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

Notes from an Ongoing Man

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

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

A Story Told Once; And then Again

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

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

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

A focus on Men

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gender and Complicated Narratives

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[End Page 6]


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

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

Approach and Definitions

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

[End Page 7]


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Review: An Imperialist Love Story: Desert Romances and the War on Terror, by Amira Jarmakani

In recent years, there has been a surge of academic interest in the sheikh romance, or what some call “desert romance.” The term describes a small subgenre that appears primarily as category romance, in which the Western heroine finds herself at the mercy of a domineering Middle-Eastern sheikh; common conventions of the novels include captivity, sand, harems, invented geography, horses, and, ideally, feminist reforms in the sheikh’s sadly backward kingdom. These novels have a long and storied history, but one might have expected the events of September 11, 2001, and contemporary American military involvement in the Middle East, to make the form less popular. Instead, publication nearly quadrupled. Exactly how political events might relate to romance readers’ increased desire to read about sexy alpha sheikhs is open to interpretation, especially since the majority of these novels are expressly free of politics, religion, and even real-world geography. An Imperialist Love Story: Desert Romances and the War on Terror (2015), the most recent entry into this discussion, reads these novels not as a response to the war on terror but as part of the necessary cultural work that makes this war possible.

Jarmakani’s book joins other recent analyses by Hsu-Ming Teo, Amy Burge, and Stacy Holden. Teo is a cultural historian who, in Desert Passions: Orientalism and Romance Novel (2012), examines the role of “the Orient” in Western cultural texts from the Second Crusade onward. She factors in the national contexts of the U.K, the US, and Australia, and her analysis of popular romance includes types of Orientalist romance less widely studied, such as historicals. Burge, a British medievalist, has a book forthcoming called Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance (Palgrave, 2016), which builds on her 2012 doctoral thesis. This is by far the most systematic, precisely designed study of sheikh romance to date; her book analyzes change and continuity in romantic fantasies about the “romance East.” Holden’s article “Love in the Desert” (2015) draws on a series of disarmingly frank interviews she held with editors and authors of sheikh romance and examines their goals and constraints. As a historian specializing in the modern Middle East and North Africa, Holden has a solid grounding in the political context of the novels. [End Page 1]

Jarmakani makes a lively contribution to this scholarship. She is primarily a theorist, and her work delves heavily into critical race and gender theory, as well as psychoanalytic theory. As such, her work is in some ways a better fit with the early feminist critics of popular romance, Tania Modleski and Janice Radway, than with the other scholars working on sheikh romance. However, her theoretical approach is not what will make this book most valuable to romance scholars: instead, it is her insistence that we read these books from the perspective of the Arab and/or Middle Eastern and/or Muslim characters. Many analyses of popular romance foreground gender, so this is a welcome addition. Her examples draw our attention to those ubiquitous scenes of silent, indistinguishable women in hijab, scenes not unique to sheikh romance but permeating American media. Because Jarmakani comes to popular romance through her scholarly interest in cultural representations of Arab and Muslim women, she is not particularly interested in the novelists’ intentions, or the potential effect of these novels on their readers, or even the texts themselves. Instead, she explores the way in which tropes and motifs in these books fit within a larger context of American ideas about the Middle East.

Two parts of this book were published before: “’The Sheik Who Loved Me’: Romancing the War on Terror” (2010) in Signs, and “Desiring the Big Bad Blade: Racing the Sheikh in Desert Romances” (2011) in American Quarterly. While both are solid stand-alone pieces, this book joins them in an overarching argument using ideas from transnational feminism, critical theory, and psychoanalytic theory via Deluze and Guattari.

An Imperialist Love Story places sheikh romance firmly in the context of neoliberalism, American political ideology, and liberal multiculturalism.  Jarmakani argues that imperialism may look different than it did in earlier centuries, but it is still alive and well, providing real economic benefit to the Western nations that engage in it. Most of us, however, do not like to think of ourselves as intervening in foreign nations for economic or political gain; thus, as a culture we prefer to understand our actions as benevolent, perhaps an effort to rescue oppressed people from merciless regimes or vicious jihadists. We also like to see these interventions as atypical, temporary responses to exceptional circumstances, rather than a characteristic strategy for exploiting other parts of the world for their labor, their natural resources, and geopolitical advantages.  Interpreting self-serving military action as aid requires some serious spin, which we can accomplish in a number of ways. For example, by insisting that our own values—self-determination, freedom, democracy, etc.—are universal values, of benefit to everyone, we can interpret many foreign governments or cultures as in urgent need of intervention. The Middle East, with its vast oil reserves and strategic location vis-à-vis Europe and Russia, has historically been an irresistible target for such intervention. If decades of fending off assorted Western militaries should prompt people in the region to hate us and wish us harm, Jarmakani muses, then we have yet another justification for waging war.

Jarmakani’s argument thus far is familiar. Her next step takes us into the terrain of psychoanalytic theory, but at the level of culture rather than the individual.  Our relationship with the Middle East is all about desire, she argues, but in the sheikh romance, we reimagine our political and economic desires as other kinds of desire: to mate, to affiliate, to help. In this regard, the “romantic sheikh is contemporary US imperialism personified” (xix). He is a companion figure to the terrorist, both of whom spur us to intervene in the region. While the terrorist motivates through fear, the sheikh motivates through desire, and in his contemporary incarnation he is not only a romance hero but also [End Page 2] the ideal political ally, willing to cooperate with the US and representing views on human rights and strategic economic interests that “Anglo-American powers” want to foster. While other scholars have interpreted the sheikh romance as working against popular rhetoric about Islamic extremism, Jarmakani suggests that the reconciliation we see in these books serves our national political agenda and expresses the same imperialist tendencies, albeit in a more benevolent guise. Her analysis of the heroine also has a political framework, drawing our attention to the feminist imperialist fantasies (of rescuing our helpless foreign sisters) played out in these novels.

My single favorite concept in this book arises from Jarmakani’s discussion of the setting of sheikh romance. The twenty-first century sheikh romance usually takes place in an imaginary land, in which authors invent kingdoms and customs with a freewheeling disregard for the real world, even while a number of conventional features (such as sand, harems, horses, and exotic dress) create a recognizable if fictitious landscape for readers. To scholars struggling to describe this setting, Jarmakani offers the term “Arabiastan.”[1] Use of the term nods towards the Orientalist fantasy yet draws our attention to the geo-political implications of this space. Additionally, Arabiastan cleverly mirrors the convention in contemporary sheikh romance of inventing one’s own country.

To return to the issue of feminism, Jarmakani criticizes scholarship on romance for relying on “empowerment” or “choice” feminism. This popular version of feminism rests on the idea that anything a woman does to make herself feel good and powerful is inherently a feminist act, merely because she is a woman exercising her choice. While choice may well be a necessary condition to feminist action, it is not a sufficient one—just consider J.K. Rowling’s memorable Dolores Umbridge, who is quite empowered by her choices.

Has scholarship on popular romance relied on this facile definition of feminism? If so, Jarmakani’s analysis does not demonstrate it. She asserts that “one of the key debates in both scholarly and industry online conversations about romance novels is about the extent to which the books can be considered feminist cultural productions focused positively on female sexual pleasure as opposed to oppressive ‘trash’ books that inure the mostly female readerships to the evils of patriarchy” (82-83). This startling claim can be attributed to the fact that this section of her argument has not been updated since it first appeared in the 2010 Signs article. One of her main sources is Sally Goade’s edited collection of essays, Empowerment versus Oppression (2007). Not surprisingly, Jarmakani finds plentiful discussion of empowerment in Goade’s book, but this cannot support a broader argument about the direction of the field in general. Other examples are even older, and nothing is more recent than 2007. That said, I agree with Jarmakani that associating personal empowerment with feminism is problematic in a scholarly context. Given that American popular culture, media, and advertising today still pitch empowerment as feminism, it can come as no surprise that romance novelists and their readers might embrace the same definition. We might be tempted to read all romance novels as inherently feminist, merely because, as Pamela Regis notes, their narrative structure empowers fictional heroines (15), or because women choose to write them. Jackie Horne, however, recommends a more productive and reflective response, urging scholars/readers to ask themselves, “Can this particular book be considered feminist, and if so, in what ways?” (Horne, n.p.).

Jarmakani’s argument should provoke productive discussion. If we compare Teo’s conclusions in Desert Passions to Jarmakani’s, we find that Teo notes similar problems to the ones Jarmakani identifies—the novels’ inaccuracy, heroes who are “White men [End Page 3] performing in ‘Arab-face’” (Teo 303), passive, speechless Arab women who can only achieve personhood through the American heroine’s efforts—but these two scholars approach the same material in dramatically different ways. Teo argues that “however misguided or inaccurate” these novels may be, “surely [the] humanizing [of Arab and Muslim males]—their representation as attractive and intelligent potential lovers, partners, husbands, and fathers. . . .—represents the ability of this particular form of women’s popular culture to temper negative stereotypes that seem ubiquitous today” (303). Jarmakani dismisses Teo’s interpretation as a fantasy of liberal multiculturalism, in which “positive representations” are seen as a useful response to negative representations (20). Instead, she argues, this kind of binary opposition only strengthens stereotypes (20).

Holden maintains that these two stances are a choice point:

Read skeptically, against the grain, these novels present a fantasy in which autocratic leaders of the Arab world—those sheikhly heroes who love American women—embrace the values of their Western fiancées and wives, reconciling their two cultures in a way that secures and privileges American interests. But read more generously, in the light of their authors’ intentions, the sheikh romance novel does present a hopeful vision of the world, one in which . . . individuals from two worlds, now at odds, . . . [can] fall in love, resolve their differences, and live harmoniously together (17).

