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Two small gems of wisdom have come to my attention.  As they both made me think long and hard about my approach(es) to reading romance novels, I’ll share them both.

First, at my convocation last weekend, the address was given by Professor Wendy Doniger, who teaches at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago.  In her address entitled “Thinking More Critically About Thinking Too Critically: Reading Past the Classics,” Doniger spoke of the necessity of reading through or past the problematic elements of what is considered “classic” literature.  She described three stages of response to racist, sexist, imperialist and otherwise problematic constructions in texts.  First, there is the unthinking acceptance of structures of oppression that characterizes the initial production and reception of the work.  Second, there is the critical backlash that sees nothing but the racism, the sexism, the flaws in logic, and the lack of human feeling.  Finally, Doniger spoke of a third response that recuperates the whole value of the text while simultaneously remaining honest about the text’s participation in structures of oppression.  She characterized the movement from the second to the third response as (memory don’t fail me now!) moving from a “hermeneutics of suspicion” to a “hermeneutics of reconciliation or recovery.”  It was an interesting final challenge from a university that spent four years training me to be entirely (too) critical.

Second, in the introduction to Indiana (translation by Sylvia Raphael), George Sand writes,

Criticism is far too clever; that is what will be the death of it.  It never judges straightforwardly what has been done straightforwardly.  It looks for midday at two in the afternoon, as the old saying goes, and it must have done a great deal of harm to those artists who pay too much attention to its opinions.

Those are fightin’ words as I continue to wonder just how much leeway I have to pick up a text and run with it.

As I only have a precious few days left with my final batch of books checked out from the Reg, I should soon be done with my essay on Loretta Chase’s Mr. Impossible and Lisa Pollard’s work on imperialism and domesticity.  Until then, enjoy your summer reading!

 This essay has been sitting in my documents, awaiting editing, for weeks now.  So here it is, a bit belated, the first of my essays on colonialism in the romance novel.  

            Over at Dear Author there was an interesting conversation about romance and colonialism.  I am indebted to everyone’s opinions about this subject (especially Maya’s) and it inspired me to plunge into my favorite romances set in Egypt.  I begin with a close reading of Connie Brockway’s As You Desire focusing on anti-colonial and Orientalist tensions within the book.

            As You Desire opens in 1890 with the heroine sitting in a camp of “slavers” out in the desert south of Cairo.  As Dizzy (short for Desdemona) sits in the camp, more than a little drunk, she weaves for herself an Orientalist fantasy immediately recognizable to “connoisseurs” of the genre.  She’s a young, pale yet plucky Englishwoman in captivity and the audience awaits with baited breath the entrance of the hero.  There are a few red herrings- at one point Dizzy mutters about a fleeing group of traders, “Not a sheik in the lot, I’d wager” (5).  When the hero does arrive he also appears at first glance to be a recognizable type:

A rider so much a part of his steed that he seemed more centaur than man crested the moon-silvered edge of a dune.  His cape billowed in the wind like great black wings.  Closer he sped, myth embodied, galloping across the midnight-shrouded sands, racing toward her.  Her destiny (5). 

Yet the audience soon finds out that Dizzy’s drunken romanticism, broadly drawn as a parody of Orientalist captivity romances, has nothing to do with reality.  First Dizzy panics:

This was no romantic prince of the desert, this was a hard savage, a man who would use her body as casually as an Englishman would soil a napkin and just as casually discard her when he was done (7-8).

Then she realizes that her hero is Harry Braxton, a long-time friend and a romance version of the rougish Indiana Jones/Han Solo type.  The slavers holding her are not slavers at all but instead business associates of Harry all too eager to get an accidental captive off their hands.

            Thus opens As You Desire, a clever romance set in 1890 colonial Egypt.  The three devices employed in the opening scene will be used repeatedly by Brockway throughout the book.  Orientalist and romance novel tropes will be set up and elaborated upon at great length.  These tropes will then be revealed as moments of intensely parodistic humor and dispelled by the actions or words of the “real” characters.  Finally, Egypt is constructed as an exotic yet welcoming anti-England where European misfits like Dizzy and Harry can come into their own.

