Posts Tagged ‘Jennifer Crusie’
“Gossip, Liminality, and Erotic Display: Jennifer Crusie’s Links to Eighteenth- Century Amatory Fiction” by Kimberly Baldus
In a scene that combines eroticism, humor and a flying dolphin lamp, Jennifer Crusie’s hero and heroine in Welcome to Temptation struggle to find passion and overcome “lousy” sex as they engage in the “Phallic Variation” for the first time (135). While Sophie sinks into self-doubt about her own passionate nature, Phin realizes that she becomes aroused at the possibility of her sister Amy finding them in the bedroom. Phin throws an alarm clock and then the dolphin lamp, creating enough noise to prompt Amy to open the door to investigate—and Sophie reaches orgasm at the precise moment of the door opening. In the blissful aftermath, Sophie struggles with alternating embarrassment and satisfaction, while Phin smugly announces to her, “You have discovery fantasies” (141). Throughout the novel, Phin and Sophie will continue to explore these erotic discovery moments, linking their growing love for one another to their mutual exploration of the often hazy and shifting boundaries between their private moments and public spaces.
This scene represents a preoccupation with liminal spaces that Crusie develops in her first three single-title novels: Tell Me Lies (1998), Crazy for You (1999), and Welcome to Temptation (2000). These liminal spaces appear as borderlands that create what Victor Turner has described as the “gap between ordered worlds [in which] almost anything may happen” (Turner, Dramas 13). Such territories offer rich potential for creative and empowering social possibilities as Crusie’s characters negotiate these borderlands by engaging in private sexual explorations that take place on the border of public places. Tell Me Lies and the novels that followed in the next two years, Crazy for You and Welcome to Temptation, increasingly linger on moments where eroticism develops in the liminal space between private intimacy and public exposure. Crusie constructs scenes where her female characters explore the liberating possibilities of turning their private sexual encounters into public spectacles, offering themselves as objects of a voyeuristic gaze which readers are invited to share. In this series of Crusie’s novels, the female characters struggle against becoming powerless objects of the gaze by asserting their own active participation in making themselves sexual spectacles.
In the bedroom scene with Sophie and Phin, the moment of Amy opening the door underscores the momentary blending of the private space of the bedroom into a more public realm. While Amy’s quick shutting of the door on the scene seems to signal a return to the seclusion and separation of private space, such private moments frequently become public knowledge as they circulate in the small towns in which each novel is set. This communal gossip operates as another liminal territory in these Crusie novels. Gossip’s function as a form of communication and a means of social organization depends upon its constant exploration of the intersections between a person’s private and public life, as Jorg Bergmann has noted in Discreet Indiscretions (53). No other form of communication focuses so intently on borders as it simultaneously engages in “transgression and respect for boundaries” (Bergmann 134). Crusie’s links between erotic displays and gossip raise questions about the potential dangers posed when such boundaries are crossed. In her explorations of this liminal space that gossip creates, however, Crusie ultimately invites readers to understand gossip not simply as a negative form, but also as a mode of communication that strengthens communal ties and offers its participants tools for understanding and impacting the world in which they live. This positive power of gossip emerges, in part, from its function as a liminal territory—a realm of ambiguities that fosters creative re-imagining and restructuring of the social world. Gossip and liminality also present Crusie with a powerful model for developing an interpretive community which welcomes readers—such as the online group “The Cherries”—as collaborators in constructing meaning from her texts.
In the links she develops between liminality, gossip and erotic display, Crusie’s modern romance draws upon territory first developed in the genre of the novel designated as “amatory fiction” (Ballaster). These texts, appearing in the early eighteenth century in England, played a crucial role in shaping the emerging genre of the novel. Works of amatory fiction were among the most popular novels of their day, and in fact “dominated the production of the early novel in Britain” (Backscheider and Richetti ix). This popularity certainly resulted in part because of their narration of what one critic politely terms “’warm’ scenes” (Richetti 138), and what another pioneering feminist critic on amatory fiction has described as their “erotic fiction” centering on “voyeuristic attention to the combined pleasures and ravages of seduction” (Ballaster 33). The authors of this amatory fiction include figures like Aphra Behn, Eliza Haywood, and Delarivier Manley; all three of these highly visible representatives of amatory fiction developed a form of amatory fiction known as a “secret history.” These amatory novels create a confounding combination of private, erotic scenes along with the public circulation of salacious scandal about real political figures of the day. Delarivier Manley’s secret histories offer especially provocative links to these works by Crusie, and showcase ways in which the liminal spaces of the novels define the readers’ experience of the erotic scenes and the circulation of gossip. In developing novels that occupy these liminal territories, Manley and Crusie both point to possibilities for capitalizing on this notion of liminality as a model for the experience of readers encountering their texts. The notion of the liminal as a realm that inspires creativity and invites new possibilities underpins a model of authorship that playfully invites readers to participate in the communal act of making meaning from the textual details of their novels.
While liminality offers powerful possibilities for envisioning new social modes, it does so in a playful way. This sense of the liminal zone as one that joyfully invites participation in its games resonates powerfully with the borders and boundaries featured in the novels of Crusie and Manley. Spariosu suggests that Turner “sees liminality as a game of disorder,” and Spariosu’s analysis of liminality as a feature of literary texts insists upon the importance of “play” in understanding the function of these ambiguous in-between spaces (32). Whether representing liminal spaces through erotic scenes of voyeurism or through gossip’s intersection of the public and private realms, Crusie and Manley’s novels point readers toward embracing the sportive possibilities offered in such territories. The notion of liminality has been analyzed as a defining experience of the pleasures of romance itself in Eva Illouz’s Consuming the Romantic Utopia. Her analysis of the cultural construction of romance in the Western world through items of consumption calls attention to the experience of romance as one that involves “the setting of new spatial boundaries” to mark lovers as separate from the public world in which they live (115). The rituals that define these spaces detach the lovers from their social world, offering the possibilities of re-imagining and renewing their connections to that social network. Calling upon Turner’s insights into the “betwixt and between,” Illouz points to romance as a “liminal experience” (183). The lovers withdraw to a self-created liminal territory dedicated to indulging their own pleasures in one another in a space set apart from the culture as a whole. Crusie and Manley call attention to such liminal experiences in their own novels and explore them as spaces to redefine stereotypical views of women as either scandalous gossips or as sexual objects displayed for others’ pleasure.
Placing Crusie in the company of Manley also offers an important re-imagining of the territory of the romance genre itself. An influential scholar of the romance genre, Pamela Regis, begins her A Natural History of Romance with a founding novel, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, and justifies her selection of that text by noting its status as “the first best seller” (63). In Pamela, Regis finds a text that fulfills her eight elements of a romance novel, yet she focuses on Richardson’s work in isolation from the amatory fiction which recent critics of the period suggest actively shaped his novel. In “The Erotics of the Novel,” James Turner argues that Richardson’s novel must be understood as deeply connected to the amatory fiction that preceeded it. Although critics have insisted that sentimental novels of romance like Pamela essentially abolish the erotic displays that defined amatory fiction, those displays play a key role in shaping Richardson’s romance novel as one centered on sexual spectacle. In her exploration of the eighteenth-century novel’s connection to “visual culture” like portraiture, Alison Conway notes that the scandalous spectacles and spying spectators that dominate amatory fiction by authors like Manley remain a “defining presence, rather than a ghostly trace” in later novels such as Pamela (50). As she contends, “despite protestations to the contrary, novelists like Richardson repeatedly take their cue, in representing vision and visual aesthetics, from the licentious texts” of authors like Manley, Behn and Haywood (10). Any “history” of the romance novel should embrace not only the male-authored sentimental tale of female virtue, but also the vital foundation of the female-authored amatory fiction and its erotic stories of love, seduction and betrayal. Romance as a genre is inextricably linked, from its earliest developments, with the erotic reading experience of amatory fiction.
Critics focusing on amatory fiction of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries have often noted striking parallels with modern romance, although those insights also frequently denigrate contemporary romance novels. Regis cites one such critic, Toni Bowers, who claims that amatory fiction serves as a predecessor to “’modern supermarket romances with their . . . sexually demanding men and innocent, desirable, passive women, and their insistence on sexual violence’” (qtd. in Regis 54). Bowers’ characterizations fail to adequately capture the range of erotic characters explored in amatory fiction, which offers readers many stories of persecuted maidens, but also presents sexually desiring, assertive women and erotic scenes displaying men for the voyeuristic pleasures of readers (who, incidentally, were male as well as female). Discussing various critical approaches to amatory fiction, Paula Backscheider and John Richetti describe one type of “sociologically-oriented explanation” that considers these early novels as “the precursor of modern mass market or popular fiction, highly readable and in effect disposable entertainment, often topically scandalous or sensational or pornographic or merely sentimental” (xi). William Warner similarly argues against a critical approach which “reads backwards from the contemporary Harlequin romance” only to resolutely sidestep “questions of literary genre or aesthetic value” (90). Perhaps, though, the scholarly investigation of such literary and aesthetic questions in the eighteenth-century amatory novel can teach us how to raise these questions about twentieth- and twenty-first century popular romance.
One emerging area of critical scholarship on amatory fiction, for example, has centered on the prominence of voyeurism and visual “discovery” (to use Crusie’s term from Welcome to Temptation). These scenes of voyeuristic display function as liminal spaces in these texts; readers are guided to look through thresholds like doors and windows as they are invited to experience private erotic encounters. Barbara Benedict, like James Turner, Alison Conway, and William Warner, points to the presence of erotic spectacle as a key feature of the early eighteenth-century novel. Benedict describes how stereotypical associations of women with curiosity allowed amatory fiction “to exploit new kinds of visual lust” (194). Some critics have in turn questioned the impact of such depictions of women as objects of mere “visual lust.” In an article focused on Eliza Haywood, a prominent writer of amatory fiction who was strongly influenced by Delarivier Manley, Juliette Merritt reflects on the ways in which Haywood’s erotic novels “may exploit a scopic regime thoroughly oppressive to women” by rendering them passive victims of a dominant male gaze(191). Merritt argues, however, that Haywood’s fiction ultimately overturns such notions by attempting “to colonize the position of the spectator” and by collapsing distinctions between the spectator and the object of the gaze (184; 189). Both Manley’s and Crusie’s novels also redefine the erotic display of their heroines and heroes by depicting liminal erotic zones as sites for creative power and transformation. In occupying these liminal erotic spaces, their heroines ultimately claim the erotic gaze for their own pleasure.
Delarivier Manley’s most popular secret history originally appeared in 1709 as Secret Memoirs and Manners of several Persons of Quality, of Both Sexes, From the New Atalantis, an Island in the Mediterranean. New Atalantis made a powerful impact on the literary scene in the early eighteenth century. As John Richetti notes in Popular Fiction Before Richardson, all of London read her New Atalantis, and her scandal chronicles “were widely and continuously read during the first four decades of the eighteenth century” (120). Her secret history of the licentious private lives of Whig political figures even gave rise to the use of the term “atalantis” to denote scandal; the Oxford English Dictionary defines the term as “a secret or scandalous history,” tracing its first use to 1709 and the publication of Manley’s novel. The word continued to convey this meaning throughout the eighteenth century, testifying to the impact of her novel well beyond the moment of its publication. One key reason for the novel’s popularity is what Catherine Gallagher describes as its “sheer voyeuristic eroticism” (103). That eroticism is channeled through an allegorical framework of three invisible feminine figures who discover the intrigues of the fictional world of “Angela” (Manley’s allegorical name for London). Astrea, a feminine representation of justice, views the private sexual lives of prominent Londoners with the assistance of “Virtue” and the Lady “Intelligence;” this Lady Intelligence, a figure who parallels the author of the secret history itself, narrates many of the scandalous scenes the reader will encounter. The readers’ exploration of various erotic scenes or episodes is filtered through the vision of these female characters. As Alison Conway has argued, Manley’s use of these female spectators “creates a defamiliarized visual perspective, effectively unmooring the gendering of the gaze from any fixed vantage point” (51). Women do not simply serve as helpless objects trapped in a male-dominated gaze; rather, even as they come into view as objects, they are also pervasively gazing, voyeuristic subjects in their own right.