I would have to agree with Holden; both interpretations have merit and can be substantiated with compelling evidence. However, I would add that close reading offers a different perspective from broad observation. Because Jarmakani examines these novels piecemeal, it is hard to see the distinctions that might challenge or complicate her argument. Consider Brenda Jackson’s novel Delaney’s Desert Sheikh, which Jarmakani notes is the only mainstream sheikh romance written by an African-American novelist. Broadly speaking, Delaney’s Desert Sheikh follows the typical fantasy of feminist Orientalism, with a Tahrani sheikh marrying a foreign woman who then introduces women’s rights into his country. A closer reading reveals an interesting spin: the feminist reformer is not the heroine, nor is she American. Queen Fatimah, originally from Egypt, is the hero’s stepmother and an important character in the book. Indeed, her progressive reform was initiated during our hero’s childhood and shaped his perspective on the world. The narrative thus significantly changes the fantasy by putting Tahran’s political and social change in the hands of a woman from the Middle East, in sharp contrast to what Jarmakani notes is the more typical “assumption of Arabiastani women’s ignorance and helplessness” (104). Indeed, Jarmakani points to a scene early in the novel when the sheikh jokes that the heroine might start “a women’s rights revolution” in his home country, yet she asserts that Jackson “backs away from [this] idea” of revolution because it “seems to come too close to readers’ fears about the region” (108). Closer attention to the narrative makes it clear that the sheikh’s joke was amusing because that revolution had occurred a decade or so earlier.

Delaney’s Desert Sheikh shares the fantasy of feminist liberation but does not imagine that Anglo-American women must be the ones to instigate it. Brenda Jackson was born in 1953 and came of age during the Black Power era, when the Nation of Islam was a salient model of Muslim identity and black pride. She called her sheikh Jamal, a popular [End Page 4] Arabic name choice for African-American boys in the United States since the 1970s. Prince Jamal’s mother was originally from Africa, as was his stepmother, giving him a shared racial ancestry with the heroine. This sheikh is less exotic, less alien, more familiar, than the sheikhs who woo white heroines. In fact, the heroine learns more about Jamal’s country from her brother, who has met Jamal’s father. And we should note that this book is ranked by Goodreads readers as one of their favorite sheikh romances.

This brings me to the conclusion of Jarmakani’s book, where she plays with “the possibility of reading the story—whatever story one has been reading or telling about the war on terror—in a different way” (191). This compelling recommendation invites us to look back at An Imperialist Love Story as an elegant model of how such rereading might be undertaken. She reminds us that it is important to look at the ideological work of certain genres, both within romance but also outside of it. Remarkably, this book’s most significant contribution to the field is simultaneously its major limit: examining sheikh romances in this larger context gives us insight into their appeal but also obscures the ways that some of these novels and their authors push at genre boundaries and blurs the complexity of readers’ responses. It’s worth considering a possibility that her book seems to dismiss: that some readers and writers are already reading this story in a different way.

[1] I also quite like Amy Burge’s term, the “romance East,” which foregrounds generic considerations and the continuities of this Orientalist landscape over time. [End Page 5]

Works Cited

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

Holden, Stacy E. “Love in the Desert: Images of Arab-American Reconciliation in Contemporary Sheikh Romance Novels.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 5.1 (2015).

Horne, Jackie. “Feminist Romance.” The Popular Romance Project. 2012. Web. 28 May 2016.

Jackson, Brenda. Delaney’s Desert Sheikh. Silhouette, 2007.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

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

[End Page 6]


Review: Reading the Bromance: Homosocial Relationships in Film and Television, edited by Michael DeAngelis

Michael DeAngelis’s edited collection Reading the Bromance: Homosocial Relationships in Film and Television (2014) is a timely contribution to film scholarship on the subject of bromance in its various media iterations. The term bromance, bringing together ‘bro-’ with ‘romance’, is an attempt to capture the idea of a male intimacy that simultaneously quashes any potential for sexual expression. As DeAngelis suggests, the very concept of bromance is suffused with paradox and contradiction: ‘bromance involves something that must happen (the demonstration of intimacy itself) on the condition that other things do not happen (the avowal or expression of sexual desire between straight men)’ (p.1).

It is a phenomenon that may be simultaneously homosocial, homoerotic and homophobic in aspect; at its heart lies a deep ambivalence about sexual equality and gay rights. Bromance is profoundly heteronormative in aspect, as well as potentially misogynistic.  This collection of essays provides a sophisticated analysis of the anxieties prevalent in modern Western masculinity that bromantic screen relations give voice to and, through a range of methods, seek to defuse.

The term bromance, as a signifier of close emotional male bonds in a context of heterosexual friendship, did not reach common parlance until the mid-2000s, by which time it had entered popular vocabulary and culture through films such as I Love You, Man (John Hamburg, 2009) and Superbad (Greg Mottola, 2007), developing its own film genre and marketing rationale. The first section of essays in the collection takes a historical purview of American culture and manifestations of bromantic narrative elements prior to its recognition as a genre by Hollywood.

In the opening chapter, Jenna Weinman offers a comparative account of early sixties romantic comedies starring Rock Hudson, Doris Day and Tony Rudd and the millennial Bromance in ‘Second Bananas and Gay Chicken: Bromancing the Rom-Com in the Fifties and Now’. The love triangles that typified the Hudson-Day relationships of films such as Pillow Talk (Michael Gordon, 1959) and That Touch of Mink (Delbert Mann, 1962) were [End Page 1] paralleled by immature male friendships that were threatened – and finally usurped – by heterosexual romance. Weinman compares such narratives to later films such as The 40-Year-Old Virgin (Judd Apatow, 2005) and Knocked Up (Judd Apatow, 2007), suggesting that both genres prioritize male-male bonds over those of romantic love, with little promise that such homosocial immaturity will be resolved by the social demands of marriage and fatherhood.

In ‘Grumpy Old Men: “Bros before Hoes”’ Hilary Radner interrogates the film series that provides a model of male-male bonds mediated by a female love interest as a way of undermining any suggestion of homosexual interest. This dynamic calls to mind Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s definition of male homosociality described in Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985). Sedgwick talks of the triangulation of desire, in which men develop intense bonds with one another that are expressed indirectly through a female third party (p1). Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau’s pairing in the 1993 film Grumpy Old Men (Donald Petrie) referred to the 1960s buddy film The Odd Couple (Gene Saks, 1968), the title of which draws attention to a potentially extra-normative bond between the two men. In Grumpy Old Men, the characters Lemmon and Matthau play find themselves competing for the affections of the (younger) Ariel (Ann-Magret), which allows their close relationship to remain unscrutinised. The film appears to evince nostalgia for a previous era in which such male bonds were taken at face value and did not require the bromantic alibi that Ariel’s presence provides.

In ‘Fears of a Millennial Masculinity: Scream’s Queer Killers’ David Greven traces the trajectory of pre-bromance experiments in homosocial intimacy and their expression as psychopathology in the teen horror genre, looking at Scream (Wes Craven, 1996) as a case study. In common with the bromance, such horror films are characterised by immaturity and male bonds that are interrupted by the presence of a maligned female character. Both genres ‘promote intensely defensive responses to sexuality’ (pp. 80-81) but in the horror film only through the death of these ‘queer’ male protagonists can patriarchal order be restored.

The second section of the book focuses on the contemporary cinematic bromance, looking both at canonical Hollywood films that have come to be associated with the term, as well as key examples from world cinema.

Chapter four, ‘I Love You, Hombre: Y tu mama tambien as Border-Crossing Romance’, by Nick Davis, analyses a film that pre-empted the North American inception of the bromance and, in its privileging of a male homosocial narrative, forced the US industry to pay attention to the market for such work. Indeed, Y tu mama tambien (Alfonso Cuarón, 2001) goes further than its US counterparts in following through with a homosexual encounter between the principal characters. That it is a relationship facilitated by a strong female protagonist that exists in the place of the marginal roles assigned to Hollywood women, further suggests a tension between the Mexican and US cultural industries that the film reflects.

Meheli Sen’s chapter, ‘From Dostana to Bromance: Buddies in Hindi Commercial Cinema Reconsidered’ takes as its study the dostana genre, looking at its development from the 1970s to the present day. Representation of the masculine code of friendship known as dostana was transformed during this period of Hindi cinema. The intense bonds of love and loyalty and concomitant gestures of sacrifice characterising the ‘Bachlan film’ are [End Page 2] tempered by  subsequent iterations of the buddy film in a more recent Indian cinema, increasingly informed by globalisation and the expression of individual desire.

The remaining contributions of the second section of the book turn their attention to representations of the bromance in Hollywood film. In ‘From Batman to I Love You, Man: Queer Taste, Vulgarity and the Bromance as Sensibility and Film Genre’ Ken Feil explores the use of ‘gross-out’ comedy in popular culture to disavow another vulgarity that looms in the threat of eroticisation of the male body. Looking at films such as I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (Dennis Dugan, 2007), Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (Adam McKay, 2004) and I Love You, Man, Feil traces how representations of ‘masculine vulgarity’ that both marginalise and objectify women and gay men work to strengthen homosocial intimacy (while negating its homosexual expression).

In ‘Rad Bromance (or I Love You, Man but We Won’t Be Humping on Humpday)’ Peter Forster questions the fundamental dissonance evident in the term ‘bro-mance’ and its wider implications in the analysis of two films, one Hollywood, one American independent. Two issues arise: first, the dangerous proximity of homosociality to homosexuality; second, the freedom allowed by homosocial bonds that threatens to be negated by the heterosexual dyad. Whilst the film narrative may encourage its protagonists to deviate from the demands of the heterosexual romance, the culmination of the plot insists upon its male protagonists giving up their treasured male friendships in favour of heteronormative pulls.