            Throughout the book Dizzy reads romance novels on the sly and then attempts to script moments of her own life as lurid excerpts from a sensationalist text.  Harry is less than impressed once he gets his hand on one of her books:

They had striking similarities.  They all featured an insipid-looking, open-mouthed girl and a rock-jawed man with a constipated expression.  On the last page of each book was an inevitable picture of the pair, their arms entwined as they strolled toward some moss-mantled manor on a distant hill (261). 

As Dizzy is courted by Harry’s cousin Blake the failings of her favorite romantic hero, Bertie Cecil, become apparent.  Bertie Cecil/Blake does not smile, does not enjoy Egyptian ruins or a smart woman, and does not kiss very well either.  The scene where Dizzy is disappointed by Blake’s boorish sexuality is a particularly well done parody of what Deborah Lutz might call, “…the dangerous lover- the one whose eroticism lies in his dark past, his restless inquietude, his remorseful and rebellious exile from comfortable everyday living” (ix).

            The character of Magi is a clever answer to the standard Orientalist construction of the Eastern woman.  Magi says at one point, “Ignorant men.  I thank God that I am an enlightened woman and that I live in enlightened times” (284).  Magi uses a caricature of “native” identity as a shield and a weapon.  She slips in and out of accented English as is useful for her as she moves through different social circles.  When Magi is awakened one night by the idiotic Blake, Dizzy notes, “Drat Magi, anyway.  Her accent was pronounced, her syntax a caricature, and her expression petulant.  Magi did not appreciate being woken from a sound sleep” (288).

            Magi appears to have received an education from an Egyptian state school or, more likely, a missionary school run by the British.  When agitated, “The obsequious manner fell away, as did the soft, broken accent.  It was replaced by a perfectly crisp English one” (101).  Whether or not Magi as a character is historically possible is muddled- how could an educated woman of her charm and possibly elite background end up as a servant in a poor British household?  Yet within the text she serves to constantly embody Orientalist constructions of native female identity and then to reveal such constructions as ridiculous and parodistic answers to the Europeans’ own ignorance (as embodied by Blake).

            Dizzy’s romantic othering of Britain mirrors in a parodistic fashion the Orientalist gaze as it is normally turned upon Egypt.  Dizzy is looking for a type of man- tall, dark, and brooding.  She is also looking for a type of country upon which she has embroidered dreams of romance and social acceptance.  She tends to get it wrong more often than not, as Harry knows all too well.  Harry repeatedly reminds Dizzy that she has constructed a fantasy England populated by fantasy heroes and a fantasy society.  Dizzy reveals the ignorance behind her constructions of English life as she talks with Blake:

‘What I miss most about England is its emerald green color, the wee crofter’s hut, the shaggy moorland ponies.’

‘Ah!’ Blake nodded understandingly.  ‘You were raised in Scotland then.’

‘Oh, no.  No.  I was raised in London.  Mostly’ (120).

            Up to this point I am rather astounded by the subversive potential of this narrative.  Brockway deftly takes up Orientalist stories and refashions them with parodistic humor into a world where Egypt is normalized, England is romanticized, and the entire process of constructing the other is laid bare as a foolish and ultimately immature process.  Yet there are also elements of the book that did not ring true for me, moments where Orientalist themes were embraced as well as mocked.

            From the beginning Brockway signals that we are in a colonial environment.  On page 20 Harry takes a crack at the Consul-General of Egypt, “Our dear Sir Baring- You know, Over-Bearing?- may not be the titular head of Egypt, but he rules the country” (20).  Dizzy and Harry belong to an elite European community comprised of, “…ex-patriots, obsessed archeologists and dilettantes, politicians and despots” (44).  This mixed bag of foreigners meet at the Shepheard’s Hotel to discuss and debate their conception of Egypt- a pharaonic wonderland of Antiquity and, more importantly, antiques.  These expatriates scoff at the middle-class tourists of Thomas Cook’s tours yet they, too, are often little more than extended tourists in Egyptian lands. 

