TBR Challenge: The Romance Consensus?

July’s TBR Challenge theme is “award nominee or winner,” because this month sees the Romance Writers of America conference and RITA awards ceremony. I wasn’t sure how I’d squeeze a book in before my vacation, and then I realized the one I was reading counted: Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of Romance, a collection of essays edited by Jayne Ann Krentz. A number of the contributors have won RITA or RT awards, and the book itself won the Susan Koppelman Award for Feminist Studies. I’ve been hearing about this book for years, especially Laura Kinsale’s idea of the heroine as “placeholder” for the reader, so I was glad to finally read it.

I have way too many thoughts for one blog post, even this tl;dr one, so I’ll focus on the things that stood out for me. A lot of what I have to say is about things I wish had been explored in more depth, or from more angles. That might make my assessment of the book seem negative, but in fact I can raise these questions because it is so rich, thoughtful, and thought-provoking.

I read this book in a bit less than a week, and that pace revealed that while most of these essays are interesting, they are repetitive. Hence the title of this post: there is a clear consensus among these authors, summed up in Krentz’s introduction, about the appeal of romance:

  • Romance fiction offers a fantasy (one readers can tell from reality!) in which the woman always wins, triumphing over the hero (and, symbolically, the patriarchy) by making him fall for her and surrender to the power of love.
  • Thus, the hero is really the most important character, even though the story is about female empowerment, because he has to be mysterious and dangerous and fascinating and alpha if her triumph is to mean anything.
  • The HEA is about the equal union of masculine and feminine (in the couple, the heroine’s self, the reader’s self).

I don’t think this view is wrong, but it’s just one possible view–and a heterosexist, gender essentialist, cis-sexist one at that. The fact that the book was published in 1992 doesn’t entirely explain or excuse its narrow views. I’d love to see an updated project like this that took a wider variety of approaches.

Fantasy, Reality and the Reader

I agree that women “know the difference between fantasy and reality,” certainly if we mean by that that a reader doesn’t decide she needs a Vampire Viking Billionaire Dom husband just because she read a romance. But I think this phrase is too often a conversation-stopper. Is that crude example the only way that fantasy can affect us? I doubt it. Generally, we (and by we I mean readers including me, bloggers, authors, and contemporary romance scholars, too) prefer to accept that romance can influence us for good but not for ill. This seems self-deluding, although I understand it comes from defending ourselves from claims about how our reading is harmful.

What are we basing these claims on, anyway? When we talk about “readers” we generally mean “me and my online friends/people I follow.” Or in the case of the authors in DMAW, “people who send me fanmail.” None of these are likely to be representative samples. If we want to talk about the effect romance fiction has on its readers (though must we? we don’t rush to talk about any other kind of literature that way, except kids’ books, which … I’m not a child), I’d like to see some rigorous social science brought to bear.

I’d also like to see some scholarship that interrogates the impermeable barrier this phrase seems to erect between fantasy and reality (and that defines those terms more precisely). I don’t think they’re so separate. Things I read and see in the “real” world enter my daydreams. And a writer’s daydreams enter her work–many of these women talk about how you have to write your fantasy, and how readers connect best with books that express their fantasies. So I’d agree that there’s a strong fantasy element in romance fiction, but it’s a mediated fantasy–it belongs to both the author and the reader, rather than existing in the privacy of just one fantasizing mind. Moreover, fiction is a cultural product; its writing may be full of unconscious influences, as many authors describe, but it’s also the result of conscious labor. This relationship between fantasy and reality, and the way a work of fiction engages with each, seems like a really fruitful area for further exploration.

The Hero and Masculinity

This is related to the previous point, because the hero is at the core of the romance fantasy, at least as the genre currently exists. I know there is f/f romance, but its very marginalization supports these authors’ claim that a romance stands or falls on its hero because the fantasy is about bringing a powerful, dangerous man to his knees. This is, by now, a familiar point, and I found myself wondering as I read whether readers had reached the same consensus as these authors on their own, or whether they were influenced by this book or hearing these arguments from authors in other venues.

