’re not at a point in Romanceland right now where we want to do the work of answering these questions. It’s easier, and gets lots more clicks, to make fun of Romance’s detractors and their bad, formulaic articles, and to recommend books we like. I feel sad about this. But I’m not sure I want to do the work either.

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36 Responses to Unpopular Opinions

  1. Erin Satie says:

    I had 2 thoughts in the wake of the outrage explosion…

    (1) That the author was having thoughts I had quite recently, when I was forced to read outside my bubble for a contest. I read a handful of books that were in every way offensive to me, including outdated gender roles.

    I know I made some comments about it at the time. Along the lines of, “Gee, when I read outside my bubble, I’m reminded of the fact that my little corner of the romance world is unique & not representative.” Nobody disagreed & a couple noted the same.

    This is aside from the books I read by choice, of course. I read plenty of dubcon/noncon, so I’m well aware that it’s still being written & published.

    (2) I really, really saw myself in the author. She expressed herself in a way that I might have, about a decade ago. When I was just starting to feel like I had a handle on romance as a genre. Getting over my own bias has been a PROCESS.

    I definitely wrote essays that drew similar conclusions. I guess I should be glad that nobody read them, because the reactions would have scared me away from romance forever.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      1. I think we all read in a bubble. And most of us like to feel that what’s inside our bubble is OK, and the problem books are outside. I think that’s a problem, and that’s part of what I’m trying to get at here. It means we just talk/yell past each other. I suppose it’s partly because of my profession, but for me, meaningful “criticism” of various elements in romance requires entertaining different points of view on them, not just dismissing them. As Sunita says below, people read and experience books in different ways. So what seem to me like retrograde gender roles can read differently to someone else–or she can see the book as exploring those roles in a critical way.

      2. The bias I had to get past was learning that other people read differently. That Mary Sue article really went off the rails for me at the end–I think the argument that these books can harm women (not me! always other women) is a failure to see that they might be reading differently, and that doesn’t equate to being brainwashed. There are also biases I don’t want to get past. I have a real problem with the way we discuss rape fantasies in romance because I don’t think we pay enough attention to the way a published fiction differs from an individual person’s private fantasy. For some readers encountering that is going to be problematic and painful, and sometimes it seems like only lip service gets paid to that.

      • lawless says:

        I think you’re looking for something many romance readers don’t do and aren’t all that interested in. Nor are most (not all) blogs. At the level of reader reaction, you can’t expect anything more than talking (or yelling) past one another, nor can you make people engage critically who don’t want to. That’s especially true of those for whom romance reading is a pure escape/fantasy/comfort zone/insert word of choice here, the joy of which would for them by definition be lessened by critical analysis.

        Maybe all this will inspire me to actually work on the deconstruction of the genre that surfaces much of the time when I’m reading romance or reading about it. I have no idea where to post it other than on my LJ, though, and none of the people who normally read my LJ read much in the way of het romance.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          I don’t necessarily expect (and certainly can’t require) people to be critical, analytic, or thoughtful about their pleasure reading. But without that I am not going to take positive claims any more seriously than I take negative ones. I think responses to these clickbait articles are usually equally superficial (with a big side helping of promo) but we are all supposed to cosign and praise because Romance Fans.

  2. meoskop says:

    Do you have any idea at all how tiring it is, after decades of deconstructing romance texts and their narratives, to have the conversation continually circle back to “what if a reader likes rape fantasy?”. It’s seriously the “reverse racism” of my genre life. Readers who like rape fantsy, who like Alpha Males, dub con, and patriarchy reinforcement are not excluded, FFS. God, some days I give up. Fine. Everyone wins. Unexamined DV, rape and patriarchy for everyone, mazel tov.

    I would like to be inside the wagon circle for more than a 24 hour outrage cycle, but I recognize that’s not the community we have. Most days, I’m fine with that. I don’t agree with pretty much any of your POV here, but I do see why it it holds for you and likely others. I don’t think we need outside derision to keep from exploring our issues as a genre, but I’m tired so I’ll quit while I’m behind.

    • meoskop says:

      Replying to myself – I was dead wrong to use reverse racism as a throwaway comparison and apologize for doing so. I know better and I should have done better. There were other words i could have chosen & I sincerely thank the person who called me out.

