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Posts Tagged ‘hero’

Afterlife of the Romance Hero: Readers’ Reproduction of Romance
by Fatmah Al Thobaiti

The Romance Hero

The hero is one of the main defining elements in the romance novel. Falling in love with him is the story. “The hero,” Mary Putney writes, “is the most crucial character in a romance, the linchpin who holds the story together” (100). Without the hero, there would be no story. Also, commenting on the significance of the hero in the romance novel, Wendy Larcombe notes that he provides “the tension, the excitement, the danger and the satisfaction” in the story (42). The hero, in other words, moves the plot of the romance novel forward. [End Page 1]

As in other types of narratives in genre fiction, the romance novel produces characters that are identifiable by professional critics and audiences as key to the genre. As Jens Eder, Fotis Jannidis and Ralf Schneider note, genres produce characters that are familiar to the audience:

The occurrence of one typical element of a genre will […] trigger a complex set of expectations concerning the kind of characters to appear, the situations they encounter, the themes they are likely to be confronted with, their conception of flat or round, or static or dynamic, and typical constellations with other characters. (43)

Many aspects of the main characters of any given genre fiction, then, can be expected, even before one starts to read the text. Not only that, but also each of these characters is expected to have a certain function in the plot (Eder et al 42-43). In a typical heterosexual romance novel, the characters of the hero and heroine are expected to fulfil or enact distinctly delineated masculine and feminine roles in order to achieve their happy ending. Tania Modleski defines the function of the hero and heroine in the romance novel as follows:

a young, inexperienced, poor to moderately well-to-do woman encounters and becomes involved with a handsome, strong, experienced, wealthy man, older than herself by ten to fifteen years. The heroine is confused by the hero’s behaviour since, though he is obviously interested in her, he is mocking, cynical, contemptuous, often hostile, and even somewhat brutal. By the end, however, all misunderstandings are cleared away, and the hero reveals his love for the heroine, who reciprocates. (35-36)

Besides giving specific features for the hero and heroine of romance, Modleski outlines the ways by which they behave and interact with each other according to traditional gender roles, where the man holds more power than the woman. This unequal distribution of power leads to the submission of the heroine.

Robyn Donald explains that unequal distribution of power between the hero and heroine is an essential part of the love plot in the romance novel. Seeing that the heroine’s goal is to conquer the hero and gain his heart, his character must be constructed to test her skills and determination. The hero, in other words, must present “a suitable challenge” for the heroine because her power is measured by how successful she is in conquering him (81). Along the same line, Larcombe notes that the character of the hero has to be both “simultaneously desirable and threatening”, and herein, she believes, “lies the problem that women’s romance fiction continues to reconstruct – and redress”: while the hero must be powerful and threatening in order to provide a suitable challenge for the heroine, acquiring these features puts the heroine in a vulnerable position in the relationship (44). This challenge, according to Catherine Roach, helps women:

deal with their essentially paradoxical relationship toward men within a culture still marked by patriarchy and its component threat of violence toward women. […] Most baldly put, this paradox has women in a position of simultaneously desiring and fearing men. (2)

[End Page 2] Masculine dominance and aggression in the romance novel, then, are eroticized on the one hand while viewed as problematic on the other.

Therefore, a number of feminist scholars have turned their attention to criticizing the romance hero for performing the traditional gender role of the dominant man. Susan Crane, for example, criticizes the way in which “romance implicates the dichotomy between masculine and feminine in a range of other oppositions between authority and submission, familiarity and exoticism, justice and mercy, public and private, with which the gender dichotomy suggestively interacts” (13). Repeatedly, Crane notes, the masculine identity in romance is constructed by alienating it from the traits assigned to femininity: “womanly timidity, passivity, and pity confirm the masculinity of bravery, initiative, and severity” (19). This type of hegemonic masculinity is normalized and idealized in the romance novel. Furthermore, as Jonathan Allan notes, it is “part of and contribute[s] to hetero-patriarchal-capitalism”, which critical studies of men and masculinity call into question (“Purity of His Maleness” 37). The romance hero’s embodiment of the ideal masculinity of heterosexism indicates a kind of homophobia behind the love plot of the novel. Indeed, Jayashree Kamblé notes that, “during the most visible moments in the history of the gay rights movement […] the romance strand alters its hero to evince features of the Heterosexual Alphaman” (129). The character of the romance hero, then, is not only problematic because it puts the female character into submission, but also for the kind of masculinity it represents.

This article participates in this body of research that questions the character of the romance hero and the type of masculinity he embodies. It argues, however, that the production of the romance hero does not stop at the level of novel publication, but continues to appear, in various and complicated ways, in readers’ practices online. While many romance studies have long asserted that readers are not passive consumers of the genre—through ethnographic research, for example—readers’ ability to publicly voice and share their responses, creative recreations, manipulations, or critiques of the genre were rather limited before the digital era. In the 1970s and early 1980s, readers’ discussion and questioning of romance novels were not as easily accessible and visible as they are today. Therefore, the role of the romance reader as a co-producer of the genre, and the implications of taking this participatory role, have not yet received significant attention in romance studies. As Greenfeld-Benovitz notes, “while researchers like Regis address the derision directed towards romance and its readers, little has been done with respect to how members of the romance community deal with these issues” (203). In the age of digital media, romance readers’ active engagement with the genre is so exceptionally visible that it is no longer helpful to overlook or simplify it for the sake of argument. Unlike Radway’s reader, who “actively attributes sense to lexical signs in a silent process carried on in the context of her ordinary life” (8), readers today have the ability to share their engagement with texts widely.

This study aims to present a feminist reading of the ways in which the character of the romance hero unfolds differently across and as a result of readers’ participation in various activities on the internet. To examine the afterlife of the romance hero on the internet, this article looks at two types of readers’ practices on the internet: fanfiction and image-macro memes. By exploring readers’ reproduction of the romance hero through these practices, this study aims to answer the following questions: to what extent do readers’ practices redefine masculinity as a flexible, dynamic and participatory construction? To what extent do readers’ productive activities challenge the conventional formula of the dominant romance hero and participate in online feminism? And what do readers’ practices offer, not [End Page 3] only to the fans who read, celebrate, and critique the genre, but also to scholars who are interested in the cultural significance of the romance genre and online feminism?

