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“Gossip, Liminality, and Erotic Display: Jennifer Crusie’s Links to Eighteenth- Century Amatory Fiction” by Kimberly Baldus

In a scene that combines eroticism, humor and a flying dolphin lamp, Jennifer Crusie’s hero and heroine in Welcome to Temptation struggle to find passion and overcome “lousy” sex as they engage in the “Phallic Variation” for the first time (135). While Sophie sinks into self-doubt about her own passionate nature, Phin realizes that she becomes aroused at the possibility of her sister Amy finding them in the bedroom. Phin throws an alarm clock and then the dolphin lamp, creating enough noise to prompt Amy to open the door to investigate—and Sophie reaches orgasm at the precise moment of the door opening. In the blissful aftermath, Sophie struggles with alternating embarrassment and satisfaction, while Phin smugly announces to her, “You have discovery fantasies” (141). Throughout the novel, Phin and Sophie will continue to explore these erotic discovery moments, linking their growing love for one another to their mutual exploration of the often hazy and shifting boundaries between their private moments and public spaces.

This scene represents a preoccupation with liminal spaces that Crusie develops in her first three single-title novels: Tell Me Lies (1998), Crazy for You (1999), and Welcome to Temptation (2000). These liminal spaces appear as borderlands that create what Victor Turner has described as the “gap between ordered worlds [in which] almost anything may happen” (Turner, Dramas 13). Such territories offer rich potential for creative and empowering social possibilities as Crusie’s characters negotiate these borderlands by engaging in private sexual explorations that take place on the border of public places. Tell Me Lies and the novels that followed in the next two years, Crazy for You and Welcome to Temptation, increasingly linger on moments where eroticism develops in the liminal space between private intimacy and public exposure. Crusie constructs scenes where her female characters explore the liberating possibilities of turning their private sexual encounters into public spectacles, offering themselves as objects of a voyeuristic gaze which readers are invited to share[1]. In this series of Crusie’s novels, the female characters struggle against becoming powerless objects of the gaze by asserting their own active participation in making themselves sexual spectacles.

In the bedroom scene with Sophie and Phin, the moment of Amy opening the door underscores the momentary blending of the private space of the bedroom into a more public realm. While Amy’s quick shutting of the door on the scene seems to signal a return to the seclusion and separation of private space, such private moments frequently become public knowledge as they circulate in the small towns in which each novel is set. This communal gossip operates as another liminal territory in these Crusie novels. Gossip’s function as a form of communication and a means of social organization depends upon its constant exploration of the intersections between a person’s private and public life, as Jorg Bergmann has noted in Discreet Indiscretions (53). No other form of communication focuses so intently on borders as it simultaneously engages in “transgression and respect for boundaries” (Bergmann 134). Crusie’s links between erotic displays and gossip raise questions about the potential dangers posed when such boundaries are crossed. In her explorations of this liminal space that gossip creates, however, Crusie ultimately invites readers to understand gossip not simply as a negative form, but also as a mode of communication that strengthens communal ties and offers its participants tools for understanding and impacting the world in which they live. This positive power of gossip emerges, in part, from its function as a liminal territory—a realm of ambiguities that fosters creative re-imagining and restructuring of the social world. Gossip and liminality also present Crusie with a powerful model for developing an interpretive community which welcomes readers—such as the online group “The Cherries”—as collaborators in constructing meaning from her texts.

In the links she develops between liminality, gossip and erotic display, Crusie’s modern romance draws upon territory first developed in the genre of the novel designated as “amatory fiction” (Ballaster). These texts, appearing in the early eighteenth century in England, played a crucial role in shaping the emerging genre of the novel. Works of amatory fiction were among the most popular novels of their day, and in fact “dominated the production of the early novel in Britain” (Backscheider and Richetti ix). This popularity certainly resulted in part because of their narration of what one critic politely terms “’warm’ scenes” (Richetti 138), and what another pioneering feminist critic on amatory fiction has described as their “erotic fiction” centering on “voyeuristic attention to the combined pleasures and ravages of seduction” (Ballaster 33). The authors of this amatory fiction include figures like Aphra Behn, Eliza Haywood, and Delarivier Manley[2]; all three of these highly visible representatives of amatory fiction developed a form of amatory fiction known as a “secret history.” These amatory novels create a confounding combination of private, erotic scenes along with the public circulation of salacious scandal about real political figures of the day. Delarivier Manley’s secret histories offer especially provocative links to these works by Crusie, and showcase ways in which the liminal spaces of the novels define the readers’ experience of the erotic scenes and the circulation of gossip. In developing novels that occupy these liminal territories, Manley and Crusie both point to possibilities for capitalizing on this notion of liminality as a model for the experience of readers encountering their texts. The notion of the liminal as a realm that inspires creativity and invites new possibilities underpins a model of authorship that playfully invites readers to participate in the communal act of making meaning from the textual details of their novels.

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The academic exploration of liminality began with Arnold van Gennep’s work on rites of passage in the early twentieth century. Van Gennep broke down the stages of these rites of passage, identifying the liminal state as the middle period in which the subject is placed after separating from society but before returning to become reincorporated into the social structure (Rozelle 444). Victor Turner built upon this insight, particularly calling attention to the liminal as a state that hovers “betwixt and between” and offers rich creative potential for developing new social ideas and arrangements (Dramas 13). Turner further expanded the concept of the liminal beyond its role in rites of passage to identify what he described as “liminoid phenomena” in modern Western societies, including creative productions and events like film, art, television or carnivals (Spariosu 34). These liminal spaces on the margins of the culture act as thresholds; individuals inhabiting these liminal social spaces are “structurally, if not physically, ‘invisible’; they occupy a space of “ambiguity and paradox, a confusion of all the customary categories” (Turner, The Forest 95, 97). From this disorder and confusion, however, liminality fosters the creative potential for significant transformations of the individual and society. In liminality, “the possibility exists of standing aside not only from one’s own social position but from all social positions and of formulating a potentially unlimited series of alternative social arrangements” (Turner, Dramas 13). In a study of liminality and literature, Mihai Spariosu characterizes Turner’s concept of liminality as one that produces from disorder the “’seeds of cultural creativity’ that generate new models, symbols, and paradigms” (32). Liminality serves an essential function by providing a cultural space in which revitalization and transformation of individuals and cultures can fruitfully occur.

While liminality offers powerful possibilities for envisioning new social modes, it does so in a playful way. This sense of the liminal zone as one that joyfully invites participation in its games resonates powerfully with the borders and boundaries featured in the novels of Crusie and Manley. Spariosu suggests that Turner “sees liminality as a game of disorder,” and Spariosu’s analysis of liminality as a feature of literary texts insists upon the importance of “play” in understanding the function of these ambiguous in-between spaces (32). Whether representing liminal spaces through erotic scenes of voyeurism or through gossip’s intersection of the public and private realms, Crusie and Manley’s novels point readers toward embracing the sportive possibilities offered in such territories. The notion of liminality has been analyzed as a defining experience of the pleasures of romance itself in Eva Illouz’s Consuming the Romantic Utopia. Her analysis of the cultural construction of romance in the Western world through items of consumption calls attention to the experience of romance as one that involves “the setting of new spatial boundaries” to mark lovers as separate from the public world in which they live (115). The rituals that define these spaces detach the lovers from their social world, offering the possibilities of re-imagining and renewing their connections to that social network. Calling upon Turner’s insights into the “betwixt and between,” Illouz points to romance as a “liminal experience” (183). The lovers withdraw to a self-created liminal territory dedicated to indulging their own pleasures in one another in a space set apart from the culture as a whole. Crusie and Manley call attention to such liminal experiences in their own novels and explore them as spaces to redefine stereotypical views of women as either scandalous gossips or as sexual objects displayed for others’ pleasure.

Placing Crusie in the company of Manley also offers an important re-imagining of the territory of the romance genre itself. An influential scholar of the romance genre, Pamela Regis, begins her A Natural History of Romance with a founding novel, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, and justifies her selection of that text by noting its status as “the first best seller” (63). In Pamela, Regis finds a text that fulfills her eight elements of a romance novel, yet she focuses on Richardson’s work in isolation from the amatory fiction which recent critics of the period suggest actively shaped his novel. In “The Erotics of the Novel,” James Turner argues that Richardson’s novel must be understood as deeply connected to the amatory fiction that preceeded it. Although critics have insisted that sentimental novels of romance like Pamela essentially abolish the erotic displays that defined amatory fiction, those displays play a key role in shaping Richardson’s romance novel as one centered on sexual spectacle. In her exploration of the eighteenth-century novel’s connection to “visual culture” like portraiture, Alison Conway notes that the scandalous spectacles and spying spectators that dominate amatory fiction by authors like Manley remain a “defining presence, rather than a ghostly trace” in later novels such as Pamela (50). As she contends, “despite protestations to the contrary, novelists like Richardson repeatedly take their cue, in representing vision and visual aesthetics, from the licentious texts” of authors like Manley, Behn and Haywood (10). Any “history” of the romance novel should embrace not only the male-authored sentimental tale of female virtue, but also the vital foundation of the female-authored amatory fiction and its erotic stories of love, seduction and betrayal. Romance as a genre is inextricably linked, from its earliest developments, with the erotic reading experience of amatory fiction.

Critics focusing on amatory fiction of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries have often noted striking parallels with modern romance, although those insights also frequently denigrate contemporary romance novels. Regis cites one such critic, Toni Bowers, who claims that amatory fiction serves as a predecessor to “’modern supermarket romances with their . . . sexually demanding men and innocent, desirable, passive women, and their insistence on sexual violence’” (qtd. in Regis 54). Bowers’ characterizations fail to adequately capture the range of erotic characters explored in amatory fiction, which offers readers many stories of persecuted maidens, but also presents sexually desiring, assertive women and erotic scenes displaying men for the voyeuristic pleasures of readers (who, incidentally, were male as well as female). Discussing various critical approaches to amatory fiction, Paula Backscheider and John Richetti describe one type of “sociologically-oriented explanation” that considers these early novels as “the precursor of modern mass market or popular fiction, highly readable and in effect disposable entertainment, often topically scandalous or sensational or pornographic or merely sentimental” (xi). William Warner similarly argues against a critical approach which “reads backwards from the contemporary Harlequin romance” only to resolutely sidestep “questions of literary genre or aesthetic value” (90). Perhaps, though, the scholarly investigation of such literary and aesthetic questions in the eighteenth-century amatory novel can teach us how to raise these questions about twentieth- and twenty-first century popular romance.

One emerging area of critical scholarship on amatory fiction, for example, has centered on the prominence of voyeurism and visual “discovery” (to use Crusie’s term from Welcome to Temptation). These scenes of voyeuristic display function as liminal spaces in these texts; readers are guided to look through thresholds like doors and windows as they are invited to experience private erotic encounters. Barbara Benedict, like James Turner, Alison Conway, and William Warner, points to the presence of erotic spectacle as a key feature of the early eighteenth-century novel. Benedict describes how stereotypical associations of women with curiosity allowed amatory fiction “to exploit new kinds of visual lust” (194). Some critics have in turn questioned the impact of such depictions of women as objects of mere “visual lust.” In an article focused on Eliza Haywood, a prominent writer of amatory fiction who was strongly influenced by Delarivier Manley, Juliette Merritt reflects on the ways in which Haywood’s erotic novels “may exploit a scopic regime thoroughly oppressive to women” by rendering them passive victims of a dominant male gaze(191). Merritt argues, however, that Haywood’s fiction ultimately overturns such notions by attempting “to colonize the position of the spectator” and by collapsing distinctions between the spectator and the object of the gaze (184; 189). Both Manley’s and Crusie’s novels also redefine the erotic display of their heroines and heroes by depicting liminal erotic zones as sites for creative power and transformation. In occupying these liminal erotic spaces, their heroines ultimately claim the erotic gaze for their own pleasure.

Delarivier Manley’s most popular secret history originally appeared in 1709 as Secret Memoirs and Manners of several Persons of Quality, of Both Sexes, From the New Atalantis, an Island in the Mediterranean. New Atalantis made a powerful impact on the literary scene in the early eighteenth century. As John Richetti notes in Popular Fiction Before Richardson, all of London read her New Atalantis, and her scandal chronicles “were widely and continuously read during the first four decades of the eighteenth century” (120). Her secret history of the licentious private lives of Whig political figures even gave rise to the use of the term “atalantis” to denote scandal; the Oxford English Dictionary defines the term as “a secret or scandalous history,” tracing its first use to 1709 and the publication of Manley’s novel. The word continued to convey this meaning throughout the eighteenth century, testifying to the impact of her novel well beyond the moment of its publication. One key reason for the novel’s popularity is what Catherine Gallagher describes as its “sheer voyeuristic eroticism” (103). That eroticism is channeled through an allegorical framework of three invisible feminine figures who discover the intrigues of the fictional world of “Angela” (Manley’s allegorical name for London). Astrea, a feminine representation of justice, views the private sexual lives of prominent Londoners with the assistance of “Virtue” and the Lady “Intelligence;” this Lady Intelligence, a figure who parallels the author of the secret history itself, narrates many of the scandalous scenes the reader will encounter. The readers’ exploration of various erotic scenes or episodes is filtered through the vision of these female characters. As Alison Conway has argued, Manley’s use of these female spectators “creates a defamiliarized visual perspective, effectively unmooring the gendering of the gaze from any fixed vantage point” (51). Women do not simply serve as helpless objects trapped in a male-dominated gaze; rather, even as they come into view as objects, they are also pervasively gazing, voyeuristic subjects in their own right.

New Atalantis centers on a continual interplay between the world on view to the public and the secret, private spaces that the privileged view of the female spectators leads readers to experience vicariously. This exploration of these liminal territories appears from the very first encounter with naval ships and officers. The naval fleet is seen in its public role at first as “proud” and “magnificent” vessels that ensure the continued safety and glory of England (9). These glorious images of national prestige, however, are quickly countered with images of men acting in servitude to the passions they feel for their mistresses. We are taken from the grand exterior of a ship into the private berth of a commander, one who is “stretched at his full length upon the crimson damask couch” (10). He is exposed and placed on display for readers as a man consumed with desire who abandons the duties of naval command to please the whims of his mistress. Throughout the volumes of New Atalantis, Manley repeats the pattern of these journeys between the public and private territories occupied by her characters, using these liminal territories to create scenes of voyeuristic pleasure that also call into question any sense that private lives can remain safely separated and distinct from the public realm. Rather than simply calling our attention to the boundaries between the private and public, Manley’s novel insists upon a recognition of their intersections.

One of the earliest and most developed displays of spectatorial pleasure in New Atalantis presents a young male lover, Germanicus, arranged for the erotic titillation of the Duchess de l’Inconstant. As readers, we share the gaze of the Duchess, along with that of Astrea, Virtue and Intelligence. Germanicus has carefully arranged himself to entice the Duchess to become his lover, and he displays himself in a lush bedroom scene of exotic flowers:

It was he that was newly risen from the bath, and in a loose gown of carnation taffety, stained with Indian figures. His beautiful long flowing hair, for then ‘twas the custom to wear their own tied back with a ribbon of the same colour; he had thrown himself upon the bed, pretending to sleep, with nothing on but his shirt and nightgown, which he had so indecently disposed, that slumbering as he appeared, his whole person stood confessed to the eyes of the amorous Duchess; his limbs were exactly formed, his skin shiningly white, and the pleasure the lady’s graceful entrance gave him, diffused joy and desire throughout all his form. His lovely eyes seemed to be closed, his face turned on one side (to favour the deceit) was obscured by the lace depending from the pillows on which he rested. (20-21)

While Manley later provides her readers with similar spectacles of women on display (including a scene with young Charlot that visually recreates Germanicus’s post-bath revelation), her first extended erotic scene places women in the desiring position of power. Although Germanicus seems to have control of the scene by carefully orchestrating his body, Manley emphasizes the mutual desire that sparks between her characters. In Germanicus’s case, this pleasure is exposed on his body (the “diffused joy and desire throughout all his form”), and he submits the visual control of the scene to the Duchess by seeming to close his eyes and partially covering his face. Each of these gestures toward concealment, however, reminds both the Duchess and the reader of the erotic appeal of uncovering the intimate body for display. The lace on his face, a visual representation of a liminal border, symbolizes this conflation of concealment and voyeuristic discovery as the material’s openings reveal as much as they hide. Manley presents a sophisticated understanding of how voyeuristic pleasure operates, underscoring how the objects of the gaze can find pleasure and power in putting themselves on display to be discovered by others.

The scene with Germanicus also displays the discovery of the Duchess’s own erotic pleasure and participation in the scene. The visual scene of the young man’s exposure stimulates her desire: “giving her eyes time to wander over beauties so inviting, and which increased her flame, with an amorous sigh she gently threw her self on the bed, close to the desiring youth; the ribbon of his shirt-neck not tied, the bosom (adorned with the finest lace) was open, upon which she fixed her charming mouth. Impatient, and finding that he did not awake, she raised her head, and laid her lips to that part of his face that was revealed” (21). The Duchess shifts here from enjoying the position of invisible and powerful spectator to becoming an object herself of the readers’ own voyeuristic pleasure in the scene. Alison Conway explores this complicated negotiation of the voyeuristic gaze in her analysis of New Atalantis. While acknowledging that women in Manley’s novel often seem to function merely as objects of the male gaze, Conway argues that Manley ultimately undermines this apparent powerlessness of women in several ways. The women are both “objects of pleasure” and figures of “authority within the court circle” (59), and they gain agency by “transfixing the spectators who behold” them (63). Further developing this experience of the voyeuristic gaze, the Duchess’s focus on the places on her lover’s body that call attention to the border between exposure and concealment—the partly visible bosom and face—highlights the readers’ experience with erotic liminality. Such enthusiastic participation in voyeurism and desire has an empowering effect on both the Duchess and the reader of amatory fiction. In his consideration of amatory fiction, William Warner contends that a text like New Atalantis “incites desire and promotes the liberation of the reader as a subject of power” (93). This liberation of the reader is signaled here through the discovery of the Duchess’s own erotic engagement with sexual spectacle in this liminal territory.

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Like Manley and her secret history, Jennifer Crusie crafts a series of novels that depict sexual spectacles that take place in liminal zones at the borders between private sexuality and public display. Although Maddie, the heroine of Tell Me Lies, initially recoils from willingly exposing her private acts of intimacy, she finally claims her newfound access to the territory of public spaces as she redefines her identity for herself and for the town of Frog Point. She learns to playfully challenge and appropriate the power of the liminal space between private intimacy and public exposure. In Crazy for You, Crusie explores the risks women face in that liminal space. The book’s heroine, Quinn McKenzie, finds herself stalked by an ex-boyfriend who becomes a sinister and disturbed peeping Tom. Quinn struggles against the controlling and possessive gaze of ex-boyfriend Bill, but her attempts fail to fully undermine this dynamic. Welcome to Temptation, the third novel in the sequence, returns to the more empowering model of Tell Me Lies. Sophie, the heroine of Welcome to Temptation, indulges in her own discovery fantasies as she finds the confidence to assume her own newly defined identity in private and public. Of these three Crusie heroines, Sophie most fully embraces the notion of blurring boundaries between her private sexual encounters and public knowledge. Not only does she engage in public sex, but she crafts these intimate moments as scenes for public consumption as the movie that she and her sister are filming for the town of Temptation.

Crusie’s novels challenge the notion that women must occupy a disempowered position when presenting themselves in voyeuristic self-display. Literary and film scholars have similarly argued for reassessments of what has been seen as voyeurism’s debilitating impact on women. Laura Mulvey, in a pioneering essay from 1975, applies the psychoanalytic insights of Freud and Lacan to film to argue that the controlling, pleasure-seeking gaze of the cinema is gendered male, while the object of the gaze is both feminine and passive. Recent film theory has actively challenged and reassessed Mulvey’s initial interpretations of Lacan’s theory of the gaze, arguing against the understanding of the gaze as “complete mastery” (McGowan 30). Some literary scholars have also debated the too-ready identification of women with powerlessness in scenes of voyeuristic display. Such challenges include Regina Schwartz’s “Rethinking Voyeurism and Patriarchy,” which asks readers to consider the complex workings of erotic gazing in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Focusing on the spectacle of Eve, Schwartz provocatively asks, “what happens when the watching subject is watched and the object of sight looks back?” (86). Such transformations of the subject and the positions of power in the erotic gaze occur in Crusie’s fiction as well as she exposes and ultimately dismantles the negative power of the gaze.

In Tell Me Lies, Crusie presents a positive consideration of voyeuristic self-display with her heroine Maddy. Crusie disrupts the potentially negative effect of the male gaze by having Maddie embrace the experience of public self exposure, making her an eager participant in her voyeuristic exposure. This sexual self-exposure plays a crucial role in her development as a character and in her individual empowerment. After spending her life in Frog Point, Ohio, living as what she calls the “fake” Maddie and a “Good Girl” (168), she decides to stop worrying about keeping her private concerns, and especially her sexuality, obscured from view. She claims the right to indulge in erotic encounters with her lover, C.L., in more public places, beginning with kissing him openly on her porch in view of her gossipy neighbors. Maddie defiantly asserts, “’I’m through hiding’” (314).

This small public rebellion intensifies as Maddie insists on staging herself as an erotic spectacle. Near the novel’s end, she begins stripping off her clothes in a far more public space—C. L.’s convertible as it drives through farmlands on Porch Road. The road’s name links this moment with her earlier, smaller-scale public exposure. Taking off her T-shirt and bra, Maddie convinces C. L. to pull over to the side of the road—a border that highlights the liminal space in which their encounter take place—where she strips completely bare and insists they make love behind the car in the grass. She links her sexual desire for C. L. to the idea of being a voyeuristic spectacle: “’I want you now. Here. While the neighbors watch. So everybody knows’” (327). Maddie makes herself the defiant object of the community’s gaze, and links that embracing of self-exposure with her own self-assertion when she insists their intimacy take place “’In the sun. In front of God and everybody. I don’t want to hide anymore’” (328). This sexual revelation of herself anticipates a similar public display that occurs when she makes a “scene” outside the bank to confront a bank employee, Candace Lowery, for theft and the murder of Maddie’s husband Brent (337). Despite a lengthy and undignified struggle with Candace that seems to yield nothing but curious spectators, Maddie refuses to slink back into obscurity. And her insistence on making her stance a public spectacle ultimately yields a kind of climax of its own as hundred-dollar bills erupt from Candace’s purse, sealing her fate with a dramatic outpouring of evidence of her guilt (338).

In Crazy for You, published just a year later, Crusie offers a more anxious account of voyeurism and display. Crusie presents Quinn’s former boyfriend, Bill, as the sinister embodiment of men using a predatory gaze to possess women as objects. Bill’s attempts to control Quinn’s identity, even after she has left him, are linked to his persistent scopic obsession with her. After she has moved from their apartment into a house of her own, Bill pulls off the lower part of a shutter while reflecting on the importance of keeping her within his sight: “Anything so he could see her, see what she was doing, be with her until she came to her senses again” (111). For Bill, visual possession is linked with sexual possession. While the other Crusie heroines will find self-empowerment in claiming the liminal territory between their private and public lives by engaging in discovery fantasies, Bill usurps this territory in Crazy for You. As his psychotic obsession with Quinn escalates, he paces around her house and envisions a future for the two of them and their kids. He brings himself to the boundary dividing her private space from the outside world—a kitchen window covered in a lace curtain (203). The lace curtain evokes a liminal space that is both opaque and transparent, and also anticipates a symbol of sexual pleasure he will later claim when stealing her white lace panties from her bedroom when she is out of the house (218). This violation of Quinn’s intimate, erotic territory is also an assault on her own sense of self, as Bill realizes. Quinn refers to her sexy underwear as “My secret life” (218); Bill’s theft ultimately attempts to possess not just her sexuality, but also her own ability to define herself as an individual.

When Quinn, like the heroines of Tell Me Lies and Welcome to Temptation, does engage in public sex, the positive self-realization she discovers is compromised by a brutal male assault that follows. In the auditorium of the high school, Quinn and her lover, Nick, have sex standing against a wall in the darkened theater, and Quinn finds this public sexual encounter the key to discovering her own authentic self: “It was breathtaking, astounding, going into herself like this, thinking about herself like this; she’d had men inside her before, but she’d never been there, never known herself thick with heat and succulent the way she loved herself now, could love herself now because she trusted him so completely” (256). This moment of self-confidence and power quickly transforms into a nightmarish scene as Quinn leaves the theater by herself to meet Nick in his truck. Walking out, Bill grabs her in a scene where his violent possession of Quinn hinted at in his peeping Tom moments finally takes brutal, physical form. He shoves her and then pins her against the wall in a nightmarish parody of the scene Quinn and Nick just enacted: “He pressed her wrists into the bricks, one hand on each side of her head so she couldn’t turn away, putting his face close to hers so she’d have to look at him, have to see him” (262-63). Bill’s act attempts to reclaim possession of Quinn’s sexuality and of her newly confident sense of her own identity. In addition to Bill’s violent re-enactment of this scene, Crusie further compromises Quinn’s moment of discovery by having it viewed by Bobby, the Boy Principal, who recreates the scene verbally to Bill within Quinn’s home: “’She was fucking that mechanic.’ Bill flinched, and Bobby’s voice went low and evil. ‘Up against the wall, like a whore. Right there on stage. I watched them’” (282). Readers are left to contemplate how Quinn’s moment of erotic discovery has been twice reclaimed by men defining and possessing her as a sexual object. These moments reinforce a sense of women’s vulnerability to the male gaze that never quite dissipates, even though the novel ends with Quinn and Nick about to have public sex again in a pick-up at the drive-in (298). That potential image, which never actually gets described, fails to fully counteract the impact of Bill and Bobby’s spectatorial violations.

Crusie reclaims the liminal territory for women in Welcome to Temptation. The novel is dominated by a series of striking visual images that constantly transform and playfully take on new meanings and identities. As liminal phenomena on the border between private and public spaces, these images exist in a state “of ambiguity and paradox, a confusion of all the customary categories” (Turner, The Forest 97). From our earliest introduction to the town of Temptation with its “flesh-colored, bullet-shaped” water tower, Crusie signals the significance of erotic visual display in the novel (4). This unmistakably phallic symbol transforms in the novel when its peach-colored paint is coated in cheap red paint which makes it appear, as Phin claims, like “the Whore of Babylon” and “a bloodred bullet in the sun” (73, 74). Sophie’s sister Amy further feminizes the water tower into an image of blatant, voyeuristic feminine sexuality by describing it as “a lipstick with a nipple’” (117). This re-gendering of the tower symbolizes the transformation occurring within the novel from considering women as victims of a voyeuristic gaze to recognizing women who take command of the act of self-exposure for their own pleasure and power.

The infamous “cherry” wallpaper also indicates the importance of the visual and the erotic in Welcome to Temptation. The cherry image is initially linked to Sophie’s humiliation at losing her virginity in high school and being taunted by a boy who mocks her by sticking on his finger a “big, gloppy cherry” (39). The male, with his manipulation of the cherry, is clearly in control of an oppressive visual regime that puts the woman firmly in her insignificant place. Like the water tower, however, the cherries on the wallpaper do not remain a stable visual image. We eventually learn they are actually apples which have faded through the years (110-111). Crusie’s depiction of shifting visual images suggests the need for readers to carefully question any too-ready assumptions about the significance of visual display. This emphasis on erotic spectacles also centers on the film being shot in Temptation by Sophie and Amy. The question of whether it is pornography constantly surfaces in the novel, and the various manifestations of the film—as a documentary called Return to Temptation, as a soft-core, female porn called Cherished, or as the poorly executed male porn flick Hot Fleshy Thighs—do not provide a simple answer or clear lines of distinction between them.

For the character of Sophie, taking command of this public, visual, erotic space is crucial to her own transformation in the novel. Even before Sophie and Phin enact her discovery fantasy in her bedroom, their first sexual encounter takes place on a river dock (96-99). Although Phin takes charge of this erotic moment, Sophie transforms this private sexual encounter into an even more public discovery fantasy by creating its images and dialogue as a scene in her film. Writing this and other erotic encounters with Phin as script for the film, Sophie willingly exposes herself on screen. The dock scene in particular is enacted for readers of Crusie’s novel as we watch the actors, Clea and Rob, strip and prepare to mimic the earlier erotic moment with Phin and Sophie. The movie scene highlights the pleasures of erotic visual display, illuminating the dock with lights to isolate the vision from the darkness around it. The dual borderlands here of light and dark, of water and dock, call attention to this space as liminal. Rob strips and unveils his own physical qualifications to perform in an erotic film, making him an object of voyeuristic pleasure just like the naked actress performing Sophie’s role in the encounter. Although Phin had remained clothed in the initial dock scene in the novel, the recreation of their sexual spectacle puts both the male and female in equally vulnerable and desirable positions. As they film the love scene, Sophie turns to see fireworks bursting in the sky: “Fireworks exploded beyond the trees, and she stopped to watch them sparkle gold and blue and red in the sky. Beautiful” (258). Sophie’s moment of pleasure in the visual scene, though, is interrupted by the intrusion of another spectator on the scene which appears as a glint from binoculars or a camera (259). Crusie’s juxtaposition of these viewpoints suggests the difficulty of completely controlling visual display. Just like the distorted version of the film which ultimately airs on the town’s cable network—thus obscuring the love scenes representing Sophie’s self-display and discovery—this moment of filming at the dock presents a complicated dynamic of spectatorial control and display.

By the end of the novel, Sophie is no longer waiting for Phin to orchestrate discovery moments for her pleasure; rather, she assumes control of their erotic, public displays as she more fully assumes her identity as a Dempsey, a family that defies conventions and operates outside social norms by manipulating others. In one of their final semi-public sex scenes, Sophie has to convince Phin to be with her by displaying herself on the hood of his Volvo—parked outside the house in which her brother is sleeping. She opens the jacket she is wearing to reveal her nearly naked self, but that enticement does not completely quell Phin’s nervousness about her brother possibly seeing them together. In a final defiant move embracing her own active self-discovery (in a voyeuristic as well as personal sense), “Sophie moved her knees apart and leaned back on her hands” (291). Her pose mimics a more conventional sense of female submission to the male lover and male gaze, but Sophie has transformed that feminine exposure into a position of power, as her next move to straddle Phin on top of the Volvo underscores. Crusie’s heroine has fully claimed the erotic gaze for her own pleasure.

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Like the erotic scenes which take place on the boundaries between private intimacy and public exposure, gossip also thrives in the liminal spaces explored in the novels of Crusie and Manley. My understanding of gossip’s function in these novels is informed by recent theoretical approaches to gossip in fields such as anthropology, social psychology, philosophy, and history. Critical understanding of gossip’s function outside of literary texts often splits between those who view gossip in a positive light and those who offer negative judgments about gossip’s functions and morality. In the book Witchcraft, Sorcery, Rumors, and Gossip, Pamela Stewart and Andrew Strathern summarize major critical assessments of gossip developed in anthropology and social psychology. While some studies of gossip in anthropology tend to emphasize the “positive social functions” of gossip, including its development of group unity and morality (40; 31), another trend has been to look at gossip as a more disruptive force serving individuals’ “self-interest” (37). The book Good Gossip collects perspectives of philosophers and social scientists who have noted gossip’s positive roles, highlighting its contributions to morality, friendship, and the resistance to oppressive power (Goodman and Ben-Ze’ev 1-5).

Gossip as both a mode of communication and a form of socialization functions by negotiating the liminal—the “betwixt and between”—of the public and private realms (Turner, Dramas 13). In spreading gossip, the gossiper functions as “transgressor,” as Jorg Bergmann has argued in Discreet Indiscretions: “he penetrates—by crossing the border between the back stage and the proscenium—the inner space of another’s social existence and then—disdaining the social system of inclusion and exclusion for the time being—pushes outward with his information as the booty of his raid. Expressed paradoxically, the gossip producer externalizes what is internal.” (66-67). This movement of gossip back and forth between the borders of the private and public echoes liminality’s preoccupation with transitions and explorations of margins. In her pioneering literary study of gossip, Patricia Spacks points to a similar understanding of gossip as occupying a space apart from the world at large. She describes gossip as a mode of communication that “creates its own territory [ . . . ] using materials from the world at large to construct a new oral artifact” (15). Stewart and Strathern echo this sense of gossip’s creative production of a distinctive kind of social space hovering on the margins of the social center when they insist that rumor and gossip do not simply reflect but rather create their own “social realities” (56). Like liminality itself, gossip is a model of communication and socialization that revolves around chaos and ambiguity. Turner’s description of the liminal condition emphasizes concepts of “ambiguity,” “paradox,” and “confusion of all the customary categories” (The Forest 97). Analysis of gossip often calls attention to these same features, as Bergmann does when he describes gossip as a social practice that “disrupts order, [and] disdains social boundaries” (134). Literary analyses of gossip have also noted its “uncertain status” and “unresolvable ambiguity” (Brown 579), often contrasting gossip’s murky model of communication with the more stable and controlled authority of a narrator (Gordon 7).

Gossip’s occupying of these liminal spaces also contributes to its sense of erotic appeal, and provides a further link between gossip and the sexual voyeurism depicted in the novels of Crusie and Manley. The conflation of gossip and eroticism is addressed by Patricia Spacks as she reflects on a possible reason for the enduring appeal of gossip; she notes that “the atmosphere of erotic titillation suggests gossip’s implicit voyeurism” (11). Writing in the early eighteenth century, during the time of Manley’s published novels, Alexander Pope vividly captures this association of gossip with erotic indulgence and also with femininity when he describes gossip as “a little letchery of the tongue in a lady” (1:170). Manley and Crusie exploit this feminized, erotic power of gossip in order to assert a newly positive model of this often denigrated form of communication. Although gossip has traditionally been viewed as predominantly feminine and threatening, as Bernard Capp notes in When Gossips Meet (50), Manley and Crusie appropriate gossip’s potentially destructive powers in order to transform their characters’ and their own authorial identities. Like the erotic discoveries that appear in their texts, gossip is another pleasure in which characters and readers learn to indulge.

In writing her New Atalantis, Manley not only narrates the circulation of gossip but herself engages in an act of politically-motivated gossip to expose the political party in power (the Whigs) as both sexually and politically corrupt. Clara Reeve, writing a history of the novel in the late eighteenth century, captures the sense of Manley’s scandalous, gossiping authorship: “She hoarded up all the public and private scandal within her reach, and poured it forth” (119). In a chapter on Manley’s narration of erotic gossip, Catherine Gallagher explores Manley’s appropriation of negative stereotypes of women and gossip: “Manley presents herself as politically useful because she is a disorderly woman vengefully gossiping about female ‘secrets’ and therefore doing the sort of low and frivolous work considered beneath real politicians” (117). By embracing the typical condemnation of women, Manley forges a defiant reformulation of her authorship and significance in her culture. Manley also capitalizes on notions of gossip as a collaborative endeavor by crafting her own distinctive model of female authorship that challenges conceptions of authorship as masculine, authoritative and proprietary[3]. Manley evokes this communal authorship through her insistent display of gossip’s circulation through legions of women. Her invitations to readers to share in the communal construction of the text were particularly suited to the changing power of the literary marketplace in the early eighteenth century. Moving away from traditional models of literary patronage, authors increasingly found themselves needing to cater to the public of readers as “the social group capable of conferring fame upon authors” (Donoghue 1). Manley’s strategy welcomes these newly significant readers to become partners in sorting through the meanings of her texts. She invites readers to join her in constructing the meanings of the text by going to another text—a key[4]. This new book that accompanies her secret histories becomes a liminal territory where author and readers meet in a space bordering the novel and the public world it represents.

In New Atalantis, Manley presents female gossip permeating all aspects of feminine society. Multiple agents of gossip circulate erotic scandal to one another and to the readers. The female narrators who provide the framework for encountering all the tales of gossip that unfold in New Atalantis embody a community of women performing gossip as they share information in order to define communal values and moral norms. In sharing their tales and their gossiping reflections on them, the women portray gossip’s forays into private spaces and the public exposure of that hidden knowledge—and represent for readers the ways in which they can perform that same intermixing of private and public realms. This constantly circulating gossip creates what Ros Ballaster has characterized as a disruptive dismantling of clearly defined binaries and boundaries in New Atalantis: “Manley’s fiction stands perpetually on the borders of what are perceived as discrete discursive territories. The political and the personal, the erotic and the pathetic, the real and the fictive, scandal and satire, all undergo a series of inversions and re-articulations until their supposed exclusivity is undermined” (151). By dismantling such typically discrete borders, Manley makes her fictionalized gossip of private, intimate moments of thinly veiled public figures impact the world of politics in the reign of Queen Anne.

One of the central figures representing gossip in New Atalantis is Lady Intelligence, a character whose role in communicating the scandals of the capital is signaled by her clothing: “her garments are all hieroglyphics” (13). These mysterious symbols suggest the process of decoding that Manley’s novel prompted in her readers as they attempted to discern the real-life referents of the fictionalized lovers in the novel. Shortly after its initial publication, a “key” appeared to accompany New Atalantis. This “key” provided real names of some of the people scandalously depicted within her novel, but also offered just hints for many others (perhaps letting readers know, for example, that a certain man is “Lord L—“). Such a device reinforced the collective nature of Manley’s gossiping authorship by emphasizing the notion of printed gossip as a communal process of communication and interpretation. As Catherine Gallagher has argued, Manley’s use of these keys resists a simple process of decoding by “open[ing] the text to an ‘outside’ that they also continue to defer” (126). These supplementary texts create a visual representation of liminality; the notion of a “key” itself points to a threshold that can potentially open, a state of transition that can possibly be successfully accomplished. But like the liminal itself, the secret history and its keys suspend the readers in territory marked by contradictions, ambiguity and chaos.

The gossip circulating in New Atalantis offers considerable voyeuristic pleasures, for the characters and readers alike. One of the most memorable gossips encountered in the novel is Mrs. Nightwork, a gossiping midwife. Her occupation links her to the early meaning of a gossip as someone present at childbirth, and also emphasizes the amazing fertility of gossip that flows abundantly through the capital of Angela. While assisting ladies with labor and delivery, she also caters to ladies who “love to be amused with the failings of others,” insisting that she and her fellow midwives would not receive “so favorable and warm a reception, if we had nothing of scandal to entertain them with” (139). Manley’s emphasis on the powerful appeal of gossip as an erotic indulgence also appears in several tales in the novel, including the story of a woman named Harriat whom a Duke attempts to seduce in order to destroy her reputation. No strategies succeed until he turns to the erotic appeal of gossip itself: “he thought of attempting her in her own way and sacrificed the reputations of several who had obliged him and his friends (for he was forced to tell her all that he knew or had heard), and then the lady, out of excess of gratitude for giving in to her darling foible, obliged him to his wish” (153). In a further volume of New Atalantis, Manley links gossip to erotic pleasure in a way that anticipates Crusie’s explorations of Sophie’s discovery fantasies. A maid gossips about ladies who themselves love the pleasures of gossip’s revelations: they “took as much Pleasure in discovering anothers Amour, as ever they did in concealing their own: Nay some have gone farther, and have wanted the true Pleasure in their own, ‘till they were discover’d” (Memoirs of Europe 2: 143). The allure of gossip seems nearly irresistible in Manley’s novel as it provides erotic enjoyment, political capital for Manley’s attempts to discredit the party of the Whigs then in power, and a successful model for Manley’s own authorship.

Negotiations of gossip function in important ways in this series of Crusie novels as well. Like Manley, Crusie crafts a model of authorship that appropriates the dynamics of gossip’s communal circulation and discovery of meaning. When she includes images open to multiple meanings, like the ambiguous cherries on the wallpaper in Welcome to Temptation, she invites commentaries and individual interpretations in the way that Manley’s keys to her novels welcomed readers’ attempts to discover meanings of her text. On the level of characterization, the heroines of Crusie’s novels must battle the negative power of gossip which threatens to define and limit their own individual identities. Two of the heroines, Maddie and Sophie, ultimately develop strategies to defy gossip’s power by embracing unruly images of themselves. They appropriate what has been previously defined by gossip as negative images, and in doing so establish a new negotiation of the gossip circulating in their small towns. In essence, they claim the liminal spaces of gossip as their own fertile territory—one that empowers them to redefine themselves and the communities in which they live.

Crusie begins her invitation to reconsider gossip in Tell Me Lies. In the small town at the center of Tell Me Lies, Frog Point, Ohio, Maddie has been designated, as her best friend Treva notes, “the Perpetual Virgin” (25). In this gossipy version of reality, even though Maddie has just discovered her husband’s infidelity, Treva assures her, “’Nobody would say anything bad about Maddie Martindale” (25). Although Treva intends to offer Maddie comfort, her comments underscore the degree to which Maddie finds that her life has been constrained by the force of gossip in her town. Gossip has crafted the “fake” Maddie that she sheds during the course of the novel. Maddie’s mother represents the power of gossip’s omnipresent voices circulating through Frog Point. Significantly, her first appearances in the novel occur via phone calls made to Maddie, emphasizing her function as the voice of gossip; communicating gossip through the phone also provides a visual representation of a liminal boundary that is linked to gossip in the novel. Shortly after Maddie’s traumatic discovery of another woman’s crotchless underpants in her husband’s car, she receives a phone call from her mother while trying to sedate herself with a brownie. While Maddie struggles to accept the change in her life, her mother pours out an endless stream of words: “Her mother was still talking. Her mother would talk through the Second Coming, doing the play-by-play” (11). But her mother’s voice is not just the communication of one woman; her talk evokes the communal gossip of the town. As Maddie listens, she “could hear Frog Point talking now. She stayed with him the after the first time, what did she expect? The way she acts, you’d never think she was a Martindale” (11). In imagining this anonymous, communal voice of gossip, Maddie pinpoints how she feels gossip will expose her own failures rather than dwelling on her husband’s far more obvious failings.

Eventually, Maddie’s supposed culpability in the murder of Brent, her husband, becomes “the” news in Frog Point. As Treva informs her, “’You are now the hottest thing on the Frog Point grapevine’” (248). The town’s gossip has already decided she killed him, but remains split between those who want to excuse her crime, and those who want her to “fry” (249). Maddie’s fears about the accusatory voice of gossip in Frog Point have seemingly come true. At this point, however, her mother, who initially represented the stifling and overwhelming constraints of gossip, actually begins to wield gossip in order to discredit Maddie’s main opposition, Brent’s mother (249-50). Rather than succumbing to despair and meekly accepting these judgments from others, however, Maddie decides to stop hiding from gossip. The novel’s final scene—Maddie hanging her “baby blue bikini underpants” in anticipation of C. L.’s arrival on the front doorknob in plain view of the gossipy Mrs. Crosby—symbolizes her rejection of gossip’s power to invade and limit her life (346). Her placement of the underpants on the door underscores her own insistence on claiming that liminal territory of gossip, signaling her defiance of gossip’s power and voices. Her bold move here clearly contrasts with her earlier attempts to keep the crotchless underpants securely hidden and private. Maddie does not run away from gossip, but finally chooses instead to playfully engage with it on her own terms.

Like the appearance of gossip in Laurence Sterne’s novel Tristram Shandy, gossip in Tell Me Lies is ultimately unveiled as a form of communication that can be “playful, pleasure-seeking” (Stovel 118). Maddie enters into the spirit of play by taking part in gossip’s distinctively pleasurable style: “allusive, fully of veiled reference and innuendo, of nuance and double entendre” (Stovel 122). This spirit captures the essence of the liminal experience, one that offers “a playful opening toward alternative worlds” (Spariosu xiii). Maddie has taken advantage of gossip’s liminal possibilities for transformation in order to redefine herself and her representation in the gossip of Frog Point. In a significant way, Maddie’s creative production of gossip echoes the power of the author of fiction, and Crusie signals this link between authorship and the creative potential of gossip with the epigraph of Tell Me Lies, which presents Truman Capote’s claim that “All fiction is gossip.”

Gossip in Crazy for You also functions by fashioning the ordinary lives of the townspeople into an entertaining story to be enjoyed—a kind of soap opera crafted from their own private lives primarily in the background of Crusie’s depictions of life in the small town of Tibbett. Gossip about relationships and possible infidelities circulates in the beauty shop run by Quinn’s best friend, Darla. The women there share information about other women like Barbara Niedemeyer, dubbed the “Bank Slut” for her string of affairs with other women’s husbands. Debbie, one of the stylists, shares her theory that the Bank Slut changes her hair to mimic the style of the partner of each new man she has in her sights (40). This information is a clue the other women use to decipher Barbara’s future maneuvers with other men, including Darla’s own husband. While this gossipy designation of Barbara demeans and demonizes her, gossip is predominantly presented as a tool used positively in Tibbett and its beauty salon.

In Welcome to Temptation, Crusie charts the most complicated negotiation of gossip. While gossip certainly poses a threat to the heroine Sophie, she learns how to respect and acknowledge the power that gossip can offer women to gain their own freedom and to influence their community. Of all these Crusie heroines, Sophie most fully embraces the liminal territory of gossip as a space of creative transformation. Early in the novel, Crusie presents a stereotypical image of a gossiping woman, Virginia, who passes along a judgmental tidbit to the town council about the two women she and her husband just hit with their car: “’a snippy little redhead, Stephen says, and a nice brunette who was sweet to me. Curly hair. Low-class. They’re staying at the Whipple farm. And they’re making a movie.” (13). Her combination of information and snobbish judgment of Sophie and Amy reveals an ugly aspect of gossip’s conservative assaults on individuals’ characters. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Virginia is ultimately revealed by the end of the novel as the main villain responsible for such crimes as attempted murder and intimidation. Another main voice of gossip in the novel is Phin’s mother, Liz, who employs gossip with more devastating finesse than Virginia. Her gossip clearly works oppressively against Sophie, seeking to maintain a conservative status quo in the community while keeping disruptive elements like Sophie firmly in their place. Yet Liz ultimately offers Sophie the opportunity to experience the potential power of gossip to enact its own version of justice.

After experiencing attempts on her life, Sophie confronts Liz as the culprit. The two women meet, significantly, outside the courthouse—a setting that indicates how gossip will take on the function of dispensing justice in Temptation by occupying this space upon its very boundary (352). Although Liz flatly denies the accusation against herself, her knowledge of the town’s gossip immediately indicates to her the likely suspect: Virginia. Joining forces with Hildy, another loquacious town gossip, Liz tries to wrangle a confession from Virginia, who refuses to admit her guilt. Gossip, then, becomes an alternative form of justice. “’We don’t have to prove it,’ Liz said, ‘We’ll just talk’” (358). The women know that circulating their speculations about Virginia’s motives will essentially convict her in the minds of the town. They promise to withhold that devastating gossip if Virginia uses her town council votes to support their causes, especially the censorship ordinance that has placed Sophie and her sister in jeopardy for their film. The threat of that gossip ultimately holds Virginia in check, allowing Sophie the opportunity to address the town at the meeting and to pave the way for a future run as the next Tucker mayor of Temptation. The collaborative mingling of information and judgments that has occurred with Sophie, Liz and Hildy demonstrates a positive model for the political future of Temptation as well. Early in the novel Liz had criticized Phin for not working to “build a consensus” among the council members (45). Phin rejected that approach, but Sophie has learned and benefited from its value.

In Welcome to Temptation, Crusie’s narration of gossip and her focus on voyeuristic discovery are linked through a symbolic representation of liminal borderland territories. Gossip and erotic display both function by transforming private, intimate moments into public performance. These liminal spaces, which include the door which briefly grants access and then separates Amy from Phin and Sophie’s first discovery fantasy, signal the often permeable boundaries between private and public expression. Sohpie and Phin, along with Crusie’s readers, often find themselves reminded of those boundaries. While beginning to disrobe with Phin on the kitchen table, Sophie “lifted her head to tell him how good he felt and looked through the screen door into Stephen Garvey’s eyes” (169). The moment signals the voyeuristic gaze and also provides juicy details for Stephen to spread as gossip against Sophie. The emphasis on the screen door, which functions simultaneously as a barrier and an open, seemingly transparent point of entry, represents the liminal borderland between private and public life. At other intimate moments, Sophie and Phin find themselves viewed through a window, as when Rachel appears at the window of Phin’s car as they begin to have sex (287). Even their encounter on top of the hood of Phin’s Volvo outside the Whipple farmhouse is linked to a window as Phin expresses his concern that Sophie’s brother will see them through his window (290).