    • Las says:

      That’s one thing that stood out to me (after getting over my annoyance at another genre think piece by someone obviously unfamiliar with it) about the reactions–the most prominent voices in romland not only passionately and routinely defend rape in romance but shut down dissent with accusations of reader shaming, but as soon as an outsider talks about how common rape is in the genre, there’s this whole community-wide backlash. It’s like when people complain about the romance=porn label and in the next breath celebrate all the sex in romance. We can’t have it both ways.

      And I LIKE sex in romance and, while not really something I seek out, have certainly enjoyed my share of rape fantasies. But there’s very little real discussion among romance readers about these things anymore. People just refuse to like what they like and acknowledge that some of what they like is fucked up, insisting that any negative discussion about problematic elements is “reader shaming.” It’s all a little too close to calling negative reviews “bullying” for my liking. So while I’m as guilty as the next person of mocking these outsider genre analysis, it’s not like I can point to any current discussions among romance readers as a defense.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        I do agree that there’s self-contradiction in the way people–sometimes the same people, sometimes different people–talk about romance, both within the genre community and to outsiders. I honestly do not see the frequent/passionate defences, though. I have seen a handful of posts on Dear Author, which obviously has a high profile. That is pretty much it. Sarah Wendell or Sarah MacLean, who are often go-to voices for interpretation of romance to non-readers? I don’t see them talking about this. But as several people have pointed out to me, I don’t see everything.

      • lawless says:

        the most prominent voices in romland not only passionately and routinely defend rape in romance but shut down dissent with accusations of reader shaming, but as soon as an outsider talks about how common rape is in the genre, there’s this whole community-wide backlash. It’s like when people complain about the romance=porn label and in the next breath celebrate all the sex in romance. We can’t have it both ways.

        THIS. Of course, it’s entirely possible to have it both ways, but it’s inconsistent and illogical.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I recognize that I was making my own sweeping statements here, and that there are plenty of people who have examined individual books closely–I’ve really appreciated some of your reviews that do that.

      I also think that Romanceland is at a place right now where everyone feels their point of view is the marginalized one in certain discussions (e.g. the color that shall not be named). This makes it hard to discuss things. I guess what I’m responding to here is my sense that when it comes to representing the genre to outsiders/non-readers, and not just in response to these “what’s wrong with romance” posts, there is a pretty universal gesture of rejecting the past/the bodice-ripper. “That’s not who we are anymore.” But that’s not really true and that’s where I see the problem. So in that sense maybe we don’t disagree so much? I think “At least we’re not rapey anymore” lets us off the hook of examining the other elements you’re talking about–although of course some people are doing that, as you say–and how they might be on the same continuum as forced seduction scenes of old.

      I also think we do tend to talk to others within our bubble: we point at things and assume that has made our case without having to explain in detail why we think that, because we’re talking to others who agree already. I’m as guilty as that of anyone. Both your comment and Willaful’s below remind me that my own view of this is absolutely colored by who’s in my echo chamber and the (relatively short) length of time I’ve been part of the romance community.

  3. lazaraspaste says:

    Hello! I so rarely participate in these conversations anymore, but I found this one interesting because I’ve been thinking some of these things on and off for umpteen years now and they are suddenly becoming newly relevant questions again for me.

    1. I’m of the opinion that we should abandon the slogan. The slogan being, “Romance is about celebrating women’s desires and fantasies!” It isn’t. At least, it isn’t ONLY about those things. It is also about women’s fears and anxieties or just fear and anxiety full stop sans “women’s”. Romance is a genre about injustice and death, violence and loss, as much as it is a genre about sex and love. We tend to focus only on the sex and, perhaps a very little, on the love. We don’t tend to focus on the misadventures that form the middle bits of the novel. The misadventures are where all problematic and squicky bits come in, the ideologically suspect events that get everyone’s backs up on on all sides. I’m of the opinion we should stop defending the genre entirely against these attacks, these think-pieces, these business-as-usual essays. They are boring and invaribly the same, but more importantly, they determine the conversation and its terms. We should change the terms by refusing to defend. When romance gets accused of being “anti-feminist” we should go on the offensive and ask in return, “Whose feminism and what feminism?” Or better yet, “Why should any story be reduced to a single ideological bias?” Or maybe we should say things like, “Unless it’s a manifesto, there are no only entirely feminist books so you should ask a different question about these books.”