On the face of it, it’s paradoxical to claim that the genre empowers women but that the hero is the most important character and the heroine can be an empty placeholder or a crappy character along for the ride and not wreck the book. The argument that the hero must also be, in a sense, a potential villain and that the heroine triumphs over him by risking herself to make him surrender to love effectively reconciles this paradox. I find it persuasive.

And yet. There’s more than one way to read a novel, and again I feel that too often this way of reading is a conversation-stopper, that we don’t consider the less satisfying elements of the argument. Can a happy ending dependent on a heteronormative partnership (still the most common kind) really be a subversive way of sticking it to the patriarchy? Just because the guy has feelings now? Yes, and no, I’d say–in a paradox, both can be true at once. We hear a lot about the yes. I’d like to see more discussion of the no side, and from people who know the genre well.

In DMAW, I think you can see traces of the problem with this argument in the way the authors tend to talk about the real men they and their readers choose to marry as opposed to the fantasy alpha heroes of romance. Of course, they say, we don’t want a man like that. We want a man who talks and expresses his feelings and does dishes. But then they turn around and say that in a book you need drama and fantasy and conflict, and you can’t have that if the hero is a “neurotic wimp or a good-natured gentleman-saint” (these terms are Krentz’s, but others use similar phrases). Is this the only alternative to the alpha that these writers can imagine? Perhaps so. Almost all the authors in this book seem to share a particular kind of fantasy. But other kinds of heroes and conflicts do exist in romance, and some readers even like them.

The views of masculinity and femininity expressed in this book are, by and large, both essentialist (women are X and men are Y) and traditional. And the authors generally argue that it must be this way, that this is the fantasy readers want. It is a very popular fantasy, one that still dominates the genre, I think–and that’s not surprising, when they make such a good case for its appeal. But insisting on its universal power and casting alternatives in such a negative, dismissive light risks locking us in to the consensus view of romance they put forward, perhaps turning off authors and readers who might imagine different stories.

The genre has changed a lot, but also not all that much, partly because we are wed to this idea of the powerful hero who must be triumphed over. This kind of essentialist thinking seems to me to be still at work in Catherine M. Roach’s argument, in the just-published Happily Ever Afterthat m/m might be even more about women’s empowerment and subversion of the patriarchy than heterosexual romance, because according to the partriarchy, a gay man is really unmanned. (It’s more complicated than that, but that’s what it boils down to). That’s not a logic I want my fantasies to reinforce.

I really appreciated the essays here, like Judith Arnold’s and Kathleen Gilles Seidel’s, that focused more on the heroine, because I’m rather tired of arguments about romance as empowering women that promptly erase them to focus on the Man. He even comes first in the book’s title!

Looking at Language

I also appreciated the essays, like Linda Barlow and Krentz’s “Beneath the Surface: The Hidden Codes of Romance” and Seidel’s “Judge Me By the Joy I Bring,” that talked about the language of romance fiction–these are texts, after all–and its craft. Again, the argument that romance is fantasy is often a conversation-stopper on this front. “You either like it or you don’t,” argue several of these authors, as if you couldn’t enjoy or appreciate a book that doesn’t push your personal fantasy buttons. But Seidel points out that a fantasy appeal “is not at odds with emotional depth and intellectual complexity,” and Barlow and Krentz make really interesting arguments about the way romance’s purplish prose works for readers.

These, too, offer fruitful avenues for further exploration. Some scholars do closely read the language of romance, of course, but so far more of their work seems to be broader cultural-studies arguments (in Roach’s book, for instance, which to be fair is not literary criticism but interdisciplinary, no novel gets more than a couple of pages, and I was left wanting more depth in her readings). That’s not surprising when you’re working on popular fiction, but I’d love to see someone answer Seidel’s call for the development of a vocabulary that would help us talk about what makes a textual fantasy work well, what n the writing creates emotional appeal.