A final dramatic representation of this liminal space between public and private realms occurs when Sophie and Phin have just finished emerging from the afterglow of satisfying sex. As Phin struggles to remove the handcuffs connecting him to the bed, he notices that Sophie “was looking past him to the television” (330). On the screen, Sophie and Amy’s film appears, or at least the soft porno version of it, Cherished. Sophie, like most of the townspeople watching that evening, is expecting a screening of her documentary, Return to Temptation. Intruding into the intimate moment Sophie and Phin have just shared, Cherished presents the fictional recreation of their sexual encounter as a scene of voyeuristic pleasure which Sophie and Phin are compelled to watch. Rob and Clea act out for a third time in the novel the initial sexual encounter of Phin and Sophie on the river dock. As Phin and Sophie watch the screen, they also hear their own dialogue from that private moment (the dialogue Sophie wrote for the film) and stare in shock as that strangely familiar scene morphs into the raucous porno, Hot Fleshy Thighs­—the re-cut version of Cherished crafted by Leo, the Porn King (331; 177). The film, now focusing on close-up shots of private body parts, showcases how dangerously reproducible and uncontrollable private experience can be once it enters the public realm. Even as the grainy hard-core porno plays on, another line from Phin and Sophie’s first discovery moment intrudes as naked Rob tells naked Clea, “’Your soul is a corkscrew’” (331). This flickering vestige of their own private intimacy blurs even further the distinctions here between private and public spaces. Just like the disrupted boundaries Ballaster identifies at work in Delarivier Manley’s fiction, the “series of inversions and re-articulations” of Phin and Sophie’s intimate exchange creates a liminal space between private and public expression that is visually represented by the television and its screen. Such liminal spaces offer access to private knowledge, but also emphasize the dangerously uncontrollable nature of information that circulates in the public realm. These transgressions of boundaries offer voyeuristic thrills and creative possibilities, but also the chilling shocks of recognition when confronting a private self that has become transformed and claimed as public property.

***
In their negotiations of the liminal spaces of erotic discovery and gossip, Crusie and Manley venture beyond the pages of their books, signaling another liminal space that emerges as readers respond to their texts. The novels themselves take on the function of a liminal border, serving as objects that resist closure by offering readers the ambiguities, paradoxes and contradictions that foster creative transformations. Their fiction, combining erotic titillation with sophisticated verbal games, invites and welcomes readers to join with the authors and with other readers in a communal act of constructing meanings from their texts. With Manley, this model of collaborative authorship stems from her narrative focus on gossip as a form of communal construction of meaning and from her use of devices like keys that gave readers opportunities to participate in extra-textual games to discover the real people depicted in her novels. Like Manley, Crusie has crafted an authorial identity that invites readers to participate in the discovery of meaning in her novels.

In Welcome to Temptation, the Dempsey family’s use of movie quotes serves as one such collaborative act. Crusie’s official website offers a list of many quotes, but reminds fans, “if we missed any or got the writing credits wrong, let us know” (“Movie Quote List”). This notion of an author helping craft a communal voice that welcomes readers is evidenced as well in “The Cherries,” the online communities of Crusie’s fans. In a posting on “All About Romance,” Crusie explains how cherries became associated with her books and fans: “Well, it was just one of those things that got out of hand. There’s a great cherry on the cover of Welcome to Temptation, and Susan Elizabeth Phillips made a bawdy crack about it in front of a bunch of booksellers once (and you thought she was such a lady) and I told the people on my fan list about it and they took it as their logo, and I started putting cherries in all of my books as a shout-out to them, and now it’s sort of my symbol” (“Writers Corner”). The cherry functions as a wink from author to readers and back again, creating a sense of a community forged through shared knowledge and insights about the novels. The cherry symbol is literally a signpost for members of the Cherries community, as their website explains: “Basically a Cherry is any participating member of one (or more) of Jenny’s online communities. The nickname, Cherries, came about because they kept ending up in the same places without realizing it and missing each other. They needed a symbol so they could spot each other” (“The Cherries”).

While the cherry makes visible a community centered on discussing Crusie’s novels, the name also evokes the ambiguity of any symbol by referencing that notoriously slippery image on the kitchen wallpaper from within the pages of Welcome to Temptation (“The Cherries”). The cherries on the wallpaper first represent the repression of Clea’s mother when she lived in the house with her daughter and husband. Only one wall was covered with “the truly ugly cherry wallpaper” because Clea’s father forced her to return the other paper to save money (22-23). When Sophie later recounts the loss of her virginity, the cherries assume new symbolic importance when she describes how the best friend of her first sexual partner “came up and stuck his finger in the pie on my tray and scooped out this big, gloppy cherry and said, ‘Heard you lost this, Sophie.’ And then everybody laughed” (39). When the discovery of other rolls of the kitchen’s wallpaper ultimately reveals the cherries are in fact faded apples (111), suddenly a new set of symbolic associations opens for readers to consider. Crusie’s transformations of the symbol serve as a verbal nudge to readers to continue the game she has begun as they can develop new interpretations and shared discoveries of meaning in online collaborations.

The significance of these communal voices fostered through romance novels figures in an internet posting by Crusie on her blog, Argh Ink. She draws attention to the importance of communities outside of (and including) the lovers in romance novels. Asking for thoughts from readers, Crusie discusses a work-in-progress, a conference paper titled “A Book Where Everybody Knows Your Name.” In her posting, Crusie suggests that “one of the most powerful aspects of the romance novel is the community that it makes in the reader’s mind” (“A Book”). For Crusie’s novels, that community takes shape in many ways, as when she invites her fans to offer suggestions and comments on drafts, or when she uses the inviting and familiar “Jenny” rather than the more formal “Jennifer” on her official website. That community also takes shape, though, in Crusie’s conception of her books not simply as rigidly defined private property under her sole control, but rather as more open, liminal spaces that create a territory where the author’s text gains news significance within the communal voices of its readers. Like the bedroom door that opens in Welcome to Temptation to bring Sophie the pleasure of her own discovery fantasy, Crusie’s textual strategies and online postings slyly signal an opening into her novels’ pages. Responding to her invitations, readers are encouraged to entertain their own discovery moments by exploring the liminal spaces that emerge between her novels and the communities that reflect on them. Crusie’s books function like those erotic tales that Delarivier Manley crafted to entice and welcome readers into communal gossip that spilled from the novels’ pages into keys that further teased and invited readers’ interpretations.

Jane Lilienfeld argues that such authorial strategies are typical of modernist authors like Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison. Their fiction, she contends, exploits the power of female gossip in positive ways by fashioning a reading experience in which “the implied authors incorporate the reader in a community that does not erase difference, but demonstrates through narrative strategies of reading postures the possibility of shared knowledge. Requiring the reader to share in the work of constructing the narrative merges artistry with political meaning” (57). The construction of shared knowledge fostered by Crusie and Manley’s novels also points readers toward such empowering possibilities for redefining female sexual and social identities, drawing upon the fertile, transformative power of liminal spaces explored through voyeuristic spectacles and gossip.

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Schwartz, Regina. “Rethinking Voyeurism and Patriarchy: The Case of Paradise Lost.” Representations 34 (1991): 85-103. JSTOR. Web. 24 March 2007.

Spacks, Patricia. Gossip. Chicago: University of Chicago P, 1986. Print.

Spariosu, Mihai I. The Wreath of Wild Olive: Play, Liminality, and the Study of Literature. Albany: State U of New York, 1997. Print.

Stewart, Pamela and Andrew Strathern. Witchcraft, Sorcery, Rumors, and Gossip. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.

Stovel, Bruce. “Tristram Shandy and the Art of Gossip.” Laurence Sterne: Riddles and Mysteries. Ed. Valerie Grosvenor Myer. London: Vision, 1984. 115-25. Print.

Straub, Kristina. “Reconstructing the Gaze: Voyeurism in Richardson’s Pamela.” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 18 (1988): 419-31. JSTOR. Web. 27 March 2007.

Turner, James. “The Erotics of the Novel.” A Companion to the Eighteenth-Century English Novel and Culture. Eds. Paula Backscheider and Catherine Ingrassia. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005. 214-34. Print.

Turner, Victor. Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society. Ithaca: Cornell, University Press, 1974. Print.

—. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca: Cornell, University Press, 1967. Print.

Warner, William. Licensing Entertainment: The Elevation of Novel Reading in Britain, 1684-1750. Berkeley: University of California P, 1998. Print.

Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. Berkeley: U of California P, 1957. Print.

“Writers Corner for October, 2004. Jennifer Crusie.” All About Romance: The Back Fence for Lovers of Romance Novels. Web. 20 March 2010.



Notes[1] This gaze, theorized as a means of masculine control over women as sexual objects, has long been the focus of film studies. Laura Mulvey first applied the psychoanalytic insights of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan to analyze the “gaze” of the film spectator as one that functions as masculine mastery over the eroticized female object onscreen.

[2] Female authors dominated the production of amatory fiction; in particular, Behn, Haywood and Manley were seen by contemporaries as developing remarkably similar works of erotic and gossip-centered fiction. Ros Ballaster argues that not only did readers associate these three authors, but that Manley and Haywood deliberately highlighted the connections among their works (114).

[3] Mark Rose identifies these qualities of modern authorship in Authors and Owners, and traces their beginnings to the eighteenth century.

[4] See Catherine Gallagher’s chapter on Delarivier Manley in Nobody’s Story for a discussion of keys and their function in early eighteenth-century satire (124-27).

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“The Heroine as Reader, the Reader as Heroine: Jennifer Crusie’s Welcome to Temptation” by Kate Moore and Eric Murphy Selinger

In July, 2011, an opinion piece in the “consumer commentary” of the British Journal of Family Planning, Reproduction, and Health Care sparked a brief flurry of worry and debate on both sides of the Atlantic about the pernicious effects that reading popular romance fiction might have on women’s contraceptive choices. On inspection, the essay turned out to have no solid basis in research or data; indeed, although its author, Susan Quilliam, was the author of several self-help books, she had no medical or academic expertise of any kind.[1] The piece and its reception, however, remind us of the persistence of the idea that reading romantic fantasy misleads women as to the nature of their circumstances and condition in life. It makes of the female reader, in short, a “female Quixote” (Lennox, 1752), a Catherine Moreland (Austen, 1818), or an Emma Bovary (Flaubert, 1856).

In the 1980s, this concern was central to the early feminist studies of popular romance fiction, even among scholars who considered themselves to be defending both the genre and its readers. Tania Modleski’s early essay “The Disappearing Act: A Study of Harlequin Romances,” for example, suggests that in immersing themselves in “the wonderful world of Harlequin Romances” women find themselves rewarded for the same kind of “self-subversion,” as opposed to self-advocacy, that haunts them in the world outside these novels (Modleski 435). Janice Radway, a few years later, was equally wary. “Although in restoring a woman’s depleted sense of self romance reading may constitute tacit recognition that the current arrangement of the sexes is not ideal for her emotional well-being,” she observes in Reading the Romance, “it does nothing to alter a woman’s social situation, itself very likely characterized by those dissatisfying patterns” (212). Despite the fact that the romance readers she interviews explicitly tell her otherwise (see, for example, 100-102), Radway remains skeptical of their claims that reading romance changes their lives for the better, and she hypothesizes instead that reading the romance causes readers to stay trapped in unhappy or chafing personal circumstances. “This activity,” she writes, “may very well obviate the need or desire to demand satisfaction in the real world because it can be so successfully met in fantasy” (212, emphasis mine).

When romance authors begin to write their own critical essays on the genre in the 1990s, they often take up the question of romance’s effect on its readers. You can find accounts of the genre as heartening, empowering, or leading to various forms of psychological health in many of the essays gathered in Jayne Ann Krentz’s anthology Dangerous Men, Adventurous Women (1992), notably those by Laura Kinsale, Linda Barlow, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Mary Jo Putney, Diana Palmer, Kathleen Gilles Seidel, and Krentz herself. The claims made by these authors frequently echo those made by the readers Radway interviews (but does not quite believe); likewise, several of these authors take on Radway, Modleski, Kay Mussell, and other scholars by name, quoting from their work and defining their own views against those of the academics. Clearly, then, by the start of the 1990s, academic accounts of popular romance were well known within, and contested by, the romance community. By the middle of the decade, when Jennifer Crusie began to study, write, and write about popular romance, those accounts and debates might well form a part of an aspiring romance novelist’s education.

Several of Crusie’s early category romances, including Anyone But You (1996) and The Cinderella Deal (1996) can profitably be read in dialogue with first-wave popular romance criticism, serving as implicit defenses of popular romance fiction and the act of reading it. Likewise, many of Crusie’s essays, especially those published in 1997-1998, draw on her own life experience and her graduate training in literary studies as they defend the genre against charges from both the patriarchal right and the radical-feminist left. Perhaps her most accomplished work in this vein, however, is found in the New York Times bestseller Welcome to Temptation (2000). In this novel, Crusie implicitly confronts flawed popular and critical conceptions of the romance genre, including the notion that romance is an undemanding and addictive form of fantasy that misleads women readers about their actual lives. Without simply dismissing what is problematic in our relationship with the fictions we enjoy, Crusie offers a nuanced argument for the liberating power of reading and writing the romance. Over the course of the novel, Sophie Dempsey, Crusie’s protagonist and a figure for the reader and writer of romance, becomes a reader of her own self. Her romantic relationship with the novel’s hero, mayor Phineas “Phin” Tucker, encourages her to have fantasies that become a means of reading what lies inside her and of reading the world of things and people around her. Crusie argues through Sophie that active participation in imaginative experience can connect a woman more fully to herself and to others, that it empowers her to transform her life and the life of the community around her, and, further, that whether this possibility is realized depends on the quality of responsiveness to experience in the reader—either a real experience or a fictional one—and not at all on the subject matter of the experience, whether it is a real-life relationship or a popular romance.

Fantasy, Vanity, Reality

Crusie, Radway, and ordinary readers agree that a boundary exists between “real life,” “the world [we] actually inhabit,” “the world of actual social relations,” and “the separate, free realm of the imaginary” (Radway 55, 60, 117). According to the critics of romance, however, from 18th century moralists to Susan Quilliam, confusion between the two realms seems to be the inevitable effect of the genre, at least on women readers. Crusie does not deny that individuals can confuse fantasy and reality, but rather suggests that confusion about boundaries between the two realms is not specific to women or to one form of fantasy, the romance, but rather arises in the vanity and egocentrism of the person experiencing the fantasy. To make her case, Crusie opens the novel by locating her heroine’s imaginative experience as a reader and writer in the larger context of accepted imaginative experience in American popular culture. She then juxtaposes her heroine’s fantasy experience against the experiences of a cast of secondary characters, both male and female, whose participation in popularly accepted forms of fantasy, those not subject to critical derision for association with women, leads them into moral error.

When Crusie’s heroine Sophie Dempsey arrives at the edge of the title’s small Ohio town, she expects problems to appear “like bats, dive-bombing them from out of nowhere” (2). She is quoting a film, as Crusie heroines often do (in this case, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), and, in the process, announcing her awareness that things might not be as they seem. Sophie’s experiences as a filmgoer confirm what she already knows from her grim adolescence as the daughter of an itinerant, small-time con artist: small towns are “dangerous” (2). Behind the blue skies, waving maple trees, and fluffy clouds, Sophie instinctively looks for the Bates Hotel, the bats, and the host who offers fava beans and Chianti. Where Sophie’s younger sister, Amy, sees “Pleasantville,” Sophie sees “Amityville.” She finds the “deserted tree-lined road before them” leading to Temptation “ominous” (3). “A muddy river stream[s] sullenly under a gunmetal bridge at the bottom of the hill,” the houses are “smug,” and a “flesh-colored,” “bullet shaped,” and “aggressively phallic” water tower dominates the landscape, each detail suggesting that this town embodies a world overshadowed by masculine power (4).

In these first perceptions of Temptation, in which Sophie relies on her experience of popular films, she does appear to be an anxious mis-reader of her environment, much like Jane Austen’s naïve heroine Catherine Moreland in Northanger Abbey. Yet in a significant twist, the fantasies from which Sophie derives her first flawed reading of the town of Temptation are not associated with women or with romance, even of the gothic variety. Furthermore, from the moment Sophie arrives in Temptation, she finds herself surrounded by other characters immersed in fantasies, as though—in this novel, at least—such immersion were simply part of the human condition, not an isolated or unusual case. Crusie gives each of these self-absorbed individuals a different and commonly accepted form of fantasy experience. Few critics of popular culture would condemn high school plays, local repertory theater productions, small-market newscasts, or stagy wedding videos as potentially harmful; instead critics assume participants in these activities can navigate between their on-stage experience and ordinary life and benefit from their involvement in imaginative acts. Yet each of the supporting characters turns out to be so deeply immersed in an apparently innocuous fantasy that he or she grossly misreads his or her familiar environment and relationships with others. Clearly, then, it is not a specific genre of imaginative experience that misleads or deludes its participants, nor is it women in general as participants in fantasy who feel its potentially harmful effects. Rather, as Crusie’s narrative demonstrates, the flaw lies in the characters themselves.

Consider, for example, the overlapping fates of Frank and Georgia Lutz and actress and sometime porn-star Clea Whipple, all of whom grew up (unlike Sophie) in the Ohio town of Temptation. Before the novel begins, Clea and Frank, who played opposite each other in a high school production of The Taming of the Shrew, pretended, for the show, to be in love. In an adolescent failure to distinguish fantasy from reality, they went on to have sex (very disappointing sex, at least for Clea), and this in turn precipitated Frank’s hasty marriage to a jealous Georgia, who faked a pregnancy to trap him and spite her rival.

At the start of the novel, Clea has returned to Temptation to make a video that will, she hopes, restart her film career. The chance to see Frank again immediately stimulates her capacity for fantasy. Before they meet, he is “Frank the football star, Frank the high-school-theater leading man; Frank the wealthy developer; Frank the generally magnificent” (23). Alas, although he has continued to play that high-school leading man, ever more inappropriately cast as a youthful hero, the real-life adult Frank turns out to be “pudgy, badly dressed, and annoying” (36). When we first encounter him in the novel, he is eagerly waiting to play the lead in the Temptation production of Carousel, opposite his wife, Georgia, the “Coppertone Toad,” (54) who imagines that with an application of suntan lotion she and her son’s twenty year old girlfriend can be mistaken for sisters. Clea promptly loses interest in the actual Frank, and instead casts Frank’s twenty-year old son Rob as the leading man of her current fantasy and would-be comeback film.

Crusie casts a cool, appraising eye on all of these characters. The Lutzes don’t come off well: as they continue to “play” the youthful leads, both husband and wife lose their dignity in vanity, and they pay for their lack of self-awareness in a loveless marriage that was always, after all, based on a lie (Georgia’s faked pregnancy). Clea, though, comes off worse. Abandoning her fantasy of a reunion with Frank, she concocts a new one, a sort of narcissistic caricature of a woman-empowering romance novel plot. It is, she explains, “a great story, about me coming home to meet my old high-school lover and being disillusioned, and then meeting his son, who seduces me and sets me free of my past, and I drive off into the sunset with him, getting everything I ever wanted” (177, italics are mine). Although she describes this as “a real woman’s fantasy” (177), Clea’s plot could not be further from the fantasies enjoyed by Radway’s Smithton readers, who repeatedly emphasize their interest in the developing relationship between the hero and heroine, and not simply in the heroine’s individual triumph. When Clea acts out the fantasy she has scripted for herself, not only on film for Amy Dempsey’s camera, but in the “movie set” of a town, Temptation, seducing Rob and humiliating Frank and his wife Georgia, the ego-centrism of her fantasy-life proves to be entirely anti-romantic, undermining the Lutz’s marriage just as it undermined Clea’s own marriage to the callow and selfish anchorman Zane Black.

As the novel goes on, the Lutzes’ self-absorption gradually makes them objects of our pity. Clea’s, by contrast, becomes more and more morally disturbing; ultimately, she turns out to be capable of watching with “depraved indifference” (370) as her ex-husband Zane dies in front of her. The most pernicious form of fantasy-entrapment in the novel, however—even worse than Clea’s, because it threatens to infect a whole community, and it leads to an actual murder attempt—belongs to the Garveys, Stephen and Virginia, a couple who cast themselves as the moral “pillars” of Temptation, and are seen as such by Sophie (see 6, 7, 8, and 27).

The Garveys’ initial act in the novel is a face-saving fiction, a lie about which of them was driving the beige Cadillac that hits Sophie and Amy’s car. We do not learn this right away, however—instead, we learn that the Garveys are publicly and consistently contemptuous of fiction. They are not readers, film fans, or theater-goers, and they are keen on censorship, especially when it comes to anything sexual. Not simply hypocrites, they are profoundly self-deceiving, so caught up in lies about their own morality and importance to the community that they cannot distinguish the real version of events from their subjective version. Their lack of experience with imaginative fiction renders them unable to judge character effectively. (Virginia, for instance, simply admires celebrity; she has no capacity to judge the character of either Zane or Clea.) A pervasive and unconscious subjectivity shapes their interactions with others, which renders them bad citizens, bad neighbors, and bad parents.

Virginia’s version of events, in particular, turns out to be so detached from reality that it borders on the criminally insane. A former store clerk, Virginia married up in marrying Stephen, the son of one of the town’s two most politically powerful families. (The other, even more important, is the Tuckers.) For over twenty years, she has devoted herself to the fantasy that her daughter, Rachel, will marry the town’s mayor, Phin Tucker: a marriage that would end the generations-old, quasi-dynastic rivalry between the two families and would certify Virginia’s position in the upper circles of Temptation society. Utterly incapable of seeing herself as others see her, Virginia perceives others, including her daughter, as projections of her own wishes and resentments. She offers, in effect, a nightmare version of the maternal “nurturance” which Radway argues romance readers seek from romance novels and specifically from romance heroes (Radway 137), and Virginia’s daughter Rachel does everything she can to escape her mother and find good sex and independence, not nurturance, in a relationship with the deliciously non-heroic “Eeyore of LA,” porn producer Leo Kingsley (182).

Clea, the Lutzes, Virginia and Stephen: each of these supporting characters, whether female and male, has developed a controlling fantasy that inflates the self and distorts his or her relations with others.[2] Without ever having read a popular romance, each fails to distinguish between a fantasy world and the real one. In contrast to those misperceiving characters, Crusie’s protagonist, Sophie, is an exemplar of how a woman’s interaction with fiction can, over time, make her more perceptive of herself and her world. Without ever showing Sophie reading a romance novel (or any other kind of novel, for that matter) Crusie uses the novel’s heroine and her evolving relationship with Phin, its hero, to show how that devalued figure, the romance reader, can negotiate the difference between the fictional worlds she enters as she reads and the world of “actual social relations” (Radway, 60) that she returns to, and can change, when she is not reading.

Reading an Old-Fashioned Novel (or a Hero)

Before discussing Crusie’s heroine Sophie, let me briefly pause to note an account of women’s reading that is essentially contemporary with Radway and Modleski, yet quite contrasting in its conclusions. Published in 1982, just between Loving with a Vengeance (1981) and the first edition of Reading the Romance (1984), Rachel Brownstein’s Becoming a Heroine: Reading about Women in Novels offers an overlapping, but considerably more positive account of how a woman’s reading, however private an act it seems, can also be a way of interacting with the actual world. “Reading an old-fashioned novel,” she explains—that is, as opposed to a novel inspired by the “New Feminism” (24)—offers real-world benefits to readers, since it

makes a woman’s secret life public, valid, as more and less real as everything else. Recognizing the problems and the conventions of a woman-centered novel, the reader feels part of a community and a tradition of women who talk well about their lives and link them, by language, to larger subjects. Looking up from a novel about a girl’s settling on a husband and a destiny so as to assert higher moral and aesthetic laws and her own alliance with them, the reader can feel the weight of her woman’s life as serious, can see her own self as shapely and significant. (24)

Brownstein is not speaking of reading popular romance novels here, but her description of the plots and values of those “old-fashioned novels” makes it clear that they are in fact romance novels, at least according to Pamela Regis’s working definition of this genre from the 18th century to the present: “a work of prose fiction that describes the courtship and betrothal of one or more heroines” (14). In Brownstein’s account, then, the romance reader enters into a “reflective, observant life” that stands in sharp contrast to the unreflective, self-involved lives of Crusie’s flawed secondary characters. Reading, a sojourn in the free realm of the imaginary, leads to a wider and richer perception of the real—although “the real” turns out to be a complex, not entirely obvious thing. “Looking up from a novel,” in which a reader has encountered “talk” and “language” that links her life to that of others, the reader finds her life as “valid and as more and less real as everything else” (14). More and less, not more or less: a shift which suggests that the fabric of reality has its own elements of fantasy, of story, woven inextricably within it.

Brownstein’s account of the reading experience in a literary context may differ in tone from Radway’s less optimistic account of reading romance, but it squares remarkably well with the accounts given by Radway’s interview subjects, women who form a community in which they are able to discuss what Brownstein calls “the conventions of a woman-centered novel” (24) and connect their reading experience to their experience as wives, mothers, and friends. These Smithton readers might well have been on Crusie’s mind when she constructed Sophie, the heroine of Welcome to Temptation. Sophie’s alert consciousness may link her to the larger tradition of heroine-centered fiction, but like the Smithton readers described by Radway, Sophie is characterized first and foremost not by self-awareness, but rather by a profound (and profoundly gendered) sense of herself as a caregiver, a nurturer of others who is never nurtured in return. After the death of their mother in an automobile accident, Sophie mothers and nurtures her sister Amy and her younger brother Davy, and she continues to do so in a self-abnegating way even after they are all adults. Early in the novel, when asked by Amy to articulate her own desires, she thinks to herself that she doesn’t really have any, outside of caring for her family. “When she thought about it, it was sad,” Crusie writes. “Thirty two years old, and she had no idea what she wanted from life” (68).

At the opposite extreme from characters like Clea and Virginia Garvey, who are unable to see reality through the lens of their fantasies, Sophie sees only reality. Or, at least, she sees a “version” of it: one in which, she tells Phin, “you have to be careful all the time and you get nothing for free” (95). In the conversation leading up to her first sexual encounter with Phin, Sophie might be momentarily distracted by the effects of rum and diet coke and the “romantic” ambience of moonlight and a flowing river—the word “romantic” comes up a half-dozen times in the scene—but she is quick to notice a “fish stink” that spoils the mood. “Reality,” she calls it, “making its usual appearance just when she was getting somewhere” (94).

Sophie insists that her fish-stink “version of reality” is “empowering” (94): a term that she seems to have derived from pop culture representations of feminism. “‘I’ve read The Second Sex. I’ve read The Cinderella Complex. I’m responsible for my own orgasm,’” she tells Phin, quoting the movie Tootsie (93). Since she also quotes early and often from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Manchurian Candidate, Psycho, and Silence of the Lambs, however, we might well conclude that her wary realism stems from something else: a determination not to base real-world actions on a controlling fantasy, of whatever sort, the way that characters in these four movies do. (Trapped in altered psychic states, these characters are extreme versions of the deluded characters who surround Sophie in Temptation.) This determination, however, has not allowed Sophie to escape a conventionally female destiny. As the novel begins, she is in a relationship with a man who presumes to interpret her to herself—named Brandon, like the hero of Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower, he is Sophie’s former therapist—she’s sexually repressed; and she’s responsible for the care of younger, though adult, siblings. Sophie’s resistance to fantasy in general, and especially to fantasies about anything “romantic,” has enabled her to pride herself on being self-sufficient, but it has not provided her any affirmation that her “secret life,” in Brownstein’s terms, is “valid,” “real,” “serious,” “shapely,” or “significant” (24). In fact, that “secret life” has grown so secret, she hardly knows it’s there.

For Sophie to get to a new version of reality, then, she must begin by allowing herself to entertain fantasies. Unlike Catherine Moreland, Emma Bovary, or a Smithton reader, Sophie has no pile of romances by her bed to let her escape into a fascinating (or dangerous) fantasy life, nor does she have a shelf of “old-fashioned” literary or domestic fiction, of the kind extolled by Brownstein. Her access to fantasy, to fiction, to reading as an affirming and self-transforming act, comes, instead, through Phin. Phin is connected with reading in multiple ways. As they drive into town, Sophie and Amy first encounter him as a text to be read: his name appears in full on a small sign “in antique green” that says “Phineas T. Tucker” (3). The rusting sign leads Amy to speculate that “Phineas T. must be older than God;” and to imagine that “he hasn’t had sex since the bicentennial,” immediately evoking associations of Rotary Club meetings, expanding waistlines, and old boy networks. When they meet in person for the first time, Phin turns out instead to have “broad shoulders, mirrored sunglasses, and no smile,” a look that sends “every instinct [Sophie] ha[s] into overdrive” (25), especially her instincts for perception and interpretation. Uniting her experience of film with her actual history of living in a series of small towns, Sophie reads Phin as the embodiment of “every glossy frat boy in every nerd movie ever made, every popular town boy who’d ever looked right through her in high school, every rotten rich kid who had belonged where she hadn’t” (25). She may not be reading him like a book, but she views him like a movie, and even hears “ominous music on the soundtrack in her head” (25).

Sophie’s initial “reading” of Phin connects him simultaneously to men she has previously encountered and to male characters in movies she has seen—movies in which women like her are not the romantic leads. This reading places them on opposite sides of any number of binary oppositions: insider and outsider; male and female; established authority and resistance to it; college educated and under-educated; upper class and no class. (Sophie may arguably have achieved middle-class status as an adult, but her upbringing as a drifter haunts her, as when she describes Phin as “starring in The Philadelphia Story,” while “she looked like an extra from The Grapes of Wrath” [28].) To the experienced romance reader, of course, these tensions merely set the stage for a familiar plot structure: one in which a hero who is, as Radway says, “wealthy” or “aristocratic,” an “active and successful participant in some major public endeavor” (130) falls for and elevates, through marriage, a poor but honest heroine.

To our surprise, then, as well as Sophie’s, both her and our initial “readings” of Phin turn out to be incorrect, or at least incomplete. This small-town aristocrat finds his position at the top of the patriarchal pyramid in Temptation to be “mind-numbing” (14), and as he presides over a tedious town council meeting in the opening chapter, he turns out to be stuck between the “sepia-toned” photos of past Tucker mayors and the narrow, repetitive prospects for his future (13). (The family campaign motto, trotted out for endless campaigns, haunts Phin: “Tucker for Mayor: More of the Same” [10].) His power, rooted in his family’s history, is exactly the sort of political, legal, and financial power that Radway says women “do not possess in a society dominated by men” (149), but this Volvo-driving, golf-playing, college-educated mayor of a small town, son of its most prominent family, emblem of male privilege in America, is no figure for the “autonomous masculinity” Radway sees in romance heroes, and still less for the contemptuous brutality Modleski observes in an older generation of heroes (Radway 148, Modleski 437). Far from displaying “male emotional reserve, independence, and even cruelty” (Radway, 158), Phin is consistently seen by the reader as living “in relation” with other people: colleagues, friends, and family. His ties with those around him, including his relationship with his young daughter, may be flawed by his own lack of self-fulfillment, but they are unmistakably loving, and as the novel begins, Phin is utterly at home with domesticity.

In fact, as we learn a bit later in the novel, if it weren’t for his sense of family duty (a sense he shares with Sophie), Phin would just as soon stop being mayor and retire to his second job as owner of the town bookstore, Tucker Books. Located in a “pale green Victorian” house, this store seems as “old-fashioned” as any domestic novel described by Brownstein, and Phin lives right above it, yet another link between him and the art of fiction (22). In fact, since Phin is the character who utters the novel’s title phrase—“’Hello, Sophie Dempsey,’ her worst nightmare said. ‘Welcome to Temptation’” (25)—we might say that as the novel begins, at least potentially, Sophie and Phin are not just its heroine and hero, but figures for the reader of this very romance and for this very romance text.

Trading Textual Strategies

With all of this textual and metatextual material in mind, let’s return to the novel’s initial sex scene, the scene where Sophie’s transformation begins. In this scene, we now notice, Phin offers sex to Sophie in the precisely the same way that the romance novel, in Radway’s account, seduces its female readers. In the critic’s view, romance fiction supplies the Smithton readers “with an important emotional release that is proscribed in daily life because the social role with which they identify themselves leaves little room for guiltless, self-interested pursuit of individual pleasure” (Radway 95-96). Phin, in turn, encourages Sophie to go for “pleasure” with “no guilt,” “no responsibility,” to leave her social role behind and “let somebody take care of you for a change,” to “be selfish” and lose herself temporarily in a (sexual) fantasy, proving herself to be—not prudent and nurturing—but “wild,” “reckless,” and “satisfied” (95-96).

We are not, however, finished with this seduction scene. Radway, after all, interprets romance fiction as merely “compensatory literature,” a temporary respite from the female reader’s “social role” that does not enable, and may even discourage, actual lasting change (95). Phin does more, introducing Sophie at once to sexual and textual pleasures. His sexual invitation to Sophie, for example, arises from a twist he gives to an old Appalachian song, the first “text” (aside from himself) that he brings to the story. The song’s lyric about a woman wandering the mountains in search of a new lover sounds at first like a lovely fantasy to Sophie. But when Phin reveals that Julie Ann, the heroine of the song, meets a bear in the woods and becomes a ghost, Sophie immediately rejects the “romance” of the song. The “bear” in those lovely woods is like the river’s “fish stink”—reality intruding on fantasy to destroy it. Phin, the bookstore owner, quickly shows Sophie the power that an experienced reader actually has over the text at hand. Without missing a beat, he rewrites the end of Julie Ann’s story, telling Sophie, “Okay, she’s not dead. The bear ate her, and she came her brains out” (93). Phin’s revision of the song shows Sophie two ways of being an active, creative reader. You can find yourself in a text as a character, as he spontaneously casts her as the heroine and himself as the bear, and you can even enter the text as an author, changing its “version of reality,” in this case, the ending, to make it less menacing and more enjoyable. (It’s notable that his punning revision of the song leaves the key verb unchanged: the bear “ate her” in both versions of the song, but what that phrase means is changed utterly.)

In direct contradiction to the argument that romance reading renders women passive and invisible, then, Crusie designs the interaction between her hero and heroine as a dynamic of liberation. In fact, these early scenes can be read as a step-by-step rewriting of those early academic worries about the effects of the genre. Where Modleski argues that reading Harlequin romances invites a woman “to obliterate the consciousness of the self as a physical presence” (435), for example, the first effect of Phin’s presence and the oral sex he offers is Sophie’s increased awareness of her body. She becomes more corporeally real to herself. She has been ignoring injuries and nervous habits. Now she feels “every muscle and nerve in her body celebrating” (98), and the process does not end here. In the scenes that follow, she also becomes more psychologically real to herself, more self-aware. As soon as the sexual “mindlessness” fades, she realizes that she has just “cheated” on Brandon, her ex-therapist, and she leaves Phin to take responsibility for her behavior by calling Brandon and confessing. In a comic twist, he responds like an academic romance critic responding to a romance reader, refusing to take her word for what has happened and interpreting her behavior in psycho-political terms. He first describes her behavior as “going for a little harmless excitement by necking with an authority figure” (102). He then further defines her actions, saying,

You’re rebelling against the oppressive social structure that’s made your family outcast, by corrupting its most powerful and popular adherent. And now you’re sending me a wake-up call—literally—that I’m not paying enough attention to you (102).

Compare Brandon’s interpretation to Radway’s claim that the romance reader identifies with the heroine when “she secures the attention and recognition of her culture’s most powerful and essential representative, a man” (84). Like a condescending scholar, he speaks with smug assurance that Sophie’s actions in relation to Phin can be explained in terms of her victimization at the hands of an “oppressive social structure” (102), and he refuses to believe that what has happened signals any real change in her.

Sophie, however, refuses to accept his interpretation. In a sign that her own transformation has begun, Sophie listens to her body’s message of satisfaction and refuses to be convinced by Brandon’s interpretation of her behavior. Not only does she insist that no interpretation can change the reality of her encounter with Phin, but she shows that she has learned some of Phin’s textual strategies. Brandon’s suggestion that they will soon get her “straightened out,” for example, leads Sophie to consider that she might choose to be “bent,” and she does not hesitate to identify specific sex acts, claiming them in frank, colloquial language. Far from confusing fantasy and reality, then, Sophie has gained perspective on her real situation. She is absolutely clear that her enjoyment of and satisfaction in her sexual encounter with Phin are bad signs for her relationship with Brandon, and as she acknowledges to Amy the nature of the encounter—“Phin was sort of a kinky fantasy, sex with a guy I don’t know, swept away in the dark by the river, all that stuff” (105)—she begins to realize Phin’s role as a key to discovering her “secret life,” in Brownstein’s phrase (24), not just as someone who has fantasies, but as the active author and reviser of them. She takes ownership of the encounter by “reliving the whole thing all over again, dwelling lavishly on the moments that were particularly perverse and unlike her, fixing the awkward parts. By the time she’d reviewed it a couple of times, it was so glossy, it could have been a hot scene in a movie” (106). The romance reader becomes romance writer; her mind “click[s] along, rewriting her night,” and she begins to type, coming to terms with her experience through creating a text.

Constructing a New “Version of Reality”

In her essay “A Story of Her Weaving: The Self-Authoring Heroines of Georgette Heyer’s Regency Romance,” Karin E. Westman tells us that heroines who trade in the “currencies in which men trade—money, sex, and wit” “succeed in authoring their own stories” (166). The realization that she can interpret, revise, and author her experience, using the medium she is most familiar with, surprises and empowers Sophie—a heroine named, Crusie has said, after Heyer’s heroine in The Grand Sophy[3]—and those around her notice a change. Clea and Amy, for example, read Sophie’s “script,” are surprised and impressed, and ask her to write more, eager to appropriate Sophie’s experience for their own purposes. Even the physical environment around her changes, at least in Sophie’s interpretive gaze. Earlier in the novel she metaphorically “reads” the wallpaper pattern of the farmhouse kitchen where she works as a set of “mutant cherries” (65; 110): reminders of her own humiliating loss of virginity to a town boy who used her for sex but discarded her as a person unworthy of his respect and affection. Once she has reshaped her experience with Phin into a text of her own making, Sophie realizes that she has “misread” the wallpaper based on her history as a victim and an outsider, and she recognizes that the print on the wallpaper is a faded set of apples, not cherries, the change in fruit suggesting a considerable change, however unconscious, in how she interprets her past.

Realistically, Crusie does not let a single exposure to fantasy to accomplish a complete transformation of her heroine. Such change does not happen overnight, nor does it happen in a vacuum. Amy and Clea may want more scenes, but Sophie doesn’t think she can write more, and within hours, a deliberately cruel and contemptuous comment from Clea’s husband, Zane, sets back Sophie’s brief progress toward self-realization. Zane’s claim that “Sophie couldn’t write for Sesame Street,” that “she’s so repressed, she’s sexless” (115), attacks her for usurping two of the male currencies to which Westman refers in her essay on Heyer: sex and authorship. When Sophie tries on her own to write a new scene based on penetrative intercourse (the “Phallic Variation,” she calls it), Zane’s “voice [keeps] interrupting her thoughts” (117), as though contesting her right to phallic authority. Her “two hours” of composition are “anguished,” and she erases the words on her screen six times because they are “stupid.” As she looks at the wall, “the cherries sneer back” at her. “Evidently they hadn’t gotten the good news they were apples” (118).

At this point in the novel, then, fantasy and authorship fail Sophie, leaving her unable to silence self-doubt and resist the patriarchal backlash embodied by Zane. Crusie helps us understand why they fail her through the novel’s second sex scene, Sophie and Phin’s first “Phallic Variation.” As they have sex, Sophie is unable to respond—indeed, she decides Zane is right about her, that she’s too “detached” or “prissy” or “straight” for “headbanging sex” (135). But the real reason for her lack of inspiration earlier, and lack of satisfaction in the act, lies in her motivations: ultimately, she’s “doing this to write a sex scene for a movie she [isn’t] even sure she want[s] to make” (135), not as a means of escape or self-discovery. Once again, Phin-the-text comes to her aid. Unfazed by her lack of response, he asks her what her fantasies are when she masturbates. Though she won’t answer as he reels off possibilities, he intuits one of her fantasies from her reaction. It is, appropriately, a “discovery fantasy,” and Phin feeds her sense of it, until once again Sophie experiences a spectacular orgasm, “discovered” not just by her sister, who walks in as they’re having sex, drawn by the sound of a shattering lamp, but by Phin (who “discovers” what she wants, metaphorically illuminating it by breaking that lamp) and by Sophie herself (who “discovers” that she can in fact be, as Phin puts it, both “kinky” and “heart-stopping” in her sexiness [141]). The next morning Sophie writes the new “lamp scene” without difficulty, breaks off her relationship with Brandon, and agrees to “sacrifice herself to the mayor” to get another great scene for Amy’s project, happily thinking to herself “I have ideas” for it (146).

In the chapters that follow, Sophie becomes an increasingly active and imaginative participant in her lovemaking, not just taking charge of exactly how kinky and exciting it will be, but demanding to learn from it, scene by scene. “This is like college,” she tells Phin: “I never got to go [ . . . ] And I always wanted a degree. So I’m getting it from you” (156). Her sexual education changes her overall “version of reality,” rendering it decidedly more optimistic. As she leaves one encounter, for example, she “look[s] dazedly out at Temptation’s Main Street baking in the late-afternoon sun” and thinks “Nice little town” and “Pretty” (159), a far cry from her initial sense of the town as “bat country.” This is only a momentary glimpse, one that can be (and is) quickly dispelled by reminders of her position as an outsider, but such moments become increasingly common, and increasingly native to Sophie, as the novel goes on. Although she is repeatedly tempted to persist in her former construction of reality, particularly romantic reality, she soon learns to correct herself without prompting:

Well, that was men for you. She glared at the cherries across from her. Took what they wanted and then—

It occurred to her that this thought wasn’t getting her anywhere. It was the same thought she’d been having for fifteen years without any insight or growth, it was the thought that had led her into two years of mind-numbing security with Brandon, it was the thought that had kept her from having the kind of wickedly abandoned sex she’d been having since she’d met Phin. It was, in short, nonproductive.

Worse than that, it was boring.

‘I’m through with you,’ she said to the cherries. ‘It’s a brand-new day.’ (166).

When Phin appears a page later, Sophie is literally reconstructing her reality by repapering the kitchen in brand new “apple” wallpaper, and Phin finds her irresistable. “I had you at ‘hello,” she exults, revising the heroine’s moment of triumph from Jerry McGuire in the direction of female agency (the original says, “you had me”) and telling Phin, as she leads him off to the shower, to “imagine the possibilities,” a clear reversal of the imaginative power dynamic between them (170).

By the second half of Welcome to Temptation, Sophie’s transformation is complete, at least on the sexual level. Rather than Phin and Sophie mutually discovering Sophie’s fantasies, the two begin to act out Phin’s—but this time, the progress is played for comedy, not just because his are so familiar and quickly declared (he knows this side of himself quite well), but because their execution gets interrupted by multiple, increasingly dramatic events across the central chapters of the novel. Because of this repetition, we get to see Sophie taking the lead, per Phin’s fantasy scenario, over and over again, reinforcing our sense of her new, Phin-like confidence. In fact, after one interruption, Sophie jokes about her effect on him in phrases that mirror Phin’s early cockiness: “You were repressed,” she tells him, “Which is why God sent me to save you” (288; Phin says the same words to her on 141). Her intimate nickname for him throughout these scenes, “bear,” recalls their first encounter on the dock: “your fantasy, bear,” she tells him, for example (287). And their final sexual encounter in the novel is an almost move-for-move revision of the first, as Sophie handcuffs him to his own bed, tells him that in her version of the ballad, “Julie got the bear,” and proceeds to give him an “orgasm he doesn’t have to work for” (330). Authorship, authority, and sexuality are inextricably (and quite playfully) intertwined.

The Empowerment Plot

If the only result of Sophie’s exposure to fantasy, fiction, and Phin were a change in her sex life, of course, Crusie’s brief on behalf of romance would be rather limited. It would suggest that romance was essentially reducible to erotica, or even pornography: a claim that has, of course, been made about the genre, sometimes as a criticism and sometimes in its defense, by academic critics. Instead, Crusie distinguishes between the limited sexual version of her transformation and something broader or deeper, of which sex is only a part. She draws that line of distinction in two ways. First, she has the first group of sexual fantasies that Phin elicits from and acts out with Sophie becoming part of the script she is writing, while the later love scenes do not. That script, in turn, is then filmed and edited into the two contrasting versions of Clea’s comeback video, Cherished (Amy’s vision of “classy porn” for women) and Hot Fleshy Thighs (Leo Kingsley’s decidedly non-classy version of what his male market wants). Yet even as usurped or corrupted by others, Sophie’s work as an author retains its liberating effects: Cherished helps Rachel Garvey get out of town and make a new life with Leo, becoming a producer in her own right of female-oriented pornography, while Hot Fleshy Thighs, stolen by Stephen Garvey and shown on local cable TV, provokes a political firestorm for Phin and ultimately becomes the catalyst that breaks the old political “version of reality” for the town.

That firestorm would have destroyed Phin, not the Garveys, however, were it not for the other transformation of Sophie: the one that is not reducible to her discovery of her sexual “secret life,” but that is just as clearly dependent on her learning to “read” herself in the safe context provided by Phin. In the second half of the novel, in addition to the sexual encounters that are connected to Phin’s fantasy, we find a series of encounters that are mediated primarily by the couple’s growing companionship and intimacy. Traces of fantasy play may show up: movie quotes, flirting with fictional roles, the use of the word “bear,” albeit as a verb. (“He whispered ‘Now’ in her ear and rolled to bear down on her,” we read in one scene [307].). Alongside these, however, we find declarations like “My dad would have loved you” and questions like “So how was your day?” (306). Post-coital pleasure and emotional security blend into one another for Sophie, who feels “safe and satisfied and better” after their lovemaking (308). In this context, Sophie’s abilities as a reader of herself come to the fore, and she draws on this capacity to recognize and name her own mental and emotional states. “When they were both calm again,” Crusie writes, “she told him the truth: ‘I love you’” (308).

Phin, however, despite his comfort with sexual fantasy, has not learned to read his own heart as clearly. Although both Sophie and the reader are sure that Phin loves her (“of course he did, the dummy, she had no doubts about that,” she thinks), that love is now as much Phin’s “secret life” as Sophie’s sexual fantasies were to her at the start of the novel. He now needs her to mediate that knowledge for him so that his “secret life,” the emotional one, can be consciously known. Sophie deliberately steps into that role. After years of fleeing from her family legacy of con artistry, she tells herself, it is time for her to “be a Dempsey,” to use her family skills at interpersonal manipulation to “get what she needed”: which is, in this case, to get Phin to admit that he loves her (309). In the pages that follow, Sophie uses these skills in a pair of crucial scenes that show the private and public impacts of her transformation. Privately, she metaphorically re-reads what she knows of Phin’s weaknesses (“Sex. Shirts. Pool.”) and uses a combination of her sexual allure and grafter upbringing to defeat a distracted Phin at his living room billiard table, leaving the stunned Phin to declare to his friend Wes, the local police chief, that “I’m going to have to marry her” (314). Publically, at the Town Council showdown that results from the airing of Hot Fleshy Thighs, she uses exactly the same skills of “reading” a crowd and manipulating its emotions to bring the town around to Phin’s side, turning them against the Garveys. These are, we note, the same skills at the con that she used unsuccessfully in a scene at the start of the novel, interrupted by her sister Amy, but having accepted and embraced them as “a Dempsey” she now seems fully empowered to use them.

