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Review: Queer Experimental Literature: The Affective Politics of Bad Reading, by Tyler Bradway

Review by Amy Brown

In Queer Experimental Literature, Tyler Bradway stakes the claim that ‘by eliciting uncritical affective responses in readers, queer experimental literature … strikes at the disembodied model of critical reading and its heteronormative social imaginary’ (p. xxxiv). Experimental literature, for Bradway’s purposes, covers a range of authors from William S. Burroughs to Jeanette Winterson, whose works breach norms of conventional literary aesthetics. In the main, the texts are postmodernist ones, although Bradway disclaims that postmodern literature should not be treated as the truest form of queer literature.

Bradway’s work will be most interesting to scholars of affect theory, as that is where his chief theoretical grounding lies. He draws heavily on Delueze and Guattari, and on Grosz, in defining affect as a component of reading as an ‘event’ rather than a property of the content read (xxxv-xlii). He also draws on Sedgwick and Felski in his theory of reading, particularly in reference to Sedgwick’s turn away from ‘paranoid reading’ (xxix-xxxv). However, Bradway does not reject the discipline of criticism, nor negative criticism in itself, arguing that many attempts to turn away from interpretation toward affect serve to obfuscate relations of power which undergird and shape affective responses. In Queer Experimental Literature, Bradway offers readings of his key texts which are not focused on ‘queering’ the text or reading against its grain, but which examine ways in which the texts themselves invite affective responses which are orthogonal to those of critical reading.  He is primarily concerned with what he calls ‘bad reading’ – reading experiences that foreground potentially excessive sentiment, disgust, erotics, fears, and strong identifications with narrative (v). These responses, he argues, are antithetical to critical reading, even in the field of affect studies, which he defines as prone to prioritising particular models of literature (primarily the novel) and particular functions of affect and emotion (such as the provision of educational and appropriate emotional models). Despite this objection to literary hierarchies, Bradway does not engage in significant depth with genre fiction studies. Queer Experimental Literature offers methodologies and insights that deserve to be more fully explored in relation to genre fiction, although Bradway’s strong investment in postmodern [End Page 1] fiction at times implies that fragmentary and postmodern prose styles are uniquely likely to invite ‘bad’ or radical affects.

A unifying theme across the book is Bradway’s case that academic criticism has underestimated the queer potential of experimental fiction, and of his chosen authors in particular. I am not the first to note that his argument here seems to be stretched a little too far: all of his key authors (Burroughs, Delany, Acker, Winterson, and Sedgwick as memoirist) are well known to academic criticism,[1] and only Sedgwick is not often classified as a ‘queer author’, in that her work is primarily engaged with as criticism and she herself did not identify as queer. However, in each case Bradway addresses a key facet of the author’s work which has been negatively received by some queer critics, and argues for a reconsideration. For instance, he reads William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, alongside the earlier-written but later-published novel Queer (pp. 1-50). Here Bradway argues that Burroughs’ shift from the realist portrait of homosexual loneliness in Queer to the fragmentary narrative and obscene spectacle of Naked Lunch represents a powerful implication of the reader in the homoerotic, scatological and drug-inflected events of the narrative, effectively breaking down the barrier between the reader as voyeur and character as spectacle as he makes the distinction between hallucination and narrative event porous.

Of most interest to readers of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, I believe, will be Bradway’s reading of the works of Jeanette Winterson (pp. 145-182). Bradway finds the wholehearted sentiment of Winterson’s work, and its focus on individual experience, to be at odds with the deconstructive mission of critical queer theory. However, he argues that, rather than enlisting the reader in an assimilationist project of romantic sentiment, Winterson’s work – especially Written on the Body, with its amorphous narrator – invites the reader into strongly emotive encounters which proceed to queer the reading experience itself, by refusing to stabilise categories of gender, embodiment and social function. The reader can enter into the affect and emotion of Winterson’s protagonist, but cannot confidently identify with them on any particular axis of gender or physical embodiment.

However, Bradley’s argument for experimental literatures as queering the affective experience of reading is not solely dependent on that instability; he also argues for a project of affective reading which invites encounter and sense of radical community. He does not make any strong argument for why these radical community-oriented affective experiences should be generated particularly by experimental literatures. The book makes a case for ‘bad reading’, but does not address the long history of queer pulp fictions and genre writing. He includes one ‘genre’ author, Samuel R. Delany (pp. 51-93), but analyses his work primarily in relation to academic literary theory, without taking into account the science fiction genre context with which Delany was also in conversation. Bradway defends Winterson’s work against assumptions that fictions of romance are necessarily conservative, but does so without engaging with the established feminist scholarship on the readership of (heterosexual) romance novels.[2] More contemporary developments, like the burgeoning gay and lesbian romance novel market, or the increasing presence of science fiction and fantasy which challenges and inverts norms of gender, class and sexuality, are not addressed at all. Could Bradley’s arguments about Winterson’s Written on the Body implicating the reader in a queered experience of gender be extended, for instance, to the ways in which Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy both requires the reader to enter into the gender system of its universe and highlights the insufficiency of English grammatical gender and number in expressing that system? Bradway’s case for ‘bad reading’ is potentially generative, but those [End Page 2] wishing to take it further will need to work around or against the limitations of Bradway’s implicit biases against a range of fiction which lies outside of his specified ‘experimental’ scope.

[1] See Michael Trask’s review of Bradway in College Literature.

[2] See Janice Radway and, for a sample of current scholarship and methods building on Radway, Jessica Matthews. [End Page 3]

Works Cited

Matthews, Jessica. “Studying the Romance Reader: Then and Now: Rereading Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies, vol. 4, no. 2,  2014,

Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Trask, Michael. “Queer Experimental Literature: The Affective Politics of Bad Reading.” College Literature, vol. 45, no. 1, 2018, 186-189.

[End Page 4]


Review: Modern Romance, by Aziz Ansari, with Eric Klinenberg; Is Monogamy Dead?, by Rosie Wilby; How to Go Steady, by Jacque Nodell

Review by Amy Burge

The literary fields of sociology, self-help, history, and popular culture have, for a long period, produced books about love and romance. The three titles above offer a more humorous, informal look at modern practices of love, dating, and relationships. Two are written by comedians—Ansari and Wilby—and Nodell’s book draws on historical content from American romance comics, itself an emergent heritage genre. All three books share a common theme—the search for a successful romantic relationship—which they explore from different perspectives. Ansari’s focus is on technological development and its effect on love and dating in the digital era; Wilby tackles the concept of monogamy and its function in Western society; and Nodell presents relationship advice for young women from mid-twentieth-century US romance comics. Following allegations of sexual misconduct made against Ansari in January 2018, Modern Romance is also now unavoidably read in light of #MeToo (more on that later).[1]

The problems and the challenges of romantic love are themes shared by all three works. Ansari states about Modern Romance: “I wrote this book because I wanted to better understand all the conundrums that come up in modern romance” (236). Wilby invites her readers to “hold each other’s hands and work out how to go about relationships in this scary, busy, digital twenty-first century” (8). Nodell’s approach is rooted in historical issues and advice, but her frequent indication of the relevance of advice from the 1960s and 1970s for romance today is a reminder of the overarching, longer structures of behaviour, manner, and advice that are persistent over time.[2] [End Page 1]

Modern Love is driven by a hypothesis that technology has led to changes in the way we ‘do’ love in the modern world, citing the statistic that in 2014 “the average American spent 444 minutes per day—nearly 7.5 hours—in front of a screen, be it a smartphone, tablet, television, or personal computer” (29). He goes so far as to argue that “our romantic lives now inhabit two worlds: the real world and our phone world” (177). Ansari acknowledges that “in books like this it’s easy to get negative about technology and its impact” (242). For example, Chapter 6 “Old Issues: New Forms: Sexting, Cheating, Snooping, and Breaking Up” focuses on technology as a “new format” in “age-old issues like jealousy, infidelity, and sexual intimacy” (177). Ansari observes that “The advantages of technology that facilitate regular dating (such as the ease of access and the absence of the pressure found in an in-person interaction) also transfer over to cheating” (188). But he’s careful not to come down on either side of the argument (which he explicitly acknowledges in the epilogue). He notes that there are some positive romantic experiences that technology facilitates, for example the expansion of online dating means it becomes easier to find a partner one can get “really excited about” (236). The most overt celebration of technology comes towards the end of the book, where Ansari shares two examples (one drawn from his own romantic life) of how emails and text messages facilitated a record of romantic encounters that one can look back on with fondness. Ultimately, “no matter the obstacle, we keep finding love and romance” (251).

Wilby’s book is modeled on Modern Romance—she cites from the work—and replicates Ansari’s mix of academic investigation and personal story to explore her central question: is monogamy dead? Wilby draws on her own romantic experiences and those of her London-based lesbian community to explore a wide range of modern relationship styles and approaches. She covers demisexuality (110), relationship anarchy (213), conscious uncoupling (224), ghosting, icing and bread-crumbing (223), and interrogates concepts of masculinity (15) and the language for different types of love (329). One of the key challenges Wilby identifies for romance in the twenty-first century is “our lack of language”; “If we don’t have words for a particular type of loving relationship, we can’t talk about it and it remains invisible” (329). In service of this aim, Wilby provides a glossary for “help and support as to how to understand twenty-first-century relationships” (329). Wilby’s book is more overtly feminist and inclusive than Ansari’s Modern Romance and goes further into modern varieties of relationship.

Jacque Nodell’s How to Go Steady (2017) is the latest in a recent stream of publications celebrating the twentieth-century romance comic.[3] Reflecting on advice columns in romance comics published by DC, Marvel, and Charlton, Nodell asks “Might we today take the lessons of the past and see the wisdom in them?” (Loc 1786). In her preface, Nodell argues that “as outdated as vintage romance comics may sometimes seem, believe it or not, they are full of practical dating advice” (Loc 70)— “as timeless as any Jane Austen novel” (Loc 70)—and draws similarities with “positive thinking self-help that is given today” (Loc 1360). Nodell’s take on romance comics, despite their traditional tone, and “mid-century message that young women would ultimately find themselves drawn into ‘feminine interests’” (Loc 431) is positive—she never criticises the advice or offers significant analysis of its messages (although she does allude to its heteronormativity and whiteness).

