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 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. (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 Novel. The 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.