Michael DeAngelis in his chapter ‘Queerness and Futurity in Superbad’ interrogates the notion of ‘queerness’, not in relation to characters or matters of representation, but in terms of narrative time itself. Superbad’s exploration of temporality brings into question the normalcy of time in so far as it supports heteronormative narrative structure. DeAngelis examines how theoretical concepts of ‘futurity, straight time, and queer time can help illuminate the strategies’ (p. 215) used to explore the homosocial connections employed in contemporary bromance, taking Superbad as his case study. Ultimately, the film’s closing scenes do little to undermine the more meaningful scenes of intimacy between the two protagonists, Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Sera), at their sleepover prior to their departure for college. The ending, which matches the pair with two female love interests (with whom they were previously unsuccessful), instead ‘intensifies the queer bond between the bromancers by rendering the familiar strange’. (p. 228) The film offers the pair no future together that can accommodate their intimacy so they are forced to renounce each other and part.

The final section of the collection explores depictions of bromance beyond the Hollywood comedy genre, looking at three analyses of bromantic relationships in US television drama.

In ‘Becoming Bromosexual: Straight Men, Gay Men and Male Bonding on US TV’ Ron Becker argues that greater visibility of the gay community in the 1990s was met with mounting anxiety in TV representations of male-male friendships, which led to a shift in bromantic discourse in the following decade. ‘Mistaken identity’ plots, in which male protagonists were taken as gay, articulated such anxieties and were popular in network TV shows including Friends and Frasier. Becker also examines more recent reality TV programming, including the knowingly named Bromance, which presents effeminacy as a greater threat to homosocial bonding than homosexuality itself.

Murray Pomerance’s subject of investigation is the House and Wilson friendship in the US TV series House that flirts with homoerotic promise whilst never delivering: the [End Page 3] quintessence of bromance. In ‘The Bromance stunt in House’ Pomerance describes the ‘stunt’ of the titular character performing the cultural signifiers of homosexuality in order to befriend, and ultimately seduce Nora (Sasha Alexander), an attractive neighbour in Wilson’s apartment block. The stunt depends on the ‘target’ recognising and reading the cues that he provides her with. As Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) has already expressed a sexual interest in the same woman, House’s (Hugh Laurie) performance becomes a show of heterosexual masculine competition, with each more invested in the other’s failure than in romantic success with Nora herself. Wilson is only able to defeat House by staging a public proposal, which simultaneously destroys both their chances, while perversely confirming their commitment to each other. Moreover, the episode ends with the pair watching a hockey game together, while bickering about furniture and singing show tunes. Such simultaneous signifiers of the heteronormative and non-heteronormative, suggests Pomerance, leave the relationship open to interpretation as the viewer prefers.

The final chapter of the book – “This ain’t about your money, bro. Your boy gave you up”: Bromance and Breakup in HBO’s The Wire’ – looks at the dynamics of male friendship and intimacy that characterise the TV series. In a show that consistently marginalises women and female-centred stories, author Dominic Lennard argues how male friendships and homosocial intimacies are favoured, with homophobic rhetoric employed as a bonding strategy in a hyper-masculinised environment that denies its subjects the language in which to articulate their mutual attraction.

This edited collection provides a comprehensive critique of the cultural phenomenon of bromance. It charts the development of key bromantic tropes, such as the privileging of a male intimacy that must be disavowed in its sexual form and homosocial immaturity, across a variety of film genres, scrutinising developments in Hollywood and world cinema and analysing depictions of bromantic dynamics in US TV. Asking as many questions as it answers, the book throws open to debate the possible pleasures available through bromance with its potential, too often contained, for undermining heteronormative modes of representation. [End Page 4]


Review: The Twilight of the Gothic? Vampire Fiction and the Rise of the Paranormal Romance, by Joseph Crawford

Over the last few years, we have witnessed the publication of masses of books on the Twilight Saga, some addressed to the general public, others geared toward an academic audience (for example, Twilight and Philosophy: Vampires, Vegetarians, and the Pursuit of Immortality; The Twilight Mystique: Critical Essays on the Novels and Films; The Twilight Saga: Exploring the Global Phenomenon; Twilight and History among others). In The Twilight of the Gothic? Vampire Fiction and Rise of Paranormal Romance, Joseph Crawford tries to offer a more comprehensive perspective on the ascent of the paranormal romance in the twenty-first century, a goal he only partially achieves.

The title prefigures the tension between the conflicting focuses that vie for the author’s attention, and that results in a very informative and valuable book for paranormal romance studies, but not the groundbreaking holistic interpretation of the genre that, as a scholar, I was hoping for. The word play on the first part of the title indicates its focus on the Twilight Saga, as well as the generic point of departure for the study: the Gothic, Crawford’s area of expertise, and the topic of much of his previous critical production, especially his previous book Gothic Fiction and the Invention of Terrorism: The Politics and Aesthetics of Fear in the Age of the Reign of Terror (2013). The second part of the title shows a duality that is not easy to reconcile: vampire fiction and paranormal romance are very different categories. There is a lot of vampire fiction that is not romance, and paranormal romance, although it often includes vampires, is rarely about vampires alone.

The brief introduction is very promising. Beginning with a personal anecdote about a graduate student reading group of popular fiction, he points out the negative and visceral reactions that Twilight awoke among sophisticated readers interested in other popular genres, regardless of their “literary value”. He insightfully observes that “[c]learly the Twilight books had accomplished something, something that strongly appealed to an extremely wide contemporary audience: no author sells over 100 million books by accident” (3, emphasis in the original). He compares the saga’s success to that of the Harry Potter series, which was largely positively received, and concludes that “the much more [End Page 1] heavily contested success of Twilight, which can count both its fans and its detractors by the tens of millions, points to its position astride a major fault line in contemporary culture” (3). Crawford’s reading of the controversy surrounding Stephenie Meyer’s books is right on target, but it is in the framing of the saga that his argument becomes murky. On page four he establishes a cause and effect relationship between the success of Twilight and the rise of the genre “sometimes labelled ‘paranormal romance’ and sometimes ‘dark fantasy’, but always awash with novels featuring red, white and black covers” (4). Crawford establishes a periodization in which he considers a pre-history of the genre in the 1970s and 1980s (where vampires are portrayed as more humanized), a consolidation between 1989 and 2001 (the emergence of vampires appearing as love interests), and generic maturity between 2002 and 2005 (the year of publication of the first Twilight installment). However, on page eight, he considers 2000-2008 “the crucial years . . . in which the paranormal romance moved from being an obscure subgenre to an extremely popular (and extremely controversial) form of mainstream fiction”. The implicit tension in Crawford’s periodization , where “generic maturity” precedes (rather than coincides with) mainstream success, reflects Crawford’s oscillation between an interpretation in which Twilight is at the center of the paranormal phenomenon, and another in which the saga is just the most popular manifestation of an ongoing trend in which it is somehow an outlier. Twilight does not imitate other books already being published (Stephenie Meyer has been very outspoken about the fact that she does not read paranormal romance herself) but it has definitely captured an existing zeitgeist. On the other hand, it boosted the visibility and sales of a genre that was already growing and developing a significant readership at the time. In fact, as Crawford admits later in the book, many of the most enthusiastic Twilight fans do not enjoy other paranormal romance authors. Crawford’s reluctant acknowledgement of and dismissiveness towards these other authors provides a skewed perspective of the evolution of the genre.

Most relevant for the readers of this journal is Crawford’s overly superficial treatment of generic issues. After dismissing Pamela Regis’ definition of the romance novel as ahistorical, and the RWA’s definition of the genre as too restrictive, he makes a generic distinction between novels that would be strictly paranormal romance (here defined as “[a] work that tells the story of the development and consummation of a positive, loving romantic relationship between a human and a vampire”) and those that also include “mystery and action adventure storylines” (9). His example of the first kind is Lori Herter’s De Morrisey series (1991-1993), while his examples of the second kind all fall into what most publishers, readers, and critics would consider urban fantasy, a term that Crawford uses later in the book but that is not mentioned in the introduction. The problem with this definition of genre is that Herter’s novels are an early example whose lack of real conflict actually make them generic outliers. According to this clear-cut distinction between paranormal romance and urban fantasy, virtually no paranormal novels published since 2000 could be considered strictly romance because even those that end each novel with the ‘happily ever after’ (HEA) of a new couple include “mystery and action storylines” that occupy a large percentage of the text and are essential to the world-building and reading experience.

Chapter 1, “The First 800 years”, begins with the use of the term romance meaning a text written in a Romance language as opposed to Latin, and its early use as a narrative form of fantasy and adventure versus the more realistic genre of the novel. Crawford then [End Page 2] moves to the Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe and the romance novels of Jane Austen, introducing one of his major arguments: that both genres came from the same origins, and both converge again in the paranormal romance of today. He also argues that the Byronic hero is another unifying element of both romance and the Gothic that manifests itself in the paranormal romance, in which the supernatural character of the hero exacerbates the Byronic elements of the alpha-male. This chapter touches on all the mandatory canonical texts, from Jane Eyre  (1847) to Clarissa (1748), and, already in the twentieth century, Rebecca (1938) and The Sheik  (1919), tracking the evolution of the Byronic hero in both the Gothic and the romance. From those early twentieth-century texts, Crawford moves to the 1970s with the publication of Interview with the Vampire (1977) and The Flame and the Flower (1972) as examples of the evolution of the vampire and the romance novel respectively. While the information included in the chapter is hardly new, the synthesis is informative and the interpretation solid.