Alongside its sexual liberation plot, then, Welcome to Temptation also insists that Sophie’s encounter with fantasy (Phin) eventually leads to the more far-reaching, real-life empowerment that Crusie and other romance readers—in Radway and elsewhere—have long claimed on behalf of the genre. A comparison with one of Crusie’s early essays is revealing, since in her “Romancing Reality” essay, Crusie cites an anecdote from Susan Elizabeth Phillips to explain precisely this empowering effect. (The Phillips piece in question is her contribution to the Dangerous Men, Adventurous Women anthology.) According to Phillips, Crusie notes, even “a best-selling novelist and happily married wife and mother” might need a little sojourn in romance, and when Phillips “sat down after a tense time in her life to relax with a stack of category novels,” she found “something magical” happening: she “felt better. Calmer. In control.” She writes that the novels did not offer the fantasy she thought romance novels would, “that of a wonderful man or a glamorous, fulfilling career. I already had those things.” Instead, she writes that the “fantasy” they gave her was “one of command and control over the harum scarum events of my life–a fantasy of female empowerment” (55).

This is a beauty of a fantasy, especially since it’s not fantasy at all. Phillips already had command and control, and to this day she remains one of the most empowered women I know. The romance fiction she read simply reminded her of her own capabilities, thereby reinforcing her own experience of reality.

Like Phillips, Sophie is “reminded of her own capabilities” by her encounters with Phin, and those encounters leave her ready and able to embrace her talents at “command and control.” In the novel’s version of this empowerment plot, however, the excursion through fantasy does not “reinforc[e] her own experience of reality.” Rather, it enables her to have a new “version of reality,” one which changes not only her relationship with Phin, but also the social world around them. In fact, because he is the mayor, the two changes turn out to be one.

The Marriage Shift

As I argued a few pages ago, Mayor Phin Tucker is something of an unhappy patriarch, just as trapped as Sophie is in a deadening, “mind-numbing” world of sameness and repetition. (To underscore this parallel, the adjective “mind-numbing” appears twice in the novel: once to describe Phin’s years as mayor [14] and once to describe Sophie’s years with Brandon [166].) Phin is as burdened by his social role as Sophie is, and as concerned with family duty; in fact, his family pressures, embodied by his mother Liz, might be read as even more ominous, given the multiple references to Psycho that crop up throughout the book. Phin is no Norman Bates, driven to murderous madness, but he is, by his own admission, “stuck” (another adjective the novel applies both to Phin [33] and Sophie [68]). No wonder he responds so eagerly to the opportunity to meet the “loose” women who have shaken up the Garveys by their mere arrival in Temptation (17), and no wonder his mother responds so coldly and threateningly to his increasingly public relationship with Sophie, not just to Phin’s face, but behind his back, visiting Sophie early in the novel to remind her precisely where she stands in the socio-political structure of Temptation.

Liz plans to intimidate Sophie, or, if that fails, to buy her son’s lover off, as she did his late first wife, Diane. Sophie, however, is unshaken, and she uses her initial, primarily sexual capacity for fantasy to present Phin’s mother with an image of her son simply as a man, stripped of his social and political trappings, “gorgeous and smart and funny and kind and skilled” and “sexy as hell” (163). As their relationship develops beyond the merely sexual (“We’re more than just the sex,” he tells her), Sophie’s impact on Phin likewise reaches beyond the sexual. It reveals to him just how frozen and dangerous his relationship with his mother has become, and he stands up to her, ordering Liz to “back off or you’ll lose us” when she tells him and his daughter, Dillie, to stay away from Sophie. When all three Tuckers meet up with Sophie at a Little League baseball game, Phin pushes back against his mother’s wishes to make his romantic relationship with Sophie obvious to the community at large, since “his smile to her pretty much telegraphed to everybody everything he’d said before”; when Liz angrily tells him that Sophie has “destroyed” his life, he agrees, adding that the life she destroyed was “a fucking wasteland; all Sophie did was clear the brush” (351-2).

Well before he admits to Sophie that he loves her, then—a declaration the novel postpones until its final triumphant pages—Phin finds himself freed by her from his “stuck” status, realizing in the process that he wants to replace that “wasteland” with a public, legal relationship. Just moments after being beaten at pool, in fact, is when he tells Wes “I’m going to have to marry her” (314). Not sex, not love, but marriage seems crucial here. Why?

First-wave romance scholars often lamented the connection in romance between fully expressed female sexuality and heterosexual marriage. Radway, for example, found it frustrating that even in ostensibly progressive novels, “in every case, these romances refuse finally to unravel the connection between female sexual desire and monogamous heterosexuality” (16). Crusie, by contrast, frames the issue of marriage in terms of a redefinition of heterosexual power dynamics. Most romances, she argues in an early essay, “feature a struggle between the heroine and the hero to achieve a balance of power defined by their own terms so that the commitment that takes place at the end of the book is not a surrender but a pact” (“Romancing Reality”). Like other female novelists before her, then, and like Pamela Regis, a more recent romance scholar, Crusie sees in fictional marriages at the ends of novels the opportunity to signal not a woman’s proscribed destiny—say, her submission to compulsory heterosexuality—but a shift in a society’s structure and values. As Regis explains, the role of the wedding at the end of a romance novel is to make clear the change that has taken place in the broken society in which the love story is set: an indication, for her, of the genre’s debt to Shakespearean comedy. A literary novel like David Vann’s Caribou Island might argue that marriage is “the death of self and possibility” for both partners (194), but the romance novel is concerned with marriage as a measure of the freedom a particular society affords individuals to marry whom they will. For Regis, then, the hero and heroine choose to marry when the plot liberates them from barriers that have constrained them in old patterns, and their marriage signals that those barriers and patterns are no more (Regis 15,33).

Regis, in describing the fall of the barrier between lovers, specifically cites the line in Pride and Prejudice in which the “union [of Elizabeth and Darcy] must have been to the advantage of both” (Regis, 17). Where Regis describes this moment as a moment in which “the heroine is free of the barrier,” Crusie writes this moment as a moment of mutual liberation of hero and heroine, Phin and Sophie (Regis, 17).

In the town of Temptation, the patterns that constrain hero and heroine alike are summed up by two motifs introduced to the reader in the opening pages and repeated throughout the novel. As Sophie and Amy drive into town, they encounter in quick succession the Tuckers’ campaign slogan, “More of the Same” (10) and that flesh-colored, ostentatiously phallic water tower, which tells us that the particular “sameness” that’s being repeated is patriarchy itself. In such a context, a purely sexual relationship between Sophie and Phin cannot provide real freedom. It’s simply too easy, for them and for Liz, to interpret their sexual relationship as part of a familiar pattern from the old patriarchal version of reality: a prominent man (a “town boy,” one of the “hill people”) seeks sexual release with a woman outside his class and community (a “loose” woman, a “cheap” woman, one of Phin’s “liaisons,” a bite of “the devil’s candy”). In sleeping with each other, they might simply be “crossing the tracks,” betraying family and class loyalties, consorting with “lepers,” with “Not Our Kind,” and so on. The static, unchanging, patriarchal social order of Temptation has plenty of room for them to meet in the shadows, even as it codifies a version of marriage—embodied in the Lutzes and the Garveys—that is as unhappy and unequal as any feminist scholar might fear.

By the end of the novel, however, each of these motifs has been transformed, and with it, the underlying pattern it represents. The water tower remains in place, but a series of new paintjobs and rainstorms has changed what it resembles: first a phallus, it then looks like a lipstick, and finally like a breast, an image simultaneously sexual and maternal. If the phallic water tower symbolized the constraining power of patriarchy over the town, that hold is broken—not through a revolutionary change, like tearing down the water tower entirely, but through a subtle shift that you have to be a “reader” of the tower, an interpreter, to notice. The meaning of the Tuckers’ campaign slogan undergoes a similar shift. In the final pages of the novel, Phin proposes to Sophie, brings her his mother’s ring, which all the Tucker brides have worn, to seal the deal. After some hesitation, she agrees, and he tells her that he’s through with being mayor after this term, so they’ll be left with boxes of unused family campaign posters. Thinking of those posters, Sophie has a sudden realization—not just about them, but about her talents and her future life. “She could make a difference,” she thinks,

She was good at making people do what she wanted. She was born to make people do what she wanted. “My God,” she said, as the full meaning of her family’s legacy for lying, cheating, and scheming hit her.

She was born to be a politician.

“Sophie?”

She leaned back against Phin. “I think I’ll take your name,” she said, smiling up at him sweetly. “Sophie Dempsey Tucker. It sounds…” She looked at the ring again. “…powerful.” (380-81)

The slogan will remain unchanged, still offering “more of the same,” but the gender and background of the “Tucker” in question will actually be quite different. Just as the water tower now signifies female power, not patriarchy, just as Julie Ann’s being “eaten” by the bear means sexual pleasure, not her death—indeed, just as the bear may have been, in Sophie’s version, “gotten” by Julie Ann—the external facts remain the same, but their meanings have changed, especially where gender and power are concerned.

Crusie invites us to extend this analogy still farther. The marriage between Phin and Sophie, we imagine, will look at first glance like any other marriage: they are married, as are the Lutzes, the Garveys, and so on. Under that superficial sameness, however, the power dynamics of the relationship will be entirely different. This couple will share what Crusie’s essay calls a “balance of power” between husband and wife; in fact, their “pact” will probably cede more power to Sophie, just as Phin seems to like it. (“Your life just changed,” she tells Phin on the final page of the novel, “but it’s okay. You can trust me” [381].) Just as girls’ weddings at the end of 18th and 19th century novels represented shifts in the patterns of earlier societies, Sophie and Phin’s “marriage is a new pattern for each of them, and a new pattern for the town.

And since a culminating happy marriage is a characteristic feature of the romance novel as a genre, we can extend the pattern one step further still. As read by the first generation of critics, back in the 1980s, romance novels seemed to offer “more of the same” in terms of sexual and marital roles, whatever their readers and authors might have claimed. Crusie suggests, by contrast, that this sameness likewise masks a subtle but substantial change in gender roles and power dynamics. Radway is quite right that we have not left “monogamous heterosexuality” behind, in this as in so many romance novels (16). But not all monogamous heterosexuality is alike, this final scene suggests, and just as the familiar signifiers of marriage—including the engagement ring that Sophie stares at with such obvious pleasure—need to be read well and in context in order to be truly understood, the same is true for the familiar signifiers of the romance novel genre.

Conclusion

In several of her essays from the late 1990s, Jennifer Crusie tells the story of how she became a reader of romance reluctantly, even warily, in pursuit of her doctoral dissertation. Like Sophie, she expected the worst from the books, but in the process of reading “one hundred romance novels” for her research, she found a form of narrative that “promised that [ . . . ] a woman [ . . . ] could strip away the old lies about her life and emerge re-born, transformed with that new sense of self that’s the prize at the end of any quest” (Let us Now Praise Scribbling Women,” March 1998). That transformation spills over, Crusie testifies, such that “when the heroine emerges transformed from the romance story, so do I. So do all romance readers.” Crusie’s own “new sense of self” included becoming “a romance reader, and then a romance critic, and finally a romance writer”; the plot of Welcome to Temptation echoes, distantly but unmistakably, this account of Crusie’s becoming a novelist.

If we turn for a moment from accounts of reading romance to accounts of the experience of reading generally, where for the critic there is neither bias against the gender of a reader nor against her chosen genre, we find reading acts and the likely effects of reading described in comparable ways, without alarm or condemnation or special pleading. In James Wood’s account of How Fiction Works, he explains:

Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life. And so on and on (Wood 63).

Wood does not imagine that the details of a story confuse us about the difference between what is real and what is imagined. He rather asserts that our imaginative experience and our actual experience interact to strengthen our perceptions, and to perceive differently is, perforce, to be a different person, even if ever so slightly. (“As I am,” says Emerson, “so I see.” The inverse is also true.)

Katherine Lever’s The Novel and the Reader, A Primer for Critics cites three knowledgeable sources—Percy Lubbock, The Craft of Fiction, Gordon Gerould, How to Read Fiction, and Joyce Cary, Art and Reality—for the suggestion common to each of them that “the reader of a novel is [her]self a novelist” (Lever 44). Lever and her fellow analysts of the act of reading do not condemn readers for “los[ing] ourselves in the imagined world” or letting “the actual world fade away from our consciousness” (Lever 46). In fact, according to Lever,

A good reader can be so lost to actuality that he does not hear bells ring, or smell food burn, or see shadows fall, or feel the tug of a child’s hand. Everything else is forgotten because he is lost in the world of the novel” (Lever 46).

The very act and effect—losing oneself—that draw so much condemnation from Modleski or Radway when a book is a romance read by a woman seem to be the acts and effects associated generally with the practice of reading novels. Lever’s imagined reader is male, but she makes an interesting list of details of domestic life to which his reading renders him oblivious. The act of becoming lost in a book in the face of domestic duties like cooking or tending to a child seems to Lever to have value in itself when neither gender nor genre is an issue. Lever claims this value for becoming lost in a book because her understanding of reading is that it is fundamentally active, not passive, and that the reader is in effect a co-creator with the novelist (Lever 44). Crusie, Brownstein, and ordinary female readers have long said that reading novels that are “old-fashioned” or “woman-centered” (Brownstein 24), including popular romance novels, also entails this kind of active, creative reading. Such reading makes us better “readers of life” in general (Wood 63), and as readers of life, we become co-authors of life, or at least of our own lives.

Far from disappearing into fantasy, Sophie Dempsey emerges from her imaginative experience to become a fully realized, freshly empowered “reader of life.” She has always “read” the world around her—clouds, houses, cars, wallpaper—and even the first page of the novel shows this impulse at work, as Sophie “reads” the landscape around her as she drives into Temptation. “Maple trees had waved cheerfully in the warm breeze, cotton clouds had bounced across the blue, blue sky, and the late-August sun had blasted everything in sight,” Crusie writes—yet “Sophie had felt a chill,” knowing that this “riotously happy, southern Ohio landscape” must really be “bat country” (1-2). Sophie reads, we might say, in a particularly pessimistic, even cynical way, one she has learned from her unhappy upbringing and from the movies she has watched so often. Her wary realism, as she sees it, gets summed up by the phrase she sighs to herself, grimly and sarcastically, at the end of the opening scene: “Nothing but good times ahead” (11).

Crusie ends the novel with a reprise of the opening description, which Sophie now reads through an optimistic, self-assured lens. “Behind [the new family of Dillie, Phin, and Sophie], maple trees waved cheerfully in the breeze, cotton clouds bounced across the blue, blue sky, and the early-September sun glowed on everything in sight” (Crusie 381). The promise of the thousands of campaign posters in Phin’s house—“more of the same”—has thus been fulfilled, but with a twist, since time now seems to be moving forward, not just from “late-August” (1) to “early September” (381), but into an upbeat future. Sophie’s conclusion, likewise, is the same but different. “’Nothing but good times ahead,” she says aloud, and kisses Phin, imagining a life in Temptation that will be filled, not just with sex and love, but with public social purpose, “mak[ing] a difference” (380). Like the readers of “old-fashioned” and “woman-centered” literary fiction described by Browstein, Sophie has begun to imagine herself as something more than herself: as a heroine. This particular transformation, Brownstein suggests, is properly (or at least initially) the province of reading imaginative works, of immersing oneself in fantasy, rather than of engaging with critical or philosophical texts. “To want to become a heroine,” she writes,

to have a sense of the possibility of being one, is to develop the beginnings of what feminists call ‘raised’ consciousness: it liberates a woman from feeling (and therefore perhaps from being) a victim or a dependent or drudge, someone of no account. The domestic novel can be credited with strengthening and shaping female reader’s aspirations to matter, to make something special of herself, (Brownstein xix)

In Crusie’s revisionist account—presented both in essays and in novels—we can credit the popular romance novel with this “strengthening and shaping” power, too.

Works Cited

Brownstein, Rachel. Becoming a Heroine. New York: Penguin Books, 1982. Print.

Crusie, Jennifer. Welcome to Temptation. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Print.

—. “Defeating the Critics: What We Can Do About the Anti-Romance Bias,” http://www.jennycrusie.com/for-writers/essays/. Web. Jan. 2011.

—. “Let Us Now Praise Scribbling Women,” http://www.jennycrusie.com/for-writers/essays/. Web. Jan. 2011.

—. “Romancing Reality: The Power of Romance Fiction to Reinforce and Revision the Real,” http://www.jennycrusie.com/for-writers/essays/. Web. Jan. 2011.

—. Untitled entry. The Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook. Writer’s Digest Books, 2005.

Holmes, Linda. “Romance Fiction and Women’s Health: a Dose of Skepticism.” http://www.npr.org/blogs/monkeysee/2011/07/07/137675779/romance-fiction-and-womens-health-a-dose-of-skepticism Web.

Krentz, Jayne Ann, editor. Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the appeal of the Romance. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. Print.

Lever, Katherine. The Novel and the Reader. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1960. Print.

Modleski, Tania. “The Disappearing Act: A Study of Harlequin Romances.” Signs, Vol. 5. No. 3 (Spring, 1980). Pp. 435-448. JSTOR. Web. Jan. 2011.

Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: The University of North Caroline Press, 1991. Print.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. Print.

Strehle, Susan and Carden, Mary Paniccia, Eds. Doubled Plots: Romance and History. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003. Print.

Tripler, Jessica, “Susan Quilliam: an Expert in What, Exactly?” http://www.readreactreview.com/2011/08/03/susan-quilliam-an-expert-in-what-exactly. Web.

Vivanco, Laura. “Danger! Romance Novels!” http://teachmetonight.blogspot.com/2011/07/danger-romance-novels.html Web.

For Love and Money: The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance. Tirril Hall, Tirril, Penrith: HEB Humanities-Ebooks, 2011.

Westman, Karin E. “The Self-Authoring Heroines of Georgette Heyer’s Regency Romance,” Strehle and Carden, 165-184. Print.

Wood, James. How Fiction Works. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008. Print.


[1] For a point-by-point debunking of Quilliam’s piece, see Holmes and Vivanco. For a detailed expose of Quilliam’s credentials, see Tripler.

[2] This list of minor characters is not exhaustive. Zane Black has his fantasies and delusions, which he tries to impose on reality, as does Amy, whose devotion to self-interest blinds her to the merits of the two films she is making: the audition tape for Clea and the secret documentary she is taping on the side.

[3] “Sophie in Welcome to Temptation was named after Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy (although I changed the spelling),” Crusie writes, “because I loved the way she went around fixing people, and that’s what my Sophie does too, although not with the ruthless enthusiasm of Heyer’s heroine. My Sophie is stuck fixing people; Heyer’s loves doing it” (Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook, 237).

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“Getting Laid, Getting Old, and Getting Fed: The Cultural Resistance of Jennifer Crusie’s Romance Heroines” by Kyra Kramer

Jennifer Crusie identifies herself as a feminist author who attempts to communicate the ideals of gender equality via her narratives. As she has explained, she chose to write feminist romances because too few authors were writing the “edgy, angry feminist love stories I wanted to read” and the “combination of what you love in your romance reading and what you can’t find in your romance reading defines the romance you want to write” (“Emotionally”). Her aim has been for her romantic writings to communicate

what the best romance fiction does: it tells the story that reflects a woman’s reality as it could be and as it often is. It tells her she is not stupid because she’s female, [ . . . ] that she has a right to control over her own life, to children, to vocational fulfillment, to great sex, to a faithful loving partner. It doesn’t promise her she’ll get these things, but it shows her a woman like herself who struggles to attain any and all of these and wins, not because she’s beautiful or young or lucky, but because she works for them. It says that a lot of the “truths” that the different societal ideologies have foisted on her are lies and that she has the right to point and laugh when those ideologies try to limit her. (“Romancing”)

One of the ways in which Crusie contests “a lot of the ‘truths’ that the different societal ideologies have foisted on” her heroines is through her depiction of their bodies. In several of her novels, her heroines find a satisfying romance in spite of the fact they transgress in some way the modern cultural conceptualisation of what is a “desirable” or “beautiful” woman, thereby contesting the cultural ideal of “feminine beauty.” Although there are several other areas in which the bodies of her heroines are consistent with culturally ascribed definition of what is normal or what is beautiful—in that they are white, middle-class heroines who are not transgendered, homosexual, disabled, or disfigured, among other variables—there is at least an attempt by Crusie to stretch the narrow definition of what kind of woman is ‘allowed’ to live happily ever after within the cultural narrative.

The importance of any transgressive depictions of the body should not be underestimated. Feminist anthropologists have long argued that women’s bodies are often subject to unspoken yet forceful cultural restraints that are an attempt to diminish women’s rights and their power in the social network. Although cultural “constructs and bodies are not the same; neither are they separable” (Marks 182). Therefore, the body is often symbolic of larger cultural beliefs and norms, and as such it can be used as a medium for social expression or dissent. Female bodies that do not adhere to the hegemonic social ideals are seen as rebellious, or even as battlegrounds for opposing viewpoints of femininity. While it is true that Crusie’s heroines do not challenge all aspects of the socio-cultural normative body, to write about heroines who are fat, or whose sexuality is active rather than the passive receptacle for male desire, or who are middle aged, does oppose and call into question the hegemonic and patriarchal suppositions of femininity and ‘correct’ gender roles.

Women’s bodies have been historically fictionalized as the abnormal counterparts of normative white, male, heterosexual bodies, and have accordingly been typified as biologically inferior to those of men (Urla and Terry; Tavris; Braidotti; Horn). Women as a whole have been traditionally viewed by Western philosophy, religion, and science as inherently symbolizing the animalistic body, whereas men as a whole have been viewed as representative of the human ability to surmount the needs of the body via elevated mental functions (Goldenberg; Shildrick and Price; Bordo; Grosz; Martin). Just as the body has been constructed as the negative half of the mind/body dualism, the fleshy hindrance for the mind/soul to overcome, women have likewise been socially and historically equated with the body. Since women are synonymous with the body, and the body has been historically considered as fundamentally negative, from the socio-cultural point of view “women are that negativity” (Bordo 5). Feminist theorists have fought vigorously to asseverate women’s physical normalcy and to protest the idea that women are helplessly ruled by biological imperatives. The female body is therefore frequently the locus of attempts to assert women’s inherent equality in feminist writing.

The human body is both naturally and culturally produced, and each body has three distinct points of analysis and perspective (Scheper-Hughes and Lock). These “three bodies” exist synchronously, superimposed on the physical reality of the individual’s body. Each of these three bodies can be used as a means to either dispute or support socio-cultural ideologies.[1] While the most obvious body is the individual body, or the embodied self, the human body is also a social body and a political body. The social body is a symbolic representation of culture. The cultural conceptualization of the individual body becomes a cultural text, because socio-cultural “constructions of and about the body are useful in sustaining particular views of society and social relations” (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 19). For example, a statement about the attractiveness or unattractiveness of a person’s physical appearance can also be understood as a comment on how well that person embodies cultural beliefs, norms, and ideas. Accordingly, the admiration of an individual’s lean, “fit” body represents the cultural admiration of “discipline” and the relative value ascribed to self-control. The political body is a conceptualization of the way in which governments can regulate, punish, and control the individual body. The political body is created by culture in much the same way as the social body is produced. Culture provides the “codes and social scripts” (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 26) that coerce the individual body to conform to “the needs of the social and political order” (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 26). One of the most explicit forms of socio-political power over an individual’s body is the power to regulate “sexuality, gender, and reproduction” (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 27). Thus, culture defines appropriate “masculine” and “feminine” behaviors, and those definitions are enforced with social policing and/or criminalization.

Since the body exists concurrently as both a natural and a cultural object, it is nearly impossible to examine the individual body independently of the social and political bodies. A person has a certain amount of autonomy, or agency, in regards to their individual body. However, the individual body is so closely intermeshed with the social/political body that it cannot help but represent cultural assumptions. From a cultural perspective, the body is the “terrain where social truths and social contradictions are played out, as well as a locus of personal and social resistance, creativity, and struggle” (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 31). Consequently, if the heroine’s individual body differs from the ideal, this can form a subtle but salient part of the feminist architecture of any romantic novel. Any depiction of the heroine’s physical appearance not only describes how the heroine looks, but also contains encoded messages about the cultural value and socio-political freedoms of women.

Within Western cultural paradigms “no female can achieve the status of romantic or sexual ideal without the appropriate body” (Bordo 154). Women who have inappropriate bodies, bodies that do not fit within the ascribed definitions of normal and/or attractive, frequently suffer social penalties as a consequence. Some of the many ways women’s bodies are rendered transgressive, and thus undeserving of romantic fulfillment under traditional cultural narratives, are when a woman controls her own sexuality (and reproduction), when she gains weight beyond what is ideally allowed, or even when she has grown older. It is these particular socio-cultural contraventions that Crusie has chosen to address in some of her romantic fiction.

As defined by the limitations of hegemony-approved ‘correct femininity,’ women must balance on a cultural tightrope of socially condoned sexual behavior. Those who have “too much” sexual freedom or “too little” interest in sex face being labeled as either slutty or frigid, appellations that are seldom used to describe men’s sexuality. Women who are more sexually active than is sanctioned by the socio-cultural definition of normal female sexual behavior are rarely depicted as the central or long-term love interest of the hero in mainstream entertainment. The hero may have short amorous relationships with “bad girls” but he predominantly falls in love with (and thus commits to) the “good girls.” Likewise, women who are overweight are also undervalued and are therefore only rarely depicted as potential long-term sexual partners for the hero. Instead, corpulent women are often the target of physical humor in popular visual media, especially comedies that are aimed at a young, male audience. In this type of comedy the idea of a heavyset woman as a sexual or romantic partner is portrayed as ludicrous, and being forced to interact with an overweight woman is a source of humiliation for the male protagonist. Even if a woman manages to persevere in both socially approved sexual behavior and requisite slenderness, she is nevertheless eventually going to lose the cultural approbation of her body because she will inevitably age. The older female body functions as a text illustrating how sexuality and aging are “social constructs that we interact with simultaneously through our language (which is also our culture) and our bodies” (Marks 182). Women become socially transparent as they age; they are rendered almost invisible in mainstream popular culture and lose much of their ascribed social value as potential romantic/sexual companions (Woodward).

In contrast to the patriarchal narrative, several of Crusie’s female protagonists discover they can live and find love unfettered by some of the cultural expectations of how woman’s bodies should look and act. They are thus free to be middle-aged, initiate sexual encounters, eschew underwear when it pleases them and eat Krispy Kreme doughnuts. These depictions of the individual bodies of her heroines are an incarnate rebellion against several of the cultural norms that impose an almost unattainable model of ideal womanhood. Simultaneously, the social bodies of the heroines are acting as metaphors for the larger feminist rebellion against the prevailing misogynistic cultural constructs. By freeing the bodies of her heroines from some of the socio-cultural injunctions concerning age, weight, and sexuality, Jennifer Crusie communicates a compelling feminist message of women’s empowerment and emancipation from some elements of the hegemonic gender ideology.

This essay will focus on three novels in which the feminist message of patriarchal resistance is conveyed by Crusie’s rendering of the female body in a particularly clear way: Welcome to Temptation (2000), Anyone But You (1996), and Bet Me (2004). In these novels the hero’s desire for the heroine is, respectively, a repudiation of the accepted cultural beliefs about how a woman may express her erotic appetite, how old a woman can be and still be a sexual being, and how much a woman can weigh and still be desirable.

Getting Laid

Feminists have long contested the way in which women’s sexuality is socio-culturally constructed. Welcome to Temptation explores one woman’s escape from the limitations placed on female sexuality by cultural expectations. The central female protagonist, Sophie, begins her relationship with the hero, Phin, solely to liberate herself from her sexual angst and recoils from any possibility of love or emotional commitment. It is only as she comes to know Phin better, and begins to trust him not to hurt her emotionally, that she stops seeing him exclusively in terms of the sexual pleasure he can bring her and starts thinking of him as someone with whom she is involved romantically, thus connecting with him emotionally as well as sexually.

When she was still a teenager Sophie learned that, simply because she was female, her sexual behavior could cause her to become the subject of social policing via the use of shame and ridicule. She had tried to earn the approval of a popular boy in her high-school by permitting him to have sex with her. It was her first sexual encounter and she had allowed it because she

wanted to be “in” just once [ . . . ]. Except it was awful, and when I got to school on Monday, everybody knew. And when I went to the cafeteria at lunchtime, his best friend came up and stuck his finger in the pie on my tray and scooped out this big, gloppy cherry and said “Heard you lost this, Sophie.” And then everybody laughed. (34)

This form of social policing devastated Sophie emotionally and left her with a lasting fear of falling victim again to a culturally imposed

sexual double standard that endorses different sexual behavior for women and men, whereby women are expected to confine sexual behavior to the context of a committed relationship and men are expected to engage in sexual behavior in all kinds of relationships. (Greene and Faulkner 240)

Her fear fosters an enduring distrust of “town boys.” As a result Sophie has restricted her sexual needs to “safe” relationships with boring but acceptable men, represented by her boyfriend/therapist. Therefore, when Sophie first meets Phin she immediately distrusts him because he looked “like every popular town boy who’d ever looked right through her in high school, like every rotten rich kid who’d ever belonged where she hadn’t” (22). This fear is compounded by the fact she finds Phin extremely attractive and there is a great deal of sexual tension between them.

When Sophie finds herself in a potentially erotic situation with Phin, she tries to talk herself out of participating in a sex act she really wants. She tells herself that her lust for him is “dumb” and that she is “not this kind of woman” (84). Phin offers to perform oral sex on her, in order to give her pleasure without guilt or responsibility, “an orgasm you don’t have to work for” (84) but she insists she would “have to be depraved to say yes to something like that” (85). Instead of placating her with assurances that she would still be a “good girl,” Phin tells her that she would be “Wild” (85) and “Reckless” (85) and “Satisfied” (85). The thought of herself as daringly erotic and sexually fulfilled is so exciting that Sophie “arched into him, depraved and abandoned after all” (85). Phin encourages Sophie to release her sexuality without making demands for reciprocity, and gives tacit approval of her potentially “bad girl” behavior. The idea that she could enjoy her sexuality and not suffer social reprisals or condemnation for it is so freeing for her that she is able to have “glorious” (87) multiple orgasms. This is a major turning point in her feelings toward Phin. Instead of reviling him as a town boy who is trying to seduce her in order to humiliate her, she tells him that “I like you after all” (88).

Later, while her body is still in a blissfully post-orgasmic state, she tries to chastise herself for indulging her libido with a man she was unsure of, a man with whom she had no intention of having a relationship, a man who represented many of her insecurities even as he inspired her fantasies. She feels guilty because her sexual exploration “was so wrong of her” (93) but “it had felt so good” (93) that she mentally “relived the whole thing all over again, dwelling lavishly on the moments that were particularly perverse and unlike her” (93).

In spite of her intense enjoyment, at this point Sophie still has not entirely shaken off the social norms that insist “good girls” simply do not have sex with gorgeous strangers in order to obtain an orgasm. “Good girls” make love with men they adore, preferably within the bonds of holy matrimony; only “bad girls” fuck men they aren’t committed to. Sophie still has difficulty even imagining herself saying “fuck me” to Phin; it “sounded so unlike her [ . . . ]. Then she thought of the dock. And Phin. And the heat rose again. Fuck me. ‘Fuck me,’ she tried out loud. [ . . . ] ‘Fuck me,’ Sophie said again, and went upstairs to practice” (108).

Despite her resolution to have wild, uncommitted sex just for the physical thrill, Sophie fears that it makes her “slutty” (115) and “depraved” (115). From a hegemonic cultural standpoint, Sophie is being a “slut” when she seeks sexual fulfillment and tells Phin to fuck her she is initiating sex and aggressively communicating her sexual needs. She is not passively waiting for Phin to seduce her nor is she being the object of sexual aggression. This transgresses the normative sexual script in which women must be “sexually available but not sexually in charge of themselves” (Wolf, Promiscuities 136).

Sophie’s view of her own sexuality has been shaped by patriarchal acculturation, the learned acceptance that masculinity comes with certain privileges and authority which a “feminine” woman must not imitate or usurp. The influential French philosopher Michel Foucault postulated that this socio-cultural “power has not operated primarily by denying sexual expression but by creating the forms that modern sexuality takes” (Sawicki 38). In other words, socially perceived experts on normal or moral sexual behavior, such as biomedical practitioners, scientists, and clergy, establish the “authoritative knowledge” of normal sexuality.[2] They create arbitrary definitions of sexual normalcy, and those definitions are then used as a way to control the sexual expression of the individual. Thus, Sophie fears being a “slut” because she has been enculturated to believe sexual freedom is a masculine prerogative and therefore deviant in a woman.

Feminism attempts to reconceptualise what is considered normal female sexuality by challenging the patriarchal authoritative knowledge. Romantic fiction, by expressing sexuality via women’s discourse, can allow women to regain control over their own embodied sexuality. The romance genre provides a setting in which the predominantly female authors may, if they so choose, explore female sexuality and seek to redefine what is “normal” for women to feel or desire. Crusie asserts in her essay “Romancing Reality: The Power of Romance Fiction to Reinforce and Re-Vision the Real” that many romance novels reposition women

at the center of their own sexuality. Many modern romance writers zero in on the sexual lies women have been told, reversing patriarchal constraints and confirming what women already knew about their sexual identities but that many distrusted because it conflicted with the conventional wisdom that detailed what being a good woman was all about. If romance novels do nothing else, they should earn the respect of feminists for the way they re-vision women’s sexuality, making her a partner in her own satisfaction instead of an object.

Although most feminists maintain that women are the real experts in their own sexual satisfaction, it is also an area of divisiveness in feminist theory. Radical feminists (radical feminism is one of many differing feminist theoretical perspectives, along with libertarian feminism, Marxist feminism, etc. . . .) maintain that all sexuality has been conceptualized through masculine discourse for so long that true female sexuality cannot emerge until all patriarchal customs and sexual practices which objectify women have been dismantled (Sawicki).[3] Radical feminist theorists would therefore be likely to reject Crusie’s argument that romantic fiction liberates women’s sexuality on the grounds that it isn’t “real” female sexuality; it is merely a reiteration and rearrangement of masculine sexuality. In contrast, most libertarian feminists, while acknowledging that there is a chauvinistic bias in most socio-cultural sexual expression, tend to view “the release of female sexual energy as more important than the restraint of male sexuality” (Sawicki 35). For libertarian feminists the romantic novel’s depictions of women’s sexual pleasure does not necessarily stem from patriarchal repression, but can instead help women “by generating [women’s] own sexual imagery, by becoming [women’s] own sexual authority, and by thereby repossessing [women’s] own sexual world” (West 129).

Crusie obviously falls into the libertarian feminist camp, maintaining that the sexual depictions in a significant portion of romance novels bolster women’s sexuality by

making it clear that, far from being helpless, asexual beings who must be seduced to respond, many women like sex. A lot. Romance novels spend pages describing women’s sexual pleasure including details that mama never told and patriarchy would be appalled at. (“Romancing”)

Novels about women reclaiming their sexual autonomy “are transgressive inasmuch as they are aggressive, asserting female desire in a culture where female sexuality is viewed as [ . . . ] conjoined with passivity” (Hite 121-22). Writing about women from a feminist perspective or in a woman’s voice is subversive because it “suggests that patriarchal language cannot fully contain and control the female body” (Hite 134). Crusie rejects traditional male-orientated writing and instead writes defiant, feminist romantic “fiction about women who had sex and then didn’t eat arsenic or throw themselves under trains or swim out to the embrace of the sea” (“Romancing”).

In Welcome to Temptation, as Sophie’s sexual relationship with Phin progresses, she becomes more secure and comfortable in her transgressive behavior. She explains to him that she wants “something exciting and different and depraved” (138), communicating her needs and expecting him to meet them. Sophie tells Phin that their sexual relationship is “like college” (139), and demands that he teach her “something new” (139). Although the role of teacher could be construed as a position of control and authority, Sophie’s demand that Phin teach her reverses normative female sexuality because she, not Phin, is negotiating the desired sexual behavior. The act of negotiation makes Sophie sexually assertive, and therefore deviates from the culturally approved female sexual script. Thus, Phin becomes her ally in her investigation of her sexual needs, not her master. Their early sexual relationship also flips the sexual script because Phin is the object (although not a passive object, so it is more egalitarian than the traditional sexual script allows for women) of Sophie’s enterprising sexual exploration.

Novels in which a female protagonist does not follow the sexual script, refuses to be the receptacle of male desires, and is instead the active agent of her own sexual satisfaction, are disruptive and potentially feminist because they rebel against cultural norms regarding feminine sexual behavior. Accordingly, one may consider Welcome to Temptation to be a feminist novel because the heroine commits feminist acts: she contests passivity and actively seeks sexual fulfillment.[4]

Crusie is well aware that the liberation of her heroine’s body, i.e. the freedom of her protagonist to be sexual and still be a woman who is beloved and respected, is a crucial component of feminist writing in the romance genre. All of her romances have heroines who are either sexually emancipated or learning how to be so. Even if a Crusie heroine requires assistance from the hero to fulfill her sexual potential, he does not “rescue” her from her sexual inhibitions nor does he use the heroine to fortify his ego: she is never a conquest. As Crusie explained in her essay “Glee and Sympathy”:

My sex scenes—and my romance novels—are about determined women who go after what they need and get it, which is why I think they’re a feminist act. Naomi Wolf once said that men called women who liked sex “sluts,” but that was okay because “we need sluts for the revolution.” That’s what I’m doing, that’s my mission in life, I’m writing sluts for the revolution. I’m very proud.

Sophie is therefore representing an aspect of the feminist revolution when she begins to actively reject the cultural stereotypes that insist men will use women’s bodies and then socially punish them for their sexual openness. Tired of being a prisoner of the potential shame that could be inflicted on her by a sexist social ethos, she decides that her fear of being used as a sex object was

the same thought she’d been having for fifteen years without any insight or growth, it was the thought that had led her into two years of mind-numbing security with Brandon, it was the thought that had kept her from having the kind of wickedly abandoned sex she’d been having since she’d met Phin. It was, in short, nonproductive. (147)

Eventually their relationship evolves past the purely physical and Sophie begins to care about Phin emotionally and trust him. She then starts to reciprocate sexually by offering to try to fulfill some of his fantasies. Their relationship thus becomes one of mutuality and equality, within which both feel free to express their sexuality without shame or pain, demonstrating the untruth of the socio-cultural belief that “bad girls” can never be respected or loved.

By the end of the book, Crusie has integrated all three aspects of the body in support of women’s sexual freedom. As an individual Sophie has achieved fulfilling sex and obtained Phin’s love, while her social body is rewarded with cultural validation when Phin asks her to marry him and even his previously hostile mother supports his choice. Finally, her political body literally becomes part of the body politic: Sophie decides to run for mayor. Not only has she avoided being punished by the establishment for her sexual liberation, she will likely gain access to the governmental power structure. She therefore secures love, social status, and a career as a result of her sexual renaissance.

On the surface, the novel appears to be about an individual woman learning to enjoy her own sexuality; however, Sophie’s body is also a social body and thus embodies the larger cultural milieu. Although the misogynistic social bias insists that women who enjoy their sexuality “too much” are sluts, Sophie is validated and rewarded for being a slut, not punished. Her individual body may remain within the hegemonic ideal (she is white, able-bodied, heterosexual, not overweight, etc.), but Crusie does this to isolate a variable in terms of her social and political bodies, so that her refusal to obey the sexual script exemplifies women’s resistance to the double standard more generally. Therefore, when Sophie successfully embraces unsanctioned sexual behavior, it symbolizes the possibility of all women’s successful cultural nonconformity, even though it addresses only one aspect of that nonconformity.

Getting Old

The way in which a woman’s body is socially policed changes as she ages. Young women are called sluts if they have autonomy over their own sexuality, whereas older women are culturally denied control over their sexuality inasmuch as they are stripped of their eroticism. An older woman is culturally constructed as asexual: the older the woman, the less she is thought of as a sexual or romantic figure. The older female is supposed to willingly relegate herself to the background, emerging only in the context of a motherly role. The way the aging female body is socio-culturally conceptualised is therefore a feminist issue (Woodward; Gibson). Simply to write a novel, especially a romance novel, with a female protagonist who is in midlife is transgressive, considering that mainstream culture appears to want “to erase the older female body from view” (Woodward 163).

Although several of Crusie’s novels touch on the issue of age, it is only in one of Crusie’s earlier novels, Anyone But You (1996), that the heroine’s age is central to the plot and forms the barrier between the protagonists which must be removed before emotional satisfaction can be achieved.[5] This can be considered a feminist text because the forty-year-old heroine, Nina, in asserting her own worth and attractiveness as an individual, rebels against the social norms that devalue women as they age.

Alex, the hero of Anyone But You, is described as a “tall, blond, broad-shouldered and boyishly good-looking” (41) doctor. Nina initially rejects even the idea of a romantic or erotic attachment to him, in spite of her desire for his body and her enjoyment of his company, for entirely socio-cultural reasons. She thinks that if she

started dating him or, dear God, sleeping with him—she swallowed at the thought— people would say she was in her second childhood. People would look at them on the street and wonder what he saw in her. Guy [her ex-husband] would sneer. Her mother would roll her eyes. His friends would make jokes about Oedipus Alex [ . . . ] her body was forty years old. The whole idea was impossible. (55)

Alex, in addition to being ten years younger than Nina, has typically dated young women who are considered highly desirable. Why would he chose the forty-year-old Nina when he has beautiful women in their twenties competing for his affection? Nina confides her worries to her best friend, saying

“[ . . . ] I’m visibly older than he is, and it’s only going to get worse. And there’s my body.” She stopped and swallowed. “Everything’s lower and chunkier than it used to be. You should see the women he dates. They’re young and beautiful and—”she made a face“—taut and perky, the whole Playboy bit. And you want me to flash him a body that has twenty more years on it than the ones he’s used to? There’s a limit to how long I can hold in my stomach.” (120)

During the course of the story it is Nina, not Alex, who has to come to terms with the fact her body is alluring even though it is no longer firm and her breasts are beginning to droop. Alex always finds her desirable, but Nina cannot believe that he is not negatively influenced by the social norms that insist only youth is beautiful. Nina, not Alex, is the one who struggles to overcome the socio-cultural message that women must be young in order to be loved. Nina can perform feminist acts such as leaving a loveless marriage and restarting her career, but she has not overcome the social conditioning that leads her to believe that she is not “young enough” to be worthy of a handsome younger man. Alex’s approval isn’t sufficient to change her mind: Nina needs to find her own sense of romantic worth.

Although Nina is not yet an “old” woman, at forty years old she is approaching the menopausal stage. For women the transition from middle age to old age “has long been underwritten by the biological dividing line between the reproductive and post-reproductive years, with the symbolic date of older age for women understood as coinciding with menopause” (Woodward 168). Crusie illustrates the effects of these enculturated beliefs by addressing Nina’s anxieties about menopause. Nina fears menopause and all its attendant social implications for her sexuality. Like many women, she has been culturally indoctrinated to assume that her sexuality and attractiveness will cease at the same time as her menses. She has a conversation with her best friend about her coming change of life after she

read an article on menopause [ . . . ]. It said that perimenopause starts in the forties. [ . . . ] There was a list of symptoms [ . . . ]. Warning signs. They were awful. [ . . . ] One of them is that your pubic hair starts to thin [ . . . ] I was in the shower last night and I looked, but the thing is, I never paid that much attention before, so I don’t have any idea if mine’s thinner. (51-52)

In effect, Nina was unconcerned about menopause until she read that she should be worried. Now she is looking for physical proof that her sexual self is diminishing, and that old age is rushing toward her, heralded by perimenopausal-related bodily changes.

Nina is surrounded by socio-cultural messages implying that any romance, or even the attempt at a romance, especially with a younger man, is unfeasible for a woman her age. The socio-cultural climate continually reinforces the belief that she is undesirable because she is middle-aged: “a humiliating process of gradual sexual disqualification” (Sontag 102). Nina’s mother bluntly tells her that she was foolish to get a divorce because she has “put on weight” (37), developed “crow’s-feet” (37) around her eyes, and worst of all, is “sagging in more places than just your jawline” (37). The cultural construction that only youth can be beautiful or sexual “absents old(er) women from the erotic arena and kills people’s ability to imagine [ . . . ] old(er) women as erotic” (Frueh 66). Women are rarely presented with any cultural images that suggest age is compatible with attractiveness, instead they

are advised to avoid unnecessary exposure to the elements, such as wind, water and ‘damaging UV rays’ of the sun in order to keep skin ‘fresh and young looking’. Only youthful bodies or bodies with the appearance of youth are considered beautiful and valued in our society [ . . . ]. The cosmetic industries capitalise on the fear of ageing by offering products endorsed by scientific language that claim to prevent or reduce the signs of ageing, which is discussed as though it were some kind of disease that it is every woman’s responsibility to try to prevent. (King 35)

Studies have shown that women are judged to have lost not only their attractiveness, but also their essential femininity when they age (Saltzberg and Chrisler). Older women are socially dispossessed of their embodied gender because they are desexualized, and sexuality is culturally synonymous with femininity. The fact that women are culturally indoctrinated to believe they cannot be older and sexual at the same time is explicitly addressed in Anyone But You. Alex’s brother observes that as women approach midlife they

look at magazines and see all those damn seventeen-year-old anorexics in push-up bras, or they go to the movies and see actresses with tummy tucks and enough silicone to start a new valley, and then they look at their own perfectly good bodies and decide their sex lives are over. (158)

Nina’s ex-husband verbalizes the dominant patriarchal assumptions when he tells Nina that she is “a lovely woman” (165) but unfortunately she looks her age, and therefore it would be “humiliating” (165) for her to take Alex as a lover. Nina is angered by her ex-husband’s sexist and patronizing remarks, yet she has absorbed the same cultural biases and therefore she privately agrees with him. When she thinks of how her body has “softened with age, everything lower than it used to be” (166), she internally concedes that her ex-husband “was right” (166) to mock the possibility of a relationship with Alex. Nina feels great personal trepidation when she considers having sex with Alex because she thinks her body’s age-related “flaws” make her unappealing to a man his age. She looks at her naked reflection in the mirror and thinks that “[g]ravity had betrayed her when she wasn’t paying attention. Looking closely, she could see the damage. Cellulite. Fat. Bulge. Droop” (181). Nevertheless, her indignation about her ex-husband’s complacent chauvinism regarding her age and desirability impels her to begin an affair with Alex.

Nina tries to convince him that they should always make love in the dark because her body is “lower than it used to be” (185), and even though Alex tells her that he doesn’t “care if it’s on the floor” (185), she fears what he might think if he sees her mature body without the mitigating concealment of clothes. Alex is infinitely less critical of her body than she is. He views her body as desirable because it is a part of who she is, and he is in love with a woman, not with the ideal female body. However, her sexual and romantic relationship with Alex does not relieve her culturally constructed fears about her supposed undesirability.

Nina’s sexual angst stems from the fact that she cannot really “see” the desirability of her individual body: it is too inscribed with the social text of what her body should look like in order to be “really” attractive or desirable. In consequence, her social body eclipses her individual body. Since the socio-cultural atmosphere is prejudiced against aging women, she is afraid her body inspires only negative thoughts and feelings, and she has difficulty believing that Alex feels otherwise. However, in order to enjoy her relationship with Alex, Nina must accept her body’s romantic value despite its differences from the cultural construction of female beauty. She must find a mental framework that allows her to reconceptualise herself as sexual and erotic. To find personal happiness and romantic fulfillment she empowers herself by adopting a new, feminist mindset through which to view her sexuality and physical appeal.