    2. Because we acceded and conceded to the terms of what good literature is and want romance to be measured on that same criteria. You and I both know that “realism” is just another word of “masculine aesthetics.” When we judge the value of story based on how much it conforms to reality we are really just asking it or trying to make it conform to the generally agreed upon criteria of what good literature is: Good literature is realistic, or so I’ve heard. Honestly, I’ve been trying to get people to do this FOR YEARS and have gotten NO takers. “What work/function is rape doing in the genre?” I asked in several public venues. Nobody responded so I answered the question myself. As long as “realism” and “authenticity” are the dominant measures of “good” literature I think we are always going to get trapped in this loop of defending women’s right to fantasies even as we simultaneously discuss the books in terms of realism.

    3. I feel like in a lot of ways this because we focus on questions about gender and sexual identity (which are important questions, yes) and ignore other questions that the genre consistently brings up/attempts to deal with/narrates, etc. We are so focused on justifying women’s sexual fantasies as being okay that we forget that romance actually does deal with other issues. I think this continual rehashing is symptomatic of the very narrow definiton we have encapsulated in what I call The Slogan, “Romance is about celebrating women’s desires and fantasies!” or “Romance is by women for women!” I think we need to unbrand ourselves.

    4. Yes, to all of those questions. But I think it is probably accidentally due to us all unwittingly agreeing to a certain set of talking points. Nobody would recommend Catherine Coulter’s “Rebel Bride” (which I actually happen to like quite a bit) because it basically does all the things romance gets accused of doing. So we recommend Jennifer Crusie (who I also really like for entirely different reasons. You know, because they are the same genre but different kettles of fish).

    5. OMG! I would LOVE to see more close attention and detailed analysis of particular books pop up in mainstream romance blogging. I mean, I know I’m a literature nerd but I REALLY love a good close-reading and the good ones can actual make you really take pleasure and like a book you might not have otherwise enjoyed. That said, I do think a lot of us who are working on romance on the academic side of things are actually doing this. So it is there, albeit not widely read or necessarily for a lay audience (though, actually, most of the ones I’ve heard/read aren’t super gnostic. So there’s that).

    That’s it. That’s all I’ve got to say for the moment.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      #1 and #3, yes, absolutely. I really appreciate readers who talk at length about other things (I love Miss Bates’ reviews for this).

      #4 Long before I was a romance reader I read some of Coulter’s Bride books. I’m not sure what made me pick them up. Lots of what I read there made me uncomfortable/seemed problematic, but I also recognized some of my own experience in them in ways that mattered to me at the time, particularly that consent didn’t guarantee I was going to have a great time or be totally comfortable about what I was doing. That women’s desires and fantasies aren’t, actually, always easy and dreamy for women to negotiate. I don’t think I’d have the same experience rereading them but at the time they were useful to me.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Oh, and I forgot to add: the day after posting the “what’s wrong with romance” post that got the most recent outrage-motor revving, The Mary Sue posted this great piece arguing that the aim of feminist criticism is not to give us a thumbs up/thumbs down on media or to make us feel OK about what we enjoy. It seems germane to the discussion: http://www.themarysue.com/stop-asking-is-this-feminist/

      • lazaraspaste says:

        I’ll have to read that at some point this week. I have a lot of other things to say about how we treat and discuss romance but I’m kinda saving them for my dissertation, which I’m not allowed to think about at the moment.

  4. Cecilia Bell says:

    I wonder whether these articles have one of their ancestors in the idea that women were supposed to be some kind of moral beacon, that they should be virtuous and Christian, and hopefully some of that would rub off on others in their lives. Because there seems to be a high expectation that this nearly women-only genre be a perfect and uncomplicated role model, in a way that we never see for other genres. Detective fiction doesn’t have to have a totally constitution-abiding investigation, for instance. So are the women authors providing us an ideologically clean model? They might not be? It might be more complicated? Tsk!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      This kind of criticism of what women read and concern about how it will affect them certainly has a long, long history. Basically as long as women have been literate. We are not supposed to be messy.