Chapter 2, “Romancing the Paranormal”, continues where chapter 1 left off, with the beginnings of the paranormal romance itself. This is the most valuable chapter, since it tracks the development of the vampire and other paranormal beings from monsters into love interests, incorporating less-well-known texts and offering insightful analysis. He traces the shift from the sympathetic vampire of the 1970s and 1980s in literature and film to the vampire as a love interest and, therefore, the first actual romance novels. He focuses on the work of Lori Herter in the De Morrisey series (1991-1993), Maggy Shayne’s Wings of the Night series (1993-), and Linda Lael Miller’s Vampire series (1993-1996), as well as Harlequin Mills & Boon’s first attempt at publishing a paranormal line, Silhouette Shadows, from 1993 to 1996. He also establishes a parallel with changes to vampire films in the 1990s, especially Coppola’s Bram Stocker’s Dracula (1992), as well as other influential paranormal box office successes of the period, such a Ghost (1990) or Angel for Hire (1991). While again, his focus is on the vampire, Crawford’s examples also include werewolves, witches, ghosts and other paranormal characters and themes. The last part of the chapter is devoted to the rise of the young adult paranormal romance, especially Annette Curtis Klause and L. J. Smith.

This analysis is continued in Chapter 3 “Sleeping with the Enemy”, which includes an extensive analysis of Hamilton’s Anita Blake series (one of the early urban fantasy series, starting in 1993) and Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and Angel (1999-2004) TV series. Crawford admits that Hamilton’s series, which was still going in 2014, has undergone a very drastic and unique evolution unusual for the genre, but there is no doubt that it is a major milestone in the development of the paranormal. That is the case even more so in the two TV series, especially Buffy, which was undoubtedly a major influence that reached a much larger audience than the early novels ever could.

Chapter 4, “The New Millenium” begins with an analysis of Christine Feehan‘s Carpathian Series (1999-) and Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse (2001-2013). Crawford’s discomfort with the romance makes its first appearance here. It becomes evident that his analysis is much more insightful when it comes to Harris’ series (usually classified as urban fantasy) than Feehan’s (definitely romance). However, after a few pages on each author, the largest part of the chapter is devoted to the Twilight saga, which is also the subject of the entire next chapter, appropriately entitled “The Twilight Controversy”. Contrary to the author’s discomfort with the previous texts, his analysis of Twilight shows significantly more enthusiasm for the subject, and provides a great synthesis of criticism (scholarly and [End Page 3] otherwise) on the bestseller collection. One of the most provocative ideas in the book is its analysis of the “cultural fault line” that reactions to Twilight bring to the forefront. Crawford points out that while supporters of the saga are reading the characters’ actions within the framework of the genre—and therefore not necessarily as models of real-life behavior—its detractors are not utilizing those generic conventions and therefore consider the characters as dangerous role models for readers who, in their view, don’t know any better. Ideologically, he points out how the text is multi-vocal, so while it touches on potentially controversial topics such as marriage, abortion, and premarital sex, it is easy to read Twilight as advocating opposing ideologies, if the reader chooses to ignore its tensions and contradictions.

Reading Crawford’s book, one might think that Twilight is both the highlight and culmination of the paranormal romance, because the sixth and last chapter, “Mutations”, is devoted almost exclusively to film and television adaptations of previously published paranormal romances, especially the films based on the Twilight series and the television series True Blood (2008-2014)), based on Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse, and L. J. Smith’s Vampire Diaries (2009-). These visual versions are what the author considers in his epilogue the manifestation of the “maturity of the genre” (271); a genre that in his opinion is in decadence—at least in its form as a novel. His evidence for this conclusion again shows the problems inherent in his equating of paranormal with vampires; Roxanne Longstreet, who publishes a young adult paranormal series as Rachel Caine, told Crawford that “most editors in traditional publishing that I’ve spoken to are no longer seeking vampire-themed material” (271), which Crawford takes to be evidence that paranormal fiction on the whole is past its prime. Yet a quick look at two of the most successful authors in the 2014 New York Times Best Sellers list confirms that J. R. Ward had two number one bestsellers, one of them in her Black Dagger Brotherhood series, in which vampires are the protagonists, and one featuring other paranormal beings, while Patricia Briggs (who writes paranormals without vampires) also had a number one bestseller. There simply is not evidence that if vampires are not in, paranormal is out.

The alternating definition of vampire romance at some times and paranormal romance at other times is one of the methodological problems of Crawford’s book. It is debatable whether such a distinction can even be made, since virtually all series combine an ever-increasing array of paranormal beings, of which vampires are only one. However, his initial definition of paranormal romance in the introduction only included “a loving romantic relationship between a human and a vampire” (9). This definition grossly simplifies the complex and varied pairings that are created in these texts. Just to mention a few examples, in J.R. Ward’s The Black Dagger Brotherhood, most pairings are among vampires, and those initially human turn out to not be really humans or change into something else, such as a ghost before their HEA. In other series, such as Sookie Stackhouse, although vampires are the first supernatural species the reader learns about, all kinds of shapeshifters, and even demons make an appearance. Even the protagonist, as we eventually learn, is part fairy and achieves her HEA with a shapeshifter. In Sherrilyn Kenyon’s world, there are no actual vampires (although daemons can be considered similar since they cannot withstand sunlight and live off human souls—not blood), but the characters and pairing that take place, although at the beginning of the series include some humans, are mostly among dark-hunters, shapeshifters, gods and goddesses of varied mythologies, dream-hunters and other supernatural beings.  In fact, paranormal romance [End Page 4] sometimes even pushes the boundaries of heteronormativity (a homosexual couple are the protagonists in Lover at Last (2013) by J. R. Ward, and in Lynn Viehl’s Dreamveil (2010) the HEA is between a woman and two men).

There is also a lack of explicit criteria in the selection of authors and texts included in the analysis. Crawford glosses over most of the bestseller paranormal authors of the twenty-first century. Authors such as Patricia Briggs, Kresley Cole, Kim Harrison, Richelle Mead, and Carrie Vaughn are barely mentioned. J. R. Ward, Jeaniene Frost, Tanya Huff, Sherrilyn Kenyon, and Jane Ann Krentz are mentioned little more, and authors such as Gena Showalter, Nalini Singh, Katie McAlister, Linsay Sands, Lynn Viehl or Kerrilyn Sparks (to name a few of the authors that were publishing paranormal by 2007 and are still publishing today) are not included at all. Crawford also displays a certain tone of condescension towards romance in general and the paranormal romance in particular, even if he never quite displays the contempt of other critics of the genre. This attitude may help explain the fact that he draws a direct line from the early 1990s through Feehan and Harris straight to Meyer, and then describes a supposed decline of the genre, which in his view survives only in film and television. Crawford also ignores the historical context in which the genre developed; while he includes historical interpretations of earlier texts, no socio-historical contextualization is given for newer texts.

In spite of the major gaps outlined above, overall, Joseph Crawford’s book is well-written and informative. He pulls together valuable information and creates a genealogy that includes both the Gothic and the romance strands which converge in the paranormal romance, and proffers some provocative interpretations of this connection. The book is strong in the areas the author is familiar with (the Gothic, Twilight, and the television programmes and films he analyzes) and his description of the trajectory of the paranormal from Ann Rice to the romances of the 1990s is the best and most complete that I have yet seen. However, while the book covers the years 1990-2000 reasonably well, it is definitely not a study of the paranormal romance in the  twenty-first century, as the title (which states the years 1990-2012 as the period being analyzed) seems to indicate. If the reader keeps in mind the limitations in its scope, Crawford’s new book is a valuable contribution worth reading for anyone interested in this genre. [End Page 5]

Works Cited

Bucciferro, Claudia. The Twilight Saga: Exploring the Global Phenomenon. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2013. Print.

Clarke, Amy and M. Marijane Osborn, eds. The Twilight Mystique: Critical Essays on the Novels and Films. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010. Print.

Crawford, Joseph. Gothic Fiction and the Invention of Terrorism: The Politics and Aesthetics of Fear in the Age of the Reign of Terror. London, England: Bloomsbury, 2013. Print.

Housel, Rebecca and J. Jeremy Wisnewski, eds. Twilight and Philosophy: Vampires, Vegetarians, and the Pursuit of Immortality. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2009. Print.

Reagin, Nancy, ed. Twilight and History. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2010. Print.

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

Viehl, Lynn. Dreamveil. New York: New American Library, 2010. Print.

Ward, J.R. Lover at Last. New York: Penguin, 2013. Print.

[End Page 6]


Review: Existentialism and Romantic Love, by Skye Cleary

In her introduction to Existentialism and Romantic Love, nascent Australian scholar and writer Skye Cleary speaks directly to the motivations behind her book. Cleary seeks to set the record straight on the popular notion of modern love as it is articulated via the maze of popular internet dating sites, self-help books, and celebrity advice columns. Romantic love is defined and referred to almost constantly throughout Cleary’s book as the proverbial search for our understanding of the perfect soul mate or as the nineteenth-century ideal would describe as the “immortal beloved.” The quest, defined by Cleary “involves the idea of creating a union and becoming ‘we’ instead of two ‘I’s” (14). Cleary examines the questions: does such a union exist? Can it exist? And if so, how can it exist?

To complete her mission, Cleary enlists the assistance of five existentialist philosophers as her antidotes-in-arms because she believes “they explore the space between the ideals of romantic loving and the compromise lovers make in order to try to achieve those ideals” (1).  In a work that is part scholarship, part demystification, and part guidance, Existentialism and Romantic Love pursues a tour-guide approach to philosophy that is best represented by authors such as eminent English philosopher Roger Scruton and Swiss-born writer Alain de Botton. As their proprietorial rental rights of the bookshop front window attest, Scruton and de Botton are masters in distilling opaque philosophical theories into practical and palatable formats that are both enriching and entertaining for a broader thinking audience. Their nuanced crafting is more difficult to achieve than appears in the reading of their works. Existentialism and Romantic Love falls in between the categories of a reference manual and the type of work read by de Botton’s populist audiences, because the style and tone of Cleary’s writing does not subscribe to either category.  The caveat here is that this is Cleary’s first book.