Dynamism of the Romance Hero

Despite the rigidity with which the character of the romance hero usually appears in the romance novel, it is important to note that fictional characters are not finished products; they continue to live, and sometimes develop and change, with the audience. As Mary Springer explains:

character is not given to us like a gift in the hand, or like a picture on the wall, but […] it does in fact accumulate. This must make perfect sense since the story, unlike the picture of the wall, moves across time – we must turn the page in order to find out what else there is to know about the character, what new actions and choices there may be to expand or modify our knowledge, what decisions we are to make about whether the character is fixed or in change, individual or antithetical to another character, minor or main. (179)

A clear example of the continuity of acquainting oneself with fictional characters can be found in fanfiction. As Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse note, “the entirety of stories and critical commentary written in a fandom […], offers an ever-growing, ever-expanding version of the characters” (7). The alternative scenarios presented by fanfiction allow characters to transform, develop and embody different codes of behavior. Henry Jenkins notes that “though many fans claim absolute fidelity to the original characterization and program concepts, their creative interventions often generate very different results” (181). For example, the alternative scenario in fanfiction can force characters to take decisions that they were not forced to take in the source text, which reveals them in a different light. This change, Springer notes, brings us closer to knowing the character:

one rhetorical mode by which character makes itself known to us is a process of change, an action in which we accumulate our knowledge of character chiefly in the apprehension of a change – new decisions and acts of which the character was always inherently but not overtly capable. (181)

In fanfiction, one can find various examples of how readers fill the gaps that need to be explored in characters, examine potentials in the characters that go unexplored in the source text, and bring them to the fore. We can witness how characters exceed the limits of the genre and, by doing so, bring more flexibility and dynamism to its form.

As they spread, these flexible forms serve as paratexts to source texts.[1] Paratexts are narrowly defined by the literary theorist Gérard Genette as the productions that surround the text, such as an author’s name, a title, a preface, or an illustration (1). “The paratext,” Genette writes, “provides an airlock that helps the reader pass without too much respiratory difficulty from one world to the other” (408). Expanding Genette’s definition, Jonathan Gray suggests that the paratext not only facilitates an understanding of the text, but [End Page 4] also violates its meanings. They “establish the frames and filters through which we look at, listen to, and interpret the texts they hype” (Show Sold Separately 3). What is more, Gray notes that paratexts are not only industry-created but audience-created as well. “[Audience’s] creative and discursive products,” he writes, “can and often do become important additions to a text” (Show Sold Separately 143). From here stems the importance of paying special attention to readers’ practices in studies of the romance genre. Readers’ prolific creation of paratexts—not only on the internet, but in their daily life as well—calls into question the type of meanings and challenges they bring to the romance hero and the genre in general. This study argues that the romance genre cannot be adequately understood without taking into account paratexts created by readers, which, as discussed above, have the ability to invade, interrupt and challenge the meanings of the source text and become part of it.

Significantly, as noted from analyzing readers’ practices on the internet, the paratexts created around the romance genre are not generated only by fans (regular readers of the genre), but also by antifans (people who dislike the genre), and nonfans (people who are not regular readers of it). A good example of this diversity can be found in discussions of Twilight, which are generated by three discrete groups: Twihards (fans of Twilight); Twihaters (antifans of Twilight); and Twilight nonfans (those who have a neutral position in relation to the text). This variation adds to the diversity of the paratexts created around the source text. Gray distinguishes between fans and antifans, and explains how the practices of each of these groups are different depending on how close they are to the source text. Fans, according to Gray, can certainly be categorized as close readers who analyze the text in order to derive its hidden meanings. In addition to close reading of the text, fans “actively look ‘outside’ the nucleus to intruders and intertexts, negotiating certain readings of the text, and they may well read over or in spite of it […], fitting text into personal or group context” (“New Audience” 69-70). Fans’ practices, then, combine both close reading of the text as well as reading across other texts and contexts. These different types of activities make fan-produced work a rich material to use for the investigation of the afterlife of the romance hero.

Compared to studies of fans, however, Gray notes that there is little work on either antifans or nonfans. Neglecting these groups, he argues, limits our understanding of how media messages are received and used by audiences. To fully understand audiences’ interaction with media texts, Gray suggests that we must explore the work of anti-fans and nonfans too (“New Audience” 68). Gray defines antifans as “individuals spinning around a text in its electron cloud, variously bothered, insulted or otherwise assaulted by its presence” (“New Audience” 70). They “strongly dislike a given text or genre, considering it inane, stupid, morally bankrupt and/or aesthetic drivel” (“New Audience” 70). Beside their dislike of the text, the significance of antifans’ practices is that a considerable amount of their knowledge of the text comes from media and other people’s discussions, rather than a close reading of the source text. Whether they have read it or not, Gray notes, “anti-fans construct an image of the text – and, what is more, an image they feel is accurate – sufficiently enough that they can react to and against it” (“New Audience” 71). Thus, in contrast to those who read the source text closely in order to derive its meanings, antifans’ knowledge of the source text comes from the paratexts surrounding it, another important source from which genre definition and interpretation can be derived. Lack of close reading, however, does not mean that antifans are not engaged with the source text. As Gray notes, “behind dislike, after all, [End Page 5] there are always expectations – of what a text should be like, of what is a waste of media time and space, of what morality or aesthetics texts should adopt, and of what we would like to see others watch or read” (“New Audience” 73). The investigation of antifans’ engagement with different issues in the source text helps us understand how the romance hero is perceived and defined from sources other than the source text, such as paratexts.