            Dizzy and Harry’s social circle does have an awareness of the contemporary concerns of the day.  Harry needles a British Egyptologist, “My country?…I was under the assumption we were in Egypt, sir” (65).  This soon explodes into a quick but heated debate about Egypt’s colonial status.  Dizzy’s grandfather argues, “The Egyptians can’t afford to look after their national treasures.  They can’t even manage their own government-” and Dizzy interrupts, “If we gave them the opportunity, instead of allowing those Turkish-” (66).  The group soon moves on to other topics and Dizzy ends with one last thought, “‘It is a point of shame, though,’ she said almost by rote.  ‘All these governments, crawling all over Egypt, like ants on a felled animal, rending it apart’” (67).  This is an intriguing moment that hides just as much as it reveals about colonialism in Egypt.

            Harry and Dizzy are arrayed towards an end of an ideological spectrum that modern readers can feel comfortable with.  Harry is clearly cynical about the paternalistic arguments that were mustered to justify British imperial rule in Egypt.  At one point he jokes with Magi, “You know there’s a popular myth in England concerning modest, silent Eastern women-” (264).  Dizzy sees viciousness in Europeans’ competition in the region and something almost pathetic in Egypt’s victim status (like a felled animal).  These attitudes are made palatable through a contrast to Harry’s cousin Blake’s racism and sense of entitlement.  Even more sympathetic characters like Marta say things like, “I’m sure we’d all be thrilled to have an insight into the mind of the Egyptian” (210).

            Lost in this conversation, and throughout the book, is the direct and often violent presence of British rule in the country and the complexities of Egyptian nationalism.  In 1881 an Egyptian army officer named Ahmed ‘Urabi began traveling through the countryside and pushing the idea, “Misr li-lmisriyyin,” or, “Egypt for the Egyptians.”  This revolt was two-pronged.  There was increasing resentment among urban professionals of Egyptian origin against the Turkish-Circassian elite of the country.  A brief background: At the turn of the century the Ottoman sultan sent an expedition from what we would now call Albania to turn Napoleon out of Egypt.  By 1805 Napoleon was gone but Mehmet Ali Pasha (Muhammad Ali) had seized control not only of the Ottoman expedition but also of the Egyptian provinces.  Recognized by the sultan as wali, or governor, of Egypt, Muhammad Ali became de-facto ruler of an Egyptian state.  The early governance of this state was centralized in and around Muhammad Ali’s household, where alliances among the Turkish-speaking elite were solidified through the granting of civil service positions in the new Egyptian state. 

            Fast forward to 1881: Egyptians of Arabic-speaking middle class and country-elite backgrounds have reaped the economic and educational benefits of Muhammad Ali’s modernization programs but are still held back by a glass ceiling that protects the prestige of the Turkish-Circassian ultra-elite associated with the khedival family (Muhammad Ali’s descendents).  Above and beyond this, Egypt is in massive debt and an institution called the Caisee de la Dette Publique has been formed by European creditors to recoup interest payments directly from the Egyptian state’s revenue.  Thus Egyptians have grievances not only against power hierarchies within the state but also against the encroaching power of European polities on Egyptian sovereignty.  In 1882 the British invaded Egypt to put down the revolt.  The bombardment of the city of Alexandria was particularly brutal and remained engrained in popular memory.  