Cleary’s argument is organized into five neat, balanced, and similarly sized chapters. Bookended by an instructive introduction and conclusion, Cleary’s chapters provide a synoptic overview of the persuasions and central arguments of the five existentialists in chronological order: Max Stirner; Søren Kierkegaard; Frederick Nietzsche; Jean­-Paul Sartre; and Simone de Beauvoir. Each chapter offers a brief historical summary and a perspective of existential theory that is contextualized with contemporary expectations of a romantic [End Page 1] relationship. As a part of each chapter, Cleary also offers a clever tactical detour that navigates the reader’s attention to a particular and narrower lens of interest. For example, in the case of Max Stirner, Cleary steers us toward the topic of “loving egoistically,” and in the case of Simone de Beauvoir, the notion of “loving authentically” occupies the central theme. This zooming in style is a skillful stratagem that allows Cleary an opportunity to canvas the broadest spectrum of existential interpretations of romantic love at the same time as giving her the occasion to probe deeper into a specific quality of love.  As a result, the reader is acquainted with Stirner’s contemplations on sacrifice and ownership; Kierkegaard’s search for balance between passion and pleasure and notions of subjectivity and perspective; Nietzsche’s advice on self-mastery; Sartre’s note to self on love’s destruction, and Simone de Beauvoir’s contemplations on devotion and gender differences.

On the positive side, Cleary’s duplication of the mapping structure in each chapter offers the reader a concentrated introduction to each philosopher’s contribution. Cleary’s summation of her extensive reading of each philosopher’s theory is built on a lucid style that is easily comprehended. The internal organization of each chapter has a catalogue-like quality. The danger of this uniform approach emerges after reading the first two chapters. It is at this point that the rewards of this reliable organization begin to weigh on the reading rhythm – so what we gain in recognition and direction we lose in our anticipation and the desire to keep reading. This is a pity since Cleary’s best work comes in the penultimate chapters on Sartre and de Beauvoir.

As a counterpoint to this clinical style, Cleary interpolates her information material with personal opinions. The insertions in the text ranging from practical instructions through to subjective observations are candid, conversational, and built with a language rooted in popular idioms. An example of this kind of tone and language is revealed for instance, when Cleary speaks about one of Nietzsche’s romantic interests, Lou Salomé. Cleary describes the lover as having “both brains and beauty” (73). These more populist interjections appear in contrast to the academic writing style of the work, and while it easy to see why Cleary is tempted to add these commentaries as a way to posit the work for a wider readership, the colloquial style pleads to a different publication.

Cleary’s insights however, provide their most valuable worth in a well-cadenced conclusion that bring her aerial discussions of existentialism and personal observations together. Cleary’s canvas of the existential view of romantic love is vast, compact and at times dense, but the quick reader can look forward to the book’s excellent and comprehensive concluding index which represents a  highly resourceful shortcut for any tour guide styled reading.

Existentialism and Romantic Love is a catalyst. The book opens one door to further close reading of existential texts and opens another door for thinking romantics to reconsider their idealistic approach to romantic love with an existential and, perhaps more realistic light.  While Cleary’s rhetorical approach refers back to the reader as the self-interrogator, Cleary’s surgical probe through the eyes of five existentialist thinkers does not mask her personal skepticism that the quest for a union built on “becoming ‘we’ instead of two ‘I’s” (14) is fraught with danger. [End Page 2]


Review: Reading from Behind: A Cultural Analysis of the Anus, by Jonathan A. Allan

Romancing the Bottom: Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow.

When was the last time you thought about your anus? I mean, really thought about it. Analyzed it. If it’s been a while, here’s the book to get you going.

I tried to remember any previous analysis of the significance of the anus to which I’d been party, anytime I’d been invited to reflect on the implications surrounding that end bit of our anatomy that most of us engage daily but so rarely theorize. I could recall only one such incidence: my prenatal class at the hospital, almost twenty years ago, in an evening session that covered diapering, circumcision, and other matters pertinent to “down there.” Our neonatal nurse informed her class of expectant and nervous parents that some babies were born without an anus, which she helpfully further defined as a “butthole.” Another thing to worry about, I remember thinking, resolving to count fingers, toes, and all points of egress on my soon-to-arrive son. The nurse’s point runs contrary to our author’s assertion about the “universality of the anus” (47), but I assume that any sans butthole newborns are very quickly given one.

Jonathan Allan has given us a book about the anus. Allan is Research Chair in Queer Theory and Assistant Professor in Gender and Women’s Studies and English and Creative Writing at Brandon University in Brandon, Manitoba. A recipient of last year’s Academic Research Grant from the Romance Writers of America, he has longstanding interests in popular romance studies, particularly in the figure of the male virgin.

There is much to love about this fascinating book, Professor Allan’s first. (Look out for upcoming volumes on the foreskin and hymen, all part of the new “Exquisite Corpse” series on what is left unsaid about the body that Allan is editing for the University of Regina Press—another Canadian prairie city that does, yes, rhyme with the delightful and neglected body part that I can only hope will one day make its way into Allan’s series). I could begin my praise with the design choice of the asterisk that adorns the book’s cover [End Page 1] and chapter headings (with an etymology I’d like to read as “ass-to-risk” but that really means “little star” and that can be used to indicate omission in printing). I love as well the book’s pink endpaper, bringing to mind the glowing tinge of the spanked bottom, the puckered rim of our tender opening. The book is playful and experimental in these ways.

So what is Reading from Behind about, exactly? To what end (if I may, and I fear there’ll be no stopping me) does it serve? Allan’s first line indicates his subject matter: “the role of the anus, the rear, the posterior, the behind, the bottom, the ass in literary theory and cultural criticism” (1). And precisely the omission of such. The individual chapters are uniformly fruitful and enlightening. I learned from them. They consist of a series of often very close readings of key texts that Allan presents as case studies from the “anal archive” (19). These careful readings shine light on texts as varied as Anne Tenino’s m/m romance novel Frat Boy and Toppy, the short story and film Brokeback Mountain, paintings by the Canadian Cree artist Kent Monkman, Gore Vidal’s novel Myra Breckinridge, and two Latin American texts: the Delmira Agustini poem “El Intruso” and the Mexican film Doña Herlinda y su hijo.

Allan’s larger project in urging us to “read from behind” in these chapters is to de-emphasize the standard phallic reading of the texts of culture. The practice of reading from behind directs us to look for anal eroticism and other posterior pleasures that lie buried in texts and too often omitted from textual analysis that is predisposed toward the phallic. Enough of privileging what the penis is up to, privileging penetration, privileging the top! When we read from behind we disrupt such phallocentrism, with its attendant homophobia and misogyny. Allan wants to “rewrite[e] the erotic monopoly of the genitals” (141), to get away from a “sphincter-tightening” approach that always insists on a certain reading (9). He is reading from behind—privileging the bottom—in order to develop a new theory of sexuality that decenters the primacy of the phallus (132); that evades the binary of top/bottom, active/passive, and penetrator/penetrated; that is more plural and global (128).

Where does this book fit into the field of romance studies, the interest of readers of this journal? While Allan works primarily in queer theory and masculinity studies, those with a focus on popular romance will find much of relevance in his text, and not only in the chapter devoted to a close reading of Tenino’s romance novel. Larger themes relevant to romance studies resonate and are discussed throughout the book: explorations of love, romance, and eros in film, poetry, visual art, and fiction, as well as the concept of male virginity and the experience of gay male sexual debut. In terms of the book’s focus on anal sex, such scenes have become increasingly common in popular romance fiction. “Anal is the new oral,” as Allan quotes the pundits (70-71). Especially in erotic romance and in m/m romance, scenes of anal pleasuring are almost run of the mill. Allan’s book helps the student (and author) of popular romance studies think about the meaning of such scenes.

What is left behind by this analysis? A little too often, I fear, clean writing and tight editing. Allan has his writer’s tics of self-reflexive wordiness, of excessive and repetitious quotes and phrases (“I cannot help but admit/think/smile/wonder[twice]/note,” all within pages of each other [86-94]; riffs on “I want to be careful” that appear four times in ch.8; an over-fondness for phrases such as “it must be noted,” “it must be admitted,” and “I am reluctant to”). There is the sort of jargon one might expect but still hope to avoid (e.g., “affective and intellectual responses that work to destabilize and critique how we think about normativity, eroticism, and power, especially when figured in hegemonic and [End Page 2] hierarchical terms” [115]). I found myself wishing for leaner writing—for more anality—in his revision and editing process. Sometimes the sphincter really does need to be tight. Allan’s writing, however, can also delight, as in his reference to “the man who refuses his role and embraces his hole” (38).

A larger issue concerns the focus of the book. At first, the text seems to promise an examination of the buttocks, to explore for us the cultural meanings of the behind. But the rear end covers a whole lot of territory and its topography is not all the same. The cheeks are not the rectum. As Allan himself quotes Eve Sedgwick as saying, “The sexual politics of the ass are not identical to the sexual politics of the asshole” (126). A woman dressed in tight booty shorts that cup her round buns is not the same as a man with lubed-up anus ready for a partner’s fisting. Artistic explorations of these two scenarios offer quite different possibilities for cultural and literary criticism.