What’s Wrong with Consensus?

Maybe nothing. I think the consensus view of the genre put forth in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women still largely holds, despite changes in the genre in the last 25 years, because many of its arguments are smart and persuasive.

But consensus can also become constraint and silence voices that could lead to change. Romanceland loves definitions and rules and boundaries. Scholars identify the “essential” structural and thematic elements of romance; RWA, unlike other genre-writer organizations, created an official definition of the genre. Definitions are useful, but I’d rather they were descriptive than prescriptive. I’m not sure Pamela Regis did us a favor by calling her book A Natural History of the Romance NovelThe structural elements she identifies aren’t natural laws but cultural products. And yet I’ve seen editors cite them for authors to follow and readers cite them to declare a book is “not a romance.” Regis’ elements allow her to position popular romance as a descendant of canonical works like Pamela and Pride and Prejudice, which is strategically useful in an emerging academic field (not that that’s the only value of her argument). But I don’t think we should take her word as law, or that she meant us to. A genre that is too codified and resistant to change is going to die. In the grand scheme of literary history, genre romance is awfully young to be hidebound. So are our conversations about it, fannish, professional, and academic, all of which tend to be shaped by the consensus.


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23 Responses to TBR Challenge: The Romance Consensus?

  1. katesherwood793 says:

    I haven’t read the original book, but I’ve certainly heard of it, and based on others’ readings and your ideas here, I think I agree that it would be nice to see more diversity of opinions/theories.

    I can’t stand alpha heroes. I read a lot of m/m and my favourite characters are generally stereotypically masculine (potentially problematic for a whole other set of reasons, I know, but…it’s my preference, for whatever reason(s)). I love heroines who are strong and independent from the start and who need to be tamed/defeated by love at least as much as the heroes do. So… what am I getting out of romance, since apparently I’m not getting what these theories suggest?

    I’m not really sure what the answer is to that question. But I’d definitely like to see some scholarship that tries for an answer!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think the question of what the reader is getting out of a story is way more individual than the essays in this book suggest. Even when I love the same book as someone else, I find that we often read it very differently and focused on different things. That is partly why I get so frustrated about talk of romance readers as some kind of homogeneous mass.

      This book definitely errs on the side of talking about a subset of romance as if it were the whole thing (another version of the homogeneous mass problem). There have always been other kinds of stories.

      I definitely agree that there are plenty of interesting romance heroines who are resistant to love in their own ways. They just do not get talked about as much, and perhaps they still are not as popular with readers.

  2. Janine Ballard says:

    Terrific post. I’m curious if you’ve read any of Krentz / Quick’s romances. Back in the 1990s, I was a regular reader of her Quick historicals and once, while browsing at a bookstore, I picked up Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women and perused the first few pages.

    I remember being startled by her assertion that the hero was a dangerous alpha type, mainly because Quick’s own heroes never really struck me that way. To me, her heroines were also more memorable than her heroes, which argues against the notion that the hero is the most important character in the book.

    I dunno. Some books are very hero-centric, as are some authors’ voices, but others aren’t. When I think of Courtney Milan, for example, I usually remember her heroines more than her heroes.

    I’m also not convinced that it’s always the book’s trajectory for the heroine to triumph over the hero. Cecilia Grant’s books don’t strike me that way, and neither do Sarina Bowen’s, or Kathleen Gilles Seidel’s. And then you have the whole Chick Lit genre, which I see as an outgrowth of romance. The heroine has a huge role to play there.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thanks! I actually have a huge soft spot for Krentz/Quick, though almost entirely in audio. I started with some Quick historicals and then listened to tons of her Castle futuristic series (the Harmony ones) which I think are kind of silly but still really enjoy. My feeling was always that she was–not parodying the dangerous hero, but there is a slightly over the top, humorous feel to her stories and so I saw a lot of those men as wanting to *seem* more dark and dangerous than they ever really were. A little tongue in cheek.

