Issues

ISSN: 2159-4473

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

Archive for the ‘Volume 7’ Category

Rewriting the Romance: Emotion Work and Consent in Arranged Marriage Fanfiction
by Milena Popova

In this paper, I examine arranged marriage slash fiction – a sub-genre of fanfiction which focuses on same-gender relationships and is widely acknowledged within the online [End Page 1] fanfiction community to be a close cousin of, and share readership with, Regency-setting romance novels, particularly those featuring marriages of convenience. Using theories of meaning creation in fanfiction to show the intertextual relationships between arranged marriage slash fiction and marriage of convenience romance novels, I explore differences and similarities between the two, with particular reference to sexual consent in the often unequal arranged relationships they portray. I use the theoretical framework of emotion work (Hochschild 551) to understand the development of the relationship between the main characters in marriage of convenience romance novels and arranged marriage fanfiction stories. Emotion work is work performed in a private context such as the family (as opposed to emotional labour, which is performed in public settings and particularly the workplace) to manage one’s feelings and provide emotional support to others. I argue that by focusing on relationships which involve disparities of social standing and often financial dependence of one partner on the other, arranged marriage fanfiction stories explore marriage as an institution which reproduces and amplifies inequalities. This exploration includes the legal and formal aspects of marriage, as well as the social and emotional ones. As a result, they cast the practice of marriage consummation – and sex within marriage more generally – as an at least potentially coercive practice. Furthermore, while arranged marriage fanfiction stories retain some key elements of the romance genre, notably the Happily Ever After (HEA) ending and the sex scene (often the marriage consummation scene) which doubles as the emotional climax (Roach, Happily Ever After 165), they also make key changes to how the relationship between the main characters develops, particularly how the emotion work necessary to make the relationship work is divided between the partners. It is these changes which allow arranged marriage fanfiction stories to challenge dominant discourses of sexual consent within marriage and propose an alternative view of how consent within unequal relationships can be made meaningful. This practice within the fanfiction community indicates a dissatisfaction with elements of the marriage of convenience romance novel, particularly how issues of power inequalities in romantic relationships are handled. Fanfiction provides a space where this dissatisfaction can not only be explored but the perceived issues set to rights.

Romance, work, emotion

As a popular genre predominantly written and read by women (“Romance Readers”), romance novels are a contested space in feminist scholarship and cultural studies. Mainstream romance novels have historically focused on heterosexual relationships culminating in monogamous marriage, although dedicated queer presses have published lesbian and gay romance since the 1970s, and more recently we have seen a proliferation of the LGBTQ romance sub-genre facilitated by digital technologies which enable low-cost electronic publishing and small print runs (Barot). Both in these and in mainstream heterosexual romances, more open “happy for now” endings have become a more common feature (Roach, “Good Man”; Happily Ever After 166). Research on the romance genre often focuses on how it relates to – and enables its readers to relate to – patriarchy and gendered power structures in society. Radway, a pioneer of romance research, subtitles her chapter on the “ideal” romance novel “The Promise of Patriarchy” (119). In it, she breaks down the [End Page 2] narrative structure of the typical romance novel into thirteen “functions,” each based on a stage in the hero and heroine’s relationship, progressing from antagonism through the hero punishing the heroine, a rapprochement, to a final sexual and emotional union. Radway repeatedly refers to the initially cold or ambiguous hero being “tamed” by the heroine. Yet she argues that rather than through a radical change in the hero, this taming is achieved largely through a reinterpretation of his behaviour on the heroine’s part. This argument is worth quoting at length:

The romance thematizes the activity of interpretation and reinterpretation for a very good reason, then. In suggesting that the cruelty and indifference that the hero exhibits towards the heroine in the early part of the novel are really of no consequence because they actually originated in love and affection, the romance effectively asserts that there are other signs for these two emotions than the traditional ones of physical caresses, oral professions of commitment, and thoughtful care. When the heroine retrospectively reinterprets the hero’s offensive behavior as equivalent to expressions of his basic feeling for her, the reader is encouraged to engage in the same rereading process in order to understand properly what she is offered daily in her own relationship (Radway 151, emphasis in original).

Modleski sees a similar role for romance novels in enabling women to accommodate patriarchy, but crucially argues that romance fiction helps readers actively adapt to (rather than passively accept) the harms of patriarchal society by enabling them to recode men’s violent and aggressive behaviours as expressions of love. In her study of Harlequin romances, she focuses on the transformation of the heroine (and analogously, the reader), arguing that she can only achieve happiness “by undergoing a complex process of self-subversion, during which she sacrifices her aggressive instincts, her ‘pride,’ and – nearly – her life” (29).

As popular romance studies has evolved as a field, such accounts have increasingly been questioned and complicated through engagements with both romance novels themselves and their audiences. In A Natural History of the Romance Novel, Regis challenges pathologising approaches to romance reading, highlighting instead the complexity and variety of works that fall within the romance genre and establishing clear generic links between works commonly considered part of the literary canon and more contemporary mass-market romance novels. She counters the argument that romance novels, through their pre-ordained “happily ever after” ending in monogamous heterosexual marriage, “extinguish” the spirited heroine and “bind” the reader in the structures of patriarchy (11). She questions the assumptions that books have the power to do this, arguing that “[r]eaders are free to ignore, skip, stop, disbelieve, dislike, reject, and otherwise read quite independently of the form” (13). Secondly, Regis says, it is not the ending in marriage that is important to romance readers and writers, but the process of overcoming the barriers and obstacles in the heroine’s path to happiness with the hero. This process takes a heroine who is already bound and frees her. Regis does concede that freedom for the heroine is provisional and constrained, unlike freedom for the hero, which is total and absolute (16). Ultimately, the heroine’s provisional, constrained freedom is achieved through the heroine’s own hard work in taming and healing the hero. [End Page 3]

Regis’s work is firmly situated in a formalist literary theory tradition with little examination of audiences’ engagements with the romance genre. More recent approaches have returned to centering audiences alongside texts. Roach, for instance, has examined both the genre and its readers in an (auto)ethnographic study (Happily Ever After). She returns to the question of the relationship between romance and patriarchy, and picks up on the Beauty and the Beast themes of taming and healing present in many romance novels. She argues that romance novels and the readerly and writerly communities around them provide – within the limits of the tropes and conventions of the genre – a safe space for imaginative play where (predominantly) women can think through the challenges posed by patriarchy (188). Roach follows Sedgwick’s “reparative reading” (Sedgwick 1) model. Sedgwick critiques what she calls “paranoid reading” (1) approaches to texts. Paranoid readings emphasise and expect negative affect, and seek to expose the underlying negative assumptions and effects of texts. By contrast, she proposes a reparative reading mode, where rather than expecting and seeking to expose negativity, a reader approaches a text with hope, open to surprise, regardless of whether that surprise may be positive or negative. Building on this, Roach argues that romance fiction performs “deep work” for women readers struggling with patriarchy. Through their guaranteed “happily ever after” ending, they provide pleasure, an escape from reality, a reparation fantasy and imagined healing. The takeaway message of contemporary romance novels, says Roach, is a simultaneous and contradictory “You can’t fight  patriarchy”/”You must fight  patriarchy” (Happily Ever After 185). She identifies risk and hard work on the part of the characters as some of the essential elements of romance, noting that “giving up individuality to coupledom requires a willingness to make changes in one’s life for the sake of another” (Happily Ever After 23). Yet Roach’s analysis often glosses over how exactly this hard work is performed and how risk is taken by characters in romance novels. Here, Modleski and Radway offer a more in-depth and persuasive account of the heroine’s hard work to predominantly transform herself rather than the hero – and, by extension, the absence of any such work on the hero’s part. Roach herself admits that even at the end of the romance novel the “alpha hero” remains deeply embedded in patriarchy, made only safe for the heroine by his love for her (Happily Ever After 188).