Allan opens his introduction with a Jennifer Lopez reference to 2014 as the “year of the booty” (1-2), but I suspect Allan’s text isn’t what she had in mind. The cover blurb trots out Kim Kardashian and Pippa Middleton. All these women are famous, one way or the other, for their derrières—but these women are not discussed in the text. In fact, only rarely discussed is the behind of almost any woman (the narrator of “El Intruso” in Ch.6 may be an exception, as is mention of the minor character Alma in Ch.4’s discussion of Brokeback Mountain).

From this perspective, the book promises more than it delivers. As Allan notes, the anus is the great equalizer (27). While Freud suggests that some of us are born with more potential for anal pleasure than others (33), we all—male, female, gender-queer, and transgender alike—have an anus. I hoped at first that this book would help me think broadly about gender and the bottom. Yet as Allan eventually makes clear in his introduction and as his chapters lay out one by one, his analysis is one of “anal poetics” and primarily concerns masculinity and, more specifically, queer male anal eroticism.

Women think a lot about their rear end: “Does this [dress, skirt, pair of pants] make my butt look big?” is the stereotypical question. The admired, desired, bedazzling booty is an iconic flaunt zone of female figure and fashion, especially in an era of twerking and a playlist of songs ranging from “Fat Bottom Girls” to “Baby Got Back” to “Anaconda” and “All About That Bass.” To have cake to display, a ripe booty to shake: all this is a complex good begging analysis. There is much to be said about a woman’s relationship to her rear in a culture that fetishizes this body part, both celebrating and punishing women who have too much, too little of these posterior curves, who do too much or too little with them. If I were to give Allan’s own book a reading from behind, I’d ask him about this omission: the status of the ass for women as a source of both empowerment and objectification. I wanted Allan to take me through it and shed some light on these gendered dimensions of the behind. Its sashaying fleshiness gives a theorist much to grab onto, I would think. Alas, such is not Allan’s task.

Perhaps it’s too much to ask: my desire, not his. Fair enough. If I find this focus on the male anus a bit narrow—a bit tight for my fit—I’ll readily admit that the behind presents a vast geography and that there’s a peevishness in taking a book to task for what it doesn’t cover. Any book could always do more; no book can do everything. The man does a lot, and he does it well. Let someone else continue his agenda of reading from behind and use it to produce a cultural analysis of female booty. [End Page 3]

It might be better, finally, to focus on what the book does do for me as a reader. Here is one way that I like to judge a book: What new question or idea did it give me? What does it open up? What connections does it help forge? The new question I got from reading Allan’s text is, for me, a very intriguing one: What does it mean to read the romance from behind?

Allan helps us to think about popular romance studies in a fashion perhaps more sideways than from behind—sideways, in that Allan’s interests pertain mainly to a queer male reading of cultural and literary texts, or to a reading of queer male texts. Still, the projects are aligned. Yes, let’s de-emphasize that phallus, for all the reasons Allan articulates. Masculinist and misogynist hegemony has had its day. Allan’s queer theory aligns well with popular romance’s feminist agenda in this regard. His book serves as an excellent example of the inherent mission overlap between feminism, on the one hand, and queer theory and a certain brand of masculinity studies, on the other. Read him for that reason alone, if you’d like greater familiarity with those important fields.

This notion Allan gives us of “reading from behind” is a powerful interpretive tool. It is related to the practice of “reparative reading” that Allan borrows from Sedgwick. A reparative reading of the romance—a reading from behind, a queer reading—is one that rejects a patriarchal and phallic-driven notion of sex and of gender relations and that reads the romance genre as a space of alternatives. Much of the current wave of scholarship in popular romance studies is reparative, exploring these women-centered texts as sites of resistance and possibility.

The more Allan’s book got me thinking about it, the more the popular romance genre struck me as a form of writing from behind. The roles of top and bottom are central to the opening scenarios of traditional romance storytelling, with the alpha hero as top but also, paradoxically, as asshole or “alphahole”, as Wendell and Tan put it in their Beyond Heaving Bosoms (2009). In the heroine’s initial estimation, the hero is often cold, arrogant, intimidating, maybe threatening. Who is more anal than him: obstinate, controlling, emotionally withholding? He will open up, of course. She will end up as “power bottom,” topping from the bottom, or neutralizing the top’s power through that great equalizing force of love.

Allan himself notes how genre fiction such as popular romance occupies a bottom position in the hierarchy of literary studies (65). The genre writes from behind, pushing out into romance stories the character of the patriarchal alpha and then transforming him into the feminist lover, supportive and egalitarian. The genre props up patriarchy only to knock it down. Admires the patriarch, acknowledges his power, even curtsies before him, but then seduces him into prostrating himself, bending over, and taking it up the ass, bareback, like a real man. Romance novels make that big boy learn to love it. Reading Allan’s book gave me this idea: the genre is about buggering patriarchy, over and over and over.

In terms of teaching utility, the book as a whole is probably a bit much for most undergraduates, but individual chapters could be useful in more advanced or specialized undergraduate classes (in literature, film studies, sexuality studies, queer theory) and certainly at the graduate level. The central chapters stand alone as close readings of their respective texts and could easily be assigned individually. This structure is both a strength and a weakness, as the book can feel like a series of knit together and somewhat randomly chosen case studies, particularly as the volume ends very abruptly, without a conclusion or—dare I complain?—a satisfying climax. [End Page 4]

My quibbles, I hasten to note, are only because I want Allan to keep writing and to do great writing, giving us fresh ideas and new ways to read culture on the par with those in Reading from Behind. In the end (I now see this word play everywhere), what Allan’s book yields for popular romance studies is a rich entrée to the cognate fields of queer theory and masculinity studies, bringing romance texts into wider critical conversations. Pick up a copy or order one for your library. Open yourself up (you bottoms). Take the plunge and dive in (for you tops). Either way, shake that booty. It’s speaking to us all, and it’s time we listen. [End Page 5]


Review: Sex, or the Unbearable, by Lauren Berland and Lee Edelman; Overcoming Objectification: A Carnal Ethics, by Ann J. Cahill; Erotic Memoirs and Postfeminism: The Politics of Pleasure, by Joel Gwynne

Sexuality and the erotic play central roles within the realm of the romance novel. As evidenced by recent contemporary criticism from some media outlets, the literary elite continues to deride romance novels as pornography for women and as objectifying the female characters thereby reinforcing cultural notions of gender and objectification.[1] Romance authors, scholars, and fans have taken to blogs and columns to combat these criticisms, yet larger cultural questions about the portrayal of sexuality and the issues about objectification in popular culture must be further explored.[2]

Sex and the erotic are often unsettling topics within contemporary culture, particularly expressions that lie outside the constructions of the heteronormative commodification model of sexuality. While Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman’s Sex, or the Unbearable, Ann J. Cahill’s Overcoming Objectification, or Joel Gwynne’s Erotic Memoirs and Postfeminism do not specifically address these issues within romance scholarship and contemporary popular culture, they offer insight into the core questions of these debates. Underpinned by feminist and queer theory, these three texts take on questions of the erotic, sexuality, and objectification in both historiographical and theoretical approaches. Their usefulness for romance scholars specifically and popular culture scholarship more [End Page 1] broadly is in their use of relatable and rich examples from art, film, and literature. All three texts offer maps, albeit strikingly different ones, for scholarship in popular culture.

Berlant and Edelman’s Sex, or the Unbearable grows from the work of these two leading scholars of queer theory. The text seeks to articulate the spaces in our lives in which we are both comfortable and unsettled, in which we both connect and disconnect from others and ourselves: sex is the best example of this space for Berlant and Edelman. They write in the preface, “What we offer […] is an analysis of relations that both overwhelm and anchor us—an affective paradox that often shapes the experience of sex. We approach sex here as a site, therefore, at which relationality is invested with hopes, expectations, and anxieties that are often experienced as unbearable” (vii). They utilize sex as the interaction with self and others as the core expression of their vision of the unbearable precisely because of its potential to be both settling and unsettling. At the heart of this discussion is the concept of negativity that undermines the idea of complete or stable identities. For Berlant and Edelman, sex offers a sense that the boundaries of identity and of self are undone, open, and disconcerting. Berlant writes, “Sex and love are not events that change anything, usually; they induce a loosening of the subject that puts fear, pleasure, awkwardness, and above all experimentality in a scene that forces its participants to disturb what it has meant to be a person and to ‘have’ a world” (117). Sex, love, the erotic, relationships with others do, indeed, unsettle the ability to claim a stable, fixed identity, as these encounters question the impermeability of the borders of self.

