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Review: Cupcakes, Pinterest and Ladyporn: Feminized Popular Culture in the Early Twenty-First Century, edited by Elana Levine

Scholarship on feminized popular culture in this century must evolve with shifting definitions of the term “woman” as well as the influence of post-feminism, which adds a complex layer to conventional expectations of femininity. This is one of the issues with which Cupcakes, Pinterest and Ladyporn engages, set out in Elana Levine’s comprehensive introduction. Levine defines feminized popular culture as spaces, products, modes of expression, as well as now growing digital realms, marketed to and defined by a predominantly female audience. These spaces also allow an audience to identify, take pleasure in or challenge certain meanings of femininity. Feminized popular culture belongs to a long-standing concept that developed from mass-targeted products and limited perceptions of gender roles. On top of this, “whether by dismissive naming – chick flicks, mommy blogs, ladyporn – or by [the] general derision with which they are treated, feminized popular culture is often constructed as lightweight, frivolous, and excessively emotional” (Levine, p. 1); or perhaps these traits are deemed disparaging because they are associated with an assumed femininity. As Levine incisively points out, “many sites of masculinized popular culture (such as professional football, or ‘quality’ TV dramas) escape gendered labeling” (Levine 7).

With essays on erotica, nail polish blogs and cupcakes, this collection is a fascinating analysis of American culture and how notions of gender, class, sexuality and race intersect. What do cupcakes have to do with feminism? A lot, it seems. Levine directs our attention towards how feminized popular culture, particularly in the twenty-first century, is heavily focused on labor. The postfeminist ideal foregrounds successful careers as well as sexual agency, creating certain pressures for women to “have it all”; lucrative jobs, relationships, family and conventional beauty. Areas of popular culture have emerged in response to tackle, encourage or critique this phenomenon.

The collection is divided into three thematic sections: “Passions,” “Bodies,” and “Labors.” “Passions” focuses on the connection between feminized interests and excessive emotion, especially in entertainment and media. Melissa A. Click begins the discussion with [End Page 1] a contextual reading of Fifty Shades of Grey and the appeal of an “unequal sexual relationship,” given the erotica’s graphic description of BDSM. Drawing on previous scholarship of romance readers by Janice Radway and Carol Thurston, Click conducts her own interviews with 36 readers (white, female and heterosexual). She persuasively argues that their enjoyment of the series is in part informed by the increasingly sexualized environment of a post-feminist culture, one that connects sexuality with power.

Kirsten J. Warner, in her insightful essay on ABC’s drama Scandal and black women fandom, demonstrates that more is yet to be discovered concerning women of color in online fan communities. As these platforms thrive in relation to the increased visibility of non-white representation, previously invisible and marginalized voices are emerging to speak passionately about specific cultural experiences. The complex and contradictory nature of feminized popular culture becomes apparent in Jillian Baez’s chapter on Devious Maids, a drama about Latina women which attempts to deconstruct stereotypes but still relies on them for success. Likewise, in Erin A. Meyers’ research on gossip magazines and blogs, expanding outlets allow women to challenge norms of femininity previously dominated by print media while at the same time reasserting them.

“Bodies” addresses the physical appearance, health and spirituality of female bodies as sites of labor and pleasure. What is valued and what attempts to push the boundaries? Barbara L. Ley examines pregnancy apps as a mechanism giving women control over their bodies and family welfare. However, these apps are designed with a presumed heteronormative context that isolates same-sex and single parents and places fathers in the backseat. Fashion and nail polish blogs are appreciated as spaces that allow self-expression and creativity of the body. Interestingly, nails are treated as a separate entity, a blank canvas, which escapes the objectification that other body parts are subjected to.

The final section, “Labors,” tackles the pressures of feminized productivity and work. Suzanne Ferris begins by looking at heroines in “chick lit” as young white college-educated women in precarious financial situations. Chapters on Bethenny Frankel and the Kardashians address the obsession with self-branding and entrepreneurship as not just a mark of financial success, but of being a successful woman. The Kardashian empire, writes Alice Leppert, is entirely dependent on a sisterhood which involves the audience and promotes the importance of female bonding and traditional family values.

Cupcakes…will hopefully unleash continuing discussions on the topic of feminized labor. Recently there has been a surge of female celebrities encouraging women to become a “boss.” This initiative aims to attack or take possession of the term “bossy,” which has a derogative association with outspoken girls and women. Tyra Banks, in her hit reality competition America’s Next Top Model, requires her contestants to become their own boss and brand. The “female boss” is endorsed as a movement in Sophie Amoruso’s autobiography, #GirlBoss which has been made into a Netflix series about the retail founder’s rise to financial success.

The final chapter on cupcakes, from Elizabeth Nathanson, is the highlight of the study, where the intricate layers of this unassuming item are unraveled. Cupcakes are full of contradictions. They are partly treats that celebrate girlhood and promiscuity, as well as key for lucrative female-dominated businesses. They are also criticized for engaging women in a “retrofemininity” (252), that evokes the traditional “housewife-bake sale” image (253). A striking case is made about the sitcom 2 Broke Girls which, perhaps unknowingly, uses [End Page 2] cupcakes as a symbol of restoring white middle-class femininity, as well as an escape from poverty and racial integration.

This volume has much to engage with romance scholars who are interested in critical discussions of how current cultural industries cater to and inform female pleasure; not just in the chapters about erotica and chick lit, but the specific feminine world in which they are perceived to be situated. The femininity of American popular culture unfortunately remains tied to a white cis-gendered and heteronormative set of traits, a fact that Levine acknowledges. What is left unremarked is popular culture’s concentration on youth, as if the main consumers are in their 20s-30s, post-college or new mothers. This study begins to tap into a vast landscape, where there is much still to explore in terms of spaces for women of color, women of different ages, and expanded to keep up with more social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat. [End Page 3]


Review: Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness, by Helen Young

That popular romance has a racism problem will not be news to anyone who’s been paying attention. Big publishers fail hard at inclusion. The Romance Writers Association (RWA) has a history of marginalizing writers of color, as do many review sites. Some of the genre’s bestsellers include offensive stereotypes while others imagine implausibly lily-white worlds. There is momentum toward change; numerous romance authors, librarians, booksellers, and reviewers have been working to increase diversity in the field, especially the proportion of what Corinne Duyvis has termed #OwnVoices books, written by authors who share a protagonist’s minoritized identity. RWA has taken steps towards acknowledging exclusions in its past and fostering more inclusion going forward. A few white authors have proved willing to hear criticism of hurtful elements in their books and behavior, though others remain stubbornly attached to ideas of their own blamelessness. The time seems ripe, then, for scholarly examination of how whiteness pervades popular romance. Jayashree Kamblé’s treatment (2014) of whiteness and reproductivity is a notable contribution to this endeavor, but there is plenty of work to be done. Helen Young’s new wide-ranging interdisciplinary study, Race in Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness, offers findings relevant to popular romance scholars.

Young’s book includes an introduction which explores the relevance of fantasy in popular culture, seven chapters that move across the twentieth century and into the twenty first, and a short afterword. Her focus is mostly on fiction but she also addresses movies, television shows, and game adaptations as well as online fan communities. The first chapter sets the stage for the rest of the study by exploring the genre’s racialized “founding fantasy” in the works of two of its best known and most influential writers, J. R. R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard. She

argues that race-based ideologies which privileged them as White men very strongly influenced the shape of the worlds they imagined, worlds which were decidedly Eurocentric and reproduced White race-thinking that had justified [End Page 1] both British imperialism and slavery in the US since at least the eighteenth century. (16)

Particularly influential elements of the worlds they constructed are racial logics – linking biological type or appearance to other characteristics; (imagined) medievalism; and eurocentrism. As Young puts it with regard to Tolkien: “Racialized taxonomies shape the cultures of Middle Earth, and although these leave space for multicultural and cosmopolitan readings, they are also very problematic” (23). Moreover, their worlds “are Europe-like and medievalist: they create geographical and social landscapes which support the white ethnoscapes of their people” (28). Young repeatedly notes that her aim is not to adjudicate whether these authors were personally racist but rather to analyze “the ways their writings serve to channel centuries-old constructs into contemporary popular culture” (17). Her focus remains on the ways their writings have shaped the genre as it developed.

Chapter 2, “Forming Habits: Derivation, Imitation, and Adaptation” argues that although Tolkien (high fantasy) and Howard (sword and sorcery) were influential in their subgenres, “[t]he Whiteness so central to both their worlds only became a habit – convention – through repetition … first through imitation and then adaptation” (41). It took the collective work of generations of authors repeating their “tropes, structures, and form” (41) to shape the genre. Setting and characters are key: “The vast majority of Fantasy protagonists … have physical characteristics associated with Whiteness” (44) while authors draw both on real-world geographies and ideas about “foreign” places to represent Others. Dominant, conventional representations within the genre in the mid- to late twentieth century offer white savior protagonists intervening in exoticized foreign places. As similar patterns obtain in romance novels—sheikh romances are only the most obvious portion of that iceberg—romance scholars should take heed. At the same time, work by African American authors Charles Saunders and Samuel Delany illustrate that this was not the only possible path; these writers do not “merely ‘flip’ the somatic markers of their protagonists, but rather create worlds in which the racial logics that structure so many Fantasy worlds do not exist” (47).

Young’s treatment of “The Real Middle Ages” (Chapter 3) focuses on “Gritty Fantasy.” Despite its seeming rejection of certain forms of glossy world-building, this subgenre “draw[s] directly on the habits of Whiteness established largely through the kinds of Fantasy it claims to have rejected” (64). In other words, whiteness is persistent. One element of Young’s study worth emulation is her continual attention to audiences as well as authors as makers of meaning. She explores “tension between real and imagined worlds” – and in the case of the medieval era, “the cultural power of a period that is considered simultaneously past and ahistorical” (65). For scholars of historical romance, the ways authors manage genre conventions/audience expectations and historical realities is worthy of additional scrutiny—as are reader responses to “the convention of reading Whiteness as normative” (79).

“Orcs and Otherness” (Chapter 4), at first glance the chapter least relevant to scholars of romance, focuses on literary, filmic, and game orcs, attending carefully to the ways they are racialized. It will be of particular interest to scholars of paranormal romance. Here, as elsewhere, Young gestures toward but does not fully analyze the parallels as well as disjunctions between fantasized “Oriental” Otherness and depictions of Africa/Africans as Other—something also relevant to various subgenres of romance, including sheikh romance. Chapter 5, “Popular Culture Postcolonialism,” attends to counter-narratives through the [End Page 2] work of authors including Nalo Hopkinson and Daniel Heath Justice, while observing that “Multicultural literature is almost always thought of, and approached, as matter for minorities and thus as irrelevant to a presumed-white majority” (116). Through her exploration of founding authors and genre formation, Young has shown how “Fantasy’s habits of Whiteness tend to re-inscribe colonialist ideologies, perspectives, and narratives”; here, analyzing the work of authors of color and indigenous authors, she shows that “those habits can be broken by telling different stories in different ways” (120). Given that publishers continue to marginalize and exclude work by authors of color, especially work that pushes genre boundaries, romance scholars can be attentive to how an insistence on the “popular” in popular romance can reproduce those exclusions. Notably, to the extent that 2018 conference programs at IASPR, PCA, and PopCAANZ are representative, romance scholars already do better than publishers in attending to work produced outside the Anglophone world, and by #OwnVoices authors, though work on Native/Indigenous romance has barely scratched the surface.

Her treatment of urban fantasy (Chapter 6, “Relocating Roots”) also offers useful ways of thinking about paranormal and dystopian romance, as well as small town romances which imagine ethnically homogenous communities as an antidote for white anxieties (typically unacknowledged or disavowed) about identity and difference. Romance scholars have shown how modern notions about female autonomy and companionate marriage pervade romance, especially in historical subgenres; they have been less attuned to how racial logics—and indeed the whiteness of ideal(ized) family structures—operate in tandem with gendered ideals to construct romantic fantasies. If there is a gap in Young’s book, it is her relative silence on how gender structures both the racialized fantasy worlds she analyzes and the ongoing debates about the authority of creators and their worlds. Nonetheless, popular romance scholars can learn a great deal from Young’s study, including the importance of asking how habits of whiteness have come to be inscribed in the genre—and how those habits might be unlearned. To this last point, Young’s final chapter, on “RaceFail 09” (Chapter 7, “Breaking Habits and Digital Communication”) focuses on three months of online debate, ranging from acrimonious to thoughtful, among fans and authors about “race and representation” (171) in the Science Fiction and Fantasy (SFF) genre community. The contours and discursive moves of the hundreds of blog posts and comments from that period are in numerous respects specific to SFF but will resonate with those who have observed similar kerfuffles in Romancelandia. A decade later, Young’s take-away from her brief afterword is spot on: “the idea of greater inclusiveness is more appealing than the process of change itself” (190). [End Page 3]

Works Cited

Kamblé, Jayashree. Making Meaning in Popular Romance Fiction: An Epistemology. New York: Palgrave, 2014.

[End Page 4]


Review: Island Genres, Genre Islands: Conceptualisation and Representation in Popular Fiction, by Ralph Crane and Lisa Fletcher

Like a cruise liner, Crane and Fletcher’s Island Genres, Genre Islands takes its readers on a journey around various genre islands, making brief stops at selected ports. While the cruise experience would be enriched by disembarking from the ship and spending more time onshore at crime atoll, thriller island, the isle of popular romance, and the archipelago of fantasy, or by having visited them previously, the on-board lecture programme ensures that all travellers will return home feeling more knowledgeable about the differences between them and convinced that “[p]opular fiction offers […] a potent site for identifying and unpacking habits of thinking about distinctive natural environments” (xi).

The book’s series of on-board lectures is divided into four sections of roughly 40 pages, including notes, for each of the genres visited. Each section comprises a broad, introductory “opening survey chapter that addresses how islands signify and function in a particular genre, and two further chapters that offer detailed case studies of the conceptualisation and representation of islands in seminal or otherwise significant texts” (xvi-xvii).