It is this hard work, which Roach identifies as such a central element to the romance narrative, that I want to investigate further in examining how fanfiction readers and writers approach the romance trope of arranged marriage or marriage of convenience. To that end, I propose to view the “taming” of the hero which romance heroines and their fanfiction counterparts engage in through the lens of emotion work theory. Emotion work was first proposed by Hochschild (551) as the work involved in managing feelings to bring them in line with societal norms and expectations. In the original definition, emotion work is performed on the self, and is the (not necessarily successful) attempt to induce or inhibit one’s feelings to make them appropriate to a particular situation. Hochschild identifies three techniques of emotion work: cognitive (attempting to change ideas or images in order to change the feelings associated with them); bodily (attempting to change physical signs of emotion); and expressive (attempting to change expressive gestures, such as smiling or frowning, to change how one feels). Erickson extends the concept to such activities performed specifically to enhance the emotional well-being of others and provide emotional support, especially in a private, family or domestic context (“Reconceptualizing” 890). Umberson et al. identify activities involved in reading others’ emotions as well as managing one’s own as part of emotion work (547). Erickson (“Reconceptualizing” 890, “Why Emotion [End Page 4] Work Matters” 349) argues that emotion work is key to perceptions of marital quality. With regards to emotion work and sexuality, Umberson et al. find that where a disparity in desire for sex is present in the relationship, women who desire less sex than their partners often perform emotion work to increase their own desire, and women in relationships with men often experience this as a one-sided effort to please their partner (550).

These experiences are reminiscent of the heroine’s emotion work in the romance novel and illustrate what Radway and Modleski mean when they talk about romance novel readers encountering and adapting to the demands of patriarchy in their own lives. Moreover, viewed through Gavey’s lens of discursively constructed expectations of women’s sexuality and sexual behaviour, especially in relationships with men (146), such experiences acquire an additional meaning. In this way, the pressure women feel to perform such “emotion work” can be seen as societal coercion, casting doubt on the meaningfulness of any consent to sexual activity given by women in these circumstances. Such expectations, often framed in the language of romance, facilitate certain courses of action and subject positions while making others unavailable. Gavey and McPhillips, for instance, argue that the wider discursive construction of what is and is not “romantic” acts as a significant barrier to women’s ability to negotiate consent and enforce boundaries around sexual activity, such as the use of condoms (355). This further underscores the power of the romance discourse within and outside the romance novel to influence not only attitudes but actions. These discursive constructions of romance and emotion work therefore may shed light on the work both the romance heroine and the romance reader (at least according to Radway and Modleski) perform to “tame” or “heal” the romance hero, and on what that means for sexual consent in often unequal romantic relationships.

Both Radway’s reinterpretation of the hero’s actions as motivated by love and Modleski’s recoding of violent or aggressive behaviours and self-subversion of the heroine can be conceptualised as emotion work. It is the heroine’s emotion work which causes the change in the typically gruff, cold, indifferent hero, and it is the reader’s emotion work that enables them to read the hero’s motivation for his gruffness, coldness, or indifference as ultimately moved by love. Of the heroine in Kathleen Woodwiss’s Ashes in the Wind, Radway writes:

It is in fact a combination of her womanly sensuality and mothering capacities that will magically remake a man incapable of expressing emotions or admitting dependence. As a result of her effort, he will be transformed into an ideal figure possessing both masculine power and prestige and the more ‘effeminate’ ability to discern her needs and to attend to their fulfillment in a tender, solicitous way. (127-128)

Regis also acknowledges the taming or healing dynamic through not only emotion work but also domestic work. For instance, in discussing Georgette Heyer’s A Civil Contract, she writes:

Jenny heals [Adam] through her careful attention to his needs and wants: she manages his households with determined efficiency, she learns the duties of being the lord’s wife. Her motive is love: she has loved him since she met him at Julia’s house as a schoolmate guest. (135) [End Page 5]

On the romance novel character’s part, these are examples of work performed in a private or domestic context to enhance another’s emotional wellbeing and provide emotional support (Erickson Reconceptualizing). Additionally, if we accept Radway and Modleski’s arguments, they become an exercise in cognitive emotion work for the reader, actively changing ideas and images in order to change the feelings associated with them (Hochschild). The arranged marriage trope in fanfiction parallels the marriage-of-convenience plot in romance novels, such as the one described by Regis above. The courtship in this variation of the romance novel genre occurs after the marriage and culminates in a declaration of love (Regis 135). Similarly to other romance novel plots, however, the heroine still often needs to tame the hero, using her beauty, charm and grace – that is, her emotion work – to soften a man known for gruffness or even cruelty.

Recasting as emotion work the heroine’s taming of the hero, and (in Radway’s terms) the reader’s reinterpretation of the hero’s callous initial behaviour as love, provides a framework through which the interactions between the protagonists in both romance fiction and fanfiction based on romance tropes can be explored. However, the romance novels studied by Radway, Modleski, Regis and, to a lesser extent, Roach are highly heteronormative. Investigating the arranged marriage trope in slash fanfiction is further complicated by the fact that the characters are of the same gender. There is a tradition in fan studies which argues that slash erases inequalities between the partners (e.g. Lamb & Veith; Russ). Yet fanfiction writers frequently incorporate and explore inequality in the relationships they write about, and the arranged marriage trope is shaped by such inequalities. In this case, however, they arise from factors other than gender, although some may nonetheless have gendered connotations. I will therefore briefly introduce the arranged marriage trope in the context of the Thor/Loki pairing based on the characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and the specific stories I am basing my analysis on, before moving on to an exploration of how such stories investigate marriage as an institution which reproduces and amplifies inequalities in a number of ways.

A note on methodology

Fan studies has a history of approaching fan communities and fanfiction as social practices (e.g. Jenkins; Bacon-Smith; Kustritz), but also of looking at fanfiction as literary text using textual analysis (e.g. Derecho; Stasi). In addition, the field has a tradition of auto-ethnography (e.g. Jenkins), as many fan studies scholars are also fans themselves. These traditions are reflected in my approach to the arranged marriage fanfiction trope. My involvement with the fanfiction community as a reader and writer predates my choice of it as a site for research by decades. I therefore bring to my research a dual perspective: that of fan and that of scholar. This is reflected in my approach to both data collection and data analysis. To select stories for analysis, I followed the path any fan new to a fandom, trope or pairing may follow to find stories that are considered good or impactful by the community at large, a path I myself have followed many times as a fan. I used the technical features of the Archive of Our Own to search, sort and filter stories of interest, and immersed myself in them. I used a range of auto-ethnographic insights for this: my understanding of the technical features of the site, but also of the community’s usage practices, and of dynamics and trends within the particular fandom, pairing and trope of interest. The two stories thus selected for [End Page 6] in-depth analysis are representative both in terms of their popularity and impact within fanfiction communities, and in representing trends and themes within fanfiction for this trope and pairing. Finally, in line with fan studies best practice and to protect the privacy of individual fans and fan authors, I have not provided complete URLs for fan works.

 Loki/Thor Arranged Marriage

To investigate the arranged marriage trope and how readers and writers of fanfiction use it to explore issues of consent, I have chosen a small selection of stories from the Marvel Cinematic Universe fandom, centred on the relationship between Loki and Thor. The Loki/Thor pairing is the largest pairing under the Arranged Marriage tag on the Archive of Our Own, with around 180 stories as of August 2016. The trope is popular for Thor and Loki, as in the originary works the two characters, although not related by blood, are raised as brothers and therefore are an unlikely romantic pairing. They are also antagonists, with Loki being the villain in both of Marvel’s Thor movies and in Avengers Assemble.

My story selection for this analysis was based on ethnographic knowledge of the Marvel Cinematic Universe fandom in general, and a more in-depth ethnographic exercise within the Thor/Loki pairing in particular. I immersed myself in the Thor/Loki pairing, particularly the Arranged Marriage tag on the Archive of Our Own. I traced the steps a fan new to the pairing or the trope would take, using AO3’s tagging and filtering features to help me find stories of interest. I read a wide range of Thor/Loki Arranged Marriage works, as well as other readers’ comments and discussions around the pairing, and this process of immersion gave me a “feel” for how writers of this particular pairing interpreted and adapted the arranged marriage trope, as well as how they worked with the characters from the originary work. I focused on five of the most popular ones (measured by “Kudos”)[1] and identified common themes. I then narrowed my selection down to two complementary stories for in-depth analysis: Bride (themantlingdark) and XVII (stereobone). My ethnographic exploration of the Thor/Loki fandom and the Arranged Marriage trope enabled me to identify key ways in which the two stories were similar to and different from the originary material, as well as other fanfiction works for that pairing and within the Arranged Marriage trope. These similarities and differences are worth summarising here, as key elements of my readings of the stories arise from them.