Drawing on Gray’s argument, this study examines how the character of the romance hero is reproduced, negotiated and altered by readers with different levels of regard for, and involvement with, the source texts. Readers’ varying degrees of engagement with the source text, as we will see, result in a divergent—and even contradictory—reproduction of the genre, which further emphasizes its dynamism outside the confines of the source text. In order to account for readers’ various levels of engagement with the romance genre as theorized by Gray, this study does not assume an ideal reader of romance based on textual analysis alone, nor does it restrict itself to the investigation of practices performed by only fans or a limited group of readers. In its examination of the reproduction of the romance hero, it investigates different types of readers’ practices produced by fans and antifans. It is difficult, however, to affirm the position of the reader—fan, antifan or nonfan—from the practices he/she produces on the internet, especially because much of the work online is produced anonymously. In addition, readers’ position in relation to the texts is not fixed; they can move from being a fan to a nonfan and even to an antifan. Asking readers about their opinions of and position from the text is not helpful either because the aim of this study is to build a theoretical position from what is found on the internet; remaining open to influence rather than imposing a predetermined theory or questionnaire from above. Therefore, this study explores samples from what appears to be practices of different groups of readers, each of which, as argued above, bring different meanings and challenges to the romance hero. Examples of these different practices can be found in fanfiction and image-macro memes. While this study does not assert a certain position to the producers of any of these practices, this range of practices reflects different levels of engagement with the source text. While fanfiction reflects close engagement with the source text, image-macro memes reflect an anti-fan attitude towards it because of their satirical tone. Moreover, the jokes found in image-macro memes are built on each other, i.e. inspired by paratexts, which can be interpreted as an antifan attitude.

As a case study, this article submits to examination readers’ reproduction of the fictional character Edward Cullen from Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga, a paranormal romance series narrating a love story between a vampire and a teenage girl. Twilight is a suitable text for the investigation of the romance hero as a dynamic and participatory construction because of its huge popularity that is in direct relation to the hero. The investigation of fans’ activities shows that little attention is paid to Bella, the female heroine, in comparison to Edward. On the website The Twilight Saga, for example, while Team Bella has 7431 members only, Team Edward has 20005 members. The popularity of the text, which is in direct proportion to the popularity of its hero, provides us with excellent material for the exploration of readers’ reproduction of the romance hero because many people have left their responses and discussions on the internet, available for investigation and analysis.

Furthermore, Edward Cullen’s unconventional and multifaceted performance of masculinity provides rich material for readers to explore and opens up the opportunity for various and contradictory readings of his character. The character of Edward Cullen exemplifies the problematic paradox in the contemporary romance novel’s representation [End Page 6] of the hero, in which hegemonic masculinity—“which guarantees (or is taken to guarantee) the dominant position of men and the subordination of women” (Connell 77)—of the hero is challenged even as it is romanticized. The paradox of the character of Edward Cullen stems from his portrayal, which represents an intersection of two movements: the move toward the domestic vampire and the move towards the alpha male. On the one hand, describing this new type of vampire, Joan Gordon notes that while the traditional vampire found in horror movies is inherently evil and his “power over his prey is both extraordinary and cruel”, the new vampire is “sympathetic” and a “super-survivor” (230). The Cullen family in Twilight belongs to this new class of vampires. Even though they have supernatural powers and feed on blood, they do not harm humans and follow a “vegetarian” diet in which they drink animal blood only. Edward, as a member of the family, uses his power to save Bella’s life repeatedly from accidents and attacks. Furthermore, he is represented as a caring boyfriend: he carries her books, sings her lullabies, and completes her college applications and sends them for her. Tracy Bealer believes that, as a romance hero, Edward’s character challenges normative gender roles. “By situating Edward’s reluctant and fraught evolution from a patronizing and callous loner to an empathetic and vulnerable romantic partner in a supernatural context,” she writes, “the novels hyperbolize and thoughtfully address the trials of negotiating a progressive male identity in a masculinist world” (140). Chiho Nakagawa believes the Edward Cullen belongs to a new generation of men who “express their feelings often enough to avoid major misunderstandings […] always try their hardest to understand their girlfriends’ emotional lives, often putting concern for them ahead of their masculine code of behavior” (Nakagawa). On many occasions in Twilight, then, Edward Cullen represents a modified type of masculinity, where the man is emotional and caring.

On the other hand, however, despite the text’s portrayal of a groomed, sensitive and caring hero, power is still unequally distributed between him and the heroine, given that vampirism, as embodied by Edward, mirrors hegemonic masculinity and propels the human heroine, Bella, into an almost constant state of subordination. As Pramod Nayar affirms, Edward’s vampirism is used to emphasize his character as hegemonic (62). Jessica Taylor also asserts that “the inclusion of the supernatural [in Twilight] allows the depiction of an aggressive, even monstrous, masculinity” (393). Furthermore, studying common signs of an abusive partner, Melissa Miller comments that Twilight “promotes a dangerous and damaging ideology of patriarchy that normalizes and rationalizes the control of women by men” (165). We can say, then, that as an super-powerful vampire who is also generous and protective, Edward Cullen reflects features from different types of masculinity. In this sense, he represents a hybrid form of masculinity, or what Stéphanie Genz and Benjamin Brabon describe as “a melting pot of masculinities, blending a variety of contested subject positions” (143). Performing contradictory types of masculinity can partly explain the lack of critical consensus over whether the character of Edward Cullen is representative of hegemonic or more fluid forms of masculinity. The following analysis, however, shows how readers read between spoken and unspoken lines of the source text and use their interpretive power to challenge, undermine or reinforce the scope of the character of the romance hero and the type of masculinity he embodies. [End Page 7]

Readers’ Reproduction of the Romance Hero

A: Fanfiction

The fanfiction “Dusk: the Twilight Saga” realizes the potential within Twilight to subvert the hegemonic masculinity of the romance hero and present instead a soft, caring and emotionally available hero, and takes these traits to a new level of significance. It creates a version of Edward who deviates completely from the masculine role required by the romance genre and plays instead the role usually ascribed to the female protagonist. It does so by rewriting the story of the source text with the genders of the two main characters switched: Edward’s role is played by a female character named Eliza and Bella’s role is played by a male character named Ben.[2]

The use of genderswap in this fanfiction works as a critical response to the source text’s representation of gender roles. The oddness of having the male protagonist play the role of the female, and vice versa, reveals the rigidness of these two roles in the romance novel, that, in most cases, reproduces men in the position of power and women as submissive. In doing so, genderswap fanfiction resembles the drag performances Judith Butler famously references when she discusses the notion of gender as “performative”. Butler argues that:

As much as drag creates a unified picture of ‘woman’ […] it also reveals the distinctness of those aspects of gendered experience which are falsely naturalized as a unity through the regulatory fiction of heterosexual coherence. In imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself—as well as its contingency. (175)

Drag performances, Butler emphasizes, make you ask, “is drag the imitation of gender, or does it dramatize the signifying gestures through which gender itself is established?” (viii). Drag performances reveal an important point about gender, which is that it comprises the illusion that it is authentic while it is not. Akin to the drag performance, genderswap in “Dusk: the Twilight Saga” excavates the performative aspect of gender. By exchanging the genders of the male and female characters, while preserving roles and behaviors attached to them as they are represented in the source text, the fanfiction actively destabilizes the notion of ‘authenticity’ of gender roles and presents them as exchangeable. My focus in this article, however, is on the challenges presented to the role of the hero and his performance of masculinity. Through genderswap, a thread of male domination and control in the source text is thrown into relief, thereby revealing that despite the source text’s manipulation of conventional masculinity, its portrayal of the hero still maintains key aspects of traditional masculinity: dominance and control.

“Dusk: the Twilight Saga” illuminates various moments of masculine domination in the narrative of the source text and reworks them to a new significance when the gender of the two main characters are reversed. To start with, while both the male and female protagonists are represented as objects of gaze in the source text, gender reversal in “Dusk: the Twilight Saga” exposes that the type of the gaze directed at the male protagonist is different from the one directed at the female. Studying the function of the gaze and the [End Page 8] concept of scopophilia in Twilight texts and films, Kim Edwards notes that in Twilight, “the gaze denotes power and dominance, and the inability to see clearly indicates weakness and submission” (30). Nevertheless, Edwards argues that in Twilight, the power of the gaze is shifting between the hero and heroine. “The implied male authority of the gaze in fetishising an image as sexual stimulant,” Edwards notes “is reclaimed by Bella, and by extension, her empathizing audience” (29). In Twilight, Bella spends a lot of time describing Edward’s looks and body. For example, she says: “I looked up, stunned that he was speaking to me […] His dazzling face was friendly, open, a slight smile on his flawless lips” (Meyer, Twilight 37). Like the female protagonist, then, the male protagonist in Twilight occupies both positions: the desiring gazer and the desired object of the gaze.

Nevertheless, as Dodai Stewart suggests, there is a distinction between the type of gaze directed at men in popular films and that which is directed at women. She notes that, “the objectification of men is a false equivalency to the objectification of women, because what’s being fetishized is strength. […] ‘sexy’ images of women generally involve us being relaxed, lying down, finger in the mouth like a child” (Stewart). As Stewart’s analysis indicates, the objectification of the male protagonist in Twilight cannot be equated with that of the female: while the objectifying gaze is directed at Bella’s physical weakness, it is directed at Edward’s physical strength, which means that, despite the “shifting” gaze between male and female characters, the male is still in possession of power. When Bella gazes at Edward in the source text, she usually talks about his powerful physical features and dominance. For example, she says: He had the long sleeves of his white shirt pushed up to his elbows, and his forearm was surprisingly hard and muscular beneath his light skin” (Meyer, Twilight 21). Using words such as “hard” and “muscular” to describe Edward suggests that what Bella finds pleasing in Edward’s appearance are frequently visual markers of his strength.

In “Dusk: the Twilight Saga”, Ben appears as an attractive, but fragile and weak man. The fanfiction starts by narrating Ben’s role of “being-looked-at-ness” in his first day at the new school: “Starting a new school in the middle of the year is not typically appealing, […]. The moment I walked into the hall I was the object of every kind of stare possible” (Mathews). More specifically, Ben is the object of the gaze of a girl named Eliza: “I glanced over my shoulder and sure enough Eliza was staring at me. Her dark onyx eyes fixated on me, like a predatory [sic] glaring at its prey” (Mathews). This scene stands in stark opposition to the type of gaze directed at Edward in the source text, in which his physical power is emphasised. The gaze targeted at Ben here resembles the gaze directed at Bella in the source text which, as Florian Grandena notes, is defined by her “to-be-spied-on-ness” (47); that is, by being under control of the watchful eye of her protective boyfriend. Similarly, in this fanfiction, Ben is looked at as a weak object and “prey” under the control of Eliza.

Ben’s submissive position in contrast to Edward’s is also developed in the fanfiction through the reversal of a common romance trope: the endangerment and rescue scenario, in which the heroine is depicted as someone who is in constant danger and in need of protection. In Twilight, Edward rescues Bella from being struck by a van, from rapists, and from a murderous vampire. Indeed, because Edward is a vampire and Bella is a human, she is conceived as essentially weaker than the male to as even greater extent than in romances in which the hero is a mortal man, which increases her need for his protection. Bella says: “It was against the rules for normal people — human people like me and Charlie — to know [End Page 9] about the clandestine world full of myths and monsters that existed secretly around us” (Meyer, Twilight 11). Eva Illouz explains that the weakness of women is:

acknowledged and glorified because it transfigured male power and female fraility into lovable qualities, such as ‘protectiveness’ for the one, and ‘softness’ and gentleness for the other. Women’s social inferiority could thus be traded for men’s absolute devotion in love, which in turn served as the very site of display and exercise of their masculinity, prowess, and honor. (8)

Following the same scenario, in Twilight, Bella’s human status naturalizes her weak position in the relationship and, in return, emphasizes and reinforces Edward’s powerful and protective role.

In a direct reversal of the protective role of the traditional man, in “Dusk: the Twilight Saga”, Ben does not define himself as a superior, a decision-maker or a controlling lover. He is represented as a weak and fragile victim who is in need of constant watch and protection from the heroine. The fanfiction identifies several moments in the source text in which Bella is represented as a victim and Edward as her rescuer, and rewrites them with these roles reversed. For example, Eliza uses her vampire power to save Ben from a car accident. She also rescues him when a vampire tries to kill him: she “grabbed him by his arm, turned her body, throwing him out of a window. She rushed towards me, picking me up fireman style” (Mathews). Ben’s passivity is further emphasized by being carried like a child. Akin to the female protagonist in the source text, Ben’s status as a human makes him essentially weaker than Eliza and therefore in need of her protection. Genderswap in this fanfiction thus emphasizes that power is enforced from the outside and can be exchangeable. In the source text, vampirism provides an alibi for male dominance; giving that power to Eliza distinguishes the two and reminds readers that they aren’t interchangeable. That is to say, associating power with vampirism, but not with masculinity, challenges fixed gender roles as represented in the source text and depicts them as inauthentic.