    • Robin says:

      I think Lori Merish’s Sentimental Materialism provides a sound (cultural) historical analysis of many of the issues implicated in your comment: https://www.dukeupress.edu/Sentimental-Materialism/index-viewby=title.html

    • lazaraspaste says:

      Yes! I totally think this. We see it every time some problematic lady has a hit TV show. I mean, why should Lena Dunham have to be moral and ideologically pure? Do we make that same demand of Larry David? Or the dudes from “Always Sunny”? Why can’t we have terrible and ugly represenations of women who are terrible and awful and do terrible things and who are uber problematic? Why can’t there be a whole messy, uncomfortable spectrum of female experience represented and narrated? I think, too, that as long as we/you/me/them/the world see stories as being vehicles for modeling (thanks Plato!) we are forever going to be trapped into thinking there is a “right” way to represent women and women’s experience.

  5. willaful says:

    I didn’t read the full article, but a substantial amount was quoted in take-down pieces, and yeah, I did agree with some of it. But I also thought at least some of the take-down pieces did a good job of detailing what specifically was offensive about the way the article was done. There were some knee-jerk reactions sure, but also some decent analysis.

    As for the circling of the wagons… there are plenty of people expressing their love for problematic romance on twitter and elsewhere, and they seem happy and comfortable with their reading choices. They may not be in your particular echo chamber because you don’t share tastes, but maybe what you’re feeling has more to do with your particular twitter than twitter in general?

    I do feel a little out ot place sometimes in my twitter circles, but no one has ever yelled at me for liking something I like, and I don’t think anyone’s unfollowed me over it, and if they did, I guess that was the right choice for them.

    I kind of think that much of the reaction to the datedness of the piece had more to do with a feeling that the author didn’t really participate in or understand romance than that the sorts of books she was talking about are “over.”

    I’m having trouble writing long pieces (visual migraines make me queasy) so I hope this makes some sense.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I am definitely talking about my Twitter, not all of Twitter (inevitably) and I should have made that clearer. You’ve made me think more of how my own perspective is influenced by the bubble I’m in.

      I have such mixed feelings about the idea that people who don’t “get” romance shouldn’t criticize. Of course it’s a problem when people use a big platform to make sweeping claims about something they know nothing about. But that Mary Sue author appeared to read some romance. Is it because we don’t recognize her from online romance circles that her views (even where they align with points commonly made by people within those circles) got flatly rejected? What brands her framing as non-reader? (This is a real question. I kind of experienced it that way too but I’m not sure why). And I also think sometimes it’s good to see ourselves as others see us. Why does reading one romance make so many readers go “oh no, never again”? That seems like it should be telling us something.

      • Las says:

        I think it’s often simply of matter of the knee-jerk defensiveness over mainstream criticism. Romance gets so much flack from outsiders–in such a broad-brush way that no other genre experiences–that anything written outside our own spaces better be complimentary (like the recent articles at Jezebel). The same article written by someone familiar, posted in one of the romance blogs, would have garnered a different reaction. There would have been disagreements and cries of reader shaming, yes, but not this tone of, “You have no right to write this.”

      • willaful says:

        I wish I could remember who wrote the response I thought was so good… but I think a lot of it was the lack of any actual examples, and the very broad brush. I’ve made similar missteps generalizing about category romance through my lens of mostly Harlequin Presents, when there’s actually a great variety to them.

  6. Sunita says:

    So much food for thought in this post, and also in Angela’s terrific comment.

    I wonder if one of the big, unbreachable cleavages is between readers who cannot avoid (or do not wish to avoid) reading problematic setups and characterizations literally and readers who interpret them as metaphors or symbols. Liz and Angela may be using the term “realistic” in its literary-criticism sense, whereas I think not so much in terms of realism as literalness (sorry for the clunky phrasing). Rape in romance functions that way for me (it doesn’t do fantasy or symbolic work for me), but so, increasingly, do historical romances set in Imperial Britain that are written today. I can no longer get past the fact that these books are whitewashing conquest, oppression, and white supremacy and erasing the actual lived experiences of the colonized (and many books I’ve read which include non-white characters also do this, because the lived experiences on the page have nothing to do with the historical lived experiences which I encounter in primary and scholarly secondary sources).