Both Bride and XVII depart from the MCU canon[2] by having Thor and Loki grow up separately rather than be raised as brothers. In both stories, Loki is depicted as intersex, as are all Jötnar, and his gender presentation tends towards the masculine but is sometimes ambiguous. This is a common depiction of Loki in fanfiction, incorporating elements of Norse mythology not present in the MCU version, though they are to an extent present in some of the Marvel comics. It often serves to highlight Loki’s otherness and associations with magic and the feminine, which complicates the power relationship between him and Thor. Both stories are told predominantly from Thor’s point of view, though in Bride, the point of view shifts to Loki on a few occasions. It is the structure of the marriage arrangements that makes these two stories a complementary pair for analysis. In XVII, Loki leaves his home to marry Thor and secure a lasting peace between Jötunheim and Asgard. This is by far the more common premise of Loki/Thor arranged marriage fanfiction. Conversely, and unusually for this pairing, in Bride it is Thor who must leave his home to marry Loki. As in many other [End Page 7] Arranged Marriage fanfiction stories, these marriage arrangements, alongside other factors, give rise to significant inequality between the partners at the start of each story.

In the next section, I explore how the institution of marriage in its legal, social and emotional aspects is constructed in these stories. I focus in particular on how the marriage arrangements relate to the inequalities between the partners in a range of gendered and non-gendered ways, and what these inequalities mean for sexual consent. I then explore how the power imbalances are addressed through emotion work, and finally analyse in detail the consummation of each of the marriages and how sexual consent in the presence of power imbalances is handled in these stories.

Thor/Loki and the inequalities of marriage

Marriage as a social and legal institution has a history of constructing and legitimising gendered social inequalities. One mechanism for this is through the legal structures which codify marriage, for instance, the historical doctrine of coverture (Donovan 3) or exemptions for marriage in rape law (e.g. Smart; Donovan). Yet despite extensive reforms of the legal institution of marriage, changes in the material circumstances of women have been slower and more difficult to achieve (Smart 160). Discourse, and the subject positions it makes available or inaccessible, may account for some of this discrepancy, as Gavey argues:

Those discourses which are commensurate with widely shared commonsense understanding of the world are perhaps most powerful in constituting subjectivity, yet their influence can most easily remain hidden and difficult to identify and, therefore, resist (92).

The subject position of “wife” as constructed in discourses of marriage is particularly relevant here with regards to inequality and sexual consent. Gavey, for instance, shows how sex is still constructed as the “duty” of a wife, and how this discourse influences her interview participants’ perceptions of themselves, constructions of their own identity, and their material experience of sex within marriage. With this in mind, it is worth examining how arranged marriage fanfiction stories depict marriage as an institution, including the possible inequalities it produces, reproduces and amplifies.

While gender has historically been a key structuring element of marriage, it is not the primary source of power differentials in arranged marriage slash fanfiction relationships. There are, however, gendered elements to how both Thor and Loki are presented and it is worth exploring those briefly, particularly as they relate to other inequalities and are reproduced and amplified by the marriage arrangements. Lamb and Veith argue that the primary effect of slash is to remove power imbalances from sexual and romantic relationships by focusing on same-gender relationships. They also note that in slash fanfiction, characters who are men – often extremely masculine men – in the originary work acquire androgynous characteristics (243).

This kind of androgynous characterisation is present for both Thor and Loki in all five of the stories reviewed, and particularly in the two chosen for in-depth analysis. Thor is most obviously feminised in Bride, where even the title associates him with the feminine role in a heterosexual marriage. In this story, Thor is both younger and – unusually for fanfiction [End Page 8] about this pairing – physically smaller than Loki. While Loki is heir to the throne of Jötunheim, Thor’s arranged marriage with Loki precludes him from inheriting the throne of Asgard which will pass to his younger brother: an arrangement which evokes the practice of male-preference primogeniture, serving to further feminise Thor. He is also forced to leave his home and join the family and household of his husband. While getting dressed for the wedding – in a white gown – Thor is explicitly described as feeling “feminine” and “delicate,” particularly compared to the frost giants surrounding him. Conversely, Loki in this story has a reputation for coldness and cruelty, adding to Thor’s apprehension about the marriage. These elements evoke the first of Radway’s narrative functions: “the heroine’s social identity is destroyed” (134). Through his removal from his home and family, therefore, Thor here is cast in the heroine role, while Loki’s coldness and cruelty mark him out as a romance hero. Through the mechanism of side-by-side reading (Derecho 73), this gendering of the characters therefore clearly evokes popular romance novel tropes and sets expectations for the reader based on the generic conventions of romance novels many fanfiction readers are familiar with: by the end of the story Thor will have tamed Loki and transformed him into a loving and caring husband. Additionally, these gendered inequalities within the context of the arranged marriage also highlight the structural inequalities of the marriage itself, as Thor leaves behind his own family to formally become part of Loki’s, and as the settlement of property and titles is a key aspect of the marriage arrangement.

Yet the characterisation of Thor as feminine heroine and Loki as masculine hero is complicated in Bride in two key ways. Firstly, Loki himself is shown to have feminine characteristics as well as masculine ones. On a bodily level, Loki, like all Jötnar, is intersex.[3] He is also physically smaller than other Jötnar, and is known for his intelligence, gift for magic, and manipulativeness: characteristics frequently associated with femininity. He is described as both beautiful and handsome. Secondly, on several occasions factors which make Thor feel feminine and vulnerable in the context of his wedding are shown to have gender-neutral or masculine associations in other contexts. When Thor objects to wearing the white wedding “dress,” his mother, Frigga, explains that Loki will also be wearing a white gown. When Thor balks at the expectation to be nude for part of the wedding ceremony, Frigga again re-contextualises this for him by pointing out that in Asgard Thor is frequently nude, for instance in public baths. This complication of the characters’ gender coding and the social structures around them already signals a departure from the generic conventions and power imbalances of the romance novel. This “repetition with a difference” (Derecho 73) encourages a side-by-side reading where the differences between the fanfiction story and the romance novel trope are highlighted. Such departures in turn are a key tool for fanfiction writers and readers to explore and challenge dominant discourses about power, gender and sexuality in romance novels.

As Bride can be seen as part of three different archives – those of romance novels, arranged marriage fanfiction stories, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe – additional layers of meanings are created through other side-by-side readings, with both the MCU and other works of fanfiction. The story is fairly unusual within Thor/Loki arranged marriage fanfiction in that it casts Thor in the less powerful position within the relationship. The author’s notes which accompany the story indicate that this is a deliberate choice to explore the change in the power dynamics between the characters. More frequently, it is Thor who starts out as the more powerful partner in the relationship, as is the case in XVII: he is the heir of Asgard, with Loki having to leave his family and make a life for himself in a realm [End Page 9] strange to him. Ambiguous or androgynous gendering of both Thor and Loki is also present in XVII. Loki’s physical beauty is emphasised, as are his magic use, intelligence, and reputation for being manipulative. Yet it is Thor who is too nervous to eat at their wedding feast, while Loki is also described as muscled and a competent fighter. Both Bride and XVII therefore rework their central characters – men in the originary work – into more androgynous versions of themselves, incorporating characteristics associated with both femininity and masculinity. However, far from entirely removing inequality from the relationship, as Lamb and Veith would argue (238), these stories use the arranged marriage trope and related romance novel conventions to introduce other power imbalances between the characters.

There are several other factors, both internal and external to the relationship, through which power differentials are established between Thor and Loki in the two stories. Differences in physical size and strength, for instance, are used to establish – and sometimes negate – power differentials between the characters. In both Bride and XVII, Thor does not meet Loki before the wedding and expects him to be a giant like other Jötnar. This causes him significant anxiety, as this extract from Bride shows:

The Frost Giants that Thor sees on his way through the palace leave him shaken.

I’m going to be torn apart, he thinks.

Even in XVII, where Thor in many ways has the upper hand in the marriage arrangement, he is concerned about Loki being a frost giant:

‘This is your duty,’ [Frigga] says. ‘I know it is hard, my darling, but it is for the good of our realm.’

Thor knows that, he does, but it doesn’t stop it from being hard. Jötun are not an ugly people by any means, but they are giants. And they are cold. Thor doesn’t see how anyone can expect him to marry one. He doesn’t say this, but his mother seems to sense it anyway.