Even though this fanfiction is not fully representative of the massive amount of fan works inspired by Twilight, it provides significant insights into patterns of readers’ participation in the reproduction and manipulation of the romance hero. While it does not ideally represent an equally powerful hero and heroine, Ben’s performance of a feminized version of the romance hero invites readers to question the extent to which these traits seem natural when attached to the heroine rather than the hero, as they are in the source text. Simultaneously, the forced and artificial gender-remapping in this fanfiction challenges essentialist notions of gender as they usually appear in the romance novel. While traditional gender roles are less visible when naturalized—that is, when they are attached to the “normal” gender— they are more obvious when exchanged. Whether intentionally or not, this fanfiction mirrors important arguments against essentialist notions and definitions of gender and masculinity and presents them in a romance narrative. Through its creation of a “feminized hero”, the fanfiction “Dusk: the Twilight Saga” gestures toward the introduction of alternative types of masculinity into the romance novel. It suggests that the hegemonic masculinity of the romance hero could be replaced by a more emotional and less oppressive means of being a man. By doing this, it participates in what Illouz asks for when she writes: “Instead of hammering at men their emotional incapacity, we should invoke models of emotional masculinity other than those based on sexual capital. Such cultural invocation [End Page 10] might in fact take us closer to the goals of feminism” (247). Likewise, Bealer asserts that one of the feminist goals is to “unhing[e] the social symbols of power from the male body, and imagin[e] new ways of inhabiting a masculine identity that do not reflect and encourage the emotional hardness and impenetrability associated with masculinist domination” (140). “Dusk: the Twilight Saga” participates in the discourse that tries to redefine, and accept, the category of masculinity in broader and more inclusive ways. Ben is not punished for challenging gender roles; on the contrary, Eliza approves of his version of masculinity and he achieves his happy ending. This interpretation and reproduction of the romance hero reflect readers’ yearning for a type of masculinity that is not restricted to the traditional image of the patriarchal man.

As I have discussed earlier, however, Edward’s embodiment of multiple types of masculinity apparently prompted readers to engage these different, and sometimes contradictory, forms and try to make sense of them. While the fanfiction “Dusk: the Twilight Saga” situates the character of the romance hero in the place conventionally occupied by the heroine, the fanfiction “One” recreates the hero in accordance with hegemonic masculinity and exaggerates his role as a superior and a protector. As in the feminized version, however, this reading of Edward’s character is not originated by the fanfiction, but rather is derived from the source text. As discussed in the introduction, despite its manipulation of some aspects of traditional masculinity, Twilight does not present a real challenge to the conventional theme of male dominance found in most romance novels. As Melissa Miller notes, the “Twilight narrative […] promotes a dangerous and damaging ideology of patriarchy that normalizes and rationalizes the control of women by men” (165). In Twilight, Edward appears more like a father figure in Bella’s life than a lover. As Anna Silver notes, the relationship between Edward and Bella is portrayed as a “parental” one (124-125). Edward and Bella’s relationship, it often seems, is not between equal and similarly aged adults, but between a father and a child. Bella tells us: “Edward had scooped me up in his arms, as easily as if I weighed ten pounds instead of a hundred and ten” (Meyer, Twilight 83). On another occasion, she says: Edward “reached out with his long arms to pick me up, gripping the tops of my arms like I was a toddler. He sat me on the bed beside him” (260). In fact, Edward himself refers to Bella as “an insignificant little girl” (Meyer, Twilight 237). These moments emphasize Edward’s quasi-paternal role in Bella’s life.

The fanfiction “One” explores Edward’s role as a lover and a father in Twilight and reveals the patriarchal ideology operating in the text by making Edward literally Bella’s legal guardian. It narrates a love story between Bella, a sixteen-year-old teenager, and her adopted brother, Edward, a twenty-one-year-old man. After the death of their parents, Edward becomes Bella’s legal guardian. The attorney tells Edward: “It ultimately is your decision whether or not you want to oblige to your parent’s wishes and become her legal guardian” (ForeverJupJewel). Resonating with the way the source text establishes the relationship between Edward and Bella as unequal—one of them is a vampire and the other is a human— “One” narrates a story in which the male protagonist is a mature man, who has the choice to be Bella’s “legal guardian” or not, and a female minor, who has no choice but to follow her guardian’s decision. Edward agrees to be Bella’s guardian and become the legal equivalent of her father. As her elder brother, and only guardian, he becomes responsible for her money, which allows him to interfere with her choices.

The adopted brother-Edward in “One” uncannily resembles the lover-Edward from Twilight in the way he treats Bella. Narrated from Bella’s point of view, the fanfiction [End Page 11] describes her relationship with him throughout her childhood in a way that highlights these similarities. Like Edward from the source text who stalks Bella and questions her friends, in this fanfiction, Bella recounts: “As we both grew in age, his possessiveness over me leveled to new heights when I was thirteen. He rarely let me be alone […]. Always hovering over me. He always questioned the friends I would hang out with. Ultimately, he made me question myself” (ForeverJupJewel). As in the source text too, Edward’s protective behavior in this fanfiction can be justified; she is young and weak and he is her guardian and older brother. She narrates: Edward “would help me through whatever I was going through. Wouldn’t get upset when I would stumble into his room late at night, awakened by a nightmare. He would hold me and tell me everything was going to be okay, lull me to a good night’s sleep in his arms” (ForeverJupJewel). As they grow up, Edward’s controlling behavior drives him to be overprotective of Bella’s sexuality too. He tells her: “please tell me you’ve never done anything physical with another boy? […] I’ll kill him” (ForeverJupJewel). When Bella assures him that she did not sleep with anyone, he tells her: “Bella, please don’t speak so lightly about your virginity. It’s serious. Once you lose it, you can never get it back again” (ForeverJupJewel). Stating that woman’s loss of virginity is a “serious” issue replicates the source text’s insistence on the notion that female virginity is “breakable”. As Melissa Ames writes, the Twilight series is “hostile to female sexuality” and “overly concerned with the purity of [its] female characters” (50). In Twilight, Edward refrains from sleeping with Bella until they get married, even though this is not her preference. His refusal to sleep with Bella is not only because he is worried that his sexual desire for her might evoke his desire for her blood, but also because he wants to protect their virginity until marriage. He tells her: “it’s not possible now. Later, when you’re less breakable. Be patient, Bella” (Meyer, Eclipse 411). Despite his love for her, Edward will not sleep under the same cover with Bella.