The opening lecture is similar to that of a Destination Speaker or cruise ship’s on-board lecturer, giving a broad overview of the many different novels within a genre which are set on islands and demonstrating how these islands are “genre-inflected: for example, a romance island is at once similar to and different from an island in a crime or fantasy novel” (xv). A crime island, for instance, could be considered the equivalent of the “device of the locked room that proved so enduring in the golden age” (9) since,

as in earlier clue-puzzle mysteries, there is the sense that the murderer is in one’s midst, and the fear is thus heightened for characters and readers alike. The island, frequently regarded prior to the crime as a stable, hospitable environment, is transformed during the period of the investigation into an unstable, inhospitable one – a sinister environment under threat from a murderer, who, of course, is more often than not a local. (9) [End Page 1]

Thrillers, in which islands often “represent a confined territory in which, or over which, two rivals (nations, agencies, individuals) compete, like boxers in a ring, repeatedly coming out of and retreating into their respective corners as the novel progresses” (52), are also often “equally invested in the mobilities that connect islands: to each other and to continental landmasses” (53). The “literary cartography” of the fantasy archipelago insists that “no island is ‘entire of itself’” while the island of romance is a “home, sanctuary, refuge, and paradise – ideal […] for the happy-ever-after ending” (xvii).

The subsequent chapters in a section are more akin to the lectures given by a Port and Shopping Lecturer inasmuch as they focus on a particular port and highlight issues and attractions specific to it. The first such chapter concentrates on “Agatha Christie’s Islands” (19) while the next deals with G. W. Kent’s Solomon Islands series and draws attention to the fact that in them “the combination of […] native policeman and white sidekick […] invites questions about the nature of colonialism and the position of the expatriate community in a group of islands moving inexorably towards independence” (33). The thriller islands on the itinerary are Ian Fleming’s “Bond Islands” (57), in which “the islands of the West Indies consistently function […] as ‘contact zones’ where the battles for global supremacy take place against the backdrop of a fading Empire” (60) and the islands in three of Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt novels. The book concludes with chapters on Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea and Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders trilogy, “which invites consideration as an eco-fantasy” (169) and “asks us to appreciate islands in the context of a water world” (173).

The romance islands are the imaginary Three Sisters Island in a series by Nora Roberts and the Isle of Man in Margaret Evan Porter’s The Islanders series. Evan Porter’s

series, first published as mass market paperbacks by Avon Books (1998-2000), was re-released by the author in significantly revised e-book editions in 2012. The new covers are the first indication that Porter’s revisions amplify the import of the Isle of Man. […] While close comparison of the first and revised editions is not our objective […] it is nevertheless worth noting that some of the textual changes enhance the focus on Manx geography, history, and folklore, and intensify the use of island metaphors for characterisation and plot development. (104-5)

This use of island metaphors, as in The Seducer in which each of the protagonists “imagine[s] the other as the Isle of Man personified” (112), points to the way in which, “[i]n contrast to crime fiction (except in the hybrid genre of romantic suspense) and the thriller, the romance island is almost always a device for at least one key character to achieve a sense of identity, typically by discovering an affinity with the geography and/or the community of the island” (110). For the protagonists of Nora Roberts’ Three Sisters Island trilogy, which is the subject of the third and final chapter on romance,

the island space affords them the outer perimeter of their social space. […] The paranormal plot augments this sense of the containment by a band or barrier as the witches are able to feel when one of their number arrives on or leaves the island. […] The utopian promise of Three Sisters Island, both within the narrative and in its address to readers, is based on a presumption of insularity as the basis for enhanced sociality. (121-22) [End Page 2]

This is, therefore, an example of a set of texts in which “‘island’ is a synonym for ‘home,’ an idealised locale where one feels both safe and free” (123).

The advantage of a cruise of the kind offered by Island Genres, Genre Islands is that it ensures the reader is carried safely from one genre to another, facilitating comparisons between them. Readers are not assumed to have detailed knowledge of every novel mentioned and short plot outlines are therefore often offered. The disadvantage of such a cruise is that the traveller has a rather limited amount of time to spend on each genre and even less at each of the highlighted attractions. The claims made about the differing functions of islands were thought-provoking; unfortunately since they were numerous, each one could not be explored in depth. In romance, for instance, it is suggested that:

  • islands often make visible a sense of “emotional isolation” (88);
  • since “[t]he many subgenres of romance are unified by their commitment to the romantic ‘journey’ and its felicitous destination” (90), “a close correspondence” may be anticipated between a protagonist’s “geographical and emotional destinations” (90);
  • the restricted space on an island enhances “opportunities for intimacy and opposition” (91);
  • “next to ‘love,’ ‘home’ is the key concept of island romance” (93);
  • “Island geographies are routinely deployed in romance as ciphers for both the characters’ desire to escape the mundaneness of everyday life and their yearning for the safety and comfort of home” (93);
  • and the “relative ‘unreality’ of island geographies enables the truncated courtships of many island romances as readers are invited to accept the guiding assumption that life proceeds differently on an island or, in simpler terms, that fantasies which are impossible in the ‘real world’ can come true there.” (96)

In addition, the “cluster of meanings attached to islands” (98) in novels which might be termed “romantic mysteries” (97) merges “the genre conventions of crime, horror, and romance” (98).

Even in the chapters devoted to a group of texts by a single author I had the sensation of being rushed through the arguments. For example, in the chapter about Nora Roberts’s Three Sisters Island series, it is asserted that one heroine’s wish to belong on the island

casts her as a surrogate romance reader within the text: her wish to join the island’s community mirrors the genre expectations of experienced romance readers that are heightened by this opening chapter. The alignment of Nell […] with the novel’s implied readers is strengthened later in the chapter when she finds a warm welcome and her dream job at the local bookstore. (125)

Other than by placing her in close proximity to books, it is not made clear how Nell’s job (which involves cooking for the shop’s café) aligns her with readers of the novel and, other than a quote from one reader, who stated on Goodreads that she wished the island “was a [End Page 3] real place and I could go there” (119), there is no evidence provided about the expectations or wishes of romance readers (experienced or otherwise).

In the context of island studies, Island Genres, Genre Islands’ “aim is not to deny or discount the meanings produced through direct engagement with islands but rather to show that the conceptualisations and representations of islands do not need to be restricted to ‘real islands’” (106-7). For those studying or teaching popular culture, the book provides an unusual entry-point from which to think about the differences and similarities between different genres. In crime fiction, for example, the “device of using a violent storm to isolate the island” may be used to ensure that suspects cannot escape, but that same device is likely to perform a rather different function in another genre: it is “employed frequently, for example, in romance fiction where the island storm forces the principal characters to stay together, and in fantasy fiction where island storms frequently signify the presence of magic” (24).

Among those of us with a particular interest in romance, the book should prompt increased interest in the places in which romance novels are set. Crane and Fletcher observe that “[s]cholars of popular romance fiction have largely ignored the significance of setting” (114) and state that “setting matters more than romance scholars have hitherto realised” (129). It is true that research in this area of romance scholarship more closely resembles a still-emergent, volcanically-produced archipelago, than a continent. Crane and Fletcher draw on some of the texts which have already emerged from beneath the waves: Lynne Pearce’s work on the locations of popular romance fiction, an article by William Gleason on “Jennifer Crusie and the Architecture of Love” (in a volume edited by Fletcher), and Britta Hartmann’s thesis, which Fletcher and Crane supervised.

There are, however, other works which discuss the settings of romance, albeit in passing or in a single chapter, including Rachel Anderson’s early study of romantic fiction which included a chapter on “The Lure of the Desert”; Amy Burge has recently followed in her footsteps by analysing the locations of both medieval and modern romances set in the East. George Paizis’s Love and the Novel: The Poetics and Politics of Romantic Fiction includes a section on localisation, jay Dixon’s The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon, 1909-1990s very briefly draws attention to the connotations of town and country settings, and Juliet Flesch’s From Australia with Love notes the importance of outback and beach settings in creating a sense of ‘Australianness’. Articles focused on the locations in which romances are set include Nancy Cook’s exploration of “Montana Romances and Geographies of Hope,” Flesch’s “The Wide Brown Land and the Big Smoke: The Setting of Australian Popular Romance,” Euan Hague’s article about the “Representation of Scotland in the United States,” “Deborah Philips’ “The Empire of Romance: Love in a Postcolonial Climate” and my own “‘A Place We All Dream About’: Greece in Mills & Boon Romances.” Further work in this area seems imminent from at least some of the academics working on a project titled “Discourse, Gender and Identity in a Corpus of Popular Romance Fiction Novels on the Canaries and Other Atlantic Islands.” In addition, the Seventh International Conference on Popular Romance Studies, to be held in 2018 and titled “Think Globally, Love Locally?”, will also no doubt lead to the publication of works on the settings of romance novels given that the organisers have sought papers which “address the relationship between love and locality in popular culture.”

Island Genres, Genre Islands thus both draws attention to the archipelago of research on settings in popular romance fiction and heralds the emergence of more research in the future. [End Page 4]

Works Cited

Anderson, Rachel. The Purple Heart Throbs: The Sub-literature of Love. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1974.

Burge, Amy. Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Cook, Nancy. “Home on the Range: Montana Romances and Geographies of Hope.” All Our Stories Are Here: Critical Perspectives on Montana Literature. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2009. 55-77.

Dixon, jay. The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon, 1909-1990s. London: UCL Press, 1999.

Flesch, Juliet. From Australia With Love: A History of Modern Australian Popular Romance Novels. Fremantle, W.A.: Curtin University Books, 2004.

Flesch, Juliet. “The Wide Brown Land and the Big Smoke: The Setting of Australian Popular Romance.” Sold by the Millions: Australia’s Bestsellers. Ed. Toni Johnson-Woods and Amit Sarwal. Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2012. 82-95.

Gleason, William. “The Inside Story: Jennifer Crusie and the Architecture of Love.” Genre Settings: Spatiality and Popular Fiction. Ed. Lisa Fletcher. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. 79-93.

Hague, Euan. “Mass Market Romance Fiction and the Representation of Scotland in the United States.” The Modern Scottish Diaspora: Contemporary Debates and Perspectives. Ed. Murray Stewart Leith and Duncan Sim. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014. 171-190.

Hartmann, Britta. Island Fictions: Castaways and Imperialism. PhD dissertation. University of Tasmania, 2014.

Paizis, George. Love and the Novel: The Poetics and Politics of Romantic Fiction. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan, 1998.

Pearce, Lynne. “Another Time, Another Place: The Chronotope of Romantic Love in Contemporary Feminist Fiction.” Fatal Attractions: Re-Scripting Romance in Contemporary Literature and Film. Ed. Lynne Pearce and Gina Wisker. London: Pluto, 1998. 98-111.

Pearce, Lynne. “Popular Romance and Its Readers.” A Companion to Romance: From Classical to Contemporary. Ed. Corinne Saunders. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004. 521-38.

Pearce, Lynne. Romance Writing. Cambridge: Polity, 2007.

Philips, Deborah. “The Empire of Romance: Love in a Postcolonial Climate.” End of Empire and the English Novel since 1945. Ed. Rachael Gilmour and Bill Schwarz. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012. 114-33.

Vivanco, Laura. “‘A Place We All Dream About’: Greece in Mills & Boon Romances.” Greece in British Women’s Literary Imagination, 1913-2013. Ed. Eleni Papargyriou, Semele Assinder and David Holton. New York: Peter Lang, 2017. 81-98.

[End Page 5]


Review: Heartthrobs: A History of Women and Desire, by Carol Dyhouse

Carol Dyhouse opens Heartthrobs: A History of Women and Desire with the canonical Freudian question: “What did women want?” (1) The question itself is recorded in Ernest Jones’ biography of Freud. It is reported that Freud told Marie Bonaparte: “The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is ‘What does a woman want?’” (2:421). Freud’s question was governed by a genuine curiosity and a belief that “the psychology of women [is] more enigmatic than that of men” (Jones, 2:421). In many ways, I would think, this question motivates a significant portion of scholarship in popular romance studies – as if scholars imagine that if they can understand the popular romance they can understand women. The question animates so much of what scholars do with popular romance, whether it be to praise or to reject it. As such, it is no surprise that this is where Dyhouse begins her book, Heartthrobs.

Dyhouse’s Heartthrobs is a cultural history that seeks to “look at what women have found irresistibly attractive in men” (1). Certainly, this is a welcome addition to a growing body of scholarship in popular romance studies that has sought to answer this question, most notably, Women Constructing Men: Female Novelists and Their Male Characters, edited by Sarah S. G. Frantz and Katharina Rennhak. In Heartthrobs, Dyhouse considers representations of men in popular culture, largely in the twentieth century, so as to explain women’s desires. Dyhouse explains,

The icons of romantic literature—Mr Darcy, Mr Rochester, Heathcliff, or Rhett Butler—were mostly, in the first instance, products of the female imagination. Movie stars and rock musicians acquire and cultivate images that in many cases have little to do with their ‘real’ selves. Many of the most successful ‘romantic leads’ in the past—Montgomery Clift, Rock Hudson, Dirk Bogarde, Richard Chamberlain, for instance—have been gay. Their performances nevertheless conjured visions of maleness which had women weak at the knees: how do we make sense of this? (1) [End Page 1]

Dyhouse’s question, like Freud’s, is about understanding women’s desires. What do women want? And, secondly, how do we account for and explain what women want? The challenge with asking questions such as these is that one runs the risk of rendering all women the same, as if all women have the same desires. This critique becomes all the more prescient when one imagines an intersectional theory of women, which this book does not provide. For instance, most of the men who are desired in this book are white (save for a brief, but insightful, analysis in the fifth chapter). So, is it that black men or Asian men aren’t desirable? Undoubtedly, this is not the case. But there is something striking about the ease with which we have become comfortable with white men as paragons of “irresistibility”. The exception to this “rule,” perhaps is the idea of the Latin Lover who becomes “racially fluid,” for instance, Rudolph Valentino playing the role of Ahmed Ben Hassan in the film adaptation of The Sheik.