New Atalantis centers on a continual interplay between the world on view to the public and the secret, private spaces that the privileged view of the female spectators leads readers to experience vicariously. This exploration of these liminal territories appears from the very first encounter with naval ships and officers. The naval fleet is seen in its public role at first as “proud” and “magnificent” vessels that ensure the continued safety and glory of England (9). These glorious images of national prestige, however, are quickly countered with images of men acting in servitude to the passions they feel for their mistresses. We are taken from the grand exterior of a ship into the private berth of a commander, one who is “stretched at his full length upon the crimson damask couch” (10). He is exposed and placed on display for readers as a man consumed with desire who abandons the duties of naval command to please the whims of his mistress. Throughout the volumes of New Atalantis, Manley repeats the pattern of these journeys between the public and private territories occupied by her characters, using these liminal territories to create scenes of voyeuristic pleasure that also call into question any sense that private lives can remain safely separated and distinct from the public realm. Rather than simply calling our attention to the boundaries between the private and public, Manley’s novel insists upon a recognition of their intersections.
One of the earliest and most developed displays of spectatorial pleasure in New Atalantis presents a young male lover, Germanicus, arranged for the erotic titillation of the Duchess de l’Inconstant. As readers, we share the gaze of the Duchess, along with that of Astrea, Virtue and Intelligence. Germanicus has carefully arranged himself to entice the Duchess to become his lover, and he displays himself in a lush bedroom scene of exotic flowers:
It was he that was newly risen from the bath, and in a loose gown of carnation taffety, stained with Indian figures. His beautiful long flowing hair, for then ‘twas the custom to wear their own tied back with a ribbon of the same colour; he had thrown himself upon the bed, pretending to sleep, with nothing on but his shirt and nightgown, which he had so indecently disposed, that slumbering as he appeared, his whole person stood confessed to the eyes of the amorous Duchess; his limbs were exactly formed, his skin shiningly white, and the pleasure the lady’s graceful entrance gave him, diffused joy and desire throughout all his form. His lovely eyes seemed to be closed, his face turned on one side (to favour the deceit) was obscured by the lace depending from the pillows on which he rested. (20-21)
While Manley later provides her readers with similar spectacles of women on display (including a scene with young Charlot that visually recreates Germanicus’s post-bath revelation), her first extended erotic scene places women in the desiring position of power. Although Germanicus seems to have control of the scene by carefully orchestrating his body, Manley emphasizes the mutual desire that sparks between her characters. In Germanicus’s case, this pleasure is exposed on his body (the “diffused joy and desire throughout all his form”), and he submits the visual control of the scene to the Duchess by seeming to close his eyes and partially covering his face. Each of these gestures toward concealment, however, reminds both the Duchess and the reader of the erotic appeal of uncovering the intimate body for display. The lace on his face, a visual representation of a liminal border, symbolizes this conflation of concealment and voyeuristic discovery as the material’s openings reveal as much as they hide. Manley presents a sophisticated understanding of how voyeuristic pleasure operates, underscoring how the objects of the gaze can find pleasure and power in putting themselves on display to be discovered by others.
The scene with Germanicus also displays the discovery of the Duchess’s own erotic pleasure and participation in the scene. The visual scene of the young man’s exposure stimulates her desire: “giving her eyes time to wander over beauties so inviting, and which increased her flame, with an amorous sigh she gently threw her self on the bed, close to the desiring youth; the ribbon of his shirt-neck not tied, the bosom (adorned with the finest lace) was open, upon which she fixed her charming mouth. Impatient, and finding that he did not awake, she raised her head, and laid her lips to that part of his face that was revealed” (21). The Duchess shifts here from enjoying the position of invisible and powerful spectator to becoming an object herself of the readers’ own voyeuristic pleasure in the scene. Alison Conway explores this complicated negotiation of the voyeuristic gaze in her analysis of New Atalantis. While acknowledging that women in Manley’s novel often seem to function merely as objects of the male gaze, Conway argues that Manley ultimately undermines this apparent powerlessness of women in several ways. The women are both “objects of pleasure” and figures of “authority within the court circle” (59), and they gain agency by “transfixing the spectators who behold” them (63). Further developing this experience of the voyeuristic gaze, the Duchess’s focus on the places on her lover’s body that call attention to the border between exposure and concealment—the partly visible bosom and face—highlights the readers’ experience with erotic liminality. Such enthusiastic participation in voyeurism and desire has an empowering effect on both the Duchess and the reader of amatory fiction. In his consideration of amatory fiction, William Warner contends that a text like New Atalantis “incites desire and promotes the liberation of the reader as a subject of power” (93). This liberation of the reader is signaled here through the discovery of the Duchess’s own erotic engagement with sexual spectacle in this liminal territory.
Crusie’s novels challenge the notion that women must occupy a disempowered position when presenting themselves in voyeuristic self-display. Literary and film scholars have similarly argued for reassessments of what has been seen as voyeurism’s debilitating impact on women. Laura Mulvey, in a pioneering essay from 1975, applies the psychoanalytic insights of Freud and Lacan to film to argue that the controlling, pleasure-seeking gaze of the cinema is gendered male, while the object of the gaze is both feminine and passive. Recent film theory has actively challenged and reassessed Mulvey’s initial interpretations of Lacan’s theory of the gaze, arguing against the understanding of the gaze as “complete mastery” (McGowan 30). Some literary scholars have also debated the too-ready identification of women with powerlessness in scenes of voyeuristic display. Such challenges include Regina Schwartz’s “Rethinking Voyeurism and Patriarchy,” which asks readers to consider the complex workings of erotic gazing in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Focusing on the spectacle of Eve, Schwartz provocatively asks, “what happens when the watching subject is watched and the object of sight looks back?” (86). Such transformations of the subject and the positions of power in the erotic gaze occur in Crusie’s fiction as well as she exposes and ultimately dismantles the negative power of the gaze.
In Tell Me Lies, Crusie presents a positive consideration of voyeuristic self-display with her heroine Maddy. Crusie disrupts the potentially negative effect of the male gaze by having Maddie embrace the experience of public self exposure, making her an eager participant in her voyeuristic exposure. This sexual self-exposure plays a crucial role in her development as a character and in her individual empowerment. After spending her life in Frog Point, Ohio, living as what she calls the “fake” Maddie and a “Good Girl” (168), she decides to stop worrying about keeping her private concerns, and especially her sexuality, obscured from view. She claims the right to indulge in erotic encounters with her lover, C.L., in more public places, beginning with kissing him openly on her porch in view of her gossipy neighbors. Maddie defiantly asserts, “’I’m through hiding’” (314).
This small public rebellion intensifies as Maddie insists on staging herself as an erotic spectacle. Near the novel’s end, she begins stripping off her clothes in a far more public space—C. L.’s convertible as it drives through farmlands on Porch Road. The road’s name links this moment with her earlier, smaller-scale public exposure. Taking off her T-shirt and bra, Maddie convinces C. L. to pull over to the side of the road—a border that highlights the liminal space in which their encounter take place—where she strips completely bare and insists they make love behind the car in the grass. She links her sexual desire for C. L. to the idea of being a voyeuristic spectacle: “’I want you now. Here. While the neighbors watch. So everybody knows’” (327). Maddie makes herself the defiant object of the community’s gaze, and links that embracing of self-exposure with her own self-assertion when she insists their intimacy take place “’In the sun. In front of God and everybody. I don’t want to hide anymore’” (328). This sexual revelation of herself anticipates a similar public display that occurs when she makes a “scene” outside the bank to confront a bank employee, Candace Lowery, for theft and the murder of Maddie’s husband Brent (337). Despite a lengthy and undignified struggle with Candace that seems to yield nothing but curious spectators, Maddie refuses to slink back into obscurity. And her insistence on making her stance a public spectacle ultimately yields a kind of climax of its own as hundred-dollar bills erupt from Candace’s purse, sealing her fate with a dramatic outpouring of evidence of her guilt (338).
In Crazy for You, published just a year later, Crusie offers a more anxious account of voyeurism and display. Crusie presents Quinn’s former boyfriend, Bill, as the sinister embodiment of men using a predatory gaze to possess women as objects. Bill’s attempts to control Quinn’s identity, even after she has left him, are linked to his persistent scopic obsession with her. After she has moved from their apartment into a house of her own, Bill pulls off the lower part of a shutter while reflecting on the importance of keeping her within his sight: “Anything so he could see her, see what she was doing, be with her until she came to her senses again” (111). For Bill, visual possession is linked with sexual possession. While the other Crusie heroines will find self-empowerment in claiming the liminal territory between their private and public lives by engaging in discovery fantasies, Bill usurps this territory in Crazy for You. As his psychotic obsession with Quinn escalates, he paces around her house and envisions a future for the two of them and their kids. He brings himself to the boundary dividing her private space from the outside world—a kitchen window covered in a lace curtain (203). The lace curtain evokes a liminal space that is both opaque and transparent, and also anticipates a symbol of sexual pleasure he will later claim when stealing her white lace panties from her bedroom when she is out of the house (218). This violation of Quinn’s intimate, erotic territory is also an assault on her own sense of self, as Bill realizes. Quinn refers to her sexy underwear as “My secret life” (218); Bill’s theft ultimately attempts to possess not just her sexuality, but also her own ability to define herself as an individual.
When Quinn, like the heroines of Tell Me Lies and Welcome to Temptation, does engage in public sex, the positive self-realization she discovers is compromised by a brutal male assault that follows. In the auditorium of the high school, Quinn and her lover, Nick, have sex standing against a wall in the darkened theater, and Quinn finds this public sexual encounter the key to discovering her own authentic self: “It was breathtaking, astounding, going into herself like this, thinking about herself like this; she’d had men inside her before, but she’d never been there, never known herself thick with heat and succulent the way she loved herself now, could love herself now because she trusted him so completely” (256). This moment of self-confidence and power quickly transforms into a nightmarish scene as Quinn leaves the theater by herself to meet Nick in his truck. Walking out, Bill grabs her in a scene where his violent possession of Quinn hinted at in his peeping Tom moments finally takes brutal, physical form. He shoves her and then pins her against the wall in a nightmarish parody of the scene Quinn and Nick just enacted: “He pressed her wrists into the bricks, one hand on each side of her head so she couldn’t turn away, putting his face close to hers so she’d have to look at him, have to see him” (262-63). Bill’s act attempts to reclaim possession of Quinn’s sexuality and of her newly confident sense of her own identity. In addition to Bill’s violent re-enactment of this scene, Crusie further compromises Quinn’s moment of discovery by having it viewed by Bobby, the Boy Principal, who recreates the scene verbally to Bill within Quinn’s home: “’She was fucking that mechanic.’ Bill flinched, and Bobby’s voice went low and evil. ‘Up against the wall, like a whore. Right there on stage. I watched them’” (282). Readers are left to contemplate how Quinn’s moment of erotic discovery has been twice reclaimed by men defining and possessing her as a sexual object. These moments reinforce a sense of women’s vulnerability to the male gaze that never quite dissipates, even though the novel ends with Quinn and Nick about to have public sex again in a pick-up at the drive-in (298). That potential image, which never actually gets described, fails to fully counteract the impact of Bill and Bobby’s spectatorial violations.
Crusie reclaims the liminal territory for women in Welcome to Temptation. The novel is dominated by a series of striking visual images that constantly transform and playfully take on new meanings and identities. As liminal phenomena on the border between private and public spaces, these images exist in a state “of ambiguity and paradox, a confusion of all the customary categories” (Turner, The Forest 97). From our earliest introduction to the town of Temptation with its “flesh-colored, bullet-shaped” water tower, Crusie signals the significance of erotic visual display in the novel (4). This unmistakably phallic symbol transforms in the novel when its peach-colored paint is coated in cheap red paint which makes it appear, as Phin claims, like “the Whore of Babylon” and “a bloodred bullet in the sun” (73, 74). Sophie’s sister Amy further feminizes the water tower into an image of blatant, voyeuristic feminine sexuality by describing it as “a lipstick with a nipple’” (117). This re-gendering of the tower symbolizes the transformation occurring within the novel from considering women as victims of a voyeuristic gaze to recognizing women who take command of the act of self-exposure for their own pleasure and power.
