Welcome!

Romance readers are a voracious bunch, as anyone familiar with the genre will tell you. We make romance a very big business indeed.

When I picked up my first romance as an adult (I had read a few in middle school — more on that in a later entry), in spring of 2007, I had no idea how hooked I would become. Since then, I have read probably 100 or more novels. Occasionally, I will pick up a book from my shelf and not know whether it belongs in the To Be Read (TBR) pile, the Keeper pile, or the Sell on EBay/Local Used Book Store/Goodwill pile.

There are some great tools online for finding particular titles. All About Romance has a Power Search engine you can use to search by author, title, subgenre, even sensuality level. You can search by hero or heroine name at the Historical Romance Writers site. Or, you can utilize the Help A Bitch Out (HaBO) query at Smart Bitches.

I decided to start this blog to keep tabs on my own journey through the genre. I read several different subgenres of romance, both older titles, and those hot off the press. I’d like to remember what I’ve read and how those books struck me when I read them. The model for the “review and record” aspect of this blog is Rosario, whose blog is one of my inspirations.

I also may have a few things to say about the genre from my personal perspective as an academic who teaches (among other things) feminist theory and gender studies. My research area is not popular culture, and I claim no knowledge of the growing academic literature on romance (for that, see Teach Me Tonight), but I can’t help looking at everything around me through the lens of gender, and, on a personal level, my interest and complete enjoyment of this genre conflicts with my long held belief that it is part of the problem rather than the solution to gender injustice. I hope writing about my experience as a reader will help me work through what I feel is a tension between my professional identity and personal life.

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Published in: on August 3, 2008 at 8:59 pm  Comments (7)  
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  1. on a personal level, my interest and complete enjoyment of this genre conflicts with my long held belief that it is part of the problem rather than the solution to gender injustice

    It’s such a diverse genre that I’m not sure it’s possible to think of it as a monolithic force for either good or ill with regards to any particular issue. I’ve come across some romances which seemed to me to reinforce gender stereotypes and physical/verbal abuse of women, and I’ve read many others which challenged them.

    It’s also the case that different readers can interpret the same text very differently. As you said in another post, “Most online reviewers acknowledge the subjective aspects of their reviews […] But the reviews don’t just differ on the points that are obviously subjective. They also differ on core elements of the text.” So what might seem empowering to one reader might irritate another, and not even catch the attention of a third. In addition, books might contain mixed messages, some more positive than others, and readers might pick and choose how they interpret them, as well as which ones they pay heed to.

  2. Laura,

    Thank you for stopping by, and for your comment. I have learned much from TMT over the past 18 months!

    I agree with you that the genre is too large to describe so monolithically, and I should watch out for that (although I have GLB or T friends who would claim that since 90% or more of the genre upholds the idea that monogamous romantic relations between women and men are the moral norm, it is quite problematic).

    And while I agree that readers do feel empowered by all sorts of different things, I don’t think empowerment is purely subjective. As a feminist, I think there are some things that are bad for some women, whether those women see them that way or not. (But I don’t think we should force — or even strongly compel — anybody to read or not read any particular text — I’m way too much of a liberal for that.)

    Thank you for your visit and your comment!

  3. I have GLB or T friends who would claim that since 90% or more of the genre upholds the idea that monogamous romantic relations between women and men are the moral norm, it is quite problematic

    I’m never very confident about drawing “big picture” conclusions because I’m always aware of how small the total number of books I’ve read is, in comparison with the total available, but I’d agree that it’s clear that the mainstream of romance does tend to exclude a variety of groups, including GLBT individuals, African Americans, older heroines, and poorer heroes who aren’t engaged in military or other dangerous activities. Some nationalities/ethnic groups are prone to appearing frequently, but in a heavily stereotyped manner. There are always exceptions of course, and I think there’s been a bit of change in the genre over the past few decades, and more awareness of who’s being excluded and who’s being stereotyped.

    Sometimes one can draw moral/ideological conclusions from these absences but at other times it’s not so clear. On the specific issue of whether the genre presents heterosexuality as the “moral norm,” for example, I think there would be very strong textual evidence for arguing this about the trend towards casting gay or bisexual people as the villains. It was discussed in the last two segments of this ATBF column. It’s trickier to point to evidence of moral intent with other novels. Although the genre as a whole may reinforce heteronormativity, many individual authors and readers, if they are heterosexual themselves, may simply be writing/reading about scenarios which reflect their own sexual preferences. The recent rise in popularity among heterosexual female readers and authors for romances about gay male couples (though not lesbians), for example, may be an indication that, at least for some readers, reading preferences may be shaped by sexual preferences (i.e. a sexual preference for men rather than women) rather than a wish to uphold particular moral norms (since it seems unlikely that readers of romances about two gay heroes would think that love between lesbians is morally wrong). Of course, it might be argued that heterosexual women who read/write about gay men could slip into objectification, but that’s a different problem.

    I don’t think empowerment is purely subjective. As a feminist, I think there are some things that are bad for some women, whether those women see them that way or not

    That does seem to be something which can cause immense disagreements in feminist circles, though, as I’m sure you know. Some feminists may disagree extremely vehemently with other feminists about what is or isn’t “bad for some women.”

