Issues

ISSN: 2159-4473

Published in partnership with the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance

Archive for the ‘Issue 1.2’ Category

Interview: Joanna Russ, by Conseula Francis and Alison Piepmeier

Noted science fiction author Joanna Russ is perhaps most famous for her provocative novels The Female Man (1975) and We Who Are About To (1977), and her 1983 Hugo Award winning short story “Souls.” Others know Russ primarily for her feminist criticism collected in works like Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts (1985), and What Are We Fighting For? (1997). We, however, became interested in Russ because of her involvement in the early days of the Kirk/Spock slash fandom.

As feminists, academics, and slash fans we went in search of what had been written about this phenomenon—women writing sexually explicit, largely homoerotic stories about characters from film, television, and literature. What had others, particularly feminists, made of this? Russ, we found, wrote the first important feminist analysis of slash fiction. Her 1985 essay, “Pornography By Women For Women, With Love” helped to set the terms of the discussion for feminist scholars who followed, and it is widely cited in fan studies. Russ argues that fantasy has to be read in more complex ways than simply seeing it as an effort at one-dimensional wish fulfillment. She posits fantasy as something rich and metaphorical. She reads slash as a genre that tells us new things about women’s sexuality and sexual desire, things that—in 1985—weren’t being talked about except in the very divided feminist “sex wars,” where “pro-sex” and “anti-porn” feminists created ever more polarized stances. We were especially intrigued by this passage from Russ’s essay:

Only those for whom a sexual fantasy “works,” that is, those who are aroused by it, have a chance of telling us to what particular set of conditions that fantasy speaks, and can analyze how and why it works and for whom. Sexual fantasy materials are like icebergs; the one-tenth that shows above the surface is no reliable indicator of the size or significance of the whole thing. Sexual fantasy that doesn’t arouse is boring, funny, or repellant, and unsympathetic outsiders trying to decode these fantasies (or any others) will make all sorts of mistakes. (89)

In the twenty-six years since her piece was published, the slash world has changed a great deal (as has the world of feminist analysis). Academic scholars from a variety of fields—including media studies, literature, history, and education—now examine fan fiction and slash fiction.[1] Within the last decade scholarly texts and academic journals have considered the legality of fan fiction,[2] have presented it as a space to explore girls’ online cultures and literacy,[3] have argued that fandom is a queer female space[4], and have questioned the dividing lines between pornography, erotica, and romance.[5]

We wanted to talk Russ, to have her revisit this idea of sexual fantasy, to have her discuss the phenomenon of a community of women writing erotica for the pleasure of other women, and get her take on current efforts to “decode” slash and slash fans. Though she is a bit of recluse and has published little in recent years (she suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome), Russ graciously agreed to be interviewed at her home in Tucson. The following conversation took place in May 2007, in her living room, among her books, movies, and a largely ignored (though nonetheless cool) rocketship on a wooden base that turned out to be her Hugo award.

JR I remember when I first got a phone call from a friend. She told me about slash, and I didn’t get mildly interested, my hair stood up on end! I said “What? Can I get that?” “Yes,” she said, “you can,” and I began collecting them, and finally when the collection began to get utterly unwieldy and huge, I sent them to Bowling Green University, the Popular Culture Institute there. I wanted them to go somewhere they would last and not just be thrown out or whatever.

AP Does that mean that you don’t have your slash anymore?

JR I don’t have them with me, no. I have the few stories I wrote, copies of those, but that’s it. I’ve found that because they’re so erotic, after I finished one of them I would have this terrible thud as I came back to reality, and I decided I just didn’t like that. So, sorrowfully, I sent them away, where they would be loved. I might think they are.

CF We’ve been particularly interested in not only the slash stories women are writing but also the kind of community they’re building around these stories and the kinds of bonding that they have been doing, and also the language that they have come up with to be able to talk about the bonding. The women in the various slash fandoms clearly think of this as a female community, as a place where women can come together, where we can bond, women can sort of express desires that they can’t normally express.

JR Oh yeah, they’re very much aware of that. Some of them have to keep it secret that they read this stuff, certainly from their employers and often from their husbands. I think what happened, the way I have heard it, is that when Star Trek began, a lot of women who had not been interested in science fiction came to be interested through it, although it really is not that much of a female fiction. And what happened was, I suspect, that the Trekkies, the Trek fans, started going to conventions. Now science fiction fans have always done that, but these were specifically Trek conventions, and they got together, they got to know each other. And [slash] began, and I think about that time there were stories hinting that [Kirk and Spock] were in love, and then there were stories about one of them having died and the other saying “Oh God, now I realize it, why didn’t I know it before,” and [these women] kind of got into the subject.

AP One of the sets of questions that we have for you was about what the community of slash readers and writers was like before the internet. We can tell you some of what it’s like now, because now there certainly are still cons, but so much of the community is happening on the internet and it is very immediate.

JR Yeah, I would think so. I don’t have much experience in that.

AP Right, we didn’t think that you did, so we were going to show you some of what is going on now if you’re curious.

JR I know that before, the science fiction fans—and there are always some women, not a majority, but quite a few—one of the things that motivated them, that probably still motivates the community, is that they feel very isolated. You don’t easily get in touch with people who are other fans. And every once in a while, I don’t know how many times in the past twenty years, maybe three or four times, I would get a letter addressed to my publisher saying, “Help! I am a science fiction fan and I am out here in nowhere land. I cannot find another fan, what should I do?” And usually what I tell them is get the magazines, because in the back they have announcements of cons, and go.

AP So when you were reading slash, you found out that it existed because a friend of yours said “Hey, look at this thing that I found?”

JR Yes.

AP And did you go to cons?

JR No, I didn’t. By then, the universities I was working for did not give out all that much money for travel. When they had I had gone to a lot of places, not SF cons, but I had all sorts of things going on, conferences about this, that, and the other, technology in the future, and who knows.

AP So did you have other female friends who read and/or wrote slash?

JR Only this one. I did write to several of the women whose stories were published, and one of them got to be quite a nice friend, and quite interesting. I don’t know where she is now, though, or what she’s doing. But no, I never really got into the community. There is a woman, an academic, who wrote a book about the community [Camille Bacon-Smith’s Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth (1991)]. It’s not so much about the stories per se, although she certainly does a lot of that, it’s about the kind of people who are in the community and what they feel and what is the kind of emotional center of the stories. I found it just fascinating.

AP Is she coming at it from a feminist perspective?

JR I think she gets to the center of the thing there. She’s interested in the topics, the themes they’re exploring, and it rang true to me, it really did. There was a guy in academia who did another book about it which is, I think, very schematic.

AP Was it Textual Poachers by Henry Jenkins?

JR I think so.

AP He’s actually come a long way since that book, but that has become a touchstone book in the field of fan fiction studies and fan scholarship more broadly. It’s a book that everybody refers to.

JR It’s not nearly as good as this one [Enterprising Women], I think, not nearly. He’s somewhat schematic, and a little rigid. She’s not interested in that. She says at one point that the material is like the stories of King Arthur—many, many different writers saying many, many different things, but that’s all.

AP Could we ask you some questions about writing slash? I know that you don’t do that now but in your essay “Pornography by Women for Women” you allude to the fact that you’re writing it, and we didn’t know if that was a literary device or if that was actually true.

JR No, I actually did.

AP We would love to hear about that, particularly because you are a professional writer.

JR Some of the others are too. Don’t assume they’re not. One of them is a lawyer, as far as I know, one is living on disability and worked for a while as a social worker. They turn up all over the place, and there are all sorts of theories about why. I think, to put it in a nutshell as far as I can remember, they’re writing about issues that concern women very much, but they’re doing it undercover in a way. These [the characters the writers create] are sort of men but they’re not really, you know? So [the women writers] can treat things that they could not do at all.

CF Did you enjoy writing slash?

JR I don’t know, that brings up a question of writing, do I, quote, enjoy writing. In a way, yes, and in a way no. It’s very hard, I mean, it really is. On the other hand I liked it immensely. I’m never happier than when I’m sitting in a corner typing. Yeah, I enjoyed it.

CF Was writing slash different in some way?

JR Yes, there was one way in which it’s very, very different, and that is that the characters are givens. You don’t have to stop and say “oh, by the way, this character is so-and-so and had this sort of childhood and blah, blah, blah,” because everybody knows who they are.

CF Some people argue that fanfic writers aren’t really writers or they can’t ever be very good writers because they’re just sort of playing in somebody else’s yard.

JR Many of them, yes, that’s true, but some of them are good writers. I don’t know, it’s hard to say. If you don’t know the show, you can’t really pick up what’s going on, and that in a way makes it easier, that you don’t have to create everything from scratch. The base, the foundation is already there. I couldn’t talk about anybody else, but that’s the way I felt, and it’s kind of freeing in a way. It sort of is like talking about King Arthur and his knights; well you know who they are, come on, I don’t have to tell you. Especially when you’re writing science fiction, everything is new, and that’s hard. And of course the other thing I think that got writers into [Star Trek] was that it’s character-driven. It has ideas and it’s character-driven. And that’s Buffy too. What many of them do in other kinds of fan fiction is to say “you know all the public stuff, I’m going to give you their private lives, filling in what isn’t there.”

AP Did you read any Buffy slash?

JR No. I have been told it exists but I don’t really feel that I’d want to. As I said, I’m too tired.

AP Well, we brought you some Smallville slash, just in case you want to see it but you don’t have to take it if it feels like that would be too much.

JR Most of it is sort of pornography.

AP Well, we definitely want to talk about that.

JR If it doesn’t turn you on, it’s kind of indifferent.

AP And that was one of the great points that you made in your essay about slash, the fact that people who don’t get it, who are not turned on by it, are not the right people to criticize it because they’re missing some crucial elements, and I thought that was exactly right.

JR I think that applies to all kinds of fiction and all kinds of drama. If it doesn’t affect you, then why read it?

AP And are you going to be able to have really useful insights about how it does or doesn’t work if it doesn’t work on you? So were your slash stories sexy? I mean, your regular novels are sexy, did the slash allow you to be more explicit?

JR Yes, and make my scenes longer. Yeah, it did I think. And yet there’s a good deal of slash where that doesn’t happen, but even there it’s full of emotion and emotional intensity. I know from secondhand that many of the male fans of Star Trek who don’t write this kind of thing were very offended by it. “That couldn’t happen in a million years.”

CF Many male fans are still not just offended, but incredibly vocal and hostile to slash.

JR “You’re playing in my field, get out, take your little red wagon and go home.” Yeah, something like that. I don’t really know, apparently it’s really threatening stuff.

AP And what is the threat? I have thoughts, we have thoughts on why it is so threatening but . . .

JR Tell me your thoughts.

AP Well, for one thing, I think part of what these slash stories are doing is making explicit a subtext that’s already very much there, and so I think that is threatening; the fact that if we took off the blinders of heterosexism, the amount of homoerotic tension that is going on in mainstream American media all the time is incredibly visible. And slash makes it visible, and I think that’s threatening.

JR I think so.

CF I think slash, too, makes visible female desire, and I think that freaks men out. Recently in the fangirl community someone had just read your How to Suppress Women’s Writing, and she was very moved and excited, and she wrote this really long post about your book in relation to fanfic. The title of the post was “How Fanfic Makes Women Poor.” She wrote this thing and basically what she said is that fanfic keeps women poor and silenced and marginalized because we are sort of over here doing our own thing out of the way and not competing in mainstream culture with men. And so regardless of what she actually said in the post, what it did is that all sorts of people came out of the woodwork to comment about fanfic, and why women do it and why they don’t do it, and whether or not fanfic violates copyright law, and there have been weeks and weeks of this stuff, and “you didn’t understand what Joanna Russ actually meant,” and weeks and weeks of this stuff. And one of the posts that came out of it was by a male academic who thought that all of this uproar was completely silly, and discussed people who write fanfic, particularly people who write slash. He said that fanfic was horrifying and that fanfic writers were pathological, that fandom as practiced by women represents a regression to adolescent, juvenile, child-like modes of expression, and that fanfic writers were bad readers and demonstrated their childlike nature by being unable to engage. He even to some extent recognized the ways in which that critique was completely gendered, that here were a bunch of women doing a bunch of silly things, over, in private, giggling, and that there was something deeply, deeply wrong about that, and that instead of doing that what we should be concerned with is creative art with a capital A.

JR Oh, that again. That’s an old one, oh my god, several centuries old. [Samuel] Delaney once pointed out that in the nineteenth century the number, the amount of fiction written, began to just grow like crazy. And it got to the point where nobody could read all of it, and what happened was that it first split into two, there was high art and there was slush, so you knew what you should be paying attention to. Rider Haggard’s book She, I don’t know if you know the novel; it’s a fantasy, it’s the kind of thing that today if you saw it, it would have a swordsman and an incredibly buxom lady on the cover, and you’d say it’s just trash. It is, actually, but he was considered absolutely on par with others. I mean, he might not be as good as they were, but this was serious fiction. And now we’ve been living with this split for so long, that that’s the automatic thing you can defend yourself with. “Oh, but this isn’t art, it isn’t serious, it isn’t real. It’s juvenile.” Anyway, I don’t know. I hope there are a lot of young men growing up who don’t hear of this and who don’t think about it and won’t do it anymore.

AP I think that the value, the categories of evaluation that we so often use to say this is pornography, versus this which is art, are suspect at best. I also think those judgments tell us a lot more about the culture itself and its assumptions than they do about the works they judge.

JR Yes, I would agree. You notice that some of the stuff by men that I would call certainly pornographic, Henry Miller, for instance, is taken very seriously. It’s all so obvious. When women do it, it’s silly, when men do it, it’s serious.

AP It’s either silly or it’s horrifying, you know? It’s either “oh, that’s trivial, we can laugh that off,” or it’s that this is deviant. I think slash is an interesting space to look at in terms of that, because it is so erotically-driven, it is so explicit, it is so sexy. I mean, to me, when you said “my hair stood up on end,” that was absolutely my response when I started reading slash, it was like “oh my god.” The first thought was “oh my god,” and the second thought was “how have I gone this long without having read this stuff,” you know? I think it’s really interesting that this sub-culture of literature exists and in thriving, but I also think it raises a lot of questions about our culture and female desire, which of course is one of the big things you talked about in your essay in 1985. We wanted to talk to you about to what extent those things are still happening and still true today. Do you feel that our cultural approach or cultural understanding of female desire is about the same now in 2007 as it was in 1985?

JR Well, it’s a little different than it was in 1958. If I look really far back, yeah, a lot has changed, but it’s weird, it’s as if the guys are still running television and the movies, and they’re trying very hard to keep it the way it was.

CF Do you think that shows like Buffy and Xena make a dent?

JR Yes, I think they do, and there’s something interesting that a writer friend of mine, a man, told me; he lives in Pennsylvania I think. He said he and his wife went on a tour of one of the studios, and one of the things that they had for people, who were pretty largely young people and children, were two actors, a woman costumed as Xena and a man costumed as Hercules. He said the younger people were fascinated by Xena and they had lots and lots and lots of questions, but they weren’t terribly interested in Hercules. This is irrespective of the sex. I think this is because in the Xena shows there is a lot of emphasis on personal feeling, and motives, and things like that; it’s character-driven again. I think some of them said they’d like to have a mother like Xena. I have been reading a lot of sludge, just stuff like collections of mystery stories and science fiction collections. The mystery stories are very interesting because again, often the ones that women write are as good as or not as good as the ones the guys write, but the women write about personalities, about characters, and what is character-driven. The men tend not to; they are more comfortable apparently with technical problems. I think the best writers are the kind who do both at the same time.

AP Do you attribute this difference to just sort of continuing gender role socialization that puts women in the position of being the caretakers?

JR Well that certainly exists, and I don’t know if it’s quite enough to explain it, but it’s a hell of a lot. I don’t really trust biological research as it’s going on now, because when it gets into the mass media, again, you have to get into new scholarly stuff before you find this, but if you have two groups of people and you’re testing them for something, there’s about a five percent chance that the results you get will just be chance. They’re necessary because they’re statistics, and yet when you see stuff in places like Newsweek or Time they’re taking one and a half percent, for instance, as being terribly important. I also happen to know again from some of these sources that articles and books which talk about how different men and women are get reviewed and get talked about. Those which don’t come up with that just disappear. It’s obvious that this culture is extremist on the subject.

AP I have a whole unit in my Intro to Women’s and Gender Studies course where we talk about that very issue because I think that that’s incredibly true, that our culture loves to find biological justifications for gender-power differences.

JR Every culture will find justification for everything they believe or want to believe. I still think that a lot of the world is still in shock, and I think probably what brought it on was easier birth control. The sort of, where are we, what do we do now?

AP And our culture I think may be among that group.

JR Oh yes, definitely.

AP Conseula and I have been talking a lot about female desire and the fact that it seems to us that the lessons that we have been taught as girls and women about what desire was, what it meant, what it felt like, what shapes it took, that those lessons were all profoundly, profoundly wrong. In ways that as a thirty-four year old woman who has been a feminist for years and years, who teaches Women’s Studies, I’m surprised at how surprising this is to me, because I should know this by now, but it’s like, it’s even more wrong than I thought. So I just think that our culture, that we don’t know anything about female desire.

CF And yet, here’s this world of slash where this is all these women are doing, talking about it and asking questions.

JR But they’re in disguise. They’re disguised as a man. I once noticed that in slash there are so many references to these characters’ penises that it’s like a little label that says “Hello, I am” and the name. “I have a penis and I’m therefore male,” but clearly that’s not what’s happening.

CF Why do you think that women can’t have these conversations about their own desire through female characters?

JR I think it’s something like this. As I said, the characters are not exactly male. They’re disguises of some sort, kind of like “I have the proper genitals so I am male, please remember that.” I have written a couple of stories myself in which women are disguised, literally disguised as men. You try to write about women and you don’t have the cultural tropes that you could use, there’s very little there. It’s kind of like disguising yourself as an upper-class person, as an aristocrat. It counts, it matters that they’re male. It makes what they do serious. Apparently the real message does get through, because you said a lot of the fans hate it. They don’t think it’s about men, they know better. [Writing about male characters] kind of frees your imagination or your memory or something. This had happened in the nineteenth century, quite a few women who were novelists would write stories about women who were disguised as men or they would write them from a male point of view, and that is saying “if I were only a man, I could do this or that, or be this or that.” Some were not like that, there’s an early detective novel, 1890 or something like that in which a young woman is a detective, and there’s a lovely illustration from the first publications of this thing in a magazine then, and there she is with her skirts and her parasol and her hands are teeny. A drunken lout is about to hit a woman, and she is saying, “stop, sir,” and she doesn’t look as if she could hit a cream puff, but that’s her. That did happen. But in many of them, no, it didn’t.

I think [writing about male characters] has something to do with one’s sense of oneself as an active person, as free. I mean, we have sense, we look around and we see those guys who are doing all sorts of stuff, even if they can’t do it right, they’re thinking about it. They’re making fantasies about it, there are movies about it. So this becomes not only “we will show you the personal life of these people, which is left out of the mass media, but we will write about them as we know people on the inside, and they will ring true to us, to the writers and readers in a way they would not if they were women.”

AP And I guess that’s the part that interests me and that I have not found an adequate explanation for. That reading the stories about Clark and Lex for instance, in the Smallville slash, is really sexy, I mean, that stuff is hot, and works for me in a way that the stories about the female characters in Smallville don’t work at all. Is that some sort of compensatory thing, because my identity as a woman is not solid enough?

JR No, I think that nobody’s social identity as a woman is solid enough. And when you’re doing this, you’re inventing, you’re fantasizing. It’s still very much a different world for men and women. I remember somebody, a feminist at Cornell, once said to me, “I was talking to this audience and they were looking rather unconvinced, especially the guys, and then I said, how many people here put only their initials in the telephone listing in the telephone book?” And the women’s hands all went up, and the men went, you do? They didn’t know. They hadn’t noticed. Yeah, they do. And that makes a big difference. It’s like gay friends of mine who went to the March on Washington, and said we were all over the place, we got into a subway and it was nine tenths gay people. And she said you don’t realize what a burden you carry until it’s gone. Everything just went, it was wonderful, and I think that’s true whatever the burden is. Whatever the minority burden or the sex burden, whatever it is, when it’s gone you go, oh my god.

AP The social identity of a woman is such that sexual stories with women are not . . .

JR It’s not real unless men do it, something like that, I think.

CF And so do you think that this new generation, the next generation of women are continuing to write slash like the women who were writing before? So many of the people in the Smallville fandom, for instance, are college students, twenty-year-old girls, so their social identities [are also not well-formed]? We would like to think that a generation later . . .

JR It’s less than it was, because when I was an adolescent which was in the 1950’s, nobody would have imagined [slash], let alone written it. And that’s why when Patricia, my friend, said it’s a world in which Kirk and Spock are lovers, and I said, “Where do I find that?” I remember once I was having one of the [fanzines] duplicated, and the illustrations I had forgotten about, and I was there watching them do it in this Xerox place. This elderly man kind of stood next to me and he saw one of the illustrations, and he went gray—shocked, very shocked. Yet I took [these same pictures] to a feminist group and I remember one woman saying “I don’t want to see that,” and I showed it to her and she said, “they’re not there for us, they’re there for each other,” which was very subtle, it was true, in the illustration.

AP And yet I don’t know that’s true of the stuff that I read. In fact, I would say it’s the exact opposite, that the characters are not there for each other, they’re entirely there to create erotic bonds between the women who are writing and reading the stories. They’re explicitly there for us.

JR Yes, I would say so, yes.

AP Not for each other.

JR Yet the woman I heard this from, my friend, is definitely heterosexual, and she loves [slash] too. I think it’s fairly flexible stuff. You don’t have to identify with this character or that, you can do both or neither; writing can do that. It’s only after thinking, like today, about this that I realize how male-identified most science fiction is, especially since I’ve been reading anything from the sixties on, in science fiction. It’s that idea of disguise that I find myself coming back to. You can really, in a sense, be anybody or anybodies, plural, in writing. I used to write in the sixties, in the early sixties; I was writing stories, not science fiction then, in which the main characters were men. One day I sat myself down and began thinking, and I just tried to write a story about a thief and pick-pocket and that kind of person you keep finding in those books, who was female. I couldn’t. And then I started writing and when I wrote I realized that it was a creation story, and the creation story for this particular world was that men were made from the sixth finger of the first woman, and that is why women only have five fingers on each hand. That worked, and suddenly I did this whole series about Alex, but she is still an exception in that world. And by the time I got to The Female Man, they aren’t, in the whole population.

AP And yet, characters like Alex, and characters like Janet, and Gyl, in The Female Man are not necessarily exceptions now in that fictional world, but are still exceptions in the world of public discourse.

JR That’s a good phrase to think of when you’re asking, why did they write about men? That’s what we have in the public discourse. And in those terms, if you like things that go into those terms (which probably, obviously you do), that’s what you have to do. Work in the public discourse’s terms. Some [slash writers] I think have been drifting away from that, but as I said, I am way out of the loop now.

AP Did you or do you see slash as potentially a kind of activist writing? Is it, for instance, a kind of writing that could challenge compulsory heterosexuality?

JR The second thing, no, I don’t think so; the first, maybe. I think the women who write it were, at least in the eighties, aware that they were doing something they probably should not tell people about, especially their employers. I remember Syn Ferguson, who is a good writer, saying to me at one point “my readers need this, they really need it, and I know women who are keeping this a secret from everybody, including their husbands.”

AP Why do they need it?

JR Because, as you say, this is a public discourse in which female sexuality really doesn’t exist. I lived that out. I can still remember riding in the subway at about the age of seventeen, and I remember thinking oh my god, sex is so common, it’s all over the place. I didn’t think it was because I learned what the movies taught me.

CF Do you think that these women who are writing slash are doing a disservice by keeping it out of the public discourse? I think this is part of what that fury was about the woman who wrote about your book, that we’re doing ourselves a disservice by keeping it secret. I write slash and I certainly don’t publish it under my actual name.

JR Most of the women don’t, they write it under pseudonyms.

CF Should we be? Should I go out tomorrow and publish it under my own name? Would that be better?

AP Is the secrecy actually serving the interest of the patriarchy that wants to keep women’s desire under wraps?

JR It’s probably doing both. I don’t think you can separate the yes and the no on that, absolutely. Think of what it would do for you. What would be the consequences? I think that women who wrote it in the seventies and eighties had some idea of what they were doing, because I did see one group of slash writers in the eighties at a science fiction convention, and some guy came over and said “who are you?” which is a perfectly reasonable thing to do at a convention, and one of the women looked at him and said “we’re a knitting society,” or something along that line, and one of them called themselves the Women’s Terrorist Society from Hell. Everybody laughed, and he laughed, but I think there was some truth to it. If you believe the public discourse then you have to also believe that female sexuality is a dreadful thing and must be squashed at all costs, and so on. I just hope there are many, many more young people who are growing up without that, without all of it, anyway. I think that’s true. Let me tell you an anecdote about that. When I was in my teens I do remember reading Forever Amber, which was the scandalous book of the time, and the sex scenes always ended with three or four dots. I got to the point where if I saw three or four dots, it would turn me on, and now you think of it and it seems so absolutely asinine, three dots.

AP I do think that we’re a lot more open about sexual desire in general, and female desire these days, but I think often female desire now is configured as something that is sort of a visible commodity for other people’s consumption. The whole Girls Gone Wild phenomenon, that women are supposed to be sexy but not . . .

JR Sexy but not sexual.

AP Right, it’s not about what do you feel, it’s about what do you perform.

JR I think so too, I don’t know what’s going to happen with this. I would hope that the openness would leave a little more room. Some woman was commenting in somebody else’s book about some event in her parents’ group, where they went to see their daughters perform, and their daughters were imitating the sexy women from I forget where, and they were eleven and twelve. And the parents didn’t like it and I thought I don’t like it either. I really don’t like it. This is not about being sexual. I don’t know, I think it’s a lot easier for men to find out who they are this way than it is for us, but still. One thing I have tried to do when I write, and Samuel Delaney was clever enough to pick it up at one point, was take the sex in my stories and simply make it part of the whole fabric. It’s not special, it’s not sacred, it’s not demonic, it just happens. It’s as much an ordinary part of life as heating your dinner up, or something, and I always worked very hard to get that over. That’s the antithesis, the three dots, I guess.