Nodell’s aim is to both draw connections between past and present, but also to interrogate the particular historical context of the comics, including the postwar emphasis on youth marriage. She posits that “the advice columns of romance comics give a sense of the [End Page 2] issues that were on the minds of young people, and the societal norms that motivated the answers” (Loc 275). For example, “in an era when young marriage was the norm and ideal, it is unsurprising that readers viewed not being in a relationship as a serious problem needing a remedy from an advice columnist” (Loc 392). For Nodell, romance comics are “an incredibly rich source for discerning not only how dating was done in the 1960s and ’70s but also, how it was recommended people date” (Loc 90). Ultimately, “this outpouring of courtship advice in the comic books was just another cog in the expertise machine that propelled the nation in the postwar years” (Loc 249). She concludes that “The advice columns will be remembered for their contribution to popular culture, and how they informed the psyche of the mid-century teen” (Loc 1776).

The advice is organised into nine chapters, covering the stages of a heterosexual, western courtship, from “Meeting the One,” to “going steady,” to marriage (a structure that echoes Modern Love). An introduction offers an overview of “who was dishing out this advice,” naming a string of pseudonymic older women who dispensed advice in titles including Girls’ Romance, Girls’ Love Stories, Heart Throbs, Secret Hearts, Young Love, Falling in Love, and some male columnists, including “twins Marc and Paul” who wrote for DC (Loc 142) and Dr Harold Gluck for Charlton (Loc 168). Nodell notes that the authorship of romance comics and advice was overwhelmingly male and middle-aged (Loc 70). As for “Who was reading this advice?” (Loc 222), Nodell admits that the intended audience was undoubtedly “a white female teenager” (Loc 222) but that there is evident variation in age, race, and geography from letter-writers. Although, in the afterword Suzan Loeb, who wrote advice columns for Marvel in the 1970s, admits that she made up her letters to address universal problems which somewhat undercuts Nodell’s argument about reader representation.

Methodology and approach

While rooted in the personal and in popular culture, Modern Romance and, to a lesser extent, Is Monogamy Dead? are clearly aiming for a research- and data-driven approach influenced by psychology, sociology and anthropology. Modern Romance is based on an ethnographic study (conducted with sociologist Eric Klinenberg) of groups and individuals around the world in 2013 and 2014. Ansari and Klinenberg conducted focus groups, monitored dating interactions through people’s phones, and hosted an online forum on the website They also drew on quantitative data from dating websites, interviews with academics, and additional survey data. Ansari cites liberally from the study’s interview data, offering a rich picture of respondents and illustrating the variety of voices. The effect of this is that some chapters read not unlike How to Go Steady—chapter 2 of Modern Romance, for instance, offers guidelines on how to craft a successful text message to ask someone out as well as a list of basic rules such as “Don’t text back right away […] The amount of text you write should be of a similar length to what the other person has written to you” (57).

Is Monogamy Dead? draws on a mixture of scientific study, celebrity anecdote, and personal experience to explore its theme. We are presented with statistics from the UK Office of National Statistics (ONS) on divorce and dissolution rates for marriage and civil [End Page 3] partnership (134-5), the results of surveys conducted on Dutch executives (59) and a survey by Helen Fisher for (104, 139). Wilby refers freely to documentaries, radio shows, books, newspaper and magazine articles, and even consults with experts, notably academic Qazi Rahman. Wilby conducted her own anonymous online survey, receiving 100 responses to probing questions about fidelity. Studies and articles are mentioned by name in almost every chapter lending the book substantial academic weight (although it would have been helpful if these citations had been gathered into a bibliography of some kind).

All three authors draw on their personal romantic lives to frame their works and explain the rationale for writing their books. Nodell begins by sharing the story of a failed relationship and how an ongoing interest in romance comics helped her through the heartbreak. Ansari opens by relating the story of a hook-up with a woman named Tanya and shares personal anecdotes throughout the book. Wilby’s book in particular is disarmingly open about the author’s personal romantic life and its inspiration for Is Monogamy Dead? This is an advantage of the book and, rather than detracting from the serious message, serves to contextualise it. Wilby’s approach is less overtly comic, but it is more tender and thoughtful than Ansari’s book; as Wilby herself says about a developing show: “I wanted to be authentic and mix up the comedy with some poignancy and pathos” (306). It is the tales of Wilby’s own relationships that flesh out the book, richly illustrating precisely the points that the science seeks to prove. Wilby is careful to include other voices too—she devotes a chapter to the story of her neighbours, Jac and Angie, and gives a chapter—“Jen, in her own words”—to her ex-partner: a nice touch, as I found myself wondering about the ‘other side’ to Wilby’s own stories.


All three books have their limitations. The first is their national and cultural specificity. Nodell focuses exclusively on the USA and Wilby sticks to her native Britain. Modern Romance is the most international of these three books; Ansari conducted focus groups in Buenos Aires, Tokyo, Paris and Doha in addition to four cities in the USA. Ansari argues that these places demonstrate different cultural approaches to the USA in terms of dating (150). This allows Ansari to draw out some interesting comparisons. For example, in chapter 3, Ansari notes that while the rising use of technology in dating is seen by some in North America as challenging, in Qatar digital technology can lead to freedom, given the country’s restrictive rules on socialising and dating. In chapter 5, “International Investigations of Love,” Ansari considers the population crisis in Japan and the government’s concern that young people are no longer interested in dating. He notes that 60% of Japanese male singles identify as herbivores: “Japanese men who are very shy and passive and show no interest in sex and romantic relationships” (157). Ansari ascribes this to changing gender roles in modern Japan, as women become more independent and prominent in the workplace. Ansari contrasts Japanese dating culture with Argentina, where street harassment of women is prevalent. As Ansari puts it, “Argentine men have a global reputation for their hot-blooded, romantic passion, which often bleeds over into something pathological and scary” (170). [End Page 4]

A limitation of Modern Love and How to Go Steady is their heteronormativity. Ansari admits that his research focuses on middle-class heterosexuals and a similar audience can be imagined for the readers of advice in romance comics, as Nodell notes. Wilby is the only one of the three authors who explicitly addresses the heteronormativity of romantic discourse and seeks to do something different. She is quick to point to Modern Romance’s disclaimer that it focuses on heterosexual relationships. Wilby does not “mean to single him [Ansari] out specifically” (4), but she makes the valid point that “everything about love and sex in our world is viewed through a prism of assumed heterosexuality” (5). Indeed, Wilby’s book is all the more valuable for being a rare study of women’s same-sex relationships, although it also has much to say about heterosexual relationships and gay male partnerships.

Finally, while Wilby and Nodell’s books are explicitly oriented to women’s experience, Modern Love is less invested in gendered approaches to romance. Ansari does acknowledge some of the ways gender inequality shapes modern love. He admits that while modern love might be more complex, due to technology, women have far more choice than a few decades ago (238). When considering attitudes to infidelity in France, Modern Love notes (ventriloquized through a dog’s voice) that “men are taking advantage of the women’s goodwill and they are resigned to this demeaning situation” (208). But overall, the tone of Modern Romance remains light and inoffensive; Ansari would rather go for the joke than probe at the deeper message he is beginning to uncover. This was perhaps consistent with the societal tone of 2015, but in a post #MeToo world this levity feels, at times, inappropriate, especially when it signposts away from sexism and anti-women behaviour. Reading Modern Love in 2018, especially some of its content about sexual aggression, is not an entirely comfortable experience given subsequent discussion about its author. It’s difficult to discount or ignore Modern Romance as it is such a touchstone for similar studies (as Wilby’s book indicates), yet shifting cultural narratives around gender, sex, and consent mean that we are no longer consuming this work in the same way. Equally, there’s an important point to be made (which Wilby makes in terms of visibility of non-heterosexual relationships) about who has the opportunity to write these kinds of books and whose perspectives on ‘modern romance’ get to be heard. Ansari’s voice, as a heterosexual American man, is undoubtedly one of the most mainstream—perhaps it is time to make room for others who have historically not enjoyed such a platform (this is partly what #MeToo is about).[4]

There are, of course, limits as to what a popular audience book can do in terms of scholarly endeavour. All three authors do make an effort to provide scholarly resources and references: both Ansari and Wilby include bibliographies for further reading; Wilby includes a helpful glossary; Modern Romance provides full references for scientific citations and has an index. Nodell’s book is not an academic text, but it does contain full references for comics cited and a small further reading section which will be of interest to the academic reader. Nodell’s accompanying website, Sequential Crush, is also a useful resource for teaching and research purposes. However, the power of these books to disseminate certain ideas about romance, love, and modern culture make them relevant for those of us working at the academic end of the spectrum. In a sense, these are the kinds of works through which our research reaches a wider audience and, as such, are worthy of our consideration.

[1] The accusation and subsequent response from Ansari were published online: Katie Way, “I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life,”, accessed 13 December 2018. [End Page 5]

[2] I have argued likewise in my own research comparing late medieval advice for young people and contemporary British romance advice (Burge, 2018).

[3] See, for example, Michelle Nolan, Love on the Racks: A history of American Romance Comics (2008); Michael Barson, Agonizing Love: The Golden Era of Love Comics (2011); Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, Young Romance: The Best of Simon & Kirby’s Romance Comics (2012).

[4] I recognise that Ansari is a person of colour, but he does not explicitly talk about race in Modern Romance meaning that identifiers of gender are foregrounded. [End Page 6]


Barson, Michael. Agonizing Love: The Golden Era of Love Comics. New York: Harper Design, 2011.

Burge, Amy. “The Rough Guide to Love: Romance, History and Sexualization in Gendered Relationship Advice,” Journal of Gender Studies, vol. 27, no. 6, 2018, pp. 649-660.

Kirby, Jack and Joe Simon. Young Romance: The Best of Simon & Kirby’s Romance Comics. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2012.