While Edward’s control and protectiveness in the source text—and also Bella’s virginity—follow the conventions of the romance novel, the virginity of the hero is an inversion of these conventions. As Jonathan Allan notes, the romantic virgin hero is “perhaps a rarity, both in fiction and in scholarship” (“Theorizing Male
Virginity”). “One” not only exaggerates Edward’s parental role in Twilight, but also reforms his character to match the traditional romance hero, who is hardly ever a virgin. It portrays Edward as a man who, unlike the virgin Edward from the source text, has many sexual experiences. While he is protecting Bella’s sexuality, he himself is indulging in sexual relationships with women. When Bella finds out about his ex-fiancé Tanya, he explains: “we started a more, um, physical relationship I guess you could say, two months into our relationship, […] our relationship turned to be only physical, there was nothing emotional about [it]” (ForeverJupJewel). Thus, unlike the fanfiction “Dusk: the Twilight Saga”, in which the male protagonist deviates from the conventional portrayal of the romance hero, the fanfiction “One” reforms areas of deviation in the source text and recreates the hero in accordance with the traditional alpha male. It might be said that through this reformation and exaggeration, this fanfiction draws the reader’s attention to the patriarchal ideology that still operates in the source text despite its manipulation of some of the generic characteristics of the romance hero.

Indeed, the fanfiction’s resistance to the patriarchal ideology operating in Twilight is evident in the way in which it alters the heroine’s reaction to Edward’s controlling behavior from acceptance to objection. Unlike Bella in the source text, who, as discussed above, accepts Edward’s controlling behavior and finds it attractive, Bella in this fanfiction refuses his control over her life and does not see it as romantic. In “One”, despite Bella’s feeling that [End Page 12] she needs Edward’s care, she makes it very clear that she does not want him to control her life. Consider the following conversation between her and Edward, for example:

‘Edward,’ I asked softly.

‘Yeah Bella.’

‘Promise me something,’ I said.

He glanced over to me, ‘Anything.’

I took a deep breath, ‘Promise me that whatever happens, you’ll let me live my life after this. You’ll let me go. Promise me.’ (ForeverJupJewel)

Compare the above lines with the following conversation from the source text:

‘Don’t leave me,’ I begged in a broken voice.

‘I won’t,’ he promised. ‘Now relax before I call the nurse back to sedate you.’

But my heart couldn’t slow.

‘Bella.’ He stroked my face anxiously. ‘I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be right here as long as you need me.’

‘Do you swear you won’t leave me?’ I whispered. I tried to control the gasping, at least. My ribs were throbbing.

He put his hands on either side of my face and brought his face close to mine. His eyes were wide and serious. ‘I swear.’ (Meyer, Twilight 410)

The piece from “One” seems to be directly talking back to the dialogue from the source text. Unlike Bella in the source text, who asks Edward to stay and never leave, in “One”, Bella asks him to leave her alone and let her live her life. She also asserts her right to choose for herself and not to let Edward control her choices: “Edward, you are not my dad. Hell, you’re not even my real brother, so you have no right over me. Leave. Me. Alone” (ForeverJupJewel). The reader who is familiar with the source text can immediately recognize the sharp contrast between Bella’s response to Edward’s controlling behavior in Twilight and the response suggested by this fanfiction.

Thus, we can say that, on the one hand, “One” takes the dominant side of Edward’s character and exaggerates it in a way that conforms with traditional patriarchy in order to dwell on its implications. Exaggeration, as a narrative tool, could suggest that the fan writer is attempting to transcend the patriarchal system operating in the source text by knowingly and consciously partaking in it. On the other hand, by making Bella refuse Edward’s controlling behavior, “One” criticizes the romance novel’s portrayal of the hero’s control as [End Page 13] romantic. Through its portrayal of the heroine’s objection to the hero’s control, this fanfiction manifests a type of resistance to the patriarchal ideologies found in the source text.

B: Image-macro memes

Creating and sharing image-macro memes on the internet are important ways by which readers participate in the construction of a dynamic romance hero. Twilight image-macro memes are widely popular among audiences, especially antifans of the text or those who call themselves “Twihaters” (Gibron). In order not to restrict the search for image-macro memes to one website, my research strategy was to conduct a Google search on the phrase “Twilight memes” and look through the images suggested from different websites. I narrowed my search down to image-macros that responded to the character of the hero, Edward Cullen. The image-macro memes examined in this section are not representative of all the material produced on the internet. They are only examined as examples of the ways in which romance readers participate in the reproduction of a dynamic romance hero through their creating and sharing of image-macro memes.

Image-macros are multimodal memes, created by the combination of a picture and a text. What distinguishes image-macro memes from fanfiction is the ease by which they can be created and shared. As an easily created and accessed type of paratext, image-macro memes are expected to deliver their messages faster and more widely than other types of fan-practices, which means that, despite their simplicity, they form an important type of participation in the genre. The analysis of eight image-macros (divided into three groups) targeted at Twilight’s portrayal of the hero enabled me to identify two main forms of resistant reading: (1) revealing the text’s hidden messages, and (2) questioning and mocking the text’s portrayal of masculinity and the vampire figure.