AP Well right, because if something is so highly charged that you can’t even write and you just have to put the three dots . . .

JR It’s sacred and demonic.

AP I think that’s exactly right.

CF Sam Delaney said about science fiction that it was a rich symbiotic environment that talks about what you desire. Someone was asking him about sexuality in his work and whether he thought the genre of science fiction allowed him to play, and he said that there was something, not just about science fiction books, but about science fiction culture, about going to cons, and about that being a unique place in allowing people to articulate what they desire and what they fantasize about, whether or not it was something they would actually do, that this freed them up in a way.

JR I think it’s true. I remember talking to a young woman I knew when I was teaching in Seattle, who was a science fiction fan and I got to know a little group of fans there. She at one point said she had been a Mormon, and was no longer, she insisted on being thrown out, and she said what began to free her in her life was science fiction. I said how do you mean, and she said not necessarily the characters, who were very recognizable, not necessarily the plots, which were sort of imperial America stuff, but she said the landscapes, and the aliens. They give the feeling that things could be different. I think it did that for me too, when I was a teenager, and that’s why I held on to it so. Things could be otherwise.

AP Which is a pretty radical notion.

JR Yeah, it certainly is.

CF Octavia Butler talks about the same thing in her interviews. About reading science fiction as a young kid and that what drew her to it was the possibility, even when the stories might have been hackneyed or imperial America, there was still something about it that suggested possibility.

AP It seems to me that, and I don’t know if there’s anybody to quantify this, but the number of people who are writing fan fiction now, the number of people who are involved, for instance, in the Harry Potter fan community . . .

JR Yeah, that surprised me a little.

AP It’s stunningly large.

CF Incredibly large, and active, and prolific.

AP People just are writing novels and novels in response to these novels, and so it seems to me that although maybe it still feels subcultural for the people who are involved, it seems like it’s got to be at some point, it’s got to be less of one. Even though it’s a secret, it can’t be a subculture if it’s the majority of people participating, right? It feels to me like maybe it’s on this borderline of not being subcultural anymore.

CF Yet we might be walking down the street with tons of people who are reading and writing slash, but they’re publishing it under pseudonyms. So that even if it’s this ground-swelling stuff, it’s still a secret.

JR They’ve got to keep it secret because they’re violating copyrights, and so are the others.

AP Right, but that’s another whole gendered issue that some folks have talked about, the fact that parody is looked on by the courts and by copyright holders much more favorably than slash. So people who are writing parodies that aren’t sexual, who are often men, are not as liable as people who are writing slash, who are usually women. So it’s an interesting gendered thing about what’s considered copyright violation and what isn’t.

JR There’s something legal there, too, which is that parodies are making fun of the object, and they’re not trespassing, really, on the same territory.

AP Well, it’s considered a first amendment issue, which I think is right, but slash is not.

JR It’s serious, that’s why.

AP It’s also, I think, because of all the stigma around women being into this dirty stuff.

JR I know there are women, some have told me, who don’t want to sign their names because they’re quite sure they’d lose their jobs, and they might. It’s a pity, it is a pity. And there is very explosive stuff in there, I know. And one of the reasons I gave my collection away is I was spending too much time and energy on it, and it costs a bundle.

AP Well, this is a bad sign for us, Conseula. The fact that she’s actually had to give it up, cause we have constant conversations about, is this bad that we’re spending this much time reading slash?

JR It wasn’t a matter of it being objectively bad. It was that every time I finished a [fanzine], the exuberance would carry me across the apartment and then I’d go, oh no, it’s over.

AP And I think that may be one thing that’s somewhat different with the internet communities, because now you finish the stories and you write to the author, and then you write to your girlfriend and you say “oh my god, go read this story,” and then you excerpt, “here’s a really sexy passage.” This is what Conseula does to me all the time, “here’s something really sexy,” so that you won’t be able to resist reading the story right now. And so it’s sort of like, we don’t have that thud because of the community.

JR I know, the characters have sort of become community personas, and I did not have that.

AP It would be a thud, I think, to finish the story and not be able to say “oh my god, Conseula, you have to read this.”

And one of the things, too, that just reminds me of this that you mentioned in your “Pornography” essay, you said, “I mentioned just the premise of slash to eight women, and all of them shrieked,” and I thought yes, there’s something very true in that. I mean, obviously it’s true because it was your experience, but there’s something about the female community and the shrieking. Conseula and I have these conversations about how we feel like we have tapped into our fifteen-year-old selves, and the shrieking, and the delight.

JR Possibly fourteen.

CF And I think that part of the guy who called fanfic horrifying and pathological, I think in part that’s what he’s reacting to, because if you see one of the stories posted online and the comments that come after it, a lot of it is sort of shrieking with words, and this whole sort of fangirl language that has developed to communicate that shriek, but on the screen, and it is like we’re fifteen years old, or fourteen.

JR But we never got this when we were fifteen and fourteen, and that’s the difference.

AP Yeah, it feels like it’s tapping into some, I mean, I’ve been using words like “unruly” and “insurgent” sort of energy in myself that got disciplined out of me when I was a teenager.

JR It must be very different between you and me since I was a teenager in the God/Elvis 1950s, and there are women now [writing slash] who are younger than you are, who are fourteen and fifteen. I don’t know what I would do with that. I do know that in feminist writing there have been women writing books and things like that in which they recount what happened to them in their teens, and what it meant to them. What I think of the mystification I was exposed to, it was just hard. I’m seventy, but this must have started when I was eleven or twelve, being squashed. Somebody was saying that for gay women to come out, they usually do it a good bit later than gay men, because you can’t get a picture of yourself at all, one way or the other.

AP And that is one thing that I think, to a certain extent, I hope maybe has changed from when you were a teenager. I think at least teenage girls now, regardless of the distortions that our society puts around female sexuality, maybe know that having sexual feelings is a normal thing, and also I think know that gay and lesbian identities exist.

JR That is where I think it’s really big and different, a big difference.

Coda: After the interview concluded, we gave Russ some slash stories we had printed out for her. While at the time she seemed to accept them more out of a desire to be polite rather than a genuine interest in the love affair between Clark Kent and Lex Luthor, those stories actually began a year-long correspondence with Russ. She wrote to us (in letters that she composed on the typewriter—she doesn’t own a computer), commenting on the stories we’d given her and on slash and women and sexuality generally; we wrote back and sent more stories. When we met her she had opted out of the slash community (to a certain extent, she had never been part of that community), but we introduced her back into the community, and that community of female desire seemed to delight her as much as it has delighted us and other women who read and write slash in the communities that proliferate online today.

Russ is now 75 years old, but she is still a rigorous thinker—creative and critical—whose writings have been important to science fiction and feminism. Although we didn’t agree with everything she said in our interview, we were struck by how thoughtfully she engaged with a world that she now mostly views from the outside. We also remain impressed with how relevant her writings still are. Although much has changed from the world she intervened in with her fiction and her critical essays, too much remains the same, and her arguments and visions—about women, about gays and lesbians, about a society that allows everyone the space to enact their full humanity—still need to be acknowledged.

Works Cited

Russ, Joanna. Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans and Perverts: Feminist Essays. Trumansburg, NY: The Crossing Press, 1985. Print.


[1] In particular, see Rhiannon Bury’s Cyberspaces of Their Own: Female Fandoms Online (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2005) and Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse’s edited collection, Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2006). The academic journal Transformative Works and Cultures is also an important resource for slash scholars.

[2] For instance, Abigail De Kosnik, “Should Fan Fiction Be Free?”, Cinema Journal 48.4 (2009), 118-124; Anupam Chander and Madhavi Sunder, “Everyone’s a Superhero: A Cultural Theory of ‘Mary Sue’ Fan Fiction as Fair Use,” California Law Review 95.2 (2007), 597-626; and Rebecca Tushnet, “Legal Fictions: Copyright, Fan Fiction, and a New Common Law” (Loyola of Los Angeles Entertainment Law Journal, 17.3).

[3] See the work of Rebecca Black, who has written several academic articles as well as a monograph, Adolescents and Online Fan Fiction. New York: Peter Lang (2008). Also see Angela Thomas, Youth Online: Identity and Literacy in the Digital Age. New York, Peter Lang (2007) and Catherine Tosenberger, “Homosexuality at the Online Hogwarts: Harry Potter Slash Fanfiction.” Children’s Literature 36 (2008), 185-207.

[4] For instance, see Eden Lackner, Barbara Lynn Lucas, and Robin Anne Reid’s “Cunning Linguists: The Bisexual Erotics of Words/Silence/Flesh” (Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet. Hellekson, Karen, and Kristina Busse, eds. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2006, 189-206), and Kristina Busse, “ ‘Digital Get Down’: Postmodern Boy Band Slash and the Queer Female Space,” eros.usa: Essays on the Culture and Literature of Desire (eds. Cheryl Alexander Malcolm and Jopi Nyman. Gdansk: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Gdanskiego, 2005: 103-125).

[5] See Catherine Driscoll, “One True Pairing: The Romance of Pornography and the Pornography of Romance.” Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet (Hellekson, Karen, and Kristina Busse, eds. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2006, 79-96) and “Annihilating Love and Heterosexuality without Women: Romance, Generic Difference, and Queer Politics in ‘Supernatural’ Fan Fiction,” by Monica Flegel and Jenny Roth, Transformative Works and Cultures 4(2010).

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Pedagogy Report: Embedding Popular Romance Studies in Undergraduate English Units: Teaching Georgette Heyer’s Sylvester by Lisa Fletcher, Rosemary Gaby, and Jennifer Kloester

Introduction

This paper outlines one model for introducing popular romance studies to undergraduate English programs: teaching romance texts and topics alongside canonical and contemporary literary texts. This “embedding” approach has clear advantages over the teaching of “specialist” popular romance units, not least because of its flexibility in relation to diverse curricula. We discuss one recent example of teaching popular romance—specifically, popular historical romance—at the University of Tasmania, Australia (UTAS), where the authors recently collaborated on the design and teaching of a new unit in which students read Georgette Heyer’s Sylvester alongside literary classics such as William Shakespeare’s Henry V and Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. The paper explains the unit design in detail, presents the case for adopting an embedding approach to teaching popular romance fiction, describes the teaching strategies Lisa Fletcher and Jennifer Kloester used in their lectures on Heyer, and analyzes student responses to this initiative through examination of selected assessment tasks.

1. The Teaching Context: Sylvester and “Fictions of History”

In 2009 a new team-taught unit, “Fictions of History,” was introduced in the English major at UTAS; it was taught for the first time in Semester 2, 2010 (June—November) and will be offered again in Semester 2, 2011. The unit is an elective at the advanced level, aimed principally at students who have completed introductory and intermediate English; however, the prerequisite allows students who have only completed introductory (or first-year) English to enroll. “Fictions of History” was designed to:

  • build students’ knowledge of historicist approaches to analyzing literary texts;
  • encourage critical reflection on the relationship between the treatment of history in literary and popular texts; and
  • enhance skills in conducting research on a diverse range of texts.

An additional impetus for developing this unit was to facilitate collaborative teaching, which would bring together the research interests of academic staff. One common thread linking the work of the lecturers (Elizabeth Leane, Ralph Crane, Rosemary Gaby, and Fletcher) who contributed to this unit is a focus on the intersections of literature and history. At UTAS, achieving a “teaching-research nexus” is especially important at the advanced level as we seek to engage students’ interest in pursuing honors and postgraduate study. The embedding approach therefore has clear benefits for popular romance scholars (in this case, Fletcher) looking to motivate students to pursue postgraduate research, but who may not have the opportunity to teach units devoted to the field.

Unit Description

How does literature represent the past? This unit introduces students to key theoretical frameworks for interrogating the complex and contentious relationship between “fiction” and “history.” Students have the opportunity to discuss “fictions of history” from a range of historical, cultural, and national contexts. Texts will range from literary classics to popular genre fiction to postmodern tours de force. (http://www.utas.edu.au/english/units.htm).

Required Texts (in order taught)

  • Shakespeare, William Henry V
  • Scott, Walter Ivanhoe
  • Heyer, Georgette Sylvester
  • Farrell, J. G. The Siege of Krishnapur
  • Bainbridge, Beryl The Birthday Boys

Teaching Pattern

The unit is taught over thirteen weeks. Students attend a fifty-minute lecture each week and a 90-minute weekly tutorial from the second week of semester. The bulk of lectures focus on analysis of the set texts; two lectures (delivered by Fletcher in 2010 in the 4th and 7th weeks of semester) introduce theoretical approaches to reading fictions of history.

Assessment

Students in this unit are required to complete a 1000-word essay, a 2500-word essay and a 2-hour exam:

2. Teaching Popular Romance Fiction: Why Take an “Embedding” Approach?

The embedding approach to teaching popular romance fiction is based on the view that Literature and popular fiction are distinct, but interrelated fields. Ken Gelder uses the capital “L” for Literature in his book, Popular Fiction: The Logic and Practices of a Literary Field, in order to distinguish the two major sub-fields of the broader literary field. He argues “popular fiction is best conceived of as the opposite of Literature” (11). For Gelder, popular fiction and Literature are antagonistic fields; they each define themselves against the other. Gelder gives us the best starting point yet for theorizing the relationship between the popular and Literary fields of cultural production, especially when the focus of study is on particular genres. He writes: “Popular fiction is, essentially, genre fiction” (1). However, he misses the extent to which genre cuts through the curtain he brings down between, to use different terms, “lowbrow” and “highbrow” texts (Fletcher 4). The tropes and conventions of the romance genre cut across the boundaries of these cultural fields in fascinating and important ways, which the pedagogy of popular romance studies must take into account. Teaching popular romance texts alongside Literary texts can help students recognize that considering the form and function of popular romance is not a trivial pursuit with only narrow cultural relevance.[1]

Critics often speak up for the value of studying romance fiction because of the sheer, unparalleled popularity (in global terms) of the distilled or purer versions of the form—most commonly category romance novels. Readers of JPRS will recognize this argument: studying popular romance fiction is important because of the sheer magnitude of texts and readers it looks to (and respects). The embedding approach begins with a slightly different argument: Romance is relevant to students of English because it does not stop working at the boundaries of the field of popular romance fiction. Heyer is a pertinent example here. While her novels clearly participate in the popular romance genre—she is, after all, the Queen of the Regency Romance—they are both influenced by and influence texts that fall outside the strict parameters of romance. So, perhaps the first step to getting the burgeoning field of popular romance studies into the classroom is to identify texts that, like Heyer’s Sylvester, connect in important formal, thematic or historical ways to texts that already have an established place in the curriculum.

3. Teaching Sylvester

The unit includes two lectures on Sylvester. In 2010, the first lecture was delivered by a guest of the UTAS English program, Jennifer Kloester, author of Georgette Heyer’s Regency World and Heyer’s official biography (forthcoming 2011). Kloester’s lecture explained the historiographic and literary traditions that informed Heyer’s depiction of the Regency period, and encouraged students to think critically about the relationship between “history” and “fiction” in Sylvester. The following week, Lisa Fletcher delivered a lecture focused more closely on the novel, in which she introduced the term “romance” to the discussion and examined Heyer’s self-reflexive use of genre conventions. Kloester and Fletcher worked closely together to plan their approach to the lectures; in particular, they were concerned to spark interest in a text (and genre), with which tutors in the unit had reported most students were unfamiliar.[2] They were aware too of quite open resistance from some students (especially males) to studying a romance novel and concerned to use the lectures to model “serious” scholarly research and analysis.

Lecture Summary: Kloester

In short, the first lecture on Sylvester provided students with background to assist with their study of a novelist and a sub-genre with which they were largely unfamiliar. The first aim of this lecture was to introduce Heyer as a writer, not only of historical romance novels, but also as someone who had a remarkable ability to seamlessly integrate historical fact with enduringly readable fiction. Heyer is universally recognized as the creator of the Regency genre of historical fiction and lauded for her ability to “bring the past to life” (Fahnestock-Thomas; Fletcher; Kloester). Her historical fiction offers students an accessible medium for examining the methodologies required to create this sense of the past and to look at some of the issues rising from the diffusion of historical facts through a fictional text.

The second aim was to raise the students’ awareness of Heyer’s own historical context and how this affected her understanding of what history was and the kinds of historical data she accrued for her novels. An understanding of this aspect of her writing is particularly important given the dramatic shift in historiography that occurred throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century which eventually resulted in the professionalization of history. In order to assess Heyer’s writing and her historical methodology the students needed to know that hers was a nineteenth-century approach to the past. She was greatly influenced by the grand narrative histories written by famous nineteenth-century historians such as Macaulay, Carlyle and Froude as well as by novelists such as Sir Walter Scott, Stanley Weyman, and Charles Dickens, among others.

There are several useful parallels to be drawn between Scott and Heyer: both were the number one best-selling authors of historical fiction in their day and both had a concern for historical accuracy; each attracted a wide audience, introducing many new readers to history; both were innovative in their depiction of the past and each came to be identified by a particular type of novel or historical period. But there were also differences in their treatment of history and in the focus of their novels. Scott was a more historical writer than Heyer, with a more scholarly approach to the past and, unlike Heyer, much of his history is overt—as demonstrated in the later editions of his books where he was at pains to include in their introductions, notes and appendices, many of his novels’ historical underpinnings. By contrast, Heyer made little or no concession to her readers’ possible interest in the historical sources from which she drew her portrait of the Regency. Apart from her two Waterloo books, An Infamous Army and The Spanish Bride, her Regencies are devoid of footnotes or bibliographies and offer their audience no clear way of discerning the historical facts from Heyer’s fictional imaginings.

This narrative paradox forces the reader to trust Heyer in her recreation of the historical period. There is an expectation that factual detail will be accurate and that she has rendered the past faithfully. For Heyer this meant creating fictional stories that were not merely set against a backdrop of historical scenes but that were actually dependent on the historical realities of the era. As in Scott, in Heyer’s novels, the history is an essential element of the books—an inherent part of the story, plot structure and writing technique; the historical past is so closely woven into the fictional story that the history cannot be extracted from the novels without destroying the textual entity. Unlike many modern category historical romances, Heyer’s romantic plots both depend upon and are informed by the historical past she depicts.

This is especially true in Sylvester, a novel which relies for part of its plot on Regency society’s attitudes to women. When Phoebe Marlow is told she is to receive an offer of marriage from the hero, Sylvester, she is aghast. She understands, however, that her social and domestic situation makes it impossible for her to refuse such an offer—even from a man she purports to despise. Heyer’s knowledge of the era, gleaned from her intensive reading of mainly primary source material (especially contemporary letters, diaries, journals and other eye-witness accounts) allowed her to develop her plot in keeping with the known customs and attitudes of the day.

At this point in the lecture it was necessary to explain to the students how Heyer’s specific knowledge of the social aspects of the Regency period pre-dated many of the comprehensive histories of the period. This is vital to understanding the nature of Heyer’s history and her portrait of the Regency. One of the reasons she stuck so closely to the primary sources was because in 1935, when she wrote her first Regency novel, Regency Buck, there were very few secondary sources about the period. Most writing about the era was incorporated into much larger histories of the nineteenth century or books on specific subjects such as the Napoleonic Wars.

An analysis of three major historical bibliographies (Royal Historical Society; Chaloner and Richardson; Brown and Christie) reveals that general recognition by historians of the “Regency” as a specific or distinctive historical period did not begin until the late 1940s (by which time Heyer had already written nine bestselling Regency novels). In the 1950s there was a gradual increase in written accounts of the era, with a more marked increase in historiographical interest occurring in the 1960s and 1970s, which has continued to the present day. From 1950 onwards there was a significant shift in the number of history books with the word “Regency” in their title. Whereas only twelve books were published with the word Regency in their title in the 120 years between 1830 and 1950, in the thirty years between 1950 and 1980, twenty-five books such books were published. Since then the number has grown exponentially (in fact, the increase from the late 1940s runs parallel to the huge growth in popularity of Heyer’s Regencies from 1944).

In Sylvester Heyer makes deliberate use of her knowledge of the era by drawing on the experience of the historical figure, Lady Caroline Lamb. Not only does Heyer refer directly to Lady Caroline and her novel Glenarvon in Sylvester, but she also has her fictional heroine Phoebe anonymously write her own scandalous roman à clef. This parallel juxtaposition of the factual and the fictional typifies Heyer’s approach to her writing. By constructing her novels with an invisible scaffolding of meticulous historical detail she strengthens the verisimilitude of the emotional drama (though only the most knowledgeable readers may be aware of it).

The tone, the style, the color with which history was written in the nineteenth century legitimized and strengthened Heyer’s own work. This is evident not only in her approach to research and her perception of the historical process, but also in the literary construction of her prose. Her form of history was not always so very far removed from the rhythm and language of the works of the great nineteenth-century historians such as Macaulay, Carlyle, and Froude. Heyer was not a historian, if a historian is defined as one who analyzes the past in order to solve a puzzle, or to explain the causes and consequences of a specific event or to clarify the evolution and significance of ideas and movements. She was not interested in “causation”—although a close reading suggests that she was interested in social realities (mainly for the upper class) such as class relations, marriage, money and the role of women. Nor was she an analyst or an explicator; she was a narrator of the past; though she was not a historian, her books are full of history: historical fact, people, events and a remarkable sense of period. She was not interested in critiquing her sources—either for their interpretation of the past or for the internal machinations of their writers’ minds. For her the sources were just that—sources: “authentic” records of past moments waiting to be perused by the researcher and mined for any relevant information which might contribute to the accurate reconstruction of some aspect of the past. Heyer was, in some ways, a consumer—rather than a practitioner—of historical research; she absorbed the historical past and understood it but she did not seek to explain it to her readers.

Ultimately, Heyer offered a picture of the Regency that was (and is) far more than a mere painted backdrop against which her characters perform: she created a carefully constructed social matrix (based on her understanding of the primary source material), which was true to the structure of the society about which she wrote. Heyer was rigorous in her application of historical fact within her chosen slice of the Regency period. By immersing herself in its broader economic, political and social structures as well as in its lively and engaging minutiae, she was able to create characters who not only “lived” within the Regency but whose (albeit fictional) lives were also shaped by its customs, manners and mores.

Lecture Summary: Fletcher

This lecture began by reading two brief 1958 reviews of Sylvester in order to introduce a focus on “romance.” Kirkus Reviews classifies Sylvester as “Another Regency Romp [which] pursues the obstacle course of true love in the marital stakes of Sylvester, Duke of Salford, and authoress-incognito, Miss Phoebe Marlow.” It concludes, “Nothing to put you in a gudgeon [sic] but a pleasant entertainment for Heyer’s following.” The review published in Library Journal is similar: “Period romance of Regency England. [. . .] All ends happily. Frothy, readable, and full of delightful Regency dialogue.” According to these reviews, Sylvester is an uncomplicated, formulaic novel. Neither reviewer takes Heyer’s novel very seriously, but treats it as a light read. For both reviewers, the novel’s defining feature is the love story between the Duke of Salford and Phoebe Marlow; historical detail (“delightful Regency dialogue”) provides the backdrop for the romance, but is not significant in itself. The reviews were a useful starting point because they invited students to consider Sylvester as a historical romance fiction and to examine the meaning and significance of the term “romance” in this context. In brief, this lecture raised and addressed the following questions:

  • What are the implications of describing Heyer as a “romance” novelist? Is this how critics usually classify her?
  • Heyer’s fiction has attracted very little attention in literary studies, certainly in comparison to popular genre writers such as her close contemporary Agatha Christie. To what extent is this neglect related to her reputation as a “romance” writer?
  • Does Heyer’s meticulously researched period detail simply provide the backdrop of a love story, which could be set in any time or place? Or, are the history and the romance ultimately inseparable?

The aim of this lecture was to encourage students to think more critically about their response to Sylvester; and to model the value of close textual analysis when developing arguments about popular romance texts. To this end, we used Gillian Beer’s broad definition of “romance” as a broad and diverse category of literature, which is unified by the “imaginative functions” of “escape” and “instruction.” These two terms were central to the first serious critical responses to Heyer: A.S. Byatt’s essays “Georgette Heyer is a Better Writer Than You Think” and “The Ferocious Reticence of Georgette Heyer.” Byatt writes, “the act of research was for Georgette Heyer, the act of recreating a past to inhabit” (“Ferocious” 37). Sylvester is an ideal text to include in “Fictions of History” because Heyer uses the form of the historical romance novel to reflect on her approach to combining historical and romantic elements, and to consider the role and responsibilities of the historical romance writer.

On the first page, Sylvester is introduced as a man who has forgotten the “lure” of medieval romances; “He and Harry, his twin, had slain the dragons, and ridden great wallops at the knights” (1). Sylvester is consistently described with reference to stock heroic figures from fairytale, but makes the mistake of assuming reality and romance are unrelated categories: “No bad fairy had attended his christening to leaven his luck with the gift of a hunchback or a harelip” (2). He mocks his mother’s belief in “love-matches” (23) and asks whether she would prefer him to behave “like the prince in a fairy-tale” (23). Soon after he says to his godmother “Now if you were a fairy godmother, ma’am, you would wave your wand and so conjure up exactly the bride I want!” (30). Sylvester may have forgotten how to play childhood games of knights and dragons—how to imaginatively inhabit a romance—but he is nonetheless cast by his mother and godmother as the knightly hero in a fairly standard romance plot. Sylvester shocks both women with his anti-romantic plans to marry; to be, in his words “leg-shackled” (11) to a “well-born girl of my own order” (12). But his “godlike” (4) manner is based on a misunderstanding of his role in writing his life story. Sylvester’s confidence that he can plan his transition from the “muslin company” (13) to the “Marriage Mart” is based on his faith that a man of his “rank, wealth, and elegance” (2) is in control. The name of his country estate—Chance—is an early hint in the novel that Sylvester is not necessarily the author of his own fate.

Clearly, on a thematic level, this novel is about novels and novel writing because the chief impediment to Phoebe’s romance with Sylvester is the publication of her novel The Lost Heir, which she and others describe as a “dashed silly book” (282), a “trumpery novel” (283) and a “wretched romance” (313). But Sylvester is also about romance authorship because of the roles played by Sylvester’s mother and godmother (the “Duchess” and the “Dowager”) in their “scheme” to match-make Sylvester and Phoebe. In fact “scheme” is the key word in this book. There is something gorgeously comic in the inclusion of these two women schemers—they are both immobilized by illness, so can’t inhabit the Regency world of the novel to the same degree as other characters. But they’re more in control of the course of events than anyone else. The Duchess is a published poet and the Dowager a careful and accomplished letter writer. So, in effect, they can be read as romance writers—as women like Heyer—possessing unparalleled knowledge of the Regency and its people, they bring the romance to its happy ending without the main players realizing the degree to which they have been manipulated.