            Brockway portrays an Egypt falling victim to competing European interests.  There are some nationalist, anti-imperial sentiments expressed in the story by Egyptian characters.  Abdul’s final appearance in the book ends with this thought, “Perhaps Rabi would soon be ready for the real family business: guarding Nefertiti’s tomb until such a day as Egypt belonged to Egyptians” (382), an echo of ‘Urabi’s early nationalist calls.  Yet the recent violence at Alexandria and Tel al Kabir is absent from the text.  Indeed, the incessant competition between the French, British, and German Egyptologists echoes real debates within Oriental scholarship of the time but masks the increasing imperial power of Britain in Egyptian politics.  A subtlety to be sure, but an interesting one.

            The increasingly urbanized, educated, and technologically proficient class of Egyptians and Turkish-Circassian elites who by 1890 were articulating powerful and complex desires for national sovereignty is largely absent from the text.  The first woman’s periodical, al-Fatah, was published in Alexandria in 1892.  Political journals had been printed and distributed within Egypt as early as the 1870s.  These journals catered to the increasing portion of Egyptians who were literate, politically engaged, and self-consciously nationalist.  Fierce debates over the social roles of religion, women, national identity, and modernization were unfolding in Cairo just as they were unfolding in other urban centers of the time: London, Paris, Berlin, Istanbul, New York, Chicago…  Cairo’s struggle to constitute an Egyptian form of modernity was vibrant, complex, and contemporary with European debates over the same issues. 

            Brockway conveys only a hint of this complexity as Dizzy negotiates with Sid Hassam:

‘My children will starve if I continue to allow my good sense to be overruled by my silly sentimental nature.’

‘Your children probably go to school in Paris,’ Sitt [Dizzy] answered in a tone that made the desert sands seem moist. 

‘You can starve in Paris as well as Cairo.’ Both broke into gales of laughter” (137). 

Yet aside from this one conversation many of Brockway’s Egyptians seem as frozen in an earlier time as the fictional Egyptologists’ conception of Egypt.  The contradictions and complexities of 1890 urban Cairo are obscured beneath a nostalgic patina that emphasizes old quarters of the city and exotic suqs

            This is largely an effect of the book’s main thrust.  After all, Brockway is writing a European Historical romance in a colonial setting.  We do not see realistic scenes of Egyptian nationalism or middle-class Egyptian life because these moments are irrelevant to this text.  Brockway privileges Dizzy and Harry’s relationship with Egypt over the Egyptians’ relationships with Egypt.  In doing so she cannot help but reproduce an Egypt that is bound in some way by notions of the exotic and the other. 

            It is clear that Egypt has been the making of both Dizzy and Harry.  At one point Harry tells her:

Self-confident, competent, vivacious.  Egypt has made a woman of you.  Why ever would you want to go back to that mold manufacturing plant called England?  Egypt reeks of romance and a good half of Her Majesty’s officers are madly in love with you- (38). 

Harry himself knows that he will never leave Egypt.  He is able to live as a respected and powerful man in Egypt despite his dyslexia; life in England would mean a return to an old and cramped existence delineated by the pity of friends and family.  Egypt in this book has meaning as a place where Dizzy and Harry can reconstruct themselves as the best versions of their best selves.  If England is stuffy, rigid, and barren then Egypt is full of life, vigor, and the possibilities of freedom.  Note that this life, vigor, and freedom is constructed for Dizzy and Harry and not for the Egyptians around them.

            When Harry gives Dizzy a mirror and asks if she really sees herself (271) it is significant that the mirror is an artifact of an early Egyptian civilization.  It is through Egypt that Dizzy can reach her full potential as a woman and as a human being.  Meanwhile Harry tells Dizzy:

And how can one single image describe you?  You are a country, a country of unexplored sensation and whim, veiled in dawn, shining, shedding light…And your body… it is the Nile itself…Your are my country, Desdemona…My Egypt.  My hot, harrowing desert and my cool, verdant Nile, infinitely lovely and unfathomable and sustaining (117).