It is only once he meets Loki that Thor’s perception of the power imbalances between them begins to change, and he is palpably relieved in both stories. While Thor is generally depicted as physically stronger than Loki in MCU fanfiction, in both Bride and XVII Loki is presented as a competent fighter. In addition to that, Loki is a powerful magic user, and often uses his magic and intelligence to get his way. Finally, differences in age and experience play a significant role in Bride. The author’s notes accompanying the story specify that Thor is 18 and Loki is 27 in this setting, and this age difference is reflected in the characters’ behaviours, attitudes and even physicality throughout the story. Even after he finds out that Loki is not a giant, Thor continues to be intimidated by his physical size, repeatedly reflecting that he himself is not “fully grown” or as muscular as Loki. Loki is also more sexually experienced than Thor: although neither character has had any sexual experience with a partner, Loki’s [End Page 10] magic allows him to create doubles of himself which he indicates he has done for sexual reasons in the past.

The arranged marriage trope allows external factors such as political considerations, marriage laws and customs, and the characters’ relationships with their families to play a significant role. In XVII, Loki’s marriage to Thor means that he is no longer considered a Jötun: he will not be able to return to Jötunheim or see his family ever again, and he is completely dependent on Thor for everything from basics like food and shelter to emotional support. Conversely in Bride, while Thor has to leave Asgard and is somewhat dependent on Loki, his parents repeatedly reassure him that they will continue to visit and support him. Therefore the consequences of a failed marriage for Loki in XVII are much greater than those for Thor in Bride, which in turn exacerbates the power differential. When read side by side with both romance novels and an understanding of the history of marriage laws and customs in Western cultures, these stories then clearly cast marriage as an institution characterised by and potentially reproducing and exacerbating inequalities. Marriage here is not the “happily ever after,” but rather the beginning of a process of negotiation, with significant personal and social risks attached to failure of such negotiation. While Roach sees risk-taking in the name of love as a key element of the romance novel (Happily Ever After 24), the risks in arranged marriage fanfiction stories are often taken out of a lack of options instead, as the personal, social and legal repercussions of failure – a life spent in an unhappy and unloving marriage, social isolation, or loss of legal status and the financial means for survival – are simply too great. In the face of these risks and power differentials within the relationship, the characters’ options are limited.

There are, therefore, clear power imbalances in Thor and Loki’s marriage in both Bride and XVII. They are caused by factors internal to the characters – physical size and strength, age, experience – as well as exacerbated by ones external to them – marriage customs and access to material and emotional support outside the relationship. While both characters are given androgynous characteristics, the overall picture of their relationship is still one of inequality: more specifically, inequality similar to that in marriage of convenience romance novels (Regis 135). It can be argued that at the outset of the relationship, Thor has considerably more power than Loki in XVII, and Loki has more power in Bride. The construction of marriage as a sexual relationship, as evidenced by the emphasis on marriage consummation I shall explore further below, puts additional pressures on the partner with less power. Even though these inequalities are only partially structural within the setting, they cast doubt on the ability of the less powerful character to give consent to sexual relations in a meaningful way. In the next section, I turn to the emotion work framework to examine how such power imbalances are negotiated within the relationships in the two stories, how the happily ever after ending is achieved, and what this means for sexual consent.

Emotion Work and the Happily Ever After

The Happily Ever After, or at least Happy For Now, ending is an essential feature of the romance novel genre (Roach, Happily Ever After 165). The hero and the heroine have taken risks, worked hard, the heroine has tamed the hero, and they finally come together in [End Page 11] a mutually loving relationship, often a marriage. In marriage of convenience stories, of course, the marriage itself has already happened, but it is transformed from a purely transactional arrangement into one of love (Regis 135). It is useful to view the way this transformation is achieved in romance novels as a result of the heroine’s emotion work. Emotion work is often gendered and the burden of it falls disproportionately on women, particularly in heterosexual relationships (Erickson 346; Umberson et al. 546). This is reflected in marriage of convenience romance novels, where the young bride – who has relatively little power in her marriage and is often financially and otherwise dependent on her husband – has to become skilled at reading the male hero’s moods, negotiating them and transforming his gruff personality in order to achieve happiness and fulfilment in marriage (Regis 135). Radway and Modleski both make convincing arguments as to why, rather than a transformation of the hero or the relationship, this development is actually a transformation of the heroine. In arranged marriage fanfiction stories, the Happily Ever After ending is retained as an essential element and generic convention. Yet even if we accept Regis’s argument that the more important element in the romance novel is not the HEA ending itself but the process of getting there (15), how that ending is achieved differs significantly between fanfiction and the romance novel, though emotion work is still at the centre of the transformation. It plays a vital role in negotiating the multiple and layered power differentials between Thor and Loki in both Bride and XVII, allowing them over the course of the story to create a more equal dynamic. What distinguishes many fanfiction stories featuring the arranged marriage trope from more traditional marriage of convenience romance novels is who within the relationship performs this kind of work. In both Bride and XVII, the bulk of the emotion work depicted falls on the partner portrayed as more powerful in the relationship: Thor in the case of XVII and Loki in Bride.

The first time Loki performs emotion work in Bride is shortly after the wedding ceremony at which Thor and Loki meet. At the wedding feast, Loki seeks to put Thor – still too nervous to eat or engage in much conversation – at ease:

Loki has kept his hands largely to himself. He has leaned over a few times and set his hand at the small of Thor’s back, pointing out the members of court with a nod of his head and breathing the best gossip about them into Thor’s ear. He brushed his fingers over Thor’s when he took his goblet from him to refill it with wine, but Thor wasn’t certain if it was meant to be friendly or if it was incidental. They danced, but Frigga had held Thor closer when she was teaching him the steps than Loki held him as they spun through the hall.

Thor’s surprise at Loki’s behaviour can be viewed through the lens of Western gender roles, with Thor coded as feminine and Loki as masculine and Thor’s expectations of his husband shaped accordingly. It is not clear whether Loki’s behaviour is in line with Jötun gender roles, which are implied to be different to Asgardian (and therefore Western) ones, as most of the story is told from Thor’s point of view. It is, however, clear that Loki is making an effort to set at ease the younger Thor, who is also at that point experiencing culture shock. When the two newlyweds are finally alone on their wedding night, Loki uses his magic to shapeshift into Aesir (or more human-like) form instead of the frosty blue skin of the Jötnar in another effort to provide some reassurance and familiarity for Thor. This is also the first occasion where Thor acknowledges and reciprocates Loki’s emotion work: [End Page 12]

Loki shifts his skin to match his spouse’s and Thor pauses in his pacing to stare.

‘Which do you prefer?’ Loki asks.

‘The night does not compete with the day. As a Jötun you are fairest among your own folk, and as an Aesir you are lovelier than mine.’

‘They are all our people now,’ Loki reminds him, and Thor nods and smiles.

Loki shifts back into his blue skin, pleased with the lad’s pretty speech, and pulls out a seat for Thor.

It is significant that Loki is proactive about making Thor feel more comfortable, as it shows that he clearly understands that Thor is feeling vulnerable and isolated. The gesture of shape-shifting is intended to reduce that feeling of isolation. It is also important that Loki asks for Thor’s opinion and gives him a choice, thereby empowering him to make decisions within the relationship very early on. At the same time, this choice clearly makes Thor uncomfortable as he does not want to cause offence to his husband. He therefore retreats into language which can be seen as rather diplomatic and deliberately flattering, effectively passing the decision back to Loki. So while Loki’s emotion work goes some way towards making Thor feel more at ease, the power imbalances between them are still clearly reflected in this exchange. The fact that Thor declines to make a choice indicates that he may not be feeling safe yet to do so, and by extension to meaningfully give or deny consent to any sexual relations between the couple.

Conversely, in XVII it is Thor who performs the majority of emotion work, both in trying to read Loki and understand how he feels and trying to make Loki feel at home in Asgard, particularly early on in the story. At the same time, Loki is studying Thor and trying to understand him, but he makes no move to initiate conversation or work on their relationship. As Loki expresses a desire for safety and privacy, Thor gives him space by leaving their quarters during the daytime and bringing him food rather than making Loki join the family at mealtimes. This is in stark contrast to Radway’s romance heroine:

Because she cannot seem to avoid contact with him despite her dislike, the heroine’s principal activity throughout the rest of the story consists of the mental process of trying to assign particular signifieds to his overt acts. In effect, what she is trying to do in discovering the significance of his behavior by uncovering his motives is to understand what the fact of male presence and attention means for her, a woman. (139)

A side-by-side reading (Derecho 73) of XVII with this understanding of the heroine’s behaviour in romance novels indicates that this is precisely what Loki is expecting to have to do in this story. He is watching Thor carefully and testing out the limits of any freedom he may have in this new situation. However, where the heroine in a romance novel would then use any knowledge gained this way to provide emotional comfort and support for the hero, in XVII, Loki finds every wish he expresses respected and as much space is given to him as [End Page 13] the social and legal restrictions on both partners allow. Thus Loki does not need to account for and come to terms with Thor’s presence in his life in the same way as a romance novel heroine would.