The Dowager and the Duchess can be read as surrogates for Heyer within the fictional world. Stranded at the Blue Boar, Sylvester exclaims “I wonder why I embroiled myself in this affair” (101). Of course, he is in this affair because he has been set up by a conspiracy of romancers and their “skilful handling” (206). There are numerous examples of the characterization of the Dowager and the Duchess as romance authors, both in relation to the relationship between Phoebe and Sylvester and in relation to their portrayal of characters in Regency society more broadly: “Unusual: that was the epithet affixed to Miss Marlow. It emanated from Lady Ingham, but no one remembered that” (195).

This section of the lecture focused on the question: how is Phoebe’s literal authorship of her book The Lost Heir and of the Duke’s reputation as a wicked uncle related to Lady Ingham and the Duchess of Salford’s more figurative “authorship” of the romance between Phoebe and the Duke? In effect, all three of these women are rewarded for their roles as authors. The risk that Phoebe will be ruined is never genuine because her book is subsumed by the greater text of her “fairy godmothers’” scheme to marry her to a Duke. There is another “authoress” in the novel: Lady Henry Rayne. Ianthe tells stories to “blacken” her brother-in-law’s name. When Sylvester learns that Phoebe has been talking to Ianthe he asks “Did I figure as the Unfeeling Brother in Law or as the Wicked Uncle?” (192). Ianthe is the actual villain in this novel—vain, petty, unmotherly, seduced by a parody of the Regency hero, Sir Nugent Fotherby. The characterization of Fotherby is a further example of Heyer’s self-reflexive depiction of the Regency as a constructed fictional world. In order to encourage students to look for further metafictional elements in the novel, the lecture concluded by suggesting that they examine Heyer’s depiction of the relationship between genre and gender. For instance, Tom Orde assures Phoebe that Sylvester will never read The Lost Heir, because only “girls” are interested in such books. Soon after he is surprised—and disconcerted—to learn that Sylvester is an avid reader of novels exactly like Phoebe’s “wretched romance.” He shares his mother’s love for popular novels, for whom reading is her “greatest solace” (128).

4. Student Responses

Of the 84 students enrolled in this unit, 26 (31%) chose to write their 2500-word essay on Sylvester. Heyer was also a popular choice in the exam. For one of their exam questions students could choose to answer on Heyer, Shakespeare, or Sir Walter Scott and here 40% of students chose Sylvester. Predictably, although 24 students in the class were male (28%), only one male student chose Heyer for his essay and only four chose to write on Heyer in the exam. Of students with results within the top 15% of the class only one chose to write on Heyer for the essay, and three chose Heyer for the exam. These results suggest that Heyer appealed more to female students and that some of the more serious English students either preferred Shakespeare and Scott, or assumed the choice of more canonical writers might earn higher marks.

Students could choose one of the following broad questions to answer in relation to one or more of the set texts:

Essay Questions

  1. “When historical figures are the central figures in works of fiction, there is a danger that the novel will not present the atmosphere of the age, but a picture of an individual in that age . . . Ideally the protagonist of an historical novel should be a fictitious character within whom the wider and often conflicting pressures of the period can be seen at work.”
    Discuss with close reference to one or more of the texts studied in this unit.
  2. Discuss the representation of at least one category of difference (e.g. race, gender, class, religion) in one or more of the texts studied this semester. How does this relate to the text’s treatment of history?
  3. “Fictional texts which tell stories of the past are inherently contradictory because they cannot meet the competing demands of ‘literature’ and ‘history.’” Discuss with close reference to one or more of the texts studied this semester.

Five students chose to discuss Heyer in the context of question 3, but all other students chose question 2 and focused on gender and (less frequently) class. Nearly all students chose to focus on Sylvester alone, rather than comparing it to other texts in the unit. Results spanned the full range from fail to high distinction, but the small cluster of students choosing to discuss Heyer in relation to “the competing demands of ‘literature’ and ‘history’” did produce the strongest work. These students tended to engage more closely with the theorists introduced through the unit (including Georg Lukács and HaydenWhite) and grappled with the problem of reconciling Heyer’s meticulous historical research with her adherence to romance genre conventions.

Overwhelmingly students were interested in writing about the social restrictions placed on young women in Regency society, and many thought that Sylvester’s unconventional heroine, Phoebe, provided some critique of nineteenth-century gender roles and expectations. Essays generally revealed a limited understanding of the roles occupied by women in Regency society however, and a tendency to view all periods and societies prior to the present as consistently and similarly oppressive. Aspects of Sylvester that worried students included the depiction of Ianthe, particularly in regard to the implicit dismissal of her rights as a mother. According to one essay, “outrage on behalf of the reader at her neglect of Edmund is likely to obscure a more understated reality, which is that regardless of whether Ianthe was motherly or not, in the patriarchal world of the English Regency, a widowed woman’s child could be legally left to another male relative with no argument to be made about it.” The student maintained that in this particular instance Sylvester is “uncritically faithful to the sensibilities of the English Regency period.” A number of the more thoughtful essays on gender also argued that Heyer’s depiction of the pressures and constraints placed on young Regency women is complicated and/or compromised by the pleasures and expectations generated by the romance genre.

Students writing about class often demonstrated difficulty understanding the subtle social distinctions informing relationships in Sylvester, but many essays noted Heyer’s focus on aristocratic characters and found an uncritical acceptance of class difference in her work. One student wrote, “although Heyer makes the reader aware of the hierarchal society; it is, in her novels, essentially a happy and content hierarchy in gender and in class.” Students seemed generally well-informed about Regency fashion and manners, yet despite Kloester’s detailed introductory lecture, occasional references to Sylvester’s “eighteenth-century” or “Victorian” setting still cropped up. Overall the essays on Heyer reflected a strong engagement with the lectures, with several students citing details mentioned in Kloester’s lecture. Many mentioned the interesting preponderance of female authors in the text and some responded productively to Fletcher’s suggestion to explore its metafictional dimensions in further detail.

Although Sylvester did not appeal to all students (and some disliked it intensely), it proved a particularly useful text for tutorial teaching. Most classes contained some dedicated Heyer fans and the range of impassioned responses for and against Sylvester generated lively debate. Perhaps the most important function the text served within the unit was that it operated as an excellent touchstone for measuring the other texts and for considering the various themes of the course. Students were struck, for example, by the contrast that emerged between Scott’s intrusive omniscient narrator in Ivanhoe, whose nineteenth-century view of twelfth-century attitudes is always obvious, and Heyer’s more discreet use of free indirect discourse to guide responses to her characters. Sylvester was followed in the course by J.G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur and again the contrast in narrative style and tone helped students to recognize and appreciate Farrell’s ironic late-twentieth century take on a nineteenth-century colonial world view. Interestingly, questions about the depiction of heroism, masculinity and British nationalism that arose in relation to the other texts in the unit also proved apposite for Sylvester. By the end of the course most students acknowledged that the inclusion of a popular historical romance added breadth to their understanding of the development and range of historical fiction. Sylvester helped to focalize questions about the relationship between fiction and history; about what constitutes valid subject matter for both history and fiction; and about how writers of fiction shape our understanding of the past.

Works Cited

Beer, Gillian. The Romance. London: Methuen, 1986. Print.

Brown, Lucy M. and Ian R. Christie, ed. Bibliography of British History 1789 – 1851. Oxford: Clarendon, 1977. Print.

Byatt, A.S. “The Ferocious Reticence of Georgette Heyer.” 1975. Fahnestock-Thomas 289-303. Print.

—. “Georgette Heyer is a Better Novelist Than You Think.” 1969. Fahnestock-Thomas 270-78. Print.

Carlyle, Thomas. The French Revolution: A History. London: J.M. Dent, 1929. Print.

Chaloner, W.H. and Richardson, R.C. Bibliography of British Economic and Social History. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1984. Print.

Elam, Diane. Romancing the Postmodern. London: Routledge, 1992. Print.

Fahnestock-Thomas, Mary, ed. Georgette Heyer: A Critical Retrospective. Saraland, AL: PrinnyWorld, 2001. Print.

Fletcher, Lisa. Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2008. Print.

Froude, James A. History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Death of Elizabeth. London: J.W. Parker, 1856-70. Print.

Gelder, Ken. Popular Fiction: The Logics and Practices of a Literary Field. London: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Heyer, Georgette. Sylvester. 1957. London: Arrow, 2004. Print.

Kloester, Jennifer. Georgette Heyer’s Regency World. 2005. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2010. Print.

Lukács, Georg. The Historical Novel. 1937. Trans. Hannah Mitchell and Stanley Mitchell. Lincoln and London: U of Nebraska P, 1983. Print.

Macaulay, Thomas Babington. The History of England from the Accession of James II. London: J.M. Dent, 1912. Print.

Royal Historical Society. Writings on British History 1901-1933, Volume 5:1825-1914 and Appendix. London: Jonathan Cape, 1980. Print.

White, Hayden. The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987. Print.


[1] A similar argument drives the teaching of popular romance texts in two other advanced-level units taught by Lisa Fletcher at UTAS: “Popular Fiction: From Page to Screen,” and “Cinema, Costumes and Sexuality,” in which students read romance novels and films under the rubrics of “popular fiction studies” and “feminist film theory.”

[2] The tutorials in this unit were run by Gaby and Guinevere Narraway. We would like to acknowledge Guinevere’s contribution to the planning and research for this paper.

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“These are Just Romances: Love and the Single Woman in the Fiction of Rosamond Lehmann” by Emma Sterry

In the 1920s, the popular novelist Berta Ruck read a selection of short stories written by the then-unpublished Rosamond Lehmann. Delivering her verdict, she proclaimed to Lehmann “I don’t know if you’ll ever be a writer [. . .] but you must write about things you know: these are just romances” (Hastings 60). In her biography of Lehmann, Selina Hastings writes of how Lehmann felt “snubbed” by these words and felt inclined to give up writing altogether (60). For both Ruck and Lehmann, the descriptor “romance” is interpreted as an insult, signifying a genre devoid of credibility for a serious writer.

Since the 1920s, the genre of romance has been rescued from the margins and recuperated into academic discussion. Studies by critics such as Jean Radford, Janice Radway, Bridget Fowler, Lynne Pearce and Jackie Stacey have been instrumental in recovering romance as a locus for the exploration of literary, sociological and cultural constructions of femininity and female sexuality.[1] There has been a similarly recuperative trend in the study of Rosamond Lehmann and her fiction. This may well have begun as part of the larger recovery of forgotten female writers that was instigated by the first wave of feminist criticism, and certainly from the late 1960s onwards there has been a raft of monographs on Lehmann.[2] Many of these studies have undoubtedly sought to celebrate Lehmann as a writer of merit, though have perhaps overlooked the diversity of Lehmann’s fiction in their focus on the romance elements of her work. Certainly the subject matter of her fiction—often following the relationships and inner struggles of its female characters—has lent itself to this approach. Indeed, Wendy Pollard has tracked in detail the association of Lehmann’s fiction with a “feminine sensibility,” an approach that has been pervasive from contemporary reviews of Lehmann’s work through to relatively recent studies of it.[3] Such studies may well have been influenced by Lehmann’s private life. Her position within British interwar literary culture—her connections with the Bloomsbury group and her friendships with figures such as Lytton Strachey and Carrington, for example—her several marriages and her affair with the poet Cecil Day-Lewis have resulted in the construction of Lehmann as a literary celebrity, noted for her unorthodox and sometimes tumultuous love life, as much as for her writing.

In recent years, critics such as Andrea Lewis and Diana Wallace have recontextualized Lehmann’s fiction more explicitly within some of the wider debates concerning women, gender and sexuality between the wars. This change in approach may have arisen out of a revived interest in middlebrow fiction and culture, particularly what Nicola Humble has termed the “feminine middlebrow.”[4] Initially coined as a derogatory term in the 1920s, the middlebrow was problematic ground between elite, intellectual, “high” culture, and the popular “lowbrow” culture of the masses. It was condemned by literary figures such as Virginia Woolf and Q. D. Leavis for its attempts to assimilate modernist aspirations into narratives that dealt with every-day (and usually, middle-class) concerns. Given that the term first came into popular usage during the 1920s, it is perhaps not surprising that a substantial amount of criticism has focused on middlebrow culture between the wars. Studies by Nicola Humble, Alison Light, Faye Hammill and Janice Radway[5] have been instrumental in refiguring middlebrow culture, and especially middlebrow fiction, as a site in which to reposition previously neglected writers, re-examine discussion of cultural hierarchies and re-imagine the interwar literary landscape.

To return to Ruck, then, it becomes apparent that her dismissal of Lehmann’s early stories as “just romances” holds less currency in the current climate of literary criticism. Certainly in a climate where brow boundaries are constantly shifting and being redrawn, the cultural authority that Ruck—a prolific romantic novelist—would have had herself becomes a contentious point. But more significantly, studies of romance have sought to deconstruct the genre—to expose its fissures, its inconsistencies and its diversities. The criticism on Lehmann’s fiction has already begun to do this. Works by Judy Simons and Gillian Tindall, alongside more recent studies by Diana Wallace and Sophie Blanch, have identified an “anti-romantic” (Blanch 2) motif in Lehmann’s fiction, revealed through the repeated subversion of romance conventions. Diana Wallace has perhaps been the most important and persuasive in her critique of Lehmann’s romance narratives, offering a sustained account of how both Dusty Answer (1927) and The Weather in the Streets (1936) shatter the illusion of romance in the wake of the war (Wallace 2000). Since “classic romances are centred on heterosexual relationships” (Pearce and Stacey 14) and often achieve a domestic resolution in marriage (Fowler 7-8), the anxiety concerning single women after the First World War, and the increased freedoms available to them, meant that the tropes of romance were be subverted, reworked and redeployed in an effort to make that anxiety legible. Wallace’s and Blanch’s work is crucial in illuminating how a preoccupation with romance in Lehmann’s fiction need not limit scholarly discussions of her work, by indicating how the romance narrative is only part of a web of representations concerning female sexuality.

Building on these critical accounts, I argue that the romance plot might be read specifically as part of a wider narrative concerning the single woman. There are a considerable number of sociohistorical accounts of the single woman[6], but the body of work on her appearance in literature is still nascent. The single woman has appeared as the focus of a number of studies of Victorian and interwar fiction, but criticism has tended to focus on particular conceptions of the single woman in discrete periods. For example, the New Woman has been examined by critics such as Sally Ledger and Emma Liggins as one of the new identities available to women during the fin-de-siècle.[7] The spinster, meanwhile, has been analyzed in relation to 1920s fiction.[8] Broader literary studies of gender and sexuality have considered a wider range of forms that the single woman appears in addressed,[9] but comparative analysis of these forms has been largely absent. Indeed, literary criticism on the single woman has typically failed to recognize that if being single means, in its most basic sense, “unmarried,” the category can be expanded to include widows, divorcées, and even lesbians. Furthermore, I suggest that existing work has failed to explore the difficulties in distinguishing between these different forms of single woman. These difficulties are evident in analyzing Lehmann’s fiction. In Dusty Answer (1927), Judith Earle appears caught between the allure of both heterosexual and homosexual desire, but is unable to achieve lasting happiness with either: so is she more like the lesbian or the spinster? Similarly, in the beginning of The Weather in the Streets (1936), Olivia Curtis leads her life as an independent single woman, even though she is legally still married. Is she closer to the New Woman or the divorcee? Or is she simply an adulterer?

Considering how these texts function as romance narratives, then, offers the opportunity to consider how the single woman appears in literature as a conflicted figure in the interwar years, without compartmentalizing her into clearly defined roles. Rather than labeling these texts as anti-romantic as Wallace and others do, I explore the subtleties and complexities of how they track the single woman as she renegotiates her expectations and experiences of romance. Part of the way in which I do this is by rooting the texts more explicitly in middlebrow culture. Nicola Humble has described middlebrow fiction as a “hybrid form,” which draws on conventions taken from a range of narratives including the country house novel, children’s literature, and romance (Humble 4). These narratives share a heterosexist agenda, but in the feminine middlebrow this agenda is often compromised. My aim is to demonstrate this conflict is played out by foregrounding how the single woman both predicates the heterosexual romance plot, and yet also emerges as a subversive figure within it.

Dusty Answer opens with Judith Earle reminiscing about the four cousins who would periodically come to stay in the house next door to where she grew up. Judith describes the hustle and bustle that ensues when the Fyfe cousins visit:

Gardeners mowed and mowed, and rolled and rolled the tennis-court; and planted tulips and forget-me-nots in the stone urns that bordered the lawn and the river’s edge [. . .] the next-door children must still be there with their grandmother – mysterious and thrilling children who came and went. (7)

The romanticization of the Fyfe house creates a hazy, nostalgic picture of Judith’s childhood, but this is sharply juxtaposed with the present, post-war context:

in truth all was different now. The grandmother had died soon after she heard Charlie was killed. He had been her favourite, her darling one. He had, astoundingly, married the girl Mariella when they were both nineteen, and he was just going to the front. He had been killed directly, and some months afterward Mariella had had a baby. (7)

The text hints at a lost age of innocence, in which romantic ideals of love and marriage have been replaced with widowhood and responsibility. Diana Wallace has observed that the unhappy endings in Lehmann’s fiction “articulate a nostalgia for a pre-lapsarian romance – a dream of love as it could have existed before the war, had a generation of young men not been slaughtered” (161). This nostalgic tone is certainly evident in the opening of Dusty Answer, but this “dream of love,” as it appears between Mariella and Charlie at least, is rooted in domestic romance conventions which advocate heterosexual marriage and reproduction. Mariella may have adhered to domestic romance conventions, but she is not rewarded for these efforts; instead, she is left widowed and in charge of her household, a task for which she seems unfit. She proclaims to Judith that does not “understand children” (12) and later passes guardianship of her own child, Michael Peter, to Julian, another of the Fyfe cousins. War rids Mariella of the chance of a family, and shatters the illusion of resolution that domestic romance offers.

Against this backdrop, it seems somewhat inevitable that the assimilation of the single woman into a heterosexual romance narrative and, ultimately, marriage, will be a problematic path. The text works through these complications as Judith pursues relationships with each of the three male Fyfe cousins. Charlie is an adolescent fixation for Judith, one whom she fantasizes one day will want to marry her (13). The naivety of Judith’s romantic dreams in a world that will soon be blighted by war is alluded to in the ghost-like figure of Charlie, whose early death in the text haunts Judith. Even in childhood, Charlie belongs to myth rather than reality:

Charlie was beautiful as a prince. He was fair and tall with long bright golden hair that he tossed back from his forehead, and pale clear skin. He had a lovely straight white nose, and a girl’s mouth with full lips slightly apart, and jutting cleft chin. He kept his shirt collar unbuttoned, and the base of his throat showed white as a snow-drop. (13)

The depiction of Charlie draws on fairy-tale motifs, yet, curiously, his beauty has both masculine and feminine qualities. Consequently, he is eroticized as a romantic hero onto whom Judith can project her childlike desires while maintaining a safe distance from aggressively masculine sexuality. Although Judith re-enacts the passive femininity a fairy-tale narrative would demand of her, she does this in a dreamworld in which she imagines herself nursing Charlie as he lays sick back to health; she then becomes ill herself, dies, and watches from beyond as Charlie tends to her grave.

This idealized fantasy of a relationship cannot exist outside of Judith’s childhood, and this is perhaps reflected in her failure to read heterosexual romance outside of the fairy tale. She finds it near impossible to fathom why Charlie and Mariella have married. When she thinks of them in the same bed, she realizes that it is likely that Mariella will have a baby by Charlie: “It was all so queer and happy, so like the dreams from whose improbabilities she woke in heaviness of spirit, that it was impossible to realize” (43). Judith struggles to understand the physical consequences of romance; for her, the thought of a baby materializing is “queer” and somehow odd. As she fantasizes about Charlie, she shows an inability to conceive of romance as anything more than a dream, and remains preoccupied with its idealization, relegating Charlie to the role of a “romantic illusion, a beautiful plaything of the imagination” (46). Yet even as Judith matures she appears unable to reconcile herself to the realities of heterosexual romance. She becomes increasingly attracted to another of the Fyfe cousins, Roddy, and although initially their relationship remains a friendship, she assures herself:

Someday it would happen: it must. She had always known that the play of Roddy must be written and that she must act it to the end – the happy end.

‘Roddy, I am going to love you.’ (51)

The intensity of Judith’s attraction to Roddy is mitigated through the discourse in which she expresses it. The “happy end” she refers to is the climax of a fairy tale, and romance appears as a drama rather than a reality.

For Judith, Roddy begins as intangible a figure as Charlie was; Roddy’s is “a dream rather than a real face” which wears “that haunting quality of curiousness which a face in a dream bears” (9). Roddy is not a beautiful prince like Charlie, and instead the text insists on his unusualness, repeatedly referring to him as “queer” and “unreal.” Roddy represents a world which seems out of Judith’s reach, as he leads a creative, almost itinerant existence. His cousin, Julian, mocks him for having attended ballet school, and in his late teens, Roddy departs for Paris to train in drawing and art. Roddy’s queerness takes on different connotations when he enrolls at Cambridge University and forms a friendship with fellow student, Tony Baring:

[Tony] had a sensitive face, changing all the time, a wide mouth with beautiful sensuous lips, thick black hair and a broad white forehead with the eyebrows meeting above the nose, strongly marked and mobile. When he spoke he moved them, singly or together, His voice was soft and precious, and he had a slight lisp. He looked like a young poet. Suddenly she noticed his hands, – thin, unmasculine hands, – queer hands – making nervous appealing ineffectual gestures that contradicted the nobility of his head, She heard him call Roddy ‘my dear’; and once ‘darling’; and had a passing shock. (95-6)

Tony’s feminine face is clearly different from Charlie’s beauty; instead of the romantic fairy-tale hero, Tony is drawn as an effeminate and probably homosexual character, “sensitive,” “soft,” and “precious.” The comparison of Tony to a young poet hints at a world where aesthetics, literature, and knowledge are bound up in a homosocial ideology that crosses over into the homoerotic. In her biography of Rosamond Lehmann, Selina Hastings describes the “intensity of [. . .] male friendships” that Lehmann witnessed during her time at Cambridge University, and implies that the discreetness of male homosexuality at Cambridge (as opposed to its more flamboyant expression at Oxford University) did nothing to dispel her naivety concerning male romantic relationships at that time (46-7). Although, as Hastings points out, the “aesthete dandy” culture was more pronounced at Oxford (48), it nonetheless emerges to a degree in the Cambridge environment depicted in Dusty Answer. Through the description of Tony, and his friendship with Roddy, queerness in the text is refigured; rather than remaining something odd or unreal, it is a synonym for homosexuality. In contrast to Judith’s difficulties in reading heterosexual romance, Judith recognizes Tony is an obstacle to her own potential relationship with Roddy. This is illustrated in a conversation she has with Roddy:

‘Tony is jealous of me. Once he looked at me with pure hatred. I’ve never forgotten it. Does he love you?’

‘I think he does.’

‘I think he does too. Do you love him? You needn’t answer. I know I mustn’t ask you that.’

‘You can ask me anything you like.’

But he did not answer. (150)

Judith’s questions intimate that Tony’s feelings for Roddy are reciprocated, and Roddy does not deny this. Judith thus recognizes the blurring of the homosocial with the homosexual.

The potentially homosexual relationship between Tony and Roddy is overshadowed in the text by the relationship Judith forms with Jennifer, a fellow student at Cambridge. Diana Wallace has put forward a compelling argument that the male homosocial paradigm of the “erotic triangle” (in which male homosociality is mediated through the female object of their rivalry) is critiqued in the text through the seemingly romantic relationship between Judith and Jennifer (160-80). While Wallace perhaps overlooks the extent to which the relationship between Tony and Roddy also critiques this triangle (since in this relationship, Roddy becomes the object of Tony’s and Judith’s rivalry), it does highlight how Dusty Answer deconstructs the conventions of romance by refiguring the girls’ school story, bringing its sexual undertones of passionate female friendships to the fore. While Wallace does this convincingly, she fails to engage with the way in which the blurring of female homosocial and homosexual desire is taken out of a school context, and moved into the more intellectual, highbrow arena of higher education. Judith’s enrollment at Cambridge University allows the text to explore wider interwar concerns over increased access to higher education for women that makes legible anxiety not only over the emancipation of women, but the perceived “middlebrowing” of culture. The Fyfe cousins tease Judith for her educational aspirations; Roddy asks “[t]hen you intend to become a young woman with really intellectual interests?”(55). Roddy’s humorous undermining of any intellectual pretensions Judith may harbor takes on a more serious meaning when Judith responds “I don’t think I’m particularly clever” (55). Although Judith’s comment is uttered abstractedly, it nonetheless becomes part of a rhetoric that views women in higher education as a threat to its elite culture. When Judith confides in Roddy about her fears concerning communal living, Roddy jokes: “Don’t get standardized, or I shan’t come and visit you” (92). The use of the term “standardization” is telling, invoking highbrow concern over the standardization of taste that was associated with middlebrow culture.[10] Dusty Answer filters debates concerning cultural hierarchies through its refiguring of the romance narrative. The role of women in higher education becomes part of the romantic play between Judith and Roddy, yet it also hints at how the intellectual world of Cambridge enables Judith to accrue cultural capital in an environment where she is no longer an object of mediation between men, but part of a female homosocial network.