The structure of Berlant and Edelman’s text is demonstrative of their larger thesis about relationality and the unbearable. They organize the text as a dialogue between the two of them, in which there is back and forth commentary and disagreements about the other’s and their own arguments. The structure is incredibly dense and is at times unsettling to the reader. Indeed, at times the book is unbearable in the manner that Berlant and Edelman show the unsettling nature of relationality and dialogue. They practice a dialogic approach to creating their narrative by writing and responding to each other throughout the text, and their disagreement on the theories can cause confusion about the argument of the overall text. It is often like the reader is an unsuspecting audience to their private conversations and frequently ones that seem to have already been in progress. These unsettled feelings would be amplified if the reader were not familiar with their earlier individual works, such as Berlant’s Cruel Optimism (2011) and Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004). Additionally, they utilize and create a dialogue with Jacques Lacan, Gayle Rubin, and Eve Kosofosky Sedgwick in the first two chapters, and in the third they apply their methodology to the short story “Break It Down” by Lydia Davis, in which a narrator discusses the breakdown of a relationship. Through their engagement with this text, Berlant and Edelman articulate the manner in which their individual positions differ but also build a shared argument that sex and by association relationships undo the stability of knowledge and identity. Thus, for example, Edelman writes, “To encounter another is to have to confront our otherness to ourselves. The wonder is not that we get things wrong: dialogue tends to proceed, after all, as much by identifying and correcting misreadings as by concurring with the other’s account” (68-69). Berlant responds, “As in politics and sex, in theory the encounter induces all the concomitant dread and excitement at the potential for something to become different” (71). While sex and encounters with others destabilize identity, they also create potential for growth, for change, for an indefinable something else. [End Page 2]

This discussion of sex and the unbearable offers a great deal for the romance scholar. Berlant and Edelman practice a scholarship based in relationality and dialogue. Berlant writes in the afterword, “Structural consistency is a fantasy; the noise of relation’s impact, inducing incompletion where it emerges, is the overwhelming condition that enables the change that, within collaborative action, can shift lived worlds” (125). Sex and relationships do shift individual’s worlds and undermine that structural consistency that Berlant cites, which many readers and scholars of romance see within the stories that are so much a part of the romance genre. A sexual encounter or falling in love can and frequently does upend the identity and lives of so many characters in our favorite novels. While Berlant and Edelman do not address popular romances, their work can be informative to the work of romance scholars in tackling issues of the place of sex and the erotic, especially within some romance tropes, such as discovery of a new sexual orientation plots in queer romances, or submissive-for-you plots in many erotic romances of all orientations.

While Berlant and Edelman address the realm of sex as a moment of decentering, Ann Cahill’s Overcoming Objectification: A Carnal Ethics seeks to confront the topic of objectification and determine a new approach to the issues at the heart of the feminist concerns with the concept. She writes,

Among the many indispensable concepts associated with feminist theory, objectification holds a privileged position. The claim that patriarchy renders women things, thus robbing them of a host of qualities central to personhood—moral agency, self-worth, autonomy, to name a few—connects a disparate group of social realities that otherwise might remain conceptually separate. (1)

She examines the literature of feminist approaches to the concept of objectification, which she states is a central tenant of feminist theory historically and has impacted the broader dialogue about gender and sexuality. Cahill addresses issues surrounding objectification and masculine bodies, “unsexed women” (women who are not viewed through the lens of sexual objectification, for instance mothers and women who are disabled) sex work, and sexual violence. Her project is to describe the theories of objectification, and to express a different model for discussing the body, articulating a new vision of sexual ethics that posits the possibility of sexual encounters as positive experiences for those involved. She relies upon Luce Irigaray as a theoretical guidepost for her argument against the prioritization of the concept of objectification and in her articulation of “carnal ethics.”

Cahill outlines two positions of feminist thinkers and their expressions of objectification; those who use it as an underpinning to their theories, such as Catherine MacKinnon and Simone de Beauvoir, and those who analyze the idea itself, such as Linda LeMoncheck, Martha Nussbaum, and Rae Langton. As Cahill examines these positions, she notes that the ideas of objectification all rely upon a particularly Enlightenment and Kantian notion of the modern construction of self that prioritizes the mind over the body, thus disembodying human beings. Through their reliance on this Kantian construction, feminist theorists invoking the idea of objectification disassociate women from their bodies in order to address the sexual objectification that occurs. The core of these analyses is that women are reduced only to their bodies and not treated as more than their body and that, [End Page 3] most frequently, these arguments center on women in pornography as the example to the manner in which objectification functions.

Cahill breaks down this theory of objectification, stating that the objectified woman is different than any other type of object as she is still able to communicate her desire and behaviors, which is part of the point in the theory of the objectification—to deny that the woman is a talking, functioning being. She writes, “To be sexual is to be a thing, and often to be the object of another’s gaze and attention; the pleasure of being such an object cannot be explained simply by the internalization of a dominance/submission framework, since we can imagine and even experience such objectification without hierarchy” (26). For Cahill, being a sexual being and engaging in sexual activity has at the heart of it being seen substantively as an other.

Sexuality cannot be divorced from the body, and therefore, objectification, as the definition stands, may not be the most effective tool to understanding the concepts of subjecthood and identity. She argues that sexual objects can be men, women, and trans* people and that the objectification may not be harmful but a part of sexual desire in that it acknowledges the embodiment of the other. Objectification, as it stands within feminist theory, does not allow for positive sexual interactions from Cahill’s standpoint. Cahill, therefore, argues that using the concept of derivatization would be better for articulating the potential for harm in sexual interactions. Cahill writes, “To derivatize is to portray, render, understand, or approach a being solely or primarily as the reflection, projection, or expression of another being’s identity, desires, fears, etc.” (32). What is damaging, for Cahill, is the derivatization of others, in which the other serves only to fulfill the desire of the one to the detriment or dismissal of the other.

In the end, Cahill argues for a concept of an embodied intersubjectivity, which she describes as “be[ing] open (even vulnerable) to the attention, acts, and being of the other” (xiv). Later, she writes,

To be sexually intersubjective is to be aware of one’s sexual particularity as an ongoing project, a project grounded in one’s material existence and location while simultaneously invested in and marked by the sexual particularity of others. Difference is described here not as a threat to be negotiated or a problem to be solved, but rather as the possibility condition for the embodied interactions through which the self develops. (153)

For Cahill, sexuality must be grounded within the body as it is embedded within the lived experiences of the individual’s materiality. As she argues, this sexuality is one that is based in dialogue, consent, and negotiations. It is about sharing desires and determining together what is sustainable sexuality within the relationship.

With this conceptual model of an embodied intersubjectivity, Cahill seeks to overcome the disassociation from the body that occurs through traditional constructions of objectification, but she also argues for a sexuality that is built upon positive agency. Cahill’s text offers the romance scholar an alternative to the feminist constructions of objectification that have often underscored criticisms of the portrayals of erotic romance heroines and heroes within the text as well as in their representations on novel covers. Moreover by nuancing the ideas around embodiment and sexuality, she demonstrates an approach that opens discussions around sexuality and identity for all individuals, not just [End Page 4] addressing issues facing women. Additionally, Cahill’s text is engaging as it utilizes examples from popular culture, such as a 2003 Miller Lite advertisements, Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues (1996), Striptease (1996), and The Full Monty (1997), and dissects complicated theoretical models in understandable and readable ways. In this manner, Overcoming Objectification is not just a solid text for scholars looking to complicate notions of objectification but would also be adaptable to a classroom setting.

While Cahill and Berlant and Edelman offer theoretical arguments about issues around sex and sexuality, Joel Gwynne creates an analysis of source material in his Erotic Memoirs and Postfeminism, thus making his project feel different from the two previous texts under discussion. His project is to study a sample set of women’s erotic memoirs (fewer than twenty in total) with the earliest published in 1993 to the latest in 2009. He breaks his text into thematic chapters—agency, intimacy, pornography, and transgression—which are,

committed to analysing the ways in which contemporary women express and live their individual, diverse and private sexual identities amidst conflicting narratives of female sexuality. This study is premised on the belief that contemporary erotic memoirs may have a special role to play in the process of reconfiguring female sexuality as active and agentic . . . It is also premised on the conviction that, while offering private conceptualisations of female sexual subjectivity, women’s memoirs are inherently political in their colonisation of the male dominated space within mass culture where mainstream narratives of human sexuality reside. (6)

These memoirs demonstrate the ways in which women interact with and represent their sexualities and, beyond that, the world around them. He argues for the social project of the erotic, through which he examines and critiques these women’s memoirs. The sociality of the erotic grows out of the continual reexamination and revising of ideas of sex and sexuality that occurs through dialogue, media, and other institutions and interactions.

Gwynne draws widely on feminist theory, and he instructively articulates the historiographic trajectory of such theory and of the feminist movement. His analysis of the idea of postfeminism, which he posits early in the text, is also substantive, and his use of this terminology in conjunction with his source material demonstrates the cultural milieu in which these memoirs are published and that demonstrate a postfeminist consciousness. This consciousness foregrounds the belief that feminism accomplished its goals, and Gwynne argues that the memoirs he studies are framed by their authors and publishers as postfeminist and liberatory but ultimately demonstrate an on-going oppressive environment for women and their sexuality. “One cannot avoid concluding that popular women’s erotic memoirs—while framed as liberating—continue to celebrate male sexual-domination,” he writes (119), and he views the authors’ sexual explorations as failures of their own liberation. To use Cahill’s term, Gwynne presents the authors as derivatized, arguing that their sexuality and their experiences are reflections of their culture and their lovers and not their own desires and choices.

For the romance scholar, Gwynne’s text offers an excellent source for feminist theoretical approaches to sexuality over the last few decades. His feminist historiography is thoughtful and would be helpful for students, especially in conjunction with some of the [End Page 5] memoirs themselves as well as other texts on women’s sexuality and popular romance. Unlike the other authors in this review, Gwynne does address the popular romance occasionally throughout his text, and he links certain trends in erotic romance with these erotic memoirs. Not all of these links are convincing. For example, Gwynne discusses briefly the popular juggernaut that is the Fifty Shades series, although he compares it to the Twilight Saga without seeming to understand that Fifty Shades began as Twilight fan fiction. He writes, “[Anastasia Steele] reminds the reader of another virginal romantic heroine of postfeminist popular culture—Isabella Swan” (8). This language could easily have been an editing error, but it might also suggest a lack of knowledge about the romances he occasionally mentions, and there are equally jarring moments throughout the text in which a derisive attitude about certain sexual practices and lifestyles bleeds through his writing either intentionally or unintentionally. Of particular interest here, are his discussions of BDSM, which he calls an “eroticisation of power” (24). When examining the women’s discussions of their explorations of D/s dynamics and rape fantasies, his analysis recalls the concept of “false consciousness” that he couches in a discussion about feminist responses to these issues (92). He argues that these memoirs “engage in a process of normalizing and destigmatising not only ostensibly transgressive female behaviour, such as sexual promiscuity, but even more extreme forms of taboo sexuality such as sadomasochism, prostitution and paedophilia” (12-13). His articulation establishes a negative view of these author’s experiences and by extension their choices and desires.