Methodologically, this book seeks to rewrite John Berger’s oft-cited remark that “men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at” (qtd. in Dyhouse 10). Dyhouse explains:

One of the primary aims in writing this book is to turn things round a little, and to look at the emergence of women as desiring subjects, linking this with their growing independence in a wage-earning, consumer society. I set out to explore the ways in which patterns of romance and fantasy have changed over the last century, reshaping women’s ideas about what they find desirable in men. It is a cultural history of desire from a particular perspective: the book will mainly look at men through the eyes of women. (10)

The goals of this book depend upon a very specific woman, a woman that some of us might know, and yet a woman who might be totally unrecognizable to others. We are dealing with the “ideal reader” (DeMaria, 1978). The challenge here is that Dyhouse’s woman is essentially heterosexual, middle-class and upwardly mobile, and more than likely white. So, questions arise about readers who do not embrace these “heartthrobs” or who read them very differently.

The first chapter, “Her Heart’s Desire: What Did Women Want?” introduces readers to  fictions aimed at the woman reader at the turn of the twentieth century. We begin with Katherine Mansfield’s The Tiredness of Rosabel, which “offered a glimpse into the daydreams of a young girl working in a hat shop” (11). Very quickly we are told that “in the 1900s, femininity spelled frustration” (12), which will be something of a recurring theme over the twentieth century, reaching its climax with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963). In this chapter, Dyhouse also reminds readers of the importance of Charles Garvice, who is “almost completely forgotten today” and yet “whose books sold in phenomenal quantities in the 1900s” (18). As is often the case in popular romance studies, the archive is deep. In Garvice’s work, we find an author who “wanted his readers to root for [the heroines]. They had to be girlish and modest but not like the impossible heroines of goody goody novels” (19). In her analysis, Dyhouse notes that “Garvice’s heroes may have given women much of what they wanted at a fantasy level but he was always careful to avoid direct references to sex or to sexual problems” (19). These novels, thus, at least to some degree, reflected a desire for realism on the part of readers, insofar as the heroine had to be believable. This chapter closes with The Sheik by E. M. Hull (1919) and the film adaptation, as well as the first image of Rudolph Valentino, who plays a significant role throughout Heartthrobs. For Dyhouse, [End Page 2]The Sheik was the perfect escape fantasy; book and film between them offered a multifaceted vision of desirable masculinity, both masterful and tender: just about all that the heart could desire” (29).

The next chapter, “Unbridled Passions” explores the idea of “los[ing] control” (37), especially in an historical sense, drawing on sources as varied as Franz Liszt (Lisztomania) through to Rudolph Valentino, Rhett Butler, and ultimately fans of the Beatles. This chapter thus provides a cultural overview of the rise of desire. For example, Dyhouse quotes Barbara Ehrenreich who argued that “‘Beatlemania’ constituted ‘a huge outpouring of teenage female libido’ which we might see as having represented an opening salvo in the sexual revolution” (51). This is an interesting perspective because it works to reframe some of the historical discussions of the sexual revolution and squarely places teenagers at the center of it, rather than say, the sexologists who exposed the kinds of sex unfolding in bedrooms across the nation.

The following chapter focusses on the packaging of the male body, which reminds us, that “many of the iconic romantic heroes in literature were dreamt up by women” (52). In many ways this claim, and this chapter in particular, lies at the heart of Heartthrobs. Put another way, why is Mr. Darcy so iconic? Why does Mr. Darcy “loom large as an archetype, one of the most powerfully attractive fantasy males in literature, who has inspired countless imitations” (52)? In this chapter, Dyhouse covers everyone from Mr. Darcy to Fabio, and along the way we are reacquainted with Valentino, and introduced to Elvis Presley, David Essex, Paul Anka, and so many others. In this chapter, then, the image of the man, the iconic male, becomes increasingly interesting to Dyhouse. How are we to think through masculinity as represented upon and through the body? But, even though “perfumes, bodies, clothes and imagined lifestyles carry complex cultural meanings,” it must be admitted that “for many women, these on their own haven’t been enough to fuel fantasies, dreams, and desires: they have needed to imagine a story” (71).

The fourth chapter, “Once upon a dream: Prince Charming, Cavaliers, Regency Beaux,” turns our attention to the fairy-tale hero, Prince Charming, who “in a young girl’s imagination […] represented looks, class, and valour” (73). In this chapter, we learn that “hero worship was part of the [Victorian] culture, and thought to be improving, because it might inspire emulation. Girls couldn’t aspire to be great men, of course, but heroes could still be venerated as masculine ideals, and potential husbands measured against their stature” (73). In this rendering, who could ever achieve the ideal? Included in this chapter is discussion of Georgette Heyer’s heroes, all of whom

follow a formula. She herself referred to them as falling into one of two categories; they were either ‘Mark I’ or ‘Mark II’ heroes. The first she defined as the ‘brusque, savage sort with a foul temper’; the second tended to be suave, well-dressed, and rich. (81)

One of the most fascinating aspects of this chapter is its consideration of Liberace, a figure who has received renewed scholarly interest; for instance, he is a key figure in Harry Thomas’s Sissy!: The Effeminate Paradox in Postwar US Literature and Culture. Dyhouse’s chapter considers  Liberace alongside Barbara Cartland, who was seemingly as flamboyant as Liberace: “Liberace, in his performance, and Cartland, in her romance, busied themselves [End Page 3] in highly gendered representations that were oddly devoid of sexuality” (93). This aspect of the chapter is highly interesting and worthy of further consideration.

The following chapter, “Dark Princes, Foreign Powers: Desert Lovers, Outsiders, and Vampires,” continues our exploration of the princely figure, the iconic male hero, but in this chapter, we move beyond the persistent whiteness of the romantic hero. However, the author notes,

Fantasies around dark-skinned exotic lovers on the cinema screen or in romance fiction had their limits, not least because they were generally imagined as appealing mainly to white women; in Western culture, black or non-white women as sexual subjects rarely got a look in[… ;] Harlequin Enterprises set up Kimani Press in 2005, to feature ‘sophisticated, soulful and sensual African American and multicultural heroes and heroines,’ with a first launch of Kimani romances in 2006. (111)

Over the course of the chapter, readers learn of the “threatening” (112) nature of race. This chapter reminds us of the complicated history of the popular romance when it comes to dealing with diversity, inclusion, and multiculturalism. The chapter closes, oddly perhaps, with a brief analysis of the rise of the vampire romance, which, perhaps more than any other, reaffirms whiteness, but now, in the case of Twilight, it sparkles.

The next chapter, “Soulmates: Intimacy, Integrity, and Trust” returns us to the seemingly romantic ideals of chivalry. In this chapter, we find discussions of medical and hospital romances that are quite helpful for scholars of popular romance. Dyhouse  notes: “Doctors came to occupy a prominent place in twentieth-century romance” (130). For Dyhouse these romances mark a shift towards the intimate. She explains:

For a woman writer of romance, a hero is someone much more ordinary, who, once committed to the heroine, gives shape to her life and makes it meaningful. Her quest is to find a man whom she can marry, and who will make her life imaginable. (143-144)

In this rendering, we see a shift towards the idea of the “soulmate,” which embodies, perhaps, the most romantic of ideals.

The penultimate chapter, “Power: Protection, Transformative Magic, and Patriarchy” thinks through the challenge of power and patriarchy. If we return to Freud’s question that opened this book, “What did women want?” (1), one is tempted to ask if it was patriarchy after all, or at least, “the lure of patriarchy” (149). Dyhouse provides at least one explanation for this, noting, “Attachment to a rich and powerful man could offer protection to women. It might seem to offer the promise of life transformed: comfort, luxury, new horizons, and a new social order. The dominating importance of marriage in romance fiction is bound up with the promise of transformation. The heroine’s life is brightened and settled by it—at least in her dreams” (149). One can almost imagine Germaine Greer’s oft-cited remark about “cherishing the chains of her bondage” (202). In the novels of Heyer, for instance, readers find [End Page 4]

an affectionate picture of both masculinity and patriarchy: brothers are good-hearted fun to be with, uncles are kind, and heroes, of course, are paragons or enlightened despots. You do get the odd villain, like the Compte de Saint-Vire, but the decent fellows make short work of them. The injuries of patriarchy—girl children unable to inherit, sexual double standards, and the constraints of femininity—are brushed aside, ignored, or quickly forgotten. (151)

Patriarchy and power remain interesting and important in the romance.

In this chapter, we also see “a new trend from the 1960s onwards towards explicitness in writing about sexuality” (153). Dyhouse ties this to the landmark text, Our Bodies, Ourselves, published in 1971, as well as Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex, published in 1972. On this point, it seems that there is much to be gleaned for romance scholars: what was/is the role of the sex manual in the study of popular romance? After all, Comfort’s The Joy of Sex was a best-seller. To be certain, Dyhouse rightly critiques The Joy of Sex for some of its less savory elements, noting, “the book contained quite a lot that made women uneasy. The vagina, for instance, is described as looking scary to men” (153). In the words of Ariel Levy, The Joy of Sex was “a penis propaganda pamphlet” (qtd. in Dyhouse 153). Even so, in these years we see a specific and explicit interest in sexuality as more than a theoretical interest, but as a quotidian practice of women: “the lid had come off Pandora’s box” (154).

Finally, Dyhouse explores the anxieties of feminists surrounding the popular romance novel in this chapter. Dyhouse explains that “since the 1970s, fantasy scenarios where heroes ‘overcome’ women’s resistance have raised anxieties about ‘rape’ for feminists” (159) and further explains, “to understand ‘rape fantasies’ in novels for and by women in the 1960s and 1970s the cultural historian needs to look closely at the writing. Books by women tended to invest the male hero with dominance and represent women as relatively passive because this accorded with the gendered expectations of the time” (159). We are told that by the 1990s, “The image of girls as powerless and hopelessly frail had been eroded by popular cultural representations such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (162). In many ways, this chapter is the densest and most theoretically interesting, however, it moves quickly, perhaps too quickly. An entire book could be written on the three themes that appear throughout this chapter alone.

The final chapter, “Sighing for the Moon?” asks, “what does it mean to dream of a lover?” (167). Such a question shifts away from the contents of the dream and more towards the action of dreaming; we are reminded that “Victorian girls were regularly upbraided for daydreaming, for being fanciful, for losing themselves in the world of their imaginations. This was nothing new” (167). One cannot help but think of yet another Freudian intervention here—Freud’s essay, “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming”: maybe it’s just me, but Freud lurks in the shadows of so much of Heartthrobs. Perhaps Freud is a heartthrob in that he has captured our attention and his questions have continued and will continue to provoke discussion for decades to come.

In this final chapter, we are also treated to a review of the state of scholarship on the popular romance, which points towards its future.

By the end of the century, the world of the romantic novel had been completely transformed by the internet and growth of the World Wide Web. A growing number of websites now allow women to share views on the writing and [End Page 5] reading of romance. Examples include:, ‘Musings on romance fiction from an academic perspective’;,, and several more. There are also specialist journals such as the Journal of Popular Romance Studies. (179)

A welcome recognition, to be certain, of the growing field of popular romance studies, that recognizes that the field is active not just in the hallowed halls of the academy, but also the internet. By the close of Heartthrobs, we are presented with a hopeful vision of the future of popular romance fiction:

Maybe we can look forward now to a future in which men and women see each other less as gendered objects onto which they project their own desires and longings, and instead, strive to relate to each other respectfully, as individuals and human beings. (191)

A hopeful vision to be certain, but one that speaks to its own absences. How do scholars account for the rise of the queer heartthrob in popular romance fiction? Dyhouse began by noting that many of the early heartthrobs, it turned out, were gay. But what then of the rise of the male/male popular romance novel? Perhaps nowhere is masculinity more on display than in the male/male popular romance novel. Secondly, I am surprised at how little scholarship on masculinity was consulted or engaged with over the course of Heartthrobs. Dyhouse, in the last paragraph, mentions “hegemonic masculinities—or femininities—may be harder to sustain than in the past” (191), but we are provided no “proof” of this, nor are we treated to any lengthy discussion of Connell’s theoretically rich concept.

Heartthrobs is a useful addition to a growing body of scholarship on the popular romance novel, and more particularly the hero of the popular romance novel. Hopefully, this book will spur future discussions of the popular romance novel and its hero. Still remaining to be written is a history of the alpha male hero. Nonetheless, Heartthrobs will be valuable to students of the popular romance novel in particular.

Works Cited

DeMaria, Robert. “The Ideal Reader: A Critical Fiction.” PMLA 93.3 (1978): 463-474.

Frantz, Sarah S. G., and Katharina Rennhak, eds. Women Constructing Men: Female Novelists and Their Male Characters. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2009.

Freud, Sigmund. “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming.” The Standard Edition of the Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. and Trans. James Strachey. London: Hogarth Press. Volume 9:141-153.

Greer, Germaine. The Female Eunuch. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.

Jones, Ernest. Sigmund Freud: His Life and Work. London: Hogarth Press, 1953.

Thomas, Harry. Sissy! The Effeminate Paradox in Postwar US Literature and Culture. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2017. [End Page 6]


Review: Romance Fiction and American Culture: Love as the Practice of Freedom?, edited by William A. Gleason and Eric Murphy Selinger

William A. Gleason and Eric Murphy Selinger’s collection Romance Fiction and American Culture: Love as the Practice of Freedom? came out of a 2009 conference at Princeton. The title of the collection (and of the conference) comes from bell hooks’ “Love as the Practice of Freedom” (1994). In her essay, hooks argues that “the moment we choose to love we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others” (298). Romance Fiction and American Culture takes up this argument to interrogate whether and how this freedom through love can be seen in the creation and consumption of romance narratives in American culture. The collection consists of twenty essays and is divided into four parts: (i) Popular Romance and American History, (ii) Romance and Race, (iii) Art and Commerce, and (iv) Happy Endings. The book promises to consider romance narratives in a specifically American cultural context from the late eighteenth century to the early twenty-first century. While I question the extent to which the collection achieves its goal of situating romance criticism in an American context, the essays Gleason and Selinger have selected are diverse in a way that is both refreshing and invigorating in romance studies. Topics explored include: transatlantic romance reading; lesbian romance fiction; black romances; romance in the context of HIV/AIDS; erotica; Orientalism; romance cover art; Christian and Evangelical romance; BDSM; queer romance; and polyamory. The editors stake the originality of the collection on three areas: its national focus on romance and American cultural history, its consideration “at length” (3) of race and romance in six out of the twenty essays, and its exploration of the often overlooked topic of “business” in romance—both as a theme of romance novels and as the business of selling romance novels.