Nina’s insecurities about her romantic worth are intensified by her interactions with her mother and ex-husband, but she is encouraged by other characters in the novel to accept the feminist realization of her desirability. Her best friend, Charity, invariably and firmly admonishes Nina for not trusting in her own eroticism. Charity tells her bluntly that the biggest problem facing her isn’t the chronological age gap: “The real problem is that you don’t believe Alex could love you because your body is forty years old and your face has some wrinkles” (144). Additionally, Nina’s upstairs neighbor, Norma, is a healthy and vigorous woman in her seventies who still sees herself as desirable. Norma has a younger lover (a man in his early sixties) and she points out that having a younger lover means he will not “run out of steam in bed while you’re hitting your stride” (81). Norma chastises Nina for declining a chance to date Alex, pointing out that “There are too few good men around to ignore one just because he’s the perfect age for you” (81). Norma makes it clear that it is foolish to let Alex’s age stand in Nina’s way. Eventually, these positive messages began to sink in. Nina then embraces her age and asserts her personal desirability. As the book reaches its romantic resolution Nina strips off her clothes in front of her mirror and tells herself that “There was nothing wrong with her body. All right, it was softer than it had been, and her waist was thicker than it had been, and nothing about it could be called perky, but it was a good healthy body, and Alex loved it” (218).

Nina only resolves the novel’s romantic conflict after she asseverates her self-worth and rebels against the way in which female beauty, sexuality, and desirability are culturally defined. When she refuses to become romantically invisible, even though she is middle aged and possibly perimenopausal, she rebels against a cultural ethos which implies that an older woman in an erotic relationship is a paradox. Her decision to transgress against patriarchal constructions of worth and attractiveness is a decidedly feminist act.

Getting Fed

Women are culturally desexualized not only by their age, but also by their body fat. Fat is a feminist issue: cultural norms insisting on hyperslenderness for women are used to control women and keep them “in their place” (Orbach; Bordo). The overweight body, especially the overweight female body, is very rarely portrayed as a sexual or desirable body in any form of mainstream culture; rather, the more corpulent a female body is, the more likely it is to be a source of social and sexual ridicule.[6] The constant and pervasive cultural messages about the undesirability of heavyset females has created a climate wherein women learn to view themselves negatively if they do not have the idealized super-thin body (Bordo; Urla and Swedlund). As a result, obsession and misery about weight are now the cultural norm (Saltzberg and Chrisler).

Min, the central female protagonist of Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me (2004), struggles to reconcile the fact she is overweight with her likelihood of having romantic fulfillment. She doubts her desirability and her romantic worth because she is heavyset. Her weight is a significant barrier between herself and Cal, the novel’s hero. Even when the other barriers are surmounted for Min, she cannot help but worry “about how fat she must feel under his hands” (307). In order to comprehend why Min’s weight is such an issue for her, it is necessary to understand the socio-cultural implications of the overweight female body. Why is Min’s social body so problematic, just because her individual body has more fat on it than judged ideal by her society?

Historically, female fat was seen as a sign of health and beauty, and was considered an intrinsic quality of femininity. However, when women began to gain social equality, there was a complete reversal of the social ideal of female beauty (Wolf, Beauty). Now a Western woman must have the ultra-thin and ultra-fashionable “look of sickness, the look of poverty, and the look of nervous exhaustion” (Hollander qtd. in Wolf, Beauty 184) in order to approach the socio-cultural ideal of beauty. As a result, many modern women are restricting their caloric intake to appear more feminine. Whereas the denial of food was once historically and traditionally imposed on female children and adult women by the patriarchy as a way of reinforcing their low status and worth in a community, now women impose these food restrictions on themselves (Wolf, Beauty). Since hyperslenderness has become synonymous with feminine qualities of beauty and self-denial, even a normal amount of female fat has accordingly become a sign that a woman is neither beautiful nor feminine. Women who only have the medically recommended 20-25% body fat frequently consider themselves “too fat” to be beautiful; their healthy amount of body fat shows that they have failed to deny themselves food like “good” women should.

Unlike women, men have heretofore been encouraged to eat heartily and take the “lion’s share” of food, therefore obvious signs of eating have become socially linked with masculine qualities. The ideology of food consumption equaling masculinity is still so pervasive in modern culture that plump or obese women are now not only unattractive, they are subconsciously considered unfeminine. From a cultural standpoint a fat woman, a woman who has obviously eaten “too much” food, has usurped the male prerogative of calorie consumption. When women eat a “man-size” potion of food, it implies that they are claiming to have the same social worth as men. The “fat chick” is mocked in popular culture because she is frightening: she embodies female rejection of the patriarchal establishment. An obese woman is not only a symbol of female appropriation of male privileges, she is also “the embodiment of woman’s insidious tendency to occupy more than her allotted space” and “the outward and visible sign of a world out of control” (Hite 136). Cultural constructions promoting thinness for women are not really concerned with beauty, rather they are advocating thinness as a way of ensuring “female obedience” (Wolf, Beauty 187). A slender female body unconsciously assuages fears that women are encroaching on men’s traditional entitlements.

The interpretation of a fat woman’s political body as a symbolic threat to established social norms is mainly part of the national subconscious, rarely addressed outside of feminist theory. By contrast, people are more aware of the negative cultural meanings imposed on an overweight woman’s social and individual body. Since the body is a “direct locus of social control” (Bordo 165), women’s bodies are constantly policed, particularly through cultural constructions of the “proper” weight, in order to ensure that they are conforming to the socio-culturally correct form of womanhood. If an individual female body is fat, her social body is consequently interpreted “as reflecting moral or personal inadequacy, or lack of will” (Bordo 192). Therefore, heavier women are not given the dignity of being conceptualized as feminist rebels, they are thought of as too lazy and weak-willed to deny themselves food like “good” women. The issue of weight has become dissociated from the larger social context and culturally repositioned as an individual woman’s personal problem.

Min is highly self-critical because she is overweight vis-a-vis modern Western cultural standards: a problem shared by many women. From the earliest pages of Bet Me we see that she thinks of herself as inferior because of her weight. She believes that the maid-of-honor’s dress that she will be wearing in her sister’s wedding makes her “look like a fat, demented shepherdess” (2). Furthermore, she tells herself she would “look like Barney’s slut cousin” (4) if she dared to wear a sexy purple leather outfit and views herself as one of “the terminally chubby” (9).[7]

To further intensify Min’s belief that she is not attractive because she is not thin enough, her mother, Nanette, constantly reinforces the cultural message that only slender women are romantically desirable. Nanette is convinced that only women who conform to the socio-cultural ideal of beauty will achieve a woman’s ultimate life goal—marriage. She therefore believes that by constantly haranguing her daughter about her weight she is acting in a loving, supportive way and she tells Min that she only wants her to be “married to a good man who will appreciate you for how wonderful you are and not leave you because you’re overweight” (116). Nanette’s relentless policing of Min’s food intake and social body for Min’s own good is representative of the cultural surveillance woman must endure. This lamentable mixture of love and body policing is clearly seen when Nanette tells Min that “I know you think I’m awful. But I know how the world works. And it’s not kind to fat people, Min. It’s especially not kind to fat women. I want to see you happy and safe, married to a good man, and it’s not going to happen if you don’t lose that weight” (304). Sadly, it never occurs to Nanette that instead of helping to socially police her daughter’s body, she could teach Min to resist the cultural constructions that devalue fat women.

Confronted with constant social messages that only slender women are erotic, it is certainly understandable why Min should consider herself too heavy, simply because she is not thin. Min is described as the “chubby friend” (11) by another character in the novel, and the term “chubby” hardly connotes morbid obesity. In another era Min would have been, at most, pleasingly plump. These cultural stereotypes of female beauty are visually transmitted by models, dancers and actresses who are almost universally thinner than 95% of the female populace, so it is unsurprising that a survey conducted in 1985 found that 90% of the women respondents believed they weighed too much (Wolf, Beauty 185). Therefore, Min’s angst is almost certainly shared by most of Crusie’s readers. Even the thinnest women reading Bet Me can sympathize with Min, because they have also been repeatedly exposed to socio-cultural messages that they are never quite thin enough (Bordo).

Min’s belief that she is “too fat” to be attractive and lovable is further reinforced when the central antagonist of the novel, David, ends his dating relationship with her. Although David insists that he is ending their relationship because Min is “not making any effort to make our relationship work” (2), Min knows the real reason for the breakup is that she will not have sex with him. She never began a sexual relationship with David because she knew that if he saw her naked he would be critical of her body’s surplus fat. Min explains to her friends:

We were on our third date, and the waiter brought the dessert menu, and David said, ‘No, thank you, we’re on a diet,’ and of course, he isn’t because there’s not an ounce of fat on him, and I thought, ‘I’m not taking off my clothes with you’ and I paid my half of the check and went home early. And after that, whenever he made his move, I thought of the waiter and crossed my legs. (5)

Although she knew that David’s attitude towards her weight demonstrated that he did not really value her as a person, Min nevertheless continued to date him, ostensibly because she needed a date to take to her sister’s wedding. However, had she believed any other man might feel differently about her physical appearance she would have actively sought another companion. Obviously Min has no faith whatsoever in her desirability because her body does not conform to the socio-cultural ideal of beauty. Consequently, when she first sees the exceedingly handsome Cal her instinctive response is not only desire: it is also fear. She immediately concludes that “The amount of damage somebody that beautiful could do to a woman like her was too much to contemplate” (7). Since she admires his good looks, she assumes he would reject her because, “looking that beautiful, he probably never dated the terminally chubby. At least, not without sneering. And she’d been sneered at enough for one night” (9).

Min’s anxiety over how unattractive someone like Cal would find her is mainly a product of her own poor self-image. In spite of her fears, Cal is not sneering at her because she is overweight; he finds her body attractive. His appreciation for Min’s figure is made apparent throughout the novel. He admires her legs because they had “strong full calves” and were “sturdy, like Min in general” (84). Cal assures Min that she is “Opulent” (147) and “Soft and round and hot” (147) and that she should never diet because “Some things are supposed to be made with butter. You’re one of them” (147). Unfortunately, although Min tries to think of Cal’s compliments when she views her body in the mirror, “her mother’s voice [criticizing her weight] was louder” (305).

Min begins to overcome the barrier preventing her romantic resolution when she starts to resist the cultural messages about her body’s supposed ugliness. Although she has been trying to cast off feelings of self-doubt about her appearance, she has been having little success. Min tells herself that her body is “not that bad” but she is “not convinced” (64). While Cal’s admiration of her looks is comforting, she realizes that she is the only person who can change the way she feels about herself. She needs to internalize the feminist message that extra weight does not make her, or any woman, morally inadequate, weak-willed, or repulsive. She decides to buy new clothes that showcase her body instead of concealing her “fat” and tells herself that she is like “one of those heavy cream wedding invitations, the kind you have to touch because it’s so beautiful” (175). Once again, only when the heroine seeks a new, feminist outlook on her society and culture does she find empowerment and fulfillment. Cal is supportive of her reconceptualization, but she does not passively rely on him to “save” her from believing in socio-cultural biases against her.

Min’s growing empowerment does not stop her, or the reader, from appreciating and delighting in the way Cal assists her in combating negative ideologies about her body. He becomes a valuable ally in Min’s fight to resist the cultural messages imposed on her by her mother. When Min is being hassled by Nanette to restrict her food consumption yet further so that she will fit into the maid-of-honor’s dress, Cal insists “she is not too big for the dress. The dress is too small for her. She’s perfect” (227). Then he puts butter on a carb-filled roll and defiantly encourages Min to eat. At long last Min is being given positive socio-cultural feedback about her normalcy, worthiness, and attractiveness. Cal is abetting her quest for feminist liberation from the tyranny of the calorie police. Min falls in love with him at least in part because his affirming messages about her body make her “feel wonderful” (277) and she is “never fat” (277) when she is with him.

Cal’s approval of Min’s weight is also his approval of Min’s sexuality, because fat is socio-culturally associated with female sexual autonomy. Women’s appetite for food is “a metaphor for their sexual appetite” (Bordo 110). In part this is because “female fat is [ . . . ] understood by the subconscious as fertile sexuality” (Wolf, Beauty 184). Thus, fat is not only symbolic of female encroachment into masculine spheres, fat is also a culturally implied analogue for sexual extravagance. Ironically, fat is no longer considered “sexy” because it is a symbol of uncontrolled female sexuality: it is potentially insatiable and may consume men as well as food (Bordo). Fat women are construed as unattractive because they are cultural representations of “women’s desires, hungers, and appetites [which] are seen as [ . . . ] threatening and in need of control in a patriarchal society” (Urla and Swedlund 300). Much of the ideology connecting “excessive” sexuality with “excessive” eating can be seen clearly in advertisements for food, especially sweet foods. Advertisements usually depict women’s consumption of food as something “private, secretive, illicit” (Bordo 129) which, if it must be ingested at all, should be eaten in suitably small, genteel amounts, such as bite-size candies. Women are culturally conditioned not to give in “too much” to the “temptation” of luscious, rich, satisfying food. If they do, their fat will expose them as gluttons, the culinary equivalent of sluts.

Crusie definitely equates food with sex in Bet Me. Almost every erotic encounter between Min and Cal is centered around food in some manner. It is Min’s culinary sensuality which awakens Cal to her potential sexuality. At the beginning of their first dinner together, when Cal offers Min bread she rejects it, just as she plans to reject him sexually. Her excuse for refusing his offering of food is that she cannot eat any bread or pasta because she has to lose weight in order to fit into a maid-of-honor’s dress in just three weeks’ time. Nevertheless, Cal encourages her to eat, and soon the socio-cultural connection between food and sex becomes vividly clear. When Min finally bites into the bread she “chewed it with her eyes shut, pleasure flooding her face” (40) and Cal thinks “Look at me like that” (40). When Min tells him that she is “not interested in sex” (41), Cal watches her enjoyment of food and knows she is lying. Min’s lusty appetite inspires Cal to have lusty thoughts.

Their courtship continues to revolve around Cal’s presentation of food for Min’s culinary gratification. He invites her to a picnic lunch and brings hot dogs, the large bratwurst sausages that remind her of her childhood. When Min protests that she is absolutely not supposed to eat brats on her diet, Cal encourages her to “Live a little” (94) and “Sin again” (94) by eating this rich, calorific, forbidden food. This echoes the way in which Phin urged Sophie to indulge herself sexually in Welcome to Temptation. Cal is “distracted by the look of bliss on her face” (94-95) while she consumes the brats and when she “licked a smear of ketchup off her thumb [ . . . ] Cal lost his train of thought” (99). Finally, as though he were a devil, he tempts her by offering her Krispy Kreme doughnuts. He waves a pastry at her and cajoles her to “sin a little” (101), which inspires Min to call him “a beast and a vile seducer” (101). As Min opens her mouth to argue with him, he abruptly pops in a piece of doughnut. Her enjoyment of the pastry is so great that

[h]er 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 [ . . . ] 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. (103)

Cal is obviously unthreatened by a larger woman’s culturally implied encroachment on masculine turf. He consistently encourages her to eat “bad” or “forbidden” foods. From the very beginning he resists socio-cultural messages about fat by refusing to accept the social implication that Min’s body fat makes her transgressive and unattractive. He finds Min, in all her curvy plumpness, attractive and erotic. Min is still learning that her body does not preclude her from desirability and romance; Cal already knows this to be true.

When Min begins to indulge by eating doughnuts with Cal, she also begins to have a new, feminist reconceptualization of herself. She starts to see herself as erotic and sensual, and has a new, sexual, body image as a result. She no longer sees her body as “too fat”; she sees it as libidinal and as desirable to Cal. Min’s newfound appreciation of her individual body, coupled with her resistance to negative cultural messages about her social body, empower her to accept Cal’s love and to understand that she is worthy and deserving of romance despite socio-cultural constructions to the contrary. Likewise, the fact that Min is an overweight or heavier romantic heroine communicates a feminist message of nonconformity and rebellion against the patriarchal ethos that would deny the intrinsic sexuality and social value of a woman based on her excess adipose tissue. As Min comes to value herself, in spite of the fact she is not slender, the reader is encouraged to do so too. Ergo, Crusie uses her heroine’s body to encourage resistance to cultural messages that try to use a woman’s weight to determine her worth as a romantic or erotic partner.

Resistance is Fruitful

Crusie’s heroines boldly go forth, with their wrinkles and sexual appetite and cellulite, and meet the men of their dreams who aid them in their rebellion and fall in love with them without requiring the heroine to lose one shred of her personal autonomy.[8] The bodies of Crusie’s heroines do not characterize “conformity to dominant cultural imperatives for [ . . . ] contained feminine desires” (Urla and Swedlund 301). Her heroines are anything but contained. Her heroines are the proverbial loose women: they are loose because they have fought free of some of the many bonds of patriarchal expectations for women and no longer function completely within the strictures of hegemonic feministy.

Jennifer Crusie maintains that romantic fiction is an important way to communicate feminist ideology because the genre,

while sometimes committing the patriarchy-reinforcing crimes the critics accuse it of, much more often reinforces a sense of self worth in readers while reflecting a psychologically accurate portrayal of their lives. It does this by demonstrating the idea of women as strong, active human beings; by reinforcing the validity of their preoccupations; and by putting them at the center of their own stories, empowering them by showing heroines who realistically take control of their own lives. (“Romancing”)

Crusie herself certainly does write feminist romantic fiction about female protagonists who are strong women actively seeking to attain their personal goals. Crusie does not overtly rail against the misogynistic socio-cultural ideology that denies women the right to their own sexuality, the right to age with dignity, and the right to gain weight without being devalued. Rather, she weaves her resistance into the narrative of her fiction, embodying feminism in her heroines as they contradict some the cultural norms that constrict women by getting laid, getting old, and getting fed.

Crusie’s novels demonstrate that feminism and romance are not only compatible, but that feminist principles can free heroines to find both romantic and self fulfillment. Her novels provide not only an emotionally satisfying romance, they also provide a feminist parable as her heroines assume control over their lives and reaffirm the inherent normalcy of the ‘abnormal’ aspects of their bodies. The heroines’ imperfect bodies demonstrate to the reader that, in contrast to socio-cultural constructions to the contrary, the “perfect” body is not a prerequisite for love. Moreover, as a very popular romance author, her success may help pave the way for a wider acceptance of other categories of physically imperfect and/or feminist romantic protagonists by other authors and publishers.

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

Saltzberg, Elayne A. and Joan C. Chrisler. “Beauty is the Beast: Psychological Effects of the Pursuit of the Perfect Female Body.” Women: A Feminist Perspective. Ed. Jo Freeman. 5th ed. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield, 1995. 306-15. Print.

Sawicki, Jana. Disciplining Foucault: Feminism, Power, and the Body. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy and Margaret M. Lock. “The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Future Work in Medical Anthropology.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 1.1 (1987): 6-41.

Shildrick, Margrit and Janet Price. “Openings on the Body: A Critical Introduction.” Feminist Theory and the Body: A Reader. Ed. Janet Price and Margrit Shildrick. New York: Routledge, 1999. 1-14.

Sontag, Susan. “The Double Standard of Aging.” Saturday Review. 23 Sept. 1972: 29-38. Rpt. in On the Contrary: Essays by Men and Women. Ed. Martha Rainbolt and Janet Fleetwood. Albany, NY: State U of New York P, 1983. 99-112.

Tavris, Carol. The Mismeasure of Woman: Why Women Are Not the Better Sex, the Inferior Sex, or the Opposite Sex. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Urla, Jacqueline and Jennifer Terry. “Introduction: Mapping Embodied Deviance.” Deviant Bodies: Critical Perspectives on Difference in Science and Popular Culture. Ed. Jennifer Terry and Jacqueline Urla. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1995. 1-18.

Urla, Jacqueline and Alan C. Swedlund. “The Anthropometry of Barbie: Unsettling Ideals of the Feminine Body in Popular Culture.” Deviant Bodies: Critical Perspectives on Difference in Science and Popular Culture. Ed. Jennifer Terry and Jacqueline Urla. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1995. 277-313.

West, Robin. “Pornography as a Legal Text: Comments from a Legal Perspective.” For Adult Users Only: The Dilemma of Violent Pornography. Ed. Susan Gubar and Joan Hoff. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1989: 108-30.

Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women. New York: Doubleday, 1991.

Wolf, Naomi. Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood. New York: Random, 1997.

Woodward, Kathleen “Performing Age, Performing Gender.” NWSA Journal 18.1 (2006): 162-89.



[1] For further analysis of the romance protagonist and cultural embodiment, please see Vivanco and Kramer’s article, “There Are Six Bodies in This Relationship: An Anthropological Approach to the Romance Genre”.

[2]     Information that is considered correct, regardless of its factual content, because it comes from culturally acknowledged experts.

[3]     The main flaw in the argument that radical feminists make is that “they appeal to a form of essentialism in which ‘male sexuality’ is associated with violence, lust, objectification and a preoccupation with orgasm” and “a natural and inherently good female sexuality” is associated “with nurturance, reciprocity, intimacy and an emphasis on non-genital pleasure” (Sawicki 35). This theory relies strongly on biological determinism, which is the belief that woman are born more tender and nurturing than innately aggressive and hostile men. However, feminist theory in general strives to repudiate belief in hereditary gendered behaviors, inasmuch as it has been central to the justification of women’s socio-cultural and political oppression.

[4] It should be noted that Welcome To Temptation does not address the sexual emancipation of women on the other end of the spectrum; those who are ‘frigid’ or asexual. None of Crusie’s heroines, nor many heroines within the romance genre, celebrate a woman’s right to be free from the expectation she should enjoy sex, or maintain a woman’s right to find love even if she does not find orgasm.

[5]     Pamela Regis identifies “eight essential narrative elements of the romance novel” (27). One of these is “The Barrier”:

A series of scenes often scattered throughout the novel establishes for the reader the reasons that this heroine and hero cannot marry. The romance novel’s conflict often consists entirely of this barrier between the heroine and hero. The elements of the barrier can be external, a circumstance that exists outside of a heroine or a hero’s mind, or internal, a circumstance that comes from within either or both. (32)

[6] There is a small but growing sub-genre in romance that centers around a heavier (but not too heavy) female protagonist. Sonya C. Brown does an excellent job of evaluating the resistance to, and support of, socio-cultural constructions of female fat and fat females in her article “Does this book make me look fat?

[7]     Barney is a large purple dinosaur in a popular children’s television program.

[8] It is important for the hero to support and abet the heroine in her resistance to hegemonic norms of femininity, because such collusion establishes the hero as a fellow feminist and as a man who rejects patriarchal domination and assumptions.

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“Tell Me Lies: Lying, Storytelling, and the Romance Novel as Feminist Fiction” by Patricia Zakreski

When Mitch Peatwick in What the Lady Wants (1995) tells Mae Sullivan that “the first rule in life is ‘everybody lies’,” he articulates one of the central motifs that runs through the majority of Jennifer Crusie’s novels (24). Lying forms a key part of many of Crusie’s narratives, and most of Crusie’s heroines lie. From the “unreal but not untrue” storytelling of The Cinderella Deal’s Daisy Flattery to the secrets all the characters conceal in Tell Me Lies to the cons of the Dempsey and Goodnight families in Welcome to Temptation and Faking It, characters twist, turn, and manipulate truths, half-truths, and lies with stunning verbal agility. Mitch’s favourite catchphrase, “everybody lies,” is a symptom of a hard-bitten cynicism brought on by one too many divorce cases. As the narrator notes, “Mitch’s take on humanity had deteriorated to the point where he assumed someone was lying if her lips were moving” (WLW, 22). But that the issue of lying appears with such regularity in Crusie’s novels suggests that it holds a greater significance than simply reflecting a misanthropic world-view. In What the Lady Wants, the narrator crucially genders Mitch’s lying “someone” as female. On one level, Mitch’s misogynistic outbursts echo the story’s noir roots, identifying Mae with archetypal femme fatales such as Brigid O’Shaughnessy, and preparing the reader for Mae’s attempted manipulation of Mitch through the lies she tells. But such gendering of lying calls attention not only to the lies women tell, but also to the lies they have been told.

In her 1997 non-fiction essay “Romancing Reality: The Power of Romance Fiction to Reinforce and Re-Vision the Real,” Crusie writes that romance fiction shows the reader “that a lot of the ‘truths’ that the different societal ideologies have foisted on her are lies” (92). The relativism of truth and lies implied in this statement points to what is important about lying in much of Crusie’s fiction. Throughout many of her novels, Crusie questions absolutist notions of truth and lies in order to examine the contingent nature of the real. Drawing on a constructivist notion of identity, Crusie relates the telling of lies with the telling of stories, showing how different, sometimes opposing, versions of reality can be created through narrative manipulation. Within her fiction, storytelling is an explicitly performative act, one which is used by Crusie to show how creative power can lead to self-determination. This article will show how Crusie uses the structure of romance narrative as a way of challenging what she sees as ideological “lies.” These lies, however, cannot simply be equated with patriarchy, but are more broadly related to essentialist notions that come out of either patriarchal or feminist assumptions about what a woman should do, how she should think, and what she should be interested in. This article will argue that Crusie explores the ambiguity between truth and lies in order, she argues, to tell “the story that reflects a woman’s reality as it could be and as it often is” (Ibid). The political function of the romance, she suggests, is embodied in its capacity to represent and imagine a variety of female identities that are distinct from the restrictive and limiting constructions that are conventionally afforded to female characters. In both “reinforcing” and “re-visioning” the real, the romance genre represents a degree of performative self-determination emerging from the fabric of everyday life.

In “Romancing Reality,” along with other non-fiction essays published in the mid- to late-1990s, such as “Now Let Us Praise Scribbling Women,” and “Glee and Sympathy,” Crusie mounts a vehement and politically-charged defence of the romance genre. In fact, a large proportion of the essays Crusie wrote in the late ‘90s argue against the critical derision and out-right dismissal that up until the mid-90s had formed the central academic response to the romance. Writing to the profession in the January edition of the monthly newsletter of the Romance Writers of America, Crusie announces her New Year’s resolution to make 1998 the year in which she would “improve romance’s image” and defeat the “anti-romance bias.” Though this was her stated goal for 1998, the exploration of the capabilities and responsibilities of the genre had concerned Crusie at least since she had begun writing her own romance novels earlier in the decade. The crux of Crusie’s defence in this article is her argument that the conventional romance narrative contains radical transformative potential. She bases her argument on a discussion of generic differences between romance fiction, identified here as women’s fiction, and “serious” literary fiction, which has most often been implicitly gendered masculine. The core of Crusie’s project here is to call into question the generic hierarchy that equates the conventional tragic ending of literary fiction with “reality” and the conventional happy ending of romance with “fantasy.” She argues, “it is as unrealistic to say that life is all tragedy as it is to say that life is all happy endings. . . [r]omance fiction, in choosing to show women readers the variety of possibilities in the real world of women’s lives, opts for the happy ending as more empowering” (“Romancing” 92). Crusie here gives the romance genre an important political function. By featuring narratives in a woman’s voice and from a woman’s point-of-view that offer positive depictions of women who take “active, intelligent control of their lives,” she argues, the romance novel can serve as an ideological antidote to the conventional masculine genres, such as canonical literary fiction or even fairy tales, which routinely depict the failure, punishment, and death of women who transgress established social norms (“Romancing” 84, emphasis in original).

Crusie’s focus on the “variety of possibilities” represented within romance narratives points to how she sees the political potential of the romance novel working at an even more fundamental level. In a move that echoes the social theory of “false necessity,” popularised by Roberto Unger in late 1980s and early ‘90s, Crusie identifies the romance narrative as a site of radical critique and transformative potential through its representation of multiplicity in women’s experience. Unger argued that institutional and large-scale social change can be reshaped through the realm of the local and the everyday, and embraced a pluralistic and experiential view of social reality. Thus, in the course of everyday life, individuals remain capable of creative responses within apparently repressive conditions. This perspective, Unger argued, “frees the definition of the radical project from unnecessarily restrictive assumptions about the possible forms of social organization and personal experience” (159-60). Crusie, writing at the same socio-historical moment as Unger, also engages with this positive philosophy for social change, but applies it specifically to what has generally been seen as a female form of narrative, the romance. Crusie argues that the romance genre, though often criticized for reinforcing social stability, has the potential to participate in a radical project for social change through the way it rewrites and “re-visions” what could be seen as restrictive assumptions. The best romance novels, Crusie suggests, are those that recast traditional stories which have routinely worked to silence the woman’s voice and reign in transgression. Such novels, she argues, which give their heroine the “capacity for action and power,” can be seen as a form of “feminist fiction” (“This is Not” 51-61; “Let us Now” 19).

Indeed Crusie, flying in the face of both critical and popular denigration of the genre, argues that there are few forms of fiction which address the possibilities for female agency more successfully and more boldly than the contemporary romance.[1] But unsurprisingly, Crusie does not confine her defence of the romance genre to her non-fiction writing. In a number of novels written around the same time, she actively puts her theories about the capacities of the romance genre into practice. Focusing specifically on three novels written in the mid-‘90s, Strange Bedpersons (1994), What the Lady Wants (1996), and The Cinderella Deal (1996), this article will now examine the way in which Crusie explores alternative and subversive forms of storytelling, including the telling of lies, in order to construct her own version of the feminist romance novel.

As in her critical work, Crusie offers the romance plot throughout her novels as a corrective to the routine misrepresentation of everyday life found in the majority of implicitly masculinised literary genres. Throughout her early work, Crusie repeatedly presents popular, and oft-caricatured models of 1990s lifestyle in order to parody, critique, and reimagine them, fully exploiting the capacity of romance to open up new, previously unrepresentable, possibilities for her characters. For instance, novels such as Manhunting (1993), Strange Bedpersons, The Cinderella Deal, and Anyone But You (1996) question the socially constructed role of the literal-minded, career-driven male. In her representations of Alex in Anyone But You and Jake in Manhunting, she explores the pressures that are placed on men to conform to images of masculine, career-based success. Both characters shun high-paying, high-pressure, conventionally successful careers (cardiology for Alex and tax law for Jake) in order to pursue jobs that make them happy rather than rich. In doing so, they must resist, in varying degrees, the criticism and incomprehension of their families and friends and their own self-doubt about their choices. While Crusie shows through Alex and Jake the difficulty of resisting social expectations, in her characterisation of Linc in The Cinderella Deal and Nick in Strange Bedpersons, she explores the sterility of the life that Jake and Alex avoid by eschewing what Roos Vonk and Richard Ashmore designate as the “traditional masculine” role of the yuppie (263). This is most obviously reflected in Crusie’s description of their environment. The black-and-white colour scheme of Nick and Linc’s clothes and furniture reflects not only their lack of vibrancy and imagination, but also represents their narrow-minded sense of morality and social mores. Hemmed in by career obsession and concern for public opinion, Linc and Nick live ordered, controlled, co-ordinated lives. Even Linc’s fantasies do not rise above the prosaic. While interviewing for a job in the prestigious Prescott College, Linc, in a desperate attempt to please the dean, lies that he is engaged to be married, and the domestic life he imagines for himself represents his unquestioning reproduction of conservative patriarchal ideology. This picture, which “seemed so true while he’d been saying it” features “the idea of settling down with some elegant little woman and reproducing in a small town. The pictures had been there in his head, sunny scenes of neat lawns and well-behaved children in well-ironed shorts” (CD, 14). One imagines that this clichéd picture seems real to Linc because it reproduces so impeccably the conventional ideals of domestic fulfilment and social achievement.

In contrast to these masculine plots of career-based success, Crusie offers the plot of the romance as an alternative narrative of self for both Linc and Nick. This alternative plot is embodied in the characterisations of Daisy and Tess, who dress and furnish their homes in a colourful array of thrift-shop chic and bring chaos and disorder into the men’s lives. In both The Cinderella Deal and Strange Bedpersons the tension between black and white and “electric colors” is the central metaphor governing the complex world-views generated by her characters (CD, 2). While characters such as Linc and Nick begin the novels secure in their linear ambitions, they are led to understand that other lifestyles and models of success are available for use in their process of self-determination. Crusie’s point is not simply that these well-dressed representatives of yuppie culture require rescue from their own highly masculinised fantasies of fulfilment; what they need is to recognise these fantasies, among several others, as choices over which they ought to have some control. Daisy and Tess provide for these men an alternative world-view which disrupts their hitherto monochrome existence, giving them at least two, and potentially many other, life narratives to pursue. Crucially, though, the men also provide the same service to the women. In both novels, the ability to look outside comfortable life narratives provokes a good deal of anxiety and introspection in the characters, and this is what drives the romance plot forward. In part, this is manifested externally in the relationships between Linc and Daisy and Nick and Tess, but Crusie is also careful to represent the internal struggles they each experience. She creates in each character a central divide between the part of themselves which accepts and seeks to maintain social norms and the part which rebels against the social positions they have adopted. In Linc, this divide is indicated by the two different portraits of him that Daisy paints, a dignified one in black and white and a passionate one in orange and yellow. In Daisy, it’s the difference between her authentic identity as Daisy Flattery and the social role she plays as Daisy Blaise. In Nick, it is described by Tess as his Jekyll and Hyde personality. And in Tess, it is the difference between what Nick calls her Crusader Rabbit persona and her fear of turning into Mrs. Jekyll. In each of these internal conflicts, Crusie represents rebellion as the ability to recognize the constraints imposed by the restrictive world-view to which they had been dedicated.

As the representation of Tess makes most evident, rebellion is not equivalent to a notion of opposition derived from conventional gender politics. In a reversal of standard thinking, Tess argues that she prefers Mr. Hyde to Dr. Jekyll because “Jekyll was the conservative guy” (SB, 93, emphasis in original). But, in fact, Crusie shows that Tess, in her condemnation of what she calls “that superficial social stuff,” is in some ways more conservative than Nick (SB, 180). Tess’s conservatism is described by her best friend Gina when she accuses Tess of being “bigoted”: “[I]f I shaved my head or decided to become a druid or told you I was a transvestite, you’d be there for me, no judgment, no argument. But because I want to join the mainstream, you’re going to bitch at me” (SB, 181). Gina charges Tess with being conventionally unconventional, blinded by her hippie upbringing to the variety of possibilities available to women and unable to accept a way of seeing the world that differs from her own. Her admonishment of Tess acts as a testament to Crusie’s argument that it is, in fact, a considerable mistake to assume that all women should think the same way.

Tess’s relationship with Nick, therefore, is as much about changing her preconceptions as it is about changing his. In fact, while she challenges his social position, tempting and cajoling him into rebellious acts against his better judgment—most notably sex in public places—her transformation is perhaps more fundamental. Though Nick decorates in black and white, Tess is the one who sees the world in stark terms of right and wrong, truth and lies. Coming to an understanding of Nick’s perspective, though, enables Tess to understand that lies and the truth are complex and mutable concepts. When, like Linc, Tess lies to get a job she really wants, she justifies her lie to herself, thinking, “It wasn’t really being dishonest. It was being tactful. Maybe Nick was starting to rub off on her” (SB, 137). Behind this conventional image of a couple growing closer by sharing character traits is evidence of what Crusie believes is a fundamental and empowering characteristic of good romance fiction. Crusie implies that in the best romance fiction characters do not grow closer because they are required to by the formal conventions of the love plot or the need for the author to create the requisite happy ending. Instead, the relationships that develop are based upon the mutual ability to recognise such ideological constraints in action and to see the relativity and multiplicity of life in the real world. One of the functions of the romance narrative, therefore, is to model how negotiation can occur between seemingly opposite and essentialised perspectives of identity and how alternative realities can be constructed through the process of imaginative storytelling.

For this reason, where storytellers appear in Crusie’s fiction, they appear capable of re-writing the life stories of those they encounter. The fairytale of CinderTess in Strange Bedpersons is one such story. CinderTess is a feminist reworking of the Cinderella story, which casts the princess as an active heroine who wins the prince’s love with the power of her political commitment rather than her beauty. Repeatedly told as a bedtime story to eight-year-old Tess by Lanny, a member of the commune Tess lived on in the ‘60s, Tess is profoundly influenced by its exaltation of the countercultural values of the hippie movement. Later, it underpins her strident protest against mainstream society. As she tells Nick, “basically Lanny taught me how to live my life with that story” (SB, 112). Tess uses this story as a blueprint for her life, blindly following its precepts and staunchly defending the values and world-view it promotes against what she sees as any form of encroachment, embodied most distinctly in the novel in the figure of Norbert Welch and his conservative Republican politics. When Welch satirizes the original tale and holds the values it advocates up to ridicule, Tess feels that the attack on the story is also an attack on herself: “It was her story, and he was degrading it, degrading her and everything she believed in” (SB, 107). In particular, Tess resents this reworking of the fairytale because it holds up to ridicule the model of feminist resistance she has embraced. However, while Lanny’s tale seems like a good lesson for Tess to have learned, Tess’s fury concerning the new version, especially the narrator’s comments that hearing it makes Tess “catatonic with rage” and “blindly incurious” about her surroundings, also suggests that she has been too single-minded in the way she has embraced this lesson (SB, 108). By following Lanny’s story so unthinkingly, she has been unable to develop a model of self-identity that actually represents the complexity of her own existence, or that enables her to think through and alter her trajectory.

Tess’s fear that Welch, in rewriting the story, will also rewrite her life exposes to her, and to the reader, the lack of control Tess actually exerts over her own life narrative. This is further heightened by the revelation that Welch is actually Lanny, who has transformed from a vibrant figure, who had been “so full of life and so . . . full of ideas and stories,” into an “aging neoconservative with writer’s block” (SB, 118, 112 emphasis in original). Welch’s extreme move to the right, like Tess’s entrenchment in the left, is also depicted as the result of his single-minded focus on one narrative and the failure of his ability to tell a multiplicity of stories. Tess’s final transformation from feminist stereotype to romantic heroine, therefore, is ultimately signalled in her demand to Welch that he re-write the story again, not to return it to its original form, but instead to make it more balanced, because, as she tells Welch, in presenting only one view-point it is just “too simplistic” (SB, 243).

As the representative of professional storytelling in the novel, Welch’s true crime is not his conservative politics or his curmudgeonly misogyny. In fact, even while he is most vigorously promoting his anti-feminist agenda, Crusie is careful to point out that, against her better judgment, Tess likes him. Welch’s biggest offence is the failure of his imagination. It is the job of the storyteller, Crusie suggests, to see a variety of possibilities available for the narrative’s trajectory. This particular talent of the storyteller is explored in The Cinderella Deal, when the pedantic perfection of Linc’s imagined life is countered by Daisy’s opinion that it was the worst story she had ever heard. Daisy, a professional storyteller, reinterprets his tale, and from her perspective Linc’s fantasy future appears more like a Gap ad than real life: “a woman in a designer apron and smiling, apple-cheeked children dressed in Baby Gap and a stuffy career in a stuffy town” (CD, 41). Daisy finds Linc’s story awful not only because it is based on the subordination of the central female character, but also because it is a one-dimensional story, a cardboard cut-out of a future resulting from a failure of imagination. In Daisy’s retelling of the story, Crusie exposes the assumptions concealed within this conventional picture of ideal domesticity by exposing the way in which patriarchal narratives of male social and professional achievement often rely on the relegation of the woman to the domestic sphere—encased in an apron and seemingly happy about it. Daisy’s recasting of Linc’s “elegant little woman” into a “woman in a designer apron and smiling” shows how such seemingly innocuous descriptions encode and naturalise the values and assumptions of essentialised social perspectives. The substitution of “designer” for “elegant,” for instance, moves Linc’s story from the realm of the aesthetic and the universal and exposes its socio-economic underpinnings.

Through this example of re-writing, Crusie offers a perspective on the radical project of the romance genre itself. In re-writing a conventionalised story of bourgeois normality and fracturing its monologic surface, Daisy’s revision transforms Linc’s narrative, in Crusie’s terms, from an ideological lie into a potentially productive story. But the troubled relationship between lying and storytelling is itself a point of contention. In discussions concerning lying, many contemporary philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists agree that different cultures, and even individuals within the same culture, have varying ideas about what does and does not count as a lie. Opinion over the social impact of lying is also divided. Whether seen as immoral and self-serving or as a necessary social skill, lying is a difficult concept to define. Crusie, however, offers her own definition in The Cinderella Deal that highlights the transformative potential of fictions of romance. While Linc thinks that telling the faculty at Prescott that he is engaged is a lie, Daisy offers a different perspective:

“It’s not a lie,” Daisy said. “It’s a story.”

Linc looked at her, exasperated. “That’s semantics. They’re the same thing”. . .

“Listen.” Daisy leaned forward and gripped his arm to hold his attention. “If you tell a lie, you’re deliberately telling an untruth. If you’d told them you’d published six books, or that you’d taught at Yale, or that you’d won the Pulitzer, that would have been a lie. You’d never tell a lie. You’re too honest.”

“Daisy, I told them I was engaged to you. That was a lie.”

“No.” Daisy shook her head emphatically. . . “You told them you wanted to get married and settle down in Prescott and raise kids.”

“Well, that’s a lie,” Linc said, but he could see where she was going. “I told them what they wanted to hear.”

“Yes, but it was what you wanted to hear too.” Daisy settled back in her seat. “Sometimes stories are just previews of coming truths. I bet you really do want that deep down inside your repressed academic soul.” (CD, 51-2)

Daisy’s idea of a lie is something that attempts to alter the facts of the past, while a story presents a vision of a desired present and future—something Linc wants rather than something he’s done. Presenting a version of reality as he would like it to be is therefore not a lie, but is instead a possible preview of coming truths, a story he created, which, though fictional, can be made real.

The process through which a lie can foreshadow and even promote real-world transformation can be illuminated by an observation by David Simpson in his essay on “Lying, Liars, and Language.” Simpson writes that “A lie is performed . . . and so succeeds as an act, if there is just mutual manifestation of the speaker’s apparent sincerity; that is, if there is uptake regarding the invocation of trust” (626, italics in original). The efficacy of the lie depends upon the attitude of its receiver, and especially on the development of trust relations with the speaker. For Simpson, the danger of lying is precisely the way that a lie “draws on and abuses the core of interaction and communality” (637), but for Crusie, it seems that some lies—the ones that are, in fact, “previews of coming truths,” as Daisy says—do not abuse interaction and mutuality, but rather offer the premises for a new understanding of reality. This new understanding does not always come easily, given the binary divisions that Crusie establishes between Linc and Nick’s worlds of black-and-white and Daisy and Tess’s worlds of color. Yet precisely because the lie (or story) provokes mis-communication between these characters, it also provokes a productive negotiation over whether or not something is, or is not, a lie. This negotiation moves both parties beyond the “apparent sincerity” and “invocation of trust” at the start of the lie (or story) to a deeper, actual sincerity and a state of mutual trust. The good kind of lie, in Crusie’s account, is a performative act, then, in a slightly different sense of the word: it makes something happen in the world, allowing both parties to shift their frameworks for understanding, and therefore to rethink their own life narratives. It is the storyteller’s role in revealing and resolving these problems of communication that enables the political potential of the romance genre to be expressed.

In both Strange Bedpersons and The Cinderella Deal it is the job of the storyteller to imagine a variety of possibilities and to tell a number of different stories, and though Welch is an exception, throughout much of Crusie’s fiction, storytelling, in particular, and creativity, in general, are most often associated with female characters. Professional authorship, for instance, is depicted in Charity’s foray into novel-writing with her autobiographical Jane Errs in Anyone But You. Tilda in Faking It is an artist, and Quinn in Crazy for You, an art teacher. Even women who don’t make a career of their art or storytelling are often shown to be involved in some form of creative activity. Jessie’s cakes in Manhunting, Sophie and Amy’s film in Welcome to Temptation, Margie’s cookies in Fast Women, Min’s shoes in Bet Me, and Andie’s baking in Maybe This Time all contain elements of creativity. This focus on female creativity in a number of Crusie’s novels recalls what Imelda Whelehan describes as the “creative energies” of the “feminist bestsellers” of the 1970s. In describing the elements that characterise these fictional counterparts of second-wave feminism, Whelehan notes,

[t]hat the women quite often are frustrated artists, writers, or would-be intellectuals makes the point that it is the life of the mind which domestic quietude so often quashes. Creative energies become symbolic of the power of self-determination. (7-8)

The representation of creative heroines such as Daisy positions Crusie’s fictional work in dialogue with these earlier novels in order to rewrite the narrative of the creative woman’s struggle naturalised by these texts. Whereas the heroines of the earlier feminist fiction prototypically saw their creative energies as under threat and stifled by the romance plot, the generic conventions of the romance narrative represent a position of strength rather than struggle for Crusie’s heroines of the ‘90s. The love relationships that develop in Crusie’s novels ultimately enable women to exercise their creative energies because, in coming to understand another’s point of view, they are led to challenge their dogmatic attachment to a single value system. The love match serves to radically unsettle their respective, highly naturalised life stories, and thus to expose the grander cultural narratives to which they have become subjected.

Crusie proposes that this kind of experiential challenge to stereotyped or routinised thinking is one of the principle aims of her conception of feminist fiction. Regardless of whether or not the choices these heroines learn to embrace appear relatively conventional, they are also learning basic principles of creative self-determination. Crusie’s characters are not merely subject to ideology, they are knowingly and willingly complicit with certain aspects of it because it is in their interests to be so. Such complicity is described by the sociologist Stevi Jackson as the “active participation” of the individual in the shaping of their subjectivity:

We create for ourselves a sense of what our emotions are, of what being in love is, through positioning ourselves within discourses, constructing narratives of self, drawing on whatever cultural resources are available to us. This perspective allows us to recognise the constraints of the culture we inhabit while allowing for human agency and therefore avoiding the “cultural dupe” syndrome, of admitting the possibility of both complicity in and resistance to patriarchal relations in the sphere of love. (58)

Crusie’s novels enact the potential for human agency that Jackson accords to all self-conscious participants in the sphere of love. It is this which makes lying such an important part of her fiction because, in many of her novels, what can be seen as a lie from one perspective can be seen as a story from another, and the concept of truth is shown to be relative. Through individual creative energy, represented in much of her fiction as the province of the heroine of the romance narrative, stories which are “unreal but not untrue” are naturalised and made real through a continual process of revision and rewriting that transforms pre-existing monologic narratives into negotiated and mutable constructions of alternative realities.

Crusie represents this process in detail in the developing relationship between Daisy and Linc in The Cinderella Deal. As they get their story straight before heading to Prescott to convince the faculty of their engagement, Daisy and Linc very consciously define the parameters of their relationship by negotiating the facts that will serve as the basis of the story of their life together—what kind of engagement ring Daisy should have, what sort of clothes she should wear, what house they would live in. Daisy, for instance, upon learning that Linc used to play football on a team named the Yellow Jackets, imagines, “We could live in a little cottage called The Hive” (CD, 34). By incorporating details they have experienced into their imagined life, Daisy and Linc distort the distinction between fact and fiction. Their subsequent sharing of their constructed story with the faculty at the college continues this process, further integrating and subtly transforming their individual realities. When Daisy, on a tour of the town, sees a house she loves and an art gallery that features new artists, she has to remind herself, “This is not your story.” But, the narrator comments, “it [was] too late . . . The universe was doing everything but dropping a big sign in front of her that said This is it, this is your next move” (CD, 58 emphasis in original). The transformation of Linc’s reality is signalled by the extent to which he internalises Daisy’s point of view. Though when he moves to Prescott, he thinks he will be there on his own, he holds imaginary arguments with Daisy, justifying his choice to paint all the walls white and to install his sterile and modern chrome and leather furniture in big Victorian rooms: “The really irritating thing about that hadn’t so much been that he caught himself doing it as it was that she’d been winning” (CD, 80). The real power of the storytelling here is not only that it creates new versions of reality, but that it does so by disrupting sterile narratives and introducing a process of internal, dialogic change.