This is not a particularly innovative theme (although, like Dizzy, I think I’d fall for it!) since Egypt has, from the dawn of the Egyptian popular press, been portrayed as a woman: “Egypt (Misr) or the Egyptian nation (al-umma al-Misriyya)- both the territory and the collective- came over time and with few exceptions to be depicted as a woman” (Woman, Baron, 57).  As early as the 1870s Ya‘qub Sanu‘a was using a feminized Egypt in anti-imperial cartoons in his series Abu Naddara Zarqa’ (The Man with the Blue Glasses).  Later nationalist painting, sculpture, and prints made use of this embodiment of the Egyptian nation in female form.  Often this was a female Egypt that was to be protected from the sexual danger posed by invading British troops.  After the Dinshaway affair in 1906 Egyptian nationalists made use of “Egypt as a Woman” to rouse popular furor over the “rape” of the nation and the violation of national honor.

            What does it mean that Harry also feminizes and sexualizes Egypt?  More importantly, what does it mean that Egypt in this text is a European woman?  Dizzy is in some way signified as Egyptian/Eastern, “Veiled, with a long chadar covering her dark blond hair, her eyes alone would lead one to assume she was some exotic Ottoman hybrid” (61).  Yet she is also undoubtedly European.  Like Harry, she is presented as straddling the gap between white colonial society and the Egyptians.  Harry has Egyptian business contacts and has been adopted into one group’s tribe while Dizzy runs a program for Cairo street children and mingles with Egyptians in public spaces.  Yet both Harry and Dizzy exercise privilege in a way that is not closely examined by the text- they get to take Egypt and make of it what they will.  Their lives, their destinies, are privileged by their inherent colonial power even when they resist actively participating in the colonial project.  There is no greater sign of this privilege than the replacement of the Egypt-as-Pharonic Woman or Egypt-as-Arab Peasant imagery with that of Egypt-as-Desdemona.

            Ultimately As You Desire is a fascinating and enjoyable text that makes wonderful use of parodistic humor to critique the romance genre and its engagement with Orientalist discourse.  This self-conscious engagement with colonialism makes moments where imperial privilege is unexamined even more fascinating to dissect.

Baron, Beth.  Egypt as a Woman: Nationalism, Gender, and Politics.  Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2005.

Baron, Beth.  The Women’s Awakening in Egypt: Culture, Society, and the Press.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.

Brockway, Connie.  As You Desire.  New York: Dell Publishing, 1997.

Lutz, Deborah.  The Dangerous Lover: Gothic Villains, Byronism, and the Nineteenth-Century Seduction Narrative.  Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2006.

 

 

 

I’ve been off and away thanks to the absolute insanity that is UofC’s annual Scav Hunt, often billed as the largest scavenger hunt in the world.  This year saw me building a Playmobile vomitorium, going on a treasure-hunt type journey through sw Chicago/Evergreen Park, and roasting a lamb stuffed with a chicken stuffed with a Cornish hen out on our quad for nine hours.  All in all, it was a most excellent hunt (it doesn’t hurt that my own ArmyDillo won!) and now I am back to romance novels.  I’m planning a post on parody in genre fiction and another on colonialism and romance novels (tentatively comparing As You Desire, Mr. Impossible, and Duke of Shadows, which had me sobbing into my pillow this weekend).

 

The Procedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913, is now online and fully searchable. A quick inquiry yielded over 400 cases in which Litchfields and all sorts of potential ancestors were involved in such crimes as highway robbery. Litchfield-street in Soho (also given as Seven Dials) also seemed to be a site of much skullduggery.
I am delighted- it’s the kind of resource that makes the incurably historically-minded faint dead away. Now I’m waiting for similar resources, for, say, qadi court rulings from Ottoman Egypt… searchable in Arabic, of course.

“No pirate band will take its stand at the Central Criminal Court!”