The infamous “cherry” wallpaper also indicates the importance of the visual and the erotic in Welcome to Temptation. The cherry image is initially linked to Sophie’s humiliation at losing her virginity in high school and being taunted by a boy who mocks her by sticking on his finger a “big, gloppy cherry” (39). The male, with his manipulation of the cherry, is clearly in control of an oppressive visual regime that puts the woman firmly in her insignificant place. Like the water tower, however, the cherries on the wallpaper do not remain a stable visual image. We eventually learn they are actually apples which have faded through the years (110-111). Crusie’s depiction of shifting visual images suggests the need for readers to carefully question any too-ready assumptions about the significance of visual display. This emphasis on erotic spectacles also centers on the film being shot in Temptation by Sophie and Amy. The question of whether it is pornography constantly surfaces in the novel, and the various manifestations of the film—as a documentary called Return to Temptation, as a soft-core, female porn called Cherished, or as the poorly executed male porn flick Hot Fleshy Thighs—do not provide a simple answer or clear lines of distinction between them.
For the character of Sophie, taking command of this public, visual, erotic space is crucial to her own transformation in the novel. Even before Sophie and Phin enact her discovery fantasy in her bedroom, their first sexual encounter takes place on a river dock (96-99). Although Phin takes charge of this erotic moment, Sophie transforms this private sexual encounter into an even more public discovery fantasy by creating its images and dialogue as a scene in her film. Writing this and other erotic encounters with Phin as script for the film, Sophie willingly exposes herself on screen. The dock scene in particular is enacted for readers of Crusie’s novel as we watch the actors, Clea and Rob, strip and prepare to mimic the earlier erotic moment with Phin and Sophie. The movie scene highlights the pleasures of erotic visual display, illuminating the dock with lights to isolate the vision from the darkness around it. The dual borderlands here of light and dark, of water and dock, call attention to this space as liminal. Rob strips and unveils his own physical qualifications to perform in an erotic film, making him an object of voyeuristic pleasure just like the naked actress performing Sophie’s role in the encounter. Although Phin had remained clothed in the initial dock scene in the novel, the recreation of their sexual spectacle puts both the male and female in equally vulnerable and desirable positions. As they film the love scene, Sophie turns to see fireworks bursting in the sky: “Fireworks exploded beyond the trees, and she stopped to watch them sparkle gold and blue and red in the sky. Beautiful” (258). Sophie’s moment of pleasure in the visual scene, though, is interrupted by the intrusion of another spectator on the scene which appears as a glint from binoculars or a camera (259). Crusie’s juxtaposition of these viewpoints suggests the difficulty of completely controlling visual display. Just like the distorted version of the film which ultimately airs on the town’s cable network—thus obscuring the love scenes representing Sophie’s self-display and discovery—this moment of filming at the dock presents a complicated dynamic of spectatorial control and display.
By the end of the novel, Sophie is no longer waiting for Phin to orchestrate discovery moments for her pleasure; rather, she assumes control of their erotic, public displays as she more fully assumes her identity as a Dempsey, a family that defies conventions and operates outside social norms by manipulating others. In one of their final semi-public sex scenes, Sophie has to convince Phin to be with her by displaying herself on the hood of his Volvo—parked outside the house in which her brother is sleeping. She opens the jacket she is wearing to reveal her nearly naked self, but that enticement does not completely quell Phin’s nervousness about her brother possibly seeing them together. In a final defiant move embracing her own active self-discovery (in a voyeuristic as well as personal sense), “Sophie moved her knees apart and leaned back on her hands” (291). Her pose mimics a more conventional sense of female submission to the male lover and male gaze, but Sophie has transformed that feminine exposure into a position of power, as her next move to straddle Phin on top of the Volvo underscores. Crusie’s heroine has fully claimed the erotic gaze for her own pleasure.
Gossip as both a mode of communication and a form of socialization functions by negotiating the liminal—the “betwixt and between”—of the public and private realms (Turner, Dramas 13). In spreading gossip, the gossiper functions as “transgressor,” as Jorg Bergmann has argued in Discreet Indiscretions: “he penetrates—by crossing the border between the back stage and the proscenium—the inner space of another’s social existence and then—disdaining the social system of inclusion and exclusion for the time being—pushes outward with his information as the booty of his raid. Expressed paradoxically, the gossip producer externalizes what is internal.” (66-67). This movement of gossip back and forth between the borders of the private and public echoes liminality’s preoccupation with transitions and explorations of margins. In her pioneering literary study of gossip, Patricia Spacks points to a similar understanding of gossip as occupying a space apart from the world at large. She describes gossip as a mode of communication that “creates its own territory [ . . . ] using materials from the world at large to construct a new oral artifact” (15). Stewart and Strathern echo this sense of gossip’s creative production of a distinctive kind of social space hovering on the margins of the social center when they insist that rumor and gossip do not simply reflect but rather create their own “social realities” (56). Like liminality itself, gossip is a model of communication and socialization that revolves around chaos and ambiguity. Turner’s description of the liminal condition emphasizes concepts of “ambiguity,” “paradox,” and “confusion of all the customary categories” (The Forest 97). Analysis of gossip often calls attention to these same features, as Bergmann does when he describes gossip as a social practice that “disrupts order, [and] disdains social boundaries” (134). Literary analyses of gossip have also noted its “uncertain status” and “unresolvable ambiguity” (Brown 579), often contrasting gossip’s murky model of communication with the more stable and controlled authority of a narrator (Gordon 7).
Gossip’s occupying of these liminal spaces also contributes to its sense of erotic appeal, and provides a further link between gossip and the sexual voyeurism depicted in the novels of Crusie and Manley. The conflation of gossip and eroticism is addressed by Patricia Spacks as she reflects on a possible reason for the enduring appeal of gossip; she notes that “the atmosphere of erotic titillation suggests gossip’s implicit voyeurism” (11). Writing in the early eighteenth century, during the time of Manley’s published novels, Alexander Pope vividly captures this association of gossip with erotic indulgence and also with femininity when he describes gossip as “a little letchery of the tongue in a lady” (1:170). Manley and Crusie exploit this feminized, erotic power of gossip in order to assert a newly positive model of this often denigrated form of communication. Although gossip has traditionally been viewed as predominantly feminine and threatening, as Bernard Capp notes in When Gossips Meet (50), Manley and Crusie appropriate gossip’s potentially destructive powers in order to transform their characters’ and their own authorial identities. Like the erotic discoveries that appear in their texts, gossip is another pleasure in which characters and readers learn to indulge.
In writing her New Atalantis, Manley not only narrates the circulation of gossip but herself engages in an act of politically-motivated gossip to expose the political party in power (the Whigs) as both sexually and politically corrupt. Clara Reeve, writing a history of the novel in the late eighteenth century, captures the sense of Manley’s scandalous, gossiping authorship: “She hoarded up all the public and private scandal within her reach, and poured it forth” (119). In a chapter on Manley’s narration of erotic gossip, Catherine Gallagher explores Manley’s appropriation of negative stereotypes of women and gossip: “Manley presents herself as politically useful because she is a disorderly woman vengefully gossiping about female ‘secrets’ and therefore doing the sort of low and frivolous work considered beneath real politicians” (117). By embracing the typical condemnation of women, Manley forges a defiant reformulation of her authorship and significance in her culture. Manley also capitalizes on notions of gossip as a collaborative endeavor by crafting her own distinctive model of female authorship that challenges conceptions of authorship as masculine, authoritative and proprietary. Manley evokes this communal authorship through her insistent display of gossip’s circulation through legions of women. Her invitations to readers to share in the communal construction of the text were particularly suited to the changing power of the literary marketplace in the early eighteenth century. Moving away from traditional models of literary patronage, authors increasingly found themselves needing to cater to the public of readers as “the social group capable of conferring fame upon authors” (Donoghue 1). Manley’s strategy welcomes these newly significant readers to become partners in sorting through the meanings of her texts. She invites readers to join her in constructing the meanings of the text by going to another text—a key. This new book that accompanies her secret histories becomes a liminal territory where author and readers meet in a space bordering the novel and the public world it represents.
In New Atalantis, Manley presents female gossip permeating all aspects of feminine society. Multiple agents of gossip circulate erotic scandal to one another and to the readers. The female narrators who provide the framework for encountering all the tales of gossip that unfold in New Atalantis embody a community of women performing gossip as they share information in order to define communal values and moral norms. In sharing their tales and their gossiping reflections on them, the women portray gossip’s forays into private spaces and the public exposure of that hidden knowledge—and represent for readers the ways in which they can perform that same intermixing of private and public realms. This constantly circulating gossip creates what Ros Ballaster has characterized as a disruptive dismantling of clearly defined binaries and boundaries in New Atalantis: “Manley’s fiction stands perpetually on the borders of what are perceived as discrete discursive territories. The political and the personal, the erotic and the pathetic, the real and the fictive, scandal and satire, all undergo a series of inversions and re-articulations until their supposed exclusivity is undermined” (151). By dismantling such typically discrete borders, Manley makes her fictionalized gossip of private, intimate moments of thinly veiled public figures impact the world of politics in the reign of Queen Anne.
One of the central figures representing gossip in New Atalantis is Lady Intelligence, a character whose role in communicating the scandals of the capital is signaled by her clothing: “her garments are all hieroglyphics” (13). These mysterious symbols suggest the process of decoding that Manley’s novel prompted in her readers as they attempted to discern the real-life referents of the fictionalized lovers in the novel. Shortly after its initial publication, a “key” appeared to accompany New Atalantis. This “key” provided real names of some of the people scandalously depicted within her novel, but also offered just hints for many others (perhaps letting readers know, for example, that a certain man is “Lord L—“). Such a device reinforced the collective nature of Manley’s gossiping authorship by emphasizing the notion of printed gossip as a communal process of communication and interpretation. As Catherine Gallagher has argued, Manley’s use of these keys resists a simple process of decoding by “open[ing] the text to an ‘outside’ that they also continue to defer” (126). These supplementary texts create a visual representation of liminality; the notion of a “key” itself points to a threshold that can potentially open, a state of transition that can possibly be successfully accomplished. But like the liminal itself, the secret history and its keys suspend the readers in territory marked by contradictions, ambiguity and chaos.
The gossip circulating in New Atalantis offers considerable voyeuristic pleasures, for the characters and readers alike. One of the most memorable gossips encountered in the novel is Mrs. Nightwork, a gossiping midwife. Her occupation links her to the early meaning of a gossip as someone present at childbirth, and also emphasizes the amazing fertility of gossip that flows abundantly through the capital of Angela. While assisting ladies with labor and delivery, she also caters to ladies who “love to be amused with the failings of others,” insisting that she and her fellow midwives would not receive “so favorable and warm a reception, if we had nothing of scandal to entertain them with” (139). Manley’s emphasis on the powerful appeal of gossip as an erotic indulgence also appears in several tales in the novel, including the story of a woman named Harriat whom a Duke attempts to seduce in order to destroy her reputation. No strategies succeed until he turns to the erotic appeal of gossip itself: “he thought of attempting her in her own way and sacrificed the reputations of several who had obliged him and his friends (for he was forced to tell her all that he knew or had heard), and then the lady, out of excess of gratitude for giving in to her darling foible, obliged him to his wish” (153). In a further volume of New Atalantis, Manley links gossip to erotic pleasure in a way that anticipates Crusie’s explorations of Sophie’s discovery fantasies. A maid gossips about ladies who themselves love the pleasures of gossip’s revelations: they “took as much Pleasure in discovering anothers Amour, as ever they did in concealing their own: Nay some have gone farther, and have wanted the true Pleasure in their own, ‘till they were discover’d” (Memoirs of Europe 2: 143). The allure of gossip seems nearly irresistible in Manley’s novel as it provides erotic enjoyment, political capital for Manley’s attempts to discredit the party of the Whigs then in power, and a successful model for Manley’s own authorship.