In The Cinderella Deal as stories get continually repeated, they begin to work independently to effect change. Though both Linc and Daisy have their own stories—imagined realities that they invent about what they want their lives to be—they lose control of these individual stories when their mutual story, through its repetition, becomes naturalised. Both try to go back to their individual stories after Linc has got the job at Prescott, but their mutual story is sustained by the others who have heard it, most notably Chickie, the wife of the dean. In fact, the story they created to serve them is co-opted by Chickie, who inserts Daisy into her own story in order to create a version of the world that Chickie prefers. Chickie’s desperate desire for companionship thus surfaces in an imagined reality in which she and Daisy do things together like mother and daughter. Though Daisy doesn’t initially move to Prescott with Linc, Chickie carries on the story they began, convincing Linc to buy the house Daisy liked, leaving her notes about the best places to shop, and making plans for the future that involve her. Through her representation of Chickie, Crusie explores the potential of storytelling to transform the wider community through individual actions. It is Chickie’s own personal investment in the story, its ability to allow her reimagine her own life narrative and sense of self that furthers the integration of Daisy and Linc’s stories with each other and the larger, social narrative of the Prescott community.

The potential these stories have to change the gender politics of the Prescott community can be seen as radical in the way that they destabilize the authority of the lecherous and abusive head of the college, Dean Crawford. However, the effect of Daisy and Linc’s storytelling on the social structures of Prescott is shown to happen incrementally at the level of the everyday. In fact, on one level, the novel can be seen as rather conservative. For instance, the novel seems to enact what Pamela Regis defines, in her exhaustive survey of the elements that comprise the romance genre, as the typical marriage-of-convenience scenario, in which “the vows that the couple has taken create the appearance of commitment before heroine and hero actually commit to each other” (185). By putting the wedding before the declaration of love, Regis notes, the marriage often acts as a “barrier” in the relationship, that is, the “conflict in the novel which keeps the union of the heroine and hero from taking place” (14). Though on the surface, The Cinderella Deal appears to be just another marriage-of-convenience romance novel, again Crusie subverts the conventional or expected structure in order to re-vision the romance novel as a form of feminist fiction. The barrier that is created between Daisy and Linc is not the “appearance of commitment” that forms the stereotypical conflict in the marriage-of-convenience novel. In fact, the opposite is true as Crusie shows how the commitment to appearance makes the relationship real. Ostensibly, Daisy has agreed to live in Linc’s story, and she throws herself wholeheartedly into her role as Daisy Blaise, working hard to become the faculty wife Linc had imagined. But just through her day-to-day social activity, by being neighbourly, making friends, and generally living her life, she gradually begins to change his story, as well as the wider community more generally. As the narrator notes, “Linc wasn’t sure when he first realised he’d lost his grip on his story. The realization came gradually, built up in short encounters” (CD, 153). The marriage, therefore, facilitates the love declaration rather than impeding it and, again contrary to form, the love declaration takes place well before the end of the novel.

Rather than simply being subjected to the constructs of a standardized plot in which their relationship develops, both Daisy and Linc are shown to be actively involved in the process of plotting. These characters are not, in Jackson’s words, “cultural dupes,” but are perfectly capable of both comprehending and rewriting their own meta-narratives. As a professional storyteller, Daisy, in particular, is fully aware of the performative power of storytelling. In her life, as well as in her storytelling career, Daisy frequently invents stories that, like Linc’s, project an imagined and desired reality. Having quit her teaching job to concentrate on her art, Daisy often struggles to pay her bills, and whenever she gets too worried about money, she tells herself “the story of her new life, the one she’d been building for the past four years” in which “the next chapter would be her paintings finally selling, and maybe her storytelling career suddenly taking off too. And a prince would be good” (CD, 11). Though she wishes for a prince to rescue her, she also realises the emptiness of desires based on little more than culturally sanctioned ideals. “Forget the prince,” she tells herself. “Stories were all well and good, but princes weren’t stories, they were impossible” (CD, 12).

Daisy’s distinction between stories and princes is in fact a distinction between story and fantasy. As in her rejection of the critical hierarchy that associated the romance genre with fantasy in “Romance and Reality,” Crusie suggests in these early novels that the crucial difference between a story and fantasy is that stories can be made to refashion the world while fantasy is the expression of another’s desires. That is, a story is something which, though not immediately real, can exist at some point in the future because it represents an expression of an individual’s desires. A fantasy, on the other hand, expresses a cultural ideal, a universal “truth” that relies a monologic narrative. The danger of fantasy, Crusie implies, is that members of society may be led to commit themselves to abstract, isolated, narratives because they do not take an active part in constructing them. Crusie suggests instead a process through which an individual’s reality is generated by the perpetual process of telling and retelling stories about oneself. This is a creative, inherently messy process, one that is subject to constant re-visioning. After all, this is not a Cinderella story in which the heroine waits in the ashes to be rescued by the prince, but a Cinderella deal in which both characters rescue each other through a series of negotiations addressing and readdressing the various imagined realities of each.

Crusie explores this distinction between fantasy and reality in detail in the opening scene of What the Lady Wants. In this scene, she draws on idealised characterisation derived from two of the most strongly gendered of genres, noir and romance, in order to explore the viability of such exaggerated stereotypes. In order to do so, she introduces sharp, distinct changes in point-of-view that portray the same action from both Mae’s and Mitch’s perspective. Crusie’s long-standing interest in the gendering of narrative forms, attested to by her original PhD research on women’s narrative strategies and, more recently, by her collaboration with Bob Mayer on the novels Don’t Look Down (2006), Agnes and the Hitman (2007), and Wild Ride (2010) is fully exercised in this scene. The he said/she said structure sets up a gendered generic tension between noir and romance that is mirrored in the stereotypes that Mae and Mitch imagine for themselves and each other. In preparing for her first meeting with Mitch, Mae dons the costume of the hypersexual, hyperfeminine femme fatale. She dresses in a tight pink suit, mysterious veil, and stiletto heels, and imagines that the simple act of outwardly conforming to expected appearances will ensure the successful enactment of noir’s paradigmatic male/female relationship. In other words, “He’d patronize her because she was female. She’d play him like a piano” (WLW, 7). Similarly, Mitch imagines his own noir scenario in which, as the “Sam Spade of the nineties,” he takes advantage of the femme fatale’s sexual promise, but outwits her attempts to manipulate him (WLW, 9).

Before they actually meet, both characters create elaborate fictions about themselves and about each other based on generic expectations of the masculine narrative form of noir. But reality turns out to be much more complex as neither conform to the stereotypes they create. Mitch, the successful-stockbroker-turned-detective-on-a-bet, is not Sam Spade or the dumb, dead-beat loser Mae wants him to be. And though Mae looks the part of the femme fatale, her skirt’s too tight, her heels too high, and her veil is “dumb” (WLW, 8). More importantly, though, the noir fantasy is obliterated when Mae speaks. “If she’d just kept her mouth shut,” Mitch thinks, “she would have been perfect, but no . . .” (WLW, 11). The romance genre comes in for equal scrutiny when, in Mae’s initial assessment of Mitch, she describes him as “solidly male, with that broad-shouldered, non-gold-chain-wearing, let-me-lift-that-car-for-you-lady kind of doofus sexiness that made women think that maybe they’d been too hasty with the liberation movement” (WLW, 14). In this fantasy Mitch is the strong, take-charge, knight-in-shining-armour kind of a guy who is regularly imagined as the stereotypical romantic hero—the kind of guy Mae thinks she needs to help her find her uncle’s diary. However, her image of the romantic hero also evaporates when Mitch speaks, and she too wishes, “If he’d just kept his mouth shut. . .”(WLW, 15). In this effective parody of generic conventions, Crusie subjects the idealised constructs of openly gendered genres to “Reality. Nature’s downer,” and shows them to be incapable of withstanding the introduction of the actual voice (WLW, 11). When the person speaks—a moment in which he or she acts upon the world and other people that surround them—the fantasy dissolves. Fantasy, whether romantic or noir, is repeatedly shown to be untenable for Crusie’s self-determining protagonists as, time and time again, experiential reality intrudes, requiring them to revise their expectations.

Thus, while romantic and other fantasies become harmful when passively adopted, within Crusie’s fiction they are obstacles to be surmounted, and can be seen as one of the narrative resources that characters share, reject, and manipulate in the course of a complex process of self-realisation. Her characters become more rather than less anxious, more prone to self-doubt and internal conflict, because their experience of other people, and especially their potential partners, obliges them to reconsider established, essentialised, and naturalised conceptions of identity. The trick, for Mae, Mitch, and others, is to become comfortable with the contingency this introduces into their lives and adept at the dynamic and reactive processes of self-determination it induces. Sometimes, such as when Mae develops a plan to escape her uncles’ control, Crusie’s protagonists take a much more active responsibility for these processes. Mae’s plan, a paradigmatic example of feminist self-determination, is to use the money to escape the stifling control exerted upon her life by her three overbearing uncles. However, in the terms of the structure of the romance genre, it also serves as the basis around which the romantic relationship at the centre of the novel develops by bringing her to Mitch’s office. Thus, it provides the catalyst for legitimation of the existing social order through marriage, and therefore appears to reflect quite closely the criticism that romance novels serve the function of drawing transgressive female subject positions reassuringly back into the patriarchal fold. By ultimately leading to her marriage, her defiant attempts to control her own future, to escape the influence of her three domineering patriarchs, and to make her dream of self-reliant independence come true, are seemingly “placed within wider controlling narratives that normalise their deviance” (Fowler, 97).

But, as their forays into fantasy in the opening scene demonstrate, Mae and Mitch are shown to have an understanding of such narratives. Through this representation of self-conscious participation in narrative construction, Mitch and Mae exert control over the narrative of their romance and their own roles within it, avoiding the “cultural dupe” syndrome. Thus, Mitch’s assurance to Mae that “Everybody lies, Mabel. Everybody but us” is more than just a moment of sentimental closure in which Mitch and Mae set themselves apart from the world as a couple (WLW, 217). Crusie here holds up to scrutiny the critical commonplace concerning the romance genre which suggests that the consummation of the love relationship simply re-enacts a “truth” that has been obscured all along by the various plot obstacles, what Regis defines as the “barriers” between the heroine and hero (32). In Mitch’s revision of his favourite catchphrase, Crusie makes clear that he and Mae are not simply subject to fictional conventions that destine them to be together but throw up barriers against this outcome. They consciously adopt a perspective that switches the world-weary essentialism typified by the “everybody lies” motif, for one which acknowledges the constructed nature of the romance narrative. This is a point that Crusie has made repeatedly throughout these early novels; according her characters the expertise to interpret and rethink romantic conventions, she also gives them the opportunity to select their romantic narratives rather than simply become subject to them. On one level, Mitch’s moment of re-visioning reads as the clichéd enactment of an us-against-the-world mentality, but by recalling so deliberately Mitch’s earlier cynicism, Crusie transforms this romantic convention into a succinct iteration of the possibilities of a knowing and self-conscious understanding of such clichés. This is the great positive that Crusie draws from the romance genre: romance is enabling for those individuals who knowingly participate in it.

Thus, throughout this fiction, Crusie draws on the close kinship between lying and storytelling in order to project a new model of romance fiction as “feminist fiction.” By associating the telling of stories with the telling of lies, Crusie explores the way in which stories can retell and thus reorient essentialist and monologic social ideologies. In this way, many of her early novels from the mid-1990s form a coherent counter-argument to the prevailing condemnation of the romance genre that characterised critical writing of the 1980s and early ‘90s, especially such influential works as Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance and Tania Modleski’s Loving With a Vengence. This is not to say that after the late ‘90s this disappears from her fiction. Right up to Bet Me (2004), her last single-authored text before she began her collaborative writing project with Bob Mayer, Crusie continued to explore the process through the rejection of an naturalised perspective could transform lies into stories.[2] One small example will illustrate this. In Bet Me, the heroine, Min, participates in what she sees as the lie of Cal’s attraction to her because she wants to be with him, but she struggles to maintain this constructed reality:

Min stepped down off the platform and went to him, loving the way his arms went around her, trying not to think about how fat she must feel under his hands, and then he kissed her hard, and she sighed against him, grateful to have him even if she didn’t know why he wanted her.

The bet.

Nope, never, that was not it, she believed in him. (Bet Me, 263-64)

Min’s understanding of the “truth” has been determined by a number of naturalised stories concerning her body. The principal one, that she is fat, has been repeatedly foisted upon her by the novel’s spokesperson for conventional female attractiveness, her mother. As one of the most influential women in Min’s life, her mother’s constant refrains, that if Min doesn’t lose weight, no man will ever be attracted to her and that certain hairstyles and clothes don’t suit her fat figure, have a controlling influence on how Min views reality.

In response to Min’s unquestioning acceptance of this narrow image of female beauty, Cal attempts to reorient Min’s physical identity by exchanging her negative euphemisms for “fat” for more positive expressions:

Cal put his fork down. “All right. Here’s the truth. You’re never going to thin. You’re a round woman. You have wide hips and a round stomach and full breasts. You’re. . .”

“Healthy,” Min said bitterly.

“Lush,” Cal said, watching the gentle rise and fall of her breasts under her sweatshirt.

“Generous,” Min snarled.

“Opulent,” Cal said, remembering the soft curve of her under his hand.

“Zaftig,” Min said.

“Soft and round and hot, and I’m turning myself on,” Cal said, starting to feel dizzy. (Bet Me, 126)

In retelling the story of Min’s “fatness,” Cal produces a positive response to repressive stereotypes concerning the female body by recasting it in linguistic terms. By locating the basis of Min’s self-image in the realm of language rather than the body, Cal helps Min see beyond the restricted and monologic world-view with which she has been inculcated. In revising and rewriting the story of her attractiveness, Cal and Min re-configure Min’s body and effect change through the process of storytelling rather than losing weight.

By dramatising the stories people tell and the means through which these stories can effect change, Crusie demonstrates the radical potential of active participation in the everyday and revisioning of the real. The promised marriage at the end of the novel, the “happily-ever-after,” therefore, does not signal the end of the story, but represents the integration of the negotiated relationship into the community. In Bet Me, when Min questions what happens after the happily ever after, Cal’s reply that “we’re going to take it one day at a time” signifies the continuing dynamism of the relationship (Bet Me, 333). Such dynamism is demonstrated in the reappearance of Tess and Nick from Strange Bedpersons in What the Lady Wants. Though Mitch comments that Tess and Nick’s marriage is like “Tinker Bell marrying Donald Trump,” Tess’s reply that “No, no, he’s doing better. . . He put his feet on the furniture the other day,” intimates the way in which the relationship continues to develop after the novel finishes (<WLW, 106). In recalling her earlier novel, Crusie playfully provides for the cynical, commitment phobic Mitch an exemplary model of what a healthy dynamic romantic relationship might look like after the “happily ever after.” In prompting Mitch to think that “Maybe commitment wouldn’t be so bad if it was like this,” the example of Tess and Nick demonstrates the positive lessons that can be derived from the best romance fiction (SB, 106). For Crusie, the representation of an ideal relationship has little to do with its adherence to cultural norms or to their active subversion and critique: genuine partnership takes place in the course of a perpetual interplay of beliefs, anxieties, and half-formed desires, whose resolution cannot and should not be hoped for.

Works Cited

Crusie, Jennifer. The Cinderella Deal. New York: Bantam Books, 1996.

—.“Defeating the Critics: What Can We Do About the Anti-Romance Bias.” Romance Writer’s Report 18.6 (1998), pp. 38-39.

—. “Let Us Now Praise Scribbling Women.” Inside Borders (March 1998).

—. “Romancing Reality: The Power of Romance Fiction to Reinforce and Re-Vision the Real.” Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres 3.1-2 (1997), pp. 81-93.

—. Strange Bedpersons. Don Mills, Ont.: MIRA, 1995.

—. “This Is Not Your Mother’s Cinderella: The Romance Novel As Feminist Fairy Tale.” Romantic Conventions. Ed. Anne Kaler and Rosemary Johnson-Kurek. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green Press, 1998.

—. What the Lady Wants. Don Mills, Ont.: MIRA, 1995.

—. “You Go, Romance Writer: Changing Public Opinion.” Romance Writer’s Report 18.1 (1998), pp. 45-37.

Fowler, Bridget. “Literature Beyond Modernism: Middlebrow and Popular Romance.” Romance Revisited. Ed. Lynne Pearce and Jackie Stacey. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1995. 89-99.

Jackson, Stevie. “Women and Heterosexual Love: Complicity, Resistance and Change.” Romance Revisited. Ed. Lynne Pearce and Jackie Stacey. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1995. 49-62.

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

Simpson, David. “Lying, Liars, and Language.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 52 (1992), pp. 623-39.

Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. Social Theory: Its Situation and Its Task. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Vonk, Roos, and Richard D. Ashmore. “Thinking About Gender Types: Cognitive Organization of Female and Male Types.” British Journal of Social Psychology 42 (2003), pp. 257-280.

Whelehan, Imelda. The Feminist Bestseller: From Sex and the Single Girl to Sex and the City. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.


[1] For a discussion of the critical rejection of the romance novel see Regis, esp. pp. xi-xii and 3-16.

[2] Interestingly, the way lies are represented in the co-authored fiction is very different. In the books co-written with Bob Mayer, lying is not ambiguous, but rather more straightforwardly wrong as it becomes associated with issues of trust.

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“Crusie and the Con” by Christina A. Valeo

As Crusie’s romantic leads evolve from chasing the con (Trust Me on This), to abandoning the con (Welcome to Temptation), to embracing the con (Faking It), they highlight the ways in which romance is like a con and the sometimes slippery distinctions between these two kinds of intimate, interpersonal relationships. The outcomes of both romantic relationships and con games depend on trust and trustworthiness, intention toward the other person, and ability to deliver on promises made. To highlight these elements is to call into question aspects of the romance novel that have come to be considered categorical absolutes, notably the “declaration” of love, identified as one of the eight essential elements of the genre by Pamela Regis in A Natural History of the Romance Novel. How can characters or readers trust a declaration of love made by a con artist who has a pattern of lying to both family and friends? More important, do readers trust such a declaration, or are they just charmed by the writers and the generic promises of romance?

To talk about Crusie and the con is to enter into at least three existing critical conversations. First, Crusie’s writing is of interest to romance scholars, as this edition of JPRS attests. Herself a literary critic as well as a novelist, Crusie has weighed in on the long-standing debate of whether romances are “bad” for readers or “good” for readers (see, for example, Radway, Modeleski, Krentz et al, Regis, Crusie herself). My consideration of the con in Crusie’s work, and my argument that the exchange between romance writer and romance reader itself resembles a con, focuses on the agency of the reader in the exchange, on her willing participation in this literary shell game. If we extend the conversation beyond the moral debate, the author’s intent, or the text’s effect, we can consider more completely the reader’s role in constructing the meaning and negotiating the impact of the text.

The second conversation that informs this study of Crusie’s cons is research that has been conducted by communication scholars and those who study criminal justice. Con games rely on old and established patterns of interpersonal behavior like flattery and concession, well documented in a variety of scholarly and practical publications. I rely on several of these sources to illustrate the criminal behavior and highlight the precise parallels between a con and a romance.

Finally, Crusie’s con artist characters are part of a tradition in American literature, most famously dramatized in Herman Melville’s last novel, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857). Although Crusie alludes to that story and its steamboat setting in the opening lines of Trust Me on This, her con artist characters are more in the spirit of Horatio Alger, Jr.’s Ragged Dick (1868). Karen Halttunen identifies this character as part of a late nineteenth-century shift, when the figure of the confidence man changed from threat to model. She argues that “Dick’s rise depends on three qualities new to American success ideology: aggressiveness, charm, and the arts of the confidence man” (202). In the three Crusie novels about cons, there is only one con man who plays the part of a (not very villainous) villain. Instead, “aggressiveness, charm, and the arts of the confidence man” are apt descriptors of the romantic heroes and heroines in the novels.[1]

As the characters who con become increasingly central to the romance story, their paths to Happily Ever After endings are complicated by the shifting terrain of trust, intent, and capacity. In fact, the very qualities that make a character a capable con artist make him or her unlikely to be successful in other, more lasting interpersonal relationships. To trust that such characters will arrive at their HEA regardless of such history or tendencies may be a well-established genre expectation, but it also requires a reader response well worth our critical attention.

Part I: Trust Me on This–Chasing the Con

As its title suggests, Crusie’s 1997 Bantam “Loveswept” novel Trust Me on This examines the ways that trust is essential to a Happily Ever After ending in a romance. If hero and heroine can learn to trust each other, the novel hypothesizes, they are well on their way to their HEA. Only in its broadest strokes, however, does the novel support that reading. The devilish details suggest instead that the appearance, statements, actions, and intentions of the “heroic” couples and the “villainous” one are disconcertingly similar. According to one criminal investigator, “Successful con artists are charming, manipulative, and able to exploit the innate trust and greed of many people.”[2] By that definition, protagonists Dennie Banks and Alec Prentice, as well as their “sidekicks” Harry and Victoria, are as guilty of conning as the alleged con artist in the novel. All four of those characters are rewarded with a happy ending, though none of them is unconditionally trustworthy.

Crusie’s heroine, Dennie Banks, is a reporter trying to get a story, and her hero, Alec Prentice, is an undercover cop trying to get the conman. Alec attends a literary conference taking place, with a nod to Melville’s Confidence-Man, at the “Riverbend Queen Hotel,”[3]hoping to catch Brian Bond, a con artist who is there to perpetrate what seems to be a real estate scheme. Alec also hopes to apprehend the mysterious brunette who is Bond’s partner in crime. Interestingly, there is initially nothing in Alec’s appearance, actions, or statements that would encourage Dennie to trust him. His manner and appearance are much like those of Brian “Bondman,” the name the con man uses in this caper. His interest in Dennie stems primarily from his suspicion that she is the “mysterious Brunette” who often helps Bond perpetrate his schemes. In his effort to trap, or entrap, Bond, the romantic hero lies to the heroine, the villain, and several secondary characters, charming and manipulating them all into a situation where Bond is likely to step across a criminal line.

Likewise, Dennie’s trustworthiness is frequently called into question, despite her ostensible role as the novel’s romantic heroine. Her appearance is not a reliable indicator of her trustworthiness; her brunette hair makes her fit the description of Bonds’ partner-in-crime. Furthermore, Dennie changes her clothes to change her appearance of reliability, choosing a gray suit to be “serious” and showing cleavage when she’s trying to manipulate someone. Neither are Dennie’s thoughts and actions trustworthy. Dennie fakes a personal interest in Alec to secure an introduction to his aunt; she fakes a personal interest in Bonds to encourage his fraudulent behavior.

The blurred lines between heroic and criminal behavior continue down to the level of the secondary characters. The conman, Brian Bond, spends most of the novel telling the truth: he is sincerely romantically (or at least sexually) interested in Dennie and he really does have some land in Florida to sell. By contrast, Alec’s Aunt Victoria, initially a model of forthright speech, eventually joins Dennie in the series of falsehoods and lies that will lure conman Brian Bond into a legal trap. Victoria also lies to her would-be suitor Donald, a secondary character whose only purpose in the novel is twice to play the gullible, romantic fool. Victoria expresses a romantic interest in him when she in fact sees no such potential; instead, her objective is to enhance the trap that Alex and Harry are setting for Bonds.

Because the romantic principals do not trust each other for much of the novel, and are not reliably trustworthy for the rest of it, their potential for a happy romantic ending actually comes to rest on their intent. Alec and Dennie address this issue explicitly more than halfway through the novel, as it is clear that Dennie still does not trust Alec.

“Do you think I’m a crook?” Alec smiled his open, honest boyish smile at her.

“I think you could be.” Dennie stared back, unsmiling. “I think you’d probably do just about anything if you thought the reason was right. And I haven’t known you long enough to know what reasons you think are right.”[4]

Once Dennie understands Alec’s reasons for his behavior, she does come to trust him. For his part, Alec learns to trust Dennie when she finally joins him in Chicago to marry him and live with him after she has the career success she has been pursuing all along.[5]

Trust Me on This serves as a good introduction to the discussion of the shared ground between a romance and a con. It posits and then dismisses the idea that trust is easy to give or to come by. It rejects the notion that trustworthiness can be ascertained by appearance, actions, or statements, and insists that trust is only established once characters know each other well enough to ascertain intent, an issue fundamental to Crusie’s next con novel, Welcome to Temptation.

Trust Me on This likewise raises the issue of the reader’s response in accepting the supposition that situational trustworthiness and honorable intent are necessary to secure a happy ending, even in the world of a romance novel. Brian Bond, for example, goes to jail at the end of the novel, despite the fact that he turns out to have been behaving in a trustworthy manner and had, in this case, honorable intentions, until Dennie bared enough cleavage to entrap him into lying to her and promising something he could not legally deliver. His erstwhile assistant Sherée, in contrast, goes free and seems rewarded for her stupidity and mendacity by a new relationship with a man who will “take care of her” (Victoria’s silly but sincere suitor Donald). Is the reader’s sense of justice not engaged in her reading of the novel? Is it served well enough by the happy endings doled out to the two romantic leads and their loved ones? Is the reader’s pleasure instead in the seeming irony in the details of the ending? In these complications and contradictions Crusie’s novel asks not the question of what the reader’s response might be, by why she might respond the way she does to the various outcomes of the novel.

Part II: Welcome to Temptation—Abandoning the Con

Crusie’s single-title release Welcome to Temptation (2000) includes a hero who is trusting and trustworthy, while the heroine, for most of the novel, is neither.[6] In terms of a discussion of the parallels between romance and a con, Crusie’s inclusion of a con artist as one of the romantic principals complicates the question of trust and suggests that it is not as essential to romance as it might seem. As they were in Trust Me on This, issues of trust in this novel are ultimately trumped by the question of intent. In the later novel, however, the happy ending depends not on clarifying characters’ intents but in changing them.

The romantic hero is Phineas T. Tucker, the mayor of a small Ohio town, who has very little to hide. The heroine, Sophie Dempsey, has by contrast very little she is willing to reveal. Phin is a life-long resident of Temptation, who has reluctantly followed in the footsteps of his great-grandfather, his grandfather, and his father in serving as mayor, despite the fact that he would rather be spending time with his daughter Dillie, working in his bookstore, or playing pool. Sophie and her sister Amy are makers of wedding videos who have come to Temptation to make a “comeback” film for a former resident, Clea Whipple, who used to star in porn films and B-movies and used to be married to Sophie and Amy’s brother Davy. When Amy and Sophie end up on the wrong side of a town ordinance prohibiting the filming of porn, Sophie and Phin’s burgeoning relationship is threatened by her uncertain allegiances and the damage to his reputation as mayor. The conflict is resolved when Sophie charms and cons the town council and populace, restores Phin’s reputation, and agrees to stay in Temptation and marry him.

Issues of trust and intent are predictably crucial in a romance between a con artist and an upstanding mayor. Sophie arrives in Temptation intending to go straight, but she’s quickly sucked into her sister Amy’s agenda to make a (possibly illegal) soft-porn film and to exploit the participants by simultaneously shooting a documentary about the filmmaking. Sophie’s relationship with Phin begins as one of satisfying, casual sex, so she does not have many qualms about using their real-life dealings and dialog as fodder for her film script. Having previously been burned by the rich scions of Small Town, USA, Sophie neither trusts Phin nor expects him to trust her. Further, Sophie is hardly unique in her lack of full disclosure; at one point in the novel, Phin observes to his friend the police chief Wes Mazur that everyone is lying to him (including Phin himself).[7] In short, almost no one in town is entirely trustworthy. Because the sheer number of lies and liars negates temporarily the issue of trust, the crucial qualities of the characters become instead one of intent: what are their reasons for lying? The reasons are as varied as the characters—self-defense, sex, money, political gain, family, love— but only the last two are ultimately established as acceptable reasons.

From the start Sophie is a somewhat capable if reluctant con. She deploys her share of the family’s gift for the game in order to protect herself, her sister, and later her brother. As her feelings for Phin change and grow, so do her conflicts. Phin says with certainty that Sophie isn’t playing him, when in fact she is.[8] When a disgruntled citizen broadcasts the soft-porn film Sophie and her sister have made, Phin confronts her about her lying, and about the fact that she used some of their conversations for dialogue in the film:

“You’re not supposed to betray the people you sleep with,” Phin said.

“By the time I realized there might be something to betray, it was too late,” Sophie said. “I owed Amy, too. And we didn’t think anybody would ever know.”[9]

If Sophie’s trustworthiness were the first and last issue, this confrontation might well signal the end of the relationship. Instead, the novel introduces the relevance of intent. Phin ultimately recognizes that Sophie has been lying to him to protect her siblings; his own inclinations have been to protect his family, including his meddling mother. Sophie’s Happily Ever After is a result of her willingness to redefine her family, to abandon her siblings to their own devices, and to make Phin and his daughter the family she’ll do anything to protect. She reassures Phin as she decides to take his name, and his “Tucker for Mayor” posters, that there is “Nothing but good times ahead.” After watching the lengths to which Sophie will go to protect those she loves, readers leave the novel reassured that Phin and Dillie, as well as most of the town of Temptation, are in the slightly shifty hands of a woman who wants the best for them, and is likely to be able to deliver.

Sophie and Phin have both been intensely loyal to their families of origin, so their happiness seems secured when they shift that loyalty to the new family they will form with each other and Phin’s daughter Dillie. Even Sophie’s brother, who benefited from his older sister’s protection, encourages this shift: “Listen to me: Marry the mayor and keep the dog and live happily ever after in this house. That’s what you want. Forget about me and Amy and go for it.”[10] With her brother’s blessing, Sophie does shift her allegiance to Phin and his daughter and her newly-adopted town. The novel rewards not her trustworthiness but her good intentions.

As if to accentuate the fact that trustworthiness is not enough and intentions are what dictate outcomes in the fictional world of Temptation, even Phin, who has been trustworthy throughout, must reconsider his intentions. His loyalty to his mother must be tempered if he and Sophie are to build a successful and independent family unit.

“She’s corrupted you,” Liz said, almost spitting in her frustration. “She’s—”

“Well, it runs in her family,” Phin said. “The rest of your grandchildren are going to be half-degenerate.”

Liz froze.

Phin nodded at her sympathetically. “Yeah, I have to marry her. I’m sorry, Mom. I know this wasn’t what you had planned. Any last words before you disown me?”[11]

Liz’s initial reaction may be one of intense distrust and concern, but she too is able to shift her loyalties to include Sophie once she understands that Sophie has been the target of another town matriarch who has been trying to clear the way for her own daughter to marry Phin. She warns Virginia Garvey, “Don’t ever come after my family again,” and then adds, “And that includes Sophie.”[12]

In an overall analysis of the parallels between romance and con in terms of trust, intent, and ability, Welcome to Temptation makes a strong case for the importance of the characters’ intents. Sophie comes from a family of cons and will probably always be somewhat of a con, but once her schemes are used to help Phin and the town, the fact that she is usually lying or misleading seems to stop being an obstacle to her Happily Ever After. The final scene of the novel includes Phin’s proposal and Sophie’s agreement to marry him, but that standard element of the genre[13] segues quickly into Sophie’s decision to become a politician and run for mayor once Phin retires. With an eye toward the four thousand Tucker for Mayor posters still available, Sophie announces

“I think I’ll take your name,” she said, smiling up at him sweetly. “Sophie Dempsey Tucker. It sounds…” She looked at the ring again. “…powerful.”

“Why do I have a bad feeling about this?” Phin said, and she said, “Because your life just changed, but it’s okay. You can trust me.”[14]

This exchange captures several con elements that might well undermine Sophie’s assertion in the last line of the book, “Nothing but good times ahead.” A married woman could be expected to take her husband’s name, but a con artist also changes her name to suit her purposes. Phin is at least somewhat uncomfortable with Sophie’s oblique reference to some future plans, a reminder that she had lied to and manipulated him through most of their courtship.[15] Sophie’s acknowledgement that Phin’s life has drastically changed is quickly followed by her reassurance that he can trust her, but on what would that trust be based? For Phin, and for Crusie’s readers, to believe that there are nothing but good times ahead for these two characters requires them to accept Sophie’s word and/or to believe that she has changed as much, and even more, than he has.

Part III: Faking It—Embracing the Con

In the sequel to Welcome to Temptation, Crusie takes the romance/con connections one twist further. She has established by the outcomes of the two earlier books that even a romance hero or heroine may not be entirely trustworthy when it comes to what he or she says or does; she has argued, by way of granting limited “Happily Ever Afters,” that love and family are the best of the good intentions. In Faking It (2002), she introduces the Goodnights, who revisit all those same questions and add one crucial question more: does the character have the ability to deliver on the promises that he or she has made? Because Sophie and Phin had demonstrated their abilities to keep their promises to their families of origin, no matter how misguided those promises may have been, the ways in which their romance was a con are presumably curtailed once they are each other’s first loyalty. Faking It presents some characters for whom that presumption falls flat.

In the newly-introduced Tilda Goodnight and her love interest Davy Dempsey (Sophie’s brother), readers find a heroine/hero pair who are suspicious of everyone, for very good reasons. Each has something—in fact, many things—to hide. Further, they, like some of the characters in Crusie’s previous work, seem better off establishing some healthy boundaries from their families of origins rather than falling into martyr roles that would have them protect the family at too much cost to themselves. The way each character must determine his or her loyalties going forward, raises, as it did in Temptation, the issue of intent. Finally, Davy and Tilda have been playing their con games for so long, they are unwilling or unable (or both) to stop. Their relationship—both emotional and sexual—works best when they embrace their own, and each other’s, authentic selves, complete with criminal pasts and a penchant for performative play. The end of the novel, which acknowledges their mutual shiftiness even as it posits a Happy Ever After ending, calls in to question whether these characters have the ability to keep the promises they will make.

Davy and Tilda’s paths first cross when they are both chasing Clea Whipple. Tilda is trying to recover a painting she forged, Davy is trying to recover some money Clea took, and they work together to recover the other five “Scarlet” paintings so Tilda can put her fraudulent past to rest. Davy moves in with Tilda and the Goodnights initially to be close to Clea, but he eventually stays because of his affection for them and his inclination to be their protector.

Taking literally the old con cliché of “honor among thieves,” Crusie establishes trust between Davy and Tilda in the opening scene of the novel when they simultaneously break into the house where Clea is staying, Tilda to get her painting, Davy to get his money. Tilda kisses Davy and asks him to steal the painting for her, but importantly she does both in the anonymity of a dark closet. He moves her physically into the light before he agrees to the crime, but the metaphor only serves to accentuate how little about Tilda can actually be “seen” at this stage of the story. Tilda is disconcerted when Davy follows her home, but she continues to trust him with her agenda of acquiring all the Scarlet Hodge paintings, without revealing to him that she is the artist/forger. Davy initially will not disclose his criminal agenda at all. Their second “breaking and entering” adventure includes another closeted kiss, but it culminates in an unsatisfying sexual encounter back at the gallery/apartment building where Tilda is, as the title forecasts, “faking it.”

As partners in crime who trust each other as much as they trust anyone, Davy and Tilda embark on a series of performances to con or steal back the six Scarlet Hodge paintings. But the performances themselves serve ironically to reveal the various truths of Tilda. As she takes on the roles of the sexy Vilma, the sweet Celeste, the talented Scarlet, the shy Betty, the virago Veronica, she is actually showing, rather than hiding, aspects of her personality. Tilda’s sister Eve serves as a foil in this respect as she has two separate personalities: “Eve,” Nadine’s mild, schoolteacher mother, and “Louise,” the erotic singer who performs at her gay ex-husband’s nightclub. Eve/Louise makes clear that a healthy relationship is not about having multiple personalities, as both of her romances end painfully (her marriage, and her fling with Davy’s friend Simon). Instead, Crusie argues through the implications of these various performances, a healthy relationship seems to depend on the partners’ ability to embrace—both literally and figuratively—all of the existing and developing facets of the person they love. In Davy and Tilda’s relationship, that success is dramatized by their last and best sexual interaction, on the bed Tilda has painted in “Scarlet’s” style, as Tilda regales Davy with family tales from a long tradition of art and fraud, “naked and unashamed.”[16] In this scene Tilda finds the self-confidence to reveal everything, and Davy accepts and loves her not in spite of those long-hidden depths but, in many ways, because of them.

Because Crusie establishes “trust” among these thieves so quickly, that element of their relationship does not function according to romance genre expectations. Both Tilda and Davy seem to give and take trust on credit they have not yet earned with each other. Crusie also complicates the question of “intent” in this novel, calling attention to the power of charm, and the need to distinguish somehow between charm and a con. Davy’s father, Michael Dempsey, provides a foil for Davy in this regard as he, like Davy, needs a place to stay and establishes a “romantic” relationship to secure lodging. While Michael is presumably having sex with building resident and painter Dorcas Finsterto secure a place to sleep, Davy is not having sex with Tilda in order to acquire the same. Michael is a charmer who cons people to get what he wants, and the Goodnights recognize those qualities quickly. Gwen acknowledges that Michael would probably “sell everything they have including [the dog] and then leave with the money.”[17] Crusie uses limited omniscience as this novel’s narrative voice, so any character assessment of Michael is based on what he says and does, and on the other characters’ opinions of him. Readers gain no additional information and Gwen’s assessment of Michael proves accurate.

In contrast, Davy’s intentions are revealed by his thoughts, which the narrator does provide. At one point after he has established himself at the gallery and among the family he thinks, “This family needs a keeper,”[18] and he proceeds to fill that role. While Michael secretly takes money, Davy secretly gives money, paying off the mortgage on the building to free Gwen and Tilda and Eve from that responsibility and restriction.

On multiple occasions, Davy’s intentions seem unarguably good, which is why his argument with Tilda over whether or not to tell Simon that Eve and Louise are the same person raises such effective questions about the value of intent.

“Face it,” Tilda said. “You want to tell him because it’s the right thing for you to do, not the right thing for him to hear.”

Davy frowned at her. “So I’m a selfish bastard for wanting to do the right thing.”

“Yes,” Tilda said.

“I know that’s wrong.” Davy stood up. “Let me get back to you on why.”

“Well, until then, keep your mouth shut,” Tilda said. “You honest people can make life hell for everybody else.”[19]

This exchange highlights a variety of ways that Crusie is complicating concepts like trust and intent, and consequently subverting the expectations of genre romance. First, Tilda’s instructions for Davy to “Face it” resonate nicely with the title’s suggestion to “fake it,” which is exactly what Davy will need to do if he keeps this knowledge from his best friend. Often in this novel, “faking it” is an efficient idea and sometimes even a moral one. Second, Tilda suggests that doing the right thing might not always lead to the right result; that the truth, in cases like this, is not always welcome. This subversion of a seeming good, like “truth,” suggests a rather complicated morality. Tilda’s assertions here seem valid for two reasons: in this scene, Davy cannot rebut them; and in a later scene, Tilda’s prediction about Simon’s reaction to the “truth” about Eve/Louise proves accurate and heartbreaking. Finally, Tilda is encouraging Davy to “keep [his] mouth shut,” in order to spare others pain. In a genre that may be assumed to expect truth and declarations, this exchange nicely constructs the possibility of a greater good, and one that is far more difficult to achieve and maintain.

In Faking It, Davy is one of a series of characters in a variety of situations whose good intentions are doomed. Gwen’s intention to protect the family and the gallery has actually kept her and her daughters trapped in unfulfilling lives. The Giordano/Goodnight family ancestors intended to leave valuable fakes for their descendents’ profits, but those locked-up paintings are actually a major source of Tilda’s pain. Nadine may intend to follow in her progenitors’ footsteps and choose a career that can take care of the family, but those paths are not choices that any of the people who love her would be happy to see her make.

Crusie’s con novels all interrogate whether characters have good intentions and whether good intentions lead to good outcomes, questions which seem more suitable to ascertaining whether someone has been conned than whether a romance will succeed. The lying, greedy assistant to the villain of Trust Me on This is rewarded by a relationship (however unsatisfying to the other characters or the reader) which perfectly fulfills her desire to be taken care of by a wealthy man. Sophie Dempsey’s good intention in Temptation, specifically to protect her siblings from their own suspicious behavior, leads to seeming disaster before she begins to effectively use her conning skills to help Phin instead. Michael Dempsey has the best of intentions when it comes to visiting Sophie and meeting his grandson, but every involved character, except for him, clearly sees how such a visit could be ruinous.

In his desire to have close relationships with his grown children, Michael Dempsey manifests the final, telling parallel between romance and a con: he is incapable of realizing that kind of relationship. Whether characters are trusting or trustworthy, whether their actions and iterations are sincere, and whatever their intentions might be, they have to be able to “deliver the goods.” If they cannot, because they do not own the land they are selling or because they are making interpersonal promises they will not be able to keep, there can be no “Happily Ever After.”[20] Although he is a secondary character in the Dempsey character stories, Michael serves a crucial role, and he may be the best indicator of the work the reader is doing in crafting her response to the romance and its standards. Like the grown Dempsey children, Michael believes himself trustworthy to his family, though not to strangers. He intends to love and support his children, although references to their unsettled childhood provide evidence to the contrary.[21] Most important, Michael Dempsey lacks the ability to sustain any of the good impulses he may feel. When he heads to Temptation to see Sophie, Davy calls her husband Phin to intervene:

Phin picked up.

“What’s wrong?” he said. “Dillie says it’s an emergency.”

“It is,” Davy said. “Dad figured out where you are. He’s heading your way. Hold the fort until I get there and remove him. Do not let him alone with Sophie and do not give him money.”

“I’m not stupid,” Phin said.

“Neither is he,” Davy said. “I like to think of him as washed up, but the man can talk anybody into anything.”[22]

Davy’s use of military jargon (“hold the fort,” and later in the scene, “Head for high ground”) suggests that Sophie’s family is under siege during her father’s visit. He has been presented as the foil to Davy and the exception to the new Dempsey family rule of love, trust, good intentions, and long-term commitment, but he haunts the pages as a reminder of the kind of toll one person can take on another if his charm is a cover for his con abilities rather than the surface demonstration of a real ability to effectively love. To believe that Davy Dempsey and Sophie Dempsey will get their enduring HEAs, readers must either ignore the specter of Michael Dempsey and his destructive impulses or convince themselves that he is now the exception to the new Dempsey family rule.

Part IV:Conclusions—Buying the Con

By calling attention to these powerful parallels between romance and a con, Crusie is then simultaneously subverting and substantiating the genre. Her books that include cons and con artists can be read as completely undermining genre staples like the “declaration” of love between the two main characters.[23] If, for example, Davy and Tilda’s declaration scene that ends the book uses their nicknames to indicate their mutual familiarity, intimacy, and joie d vivre—Davy calls her “Matilda Scarlet Celeste Veronica Betty Vilma Goodnight,” for example—on the other hand it also highlights the possibility that these two declarations are empty iterations and mere verbal play.[24] In some ways, Crusie demonstrates that romance is always a con, a series of moves one communication scholar interestingly calls “stroking”: “verbal reinforcements that create a feeling of happiness, success, and well-being.”[25] For this ending to be a happy one, characters and readers alike must believe that the statements of these two life-long liars are not just lines, but are somehow utterly and enduringly true.

So are readers of Faking It, readers of Crusie, readers of romance in general, making a leap of faith, or are they themselves being conned? What would such a con look like? What is at stake? Faking It offers a provocative if unflattering comparison in the success Michael Dempsey has in selling the awful paintings of Dorcas Finster.

Davy watched for a moment to see Michael’s newest mark turn to him and expand under the light in his smile and the glint in his eye. That’s wrong, he thought, but she looked so happy as she bought a Finster that it was hard to explain why it was wrong.

Maybe when she woke up the next morning and realized she’d bought a watercolor of sadistic fishermen drowning fish, maybe that was when it was wrong. Assuming she did. Maybe she’d look at it and remember how she felt when she bought it. Maybe it would make her happy.[26]

Readers know Michael Dempsey cannot be trusted in what he says; his intentions are almost exclusively and unapologetically mercenary. His son Davy knows these facts better than anyone, and yet he seems to suggest an interpretation of this con game that lets the outcome, not the intent, determine whether or not a con has occurred. Caveat emptor, indeed.

Crusie declared her intent early in her writing career, as she made the choice to switch from studying romance to writing it: “By the end of the month, I’d skimmed or read almost a hundred romance novels and two life-changing things happened to me: I felt more powerful, more optimistic, and more in control of my life than ever before, and I decided I wanted to write romance fiction. Anything that did that much good for me, was something that I, as a feminist, wanted to do for other women.”[27] But writerly reassurances and genre guarantees aside, one might well wonder to what extent Crusie is romancing, or conning, her readers. She even explains, over the course of Welcome to Temptation and Faking It exactly how she might pull off such a scheme, in her dramatization of the Dempsey family’s five steps to making people do what you want them to do. In the opening pages of Welcome to Temptation, Sophie Dempsey attempts to “con” Stephen Garvey to minimize the damage of the fender bender they’ve just had. As she feeds him the appropriate lines, she holds up the relevant number of fingers behind her back to communicate to her sister Amy, who also knows this game, exactly what she’s attempting to accomplish:

“One: make the mark smile.”

“Two: make the mark agree with you.”

“Three: make the mark feel superior.”

“Four: give the mark something.”

“Five: get what you want and get out.”[28]

Because Amy interrupts the process, Sophie does not succeed at this particular con. Crusie, however, has just given readers an outline to understanding this particular interpersonal relationship, one which shows how the criminal version of this game is played in real life.[29]

In this discussion of the parallels between romance and a con, however, it’s worth taking a meta-cognitive moment to look at the parallels between romance fiction and a con. The opening pages of Welcome to Temptation, for example, up to and including the scene between Sophie and Stephen Garvey, themselves seem to follow the steps of a Dempsey con. Several examples of Crusie’s wit abound in the first few pages to “make the mark smile.” The limited omniscient narrator gives readers insight into Sophie’s thoughts, so while the character is earnest, readers are laughing: “More riotously happy, southern Ohio landscape. That couldn’t be good.”[30] Readers familiar with Crusie’s biography and her own affection for “riotously happy, southern Ohio landscape” are rewarded with an additional layer of humor, as the character’s feeling diverges so completely from the author’s.[31]

An early example of the way these opening paragraphs might parallel the second step in a con, “make the mark agree with you,” involve a wink toward generic conventions. As Amy tries to offer her sister reassurance about their time in Temptation, she asks, “What could go wrong?” Sophie responds, “‘Don’t say that.’ Sophie sank lower in her seat. ‘Anytime anybody in a movie says, “What could go wrong?” something goes wrong.’”[32] Movie quotes are a Dempsey family hobby, but the observation is apt for popular fiction as well; in this case, the fender bender with the Garvey’s Cadillac is literally just around the bend.

The third step in the con process, “make the mark feel superior,” has to be handled delicately in the courtship of both a real-life mark and a romance reader. If the mark feels too superior, she may get suspicious or lose interest. Crusie and other romance writers would lose readers who felt superior to the writers; it might not be worth the reader’s time or money to continue with the text. Similarly, if readers feel too superior to the characters, they may rapidly lose interest. A key ingredient to comic genres, those with happy endings, is the audience’s certainty that everything will work out even as the characters worry about impending disaster. In the opening pages of Welcome to Temptation, readers can sympathize with Sophie’s desire to avoid trouble even as they know with certainty that her story will have a happy ending. A detail like Sophie’s romance with her (ex) therapist, for example, lets readers know that this character has some growing to do on this journey without costing her their attention or their sympathy. Sophie initially feels guilty about her sexual experimentation with Phin, and she calls Brandon, her ex-therapist and current significant other, to confess. He seems unconcerned with the infidelity, misdiagnosing her motivation and reassuring her that “When you get home, we’ll have a long talk and get you straightened out.”[33] Readers may quickly see, as Amy does, that Phin has better potential as a partner than Brandon, but until Sophie sees that for herself, readers may well have the sensation of feeling superior and knowing better than Sophie does.