Noting the ways in which critics like Pamela Regis and Catherine Roach have defined the genre in terms of essential components—the foremost of which is the happy ending–Gleason and Selinger open their collection by observing that “there is nothing eternal, universal, or inevitable about the idea that the ‘romance novel’ is or should be a distinct, readily definable genre” (8). While Regis’ Natural History of the Romance (2003) proposes defining the romance novel so rigidly that Rebecca (du Maurier, 1938) and Gone with the [End Page 1] Wind (Mitchell, 1936) could not be called romance novels (Regis 48), Gleason and Selinger point to the fact that the British Romantic Novelists Association takes a wider view of the romance novel, considering Mills & Boon novels alongside Russian classics like Anna Karenina (Gleason and Selinger 8)—which, notably, does not adhere to the Happily Ever After (HEA) rule that Regis argues is essential to the definition of the romance novel. Gleason and Selinger’s ruminations on how to define the romance novel, however, are anything but pedantic. By challenging existing critical frameworks for classifying and defining romance fiction, they pave the way to consider romance narratives that have previously not been given much attention within the critical discourse surrounding the romance novel. By adhering to strict definitions of the genre—literally checking off whether the “essential” components are present—critics like Regis and Roach have, perhaps unwittingly, excluded many queer and all polyamorous romance narratives from their considerations of the romance genre. By opening up their definition of romance, Gleason and Selinger thus make space for previously excluded texts. Romance Fiction and American Culture is also acutely aware that genres evolve and that consequently “the romance novel” cannot always be defined and classified according to rigid criteria because of the way genres change and blend with one another (think, for instance, of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander (1991), which blends romance with historical drama and time-travel fantasy—and breaks many of the “rules” of the traditional romance novel).

The collection is positioned as spearheading a “third wave of romance criticism” (10). Gleason and Selinger characterize the previous waves as being concerned first with “texts, readers, and publishing trends with little attention to romance novelists as theorists of, or deliberate artists within, their chosen genre” (11) and secondly as novelists “writing back” (13). The third wave that Romance Fiction and American Culture works towards is characterized by a blurring of roles, bringing together critics, authors, editors, professors, and publishers—many of whom occupy several positions within literary culture, like contributor Len Barot: novelist, editor, reviewer, publisher, and theorist. By recognizing the fluidity of positions writers take up with regard to romance narratives, Gleason and Selinger propose to propel the discourse forward into new territory. One area not thoroughly covered by the collection but signalled in the introduction as a topic for future investigation is the romance blog/review site where academic and non-academic discourses surrounding romance novels often intermingle.

The essays that make up this collection are welcome not only for their thematic range but also for their self-reflexive considerations of romance publishing and romance scholarship. In “Postbellum, Pre-Harlequin: American Romance Publishing in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century,” William Gleason discusses the way digital archives have a crucial role in making available sources that allow us a fuller picture of late nineteenth-century literary culture in America. He calls for such digital archives to include sources often discounted, such as dime novels and romance weeklies. Near the end of the collection, Len Barot’s “Queer Romance in Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century America: Snapshots of a Revolution” points out the importance of queer publishers to the availability of queer texts, demonstrating that queer visibility in literature first requires social visibility and freedom for queer people. The Internet, in particular, is considered as key to the availability of queer texts, since online book retailers have “made it possible for readers worldwide to access queer titles” (398). Moreover, in the collection’s final chapter, Ann Herendeen, the author of Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander, discusses the context in [End Page 2] which she wrote the ‘bisexual Regency romance’ in 2004, her desire to create “a revolutionary work of (genre) fiction, and the reactions to the novel. In addition to extending Barot’s emphasis on the difficulty getting queer texts published by traditional, mainstream presses, Herendeen’s essay invites consideration of the divide between books that are shelved as “literature” and books that are shelved as “romance” within bookstores.

The consideration of romance in the context of racial social politics is a highlight of the collection, even if the racial contexts examined are somewhat limited. Several essays consider how romance narratives about African Americans have to contend with “the stereotype of the oversexed black woman” (178). For instance, Consuela Francis’s “Flipping the Script: Romancing Zane’s Urban Erotica” argues that mononymous author Zane’s Addicted (1998) contains a plot “rarely seen before in contemporary African American literary fiction”—“the story of a black woman’s successful search for an emotionally satisfying sexual relationship” (169; emphasis mine). Similarly, Julie E. Moody-Freeman’s “Scripting Black Love in the 1990s: Pleasure, Respectability, and Responsibility in an Era of HIV/AIDS” reads Brenda Jackson’s Tonight and Forever (1995) as a didactic project, teaching safe sex to her readers and offering a counter-image to the “stereotypes of blacks as hypersexual, irresponsible, and deviant” (112). Perhaps the most striking consideration of race in American romance is Catherine Roach’s analysis of Beverly Jenkins’ Indigo (1996) in her essay “Love as the Practice of Bondage.” Here, Roach puts romance, African American history, and the question of freedom centre stage, since Indigo is the story of a man “literally giving himself into slavery in order to be with the woman he loves” (370). In a different racial context, Hsu-Ming Teo, who has published extensively about Orientalism, contributes a chapter in which she argues that Orientalist romance narratives of the 1980s and 1990s contributed to the discourse of America’s “War on Terror.”

Still, despite many strengths, the collection also features some essays that fall somewhat short of the promises made by the collection’s introduction. For instance, Sarah Frantz Lyons and Eric Murphy Selinger’s “Strange Stirrings, Strange Yearnings: The Flame and the Flower, Sweet Savage Love, and the Lost Diversities of Blockbuster Historical Romance” aims to exemplify the collection’s “third wave” critical stance, blurring the distinctions between author, critic, and theorist. Opening with a reading of The Flame and the Flower that notes linguistic echoes of The Feminine Mystique, the authors argue that “it is long past time for scholars of popular romance fiction, and of American culture more generally, to take seriously the work of Kathleen Woodiwiss and Rosemary Rogers and the other original “Avon Ladies” … and to read their novels as situated within and responding to the same historical moment as foundational feminist thinkers” like Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer, and others. Yet, this methodology is not carried throughout the chapter. The bulk of the chapter considers the way The Flame and the Flower and Sweet Savage Love represent rape, but with little reference to the “foundational feminist thinkers” previously mentioned. It would have been interesting to put the consideration of rape in these female-authored romances against, say, Kate Millett’s analysis of coitus and sexual violence in male-authored novels in the opening section of Sexual Politics. There are also a few essays that seem out of place in a collection almost exclusively focused on romance fiction, such as Rebecca Peabody’s “Kara Walker: American Romance in Black and White,” which considers Walker’s silhouette art installation, and Amelia Serafine’s “‘He Filled My Heart with Doubt’: The Southern Belle’s Love and Duty in the Civil War” which examines the diaries, journals, and letters of Southern women who lived during the Civil War. [End Page 3]

If there is a flaw in the collection, it is that America and American culture seem to be afterthoughts in at least a quarter of the essays. Instead, they present reflections that could just as easily be about romance narratives in any national context. Most curiously, some of the essays are explicitly about other nations’ publishing industries. Jayashree Kamblé’s “Branding a Genre: A Brief Transatlantic History of Romance Novel Cover Art” focuses on the merger of Mills & Boon (a British company) and Harlequin (a Canadian company). The essay is positioned as being about American romances because Harlequin “sold its reprints across the United States in increasing volume, and its influence on American romance fiction is immense, which even now leads to the impression that Harlequin is an American company” (251). I find this claim that Harlequin may as well be American to be strangely superficial, ignoring socio-political and ideological differences that exist between the United States and Canada when it comes to the subjects of romance and sexuality. In a similar vein to Kamblé’s essay, Jessica Taylor’s “Love the Market: Discourses of Passion and Professionalism in Romance Writing Communities” features a section titled “Romance Writing in Canada” where she draws on “a larger project on the romance writing and publishing community in a major Canadian city” (277). One wonders at the inclusion of such essays in a collection that aims to rectify the absence of “detailed coverage of the American tradition” (3). Thus, as a collection of essays on romance narratives and social politics in general, this collection is a most welcome addition. However, in terms of considering romance narratives in the national context of the Land of the Free, much more theoretical and critical work is still needed.

Works Cited

hooks, bell. “Love as the Practice of Freedom.” Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations. New York: Routledge, 1994. 289-98.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. [End Page 4]


Review: Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance, by Amy Burge

There has been a considerable volume of work produced on the sheikh romance in recent years, including two other book-length studies (both of which have been reviewed in this journal): Hsu-Ming Teo’s Desert Passions: Orientalism and Romance Novels (2012) and Amira Jarmakani’s An Imperialist Love Story: Desert Romances and the War on Terror (2015). Jarmakani states that her book “both is and is not about desert romance novels” (xi) because its primary topics are the war on terror and “contemporary U.S. imperialism” (xix). Teo’s work, like Burge’s, demonstrates that the modern sheikh romance has deep historical roots. However, whereas Teo’s work provides a sweeping historical survey of orientalist primary texts and their historical contexts as well as a discussion of modern romance readers’ responses, Burge offers in-depth close readings of texts from just one country (the UK) and two time-periods (medieval and twenty-first century), in order to demonstrate that “there is something medieval at the core of these modern romances” (182), including their approaches to difference, the roles played by clothing and the recurrence of the abduction motif.

Burge’s book is part of Palgrave’s “The New Middle Ages” series, “dedicated to pluridisciplinary studies of medieval cultures” and, as Burge states, “a comparative study such as this confers recognition on the medieval texts underpinning modern ones” (183). She acknowledges that,

On the surface, such a meeting of texts seems paradoxical. Aside from the common generic term “romance,” medieval and modern romance diverge in content and readership, as well as in social, cultural, and political contexts […]. Yet, links can be drawn between the genres, and the parallel examination of medieval and modern texts […] can be revealing. (15)

In terms of their status in the academy, some parallels may be immediately apparent from Nicola McDonald’s observations about the attitude towards Middle English romance in university English departments. In Pulp Fictions of Medieval England: Essays in Popular [End Page 1] Romance McDonald, who supervised the PhD thesis from which Representing Difference developed, describes the Middle English romance as:

‘Popular’ in its capacity to attract a large and heterogeneous medieval audience, as well as in its ability to provide that audience with enormous enjoyment, romance’s popularity is likewise what excludes it from serious and sustained academic consideration: judged low-class, on account of its non-aristocratic audience, its reliance on stereotypes, formulae and conventional plot structures, and its particular brand of unadulterated good fun, criticism repeatedly dismisses these narratives as unworthy of the kind of close reading, as well as historically and theoretically informed analysis, that we regularly afford so-called elite medieval English art. (McDonald 2)

More significant in the contemporary political climate, though, is the fact that “sheikh romance forges a provocative connection with Middle English romance in its use of neomedievalist rhetoric that identifies the contemporary East as ‘medieval’, meaning primitive and barbaric” (1). As Burge explores the similarities between medieval and modern romance, she also explores and questions the apparent differences between medieval and modern, East and West, Saracen and Christian, masculine and feminine.

Burge discusses her choice of primary texts in Chapter 1. Of the approximately one hundred and twenty surviving Middle English romances, she “identified forty-two […] that refer to Saracens or the East” (23), all of which are listed in an appendix. Of these, fourteen depict “romantic encounters between Christians and Saracens […], although the relationship forms a significant part of the plot in only the four romances that are the focus of this book”(24): Bevis of Hampton (c. 1300); Floris and Blancheflour (c. 1250); The King of Tars (c. 1300); Octavian (c. 1350). Burge compares and contrasts these with a selection of Harlequin Mills & Boon romances

published in Britain […]; first, given my parallel consideration of Middle English texts that were also produced in England (albeit a radically different one), it made sense to draw my modern romance sources from a parallel English or British space. Second, by focusing on romance novels drawn from a nationally specific cultural context, I am able to explore some aspects of British cultural understandings of the Eastern world. (28)

This contrasts with Jarmakani’s focus, which is very much on the USA. An appendix provides “as complete a list as possible of sheikh romances published by Mills & Boon in Britain” (29) between 1909 and 2009. Of these three hundred titles over half date from the period 2000-2009, and the nine texts chosen for closer analysis are drawn from this sub-sample: Lynne Graham’s The Arabian Mistress (2001); Jane Porter’s The Sultan’s Bought Bride (2004) and The Sheikh’s Disobedient Bride (2006); Penny Jordan’s Possessed by the Sheikh (2005); Sarah Morgan’s The Sultan’s Virgin Bride (2006); Annie West’s The Sheikh’s Ransomed Bride (2007); Chantelle Shaw’s At the Sheikh’s Bidding (2008); Trish Morey’s The Sheikh’s Convenient Virgin (2008); Sabrina Philips’s The Desert King’s Bejewelled Bride (2009). However, although Burge describes these romances being as published “in Britain”, as part of the Mills & Boon Modern Romance line, they were also all published in North [End Page 2] America, where the line is known as “Harlequin Presents”. Although Burge notes in Chapter 2 that more than half of the sheikh novels published in Mills & Boon’s Modern Romance line in the 2000s were written by British authors,  it should be noted that the authors of novels selected for closer study do not all identify as British: Lynne Graham describes herself as “Irish”; Jane Porter was born and raised in California until she was thirteen, and although she “spent much of my high school and college years abroad” it was in a range of different countries; Annie West and Trish Morey are Australian. While the line is edited in the UK and it can perhaps be assumed that the editors of the novels were, therefore, all British, it is not clear why, with such a large sample to choose from, and with a desire to focus on British texts, Burge did not ensure that all the Mills & Boon romances she selected for more detailed analysis were written by British authors. Perhaps it was due to a belief that even when written by non-British authors, the “romance East […] remains rooted in a real British history in the Gulf, reflected in the dominance of British authors and characters” (61)

Certainly in Chapter 2 Burge argues that the fictional settings of sheikh romances are “modeled on the specific geography of Western-friendly nations in the Middle East, specifically the UAE” (57), which indicates “a lingering British political and diplomatic influence in these globally consumed and produced popular romance novels” (59) given the UAE’s many ties to the UK. While medieval Christendom and the modern West “do not  […] map directly onto each other” (14), Burge suggests that both medieval and modern romances engage in the “construction of a fictional romance East” (14) which is “an imaginative blend of fantasy and observed reality” (14). In relation to the medieval romance Bevis, therefore, Burge argues that although “the geography of medieval romance has been assumed to function as little more than a fantasy backdrop” (34), Bevis’s “focus on routes, specific historical places, and journey details […] create authenticity: the impression that this could be a description of an actual journey” (39).