Negotiations of gossip function in important ways in this series of Crusie novels as well. Like Manley, Crusie crafts a model of authorship that appropriates the dynamics of gossip’s communal circulation and discovery of meaning. When she includes images open to multiple meanings, like the ambiguous cherries on the wallpaper in Welcome to Temptation, she invites commentaries and individual interpretations in the way that Manley’s keys to her novels welcomed readers’ attempts to discover meanings of her text. On the level of characterization, the heroines of Crusie’s novels must battle the negative power of gossip which threatens to define and limit their own individual identities. Two of the heroines, Maddie and Sophie, ultimately develop strategies to defy gossip’s power by embracing unruly images of themselves. They appropriate what has been previously defined by gossip as negative images, and in doing so establish a new negotiation of the gossip circulating in their small towns. In essence, they claim the liminal spaces of gossip as their own fertile territory—one that empowers them to redefine themselves and the communities in which they live.
Crusie begins her invitation to reconsider gossip in Tell Me Lies. In the small town at the center of Tell Me Lies, Frog Point, Ohio, Maddie has been designated, as her best friend Treva notes, “the Perpetual Virgin” (25). In this gossipy version of reality, even though Maddie has just discovered her husband’s infidelity, Treva assures her, “’Nobody would say anything bad about Maddie Martindale” (25). Although Treva intends to offer Maddie comfort, her comments underscore the degree to which Maddie finds that her life has been constrained by the force of gossip in her town. Gossip has crafted the “fake” Maddie that she sheds during the course of the novel. Maddie’s mother represents the power of gossip’s omnipresent voices circulating through Frog Point. Significantly, her first appearances in the novel occur via phone calls made to Maddie, emphasizing her function as the voice of gossip; communicating gossip through the phone also provides a visual representation of a liminal boundary that is linked to gossip in the novel. Shortly after Maddie’s traumatic discovery of another woman’s crotchless underpants in her husband’s car, she receives a phone call from her mother while trying to sedate herself with a brownie. While Maddie struggles to accept the change in her life, her mother pours out an endless stream of words: “Her mother was still talking. Her mother would talk through the Second Coming, doing the play-by-play” (11). But her mother’s voice is not just the communication of one woman; her talk evokes the communal gossip of the town. As Maddie listens, she “could hear Frog Point talking now. She stayed with him the after the first time, what did she expect? The way she acts, you’d never think she was a Martindale” (11). In imagining this anonymous, communal voice of gossip, Maddie pinpoints how she feels gossip will expose her own failures rather than dwelling on her husband’s far more obvious failings.
Eventually, Maddie’s supposed culpability in the murder of Brent, her husband, becomes “the” news in Frog Point. As Treva informs her, “’You are now the hottest thing on the Frog Point grapevine’” (248). The town’s gossip has already decided she killed him, but remains split between those who want to excuse her crime, and those who want her to “fry” (249). Maddie’s fears about the accusatory voice of gossip in Frog Point have seemingly come true. At this point, however, her mother, who initially represented the stifling and overwhelming constraints of gossip, actually begins to wield gossip in order to discredit Maddie’s main opposition, Brent’s mother (249-50). Rather than succumbing to despair and meekly accepting these judgments from others, however, Maddie decides to stop hiding from gossip. The novel’s final scene—Maddie hanging her “baby blue bikini underpants” in anticipation of C. L.’s arrival on the front doorknob in plain view of the gossipy Mrs. Crosby—symbolizes her rejection of gossip’s power to invade and limit her life (346). Her placement of the underpants on the door underscores her own insistence on claiming that liminal territory of gossip, signaling her defiance of gossip’s power and voices. Her bold move here clearly contrasts with her earlier attempts to keep the crotchless underpants securely hidden and private. Maddie does not run away from gossip, but finally chooses instead to playfully engage with it on her own terms.
Like the appearance of gossip in Laurence Sterne’s novel Tristram Shandy, gossip in Tell Me Lies is ultimately unveiled as a form of communication that can be “playful, pleasure-seeking” (Stovel 118). Maddie enters into the spirit of play by taking part in gossip’s distinctively pleasurable style: “allusive, fully of veiled reference and innuendo, of nuance and double entendre” (Stovel 122). This spirit captures the essence of the liminal experience, one that offers “a playful opening toward alternative worlds” (Spariosu xiii). Maddie has taken advantage of gossip’s liminal possibilities for transformation in order to redefine herself and her representation in the gossip of Frog Point. In a significant way, Maddie’s creative production of gossip echoes the power of the author of fiction, and Crusie signals this link between authorship and the creative potential of gossip with the epigraph of Tell Me Lies, which presents Truman Capote’s claim that “All fiction is gossip.”
Gossip in Crazy for You also functions by fashioning the ordinary lives of the townspeople into an entertaining story to be enjoyed—a kind of soap opera crafted from their own private lives primarily in the background of Crusie’s depictions of life in the small town of Tibbett. Gossip about relationships and possible infidelities circulates in the beauty shop run by Quinn’s best friend, Darla. The women there share information about other women like Barbara Niedemeyer, dubbed the “Bank Slut” for her string of affairs with other women’s husbands. Debbie, one of the stylists, shares her theory that the Bank Slut changes her hair to mimic the style of the partner of each new man she has in her sights (40). This information is a clue the other women use to decipher Barbara’s future maneuvers with other men, including Darla’s own husband. While this gossipy designation of Barbara demeans and demonizes her, gossip is predominantly presented as a tool used positively in Tibbett and its beauty salon.
In Welcome to Temptation, Crusie charts the most complicated negotiation of gossip. While gossip certainly poses a threat to the heroine Sophie, she learns how to respect and acknowledge the power that gossip can offer women to gain their own freedom and to influence their community. Of all these Crusie heroines, Sophie most fully embraces the liminal territory of gossip as a space of creative transformation. Early in the novel, Crusie presents a stereotypical image of a gossiping woman, Virginia, who passes along a judgmental tidbit to the town council about the two women she and her husband just hit with their car: “’a snippy little redhead, Stephen says, and a nice brunette who was sweet to me. Curly hair. Low-class. They’re staying at the Whipple farm. And they’re making a movie.” (13). Her combination of information and snobbish judgment of Sophie and Amy reveals an ugly aspect of gossip’s conservative assaults on individuals’ characters. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Virginia is ultimately revealed by the end of the novel as the main villain responsible for such crimes as attempted murder and intimidation. Another main voice of gossip in the novel is Phin’s mother, Liz, who employs gossip with more devastating finesse than Virginia. Her gossip clearly works oppressively against Sophie, seeking to maintain a conservative status quo in the community while keeping disruptive elements like Sophie firmly in their place. Yet Liz ultimately offers Sophie the opportunity to experience the potential power of gossip to enact its own version of justice.
After experiencing attempts on her life, Sophie confronts Liz as the culprit. The two women meet, significantly, outside the courthouse—a setting that indicates how gossip will take on the function of dispensing justice in Temptation by occupying this space upon its very boundary (352). Although Liz flatly denies the accusation against herself, her knowledge of the town’s gossip immediately indicates to her the likely suspect: Virginia. Joining forces with Hildy, another loquacious town gossip, Liz tries to wrangle a confession from Virginia, who refuses to admit her guilt. Gossip, then, becomes an alternative form of justice. “’We don’t have to prove it,’ Liz said, ‘We’ll just talk’” (358). The women know that circulating their speculations about Virginia’s motives will essentially convict her in the minds of the town. They promise to withhold that devastating gossip if Virginia uses her town council votes to support their causes, especially the censorship ordinance that has placed Sophie and her sister in jeopardy for their film. The threat of that gossip ultimately holds Virginia in check, allowing Sophie the opportunity to address the town at the meeting and to pave the way for a future run as the next Tucker mayor of Temptation. The collaborative mingling of information and judgments that has occurred with Sophie, Liz and Hildy demonstrates a positive model for the political future of Temptation as well. Early in the novel Liz had criticized Phin for not working to “build a consensus” among the council members (45). Phin rejected that approach, but Sophie has learned and benefited from its value.
In Welcome to Temptation, Crusie’s narration of gossip and her focus on voyeuristic discovery are linked through a symbolic representation of liminal borderland territories. Gossip and erotic display both function by transforming private, intimate moments into public performance. These liminal spaces, which include the door which briefly grants access and then separates Amy from Phin and Sophie’s first discovery fantasy, signal the often permeable boundaries between private and public expression. Sohpie and Phin, along with Crusie’s readers, often find themselves reminded of those boundaries. While beginning to disrobe with Phin on the kitchen table, Sophie “lifted her head to tell him how good he felt and looked through the screen door into Stephen Garvey’s eyes” (169). The moment signals the voyeuristic gaze and also provides juicy details for Stephen to spread as gossip against Sophie. The emphasis on the screen door, which functions simultaneously as a barrier and an open, seemingly transparent point of entry, represents the liminal borderland between private and public life. At other intimate moments, Sophie and Phin find themselves viewed through a window, as when Rachel appears at the window of Phin’s car as they begin to have sex (287). Even their encounter on top of the hood of Phin’s Volvo outside the Whipple farmhouse is linked to a window as Phin expresses his concern that Sophie’s brother will see them through his window (290).
A final dramatic representation of this liminal space between public and private realms occurs when Sophie and Phin have just finished emerging from the afterglow of satisfying sex. As Phin struggles to remove the handcuffs connecting him to the bed, he notices that Sophie “was looking past him to the television” (330). On the screen, Sophie and Amy’s film appears, or at least the soft porno version of it, Cherished. Sophie, like most of the townspeople watching that evening, is expecting a screening of her documentary, Return to Temptation. Intruding into the intimate moment Sophie and Phin have just shared, Cherished presents the fictional recreation of their sexual encounter as a scene of voyeuristic pleasure which Sophie and Phin are compelled to watch. Rob and Clea act out for a third time in the novel the initial sexual encounter of Phin and Sophie on the river dock. As Phin and Sophie watch the screen, they also hear their own dialogue from that private moment (the dialogue Sophie wrote for the film) and stare in shock as that strangely familiar scene morphs into the raucous porno, Hot Fleshy Thighs—the re-cut version of Cherished crafted by Leo, the Porn King (331; 177). The film, now focusing on close-up shots of private body parts, showcases how dangerously reproducible and uncontrollable private experience can be once it enters the public realm. Even as the grainy hard-core porno plays on, another line from Phin and Sophie’s first discovery moment intrudes as naked Rob tells naked Clea, “’Your soul is a corkscrew’” (331). This flickering vestige of their own private intimacy blurs even further the distinctions here between private and public spaces. Just like the disrupted boundaries Ballaster identifies at work in Delarivier Manley’s fiction, the “series of inversions and re-articulations” of Phin and Sophie’s intimate exchange creates a liminal space between private and public expression that is visually represented by the television and its screen. Such liminal spaces offer access to private knowledge, but also emphasize the dangerously uncontrollable nature of information that circulates in the public realm. These transgressions of boundaries offer voyeuristic thrills and creative possibilities, but also the chilling shocks of recognition when confronting a private self that has become transformed and claimed as public property.