      And I agree, her heroines, even the historical ingenues, always just charge in fearlessly even though they may not, on the face of it, be as tough or skilled as the hero. They tackle the adventure together, as partners, which is why I enjoy the books. Perhaps she isn’t quite writing the story she thinks she is.

      • Laura Vivanco says:

        Her heroes have changed quite a lot, I think. The ones in her early Harlequins definitely do come across to me as much more dangerous (to the heroine) than some of her more recent heroes.

        • Janine Ballard says:

          I don’t recall her early Harlequins that clearly, though I think I read a few. But by 1892, she had begun to write the type of hero Liz describes. I remember reading Scandal (1891) and thinking that the hero, for all his bluster, was a marshmallow, and the heroine, whom he kept insisting was dreamy and unrealistic, had him wrapped around her finger and always got her way. It was a big part of what made the book so funny and charming.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          I haven’t read back as far as early works but agree by the time of this book she was writing a hero who wasn’t so dangerous. Sometimes he thinks of himself as a threat to the heroine, and she is just like “fiddlesticks.” Or he thinks of himself as dark and cold and deadly and she’s saying “oh, you’re so emotional and sensitive.” Maybe I am misreading her code but I find this quite funny and playful about the idea of the Gothic or dangerous hero. Krentz triumphs over him in writing him that way, maybe.

        • Janine Ballard says:

          LOL! The above should read 1992 and 1991. I must have still had those nineteenth century Baedeker guides from this morning’s DA post on my mind when I posted that!

        • rosario001 says:

          I’ve read a lot of JAK’s early books and, unfortunately, it’s not a matter of looking at a particular date. Her early 80s backlist can be a bit of a minefield. Plenty of really good stuff (Corporate Affair, Renaissance Man – both from 1982), but plenty of really horrendously sexist crap (Battle Prize – 1983, Golden Goddess – 1985).

  3. Janine Ballard says:

    I forgot to mention that if you found this one thought-provoking, you might also be interested in the book North American Romance Writers, edited by Kay Mussell and Johanna Tunon. It’s expensive to purchase new but used copies are available more affordably.

    North American Romance Writers was published in 1999 and includes essays on the genre by authors including Judith Arnold, Mary Balogh, Jo Beverley, Loretta Chase (writing as Loretta Chekani), Sue Civil-Brown, Judith Ivory (writing as Judy Cuevas), Sharon and Tom Curtis, Justine Dare-Davis, Eileen Dreyer, Kathleen Eagle, Patricia Gaffney, Alison Hart, Lorraine Heath, Tami Hoag, Susan Johnson, Dara Joy, Lynn Kerstan, Sandra Kitt, Susan Krinard, Jill Marie Landis, Pamela Morsi, Maggie Osborne, Mary Jo Putney, Alicia Rasley, Emilie Richards, Paula Detmer Riggs, Nora Roberts, Barbara Samuel, Kathleen Gilles Seidel, and Jennifer Crusie (as Jennifer Crusie Smith).

    Although the authors listed above aren’t a very diverse bunch, the essays seem more various in topics. Lorraine Heath’s essay, for example, is titled “Gentle Heroes,” while Kathleen Gilles Seidel’s is titled “‘I can Pay the Rent’: Money in the Romance Novel.” They don’t all sound that interesting, and some, to judge from the titles alone, seem like they might be more about the writing life than about the genre.

    I wonder though, if the problems you describe with Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women stem from its own title. It sounds like it was being marketed as a collection of essays on this one topic, whereas North American Romance Writers allows the authors to choose the topic.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Oh thanks, I will look for that. Honestly this one struck me as someone asking a bunch of like-minded friends/ acquaintances to contribute, which might explain the consensus. A few really stood out as different, especially Judith Arnold, who talked a lot more about the heroines, and Seidel.