Although all of the sheikh romances Burge examines in detail have fictional settings this has not always been the case:

When Mills & Boon first started publishing sheikh romances, in the first half of the twentieth century, they were almost exclusively set in real locations, such as Algiers, Egypt, Yemen, and Tunisia. Indeed, accuracy, or at least a sense of “authenticity,” was central to the sheikh romances of the early twentieth century, and in Britain in particular, geopolitical realities continued to feature in sheikh romances of the 1970s and 1980s […] – it was only in the 1980s and 1990s with the rise of the sheikh (rather than the desert or pseudo-sheikh) romance that the settings of sheikh romances became routinely fictionalized. (56)

The “pseudo-sheikh” was a “notable feature of early sheikh romances” and involved the hero being “a Western man posing as a sheikh” (31). Burge defines “desert” romances as ones “set in the East but with two Western protagonists, neither of whom pose as Eastern” (31). It may seem ironic that the desire to write ‘real’ sheikh heroes should lead to the creation of unreal locations but romance scholars may wish to note that this is not a feature unique to sheikh romances: although aristocratic protagonists up to the rank of duke are often given fictional titles within a real kingdom, it is common for heroes who are members [End Page 3] of royal families to hail from imaginary states. The one counter-example I have encountered, Rebecca Winters’s Matrimony With His Majesty (2007), in which the hero is “king of the Romanche-speaking Valleder Canton in Switzerland” (7), may serve as a ghastly warning of the pitfalls facing an author who hopes to combine an imaginary dynasty with a real geographic location which has a pre-existing political history: given that Switzerland is a federal republic, the constitutional arrangements of this fantasy Swiss canton are deeply incongruous.

In Chapter 3 Burge examines the ways in which “medieval and modern romances uphold what they construct as normative, binary gender identities while revealing how the performance of a nonnormative gender identity can temporarily subvert the romance’s framework of gender difference” (9). In the medieval Floris it is not the hero who embodies “typical romance masculinity” (72): it is, rather, the Emir of Babylon who “wields a sword as a symbol of violent masculinity” (72) and houses a harem in a “phallic tower” (73). Floris, the hero, “has been widely recognized as displaying a gender identity much closer to the Orientalist stereotype of feminized, or hypomasculinity” (73). While his “weeping, swooning, and being compared with a flower do not, in medieval literature, connote femininity in themselves” (73) Burge suggests that there are “similarities between Floris’s gender performance and that of eunuchs” (75) and argues that “Floris’s performance of eunuch masculinity is transgressive because it severs the links between sex, gender, and desire that maintain compulsory heterosexuality” (78) but,

Paradoxically, […] restores normative, Christian gender relations. As a consequence of Floris’s transgression with Blancheflour […] at the end of the romance […] both Floris and the Emir are drawn into the role of husband: a masculine identity in accordance with a heterosexual gender framework. (79)

Hints of a similar paradox can be found in sheikh romances: “the harem and the Orientalist labeling of Eastern men as animalistic […] are used to uphold the sheikh’s alpha masculinity” (81) but there is often a suggestion, albeit one which is quickly rejected, that “Eastern robes can conceal or obscure heteronormative masculinity” (83).

Unlike in Floris, in the sheikh romance it is the heroine who undergoes a transformation in her gender performance. Burge argues that, at least initially, Western romance heroines often resist the hyperfemininity embodied by the women who “represent two discrete models of Eastern femininity: the virginal, submissive servant/guide, and the sexualized rival” (85). Nonetheless, these models are drawn on by the Western heroine as she undergoes a “process of feminization that occurs uniquely in the romance East” (85). Burge argues that the Western heroine remains special, however, because “it is not Eastern femininity itself that the sheikh desires, but the performance of an Eastern-inflected hyperfemininity by a Western heroine” (88). This not infrequently involves the heroine being a virgin (as she is in at least 32 of the 57 sheikh romances Burge identified in the Modern line of Harlequin Mills & Boons); “virginity is the only aspect of sexuality that is specifically labeled as medieval in any way” (92), which is perhaps not wholly unjustified given that in the medieval romances “a similar prominence is given to virginity” (93). [End Page 4]

Chapter 4, on “representing difference, fabricating sameness” (103), places fabric at the centre of the discussion by demonstrating the role played by clothing in expressing ethnicity, femininity, masculinity, and religious identity. Burge finds that in sheikh romances fabric is often “at the very heart of traditional Eastern culture, working as a signifier for it and for the sheikh hero” (115) while the “Western heroine’s ethnicity is also revealed and […] transformed by the clothing she wears” (116). The importance of fabric in these texts explains why it appears

in the form of carpets, cushions, clothing, or bed sheets in almost every cover image since 2005 […] as a signifier of the East in modern sheikh romance, following the long tradition of European Orientalist art. (113)

Clothing also expressed ethnicity, religious identity and social status in medieval romance, because the “use of clothing to mark religious identity was an established practice in the Middle Ages encoded in […] legal regulation of Saracens and Jews” (122) and “sumptuary laws were introduced […] and permitted certain clothing, such as silk and furs to be worn only by those of a particular rank to alleviate the fear of people dressing above their social station” (123). Thus although “no Middle English romance overtly refers to such regulations, the association of certain types of clothing with particular qualities is evident” (123). In both medieval and modern romance, then, it should definitely not be assumed that detailed descriptions of clothing and fabric are the “filler” (249) which Ann Bar Snitow dubbed them.

Burge observes that the sheikh is different, but not too different from the Western heroine, thanks to one or more of an

education at a Western institution, often Oxbridge or Harvard; a Western ancestry, usually via a mother, grandmother, or great-grandmother; atheism, or a distinctly relaxed attitude toward or nonadherence to Islam; a progressive outlook regarding the social and political values of his desert nation; a jet-setting lifestyle, either residing in or frequently visiting the West; an almost accentless fluency in English; and an ease in both Western clothing and traditional Middle Eastern garb. (105)

One of the “few occasions in sheikh romance where there is an explicit desire for ethnic difference” (106) is in the “eroticizing [of] the contrast between the sheikh’s dark skin and the heroine’s paler complexion” (105), and even this is made much less apparent in the cover art, which seems to “whiten the hero, reducing the visible contrast between the couple” (106). Burge asks if this is “perhaps an example of a disjunction between what can be expressed in writing and what is acceptable to display visually” (107) and suggests that the disjunction could be due to the perception that “Marketing a romance novel with a Middle Eastern hero at a time of political instability and Western military engagement in the region could be seen as provocative” (107). Another explanation may emerge via a reading of Stephanie Burley’s work on “the racial politics of category romance” (324), in which she observes that, in the category romance’s “standard description of the ‘tall, dark, and handsome’ hero, in distinction to the seemingly paler heroine, […] darkness symbolizes the hero’s danger, mystery, sensuality, and otherness. This formula is relatively common” [End Page 5] (328). In other words, a color contrast between a dark hero and a whiter heroine is not exclusive to either sheikh romances or situations involving ethnic or racial difference between the protagonists and therefore for a frequent reader of category romances words highlighting a color contrast between the protagonists will perhaps primarily evoke ideas relating to the erotic potential of differences between the sexes whereas visual images highlighting that same color contrast might be more likely to be interpreted non-metaphorically as a indication of racial/ethnic difference. Furthermore, Burley argues that “the [white] contemporary romance heroes, who are imagined in terms of literary blackness and who are desirable for their limited associations with otherness, are able to cast off the mantle of darkness when they fall in love with white, innocent heroines” (332). Limiting the sheikh’s “darkness” to the verbal sphere perhaps makes it easier for a similar transformation to occur for him. It is striking that the Saracen Sultan in the medieval romance The King of Tars literally casts off darkness when he adopts the religion of his heroine: upon baptism his skin miraculously changes color from black to white, reinforcing “the association of whiteness with Christianity” (112).

In the modern sheikh romance “religion is subsumed into culture and ethnicity stands as the main difference between East and West” (103) whereas “in the Middle Ages, religion was the operative category of difference, with the binary opposition between Christianity and Islam (and Judaism) structuring identity” (2). Nonetheless, in a move which is perhaps not entirely dissimilar to the religious and color transformation at the end of The King of Tars, the sheikh’s Western heroine often has a “scheme of modernization” (67) with a “focus on women’s rights” (67) and it seems to me that this, too, is often set in motion in earnest towards the end of the sheikh romance. Moreover, such a “scheme of modernization” cannot be considered entirely without a religious element given that the West connects “medieval repression with Islam” (62) and “it is specifically the religious aspects of the region, represented in practices of veiling […] and the treatment of women, which are seen as medieval” (63). Therefore, as Burge later concludes, “The religious roots underpinning these popular texts and, by extension, our popular views of the Middle East are thus exposed: religion remains firmly part of the story” (181).

Burge states that her “book argues that romance manipulates its hybrid representations of religious and ethnic difference in order to create successful romantic unions” (7). In her final chapter she seeks to demonstrate this via an examination of abductions which, she argues, are evidence of the “difference imagined between East and West, Saracen and Christian, which has to be transformed into something acceptable: sameness” (175). Abductions are frequently to be found in both the medieval and modern romances:

Of the fifty-seven sheikh titles in the Modern Romance series, forty contain abduction or captivity motifs, with thirteen of these featuring the physical abduction of the heroine or the heroine’s child by the hero. Themes of abduction are similarly not unusual in Middle English romance. (138)

Clearly, “abduction is a real-life concern” (139) in the modern context of “high-profile kidnappings of Western men and women, particularly since the commencement of military conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan” (140) while “the second half of the fourteenth century, the period in which Octavian was composed, was the period in which the highest number of [End Page 6] cases of kidnap were brought in the Middle Ages” (141). However, Burge suggests that the “female-focused” (142) abductions to be found in medieval and modern romances are “deliberately distanced from the reality of kidnap and might more accurately be termed ‘romance abduction.’ Romance abduction is differentiated from modern-day political kidnap and medieval kidnap for pecuniary gain” (142-43). Romance abduction

is carried out by the hero, aims to secure sexual interaction or to facilitate a marriage between hero and heroine, is presented as distinctly nonpolitical […] and is not carried out in order to gain wealth […]. Furthermore, the Orientalized space of the romance East is used to define romance abduction and to present it as something quite different from kidnap […]. Romance abduction is reworked as (atemporal) cultural practice or conversion; it is figured as protection or rescue; and it is eroticized, presented as sexual fantasy. (143)

Burge’s examination of “the paradoxical connection between restriction and freedom inherent to the motif in romance” (139) may perhaps fruitfully be read alongside Catherine Roach’s “Love as the Practice of Bondage: Popular Romance Narratives and the Conundrum of Erotic Love” and other papers in the essay collection which resulted from the 2009 conference held in Princeton on the topic of “Love as the Practice of Freedom?”. In the context of the sheikh romance, Burge argues, the loss of freedom for the heroine which results from a romance abduction “serves to normalize or to conceal the patriarchal gender dynamics at its heart” (143).

In the romances Burge studies there is, it would seem, a similarly paradoxical connection between difference and sameness: some differences are considered erotic but, Burge concludes,

the rules of medieval and modern romance require a flattening of difference – an elision of strangeness – rather than an embracing of otherness. The audiences of both Middle English and modern sheikh romance might enjoy the way these texts play with motifs of difference, but the possibility of breaking cross-cultural, interracial, or interreligious boundaries is never really considered. (179-80)

Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance will be of interest to both medievalists and popular romance scholars. The meticulous nature of Burge’s research is especially evident in a number of tables and appendices which will be particularly valuable to those carrying out further research into medieval and modern “saracen”/”sheikh” romances. The placement of medieval romances alongside modern ones yields valuable insights into continuities and discontinuities in British popular culture and Burge’s innovative approach opens up intriguing possibilities for further such juxtapositions. [End Page 7]

Works Cited

Burley, Stephanie. “Shadows and Silhouettes: The Racial Politics of Category Romance.” Paradoxa 5.13-14 (2000): 324-43.

Graham. Lynne. “About Lynne”.

Jarmakani, Amira. An Imperialist Love Story: Desert Romances and the War on Terror. New York: New York UP, 2015.

McDonald, Nicola. “A polemical introduction.” Pulp Fictions of Medieval England: Essays in Popular Romance. Ed. Nicola MacDonald. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2004. 1-21.

Porter, Jane.

Roach, Catherine. “Love as the Practice of Bondage: Popular Romance Narratives and the Conundrum of Erotic Love.” Romance Fiction and American Culture: Love as the Practice of Freedom? Ed. William A. Gleason and Eric Murphy Selinger. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2016. 369-387.

Snitow, Ann Barr. “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different.” Radical History Review 20 (1979): 141-61. Rpt. in Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality. Ed. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell & Sharon Thompson. New York: Monthly Review P, 1983. 245-63.

Winters, Rebecca. Matrimony With His Majesty. Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2007.

[End Page 8]


Review: Women and Erotic Fiction. Critical Essays on Genres, Markets and Readers, edited by Kristen Phillips

Today we are seeing a growing interest in erotic literature for women. I am thinking about, for example, Catherine M. Roach’s Happily Ever After: The Romance Story in Popular Culture, where one chapter argues for an understanding of popular romance novels as feminist pornography (2016) and Elin Abrahamsson’s upcoming doctoral thesis on romance novels and masturbation. After the enormous success of E.L. James Fifty Shades trilogy we have had, at least in Sweden, an explosion of both erotic romance but also of erotica aimed at a female reader. In Women and Erotic Fiction twelve chapters analyse and discuss texts that focus on sex and desire. In many ways this collection breaks new ground, which is a task that is both rewarding and problematic. There is a need for more research on erotic fiction aimed at a female reader and there is definitively need for more research that compares and contrasts different kinds of erotic texts. In this short review I hope to introduce this collection of chapters, but at the same time raise a question about what erotic fiction for women is and how the label can be problematic.