    As with my reluctance to draw conclusions about the entire genre, I’m hesitant to comment on what other people say empowers them, because I don’t feel knowledgeable enough about many issues. And even in cases where something might not seem empowering to me, it might be somewhat more empowering to them than whatever they had before.

    Thank you for stopping by, and for your comment. I have learned much from TMT over the past 18 months!

    I’m glad you’ve found it interesting, and I very much look forward to reading more of your posts about the genre.

  4. Laura,

    How embarrassing for me that I can’t figure out how to quote your comments on my own blog.

    But thank you for making them. I agree with a lot of what you write. You’ve so many good points out there that I can’t hope to do justice to them, but here are a couple of points to make my own views a little clearer:

    I would rarely assign authorial intent to a text that I think promotes harmful images of a certain social group. An anti-Semitic pamphlet by neo Nazis? Ok, intent is there.
    But, Outlander, for example, is, IMHO, one of the worst offenders against gay men in my experience with the genre, and I would never say that Gabaldon intended that, or is homophobic. I think art conveys a lot of messages that have nothing to do with authorial intent.

    I think a text can contain or promote harmful images of certain groups in a lot of ways, and negatively portraying those groups (as in Outlander) is just one way. There’s also rank exclusion, for example. So a text can be heteronormative even if it never once mentions homosexuality.

    I believe in an objective sense of right and wrong, and of what is good for human beings. So, for example, I think it’s objectively true that killing children is generally morally wrong, and heroin addiction and cigarette smoking are objectively bad for a person, regardless of whether they prefer it.

    That said, I need to add a million caveats:

    1. I often don’t know in any particular case what is right or wrong, or good or bad for a person, so I share your humility about that.

    2. My believing something is right or good is not what makes it right or good. My own take on what makes something right or good are too complicated to spell out here (not too complicated for you to understand, but too complicated for me to have time to spell out in this hotel room in the dark while my family is asleep!), but suffice it to say that I think these truths emerge as a product of certain kinds of social relations, and are not written in the stars. So, no one person — and certainly not me — devises or discovers moral truths.

    3. What is morally right or good depends on a lot of factors, and these can change in different contexts (this is one of the things that makes figuring out what’s right and good so difficult). So, for example, an opiate addiction may be quite acceptable and good for someone at the end of life with advanced cancer. although I think we can spell out broadly what is good for human beings (health, autonomy, freedom), the devil is in the details, and the details often have to be worked out socially, not by one person.

    Finally, I completely agree with you that feminists, like Democrats, Marxists, libertarians, and every other political group, disgaree with each other about a lot. The textbook I use in my undergrad fem theory class is actually subtitled “Issues and Arguments”, and the “arguments” are all within feminism.

    But I don’t think we have to go from acknowledging disagreement to accepting that anything goes. WHAT goes, however, is what it takes activism, political activity, communicating, teaching, learning, writing and thinking to figure out.

    Anyway, I hope I have spelled out some of my views. I know I haven’t defended them well, but give me time. I hope to do a better job in the future!

  5. Outlander, for example, is, IMHO, one of the worst offenders against gay men in my experience with the genre, and I would never say that Gabaldon intended that, or is homophobic.

    I’ve not read any of Gabaldon’s novels, so I probably shouldn’t comment on this, but I have the impression that the main character and hero of her Lord John books is gay. I thought I’d mention that as it would almost certainly affect an overall assessment of the treatment of homosexuality in Gabaldon’s oeuvre, though it might not change your view of Outlander.

    That said, I need to add a million caveats

    I frequently find myself needing to qualify statements, which was one reason I was very pleased when I learned how to do footnotes in Blogger!

    Anyway, I hope I have spelled out some of my views. I know I haven’t defended them well, but give me time.

    I think I understand more of where you’re coming from, but I do hope that bit about the more time is a promise. I’d love to read more about the genre from a feminist perspective.

    I think art conveys a lot of messages that have nothing to do with authorial intent.

    And if you have the time and inclination sometime to blog about this, I’d be really interested to read it, too. I don’t have much formal grounding in feminism, so although I try to blog about the social context in which books are written and read, and I also like to think a bit about readers and their differing backgrounds and how that may affect the reading of texts, on the whole I tend to be more focussed on individual texts and doing close readings of them.

  6. Laura — I agree with you about Gabaldon’s oeuvre — I haven’t read any of her Lord John books, but the character appears in the 3rd or 4th Outlander books and is entirely sympathetic (and now readers know that I am not a die hard Gabaldon fan).

    And thanks for your earlier point about the many exclusions in “mainstream” romance — gender bending and sexual orientation being just two.

    Finally, I hope your Crusie book is out soon, because I want to buy it and read it (although as a fellow academic I won’t hold my breath. I know how these things go.)! (I am also hoping one of your contributors did a piece on Crusie and food!)

    All the best,

    Jessica

  7. I think it’s still going to be a while before the Crusie volume’s ready. There will be something about food in there, but I imagine it might be possible to write a whole book just about food in Crusie’s romances, so we certainly won’t be able to cover everything. Hopefully this volume won’t be seen as an “oh, they’ve written everything there is to write about Crusie” sort of volume, but as an inspiration to other academics to pick up their Crusies and set to work on analysing them.


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