  4. I read this book years ago and, as you say, it’s very thought-provoking. It’s interesting to see that what I remember are things different to the ones you comment here. For Kinsale we, the readers, are both the heroine and the hero, and that’s why she talks about the androgynous reader. Also, I think it was Krentz -I could be wrong- who talked about forced seduction (and I think that in a sense she defended it, quite an outdated POV, now it’s clear that rape is rape, or not?) because for her the hero must be a menace to the heroine and wasn’t she the one who wrote about purple prose being a kind of code? I don’t agree with this, BTW, I think it just shows laziness on the part of the author. But I always smile when I remember Sandra Brown’s part of the book: Romances are fun. There. In five syllables. I’ve covered my topic.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I thought Kinsale’s point about how the reader identifies with both hero and heroine was really interesting, but that essay gets talked about so much I kind of ignored it.

      Yes, the purple prose as code is Krentz. I think there is something to her points about code or shorthand in romance language (and not just that). I felt I had to learn new decoding skills when I started reading them. But I agree she is very wed to the idea of romance as something mythic that taps deep into our emotions through its special codes. There is something to it, but it is overstated or not really worked out.

  5. “But other kinds of heroes and conflicts do exist in romance, and some readers even like them.” That’s me. While I do enjoy stories which have the whole hero finally surrendering to love arc (some of the Harlequin presents, Lord of Scoundrels), I find I PREFER stories where the hero is already emotionally aware (maybe stories with “beta” heroes?). This second category seems to have fewer books than the former though. They also generally seem to have more depth/complexity to them—or that’s what it looks like to me anyway!

  6. willaful says:

    I haven’t read this, but your comments are very insightful and I get the sense they speak for me as well.

  7. Sunita says:

    Great post! It inspired me to go back and reread/skim some of the essays again, and I’m really struck by the extent to which the hero is the focus of the analysis for several of the authors. I know they’re pushing back hard against the idea that the romance is anti-feminist, or that reading or writing it runs counter to feminist goals, but the drumbeat of the centrality of the hero undermines that to me, at least to some extent. If the heroine is empowered via the hero, if even the reader (in Kinsale’s chapter, which I find deeply unpersuasive in terms of its analytical argument) identifies with the hero, then that makes it hard for me to see consistent, authentic autonomy in the heroine. I don’t mean she has to be alone or reject relationships, but does her journey have to be so hero-centric? There are plenty of romances with storylines where the heroine (and often the hero) sort out aspects of their lives on their own and build a relationship alongside or after that process, and those tend to work much better for me at both emotional and intellectual levels. But clearly, lots of readers and authors like the hero focus or we wouldn’t still have it 25 years later.

    It’s understandable that the book’s tone is defensive, given the battering romance was taking in the 1980s and 1990s from so many feminist scholars and readers. What’s a bit depressing is that the defensiveness doesn’t seem to have gone away, and a lot of romance scholarship still seems to talk to itself, so to speak, rather than making connections with other types of popular culture or other types of reader-text relationships (and yes, I know there are exceptions, I’ve read some of them, but the modal approach still feels siloed).

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I agree about the silo. In this book, both the idea of the “coded” language and the claim that “you either get it or you don’t” seem not just to speak of romance as a distinct genre but to wall it off completely. Although to be fair, there are also comments that connect it to other genres.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Posted too soon: I was happy to get to Judith Arnold’s piece which was at least 50% on the heroine. A lot started by saying they were about her but were 90% hero. And they all said the same thing about him.

  8. Dorine says:

    What an interesting choice and discussion. It would be really interesting if these same authors spoke to whether their views have changed.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, I was thinking about that! Several are still writing romance, some have switched to women’s fiction–would be interesting to hear from both groups!

      • Dorine says:

        I’d buy that book if they collaborated again. I’m always so curious about what time has done to not just the books but the authors who write them.

  9. lawless says:

    If there were in fact a consensus around that first bullet point, I wouldn’t read romance. I would still be on the outside criticizing it.

    That women feel the need for a guaranteed win in a fantasy world says something not so flattering about what our reality is like. I can see how reading a romance novel that follows such a structure could allow someone to cope with the effects of patriarchy, but I cannot see how that enables anyone to make anything better in the real world. For that, one needs to engage in concerted activity, to borrow a term from labor law, not parallel reading of the same texts. (And we know that different people react to the same text differently anyway.)