   Part of our goal in creating a new workshop on rape culture was to force ourselves and our audiences through an unpleasant process of reassessing what we think we know in light of all of that privilege we would like to pretend that we do not have. More specifically, sexual violence is intimately linked to rape culture. Rape culture tells stories about how we (don’t) value people in our communities and how those types of value judgments create dehumanized figures that are perceived as “unrapeable.” It is important to convey that so much of our response to sexual violence has been conditioned by the legacy of slavery- enduring in our communal memory and vocabulary is the pernicious narrative of the black male rapist threatening white female purity and the horrific reality of white slaveowners raping black female slaves (while white women stood by, and even profited). The primaries have thrown much of this uncomfortable baggage into the limelight, and I’m ashamed to say that many women claiming the title feminist have deliberately refused to honestly engage with these issues.
   These types of messages are particularly hard to get across on my campus, where an elitist-ironic post-everything vibe helps us distance ourselves from the consequences of what we do and say. After all, we know better, so we can do whatever the hell we want…
   I find everything increasingly problematic and I feel horribly uncomfortable with most of the images and the narratives that I consume. And yet I often find myself at sea about which battles I need to fight and where it’s most effective to leverage my strength. Facilitating uncomfortable conversations has taught me that there are teachable moments and there are messy battles that will only alienate the person I’m trying to, if not convince, at least destabilize.
   The connection to romance? As I caught up with Teach Me Tonight I stumbled across a blogworld debate about certain white feminists’ inability to be transparent about their own privilege as well as the intellectual debt they owe to women of color. Following a long trail of links (at one point I had about fifteen tabs open) led me in a circle right back to where I began, romanceland. Monica Jackson, whom I really respect for consistently asking hard questions of romance readers who would rather live in fantasyland, commented on this situation at length.
   One particularly interesting quote:

I have long realized that the liberal, supposedly hip, and feminist romance folks don’t give a frick about black oppression.

“Then there’s Gloria Steinem, Erica Jong, Jessica Valenti, Amanda Marcotte, and any number of white feminists from the second and third wave that really ruin feminism for the rest of us. If they’re not insisting we put aside our “of color”-ness in favor of our woman-ness, they’re busy using their white privilege to marginalize, dismiss, silence, or otherwise treat us the way those pesky white men they’re so angry with do.” – Angry Black Woman

This is the way it works within romance too. The genre is dissed by darn near everybody literari, basically because it’s a women’s genre with plenty of pulp type fiction-but pulp SFF and mystery genre fiction don’t get the same treatment. Romance by and for black folk is treated just as badly or worse within the romance genre as literary folk treat romance.

   Which then sent me thinking back to a collection of essays I just finished, Empowerment Versus Oppression: Twenty First Century Views of Popular Romance Novels.  Perhaps most relevant to the above is the excellent essay by Guy Mark Foster entitled “How Dare a Black Woman Make Love to a White Man!  Black Women Novelists and the Taboo of Interracial Desire.”  However, being the hopeless NELC major that I am my thoughts instead turned toward Emily A. Haddad’s “Bound to Love: Captivity in Harlequin Sheikh Novels.”

   Haddad describes the evolution of the captivity plot though several sheikh romances spanning the years before and after America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.  Haddad writes:

The conventional hyperbole entailed in the trope of captivity serves much the same purpose as the folktale’s supernatural villain; the heroines’ imprisonment does not violate the novel’s insistence on the “real,” yet it is extreme enough to remain potentially therapeutic.  When such hyperbole begins to appear more likely than fantastic, captivity loses its tropic, figurative character and instead acquires an imminence that must prevent it from fulfilling its previous function.  Events in Iraq since March 2003 have forced captivity out of the realm of the hyperbolic; fears engendered by the threat of Arab men’s aggression may have therefore exceeded the reach of the captivity-based romance plot… Instead of exaggerating the threats through fantasy in the manner of a folktale, they downplay them, shielding the reader from what scares her: foreign locations, still-populated harems, overly powerful Arab men (60).