    Yet I’ll see the same readers who excoriate the rape-in-romance plots rave about 19thC England-set books. Sometimes there’s an acknowledgment in the form of “I know, I know, but it’s my catnip! Don’t judge me!” But they’re still praising and recommending the books. And writing them! I realize these are different issues and play out differently on the page, but ignoring the consequences of imperialism does strike me as problematic if you are interested in connecting fiction with lived experiences. My solution is to avoid 19thC imperialism-promoting books AND rape-in-romance books, and also to stay out of discussions of them. I believe that other readers read differently from me, and a literal reader who avoids certain topics is not going to find a lot of common ground with a symbol/metaphor oriented reader who seeks out those same topics. We’re really not reading the same books, or at least we’re reading them in very different ways.

    As for the knee-jerk responses, I think they are sincere, but they are also fueled by people who have material interests in what the genre looks like or who are looking to be prominent voices in how the genre is interpreted. Fewer and fewer online voices are there just to have conversations for the fun of it, and more and more are using social media as a means to an end (money, status, visibility, whatever). Not just in romance, but across the board.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I’m not sure I’ve ever read a romance with a rape by the hero except To Have and to Hold, where it seemed to me meant to be read literally. It was a scene of violation, full stop. So I don’t know how I’d read a different kind of scene (I suspect literally, which is why I avoid it).

      Great point about historicals and they way they elide imperialism. Romance discussions tend to focus, as Angela said, so much on sexual fantasy and so little on the other kinds romance offers us (how about all those neo-liberal billionaires??? we talk about rich men as a sexual fantasy, not an economic one). I really appreciated Meoskop’s post on the fantasy of privilege offered by historicals, for instance. And I do wonder how that influences readers. I think primogeniture has become “naturalized” in some way for me, as well as a focus on the paternal name in inheritance, in part because of my reading–I have to fight back against that kind of impulse (phew, Kate had a boy! WTF?) even though I didn’t take my husband’s name and would never think of treating my own children differently in my will based on their gender. I don’t think I’m saying this very clearly–but yes, there are all kinds of problematic fantasies, or fantasies with multiple meanings/valences/readings, that don’t really get discussed at all.

      • Sunita says:

        Charlotte Lamb and other HP authors from back in the 1970s and 1980s, of course, had quite a few hero-as-rapist storylines. In HistRom there’s Balogh’s The Secret Pearl, of course, and Mary Joe Putney wrote one around the same time called Dearly Beloved. I find Lamb’s HPs fascinating in how they depict and try to redeem their heroes, because not only is she very clearly testing genre boundaries, they seem to me to be not just about power dynamics, but about the way in which individuals have to give up parts of themselves to enter relationships. And it’s not just the heroines who have to do that, although the heroines do more of it. I think they capture some of the tensions of their time very well.

        There’s also a Mary Burchell novel, surprisingly, that has a kind of dubious consent scene between a married couple. She does formally consent, because she loves him, but he’s deeply angry at her because she lied to him before they married and he feels betrayed. It’s very angry sex on his part (offpage) and she’s left feeling horrible. She has to abase herself completely in the novel to free him from his anger. I’ve read this book several times, across the decades, and while I won’t say I enjoy it exactly, I am totally mesmerized (and I can’t believe it’s a Burchell) and keep wanting to understand it. The sex scene is critical for the plot and the relationship development; it’s anything but a throwaway. The name of the book is Yet Love Remains and she wrote it in 1938.

    • lazaraspaste says:

      I’m actually having this problem, too. There’s a jaunty tone that some historicals take which I often find more distressing than outright imperialist and aristocratic privilege. Like I find the power dynamics in say, Heyer, more troubling but also less of a barrier to my reading beause she’s so clearly got an idea of what it means to be English and of quality. Whereas sometimes in historicals that are actually more liberal and progressive in terms that I technically agree with I get more frustrated in a sort of, “He’s still an Earl!” kind of a way. If that makes any sort of sense.

  7. jillsorenson says:

    I commented about the article because it was inaccurate. Like you said, romances without rape have always been common. I haven’t read many published before 1980, but I’ve read a ton published after that and I do see a difference in gender dynamics. Forceful heroes were more common in earlier works. They’re still not exactly uncommon. But outright rape is so unusual (by the hero) that when it happens we discuss it ad nauseum. To Have and To Hold for example.