    A romance novel that shows an equal partnership that avoids the effects of the patriarchy, or comes to terms with it, would be a thousand times more useful in that regard (and less boring to those of us who like novelty) than the shampoo, rinse, repeat of the taming of the alpha male. Cathy Yardley’s Leveling Up is an example of a novel that aims for an equal partnership. So are Courtney Milan’s books. So, in their own way, are Cecilia Grant’s books, although in her books it’s not an overt political agenda the way it is in Milan’s.

    As you note, that “consensus” is also hella heteronormative. Romance is a larger tent than that. I also realize romance was almost entirely heteronormative back then, but I don’t get much of a sense that a similar group of essays from similarly-positioned authors would be markedly different now. It’s just that the group of authors has expanded, much of it due to self-publishing.

    This kind of essentialist thinking seems to me to be still at work in Catherine M. Roach’s argument, in the just-published Happily Ever After, that m/m might be even more about women’s empowerment and subversion of the patriarchy than heterosexual romance, because according to the partriarchy, a gay man is really unmanned.

    If that’s her argument, then it is (a) the first time I’ve seen it (and I’ve read plenty about m/m and its appeal) and (b) not a very convincing one. I’d agree that m/m might be even more about the subversion of the patriarchy than heterosexual romance, but that’s because same-sex relationships don’t have the same burden of millennia of gender expectations (that is not to say they’re free of gender analogies; American gay and bisexual men by and large scorn fems and elevate tops) and therefore are more open to egalitarian and rational arrangements and negotiations and because it’s fun to read (and write) men having to cope with being emotionally open and vulnerable. It’s also easier to imagine and write men having complete agency, having whatever job and being of whatever class the writer wants than would be true of heterosexual romance, which already has shaky power dynamics baked into the fact that the characters are male and female.

    I have a similar reaction to yours about the reality/fantasy divide. Why is it that the fantasy in romance is always positive but other fantasies are not? I see plenty of romance readers criticize or reject the male gaze, violence in TV or videogames, and the effects of rape culture on boys and men. Are women somehow exempt from subliminal messaging? (Hint: we’re not.) Then there’s Western fantasies of “exotic” places and people that appeal to some (see: sheikh and other captivity stories) but turn others off, to a large extent along racial and ethnic lines. Are these helpful or (as I would argue) hurtful?

    It annoys me that the defense of romance is so often incoherent and contradictory. I know I’ve said this before, but if romance truly is worthy, as its fans say it is, it can stand up to honest critique. 80% of everything is crap. (Sturgeon’s law says 90%, but I’m being more generous.) Romance is not exempt.

    And I’m with you on the pitfalls of using Regis’ work as a prescription rather than a description.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Re your first point, this is essentially what they are arguing–that the fantasy in romance provides a temporary escape from the real world and how it treats women. They do not claim to fix things, but they ask (in one case, explicitly) why they should be expected to when they are writing popular fiction? Mysteries are not expected to “fix” the justice system. I think this is a fair point but I also think it is interesting that now (and I think this probably is a change) there are more writers overtly interested in addressing these issues of gender and power in ways other than the “overcoming” fantasy described in this book.

      I also found it interesting that many of the women talked about heroines doing things it would not be “safe” to do in real life, not just having adventures but calling the hero on shit or being “feisty” is a way real life women often must avoid–at work for instance. Part of me wanted to say “oh, they are just an older generation” but it also reminded me how fortunate I am in my work (and relationship) not to feel that constraint or need to practice it, because plenty of women are not so lucky. Many of these authors express a lot of sympathy and understanding for the burdens placed on their readers by patriarchy (after all, they share them) and see their role as providing respite not revolution. They are changing your afternoon, not the world. I think there are other ways to understand what fiction can do, but to me this is a perfectly reasonable one.

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