Thor also seeks to engage Loki in conversation and takes clues from his behaviour to find activities Loki might enjoy. The first breakthrough in their relationship comes when Thor, having seen Loki read the single book he has brought with him from Jötunheim, takes him to Asgard’s library. As the relationship develops, the emotion work involved in deepening and sustaining it evolves to being shared equally between Thor and Loki, indicating that they have reached a level of mutual trust. While the inequality of the marriage arrangement is never erased, and formally, Loki remains dependent on Thor, Thor repeatedly demonstrates that he views his husband as an equal. When Loki is given the choice to dissolve the marriage and return to Jötunheim or stay in Asgard with Thor, he freely chooses to stay and negotiates a reopening of the border between the two realms, indicating that he feels confident in his own status and power as Thor’s husband. Thor’s emotion work has transformed the relationship to one where Loki is a loved and respected equal and feels able to make choices freely and without constraint. Thus, while the Happily Ever After ending is achieved, the process by which it is achieved, and how the obstacles are overcome, differs considerably between arranged marriage fanfiction stories and romance novels.

For readers versed in romance novels as well as fanfiction, the arranged marriage fanfiction story becomes a part of both archives, and the differences in how emotion work is approached in each body of work become a key site of meaning creation. While fanfiction stories retain the romance novel’s Happily Ever After ending, they make key changes in how this ending is achieved. The contrast between the romance novel heroine’s efforts to understand and accommodate the hero on the one hand, and the partner with less power in the fanfiction arranged marriage on the other, who ultimately has emotion work performed for them, becomes a challenge to the power imbalances in the romance novel trope. It is important that the “equality-centered relationship dynamic” (Kustritz 377) is not present in these fanfiction stories from the start. Neither is the “hero” tamed by the “heroine” (Radway). Rather, through persistent performance of emotion work, the partner with more power in the relationship levels the playing field to build trust and minimise inequality in the partners’ day-to-day interactions. In the next section, I explore what these changes to the romance novel generic conventions mean for sexual consent within the relationship.

Marriage consummation

Marriage consummation is a recurring feature of arranged marriage fanfiction stories. Part of the reason for this lies in the generic conventions of slash fiction and romance novels, which often feature sex scenes. In the romance novel, a sex scene is often used to mark the Happily Ever After ending, with the couple consummating their relationship in a mutually loving and respectful way. While this may not be the first sex scene of the novel, or even for the couple, this final, emotional sex scene is still nonetheless a popular feature of a range of subgenres of romance novels. Roach argues that part of the message here for the (mostly) women who read romance novels is that they are entitled to love and great sex in their relationships, and that their partner should be devoted to their sexual pleasure (Happily [End Page 14] Ever After 87, emphasis added). Yet it can be argued the questions raised by the romance novel premise with its unequal relationship around the meaningfulness of sexual consent are often not satisfactorily addressed in the genre, particularly if the transformation of the hero and the relationship has happened largely through the emotion work performed by the heroine. Roach herself admits that the hero at the end of the romance novel is still embedded within patriarchy outside the relationship even if he does submit to the heroine within the relationship (Happily Ever After 187). Thus any re-negotiation of the power imbalance between them is limited and contingent at best.

In arranged marriage fanfiction, the consummation scene too is a key generic convention. While sometimes it is used in the same way as the climactic sex scene in romance novels to indicate the Happily Ever After ending, it has a different function in many fanfiction stories. A closer look at the metadata around the stories and the construction of these scenes in arranged marriage fiction shows how they are used to examine complex issues around sexual consent, power and inequality in intimate relationships. Of the 3600 works tagged “Arranged Marriage” on AO3 in August 2016, 466 also use a tag related to at least one of the following: “Consent Issues,” “Non-Consensual,” “Rape/Non-Con.” Of the five Loki/Thor stories I selected for this analysis, consummation was a central feature in four, with pre-marital sex performing a similar function in the final one. One story presented consummation as an outright rape, and the other three, including the two selected for in-depth analysis, contained discussion of consent issues in light of the arranged marriage and inequality of the partners. Consummation is presented as expected in these relationships, both through the legal structures surrounding the marriage arrangements and through the cultural expectations which construct marriage as a sexual relationship. Through both the metadata around the stories and key features of the stories themselves, arranged marriage fanfiction casts marriage consummation as an at least potentially a coercive practice. References to the range of different sources of power imbalances and inequalities in the relationship discussed previously are present throughout the stories and support this, keeping the issue of meaningful consent as a focal point of the works. This focus evokes both issues around the legal construction of marriage (Smart) and the social and cultural constructions of potentially coercive heterosex practices as “just sex” (Gavey). Where arranged marriage fanfiction departs from the generic conventions of romance novels is again in the distribution of emotion work between the partners. In stories where consummation is explicitly addressed as coercive or potentially coercive, another sex scene later in the relationship may take its place in establishing the Happily Ever After ending.

XVII illustrates well the problematic nature of marriage consummation within arranged marriage fanfiction. In this story, when Thor meets Loki and finds he is not a giant, he is immediately sexually attracted to him. Once the wedding feast is over and the couple are alone in their room, Loki makes it clear that he expects the marriage to be consummated even though he is not feeling enthusiastic about the prospect. When Thor refuses on the basis that Loki would clearly not be a willing participant, Loki is both confused and angry. He accuses Thor of making a fool of him and continues to be cold and hostile but eventually accepts that he has some agency within their marriage. There is a similar, though far less confrontational, conversation in Bride. This time it is Loki who makes it clear that Thor’s consent matters and that he will not insist on consummating the marriage unless Thor is willing. Thor, while nervous, does prove willing, though the language used in reaching their [End Page 15] mutual agreement to have sex is rather formal and carries connotations of meeting expectations, both social and each other’s:

‘I would not have you unwilling,’ Loki says, turning toward Thor. ‘I’m not a monster. This marriage was no more of my making than of yours. We needn’t punish each other for it.’

‘It is no punishment,’ Thor answers. ‘It is a gift, is it not? I mean to keep my promises. I would not rob my husband of the pleasures of his wedding night.’

‘Nor I mine,’ Loki agrees, smiling.

Thor’s phrasing of his consent reflects the discursive construction of the institution of marriage and the wedding ceremony, as it clearly references – and legitimises – the expectations of sexual intercourse generated by their wedding. The word “rob” in particular implies a sense of obligation on Thor’s part and an entitlement for Loki. In XVII, Thor thinks that wedding night rape is “not an uncommon practice, but certainly no practice Thor would ever take part in,” while Loki concedes that he “did not expect [Thor] to be so honorable.” In Bride, while ultimately the expectation is met and the marriage is consummated, this only happens with mutual agreement. It is Loki’s final response in this exchange, picking up on the implications of Thor’s phrasing and the word “rob”, which performs the work of putting them on equal footing, as it acknowledges that the entitlement and obligation of being a new husband applies in reverse too.

The status of marriage as a legal institution is a key factor which influences and shapes the practice of marriage consummation. In the Western legal context, there are consequences for non-consummation which may put one or both parties at risk. As Smart argues, “[t]he civil law on marriage is still interested in whether marital intercourse takes place, and whether the child of a woman is also the child of her husband” (92). In the UK, for instance, non-consummation is grounds for annulment (except for same-gender couples) (“When You Can Annul a Marriage”), which in turn has different legal implications to divorce. In the US, annulment may have a significant negative impact on an immigrant spouse’s application for permanent residence. The exact legal context for Thor and Loki’s marriage is not specified in either Bride or XVII. It is therefore possible to read these stories side by side with the complexities of marriage law. Loki’s anger at “being made a fool of” in XVII can be read as reflecting a similar concern with his legal situation as Thor’s husband. This again highlights the risks of a failed marriage, particularly for the partner with less power in the relationship, and therefore the stakes for the characters in making the relationship work. Far from being a risk taken willingly and in the name of love (Roach, Happily Ever After 24), however, the risks here are clearly ones the characters are forced to take for lack of other options, and potentially at peril of death.