In Welcome to Temptation, the Dempsey family’s use of movie quotes serves as one such collaborative act. Crusie’s official website offers a list of many quotes, but reminds fans, “if we missed any or got the writing credits wrong, let us know” (“Movie Quote List”). This notion of an author helping craft a communal voice that welcomes readers is evidenced as well in “The Cherries,” the online communities of Crusie’s fans. In a posting on “All About Romance,” Crusie explains how cherries became associated with her books and fans: “Well, it was just one of those things that got out of hand. There’s a great cherry on the cover of Welcome to Temptation, and Susan Elizabeth Phillips made a bawdy crack about it in front of a bunch of booksellers once (and you thought she was such a lady) and I told the people on my fan list about it and they took it as their logo, and I started putting cherries in all of my books as a shout-out to them, and now it’s sort of my symbol” (“Writers Corner”). The cherry functions as a wink from author to readers and back again, creating a sense of a community forged through shared knowledge and insights about the novels. The cherry symbol is literally a signpost for members of the Cherries community, as their website explains: “Basically a Cherry is any participating member of one (or more) of Jenny’s online communities. The nickname, Cherries, came about because they kept ending up in the same places without realizing it and missing each other. They needed a symbol so they could spot each other” (“The Cherries”).
While the cherry makes visible a community centered on discussing Crusie’s novels, the name also evokes the ambiguity of any symbol by referencing that notoriously slippery image on the kitchen wallpaper from within the pages of Welcome to Temptation (“The Cherries”). The cherries on the wallpaper first represent the repression of Clea’s mother when she lived in the house with her daughter and husband. Only one wall was covered with “the truly ugly cherry wallpaper” because Clea’s father forced her to return the other paper to save money (22-23). When Sophie later recounts the loss of her virginity, the cherries assume new symbolic importance when she describes how the best friend of her first sexual partner “came up and stuck his finger in the pie on my tray and scooped out this big, gloppy cherry and said, ‘Heard you lost this, Sophie.’ And then everybody laughed” (39). When the discovery of other rolls of the kitchen’s wallpaper ultimately reveals the cherries are in fact faded apples (111), suddenly a new set of symbolic associations opens for readers to consider. Crusie’s transformations of the symbol serve as a verbal nudge to readers to continue the game she has begun as they can develop new interpretations and shared discoveries of meaning in online collaborations.
The significance of these communal voices fostered through romance novels figures in an internet posting by Crusie on her blog, Argh Ink. She draws attention to the importance of communities outside of (and including) the lovers in romance novels. Asking for thoughts from readers, Crusie discusses a work-in-progress, a conference paper titled “A Book Where Everybody Knows Your Name.” In her posting, Crusie suggests that “one of the most powerful aspects of the romance novel is the community that it makes in the reader’s mind” (“A Book”). For Crusie’s novels, that community takes shape in many ways, as when she invites her fans to offer suggestions and comments on drafts, or when she uses the inviting and familiar “Jenny” rather than the more formal “Jennifer” on her official website. That community also takes shape, though, in Crusie’s conception of her books not simply as rigidly defined private property under her sole control, but rather as more open, liminal spaces that create a territory where the author’s text gains news significance within the communal voices of its readers. Like the bedroom door that opens in Welcome to Temptation to bring Sophie the pleasure of her own discovery fantasy, Crusie’s textual strategies and online postings slyly signal an opening into her novels’ pages. Responding to her invitations, readers are encouraged to entertain their own discovery moments by exploring the liminal spaces that emerge between her novels and the communities that reflect on them. Crusie’s books function like those erotic tales that Delarivier Manley crafted to entice and welcome readers into communal gossip that spilled from the novels’ pages into keys that further teased and invited readers’ interpretations.
Jane Lilienfeld argues that such authorial strategies are typical of modernist authors like Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison. Their fiction, she contends, exploits the power of female gossip in positive ways by fashioning a reading experience in which “the implied authors incorporate the reader in a community that does not erase difference, but demonstrates through narrative strategies of reading postures the possibility of shared knowledge. Requiring the reader to share in the work of constructing the narrative merges artistry with political meaning” (57). The construction of shared knowledge fostered by Crusie and Manley’s novels also points readers toward such empowering possibilities for redefining female sexual and social identities, drawing upon the fertile, transformative power of liminal spaces explored through voyeuristic spectacles and gossip.
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Notes This gaze, theorized as a means of masculine control over women as sexual objects, has long been the focus of film studies. Laura Mulvey first applied the psychoanalytic insights of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan to analyze the “gaze” of the film spectator as one that functions as masculine mastery over the eroticized female object onscreen.
 Female authors dominated the production of amatory fiction; in particular, Behn, Haywood and Manley were seen by contemporaries as developing remarkably similar works of erotic and gossip-centered fiction. Ros Ballaster argues that not only did readers associate these three authors, but that Manley and Haywood deliberately highlighted the connections among their works (114).
When Mitch Peatwick in What the Lady Wants (1995) tells Mae Sullivan that “the first rule in life is ‘everybody lies’,” he articulates one of the central motifs that runs through the majority of Jennifer Crusie’s novels (24). Lying forms a key part of many of Crusie’s narratives, and most of Crusie’s heroines lie. From the “unreal but not untrue” storytelling of The Cinderella Deal’s Daisy Flattery to the secrets all the characters conceal in Tell Me Lies to the cons of the Dempsey and Goodnight families in Welcome to Temptation and Faking It, characters twist, turn, and manipulate truths, half-truths, and lies with stunning verbal agility. Mitch’s favourite catchphrase, “everybody lies,” is a symptom of a hard-bitten cynicism brought on by one too many divorce cases. As the narrator notes, “Mitch’s take on humanity had deteriorated to the point where he assumed someone was lying if her lips were moving” (WLW, 22). But that the issue of lying appears with such regularity in Crusie’s novels suggests that it holds a greater significance than simply reflecting a misanthropic world-view. In What the Lady Wants, the narrator crucially genders Mitch’s lying “someone” as female. On one level, Mitch’s misogynistic outbursts echo the story’s noir roots, identifying Mae with archetypal femme fatales such as Brigid O’Shaughnessy, and preparing the reader for Mae’s attempted manipulation of Mitch through the lies she tells. But such gendering of lying calls attention not only to the lies women tell, but also to the lies they have been told.
In her 1997 non-fiction essay “Romancing Reality: The Power of Romance Fiction to Reinforce and Re-Vision the Real,” Crusie writes that romance fiction shows the reader “that a lot of the ‘truths’ that the different societal ideologies have foisted on her are lies” (92). The relativism of truth and lies implied in this statement points to what is important about lying in much of Crusie’s fiction. Throughout many of her novels, Crusie questions absolutist notions of truth and lies in order to examine the contingent nature of the real. Drawing on a constructivist notion of identity, Crusie relates the telling of lies with the telling of stories, showing how different, sometimes opposing, versions of reality can be created through narrative manipulation. Within her fiction, storytelling is an explicitly performative act, one which is used by Crusie to show how creative power can lead to self-determination. This article will show how Crusie uses the structure of romance narrative as a way of challenging what she sees as ideological “lies.” These lies, however, cannot simply be equated with patriarchy, but are more broadly related to essentialist notions that come out of either patriarchal or feminist assumptions about what a woman should do, how she should think, and what she should be interested in. This article will argue that Crusie explores the ambiguity between truth and lies in order, she argues, to tell “the story that reflects a woman’s reality as it could be and as it often is” (Ibid). The political function of the romance, she suggests, is embodied in its capacity to represent and imagine a variety of female identities that are distinct from the restrictive and limiting constructions that are conventionally afforded to female characters. In both “reinforcing” and “re-visioning” the real, the romance genre represents a degree of performative self-determination emerging from the fabric of everyday life.
In “Romancing Reality,” along with other non-fiction essays published in the mid- to late-1990s, such as “Now Let Us Praise Scribbling Women,” and “Glee and Sympathy,” Crusie mounts a vehement and politically-charged defence of the romance genre. In fact, a large proportion of the essays Crusie wrote in the late ‘90s argue against the critical derision and out-right dismissal that up until the mid-90s had formed the central academic response to the romance. Writing to the profession in the January edition of the monthly newsletter of the Romance Writers of America, Crusie announces her New Year’s resolution to make 1998 the year in which she would “improve romance’s image” and defeat the “anti-romance bias.” Though this was her stated goal for 1998, the exploration of the capabilities and responsibilities of the genre had concerned Crusie at least since she had begun writing her own romance novels earlier in the decade. The crux of Crusie’s defence in this article is her argument that the conventional romance narrative contains radical transformative potential. She bases her argument on a discussion of generic differences between romance fiction, identified here as women’s fiction, and “serious” literary fiction, which has most often been implicitly gendered masculine. The core of Crusie’s project here is to call into question the generic hierarchy that equates the conventional tragic ending of literary fiction with “reality” and the conventional happy ending of romance with “fantasy.” She argues, “it is as unrealistic to say that life is all tragedy as it is to say that life is all happy endings. . . [r]omance fiction, in choosing to show women readers the variety of possibilities in the real world of women’s lives, opts for the happy ending as more empowering” (“Romancing” 92). Crusie here gives the romance genre an important political function. By featuring narratives in a woman’s voice and from a woman’s point-of-view that offer positive depictions of women who take “active, intelligent control of their lives,” she argues, the romance novel can serve as an ideological antidote to the conventional masculine genres, such as canonical literary fiction or even fairy tales, which routinely depict the failure, punishment, and death of women who transgress established social norms (“Romancing” 84, emphasis in original).
Crusie’s focus on the “variety of possibilities” represented within romance narratives points to how she sees the political potential of the romance novel working at an even more fundamental level. In a move that echoes the social theory of “false necessity,” popularised by Roberto Unger in late 1980s and early ‘90s, Crusie identifies the romance narrative as a site of radical critique and transformative potential through its representation of multiplicity in women’s experience. Unger argued that institutional and large-scale social change can be reshaped through the realm of the local and the everyday, and embraced a pluralistic and experiential view of social reality. Thus, in the course of everyday life, individuals remain capable of creative responses within apparently repressive conditions. This perspective, Unger argued, “frees the definition of the radical project from unnecessarily restrictive assumptions about the possible forms of social organization and personal experience” (159-60). Crusie, writing at the same socio-historical moment as Unger, also engages with this positive philosophy for social change, but applies it specifically to what has generally been seen as a female form of narrative, the romance. Crusie argues that the romance genre, though often criticized for reinforcing social stability, has the potential to participate in a radical project for social change through the way it rewrites and “re-visions” what could be seen as restrictive assumptions. The best romance novels, Crusie suggests, are those that recast traditional stories which have routinely worked to silence the woman’s voice and reign in transgression. Such novels, she argues, which give their heroine the “capacity for action and power,” can be seen as a form of “feminist fiction” (“This is Not” 51-61; “Let us Now” 19).
Indeed Crusie, flying in the face of both critical and popular denigration of the genre, argues that there are few forms of fiction which address the possibilities for female agency more successfully and more boldly than the contemporary romance. But unsurprisingly, Crusie does not confine her defence of the romance genre to her non-fiction writing. In a number of novels written around the same time, she actively puts her theories about the capacities of the romance genre into practice. Focusing specifically on three novels written in the mid-‘90s, Strange Bedpersons (1994), What the Lady Wants (1996), and The Cinderella Deal (1996), this article will now examine the way in which Crusie explores alternative and subversive forms of storytelling, including the telling of lies, in order to construct her own version of the feminist romance novel.