The relationship between Judith and Jennifer, then, not only subverts the paradigm of the “erotic triangle”, but also elides the standardization of Judith; by aligning her with the homosocial/sexual, Judith becomes part of the male aesthetic culture associated with higher education. Judith’s attraction to Jennifer is described in a discourse of romantic poetry:

somebody’s fair head, so fiercely alive that it seemed delicately to light the air around it; a vivacious emphatic head, turning and nodding; below it a white neck and shoulder, generously modelled, leaned across the table. The face came suddenly, all curves, the wide mouth laughing, warm coloured . . . It made you think of warm fruit, – peaches and nectarines mellowed in the sun. (110)

Compared to Roddy’s elusive face, Jennifer’s is vividly alive; one Judith cannot take her eyes off. Judith’s yearning for Jennifer is made explicit: “Always Jennifer. It was impossible to drink up enough of her; and a day without her was a day with the light gone” (131). While the text is keen to emphasize Jennifer’s femininity, she is still something of an ambiguous character; as Jennifer laughingly says: “I don’t suppose I should ever marry. I’m too tall, – six foot in my stockings” (118). For Judith, however, Jennifer is an object of worship, the “‘ [g]lorious, glorious pagan that I adore’ whispered the voice in Judith that could never speak out” (137). Jonathan Coe has interpreted this silenced voice as symbolic of how the relationship between Jennifer and Judith is never consummated, arguing that “it’s clear that Judith at least never acts on the impulse” (9). Implicit in Coe’s reading is the insinuation that Jennifer is the dominant and more overtly lesbian of the two women. Indeed, Jennifer’s love for Judith is more heavily eroticized, displaying sexual jealousy over any potential male suitors Judith may have: “‘You mustn’t love anybody,’ said Jennifer. ‘I should want to kill him. I should be jealous.’” (130). Although Judith does not necessarily share this sexualized ardor, she is still enthralled by Jennifer, and this compromises her position with the plot of heterosexual romance, despite the fact that she remains in contact with Roddy. Judith’s endeavors to keep Jennifer and Roddy apart could be construed as a measure to keep Roddy as the unreal figure of her dreams, and Jennifer part of her reality. Jennifer’s presence certainly has a powerful effect on Judith. When Jennifer tells Judith that she loves her, Roddy disappears from Judith’s mind: “at those words, that look, Roddy faded again harmlessly: Jennifer blinded and enfolded her sense once more, and only Jennifer had power” (130).

Tellingly, Judith’s relationship with Roddy can only progress following the disintegration of her relationship with Jennifer. When Jennifer begins a passionate friendship with an older woman, Geraldine, her absence signals the apparent re-entry of Judith back into the heterosexual romance narrative. The exchanges of love and kisses between Judith and Roddy on the night that they consummate their relationship underneath the willow trees has the melodrama of classic romance (Blanch 2009), but so much so that it verges on the parodic. Indeed, Sophie Blanch has astutely identified a “subtle manipulation of the romance trope“ through a prefacing of the episode with laughter (10). The sexual encounter between Judith and Roddy is revealed to be a false start; when Judith writes a letter to Roddy the next morning, she intimates she wishes to marry him, but is rebuffed by Roddy:

‘If a man wants to ask a girl to – marry him he generally asks her himself – do you see?’

‘You mean – it was outrageous of me not to wait – to write like that?’

‘I thought it a little odd.’ (226)

It seems ironic that the bohemian Roddy should hold such conservative views of marriage, but the broken dialogue between him and Judith hints at an underlying unease about the discussion of marriage itself that does not correlate with Roddy’s reiteration of heterosexual convention. Judith’s inability to see beyond the script of romance is ultimately what leads to her heartbreak:

‘If you’d warned me, Roddy . . . given me some hint. I was so romantic and idealistic about you – you’ve no idea [. . .]’

‘I did try to shew [sic] you, I tell you. [. . .] Didn’t I say I was never to be taken seriously?’ (229)

Despite Blanch’s claims of Judith’s “displacement from the site of laughter” (6), romance itself becomes a cruel joke that is played on Judith. From the point when Roddy rejects her, Judith’s attempts at maneuvering herself into romantic convention are never elevated beyond an almost comic futility. Martin Fyfe proposes to Judith and although she initially accepts his proposal, she does not love him and quickly breaks off the engagement. The drama which Judith initially envisioned playing out with Roddy becomes a farce when she joins her mother in France, and adopts the role of a woman on the market for marriage. When an overweight and elderly French count asks her mother if he can marry Judith, the narrator describes it as “a very good joke” (260). Having been rejected by both Jennifer and Roddy, romance, both within and outside of the conventions of heterosexual domesticity, becomes a punchline for Judith. Therefore, when the last of her male suitors, Julian Fyfe, asks Judith to be his lover, he makes it explicit that he will never offer her marriage. The decision of whether or not to accept his offer is removed from Judith’s hands, when she has to break the news to Julian that Martin has died at sea, and Julian leaves France. Now that three potential romances with the Fyfe cousins have ended, Judith thinks to herself: “Slowly, the darkness was lifting. Soon now, Jennifer’s letter must come, and a new beginning dawn out of this end of all things” (289). This new beginning marks a post-romantic, post-war life, in which Judith sheds the burden of the romance narrative: “She was rid at last of the weakness, the futile obsession of dependence on other people. She had nobody now except herself, and that was best.” (303). Romance has burnt itself out and the novel ends with the sense that Judith has left the romance of youth behind.

If Dusty Answer has been perceived as the text with which Lehmann deconstructs romantic convention, as part of a growing-up narrative for single young women, then Lehmann’s later novel, The Weather in the Streets (1936), explores the effect of that deconstruction as part of a grown-up narrative for single young women. The text takes up the story of Olivia Curtis, the seventeen year-old debutante of Lehmann’s earlier novel, Invitation to the Waltz (1930). Unlike the young Judith Earle, Olivia has followed romantic convention, having married the novelist and poet Ivor: “We were in love so we must be married. I never thought of anything else. I suppose one never gets away from good upbringing” (Weather 45). Olivia’s decision to marry seems rooted in the middle-class ideology she grew up in, but her attraction to Ivor moves beyond the confines of the domestic sphere:

He was romance, culture, aesthetics, Oxford, all I wanted then. Oxford had been a potent draught, grabbed at and gulped down without question. To live the remainder of one’s life in that condition – towery, branchy, cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmed – had seemed the worthy summit of human happiness. (44)

Ivor offers Olivia the opportunity to become involved in a world of higher education that she did not experience for herself, and her construction of love becomes bound up with her romanticization of intellectual, highbrow culture. The marriage does not last though, and having rejected the domestic duties of married life, Olivia is able to enjoy a bohemian lifestyle as offered to her by modern urban living in London, attending parties with her photographer friend Anna and her artistic associates. It is implied that Olivia’s change of lifestyle is somehow a direct result of the breakdown of her marriage. When Olivia suggests that she should have lived with Ivor before they had married, her sister, Kate, retorts: “It’s no good pretending you were so frightfully unconventional and free-lovish – in those days anyway” (44). Olivia’s estrangement from her husband signifies a move towards a more unconventional existence.

Olivia’s deviation from convention is not so extreme as to preclude her from heterosexual romance altogether, however. Diana Wallace has tracked a trend in 1930s women’s fiction which used “the marriage plot specifically to explore how marriage might be refashioned to accommodate women’s increasing expectations in sexual, political and professional life” (63). The Weather in the Streets does not belong to this tradition of remolding marriage, given that Olivia seemingly abandons it altogether, but it does fit into the wider tradition of renegotiating the role of the single woman in heterosexual romance, following a spate of fictions in the 1920s that explored lesbian desire.[11] Ten years after Lehmann explored a potentially lesbian relationship in Dusty Answer, the correlation between transgressive female sexuality and lesbianism that was the vogue of the 1920s has faded. Attending a party at the Spencers’ house, Olivia begins to converse with Marigold about the failure of her marriage. Steered by Marigold, the conversation turns towards a discussion of transgressive sexuality:

‘Have you ever felt attracted like that?’

‘No, I never have’

‘I bet if I were like that I’d make a pass at you.’ She patted and stroked Olivia’s hip with a light clinging touch [. . .]

She turned and looked at Marigold and said: ‘But that’s not why my marriage didn’t work.’ (Weather 106)

Olivia’s refusal to remain within the domestic sphere is still viewed with sexual suspicion here, but Olivia is keen to explicitly distance herself from any questions about her sexual orientation, and the rejection of a lesbian subplot is symptomatic of a narrative that is devoid of passionate friendships between women. Gone is the intimate, collegiate living of the young women in Dusty Answer, replaced instead with London flats and largely absent flatmates. Olivia lives with her cousin Etty, an ethereal character who drifts in and out of the text. When Olivia wakes up Etty to inform her that she is returning home to visit her father who has been taken suddenly ill, Etty’s efforts to rouse herself and help Olivia are rather ineffectual (9). She instead bids Olivia goodbye, “[p]ressing all her cardinal-red fingertips to her mouth, she kissed them, extended them wistfully, passionately” (9). Since Etty’s “hollowed eyes stared with their morning look of pathos and exhaustion” (9-10), her passion appears empty and performative.

Olivia’s photographer friend, Anna, is a more tangible presence in the text and through her Olivia can access the artistic world. But Olivia always remains on the periphery of this bohemianism: she does not possess any artistic talent herself and instead only works part-time for Anna in a secretarial capacity. The bohemian world that the text alludes to is a product of urban modernity which raises questions about how the single woman moves in the city sphere. Olivia’s marital status only further problematizes her position in this world. Kate points out to Olivia that her refusal to formally divorce Ivor compromises her heterosexual availability: “even the most broad-minded men are a bit – well, on their guard about a woman who’s legally married to some submerged person in the offing. They don’t want to get mixed up –” (48). Implicit in Kate’s words is the anxiety concerning boundaries between public and private life, particularly in regard to single women. While still married to Ivor, Olivia’s presence on the London streets transgresses domestic conventions that demand she be relegated to the private sphere. When Olivia informs Kate that she had unexpectedly met Ivor out one night, Kate expresses shock that Olivia engaged in conversation with him. Her surprise stems from the visibility of this exchange. Olivia initially seems keen to distance herself from what she perceives as a middle-class characteristic: “In a public place! . . . What a foul expression. You’re as bad as Mother: ‘Not in front of the servants’” (42). Olivia’s comments highlight anxiety over the visibility of the middle-class woman in the public spaces of the city. Deborah Parsons’ study of women and the city has drawn on a range of fictions by both middlebrow and modernist female writers including Lehmann, Jean Rhys and Anaïs Nin, to show how they depict women “entering and seeking legitimate places in the urban and professional landscape of modernity” (8). These fictions essentially rework the Victorian motif of the urban, public woman as prostitute: a motif built on the equation of the streetwalker with the lower-classes. Parsons argues that the “middle-class woman walking in the city is a problematic figure for the threatened male [. . .] as she is not a sexually available object and her economic security protects her from punishment as a fallen woman” (85). The middle-class Olivia, though, is not seen walking the streets, but inhabiting the semi-public bars and cafes found on them. Her inability to move out from the shadows of those places and onto the city streets is due to her ambiguous marital status; she cannot be reabsorbed into the conventional heterosexual romance plot but is not entirely exempt from the association of women in public urban spaces with lower-class sexual immorality.

Olivia’s own concern over the disintegration of the rigid boundaries between the lower and middle classes within the public/private dichotomy crystallizes in the anxiety she expresses over her own class status during her affair with the aristocratic Rollo Spencer, a man whom Olivia had first met in the novel’s precursor, Invitation to the Waltz (1932). Certainly different in tone to Weather, Invitation has often been perceived as a coming-of-age novel about the seventeen year-old Olivia, with critics identifying the Rollo Spencer as the romantic hero of the text.[12] But this hero is not for Olivia—at her coming-of-age dance, Rollo meets Nicola Maude, the woman who has become his wife by the time Olivia is reunited with him in Weather. Although the feeling of romantic nostalgia characteristic of the text remains, this is undermined by an indication that the feeling may not last. In an exchange between Olivia and Rollo, Olivia sees the beautiful Nicola as a natural match for the handsome and alluring Rollo. Rollo himself, on the other hand, is rather dismissive of her, declaring “I dare say she’s as stupid as an owl” (Invitation, 275). Nonetheless, she remains a captivating figure for him, and when Nicola beckons him, he leaves Olivia’s side to be with her. Even before Weather, we see Olivia on the margins of romance, a mere observer.

The affair that she embarks on with Rollo in Weather initially allows Olivia an active role in the heterosexual romance plot, but as the novel progresses it becomes clear that Olivia’s position within romantic discourse remains problematic. Olivia not only removes herself from the domestic sphere, but corrupts it in doing so. She not only contributes to the failure of Rollo’s marriage to Nicola, but also breaks her own marriage vows; since she is not legally separated from Ivor, she is an adulterer in the eyes of the law. The illicitness of their affair means that Olivia’s navigation of the public/private dichotomy becomes increasingly fraught. Deborah Parsons suggests that in Lehmann’s fiction we see how boundaries between “independence, respectability and public visibility have collapsed confusingly into each other” (146). In refusing to divorce her own husband, and in starting an affair with someone else’s, Olivia is denied the chance to legitimately inhabit the modern cityscape, since to do so would risk the exposure of her and Rollo’s affair. In an attempt to give their relationship a degree of respectability, Olivia tries to maneuver their relationship into more exclusive semi-public spaces:

I’d have liked to go the smart places where people eat, and to theatres and dance places. He didn’t want to. Of course it wouldn’t do, he knows all those well-connected faces, they’re his world . . . He only wanted to be alone somewhere and make love. (Weather 162)

Rollo’s position within the upper social strata means he is able to enjoy the city on his own terms, but he cannot offer Olivia access to this world: the visibility of Rollo within the privileged sections of the public sphere demands that Olivia stay out of them. So instead they dine in smaller, lesser-known restaurants, and huddle together in their dark corners. For Olivia even in those places their affair “came nearer being a public relationship, a reality in the world more than anywhere else” (163), but it cannot ever be a wholly public and open one.

Olivia’s efforts to reposition herself in the more respectable areas of the city is emblematic of what Andrea Lewis sees as her anxiety over her “middle class status”: namely, that it “will be compromised by her potential associations with lower-class indiscretion” (84), an anxiety that contradicts the implied progressiveness of Olivia. This anxiety further reveals itself when Olivia falls pregnant with Rollo’s child: “Is it a symptom, does it seal my fate? . . . The female, her body used, fertile, turning, resentful, in hostile untouchability, from the male, the enemy victorious and malignant . . . like cats or bitches . . . Urgh!” (230).

Olivia’s withdrawal from the domestic sphere is problematized by the way in which she fulfils the reproductive functions demanded of her by the heterosexual order, yet does so through transgressing heterosexual romance conventions. She appears resentful at the thought of pregnancy and disconnected from the child she is carrying, but this does not mean she is without regret when she chooses to abort the child. Afterwards she confides to Rollo: “I’m the one to mind – I wanted it . . . you didn’t. For you it would be just a tiresome mistake, but for me it was a grief . . . so I must bear it by myself” (327). Her grief may also be due, in part, to how the abortion cements her violation of middle-class dictates of respectability. Olivia turns to Etty for advice when she realizes she is pregnant, but pretends that she is asking for a friend of hers who is in trouble. In doing so, Olivia refuses to “[e]nter into the feminine conspiracy, be received with tact, sympathy, pills and hot-water bottles, we’re all in the same boat, all unfortunate women caught out after a little indiscretion” (239). As Andrea Lewis has pointed out, abortion during the interwar years was mostly associated with the lower classes, and Olivia demonstrates her awareness of this when she invokes the term “indiscretion.”

The illegality of abortion at this time means that the single woman’s rejection of her reproductive function is effectively criminalized, but the disintegration of Rollo’s marriage to Nicola following her inability to conceive perpetuates reproduction as an integral part of domestic romantic convention. Nicola herself is largely absent from the text, but Rollo paints her as a neurasthenic figure, frequently “taking to her bed” and fashioning herself as an invalid following a miscarriage (103). Nicola’s inability to provide Rollo with an heir poses a threat to the class demands placed upon him, undermining his masculinity and his capacity to continue a patrilineal line of inheritance. Whereas Olivia’s pregnancy threatens her sexual morality, her social standing, and her ability to claim a legitimate space for herself in urban modernity, Rollo’s position within the heterosexual romance plot remains uncompromised. Rollo breaks off his relationship with Olivia when he resumes sexual relations with his wife; Olivia only discovers Nicola is pregnant following her own abortion. Normative domestic romance is restored, at least for Rollo. Olivia, it seems, is doomed to remain on the margins of it; when Rollo is involved in a car crash, she goes to visit him in hospital. There seems a suggestion that Olivia resumes her affair with Rollo, and Lehmann herself addresses the implications of this during a discussion with Janet Watts: “Do you think she went on seeing him? [. . .] Yes, I suppose she did. I expect it all went on and on, I’m sorry to say. It never became a tragedy, exactly . . . it couldn’t become one. And yet it was” (Weather 4).

It is clear in these works by Lehmann that romance still holds an allure for the single woman, but it cannot be realized in the post-war world. In Dusty Answer heterosexual romance belongs to the past, and no longer offers comfort to the single woman. Yet homosexual love for Judith is equally disappointing; even when subverting convention, romance eludes her grasp. The Weather in the Streets, by contrast, is a post-romantic, rather than an anti-romantic, tale, that tracks the single woman’s negotiations of the new freedoms available to her in modern, urban living, while exploring her glances backwards to the security that heterosexual romance once promised.

Both the terms “romance” and “middlebrow” have been used as synonyms for “popular” literature, but as Jean Radford has pointed out, “popular” is an “unstable category” that “can only be understood in relation to what it is being referred to in an historically given instance” (4). The middlebrow’s association with the popular is particularly problematic since it tends to obscure the complexity of the middlebrow in cultural hierarchy and glosses over some of the aesthetic experimentation it engaged with in its nod toward modernism. In extracting the term middlebrow from its derogatory status, it can become a fruitful site in which to explore representations of transgression, especially transgressive female sexuality. Even love itself becomes an aspiration in middlebrow fiction—a means of accessing a masculine, intellectual, highbrow world that the single woman was previously excluded from. Lehmann’s fictions are not “just romances,” but complex and conflicted responses to romantic conventions rendered outdated and untenable for the single woman in a post-war world.

Works Cited

Blanch, Sophie, ‘“Half-amused, Half-mocking”: Laughing at the Margins in Rosamond Lehmann’s Dusty Answer’. Working Papers on the Web. <http://extra.shu.ac.uk/wpw/middlebrow/Blanch.html>. Web.

Doan, Laura. Ed. Old Maids to Radical Spinsters: Unmarried Women in the Twentieth-Century Novel. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991. Print.

Fowler, Bridget. Ed. The Alienated Reader: Women and Popular Romantic Literature in the Twentieth Century. Brighton: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991. Print.

Grover, Mary. The Ordeal of Warwick Deeping: Middlebrow Authorship and Cultural Embarrassment. Madison, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2009. Print.

Hammill, Faye. Women, Celebrity and Literary Culture Between the Wars. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007. Print

Hastings, Selina. Rosamond Lehmann. London: Chatto and Windus, 2002. Print.

Holden, Katherine. The Shadow of Marriage: Singleness in England, 1914 – 1960. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007. Print.

Jeffreys, Sheila. The Spinster and Her Enemies: Feminism and Sexuality, 1880 – 1930. London: Pandora Press, 1985. Print.

Joannou, Maroula. Ladies, Please Don’t Smash These Windows: Women’s Writing, Feminist Consciousness and Social Change, 1918 – 1938. Oxford: Berg, 1995. Print.

Ledger, Sally. The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the Fin-de-Siècle. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997. Print.

Lehmann, Rosamond, Dusty Answer. London: Virago, 2008. Print.

—. Invitation to the Waltz. London: Virago, 1991. Print.

—. The Weather in the Streets. London: Virago, 1981. Print.

Lewis, Andrea. “A Feminine Conspiracy: Contraception, the New Woman and Empire in Rosamond Lehmann’s The Weather in the Streets.” Challenging Modernism: New Readings in Literature and Culture, 1914 – 45. Ed. Stella Deen. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002. 81-96. Print.

Liggins, Emma. George Gissing, the Working Woman, and Urban Culture. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006. Print.

Light, Alison. Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism Between the Wars. London: Routledge, 1992. Print.

Parsons, Deborah, Streetwalking the Metropolis: Women, the City and Modernity Oxford. Oxford University Press, 2000.

Pearce, Lynne and Jackie Stacey. “The Heart of the Matter: Feminists Revisit Romance.” Romance Revisited. Eds. Lynne Pearce and Jackie Stacey. New York and London: New York University Press, 1995. Print.

Pollard, Wendy, Rosamond Lehmann and Her Critics: The Vagaries of Literary Reception. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004. Print.

Radford, Jean. Ed. The Progress of Romance: The Politics of Popular Fiction. London: Routledge, 1986. Print.

Radway, Janice. A Feeling for Books: the Book-of-the-Month-Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire. North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. Print.

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

—. “The Scandal of the Middlebrow: The Book-of-the-Month-Club, Class Fracture and Cultural Authority.” South Atlantic Quarterly 89.4 (1990): 704-32. Print.

Showalter, Elaine. Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin-de-Siècle. London: Virago, 1992. Print.

Simons, Judy. Rosamond Lehmann. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1992. Print.

Tindall, Gillian. Rosamond Lehmann: An Appreciation. London: Chatto and Windus/Hogarth Press, 1985. Print.

Vicinus, Martha. Independent Women: Work and Community for Single Women, 1850 – 1920. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. Print.

Wallace, Diana, “Revising the Marriage Plot in Women’s Fiction of the 1930s.” Women Writer of the 1930s: Gender, Politics and History. Ed. Maroula Joannou. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999. 63-75. Print.

—. Sisters and Rivals in British Women’s Fiction, 1914 – 39. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000. Print.


[1] Janice Radway has been pivotal in advancing sociological understandings of romance readership (see particularly Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature). Lynne Pearce and Jackie Stacey’s collection of essays, Romance Revisited, has adopted an explicitly feminist agenda in its examination of romance as a literary and cultural category, while Bridget Fowler has focused on reading romance as a form of popular literature (see The Alienated Reader).

[2] These include Diana E LeStourgeon. Rosamond Lehmann. New York. Twayne, 1965; Gillian Tindall. Rosamond Lehmann: An Appreciation. London. Chatto and Windus/The Hogarth Press, 1985; Ruth Siegel. Rosamond Lehmann: A Thirties Writer. New York. Peter Lang, 1989; Judy Simons. Rosamond Lehmann. Basingstoke. Macmillan, 1992; Selina Hastings. Rosamond Lehmann. London. Chatto and Windus, 2002.

[3] Wendy Pollard, Rosamond Lehmann and Her Critics: The Vagaries of Literary Reception. Aldershot. Ashgate, 2004.

[4] See Nicola Humble. The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s – 1950s: Class, Domesticity and Bohemianism. Oxford and New York. Oxford University Press, 2001.

[5] See especially Faye Hammill. Women, Celebrity and Literary Culture Between the Wars. Texas. University of Texas Press, 2007; Mary Grover, The Ordeal of Warwick Deeping: Middlebrow Authorship and Cultural Embarrassment. New Jersey. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2009; Alison Light. Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism Between the Wars. London. Routledge, 1991; Janice Radway, ‘The Scandal of the Middlebrow: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Class Fracture and Cultural Authority’. South Atlantic Quarterly 89: 4. Fall 1990, 704-32.

[6] These include: Katherine Holden. The Shadow of Marriage: Singleness in England, 1914 – 1960. Manchester. Manchester University Press, 2007; and Sheila Jeffreys. The Spinster and Her Enemies: Feminism and Sexuality, 1880 – 1930. London. Pandora Press, 1985; and Martha Vicinus. Independent Women: Work and Community for Single Women, 1850 – 1920. Chicago. University of Chicago Press, 1985.

[7] See Sally Ledger. The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the Fin-de-Siècle. Manchester. Manchester University Press, 1997; and Emma Liggins. George Gissing, the Working Woman, and Urban Culture. Aldershot. Ashgate, 2006.

[8] See, for instance, a selection of essays in Laura Doan. Ed. Old Maids to Radical Spinsters: Unmarried Women in the Twentieth-Century Novel. Urbana. University of Illinois Press, 1991; and Maroula Joannou. Ladies, Please Don’t Smash These Windows: Women’s Writing, Feminist Consciousness and Social Change, 1918 – 1938. Oxford. Berg, 1995.

[9] Particularly useful are: Deborah Parsons. Streetwalking the Metropolis: Women, the City and Modernity. Oxford. Oxford University Press, 2000; and Elaine Showalter. Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin-de-Siècle. London. Virago, 1992.

[10] Janice Radway has written at length about the debates concerning standardization and middlebrow culture in her analysis of the Book-of-the-Month Club in America. See Janice Radway. ‘The Scandal of the Middlebrow: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Class Fracture and Cultural Authority.’ South Atlantic Quarterly 89: 4. Fall 1990. 704-32.

[11] The most notorious of these was Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928).

[12] See particularly Diana Wallace’s and Judy Simon’s studies of romance in Lehmann’s fiction.

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“Men Conquer the World and Women Save Mankind: Rewriting Patriarchal Traditions through Web-based Matriarchal Romances” by Jin Feng

Web writing has caused major shifts in the modes and mores of popular Chinese romance. In 2008, China became the world’s largest Internet market (Barboza), and Web literature, consisting mainly of unedited items and featuring various genres, has surpassed the volume of published print matter since 2000 (Linder 647). Yet few scholars have examined popular Chinese print romances in depth, let alone produced any study of how Chinese women participate in their production and consumption on the Chinese cyberspace. While English-language scholarship on the Chinese Internet focuses on issues of state censorship and civil liberties and ignores “cultural production” (Hockx 148), Chinese scholars usually engage in abstract discussions of the ontology, aesthetics, and sociology of Web literature rather than regard popular romance as a genre worthy of separate and serious attention.[1] We thus face a dearth of both ethnographic research and theoretical conceptualization in the study of web-based popular Chinese romance.

In order to investigate the impact of new media on the reading and writing practices related to the romance genre and, to a lesser extent, to explore the relevance of Western theories, especially Janice Radway’s findings, to Chinese-language popular romances, I will look at one Chinese literature website by the name of Jinjiang. I will focus especially on a particular type of popular romance, nüzun, or matriarchal fiction, which describes a woman’s ascent to power in the public arena and/or her success at establishing and heading a happy domicile consisting of her and one or several male sexual partners in a society ruled by women.