    I don’t usually care what academics think about romance, even if it’s inaccurate. If they say it’s formulaic, dumb, unrealistic, whatever. I don’t much care what men think about it, either. I do care when women (outsiders) say it’s rapey and anti-feminist because in some way that feels like an accusation. It’s personal. I care about being a feminist. I care about abuse of women. I care about rape in the genre and in real life. The offhand suggestion that my books, as romance novels, contribute to rape culture and reinforce harmful gender dynamics bothers me. So I respond. I’m trying to write books that do the opposite. If people don’t want to read them, fine, but I don’t want to be accused of doing something that harms women.

    Does that mean we shouldn’t discuss how romance novels, even mine, DO cause harm? I guess I can’t imagine myself having that conversation because I don’t believe my books are harmful. I’ve had the experience of feeling harmed by a book with rape in it, to the point that I feel sick every time I see it mentioned, but having that conversation has mostly just opened me up to more hurt. It’s an issue I discussed in my MC heroes class, with mixed results. I’m not sure the discussion ever leads anywhere. People get defensive. I get defensive. It is sad, and I don’t think it’s because romance readers or authors are reluctant to be critical. It’s that the nature of the discussion is dark and emotional. But who else discusses it as much as us?

    I have noted the way my twitter blows up with outrage over rape in Game of Thrones and praises a rape fantasy book. These are apples and oranges, but I notice. I was also thinking about the popularity of stepbrother books recently, and saying to myself, maybe the detractors are right… There are certainly some problems to address. MC romance, lack of diversity, dark romance, serial killer heroes. Rape in every book, no. Rape in too many books, presented casually or as a manifestation of internalized misogyny? Yes. That’s a problem.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      It seems to me that these questions are being asked more and more in other genres–partly but not only because of GoT, there has been more discussion of the problematic uses of rape as a plot device in fantasy, and I think there has been (some) more discussion of violence against women as a focus of so many mystery plots.

      I think a female-centric genre with a happy ending feels like a safe space for many readers/authors in which to explore these issues of power, dominance, and force. But that can also make it hard to discuss them, because so many people read romance in really emotional ways, with close identification, so talking about what is, after all, a literary work (NOT a real person/event, nor a real person’s unmediated sexual fantasy) becomes extra fraught. As you say, it is hard to do in ways that don’t feel personal.

  8. willaful says:

    I should add, kudos to you for writing this. I do think there was very little room for disagreement in the strong reaction to the piece. I’d see people quote lines and think, “but that’s true,” but not really feel able to get into it. That’s mostly on me, of course.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thanks. I don’t totally believe everything I said but when I read the Mary Sue piece I agreed with a lot of it AND I see a lot of it said by romance readers, so I wondered why it got wholesale rejected, not just the clearly wrong parts. I think Las is right about the protective response when outsiders comment. Maybe it’s partly just that when you have been kicked repeatedly you are tender, which I totally get.

  9. lawless says:

    We already had a discussion on Twitter about how the outrage cycle seems pointless. If what these articles say is so wrong and romance is as worthwhile as its fans say it is, why does it need impassioned defending? Caring what outsiders think smacks very much of women needing outside approval. Men don’t feel the need to justify porn, their interest in cars or tinkering, or silly action-adventure narratives; why should women who read romance feel the need to keep justifying it?

    I am also over using “female-centric” as a justification for romance. Not all women like it or get it, and the most it means is that women assume romance-oriented spaces are safe ones — an assumption that’s not always true. I refuse to apologize for wanting to read romances that have balanced, mutual relationships that I recognize congruent with relationships in the real world, not some lala fantasyland. I don’t think this is what lazarapaste means by realism, but I’m not sure what that term means when used in literary criticism. The desire for something that better represents reality in terms of variety (non-billionaires, non-white characters, settings that aren’t the Regency or contemporary America, non-professionals, regular guys, characters who are not conventionally attractive or hot) is part and parcel of the divide among readers over fantasy/escapism vs. realism, a divide in which I’m on what appears to be the less popular side at least as judged by output.