As in her critical work, Crusie offers the romance plot throughout her novels as a corrective to the routine misrepresentation of everyday life found in the majority of implicitly masculinised literary genres. Throughout her early work, Crusie repeatedly presents popular, and oft-caricatured models of 1990s lifestyle in order to parody, critique, and reimagine them, fully exploiting the capacity of romance to open up new, previously unrepresentable, possibilities for her characters. For instance, novels such as Manhunting (1993), Strange Bedpersons, The Cinderella Deal, and Anyone But You (1996) question the socially constructed role of the literal-minded, career-driven male. In her representations of Alex in Anyone But You and Jake in Manhunting, she explores the pressures that are placed on men to conform to images of masculine, career-based success. Both characters shun high-paying, high-pressure, conventionally successful careers (cardiology for Alex and tax law for Jake) in order to pursue jobs that make them happy rather than rich. In doing so, they must resist, in varying degrees, the criticism and incomprehension of their families and friends and their own self-doubt about their choices. While Crusie shows through Alex and Jake the difficulty of resisting social expectations, in her characterisation of Linc in The Cinderella Deal and Nick in Strange Bedpersons, she explores the sterility of the life that Jake and Alex avoid by eschewing what Roos Vonk and Richard Ashmore designate as the “traditional masculine” role of the yuppie (263). This is most obviously reflected in Crusie’s description of their environment. The black-and-white colour scheme of Nick and Linc’s clothes and furniture reflects not only their lack of vibrancy and imagination, but also represents their narrow-minded sense of morality and social mores. Hemmed in by career obsession and concern for public opinion, Linc and Nick live ordered, controlled, co-ordinated lives. Even Linc’s fantasies do not rise above the prosaic. While interviewing for a job in the prestigious Prescott College, Linc, in a desperate attempt to please the dean, lies that he is engaged to be married, and the domestic life he imagines for himself represents his unquestioning reproduction of conservative patriarchal ideology. This picture, which “seemed so true while he’d been saying it” features “the idea of settling down with some elegant little woman and reproducing in a small town. The pictures had been there in his head, sunny scenes of neat lawns and well-behaved children in well-ironed shorts” (CD, 14). One imagines that this clichéd picture seems real to Linc because it reproduces so impeccably the conventional ideals of domestic fulfilment and social achievement.
In contrast to these masculine plots of career-based success, Crusie offers the plot of the romance as an alternative narrative of self for both Linc and Nick. This alternative plot is embodied in the characterisations of Daisy and Tess, who dress and furnish their homes in a colourful array of thrift-shop chic and bring chaos and disorder into the men’s lives. In both The Cinderella Deal and Strange Bedpersons the tension between black and white and “electric colors” is the central metaphor governing the complex world-views generated by her characters (CD, 2). While characters such as Linc and Nick begin the novels secure in their linear ambitions, they are led to understand that other lifestyles and models of success are available for use in their process of self-determination. Crusie’s point is not simply that these well-dressed representatives of yuppie culture require rescue from their own highly masculinised fantasies of fulfilment; what they need is to recognise these fantasies, among several others, as choices over which they ought to have some control. Daisy and Tess provide for these men an alternative world-view which disrupts their hitherto monochrome existence, giving them at least two, and potentially many other, life narratives to pursue. Crucially, though, the men also provide the same service to the women. In both novels, the ability to look outside comfortable life narratives provokes a good deal of anxiety and introspection in the characters, and this is what drives the romance plot forward. In part, this is manifested externally in the relationships between Linc and Daisy and Nick and Tess, but Crusie is also careful to represent the internal struggles they each experience. She creates in each character a central divide between the part of themselves which accepts and seeks to maintain social norms and the part which rebels against the social positions they have adopted. In Linc, this divide is indicated by the two different portraits of him that Daisy paints, a dignified one in black and white and a passionate one in orange and yellow. In Daisy, it’s the difference between her authentic identity as Daisy Flattery and the social role she plays as Daisy Blaise. In Nick, it is described by Tess as his Jekyll and Hyde personality. And in Tess, it is the difference between what Nick calls her Crusader Rabbit persona and her fear of turning into Mrs. Jekyll. In each of these internal conflicts, Crusie represents rebellion as the ability to recognize the constraints imposed by the restrictive world-view to which they had been dedicated.
As the representation of Tess makes most evident, rebellion is not equivalent to a notion of opposition derived from conventional gender politics. In a reversal of standard thinking, Tess argues that she prefers Mr. Hyde to Dr. Jekyll because “Jekyll was the conservative guy” (SB, 93, emphasis in original). But, in fact, Crusie shows that Tess, in her condemnation of what she calls “that superficial social stuff,” is in some ways more conservative than Nick (SB, 180). Tess’s conservatism is described by her best friend Gina when she accuses Tess of being “bigoted”: “[I]f I shaved my head or decided to become a druid or told you I was a transvestite, you’d be there for me, no judgment, no argument. But because I want to join the mainstream, you’re going to bitch at me” (SB, 181). Gina charges Tess with being conventionally unconventional, blinded by her hippie upbringing to the variety of possibilities available to women and unable to accept a way of seeing the world that differs from her own. Her admonishment of Tess acts as a testament to Crusie’s argument that it is, in fact, a considerable mistake to assume that all women should think the same way.
Tess’s relationship with Nick, therefore, is as much about changing her preconceptions as it is about changing his. In fact, while she challenges his social position, tempting and cajoling him into rebellious acts against his better judgment—most notably sex in public places—her transformation is perhaps more fundamental. Though Nick decorates in black and white, Tess is the one who sees the world in stark terms of right and wrong, truth and lies. Coming to an understanding of Nick’s perspective, though, enables Tess to understand that lies and the truth are complex and mutable concepts. When, like Linc, Tess lies to get a job she really wants, she justifies her lie to herself, thinking, “It wasn’t really being dishonest. It was being tactful. Maybe Nick was starting to rub off on her” (SB, 137). Behind this conventional image of a couple growing closer by sharing character traits is evidence of what Crusie believes is a fundamental and empowering characteristic of good romance fiction. Crusie implies that in the best romance fiction characters do not grow closer because they are required to by the formal conventions of the love plot or the need for the author to create the requisite happy ending. Instead, the relationships that develop are based upon the mutual ability to recognise such ideological constraints in action and to see the relativity and multiplicity of life in the real world. One of the functions of the romance narrative, therefore, is to model how negotiation can occur between seemingly opposite and essentialised perspectives of identity and how alternative realities can be constructed through the process of imaginative storytelling.
For this reason, where storytellers appear in Crusie’s fiction, they appear capable of re-writing the life stories of those they encounter. The fairytale of CinderTess in Strange Bedpersons is one such story. CinderTess is a feminist reworking of the Cinderella story, which casts the princess as an active heroine who wins the prince’s love with the power of her political commitment rather than her beauty. Repeatedly told as a bedtime story to eight-year-old Tess by Lanny, a member of the commune Tess lived on in the ‘60s, Tess is profoundly influenced by its exaltation of the countercultural values of the hippie movement. Later, it underpins her strident protest against mainstream society. As she tells Nick, “basically Lanny taught me how to live my life with that story” (SB, 112). Tess uses this story as a blueprint for her life, blindly following its precepts and staunchly defending the values and world-view it promotes against what she sees as any form of encroachment, embodied most distinctly in the novel in the figure of Norbert Welch and his conservative Republican politics. When Welch satirizes the original tale and holds the values it advocates up to ridicule, Tess feels that the attack on the story is also an attack on herself: “It was her story, and he was degrading it, degrading her and everything she believed in” (SB, 107). In particular, Tess resents this reworking of the fairytale because it holds up to ridicule the model of feminist resistance she has embraced. However, while Lanny’s tale seems like a good lesson for Tess to have learned, Tess’s fury concerning the new version, especially the narrator’s comments that hearing it makes Tess “catatonic with rage” and “blindly incurious” about her surroundings, also suggests that she has been too single-minded in the way she has embraced this lesson (SB, 108). By following Lanny’s story so unthinkingly, she has been unable to develop a model of self-identity that actually represents the complexity of her own existence, or that enables her to think through and alter her trajectory.
Tess’s fear that Welch, in rewriting the story, will also rewrite her life exposes to her, and to the reader, the lack of control Tess actually exerts over her own life narrative. This is further heightened by the revelation that Welch is actually Lanny, who has transformed from a vibrant figure, who had been “so full of life and so . . . full of ideas and stories,” into an “aging neoconservative with writer’s block” (SB, 118, 112 emphasis in original). Welch’s extreme move to the right, like Tess’s entrenchment in the left, is also depicted as the result of his single-minded focus on one narrative and the failure of his ability to tell a multiplicity of stories. Tess’s final transformation from feminist stereotype to romantic heroine, therefore, is ultimately signalled in her demand to Welch that he re-write the story again, not to return it to its original form, but instead to make it more balanced, because, as she tells Welch, in presenting only one view-point it is just “too simplistic” (SB, 243).
As the representative of professional storytelling in the novel, Welch’s true crime is not his conservative politics or his curmudgeonly misogyny. In fact, even while he is most vigorously promoting his anti-feminist agenda, Crusie is careful to point out that, against her better judgment, Tess likes him. Welch’s biggest offence is the failure of his imagination. It is the job of the storyteller, Crusie suggests, to see a variety of possibilities available for the narrative’s trajectory. This particular talent of the storyteller is explored in The Cinderella Deal, when the pedantic perfection of Linc’s imagined life is countered by Daisy’s opinion that it was the worst story she had ever heard. Daisy, a professional storyteller, reinterprets his tale, and from her perspective Linc’s fantasy future appears more like a Gap ad than real life: “a woman in a designer apron and smiling, apple-cheeked children dressed in Baby Gap and a stuffy career in a stuffy town” (CD, 41). Daisy finds Linc’s story awful not only because it is based on the subordination of the central female character, but also because it is a one-dimensional story, a cardboard cut-out of a future resulting from a failure of imagination. In Daisy’s retelling of the story, Crusie exposes the assumptions concealed within this conventional picture of ideal domesticity by exposing the way in which patriarchal narratives of male social and professional achievement often rely on the relegation of the woman to the domestic sphere—encased in an apron and seemingly happy about it. Daisy’s recasting of Linc’s “elegant little woman” into a “woman in a designer apron and smiling” shows how such seemingly innocuous descriptions encode and naturalise the values and assumptions of essentialised social perspectives. The substitution of “designer” for “elegant,” for instance, moves Linc’s story from the realm of the aesthetic and the universal and exposes its socio-economic underpinnings.
Through this example of re-writing, Crusie offers a perspective on the radical project of the romance genre itself. In re-writing a conventionalised story of bourgeois normality and fracturing its monologic surface, Daisy’s revision transforms Linc’s narrative, in Crusie’s terms, from an ideological lie into a potentially productive story. But the troubled relationship between lying and storytelling is itself a point of contention. In discussions concerning lying, many contemporary philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists agree that different cultures, and even individuals within the same culture, have varying ideas about what does and does not count as a lie. Opinion over the social impact of lying is also divided. Whether seen as immoral and self-serving or as a necessary social skill, lying is a difficult concept to define. Crusie, however, offers her own definition in The Cinderella Deal that highlights the transformative potential of fictions of romance. While Linc thinks that telling the faculty at Prescott that he is engaged is a lie, Daisy offers a different perspective:
“It’s not a lie,” Daisy said. “It’s a story.”
Linc looked at her, exasperated. “That’s semantics. They’re the same thing”. . .
“Listen.” Daisy leaned forward and gripped his arm to hold his attention. “If you tell a lie, you’re deliberately telling an untruth. If you’d told them you’d published six books, or that you’d taught at Yale, or that you’d won the Pulitzer, that would have been a lie. You’d never tell a lie. You’re too honest.”
“Daisy, I told them I was engaged to you. That was a lie.”
“No.” Daisy shook her head emphatically. . . “You told them you wanted to get married and settle down in Prescott and raise kids.”
“Well, that’s a lie,” Linc said, but he could see where she was going. “I told them what they wanted to hear.”
“Yes, but it was what you wanted to hear too.” Daisy settled back in her seat. “Sometimes stories are just previews of coming truths. I bet you really do want that deep down inside your repressed academic soul.” (CD, 51-2)
Daisy’s idea of a lie is something that attempts to alter the facts of the past, while a story presents a vision of a desired present and future—something Linc wants rather than something he’s done. Presenting a version of reality as he would like it to be is therefore not a lie, but is instead a possible preview of coming truths, a story he created, which, though fictional, can be made real.