In her ground-breaking study Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature, published in 1984, Janice Radway produces a taxonomy of the “ideal romance” based on her ethnographic research of a group of female romance readers in a small town in the United States. According to Radway, the typical narrative structure of the “ideal romance” traces the heroine’s path of self-realization from her loss of social identity to its full restoration when she, after a series of misunderstandings and mishaps, eventually earns a love declaration and “unwavering commitment” from a super-masculine, “aristocratic” hero (134). Furthermore, Radway asserts that these readers can most relate to an “ideal heroine” who is “spirited” and “passionate,” but never loses these alluring “feminine” characteristics: “sexual innocence, unselfconscious beauty, and desire for love” (131).

English-language romances have changed shape since Radway’s study came out in the 1980s, as has romance scholarship. Nowadays it is common in popular romances, if not quite the universal norm, to encounter a sexually experienced and even adventurous heroine who seeks to control her life rather than being controlled.[2] Some scholars have also argued that Radway’s theory does not apply to Chinese popular print romances, because they reflect different sets of socio-political developments and cultural imperatives, such as the centrality of the multi-generational Chinese family (e.g., Lin). However, Radway’s description of the ideal heroine and her self-realization, in which heterosexual romantic love plays a definitive role, does shed light on pre-Internet popular Chinese romances such as those authored by Qiong Yao, “the Queen of Chinese Romance” whose works flooded the mainland Chinese market in the 1980s and 1990s.

I thus posit Radway’s theory as a point of departure, rather than seek to use it to fully explicate the web-based Chinese romances I examine. Despite its specific historic and cultural underpinnings, Radway’s conceptualization of “the circuit of culture” that energizes the production and consumption of popular romance reveals the contradictory elements both within popular culture and in our own identities as both researchers and consumers of popular culture (Wood 152). Indeed, not only does her central argument that women read popular romances in order to deflect the reality of a patriarchal world still remain provocative, but her interdisciplinary approach also proves highly useful for my study of Chinese popular romance. Thus, rather than regard Radway’s feminist bent only as “a form of political moralism” (Ang 104), I will not only test the relevance of her theory on female romance readers’ motivations and character identification, but also, more importantly, explore whether a different kind of readership has emerged who derives different kinds of pleasure from the act of reading popular Chinese romances in the age of the Internet.

I will show that catering mainly to a group of well-educated and articulate Chinese women, Jinjiang possesses interactive features that inculcate a reader-oriented form of writing, while the text is transformed from a single and closed-up entity into a continual process of becoming, thanks to the collective contributions and negotiations of multiple agents. Employing this reader-oriented style of Web writing, Jinjiang users often appropriate from existing works and tropes to access power granted by the production of meaning. They deploy their creative and playful consumption of cultural artifacts to deflect the power of the dominant social order and ideologies that they otherwise lack the means to challenge or change. Ultimately, the Internet empowers these Chinese women to carve out new identities for themselves and a communal life on the Chinese cyberspace, precisely because it enables them to rewrite patriarchal narratives with other women who share many of their beliefs and values.

I will begin with a brief overview of Jinjiang and the genealogy of popular romances in mainland China since 1949. Next, I will look at the three groups of human players in the creation and consumption of these texts—webmasters, authors, and readers—and analyze how interactive features of the website shape their relations to one another. Finally, I will examine examples of nüzun romances published at Jinjiang, and seek to discover what kinds of pleasure that users of Jinjiang derive from them.

The Rise of Popular Romance in Mainland China

Although not the largest Chinese literature website, Jinjiang Literature City (www.jjwxc.net) is known as one of the earliest and most influential women’s literature websites, with an almost exclusively female readership that is famous for its enthusiasm, loyalty, and powers of articulation (Yin 31). Judging by their self-introductions, the majority of Jinjiang users are fairly well-educated women whose ages range from the late teens to late thirties.[3] Only a few are full-time writers. Most have other occupations such as teachers, office workers, and accountants, or are students. The majority of them reside in mainland China, but a significant number appear to be living abroad and are, nevertheless, eager to participate from their various locations in the Chinese Diaspora (Xu 71-74). The webmasters, many of them volunteers, represent themselves as women interested in reading and writing fiction. The age, education background, and occupation of Jinjiang users fit the national profile of users of Chinese literature websites, as they are described by some as possessing the “three highs” (sangao): high salary, high level of education, and high social status (Yang). Jinjiang users are thus perhaps more highly educated, urban, and politically liberal than the small town romance readers discussed by Radway.

Compared with other Chinese literature websites, Jinjiang not only almost exclusively answers to contemporary Chinese women’s interests and concerns, but also frequently changes and enhances its web features in order to make them more conducive to candid, sophisticated, and in-depth discussions (more about this later). Jinjiang thus offers an invaluable source for me to conduct a preliminary “virtual ethnography” on female Chinese readers of popular romances, both because of its user profiles and because of its responsiveness to user needs.

Furthermore, the history of Jinjiang also reflects the rapid rise of market economy in the publishing industry in China. Although having started out utilizing volunteer labor, Jinjiang experienced financial hardships, legal crises, and ownership changes before finally finding an investor in Shanghai, Shengda Internet Development Cooperation, in November 2007. Shortly afterwards it followed the examples of other Chinese literature websites to charge a fee for access to certain “VIP” works. This practice, albeit controversial, reflects the increasing commercialization of the publishing industry in China.[4] So far only a small percentage of Jinjiang works have appeared in print media, most of them published by newly emerged houses known for their lists of popular literature, rather than by large state-run publishers specializing in serious literature.[5] But more and more mainstream Chinese publications have begun to cash in on the rise of popular fiction, and they have especially targeted female romance readers as a profit-generating consumer base (Qin).

Romance—and especially time-travel romance—dominates in popularity and volume among various Jinjiang genres. Moreover, the sub-genre of nüzun, or narratives of matriarchal societies, not only have gained increasing popularity at Jinjiang, but also reveal in a distinct way the mores and modes of web-based popular romance in China. Before I turn to nüzun texts per se, a brief sketch of trends in popular literature in contemporary China can illuminate not only the large social milieu into which nüzun has made its entrée, but also the raw materials from which it often appropriates to its own ends.

The rise of nüzun romance signals a new phase in the production and consumption of popular literature in mainland China. Although romantic tales abounded in both the premodern vernacular fiction of Scholar and Beauty[6] and the Republican-era popular fiction of Mandarin Duck and Butterfly,[7] contemporary popular romance did not make its debut in mainland China until the 1980s. Since 1949, official discourses in China had always emphasized the utilitarian function of literature, regarding it as a tool of civic education and social engineering that should mobilize the people under the banner of socialist construction and national salvation. Under such severe strictures, not only was popular literature such as Butterfly fiction denounced as “relics of a feudal society” and consequently banned, but any description of romantic relationships, not to mention sex, immediately made a work suspect in official eyes.[8] Needless to say, it was virtually unheard of to embrace the entertainment value of literature, even if this may have been desired by readers. Indeed, as late as 1979, a short story entitled “Ai shi buneng wangji de” (Love must not be forgotten), written by the female writer Zhang Jie and today a canonized piece of the post-Mao Scar Literature (shanghen wenxue), caused considerable controversy. Even though the author portrays a self-sacrificing female protagonist who never acts on her secret love for a married communist cadre, this work roused criticism of its “bourgeois sentiments” just because it holds that individuals have a right to romantic love, quite separate from and beyond the revolutionary cause and ethical code of Communist China (Hong 259).

Then in the 1980s entered Qiong Yao, a female mainland-born romance writer from Taiwan, followed by her peers from Taiwan and Hong Kong, such as Yi Shu. State control of literature and ideology relaxed somewhat following the economic reform and opening of China in the late 1970s. Consequently, untold copies of popular literature such as romance and martial arts fiction, many of them pirated, were published and sold in China. Popular Chinese print romance deserves a separate and more full-fledged study.[9] Suffice it to state here that in light of the long years of state censorship of popular literature, works penned by Qiong Yao provided female readers with a sense of liberation as well as novelty and entertainment, since their emotional lives were acknowledged, validated, and indeed, made into the focus of literary works for the first time since the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

The commercial success of these romance novels was never in doubt. They not only attracted numerous female readers in China, whose ages ranged from the teens to the sixties, but also made their way into various popular TV series and movies. Romance has thus been associated with the rise of popular culture and with a female consumer base in mainland China from the very beginning. Popular romance novels such as those authored by Qiong Yao and Yi Shu typically describe the romantic entanglements of an urban, middle-class, and young Chinese woman. The setting is predominantly contemporary China, Hong Kong, or Taiwan, but futurist settings sometimes appear in Yi Shu’s works while Qiong Yao’s later works such as Huanzhu gege (The “pearl-returning” princess) adopt the historical setting of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911 C.E.). In any case, heterosexuality and monogamy, especially on the part of the heroine, dominate as the norm of romantic relationships in these novels. Both Qiong Yao and Yi Shu wrote very tame love stories by today’s standards, since they were devoid of any explicit sex scenes. Instead, the heroine in Qiong Yao’s works was often extolled for her sexual innocence, spirit of self-sacrifice, capacity for suffering, and, of course, faith in the ultimate triumph of romantic love. While this image harkens back to the gender code in premodern China, for it promotes women’s self-effacement and chastity, the idea of love reigning paramount signals the influence of Western notions of romantic love and makes this heroine resemble the “ideal heroine” in popular romances studied by Radway (131).

Meanwhile, Chinese popular literature also catered to the needs of male consumers, as revealed by the proliferation of male-centered time-travel fantasies starting in the 1990s. Some have ascribed the popularity of time-travel fiction to Xun Qin ji (Tale of seeking Qin, ca. 1991), a fantasy written by a male Hong Kong writer named Huang Yi, and adapted to a popular TV series in 2001. This novel tells the story of a special force soldier who travels back to the Warring States period (475-221 B.C.E.), and helps the Duke of Qin to unify China and establish the first Chinese imperial dynasty. The hero’s sexual conquests as well as his miraculous deployment of modern knowledge have spurred widespread imitations on the Chinese web. Women also utilized the trope of time-travel to write popular romance. Xi Juan, a female author from Taiwan, describes the romantic adventure of a young woman traveling back to the Song dynasty (961-1279 C.E.) in her novel Jiaocuo shiguang de ailian (Love that crosses time, 1993), to wide commercial success and reader acclaim.

Traditionally a women’s website, Jinjiang also caught the fervor for romance, especially time-travel romance. Furthermore, while romance remains crucial in these web-based works, authors also explore alternative paths for their heroine’s self-realization. As can be seen perhaps most clearly in nüzun fictions, romantic love is by no means the only ingredient to the heroine’s identity, and military, political, and business accomplishments are also described as self-fulfilling and validating. In some cases, the heroine’s romantic relationship even pales to her achievements in the public arena. The emergence of nüzun fiction thus signals a major departure from the generic characteristics of popular romance as defined by Radway and the Romance Writers of America (and represented by Qiong Yao’s works): that a romance should have a central love story and an optimistic, emotionally satisfying ending. To some extent, rather than American popular romances, web-based matriarchal romances more closely resemble some British “romantic novels,” where the romantic plot plays an important, but not central part in the heroine’s bildungsroman.

While listing many popular culture products in print, on the Web, and on TV as sources for their inspiration,[10] Jinjiang writers also express a deep dissatisfaction with these predecessors. They show no patience with what they consider to be the insipid heroines of Qiong Yao’s works and frequently parody the author’s melodramatic narration. Most recently, some have even penned fan-fiction versions of Qiong Yao’s works to criticize what they consider the original author’s lopsided promotion of romantic love to the detriment of traditional morality and the heroine’s independence and self-esteem.[11] At the same time, Jinjiang authors also disparage blatant male fantasies in male-authored time-travel novels, unflatteringly calling them “stud (zhongma) fiction” because they depict male protagonists who, endowed with super-human prowess, invariably change history and acquire numerous beautiful women at the same time.[12] Consequently, romance novels at Jinjiang often display self-conscious differences from existing works.

Deliberately diverging yet simultaneously borrowing from existing popular fictions, Jinjiang authors have made radical changes in setting, characterization, and ethos in their works. Top-ranked romance novels at Jinjiang and other websites favored by female readers all share the following characteristics. First, certain elements of fantasy prove essential to attract readers. While relatively realistic contemporary urban settings still appear, the trope of time-travel, futuristic settings, and elements of the paranormal and fairy tales usually carry the work. Furthermore, the heroine in high-ranked titles differs widely from those in Qiong Yao’s works. Jinjiang authors generally do not appear enthusiastic about disseminating the myth that women’s ultimate fulfillment can be achieved only through marriage and domesticity, once a favorite theme of both premodern Chinese fiction and Qiong Yao’s works. Nor are they interested in promoting the role model of Chinese guixiu prevalent in Scholar and Beauty romances: women who not only possess poetic talent but also hold “higher standards of behavior when it comes to piety, chastity, or other forms of self-sacrifice” (Widmer 229), a type often replicated in Qiong Yao’s heroines. Rather, the heroine in a Jinjiang romance often possesses character traits traditionally associated with masculinity.

Jinjiang authors often celebrate not only the heroine’s achievements in traditionally masculine occupations such as commerce, politics, and military, but also her sexual peccadilloes including simultaneous (and at times incestuous) relationships with multiple partners, a far cry from Qiong Yao’s feminine and sexually innocent heroines. Moreover, the heroine also often exhibits a kind of radical individualism: Her single-minded pursuit of personal power—of the control of her own life—if not money and status alone, trumps any considerations of ethical code or the collective good, and defies any forces and attempts at subjugation. For example, high-ranked Jinjiang romance Wan qingsi (Coiling up black hair), since published in multiple volumes in print form (Huashan wenyi, 2007-2008), portrays a modern woman who travels back in time to inhabit the body of another woman, survives abduction and rape, and achieves amazing feats in her checkered career: she becomes, sequentially, a much sought-after courtesan, successful business owner, mistress and manager of a prominent family and clan, and political player in court conspiracy and coup. At one point in the story she even enters the underworld in pursuit of her lover.[13] Furthermore, a Jinjiang heroine often regards the hero with a cool, if not jaded, eye, and rarely abandons her career and family just for the sake of a romantic relationship. Readers also share the authors’ penchant for a heroine with agency and critical capacity. In their comments, they tend to criticize female characters who seem to have forsaken notions of gender equality and submit to the power of romantic love, and demand from them a modern or even feminist consciousness, even while acknowledging such behavior as anachronistic and improbable in the plot.[14]

Following this general trend of “female supremacy” in Jinjiang romances that depict heterosexual relationships in a patriarchal society, matriarchal narratives further challenge patriarchal norms. Before I look at specific examples of nüzun works at Jinjing, I will examine its interactive features first. For these web features have not only played a crucial role in user experiences, but also changed the shape of Chinese popular romance in significant ways.

Readers/Authors, Consumers/Producers

Rather than viewing Jinjiang as a tool of social engineering, users identify it as a place to find entertainment, satisfy creative impulses, and derive emotional nurturance.[15] Further, in most cases only the Internet can enable and enhance such experiences. As a “general” women’s literature website that publishes a variety of genres and sub-genres of popular romance, Jinjiang shows more hospitality to female users than either membership-only sites or male-oriented sites such as Qidian, which is famous for its proliferation of “stud-fiction.” It thus not only provides a haven for matriarchal romance, a sub-genre that has rarely appeared in print in mainland China, but also facilitates the cross-fertilization of narrative features between different genres. Furthermore, Jinjiang grants its users anonymity and the opportunity not only to produce and consume popular romance, but also to exchange ideas and comments at no cost. It does not require users to register before they post comments. Although technically IP addresses can be traced, in practice users can assume as many web identities as they wish. Not only do they sport numerous outlandish Web names, they also feel free to express their interest in taboo topics more frankly than would otherwise be possible or acceptable. Moreover, Web versions of Jinjiang works can contain more explicit sexual content, while in print versions authors have to make severe cuts before passing censors and getting published.[16]

With relatively lax rules of censorship and intellectual property at Jinjiang, users find it an ideal space not only to escape daily problems and make time for themselves, but also to air their feelings and thoughts freely. Furthermore, as will be demonstrated below, Jinjiang’s interactive features make it possible for users to find entertainment and nurturance regardless of geographical distance and class stratification, to let loose their creative impulses by experimenting with and re-inventing existing cultural products, and ultimately, to constitute an alternative social community.

After undergoing a series of improvements and upgrading, Jinjiang settled on the current layout. Each web page is vertically divided into two large “blocks,” and each block is further divided into two columns, with one being wider than the other. In the upper block the text occupies the left-hand and wider column, and is prominently displayed in black font. Also occupying this column is a row entitled “Author’s Words,” which is demarcated from the fiction text by a black line and displays authors’ comments and responses to readers’ remarks in a distinctive smaller green font. Side by side and to the right of this text column lies a narrower column, also divided into two parts vertically. The upper row in this narrower column displays chapter headings of the whole work, while the bottom row, entitled “Author’s Recommendation,” allows authors to recommend other works published at Jinjiang in small, grey font (Graphic A).

Graphic A(Graphic A: Author’s Words, Recommendation, and Text Display)

The upper block, mostly featuring author’s activities, is then divided by advertisements from the bottom block of the page, which showcases readers’ activities. Readers can grade each installment and leave comments in a commentary space placed in a wide column that is positioned at the left-hand side of the bottom block and also right underneath the text column above. To the right of this column of reader comments comes a narrower column of “Comments of Author’s Choice,” for authors to highlight reader comments that they have found most appealing and profound (Graphic B).

Graphic B(Graphic B: Commentary Space)

Thus, three major players shape the text: authors, readers, and, least obvious but equally essential, webmasters. Webmasters work as both the original architects and maintenance crew of the website. They offer a variety of service and tutelage to its users, such as instructing prospective authors on how to create tight-knit plots, display text in a more attractive format, and approach publishers.[17] But more importantly, they have not only established the interactive devices and rules of the Net, but also continually moderate the roles of author, reader, and the text. In this regard, the commentary space set up by them warrants particular attention.

The basic function of the commentary space is to record points given by readers, and thereby to serve as a barometer of the popularity of the work and the author. However, the webmasters emphasize the quality of readers’ comments, and especially encourage textual remarks that are produced by the commentators themselves. Prominently displayed at the side of each commentary space are the following regulations: a) open communications with the author are highly encouraged; b) commentators can grade one chapter only once daily, but can post comments as often as they like, provided that a neutral “0” point is given with additional postings; c) commentators may not copy and paste large amount of the original text as part of their comments; d) commentators may not cite other commentators’ words excessively in their own remarks; and e) commentators may not pile up non-textual symbols in their comments or paste an all-purpose, form commentary. Furthermore, webmasters mark certain long commentaries as “high quality,” and list the links to them beside the commentary space to encourage substantive discussion of any work. Needless to say, the webmasters also discipline reader behavior. They waste no time cracking down on what they see as irregularities in grading and commentary, issuing warnings to violators and adjusting cumulative points totals accordingly (Graphic C).

Graphic C(Graphic C: Webmaster’s enforcement of rules)

The commentary space forms the basis of Jinjiang’s well-regulated ranking system. Using a mathematical formula to calculate the points accrued by each work,[18] webmasters produce four lists that rank, variously, total, half-year, quarterly, and monthly accumulative points of works; additionally, the produce four other lists that showcase and encourage the following: newly joined authors, authors who update their texts most frequently, and works recommended by Jinjiang webmasters and readers, respectively. These lists do not just reflect the tastes of Jinjiang readers, they also help to attract readers to particular themes, genres, and authors, and add to the existing followings of certain authors and works. In this light, the ranking system works to both represent and also form communities of readers and authors.

The commentary space generates authoritative rank lists and plays a crucial role in shaping reader and author behavior by facilitating the free exchange of information, opinions and (positive) feelings. Like users of other Chinese websites, Jinjiang readers and authors share among themselves a unique “Web language” (Zhou). They often use initials of pinyin spellings, Arabic numbers, emoticons, words from other languages, or Chinese characters of similar pronunciation to replace the correct words. The circulation of this sort of written patois unintelligible to the uninitiated demarcates the boundary between insiders and outsiders. However, Jinjiang users also take time to educate novices and alert each other to new works worth pursuing. More importantly, the content of their communications induces feelings of recognition and identification more effectively still.

Because of the serialized nature of the novels, readers’ comments and authors’ responses often involve negotiations over plot and characterization. But as far as its complex and multifaceted functions are concerned, the commentary space combines the functions of a writer’s workshop, an opinion column, and a social space. Here the authors and readers discuss novel-writing in general and theorize about rhetorical devices. They also express their opinions on a variety of controversial topics such as homosexuality, rape, and polygamy, occasionally branching into political parodies with their word play on current political slogans. Perhaps because it is more important than acquiring new knowledge and ideas, readers and authors navigate to this space because of the social energy and emotional support that it offers. The authors and readers often exchange season’s greetings and tell each other about changes and problems in their lives, such as unemployment, marriage, and pregnancy. In return, they receive not only consolation and congratulations, but also practical help at times.[19] For instance, when one author told readers about her loss of job, fellow readers responded with numerous comforting comments.[20] They even post calls for Japan to apologize for forcing Asian women into sexual slavery during WWII,[21] obviously assuming some degree of homogeneity in ideology from their peers. That Jinjiang provides users with a haven from daily toils and tribulations, such as a tedious job and draining family situation, reigns as a resonant theme in all these extra-textual exchanges.

While the commentary space allows readers to make their voices heard and heeded, other interactive tools help authors to seek out readers. Authors often post in “Author’s Words” to respond to readers’ questions and comments. Author’s wen’an, the summary passage at the top of the page of the table of contents, demonstrates this gesture of reaching out to readers especially well (Graphic D). In addition to providing some clue to the plot, authors often use this space for a variety of other purposes: to describe the inspiration for their text; to introduce other websites that concurrently publish their novels as a backup in case Jinjiang encounters technical problems; to inform their readers of their frequency of updating; and to paste images and links to particular music that they regard as appropriate accompaniment to the text.

Graphic D(Graphic D: Author’s wen’an (summary passage))

We can see that this summary space not only helps authors to create their authorial personae, but also allows them to manipulate reader responses to their works. Such spaces enable authors to make their texts user-friendly by providing information on content and ideological bent, and also to actively seek readers who share similar values, or who are at least attracted to their work for its setting, plot, protagonist, or for other texts, films, images, and music that their work invokes. Furthermore, authors also use this space to solicit feedback, and thus extend to readers a virtual invitation to participate in the creation of the work. Often authors also play the role of webmasters by reiterating the rules of commenting and grading so that they can receive points successfully. As with the commentary space, wen’an can be seen to allow authors to form supportive cohorts and communities by making the text more “reader-oriented”: more responsive to the plethora of readers’ comments.

Despite authors’ attentive “courtship,” however, Jinjiang readers show remarkable independence. Although willingly collaborating with authors in the creation of the text, they sometimes also defy authorial intentions and authority. Some point out mistakes or inconsistencies in the plot. Others request the author to move the plot in certain directions. Still others even bring in external sources to argue for their own interpretation of the work and make demands of the author. At times readers also recommend other web-based works to their fellow readers. This apparently orients readers’ attention and commitment to other works, and further strengthens the bond among readers as it acknowledges shared tastes, enforces homogeneity, and demonstrates collective reader independence from a particular author or text. Discussions in the commentary space sometimes also lead to the creation of other texts as spin-offs or parodies of a work published at Jinjiang, creating a type of fan fiction usually self-styled as a “sequel” to the original.[22] Thus, readers have come to take up not only the traditional task of the author to produce texts, but also that of the webmasters to regulate user conduct and enforce communal behavior on the web.

As a result of the lively conversations between webmasters, authors, and readers, texts published at Jinjiang display extraordinary fluidity. This can be seen first in the different kinds of border-crossing that Jinjiang makes possible. As mentioned above, Jinjiang works often describe and even celebrate moral and sexual transgressions otherwise not condoned by society. Moreover, behavior generated by these works challenges both the traditional demarcation of genres and the boundary between author and reader. Since most works published at Jinjiang utilize multimedia functions and incorporate elements of music, cartoon, and cinema, the boundaries between literary text and other media become increasingly blurred. Furthermore, each work published at Jinjiang is in a perpetual state of flux, as it undergoes endless editing, modification, and even deletion. Because authors aspire for high ranking and positive reception, they take pains to respond to comments left by webmasters and readers. The reading community of any work is thus able to produce almost concurrent, “interlinear” (Rolston) commentary that can change the shape of the text precisely because of the speed of response and the instantaneity of results. Given that high-ranked novels at Jinjiang often catch the eyes of publishers, this malleability on the authors’ part is not just a goodwill gesture to attract a greater following, but also an effective way to make their manuscripts publishable; and thus makes financial sense (Yin 30-31). In this light, these web-based works clearly illustrate what Glen Thomas calls the “creative industry” of popular romance (20).

Perhaps most interesting for researchers of fiction-writing, Jinjiang authors and readers also experiment with innovative devices that considerably change the form of popular romance. A perfect case in point is their use of fanwai (bangai in Japanese) to insert a chapter that tells the story from the perspective of a character other than the heroine. Fanwai, “special features” in cinematic terms, denotes scenes that have been shot but edited out of the final version of the film. By using this device, the author creates an interstice in the narrative and generates unique reading effects. Although the flow of the plot seems to be interrupted, fanwai allows readers to see the other side of the story. This device can be used to provide a glimpse into male psychology, and correct what Radway regards as a fatal flaw in print romances of the 1950s and 1960s, in which the transformation of the hero from a sadistic antagonist to a gentle and caring lover remains unexplained at the time the transformation occurs (147). But more importantly, in using fanwai the author can induce affective identification by making the reader see the gentler side of the male figure and thus understand, if not endorse, the female protagonist’s relationship with him. This makes satisfying reading in that the reader not only feels involved and invested in one of the most important parts of the heroine’s self-realization, but is also granted superior knowledge of and insights into her romantic entanglements with the hero.

Often, fanwai becomes not only a teaser to attract readers, but also a bargaining chip for authors to appease readers’ insatiable appetite to read as much of the main story as quickly as possible; for in fanwai, authors can repeat previous scenes and hint at future developments without actually delivering new chapters of the main story. On the other hand, fanwai also attracts readers to participate in the writing of the novel. Some readers post fanwai chapters in their commentaries, while others individually or collaboratively turn their fanwai into a fan fiction in a different space,[23] and thereby change from readers into authors. Jinjiang thus inculcates an interactive and reader-oriented style of writing and a community of writers and readers, and makes the boundaries between webmasters, authors, and readers increasingly fluid and their identities mutually constitutive. Consumers of web-based popular romance fiction, as it turns out, easily morph into its producers who, furthermore, produce by engaging in acts of textual poaching.