Nolan, Michelle. Love on the Racks: A History of American Romance Comics. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008.

Way, Katie. “I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life.”, 13 Jan. 2018, Accessed 13 December 2018.

[End Page 7]


Review: Love and War: How Militarism Shapes Sexuality and Romance, by Tom Digby

Review by Jayashree Kamblé

In this compilation of a series of his talks, feminist philosopher Tom Digby seeks to demonstrate that war-reliant societies are steeped in “cultural militarism,” one result of which is that they venerate heterosexuality but cast men and women as “opposite sexes” engaged in a battle. Such societies build their military might through structuring interpersonal relations as occurring between only two genders and then eroticizing the alleged differences between them for “procreative efficiency” (18). These actions stem from their belief that antagonistic relationships between groups are standard, which permeates all levels of discourse and practice even in civilian life. Digby concludes that such societies’ reliance on using force in a perceived zero-sum game of winner/loser or dominant/submissive poisons the possibility of equality between people, including those in love relationships. As he puts it: “the gendered domination-submission model of heterosexual love has its roots in the faith in masculine force and the presumption of adversariality that I … described as lying at the heart of cultural militarism” (28).

Real love is doomed in such culturally militaristic societies since it is shot through with antagonistic emotions that weaken it. Digby therefore claims that the heterosexual love model in militaristic society is “intrinsically weak and even tragic” (30). He finds it foundational to the spectrum of misogyny in that society and notes that it also extracts an economic cost. But he points out that militarism is not the norm in all societies, and that the amount of effort that war-reliant ones put into training people in enacting these values show that they are not natural; ergo, we can deprogram ourselves and establish more equitable communities and erotic bonds.

Digby reiterates this argument over the course of eight chapters, often repeating his central claims at various lengths. This, along with his use of popular texts such as polls in news articles and statistics from TV magazines—he rarely uses traditional scholarly sources—is an enactment of his stated belief that academic writing must reach wider audiences in order to facilitate real change. The style and the repetition of his thesis certainly makes for easier reading, and would be useful in undergraduate classes, especially when attempting to explain the intersection of sexual violence, mass-shootings, and Othering [End Page 1] rhetoric that accompanies war and genocide. It is also a timely book in light of the #MeToo movement, providing a useful perspective on the rhizomatic nature of misogyny, but a reader will have to work out their own practices for how to implement his (understandably) philosophical theory on undoing the problem. The book may also resonate with scholars and readers of popular romance texts, since it is attempting to diagnose and detoxify erotic relationships (though largely between straight pair bonds). Moreover, its reading of how women’s changing economic situation has now made traditional love (with its patriarchal constraints) merely a thing of fantasy or play for them, even as men have become more invested in that story, might provide an interesting lens through which to examine mass-market romance narratives.

In a chapter entitled “Battle of the Sexes,” Digby points out that heterosexual love is represented in our culture as desirable and yet loaded with danger and misery. He traces connections between this and the establishment of a gender binary as a norm, with each gender being trained to enact certain behaviors and self-presentation and to find these attractive in each other in order to result in procreation. Proscriptions against masturbation and homosexuality in militaristic societies are to him another version of this policing and tied to the goal of “procreative efficiency” (18-19). He provides examples of religion and history of such programming (and its punishment of violators). Even outside actual combat, men are programmed (such as through media) to think of themselves as naturally inclined to using force while women are programmed to please them. His attribution of this dynamic to a nineteenth-century shift to companionate marriage (where the idea of love becomes integral to heterosexual relationships), as well to female suffrage and rejection of male authority, feels somewhat clunky. To explain this seeming paradox, he turns to Nietzsche, who claimed that men and women are given different cultural programming about what love means, leading to men being deemed weak if they love devotedly—i.e., like women, rather than like men (for whom love means being worshipped) (26-7). Digby seems to agree with Nietzsche placing blame on this “male domination and female subordination” model for the ““antagonism” in heterosexual relationships” (28).

In “Let’s Make a Deal,” Digby says that “transactionality” is the chief reason for the antagonism in heterosexual love in war-reliant societies, noting seven causal elements (including het- and cis-normativity) in that model of love. He argues that in the resultant culture, people are encouraged to seek a profit from their partner in the context of heterosexual relationships. To him, societies that treat women like chattel with different exchange values is an extension of this transactional attitude. As women gain economic independence and find the traditional transaction less necessary, men who refuse to accept the change turn: 1) to prostitutes, who are still lacking power; and 2) to porn. But their sense of entitlement and the fact that substitutes for women can’t provide emotional support makes them angrier, leading to tragic heterosexuality. Digby suggests escaping the heterosexual economy and seeking egalitarian relationships as a way to reduce the antagonism and strengthen het- love, but it’s not clear how one can do so because while he shows what such love looks like, he doesn’t quite explain how a couple achieves that state (49). The section instead resorts to maxims about sharing, respect, caring, etc., and then pivots to the claim that this antagonistic heterosexuality (along with expectations of coupling across genders and rigid gender roles) goes hand in hand with homophobia. The chapter ends with the claim that this antagonism marks domains like parenting and politics and we need to escape this programming. [End Page 2]

In “How to Make a Warrior,” and “Keeping the Battle of the Sexes Alive,” Digby suggests that understanding “warrior masculinity” can help us escape the “zero sum gender game,” where men and women are made to see each other as enemies (52-3). He describes how boys are trained to “toughen up,” i.e., emotionally conditioned for potential warrior status (57-8). He links this unnatural conditioning to rates of PTSD and veteran suicides. He then suggests that this training is also linked to misogyny because it is predicated on a gender binary, and boys are made to believe that if they want to be “real men,” they must limit their ability to be caring. He includes disturbing examples of hard core porn, especially watched at “gonzo porn” parties where men display their masculinity to each other by voicing approval of images of women being humiliated and dehumanized, an element that he sees as common to military torture. He links this to militaristic societies’ faith in masculine force as an effective solution to problems. He also examines the faith that people place in love in these cultures and returns to his previous recounting of Nietzschean ideas about gendered cultural programming. He adds that there is a connection between the unequal dynamic between couples in a heteronormative militaristic culture and Christianity’s exhortation that one must surrender to Jesus and be taken. He reiterates that men are taught to seek women’s devotion and women to worship them, and links this to examples of domestic violence. He says that when the legality of treating women as chattel was challenged by feminism, it turned into “heterosexuality by faith—specifically the faith of the woman, both in a particular man and in a particular idea of heterosexual love” (85). He notes Nietzsche’s idea that this woman’s faith “is inseparable from romantic passion” and says that women start to equate heterosexual love with being taken/owned by a man, who gives nothing and aggrandizes himself through his acquisition (85). He then attempts to show that the old “cultural programming directed at women” is not so different from current popular culture by citing an interview with romance novelist Christina Dodd where she says alpha males are attractive because they have power and quotes a review of her 2011 novel as having “scenes of aggressive seduction” (86-7).

His subsequent exploration of Nietzsche’s claim that men want to be loved/worshipped is weakened by an odd choice to cite the lyrics of George Michael’s song “Faith” as evidence that heterosexual strong men want devotion from women, even torturing them to get this submission/love (87). He says that while he understands that such men are afraid of the impact to their erotic entitlement caused by women’s changing lives, he is unsure why women were devoted to this notion of love and a “soul mate” (89). But he finds it unsurprising that more men are turning to it, and points to popular media articles that report that “men are more likely to have beliefs about love that reflect traditional romanticism” (90). He calls this buy-in “masculine romanticism,” and mentions other responses in these articles that suggested men want long-term commitment and contrasts it to less romantic beliefs among women (and even says that novels like Dodd’s only have fantasy appeal for some). He then cites another Dodd interview as evidence that as women gain financial independence, they are less interested in traditional ideas of love that allow men to control them. The following claim would be welcomed by romance fiction readers tired of the assumption that they cherish patriarchal structures:

Today there are many women who understand that the traditional male dominant/female subordinate model of romantic love is a fantasy. They may [End Page 3] see it as an arena for play, which they prefer to enjoy only when they want a break from the more important things in their lives, such as careers (94).

In “Can Men Rescue Heterosexual Love,” Digby cautions that reversals in old economic imbalances between men and women as well as technological changes in militaries has meant that men can no longer frame themselves through the Protector, Procreator, and Provider elements that made up traditional masculinity in war-reliant societies; subsequently, even as they look for romantic love to give them some assurances of their status, women’s detachment from it is leading to a “dangerous masculinity cocktail” (115). In presenting a hypothetical situation where a man invested in “masculine romanticism” could persuade women to this fantasy—though he takes an illogical swipe at romance fiction fans as likely candidates (who he has already argued are a demographic unlikely to want this fantasy to come to life)—he demonstrates why the situation is unlikely to prosper. He uses an interview from a BBC show to explain Nietzsche and Simone De Beauvoir’s argument that men have limited ability to be lovers and if this man who is “disabled as a loving partner” wants the happy ever after myth, it can be a drawn out tragedy (106). He then lists examples of virtual violence against women in video games, offers more details on parties where men bond by watching “gonzo” or “bangbus” porn, and describes responses from interviews of male college students as evidence of men’s anger about the loss of women’s devotion and bodies, which they have been trained to think as their right. While he adds that greater consciousness of misogyny means women may turn away from het-love as a desirable route to fulfillment, he thinks it is possible to reverse this misogyny.

He expands on a solution in “Gender Terrorism, Gender Sacrifice” by first explaining that a society that holds to a gender binary creates conditions that harm both men and women. Through subjecting boys to “gender terrorism” from a young age so they don’t cry and learn to not be like the “opposite sex,” we create a “sacrificial masculinity,” which he says is visible in violent sports such as football, in which men are programmed to risk serious bodily harm (137, 130). This military masculinity goes hand in hand with misogyny, and he lists various examples of its negative impact on everyone. “Misogyny terrorism,” he believes, is directed at women as a natural extension of military masculinity. But he cautions against only blaming the immediate perpetrators since it is the culture that creates an endless supply of such men. To him, the broader approach should be toward changing boy parenting to protect both men and women. He ends with what he hopes is an optimistic note—the presence of male allies who support women against misogyny. He says more men haven’t joined them because they misunderstand feminism and he offers what he thinks is a less divisive definition of feminism as “a preference that girls and women not be subjected (by society or individuals) to disadvantage just because they are girls or women” (150). He thinks this definition will help men break away from a culture that harms them and that eventually we can abandon the gender binary itself.