The process through which a lie can foreshadow and even promote real-world transformation can be illuminated by an observation by David Simpson in his essay on “Lying, Liars, and Language.” Simpson writes that “A lie is performed . . . and so succeeds as an act, if there is just mutual manifestation of the speaker’s apparent sincerity; that is, if there is uptake regarding the invocation of trust” (626, italics in original). The efficacy of the lie depends upon the attitude of its receiver, and especially on the development of trust relations with the speaker. For Simpson, the danger of lying is precisely the way that a lie “draws on and abuses the core of interaction and communality” (637), but for Crusie, it seems that some lies—the ones that are, in fact, “previews of coming truths,” as Daisy says—do not abuse interaction and mutuality, but rather offer the premises for a new understanding of reality. This new understanding does not always come easily, given the binary divisions that Crusie establishes between Linc and Nick’s worlds of black-and-white and Daisy and Tess’s worlds of color. Yet precisely because the lie (or story) provokes mis-communication between these characters, it also provokes a productive negotiation over whether or not something is, or is not, a lie. This negotiation moves both parties beyond the “apparent sincerity” and “invocation of trust” at the start of the lie (or story) to a deeper, actual sincerity and a state of mutual trust. The good kind of lie, in Crusie’s account, is a performative act, then, in a slightly different sense of the word: it makes something happen in the world, allowing both parties to shift their frameworks for understanding, and therefore to rethink their own life narratives. It is the storyteller’s role in revealing and resolving these problems of communication that enables the political potential of the romance genre to be expressed.
In both Strange Bedpersons and The Cinderella Deal it is the job of the storyteller to imagine a variety of possibilities and to tell a number of different stories, and though Welch is an exception, throughout much of Crusie’s fiction, storytelling, in particular, and creativity, in general, are most often associated with female characters. Professional authorship, for instance, is depicted in Charity’s foray into novel-writing with her autobiographical Jane Errs in Anyone But You. Tilda in Faking It is an artist, and Quinn in Crazy for You, an art teacher. Even women who don’t make a career of their art or storytelling are often shown to be involved in some form of creative activity. Jessie’s cakes in Manhunting, Sophie and Amy’s film in Welcome to Temptation, Margie’s cookies in Fast Women, Min’s shoes in Bet Me, and Andie’s baking in Maybe This Time all contain elements of creativity. This focus on female creativity in a number of Crusie’s novels recalls what Imelda Whelehan describes as the “creative energies” of the “feminist bestsellers” of the 1970s. In describing the elements that characterise these fictional counterparts of second-wave feminism, Whelehan notes,
[t]hat the women quite often are frustrated artists, writers, or would-be intellectuals makes the point that it is the life of the mind which domestic quietude so often quashes. Creative energies become symbolic of the power of self-determination. (7-8)
The representation of creative heroines such as Daisy positions Crusie’s fictional work in dialogue with these earlier novels in order to rewrite the narrative of the creative woman’s struggle naturalised by these texts. Whereas the heroines of the earlier feminist fiction prototypically saw their creative energies as under threat and stifled by the romance plot, the generic conventions of the romance narrative represent a position of strength rather than struggle for Crusie’s heroines of the ‘90s. The love relationships that develop in Crusie’s novels ultimately enable women to exercise their creative energies because, in coming to understand another’s point of view, they are led to challenge their dogmatic attachment to a single value system. The love match serves to radically unsettle their respective, highly naturalised life stories, and thus to expose the grander cultural narratives to which they have become subjected.
Crusie proposes that this kind of experiential challenge to stereotyped or routinised thinking is one of the principle aims of her conception of feminist fiction. Regardless of whether or not the choices these heroines learn to embrace appear relatively conventional, they are also learning basic principles of creative self-determination. Crusie’s characters are not merely subject to ideology, they are knowingly and willingly complicit with certain aspects of it because it is in their interests to be so. Such complicity is described by the sociologist Stevi Jackson as the “active participation” of the individual in the shaping of their subjectivity:
We create for ourselves a sense of what our emotions are, of what being in love is, through positioning ourselves within discourses, constructing narratives of self, drawing on whatever cultural resources are available to us. This perspective allows us to recognise the constraints of the culture we inhabit while allowing for human agency and therefore avoiding the “cultural dupe” syndrome, of admitting the possibility of both complicity in and resistance to patriarchal relations in the sphere of love. (58)
Crusie’s novels enact the potential for human agency that Jackson accords to all self-conscious participants in the sphere of love. It is this which makes lying such an important part of her fiction because, in many of her novels, what can be seen as a lie from one perspective can be seen as a story from another, and the concept of truth is shown to be relative. Through individual creative energy, represented in much of her fiction as the province of the heroine of the romance narrative, stories which are “unreal but not untrue” are naturalised and made real through a continual process of revision and rewriting that transforms pre-existing monologic narratives into negotiated and mutable constructions of alternative realities.
Crusie represents this process in detail in the developing relationship between Daisy and Linc in The Cinderella Deal. As they get their story straight before heading to Prescott to convince the faculty of their engagement, Daisy and Linc very consciously define the parameters of their relationship by negotiating the facts that will serve as the basis of the story of their life together—what kind of engagement ring Daisy should have, what sort of clothes she should wear, what house they would live in. Daisy, for instance, upon learning that Linc used to play football on a team named the Yellow Jackets, imagines, “We could live in a little cottage called The Hive” (CD, 34). By incorporating details they have experienced into their imagined life, Daisy and Linc distort the distinction between fact and fiction. Their subsequent sharing of their constructed story with the faculty at the college continues this process, further integrating and subtly transforming their individual realities. When Daisy, on a tour of the town, sees a house she loves and an art gallery that features new artists, she has to remind herself, “This is not your story.” But, the narrator comments, “it [was] too late . . . The universe was doing everything but dropping a big sign in front of her that said This is it, this is your next move” (CD, 58 emphasis in original). The transformation of Linc’s reality is signalled by the extent to which he internalises Daisy’s point of view. Though when he moves to Prescott, he thinks he will be there on his own, he holds imaginary arguments with Daisy, justifying his choice to paint all the walls white and to install his sterile and modern chrome and leather furniture in big Victorian rooms: “The really irritating thing about that hadn’t so much been that he caught himself doing it as it was that she’d been winning” (CD, 80). The real power of the storytelling here is not only that it creates new versions of reality, but that it does so by disrupting sterile narratives and introducing a process of internal, dialogic change.
In The Cinderella Deal as stories get continually repeated, they begin to work independently to effect change. Though both Linc and Daisy have their own stories—imagined realities that they invent about what they want their lives to be—they lose control of these individual stories when their mutual story, through its repetition, becomes naturalised. Both try to go back to their individual stories after Linc has got the job at Prescott, but their mutual story is sustained by the others who have heard it, most notably Chickie, the wife of the dean. In fact, the story they created to serve them is co-opted by Chickie, who inserts Daisy into her own story in order to create a version of the world that Chickie prefers. Chickie’s desperate desire for companionship thus surfaces in an imagined reality in which she and Daisy do things together like mother and daughter. Though Daisy doesn’t initially move to Prescott with Linc, Chickie carries on the story they began, convincing Linc to buy the house Daisy liked, leaving her notes about the best places to shop, and making plans for the future that involve her. Through her representation of Chickie, Crusie explores the potential of storytelling to transform the wider community through individual actions. It is Chickie’s own personal investment in the story, its ability to allow her reimagine her own life narrative and sense of self that furthers the integration of Daisy and Linc’s stories with each other and the larger, social narrative of the Prescott community.
The potential these stories have to change the gender politics of the Prescott community can be seen as radical in the way that they destabilize the authority of the lecherous and abusive head of the college, Dean Crawford. However, the effect of Daisy and Linc’s storytelling on the social structures of Prescott is shown to happen incrementally at the level of the everyday. In fact, on one level, the novel can be seen as rather conservative. For instance, the novel seems to enact what Pamela Regis defines, in her exhaustive survey of the elements that comprise the romance genre, as the typical marriage-of-convenience scenario, in which “the vows that the couple has taken create the appearance of commitment before heroine and hero actually commit to each other” (185). By putting the wedding before the declaration of love, Regis notes, the marriage often acts as a “barrier” in the relationship, that is, the “conflict in the novel which keeps the union of the heroine and hero from taking place” (14). Though on the surface, The Cinderella Deal appears to be just another marriage-of-convenience romance novel, again Crusie subverts the conventional or expected structure in order to re-vision the romance novel as a form of feminist fiction. The barrier that is created between Daisy and Linc is not the “appearance of commitment” that forms the stereotypical conflict in the marriage-of-convenience novel. In fact, the opposite is true as Crusie shows how the commitment to appearance makes the relationship real. Ostensibly, Daisy has agreed to live in Linc’s story, and she throws herself wholeheartedly into her role as Daisy Blaise, working hard to become the faculty wife Linc had imagined. But just through her day-to-day social activity, by being neighbourly, making friends, and generally living her life, she gradually begins to change his story, as well as the wider community more generally. As the narrator notes, “Linc wasn’t sure when he first realised he’d lost his grip on his story. The realization came gradually, built up in short encounters” (CD, 153). The marriage, therefore, facilitates the love declaration rather than impeding it and, again contrary to form, the love declaration takes place well before the end of the novel.
Rather than simply being subjected to the constructs of a standardized plot in which their relationship develops, both Daisy and Linc are shown to be actively involved in the process of plotting. These characters are not, in Jackson’s words, “cultural dupes,” but are perfectly capable of both comprehending and rewriting their own meta-narratives. As a professional storyteller, Daisy, in particular, is fully aware of the performative power of storytelling. In her life, as well as in her storytelling career, Daisy frequently invents stories that, like Linc’s, project an imagined and desired reality. Having quit her teaching job to concentrate on her art, Daisy often struggles to pay her bills, and whenever she gets too worried about money, she tells herself “the story of her new life, the one she’d been building for the past four years” in which “the next chapter would be her paintings finally selling, and maybe her storytelling career suddenly taking off too. And a prince would be good” (CD, 11). Though she wishes for a prince to rescue her, she also realises the emptiness of desires based on little more than culturally sanctioned ideals. “Forget the prince,” she tells herself. “Stories were all well and good, but princes weren’t stories, they were impossible” (CD, 12).
Daisy’s distinction between stories and princes is in fact a distinction between story and fantasy. As in her rejection of the critical hierarchy that associated the romance genre with fantasy in “Romance and Reality,” Crusie suggests in these early novels that the crucial difference between a story and fantasy is that stories can be made to refashion the world while fantasy is the expression of another’s desires. That is, a story is something which, though not immediately real, can exist at some point in the future because it represents an expression of an individual’s desires. A fantasy, on the other hand, expresses a cultural ideal, a universal “truth” that relies a monologic narrative. The danger of fantasy, Crusie implies, is that members of society may be led to commit themselves to abstract, isolated, narratives because they do not take an active part in constructing them. Crusie suggests instead a process through which an individual’s reality is generated by the perpetual process of telling and retelling stories about oneself. This is a creative, inherently messy process, one that is subject to constant re-visioning. After all, this is not a Cinderella story in which the heroine waits in the ashes to be rescued by the prince, but a Cinderella deal in which both characters rescue each other through a series of negotiations addressing and readdressing the various imagined realities of each.
Crusie explores this distinction between fantasy and reality in detail in the opening scene of What the Lady Wants. In this scene, she draws on idealised characterisation derived from two of the most strongly gendered of genres, noir and romance, in order to explore the viability of such exaggerated stereotypes. In order to do so, she introduces sharp, distinct changes in point-of-view that portray the same action from both Mae’s and Mitch’s perspective. Crusie’s long-standing interest in the gendering of narrative forms, attested to by her original PhD research on women’s narrative strategies and, more recently, by her collaboration with Bob Mayer on the novels Don’t Look Down (2006), Agnes and the Hitman (2007), and Wild Ride (2010) is fully exercised in this scene. The he said/she said structure sets up a gendered generic tension between noir and romance that is mirrored in the stereotypes that Mae and Mitch imagine for themselves and each other. In preparing for her first meeting with Mitch, Mae dons the costume of the hypersexual, hyperfeminine femme fatale. She dresses in a tight pink suit, mysterious veil, and stiletto heels, and imagines that the simple act of outwardly conforming to expected appearances will ensure the successful enactment of noir’s paradigmatic male/female relationship. In other words, “He’d patronize her because she was female. She’d play him like a piano” (WLW, 7). Similarly, Mitch imagines his own noir scenario in which, as the “Sam Spade of the nineties,” he takes advantage of the femme fatale’s sexual promise, but outwits her attempts to manipulate him (WLW, 9).