When it comes to the actual consummation of Loki and Thor’s marriage in both Bride and XVII, emotion work plays a key role in facilitating meaningful consent between unequal partners. As previously discussed, unlike in romance novels where emotion work is predominantly performed by the heroine who is also the partner with less leverage in the relationship (Radway; Regis; Roach, “Getting a Good Man”), emotion work in both these stories is performed by the partner who is more powerful: Thor in XVII, and Loki in Bride. [End Page 16] This applies not only to the emotion work needed to build trust within the relationship but also to that needed to ensure any consent given is and continues to be meaningful.

In Bride, the conversation between Loki and Thor once they are alone in their room quickly becomes an equal exchange, both of them working towards building trust and rapport. However, once they agree to consummate the marriage, it is Loki who works to read Thor’s feelings, calm his nerves, and provide reassurance. In XVII, after Thor’s initial refusal to consummate his marriage with an unwilling Loki, the couple grow closer over the course of weeks, largely due to Thor’s efforts to make Loki feel more comfortable and at ease with him. Their first kiss is triggered by a scuffle following a trip away from Asgard during which Loki is verbally assaulted by another character. The kiss leads on to the consummation of their marriage, but throughout this scene Thor continues to consciously read Loki’s reactions and feelings, and verbally or through gestures asks for consent on several occasions:

It gets Thor hot all over, and suddenly he has too many clothes on, and this isn’t going fast enough.

Thor leans back and Loki looks angry, not because Thor is kissing him but because he’s stopped. The look disappears once Thor pulls him upright and leads him to the bed. Loki understands then what’s happening. He keeps himself pressed very close to Thor, like he can’t stand to be pulled away from him right now. Thor doesn’t move them onto the bed though, not yet. He searches Loki’s eyes, tries to figure out what he’s thinking, what he’s feeling. He made a promise before, and he means to keep it, despite the lust that grips him tight all over and threatens to drive him crazy.

Here, Thor repeatedly performs the bodily emotion work (Hochschild 562) of controlling his own desire. As he is both the more powerful partner in the relationship and the one who so far has shown a greater desire for sex, this is a key indicator that he is actively thinking about issues of consent and looking to ensure that Loki has the space to deny or withdraw consent if needed. To that end, Thor is also carefully reading Loki’s emotional expressions in order to be able to react and adapt to them. This stands in stark contrast to the findings by Umberson et al. where emotion work around sexuality and desire was performed predominantly by women who desired less sex than their partner, with the aim of increasing their own desire (550). Read side by side with women’s own experiences of such emotion work, this story therefore reveals some key differences. It and other arranged marriage fanfiction stories construct the partner who is more powerful in the relationship and desires more sex as the one responsible for the emotion work of managing their desire and of ensuring that any sexual consent is meaningful. Where the dominant cultural construction of potentially coercive heterosex is “just sex” (Gavey), in these stories this is challenged and presented as “potentially rape” unless, through emotion work and a conscious effort to negotiate and manage power inequalities, consent has been made truly meaningful. [End Page 17]

Conclusion

Arranged marriage fanfiction can be seen as part of several different archives (Derecho 64): the romance novel genre as a whole, fanfiction, the archive surrounding the originary work the fanfiction is based on, as well as potentially that of readers’ and writers’ own life experiences and relationships with dominant cultural discourses of sexuality and consent. Reading arranged marriage fanfiction in this way – side by side with romance novels, originary works, other fanfiction, as well as dominant discourses on consent – gives access to a range of meanings created through similarities and differences with aspects of these different archives.

Arranged marriage fanfiction retains certain key generic conventions of the romance novel: the Happily Ever After ending and the climactic sex scene. However, fanfiction stories employing this trope also directly address issues of power imbalances and inequalities in relationships, casting marriage as an institution which reproduces and potentially exacerbates them. This construction of marriage is built on both its legal and formal aspects, as well as the social and emotional ones. As a result, these stories reframe the practice of consummation – an often taken for granted feature of marriage, commonly constructed as “just sex” – as at least potentially coercive. To resolve this conflict and retain the Happily Ever After ending, arranged marriage fanfiction stories also make key changes to the generic conventions of romance novels, particularly in the way the HEA ending is achieved. Where in romance novels the transformation of the relationship is effected predominantly through the heroine’s emotion work – that is, her effort to understand and support the hero – in fanfiction it is the partner with more power in the relationship, the equivalent of the romance novel hero, whose responsibility it is to perform this emotion work. Through it, inequalities in the relationship are negotiated, the playing field is levelled, and space for meaningful consent (or the denial or withdrawal thereof) is created. It is these changes which allow arranged marriage fanfiction stories to challenge dominant discourses of “just sex” and cast them as “potentially rape”. An alternative discourse then emerges where through emotion work and a conscious effort to negotiate and manage power inequalities, consent is made truly meaningful.


[1] Kudos are a feature of the Archive of Our Own which allows readers to quickly and easily express their appreciation of a story through clicking a single button. A logged-in user can only leave kudos on a story once. The number of kudos on any given story is driven by several factors beyond quality or even popularity of the story: how long it has been available on the archive, how big the community around that particular fandom is, or even the format of the work. Ranking by kudos is therefore a good way to find stories within a single fandom for a long time, but it may miss more recent stories. This method has significant issues when trying to compare the popularity of stories across different fandoms.

[2] The Marvel character Thor is loosely based on Norse mythology. He is a member of the Aesir, an extremely long-lived and god-like (albeit human in appearance) race who inhabit a world called Asgard. Asgard’s historical enemies in the MCU canon are the Frost Giants or Jötnar (singular: Jötun), a race of large, humanoid, blue-skinned creatures who inhabit the ice world Jötunheim. [End Page 18]

[3] Intersex representation in both Norse mythology and Thor/Loki fanfiction is a fascinating topic that is beyond the scope of this research. I am using the pronouns “he/his/him” for Loki in this paper in line with both mythological and fan community usage. [End Page 19]

Works Cited

Avengers Assemble. Directed by Joss Whedon, performances by Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2012.

Bacon-Smith, Camille. Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

Barot, Len. “Queer Romance in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century America: Snapshots of a Revolution.” Romance Fiction and American Culture: Love as the Practice of Freedom?, edited by William A. Gleason and Eric Murphy Selinger, Routledge, 2016, pp. 389-404.

Derecho, Abigail. “Archontic Literature: A Definition, a History, and Several Theories of Fan Fiction.” Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, edited by Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse, McFarland & Co, 2006, pp. 61-78.

Donovan, Josephine. Feminist Theory: The Intellectual Traditions. Bloomsbury, 2012.

Dworkin, Andrea. Right-Wing Women. Pedigree Books, 1983.

Erickson, Rebecca J. “Reconceptualizing Family Work: The Effect of Emotion Work on Perceptions of Marital Quality.” Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. 55, no. 4, 1993, pp. 888-900.

Erickson, Rebecca J. “Why Emotion Work Matters: Sex, Gender, and the Division of Household Labor.” Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. 67, no. 2, (2005,): pp. 337-351.

Gavey, Nicola. Just Sex? The Cultural Scaffolding of Rape. Routledge, 2005.

Gavey, Nicola, and Kathryn McPhillips. “Subject to Romance: Heterosexual Passivity as an Obstacle to Women Initiating Condom Use.” Psychology of Women Quarterly, vol. 23, 1999, 349-367.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. “Emotion Work, Feeling Rules, and Social Structure.” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 85, no.3, 1979, pp. 551-575.

Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. Routledge, 1992.

Kustritz, Anne. “Slashing the Romance Narrative.” The Journal of American Culture, vol. 26, no. 3, 2003, pp. 371-385.

Lamb, Patricia, and Diana Veith. “Romantic Myth, Transcendence, and Star Trek Zines.” Erotic Universe: Sexuality and Fantastic Literature, edited by Donald Palumbo,  Greenwood Press, 1986, pp. 235-256.

MacKinnon, Catharine. Towards a Feminist Theory of the State. Harvard University Press, 1989.

Modleski, Tania. Loving with a Vengeance: Mass Produced Fantasies for Women. 1982. Routledge, 2008.

Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

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

Roach, Catherine. “Getting a Good Man to Love: Popular Romance Fiction and the Problem of Patriarchy.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies, vol. 1, no. 1 ,2010, n. pag.

Roach, Catherine M. Happily Ever After: The Romance Story in Popular Culture. Indiana University Press, 2016. [End Page 20]

“Romance Readers.” RWA, n.d., https://www.rwa.org/p/cm/ld/fid=582. Accessed 5/16/2018.