The first group of image-macros build their humor on exaggerating implicit messages in the source text and making them literal or explicit. Image-macro 1 shows a picture of Edward holding Bella in a protective/controlling way. The caption on the picture, which is supposed to be Bella’s words, is divided into two lines: “how long will he make decisions”, and “for me?”. Separating Bella’s question into two parts highlights the latter as the joke—or the “punch line”—and, thus, absurd. Edward’s body language and Bella’s question together blatantly brings the viewer’s attention to this thorny side of their relationship, in which Edward plays the role of the controlling lover who takes decisions on behalf of his girlfriend. In image-macro 2, we see Edward and Bella’s faces, with a dialogue bubble next to Edward’s head saying “I like children”, referring to the age gap between the two: Edward is 100 years old and Bella is only 17. In the source text, Bella does not ask “how long will he make decisions for me”, nor does Edward say, “I like children”; however, their actions, as discussed in the previous section, imply these meanings. By making the text’s problematic and implicit messages explicit, these image-macros present a serious critique of the text’s portrayal of the hero. The generic aspects of the romance hero, such as being older than the heroine and having control over her, are being highlighted and mocked.

The second group of image-macros directly questions and pokes fun at Meyer’s construction of the vampire figure and masculinity. Image-macro 3 shows Dracula’s doubtful face, from the film Dracula (1958), with the caption “Dracula’s face when he first saw Twilight”, to suggest that he does not recognize Edward as a vampire. By referring to other [End Page 14] texts and putting Edward in opposition to Dracula, this image-macro achieves two effects: it draws attention to Edward’s failure to be a vampire and makes general claim about how the vampire figure should look and act like. In a comic-like strip, image-macro 4 too rejects Meyer’s interference and subversion of the traditional image of the vampire and expresses a desire to keep the vampire figure form being collapsed into the romance hero. It ridicules Meyer’s manipulation of the vampire by giving Edward white, feathery wings, and making him say “I am a fairy”.

The third group of image-macro memes shows a resistance to instances in which Edward deviates from traditional masculinity. Drawing on connections from a different film, image-macro 5 depicts Bella telling Edward, “I know what you are”, combined with a picture of a girl from the movie Mean Girls (2004), failing to disguise as a mouse, but insisting on it by saying “I am a mouse, DUH!”. Drawing on the same joke of ridiculous disguise, image-macro 6 depicts a picture of a small girl, with glitter all over her face, saying “I am a vampire”. Besides mocking Edward’s vampirism as false through the use of ornaments, such as the headband and facial glitter, the use of girls’ pictures in both image-macros suggests a rejection of the type of masculinity Edward performs in the source text. The implication is that Edward’s vampirism as well as masculinity are fake; he is nothing more than a dressed up girly-girl. Along the same lines, image-macro 7 compares Edward’s “fake masculinity” with the hyper-masculine hero from the film series Rambo (1982-2008), which, according to the caption, is how “real men” should be.

Not all reproductions of the romance hero, however, express a desire to retain traditional images of masculinity. Image-macro 8 comments on Edward’s over-rated beauty and charm by using his face as a model for make-up advertisement. This image-macro might be speaking to slash fanfiction communities which reproduce queer narratives of Twilight. Besides providing a safe space for the exploration of sexuality, queer narratives, as Lucy Neville explains, offer women “the chance to experiment with the power of their own gaze and to explore their sense of sexual orientation and gender identification” (204). Queer reproduction of the romance hero also challenges traditional forms of masculinity. As Sharon Hayes and Matthew Ball note:

the performance of masculinity in slash fan fiction is almost never stereotyped. Rather, masculinity is often depicted as a delicate balance of emotional, physical, and sexual interactions between the characters and as such is as varied as there are numbers of stories in fandom. (225)

The same thing can be said of image-macro memes in which the character of the romance hero is reproduced in ways that deviate from traditional masculinity. As a face for a makeup advertisement, Edward is represented as an object of gaze. Furthermore, gender is thrown open to interpretation in this image-macro, with Edward wearing makeup and demonstrating “feminine” attributes.

We can say then that image-macro memes’ reproduction of the romance hero is multifaceted. In some cases, they show a kind of homophobic attitude and a desire to revert to orthodox masculinity that requires a man to be aggressive and not to take care of his looks. In this sense, they assert Jonathan Allan’s argument that there is an “institutional homophobia” lurking in the background of the romance novel, “in which the male body must be constructed by what it is not feminine, queer, and homosexual” (“Purity of His Maleness” [End Page 15] 35). On the other hand, however, there are image-macro memes that reproduce a queer image of the romance hero and present a direct critique of traditional masculinity. This army of impassioned responses attest to the extent to which Edward’s character represents a complex blend of different types of masculinities that leaves audiences uncomfortable and feeling the need to intervene and make sense of these contradictions. What remains consistent, however, is the degree to which readers’ reproductions of the hero of romance, in accordance with traditional masculinity or otherwise, remain open to endless reinterpretations and revisions, which contributes to the genre’s dynamism.

It is true that most image-macro memes are created and shared for entertainment purposes; however, as we have seen, when we examine the ways by which they respond to the source text, different forms of interpretation and critique surface. In the context of popular fiction, the analysis above suggests that image-macro memes use satirical humor in order to expose and criticize what they see as failures in the source text. While criticism of Edward’s controlling behavior and age is implicit in the fanfiction, it is openly addressed in the above image-macro memes. In the context of humor, image-macro memes are more direct and blunt in their criticism of the source text. The simple fact that many internet users create and share image-macro memes that criticize or protect the image of the romance hero is in itself an important finding because it shows that readers are eager to engage with and participate in the construction of this image. The construction of the romance hero and the type of masculinity he embodies, then, continues even after the publication of the source text. This continuous construction plays an important role in fostering the dynamism of the romance hero and destabilizing the image of ideal masculinity.

This article has examined the character of the romance hero as a dynamic and participatory construction. To examine this proposition, it has investigated the afterlife of the romance hero, Edward Cullen, as it has appeared in different types of readers’ practices on the internet. Either in the form of fanfiction or image-macro memes, this article has argued that these practices participate in fostering and complicating the dynamism of the character of the romance hero, and simultaneously, the type of masculinity he embodies. This manipulation of the romance hero and traditional masculinity promotes feminist ideas, and from here stems its importance in romance genre studies. This study does not argue that power is ultimately in readers’ hands in the romance genre production. However, even if readers’ practices do not really change the romance genre at the present, they can be considered as means to highlight its different issues. Writers and producers can get invaluable feedback and content from readers’ practices to consider for their future work. This is especially remarkable given that readers’ reproductions of the romance genre, as this article has shown, are multiple and contradictory.