In “The Degendering of Militarism” and “The Demilitarizing of Gender,” Digby says that the U.S. military is becoming degendered and performs a close reading of a speech at West Point by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates as evidence of the move away from a tough guy stance to one about empathy and caring for the troops. He also reads the impending threats that Gates lists (e.g. cyber attacks) as not requiring direct confrontation/combat in the traditional warrior masculinity mode but ‘nerd’ and diplomatic skills. Where terrorism is concerned, instead of armed retaliation through the military, the [End Page 4] response needs to be expanded economic opportunity to shrink the pool of potential terrorists, as well as improving health and education (especially for girls and women). In other words, he says, implementing the key ideas of feminism is the way to lower threats against the U.S. He lastly points to the “counterinsurgency doctrine” of David Petraeus—which encouraged empathy, listening, understanding civilian and enemy combatants—as evidence that the degendering of combat is a better way to tackle new threats. (170). He posits that this is a turn from coercive force-style masculinity to what has been associated with femininity in war cultures—“listening and empathy” (173).

In “The Demilitarizing of Gender,” Digby sums up his major claims about the way warrior masculinity in war-reliant societies (based on masculine hegemony) suffuses the culture. Both men and women are expected to lead in this way, and everyone is expected to apply the same masculinity (of not caring) for each other (especially for disadvantaged fellow citizens) as they would to enemies. But as war changes and direct combat and loss of life declines, the need for that military masculinity will change and this will affect inter-personal relations, with less pressure on women to procreate. He envisions this situation as reducing opposition to birth control and reducing homophobia as well as the oppositional and dom/sub nature of current heterosexuality. He thinks this “truce in the battle of the sexes” could ripple outward from individual relationships, reducing the misogyny and sexism in all aspects of society (178). He cites a speech by an Australian General condemning misogynistic emails against female soldiers as evidence that the military is changing and valuing its female members’ contributions. But he says that the General’s rebuke of those who want to humiliate others implies that militaries themselves have to change profoundly since they are built on a masculinity that is nurtured by making men humiliate those who don’t seem tough, i.e., are like the other gender. The uneasiness about the answer to what masculinity can be if not humiliation and violence, he suggests, is why conservatives express moral panic about the changing dynamic between men and women, but he is optimistic that society is slowly reducing its faith in training men (and boys) to be violent. [End Page 5]


Review: Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy, edited by Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi

Review by Javaria Farooqui

Romantic love and the religion of Islam have often been combined in western popular fiction to create the necessary element of the “exotic.” This is most evident in the ubiquity of desert settings and the sheikh protagonists in category romance novels. Popular romance studies has shown a considerable interest in sheikh romances, exploring the myriad themes of oriental culture, political fantasy, and ethnicity (Teo, 2012; Jarmakani, 2015; Burge, 2016). However, no amount of familiarity with category sheikh romances can prepare a reader for the personalized, love narratives of Salaam Love, which are termed as stories of “feelings” in the preface. In Arabic, ‘Salaam’ means ‘peace,’ and acts as a salutation or greeting. Thus, the title suggests that the book is about welcoming love in a peaceful, Islamic way. The word ‘Salaam’ appears to be a careful choice on part of the editors, Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi, to indicate the connections between gender, Islamic cultural values and love. This anthology was preceded by Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women (2012), which presents a very positive approach towards sexual and matrimonial issues of Muslim women. Both anthologies communicate a distinct variety of Happily Ever After, which is reliant on Islam as a faith and a powerful source of love. Men in Salaam Love have expressed their quests of finding ‘true love,’ which, for them, coincides with religion and cultural acceptance. Their happiness, love and a sense of fulfilment are irrevocably dependant on their identity as Muslims. Whether it is a question of finding the right partner, showing your mettle in the face of social and personal rejections or weighing the decision of having an IVF baby, all the stories in this book communicate a fascinating belief in the healing powers of religion that ultimately leads to the achievement of a deep sense of inner peace and love.

Importantly, the editors of Salaam Love stress that “this book is not a theological treatise,” but a platform for real Muslim men to open up about the “most intimate aspects of their lives” (viii). This clarification is particularly relevant because the sexual and romantic experiences communicated in these autobiographical narratives connect directly with each protagonist’s identity as a Muslim man in the United States. Nevertheless, Salaam Love [End Page 1] frequently feels like a theological, or at best inspirational, collection of stories. For example, in “In the Unlikeliest of Places,” A. Khan learns to synthesize his religious practices and his queer identity after his one-night stand with a successful gay surgeon. Khan writes, “The cliché that God works in mysterious ways becomes real only when you wake up to these mysterious ways in the small moments, in the unexpected and, yes, dark places” (113). What prevents this anthology from being a subtle work of theology is its unorthodox sense of humour. Recounting his break-up with a beautiful, non-Muslim girlfriend, author-narrator Stephen Leeper writes: “By January, she had left me for her white ex-boyfriend, a blow to the Original Blackman’s ego, a carryover sentiment from my Stephen X days” (179). Salaam Love provides subtle amusement, the kind that makes one smile inwardly for a few moments. An apt illustration would be Haroon Moghul’s delightful description of his first date in “Prom, InshAllah.” When his crush Carla agrees to be his date for the prom, Haroon narrates that he “stood there like a Punjabi Peter Parker, when he first becomes aware of his super spidery powers.” He felt like “a new man—taller, better, braver, and a cooler shade of brown” (154). Various examples of this wry sense of humour are evident throughout the anthology, especially when the author-narrators talk about their race.

Salaam Love is divided into three sections, “Umma,” “Sirat” and “Sabr,” which, read in order, move from lightly comic to emotionally complex. The author-narrators in “Umma” find their happily-ever-afters within the boundaries of their expatriate or immigrant Muslim cultures. Again, there are moments of genuine hilarity when authors contrive acronyms: “Unrestricted hyperbole is a well-documented effect of Terrified Immigrant Syndrome (TIS). Thus my mother links a bit of religious laxity to wholesale cultural downfall—another friend’s mother has been known to link Jolt Cola to eventual cocaine use”(32). In the “Sirat” section, love is connected, metaphorically, with a journey. In stories like “Springtime Love,” “Finding Mercy” and “Prom, InshAllah,” protagonists go through dramatic and poignant phases of life to find love and/or peace at the end. The “Sabr” section has strong echoes of Paulo Coelho’s earlier work, specifically The Alchemist. However, in Salaam Love, symbolism of the journey carries explicit Islamic tones, frequently highlighting the role of religion in the lives of immigrant Muslim men. There is an overarching attempt to present the Muslim as a vulnerable, emotional and delightfully positive human being. This portrayal challenges the masculine, patriarchal and dominating image of Muslim men in western popular culture. The protagonists of Salaam Love— crying over their break-ups, desperately trying to find eligible partners for matrimony—are very different from the violent and passionate hero of E. M. Hull’s The Sheikh. Unlike the wealthy, sexually experienced and overly assertive sheikhs of Anglophonic popular romance, the author-narrators of Salaam Love are shy, hesitant and frequently face intimacy issues. Hsu-Ming Teo, in Desert Passions: Orientalism and Romance Novels, has argued that category sheikh romances have helped in the formation of stereotypes for uninformed western readers (99-100). It is evident that the author-narrators and editors of Salaam Love have painstakingly deconstructed the stereotypical image of Muslim men through the various romance narratives presented, which manifest a common belief in the healing power of love and faith.

The multiple narratives in this collection highlight the ethnic and cultural diversity that is present in the United States of America. This book stands at the crossroads between literature and popular romance fiction. There is an autobiographical element, gendered perspective and a culturally nuanced sense of humour in Salaam Love. Still, the way in which these twenty-two narratives link happy endings with Islamic bliss is predominantly [End Page 2] characteristic of romance fiction and paves the path for, perhaps, another subgenre: “Halal Romance.” [End Page 3]

Works Cited

Burge, Amy. Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance. New York: Palgrave, 2016.

Coelho, Paulo. The Alchemist. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998.

Hull, E. M. The Sheik. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. Project MUSE.

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

Mattu, Ayesha and Nura Maznavi. Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women. Berkeley: Soft Skull Press, 2012.

Teo, Hsu-Ming. Desert Passions: Orientalism and Romance Novels. University of Texas Press, 2012.

[End Page 4]


Review: New Directions in Popular Fiction: Genre, Distribution, Reproduction, edited by Ken Gelder

Review by Claire Parnell

New Directions in Popular Fiction is an omnifocal deep dive into specific histories, genres, locations, and formats within the scope of popular fiction publishing. The collection is divided into two sections. ‘Histories of Popular Genres’ includes case studies of particular genres that, as a whole, comprise an interesting yet fragmented history of popular fiction writers, readers, and publishing from the nineteenth century to the present. The chapters in ‘Authors, Distribution, (Re)Production’ focus on writing, publishing and reading in the broader context of the global entertainment industry. The contributing authors explore new directions in genres, formats, adaptations and transmedia technology and production, and scholarship. Chapters focusing on crime fiction explore colonial Australian detective stories (Gelder & Weaver), textual legacies of the Whitechapel murders (Moore), the British spy thriller (Burrow), and feminist crime fiction (Vanacker). North American genres are explored through re-Indigenizing Western dime novels (Bold) and national identity in Québec (Ransom). Science fiction and fantasy are explored in chapters on medievalism and paratextuality (Wilkins), the new weird (Weinstock), the context of prewar Japan (Jacobwitz), the speculative girl hero (Driscoll & Heatwole), and novelizing Assassin’s Creed. The only extensive chapter on romance explores the history of British imperialism and the romance novel (Teo) but romance is also explored to a lesser extent in relation to fan fiction (Schwabach). Other chapters explore form (Hughes), popular fiction and prestige (MacLeod), adaptation (Groth; Whelehan), transnational industries (Carter), and online reader communities (Driscoll). This collection provides authoritative and important contributions for publishing studies, book history and literary studies.