The Pleasure of Textual Poaching

Michel de Certeau has used the term “textual poaching” to describe the ways that members of a subordinate group appropriate from mainstream cultural products in order to resist, negotiate, or transform the system and products of the relatively powerful. As women living in a patriarchy, Jinjiang users have become exactly this kind of “textual poachers” who launch “nomadic” raids on existing cultural products, and make do (bricolage) with various heterogeneous elements in order to elude or escape institutional control (De Certeau 184). In producing and consuming nüzun fiction, they produce meanings outside official-sanctioned interpretive practice and generally accepted social norms by adding new twists to existing texts or tropes.

Jinjiang matriarchal romances typically portray a modern woman who travels back in time, either in her own body or inhabiting the body of another woman, becomes a dominant public figure in a matriarchal society, and sets up her seraglio of attractive men. The trope of time-travel initiates what Radway has called the heroine’s “loss of social identity,” since she is plucked out of a familiar milieu and placed in an environment alien to her upbringing. However, time-travel romances at Jinjiang also all depict an empowered heroine who accomplishes not just the “recovery of her social identity” but also the enhancement of her former social status by embodying the basic plot of redemption. The heroine departs from modern times as a result of a variety of traumas including physical and emotional abuse from others. Her time travel, in contrast, provides her with the opportunity to redress the wrongs of the modern world and to put things right; if only at another, fantastic time and locale. In addition, in matriarchal romances, whether they feature time-travel or not, the heroine does not solely rely on the love declaration from the “ideal hero,” as Radway claims, to make her life worthwhile.

Yet, while matriarchal romances attract female readers because they delineate the bildungsgroman of a powerful heroine, they also reveal the dilemmas of modern Chinese women. This can be seen most clearly in the way that authors deploy the trope of time-travel. For although the protagonist’s modern perspective, knowledge, and skills grant her power over history just as a typical male time-traveler in the infamous “stud fiction” does, unlike him, she nevertheless yearns to escape from modern times in exchange for a past that promises a more authentic and satisfying emotional life. Moreover, while the time-traveler enjoys the best of both worlds because of her dual perspective, the opportunity for her restoration and transformation initially comes by accident rather than through individual will or endeavor. She is therefore shown as at the mercy of fate even while struggling against the unsatisfying reality of modern life.

In order to tease out the complex layers in reader reception, below I will look at three examples of matriarchal romances published at Jinjiang. While these three works fall on different parts of the spectrum of “female supremacy” when portraying the power of the heroine vis-à-vis men in a matriarchal world, they share certain similarities as well. Setting the story in a matriarchal society alone identifies them as gender benders to a greater or lesser degree, of course. In producing such tales of female power, authors can fulfill their creative urges and yearnings for empowerment by simultaneously borrowing from and undermining canonical works and popular tropes. Furthermore, reader comments show that on the one hand, by identifying with a morally ambiguous yet powerful female time-traveler, they can suspend the social and moral constraints placed on their lives imaginatively, albeit temporarily, and claim “virtual” sexual and political power through reading. On the other hand, by exchanging ideas with authors and among themselves, they also generate what Henry Jenkins calls a “participatory culture,” or a kind of “viewer activism” in another context (2). That is to say, users at Jinjiang enact a social process through ongoing discussions among themselves, by which individual interpretations are shaped and reinforced, experiences of any particular text are expanded beyond its initial consumption, and a sense of belonging and validation is gained.

Sishi huakai (Flowers of Four Seasons)

Sishi huakai (Flowers of four seasons),[24] one of the earliest and “classic” matriarchal novels published at Jinjiang, tells the story of a woman who dies in an accident in the modern world and whose soul then inhabits the body of a princess in a matriarchal society, just because the king of the underworld announces that she “wins the lottery” and deems it so. The protagonist seems to possess all the advantages in the matriarchal world: not only is she born into a royal family and beloved by her older sister the queen, she is also physically attractive and strong. In contrast to this omnipotent female protagonist, “really a man in the name of woman,” some readers protest that the men in this novel are just “women in disguise” since they are all physically and psychologically weak. [25] Moreover, while the protagonist has absolute power over men both in the public world and in her household, the men in her “harem,” disadvantaged in education and social status at birth because of their male gender, compete with each other in order to win her favor.

The author Gongteng shenxiu deliberately borrows the setting of the matriarchal society (nü’er guo) from Jing hua yuan (Flowers in the mirror), and turns the patriarchal hierarchy completely upside-down. The 18th-century Chinese novel Flowers in the Mirror, written by Li Ruzhen (1763-1830 C.E.), describes the travel of a group of men who encounter various kingdoms in their trips overseas; including a matriarchy where women serve in public roles while men have bound feet, wear cosmetics, are confined to domestic space, and generally have to behave according to the female gender code that rules women in a patriarchy. However, Flowers of the Four Seasons takes a step further. As Keith McMahon argues, Flowers in the Mirror in effect paints women in a matriarchal society as only a “grotesque . . . mirror image of the male tyrant”; for, once they gain power, they oppress men the same way that women are oppressed in a patriarchy (288). In contrast, Gongteng Shenxiu depicts a female protagonist who is intelligent, rational, strong, and benevolent to the extent of acting maternally to all of her husbands, while doling out to male characters physiological and psychological traits traditionally seen as feminine and negative. She not only describes men as vain and jealous, but also has them experience menses, childbirth, and breast-feeding. Needless to say, the female protagonist under Gongteng Shenxiu’s pen contrasts with either Qiong Yao’s poetic, ethereal heroine fully consumed by romantic love or the feminine yet socially disadvantaged beauty in Radway’s summary.

Although the more sophisticated Jinjiang readers point out that such narratives of gender bending only reverse patriarchal gender hierarchy without eliminating gender inequality,[26] they also attract a faithful following of readers who see such works as entertaining and empowering.[27] For example, one reader argues that as the social status of men and women is reversed in the story, so should be the aesthetic standards of masculinity and femininity. She finds it entirely reasonable and plausible that in this matriarchal society, women are admired for their physical strength and intelligence while men have to devote themselves to maintaining their physical attractiveness and chastity.[28]

As we can see on the one hand, as some readers admit, this kind of gender reversal satisfies female readers’ “unconscious yearnings for social status [in a patriarchy].”[29] On the other hand, however, the protagonist’s miraculous transformation from an ordinary modern woman into a powerful matriarch can find no explanation in the plot. Although in the modern world the female time-traveler supposedly has “neither external beauty nor internal beauty [spiritual worthiness],”[30] once waking up in the body of a princess in the matriarchal world, she suddenly demonstrates exceptional intelligence and willpower. Furthermore, the accident of her time-travel, or in this case, the transmigration of her soul, happens only because of the divine will of the king of the underworld, and can hardly be attributed to the protagonist’s own agency. Flowers of the Four Seasons thus leaves some readers dissatisfied even as it fulfills other readers’ fantasy of female empowerment.

Wangzhe zhi tong (Pains of the Queen)

Recognizing structural flaws in early works, later authors of web-based matriarchal novels attempt to address them in various ways. Luzi (Stove), author of Wangzhe zhi tong (Pains of the queen), another popular matriarchal novel at Jinjiang, states that because she is angered by how a peasant woman is treated in Rou Shi’s short story “Wei nuli de muqin” (A slave mother), she wants to tell the story of “how a ‘weak’ woman conquers the world” through her own work.[31] She portrays a princess warrior who—although not physically stronger than the men in the story—returns from the dead, recruits supporters, overcomes incredible setbacks and sufferings, and eventually overthrows the regime that dethroned her earlier, while also acquiring two powerful and devoted men as spouses in the process. While it would be all too easy to dismiss this story as only a female version of “stud fiction,” we should pay close attention to the way that it rewrites a piece of state-sanctioned canonical work that is often hailed as indictment of “old society,” because the author Rou Shi, a communist and “revolutionary martyr,” relentlessly exposed the oppression of women and peasants in pre-1949 China.

Above all, Luzi has turned a tale of unrelieved suffering for women into that of female empowerment and triumph. Rou Shi portrayed a peasant woman who has been pawned by her husband to an upper-class family as a surrogate mother to produce a male heir for them, but eventually has to give up her child because of class oppression. In contrast, in Pains of the Queen the heroine marries herself to the peasant who has rescued her from the battlefield as a form of repayment. After the peasant dies and she has recovered from her injuries, she takes her daughter born out of this marriage and leaves the peasant family to seek revenge and retrieval of her power. Moreover, although she is later found to be infertile due to old injuries sustained in battles, her lovers remain dedicated to her rather than abandoning her for her “lacking” as a woman. She thus seems to have traded her procreative capacity for military and political power, instead of remaining a passive “baby machine” and a commodity bartered by men, as is the fate of the slave mother in Rou Shi’s story.

This web-based matriarchal novel subverts the discourses of national salvation and class struggle produced by radical male intellectuals such as Rou Shi in early twentieth-century China, in that it depicts a woman who uses her intelligence, resilience, and political talent to attain empowerment, rather than relying on a savior such as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for her liberation, as we can find in works by male pro-CCP authors such as Zhao Shuli.[32] The readers express their admiration for a heroine that is strong, independent, and highly intelligent, and root for her when she is faced with enormous obstacles in her fight to regain power. [33] Furthermore, because of the portrayal of the protagonist’s long and hard struggle, some of them also comment that they can relate more to this kind of plot and heroine than to matriarchal novels that portray the female protagonist as talented and all-powerful but paint minor characters as “total idiots”[34]; a characterization that fits early matriarchal novels such as Flowers of Four Seasons, which paint a rather lop-sided picture of power dynamics between women and men in the matriarchal world.

Fenghuang jiangjun liezhuan (Biography of General Phoenix)

In comparison to Luzi’s celebration of the heroine’s military and political accomplishments in Pains of the Queen, Jun Suiyuan, the author of Fenghuang jiangjun liezhuan (Biography of general phoenix), another high-ranked matriarchal novel at Jinjiang, believes that feminine nurturance, rather than masculine aggressiveness, is the only hope for the world. “Men conquer the world, and women save mankind,” she boldly declares. Challenging the old saying “Men conquer the world, and women conquer men” as “chauvinistic,” she asserts: “Men are more extroverted and aggressive, while women tend to be introverted and accommodating. So only a world dominated by women can treat the disadvantaged group of the opposite sex with enough tolerance.” Moreover, she quips, “Had Saddam Hussein been a woman, he would have seen to it first that his people had adequate food and clothing. Had George W. Bush been a woman, he would not have launched a war just to acquire oil from half a world away: his military expenses could have been spent on finding clean sources of energy.”[35]

In contrast to many authors of matriarchal novels, who portray female protagonists that possess extraordinary intellectual and martial prowess and excel in traditionally masculine realms, Jun Suiyuan depicts a modern-day, ordinary Chinese woman who has the misfortune to time-travel and wake up in the body of General Phoenix, formerly the avatar of a powerful alien from another planet, Princess Sarah (Sala Gongzhu). As can be expected, rather than displaying the ET’s political and military power, this new General Phoenix is frequently exposed as ignorant, timid, and generally muddle-headed. Her only redeeming feature seems to lie in her sincere love of her twelve husbands, which include two princes, a prime minister, a powerful businessman, a knight-errant adept at sword play, and a leader of organized crime, each of whose intellectual capacity, martial prowess, social status, or political clout overshadows her own.

In exposing the modern woman’s weakness as compared to the men in her life, General Phoenix appears to be a reversal of typical matriarchal narratives in that it does not glorify her abilities or unconditionally extol female supremacy. This kind of characterization has arisen from the author’s conscious wish to debunk clichés in existing time-travel romances that feature plots such as: “The heroine becomes a super star [in the other world] just by singing a modern song and performing an erotic dance, a millionaire by opening a hot-pot restaurant and frying a few pieces of chicken, and a ‘Talented Woman’ by reciting [plagiarizing] a few classical poems,”[36] all true of time-travel “classics” such as Coiling up Black Hair. Yet by emphasizing the heroine’s feminine nurturance, Jun Suiyuan does not differ widely from Gongteng Shenxiu and Luzi, the two authors discussed above.

Although these three matriarchal novels undermine patriarchal prescriptions of women’s procreative duties—Gongteng Shenxiu relegates gestation and birthing to men while Luzi makes her heroine barren—they also delineate the female protagonist’s love and protection of her household and her people. Indeed, the protagonist in these three matriarchal romances can be seen as the supreme mother figure of benevolence and nurturance, even though she does not necessarily play the maternal role in the traditional sense. This kind of characterization again poses a sharp contrast with Radway’s ideal heroine, who expects and thrives on the attention and nurturance showered on her by an ideal hero who is super-masculine yet acts like a nurturing pre-Oedipal mother (113). Yet we can also see that these matriarchal romances simultaneously reverse gender stereotypes and reinforce them, in that they debunk the centrality of romantic love in women’s self-definition while also emphasizing the ultimate value of feminine nurturance.

Since General Phoenix has not been completed yet, it remains to be seen how the author will describe the protagonist’s eventual ascent and triumph. However, Jun Suiyuan mentions in her wen’an that the female protagonist will “meet many people, experience a lot of things, eat a lot of bitterness, make a lot of mistakes, and eventually live up to her title ‘General Phoenix’ after many years of trials and tribulations.”[37] Additionally, in the completed Part One of this novel, she has included several fanwai chapters to both foreshadow what happens in the future and also to appease various protests that readers raised earlier on, who either thought that the author had not given them a satisfactory, powerful female protagonist or expressed concern that this novel would not have a happy ending given the protagonist’s obvious weakness. For example, in a fanwai chapter entitled “Tuanyuan” (Reunion),[38] Jun Suiyuan describes how at the Mid-Autumn Festival, a traditional Chinese holiday for family reunions, General Phoenix waits for her twelve husbands at the family banquet, only to drink herself to oblivion when none of them show up because they are all tied up with affairs of the state or other important public duties. However, when she wakes up from her drunken stupor the next morning, she can tell from various traces, such as the hicky on her neck, a coat that someone has wrapped around her, a fan left behind, and so forth, that they have indeed come back after she has fallen asleep. This fanwai thus not only promises readers a reassuring happy ending, but also provides a tantalizing glimpse into the marital life of the female protagonist, without either revealing any substantive plot developments regarding the change of dynamics between the heroine and her male partners or compromising her own idea of how a modern woman would behave in the matriarchal world that she has set up in the novel. Biography of General Phoenix will thus most likely provide the same kind of entertainment and validation for its female readers in portraying a modern woman’s miraculous transformation and growth in a matriarchal society that we have seen in the other novels I have discussed.

Conclusion

Although Radway’s characterization of the “ideal heroine” applies, more or less, to pre-Internet popular romance works authored by Qiong Yao, we encounter in web-based matriarchal romances female protagonists whose identities lie at once outside the realm of women who sacrifice themselves for romantic love and also outside of the heroic, nation-centered male narratives of the Mao era. Thus, in the age of the Internet, the thematic emphasis of popular Chinese romance has shifted from the reign of heterosexual romantic love typical of Qiong Yao’s works to women’s explorations and adventures into various (masculine) realms, even as the genre’s formal features integrate elements from various premodern and contemporary popular genres such as fantasy.

We can see that the overflow of popular cultural products and the rise of the Internet provide Chinese women with necessary tools to reinvent themselves through appropriation, if only in a virtual space that can only offer illusions of democracy and liberation. Web-based nüzun fiction at Jinjiang thus offers a new platform for Chinese women to shape and test their own creative voices, explore their gender identity, and challenge dominant cultural norms. It is of course arguable that the compensation generated through producing and consuming matriarchal romances only provides an escape from reality, and that it exposes these women’s inability to wage substantial challenges to a patriarchal society, as we can infer from Radway’s theory. However, seen in the context of the grand official narrative that accentuates anti-colonial national salvation and the search for a monolithic cultural identity, this self-conscious embrace of “banal” entertainment is anything but banal.

For in unequivocally defending their right to fantasy and entertainment, Jinjiang users not only cite male precedents in various cultural products, such as the infamous “stud fiction,” but also charge that the patriarchal society lashes out against them only because men feel profoundly threatened by women’s need for sexual exploration and expression.[39] As Rey Chow argues, the deliberately light-hearted and “vulgar” lyrics in Chinese rock music in effect undermine official ideologies.[40] While Jinjiang authors and readers of popular romances do not all rebel against patriarchy out of feminist consciousness, they recognize gender inequality and seek to subvert patriarchal hierarchy through the creation and consumption of matriarchal narratives.[41]

Stuart Hall rightly points out that popular culture is neither “wholly corrupt [n]or wholly authentic” but rather “deeply contradictory”; characterized by “the double movement of containment and resistance, which is always inevitably inside it” (228). Readers and authors of matriarchal romances at Jinjiang are not wholly or always resistant to or complicitous with dominant official ideologies, but rather continuously re-evaluating their relationships to the text and reconstructing its meanings according to more immediate interests. Ultimately, the online exchanges generated around matriarchal novels show that Chinese women discover the utopian dimension of popular culture through interacting with each other. They react against unsatisfying situations in their real lives, trying to establish a world more open to creativity and responsive to women’s needs. Jinjiang thus provides an alternative community where women can have easy access to emotional nurturance as well as entertainment.

Perhaps the pleasure of web-based popular matriarchal romances comes down essentially to this: it induces a special kind of reader identification and allows Chinese women to cross various gender, generic, and socio-cultural boundaries to form a nurturing community through their creative play on the Chinese cyberspace. It still remains to be seen whether the utopian alternative that web-based matriarchal romance posits can spur action in life. Nevertheless, these web-based works have undoubtedly fulfilled what romance novelist Jennifer Crusie, and the romance readers studied in Radway’s ethnographic research, both seem to claim as the ultimate positive function of popular romance: They reinforce women’s “sense of self-worth” by allowing them to “recognize the truth and validity” of their lives.[42]

Glossary of Chinese Characters

“Ai shi buneng wangji de” 愛是不能忘記的

Bo Bo 波波

fanwai 番外

Fenghuang jiangjun liezhuan 鳳凰將軍列傳

Gongteng shenxiu 宮藤深秀

Guixiu 閨秀

Huanzhu gege 還珠格格

Huang Yi 黃易

Jiaocuo shiguang de ailian 交錯時光的愛戀

Jing hua yuan 鏡花緣

Jinjiang 晉江

Jun Suiyuan 君隨緣

Li Ruzhen 李儒珍

Luzi 爐子

nü’er guo 女兒國

nüzun 女尊

pinyin 拼音

Qidian 起點

Qin 秦

Qing 清

Qiong Yao 瓊瑤

Rou Shi 柔石

Sala Gongzhu 薩拉公主

Shanghen wenxu 傷痕文學

Shengda 盛大

Sishi huakai 四時花開

Wan qingsi 綰青絲

Wangzhe zhi tong 王者之痛

“Wei nuli de muqin” 為奴隸的母親

wen’an 文案

“Women fufu zhijian” 我們夫婦之間

Xi Juan 席娟

Xiao Yemu 蕭也牧

Xun Qin ji 尋秦記

Yi Shu 亦舒

yuanchuang wang 原創網

Zhang Jie 張潔

Zhao Shuli 趙樹理

Zhongma 種馬

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[1] A search by the keyword wangluo wenxue (web literature) in CNKI, a database of full-text Chinese sources, yields more than a thousand entries, most of them theoretical constructions.

[2] E.g, see some of the comments in Jayne Ann Krentz, ed., Dangerous Men & Adventurous Women: Writers on the Appeal of the Romance (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992).

[3] http://bbs.jjwxc.net/showmsg.php?board=18&id=12579 (accessed March 5, 2008); also see Linder, “Web Literature,” 647.

[4] http://bbs.jjwxc.net/showmsg.php?board=2&id=121844 (accessed March 5, 2008).

[5] http://bbs.jjwxc.com/showmsg.php?board=18 (accessed March 5, 2008).

[6] It is so called because it portrays love relationships between scholars and beautiful and “talented women.”

[7] This refers to a form of “sentimental” fiction popular in early Republican era (ca. 1911-1940s) that catered to the need for entertainment among urban residents in China. It was often disparaged by radical nationalists of the era for its lack of “revolutionary” content. For a more detailed discussion, see Perry Link, Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies: Popular Fiction in Early Twentieth Century Chinese Cities (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981).

[8] This is amply proved by the criticism that Xiao Yemu’s “Women fufu zhijian” (Between us the couple) faced. Although upholding the call for self-reformation on the part of bourgeois intellectuals, the story was severely criticized because the author describes the tender relationship between husband and wife and details of their conjugal life rather than class struggles. See Hong Zicheng, Zhongguo dangdai wenxue shi (Beijing daxue chubanshe, 1999), 138.

[9] E.g., Fangmei Lin’s “Social Change and Romantic Ideology: The Impact of the Public Industry, Family Organization and Gender Roles on the Reception and Interpretation of Romance Fiction in Taiwan” (Ph. D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1992), treats Qiong Yao’s novels from a sociological perspective, but focuses mostly on the context of Taiwan.

[10] E.g., http://blog.sina.com.cn/u/4a6d1fd0010009jg (accessed March 6, 2008).

[11] One such example is a fan fiction of Qiong Yao’s Yilian youmeng (Dreams inside the screen), http://www.jjwxc.net/onebook.php?novelid=644963 (accessed June 16, 2010), written by A Dou, in which the Web author subverts the original story and makes fun of the original heroine who “grabs” her older sister’s boyfriend in the name of true love.

[12] E.g., http://www.jjwxc.net/onebook.php?novelid=173864&chapterid=63 (accessed July 30, 2007); and http://www.jjwxc.net/onebook.php?novelid=228479&chapterid=25 (accessed March 6, 2008).

[13] http://www.jjwxc.net/onebook.php?novelid=130145 (accessed December 28, 2008). http://www.du8.com/books/oututxt33086/66.shtml (accessed December 28, 2008).

[14] http://bbs.jjwxc.com/showmsg.php?board=25&id=5785 (accessed March 5, 2008).

[15] http://bbs.jjwxc.com/showmsg.php?board=25&id=5785 (accessed March 8, 2008).

[16] http://www.jjwxc.net/onebook.php?novelid=50785&chapterid=55 (accessed March 5, 2008).

[17] E.g., http://bbs.jjwxc.net/board.php?board=18&page=1 (accessed March 5, 2008).

[18] Points=number of hits/number of chapters *Ln (total number of characters in the text)*average points+ Ln (total number of characters in commentaries of over one-thousand-character) *grades on commentaries+additional points given to quality commentaries.

[19] For example, http://www.jjwxc.net/onebook.php?novelid=141437&chapterid=86 (accessed March 18, 2008).

[20] http://www.jjwxc.net/onebook.php?novelid=245091&chapterid=64 (accessed March 3, 2007).

[21] http://www.jjwxc.net/comment.php?novelid=92363&chapterid=27&page=2 (accessed March 9, 2007).

[22] E.g., the popular time-travel romance Bubu jingxin (Suspense at every step) (http://www.jjwxc.net/onebook.php?novelid=38029 (accessed March 15, 2008) not only generates numerous comments and reviews, but also several “sequels” at Jinjiang, including this one: http://www.jjwxc.net/onebook.php?novelid=181060 (accessed March 15, 2008).

[23] E.g., http://www.jjwxc.net/onebook.php?novelid=154277 (accessed January 28, 2007).

[24] http://www.jjwxc.net/onebook.php?novelid=91786 (accessed March 6, 2008).

[25] Ibid, reader comments (accessed October 20, 2009).

[26] http://bbs.jjwxc.com/showmsg.php?board=25&id=5706 (accessed March 6, 2008).

[27] http://bbs.jjwxc.com/showmsg.php?board=25&id=5960 (accessed March 6, 2008).

[28] http://www.jjwxc.net/onebook.php?novelid=91786 (accessed October 23, 2009).

[29] Ibid.

[30] http://www.jjwxc.net/onebook.php?novelid=91786&chapterid=1 (accessed October 21, 2009).

[31] http://www.jjwxc.net/onebook.php?novelid=231059 (accessed October 21, 2008).

[32] E.g., see “Meng Xiangying Stands Up,” in W. J. F. Jenner, ed., Modern Chinese Stories (Oxford UP, 1970), 120-138.

[33] E.g., http://www.jjwxc.net/onebook.php?novelid=231059&chapterid=8, http://www.jjwxc.net/onebook.php?novelid=231059&chapterid=10 (accessed October 22, 2008).

[34] E.g., http://www.jjwxc.net/onebook.php?novelid=231059&chapterid=9 (accessed October 22, 2008).

[35] http://www.jjwxc.net/onebook.php?novelid=144848&chapterid=1 (accessed June 8, 2008).

[36] http://www.jjwxc.net/onebook.php?novelid=144848 (accessed October 21, 2009).

[37] Ibid.

[38] http://www.jjwxc.net/onebook.php?novelid=144848&chapterid=148 (accessed October 21, 2009).

[39] http://www.jjwxc.net/onebook.php?novelid=291638&chapterid=85 (accessed 3/30/08).

[40] Rey Chow, “Listening Otherwise, Music Miniturized,” in Simon During, ed., The Cultural Studies Reader (Routledge, 1993), 382-399.

[41] Users’ defying of patriarchal gender prescriptions can also be seen in the case of web-based danmei fiction, or female-authored romance that features male-male homoerotic love. For an in-depth discussion of how danmei fans battle criticisms from a patriarchal society, see Jin Feng, “Addicted to Beauty: Web-based Danmei Popular Romance,” in Modern Chinese Literature and Culture 21.2 (fall 2009): 1-41.

[42]Jennifer Crusie, “Romancing Reality: The Power of Romance Fiction to Reinforce and Re-Vision the Real.”  http://www.jennycrusie.com/for-writers/essays/romancing-reality-the-power-of-romance-fiction-to-reinforce-and-re-vision-the-real/ (accessed June 16, 2010).