[1] The term ‘source text’ will be used throughout this study to refer to texts that are professionally published by novelists.

[2] The word ‘switched’ is not used here to imply or reinforce the binary model of gender as either/or. It is used merely to explain the fanfiction. [End Page 16]

Bibliography

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Allan, Jonathan. “The Purity of His Maleness: Masculinity in Popular Romance Novels.” Journal of Men’s Studies, vol. 24, no. 1, 2016, pp. 24-41.

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Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, 1990.

Connell, R. W. and James W. Messerschmidt, “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept.” Gender and Society, vol. 19, 2005, pp. 829-859.

Crane, Susan. Gender and Romance in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”. Princeton University Press, 1994.

Donald, Robyn. “Mean, Moody, and Magnificent: The Hero in Romance Literature.” Dangerous Men & Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance, edited by Jayne Ann Krentz, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992, pp. 81-84.

Eder, Jens, Fotis Jannidis and Ralf Schneider. “Characters in Fictional World: An Introduction.” Characters in Fictional Worlds: Understanding Imaginary Beings in Literature, Film, and Other Media, edited by Jens Eder, Fotis Jannidis and Ralf Schneider, Revision Series 3, De Gruyter, 2010, pp. 3-66.

Edwards, Kim. “Good Looks and Sex Symbols: The Power of the Gaze and the Displacement of the Erotic in Twilight.” Screen Education, vol. 53, 2009, pp. 26-32.

ForeverJupJewel, “One.” Fanfiction.net, 2010, https://www.fanfiction.net/s/5724551/2/One. Accessed 3 August 2016.

Genette, Gérard. Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Genz, Stéphanie, and Benjamin Brabon, Postfeminism: Cultural Texts and Theories, Edinburgh University Press, 2009.

Gibron, Bill. “A Twi-Haters Guide to Twilight.” Popmatters, 2010, http://www.popmatters.com/post/127521-a-twi-haters-guide-to-twilight-part-1-the-ten-reasons-twilight-is-th/. Accessed 11 August 2016.

Gordon, Joan. “Rehabilitating Revenants, or Sympathetic Vampires in Recent Fiction.” Extrapolation, vol. 29, no. 3, 1988, pp. 227-234.

Grandena, Florian. “Heading Toward the Past: The Twilight Vampire Figure as Surveillance Metaphor.” Monster Culture in the 21st Century: A Reader, edited by Marina Levina and Diem-My Bui, Bloomsbury, 2013, pp. 35-52.

Gray, Jonathan. “New Audiences, New Textualities Anti-Fans and Non-Fans.” International Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 6, no. 1, 2003, pp. 64-81.

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Gray, Jonathan. Show Sold Separately Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts. New York University Press, 2010.

Greenfeld-Benovitz, Mariam. “The Interactive Romance Community: The Case of ‘Covers Gone Wild’.” New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays, edited by Sarah S. G. Frantz and Eric Murphy Selinger, McFarland, 2012, pp. 195-206.

Hayes, Sharon, and Matthew Ball. “Queering Cyberspace: Fan Fiction Communities as Spaces for Expressing and Exploring Sexuality.” Queering Paradigms, edited by Burkhard Scherer, Vol. 1, Peter Lang, 2009, pp. 219-240.

Hellekson, Karen, and Kristina Busse. “Introduction: Work in Progress.” Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet: New Essays, edited by Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse, McFarland, 2006, pp. 5-32.

Illouz, Eva. Why Love Hurts. Polity Press, 2012.

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

Kamblé, Jayashree. Making Meaning in Popular Romance Fiction: An Epistemology. Palgrave MacMillan, 2014.

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Nakagawa, Chiho “Safe Sex with Defanged Vampires: New Vampire Heroes in Twilight and the Southern Vampire Mysteries.Journal of Popular Romance Studies, vol. 2, no. 1, 2011, http://jprstudies.org/wpcontent/uploads/2011/10/JPRS2.1_Nakagawa_DefangedVampires.pdf. Accessed 6 September 2016.

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List of Image-macro Memes

Image-macro 1, Twilight Meme, Everyday Feminism, 2012, http://everydayfeminism.com/2012/07/admiring-emotionally-abusive-relationships/. Accessed 11 May 2014.

Image-macro 2, Twilight Meme, Meme Centre, http://www.memecenter.com/search/twilight. Accessed 14 May 2014.

Image-macro 3, Dracula is Disgusted, Gagaholism, http://gagaholism.blogspot.com/search?updated-max=2013-01-25T08:34:00-08:00&max-results=1&start=5&by-date=false. Accessed 24 October 2019.

Image-macro 4, Meme, 2012, https://me.me/i/bella-i-need-to-tel-you-something-seree-junkies-what-dca24505820f42cc835bb8646c75aa41. Accessed 24 October 2019.

Image-macro 5, Twilight Meme, We Heart It, 2014, https://weheartit.com/entry/76255918. Accessed 11 May 2014.

Image-macro 6, Twilight Meme, Meme Centre, http://www.memecenter.com/search/twilight. Accessed 14 May 2014.

Image-macro 7, Real Movie Heroes (Then and Now), Funny Picture Plus, 2012, http://funnypicturesplus.com/tag/rambo-twilight. Accessed 14 May 2014.

Image-macro 8, Twilight Meme, Pinterest, https://www.pinterest.com/pin/307230005799181684/?nic=1a. Accessed 24 October 2019.

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

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

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

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

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

Fantasy, Vanity, Reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading an Old-Fashioned Novel (or a Hero)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trading Textual Strategies

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

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

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

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

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

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

Constructing a New “Version of Reality”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worse than that, it was boring.

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

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

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

The Empowerment Plot

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Marriage Shift

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was born to be a politician.

“Sophie?”

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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