Russ, Joanna. “Pornography By Women For Women, With Love.” Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts: Feminist Essays, edited by Joanna Russ. The Crossing Press, 1985, pp. 79-99.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction. Duke University Press, 1997.

Smart, Carol. Feminism and the Power of Law. Routledge, 1989.

Stasi, Mafalda. “The Toy Soldiers from Leeds: The Slash Palimpsest.” Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, edited by Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse, McFarland & Co, 2006, pp. 115-133.

stereobone. “XVII.” Archive of Our Own, 2013. Accessed 3/30/2016.

Tag Wrangling Committee. “The Past, Present, and Hopeful Future for Tags and Tag Wrangling on the AO3.” Archive of Our Own, 2012, https://archiveofourown.org/admin_posts/267. Accessed 5/16/2018.

themantlingdark. “Bride.” Archive of Our Own, 2013. Accessed 3/30/2016.

Thor. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, performances by Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2011.

Thor: The Dark World. Directed by Alan Taylor, performances by Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2013.

Umberson, Debra, Mieke Beth Thomeer, and Amy C. Lodge. “Intimacy and Emotion Work in Lesbian, Gay, and Heterosexual Relationships.” Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. 77, no. 2, 2015, pp. 542-556.

“When You Can Annul a Marriage.” Gov.UK, 2016, https://www.gov.uk/how-to-annul-marriage/when-you-can-annul-a-marriage. Accessed 3/30/2016. [End Page 21]

Share

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[End Page 5]

Share

Romance Fiction in the Archives
by Kecia Ali

Note: This piece was drafted in late 2017. The ongoing exploration of diversity and racism in romance writing, publishing, and award-giving attests to the potential importance of archival sources discussed below.

In May 2017, the Popular Culture Association (PCA), in coordination with the Ray and Pat Browne Popular Culture Library (PCL) at Bowling Green State University hosted its second Summer Research Institute. Two dozen scholars spent four glorious days digging in the collections of the PCL and the Bill Schurk Sound Archives. My fellow researchers included graduate students, independent scholars, and professors. We delved into troves of comics, zines, board games, postcards, teen magazines, albums—including cover art and liner notes, and much more. I was there to explore the Romance Writers of America (RWA) archives. My research did not go exactly according to plan, which turned out to be a good thing. In what follows, I explain how I used the archives and what sorts of other projects—in and beyond the study of popular romance—they might support.

I applied to the Institute because I had just finished a book about Nora Roberts’ long-running pseudonymous In Death series. Writing Human in Death: Morality and Mortality in J.D. Robb’s Novels left me with the kind of questions about her even more numerous romances that can only be answered by writing about them. Hence, a new project (alongside [End Page 1] my “regular” scholarship on Islam and gender). While Human in Death limited itself to the novels, for this project, which attends to characters’ creative careers, I wanted to look at Roberts’ discussions of the romance genre and her own writing habits. Here is how I described my research agenda in my application:

While the primary source for my analysis will be the novels themselves, it would enrich the study to explore how Roberts’ own experiences affect how she writes writers, as well as other working artists. Roberts has discussed this topic in a restricted way in occasional interviews for the broader public. I expect that in her addresses to RWA groups, where her audience comprises romance writers, she would devote more attention to this topic. BGSU archives contain audio cassette recordings of eleven RWA sessions in which she participated from 1987-2002 (specifically, 1987, 1990-1993, 1996-1999, 2002). While my primary interest in the collection is in these recordings, I will also take advantage of the library’s collection to consult several relevant scholarly and primary source publications not readily available at other libraries.

Once at BGSU, I began with the RWA conference recordings. Prompted by the Institute organizers, I had requested in advance that the cassettes I’d found by searching the catalog for Roberts’ name be retrieved from the offsite depository. A librarian taught me how to digitize those recordings. The procedure is simple, but takes the full running time of the analog original; since I couldn’t speed it up, I listened along. In the second tape I listened to, from 2002, Roberts said she’d attended every RWA conference since the first, in 1981, except one. This meant that there were ten years where she’d attended but there were no recordings of her speaking. Of course, she might have attended without speaking in a recorded session (it turned out she sometimes had), but I doubted that she’d attended but not been on the program for all of those years. To see what I might be missing, I set the recordings aside and began to dig through the rest of the RWA archives. (I was able to do this because BGSU library staff, for a modest fee, digitized the recordings I designated; for about $10/hour, this was a bargain.)

My initial interest was in determining whether Roberts had presented at other sessions. By looking through conference programs in the organization’s files (Boxes 36-40), I saw that she had spoken on panels other than those I’d found. They hadn’t turned up in my initial catalog search because they were listed by title alone, without presenter names. Scanning the printed programs for Roberts’ name then looking in the online library catalog under the session titles allowed me to request those cassettes as well. This was an imperfect solution as there were no programs for a few years (e.g., 2003-2005), but in the process of looking for the programs, I got hooked by the rich materials available.

In addition to the conference programs, the archives contain various and sundry things: travel brochures, press clippings, advertisements for books, vendor contracts, press kits, and swag ranging from key rings, pins, pens, and badge holders to a black and purple satin garter. The files are more complete for some years than for others. Once I was through the boxes for the conferences, I turned to the correspondence files (Boxes 13-17, which cover, unevenly, 1984-early 1997). They also contain some conference-related material. For instance, a fax sent by a board member, and mailed to those who didn’t use faxes, mentions [End Page 2] three authors who turned them down for a guest speaking role at the New York conference in 1994.[1] Roberts ended up giving the keynote that year—but I found no mention of any discussions with her in the files.

In fact, Roberts was largely absent from the RWA correspondence archives, mentioned only in passing in a smattering of documents. Her name shows up in the conference files in attendee lists, in programs as a presenter, and in one exceptional instance as the person designated to meet 1983 keynote speaker Belva Plain and be available to her through the meeting should she require assistance.[2]

Roberts features more often in the Romance Writers’ Report (RWR), to which I turned on my last day at the library. The PCL has a near-complete run of this publication, from its 1981 first issue when the organization was founded. Because of time constraints, I was only able to consult the 1981-86, 1989, and 1996 runs. Roberts shows up semi-regularly in two helpful features from the early to mid-1980s: the RWA member news and the “Booksellers Say” feature, in which bookstore staff comment on reader preferences. She also wrote a few columns. In 1996, there was an article commemorating her hundredth book.[3] Fortunately, the BGSU library makes scanning available freely to its researchers, so I was able to email myself scans of the pages where she appeared rather than having to take extensive notes during my limited research hours.

In attempting to make the best use of the archives for this current project, I skimmed over or skipped past many tantalizing leads and materials. In the remainder of this piece, I lay out in cursory fashion some of the major topics covered in the archives. Many projects might benefit from consulting the collection. In other cases, entire projects might be built around the archival material. This list is partial, idiosyncratic, and woefully incomplete, meant only to offer a starting point for thinking about drawing on the archives.

The RWA archives at BGSU cover the period from RWA’s founding in 1980 through 2008, though coverage for some years is absent or patchy. Much of the material is concentrated from the mid-1980s to the late 1990s. Folders bulge with conference planning notes and programs. Cassette recordings for many sessions, including with prominent authors, were offered by RWA as resources for their members and now constitute a vital record for scholars. Five file boxes preserve miscellaneous correspondence among RWA officers and between RWA officers and service providers, lawyers, regional chapter officials, aspiring authors, and the occasional senator. (Other boxes contain archived board minutes and recordings of board meetings; I did not consult them.) BGSU also retains the nearly complete print run of the Romance Writers’ Report.

Some themes and topics recur regularly in the files of correspondence:

  • Correspondence with chapter leaders
  • New members
  • Perceived elitism among members
  • Dues, including increases
  • Bylaws and the drafting thereof
  • Conference planning, including site selection
  • Work plans for Board members
  • Bylaws and possible changes thereto
  • The Published Authors Network
  • Media and public perceptions of romance books and romance writers [End Page 3]
  • Inquiries from aspiring writers
  • Requests for membership lists from those who wish to market to RWA members
  • Chapter newsletters
  • Agent appointments at conferences
  • Those “Achy Breaky Bylaws”[4]

One might use this archive to track technological shifts. From typing to ordinary postal mail, to the occasional use of mail merge, the slow and uneven shift to computers, the arrival of “diskettes,” the reliance on fax technology, the innovative use of answering machines, the change to email, an internet committee, the first website: such matters are a background hum in the files. The 1984 conference file contains an attendee list half an inch thick; the green and white striped paper still retains the side perforations allowing the continuous printout to pass along the dot-matrix printer’s rollers. The newsletter ads for—and writer references to—computers through the 1980s are fascinating. An August 1994 letter publicizes the “first-ever electronic chapter” of RWA: online, and hence not regionally-restricted.[5] In a recorded conference session in 2002, Roberts had “just discovered Google,” and waxes enthusiastic about using it for research for her books.[6] That session was recorded on audiocassette; eventually, RWA switched to CDs.[7] (Now, sessions are available to members as downloadable MP3 files.)