In its assemblage, Gelder discloses his attempts to move beyond scholarship that focuses on popular genres in Britain and the USA given the ‘spectacular rise of ‘Nordic noir’ crime fiction…global award-winning regional African SF [science fiction] and fantasy…and a marked increase in the visibility of Chinese SF’ (15). A small number of chapters have an explicit focus on popular fiction in countries other than Britain and the USA – Gelder & Weaver’s ‘Colonial Australian Detectives, Character Type and the Colonial Economy’, Seth [End Page 1] Jacobowitz’s ‘Unno Jūza and the Uses of Science in Prewar Japanese Popular Fiction’, Amy J. Ransom’s ‘Popular Fiction in Québec: National Identity and ‘American’ Genres’, and David Carter’s ‘Beyond the Antipodes: Australian Popular Fiction in Transnational Networks’ – and one addresses culturally marginalised groups: Christine Bold’s ‘Did Indians Read Dime Novels?: Re-Indigenising the Western at the Turn of the Twentieth Century’. This ‘gesture towards the global range and recognition of popular fiction’ (15) is itself a signal of another new direction in popular fiction scholarship that requires greater emphasis and attention in the academy; that is, authors, readers, and publishers of culturally marginalised and non-Western texts as well as discourses surrounding their creation, production and reception.

Delineating a select few chapters here will provide a snapshot into the historical, scholarly and generic scope of this book. The first chapter by Joe Hughes investigates the work of Eliza Haywood, an ‘amatory’ novelist working in the eighteenth century who was ‘widely considered to be one of the first bestsellers in the history of the English novel’ (24) in part due to being ‘the first to exploit the full potential of the scenic form’ (25). The repetition of the scene, Hughes points out, ‘is not only the mark of a technical discovery that maximises the productive capacity of the writer, it also governs the process of consumption’ (25) – the former is a characteristic of contemporary popular fiction production and the latter a characteristic of its market. It is with this first chapter that we are thus introduced to the rise of popular fiction as a mass-market product and the structural form that enabled its consistent and rapid production.

Hsu-Ming Teo’s chapter ‘Imperial Affairs: The British Empire and the Romantic Novel, 1890–1939’ investigates women’s imperial romantic fiction, a genre produced between the 1890s and the Second World War and ‘created from the fusion of the masculine imperial adventure romance and the more feminine form of the domestic romantic novel’ (88). The genre worked to disseminate imperial fantasies for women finding a place in the empire. Here Teo provides insight into how new genres and hybrid genres develop, and the ways in which the production of popular fiction texts are responsive to the sociohistorical contexts in which they are published. From a similar socio-literary approach, Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver chronicle crime and detective fiction in colonial Australia in ‘Colonial Australian Detectives, Character Type and the Colonial Economy’, arguing that the first locally published Australian novel was crime fiction and that the genre’s early start in Australia emerged out of the ‘experiences of transportation and the convict system’ (43).

The influence of the internet on popular fiction is explored to varying degrees in the two final chapters: Aaron Schwabach’s ‘Fan Works and the Law’, and Beth Driscoll’s ‘Readers of Popular Fiction and Emotion Online’.[1] Driscoll’s work is one of the most groundbreaking of the collection in its focus and approach. The chapter employs a relatively new method of distant reading to explore one of the biggest changes in the publishing field since the era of the Gutenberg: the digital sphere. Investigating reader responses online is increasingly important as digital technologies and connective media systems evolve alongside their users’ behaviours to allow them greater influence over the field, and is especially relevant for popular fiction as it is ‘more susceptible to the influence of the market’ (427). Gelder describes Driscoll’s contribution as ‘an important early step to take, if we want to examine this field more closely and…productively’ (17); I agree that the incredible value of Driscoll’s work derives from combining seminal theoretical models, applying a sociological approach to fan studies, and testing the use of sentiment analysis to reception studies. [End Page 2]

The collection offers a broad historical overview of popular fiction rather than exploring contemporary genres in depth. Nevertheless, several chapters touch on romance. Teo’s chapter on the relationship between romance novels and the British imperial romantic fiction is the only chapter entirely dedicated to exploring the genre of romance, yet other chapters briefly touch on romance or romantic elements: Schwabach explores fan fiction in relation to the law, drawing on examples of romantic slash fan fiction, and Twilight is used as one of the case studies in Driscoll and Heatwole’s analysis of the girl action hero. Ultimately, New Directions in Popular Fiction is an important contribution to the continued development of popular fiction studies as a significant field of commercial cultural production and area of inquiry in the academy.

[1] Disclosure: Beth Driscoll is the reviewer’s PhD supervisor. [End Page 3]


Review: The Popular Culture of Romantic Love in Australia, edited by Hsu-Ming Teo

Review by Claire Parnell

Scholarship into the culture of romantic love has tended to put an emphasis on defining the constitutive elemental concepts (culture and romantic love) and answering specific questions to which their combination gives rise. Hsu-Ming Teo’s edited collection, The Popular Culture of Romantic Love in Australia, taps into these debates strategically; the concept of culture is holistically analysed in relation to both popular practices and its memetic representations, and the book explores how romantic love is operationalised through its understood meanings, representations and practices. Despite the risks of ‘vagueness’ that this approach is susceptible to by its porous nature (that is, the refusal to define romantic love or culture in a specific way and then only study that phenomenon), Teo has turned this into an unquestionable strength of the book. While it does not necessarily lend itself to a straightforward delineation of how Australians constitute or experience romantic love, it enables contributors to explore the expressions of love in multiple Australian cultural contexts, across different times and mediums, by different producers and for different audiences. As is its aim, this collection is an unfettered exploration into ‘how love is produced culturally’ (20, sic), as well as the changing sets of ideas and practices that constitute romantic love in Australian popular culture.

In an epistemological tradition that mirrors the charge against Australians for ‘preferring satire to sentimentality’ (5-6), Teo successfully mixes scholarship with popular culture; a rigorous literature review of the history of romantic love in academic scholarship, from its Platonic roots to its sociological and psychological iterations, is seamlessly incorporated alongside references to Paul Young and TV sitcom The Flight of the Conchords. The intricacy of Teo’s epistemological form is sustained throughout the subsequent twelve chapters. The contributing authors chronicle popular cultural practice in Australia from the nineteenth to twenty-first century, representations of popular culture within particular media industries, and the final two chapters examine the explicit relationship between these two domains. Contributors seem to engage in a constitutive and progressive dialogue despite writing from a variety of disciplines, with the range of research detailing ‘archival collections, [End Page 1] oral histories, letters, advertisements, newspapers and magazines, Valentine’s Day cards, film, television mini-series, romance novels, comics, music, the literature of sexology, and representations and political debates about same-sex marriage’ (26).

Cultural practices of romantic love in early colonial Australia are explored by Penny Russell in ‘Love in a Colonial Climate’ and Matthew Bailey in ‘The Rise and Decline of Valentine’s Day’. The latter argues that cultural practices and products associated with Valentine’s Day, and their rise and decline in popularity over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, are, in a very Bourdieusian tradition, ‘used to reinforce cultural constructions of class’ (81) and are reflective of ‘appropriate behaviour, respectability, and taste’ (85). Providing an important intersectional perspective on the enduring history of colonisation in ‘A History of Indigenous Marriageability’, Andrew King outlines how Indigenous Australians have (and have not) been represented as ‘marriageable’ in popular culture.  King examines the controversy surrounding the 1959 public proposal between Mick Daly and Gladys Namagu (a white man and Aboriginal woman) and the recent marriages of Aboriginal celebrities, Ernie Dingo and Cathy Freeman. The importance of representations of who does and does not fall in love in Australian media is emphasised in the following chapter by Catriona Elder (‘Romance and History on Australian Television’) who states that the family, and romantic love by extension, are ‘often imagined as a metonym for the nation’ (129). Scrutiny into who is included in and excluded from this narrative, such as King’s, is thus vitally important.

Jonathan Rayner’s chapter ‘Romantic Love in the Australian Cinema’ builds on this consideration by analysing Baz Luhrmann’s Australia and ‘Red Curtain trilogy’ as contemporary examples of the way Australian filmmakers are portraying romantic love in complex ways. Like Luhrmann’s films, he argues, Australian cinema ‘assumes an instinctively ironic stance’ (175) in its approach to portraying romantic love: mocking while observing conventions, clichés, and outcomes. Jodi McAlister and Hsu-Ming Teo explore ‘cultural changes in the discourse of love’ (194) in twentieth-century mass-market romance novels. In ‘Love in Australian Romance Novels’, McAlister and Teo analyse historical representations of gender, sexuality, and intimacy in Australian romance novels in order to conceive a type of romance that is distinctly Australian. In so doing, they trace the legacy of novels that may be considered Australian in tone, setting and characters across the twentieth century that culminate in the marketable ‘rural romance’ subgenre. In ‘Same-Sex Love in Late Modern Australia: On the Political Straight and Narrow?’ Leigh Boucher and Robert Reynolds offer a strong and poignant resolution as they examine the ways in which political debates about and representations of same-sex love have intersected in Australian media texts.