The last two steps in a con, “give the mark something” and “get what you want and get out” raise interesting questions about reader response, the relationship between Crusie and her readership, and the relationship between romance readers and writers in general. In the first eleven pages of Temptation, for example, Crusie provides snappy dialogue, an engaging setting, a sympathetic heroine, a pesky sidekick, an infuriating villain (or two), and an oblique introduction to a worthy hero. In fact, in Sophie and Amy’s easy and erroneous dismissal of “the mayor” who must be as old as the signs with his name on them, Crusie foreshadows both Sophie’s tendency to misunderstand Phin and her accurate assessment of the importance of town, the Tuckers, and tradition in the story to come. As the first eleven pages deftly serve as a microcosm of the novel they launch, Crusie has in some ways been able to get what she wanted and get out. That is, she has both established and raised reader expectations, and, if the novel’s run on the New York Times Bestseller List is any indication, hooked her reader.

Perhaps the metaphor of romance and romance writing as a con works best when we consider it as a kind of courtship. Generic expectation dictates that romance writers will “stroke” their readers, offer them assurance in the story’s openings that they’ll get what they came for. With an established writer like Crusie, readers can trust the author, can rely on her intent, can have confidence in her ability to “deliver the goods” as she has so many times before.[34] In her capacity to deliver happy endings, Crusie meets genre expectations and readers are rewarded.

While such happy endings may be read as substantiating the genre and all of its potential to please readers, they also can be read as calling somewhat circumspect attention to the genre itself. In some ways those Happily Ever Afters that the genre promises, writers like Crusie deliver, and readers enjoy, are a version of the “three-card monte” at which Michael Dempsey and Davy Dempsey are particularly masterful. Michael teaches Tilda’s niece Nadine how the game is played, but Davy shows her how the game is beaten.

“I love it,” Nadine said. “It’s a sure thing.”

“There are no sure things.”

“Oh, yeah?” Nadine said. “You can’t beat me.”

Davy took a five out of his pocket and slapped it on the table. “Where’s yours?”

Nadine held out her hand to Ethan, and he sighed and dug a five out of his pocket and handed it to her. “You’ll get it back, Ethan,” she said.

“No you won’t, Ethan,” Davy said. “Deal ‘em.” He watched her shuffle the cards, show him the queen, and then palm it while she moved the rest around. For only having practiced a couple of hours, she was damn good.

“Okay,” Nadine said, still moving cards. “Now, where’s the queen?”

“Right here,” Davy said, putting his finger on the middle card.

“Well, let’s look and see,” Nadine said, smug with her queen up her sleeve.

“Let’s,” Davy said, keeping his finger on the middle card. He turned over the eight of clubs to the right and the four of spades to the left. “Will you look at that? Neither one is the queen, so it must be the middle one.” He took the two fives on the table.[35]

Davy beats the game by not looking under the third card, by not showing what isn’t there. The happy endings of romance fiction may work the same way. It might be an over-simplified ending to a category romance where the unworthy criminal and the worthy heroines get the same reward, as in Trust Me on This. It might be the blithe reassurance that a hero and heroine who have only known each other for three weeks, who have painfully different backgrounds and complicated families, will successfully blend into an ideal family unit—parents, child, dog, and Dove bars—as in Welcome to Temptation. Or it might be faith in a promise of commitment from two people with limited experience in keeping promises or commitments, as in Faking It. Trust me on this. Nothing but good times ahead. The happy ending is that queen, the unrevealed card, unless what really lies under that third card might be a Dorcas Finster painting.

If the relationship between a writer of romance fiction and a reader of the genre does share some qualities of the kind of courtship in a con or a romance, readers may never know that they have been scammed. Fraud investigators call this step “losing the mark”; “the victim is separated from the scam operation, often not realizing that she has been victimized.”[36] Double entendre aside, verbal “stroking” is not the only way that a scheme engages a victim’s physiological response: “swindlers commonly employ rewards that appeal to visceral factors when luring potential victims. [ . . . ] The common thread is simply an appeal to basic human desires.”[37]Desire can short-circuit deliberation: “visceral factors are often associated with a feeling of being ‘out of control’.  [. . . ]Thus, rational, considered deliberation is a small part of the decision process. Instead, action is driven by instinct and gut feelings, and careful analysis is abandoned.”[38] When Crusie’s heroes are in a state of sexual arousal, she often describes them as feeling as if they have “no blood left in the head.” This is as much a psychological description as a sexual one: watching Sophie work over the pool table wearing a tight pink dress and no underwear, Phin cannot think “straight,” despite the fact that Sophie is finally admitting that she’s crooked.[39]

Researchers Jeff Langenderfer and Terence A. Shimp observe that “With cognitive resources devoted to reward attention, people under the throes of visceral influence are more likely to ignore the nuances of the transaction and fail to decode the scam cues that a cooler, more cognitive evaluation might uncover” (770). That varying level of cognitive ability to discern a fraud in the face of desire might explain why Michael Dempsey sees immediately that Eve and Louise are the same woman, Davy sees it once his attraction to Eve is tempered by his connection with Tilda, and Simon never sees it at all. Like lust, Langenderfer and Shimp report that “visceral influences tend to produce decisions that are nearly devoid of cognitive deliberation, at least in the traditional sense” (769); Michael sums up the research with his own common-sense version of why Davy couldn’t see through Louise to Eve, “You were distracted. . . . Sex will do that to you.”[40] Perhaps sex will do that to readers, too.

In the ongoing albeit somewhat tired debate about the status and worth of romance fiction, those who argue that the genre is unhealthy, ideological escapism are frequently rebutted by readers and writers who claim that nothing that makes so many people happy can be inherently unhealthy or unworthy.[41] Over and over again the relationship between romance fiction, writer, and readers comes to a mutually satisfying conclusion for the players involved. In highlighting all the parallels between a con and a romance, Crusie has also called to our attention to the similarities between a con and romance fiction. Readers choose writers like Crusie because they trust the kind of book they will get; writers like Crusie have declared their good intentions and demonstrated their ability to deliver the goods: the Happily Ever Afters that work as long as no one gets a closer look under that third card. Romance fiction would then represent an escape in the sense that readers agree not to look too carefully at the endings, which might not be reassuring at all in a real-world context, just as something that looks exactly like a romance might turn out to be a con.[42]

In my opinion, the most important conclusion we might draw from the moral ambiguities of Crusie’s con novels is that readers are, in fact, choosing their part in the play. The overly optimistic endings of romance novels are not necessarily creating unrealistic fantasies in the minds of readers, nor reinscribing the subtle laws of patriarchal fathers. And, despite the declared good intentions of Crusie and other romance writers, not every reader will leave a romance novel uplifted and with a more optimistic outlook on life, certain there are “Nothing but good times ahead.” Some will, as Crusie has acknowledged, walk away. I would like to see our ongoing critical conversations about Crusie’s work and other popular romance embrace a more nuanced approach to reader response.

We can start with an acknowledgement that readers have willingly paid to play. We can consider the pleasures of escape into fantasy[43] without worrying that readers cannot distinguish between the real and the fantastic. We can factor in the physiological responses of laughter and arousal that romance reading may evoke. We can acknowledge that sometimes people find pleasure in being swindled or conned, especially when the stakes are not too high. Romance readers continue to buy in, risking their own five dollars for the pleasures of watching a character like Davy Dempsey handle the cards. Our critical examination of complex writers like Crusie can help us to continue to move the conversation from whether they should, to why they do.

Bibliography

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

Crusie, Jennifer. Faking It. New York: St. Martin’s, 2002. Print.

—. “Romancing Reality: The Power of Romance Fiction to Reinforce and Re-Vision the Real.” Jenny Crusie.com. Web. http://jennycrusie.com/essays/romancingreality.php (accessed June 16, 2008).

—. Trust Me on This. New York: Bantam, 1997. Print.

—. Welcome to Temptation. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000. Print.

Halttunen, Karen. Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830-1870. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982. Print.

Hankiss, Agnes. “Games Con Men Play: The Semiosis of Deceptive Interaction.” Journal of Communication 30 (1980): 104-12. Print.

Krentz, Jayne Ann, ed. Dangerous Men & Adventurous Women. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press,1992.Print.

Langenderfer, Jeff, and Terence A. Shimp. “Consumer Vulnerability to Scams, Swindles, and Fraud: A New Theory of Visceral Influences on Persuasion.” Psychology & Marketing Vol 18 (7). July 2001. 763-83. Print.

Modeleski, Tania. Loving With a Vengeance: Mass Produced Fantasies for Women, 2nd Ed. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.

O’Neal, Scott, J.D., “Interviewing Self-Confident Con Artists,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (March 2001): 16-21. Print.

Palmer, Diana. “Let Me Tell You About My Readers.” Dangerous Men & Adventurous Women. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. 155-158. Print.

Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature, 2nd Ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991. Print.

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

Walsh, Patrick D. “Scams.” Encyclopedia of White-Collar & Corporate Crime. Web. http://O-sage-ereference.com.libsys.ewu.edu/corporatecrime (accessed August 12, 2008).


Thanks to Eric Selinger, Rachel Toor, and two generous anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback on earlier versions of this article.

[1] For a list of romance novels featuring characters who are cons, see the website All About Romance: http://www.likesbooks.com/cons.html

[2] Scott O’Neal, J.D., “Interviewing Self-Confident Con Artists,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (March 2001): 16.

[3] Jennifer Crusie, Trust Me on This (New York: Bantam Books, 1997), 1. All subsequent references will be to this edition.

[4]Trust Me on This, 145-46.

[5]Trust Me on This, 207.

[6] On her blog, Crusie recently distinguished her various publications among the genres of “chick lit,” “romance,” “women’s fiction,” “romantic adventure,” and “paranormal romance.” She calls the stand-alone novels published by St. Martin’s Press, “women’s fiction”: “sometimes… romance, but…always about a woman’s emotional journey”

(http://www.arghink.com/2010/04/08/trade-paperback-reissues-the-covers/#more-3002). For the purposes of this paper, I’ll be focusing on the romance elements of the two SMP stand-alones I consider.

[7] Jennifer Crusie, Welcome to Temptation (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), 237. All subsequent references will be to this edition.

[8]Welcome to Temptation, 212.

[9]Welcome to Temptation, 343.

[10]Welcome to Temptation, 327.

[11]Welcome to Temptation, 352.

[12]Welcome to Temptation, 358.

[13] See Regis, A Natural History of the Romance Novel.

[14]Welcome to Temptation, 381.

[15] Although Crusie does not identify this line in her list of movie quotes for the novel (http://www.jennycrusie.com/trivia/moviequotes.php, accessed 08/01/2008), this line is resonant of the many declarations of “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” in George Lucas’s screenplays for the Star Wars films. In that way it serves as a reminder that often the Dempseys are, in one way or another, saying a line and/or reading a script. Phin has usually missed such references, but here he is offering more of the same.

[16] Jennifer Crusie, Faking It (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002), 317. All subsequent references will be to this edition.

[17]Faking It, 291.

[18]Faking It, 247.

[19]Faking It, 264.

[20] In criminal proceedings such situations can be prosecuted as “Intent to defraud.” [Scott O’Neal, J.D., “Interviewing Self-Confident Con Artists,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (March 2001): 18.]

[21] See, for example, Welcome to Temptation, 39.

[22]Faking It, 367.

[23] See Pamela Regis, A Natural History of the Romance Novel (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), 14.

[24] Read from one perspective, Tilda is really none of those people, as all of those names (Scarlet, Celeste, Veronica, and so on) are identities she can put on and take off. Who, then, is Davy marrying? From another perspective, however, Crusie is also calling attention to the fact that Tilda is all of those women, and each name or nickname represents an aspect of her whole person that Davy knows, respects and loves. (412)

[25] Agnes Hankiss, “Games Con Men Play: The Semiosis of Deceptive Interaction,” Journal of Communication 30 (1980): 105.

[26]Faking It, 330.

[27] Jennifer Crusie, “Romancing Reality: The Power of Romance Fiction to Reinforce and Re-Vision the Real.” Jenny Crusie website.

[28]Welcome to Temptation, 7.

[29] Criminal investigators and other social researchers have outlined the regular steps of a fraud. See for example, Patrick D. Walsh, “Scams,” Encylopedia of White-Collar & Corporate Crime.

[30]Welcome to Temptation, 1.

[31] See, for example, notes on Crusie’s website: “She lives on the Ohio River where she often stares at the ceiling and counts her blessings.” http://www.arghink.com/

[32]Welcome to Temptation, 1.

[33]Welcome to Temptation, 103.

[34] As an example of Crusie’s consideration of reader expectations, see the discussion on “Reader Rage” on her website, where she reports her own “rage”-filled reaction to being let down by two of her favorite writers and asks her readers what makes them “walk away” from a book; http://www.arghink.com/2009/11/23/reader-rage/#more-2083

[35]Faking It, 281-282.

[36] Patrick D. Walsh, “Scams,” Encylopedia of White-Collar & Corporate Crime.

[37] Jeff Langenderfer and Terence A. Shimp, “Consumer Vulnerability to Scams, Swindles, and Fraud: A New Theory of Visceral Influences on Persuasion,” Psychology & Marketing 18 (2001): 768.

[38]Jeff Langenderfer and Terence A. Shimp, 769.

[39]Welcome to Temptation, 311.

[40]Faking It, 330.

[41] See, for example, many of the entries in Mussell and Tuñón’s North American Romance Writers.

[42] Crusie has used John. G Cawelti’s phrase “moral fantasy” to describe this dynamic. Cawelti writes, “these formulaic worlds are constructions that can be described as moral fantasies constituting an imaginary world in which the audience can encounter a maximum of excitement without being confronted with an overpowering sense of the insecurity and danger that accompany such forms of excitement in reality.” John G. Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 16.

[43] See, for example, Diana Palmer’s “Let Me Tell You About My Readers” in Krentz et al. Dangerous Men & Adventurous Women (155-57).

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“Jennifer Crusie’s Literary Lingerie” by Laura Vivanco

Jennifer Crusie has stated that “the details of the way people present themselves are heavy with meaning” (“Romancing” 86) and this is certainly true of the lingerie she depicts in her own novels. Lingerie plays a significant role in many of her romances from Sizzle, “the first book I wrote even though it was published as my third” (Crusie “Sizzle”), through to Bet Me, which she has described as her “last classic romance” (Jorgenson). Its functions and symbolism vary: in Bet Me sexy underwear is advocated as a way to catch a husband but in Anyone But You a padded bra forms a barrier to intimacy; lingerie deceives and is discarded in Tell Me Lies but speaks eloquently about its wearers’ sexual desires in Crazy for You.

If, as Alison Lurie has argued, “clothing is a language” (3) then the words uttered by underwear are surely among the most intimate for although “such garments have had a utilitarian function the fact that they may have also served an erotic purpose is frankly recognized as a social phenomenon” (Willett & Cunnington 11).[1] In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries

[m]arried women began to assume the role of sexual partner; reproduction and sexuality were no longer so closely connected because of altered moral attitudes and the availability of contraception. A number of women underlined their more liberal morality by, among other things, wearing decorative and seductive underwear. (Thesander 105)

Lurie has observed that “Often […] it is not until we see this private costume that we have a real clue as to its wearer’s erotic identity” (246). By describing the lingerie choices of her heroines Crusie can therefore convey important information about their sexuality which might not be apparent from their outerwear.

The cut, fabric and colour of a particular item of lingerie all play a part in shaping its meaning. Tell Me Lies opens as “Maddie Faraday reached under the front seat of her husband’s Cadillac and pulled out a pair of black lace underpants. They weren’t hers” (1). The design of this particular set of underpants, intended as “a plant, something so shocking Maddie would have to confront Brent” (332), emphasises the purpose it serves: “black lace crotchless” (23) underpants are supremely functional only in the context of a sexual relationship. The statement they make about Brent’s adultery is given additional force by their fabric and colour.

C. Willett and Phillis Cunnington, commenting on the introduction and widespread adoption of coloured underwear, observe that “For centuries ‘white’ had been recognized as a symbol of the chaste ‘pure mind’; it has no emotional tone. It represents the antithesis of erotic colours” (236). In Crusie’s Crazy for You Bill, the anti-hero, associates “Plain white cotton” with a muted sex life and he would prefer to think of Quinn, the heroine of the novel, as “clean, white, plain, good” (218) with underwear to match. He rakes through her lingerie drawer, hating all the items which are neither “plain” nor “white,” until at last he finds a pair of underpants which although not “plain white cotton, they were lacy and brief, bikini pants—not the kind that really covered her up, […] were white” (218). White cotton underwear has similarly chaste connotations for Maddie, the heroine of Tell Me Lies: she “stripped off her white cotton underpants and dropped them on the floor. Nobody committed adultery in white cotton underpants” (99). Lace is clearly more daring than cotton, which is why, when asked if she has “anything sexy or fun in your whole wardrobe” (23), Emily, the heroine of Sizzle, claims to own “some white lace. Sort of” (23). Her friend Jane’s response, “You may already be too old to wear pink lace. Mentally you’re already in gray flannel long johns” (23), suggests that the wearing of “gray flannel long johns” would symbolise a total renunciation of sexual activity. It also indicates that white lace is not as “sexy or fun” as pink lace.[2] The sexiness of pink lace does, however, depend on its shade: Lurie observes that “As more and more white (purity, innocence) is added, the sensual content diminishes and finally disappears” (196).

Later in the novella Emily buys some pink underwear and its “sensual content” is evident from its lack of pallor: it is not a light, innocent, girlish pink, but a “hot-pink” (18), a “wicked pink lace” (73) which she wears when she wants to try something a little “kinky” (73). It seems to assert a strong, sexual femininity with a symbolism more akin to that of red. Red brings to mind danger, heat and red light districts: “bright scarlet and crimson garments have traditionally been associated both with aggression and with desire” (Lurie 195). In Sizzle ruby-red, in combination with black, is used in the packaging of a perfume which indicates that the wearer has “a little bit of devil” (89) in her. Black is less aggressive than red, but neither childlike nor pure: “white suggests innocence, black suggests sophistication” (Lurie 188). In Sizzle when “Emily thought about Richard. Sex with Richard” (33) she almost immediately decides “I need some black lace underwear” (33). On top of the black lingerie she wears “her best short black dress” (34) and then “congratulat[es] herself on how sophisticated and adult she looked” (34-35).

Here Emily’s outwear transmits roughly the same message as her underwear but this is not always the case, for as Martin Scott has observed,

[i]f our clothes, our outer image, mediate between us and the world, then our underwear mediates between us and our clothes; we define our relationship to our outer image by what we wear under it, the interior fashion only we and a chosen few know about. This would be the case with the corporate lawyer who wears red satin bra and panties under the painfully gray dress suit […]. Underwear reminds us that there is a level the outer world does not fathom, and does not even dare admit exists.

In certain circumstances a woman’s lingerie can therefore serve as an undercover protest or a reminder of aspects of her personality which cannot be expressed openly. In Crazy for You Quinn’s underwear contrasts with the image presented by her work clothes. Bill, her ex-boyfriend who has broken into her house, knows that it expresses a sexuality that he “does not even dare admit exists”:

Quinn’s underwear. My secret life, she’d called it. Absurd colors, screaming pinks and metallic golds and acid greens and—

He plunged his hands into the drawer, into the lace and the satin and the silk—“I have to dress like a dockworker to teach art,” she’d said once, “but I can be all dressed up underneath”—all the stuff he didn’t really like, not really, all those weird, bright colors, that wasn’t how he wanted Quinn, bright and hot; his Quinn was clean, white, plain, good—he clenched his fists around the vile stuff […].

He threw the underwear back in the drawer as if it were unclean, contaminated, it contaminated her, he wanted to rip it up, shred it, burn it so it never touched her again. (218)

Bill is evidently threatened and disgusted by Quinn’s lingerie: it asserts her longing for an exuberant, varied sex life.

In Manhunting the heroine’s outerwear also presents a contrast to her lingerie: “She put on some of the new lacy underwear Jessie had picked out for her, and then covered it sensibly with beige shorts and a white sleeveless blouse” (47). Looking at her “dressed in those blah colors” (54) Jake concludes that “There was no heat in her” (54). He changes his mind, however, when a somewhat tipsy Kate shows him what lies beneath the “white sleeveless blouse”:

It was really hot in the sun, but could she go topless? Noooo. And why? Because she was female. Life was sexist. And really, really unfair. She looked over at Jake, cool and comfortable and shirtless, and decided to strike a blow for women everywhere. This is for all the hot women, she thought, and took off her blouse. She was wearing a peach satin and white lace bra […]. It covered, she reasoned, a lot more of her than a bikini top. She felt much better. […]

So much for sexless. Jake shook his head as he watched her […] there must have been something about Kate he’d missed, because he hadn’t pegged her as a satin-and-lace type. Plain white cotton would have been his guess. (56-57)

Kate’s inadvertent verbal double entendre, “hot women,” parallels the unintended message her lingerie sends to Jake. He is correct in his reading of Kate’s bra; by the end of the novel he will have received abundant proof that she is not sexless. Nonetheless, her intentions here were feminist rather than flirtatious and the scene therefore demonstrates that, as Lurie warns, “If a complete grammar of clothing is ever written it will have to deal not only with […] dishonesty, but with […] ambiguity, error, self-deception, misinterpretation, irony and framing” (25).

The feminist bra-burning of the 1960s provides a particularly noteworthy example of the reframing or deliberate misinterpretation of underwear. The feminists whose actions led to the coining of the term “bra-burners” did not, in fact, set fire to any bras, but they did include them in a group of objects which were chosen for disposal during the protests against the Miss America beauty contest:

Bras were only one of many items that were tossed into a “freedom trash can” on the boardwalk in Atlantic City on September 7, 1968: also included were girdles, high heels, cosmetics, eyelash curlers, wigs, issues of Cosmopolitan, Playboy, and Ladies Home Journal. (Dow 130-31)

It was the bras, however, which caught the imagination of the media and this was no doubt due in large measure to the sexual connotations of underwear.[3] As with Kate’s display of her lingerie, the feminists’ disposal of their bras was not interpreted by viewers in the way the women had intended: “Bra-burning, it was implied, was the desperate bid for attention by neurotic, unattractive women who could not garner it through more acceptable routes” (Dow 129).

Emily, the heroine of Sizzle, is never considered attention-seeking or unattractive but her underwear also becomes a site of conflict between feminism and patriarchy. The novella opens as she is being informed by her boss, George, that henceforth her budget will be controlled by Richard Parker; she observes that “I’m working for narrow-minded patriarchal creeps” (7). George, who is “short, fat and balding” (5) and leans “back in the chair while I stand at attention” (5), is literally and metaphorically the unattractive face of patriarchy whereas Richard is its most seductive one:

The door at the other end of the conference room opened, and Richard Parker came in, tall, dark and serious. And indisputably the best-looking man Emily had ever seen. Distinguished. Beautifully dressed. Powerful. And sexy. […] For everyone there, Richard Parker radiated power and authority. (12-13)

Richard is, in appearance, a stock romance hero, one of the “‘dark, tall and gravely handsome’ men, all mysterious strangers or powerful bosses” (Snitow 248).[4] He escapes being a cliché, however, due to his awareness of the image he presents:

Without realizing it, she’d let her eyes narrow as she looked at him, so that when he gazed idly around […] he saw her look of undiluted antagonism. His eyes widened slightly, and then he grinned at her as if he was seeing her for the first time, a real smile that accepted her challenge and recognized her as an equal, sharing the absurdity of the moment and of his own new-kid-on-the-block power play. (15)

It takes some time, and considerable effort on Emily’s part, to ensure that he fully recognises her as an equal and listens to her in both their personal and professional lives; the developments in their relationship are accompanied by descriptions of Emily’s underwear.

After one meeting Emily feels only slightly more antagonistic towards her panty hose than she does towards Richard:

“How did it go?” Jane asked, following her into the office.

“Not well, but not badly, either.” Emily kicked off her shoes. “I really hate panty hose. They itch.” (22)

Emily actively resists oppression but the struggle wearies her and she finds relief in throwing away her hated panty hose:

Emily kicked off her shoes and sat in the gloom of her office. I’m so tired, she thought. And my panty hose are driving me nuts. I hate panty hose. They’re an invention of the devil. I’m never wearing them again. She took them off as a gesture of independence and threw them away. There was a run in one leg, anyway.

Instantly she felt better, cooler. She leaned back in her chair and spread her legs apart to cool them, reveling in the relief from the scratchy heat of the hose. (56)

This throwing off of an oppressive garment soon gives rise to sexual thoughts: “It reminded her of other ways of feeling good. It reminded her that she was still so [sexually] frustrated from the night before she wanted to kill” (56). Emily’s freedom from panty hose also pleases Richard sexually, though this was not her intention, and in a scene which may be the most memorable in the novella,[5] Emily is dominated professionally by George (via the telephone) and sexually by Richard, who is under her desk:

“Stop it.” Emily tried to shove him back with her free hand.

“Now, Emily,” George said. “Relax. I’m not interfering with your project.”

“Relax.” Richard put his mouth against the softness of her inner thigh.

Emily moved her hand to his head and tried to push him away. Great day I picked to stop wearing panty hose and start wearing stockings, she thought wildly. Oh, God, what is he doing? We’re in my office, for heaven’s sake.

“Emily?” George said. “Emily, don’t be difficult about this.”

She twined her fingers in Richard’s hair and jerked his head up. He winced and pulled her hand away. “The garters are a good idea,” he said. “Don’t ever wear anything else.” And then he lowered his head again, clamping her hand at her side. (62-63)

Emily’s “gesture of independence” is thus subverted: having chosen to wear stockings, she is now commanded not to “wear anything else.” The desk scene also serves to remind the reader of the similarities between George and Richard, the two figures of authority and patriarchal oppression. The two men echo each other, each telling Emily to “Relax,” and over-riding her objections. Although they both appreciate her talents, neither is willing to treat her with the respect they would accord an equal: Richard is clearly delighted with Emily’s body and underwear and, in the first scene of the novella, George admits that Emily is “smart, and you have a sixth sense about marketing that I’d kill to have” (6), but both ignore her objections. Although Emily enjoys sex with Richard she is aware that she is being metaphorically as well as literally manipulated and, as she makes clear to Jane, she is disturbed by the implications of this:

“Richard is always the one in control. If I make a decision, he approves of it or says no. If he makes a decision, he just informs me of it. If I say something he disagrees with or feels isn’t important, he ignores me. Today is a perfect example. I was on the phone, and he just came around the desk and put his hand up my skirt.” She closed her eyes for a moment at the memory.

“And you loved it.”

“That’s not the point. The point is that he always decides everything, and he never listens to me. I want a little power here, too.” (67)

Emily and Jane at last devise a plan to make Richard listen to Emily by showing him how it feels to be dominated and to have one’s opinions remain unheard. Emily’s underwear is essential to the plan’s success.

Having agreed to “do exactly what I say” (77) in the bedroom, Richard “looked bored and a little chilly” (78). Then Emily’s underwear piques his interest:

She drew her fingertips up her leg, pulling her skirt back over her thigh to reveal her garters, never taking her eyes off Richard. The garters were pink.

Richard began to look more interested. (79)

A little later she is

wondering if any of this was exciting Richard in the slightest. […] When she opened her eyes, Richard was still looking at her.

She unsnapped her garters with one hand.

Richard was definitely interested. (79)

If all Emily had planned was a striptease, it would merely prove that her body and her underwear could attract male sexual attention, which is something she, and the reader, already knows it would. What follows is the use of a stocking in a way which transforms it into part of another “gesture of independence” (56):

[S]he wrapped the stocking around his wrists and pulled them back.

“What are you doing?” He tried to jerk his hands away, but she’d already tied the ends of the stocking to the brass bed frame. […]

“This isn’t funny, Emily.” He yanked at his bonds. “Let me go.”

“What?” Emily asked, smiling at him gently. “I didn’t hear.” (81)

Richard does indeed learn his lesson and on the last page of the novella, with his hand “cupping her lace-covered breast” (92), he states that he’s listening. In an earlier scene Richard had ignored Emily’s advice about how to undo the bra:

[H]e slid his hands beneath her back to find her bra clasp.

“It’s in front,” she whispered, but he still ran his fingers along her back. “Richard, the hook is in front.”

“What?” he murmured into her ear, not listening.

She closed her eyes in irritation […]. She unhooked her bra herself. (52)

This time “‘The hook is in the front,’ Emily said, and he unfastened it” (92); with this unfastening, new prospects open up for their personal relationship.

Clearly a little light bondage is not going to topple patriarchy. It is, however, indicative of a change in Emily. As she observes early on in the novella:

Change him, Emily thought. No, better yet, change me. I’m in this position because I’m modest, cooperative and polite. Because I’m modest, cooperative and polite, I’m working for a vain, obstructive rude man like George. And as if George wasn’t enough, now I have Richard Parker, the Budget Hun. (24)

In using her lingerie to tie Richard up, Emily demonstrates that she is no longer “cooperative and polite.” The final exchange between Richard and Henry Evadne, the owner of the company Emily, George and Richard work for, vindicates Emily’s new assertiveness:

“[…] if Emily feels strongly about the product placement, we will, of course, go with it.” He smiled tightly at Richard. “We don’t know how she does it, but we’ve learned that when it comes to marketing, the best thing we can do is listen to Emily and do exactly what she wants.”

“Yes.” Richard smiled. “I’ve learned that, too.”

“Good.” Henry leaned back, satisfied. “You make a good team. […]”. (91)

In the scenes described above, lingerie is a site of conflict and Emily eventually uses it to assert her power and gain equality. In the professional sphere, however, she is still subordinate to Henry, whom she pleases by devising strategies to sell other women products which may promise more than they can deliver.

Emily admits that “We’re selling emotions here, the sizzle not the steak” (21). The advertising for many products creates “sizzle” by implying that they have semi-magical properties:

In civilized society today belief in the supernatural powers of clothing […] remains widespread, though we denigrate it with the name “superstition.” Advertisements announce that improbable and romantic events will follow the application of a particular sort of grease to our faces, hair or bodies; they claim that members of the opposite (or our own) sex will be drawn to us by the smell of a particular soap. Nobody believes those ads, you may say. Maybe not, but we behave as though we did: look in your bathroom cabinet. (Lurie 29-30)

Emily claims that the perfume, Sizzle, has special powers: “It makes strong men putty in my hands” (Sizzle 92). This is not a literal assertion that it is a magic potion but Emily’s earlier use of Sizzle in the bondage scene (in conjunction with carefully chosen “wicked pink lace” (73) lingerie, candles and food) does take on the appearance of a magical ritual when read in the context of her words about how Sizzle will be marketed:

“You’ll note that the bottle [for Sizzle] is the same as Paradise [another perfume], but it’s black, instead of white, with a ruby-glass stopper, instead of a diamond-glass stopper.” […]

“We’re confident that the consumer will make not only the connection with Paradise, but will also subconsciously pick up the dualism here. She’ll wear Paradise when she wants to feel sexy, but sophisticated and in control, Sizzle when she wants to feel sexy and wanton. […]

“And since there’s a little bit of angel and a little bit of devil in every woman, every woman will need both these perfumes,” Emily said. (88-89)

The white bottles of Paradise match the name with a colour associated with spirituality and purity: “In the Christian church, white is the color of heavenly joy and purity […]. In secular life white has always stood for purity and innocence” (Lurie 185). In contrast, black has long been associated with the more malevolent supernatural powers: “The Furies, the three avenging goddesses of Greek drama, always dress in black, and so do witches, warlocks and other practitioners of the Black Arts” (Lurie 188).

Emily incorporates the perfume which expresses the “bit of devil in every woman” into the ritual which Jane has promised “will work. I guarantee you, this time, he’ll listen” (73). Although the references to hell, “What the hell are you going to do?” (77) and evil, “wicked pink lace” (73), as well as Richard’s cry of “Oh, God” (81) and his unease with Emily’s actions, “Don’t ever do that again […] You damn near killed me” (84), can all be read (and, it appears, are uttered by the characters) as mere figures of speech, the allusions to the spiritual realm reinforce the magical subtext of the scene. Threatened with “the spiked heel” (78) of Emily’s black shoe, naked and tied up, Richard takes on the aspect of a sacrificial victim in a satanic rite. Emily’s choice of “black spike heels with open toes” (78) and a “little black slip” (80) reinforce the impression that something occult is taking place. The transition back towards goodness is marked by Emily untying Richard and letting him inside her body, “he felt so good inside her. The feel of his body hot and strong and hard against her, inside her, pushed her out of the limbo of lust she’d been drifting through” (84, my emphasis) and the next morning she prepares food which makes the kitchen smell “like heaven” (85) and perhaps both literally and metaphorically removes any bad taste left by the black magic.

On this occasion Sizzle and the “wicked pink lace” (73) lingerie fulfill the promises made by their colouring but in general the magic of lingerie, if it has one, is dependent on the power the wearer and the viewer give it and for this reason scenes of seduction do not always succeed. Prior to her first dinner-date with Richard, Emily asked Jane to go out and buy her some underwear:

The evening started well. Emily brushed her hair in a cloud around her shoulders and wore her new black lace underwear, one of two sets Jane had splurged on with her money.

“Always have a backup set,” Jane had told her. “You never know, he may rip this stuff off you with his teeth in the throes of passion.”

Emily visualized it. “Sounds good.” (34)[6]

Unfortunately for Emily it is her hair, not her lingerie, which seems most likely to be ripped off that evening: “She pulled away from him, holding on to his arm so he wouldn’t jerk her hair out. A lock of her hair was wound around his sleeve button” (39). As a result Emily develops a bad headache and declines to participate in any further sexual activity. In Crazy for You, Darla has made even more of an effort in preparation for sex:

Darla stared in her bathroom mirror, appalled. Forget that the thing she had on was called a merry widow, not the best omen under the circumstances. Forget that it was black lace and scratchy, forget that it was so tight her breasts stood out like they were propped on a shelf […]. Concentrate on the fact that she looked like a rogue dominatrix. […]

She let her hands drop and tried to look less angry. It was the anger that was doing it, she decided. The anger that she was having to try this hard to seduce her husband, to wear this stupid lace thing that Quinn assured her was sexy. (128-29)

Max initially responds by holding and kissing Darla but he then breaks off to discuss her actions and they have a row. After this Darla “peeled the merry widow off […] yanked on her long flannel nightgown” (130) and concludes that she is “[j]ust not a sexy woman” (130).[7]

Although lingerie lacks any intrinsic magical powers, it can have a significant physical effect on the women who wear it. When wearing the black lace “merry widow,” for example, Darla’s waist is “cinched tighter than usual, smaller, so that his hands on her waist made her feel sexy” (130). Most modern lingerie cannot create sensual effects as intense as those produced by a corset:

Tight-lacing […] heightens sexuality by quickening the action of the lungs. […] Many women experience inhibition of breathing, on a swing or by other means, as erotic, ‘breathtaking’. […] Elimination of abdominal in favour of pectoral breathing creates, moreover, movement about the breasts, which may be imagined constantly palpitating with desire. […]

The spasms to which the body is subject during orgasm involve, of course, an often violent quickening of breathing, sensations of breathlessness, heaving of the chest, and contraction of the belly, all of which may be erotically enhanced by manual pressure at the waist, and artificially induced by means of a corset. (Kunzle 18)

Nor can lingerie produce the physical effect of the fictional perfume in Sizzle:

“[…] Suppose we put something in this stuff to make it really sizzle? […] Tingle. Only with heat. A woman wears perfume on the warmest parts of her body—the pulse points. Suppose when she touched the perfume to those places she felt a subtle heat and tingle. It would make her feel excited. Exciting. It would feel like. . .”

“Foreplay.” (29)

Lingerie can, however, be used in foreplay and have a sensual effect on the wearer: as Emily seduces and dominates Richard she “stroked the inside of her thigh with her fingertips, feeling them glide across the smoothness of the nylon, closing her eyes, trying to concentrate on the sensation […]. Surprisingly enough, it was beginning to excite her” (79). Later she leans forwards, “her breasts almost spilling out of the lace. She stopped for a moment, savoring the feel of their weight against the brief bra” (82). Lingerie, then, can in itself give a woman physical pleasure.

This positive aspect of lingerie may, however, be offset by the negative effect of lingerie advertising which encourages the viewer to feel that her body is imperfect. As Rosalind Coward observes

The ideal promoted by our culture is pretty scarce in nature […]. Only the mass of advertising images, glamour photographs and so on makes us believe that just about all women have this figure. […]

Somewhere along the line, most women know that the image is impossible, and corresponds to the wishes of our culture rather than being actually attainable. We remain trapped by the image, though. (45)

Thus, although the images of women’s bodies used in lingerie adverts can create anxiety and feelings of inadequacy, female viewers may nonetheless perceive the lingerie itself as a means to attain a look more closely approaching the ideal. In Manhunting Kate meets a woman who does have one of those few perfect bodies:

Miss Craft, young, blond, and built like a Barbie doll, had eyes of cornflower blue, a tilted-up nose, and a genuinely sweet smile on her lovely full lips. She looked about nineteen.

Great, Kate thought. My competition. I bet nothing on her droops. I bet she doesn’t even wear underwear. (30)

Kate would seem to believe that only a woman “built like a Barbie doll” is free from the need to wear underwear. Nina, the heroine of Crusie’s Anyone But You, demonstrates how concerns about having an imperfect body may convince a woman that she will be undesirable, and therefore unlovable, without the concealment and support provided by lingerie. Nina hides behind her “Red lace Incredibra” (100), a bra so padded it is “round and shapely without her. It practically had cleavage without her. […] It sort of pushes everything together and then shoves it up” (100).[8] Although Nina eventually plucks up the courage to have sex with Alex, she steadfastly refuses to let him see her breasts; her friend Charity is astonished to discover that Nina “slept with this guy for two months, and […] never took your bra off with the lights on” (212). Charity had previously told Nina that “The real problem is that you don’t believe Alex could love you because your body is forty years old and your face has some wrinkles. […] You don’t believe in unconditional love” (144).

According to Coward

Self-image in this society is enmeshed with judgments about desirability. And because desirability has been elevated to being the crucial reason for sexual relations, it sometimes appears to women that the whole possibility of being loved and comforted hangs on how their appearance will be received. (78)

Max, a gynaecologist and Alex’s brother, blames the media and the fashion industry for making women feel this way:

They look at magazines and see all those damn seventeen-year-old anorexics in push-up bras, or they go to the movies and see actresses with tummy tucks and enough silicone to start a new valley, and then they look at their own perfectly good bodies and decide their sex lives are over. […] And if you tell them their bodies are normal and attractive, they think you’re being nice […] Sometimes, I swear to God, I’d like to set fire to the fashion industry. (158)

Germaine Greer, writing in 1970, said much the same thing:

Women are so brainwashed about the physical image that they should have that, despite popular fiction on the point, they rarely undress with éclat. They are often apologetic about their bodies, considered in relation to that plastic object of desire whose image is radiated throughout the media. […] The woman who complains that her behind is droopy does not want to be told, ‘I don’t care, because I love you,’ but ‘Silly girl, it’s a perfect shape, you can’t see it like I can.’ (261)

Crusie’s Anyone But You, despite being a romance and therefore “popular fiction,” gives us a heroine who does not “undress with éclat” and who, when she expresses concern about her droopy body, is told by her male partner that he doesn’t care “if it’s on the floor. I want you naked now” (185). It takes Nina time to realise that Alex does indeed love her and find her sexually attractive despite the fact that her body is not perfect according to the standards set by the media. Once she has accepted that this is the case, however, she discards the Incredibra, stating that “There was nothing wrong with her body. All right, it was softer than it had been, and her waist was thicker than it had been, and nothing about it could be called perky, but it was a good healthy body, and Alex loved it” (218). Only then can she stand “naked in front of him, with all the living-room lights on” (219).

Nina’s rejection of the Incredibra marks her acceptance of both her body and Alex’s love. Lingerie is also discarded at an emotional turning-point in Tell Me Lies. When Maddie decides to get “rid of the old Maddie completely” (322-23) she throws caution and her clothes to the wind:

[S]he took off her scarf and held it above her head and let the wind blow it away […] she stripped her T-shirt over her head and let that go in the wind, too […] and […] pulled her bra off over her head and threw it in his lap where it immediately blew back over to her side and out of the car. (324)

The final paragraphs of this novel, which opened with Maddie’s discovery of the shocking black lace crotchless underpants, show us Maddie once again holding a pair of woman’s underpants. This time, however, they are her own underpants and instead of concealing them she puts them on display as an indication that there will be no more lies. They announce, to both her neighbours and her lover, C. L., that she is unashamed of being a sexually active unmarried woman:

She stripped off her baby blue bikini underpants and left them on the hall floor for him to find, and then reconsidered and went out on the front porch and hung them on the doorknob instead, waving to Mrs. Crosby, who was squinting at her from her own porch. Then she went back inside. She was sure finding the pants would have an electrifying effect on an already electrified C. L. (347)[9]

Here nakedness is not just about “electrifying” a lover; it also indicates Maddie’s desire for truth and can be read as a rejection of the culture of shame which has surrounded her.

Nakedness is also associated with truthfulness and a lack of shame in Faking It where, in an echo of the words in Genesis describing Adam and Eve who, prior to the Fall, were “both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed” (Genesis 2: 25), Tilda tells Davy her secrets and “I love you, she thought and kissed him back, naked and unashamed” (317). Tilda is revealing not just her body but also the truth about her family’s history of art forgery. The knowledge Nina tries to hide may seem more trivial: it is merely the truth that ageing has changed her body. To Nina, however, this is a shameful secret which she is desperate to conceal because age, as indicated by Jane’s comment about “gray flannel long johns” (Sizzle 23), is often assumed to bring with it a lack of both desire and desirability.[10]

Although Nina’s Incredibra is worn in an attempt to conceal the truth from masculine eyes, she acquired it as a result of emotional openness with another woman. Having asked her friend Charity to help “rev up my image” (99), Charity obliged by selecting a variety of garments for Nina, including “Red lace panties. Red lace Incredibra” (100). When Crusie’s female characters are friendly with each other they not infrequently discuss underwear. In Manhunting Kate arrives at her holiday destination thinking about “the fancy underwear that Jessie had talked her into buying as inspiration” (27) in Kate’s search to find a husband. Later we see the formation of a new female friendship: Kate “and Nancy talked on through the evening […] comparing life stories and falling into the kind of friendship that women with the same outlook on life can form easily and permanently” (113). When Jake becomes aware of how much information they’ve shared, including details of his financial involvement with Nancy’s business “Jake winced. ‘Did she show you her underwear, too?’” (122). Jake does not mean this literally but there is clearly an association in his mind between female intimacy and lingerie. In Crazy for You, Quinn advises Darla to wear black lace to revitalise her marriage:

“[…] maybe you should go for something really in-your-face.”

“How about I grab him by the throat and say, ‘Fuck me or die’?” Darla said.

“I was thinking more about black lace,” Quinn said. “You know, something incredibly tacky. The kind of thing guys like and we laugh at.” (122)

In Sizzle Jane describes the activities she’s going to engage in while wearing the pink lingerie:

Emily sighed. “Sounds like fun.”

Jane pounced. “You buy some, too.” (19)

Nanette, the mother of Bet Me’s heroine, discusses lingerie’s role in catching and keeping a husband and informs her daughter that

“[…] [y]our prime years are past you, and you’re wearing white cotton. […] If you’re wearing white cotton lingerie, you’ll feel like white cotton, and you’ll act like white cotton, and white cotton cannot get a man, nor can it keep one. Always wear lace.”

“You’d make a nice pimp,” Min said […]. “But honestly, Mother, this conversation is getting old. I’m not even sure I want to get married, and you’re critiquing my underwear because it’s not good enough bait. […]” (63)

There is a difference, however, between Nanette’s approach to lingerie and that of Kate, Jessie, Nina, Charity, Darla and Quinn. It may seem a trivial one given that Kate is husband-hunting, Nina is dating, and Darla is trying to improve her marriage, but it is a difference which is important to Crusie who

graduated from high school in the sixties. […] The madness that defined women’s lives back then was based on four Big Lies:

  1. A woman wasn’t a real woman until she was married.
  2. A woman had to distort herself and deny her own identity in order to catch a man to marry. (Remember girdles, spike heels, inane laughter, playing dumb, and flunking math?)
  3. Any husband was better than no husband.
  4. Staying in a bad marriage was better than divorce because God forbid a woman should be unmarried again once she’d finally achieved the goal.

[…] Writing and living are about us, about who we are and what we want, about satisfying our needs as individuals, about listening to our hearts. Please note, I am not saying give up publication (or marriage) entirely; I’m saying give it up as a goal. (“A Writer”)

For Nanette, a woman of Crusie’s generation, lingerie is not a way for woman to express her personality or obtain pleasure; she only considers its function in terms of the “goal” of marriage.

Nanette is correct in assuming that coloured, lacy lingerie will attract a man’s attention: when Cal “looked down the v-neck of her [Min’s] loose red sweater and saw a lot of lush round flesh in tight red lace” (95) he felt “a little light-headed” (95). Min notices:

“You’re looking down my sweater.”

“You’re leaning over. There’s all that red lace right there.”

“Lace is good, huh?” Min said.

“Oh, yeah.”

“My mother wins again,” Min said. (96)

Nanette has not, however, really won: Cal finds Min attractive regardless of what she wears and Cynthie, his ex-girlfriend, was the very thin and beautiful possessor of highly sensual lingerie.[11] In one of the final scenes of the book Min wears “a strapless black lace nightgown” (359) and Cal states that “I like this thing you’re not wearing. But I still want a chance to rip your sweats off you, too” (362). To Cal, Min looks “wonderful” (187) even in her “godawful sweats” (187). As in Crazy for You, it is made clear that sexy lingerie cannot hold together a troubled relationship and, as in Anyone But You, neither a lack of sexy underwear nor a less-than-perfect body will damage a sexual relationship based on true love.

Regardless of its reception, in Crusie’s fiction even the flimsiest piece of lingerie can be “heavy with meaning” (“Romancing” 86). This meaning is only partially encoded in the fabrics, styles and colours chosen: it is also dependent on the context in which a particular item is worn or discarded. In one situation, therefore, lingerie can function as an instrument of patriarchal oppression while in another it may serve as a weapon in the feminist struggle; it can be used to signal sexual interest and boost a woman’s confidence but may also reinforce her feelings of inadequacy about her body; it can cause her physical discomfort or give sensual pleasure; although it can indicate a lack of openness and truth, female intimacy is promoted as women discuss their lingerie and via such discussions give each other emotional support that complements the physical uplift of underwiring and padding. Crusie’s literary lingerie reflects the complexity of women’s relationships with their bodies, their desires, their sexual partners and their friends.

Works Cited

Primary Texts

Crusie, Jennifer. Anyone But You. 1996. Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2006.

—. Bet Me. New York: St. Martin’s, 2004.

—. Crazy for You. 1999. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000.

—. Faking It. 2002. New York: St. Martin’s, 2003.

—. Manhunting. 1993. Don Mills, Ontario: MIRA, 2000.

—. Sizzle. Don Mills, Ontario: Worldwide, 1994.

—. Tell Me Lies. 1998. New York: St Martin’s, 1999.

—. Trust Me on This. New York: Bantam, 1997.

Secondary Sources

Coward, Rosalind. Female Desire: Women’s Sexuality Today. London: Paladin Grafton, 1984.

Crusie, Jennifer. “A Writer Without a Publisher is like a Fish Without a Bicycle: Writer’s Liberation and You.” Romance Writer’s Report (2002). <http://www.jennycrusie.com/for-writers/essays/a-writer-without-a-publisher-is-like-a-fish-without-a-bicycle-writers-liberation-and-you/>.