   Orientalism and the romance novel demands a whole new post; indeed, I am dying to write about As You Desire and Mr. Impossible.  However, for now I want to stick with my stated theme, which is thoughtless consumption of images and narratives.  I can never decide whether uncritically consuming awfulness takes a lot of work or is instead frightfully easy.  On the one hand, I know many a person (myself included) who has exerted inordinate effort to deny what is directly under their nose.  This generally takes the form of long and convoluted protestations that some racist material isn’t really racist or that a sexist joke is actually harmless.  On the other hand, I myself thoughtlessly consumed romanceland’s racism-by-omission for years and never once asked myself why everyone was so damn white. 

   Is Haddad on the right track?  Is racism such an active and powerful psychological threat to mental stability that white women cannot incorporate race into what John G. Cawelti labels “formula fiction”?  That would be some pretty deep-seated attachment to privilege. In Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture, Cawelti writes:

Formulas enable the audience to explore in fantasy the boundary between the permitted and the forbidden and to experience in a carefully controlled way the possibility of stepping across this boundary (35).

   Monica Jackson notes:

 Any other controversial issues are eagerly discussed in the romance community: Sexism, gays, plagiarism, kinky erotica, publisher bugaboos, conservative issues, but as a whole they really hate blacks and refuse to discuss black racial issues without hysteria and rancor.

   I would expand upon this. I have read, for example, several “mainstream” romances that incorporated ambiguous constructions of sexual orientation into the courtship plot.  Mary Balogh’s Slightly Tempted comes to mind, as does the more obscure Emma Holly Beyond Innocence.  Even though these two authors are sympathetic towards their gay characters, it is also true that their gay characters function as plot-roadblocks to the happy heterosexual betrothal.  It is worth continuing Cawelti’s next thought on stepping across the boundary:

This seems to be preeminently the function of villains in formulaic structures: to express, explore, and finally to reject those actions which are forbidden, but which, because of certain other cultural patterns, are strongly tempting (35).

   Although the mechanism is different in Slightly Tempted and Beyond Innocence, the lesbian couple in the former and the gay couple in the latter do function more in villain territory than in secondary character territory.  That is, these couples pose problems that must be overcome for the heterosexual hero/heroine couple to have their happily ever after.

   So to end this rambling on consumption, what does it mean that black characters of any persuasion (ie hero/heroine, secondary characters, villain) seem to be lacking in “mainstream” white romance?  Does absence, as Emily Haddad suggests, indicate deep and real anxiety so great it cannot even be mediated through the “therapeutic” aspects of genre fiction?  What the hell is wrong with this picture?

Cawelti, John G.  Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

Goade, Sally, editor.  Empowerment Versus Oppression: Twenty First Century Views of Popular Romance Novels.  Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007.

The annual cover contest is in full swing and I had a fun time voting. Maybe I’m just really picky, but I always perceive a bunch of the nominations for best covers as better candidates for worst cover. Nevertheless, there was at least one cover that I enjoyed in every category. Go vote!

Winner?

Indeed, it seems it is so.  The competition seemed like an unwinnable proposition (Near Eastern languages tended to carry the day) but also a lovely opportunity to organize my books and take stock of where I am after eight years of feverish romance reading (plus who knows how many years of romantic sci-fi/fantasy).  Much to my chagrin, it seems that I made a better argument for romance novels than I thought possible!

The sweetest part of the whole deal?  Displaying eight books (including this one) in the Reg for eight weeks. 

What follows is my essay, entitled “A Library of Love: Challenging the social order one couple (or threesome?) at a time.”  The bibliography turned out to be 20 pages long, so I will not reproduce it here.

My love affair with the romance started young and was pursued, as all good love affairs are, on the sly.  My mother owned a few romance novels that were scattered haphazardly among her expansive collection of women’s fiction.  When I was in middle school, I would get up before dawn to feed and take out the dog.  Instead of returning to bed, I would stay up and sneak pages out of these thrilling books by the light of the sunrise.  When I turned sixteen, my driver’s license meant clandestine trips to the library and local used bookstores to feed my romance addiction.  Looking back, I cannot fathom exactly why I kept my love of romance novels so secret, but my behavior was likely a product of Catholic guilt (I was scandalized in spite of myself!) and a nagging fear that people would not take me seriously if they knew the “trash” that I read.