The inclusive approach of this monograph provides multifaceted insight into the ways various Australian cultural domains have grappled with the concept, feelings and representations of romantic love over the past two hundred years. The contributors have been well selected to cover a range of case studies that work as fascinating standalone snapshots but also culminate to provide a highly nuanced conception of romantic love that is distinctly Australian. [End Page 2]


Review: Making Modern Love: Sexual Narratives and Identities in Interwar Britain, by Lisa Z. Sigel; Women’s Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain, 1918–1939: The Interwar Period, edited by Catherine Clay, Maria DiCenzo, Barbara Green, and Fiona Hackney

Review by Eliza Murphy

The continued rise of periodical studies has been a rich addition to the research landscape, attracting a range of scholars to this interdisciplinary area. Sean Latham and Robert Scholes, writing in 2006, called for researchers “to invent the tools and institutional structures necessary to engage the diversity, complexity, and coherence of modern periodical culture” (530). More than a decade on, it is safe to say that periodical studies (and more broadly, print culture studies) is flourishing, complemented by the archival turn and recent innovations in digitisation. As the excellent quality of Lisa Z. Sigel’s Making Modern Love: Sexual Narratives and Identities in Interwar Britain and Catherine Clay, Maria DiCenzo, Barbara Green, and Fiona Hackney’s edited collection Women’s Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain, 1918-1939: The Interwar Period indicate, new work in periodical studies has much to offer us.

Sigel’s Making Modern Love uses three types of sources – correspondence, magazines, and evidence and testimony – to investigate how individuals self-fashioned their own sexual narratives in interwar Britain. Sigel argues that instead of trying to distil a singular truth from these narratives, we should read them as complex and often fantastical projections: they display how “people experienced a chaotic mix of emotions, engaged in myriad relationships, and viewed themselves and each other in multiple and often contradictory ways” (16). The discussion of these sources is framed by the understanding that it was popular culture (as opposed to sexology) that allowed people to write and read about sex and sexuality en masse for the first time. To help establish this claim, the first chapter offers [End Page 1] a broad overview of how writing about sexuality was able to circulate in Britain and the British Empire in the interwar period. Issues surrounding distribution and censorship made some texts easier to obtain or encounter than others. Magazines and other ephemera were the most readily accessible, followed by popular literature and science, then “serious” novels about sexuality (such as the work of Radclyffe Hall and D. H. Lawrence), and sexology. By looking across these various texts, we can see that there was “no single coherent framework” for people to understand sexuality in the interwar period (44).

The following chapters are case studies, each examining the narratives constructed in relation to a specific type of sexual desire: conjugal love, fetishes, cross-dressing, and whipping. Marie Stopes’s bestselling sex manual Married Love (1918) forms the base for the first case study. Sigel uses the correspondence sent to Stopes by Married Love’s readers to argue that the act of writing a letter to Stopes helped these individuals to construct “a coherent sense of the self as having a sexual identity” (47). The correspondence was in response to Stopes’s call for submissions from the public to help strengthen her theory of periodicity in women; but as Sigel details, this was seen by many readers to be a general invitation to contact Stopes about their sexuality more broadly. Through plentiful and detailed close readings of these letters, Sigel argues that the correspondence demonstrates that many viewed “sexuality as a way to remake themselves”; by contacting Stopes, they hoped to be able to figure out the logistics and pragmatics of sexual activity with their partners, whilst also transforming their own lives (72).

Sigel’s argument is strongest in the following case study, which examines the correspondence column of London Life, a glamour fetish magazine. While Married Love and its associated correspondence focused on normative ideas of conjugal love and procreation, the London Life correspondence column was a space to discuss one’s deepest desires. Looking closely at the discourses surrounding three fetishes in the pages of London Life – corsets, amputee women, and boxing girls – Sigel takes a holistic approach, interrogating the correspondence column alongside other sections of the magazine, such as fiction and essays.  The narratives that were created in the correspondence column were produced in response not just to the individual’s everyday life but also to previous correspondents, the editors, the published fiction and essays, and broader social contexts. An issue that is rightly recognised is the potential inauthenticity of these letters – were they actually written by the London Life editorial team? However, Sigel provides a comprehensive explanation to refute this claim. The magazine’s editorial policies, the inclusion of an editorial reply column, the frequency with which letters engaged with the content of the magazine, and the inclusion of images supplied by readers strongly suggest that the correspondence column was legitimate. Under pseudonyms such as “Sporty Wife” and “Forward Minx,” those who wrote to London Life were able to transform themselves: they could put forward narratives where they were someone else, and write about desires they may not otherwise have been able to express (85). Sigel’s readings of the significance of these fetishes are instructive. Corsets acted as an emblem of nostalgia (even for those who didn’t grow up with them), amputee women provided a way to discuss disability without directly confronting the traumas associated with the First World War, and the boxing girls allowed readers to consider the place and role of the new modern woman in society.

The latter half of the book shifts from these broader case studies to examine the sexual narratives of two individuals: a cross-dresser, and a poison-pen letter writer who engaged with discourses surrounding whipping. Due to this focus on the individual (rather [End Page 2] than a number of individuals, as in the previous case studies), these final chapters do not feel quite as persuasive in their arguments; the links made between the case study and broader interwar contexts sometimes feel tenuous. For instance, Chapter 4 examines the case of Mr. Hyde, a cross-dresser and First World War veteran who was arrested for being involved in the trade of obscene books. By analysing his police records – which show “what Hyde read, wrote, wore, and owned and whom Hyde met and knew” – Sigel claims that we can see how materials and ideas about sexuality circulated during the interwar period, and how these in turn shaped sexual narratives (125). While the case of Mr. Hyde is certainly fascinating, its significance is somewhat inflated; not enough evidence is provided to truly link Mr. Hyde’s circumstances to wider claims about the nature of interwar cross-dressing. Arguing that the First World War allowed for experimentation with gender roles, Sigel posits cross-dressing as having multiple meanings in the years between the wars; for some men, it served as an escape from masculinity, for sadomasochists, it functioned as a humiliation, and for others, it eroticised childhood memories (150).

Frederick Holeman, an author of multiple poison-pen letters in the 1930s, is the subject of Sigel’s analysis of whipping in interwar Britain. Holeman – posing as a concerned mother – wrote letters to other mothers accusing their daughters of being involved in lewd sexual activity. The letters promised that no further action would be taken on the proviso that the mother physically chastised her daughter and placed an advertisement in the local newspaper to prove it. While Holeman was socially subversive through the writing of these letters, Sigel argues that he was responding to a large corpus of ideas surrounding the relationship between sexuality and the whip. The letters are read alongside various documents from the Home Office and Colonial Office about the use of the whip on those guilty of sex crimes, as well as the work of reformers who sought to eliminate whipping as a corporal punishment.

Despite these final case studies lacking some of the force of the first half of the book, Making Modern Love is overall an important contribution to scholarship. Its focus on popular texts and culture provides a rich and innovative way to understand interwar sexuality, and Sigel should be applauded for the extensive archival research undertaken to complete this project. While readers of this journal may have liked to have seen Sigel engage more closely with the popular fictional texts of the early twentieth century (romance megasellers E. M. Hull and Ethel M. Dell receive only passing mentions), Making Modern Love provides constructive insights into the ways in which ordinary people conceived their sexual identities during a turbulent and transformative period.

While Making Modern Love uses periodicals as a means to understand sexuality, Women’s Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain – co-edited by Catherine Clay, Maria DiCenzo, Barbara Green, and Fiona Hackney – presents a broader perspective on the potential of periodicals as a methodological tool. In the general introduction, the editors position the collection’s goal as being “to open up the category of the ‘women’s magazine’ beyond the assumptions and expectations through which it is conventionally understood” (1). Rather than attempting to present a singular narrative, the editors write that the collection is designed to encourage new work in this research area and help to spark further conversations about women’s print media and modern periodical studies. The collection indeed realises these aspirations: furnished with plentiful high quality images and boasting an impressive list of contributors who are well-known and established in the field, Women’s [End Page 3] Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain is a significant contribution to our understanding of women’s lives in the interwar period and to the field of periodical studies.

The collection consists of thirty chapters, split into five thematic parts. When taken together, these sections present a comprehensive overview of the key concerns germane to studying women’s print media of the period: culture, style, domesticity, feminism, and community. Each part is prefaced with its own introduction, which provides a brief overview of the broader contexts and concerns that emerge across its chapters. Part I, “Culture and the Modern Woman,” seeks to push interwar periodical studies beyond the study of modernism, with the chapters in this part exploring a variety of women’s periodicals – from highbrow to lowbrow – in order to examine how magazines “taught readers what to read, what to see, and how to consume a variety of modern aesthetic forms” (11). The essays presented in this section are all strong, but highlights include Claire Battershill’s survey of the representation of bookish culture in interwar women’s periodicals, and Lise Shapiro Sanders’s examination of 1920s romance weeklies, which will be of particular interest to popular romance scholars. Sanders argues that a close inspection of girls’ magazines of the period – such as Girls’ Favourite and Peg’s Paper – reveals changes to “the pattern of heterosexual romance,” aided by new attitudes towards consumption and leisure (87). The romance fiction presented in these magazines “both departed from and reflected the experiences of the modern girl” (88). They presented plots where working or middle-class heroines become involved with the stage and screen, depicting this world as a space of glamour and fantasy, while also presenting its potential moral and sexual dangers. Alongside this depiction, however, is the understanding that this involvement with theatre and cinema can only be temporary, with the heroines relinquishing their involvements after marriage – the happily ever after provided by the narratives.

Part II turns to the question of style, exploring how periodicals instructed their readers to be modern. This section takes a broad approach to understanding representations of modern style, aiming to move beyond existing work that has largely focused on the links between style and fashion. As such, the essays examine not only the popular fashion magazines of the period (such as Vogue and Eve) but also periodicals targeted at more specific audiences, such as cinema magazines and young adult publications. Moreover, these chapters offer useful insights into methodologies in periodical studies. For example, Penny Tinkler’s analysis of the middle-class young women’s magazine Miss Modern offers an overview of how the magazine constructed the ideal of “youthful feminine modernity” in its pages (158). Tinkler takes an “inclusive” approach to reading Miss Modern, considering both how the magazine fits into the wider periodical landscape, and its diverse forms of content, such as editorials, fiction, images, and advertising (154). Tinkler argues that this type of holistic approach to studying magazines – one that “engages with text, image, and design and the relationships between them” – is necessary in order to present a comprehensive reading (154).