All three of these texts—Berlant and Edelman’s Sex, or the Unbearable, Cahill’s Overcoming Objectification, and Gwynne’s Erotic Memoirs and Postfeminism—will be of use to scholars of popular romance. They offer romance scholars new theoretical approaches and critical methodologies, as well as new structural models for pairing fictional and non-fictional accounts of sex, the erotic, and sexuality within contemporary culture.

[1] See, for instance, William Giraldi’s column for The New Republic on May 19, 2014 entitled “Finally an Academic Text Devoted to ‘50 Shades of Grey’: When a Very Smart Scholar Takes on a Very Dumb Book,”

[2] To name a few examples, see Alyssa Rosenberg’s “Men, Stop Lecturing Women about Reading Romance Novels” for The Washington Post on May 20, 2014,, or Rachel Kramer Bussel’s interview with Eloisa James on May 29, 2014, for Vulture, “Eloisa James on Feminism, Sexuality, and Why Romance Novels Are More Than Worthy of Respect,” [End Page 6]


Review: The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and its Discontents, by Laura Frost

Nothing, one might argue, could be further from popular romance than literary modernism. On the one hand, we have a type of writing intimately concerned with both representing and eliciting pleasure in a reader, whose material conditions of production are commonly aligned with mass readerships, and whose literary strategies include the recursive repetition of well-loved plots and favoured character types. Apparently at odds with this type of literary production is the elitist, coterie, avant-garde experimentation of literary modernism. T.S. Eliot, George Steiner, and William Empson all sang the praises of difficulty (Frost 20), and followed by Lionel Trilling’s 1963 identification of modernist literature with ‘unpleasure’, critics have commonly located modernism’s signal aesthetic practices in the discomfiting, disturbing, or unpleasant. A steady stream of critical works have emerged in the past two decades that seek to characterise, categorise, and map the “new affective terrain of modernity” (Flatley 4) and modernism. As Sianne Ngai has persuasively shown, the modernist period ushers in, with a new intensity, a concern with the representation not of noble or uplifting affects, but of “ugly feelings” – disgust, boredom, irritation, and shame. For every Clarissa Dalloway experiencing the pleasures of flowers, there are more numerous Septimus Smiths, alienated and terrified, unable to cope with modernity’s discombobulating transformations.

Yoked to this sense of literary modernism’s denial of pleasure is its reputation as a coterie writing and reading practice. Early studies of literary modernism commonly maintained the great divide between high- and lowbrow literary productions, defensive of their texts’ avant-garde status and wary of the taint of the popular. Yet in recent years, particularly in the wake of the colonizing expansion of modernist studies, scholars have begun to look more closely at the convergence of mass and elite cultures and the ways in which modernist writers “absorbed and remade forms of mass culture rather than merely disparaging them” (Mao and Walkowitz 744). A notable line of inquiry for scholars such as [End Page 1] Nicholas Daly (1999) and Martin Hipsky (2011) shows that the barriers between modernism and popular romance are more permeable than they appear.

Laura Frost’s The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and its Discontents, an engaging study of aesthetic and affective experimentation by exemplary modernist and interwar writers, finds new gaps in the fence. As she persuasively shows, many ‘highbrow’ texts borrow from popular genres, from Aldous Huxley’s responses to Elinor Glyn in Brave New World (1932), or Anita Loos’s deployment of the techniques of silent film titling in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925). Loos’s bestseller, the subject of Frost’s final chapter, has long been a subject of contention for scholars – is it modernist and ironic or a buoyant middlebrow fantasy? – and provides an opportunity for Frost to further engage with the enjoyable frissons between modernist innovation and the new pleasures of modern mass culture. That Gentlemen Prefer Blondes could in the 1920s (as now) be simultaneously taken for lowbrow pulp and highbrow satire illustrates the tensions between mass and elite, and pleasure and unpleasure, that represent for Frost “a new way of defining literary modernism more capaciously” (14).

Though the concept of unpleasure is central to her argument, Frost suggests that, rather than its opposite, unpleasure is a “modification” of pleasure (6). Within their stylistic innovations, modernists betrayed their signal concern with pleasure: specifically, with the training of the modern subject towards the enjoyment of new types of literary pleasure. “[M]odernists claimed that the struggle with difficult texts had its own intrinsic rewards” (21), parsed in terms of the “exercise of cultural distinction” (212), which worked to compete against the “charms of vernacular culture” (21):

Modernism’s contribution to the genealogy of pleasure is the declared substitution of one set of pleasures (refined, acquired, and cognitive) for another (embodied, accessible), in which the disavowal of the latter is promoted as an aesthetic principle. (22)

As Frost relates, the “double-bind” (236) in which so many modernists were tied was in accounting for mass culture as simultaneously “compelling” yet also a kind of “false consciousness” (226). To the modernists, as Frost relates, pleasure was “a force […] run amok in contemporary culture: in the cinema, in popular literature, and in the public’s enthusiasm for fun.” (236) In response, modernist writers and critics deployed a battery of defensive aesthetic measures – both textual and representative – that sought to differentiate and distance both writing and reading subjects from the intoxicating effects of pleasure upon culture (Frost devotes some pages to Q.D. Leavis’s salvoes against vulgar enjoyment). At the same time as it denies pleasure, though, modernism engages in the project of transforming pleasure: readers were asked not simply to “tolerate” the “hard cognitive labor” of modernist difficulty, but in fact to “embrace” it (6) – and learn to enjoy it. The reader must become a kind of masochist, willing to submit to the indignities of “discomfort, confusion” (6) and textual pain in the search for novel types of literary bliss.

In spite of their disavowal of accessible pleasure, Frost also shows how many modernist works also “participate” in the very strategies of embodied affect and desire as the popular texts they “purport […] to reject.” (13). In chapters on Ulysses’s smells, Stein and tickling, and the “anhedonia” (164) of the novels of Patrick Hamilton and Jean Rhys, Frost traces the representation and elicitation of new types of somatic and affective [End Page 2] experience. For example, in a highly readable chapter on Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Frost demonstrates Lawrence’s attention to the textual and erotic strategies of the interwar desert romances of E.M. Hull. Hull’s best-selling 1919 romance The Sheik was accorded extraordinary notice by both Lawrence and Q.D. Leavis, who viewed its “predictable formulas and sensational prose” as “epitomizing popular pleasure” (90). In spite of its immense presence in the popular culture of the twenties, inspiring sheet music, films starring Valentino, magazine ‘true stories’ and two perfumes, the interwar desert romance a la Hull enjoyed a relatively short-lived popularity, fizzing out (except for new spikes of interest from the 1990s within the narrower confines of popular romance fiction) sometime in the thirties. As Frost shows, however, Hull left an indelible impression upon both Lawrence and Leavis, who saw in The Sheik “a symptom of cultural decline” (100). In her 1932 salvo Fiction and the Reading Public, Leavis argues that the feeling produced by popular romances such as Hull is largely somatic, “cheap [and] mechanical”, at once passive and “masturbatory” (quoted in Frost 101); such embodied experiences, if repeated, render the general reader incapable of “bear[ing] the impact of a serious novel” (quoted in Frost 100). “If popular reading is a narcotic,” as Frost puts it, “modernism is bracingly therapeutic” (104).

This reading of romance as “regressive or banal” and modernism as “challenging and unfamiliar” is both itself something of a critical banality, and as Frost shows, called into question by Lawrence’s own use of the bread-and-butter pleasure management strategies of popular romance fiction. However, as Frost argues, the “Hullian turn” (111) in Lady Chatterley’s Lover is designed not to elicit pleasure but to “discipline and even curtail it” (90). Tracing verbal resemblances between The Sheik’s and Lady Chatterley’s mutual exploration of sexualised “shame”, Frost shows how Lawrence uses the same language to effect an entirely different response: where Hull’s text is “arranged to make her reader swoon with arousal” (125), Lawrence’s “rhetorically overshadows the sensation of pleasure” (126). In spite of the infamously pornographic reputation of his “Shame Epic”, Lawrence’s language of sex is designed not to provoke desire but to withhold it, “putting space between itself and the reader” (120). Yet Frost is at pains to show that it is not through the usual story of textual experimentation or difficulty beloved by Leavis that Lawrence disciplines readerly pleasure. Rather, it is by employing those techniques of popular romance writers – including “repetition, cliché and stereotype” (104) – that Lawrence is able to resituate pleasure at a point of tension between “novelty and familiarity, the shock of the new and the gratifications of the sure thing” (129).

Readers of this journal may wish Frost to have engaged more thoroughly with some of the key critical texts of popular romance studies, but her insights on the pleasures of modernist texts, and the disciplining of pleasure, should nevertheless be welcome to scholars seeking to further unpack the tensions and relationships between popular and highbrow literary production in the first half of the twentieth century. [End Page 3]

Works Cited

Daly, Nicholas. Modernism, Romance, and the Fin de Siècle: Popular Fiction and British Culture, 1880-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999. Print.

Flatley, Jonathan. Affective Mapping: Melancholia and the Politics of Modernism. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2008. Print.

Hipsky, Martin. Modernism and the Women’s Popular Romance in Britain, 1885-1925. Athens: Ohio UP, 2011. Print.

Mao, Douglas and Rebecca Walkowitz. “The New Modernist Studies.” PMLA 123.3 (2008): 737-48. Print.

Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2005. Print.

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