In the introduction Kristen Phillips argues that one of the aims of this collection is to “explore the political significance” of these texts: texts that are often seen as both trivial and trashy. We still live in a culture that not only trivializes but also hides women’s desire and this is the overall theme of the introduction, which is evident in several of the collection’s chapters. Phillips argues that erotic fiction for women can be empowering. Yet, empowerment is a tricky concept. What does it really mean? Empowering for who? Jennifer Maher writes: “We feminist pop culture critics are skilled at unearthing progressive potential in what might at first appear to be potently sexist or otherwise conservative depictions of women” (194). I have spent a lot of time talking about the empowering and feminist potential in popular romance and notice how I unwillingly fall into the trap of defending the genre and how, when cornered by students to give concrete examples, I notice how I tend not to (give any). This is the dichotomy that Linda Lee discusses in her chapter on romance novels where she says that:[End Page 1]

Most scholarship on romance novels falls into one of two polarized camps that view these novels as conservative forms that uphold existing patriarchal structures, or as subversive resisting forms that challenge existing structures (54).

There is a little bit of that opposition evident in this collection. Several of the chapters present thought-provoking and highly critical readings of popular texts, but there are also some that find themselves needing to defend the texts they are studying, a position that is both uncomfortable and problematic. Several of the chapters in this collection, however, show how ambivalent the texts discussed are and it is that ambivalence that is truly interesting.

The book is divided into three parts, “Originating the Erotic”, “Interrogating the Erotic” and “Uses of the Erotic”, but there are several themes that reoccur in more than one section of the book. It is always difficult to organize chapters on a variety of subjects that focus on very different texts; another way to go would have been to divide the collection by texts under discussion. The variety of texts discussed in the chapters is both the strength of this collection and its weakness. On one hand, it is both rewarding and challenging to compare a popular romance novel to fan fiction to a semiautobiographical blog and see both similarities and differences, but on the other hand, it becomes evident in this collection that it is very difficult to define what women’s erotic fiction is and the collection becomes like a too loosely fried egg that is a bit difficult to eat. I found all the chapters very well written and interesting but the ambition of any collection is of course to be more that its parts. To say something definitive about women’s erotic fiction in one collection of chapters may be an impossible task. One of the interesting things this book says, without meaning to, is that the “field” of women’s erotic fiction is extremely wide making it difficult to compare the twelve examples we see here.

From Erotic Romance….

Several chapters focus in some way on erotic popular romance. Simon Hardy focuses in his chapter “From Black Lace to Shades of Grey: The Interpellation of the ‘Female Subject’ into Erotic Discourse” on how the female subject is portrayed from the Black Lace books of the 1990s to James’ Fifty Shades trilogy and has an interesting reading of the meaning of both female consumption and female submission in a variety of texts. It is of course impossible to capture how erotic fiction has developed in a short chapter and I would have welcomed a few more chapters on Hardy’s theme. He points out how the trope of the female traitorous body recurs again and again, and asks what would happen if we, for example, read James’ Ana next to Winsor’s Amber? Katherine E. Morrissey discusses in her chapter “Steamy, Spicy, Sensual: Tracing the Cycles of Erotic Romance” how the explosion of digital self-publishing has opened up the field for a diversity of romance texts we didn’t previously have and highlights how difficult it is to try and define what is, for example, romantic or indeed pornographic texts as “the boundaries between romantic, erotic and pornographic content are lines that are drawn as much by shifting cultural norms as they are by form and content” (43). Reflecting on Roach’s argument that we label romance “feminist pornography”, I find this an interesting and also necessary discussion. Another way to approach erotic romances [End Page 2] is seen in Tanya Serisier’s chapter “On Not Reading Fifty Shades: Feminism and the Fantasy of Romantic Immunity” that explores how critics have discussed James Fifty Shades trilogy as books that they haven’t been able to read, even if they are able to have an opinion about them. This is not just highly amusing but also offers a reflection of the need for feminist readings and also of structural power that I find missing in several other chapters. Amalia Ziv, for example, in her chapter “Refiguring Penetration in Women’s Erotic Fiction”, uses both Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon to discuss images and ideas of penetration in erotic fiction and makes several good points, but I can’t help missing a broader discussion of patriarchy. How sex and orgasm in texts are described is, of course, a recurrent theme in this collection. Naomi Booth captures in her chapter “Good Vibrations: Shaken Subjects and the Disintegrative Romance Heroine” the idea of the “shattering” orgasm that Phillips talks about in the introduction and illustrates again her point with Ana from James’ bestseller, raising the question of what the reader enjoys more – the description of Ana and Christian having sex in adventurous ways, or Christian imploring Ana to eat. The argument is that the descriptions of orgasms in the texts are there for the enjoyment of the reader, rather than strengthening the plot, and that even if readers clearly do enjoy reading about how Christian makes Ana feel when having sex, his efforts to make Ana enjoy food might be even more enticing to read, the idea being of course that a lot of women struggle with their weight and long to eat.

Several of the chapters briefly touch on how erotic content in romance or/and erotic fiction has changed with the help of everyone from Modleski to Radway to Mussell and, as I have already said, this is not an easy task. What should be included? When discussing romance novels, it is hard to avoid the “bodice ripper” boom in the 1970s for example. In Jude Elund’s chapter “Permissible Transgressions: Feminized ­Same-Sex Practice as ­Middle-Class Fantasy”, that focuses on Patti Davis’ novel Till Human Voices Wake us, Elund points out how chick lit as a genre and novels like Candice Bushnell’s Sex and the City changed the playing field for erotic fiction by making erotic content much more prominent and acceptable. I keep thinking about Imelda Whelehan’s excellent book The Feminist Bestseller that points out how the so called “women’s fiction” of the 1970s has influenced chick lit (2005). Can we trace the development of women’s erotic fiction without Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying for example? And what about the bestseller from the 1980s? Where do Jackie Collins, Shirley Conran and Judith Krantz fit in? Elund’s aim is not to show how erotic fiction has changed but how heteronormativity raises its, if not ugly, omnipresent head. Heteronormativity is a topic that is also discussed in Carole Weldman- Gentz’s chapter on queer content in popular culture, “Selling Gay Sex to Women: The Romance of M/M and M/M/F Romantica”.

…to semiautobiographical blogs and fan fiction…..

The hunt for women’s erotic fiction continues and some chapters leave both romance and erotic novels behind, and focus on other kinds of texts. In “Erotic Pleasure and Postsocialist Female Sexuality: Contemporary Female “Body Writing” in China” Eva Chen reads two Chinese women’s so called “sex blogs” and here the discussion focuses more on the genre, on voyeurism and the chimera of “telling the true story” than on the erotic content [End Page 3] of these texts. In a different part of the collection, Victoria Ong has a chapter on a similar kind of text: the auto biographical novel of a sex worker that in several ways discusses similar issues (“Selling Authentic Sex: Working Through Identity in Belle de Jour’s The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl”). Both these chapters raise interesting questions about authenticity and the ever fluctuating border between fact and fiction and as these texts describe young women’s sexual experiences and touch a bit on how these texts have been received, I again would have enjoyed a more detailed discussion on power. I keep scribbling Michel Foucault in the margin of the book and on a few pages, Zygmunt Bauman whose thoughts of how we build our lives today in a consumerist society could have benefited both these chapters. A different kind of text is of course the fan fiction of Pirates of the Carribean that Anne Kustritz discusses in her chapter “The Politics of Slash on the High Seas: Colonial Romance and Revolutionary Solidarity in Pirates Fan Fiction”. Kustriz discusses not just slash fan fiction as a concept but reads these texts through what I would call a intersectional lens, discussing not just desire, but also ethnicity and class in the depictions of James Norrington’s and Jack Sparrow’s love story.

…. to the reader

Two of the chapters approach the concept of women’s erotic fiction from another aspect. In “Male Homoerotic Fiction and Women’s Sexual Subjectivities: Yaoi and BL Fans in Indonesia and the Philippines” Tricia Abigail Santos Fermin discusses manga and anime texts, but from a reader’s perspective via a survey where informants talk about their views of these texts that are often written by women and depicting homosexual men. Alyssa D. Niccolini in “Sexing Education: Erotica in the Urban Classroom” also focuses on readers as her chapter is an empirical study of how erotic texts are read in a classroom. Both chapters have fascinating subjects but would have benefitted from being a bit longer as very little information about how the empirical data was collected is included. The studies presented really piqued my interest and in order to fully appreciate the analysis, I would have loved to have had more information about everything from how the informants were chosen to why these particular texts were discussed.

Popular Romance + Erotica= True?

In September I participated in a panel on popular romance at the Gothenburg book fair together with two romance writers, Simona Ahrnstedt and Lina Forss and one author of erotica, Katerina Janouch. It became evident from the start that we approach erotica in women’s literature from very different angles – it wasn’t just that we weren’t on the same page, we were literally not in the same book. Janouch was very critical of the way that romance literature propagates the idea of One True Love and HEA and advocated a much more liberating view of sex that she found in erotic texts, where “women could have sex [with] whoever they wanted, whenever the[y] wanted and not be burdened by love”. The rest of us were put in the rather uncomfortable situation of having to defend romance literature: uncomfortable as we didn’t think we would have to in this particular panel. In [End Page 4] writing this review I have pondered on this discussion. In Women and Erotic Fiction there is an ambition to capture both erotica and romance as the chapters in the collection discuss very heterogenic texts from romance novels to fan fiction to semiautobiographical blogs from escort girls. Do these texts have anything in common apart from the fact that they contain a great number of sex scenes and are written for/by/about women? I am not saying that they do not, but the possible similarities as well as the differences could perhaps be a bit more evident in this collection. Let me give an example. In the introduction to the collection, Kristen Phillips discusses the way an orgasm is portrayed as a “shattering release” but is this release described in similar ways in the rest of the collection? I would say no. From Ana’s orgasm in James’ book, to Jack Sparrow’s in the fan fiction analysed in Kustritz’s chapter, this “shattering release” is very different. And I would welcome studies that focused on that difference.

On one hand there is a strength in comparing different kind of texts in the way that is done in this collection and let me again stress that the individual analyses evident here are both interesting and thought provoking. But on the other hand, isn’t there a risk in “bundling” every text with erotic content aimed at a female reader together without making sure that the different genres of these texts are highly visible? Every good collection of chapters should leave you wanting more and that is true after having read Women and Erotic Fiction and I can only hope that we soon will see more research being done on this vast and very diverse field. [End Page 5]

Works Cited:

Lee, Linda. “Guilty Pleasures: Reading Romance Novels as Reworked Fairy Tales.” Marvels & Tales: Journal of Fairy Tale Studies, vol. 22, no. 1, 2008, pp. 52-66.

Maher, Jennifer. “The Post- Feminist Mystique.” College Literature, vol. 3, no. 34, pp. 193–201.

Roach, Catherine. Happily Ever After. The Romance Story in Popular Culture. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2016.

Whelehan, Imelda. The Feminist Bestseller. From Sex and the Single Girl to Sex and the City. Hampshire & New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005.

[End Page 6]


Review: Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation, by Laura Kipnis

Notes from an Ongoing Man

Last was not, to be fair, a great year for Laura Kipnis – or, from another perspective, it was an elegantly apt year for the author of How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior (2010). In 2015 Kipnis became an international focus for discussions about sex & the academy, and sex in the academy. Northwestern University in Chicago, her employer, created a new rule that stated that student-faculty relationships were not permitted, regardless of any other factors. In response, Kipnis wrote a piece article for The Chronicle of Higher Education (2015) suggesting that part of the college experience is relations between faculty and students. This created an outrage, with people on both sides of the argument writing lengthy diatribes about the matter, and a student filing a Title IX suit against Kipnis. Title IX is a piece of legislation that requires universities to support the equal rights of students based, primarily, on gender and sexuality. These events take place as universities around the USA change policies related to students, student safety, and – in many ways – recreate a form of in loco parentis (in place of the parents) from the early days of US university life; one that particularly works through the trope of the ‘young girl’ in need of protection (Doyle 2015).

Men is about far more than just Kipnis’s scandal – though the book is certainly the embodiment of the canary falling to the mineshaft floor. In fact, another review of Men similarly starts with a discussion of the scandal (Elias 2015). It is crucial, before moving too far afield, to situate just slightly the way that she works through the scandal pre-scandal and to note the connections it has with this book and the way that the book – which is, at least titularly, about men – reflects ideas about how we perceive gender relations more broadly. This is part and parcel of the argument being made throughout the book; not only that, the book preempts the scandal itself and therefore the scandal is a part of the book, its reception, and its overall impact. [End Page 1]

A Story Told Once; And then Again

In fact, in an almost Žižek or Bauman fashion, Kipnis lifts lines from her own book for the article – published February 27, 2015, while the book was published in November 2014. One such line, which I’d imagine thoroughly stuck in the craw of many, was that “sex – even when not so great or someone got their feelings hurt – fell under the category of experience, not trauma. It wasn’t harmful; it didn’t automatically impede your education; sometimes it even facilitated it” (130) – which is tweaked in the article to: “fell under the category of life experience. It’s not that I didn’t make my share of mistakes, or act stupidly or inchoately, but it was embarrassing, not traumatizing” (Kipnis 2015). It is a small difference, but important nonetheless.

Naomi Wolf famously accused Harold Bloom of sexually harassing her when she was a student – a vignette Kipnis recounts, that concludes with Wolf throwing up in the kitchen after Bloom places his hand on her leg. To which might be added that: “Forget bumbling pathos or social ineptitude – in these accounts, it’s all trauma, all the time” (127).  Again, this line is retold from a Slate article where she acerbically notes “if power comes in more than one guise, you will not hear Wolf discuss it” (Kipnis 2004). Questioning Naomi Wolf’s story, she suggests that there is a lot missing from the narrative – including the fact that power is appealing in some instances – and asks what is to be done, coming to the conclusion that “maybe a more nuanced account of male power would be a place to start” (129).

In coming to a conclusion for the chapter, Kipnis says that many professors (some of whom are assholes) hook up with students, and it “would behoove the student to learn the identifying marks” of these characters “early on, because post-collegiate life is full of them too” (135). In a final return to the return, preempting what would be a much lengthier discussion, Kipnis gives a pithy and tone-neutral footnote that her university has changed policies and disallowed faculty-student (or student-faculty, a crucial difference which might belie how we understand these) relations. As a way of conclusion she reminds us that “students aren’t children” (136) and that we ought to recognize the ways that we might well be turning them back into children.