The chapters on domesticity and the home provide a complex and highly nuanced view of these concerns as represented in the pages of interwar periodicals. This discussion interrogates the common characterisation of interwar domestic writing as being “a retreat into domestic life,” and recasts domestic discourses as being varied and diverse (209). For instance, Adrian Bingham’s chapter on the emergent women’s page in national daily newspapers argues that there was a shift away from traditional domestic routines. Instead, the women’s pages presented modern domesticity as requiring new and professionalised [End Page 4] techniques (such as approaches to housewifery and childcare informed by science and psychology), and engagement with the consumer economy, along with the recognition that women wanted to balance their domestic duties along with paid work and socialising. There are also political aspects to understanding domesticity, as Karen Hunt’s chapter on the monthly women’s magazine Labour Woman demonstrates. The magazine’s column, “The Housewife,” provided a space to engage working-class housewives with politics through their everyday lives, by providing practical tips and advice for managing a household while on a budget.

The shift to feminism in the latter half of the collection is a welcome addition, although some of the essays in this section feel slightly underdeveloped. Take, for example, Helen Glew’s chapter on Opportunity, a feminist periodical for civil servants. While the essay provides a well-researched overview of the journal’s history during the interwar period, it ultimately feels too brief to be able to develop a strong and sustained argument. However, Laurel Forster’s discussion of feminist debates in Time and Tide is the real stand-out in this section, demonstrating how the magazine promoted debate and discussion over the issue of women’s work. Forster’s analysis focuses primarily on a 1926 essay series titled “Women of the Leisured Classes,” which provided deliberately contentious ideas as a means to provoke debate amongst Time and Tide’s readers. Importantly, this debate about women’s work (or in the case of the leisured class, lack of work) spilled over into other arenas, turning up in other print media and culminating in a face-to-face debate between G. K. Chesterton and the author of the essays, Candida, a pseudonym for Time and Tide’s founder, Lady Margaret Rhondda.

The volume closes strongly with a focus on women’s organisations and communities. Seeking to expand perspectives on women’s movements of the interwar period by moving beyond explicitly feminist groups, the chapters in this section examine a wide-ranging selection of titles, including the periodicals of housewives’ associations, co-operative guilds, religious communities, political parties, and journalism societies. These organisations, as Maria DiCenzo notes in her introduction to the section, were not necessarily explicitly feminist, but did engage with “women’s politics and forms of advocacy […] across the political spectrum” in a broader sense (405).

Perhaps the real benefit that Women’s Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain offers to those in popular romance studies is that it opens up a number of new avenues for potential inquiry. Romance fiction and romance novelists are regularly mentioned in passing throughout the collection. Ursula Bloom contributed articles to Woman’s Outlook, a feminist co-operative periodical; the pages of Miss Modern, a young women’s magazine, frequently featured romance fiction. The collection provides us with the methodological approaches and tools necessary for future explorations of the ways in which popular romance studies and periodical studies may intersect. Indeed, the volume’s extensive appendix – which details where every periodical mentioned throughout the collection is archived – is supplied in order to help promote further research on women’s periodicals of the 1920s and 30s.

When taken together, Making Modern Love and Women’s Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain illustrate the potential print cultures have to reveal how constructions of sexuality, identity, femininity, and community operated in interwar Britain. Both works will be of value to those studying the early twentieth century and the interwar period, as well as those interested in periodicals and print cultures. [End Page 5]

Works Cited

Latham, Sean, and Robert Scholes. “The Rise of Periodical Studies.” PMLA, vol. 121, no. 2, 2006, pp. 517–31.

[End Page 6]


Review: Human in Death: Morality and Mortality in J. D. Robb’s Novels, by Kecia Ali

Review by Jessica Miller

The importance of Nora Roberts to the popular romance genre and, in fact, to the publishing industry, can hardly be overstated. She published her first romance with Harlequin in 1975. She has since has published over 215 books. Her every release in the past nineteen years has hit the New York Times bestseller list. Justifiably famous for her prolificness – she still averages five books a year – Roberts is also recognized as a genre leader in popular romance.

Roberts is widely credited with either pioneering or being at the forefront of many significant changes in the genre over the past four decades including narrative serialization, incorporation of genre elements outside romance (genre hybridization), writing stronger, older, and more sexually experienced heroines who have professional identities, and writing from the male protagonist’s point of view, among many others. In the mid-1990s, Roberts was frustrated with her publisher’s plan to release a trilogy in annual installments to avoid overexposure. Roberts demurred at first when her agent suggested that she publish some books under a pseudonym as a way to capitalize on her fast writing pace without saturating the market. Eventually, accepting that “It’s marketing … I could be two popular brands,” she consented (Charles). That second brand, J. D. Robb, is the subject of Kecia Ali’s 2017 book, Human in Death: Morality and Mortality in J. D. Robb’s Novels.

Naked in Death (1995) introduced New York Police and Security Department Lieutenant Eve Dallas, her lover, billionaire entrepreneur Roarke, and their mid-twenty-first century world. A generic fusion that incorporates elements of romance, suspense, and police procedural, with a dash of science fiction, each installment is a self-contained crime story that also explores the relationship between the two central protagonists. The first few books focused on Eve and Roarke’s initial courtship and marriage, and their relationship remains the emotional core of the series, but the romance plot and suspense plots have tended to share the stage in subsequent installments. January 2018 saw the publication of Dark in Death, the 46th book in the series, which remains as popular as ever among readers, even as the publishing space for similar stories is increasingly crowded. [End Page 1]

Roberts has achieved a high level of cultural visibility and appreciation for her work ethic, her ability to sell books, her relationship with her fans, and her support of the popular romance industry. However, her books and her writing have received less attention, even among popular romance scholars. As popular romance studies has developed in the past few decades, it has moved away from a generalizing approach and towards a differential approach, which analyzes not the entire genre, but individual, intentionally selected texts in thematic groups or in isolation (Goris “Matricide in Romance Scholarship?”). Even so, there remain few studies that focus on Roberts (but see works by Regis, and Goris “Mind, Body, Love”) and almost no work on Roberts writing as J.D. Robb (see Mayangasari and Swaminathan for exceptions). While the In Death series is not a romance series (that would require a complete courtship plot in each installment), it is built around a central romantic relationship, and it is written by the most prodigious, best-selling, and most celebrated romance author of the past thirty plus years which makes it worthy of attention. For these reasons, Ali’s book-length study of the In Death series represents an important milestone in popular romance studies.

Observing that all literature grapples with the human condition, Ali explores those aspects of humanity that seem to her most salient in Robb’s work. Since no one book could cover everything interesting about Robb’s writing, the decision to anchor Human in Death in, first, a vision of the human, provides focus and coherence. Taking her cue from the specific literary genres combined in the In Death series, Ali narrows her scope even further to concentrate on justice, law, and retribution (police procedural), class, race, and technology (speculative fiction), and social norms around masculinity, femininity, and relationships (romance). Chapters are organized topically around five themes: intimacy, friendship, vocation, violence, and perfection.

Noting that “Critical engagement, not condemnation, is my task” (Loc. 71), Ali teases out the vision of human good that the In Death series promotes, as well as its omissions and silences. An important theme throughout is the centrality of the romantic relationship between Eve and Roarke, and how this is intertwined with the suspense plot and police procedural. Where more casual readers, or scholars focusing on one or a few books might focus on continuities across books, Ali’s comprehensive study demonstrates how the relationships, characters, and plots have changed and evolved over time, an incredibly valuable perspective on such a long-running series. Human in Death offers a compelling model for analyzing not only long-running series, but the way writers deploy romance genre elements beyond the constraints of the genre itself, and what happens when they do. Ali’s central argument is that Robb’s futuristic New York and the characters within it reflects both the problems and promise of the current social reality. It is at once economically just, egalitarian, tolerant, and multicultural and beset by poverty, violence, political strife, and prejudice.

Ali, Professor of Religion at Boston University and a noted scholar in her home fields of Islamic Jurisprudence and Women in Early and Modern Islam, marries a fan’s enthusiasm for and detailed knowledge of the study texts with a scholar’s ability to reflect conceptually on them, teasing out themes, noticing omissions, and connecting these observations to the relevant scholarly literature. In each chapter, Ali displays a sure command of Robb’s oeuvre, of relevant popular romance scholarship, and of contemporary debates among readers. She avoids both dense academic jargon and fannish minutia, creating an accessible text for educated lay readers and a compelling one for scholars of popular romance fiction who do [End Page 2] not share her encyclopedic knowledge of all 15,000 or so pages of the In Death books. The endnotes more directly address scholarly and theoretical concerns than the main text, and I sometimes wished that material was brought into the main text. That said, Ali’s approach makes for a smoothly readable book.

Ali’s first chapter, “Intimacy in Death” explores Roarke and Eve’s relationship to generate claims about the vision of the good life Robb’s series promotes. Since all of the chapters follow this pattern, I will summarize this one in some detail. Ali relies on copious, but smoothly integrated, textual evidence to illustrate the ways Robb blends and manages diverse genre requirements. She writes:

The commingling of sex and violence echoes the series’ genre blending. In addition to setting the stage for this brave new world, the first novels in the series interweave a courtship plot with the procedural. Both have their own logics and narrative conventions. (Loc. 141-143)

For example, the murder plot brings Eve and Roarke together as cop and suspect, while also throwing up an obvious barrier to their mutual attraction. The traumatic past that closes Eve off emotionally from intimacy also fuels her thirst for justice and her determined pursuit of criminals, often at great personal cost. And Roarke’s underworld connections and unorthodox investigative techniques make him a powerful ally, but dangerous lover.