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“Does This Book Make Me Look Fat?” by Sonya C. Brown

On July 26th, 2008, the website “Smart Bitches Trashy Books,” which reviews romance novels and related genres, featured a post from Smart Bitch (SB) Sarah, who pondered whether romance novels featuring so-called “plus-size”[1] heroines were “GS v. STA” (“good shit” as opposed to  “shit to avoid”). SB Sarah’s concerns are threefold: Problem 1) The heroine diets her way to her Happily Ever After, or HEA, which undercuts the idea that a “plus size” woman can have one; Problem 2) The fat character is a “plucky, plump sidekick,” who does not get an HEA; and Problem 3) The so-called “plus size” heroine gripes about her weight/size throughout the book only to reveal that she is really a size 10 “or some shit like that,” well within the range of “regular” sizes for American women. Over the next two days, readers responded in enough bulk to cover over 100 pages of 8.5” x 11” inch paper when printed out. Readers like the idea of seeing “plus size” heroines in romance, yet feel dissatisfied with nearly all the current examples thereof. Their posts reveal ambivalence not only about the novels, but also about the acceptance of “plus size” people, fictional and real.

The idea of diversifying romances to promote size acceptance by featuring heroines whose bodies may not conform to slender ideals seems praiseworthy enough. Using genre literature for social commentary is not unusual. Science fiction writers (Herbert, Heinlein, F. Paul Wilson, etc.) use alternate realities and futuristic societies to critique contemporary ideologies. Romance authors also tackle social issues at times, as when Suzanne Brockmann includes a gay couple in her “Troubleshooters” series. “Plus size” romances challenge social expectations regarding women’s body sizes and weight to advance the acceptance of real women’s bodies that are larger than the current slender ideal, and whose potential as romantic subjects is typically ignored in popular media.

Though few television shows or movies include women of average size, much less larger than average size, size acceptance is a cultural movement, one with which readers of romance posting in response to SB Sarah seemed to have varying degrees of familiarity. In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, nonfiction size acceptance narratives were published in numerous popular media outlets (Brown), and recent issues of the fashion magazines Allure and Glamour (2009-2010) have included “plus size” models, tips for dressing “at every size,” and fashion advice for women whose size typically excludes them from designer fashion. Susan Stinson, novelist and author of “Fat Girls Need Fiction,” writes eloquently to justify fiction for the purpose of size acceptance:

When I say that fat girls need fiction, I mean that we need to read and encourage the writing of a wide range of fiction about subjects both close to our various hearts and past the edges of our far-reaching imaginations. Beyond the desire to see our own lives and experiences reflected in fiction, we need those habits of mind and heart that deepen empathy with others and broaden our sense of both the just and the possible. (233)

Reader reactions to SB Sarah’s post, as well as the post itself, suggest that though most readers like the idea of extending the range of heroines’ sizes upwards—not an insignificant goal—truly fat women as romantic protagonists are currently “past the edges of” most readers’ imaginations.

The term “plus size” itself is vague and euphemistic, but allows readers to avoid using the “f-word,” fat, and the unpleasant medical term obese. Terms like obese and morbidly obese seem not only fact-based but immutable, when they are instead challenged and changeable. In 1998, for example, the American government changed the Body Mass Index (BMI), and millions shifted categories and became “overweight” or “obese” overnight. Twelve years later, the outcry over that move is mostly forgotten by the general public, but an increasing quantity of research in fat studies from a variety of disciplines suggests that fatness may often be wrongly demonized as a threat to health and longevity (see books by Kolata, Bacon, Campos, and Gaesser for a few examples). Other studies suggest that people whose BMI puts them in the current “overweight” category may actually live longer, in general, than those who are “underweight” or “normal” (http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/87934.php). Many argue that the real threat to fat persons’ health is the widespread prejudice against them, including within health services, and the yo-yo dieting they frequently undertake as a result. A movement towards Health at Every Size (HAES) proposes that fitness and good nutrition are keys to good health, as opposed to weight loss for its own sake. At least one woman posting to the Smart Bitches thread (spinsterwitch) specifically argues from an HAES perspective, and another (Suze) mentions Campos’ book to disagree with equating fatness, high mortality rates and illness. Such voices represent a minority, however. The typical romance reader, based on evidence from reader posts to this thread, seems torn between an emergent HAES perspective and the entrenched rhetoric that certain sizes or weights designated overweight, obese and morbidly obese are always detrimental to one’s physical health and longevity.

Thus, though SB Sarah expresses disappointment that heroines who complain throughout the narrative about being “fat” are revealed to be “a size 10 or some shit like that,” characters who are truly fat are rare in romance novels as well as chick lit. As Lara Frater suggests:

[S]ize 16 is a magical number. It is the maximum socially permitted size of a fat character….Size 16 protects the character, the readers, and the author from the dreaded size 20, where the character has to shop (gasp) at Lane Bryant and won’t find anything at the Gap. Once a character reaches size 20, it seems that they are past the point of self-acceptance and are now considered unhealthy. (236)

As in chick lit, so in romance and on this thread: very few people claim to be larger than a size 20, and even fewer characters in recommended books are described as such. Characters who begin their romance novel at high weights may be perceived as “unhealthily” fat—even if those same characters are not described as exhibiting symptoms of physical impairment or disease based in their weight. Such characters’ weight loss is sometimes seen as self-improvement, a necessary feat to gain their HEA’s. Similarly, many readers mention that they have personally deliberately lost weight or decreased their clothing size.

The term “plus size” makes it unnecessary for an author to delineate a size, a refusal or evasion that SB Sarah praises. One critical poster reveals, in a to-the-point comment that several others agree with, that “[m]ost readers (not all, but most) don’t want to encounter heroines beyond a size 12 any more than they want to encounter heroes and heroines beyond the age of 40” (Wryhag, 26 Jul 2008). Thus some readers put the blame for authorial failure to portray fat women (or older women) squarely on readers’ shoulders.

Authors can’t win for losing. If their characters are truly fat (beyond Frater’s “magical size 16”), many readers may automatically imagine them as unhealthy and/or unattractive and therefore unworthy of a hero’s romantic interest. If their characters are not truly fat, they seem unable to satisfy other readers’ desires to read about characters that break the slender mold. By refusing to mention the exact size of a character, an author allows her readers to imagine whatever they wish to about the heroine’s size, but doing so does not help readers do as they seem to want the novels to do, which is, in Stinson’s terms, “broaden [their] ideas both of the just and the possible.” Many readers no doubt wish to challenge beliefs about fatness, health, and sexuality; readers are also at various stages in the process of accepting or rejecting size/fat acceptance ideals. This forum presented an opportunity to explore pros and cons towards real-life size acceptance via discussion of fictitious size acceptance.

At the very least, romance novel readers live in a society that stigmatizes fat women. Research demonstrates that fat people suffer from prejudicial treatment in the workplace and in social life, including romantic relationships (Baum; Bordo; Joanisse and Synnott; Lerner; Lerner and Gellert; Paulery; Register; Solovay). Indeed, research suggests that men may prefer women who struggle with drug addiction over their larger peers (Sitton and Blanchard). In the corporate world, men whose romantic partners are fat women may be judged badly as potential employees in contrast with men whose partners are slender women (Hebl and Mannix). As a result of this stigma, Samantha Murray puts it succinctly: “We do not talk about fat and sex. The two appear as mutually exclusive” (239). The inclusion of larger women in romance novels addresses and perhaps, as Stinson suggests, helps fight very real fears that readers’ own bodies may render them undesirable in the sexual marketplace or liabilities to male partners.

Yet those same societal constraints make it difficult for readers to imagine fat women (as opposed to women size 16 and under) as romantic heroines. As one reader commented about another reader’s desire to read about a happy, confident fat woman as heroine, “Considering I’ve never met a plus-sized, ‘average,’ or fat woman who isn’t obsessed or concerned or worried about her weight and society’s perceptions about her, I don’t know how realistic this heroine would be” (Jana 26 Jul 2008). Size acceptance novels, in theory, offer readers an opportunity to read about just such a woman, enjoying her body within the context of a faithful heterosexual relationship—a woman who enjoys her body regardless of the fact that it does not meet, or to put it in a more optimistic light, is not constrained by, social expectations about women taking up space and limiting their appetites in order to seduce men. The absence of this heroine from size acceptance literature is revealing about the ambivalence of publishers, authors and readers towards size acceptance and HAES, as well as towards what size acceptance might mean about norms that continue to affect heterosexual relationships, such as the function of women’s bodies as pleasing to men rather than as vehicles of the woman’s own pleasure.

Problem One: Heroines Who Diet Their Way to HEA

The book mentioned most often in response to SB Sarah’s first objection that a heroine must diet her way to her HEA is Susan Donovan’s He Loves Lucy. Donovan’s book was a best-seller published three years prior to the Smart Bitches 2008 post, making it fairly current. The eponymous Lucy works in advertising and public relations. To promote her client, a local gym, she agrees to work with a physical trainer there to lose 100 pounds and to have her weight loss chronicled in the media.

Some readers praised the book because, although Lucy loses a substantial amount of weight, they perceived that Theo, the gorgeous personal trainer hero, falls in love with Lucy before she reaches her target weight:

I’d like to see plus-sized being an ok HEA too, w/o losing weight. But I think at least LUCY addressed some of the issues and insecurites [sic], and did a better job than most books do. It was good for a few chuckles, too, which never hurts. And at least Theo loved her long before she lost the weight, which is more than can be said for a lot of plus-sized books. (Anonym2857 26 Jul 08)

Other readers were not so pleased: “He Loves Lucy was one that angered me because she didn’t get her HEA until she lost weight” (Lori 26 Jul 08).

Textual analysis reveals that Theo gradually falls for Lucy, as she loses weight:

That’s when [Theo] saw an attractive woman seated on the edge of a table, talking on a cell phone, one leg bent, her hair falling in glossy waves…

Lucy.” Her name came out like a gasp. Theo sat very still, realizing with confusion that his pulse was tripping.

Well, of course it was. He was just surprised. That was all. He was looking at the cumulative effect of a good balance of freestyle, cardio, and core strengthening along with lean protein, complex carbs, and fruits and vegetables.

He was merely reacting to all the changes in her numbers made visible. Her body fat mass was down. Her lean muscle mass was up. She’d lost a bunch of pounds and a bunch of inches from her upper arms, chest, hips, waist, thighs and calves. (Donovan 78)

Though Theo attempts to calm himself by putting Lucy’s startling new attractiveness in numerical terms, and Donovan maintains the humorous tone that keeps her books popular, it is easy to see why some readers would be disappointed. Theo’s attraction to Lucy surprises him, indicating that her body prior to weight loss did not attract him. Also, changes in her body prompt the newfound attraction, not her personality or shared experiences. Theo does not suddenly become attracted to Lucy because she is smart, kind, and funny—Donovan depicts her as all three—but rather because her appearance changes. This scene, arriving well into the book and well after Lucy (and through her, the reader) has noticed Theo’s attractiveness, undercuts the goal of having a “plus size” heroine who attracts the hero. Up until this point, Theo has been concerned that poor Lucy has been making “doe eyes” at him, when he was in the relationship for purely professional reasons.

So, readers who notice that Lucy doesn’t merit the lust of the hero or her HEA until she loses weight are correct. Donovan attempts to address this concern in the final pages. Theo and Lucy discuss their future when she shares her fear: If Theo didn’t love her when she weighed 230 pounds, how can she be sure his love will hold true should she regain the weight? Theo replies:

I liked you back then. You intrigued me. You made me laugh. But I didn’t know you well enough to love you, and you changed so fast that for me to love you at your starting weight it would have to have been love at first sight . . . . Luce, I just love you. You have to trust me on this. I mean, hey, how would it sound if I told you I was worried that you’d leave me if I started going bald? Or when hair started to grow out of my ears like with Uncle Martin? (332)

The narrative deflects from the issue of the “plus size” woman and the potential rejection she faces in romance real and fictitious, onto the bodily quirks that might someday appear on the heretofore-perfect body of the hero. Theo also never says he was attracted to her fat body. Lucy remains dissatisfied with Theo’s answer until he proves he intended to propose before she lost all of the weight. Meanwhile, Theo continues to appraise Lucy’s body right up to the final lovemaking scene: “[H]e loved her gorgeous ass and the two little dimples at the base of her spine, and her shoulders—so straight and strong—and the way her waist curved in just at the flare of her hips” (329). Borrowing from Laura Mulvey, we might say that the novel focuses on Lucy’s “to-be-looked-at-ness,” rather than primarily on Lucy’s pleasure in her own sexual feelings. He Loves Lucy reinforces the notion that, even to have the pleasure of being enjoyed, women must achieve an ideal slenderness.

By reassuring Lucy—and the readers who may identify with her fears—that Theo both loved and will love Lucy regardless of her size, the book gives some hope to real-life “plus size” readers and may thereby have staked its claim to popularity. The book also, however, reassures readers that weight loss like Lucy’s is possible and desirable. Though readers may readily identify with Lucy’s body image concerns and the trouble inherent in changing one’s body so radically, He Loves Lucy hardly seems to advance the cause of accepting “plus size” women as heroines in romance. By the end of the novel, there is no “plus size” heroine. At best, Donovan’s novel asserts that “plus size” women can fulfill their fantasies on all three romance novel accounts: the achievement of being beautiful (at least to the hero); a satisfying romantic/sexual relationship; and the career success that is the contemporary romance answer to marrying the hero of historical romances, who so often possesses wealth, if not an aristocratic title. Yet the book suggests that they may do so only by first losing weight.

Problem Three: Whiny Heroines Who Aren’t That Big

Although SB Sarah mentions a second problem, that the fat character is only a friend to the heroine, no reader remarks on that topic on the list. Many readers do respond to the third issue of the heroine who complains excessively about her weight, especially when readers perceive that the character is of average rather than larger-than-average size. One romance mentioned by three separate readers as an example of a good “plus size” romance was Cathie Linz’ Big Girls Don’t Cry. Linz’ novel features Leena Riley, who has returned to her hometown after failing to be successful as a “plus size” model. Although such models are usually really a size 10 or 12 (still one size smaller than the average American woman’s size 14) and so fall into the category SB Sarah laments, Leena is perceived by other characters in the book as larger than average. One female character even viciously berates Leena for her body shape and calls her “fat” each time they meet.

Despite the fact that Leena now works at the front desk in a veterinarian’s office, her putative success as a model seems to make all her female relatives and friends eager to discuss body image as a pressing social problem. One conversationalist mentions that she “read a recent study that showed eighty percent of ten-year-olds worry about their weight . . . Society does that. These kids view celebrities who are painfully thin and think that’s what they should look like. Skeletons. It’s so unhealthy” (163). While it is not unrealistic to imagine women discussing the effects media images have on children, especially considering the overwhelming response to this thread on “Smart Bitches,” a well-informed discussion is replayed almost every time Leena’s career is mentioned, making body image woes central to the novel. This tactic seemed to annoy some readers. One woman who mentioned it as a good book still noted that the novel “irked [her] because [she] felt like [Linz] banged the reader upside the head with the ‘love your body’ message, but it was refreshing to see a plus-sized heroine in a romance novel” (Aubrey Curry, 28 Jul 2008). Clearly, any social message about diversity must be more obviously subservient to the goal of entertainment and fantasy-fulfillment for this reader.

Even as conversations about the importance of representing “plus size” women in the media build Leena as a heroine whose body and would-be career challenge the slender ideal, Leena herself seems constrained by body image issues in ways that restrict the sensuality of the novel. She sneaks food, a potential sign of disordered eating. She also agonizes during lovemaking:

She liked focusing on him. It prevented her from worrying about her own body and what he might think of it. She wanted to come to him as an all-powerful Goddess of Love, but the reality was that confidence was still something she faked sometimes. Like now. He sure helped matters by being so irresistible.

What woman could turn away? Which got her thinking about the other women . . . whom he’d seen naked. All of them probably skinnier than she was.

She took a step away. (253-4)

Leena’s self-doubt, while perhaps realistic, inhibits her enjoyment of the sex that the genre promises will be fantasy-fulfilling, interfering with readers’ potential pleasure in the novel. Linz’ novel realistically depicts the difficulty Leena has in her role as “plus size” heroine, but simultaneously calls into question the legitimacy of feeling beautiful and sexy at any size, or even at a slightly less than average size. Like He Loves Lucy, Big Girls Don’t Cry focuses on the “to-be-looked-at-ness” of the heroine rather than her pleasure in her (big) body.

Readers’ personal examples confirm that Leena Riley’s thoughts accurately reflect the body image concerns of real readers. They also tend to confirm that having fat or “plus size” women in romances, enjoying the pleasures promised by the genre, would help many real women feel better about their own bodies during sex. For instance, when Jana opines that

If women are looking to their fiction to feel better about themselves, and they need “average” looking women to attain that—that’s a problem. You can have all the fat women you want in a book or movie happily fucking away with no regard to their appearance, but that won’t actually make anyone feel good about their own bodies or lives if they didn’t already have that confidence to begin with. (26 Jul 2008),

other readers quickly disagree, including Esri Rose, who believes “[i]t would be great if our confidence about our looks were completely separate from what society considers attractive, but I don’t know of any culture where it is. I think [the scenario you describe] would make a huge difference” (26 Jul 2008). Jana’s comment not only dismisses size acceptance in romance novels as a viable route to size or self-acceptance, but also seems to equate being fat to having “no regard to” one’s appearance, which suggests typical stereotypes of fat people as being lazy. Other posts suggest that women claiming “plus size” status care very much about their appearance as well as health. The online conversation among real women about “plus size” heroines thus parallels the fictional conversations and self-doubts in Linz’ novel, where female characters have different degrees of size acceptance, and therefore different reactions to Leena’s body and heroine status.

Readers also debate popular beliefs about fatness, which some, like Gail, hold as true. Gail argues that the novel He Loves Lucy initially depicts Lucy as unhealthy, and posits that there are healthy “curvy” bodies and “unhealthy fat” bodies. She likes Donovan’s book because it seems to her that Lucy’s quest is for greater control over her life overall, which is manifested initially through her desire to lose weight (Gail 26 Jul 2008). Other readers use physical descriptions of themselves as evidence to support the opposing argument that people can be classified as “overweight” and be both sexy and healthy. These readers cite their own height and weight statistics, defend themselves as healthy, and claim to be in fulfilling sexual relationships, to argue that “plus size” romances are realistic, not mere fantasy or wish fulfillment, and therefore are worth reading when written well. One woman even posts “pictorial proof” that her measurements don’t equate to a perception of fatness (Angelia Sparrow 26 Jul 2008).

The nature of a thread like this is that some readers will respond to particular posts on particular issues, and ignore others, perhaps because those other posts did not appear online until after she had already begun a reply/post, or for any number of reasons. However, it becomes clear as one reads the posts on this topic, in order, that those who argue that fat is unhealthy and those who argue from an HAES perspective do not respond to each other equally. For example, Cat Marsters writes:

I’m not generally a fan of the plus-sized heroine, because quite often it just seems to be a shorthand for saying it’s okay to be fat.  Well . . . again this depends on your definition of fat, but hands up who actually thinks it’s a good idea?  Any doctor will tell you it’s unhealthy.  Unhealthy and sexy are really unmixy things. (27 Jul 2008)

Other posts later react against her post and similar ideas, using personal evidence to the contrary, but Cat Marsters and other similar posters do not reply to defend their anti-fat views. When Jennifer Armintrout claims to be a fat woman (not “plus size” or “curvy”), only others like spinsterwitch who espouse an HAES perspective seem to reply.

Other than a vocal and not-to-be-ignored minority who already had a pro-size-acceptance mentality, then, authors and readers alike generally—though not universally—accept moving the range of accepted sizes for heroines up, but not embracing fat bodies above a certain point. While doing valuable work for women in a range of sizes, such reader narratives of personal size acceptance still, perhaps paradoxically, marginalize other, fatter women.

In “Deterritorializing the Fat Female Body,” Jana Evans Braziel theorizes that the fat female body is “defined by a benign asexuality that is marked by a paucity of representation and exists as the unrepresentable, or near-representable (that which is located on the margins of representability), because of an exclusion that [she] calls the corporeal mark of absence . . . [This] is difficult to grasp, because it renders visible what does not appear to be present at all” (232-3). Braziel suggests that the absence of images of the fat female body actually “evoke[s the fat female body] as outside the frame of signification and representation, while remaining structurally present” (233). Braziel illustrates by describing a lean cover model on a magazine promoting a diet plan; a fat woman’s body is present as an absence justifying the idea of dieting to look like the thin model. A recent issue of Fitness magazine (July/August 2010) provides a real-world example. A lean woman in a bathing suit smiles at viewers while bold black type proclaims “Slim. Sexy. Confident!” The (absent) fat woman is the opposite of the thin woman’s body and, one must assume, every adjective used to define her. For viewers/readers of the magazine, desiring to be(come) like the slim woman by adopting methods recommended within the magazine’s pages is a simultaneous rejection of the absent, unrepresented fat female body—the body they want to be(come) unlike, the body that does not merit anyone’s gaze.

Fat women’s bodies are similarly at the edge of the discussion on “Smart Bitches,” as when SB Sarah laments fictional women who complain about their size but are really only a size 10. Because few women escape body image consternation and fear of fat, a size 10 still isn’t big enough to be viewed as fat, it still isn’t even the average woman’s size in the US, much less the kind of fat that finds ridicule and disgust in the public sphere. Size 10 doesn’t break what Frater calls the “size 20 glass ceiling” (240). Here, contrast may be useful. In “Locating Aesthetics: Sexing the Fat Female Body,” Samantha Murray opens with personal narrative that describes her feelings as a fat woman listening to a story of the brutal gang beating of another fat woman:

I sat in the audience, listening to this story in horror. I suddenly became acutely aware of my own fat bulges and folds. I imagined every eye in the room on me, shaking their heads in pity, revulsion and even morbid curiosity. I pulled my shirt surreptitiously away from the bulges of my belly and my hips, trying to separate the appearance from the reality. I shifted in my chair, and felt my cheeks burn hot and my stomach churn. I was angry, so angry, so humiliated for the fat girl who had suffered . . . she was just a girl, a girl like I was and had been, and she had been made into a ravenous, libidinous, ridiculous creature. And yet I was ashamed. I was aware of the disgust my body inspired, its complete unacceptability and invisibility in the sexual domain, apart from as a figure of ridicule. (238)

Murray’s argument is similar to Braziel’s: the fat woman is expected to be asexual and therefore unrepresented; when she dares to become sexual, her sexuality may be viewed as hypersexual, her appetites for pleasures, both alimentary and sexual, grotesque. By describing her conflicted feelings and describing her body itself, Murray places herself in the category of the fat woman. Very few who post personal information to the thread about “plus size” romance are similarly staking a claim to that category and arguing that their fat bodies, replete with “bulges and folds,” are attractive and healthy. Instead, they reject the fat female body by leaving it unvoiced, or by refusing to respond to voices claiming it, even to argue against those voices. Their silence confirms what Murray goes on to argue:

We do not almost plough into the car in front of us as we ogle a billboard displaying a fat woman in lacy lingerie. We do not gaze lasciviously at a bulbous bottom in tight jeans. We do not fantasize about the fleshy jiggles and wobbles of a fat body in the throes of sexual passion.

Some of us might. But most of us do not. Or at least we know we are not supposed to. (239)

The comparative “silence” that greets most of the posts from women who use the word fat to describe themselves without indicating regret or an intention of losing weight bolsters Murray’s assertion that to believe a fat female body is sexy is to transgress social norms.

The minority of fat-positive readers posting to the list are, on the other hand, extremely “vocal.” Several express frustration with arguments that fatness necessarily equates to unhealthiness. In particular, such readers argue with WandaSue, who describes her different experiences and reading habits and implies that others’ posts are mere bravado. WandaSue notes that she used to be a diabetic size 16 at 5’0”, but is now a happier, healthier size 6. She indicates that she formerly read “plus size” fiction but now refuses to spend her time and money on such novels. Several readers reply directly to WandaSue. One, Stephanie, suggests that WandaSue has missed the point: “[w]e don’t care what size you are. We care what books you read.” And WandaSue suggests in turn that Stephanie has missed the point: readers read and enjoy romances based partly on what they wish to identify with and hope for:

When I was a Size 16, there existed inside of me a very wistful and hopeful Size 6 . . . but if anybody asked me, I’d deny it til [sic] I was blue with indignation. I told myself—and anybody patient enough to care—that I was “happy” and “content” and “secure” being fat. (Deep inside, I wasn’t).

So I’d read the “Plus size” heroine romances to feed that sentiment, and searched high and low for a heroine with whom I could identify—and who could validate my fatness. It fed the fantasy OF THAT TIME IN MY LIFE. (Emphasis hers, 27 Jul 2008)

WandaSue’s comments are perceived as hurtful to the many others who have described their own bodies (Spider 27 Jul 2008; Stephanie 27 Jul 2008). WandaSue’s comments refute not only the boldest “fat = sexy and healthy” claims. She also denies the many others who identify with “plus size” heroines the (sexy, confident) status of the Fitness cover model they covet and claim. She implies by her example that many other readers inwardly acknowledge their kinship with the unrepresentable and unrepresented fat woman whose absence and asexuality underlie their desire to ally themselves with the smaller, thinner women who grace the covers of magazines and romance novels alike. Reading “plus size” romances, she seems to say, makes other readers look fat.

The covers of “plus size” romances also refuse to depict the large(r) female body, more evidence for the ambivalence of readers and publishers towards those bodies. The absence and veiling of women’s bodies in size acceptance literature is actually typical (Brown 248), suggesting that reading about and discussing “plus size” women is one thing, and looking at them is another, more difficult thing to do. Some novel covers depict what appear to be standard cover models, despite the description offered within the narrative of a heroine with a larger-than-typical-cover-model body. The model depicting Josie of Eloisa James’ Pleasure for Pleasure, for example, is not distinguishably “curvier” than the models used to depict Josie’s sisters on their novels’ covers. Other covers depict only images or cartoons of women’s feet or calves, and these body parts are never obviously those of a “plus size” woman. Some cartoons, like the cover for Julie Ortolon’s novel Too Perfect, depict nearly the entire body, yet suggest a slender rather than a “plus size” body. Despite the fact that He Loves Lucy focuses on the heroine’s dietary restrictions, the cover features cupcakes.