A focus on Men

This book, unlike a standard academic book, is short on clear, focused arguments about men or masculinity. In fact, one might suggest that it is purposefully so, as Kipnis is seeking not to expound on a theory of masculinity but on specific men and the ways that they enact forms of masculinity that are contradictory, contextual, and concealing. Thus, to the question of what, if any, theory about men and masculinities Kipnis is seeking to elucidate, she gives an early and quick answer: “a dearth of sweeping theories about the differences between the sexes will be found in the pages ahead” (5). Reflecting on her previous work – The Female Thing (2007) – she suggests that Men is a “companion volume” and that “the not-always-salutary ways that men and women figure in each other’s imaginations is a theme in both books” (7). The argument of the book, if one were to suggest that a series of repeated essays whose own title suggests that they are but “notes” [End Page 2] could have a fleshed out argument, is that men – and masculinity – are neither, as Kipnis puts it, a malevolent good nor a diabolical evil.

Throughout the book, Kipnis discusses a “pretty motley lot” (1) of men and masculine figures – to which she adds Andrea Dworkin in the last chapter, a playfully titled chapter ‘Women Who Hate Men’.  Starting the book with Larry Flynt and ending with Andrea Dworkin is fittingly purposeful by Kipnis, as someone who has long defended pornography, and who explicitly says so in the ‘Coda’. In this “motley lot” of men, she covers four basic categories: operators (4), neurotics (4), sex fiends (3), and haters (3). These fourteen men (well, thirteen, as one is Dworkin) are book-ended by a preface (‘Regarding Men’) and a post-script. Kipnis does not describe these categories or really give them much definition, leaving us to think about them as fluid and mingling. These categories are comprised of individuals who themselves most likely would never put each other together as a group. In this way the book’s composition is a bit of bricolage. This does not, though, undermine the interesting (and fun) elements of the book.

While oft fairly understanding of her subjects, Kipnis doesn’t shy away from some potshots as well. Of an author of a Hillary biography, who focused heavily on Hillary’s body, she writes: “having seen a few photos of the author – this is a man who can’t have felt entirely secure about his competitive mettle on this score [attractiveness] either” (185). Kipnis continues, saying “Here we’ve entered the realm of male hysteria, where reason and intellect go to die” (190). It is a no-holds barred opening up of men’s wounds at points, which I’m sure has riled up angry white men somewhere. But it is also what makes it a strong discussion – it does so in such a fashion that one is able simultaneously to feel Kipnis’s justification, the men’s anxiety, and a sense of empathy – a balance not managed well oftentimes.

This is not to say that some of the characters in the book don’t come out a bit worse-for-wear; though it is always the underbelly that she is exposing. In talking about Dworkin, she says, “One is tempted to point out that Dworkin either underestimates or just never noticed the vast range of male vulnerability possible in sex” (202). It is this vulnerability that is discussed throughout the book – though frequently coated with humor and a barb or two.

The theme of sex runs throughout the book – whether it is Dworkin’s disdain for it: “Indeed, she was fond of comparing intercourse – along with its propaganda arm, pornography – to the greatest crimes of the twentieth century” (200); or the types of porn that Hustler prints and false rumors of Larry Flynt’s impotence. A form of conclusion that she comes to in this regard is that “People want to – and frequently do – have sex with each other for murky and self-deceiving reasons, or for clear-eyed reasons that turn out to be mistaken, or a thousand variations on the theme of erroneous judgment” (206). It seems an appropriate statement for someone so caught up in what amounts to a sex scandal sans sex; but it is also a nuanced statement about gender and desire, and the ways that people find to manage these fears, shames, and anxieties.

She convincingly gives us a clear portrait of men and sexual scripts, saying, “if our most intimate moments turn out to be prescripted, well obviously these are anxious encounters: failure hovers, rejection looms” (88). It is this observation that is the most crucial thing to take away from her book. Providing insight into the fact that “we live in complicated times and no one here’s a saint” (148), and the prolific anxiety of masculinity [End Page 3] is a task that she does far more convincingly than some more ‘serious’ and ‘academic’ books.

Gender and Complicated Narratives

For a book so focused on men, it is surprising just how much of the book is really about the author herself – not that this is a bad thing. In fact, what is admirable is that men are never themselves just by themselves, but are always in relation to others: other men, and, more frequently, women. This is important because, as feminism has reminded us for well over forty years, men/women or masculinity/femininity are always relational creations and enactments. For the authors of biographies of Hillary Clinton, Kipnis says “reading these Hillary bios, you feel you’re learning as much about the authors as you do about her, possibly more” (181). In fact, at the root of each chapter is her relationship with this man, or this type of man – “I once dated a gambler semi-briefly (it’s possible there was later some recidivism)” (37).

The overall aim seems to suggest that any thorough study of men and masculinity needs to grapple with the mask that masculinity is, and the way that femininity is wrapped up in much of the discussion of masculinity. One is never in relation simply with other masculine presenting individuals, and as authors we too are part of this puzzle.

The book is an opportunity to think about masculinity and the growing field of Men’s Studies (or Critical Studies of Men and Masculinities). Though it has been around for thirty years (see, for example: Carrigan, Connell & Lee 1985; Kimmel 2012; Connell 2005), masculinity is something that is too often left out of conversations on gender and gender relations. The book acts as a possible lightning rod for scholars on both sides of the aisle to rethink the subject and to begin working through the complexity of masculinities in all their ambiguities. So while Kipnis’s book frequently veers into discussions of gender more generally, it crucially sees the importance of turning the lens onto men and masculinity – something that is both admirable and from which other fields of study could take a cue. The book is valuable for this reason if nothing else to literary studies, romance studies, and the humanities. In coming to a final assessment of the book, it is important to note – particularly as Kipnis is a movie critic and of course understands the importance of aesthetics and the now-clichéd phrase ‘the medium is the message’ – the book itself as an object. This book affirms, time and again, masculinity, from its prose through to its blue cover and dust jacket particularly for the USA where every baby boy is adorned blue from before they are born. It seems that this has not been changed for the paperback version either.

All of which brings us to the question of: “what is the value to someone studying popular romance studies?” To this I can but suggest that its wild, uninhibited articulation of individual characters who themselves are part of a romantic and popular discourse is something to strive for and a writing style that academics themselves might ascribe to. For Kipnis, in this book, the unbearable weight of academia is stifling; and it is here where the discipline (and this journal’s readers) might take a cue. Never one to take herself too seriously, Men allows readers to jaunt along rather than be taken along on a grueling march.  Readers will find themselves laughing throughout, as well as reflecting on the way [End Page 4] that topics keep coming up. The book provides short and entertaining insights into the topic of masculinity, and could certainly be used in a class setting.

As an academic book it is perhaps less useful; Kipnis herself says that she is “actually a bit on the margins, academically speaking” (12, footnote), so I am not sure she would disagree or be offended by that claim. While the book is a wonderful example of hilarity, it is less given to use or inclusion as part of a canon of extant literature on the study of popular romance. Nowhere in the book does it relate itself to a set of literatures, and in this way it posits itself somewhat outside of them. This book will most likely be of greater value to those interested in popular essays – authors such as David Sedaris, Joan Didion, James Baldwin, or Chuck Klosterman – than to those who study primarily popular romance literature. Essays, particularly literary or more popular essays, work to give insights rather than make arguments. In this way, one might suggest that the book – and the essays that comprise it – is not, in fact, an argument but an exposition – in both the sense of exhibition and of writing which expounds on something. [End Page 5]

Works Cited

Carrigan, Tim, Connell, Raewyn, and Lee, John. ‘Towards a new sociology of masculinity’. Theory & Society Vol 14, 5 (Sept 1985): 551-604.

Connell, Raewyn. Masculinities. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005. Print.

Doyle, Jennifer. Campus Sex, Campus Security. South Pasadina: semiotext(e), 2015.

Elias, Christopher Michael. ‘Book Review: Laura Kipnis: Men: An Ongoing Investigation’. Men & Masculinities Online first (2015): 1-2.

Kimmel, Michael. Manhood in America: A Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Print.

Kipnis, Laura. ‘The Anxiety of (Sexual) Influence’. Slate (2004).

Kipnis, Laura. The Female Thing: Dirt, Envy, Sex, Vulnerability. London: Vintage Books, 2007. Print.

Kipnis, Laura. How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010. Print.

Kipnis, Laura. ‘Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe’. The Chronicle of Higher Education (2015).

[End Page 6]


Review: Making Meaning in Popular Romance Fiction: An Epistemology, by Jayashree Kamblé

Criticism and analysis within the field of popular romance studies have frequently been performed from a feminist or sociological point of view, primarily focusing on the heroine as the central and determining figure for examination – often read as a means to enable the female reader to “satisfy vicariously those psychological needs created in her by a patriarchal culture unable to fulfill them” (Radway 66; see also Roach n.pag., Cohn 6, Makinen 23). Jayashree Kamblé, however, takes a quite different, and therefore refreshingly interesting approach not just to the function of the romance genre, but to how the meaning that makes this genre function as a “sociological record” (22) is semiotically generated and constructed within the romance text. She further explores how far this construction of meaning and its change over the twentieth and twenty-first century are concurrent with larger social transformations in the West, especially the US, the UK, and Canada. This demonstration is achieved by a focus on the figure of the romance novel hero, which has to date not been covered in a book-length study. Even though the title of Kamblé’s text does not hint at this tight focus of her approach – she claims the analysis of the construction of meaning in popular romance fiction in general as its goal – it becomes quite clear in the introductory pages how the frame for the analysis was achieved.

Approach and Definitions

Working with Marxist and Semiotic theory, as can be deduced when Kamblé draws heavily on Weber, Jameson, Marcuse and Bakhtin for central definitions, the first vital element of understanding her claim that “the genre is in the thick of twentieth-century counter-hegemonic movements, from ones contesting capitalism and its wars to ones advocating gay rights and coping with white Protestantism’s cultural influence” (21), is Foucault‘s idea of the episteme (xiii/xiv). This concept refers to a temporal unit that contains specific approaches and ways of making sense of the world and is used to show [End Page 1] “how romance fiction works in this period of history and how the period’s ‘norms and postulates’ function in the genre to create meaning” (xiv). Kamblé isolates four such ways of constructing meaning and traces them through popular romantic fiction by using an organic metaphor and reading the genre as an evolving organism whose DNA-like double helix structure contains novelistic and romantic traits and thus adapts to and also negotiates social transformation within the episteme. Within the context of this genetics analogy, the first fundamental contribution to the discussion of popular romance fiction is an exploration of the implications of the term ‘romance novel’ by understanding the novelistic side of the term through a combination of Bakhtin’s notions of the chronotope and polyglossia (3) and Cohn’s ‘narrated monologue’ as a specific novel trait. The latter allows for “multiple modes of representing consciousness” (8), thus incorporating specific “devices to express interiority” (10) and resulting in “the novel trait of perspectival fluidity inherited by the romance novel genre” (14).

The ‘romance’ in the romance novel is then conceptualized not only in terms of the genealogical generic tradition as it has been, for example in Pamela Regis’ A Natural History of the Romance Novel (2003), but in its implications of ‘romantic’, “which codes for the traits of the erotic, the desirable, the pleasurable – for what is ‘romantic’ to the reader/apprehender under modernity and postmodernity” (15). Thus, the function of the novel to adapt and express interiority abets the development and incorporation of changing notions of the romantic (i.e. acceptable as desirable) as specific to the figure of the romance hero in the genre. This allows Kamblé to focus on “the set of conditions that allow the story to be ‘romantic’” (20) and those conditions are wont to change historically and geographically. Consequently, they are the ones she then sets about tracing in her analyses. Her project is “[s]urveying developments in romance fiction alongside selected historical changes in political and economic policy and in social norms in the West […] [to perform a] political interpretation of romance fiction, which neither denies the current relevance of these novels to gender struggle nor overlooks the historical developments that have shaped the ‘formula’” (22).

In examining the romance hero in conjunction with major transformations regarding multinational capitalism, changing perspectives on war, developments of gay rights and the connection between whiteness as an ideology and religious ethos, the study takes into account the diverse but sometimes overlapping judicial and political developments and their discursive effects on the construction of the hero in the three nations mentioned above. This distinction also governs the micro-structure of the chapters, alongside the distinction between publishing houses/format and subgenres. However, when it comes to the analyses that support Kamblé’s claims, two questions that are not addressed arise. The first is in how far it actually makes an interpretive difference to examine category novels side by side with single-title ones. The second would be an inquiry into the criteria on which the “major authors” (23) chosen for examination in the single-title category have been selected (namely J.D. Robb (Nora Roberts), Judith McNaught, Lindsey McKenna, Johanna Lindsey, Lisa Kleypas, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Gaelen Foley, Suzanne Brockmann, and Linda Howard). Moreover, the jump between subgenres surely supports the argument of the text, however, the implications of the changing settings and subgeneric literary and narrative traditions are left unexplored or at least unaccounted for, since it could be argued that the hero appearing in these diverse settings also imposes limits on the possibilities of representing him and on the meanings that can be generated. [End Page 2]

Structurally, the text is clearly divided – chronological recapitulation of social transformation in the aforementioned nations is followed by detailed (close) readings (again, chronologically ordered with regard to their year of publication) of a wide variety of romance novels, in order to drive home the point of the complex relationship between ideological movements and popular romantic constructions of the hero.


Firstly, the analysis of the representation of capitalism in the figure of the hero traces the developments of “faults […] [and] attractions of capitalism […] represented by the corresponding off-putting or seductive traits of the lover” (32) and the function of the capitalist as romantic hero who serves to “personaliz[e] the abstract economic force of the free market” (32).[1] From the 1950s onwards, Mills and Boon contemporary category romances incorporate more and more heroes who are financially superior to the heroine, effectively setting up a connection between hero and businessman and, starting in the 1960s, the plot motif of the hostile takeover in Mills and Boon is introduced, in which the heroine is in an economically disadvantaged position in comparison to the hero (be it due to, for example, her being his employee or him taking over her family firm). Class interests are thus not only expressed in the difference between the owner of capital (hero as bourgeois) and the working population (heroine as petit bourgeois/proletariat), but also in gendered terms (39). Kamblé convincingly argues that Mills and Boon “novels […] represent a socioeconomic drama of the way British national firms and the people in the workforce faced Britain’s changing economic landscape” (40). The romance genre in particular deals with this threat of capitalism by positing the hero as less powerful in another arena, as can be seen when his declaration of love endorses “the romantic relationship [that] neutralizes the threat of the all-powerful capitalist” (35).