My early collection was driven by current releases and in-print books that caught my eye, along with battered copies bought for quarters at library book sales.  I tended toward European Historicals, and my collection continues to display my early interest in this sub-genre and its shorter companion, the Regency.  As I discovered authors that I particularly liked, I would go on treasure hunts, working through backlists that were often hard to obtain, as Regencies had very short print runs.

When I came to the university, I found that many of my classmates and friends in the dorm were closet romance readers.  Soon people were knocking on my door, literally at all hours of the night, looking for a new read.  It is around this time that I began to think of my romance novels in terms of a library.  I wanted a collection that was broad enough to appeal to the varying interests of everyone who read my books but was also deep enough to satisfy my own interest in particular authors, sub-genres, and topics.  Every book I purchased was part of a larger scheme, a quest to build a library that conveyed the possibilities of the very best that romance has to offer.

A short gig as a reviewer for a popular romance community website further focused my desire to own the very best of the genre.  Often academic critiques of the genre are written after the author picks up some Harlequins at random, finds them unsatisfactory, and then generalizes his or her conclusions to the entirety of the genre.  However, my time spent as a reviewer confirmed that romance, like any other genre, has its dregs and its gold.  My collection is an attempt to sift the gold from the rest and present it to friends and interested acquaintances as a functional library.

Recently my collection has been moving in new directions.  University of Chicago’s life of the mind infects everything it touches, and my romance collection is no exception.  I follow academia’s take on the romance novel through the blog Teach Me Tonight, where several leading scholars of the genre post regularly on their work.  I have begun purchasing academic works of criticism of the romance novel and ethnographies of romance reading communities.  I am also pursuing my own interests within the genre.  My work with Resources for Sexual Violence Prevention here on campus has interested me in how romance communities are struggling with questions of sexuality and violence within the framework of the courtship plot.  I collect romances that take up themes of sexual violence, either by explicitly challenging paradigms of male power in the intimate realm or by uncritically incorporating partner violence into the courtship.  I also seek out romances that challenge heteronormativity or that struggle with incorporating ambiguous sexualities into the courtship plot.  These books are windows into how communities of women are struggling with questions of identity and power under the cover of pink typeface and floral covers.

            In addition, I am especially fond of cross-genre works and books of genre fiction that reference the romance.  I am always delighted when I find a covert romance hiding in another section of the bookstore, and reading these romances with a curious and critical eye yields fascinating stories.  Some are written in defiance of male dominated genres, while others are open and exuberant tributes to the romance.  In either case, I see no reason to limit my collection to books that are marketed as romances and instead rely on the definition laid out by Pamela Regis in A Natural History of the Romance Novel.  I also include sci-fi, mysteries, and fantasy whose romance is relegated to the role of sub-plot if these books somehow comment upon courtship in interesting ways.

            All of my romances can be read with the grain for unadulterated pleasure or against the grain for more subversive or ambiguous portrayals of gender roles, partner violence, inequality, and sexual identity.  Either way, I stand by these books as interesting in their own right and worthy of scrutiny, commentary, and debate.  In the end, I firmly believe in the principle of pleasure as a justification for reading and as an inherent value in a literary work. 

            Pamela Regis argues that the form of the romance serves to initiate a change in a corrupt or broken social order through the integration and reformation embodied in a successful betrothal.  In even the most traditional and patriarchy-friendly of romances, the heroine has won through her own agency some improvement in her personal life and social milieu.  More daring romances show a world made better through the courtship plot, where the protagonists struggle with and in some way overcome misogyny, homophobia, socioeconomic inequalities, or other social ills and the violence these systems perpetuate.  The romance seeks to change the world, one couple (or in one memorable case, one threesome) at a time.

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