Between material in the archives and material on the RWA website, one might look at award winners and, perhaps even more revealing, award categories. Recent Romancelandia discussion of (lack of) diversity and representation in book awards has focused attention on how nominations are done, finalists chosen, and winners selected. The archives contain extensive correspondence related to naming the awards, voting procedures, author eligibility, and whether to include specific subgenres. For example, the defunct inspirational category got resurrected partly because of a letter-writing campaign, as well as the submission of a sufficient number of eligible novels. In 2015, this was one of the categories in which a romance featuring a Nazi hero and a Jewish heroine was a finalist.

On a related note, one might look at race in the RWA historically, as useful background for thinking through authors’ experiences of racism at its recent conferences. Although one of its founders, high-profile editor Vivien Stephens, was African American, what is most striking for the period the archives at BGSU cover is the organization’s overwhelming whiteness. Passing allusions to the confederacy and Southern belles (and once, a reference to “our Grand Wizard” in committee correspondence) are notable.[8] The files also preserve an angry letter complaining about the stereotypical conference program cover image for the 1987 gathering in Texas.[9] In complaining about the over-the-top cowboy imagery, the reader—exaggerating to make her point about offensive representations—wonders whether the next year’s program for Atlanta will include a woman in antebellum dress attended by a Black man in livery. Other material would help flesh out the complicated story of race and romance writing in the late twentieth century. A flyer wedged into the 1996 folder on conference planning advertises Layle Giusto’s Wind Across Kylarmi which, according to one blurb, should be read by “those who fear romances whose main characters are people of color.”[10] An 1986 issue of RWR contains an essay by Yolanda Greggs, an “ethnic romance writer” who identifies herself as “the daughter and wife of black men,” on [End Page 4] how to write Black men as main characters.[11] Given that the major romance publishers still have a terrible record when it comes to publishing African American writers, Native writers, and authors of color generally—and to segregating their work when they do—it could be very useful to understand organizational history. (Additionally, the library’s non-archival collection of romance novels, including complete runs of numerous category lines, would support investigations of representation and diversity in publication.)

One especially persistent issue in the RWA archives is the tension between published and unpublished authors. (A brief flirtation with the cutesy “prepublished” fizzled.)[12] The question of how much basic content to present at the conferences for newbies trying to break in versus how much attention to the concerns of multi-published authors arises repeatedly. Various methods are employed, including star ratings for annual conference workshops, much like levels of difficulty for aerobics classes at the local gym. The establishment of a Published Authors Network, with membership pins and a newsletter, was another attempt to balance the needs of novices with those of well-established writers. The ever-present tension plays into the field’s pervasive concern with professionalization, (dis)respect, and the gendered disdain of outsiders for romances and romance writers. Such sentiments motivated one author to write to the board bemoaning the romance groupies who attended the conference: mere fans, not professional authors. In addition to the particulars of surely long-forgotten interpersonal drama, the correspondence files show how diligently and intensely RWA volunteers worked to serve an often disgruntled membership. (Of course, as with online product reviews, the disgruntled are overrepresented in the record.)

One might profitably use the RWA sources to supplement work on male authors, critics, and correspondents. Would pink press kits alienate male reporters? Conference organizers worried one year. An early RWR issue offers a discounted rate for a husband attending the conference along with his member-wife. In a subsequent issue, a letter-writer chastises the organization: her husband is the author. RWA changed its practice: the next conference offers a “non-writing spouse” rate for a husband or wife accompanying a member.[13]

This should not be taken as evidence of gender-neutrality, however, or comfortably progressive politics. The heteronormativity is astonishing—and serves as a reminder of how much has changed in the US and in the romance field. (I did not come across any materials related to the 2005 survey asking members whether romance should be defined as hetero-monogamous.) In March 1994, questioning whether to accept an ad in RWR for a risqué publication, a memo writer worries: “If the first issue contains masturbation, will the next contain lesbians?”[14] The concern is not so much for morality as that it might invite “further ridicule” for romance writers. Still, times have definitely changed. The press release announcing the 1993 winner of the newly established Janet Dailey award, for the author whose book best grappled with a significant social issue, referred to “single mothers and other social problems and issues.”[15]

RWA archives could supplement larger histories of sexuality and gender in the US. When the pornography wars raged in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the RWA wrote to senators on behalf of its members, concerned that pending legislation might subject its authors to sanctions or censorship.[16] (Strom Thurmond, John Glenn, and Lloyd Bentsen were non-committal in their replies.) A Florida chapter leader wrote in something of a panic about a fifteen-year old member of their group. They had obtained written permission from both of her parents for her to participate but worried they might be held liable for having [End Page 5] inappropriately explicit conversations in her presence. There was a good deal of back and forth. The board sought legal advice; some advocated a change to the bylaws to allow (or require) the chapter to exclude the underage member without discriminating by setting a minimum membership age of 18.[17]

The archives contain a few items relevant to Janet Dailey’s plagiarism of Nora Roberts.[18] Plagiarism also arises on numerous other occasions, both in generalities and in specific cases; it is also a topic at some conferences. Conference programs and recordings would allow a comparison across the decades of how “theft of creative property” was treated.

The conference programs and recordings are also a wonderful source for looking at the rise of new subgenres (when does magic appear regularly? the paranormal?) and could supplement research into the novels. One could compare the ways that conference presenters over the decades address the characterization of heroes and, less often, heroines. Emerging work on masculinity in popular romance could surely benefit from hearing RWA panelists discuss “The Warrior Poet as Hero” (1997) and “Bad Boys of Category” (2002).[19]

Those studying reader response and reaction to contemporary novels—or contemporary reaction to older novels—can consult Amazon reviews, Goodreads, or Smart Bitches. The RWR “Booksellers Say” gives glimpses of reader response and reaction to early 1980s fiction, about which scholars still have much to say. In the June 1982 issue, for instance, a bookseller reports that “Rosemary Rogers’ Sweet Savage Love is selling well, but readers are unhappy with the brutality.” Another offers that “In the historical area, Rosemary Rogers’ Surrender to Love is selling, but the comments are very unfavorable.”[20]

The list could go on, but the beauty of archival work is that one finds things one didn’t even know one was looking for. Any of these directions will only be only a starting point. Happy exploring.


[1] PCL MS142 Box 16.

[2] PCL MS142 Box 36.

[3] Sharon Ihle, “100 Titles! Celebrating Nora Roberts!” Romance Writers’ Report, March 1996, v. 16, n. 2, pp. 20ff.

[4] For example, in a letter in PCL MS142 Box 14.

[5] PCL MS142 Box 17.

[7] PCL MS142 Box 40 Folder 9.

[8] PCL MS142 Box 39 Folder 1.

[9] PCL MS142 Box 37 Folder 1.

[10] PCL MS142 Box 29 Folder 13.

[11] Yolanda Gregg, “How to Pen the Black Man” Romance Writers’ Report, May 1996, v. 16, n. 4, p. 23.

[12] PCL MS142 Box 15.

[13] “Conference Report.” Romance Writers Report, April-May 1984, v. 4 no.2, p. 1.

[14] PCL MS142 Box 17.

[15] PCL MS142 Box 38 Folder 7.

[16] PCL MS142 Box 14.

[17] PCL MS142 Box 15.

[18] For example, PCL MS142 Box 40 Folder 9. [End Page 6]

[19] For warrior-poets: PCL MS142 Box 40 Folder 1 (In the conference program (p. 28), the session blurb reads: “Best-selling authors Susan King, Mary Jo Putney and Eileen Charbonneau discuss the blending of alpha and beta heroes to produce warrior-poet heroes.”) For bad boys of category: PCL MS142 Box 40 Folder 6.

[20]  “Booksellers Say,” Romance Writers Report, v. 2, no. 4, June 1982, pp. 17, 18. [End Page 7]

Share

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patriarchy and power remain interesting and important in the romance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

Share

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

Share