—. “Sizzle.” JennyCrusie.com <http://www.jennycrusie.com/books/sizzle.php>. Internet Archive. 25 Oct. 2006. <http://replay.web.archive.org/20061025035035/http://www.jennycrusie.com/books/sizzle.php>.

—. “Topic: Crusie, Jennifer: Anyone But You (Romance).” CherryForums.com 15 May 2006. <http://www.cherryforums.com/index.php?topic=578.0>.

Crusie Smith, Jennifer. “Romancing Reality: The Power of Romance Fiction to Reinforce and Re-Vision the Real.” Paradoxa 3.1-2 (1997): 81-93.

Dow, Bonnie J. “Feminism, Miss America, and Media Mythology.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs, 6.1 (2003): 127-49.

Greer, Germaine. The Female Eunuch. 1970. London: Paladin, 1972.

Jorgenson, Jane. “Writer’s Corner for October, 2004: Jennifer Crusie.” All About Romance. <http://www.likesbooks.com/crusie.html>.

Juffer, Jane. “A Pornographic Femininity? Telling and Selling Victoria’s (Dirty) Secrets.” Social Text 48 (1996): 27-48.

Kunzle, David. Fashion & Fetishism: Corsets, Tight-lacing & Other Forms of Body-Sculpture. Thrupp, Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton, 2004.

Lurie, Alison. The Language of Clothes. 1981. London: Bloomsbury, 1992.

Scott, Martin. “Underwear.” Agora 30.3 (2005). <http://castle.eiu.edu/~agora/Feb05/MartallB.htm#uw>.

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

Thesander, Marianne. The Feminine Ideal. Trans. Nicholas Hills. London: Reaktion, 1997.

Willett, C. and Phillis Cunnington. 1951. The History of Underclothes. Mineola, New York: Dover, 1992.

 


[1] The Victoria’s Secret lingerie “catalog functions, […] for many of its consumers, as a kind of sexually explicit representation of the female body not too far afield from Playboy’s images” (Juffer 27-28) and “Lingerie fetishism […] is, like the voyeurism upon which it thrives, relatively uncontroversial, customarily acceptable and commercially profitable” (Kunzle 5).

[2] Lurie notes that “grayed, dull colors” “seem to deny sensuality” (231).

[3] Girdles are also items of underwear, but bras, and the rejection of the bra, seem to have had a particular cultural resonance in the 1960s:

At this time many women, whether in the [women’s] movement or not, got rid of their bras — some for a short period, others for ever; some because they sympathized with the struggle for the liberation of women, others simply because it became fashionable. As early as 1968 Yves Saint-Laurent had shown transparent blouses worn without a bra at his fashion show in Paris. (Thesander 185-7)

[4] This is probably due to the fact that Sizzle was, as Crusie has revealed, “my attempt to write to formula, an attempt that failed because there is no formula” (“Sizzle”).

[5] In the short description of the book that Crusie wrote for her website she noted that “occasionally people come up to me and say, ‘Sizzle. The desk scene. Ohmigod.’” (“Sizzle”).

[6] The suggestion that Richard “may rip this stuff off you with his teeth in the throes of passion” perhaps contains an allusion to the term “bodice-rippers,” considered derogatory by authors and readers of romance novels. In this context the fact that Emily’s underwear remains unripped is perhaps a subtle rejection of the term.

[7] Again, the wearing of flannel would appear to be associated with an existence devoid of sexual activity.

[8] Crusie has stated that at the time she was writing this novel “I went in and tried on a Wonderbra (they were just out then, articles in all the newspapers) and it was so ridiculous” (“Topic”).

[9] The “baby blue” colour of these underpants contrasts with the darkness of the “black lace crotchless underwear” (23) and perhaps symbolises openness and lack of deceit: Maddie is not ashamed of her relationship with C. L.

[10] Crusie vigorously challenges this stereotype in some of her later works through her older characters who have extremely active sex-lives. In Anyone But You not only is the heroine older than the hero (forty to his thirty), but her seventy-five-year-old upstairs neighbour, Norma Lynn, quite clearly has an active sex-life. Gwen, the heroine’s mother in Faking It is “only fifty-four” (270) and in the course of the novel has sex with two suitors. Trust Me on This includes a secondary romance between the hero’s aunt, sixty-two-year-old Victoria Prentice, and his boss, fifty-eight-year-old Harry Chase. At one point Victoria is described as standing in front of Harry, her body “curving and warm in black lace, and Harry told himself not to have a heart attack” (86). Victoria may be over sixty, but she’s not over sex or an appreciation of sexy lingerie.

[11] Cynthie’s lingerie includes a “red silk bra [which] matched the lining of the suit” (153) she was wearing and “a shiny pink bra that was so sheer it was probably illegal in several states” (263).

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Nothing But Good Times Ahead: A Special Forum on Jennifer Crusie (Editor’s Introduction)

“Nothing But Good Times Ahead” marks the first of what will be an ongoing series of Special Features at the Journal of Popular Romance Studies:  a gathering of academic essays focused on a single author, a common topic, a particular region, a single convention, etc., from the vast array of global popular romance culture.[1]  Such focused attention has long been paid to authors, topics, regions, and so forth in other varieties of popular media:  detective and science fiction, the Hollywood romantic comedy, even single texts, like Twilight.  It has, however, been hard to find in the scholarship on popular romance fiction.  Almost sixteen years after Kay Mussell, in a special issue of the journal Paradoxa, called for “more textual readings of individual authors,” and “more single-author or even single-novel studies” (“Where’s Love Gone?” 12), such in-depth, tightly focused investigations have remained, until recently, quite rare.[2]

The twofold nature of Jennifer Crusie’s work makes it—and her—and ideal candidate for such inquiry.  On the one hand, as her industry awards and readers’ poll ratings demonstrate, Crusie ranks among the best-loved authors in American popular romance fiction.[3]  In a genre where most novels have a shelf-life measured in months, most of Crusie’s category romance, single-title, and collaborative novels have either remained in print or been republished, some multiple times, some moving from mass-market paperback into hardcover release.[4]  Romance authors rarely boast that they will “make ‘literature’ out of it,” as Dashiell Hammett pledged to do with the detective story in 1928 (qtd. McGurl,164).  Yet Crusie’s novels defy the common assumption, inside and outside the academy, that popular romance fiction is formulaic, artless, and unable to sustain close critical attention.  Meticulously crafted and richly intertextual, her novels challenge both genre conventions and readers’ expectations about romance heroines, heroes, and plot structures, all the while affirming the core values—love, optimism, emotional resilience—of the romance novel as a form.

Alongside her work as an author, Crusie has also been a significant advocate for, and theorist of, romance fiction as a genre.  Writing by turns for academics, for her fellow authors, and for romance readers, her essays about the genre have extolled its aesthetic potential and its place in readers’ lives, and although some of these pieces were published in ephemeral, throwaway venues—“Inside Borders,” for example, the in-house magazine of the now-defunct chain bookstore—Crusie’s website has kept them available for writers, readers, students, and scholars.  Crusie helped draft the Romance Writers of America’s formal definition of the genre, designed to guide aspiring authors and reshape media accounts of romance.  The definition they arrived at echoed the novelist’s longstanding brief for romance fiction as a genre driven by not only by love, but also by optimism and a sense of “emotional justice.”[5]  When Pamela Regis, author of A Natural History of the Romance Novel, held a series of “Conversations About Romance” at the Smithsonian Institution in 2005-06, she chose Crusie as closing speaker, reaffirming her importance to the emerging generation of academics interested in romance.  I would not be editor of this journal—in fact, the journal itself might not exist—had I not encountered Crusie’s novels and essays in the early 2000s.  They made me want to be a romance scholar, and since 2006, when I began to teach courses on popular romance, a novel and / or essay by Crusie has appeared on every one of my twenty-plus syllabi.

Born in 1949, Crusie grew up in Wapakoneta, Ohio:  a model, perhaps, for the fictional Ohio communities that show up in her later work.  Frog Point (Tell Me Lies), Tibbett (Crazy for You), and Temptation, Ohio (Welcome to Temptation) are all secret-keeping, gossipy small towns—and if, as Truman Capote once quipped, “all fiction is gossip,” Crusie’s romance fiction draws even more self-consciously on this resource.  As Kimberly Baldus points out in her essay for this collection, Crusie sets that line from Capote as the epigraph for Tell Me Lies, her first hardcover romance.  For Baldus, Crusie’s fascination with the Janus-faced power of gossip to put lives on display and to limit women’s choices, but also to build alternative, unorthodox networks of community and power, places her in a tradition of female authors dating back well into the eighteenth century.  Reading Crusie’s novels alongside the “secret histories” of early novelist Delarivier Manley, Baldus explores their shared interest in gossip as a sort of liminal territory, a borderland between the public and the private, and also in the sort of “gossip” that connects authors with readers.  (In this essay and others, Crusie’s connections with her on-line fan group, “The Cherries,” her extensive blogging, and her elegant website become part of the oeuvre to be studied.)

At least since Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) one narrative element that defines the romance novel has been a “definition of society, always corrupt, that the romance novel will reform” (Regis, 14).  In Crusie’s work this “reform” happens in a variety of ways, both domestic and public, and she keeps a steady eye on the shifting border between these realms.  As Kyra Kramer’s contribution explains, Crusie’s representations of women’s bodies “Getting Laid, Getting Old, and Getting Fed” stand as instances of “cultural resistance,” drawing our attention to the body as a site of intersection between socio-political and private life.  Although her heroes’ bodies get somewhat less detailed attention from the novelist, their careers and lifestyle choices are just as culturally and politically constrained, equally ripe for resistance.  Patricia Zakreski’s essay for this collection details the resistance to twentieth-century American norms for masculinity in Crusie’s category novels, while Kate Moore and I attend to Phineas “Phin” Tucker, the mayor of Temptation, Ohio in her mid-career bestseller, Welcome to Temptation.  A “stuck,” unhappy patriarch, Phin finds himself liberated by the heroine, Sophie Dempsey, and the novel ends with the two about to switch roles:  he will retire, after one last term, to run a bookshop and raise his daughter while she puts her family talent for con-artistry to use in politics.  The town will still be festooned, as it has been for decades, with posters reading “Tucker for Mayor: More of the Same.” But the meaning of the slogan has now changed, as the stasis and sterility of Phin’s life (and of the town more generally) find themselves imbued with sexual and political renewal.

In the late 1950s and 60s, as Crusie attended high school and college, literary scholars like Northrop Frye delighted in spotting seasonal myths and death-to-life cycles in ostensibly realistic plots.[6]  Frye might well have found one in Welcome to Temptation, since Crusie delights in weaving allusive subtexts for her novels, using materials from both popular culture (film noir, pop music) and highbrow literature (the Bible, John Donne, Theodore Roethke).  When Phin snaps at his mother, late in the novel, “My life was a fucking wasteland,” the attentive reader pricks up his or her ears at the nod to T. S. Eliot, as she does to the etymological overtones of the hero’s and heroine’s names (352).  (Depending on the source you consult, “Phineas” can mean either “oracle” or, by derivation, “serpent’s mouth,” while Sophie comes unambiguously from Sophia, or Wisdom.)   The British literary historian jay Dixon insists that “in order to enter the world of the romance, the method of analyzing literature which is taught in schools and higher education must be abandoned,” but this is quite false when it comes to Crusie (10).  Far from offering readers instances of what Dixon calls “instinctive writing,” she will “play games” of many sorts:  games of echo and reference, as in the dozen or more fairy tales that are touched upon by the later novel Bet Me; games with literary allusion, as in the repeated quotations from Theodore Roethke’s poem “I Knew a Woman” that thread through Fast Women; games with genre convention, literary history, symbolism, and the like (Dixon, 10).

This concern with artistry also appears on other levels in Crusie’s novels.  Many of her characters are engaged with the arts, whether they are visual artists, authors, editors, or screenwriters, or simply women who find themselves engaged with fashion, interior décor, and cooking.  In this collection, essays by Laura Vivanco, Patricia Zakreski, and Christine Valeo explore Crusie’s subtle, often metafictional deployment of art forgery, fashions in lingerie, and various forms of “lying”:  telling stories that are “unreal but not untrue,” as Daisy Flattery insists in The Cinderella Deal, or simply conning people, as Sophie and her brother Davy learned from their con-artist father.  Crusie uses her novels to explore, refine, and demonstrate ideas that she lays out in her essays, putting theory into practice—but as Valeo shows, her novels can also be read against the grain, as texts that dialogically challenge, or even subvert, some of the essays’ claims on behalf of the genre.  Valeo, Vivanco, and other scholars in this feature emphasize the fundamental complexity of Crusie’s work, the internal variety that accompanies its enduring themes and aspirations.  A single motif, like lingerie, or a single activity, like lying, can take on radically meanings in Crusie’s work, from novel to novel or even from scene to scene.

To hear Crusie’s characters debate the nature of stories or watch them read the material world around them, from clothing to china to paintings to home decor, is to learn how to read, better and deeper, in the broadest sense of the verb.  Crusie’s own lessons in looking, reading, and teaching began with an undergraduate major in Art Education at Bowling Green State University, not far from her childhood home.  She spent her twenties and thirties teaching first art, and then English to middle- and high-school students.  Although she had not yet read a romance novel, the thesis she wrote for her master’s degree shows that she already had an interest in genre literature; entitled “A Spirit More Capable of Looking Up To Him,” it considered “Women’s Roles in Mystery Fiction 1841-1920.”  Many of her novels mix elements of romance and mystery, as do her first two collaborations with men’s adventure novelist Bob Mayer, Don’t Look Down and Agnes and the Hitman.  Crusie’s early, comic category romance What the Lady Wants and the longer, darker single-title novel Fast Women both revisit Dashiell Hammett’s classics The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, not just in order to explore the moral and aesthetic tensions that divide romance fiction from the popular masculine genres of hard-boiled detective fiction and film noir, but also to explore, in Fast Women, the enduring—and sometimes life-threatening—mystery of heterosexual marriage.  “Marriage was a mystery,” muses heroine Nell near the start (38); at the end, moments before she accepts the hero’s proposal, she thinks to herself that marriage is “a gamble and a snare and an invitation to pain,” a matter of “compromise and sacrifice” whatever its rewards (417).  It’s not unheard of for a romance novel to face the worst about marriage—but for it to do so at such a moment, in such a context, is remarkable.  (We have no essay in this collection devoted to Fast Women, but one is sorely needed, and I hope that this introduction will spur someone to write it.)

Crusie’s unsentimental vision of marriage derives, in part, from the transformations she has lived through as an American baby-boomer.  Shortly before her twenty-second birthday, Crusie got married:  a common pattern for women of her generation, but one that she looks back on with no little frustration.  “Today it seems absurd that marriage would be a life goal for a woman,” she observes in the essay “A Writer Without a Publisher is like a Fish Without a Bicycle,” “but anyone who was around for the pre-Lib days can tell you that the worst thing anyone could say about a woman back then was that she was an Old Maid. It was one step down from Whore because at least whores had men asking to spend time with them. When I got married six weeks before I turned twenty-two, my entire family heaved a sigh of relief. Close call.”  Divorce and single motherhood followed, so perhaps it is fitting that Crusie’s characters so often struggle to discover the qualities they really want in a potential spouse, walk away from bad relationships, recover from divorce, and look for the courage to negotiate new relationships which suit the people they have become.  In Crazy for You, which starts as social comedy and modulates into stalker-driven romantic suspense, marriage seems so risky that the hero and heroine are neither married nor engaged by the end of the book:  a sharp departure from romance conventions, albeit softened by a wink of symbolism.  (We last see Nick and Quinn about to have sex at a drive-in; on screen is the movie Bachelor Party.)

Crusie is equally level-headed about children and family life.  In an advice column for other authors, “Hello, I’m Your New PRO Columnist,” she once stated that “getting married and giving birth does not mean that you have sold your life away to perfectly healthy people who can get their own damn socks,” and this frankness can also be found in her novels. Blissfully happy families may form at the end of many a “secret baby” romance, and sweet and happy offspring may cluster cherubically around heroines in other authors’ epilogues, but not in Crusie’s work.  Here, parents who dote on one another may cut out their children, causing emotional damage that our protagonists must heal, as in Welcome to Temptation; here a philandering husband may be a loving father, whose death remains a bitter loss for his daughter even as the novel’s main plot brings new happiness to her mother, as in Tell Me Lies. Adults try to protect children from emotional harm, but this impulse may drive them, depending on the book, to tragic-comic or violent extremes.  No wonder some of her couples explicitly state that they wish to remain childless:  a break with romance novel expectations that Crusie has made both early (Anyone But You) and later (Bet Me) in her career.

In 1991, Crusie finished her master’s degree and pivoted immediately into a Ph.D. program at the University of Ohio.  Raising a daughter, teaching full-time by day and part-time at night, she struggled with exhaustion, poverty, and depression, and the reading for her classes didn’t help.  “I spent years reading about miserable women,” she recalls with grim humor:

like the one who pursued the life she wanted, had great sex, and then ate arsenic; or the one who pursued the life she wanted, had great sex, and then threw herself under a train; or my personal fave, the one who pursued the life she wanted, had lousy sex with a masochistic dweeb, and spent the rest of her endless life atoning by doing good works in a letter sweater. What a great literary education gets a woman is depressed. Very, very depressed. Not to mention very reluctant to have sex.  (“Glee and Sympathy”)

These jokes at the expense of Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, and The Scarlet Letter do to masterpieces of high culture what academics have long done to romance novels:  that is, focus only on the sex lives of characters, the ending of the book, and the effect the text might have on its readers.  With these quips, Crusie playfully reverses this evaluative standard, only to find these Great Books wanting.

As Crusie tells the story, reading romance fiction brought her out of this slough of despond.  She hadn’t expected this to happen.  As she explains in her first major essay on the genre, “Romancing Reality,” “in the midst of this misery I began the research for a dissertation on women’s narrative strategies.  In order to study the most female writing possible, I bought a couple dozen examples of the varied lines of romance fiction, holding my nose as I did so; it was trash, but anything for my dissertation.”  Some of the books she read confirmed her initial prejudice, at least on aesthetic grounds; they were, she writes, “so abysmal I gave up and skimmed for note-taking purposes only.”  Others, however, were “wonderful, so wonderful I didn’t care about the notes.”  After reading the genre non-stop for a month she gave up her plan to contrast these books with an equal sample of men’s adventure fiction.  Story after story of “women who won on their own terms (and those terms were pretty varied)” had left her feeling “more powerful, more optimistic, and more in control of my life than ever before,” and that sense of power brought with it a sense of obligation. “I decided I wanted to write romance fiction,” she explains. “Anything that did that much good for me, was something that I, as a feminist, wanted to do for other women” (“Romancing Reality”).

Crusie is not the first to describe the encouraging, even life-changing effect of reading romance fiction.  In Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance:  Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature—published first in 1984, and reprinted with a new introduction just as Crusie was starting her research—many of the scholar’s interview subjects offer similar testimony.  As Radway reports, they “vehemently maintain that their reading has transformed them in important ways” (101).  The critic is noncommittal.  “I neither asked questions of their husbands nor did I probe very deeply into the issue of whether romance reading actually changes a woman’s behavior in her marriage,” she demurs—this despite the readers’ “happy indignation” at her hesitation, and their laughing invitation to “Ask the men!” (101). In the preface she added seven years later, Radway admits that “romance reading, it would seem, profoundly changes at least some women by moving them to act and speak in a public forum,” with some even “prompted to purchase their own word processor, to convert the former sewing room into a study, and to demand time, not now for pleasure, but for their own work” (17).  Even in this revised introduction, however, Radway cannot quite bring herself to see romance fiction as a feminist genre.  Some romance authors may call themselves feminists, she warns, but there is no way to know whether the changes they bring to their novels evince a true change of heart, or are merely the result of market forces (17).

In retrospect, it’s clear that from the early 1970s well into the 1990s, popular romance fiction engaged in a long, complex negotiation with second- and third-wave feminist ideas about love, desire, and marriage.  Indeed, as Carol Thurston showed as early as 1987—squarely between the first and second editions of Reading the Romance—the feedback loop that links romance readers, publishers, and authors had brought some feminist arguments into the heart of romance fiction as early as 1980.  (Jay Dixon’s The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon, 1909-1990s shows a similar process of incorporation at work earlier in the century, in the relationship between popular romance and first-wave feminism.) Thurston’s The Romance Revolution: Erotic Novels for Women and the Quest for a New Sexual Identity draws on romance novels, editors’ guidelines, records of consumer feedback, and other historical documents to demonstrate that in the romance fiction that emerged in the 1970s and early ‘80s “the customary happy ending…is possible only through the heroine’s emergence as an autonomous individual, no longer defined solely in terms of her relationship to a man” (86).  By the end of the 1980s, Thurston observes, readers had grown accustomed to “hearing the sentiments of Virginia Woolf [in A Room of One’s Own] on the lips of a romance heroine” (94), while goals of female economic independence, creative satisfaction, sexual knowledge and fulfilment (both before and after marriage), and even political power were increasingly commonplace.

By the time Crusie began to study romance novels, then, at the start of the 1990s, the anger at patriarchy and longings for comfort, communication, and egalitarian relationship that feminist scholars like Radway and Tania Modleski had seen as unconscious subtexts in romance fiction were often freely espoused, not just by the genre’s heroines, but also by their authors.  The conscious artistry of romance authors was also growing more visible, various, and ambitious.  This is not to say that earlier decades had lacked deftly crafted, aesthetically satisfying romance fiction.  Even if we leave out canonical texts that are also romance novels (e.g., Pride and Prejudice or A Room with a View), popular novels by Georgette Heyer, Mary Stewart, and others will give that idea the lie.  Across the 1980s, however, a new generation of American romance authors had entered the genre, including Nora Roberts, Patricia Gaffney, Laura Kinsale, and Susan Elizabeth Phillips, and as the essays by romance authors make clear in Jayne Ann Krentz’s anthology Dangerous Men, Adventurous Women, this new generation of authors was more than willing to challenge conventional wisdom, not just about the politics of the genre, but about its form and its effect on readers.  (That “conventional wisdom” included ideas from several prominent academic scholars of the genre—but also assumptions that long antedated academic study of popular romance, such as ideas about the female reader’s identification with the romance heroine.)  When Crusie set aside her dissertation to write romance fiction instead, she entered a genre that was open not only to progressive political ideas, but also to aesthetic experimentation:  variations on, and games played with, the themes and conventions of the form.

In a Writers’ Market article for would-be romance authors, Crusie gives us a glimpse into how she went about her own first ventures into romance authorship.  “Don’t bother trying to analyze [romance novels] for some non-existent formula or to find what works for “the average romance reader,” she advises.

There is no formula and no average romance reader. You’re writing new, original stories for a reader who is exactly like you, only a little bit smarter; always write up to your audience in romance, not down.

Then when you’ve discovered those aspects of that subgenre that you want to keep, think about the aspects you wanted that weren’t there, the things that would have made the stories even better, the characters or actions or themes that you want to read but couldn’t find. I loved the wit and romance of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, but they weren’t contemporary. I loved the angry internal monologues of Dorothy Parker, but she wrote anti-romance. I loved the contemporary romance of Susan Elizabeth Phillips but her heroines weren’t mean enough. I loved romance, but nobody was writing the edgy, angry feminist love stories I wanted to read. (“Emotionally Speaking,” emphasis mine)

The implied reader of romance fiction, in this account, is an aspirational construct for the author:  “a reader who is exactly like you, only a little bit smarter.”  The sorts of wit, conscious craft, and aesthetic play that we might find in any literature thus belong in romance fiction as well, since readers will engage the text with both hearts and minds.  Finally, popular romance fiction can borrow tones and styles from across the literary spectrum.  It has room for the wit, anger, edginess, even meanness that one might find anywhere, including from authors who stand before (and “above”) the genre, such as Austen and Heyer, and from the genre’s most undeceived debunkers, authors of “anti-romance” like Dorothy Parker, whom Crusie has called her “biggest influence” (“It’s All About You”) .

Throughout her work, Crusie has made a place in romance fiction for “edgy, angry, feminist” elements.  The hero and heroine of her first-written romance, the novella Sizzle, discussed in this gathering by Laura Vivanco, spar professionally as well as in their personal lives, and not simply as foreplay; in Manhunting, Crusie’s first published novel, heroine Kate Svenson debates feminist ideas with her best friend, Jessie Rogers, and moments of slapstick violence directed at male obtuseness and self-importance punctuate the text.  (“The hotel would appreciate it if you’d just throw back the men you don’t like without maiming them,” jokes Jake, the hero, after Kate has accidentally injured a series of pompous suitors, memorably stabbing one in the hand with her fork as he helps himself to her lunch [173].)  Like Dorothy Parker, “who made people laugh while writing the saddest stories I’ve ever read,” Crusie deploys humor “as a weapon and a shield,” arming herself to explore the anger of women betrayed by their husbands and boyfriends, snubbed or scorned by their employers, and surviving the financial and emotional pain of divorce (“It’s All About You”).

Drawn by the “edgy, angry, feminist” potential of popular romance fiction, Crusie has also kept her eyes on the genre’s aesthetic potential, which must play out within a number of conventions and constraints. Such constraints are hardly uncommon in the arts.  In the essay “So, Bill, I Hear You Write Those Little Poems,” Crusie compares category romance to the sonnet, since each is “an elegant, exacting, exciting form” which demands brevity, précising, and the ability to generate fresh, delightful work within recognized formal and thematic parameters.  Crusie’s early category novels take up this challenge, playing with characterization and plot structure in subtle, elegant ways as recognizable to romance readers as a deft metrical variation or surprising rhyme scheme would be to a trained reader of verse.  Kate, in Manhunting, is an ambitious career woman, while Jake has shrugged off his life as a businessman to relax and go fishing, as far from the classic “alpha hero” as one might ask.  Nina, the heroine of Anyone But You, is a decade older than Alex, the hero, and the novel counterpoints her love story with a deft, metatextual narrative about romantic fiction in the form of a secondary character’s memoir-turned-novel, Jane Errs.  Allie and Charlie, in Charlie All Night, have what both plan to be a “one night stand” by the end of chapter two, well before the reader (circa 1996) would expect them to sleep together, and well before they fall in love.  Several of Crusie’s category novels receive extended attention in the essays gathered here, notably in Patricia Zakreski’s “Lying, Storytelling, and the Romance Novel as Feminist Fiction,” which demonstrates the intellectual and metafictional sophistication of Strange Bedpersons, What the Lady Wants, and The Cinderella Deal.  I can testify from my own pedagogical experience that the artistry, appeal, and ongoing availability of Crusie’s category novels in reprint editions make them ideal classroom texts for teaching the category romance as a form.  Students are always delightfully shocked to see that the novel we’ve spent two days discussing in political and philosophical detail was originally published in Harlequin’s Temptation or “Love and Laughter” line, with—in the case of Manhunting—a truly comical cover.

After the publication of Bet Me in 2004, Crusie turned from what she has called “classic romance” to the collaborative and genre-crossing work that she continues to write (“Writer’s Corner”).  Limited by the submissions we received, our forum contains no pieces on these ongoing experiments, nor on Crusie’s ongoing work as a critic and editor.[7]   This recent material has great potential, however, for future scholarship.  What might a narratologist make, for example, of Crusie’s three collaborations with male adventure novelist Bob Mayer:  novels which Crusie’s website claims “put into practice everything she’d studied about the differences in the way men and women write fiction” back in her dissertation research?  How do these collaborations differ in tone, structure, aesthetics, theme, appeal, the constructions of heroine and hero, etc., from the novelist’s single-authored work or from her two paranormal romance collaborations with female novelists, The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes (written with Eileen Drayer and Anne Stuart) and Dogs and Goddesses (written with Stuart and Lani Diane Rich)?  What are we to make of the dialogue with literary history in Maybe This Time, Crusie’s “homage,” as her website has it, to Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw—or, for that matter, of the elaborate, deeply reflective, multi-generic construct that is Crusie’s online presence?  (This presence includes not only her official website and her blog, Argh Ink, but also her contributions to the Cherry Forum fan group and to The Popcorn Dialogues, a collaborative podcast on story construction in popular film.)

As Professor Van Helsing urges in Dracula, “there is work, wild work to be done”—just as there is on so many authors, producers, and motifs of popular romance, in whatever medium.  We hope that this forum will be the first of many, and that much of this “wild work” will be published in the Journal of Popular Romance Studies.

Works Cited

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

Crusie, Jennifer and Bob Mayer.  Agnes and the Hitman.  New York:  St. Martin’s, 2007.

—. Anyone But You. Don Mills, Ontario:  Harlequin, 1996.

—. Bet Me. New York: St. Martin’s, 2004.

—.  Charlie All Night.  Don Mills, Ontario:  Harlequin, 1996

—.  The Cinderella Deal.  New York:  Bantam Books, 1996

—. and Leah Wilson, eds.  Coffee at Lukes: an Unauthorized Gilmore Girls Gabfest.  Dallas: Ben Bella Smart Pop, 2007.

—.  Crazy for You. New York, St. Martin’s, 1999.

—. and Anne Stuart, Lani Diane Rich.  Dogs and Goddesses.  New York, St. Martin’s, 2009.

—.  and Bob Mayer.  Don’t Look Down.  New York, St. Martin’s, 2006

—. “Emotionally Speaking: Romance Fiction in the Twenty-First Century.” <http://www.jennycrusie.com/forwriters/essays/emotionallyspeakingromancefictioninthetwentyfirstcentury/>.

—.  Faking It. 2002. New York: St. Martin’s, 2003.

—.  Fast Women.  New York:  St. Martin’s, 2001.

—, ed.  Flirting with Pride and Prejudice:  Fresh Perspectives on the Original Chick-Lit Masterpiece.  Dallas:  Ben Bella Smart Pop, 2005.

—.  “Glee and Sympathy.” <http://www.jennycrusie.com/forwriters/essays/gleeandsympathy/>.

—.  “Hello, I’m Your New PRO Columnist: Reflections on the Columns I’m Not Going To Be Writing.” http://www.jennycrusie.com/for-writers/essays/hello-im-your-new-pro-columnist-reflections-on-the-columns-im-not-going-to-be-writing/

—.  “It’s All About You:  The First Step to Finding an Agent.”  http://www.jennycrusie.com/for-writers/essays/its-all-about-you-the-first-step-in-finding-an-agent/

—.  Manhunting. Don Mills, Ontario:  1993.

—.  Maybe This Time.  New York:  St. Martin’s, 2010.

Crusie Smith, Jennifer. “Romancing Reality: The Power of Romance Fiction to Reinforce and Re-Vision the Real.” Paradoxa 3.1-2 (1997): 81-93. Rpt. at <http://www.jennycrusie.com/forwriters/essays/romancingrealitythepowerofromancefictiontoreinforceandrevisionthereal/>.

Crusie, Jennifer. Sizzle. Don Mills, Ontario: Harlequin, 1994.

—.  “So, Bill, I Hear You Write Those Little Poems:  a Plea for Category Romance.”  http://www.jennycrusie.com/for-writers/essays/so-bill-i-hear-you-write-those-little-poems-a-plea-for-category-romance/

—.  Strange Bedpersons.  Don Mills, Ontario:  Harlequin 1994.

—.  Tell Me Lies. 1998. New York: St Martin’s, 1999.

—, ed.  Totally Charmed:  Demons, Whitelighters, and the Power of Three.  Dallas:  Ben Bella Smart Pop, 2005.

—.  Trust Me on This. New York: Bantam, 1997.

—.  The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes.  New York:  St. Martin’s, 2007.

—.  Welcome to Temptation. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000.

—.  What the Lady Wants.  Don Mills, Ontario:  Harlequin, 1995

Crusie, Jennifer.  “A Writer Without a Publisher is like a Fish Without a Bicycle:  Writer’s Liberation and You.”  http://www.jennycrusie.com/for-writers/essays/a-writer-without-a-publisher-is-like-a-fish-without-a-bicycle-writers-liberation-and-you/

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

Frantz, Sarah S. G. and Eric Murphy Selinger, eds.  New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction:  Critical Essays.  McFarland, 2012.

Frye, Northrop.  Anatomy of Criticism.  Princeton UP, 1957.

Goris, An.  From Roberts to Romance and Back Again:  Genre, Authorship, and Textual Identity. Diss.  Katholieke Universiteit Leuven.  2011.

Kloester, Jennifer.  Georgette Heyer:  Biography of a Bestseller.  Heinemann, 2011.

Krentz, Jayne Ann, ed. Dangerous Men & Adventurous Women.  Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz.  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.

McGurl, Mark. The Novel Art: Elevations of American Fiction after Henry James. Princeton University Press, 2001.

Mussell, Kay.  “Where’s Love Gone? Transformations in Romance Fiction and Scholarship.” Paradoxa 3, nos. 1-2 (1997): 3-14.

Radway, Janice A.  Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature, 2nd Ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

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

Stoker, Bram.  Dracula.  Project Gutenberg Edition.  http://www.gutenberg.org/files/345/345-h/345-h.htm

Thurston, Carol. The Romance Revolution: Erotic Novels for Women and the Quest for a New Sexual Identity. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Vivanco, Laura.  For Love and Money:  The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance. Tirril, Penrith: Humanities Ebooks, 2011.

Wendell, Sarah.  Everything I Know About Love I Learned from Romance Novels.  Naperville, IL:  Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2011.

“Writer’s Corner for October, 2004 [interview with Jennifer Crusie].”  http://www.likesbooks.com/crusie.html


[1] This feature was first imagined, many years ago, as a book of critical essays, to be edited by Laura Vivanco and myself.  I am very grateful to Laura for her work as an editor of the original set of submissions, and for her contributions to an earlier version of this introduction.

[2]The first section of Frantz and Selinger’s anthology New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays, entitled “Close Reading the Romance,” contains essays devoted to individual novels:  The Kadin by Bertrice Small, Flowers from the Storm, by Laura Kinsale, Holding All the Cards by Joey Hill, and Dark Lover by J. R. Ward.  Two welcome, recent book-length studies of individual romance authors are Jennifer Kloester’s Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller (Heinemann, 2011) and From Roberts to Romance and Back Again: Genre, Authorship, and Textual Identity, a dissertation on Nora Roberts by An Goris.

[3]In a 2002 poll on the well-established All About Romance website, for example, Crusie received the highest rating possible from nearly 60% of those who have read her. The poll itself can be found here:  http://www.likesbooks.com/143.html.  Two of Crusie’s heroes, Phin Tucker and Davy Dempsey, took the sixth and seventh slots, respectively, in Sarah Wendell’s unscientific summary, “culled from discussions on Twitter and on varying websites,” of the “Top Nine Romance Heroes” (49).

[4]Crusie’s first novel, the 1993 Harlequin Temptation Manhunting, was among Amazon.com’s top twenty-five romance bestsellers when it was reissued in 2001, and it subsequently returned to print yet again in hardcover.  Most of her early category romances have now been re-released at least once in paperback, and many are available in hardcover and digital editions as well.

[5]The idea of “emotional justice” may derive from the pioneering academic theorist of genre fiction, John Cawelti, who discusses various types of genre fiction in terms of the “moral fantasy” that each embodies. Crusie’s concern with optimism may stem from her own first transformative encounter with romance fiction in her forties; scholarship is needed on the means by which her novels attempt to impart an optimistic or emotionally resilient attitude to their readers.  For the RWA definition, see “About the Romance Genre,” http://www.rwa.org/cs/the_romance_genre

[6] In romance, Frye writes, we see a “tendency to suggest implicit mythic patterns in a world more closely associated with human experience,” while in what we call “realism” the tendency is to “throw the emphasis on content and representation rather than on the shape of the story,” although if we step far enough back from the text, we can often see the “mythopoeic designs” that structure the material (139-40).  For a brilliant application of Frye’s ideas to the reading of popular romance fiction, see the chapter on “Mythoi” in Laura Vivanco’s For Love and Money: the Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance (2012).

[7] In addition to an early “critical companion” volume on Anne Rice, published as Jennifer Smith, Crusie has more recently edited collections of essays on Pride and Prejudice and the TV shows Gilmore Girls and Charmed, all for BenBella Books’ Smart Pop series.

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Review: The First Time: True Tales of Virginity Lost and Found (Including my Own), by Kate Monro

Ten years ago, when I was seeking a publisher for the book manuscript that would eventually become Virginity Lost: An Intimate Portrait of First Sexual Experiences, one prominent academic press responded in a way that spoke volumes about popular perceptions of the relationship between romance and virginity loss.  “You’ve got all the ingredients for a great monograph,” the editor told me.  “But how about calling it Rites of Love?”  I was utterly dismayed.  All I could think to say was, “Didn’t you read the sample chapters?  For most of my study participants, it wasn’t about love at all.”

The latest writer to step into the complicated terrain of virginity loss in the contemporary English-speaking world is British journalist Kate Monro, and she navigates it well.  In The First Time: True Tales of Virginity Lost and Found (Including my Own), Monro offers a lively and detail-rich account of women’s and men’s understandings and experiences of virginity and virginity loss.  Although distinctly a work of journalism—it makes no claim of being otherwise—The First Time has much to offer scholarly readers, not least thoughtful, empirically-based analyses of sociological and psychological processes surrounding sexual initiation.  (Readers should know that I spoke with Monro while she was working on the book and am mentioned in her acknowledgements.)

Monro bases her analysis primarily on in-person interviews with over 50 men and women from various walks of life.  These are bolstered by references to popular cultural texts (like Sex and the City and The 40-Year-Old Virgin) and excerpts from some of the hundreds of emails sent to Monro’s blog, The Virginity Project.  She deliberately sought a diverse sample in terms of social background and personal histories, a technique social scientists call purposive sampling.  In addition to including men as well as women (all too rare in popular and scholarly studies, as Monro notes) and people with disabilities as well as those without, The First Time features virginity-loss narratives from individuals who lost their virginity in committed relationships, with sex workers, and with every kind of partner in between; from those who lost their virginity once, twice, and not at all; and from those who lost their virginity with same- and with other-sex partners (and via a variety of sexual acts).  It is less clear how varied Monro’s sample is in terms of racial/ethnic background and social class, but it is neither all white nor all middle-class.  Her data have the further advantage of being recently gathered.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Monro’s sample is the exceptionally wide age range it encompasses.  The oldest person she interviewed was born in 1915, the youngest in 1990. This enables her to situate the particulars of individual biographies in the broader context of the dramatic social and economic changes that took place during the twentieth century.  Her analyses thereby reveal social trends rather than individual idiosyncrasies.  However, insofar as each birth cohort is represented by only a handful of interviews, Monro can say less about patterns within them.  (To her credit, she doesn’t make grand claims about generalizability.)  Notably, the stories in The First Time come primarily from the United Kingdom, so they do not touch on social phenomena or trends specific to the United States, such as the resurgence of moral conservatism or the rise of abstinence-only sex education since the 1970s.

The First Time consists of five chapters as well as a brief introduction and conclusion.  After a concise history of virginity loss in the Western world, the first chapter addresses the extent to which attitudes about and approaches to virginity are patterned by gender.  It also draws on Monro’s interviews to chart the myriad ways in which people define and experience virginity loss, including technical, multiple, and gay/straight virginities.  The second chapter features women’s stories, highlighting diversity among women and foregrounding change over time.  In the next chapter, we learn about men’s emotional responses to virginity loss and the ways their approaches to virginity have evolved in response to changes among women.  (For example, younger-generation men seem to value virginity more than do their older-generation counterparts.)  Chapter four tells the tales of several virgins, including their different reasons for, and responses to, their sexual status.  Chapter five presents a series of painful stories, prompting Monro to argue that even the “worst” experiences have transformational qualities.

Consistent with the extant scholarly research, Monro finds that beliefs about and experiences of virginity loss have changed over time and that men and women’s beliefs and experiences differ, albeit less, in both cases, than most people typically assume.  Regarding romance and love in particular, The First Time likewise mirrors previous investigations.  Some of the women and men Monro interviewed wanted to lose their virginity in the context of a romantic relationship (in a few cases, marriage) or with romantic trappings (“like in the movies”).  Others sought to avoid love and romance on purpose.  Some interviewees’ experiences unfolded according to their dreams and expectations, while others’ diverged; the consequences were not always what one might predict.  Like other contemporary observers, Monro notes that women and men recalled their experiences in a more positive light when they, at minimum, liked and were respected by their virginity-loss partners.

Scholars of popular romance will benefit from reading The First Time chiefly insofar as it sheds light on the relationship between romance and virginity loss—a common theme in popular novels and films—in the “real world.”  The book represents an up-to-date, journalistic account with ample sociological insight, although Monro does not analyze her data as deeply as a social scientist would or situate her findings in an existing body of knowledge.  (Nor would it be fair to expect her to.)  She presents her conclusions thoughtfully, however, occasionally linking them to key scholarly works on virginity and virginity loss (including my book).  These, along with practical resources (e.g., for sex therapy, support and interest groups, and factual sexuality information) are listed in the book’s appendix.  Scholars of popular romance should find The First Time a witty and entertaining read, one that whets their appetites and provides a good jumping-off place for further systematic research on romance, love, and virginity loss.

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Review: Virgin Territory: Representing Sexual Inexperience in Film

The scholarship on virginity is surprisingly sparse for a subject so ubiquitous in cultural narratives and so rich in interpretative possibilities. Apart from two general histories of the topic by Hanne Blank (2007) and Anke Bernau (2007), and an emerging interest as it pertains to girlhood studies, much of the focus on virginity has occurred within literary scholarship, with Kathleen Coyne Kelly (2000, 1999) and Sarah Salih (2001, 2003) leading the way in medieval studies, and an earlier collection on virginity in the Victorian era edited by Lloyd Davis (1993). Few published works exist focusing on virginity in popular romance studies, although Jonathan Allan is forging a new path in this respect, and several PhD dissertations on the topic are underway. The investigation of virginity in film, however, is literally “virgin territory” so this volume of essays edited by Tamar Jeffers McDonald is an exciting and welcome addition to the extant scholarship.

Virgin Territory considers how virginity has been produced in and used to market films: an intriguing endeavor since, as Jeffers McDonald points out, filmmakers have to grapple with how “virginity—a lack of experience, a zero, can be made visible to audiences” (2). The book aims “to destabilize assumptions about virginity by questioning how it can be performed, externalized, and rendered not only visible but spectacular, across a range of periods, genres, and performances” (2).  It begins with an excellent introduction by Jeffers McDonald providing a concise overview of the scholarship on virginity, before a strong first chapter by renowned film scholar Gaylyn Studlar which examines the screen presence of the young Elizabeth Taylor in three films of 1944: Jane Eyre, The White Cliffs of Dover, and National Velvet. Studlar is highly skilled in locating her readings of film within broader social and historical practices. Here, she argues that the representation of young girls in early Hollywood films draws from Victorian aesthetic conventions portraying little girls in rural or domestic settings. An analysis of Taylor’s screen image as a pure and beautiful innocent wielding mysterious sexual power is juxtaposed against a reading of the British artist John Everett Millais’s portrait of Cherry Ripe (1879), a “quintessential English girl” of “timeless purity” (21) whose disturbing sexual power was ameliorated by the sentimentalized idyllic rural setting connoting and confirming childhood innocence. Studlar looks at how the Elizabeth Taylor of 1944 challenged “the stereotype of the ‘pure’ child” (31) best epitomized in Hollywood films by Shirley Temple. Because of Taylor’s extraordinary “womanly” beauty as a child, Studlar observes, “Sexual power accrues to her by virtue of her erotized innocence and the desire of others directed toward her, including the desire of the film viewer. This calls into question the cultural fantasy of being able to separate desire for the pure child (taboo) from that for the impure woman (acceptable)” (32). Yet Taylor symbolized more than a potently sexualized and mysterious virginity; to American audiences she also represented a nostalgic and mythicized view of Englishness which, in the midst of the Second World War, they were fighting to defend.

That the virginal girl’s body should represent the body politic of the nation at war is also an idea explored by Ilana Nash in her chapter looking at teenage girls in Hollywood films produced during the Second World War—Janie (1944) and Kiss and Tell (1945)—and the Cold War—One, Two, Three (1961) and Take Her, She’s Mine (1963). In a parallel reading of these films, Nash contends that during these periods when the borders of the nation were under threat, the virginal and unruly body of the teenager represented the potential rupturing of social relations and the American way of life that Americans were fighting for. In these films, however, patriotism won out as the teenage virgin subordinated her own desires to patriarchal authority and was shown to possess the wholesome values that made her a fitting emblem of the nation.

The focus on American teenage virgins continues in Timothy Shary’s chapter: an overview of films depicting teenage sexuality and the loss of virginity from the 1950s to the present day. Shary points out that until the 1950s, teenage problems were depicted in terms of juvenile delinquency rather than sexual activity. From the mid-1950s onwards, however, filmmakers began to gesture to teenage sexual desires and loss of virginity—usually to each other. The early 1980s saw the rise and heyday of a new genre, the youth sex quest film, featuring “depictions and discussions of teenage premarital sexual intercourse and on-screen youth going to great lengths to alleviate their carnal longings” (57). This genre petered out with the onset of AIDS but was revived in the 1990s. Throughout this period, however, the emphasis was on teenage confusion over sexuality, and the consequences—both emotional and physical—of virginity loss and sexual activity. “Thus far, teenage sex in American cinema tends to be either frivolously unenlightened or, more often, torturously somber” (67)—an assessment which is borne out by Rebecca Sullivan’s chapter exploring the “Marjorie Morningstar” phenomenon, based on the Herman Wouk novel of 1955, which suggests the concerns about sexuality and domesticity that would come to characterize the 1960s.

The conservative ending of Marjorie Morningstar is shared by Otto Preminger’s version of Françoise Sagan’s bestselling French novel, Bonjour Tristesse (1954). Alisia G. Chase contends that where Sagan’s prize-winning novel shocked more conservative readers because it presented an insouciant and unrepentant young girl who not only lost her virginity but became thoroughly degenerate to the point where she plotted her stepmother’s murder in order to preserve her and her father’s libertine lifestyle, Preminger’s film of 1958 distorted the original plot into a much more censorious ending by “punishing” the young heroine and condemning her to a jaded and meaningless life in Paris. Chase suggests the director pursued a double strategy of appeasing the moral consciences of American mothers by casting the elegant and sympathetic Deborah Kerr as the stepmother, and by offering “a chic ex-Iowan, Jean Seberg, wearing the latest in Left Bank style, gambling and making love along the French Riviera, and bebopping at smoky Parisian basement boîtes—all anti-virginal mise-en-scènes rife with thrilling implications to young American women in the 1950s” as  “visual consolations for his morally conventional ending” (85-86). One of many fine moments in this essay occurs with Chase’s analysis of costume to show how Jean Seberg’s clothes are used to show visually her moral “descent into postvirginal debauchery” (94).

This chapter is followed by Tamar Jeffers McDonald’s analysis of the Doris Day-as-perpetual-virgin phenomenon, which the author traces back to Day’s films Pillow Talk (1959) and Lover Come Back (1961). I was particularly fascinated by this phenomenon because even as I write, the Sydney Opera House is advertising a concert in April 2012 called “Doris Day—So Much More Than the Girl Next Door.” In Australia, Day is well-known as a gay icon and for her feisty, tomboyish roles in early to mid-1950s musicals which were constantly re-run on Australian television during the 1980s and 1990s. Her later films, however, are not so well known here, and her reputation in the U.S. as a perpetual filmic virgin was a surprise to me. Jeffers McDonald presents a polished and intricate analysis of the plots of Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back, as well as of Day’s singing performances, making a convincing case that where Pillow Talk portrays Day as an independent, glamorous career woman who is not necessarily a virgin—even if the audience assumed her to be one—and who is aware of her sexual desires, Lover Come Back is far more conservative in shoehorning Day back into a subordinate, less competent role than her male costar.