    Maybe a better tack than boasting that it’s by women for women is why do such narratives have almost no appeal to men? Studies show men are the ones who benefit more from long-term relationships (caveat: the studies I’m thinking of only examined marriages and showed married men are happier than single men, but the same isn’t true of married women.) My theory is that it has to do with the different conditioning men and women undergo and the differing value they place on the different components of relationships (since both groups seem to value and want relationships about equally as much) , which doesn’t contradict my observation — or maybe it’s an opinion — that consciously or unconsciously, romance largely serves to reinforce and reconcile us with the way things are between the sexes, or to put it in a less palatable way, they’re feelgood narratives that serve to reinforce patriarchy and heteronormativity either by showing us that under the right conditions, things do work out or by letting us escape to a world where things do work out even though in real life they often don’t.

  10. Kaetrin says:

    I liked this, from the Mary Sue piece about feminism and media

    Maybe you are emotional about readings of your media, because you want to see progress in a certain direction, and that’s fine. But when critical theory becomes weaponized as a means of categorizing and silencing people who enjoy a piece of media, parsed into “bad people like this thing” and “good people like this thing,” how does this further the discussion of the piece of media in question? You got someone to shut up by calling them a bad person. Awesome. What does that have to do with the debate? Ah, right. Fuck all.

    Don’t ask “is this feminist?” as a means of giving yourself permission to like something. Media is designed to elicit an emotional response. You are not a bad person for having an emotional response to problematic media; you are not being attacked if someone examines the racial politics of your favorite movie. Media criticism is not about you.

    I’m all for critical discussion. I tend to be oblivious to things until they are pointed out to me. Sometimes I see them and say “okay, I see that and that is problematic but I still like this thing overall”. Sometimes I see them and say “okay, now that I see that, I can’t enjoy this thing overall anymore, thx for pointing it out.” Sometimes (increasingly rarely), I think “okay, well I disagree with your view of the thing and I don’t think it’s problematic”. Strangely, giving myself “permission” to like problematic things means I’m more likely to acknowledge and engage with what is problematic rather than just be dismissive of it. (Although, of course, this is only my personal experience.)

    In a general sense, I’m all for whatever floats your boat. If someone likes to read something, great. If they don’t, also great. I think it’s okay to like problematic things but I also think that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about them. We should talk about them.

    Where my line in the sand is drawn is around the language used. I’ve seen this referred to sometimes as a “tone” argument but I don’t think it is. I think language matters. I think there is a difference between saying “this thing is problematic” and “people who like these things are xxx”. (I also think that sometimes people are quick to see the latter when actually the former has been said.)

    Getting back around to the think piece which was the genesis of this discussion, I think what bothered me most was the sweeping generalisations from someone who didn’t appear to be that well-read in the genre. I’d have felt more sympathetic to the piece if she’d have mentioned some specific good and bad examples. Frankly, it ended up to me having the equivalent value of someone who says “I hate contemporaries [for example] because they all have xxx and that’s why I don’t read them”; which just fails the logic test IMO.

    The romance genre is freaking huge. There are hundreds of books released every month. Nobody could possibly be across the entire genre – everybody reads in bubbles.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, that was the point I really liked as well. It applies to a lot of discussions I see in romanceland where people say they want criticism/discussion but actually want to just say “X is bad” without considering differing points of view. I do think it has a silencing effect. And I guess that’s the kind of “discussion” some people want to have, where there is no possibility they are then ones who are wrong–or where there is not a right and wrong, just differing interpretations–but it’s not one I find worth my while. (Are there cases where I think there is pretty much a “right” point of view? Sure there are. I think there are terms that are obviously racist or ableist, for instance, and representations most people would agree are stereotypical. I think sometimes people argue otherwise in bad faith. But I think most of the time, when we’re talking about fiction, we are dealing with something far more complex, nuanced, and open to various interpretations.)

  11. Ros says:

    Late to the party and I’m not sure I have much useful to add, except maybe a comment on why the Mary Sue piece raised my particular hackles. It seems very odd to me to set out to write a piece deliberately about the ‘bad’ books in a genre. Why pick those? Who judges which are bad and which are good and by what criteria? If those are the books a reader enjoys, then labelling them all as bad does seem to me to be reader-shaming. And, given that the piece was about a genre which is frequently assumed to be all bad, an article focussed on its bad books does reinforce that stereotype, despite its assertion that not-all-romance etc. etc.

    So for me it wasn’t so much about the specifics of the article as the underlying premise.

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