To be fair, many contemporary romance covers avoid physical representations of the heroine altogether and instead suggest the feminine focus of the story through use of pastel colors, fonts whose curlicues suggest femininity, and/or images of accessories, such as shoes.

The disappearance of couples on the covers of romances is a trend that predates the emergence of the “plus size” romance subgenre. It seems the desire to escape the “bodice ripper” image of previous generations of romance novels has led to fewer images of heroines on the book covers overall. The message sent by the covers of “plus size” romances is therefore ambiguous, suggesting in some ways that the “plus size” romance is no different than a typical romance but simultaneously suggesting that a “plus size” woman could not sell a romance novel if she appeared on the cover. Similarly, only about half of the plot summaries on the back covers or inside flaps of “plus size” romances suggest that the heroine is a “plus size” woman.

Good for the Gander?

SB Sarah’s post about “plus size” women in chick lit and romance prompts a related reader concern, the issue of whether “plus size”[2] heroes would be welcome, and therefore whether or not readers who prefer “plus size” heroines are holding up a gendered double standard. AnimeJune is the first to pose the question: “Should we have fat heroes then?” The double standard question becomes a key point that many posts revolve around, as readers struggle to recall heroes who were not tall, muscular and/or lean, and handsome, regardless of the size and shape of the heroine. Very few heroes are recommended as such, though many readers claim they have physically imperfect but sexy male partners themselves in real life and would be happy to read about the same in romance novels.

Among the books surveyed for this project, from a variety of romance genres including contemporary, historical, romantic thrillers, and paranormal, none of the heroes could remotely be described as “plus size.” Over and over, the hero is tall and muscular, with chiseled features and a full head of hair. The only variations in mainstream heroes tend to be chest hair (yes or no), scars (yes or no), hair length, and hair and eye color.[3] Just to prove the point, here are a trio of descriptions of heroes in romances with “plus size” heroines, beginning with an excerpt from an Eloisa James’ Regency romance: “[B]efore she could say anything, he stripped off his shirt as well . . . He was all smooth, sharp-cut muscle, beautifully defined” (Pleasure for Pleasure 92).

The following is a description of the hero of Sherrilyn Kenyon’s supernatural romance, Night Play: “Oh, dear heaven! Bride couldn’t breathe as she had her first look at his bared chest. She’d known he had a great body, but this . . . It exceeded anything from her dreams. His broad shoulders tapered to a washboard stomach that could do enough laundry for an entire nation. Forget six-pack, this man had eight, and they rippled with every breath he took” (39). Finally, Lisa Kleypas’ historical romance heroine in Suddenly You views the hero nude for the first time:

Devlin was as sleek and muscular as the black-and-gold tiger she had seen on exhibition at the park menagerie. Divested of his clothes, he seemed even larger, his broad shoulders and long torso looming before her . . . . His midriff was scored with rows of muscle. She had seen statues . . . of the male body, but nothing had ever conveyed this sense of warm, living strength, this potent virility. (103)

While the time period and narrative style of these novels varies, the hero’s requisite physical leanness remains the same. Intriguingly, not all the criticism of this aspect of the books is aimed at the obvious double standard, but is instead launched at its believability. JenB writes, “I’m plus size, and I don’t see the ‘plus size girl gets the super mega hottie’ storyline as realistic” (26 Jul 2008). She also suggests that the truth is that attractiveness in heterosexual couples is usually the reverse, with the female partner being more attractive than the male.

In typical romance novels featuring heroines with slender figures, the hero’s requisite height and muscularity is often juxtaposed against the heroine’s fragility or delicacy. In the “plus size” romance, the hero’s muscularity is similarly juxtaposed against the heroine’s softness. She is “all woman—with sexy curves” (Linz 50) and “abundant pink-and-white flesh” (Kleypas 325), while he is rigid and powerful. Such opposition parallels sexual organs during arousal, a synecdochal way of implying both partners are physically aroused without necessitating terms for body parts that may make some readers of mainstream romance uncomfortable. Such complementary body part descriptions (soft/hard, abundant/lean, curvy/rigid) make the heroine and her hero right for each other, as authors are quick to point out in scene after scene. Thus the heteronormative assumption that, for successful pleasure, male and female bodies ought to have complementary rather than similar physical characteristics is maintained into the “plus size” romance subgenre.

Perhaps no novelist makes clearer exactly how inappropriate the paunchy hero is for his role than Eloisa James. James’ novels deliberately feature diverse heroine body types, from the slender and small-breasted to the plump and well-endowed.[4] Enter Josie, the heroine of Pleasure for Pleasure, whose tendency to dress her plump body unwisely in fashionable corsets earns her the nickname “the Scottish sausage” on London’s aristocratic marriage market—until, that is, the Earl of Mayne, who thinks of her as “ripe and delicious as a peach” (147), teaches her to dress her figure seductively and use her voluptuous body to flirt. Josie fits into the category of the woman who whines about her size—through several books featuring her elder sisters no less—but she isn’t really fat if a change of garment can miraculously render her irresistible to so many men. While helping Josie learn the seductive arts, the Pygmalion-like Mayne predictably falls for her. Mayne, however, is lean. His body is repeatedly described as elegant but muscular, sleek and hard; he features in several of James’ novels as a sought-after bachelor before finally meeting his match in Josie.

By contrast, two characters in other James books demonstrate the problems associated with fat male characters. The first of these is Rafael, the Duke of Holbrook, the guardian of Josie the Scottish Sausage and her sisters throughout the series of four books that detail the sisters’ romances. Initially, Rafe—as the duke obligingly allows his friends to call him—drinks to mask his pain at the death of his older brother. Grief-stricken, he overlooks his duties and appearance, as his flabby gut attests and threadbare clothing implies. Rafe’s interest in life is renewed when he must care for his four female wards, including Imogen, with whom he is destined for romance. In The Taming of the Duke, Rafe realizes he must resist the temptation to drink heavily. He begins to exercise by horseback riding and other activities, and he loses the gut. Finally sober and appropriately muscled for a duke of such wealth, he woos Imogen, who believes herself in love with the Duke’s illegitimate younger brother:

Imogen stared at Rafe. He had the same dusting of black stubble that he always had by noon, but the skin of his cheeks was pink and healthy, and his eyes didn’t have that half-awake, hooded look that he used to have. He shook back a fall of chestnut brown hair, smiling up at the sky . . . . He was a beautiful man . . . .  [S]he couldn’t help noticing the way his old shirt pulled free of his trousers as he leaped. What happened to that gut that used to hang over his trousers? Could it have disappeared in a mere few weeks? Because now that body looked as lean and hard as his brother’s . . . even more so, perhaps. (265)

Rafe merits the sexual regard of his paramour only after a physical and mental transformation. Though Josie needs only to work with her curves more adeptly through fashion and flirtation, Rafe must make physical alterations to earn his HEA. While Josie’s softness is revealed to be feminine and therefore appropriately sexy in the heteronormative world of these novels, Rafe’s initial physical softness is inappropriate and marks him as weak.

In another novel, Duchess in Love, James experiments with another fat male character, here not the hero. Miles is the husband of a secondary heroine, Esme Rawlings, whose real romance will occur in a later James novel. Miles and Esme agree their sex lives are better fulfilled elsewhere. Miles has a mistress whom he loves, and Esme has several affairs, earning her the nickname “Infamous Esme,” yet both want a legitimate heir to Miles’ estate. The fat Miles’ physical repulsiveness to Esme is the subject of much query in the book. She wonders if she can bear to have him on top of her long enough to get through the sex act. Finally, they manage intercourse that goes completely undescribed; sex with a fat man is as unrepresentable as the fat female body. When one of Esme’s admirers bolts into the boudoir after the coupling is complete, Miles dies, his fragile heart unable to bear the strain of intercourse followed by the shock of an intruder entering at night. Like Rafe’s, Miles’ fatness is a sign of physical weakness and of his obvious unsuitability to be the hero. This unsuitability justifies Esme’s sexual affairs with unnamed other men when ordinarily the heroine of a romance is expected to maintain chastity unless and until her hero claims her. Visible fat, for men in a romance novel at least, is a sign of something mentally and/or physically wrong, whereas the “curvy” and “lush” heroine is a creature on the brink of seductive discovery.

Although none of the readers posting to “Smart Bitches” comments on this, the virtual nonexistence of the fat hero even in “plus size” romance may stem not merely from women fantasizing more readily or often about heroes with six- (or eight-?) pack abs and a full head of hair. Indeed, many readers describe in their posts that they find their own lovers’ and husbands’ “flaws” sexy. It is difficult not to argue that another reason fat or merely chubby heroes are absent is the hypocrisy, if not of readers, then at least of authors and/or publishers. Heroes with “a gut” are absent even in books by Elizabeth Hoyt, whose trilogy of romances (The Raven Prince, The Serpent Prince, The Leopard Prince) are noted by “Smart Bitches” readers for containing not-so-handsome heroes, including a pock-marked, big-nosed Earl.

This absence stems partly from perception of the hero as trophy. A traditional HEA, from fairy tale to Jane Eyre to Disney cartoon to contemporary romance novel, includes true love and passion, as well as a resolution of whatever issue provided the other narrative element in the book (such as a mystery), plus career satisfaction and/or wealth. Generally, the hero is expected to aid in the resolution of other narrative issues while providing the love/passion and at least some of the money. If a “plus size” heroine were to receive a hero who could be perceived as somehow less than the typical hero, then the “plus size” heroine may be perceived by readers as correspondingly less deserving than the dainty lasses on the cover of most of the books. Such deficiency might undercut the social goal of including a diversity of body types in the first place. However, viewing a lean hero as the only possible physical specimen who can be a trophy for the heroine betrays a size-ist bias.

Conclusions: Everybody Loves Crusie

One book seemed to please nearly all the readers on this thread who mention it: Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie. Why so beloved? Crusie’s novel sidesteps nearly every trope discussed and denigrated by SB Sarah and the readers of “Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.”

Heroine Min Dobbs is halfheartedly trying to lose weight to fit into a bridesmaid’s dress for her sister’s wedding, an attempt lamented by every character in the book with whom readers are encouraged to relate, and advocated by characters readers are encouraged to dislike, including Min’s controlling mother and her unappreciative ex-boyfriend. If Lucy in Donovan’s novel seems expected to lose weight to earn her HEA, Min is expected to realize that she is sexy as is to earn her HEA.

No specifics of Min’s size, such as weight or height, are offered, only varied characters’ opinions on whether Min is voluptuous or fat. Min seems to occupy the border territory many readers are concerned with pushing into the country perceived as healthy, sexy and confident. The debate over Min’s size grounds the novel in a reality most of the readers who post to “Smart Bitches” can appreciate, in which the range of acceptably sexy body sizes is under debate and subject to change.

Crusie’s novel completely avoids any hint that her heroine must or even should lose weight to earn the hero’s sexual attention. The (gorgeous, lean) hero, Cal, is a gourmand with a friend in the restaurant business. Cal is in no way put off by Min’s body or appetite, but rather thoroughly aroused by both, and put off instead by her grumpiness. Readers know what Cal doesn’t: Min’s grumpiness stems from having overheard Cal make a bet with Min’s ex that Cal can easily get Min to go to bed with him. Cal, the perfect mate for Min, redresses her grumpiness by offering her food—the good stuff—once he learns that doing so not only appeases her short temper but also arouses him by causing Min to sigh and swoon suggestively. Crusie’s narration emphasizes all forms of pleasure. When Min’s attempt at cooking a low-fat version of an Italian classic goes predictably awry, Cal scoffs and brings her a proper dinner they both enjoy.

By encouraging Min’s dietary as well as sexual desires, and enjoying her body and her pleasure, Cal validates feminine desires often seen as taboo or subjugated to patriarchal norms. In contrast, books like He Loves Lucy and Big Girls Don’t Cry present a less feminine-centered view of pleasure. Readers themselves sigh and swoon over a scene in which Cal feeds Min a Krispy Kreme doughnut. Although the narration is at this moment from Cal’s perspective, the scene allows readers to interpret Min’s physical feelings while glimpsing Min as desirable through Cal’s eyes:

[H]e popped another piece of doughnut in her mouth and watched as her lips closed over the sweetness. Her face was beautifully blissful, her mouth soft and pouted, her full lower lip glazed with icing, and as she teased the last of the chocolate from her lip, Cal heard a rushing in his ears. The rush became a whisper—THIS one—and he breathed deeper, and before she could open her eyes, he leaned in and kissed her, tasting the chocolate and the heat of her mouth, and she froze for a moment and then kissed him back, sweet and insistent, blanking out all coherent thought. He let the taste and the scent and the warmth of her wash over him, drowning in her, and when she finally pulled back, he almost fell into her lap.

She sat across from him…her dark eyes flashing, wide awake, her lush lips parted, open for him, and then she spoke.

More,” she breathed and he looked into her eyes and went for her. (90)

Min first gets what she wants without asking and then asks for what she wants and receives it. By contrast, Leena Riley’s timid passion for her hero, and desire to please him in order to feel worthy, come across as tepid; her frequent, guilty snacking when she is alone and depressed seem decidedly lacking in fantasy fulfillment when viewed against Cal’s intimate feeding of Min. Similarly, Theo’s surprised internal description of the lower-fat version of Lucy seem less likely to evoke reader pleasure than Cal’s besotted description of kissing an impassioned Min. The emphasis on how things feel versus look in this passage is typical of the book overall, which avoids portraying Min’s body mostly as object “to be looked at” by Cal. There is something to be said in favor of the alternative strategy, which would be representing the fat(ter?) body through description as a challenge to the imagination and willingness to represent that body, though given the responses on “Smart Bitches,” such a strategy may be received as too transgressive to be popular.

Still, Crusie’s novel does persuasively suggest that Min is a larger than average woman who does not lose weight yet enjoys sex. There is never a doubt that Cal desires and deserves Min. Readers know what Min doesn’t: he never wanted to make the bet about bedding her, and isn’t trying to win money by so doing. He really just wants her, which is the stuff that romance is made of.

The novel acknowledges Min’s social situation as a potential fat person through unique situations rather than endless inner turmoil for the heroine or endless discussions of how morally improving it is to see a larger-than-average woman’s body in the media. Cal likes Min and thinks she’s attractive, while observing in a confused way that other people don’t necessarily find her so. He discusses his perplexity with his lesbian neighbor, Shanna. These conversations are held out of Min’s earshot—but well within that of readers, of course. Shanna helps Cal understand Min’s insecurities about dating a man who is considered as physically desirable as Cal, and Shanna simultaneously provides a second sexual character who sees how outrageously sexy Min is but does not vie with Cal for Min because Min is heterosexual.[5] Those conversations combine romantic ideals (Cal doesn’t see Min as in any way lacking) with reality (Shanna, a woman, understands Min’s social situation). In this way, readers overhear someone in the novel explain that the dating world does unfortunately work against plump women, but it isn’t Min lamenting the cruel world and thus risking heroine status by becoming too whiny, or by putting herself too firmly in the category of fat woman.

Bet Me also avoids over-reliance on physical opposition and instead stresses that both hero and heroine have complementary personality traits, traits that others perceive as flaws. Both Cal and Min stand up for each other against families who don’t appreciate their assets. In Min’s case, Cal insists that she dress to reveal rather than conceal her shape, despite her mother’s wishes that Min would camouflage her body. His appreciation of Min in these new clothes helps Min feel sensual rather than tyrannized anew in her wardrobe selections. In return, Min stands up against Cal’s uptight, wealthy parents in defense of his choice not to go into the family legal practice.[6] Thus, Crusie shrewdly avoids featuring Cal as the hero who rescues Min from a sex-less fate as a “plus size” woman, because Min also rescues Cal. The reciprocity seems emotionally more satisfying to readers than reliance on typical descriptions of the soft female body pressed against rigid masculinity. In fact, Crusie’s descriptions of the couple’s sexual interaction avoids describing their bodies in physical detail while focusing instead, as in the quote above, on gestures, reactions, and feelings.

Finally, the book is full of women thinner and/or younger, but unhappier and far whinier and less virtuous than Min, who possesses confidence and smarts, as well as the traditional Cinderella-like virtues of patience, generosity, and self-control, which all earn her the eventual pleasure and security she feels in her relationship with Cal. The book seems to have just enough body image paranoia and family/friendship issues to feel realistic, and enough allusions to fairy tales and enough sexual attraction overcoming insecurity to put it in the realm of fantasy. As one reader concluded, “I think Bet Me has become my major comfort novel when I think the whole world is being crappy to me” (Vivian, 26 Jul 2008).

Crusie’s novel suggests a “plus size” romance that is successful with readers will find ways to sidestep the tropes identified and bemoaned by SB Sarah and the many readers who commiserated. Not only was Bet Me celebrated on this thread, but it is also included in lists of good “plus size” romance created by enamored readers on Amazon.com and elsewhere. Finding new ways to avoid similar authorial missteps may therefore be key to any novelist hoping for economic success in this sub-genre that promotes Happily Ever Afters for women of size.

As Kathleen LeBesco points out, it may not be possible to change social standards of beauty without “producing [a] subset of unthinkable, unlivable and abject bodies” (5). When readers of magazines targeted towards “plus size” readers called larger women “real women,” for example, there were occasional outcries that petite and slim women were also “real.”

Frater, in her discussion of chick lit, argues in favor of its efficacy for fat acceptance, despite the “size 20 glass ceiling” and other failures. For one thing, she notes, fat bodies are virtually invisible everywhere else in the media (240). “Plus size” romance novels similarly adhere to problematic tropes, in part because their readers seem unready to accept truly fat bodies, female or male, as sexual bodies. Yet these novels still promote the health and attractiveness of bodies larger than those of the slender models and actresses whose images are so ubiquitous in popular media. The eager responses to the “Smart Bitches” post suggest, too, that in the reading and considering these novels, women of many shapes and sizes are encouraged to stake claims to being sexy and confident and healthy, and to imagine pleasurably inclusive possibilities.

Works Cited

Bacon, Linda. Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth about Your Weight. Dallas, TX: Benbella Press, 2008. Print.

Baum, L. “Extra Pounds Can Weight Down Your Career.” Business Week. Aug 1987: 96. Print.

Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley:University of California Press, 1993. Print.

Braziel, Jana Evans. “Deterritorializing the Fat Female Body.” Bodies Out of Bounds: Fatness

and Transgression.” Ed. Braziel, Jana Evans and Kathleen LeBesco. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001: 231-54. Print.

Brown, Sonya. “An Obscure Middle Ground: Size Acceptance Narratives and the Body Photographed.” Feminist Media Studies 5.2 (2005): 246-9. Print.

Campos, Paul. The Obesity Myth: Why America’s Obsession with Weight is Hazardous to Your Health. New York: Penguin/Gotham Books, 2004. Print.

Crusie, Jennifer. Bet Me. New York: St. Martin’s, 2004. Print.

Donovan, Susan. He Loves Lucy. New York: St. Martin’s, 2005. Print.

Gaesser, Glenn A. Big Fat Lies: The Truth about Your Weight and Your Health. Carlsbad, CA: Gurze Books, 2002. Print.

Frater, Lara. “Fat Heroines in Chick-Lit.” The Fat Studies Reader. Ed. Esther Rothblum and Sondra Solovay. New York: NYU Press, 2009: 235-40. Print.

Hebl, Michelle R. and Laura M. Mannix. “The Weight of Obesity in Evaluating Others: A Mere Proximity Effect.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 29.1 (2003): 28-38. Print.

James, Eloisa. Pleasure for Pleasure. New York: Avon Books, 2006. Print.

—. The Taming of the Duke. New York: Avon Books, 2006. Print.

Joanisse, Leanne and Anthony Synnott. “Fighting Back: Reactions and Resistance to the Stigma of Obesity.” Interpreting Weight: The Social Management of Fatness and Thinness. Ed. Jeffrey Sobal and Donna Maurer. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1999: 57-8. Print.

Kenyon, Sherrilyn. Night Play. New York: St. Martin’s, 2004. Print.

Kleypas, Lisa. Suddenly You. Rockland, MA: Wheeler Publishing, 2001. Print.

Kolata, Gina. Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss—And the Myths and Realities of Dieting. New York: Picador, 2008. Print.

LeBesco, Kathleen. Revolting Bodies? The Struggle to Redefine Fat Identity. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004. Print.

Lerner, R. M. “The Development of Stereotyped Expectancies of Body Build Behavior Relations.” Child Development 40.1 (1969): 137-41. Print.

Lerner, R. M. and E. Gellert. “Body Build Identification, Preference and Aversion in Children.” Developmental Psychology 1 (1969): 456-62. Print.

Linz, Cathie. Big Girls Don’t Cry. New York: Berkley Sensation, 2007. Print.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 (1975): 6–18. Print.

Murray, Samantha. “Locating Aesthetics: Sexing the Fat Woman.” Social Semiotics. 14.3 (2004): 237-47. Print.

Paulery, L. L. “Customer Weight as a Variable in Salespersons’ Response Time.”  Journal of Social Psychology (1989): 713-4. Print.

Register, C.A. “Wage Effects of Obesity Among Young Workers.”  Social Science Quarterly 71

(1990): 130-41. Print.

SB Sarah. “GS vs. STA: The Plus Size Heroine—The One Who’s Well-Adjusted.” Smart Bitches Trashy Books website. Web. 26 Jul 2008.

Sitton, S. and S. Blanchard. “Men’s Preference in Romantic Partners: Obesity Vs. Addiction.” Psychological Reports 77.3 (1995): 1185-87. Print.

Solovay, Sondra. Tipping the Scales of Justice: Fighting Weight-Based Discrimination. Amherst, New York: Promethus Books, 2000. Print.

Stinson, Susan. “Fat Girls Need Fiction.” The Fat Studies Reader. Ed. Esther Rothblum and Sandra Solovay. New York: NYU Press, 2009: 231-4. Print.

Works Consulted

Brockmann, Suzanne. Hot Target. New York: Ballantine Books, 2005. Print.

Foster, Lori. Too Much Temptation. New York: Zebra, 2007. Print.

Fox, Elaine. Guys and Dogs. New York: Avon Books, 2006. Print.

Green, Jane. Jemima J. New York: Broadway Books, 1999. Print.

Hoyt, Elizabeth. The Raven Prince. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2006 Print.

James, Eloisa. Kiss Me, Annabel. New York: Avon Books, 2005. Print.

—. Much Ado About You. New York: Avon Books, 2005. Print.

Kenyon, Sherrilyn. Fantasy Lover. New York: St. Martin’s, 2002. Print.

Kinsale, Laura. Seize the Fire. New York: Severn House Publishers, 1990. Print.

Lee, Marilyn. Full-Bodied Charmer. Ellora’s Cave Publishing, 2008. Web.

Medeiros, Teresa. The Bride and the Beast. New York: Bantam Books, 2000. Print.

Ortolon, Julie. Too Perfect. New York: Signet Eclipse/Penguin, 2005. Print.

Weiner, Jennifer. Good in Bed. New York: Washington Square Press, 2001. Print.


[1] The term “plus size” usually refers to women’s clothing sizes (American) above the range of 0-16, but there is some overlap between “regular” and “plus” sizes; for example, the “plus size” clothing store Lane Bryant sells sizes 14+, and many “regular” department store sizes go up to 16 or 18.

[2] Women who respond to this blog maintain the term “plus size” to describe men, but clothing stores typically refer to men whose sizes fall above those considered “normal” as “big and tall.”

[3] At least one reader mentions The Raven Prince, by Elizabeth Hoyt (Grand Central Publishing, 2006), in which the hero is described as ugly and pock-marked, with a large nose. The heroine, though not fat, is also described as an average-looking rather than beautiful woman. The hero, however, is in every other way a typical hero: tall and muscular and has a full head of dark hair.

[4] James posts monthly updates to her website section of “Books to Love.” Her September 2005 post praises two books on body image issues, including a romance by Elizabeth Bevarly entitled You’ve Got Mail. In her post, James writes “I’m tired of perfect heroines. Surely I’m not the only one? I love romance; I really do. But if there’s one thing I don’t like about it (other than the manifest truth that my marriage doesn’t seem as perfect as the ones I create in fiction), it’s all these perfect women. Perfect teeth. Perfect waists. Perfects breasts — that goes without saying” (http://www.eloisajames.com/pillow.php?id=84).

[5] Shanna’s presence as lesbian is not only non-threatening to Min and Cal’s relationship, but also may be Crusie’s nod to the lesbian community’s generally more accepting attitude toward women with diverse body shapes. A few readers also note that lesbian romances seem to include more body size diversity with less anxiety than a heterosexual “plus size” romance.

[6] Cal is also dyslexic, which disturbs his family though of course Min is untroubled by it and explains how the condition, combined with being a younger son, would make Cal less likely to pursue his father and brother’s profession.

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Editor’s Note: Issue 1.2

The Journal of Popular Romance Studies is dedicated to publishing scholarship on romantic love in global popular media, now and in the past, along with interviews, pedagogical discussions, and other material of use to both scholars and teachers. With this second issue, we make good on that mission in several new and exciting ways. We expand internationally, and into cyberspace, with essays on web-based Chinese romantic fiction, on single women in British middlebrow novels of the interwar years, and on debates at the popular Smart Bitches, Trashy Books website about “plus-size” heroines in popular romance fiction.

Alongside these, we have our second author interview, this time with groundbreaking science fiction author Joanna Russ, reflecting on her decades-old engagement with slash fiction and fandom. And this issue inaugurates what we hope will be an on-going series of “Pedagogy Reports,” this one focused on the challenges and rewards of “embedding” Georgette Heyer’s romance novel Sylvester in a University of Tasmania course on historical fiction, teaching it alongside canonical literary texts.

With their overt and implicit connections to queer theory, fat studies, and middlebrow studies—as well as to the established disciplines of communications and comparative literature—these pieces hint at the range and excitement of our emerging field. We welcome comments on all of these contributions, and we hope that you will find ways to put them to use in your own research and teaching. If you do, please let us know!

Our next issue (2.1) will include conference proceedings from the second annual International Conference on Popular Romance Studies, “Theorizing Popular Romance,” held in Brussels last August. The third annual International Conference, hosted by the Fales Library and Special Collection of New York University, is coming up this June 26-28 in New York City, and features as its keynote speaker Laura Kipnis of Northwestern University, author of Against Love: A Polemic. Things could get lively—we hope to see you there.

Eric Murphy Selinger, Executive Editor, JPRS

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