Peter Falconer’s chapter on the “Horror Movie Virgin” explores how the conventions of the virginal Final Girl heroine are utilized, mocked, and subverted in teenage horror movies. Falconer sees disturbing parallels between the virginal body of the Final Girl and the monstrous body of the psycho killer. Both possess bodies which are marked and isolated from the mass of sexualized flesh surrounding them, bodies which open themselves willingly or which are violently torn asunder. The bounded, impermeable bodies of the Final Girl and the killer are set apart from sexual inexperience, and they are both hard to kill because “their bodies are already figured as closed. They are resistant to all forms of penetration,” (133) which accounts for the thrill of the climactic battle between them.

The violation of virginal bodies is also explored in Nina Martin’s superb chapter on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965). Martin’s reading of Repulsion sets it in the context of London of the Swinging Sixties, when older codes of gender relations are giving way to new expectations of the sexual availability of women. For the virginal protagonist Carole, who is painfully shy and glances longingly at the sequestered lifestyle of nuns, the sexual attention of men is terrifying, symbolizing a metaphorical and, later, physical invasion and rupturing of her private space and mind even as she tries to keep her body intact. Where Chase showed how virginity could be signified on film through costume, and Jeffers McDonald through song, Martin skillfully shows how Carole’s increasing paranoia and fear of violation and virginity loss are visually realized through the increasingly distorted mise-en-scènes, with the “gaping fissures and broken doors in her apartment signify[ing] the unraveling of young Carole’s mind” (140).

From the overly melodramatic to the bathetic, the volume then moves on to Greg Tuck’s exposition of orgasmic teenage virgins who masturbate. This chapter ponders the liminal status of virgins—especially male virgins—who have not yet had sex with females, but who nonetheless experience sexual pleasure through masturbation. In the end, Tuck concludes that American films portray male masturbation as infantile, presexual activity whereas for adult men, it is regarded as sinister and deviant activity because male sexuality is continually viewed through, and perpetuates, a “heteronormative ideology understood not simply as a gendered system of domination but as an ideology of reproduction” (160). The arrangement of chapters in this edited volume is a little unfortunate in some ways, for Shary’s work on teenage sex quest films would have provided an excellent overview and comparative context for this chapter, and Tuck’s work would have been usefully paired with the final chapter that ends this volume, Celestino Deleyto’s analysis of The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005). Deleyto locates this film within the generic hybridization of the gross-out film and romantic comedies that had begun with There’s Something About Mary (1998). The 40-Year-Old Virgin is different from other films featuring male virgins or masturbation, Deleyto contends, because while it follows the convention of showing an adult male virgin who needs to grow up mentally, emotionally, and sexually, the film suggests that Andy’s masculinity is in many ways admirable: “the mildness of his attitude to other people, his relaxed politeness, his sense of humor, and especially his respect for women are all related to his virginity and openly celebrated by the film. . . . his is not a way of living and being that the romantic comedy would like to dispense with altogether” (259). The fact that he has not been socialized into dominant modes of aggressive masculine heterosexuality makes him a fitting romantic partner and bodes well for the couple’s future happiness.

The weakest essays in this edited collection are Shelley Cobb’s piece on Elizabeth I (1998), and Andrea Sabbadini’s psychoanalytic interpretation of virginity in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s A Short Film about Love [Krotki Film O Milosci] (1988) and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty (1996). Cobb has an enthralling subject: the fictitious narrative of a young, sexually active princess who transforms herself into a de-gendered Virgin Queen in order to assume power and the throne of England. The contemporary debate over the historical inaccuracies in the film are handled well by Cobb, who notes that all critics writing along these lines converge on the issue of Elizabeth’s virginity or lack of it. However, it is when comparisons begin to be made between Elizabeth and Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher that the analysis falters. In large part, this is because Cobb is recounting a contemporary debate in Britain that accompanied the film. However, the original analogies cited are confused and not clearly articulated, and this problem subsequently spills over into Cobb’s analysis as well—an analysis which is far too heavily reliant on large slabs of quotes from the original commentaries, and insufficient elaboration of the incoherent points the authors were trying to make. For instance, there is insufficient explanation of the correlation between the virgin, virgin mother, virgin queen, and Princess Diana’s fondness for the pieta image (210-215). Instead, the essay relies heavily on a long block quote from Joan Bridgman’s article “Diana’s Country” and Pamela Church Gibson’s “From Dancing Queen to Plaster Virgin: Elizabeth and the End of English Heritage”—both of which do not and cannot sustain the burden of explanation. References are also made to the fact that when Elizabeth transforms herself into Virgin Queen at the end of the film, she is “no longer a living, mortal woman but a stiff, statuesque demigoddess, no longer appearing human,” and this is somehow connected to Margaret Thatcher as another woman who wielded female power and was, presumably, regarded as inhuman. This might well be true, but it is well-known that Thatcher’s sexuality was far more complex than this; she possessed considerable sex appeal particularly for conservative men, for whom the Iron Lady conjured up public school stereotypes of the stern, spanking British nanny who derided the British nanny state. The powerful virgin—the virago—who has escaped the control of men, who controls men, is something that needs far more consideration that has hitherto been given to the subject in all realms of virginity studies. In the end, while the essay indexes important scholarship about and during the Cool Britannia years (a reference is also made to Elizabeth and the Girl Power of Spice Girls) it does not venture very far beyond this. It is a lost opportunity, because Cobb certainly raises some intriguing ideas that could be fleshed out.

Sabbadini’s chapter uses Kieślowski’s A Short Film about Love and Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty as examples to explain psychoanalytic theories of virginity, and he does this very well. However, because of an almost complete lack of knowledge of, and engagement with, extant scholarship about virginity, the conclusions reached about virginity in these films seem somewhat banal:

Virginity [ . . . ] occupies an emotionally ambiguous place in the moral landscape of our relationship to our own and other people’s bodies. It can be invested with either positive connotations [ . . . ] or negative [ . . . ] or both. Therefore virginity, alongside adolescence itself with which it is often associated [ . . . ] can symbolically represent a number of other ambivalently invested aspects of our lives, such as the need to grow up and the wish to remain dependent on our families. (235-236)

Moreover, whether this was intentional or not, the placing of Sabbadini’s chapter next to Carol Siegel’s masterly exposition of the historical and cultural contingencies of psychoanalytic theories, and of feminist and Foucauldian critiques of dominant Freudian paradigms of sexuality, undermines the ability of a psychoanalytic interpretation of films to tell us anything “true” about human sexuality. It may present an interesting reading of virginity, but it is ultimately not much more than simply just another story about sexuality.

Virgin Territory is rich with original and insightful analyses of films, and two of the strongest chapters are the feminist-inspired readings of Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) and Little Darlings (1980) by Lisa M. Dresner, and Carol Siegel’s discussion of Catherine Breillat’s À ma soeur! (2001) and Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen (2003). Dresner argues that although Fast Times and Little Darlings did not set out to articulate a feminist agenda, this is essentially what both films achieve with their adolescent female sex quest plots in which “girls’ sexual decision making is represented as intelligent, responsible, and important, and the films make their points about not rushing into sex in a way that respects and empowers teenage girls instead of romanticizing or infantilizing them” (174). Both films feature protagonists who are anxious to lose their virginity, but their sexual experiences are not particularly enjoyable or fulfilling. Both feature protagonists who must make decisions about their subsequent sexual activity and its possible consequences. In Fast Times, Stacy’s pregnancy and decision to have an abortion is treated sympathetically and without condescension, while her brother is shown to be supportive of his teenage sister’s decision not to have a child because she knows she is not capable of looking after one. Meanwhile, having won the quest to lose her virginity, Angel in Little Darlings decides to stop having sex and instead gains “access to female solidarity and close female friendships” (192). Dresner contends that “In their portrayal of empowered, reasoning, sexually curious girls who decide to lose their virginity and who then decide to stop having sex, these two films show a respect for their characters and their audiences that is sadly lacking in many films and television programs of the later 1980s, 1990s, and beyond.”

In focusing on girls who want to experience sex and be desired by men, but who do not necessarily experience sexual pleasure or know when they have had an orgasm, Dresner implicitly raises a significant question that Siegel then articulates in her chapter on À ma soeur! and Thirteen: “what constitutes heterosexual pleasure for teen girls[?] Does teenage female sexuality consist primarily of the desire to be desired, or of the desire to successfully compete for male attention? Is it about the girl’s physical sensations or direct experience, or it is mainly psychological? Does it retain any connection to orgasm?” (245). These are questions that resonate particularly with popular romance studies, with its increasing attention to the psychological, emotional and sexual pleasures of reading, of readers’ ability to experience and inhabit simultaneously female and male protagonists’ points of view, of the myriad manifestations of sexualities, desires, and much more.

Siegel’s chapter analyzes two films centered on teenage girls’ sexual desires, first sexual experiences, and their relationship with their mothers and society: Catherine Breillat’s À ma soeur! (2001) and Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen (2003). What makes this analysis so original and insightful is that Siegel shows how the concerns of each film grow from and feed into dominant discourses of feminism in France and in the United States. Siegel argues the plot of Thirteen and the film’s treatment of virginity is very much influenced by three historical developments in America over the last quarter century: “the development and ultimate mainstreaming of a feminist backlash against the orthodox Freudian view of healthy female sexuality and against the sexual availability of women to men demanded by many proponents of the sexual revolution”; the “the hysteria over the AIDS pandemic” which has equated ignorance and abstinence of sexual activity as safety; and “the rise of the religious right as a formidable political power,” central to which has been the cult of virginity (242). These perspectives can be seen in the way excessive teenage sexual activity in Thirteen is regarded as damaging to teenage girls and is blamed on bad parenting and peer pressure from the “wrong” types of friends. Delinquency and dysfunction—whether personal or familial—revolve almost solely around whether the teenage girl Tracy in Thirteen is having sex. “Although Tracy does some very dangerous drugs with Evie,” Siegel points out, “ones generally depicted in film as being instantly additive, the implication is that because she comes through her association with Evie with her virginity intact, she comes through all right. Nothing else seems to matter” (245). Not only does this ideology align with the values of the religious right; Siegel also traces it back to a particular type of American feminism which holds that “virginity’s loss for girls has come to signify the subordination of female truth to male fantasy, the girl’s loss of access to the universal(ized) realities of the female body to masculine discourses of pleasure. Within these circles virginity has come to represent women’s truth” (243).

In France, by contrast, feminism has reacted against Freudian theories of healthy female sexuality by critiquing Freudian discourse as a linguistic construct that institutes a truth regime positing sex as the core of identity—an essence rejected by poststructuralist theorists such as Foucault, Deleuze, and Guattari. French feminist theory, influenced by Lacanian discussions of jouissance, has argued for the possibilities of myriad sexual pleasures which arise from the female body itself. In France, Siegel contends, “sexual pleasure was assumed to exist meaningfully outside relationships between lovers, the two vaginal lips touch each other, for instance. And meanings were made through the interplay of cultural discourses not through an individual’s consciously adopted gender politics” as in America (239). These ideas are given voice in À ma soeur! where the middle-class home is not a safe haven from sexual politics and the center of maternal love, but the site where female bodies are disciplined into heterosexual discourses of beauty, romance, and being sexually desirable to men. The director Catherine Breillat subverts this patriarchal, heteronormative ideology by suggesting that there are other autoerotic possibilities of pleasure as the teenage protagonist Anaïs revels in the fleshiness of her body and its sensations as it moves in and through the world. Anaïs rejects an initiation into sexuality that necessitates her attention to men’s pleasure and evaluation of her sex appeal. She wants her virginity loss to be completely impersonal so that she can focus on her own sensations and experience. Breillat takes this idea to extreme ends when Anaïs’s loses her virginity as a result of a psychotic killer murdering her mother and sister before raping her. Breillat’s decision to depict this horrific event as a satisfying initiation into sex for Anaïs seems to arise more from a desire to shock than a scrupulous adherence to French feminist ideas; we can envisage many ways in which Anaïs could have lost her virginity in a manner that enabled her to focus entirely on her own body’s various pleasures rather than in a savage rape which, despite Anaïs’s indifference and even pleasure, seems to confirm radical American feminists’ argument about rape as an extreme patriarchal tool by which men keep women in subjection (Brownmiller 49 and 15; MacKinnon 182). Nevertheless, Siegel’s analysis enables us to make sense of Breillat’s film and to see it as a meditation on French feminist concerns about sexuality, the body, pleasures, and the self, allowing “for the possibility that teen girls can choose how they will experience their virginity’s loss and can embrace and take pleasure even in acts that our current culture and society consign to the very fringes of criminality and unnatural evil” (252). She demonstrates most skillfully the differences between French and American feminisms at the turn of the century, and how these are played out on the bodies of teenage virgin girls.

In the introduction, Jeffers McDonald emphasized that Virgin Territory is not meant to be the final or even definitive word on virginity in film but, rather, the edited volume is intended to “inaugurate exploration of this fascinating topic.” This is certainly what the book achieves through its various overviews of male and female virginity sex quest films, historical discussions of what virginity meant over the course of the twentieth century, how it can be represented visually and aurally, and what theoretical tools may be used to analyse this complex subject.

References

Allan, Jonathan A. “Theorising Male Virginity in Popular Romance Novels.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 2:1 (2011): Web. http://jprstudies.org/2011/10/theorising-male-virginity

Bernau, Anke. Virgins: A Cultural History. London: Granta, 2007.

Blank, Hanne. Virgin: The Untouched History. New York: Bloomsbury, 2007.

Brownmiller, Susan. Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975.

Davis, Lloyd. Virginal Sexuality and Textuality in Victorian Literature. Albany: State University of New York, 1993.

Evans, Ruth, Sarah Salih, and Anke Bernau, Eds. Medieval Virginities: Religion and Culture in the Middle Ages. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.

Kelly, Kathleen Coyne, and Leslie Marina, Eds. Menacing Virgins: Representing Virginity in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Newark: Associated University Presses, 1999.

Kelly, Kathleen Coyne. Performing Virginity and Testing Chastity in the Middle Ages. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.

MacKinnon, Catherine. Toward a Feminist Theory of the State. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Salih, Sarah. Versions of Virginity in Late Medieval England. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2001.

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Francophone Perspectives on Romantic Fiction: From the Academic Field to Reader’s Experience, by Séverine Olivier (Interview with Agnès Caubet, Romance Reader and Webmaster of Les Romantiques, fan website and webzine)

Although Francophone romance scholarship dates back to the 1980s, the scholars who write it are not generally familiar with the genre. They identify romantic fiction exclusively with Harlequin category romances or Barbara Cartland’s romance novels, and when they try to understand romance readers and why they read romantic fiction, Francophone romance scholars are, with few exceptions, condescending and partial. In the words of one scholar, they try to explain “why romance readers read what they shouldn’t read” (Bettinotti 1998, 173). Despite the ethnographic model offered by Janice Radway and others, French readers have rarely been interviewed. This paper will examine why contempt for romantic fiction and for romance readers remains predominant in the French academic field, bringing to light the differences between the dominant construction of the genre and its readership in the French critical context and romance readers’ own perceptions of the books they like to read. One particular reader’s experience will be central: that of Agnès Caubet, Webmaster of lesromantiques.com. In 2001, Caubet created the first and currently only Francophone website about the romance genre. It is a flourishing community of French-speaking (mostly romance) readers, with 60,000 visitors and 1.5 million pages viewed a month. Although she is not “representative” of all the romance readers, her own experience as reader, the importance of the website, discussion boards, and webzine she managed to launch, and the contacts she established with French romance publishers open new perspectives on romantic readers and romance reading, in France and, potentially, elsewhere.

Romantic Fiction and the French Academic Field

Since the 1980s, when the first Harlequin novels were translated into French, only a dozen Quebec and French monographs about romantic fiction have been published (See Spehner and RomanceWiki). Even though the French-speaking romance market is smaller than the English-speaking one, this is a small number of studies in comparison with Anglophone scholarship. To situate Caubet’s experiences as reader and editor, this paper will first go back over the construction of Francophone romance criticism: it will outline the dominant views about romance readers and romance reading in the academic field, underline how Francophone scholars generally consider popular romance readers, and explain why condescension remains predominant.

Harlequin published its first romance novels in French in 1978. Scholars in Quebec and France soon took an interest in the genre, especially in Harlequin romance novels written in, or more often translated into, French (see Cadet; Graner; Helgorsky 1985 and 1987; Richaudeau; Rihoit). As a rule, they analyzed these texts through the lens of narratology, i.e. Genette and Greimas’s theories of narrative discourse. In 1983 a special issue of Études Littéraires, followed by La Corrida de l’amour: le roman Harlequin, edited by Julia Bettinotti, defined and described the narrative “formula” and standard characters of Harlequin novels. In these accounts, five narrative steps—still often quoted in French studies—characterize category romances: the meeting (la rencontre), the conflict (la confrontation polémique), the seduction (la séduction), the confession of love (la révélation de l’amour), and the wedding (le mariage). These approaches to romantic fiction developed out of real curiosity and these essays are never disdainful of the genre. But the 1980s were also years of condemnation. According to Michelle Coquillat and her feminist Romans d’amour, romantic fiction develops and illustrates a “psychology of dependence and submission”: the heroine would be tamed and humiliated by a brutal hero. Coquillat identified romantic fiction (in fact, a very few Harlequin romances and some books by the early 20th century Catholic author “Delly”[1]) as dangerous novels for readers who were assumed to be naïve and socially poor women. Her essay crystallized the condemnations of romance fiction. Outdated, this essay is nevertheless interesting, since the condemnations Coquillat expressed continue to influence the Francophone academic field.

By the end of the 1980s, new horizons began to open. After the first and so-far only Francophone conference entirely dedicated to the genre, held in Limoges in 1989, the number of essays and articles increased: some Francophone scholars tried to examine the so-called “paraliterature” (la “paralittérature”) without prejudice; at times pursuing questions posed during the Limoges conference by Ellen Constans. But although scholars’ approaches changed, their use of the word “paraliterature” to describe romantic fiction continued to imply a hierarchic vision of the literary field: one in which popular romance novels could not be assimilated to “Literature.” (After all, “para” literally means “close by” or “next to,” and ”paraliterature” is implicitly inferior to what it cannot simply be.) A more significant departure from scholarly precedent came in 1991, when Bruno Péquignot published La relation amoureuse: Analyse sociologique du Roman Sentimental Moderne, the first (and so far only) French sociological essay focusing on romance readers: specifically, readers of Harlequin novels. According to Péquignot, category romances describe an initiatory quest and represent for readers a guide to the ideal relationship. Romantic fiction illustrates a dream, a utopia wherein a man and a woman, both equal, finally communicate. To understand the readers who were drawn to this utopian quest, Péquignot interviewed female romance readers he met on trains between Lyon and Grenoble. They were in their thirties, employed, married and generally ashamed of the books they read.

As the first attempt to understand French romance readers, Péquignot’s essay remains important in romance academic history. Unfortunately Péquignot did not record or transcribe his interviews with readers, leaving subsequent scholars to wonder what the role of this scholar was in potentially altering readers’ discourse about their reading. Moreover, since La relation amoureuse is the only essay in French about French-speaking romance readers, and since it focused on Harlequin readers, the information we have about French romance readership exclusively concerns readers of category and contemporary romance novels. This reinforces the assumption, in the Francophone academic field, that all popular romance fiction can be identified with Harlequin romance fiction, and especially with the novels published in a single category line, Harlequin Presents. Scholars generally are not aware that single-title romances and multiple romance subgenres exist, and they have generally failed to take an interest in the range of romantic fiction published by one of Harlequin’s most important competitors in the French market, J’ai lu.

J’ai lu entered the French romance market in 1991, translating into French what Harlequin did not: Anglophone historical romance novels. The decision to focus on these texts was strategic and market-driven. In the 1980s, when Harlequin entered the French market, many publishing houses published romance novels but Harlequin, with its American and English category romances and its commercial strategies, rapidly overshadowed its competitors. Rather than directly competing with the international conglomerate, J’ai lu left the translation of contemporary category romances to Harlequin and focused instead on historical single-title romances, building its historical line “Aventures et Passions” on such titles as Jude Deveraux’s The Velvet Promise (Les yeux de velours) or Johanna Lindsey’s So Speaks the Heart (Esclave et châtelaine).

Despite this surge in Francophone romance publishing by J’ai lu, in the 1990s academic essays continued to focus on Harlequin or on specific French writers like Delly, Max du Veuzit or Magali[2] (Bettinotti and Noizet; Paulvé and Guérin). Many books published on romantic fiction in the 1990s condemned the genre. Category romances were perceived to reinforce patriarchy and were considered as an ideologically dangerous fiction for female readers, even though readers were never interviewed for this research (Noizet; Préfontaine). However, after Péquignot, some scholars tried to describe the reading process. Nicole Robine took an interest in the cultural practices of “young workers” (young adults who began working at 18 or 19), and observed that young working girls generally chose to read Harlequin novels. According to Robine, category romances, short and easy to read, symbolize a cultural compromise for these young girls, torn between their family situation and educational background. Thus, romance reading was socially determined or, if romance readers didn’t come from working class backgrounds, psychologically determined: according to Robine, only working class women or teenagers would be attracted by romantic fiction. While Nicole Robine presented a sociological vision of some romance readers, Annik Houel published a psychological essay influenced by the “nurturing theory” proposed in the early 1980s by American scholar Janice Radway, in which readers are said to be drawn to texts where the romance hero nurtures the heroine like a mother, and consequently nurtures the reader, who identifies passively with the heroine. Despite these efforts to take readers seriously from sociological and psychological perspectives, however, scholars’ prejudice against and disdain for the genre remained evident. Readers were repeatedly compared with drug addicts—this even happens in Houel’s essay, alongside the talk of nurture—and the novels themselves were considered to be commercial product without artistic quality, written to seduce naïve teenagers and culturally inferior housewives.

Although they didn’t focus on romance readership, the 2000s saw an evolution in the reception of the novels themselves. In her 2000 study Parlez-moi d’amour: Le roman sentimental: des romans grecs aux collections de l’an 2000, for example, Ellen Constans tried to link romance novels with the French literary canon, comparing some of the major French classics (Tristan et Iseult, La Princesse de Clèves, Le Diable au Corps, etc.) with modern popular romantic fiction. Implicitly, of course, Constans’s work was also a major step forward in legitimating romance readers; alas, the deaths of Constans and Canadian scholar Bettinotti in 2007—both scholars seriously interested in romance novels—seem to have brought an end to these more positive developments, even as romance subgenres have proliferated and evolved into new popular genres. (For example, no book has yet been published in French on chick lit.)

In the French academic culture, which still sees the “book” as the “conservatory of cultural legitimacies and hierarchies” (Collovald and Neveu 15), Francophone popular romance fiction has thus faced a number of distinctive challenges. A hierarchical vision continues to shape Francophone literary study, so that “high literature” (or simply “literature”) remains defined by its opposition to “low literature” (or “paraliterature”); in this context, romantic fiction remains condemned as bad literature, both literarily and culturally poor. The genre is also tarred by its association with the mass market, and worse still, with the American mass-market: there are few French authors, and publishers don’t want to risk publishing an unknown French author when they can translate a famous American, English, or Australian one at little cost. The novels are thus seen as second-rate imports, mass-produced on an industrial scale, without aesthetic quality or individual interest. Finally, the genre is socially disqualified since it is associated, not just with lower-class readers, but specifically with female lower-class readers, who are presumed to be in need of scholarly protection. Despite the work of Richard Hoggart, Michel de Certeau and many others (Owen; Collovald & Neveu) which amply demonstrate that “popular” readers are not the victims of the books they like to read, romance readers are persistently characterized as passive and subject to ideological manipulation. No wonder, then, that the Francophone study of popular romance fiction continues, as a rule, to act as a sort of cultural watchdog or guardian, focused on the need to disqualify the genre and to denounce the dangers it represents. Romantic fiction is a “mauvais genre” (bad genre), linked to “mauvaise lecture” (bad reading) and to “mauvais lecteurs” (bad readers).

But are romance readers really passive and naïve? Are they really bad readers? To answer this question, I spoke with Agnès Caubet, founder and webmaster of lesromantiques.com.

Interview with Agnès Caubet

Born in 1967 in Clermont-Ferrand, Agnès Caubet attended business school and is a computer trainer. She began reading category romances in the 1980s when she was sixteen, and in the 1990s, she fell in love with historical romance. Frustrated because it was difficult to get the books she liked, let alone any information about their authors, she turned to the Internet, where she found many American websites dedicated to romantic fiction, but no comparable French site. To fill that need, in 2001 she launched “Les Romantiques” (See http://www.lesromantiques.com).

Agnès Caubet may not be a representative Francophone romance reader—but then, representativeness is a problematic concept when speaking about romance readers, in France and elsewhere. (Were the Harlequin-reading commuters interviewed by Péquignot, the ones who were so ashamed of the books they read, representative? Not enough research has been done to say.) Certainly her education and experiences demonstrate that not all French romance readers are teenagers and desperate housewives buying their books at the supermarket, a persistent stereotype in French academic research and popular media. It is also inarguable that, via her website, Caubet is uniquely positioned to discuss the experiences of an extended Francophone readers’ community; in fact, thanks to her website, she has become an interlocutor between that community and French romance publishers, able to offer to those publishers, and to JPRS, a variety of new perspectives about the genre and its readers.

Séverine Olivier: Agnès, you are a romance reader and the Webmaster of “Les Romantiques,” a French website dedicated to romantic fiction. Before answering questions about your own romance reader’s experience, could you answer some questions about your experience as a Webmaster? Why did you decide to launch the website?

Agnès Caubet: Romance reading was, for me as for many others, a very solitary hobby. It was impossible to find any information about the authors, the new releases, the sagas and sequels. That was a very frustrating experience. In Paris where I lived, I would sometimes spend an entire Saturday afternoon visiting every supermarket I could think of to find out if they had new books on their shelves. Often I found none. Did I say frustrating?

Then my husband, my newborn son, and I left the capital and went to live in a small village in southern France where there was no supermarket at all. But a big change was taking place at the time: it was at the beginning of the year 2000 and Internet access was growing fast in France. So all of a sudden, I was able to buy hundreds of historical romances, the subgenre I preferred, on Amazon! Great! Except, until then I would choose my books by reading a few pages in the supermarket. Now the only thing I got was a very short back cover blurb that didn’t say a lot.

I began surfing the Internet and found American websites such as “The Romance Reader” and “All About Romance,” that told me about the books I wanted to read, but of course I had to link the American title with the French one first. So I got the idea of creating a database… and why not share it on the web? There was no French website about romance, and so “Les Romantiques” was born at the beginning of 2001, initially as a buyer’s guide for readers who wanted to shop on Amazon.

A few days later, I received an email that said more or less: “Hey, I just found your website, it’s great! I thought I was the only one in France reading that kind of book. I know no other readers. Would you care to add this author? I could send you the information you need.” I received a lot of these emails over the months and the site grew and grew. Then at the end of October 2001 the message board was created [See http://lesromantiques.yuku.com/directory]. A community of readers was building up. Until then, most of them had never been able to talk to anyone about their love of romance, and there they found other readers who understood them. It was a very exciting time for everyone. Today “Les Romantiques” is a great readers’ community. In 2004 we launched our annual short story contest. And, in September 2007, we released the first issue of our monthly webzine.

SO You know that romance readers are often embarrassed by their reading practices. Often “alone,” they don’t speak much about romance reading and generally hide their romance novels. So why do they access your website and why do they log in to the message board? Could you explain what makes the social network linked to your website so different? Do romance readers feel free to speak even though they generally hide their books at home and from their relatives?

AC It’s exactly that. They finally find people who understand them, who won’t laugh at them when they talk about the book they just read and loved. I think the main appeal of the website and its message boards is that we can talk with other readers and find new authors and new books that we will enjoy. But for some of our readers, it has also set them free. They were afraid of reading on a bus, of letting their friends and family see the books they were enjoying, of saying they liked that genre. Speaking with unashamed readers has given them the strength to speak up for themselves. Seeing that they were not alone has been a kind of relief for them. They don’t feel strange or silly anymore and if someone challenges their choice of literature, they have enough self-confidence now to answer them proudly.

SO As a “great readers’ community,” does “Les Romantiques” have an impact on the French romance market? I know readers extensively discuss publishers’ practices on the website, lines, translations, clinch covers, ebooks…

AC Compared to the American one, the French romance market is rather small. There are only three or four publishing houses that sell romance. The ebook revolution has not reached us yet, so there are no ePublishers. The main publishing house is Harlequin. The second one is J’ai lu, with a strong historical romance line called “Aventures et Passions”. J’ai lu also publishes contemporary romance, romantic suspense, paranormal romance and romantica. And then there is a fantasy and Sci-Fi publisher called Bragelonne who recently took an interest in the new paranormal romance and urban fantasy wave and publishes titles by Laurell K. Hamilton and J.R. Ward. Bragelonne’s original target audience was teenage boys, and by publishing paranormal romance, it aimed to target more women readers. Finally, the Presses de la Cité publish some best-selling romance authors such as Jayne Ann Krentz and Julie Garwood, but they tend more towards women’s fiction.

Romance is a “bad genre” in the publishing industry as well as in the academic field in France. There are numerous publishing houses, but none would think of publishing romance as such, they think that having a romance line is demeaning. Why? Because it’s not literature, of course… I think this attitude comes in fact from the nineteenth century, when women were considered as having an inferior intelligence. We are interested in reading about emotions, and this alone is for many men the ultimate proof that what we read is not intellectually satisfying, just emotional garbage, inherently inferior. And even if a publisher overcame its prejudice and said: “Hey, women want to buy that kind of thing, why shouldn’t we give it to them and make money?”, there would be another prejudiced person that wouldn’t let it happen, called the bookseller. Harlequin and J’ai lu romance lines aren’t sold by booksellers in France, only by supermarkets. The other publishers I mentioned have the “good idea” not to write on their books that they are romance, so they have some space on booksellers’ shelves.

SO These books are generally hardcover books or trade paperbacks. Furthermore, in order to be sold on booksellers’ shelves, Harlequin and J’ai lu publish some of their books in trade paperback and hardback.

AC But even so, there are limitations. Once I was talking with the editor who had bought the rights for Someone to Watch Over Me by Judith McNaught. Readers had been waiting for five years for a new Judith McNaught book, and we knew that the Presses de la Cité had bought it. Three years later, I asked the editor why they hadn’t published it yet! She answered that there was not enough space on their schedule (they publish two women’s fictions a month, which is not a lot), so I said: “but it’s Judith McNaught, can’t you just publish a third book any given month, for her?” Her answer was illuminating but very sad: “Oh but we can’t. The booksellers won’t put it on the shelves, they have limited space for women’s schlock, they don’t want to be burdened with too much.” That’s sad, because I am quite sure women read more, on average, than men and would love to buy these books from those who are unwilling to put them on their shelves. So we have a genre that’s regarded as demeaning by French booksellers as well as publishers and only two of them dare acknowledge they are publishing romance.

We are in contact with all the publishers, but it’s not always easy to open a dialogue with them. They will all tell you that they “love” hearing from the readers, but what they like, in fact, is receiving fan mail. They are often reluctant to give us information and listening to what readers have to say is a pretty new experience for them, it basically came with the Internet. It took us many years to establish a real relationship with J’ai lu. We met for the first time with this publisher in 2002. At first, what we told them of our likes and dislikes was so far away from what they thought that they just dismissed us as not relevant. They told us we were not the average readers, that we were fans and thus did not have the same profile as their “true” readers. Their true readers, they perceived, were the ones who would once in a while pick up a book in a train station to kill time during a journey. But little by little, the way they saw us changed, until finally two years ago, we had a major breakthrough when they acknowledged that changing the covers would be a good thing for their historical line. That’s the first thing we had told them eight years ago, but their answer was: “Our salesmen say that the supermarket department heads say, that we absolutely need to have a couple on the cover, otherwise the books won’t sell.” We answered: “Well, we buy your books in spite of the covers, not because of them, trust us.” It took six years for them to follow our little piece of advice, but last year we were happy when the director of J’ai lu met us in person and told us that the change of covers had been a great success in terms of sales. They then proceeded to change the covers of all their romance lines, which we are so happy about. We now have an appointment every year with J’ai lu’s editors to show them the results of our annual poll on the releases of the previous year, and chat about what they have in store for the upcoming year.

SO The publishers’ strategies you detailed and the clinch covers outline how publishing houses view their romance readers… sometimes with prejudices that could explain scholars’ attitudes towards romance readers. In fact, clinch covers reinforce the visibility of the genre, easily picked up without thinking much about it. In the publishers’ mind, readers seem to be more passive than active. But the contacts you established with them seem to prove your website and the readers it represents can have an impact on publishing practices. In the romance market, books are made for their readers and readers have a voice, even though this voice contributes to the condemnation of the genre. Romance novels are commercial novels made to please romance readers and, thus, cannot be “great literature.” Nevertheless, although J’ai lu changed its mind and followed your advice about the book covers, this evolution is also linked to transformations decided in the United States. It seems to me that the French romance market is only a pale copy of the American one: new series and new subgenres (erotica, paranormal romance, etc.) launched in France are first of all tested on American readers. What do you think about the evolution of the romance genre? Do you think it fits with French readers’ expectations?

AC You are absolutely right, nothing new is created in France, as everything comes from the American market. As an aside, the ebook revolution will certainly change that, but time will tell… Right now, French publishers of course follow the trends of the American market, as the massive attack of the vampires and werewolves proves, but they also select trends they think will appeal to their readership. For example, they won’t publish military romance, because in Europe patriotism is not as popular as in the USA, perhaps due to two rather recent and ugly conflicts on our soil. On that one I think they might be wrong, because many French readers who read in English are fans of Suzanne Brockmann. I loved every one of her books, and I don’t think I’m a big war enthusiast. They also won’t publish inspirational romance, because in Europe religion is a charged subject. On that one I tend to agree with them, I’m a practicing Roman Catholic and am not at all keen on inspirational romance. So every new trend in the US is not automatically fed to the French market: it’s more complex than that.

SO In fact, even though romantic fiction is an international mass-market product and romance readers of all countries want to escape and fantasize, escapism and fantasy depend on national imagery. Therefore, French publishers only select romance novels that they think will sell (Paizis).

Since romantic fiction has evolved, sex has become more “important.” Although romance novels are identified by the French academic field as akin to Barbara Cartland’s romances, they can be very sensual. While reading some press articles about Harlequin for example, I have sometimes found that romance reading has been considered as feminine “masturbatory” reading (“lecture masturbatoire”). What do you think of sex in romance novels? Given that publishers have proposed erotic series (“Spicy” by Harlequin or “Passion Intense” by J’ai lu), do you think that sex in romantic fiction is more and more important?

AC Well, sex is really an issue in French. In fact, US romance has become more and more explicit and the sensuality level is often sustained by rather crude expressions or words. These are very difficult to translate into French, because crude words are not often written and give a really vulgar undertone. That’s why translators use euphemisms to tone down the vocabulary a bit.

I remember when J’ai lu published their first books in their “Passion Intense” line. They sent advanced reading copies to us and we were dumbfounded. There was a historical, Beyond Seduction by Emma Holly, and because the translator didn’t know what to do with the very crude vocabulary, he went to find seventeenth-century words and expressions à la Marquis de Sade, that were totally ridiculous or impossible to understand without a dictionary of ancient French. We had a lot of fun reviewing the book, but when I saw the editor on our next meeting in Paris, she was furious.

Anyway, this kind of ancient vocabulary was dropped forever and now translators try to use contemporary vocabulary, but it is not easy, and they are often tempted to cut a sex scene or two, because they are such a pain for them.

I think sex is more and more present in romance. Readers often say that the story is more important to them and complain when there are too many sex scenes and not enough character development, but the fact is that when a novel is not sensual enough, they feel cheated. They have come to expect sensuality in a romance, but it must not overwhelm the characters or the story: a difficult balance to find for authors and translators.

SO Even if many French scholars and sometimes publishers consider romance readers to be passive readers, what you’ve said proves that they are, more than ever, active readers. That’s why I tried to reevaluate French and some American theories (like the “nurturing theory”) about popular romance reading in my doctoral dissertation on Francophone romance readers. I interviewed readers aged between 20 and 91 in 2007-2008 through a survey placed in libraries, second-hand bookstores and rest homes, and also via ads in TV magazines or via the website “Les Romantiques.” Readers generally came from the middle classes and were employed or retired. Some of them were ex-romance readers. My sample was not representative, but the readers were drawn from diverse backgrounds and the readers I interviewed read all kind of romance novels (contemporary or historical, romance novels published by Harlequin or by J’ai lu…) What I discovered, which seems very important and interesting to me is: just as there are numerous and varying kinds of romance novels, there are numerous and varying readers and numerous and varying reading preferences. However, in research, and especially in the French academy, romance readers are generally considered to be a single, homogeneous group. Agnès, what do you think about this? As Webmaster of “Les Romantiques,” you’ve met many readers.

AC I totally agree with you. The thing that many “outsiders” fail to understand about the romance genre is that it has been one of the fastest evolving in the past twenty years. They often imagine it as small and simple, limited to short novels about boy-meets-girl, as if only Harlequin Presents existed. They are totally unaware of the numerous subgenres that have appeared along the years.

We were recently contacted by four Psychology students who were assigned a study by their teacher. The question was: Is Harlequin ethological? They wanted us to give them three or four books titles that were representative of Harlequin. Our first answer was: but representative of what? Are you aware that there are more than fifteen very different Harlequin lines? They were not, and neither was their teacher apparently.

So yes, I think that there are very different novels in the romance genre and thus of course different readers who are looking for very different things. Although there are of course trends, like in anything else.

We launched a challenge at the beginning of 2010: we asked our readers to write down every book they read, romance or anything else, even nonfiction. The idea was to have an objective view of what a typical romance reader read in a year. Well, after six months, the conclusion was: there is no typical romance reader!

37 readers registered the books they read. They read an average of 10 books a month per reader, but beyond this figure lay a great diversity. The minimum seemed to be 3-4 books a month (16%), whereas the big readers tended to read 15 to 20 books a month (24%). I would like to point out that these figures match almost exactly what the rest of the French population reads per year, as shown in a 2008 poll by the magazine Livre Hebdo: 1-5 books a year for small readers (35%) and 20 plus books a year for big readers (9%). [See: http://www.livreshebdo.fr/actualites/DetailsActuRub.aspx?id=1552].

Romance readers tend to read much more than the rest of the population, but there is also a great diversity of reading habits among them. Finally, I would like to add that 20% of the books listed by our readers were not romance.

SO You seem to suggest that romance readers don’t necessarily read all the romance novels they find: they choose the romance novels they read from among romance subgenres and they don’t necessarily read every novel they find. Romance readers can be selective and they don’t exclusively read romance novels. It seems obvious but in the academic field it doesn’t seem to be recognised. Additionally, all the readers I interviewed said romance novels were safe and easy to read. Scholars have assimilated them to passive readers who get “vampirised,” dominated by their novels (Coquillat; Houel); however, I think readers accept a passive role and know the romance reading codes very well. Some of the readers I interviewed wrote short romance novels. Agnès, can you tell us more about this and about the reading process?

AC When I think of the effect romance has on me as a reader, it always reminds me of a story I read when I was a child in All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot. As a veterinarian, he explained that sometimes an animal suffered so much physical pain that it lost its will to live. He had had some success in those cases by injecting it with a massive, almost lethal, dose of narcotics that made it sleep for several hours. When it awoke, it was able to fight again for its life and hopefully get better.

To me, romance works a lot like that. I am lucky enough not to experience insufferable pain in my daily life, but from time to time, I become so weary, so exhausted by the day-to-day routine, that I have nothing left with which to fight back, to find new solutions, or even to simply go on. Those are the times when I feel the urge to scream: I need fiction, and I need it now! After a few hours immersed in a romance where everything goes well, I feel much better and able to cope with anything that comes my way.

So of course reading romance may seem passive, and as you say I accept this, because I know that it will refill my batteries for many days to come. I think romance readers are rather more active and dynamic people, because the genre is empowering. For example, I hate thrillers, because after reading one I tend to feel terrified at night, looking under my bed to see if there is a serial killer waiting to kill me and my whole family. This does not happen with romance I am sure I will feel happy and confident after reading a good one. As you mentioned, many of us also write. It’s very different from reading, but I think it’s the genre that gives us the confidence to do so.

When we first met publishers, they were very surprised by us and they equally surprised us. We realized that they did consider romance readers as passive readers, who would read anything that was put on the shelves for them. They did not realize that we had favorite authors. They imagined that we would just look at the picture on the cover, realize—that’s a romance book!—and then read the back cover blurb and buy the novel for the story. Well, I’m sure some readers do that, but there are also many readers who have favorite authors, who look for their backlists, who are ready to go out of their way to read what they want and not just what’s given to them. For this reason, more than 20% of our members have decided to read in English. Most of them were not at all fluent at first; they had only learned English in school and had never spoken or read it for 10 or 20 years. I guess their attitude towards reading is not a passive one…

SO Nonetheless, not all romance readers have this attitude. Maybe that’s why, according to some scholars, romance novels could be dangerous: romantic fiction would propose an ideal or corrupted vision of love and romance readers wouldn’t be able to distinguish between fiction and reality. They would identify with passive heroines awaiting Prince Charming and tamed by a domineering hero (Rochman). However, in 1992, Laura Kinsale argued in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women (35-37) that readers identify with the hero too. Romance novels don’t recount only the adventures of a woman but the adventures of a man and a woman. And the readers I interviewed often identified with both characters. But some of them didn’t identify at all: to quote Michel Picard and his essay La lecture comme jeu, they rather identify with “situations.” Romance readers don’t assimilate themselves to the characters of the novels but they experience what the characters experience and particularly what they feel. Since what the characters feel is real even if the story is a paranormal story, romance reading is first of all an emotional reading. Agnès, what do you think about the identification process? Could you describe for us your experiences and your feelings when you are reading a romance?

AC Well, I think there are all kinds of identification processes, depending on the reader. I know that I am rather “old school,” because I tend to identify more with the heroine. In the 1980s, romance was written solely from her point of view. I can remember clearly the first book I read that gave the hero’s point of view; I found it refreshing and new at the time.

Today, a romance written exclusively from the heroine’s point of view would clearly lack something, because the reader wouldn’t be able to understand the hero or share his emotions. But personally, I tend to identify more with the heroine and like a book with a good heroine even if the hero is not as well defined or as interesting. However I know many readers for whom the hero’s point of view is more important.

As for the danger of identifying with a frail young heroine, I would like to share something that surprised me a lot. Some romance novels have really rough heroes, who might even bully a little the poor heroine. I tend to dislike that kind of novel, I prefer beta heroes, who are man enough not to need to punch their chests to prove it. But some readers love these big bad alpha males, and to my astonishment, I discovered that those who love them the most tended to be active women, with responsibilities in their jobs and who were pretty much in charge in their professional life as well as in their personal life: strong women, in short. I was baffled at first, and then it occurred to me that they probably liked to feel like a frail little thing once in a while, to be taken care of, as a change from their real life, where they had to be strong all the time. So much for the myth of the debilitating romance novel.

Finally, I am curious to know what the scholars you tell me about think about reader identification in M/M romance: i.e. romance novels where the heroes are male homosexuals. It’s a strong subgenre of erotica and is written and read exclusively by women. There’s a big lack of a frail heroine there… That shows the identification process is much more complex than they imagine.

SO In fact, the identification process is a complex process, whichever book we read. And fiction isn’t reality. Even “popular” readers who like to immerse themselves in a fictional world know that it differs from real life. Although the identification process differs from one reader to another and although readers are different from each other, romance readers nevertheless share some characteristics. When I interviewed some of them, I noticed that, for both old and young, the first romance reading was generally linked to important life experiences like adolescence or retirement. And I think that perhaps romance reading could be linked to identity development.

AC I don’t know. I have never examined the identification process from this point of view. I began reading Harlequin’s Contemporary Series Romance when I was sixteen and my mother began to buy them for herself at the beginning of the 1980s. I was quite hooked from the start and she was sometimes mad at me because I would find the new books she had just bought and take them to my room before she could even read them. Anyway, this ended when I left home at the age of eighteen to study international business in Paris. I didn’t have much time to read romance and my mother got fed up with it and threw out every Harlequin book in the house.

A few years later I had finished my studies, had a job, and was married. My husband and I had just bought an apartment in Paris, and I remembered those sweet Harlequin romances I used to read when I was younger. I wanted to read that kind of book again. So I went to the supermarket, and found myself drawn more towards historical romance, because I love history and they give me more of a break from real life. That’s when I fell in love with romance for the second time: this was at the beginning of the 1990s.

For me romance reading was more a question of opportunity. The first time, my mother bought the books and made them available at no cost for me. The second time, I think I was at a point in my life where I began to settle down and have time to read. I see retirement as the same kind of opportunity: more time to do something you like, and fewer concerns that you should be doing something more important, to further your career or make a home, for example.

I think romance is an entertainment that takes a rather large amount of time. So you need to have enough time not to feel guilty about it. Of course there are also readers who come to romance when they have had a rough time in their life, like illness or the loss of a loved one. They use romance to escape a day-to-day life that has become difficult to bear, as a breathing space I guess.

I am not sure that romance helps to develop identity, if that is what you mean.

SO I don’t suggest that romance helps to develop identity. But Nicole Robine thought that romance reading could be psychologically determined. And actually, I think that the first reading can be psychologically determined, i.e. linked to some important life experiences such as adolescence, retirement, or illness as you pointed out. However, romance reading cannot be exclusively explained by these kinds of experiences. You began reading romantic fiction at sixteen but, if romance reading was exclusively psychologically determined, you would have stopped reading these books when you became an adult. Therefore, one question remains: why do romance readers read romance novels? It isn’t just a question of opportunity. In interviews, readers told me “I read to relax,” “I read to escape,” “I read to dream.” All of these answers are applicable to other types of fiction (mystery novels, western fiction…). So why do readers choose romance novels to relax, to escape, or to dream? I would argue that romance novels open a door to a world where love and, in particular, life are celebrated: a world where relationships—all types of human relationships—are celebrated and idealized.

AC I think you have summed it up pretty well. The world of romance is safe: the goodies will win in the end, the baddies will get what they deserve. Love triumphs, romantic love of course, but also love in the family. Romance celebrates positive emotions, puts forward the best in humanity: it’s a message of hope. That’s why romance is empowering, I think: no matter how difficult their journey is, we feel assured that, in the end, all will be well for our heroes. We can safely feel optimistic… When you ask readers why they prefer romance, I think the answer you get most of the time is: because of the happy ending.

SO In fact, in romance novels, all conflicts are resolved and all relationships, in the end, are positively established. That’s why romance as a reading choice could perhaps be considered as a “symptom” of a society—our society—where human relationships are difficult to establish and yet are simultaneously considered as a temporary positive solution to this social sickness, since romantic fiction offers a humane vision of the world.

Reference List

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Bettinotti, Julia and Pascale Noizet, ed. Guimauve et fleurs d’oranger: Delly. Québec: Nuit Blanche Éditeur, 1995.

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Rochman, Bonnie. “Romance Novels, Filled With Passionate Love and Torrid Sex, Mislead Women.” Time. 2 August 2011. http://healthland.time.com/2011/08/02/passionate-sex-torrid-romance/

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Sites

http://www.livreshebdo.fr/actualites/DetailsActuRub.aspx?id=1552

http://www.lesromantiques.com

http://www.likesbooks.com/

http://www.romancewiki.com/Scholarship_in_Languages_Other_than_English

http://www.theromancereader.com/


[1] Delly was the pseudonym of a French brother and sister, Frédéric and Jeanne-Marie Petitjean de la Rosière, who wrote romantic fiction at the beginning of the twentieth century.

[2] Max du Veuzit, Magali, and Delly (see note 1, above) wrote Francophone romance fiction between 1900 and 1960; they were commercially successful until Harlequin sold its first romance novels in French.

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