Concerning the American romance, Kamblé examines how single-title historical romances negotiate the wealthy hero and his capitalist tendencies, arguing that historical romance “heroes, especially after the eighties, are actually capitalists in aristocrats’ clothing” (42). Here, the main focus is the “nagging apprehension of the capitalist’s dark side, ranging from the suspicion of [the hero’s] underhanded business deals to fears of his propensity for violence and crime” (49). Thus, the hero is often introduced as ruthless and dangerous in his capitalist dealings, but found to be benevolent by the heroine later-on in the narrative, thus at least partially allaying the genre’s anxiety about the nature of capitalist ventures. Kamblé therefore successfully proves her point and demonstrates how the “genre has adapted itself to match the rhetoric that idealizes capitalistic individualism and accumulation of private property as well as the consumer capitalist ability to create and manipulate desire” (59), while still detecting the representation of a critical stance in the genre (here especially in J.D. Robb’s In Death series) by the continual depiction of the possibility “that capitalism’s alter ego is composed of equal parts of robbery, deception, and homicide” (55). [End Page 3]


Secondly, economic capitalist and military issues are shown to be intimately intertwined in the figure of the hero, since through the “hero as warrior […] romance novels encapsulate the impact of a curious feature of post-modernity – the constant intrusion of international conflict onto the public consciousness” (61). Early Mills and Boon romances that represent the imperial soldier in his colonial quest are located and briefly analysed, but the main focus is on the American romance in this section. Documenting the influence of Cold War ideology and rhetoric in novels from the 1970s-1990s and the reaction to the first Gulf War and 9/11, it becomes clear that the romance hero moves from a concentration on “bravery and strategic thinking” (64) to additionally exhibiting “self-critique and self-doubt” (64). Therefore, the war is personalized, offering the possibility of a compassionate evaluation of the impact of war on the individual who fights it, for example through the representation of PTSD.

In a second move, the American popular romance points towards “the amorality that jingoistic policy breeds in its enforcers” (64). It is shown how the courtship and romance plot suggests but at the same time complicates solutions for the effect of war and patriotism on characters and their ethical behaviour. The draw towards loyalty to the nation and the drive towards the achievement of the romance’s happy ending work at cross-purposes, as Kamblé demonstrates using the example of Linda Howard’s Diamond Bay (1987): “The novel is thus conservative in terms of its conviction in the wedded state as the highest good, but its allegiance to the genre actually overrides the claims of the patriotic imperative and thus makes it politically subversive” (69). The historical and paranormal romance of the 2000s is then called upon in order to analyze the changing notion of what constitutes an ‘enemy’ of the nation, finding the examined novels rejecting a stable notion of the term and thus “recasting the debate on war” (83). Current romance texts also often feature the figure of the mercenary or private soldier, whose function, according to Kamblé, is to permit “twin desires to be reconciled to some degree; the narrative can symbolically attain the goal of American security but without admitting the potential sacrifice of moral stature on the part of actual US armed forces, that is, the nation itself” (79).

What would have generated a deeper understanding of the issue at hand in this chapter, but also in the whole study in general, is an additional examination of the different types of masculinities. Analysing the meaning that is constructed by an affiliation of the representations with stereotypical masculinities (especially with regard to character traditions and literary stereotypes) and, for example, looking at the difference between the representation of the hero as warrior, mercenary, and soldier (three terms with various implications for the type of masculinity they represent as well as the history of those (stereo)types) would have broadened the analysis and at the same time lent even more depth to the argument. [End Page 4]


Thirdly, the hero also “embodies the sexual norms underlying the bourgeois family and the problematic nature of heterosexism” (87) and thus refracts how the rise in “gay visibility” garners “a response that can be glimpsed in romance novels in the hero’s own heterosexuality, his relationship with other men, and through an acknowledgment or denial of homoerotic desire” (87). Kamblé includes the proliferation of the ethnically exoticized hero in the UK and Canada after the sixties who is persuasively demonstrated to be “culled from the Orientalist myth of Eastern heterosexual excess, of one man servicing a harem of wives and concubines, of an inexhaustible masculinity – a myth both repulsive and reassuring because at least this is a man who won’t stray from the female sex” (100). At this stage in the analysis, one of the most important points for contemporary scholarship on romance might be, in my opinion, the introduction of a new angle on the interpretation of scenes of rape or ‘forced seduction’ in the romance novel of the seventies and eighties – a plot device that has long been a major point of criticism of the genre as a whole. Kamblé argues that “the timing of the motif’s appearance in the eighties, unprecedented in the genre’s nearly 70-year history, suggests that the focus on forceful male desire for a woman is a reaffirmation of heterosexuality” (109). Thus, instead of reading the rape scenes as a power imbalance that reinforces patriarchal structures even as they are criticized (a point which nevertheless holds true in such a reading), Kamblé suggests that it is also central in another power struggle – the one between heterosexuality and homosexuality, in which “masculinity […] expresses its heterosexual identity through the rape of the heroine” (108).

Additionally, the development of the cross-dressing heroine in the nineties and the motif’s underlying homoerotics that introduce a “secondary queer narrative” (114) is examined (a similar interpretation has been made by Fletcher in her chapter on the Cross-Dressed heroine in Historical Romance Fiction (58-72), but focusing on the novels of Georgette Heyer, who, interestingly enough, uses the motif much earlier than the novels Kamblé suggests). Kamblé also explores the twenty-first century dual plot trend that incorporates a homosexual love story as subplot in a heterosexual one. Here, however, the implications of the fact that it is male homosexual relationships that are primarily added rather than female homosexual relationships would perhaps have warranted further exploration.


The fourth element of the episteme is located as an inherent Western-ness and thus whiteness in the representation of the romance hero and especially his relationship to the white heroine. Their connection is shown to be rooted in a spiritual notion of whiteness. By going back to Whiteness Studies’ foundational text White (1997) by Richard Dyer, Kamblé claims that “mass-market romance fiction’s episteme includes whiteness as the norm for the romantic experience and not because its protagonists are largely Caucasian; it is because the genre functions via the particular confluence of Protestant and capitalist ethos that Richard Dyer and Weber have noted” (133). According to this approach, “the exercise of white female sexuality is limited by white male self-control” (139) and explains the [End Page 5] dialectic of ascribing features of ‘darkness’ to the romance hero who nevertheless is redeemed by subscribing to a Protestant ethos of controlling his sexual impulses (134) and working towards a bourgeois understanding of (re)production. In this chapter, the most interesting point concerns the paranormal romance, identifying it in a Bakhtinian sense as “the genre’s turn toward the carnivalesque (with its connotations of challenging the socially regulated everyday world)” (148). Reading Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling series as representative of the subgenre’s potential for “paving the way for the genre’s transformation into a racially diverse form” (148), it is demonstrated how an author with non-Western roots discursively incorporates elements of non-Western understandings of the romance hero and his representation with regard to social structures and social functions, thus also turning the paranormal romance and this specific example into a “commentary on colonial history and its racist legacies” (156).

Overall, the approach of analyzing the ideology that informs the depiction of the popular romance hero in a book-length study is a highly valuable contribution to the field. Kamblé’s text on occasion oscillates between being accessible to a more general interested audience and a peer group of scholars in that it sometimes gives no precise definitions of central terms – such as ideology, normativity or desire – terms that a peer group is probably familiar with, but that should nonetheless be clearly delineated in order to prevent points of criticism and obfuscation of the argument. These comments notwithstanding, Kamblé certainly makes a compelling argument for her reading of the romance hero within a Marxist frame that demonstrates the versatility of the popular romance novel as an arena for negotiation in which historically and culturally specific discourses are commented upon, reworked and sometimes subverted by the combination of the courtship/marriage plot and the novelistic traits and subplots which adapt upon incitement by social change. Therefore, the book is definitely a significant contribution to the research on popular romance, but also to the study of popular culture in general, since it does not exclusively engage with previous publications on the popular romance but rather with the theoretical and socio-cultural background needed to “evaluate the dynamic that the hero introduces into the genre on many ideological fronts” (157). It represents a thought-provoking analysis that will, no doubt, inspire appreciative and critical responses as well as more work on the romance hero and his textual transformations.

[1] Jan Cohn makes a similar argument, only her focus is firmly on the resulting impact of bourgeois patriarchal society and its economic power imbalance on women. Cohn also reads the popular romance as a narrative space for the negotiation of actual social and economic decisions: “The fantasy provided by popular romance exists to redress the real social and economic conditions of women in the world of the present; but the strategies and codes through which romance constructs and communicates fantasy have their roots in history, in the development of bourgeois society. […] [T]he social contradictions that inform such novels are buried deep in romance stories, charging them with subversive energy” (3). [End Page 6]

Works Cited

Cohn, Jan. Romance and the Erotics of Property: Mass-Market Fiction for Women. Durham: Duke UP, 1988. Print.

Fletcher, Lisa. Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity. Burlington: Ashgate, 2007. Print.

Makinen, Merja. Feminist Popular Fiction. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001. Print.

Radway, Janice A. “Women Read the Romance: The Interaction of Text and Context.” Feminist Studies 9.1 (1983): 53-78. Web.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. Print.

Roach, Catherine. “Getting a Good Man to Love: Popular Romance Fiction and the Problem of Patriarchy.” JPRS (Journal of Popular Romance Studies) 1.1 (2010): n.pag. Web.

[End Page 7]


Review: Love Between the Covers, produced, written, and directed by Laurie Kahn

Australian universities and popular romance fiction may be moving towards their own Happily Ever After. Growing scholarly interest in romance fiction here includes presentations on romance fiction at large conferences, a special Australia issue of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, and the award of a large Federal Government grant to study the genre worlds of romance, fantasy and crime in Australia.[1] For researchers and teachers looking to build upon this momentum, Laurie Kahn’s documentary Love Between the Covers is a valuable resource: a lively collection of interviews and footage that is sure to stimulate thought.

The greatest achievement of Love Between the Covers is that it presents the complexity of romance fiction as an ecosystem. Rather than pursuing a single clear narrative, the documentary offers a number of case studies that are surrounded by an assemblage of snapshots of the romance fiction industry. There are scenes showing pitches, marketing meetings, writing critique sessions, authors’ retreats, book signings, cover photo shoots, and writers writing, as well as interviews with authors, readers, editors, bloggers, and academics. This variety is a strength of the documentary, and sociologically minded students and scholars will value the insights into romance fiction’s intricate, vibrant networks and systems.

At the same time, the multiplicity of short scenes produces a somewhat chaotic viewing experience. For those coming from a literary studies background, in particular, the fast cuts of the film highlight romance fiction’s otherness from ‘high’ literature – the noise, the sociality, the predominance of women, the commercial imperatives.  This disorienting effect could obscure the film’s value for those who are searching for analytical frameworks to help them write about romance novels. Such frameworks are there in the film, touched upon briefly: interviewees discuss themes such as heroism, courage and love, and recognise romance fiction’s feminist commitment to women’s pleasure and success.

In one interview that could spark discussion, novelist Jennifer Crusie notes that great literature is often “toxic to women” but in romance “you get rewarded for going after what you want.” The more detailed case studies also open up important lines of inquiry. Author Eloisa James, for example, is a professor of English Literature but describes being [End Page 1] advised to conceal her romance writing in order to secure tenure. Lengthy interviews with Beverly Jenkins and Radclyffe raise questions about the representation of African American and queer women in romance novels, and case studies of co-authors and a self-published author illustrate different models of how romance fiction is written and produced.

Students in graduate publishing, writing, and editing courses will benefit not only from the film’s depiction of the multidimensional publishing process, but also its insights into industry change. Romance fiction leads the industry in digital innovation – uptake of ebooks, digital book talk and self-publishing – and the sector should be closely observed. In particular, the film’s mixed accounts of self-publishing reward attention.  Amongst comments from several interviewees about the pros and cons of self-publishing, the documentary offers the case study of Joanne Lockyer, an aspiring Australian romance author. Lockyer decides to self-publish her first novel; we see footage of the moment she uploads her book to Amazon, and the moment she delightedly unboxes the print-on-demand copies. This dramatic representation of the ease and satisfaction of self-publishing should catalyse discussions about the role of publishers in a changing industry.

The film shows romance fiction as an ecosystem, but a profoundly human and social one, and this is the aspect of the film that I found most interesting as a researcher of book culture. I was moved by the expressions of closeness between authors and readers – a feature of the romance genre, where authors often interact with their readers online and in person. This was beautifully captured through the film’s interviews with Kim Castillo, an author assistant. “Nobody in my house read,” Castillo recalls, but she connected with fellow readers when she started her first job, at age 14, as a sewing machine operator. Her co-workers mostly read romance, using a cardboard box as a lending library. Castillo struck up a correspondence with Eloisa James (in the film, James says “Kim was by far the most articulate who wrote to me”), and then came to work with James and other authors, handling events, newsletters, mail-outs, social media and more – “now I run a company”.

The film shows Castillo surrounded by a rich community of friends and colleagues with shared interests in romance fiction. Other scenes in the film recognise the tensions and conflict that can arise within romance, but overall it is the expressions of intimacy and support that are striking. Hearing these stories of friendship and seeing the affectionate gestures and smiles shared amongst authors and readers is powerful. The scenes invite academics to reframe their understanding of contemporary book culture and recognise the roles played by emotion and friendship. Studying individual texts and authors will always have a place, but academics are challenged by romance fiction and this film to consider books within a web of economic and interpersonal networks. Love Between the Covers provides compelling examples of the ways romance fiction satisfies readers and writers, makes money, and nurtures a social world.

[1] I am one of the chief investigators on this grant, along with Dr Kim Wilkins, Dr Lisa Fletcher and Prof David Carter. [End Page 2]