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Archive for the ‘Volume 7’ Category

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]


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:, ‘Musings on romance fiction from an academic perspective’;,, 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]


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]