In the latter part of this chapter, Ali teases out the many factors that support egalitarianism and gender role reversals in Eve and Roarke’s relationship. Roarke is more caring and open, while Eve is more guarded, so their characters generate a switch of stereotypical caretaking roles. The police procedural plot, with Eve as the cop, influences the series’ focus on her career as opposed to Roarke’s. The suspense aspects, and the constant danger they present to Eve and Roarke, make a child-free lifestyle a fitting one for them, which contributes to a more egalitarian domestic life. Ali also notes the way the earlier books hew more closely certain romance genre conventions, with Roarke as the pursuer in the relationship sometimes acting in ways that invade her privacy and her boundaries. Robb does stick to other romance conventions throughout the series: Roarke is taller and more physically assertive than Eve, and so wealthy that her refusal to conform to stereotypical conceptions of wifely duties is smoothed over by human and droid servants. Finally, Ali explores the wider circle of intimates orbiting around the main characters. The series, in sum, “shows the value of interdependence, the crucial importance of caring work, and the inevitability of vulnerability” (Loc. 432). Ali concludes by observing that Roarke and Eve’s interdependence and working partnership create a solid foundation for intimacy in other relationships, which provides a smooth segue into the next chapter, “Friendship in Death.”

While building a picture of the good life for humans that emerges from a close reading of the entire In Death series, Ali notices, in a fascinating chapter called “Perfectionism in Death”, problematic assumptions and gaps, including ableism, a view of the good life in which disabled individuals are marginalized Similarly, Ali notes that while Robb often mentions race, the author fails to integrate structural racism into her near-future New York City, which is presented as “free of anti-black racism” without explanation (Loc. 674; 1978). Ali points out, for example, that Robb tends to mention race when the character is non-white, with the result that “whiteness goes mostly unspoken” (Loc. 667).  Ali also critiques the “unrelieved whiteness” of Dallas’s close friends (Loc. 692). In an especially compelling section, she [End Page 3] explores the sole recurring black character, Crack, as a window into the series’ relationship to race. A club owner, Crack is “relentlessly embodied” (Loc. 743), and while his name is meant to refer to his physical strength, the “allusion to crack cocaine, scourge of the inner cities, is unmistakable” (Loc. 758).[1]

At times, Ali’s critique doesn’t go far enough for this reviewer, for example when she quotes without comment Dallas’s assertion that “all deaths matter” (Loc. 2022) and that “Murder…harbored no bigotry, no bias” (Loc. 2007). These echo a little too closely the slogan “all lives matter,” a rhetorical move that diverts discussion of police brutality away from the lived experience of black people and away from systematic racism. This is surprising given that in the preface Ali shares that the exoneration of Officer Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown led directly to the addition of a chapter on violence in the book (Loc. 69). While police violence is a relatively rare occurrence in the In Death series, Dallas’s way of describing murder serves to deflect from the disproportionate and unjust burden of violence borne by people of color in the United States. The issues of race and police brutality are treated by Ali in separate chapters, but connecting them more explicitly might have generated some additional interesting insights.

While all scholarly work reveals something about the scholar, being a fan implies voluntary engagement with and enjoyment of the study texts. Far from rendering her analysis suspect, Ali’s status as a fan opens an additional avenue of inquiry and insight. She questions how to read the books in an ethical way, which, she asserts, requires thoughtful consideration of not only problematic aspects of Robb’s books, but also of gaps in the reader’s (including her own) patterns of attention. While the series may paint a picture of a kind of life worth living – one that includes loving intimacy, friendships, and a vocation – uptake requires reader responsiveness. Readers’ critical engagement can allow them to take transferable lessons from Robb’s work: “If imagination is part of the writer’s toolkit for social transformation, the reader’s more modest but also powerful tool is thoughtfulness” (Loc. 2511-2512). On the other hand, while vigorously defending the claim that, “critical reflection need not oppose appreciation; it can enhance enjoyment,” (Loc. 111) Ali does not explore the possibility that for some readers, problematic aspects unearthed by critical reflection can not only dampen enthusiasm, but create an internal conflict that forces a choice between a reader’s pleasure and her moral integrity.

Human in Death should appeal to fans of the series, popular romance scholars, and philosophers interested in ethical criticism. It works best as a generous, intelligent, and occasionally tough-minded exploration for series readers, much more ambitious, and demanding, than typical companion books full of trivia, interviews, and pop quizzes. It should also be easily accessible for undergraduates, and at about $30 for the hardcover edition (a bit less for the digital version), the cost is very reasonable. It could be used in a course that includes critique of contemporary literature generally, or popular romance fiction, police procedurals, or suspense specifically. It is not necessary to have read any of Robb’s books to appreciate Ali’s insights, although that would obviously enhance a student’s ability to engage with them. Any chapter of Human in Death could be chosen, or indeed the whole book could be used for a course on fiction and philosophy that includes a unit on morality. Specific chapters could be studied in a criminology and literature course, a sociology of violence course, or a professionalism or professional ethics course.

Ali is modest about her aims in Human In Death, which she describes as a form of “thoughtful engagement with fictive worlds,” a prelude to the “essential work” of cultivating [End Page 4] a more just world (Loc. 2517). In the preface, Ali indicates that the project began as “a relatively lighthearted little book,” and, while current events led her to delve into darker themes, with only 100 pages of text, it remains short for a monograph (Loc. 69). Ali encourages readers to explore sources cited in her 100 pages of endnotes, and hopes Human in Death will help stimulate work on aspects of Robb’s oeuvre that she doesn’t cover at all: parenting, technology, and the global political order.

With respect to ethical criticism, Ali remains at the level of assumed shared understandings of common morality, leaving room for a study of the In Death series like The Wisdom of Harry Potter: What Our Favorite Hero Teaches Us about Moral Choices. In that book, Edmund M. Kern probes the moral universe of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series via an explicit articulation of Stoicism. Books such as The Politics of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games and Philosophy provide insights into source texts in the service of teaching key concepts in political science and philosophy, respectively, and a volume on Robb’s work in this vein would not go amiss. Her comments about reader responsibility are confined to the introduction and conclusion, inviting more detailed consideration, especially since such discussions still tend to frame the reader as passively affected rather than actively engaged. And, in terms of popular romance studies, I think some of Ali’s observations suggest fruitful dialogues between the In Death series and An Goris’s work on serialization (“Happily Ever After…and After”; see also Valeo), Roach’s work on the aca-fan-subject position, work in disability studies and romance (for example, Mills, Baldys, Cheyne, and Schalk), and, of course, work in race, gender and ethnicity in romance (such as Taylor, Teo, Kamblé, and Burge). In short, Human in Death raises more questions than it aims to answer, providing an excellent methodological model and example for pursuing them.

[1] It’s worth noting in this context that the phrase “inner city”, while it continues to be used in the scholarly literature, is considered by some to be problematic. See Axel-Lute for an accessible explanation. [End Page 5]

Works Cited

Ali, Kecia. Human in Death: Morality and Mortality in J. D. Robb’s Novels. Baylor University Press, 2017.

Axel-Lute, Miriam “4 Reasons to Retire the Phrase ‘Inner City’” ShelterForce, 23 May 2017,

Baldys, Emily M. “Disabled Sexuality, Incorporated: The Compulsions of Popular Romance.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, vol. 6, no. 2, 2012, pp. 125-41.

Barratt, Bethany. The Politics of Harry Potter. Springer, 2012.

Burge, Amy. Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance. Palgrave, 2016.

Charles, Ron. A. “Nora Roberts at The Washington Post.” YouTube, 14 July 2009,

Cheyne, Ria. “Disability studies reads the romance.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, vol. 7, no. 1, 2013, pp. 37-52.

Goris, An. “Mind, Body, Love: Nora Roberts and the Evolution of Popular Romance Studies.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies, vol. 3, no. 1, 2012.

Goris, An. “Happily Ever After…and After: Serialization and the Popular Romance Novel.” Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present, vol. 12, no. 1, 2013.

Goris, An. “Matricide in Romance Scholarship? Response to Pamela Regis’ Keynote Address at the Second Annual Conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies, vol. 2, no. 1, 2011.

Irwin, William. The Hunger Games and philosophy: A critique of pure treason. Vol. 59. John Wiley & Sons, 2012.

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

Kern, Edmund M. The Wisdom of Harry Potter: What our Favorite Hero Teaches Us about Moral Choices. Prometheus Books, 2003.

Ledford-Miller, Linda. “Gender and Genre Bending: The Futuristic Detective Fiction of J. D. Robb.” Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture, vol. 11, no. 3, 2011, pp. 35.

Mayangsari, Putri. “An Analysis of Personality Disorder and Abnormal Sexual Behavior that Lead to Crime in Seduction in Death Novel by JD Robb.” LANTERN (Journal on English Language, Culture and Literature), vol. 6, no. 3, 2017.

Miller, Kathleen. “‘A Little Extra Bite’: Dis/Ability and Romance in Tanya Huff and Charlaine Harris’s Vampire Fiction.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, 2010.

Regis, Pamela. “Complicating Romances and their Readers: Barrier and Point of Ritual Death in Nora Roberts’s Category Fiction.” Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres, vol. 3, no. 1-2, 1997, pp. 145-54.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. U of Pennsylvania P, 2003.

Roach, Catherine. Happily Ever After. The Romance Story in Popular Culture. Indiana UP, 2016.

Robb, J. D. Naked in Death. Vol. 1. Penguin, 1995.

Robb, J. D. Dark in Death. Vol. 46 St. Martin’s Press, 2018.

[End Page 6]

Schalk, Sami. “Happily Ever After for Whom? Blackness and Disability in Romance Narratives.” The Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 49, no. 6, 2016, pp. 1241-1260.

Sears, John. Stephen King’s Gothic. U of Wales P, 2011.

Swaminathan, Srividhya. “JD Robb’s Police Procedurals and the Critique of Modernity.” New Perspectives on Detective Fiction: Mystery Magnified, vol. 55, 2015, pp. 141.

Taylor, Jessica. “And you can be my Sheikh: Gender, race, and Orientalism in contemporary romance novels.” The Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 40, no. 6, 2007, pp. 1032-1051.

Teo, Hsu-Ming. Desert passions: Orientalism and romance novels. U of Texas P, 2012.

Valeo, Christina. “The Power of Three: Nora Roberts and Serial Magic.” New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays, edited by Sarah S. G. Frantz and Eric Murphy Selinger, McFarland & Company, 2012, pp. 229-240.

[End Page 7]


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

Review by Pauline Suwanban

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

Review by Kecia Ali

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.

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