Before they actually meet, both characters create elaborate fictions about themselves and about each other based on generic expectations of the masculine narrative form of noir. But reality turns out to be much more complex as neither conform to the stereotypes they create. Mitch, the successful-stockbroker-turned-detective-on-a-bet, is not Sam Spade or the dumb, dead-beat loser Mae wants him to be. And though Mae looks the part of the femme fatale, her skirt’s too tight, her heels too high, and her veil is “dumb” (WLW, 8). More importantly, though, the noir fantasy is obliterated when Mae speaks. “If she’d just kept her mouth shut,” Mitch thinks, “she would have been perfect, but no . . .” (WLW, 11). The romance genre comes in for equal scrutiny when, in Mae’s initial assessment of Mitch, she describes him as “solidly male, with that broad-shouldered, non-gold-chain-wearing, let-me-lift-that-car-for-you-lady kind of doofus sexiness that made women think that maybe they’d been too hasty with the liberation movement” (WLW, 14). In this fantasy Mitch is the strong, take-charge, knight-in-shining-armour kind of a guy who is regularly imagined as the stereotypical romantic hero—the kind of guy Mae thinks she needs to help her find her uncle’s diary. However, her image of the romantic hero also evaporates when Mitch speaks, and she too wishes, “If he’d just kept his mouth shut. . .”(WLW, 15). In this effective parody of generic conventions, Crusie subjects the idealised constructs of openly gendered genres to “Reality. Nature’s downer,” and shows them to be incapable of withstanding the introduction of the actual voice (WLW, 11). When the person speaks—a moment in which he or she acts upon the world and other people that surround them—the fantasy dissolves. Fantasy, whether romantic or noir, is repeatedly shown to be untenable for Crusie’s self-determining protagonists as, time and time again, experiential reality intrudes, requiring them to revise their expectations.
Thus, while romantic and other fantasies become harmful when passively adopted, within Crusie’s fiction they are obstacles to be surmounted, and can be seen as one of the narrative resources that characters share, reject, and manipulate in the course of a complex process of self-realisation. Her characters become more rather than less anxious, more prone to self-doubt and internal conflict, because their experience of other people, and especially their potential partners, obliges them to reconsider established, essentialised, and naturalised conceptions of identity. The trick, for Mae, Mitch, and others, is to become comfortable with the contingency this introduces into their lives and adept at the dynamic and reactive processes of self-determination it induces. Sometimes, such as when Mae develops a plan to escape her uncles’ control, Crusie’s protagonists take a much more active responsibility for these processes. Mae’s plan, a paradigmatic example of feminist self-determination, is to use the money to escape the stifling control exerted upon her life by her three overbearing uncles. However, in the terms of the structure of the romance genre, it also serves as the basis around which the romantic relationship at the centre of the novel develops by bringing her to Mitch’s office. Thus, it provides the catalyst for legitimation of the existing social order through marriage, and therefore appears to reflect quite closely the criticism that romance novels serve the function of drawing transgressive female subject positions reassuringly back into the patriarchal fold. By ultimately leading to her marriage, her defiant attempts to control her own future, to escape the influence of her three domineering patriarchs, and to make her dream of self-reliant independence come true, are seemingly “placed within wider controlling narratives that normalise their deviance” (Fowler, 97).
But, as their forays into fantasy in the opening scene demonstrate, Mae and Mitch are shown to have an understanding of such narratives. Through this representation of self-conscious participation in narrative construction, Mitch and Mae exert control over the narrative of their romance and their own roles within it, avoiding the “cultural dupe” syndrome. Thus, Mitch’s assurance to Mae that “Everybody lies, Mabel. Everybody but us” is more than just a moment of sentimental closure in which Mitch and Mae set themselves apart from the world as a couple (WLW, 217). Crusie here holds up to scrutiny the critical commonplace concerning the romance genre which suggests that the consummation of the love relationship simply re-enacts a “truth” that has been obscured all along by the various plot obstacles, what Regis defines as the “barriers” between the heroine and hero (32). In Mitch’s revision of his favourite catchphrase, Crusie makes clear that he and Mae are not simply subject to fictional conventions that destine them to be together but throw up barriers against this outcome. They consciously adopt a perspective that switches the world-weary essentialism typified by the “everybody lies” motif, for one which acknowledges the constructed nature of the romance narrative. This is a point that Crusie has made repeatedly throughout these early novels; according her characters the expertise to interpret and rethink romantic conventions, she also gives them the opportunity to select their romantic narratives rather than simply become subject to them. On one level, Mitch’s moment of re-visioning reads as the clichéd enactment of an us-against-the-world mentality, but by recalling so deliberately Mitch’s earlier cynicism, Crusie transforms this romantic convention into a succinct iteration of the possibilities of a knowing and self-conscious understanding of such clichés. This is the great positive that Crusie draws from the romance genre: romance is enabling for those individuals who knowingly participate in it.
Thus, throughout this fiction, Crusie draws on the close kinship between lying and storytelling in order to project a new model of romance fiction as “feminist fiction.” By associating the telling of stories with the telling of lies, Crusie explores the way in which stories can retell and thus reorient essentialist and monologic social ideologies. In this way, many of her early novels from the mid-1990s form a coherent counter-argument to the prevailing condemnation of the romance genre that characterised critical writing of the 1980s and early ‘90s, especially such influential works as Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance and Tania Modleski’s Loving With a Vengence. This is not to say that after the late ‘90s this disappears from her fiction. Right up to Bet Me (2004), her last single-authored text before she began her collaborative writing project with Bob Mayer, Crusie continued to explore the process through the rejection of an naturalised perspective could transform lies into stories. One small example will illustrate this. In Bet Me, the heroine, Min, participates in what she sees as the lie of Cal’s attraction to her because she wants to be with him, but she struggles to maintain this constructed reality:
Min stepped down off the platform and went to him, loving the way his arms went around her, trying not to think about how fat she must feel under his hands, and then he kissed her hard, and she sighed against him, grateful to have him even if she didn’t know why he wanted her.
Nope, never, that was not it, she believed in him. (Bet Me, 263-64)
Min’s understanding of the “truth” has been determined by a number of naturalised stories concerning her body. The principal one, that she is fat, has been repeatedly foisted upon her by the novel’s spokesperson for conventional female attractiveness, her mother. As one of the most influential women in Min’s life, her mother’s constant refrains, that if Min doesn’t lose weight, no man will ever be attracted to her and that certain hairstyles and clothes don’t suit her fat figure, have a controlling influence on how Min views reality.
In response to Min’s unquestioning acceptance of this narrow image of female beauty, Cal attempts to reorient Min’s physical identity by exchanging her negative euphemisms for “fat” for more positive expressions:
Cal put his fork down. “All right. Here’s the truth. You’re never going to thin. You’re a round woman. You have wide hips and a round stomach and full breasts. You’re. . .”
“Healthy,” Min said bitterly.
“Lush,” Cal said, watching the gentle rise and fall of her breasts under her sweatshirt.
“Generous,” Min snarled.
“Opulent,” Cal said, remembering the soft curve of her under his hand.
“Zaftig,” Min said.
“Soft and round and hot, and I’m turning myself on,” Cal said, starting to feel dizzy. (Bet Me, 126)
In retelling the story of Min’s “fatness,” Cal produces a positive response to repressive stereotypes concerning the female body by recasting it in linguistic terms. By locating the basis of Min’s self-image in the realm of language rather than the body, Cal helps Min see beyond the restricted and monologic world-view with which she has been inculcated. In revising and rewriting the story of her attractiveness, Cal and Min re-configure Min’s body and effect change through the process of storytelling rather than losing weight.
By dramatising the stories people tell and the means through which these stories can effect change, Crusie demonstrates the radical potential of active participation in the everyday and revisioning of the real. The promised marriage at the end of the novel, the “happily-ever-after,” therefore, does not signal the end of the story, but represents the integration of the negotiated relationship into the community. In Bet Me, when Min questions what happens after the happily ever after, Cal’s reply that “we’re going to take it one day at a time” signifies the continuing dynamism of the relationship (Bet Me, 333). Such dynamism is demonstrated in the reappearance of Tess and Nick from Strange Bedpersons in What the Lady Wants. Though Mitch comments that Tess and Nick’s marriage is like “Tinker Bell marrying Donald Trump,” Tess’s reply that “No, no, he’s doing better. . . He put his feet on the furniture the other day,” intimates the way in which the relationship continues to develop after the novel finishes (<WLW, 106). In recalling her earlier novel, Crusie playfully provides for the cynical, commitment phobic Mitch an exemplary model of what a healthy dynamic romantic relationship might look like after the “happily ever after.” In prompting Mitch to think that “Maybe commitment wouldn’t be so bad if it was like this,” the example of Tess and Nick demonstrates the positive lessons that can be derived from the best romance fiction (SB, 106). For Crusie, the representation of an ideal relationship has little to do with its adherence to cultural norms or to their active subversion and critique: genuine partnership takes place in the course of a perpetual interplay of beliefs, anxieties, and half-formed desires, whose resolution cannot and should not be hoped for.
Crusie, Jennifer. The Cinderella Deal. New York: Bantam Books, 1996.
—.“Defeating the Critics: What Can We Do About the Anti-Romance Bias.” Romance Writer’s Report 18.6 (1998), pp. 38-39.
—. “Let Us Now Praise Scribbling Women.” Inside Borders (March 1998).
—. “Romancing Reality: The Power of Romance Fiction to Reinforce and Re-Vision the Real.” Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres 3.1-2 (1997), pp. 81-93.
—. Strange Bedpersons. Don Mills, Ont.: MIRA, 1995.
—. “This Is Not Your Mother’s Cinderella: The Romance Novel As Feminist Fairy Tale.” Romantic Conventions. Ed. Anne Kaler and Rosemary Johnson-Kurek. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green Press, 1998.
—. What the Lady Wants. Don Mills, Ont.: MIRA, 1995.
—. “You Go, Romance Writer: Changing Public Opinion.” Romance Writer’s Report 18.1 (1998), pp. 45-37.
Fowler, Bridget. “Literature Beyond Modernism: Middlebrow and Popular Romance.” Romance Revisited. Ed. Lynne Pearce and Jackie Stacey. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1995. 89-99.
Jackson, Stevie. “Women and Heterosexual Love: Complicity, Resistance and Change.” Romance Revisited. Ed. Lynne Pearce and Jackie Stacey. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1995. 49-62.
Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.
Simpson, David. “Lying, Liars, and Language.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 52 (1992), pp. 623-39.
Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. Social Theory: Its Situation and Its Task. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Vonk, Roos, and Richard D. Ashmore. “Thinking About Gender Types: Cognitive Organization of Female and Male Types.” British Journal of Social Psychology 42 (2003), pp. 257-280.
Whelehan, Imelda. The Feminist Bestseller: From Sex and the Single Girl to Sex and the City. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
 For a discussion of the critical rejection of the romance novel see Regis, esp. pp. xi-xii and 3-16.
 Interestingly, the way lies are represented in the co-authored fiction is very different. In the books co-written with Bob Mayer, lying is not ambiguous, but rather more straightforwardly wrong as it becomes associated with issues of trust.
As Crusie’s romantic leads evolve from chasing the con (Trust Me on This), to abandoning the con (Welcome to Temptation), to embracing the con (Faking It), they highlight the ways in which romance is like a con and the sometimes slippery distinctions between these two kinds of intimate, interpersonal relationships. The outcomes of both romantic relationships and con games depend on trust and trustworthiness, intention toward the other person, and ability to deliver on promises made. To highlight these elements is to call into question aspects of the romance novel that have come to be considered categorical absolutes, notably the “declaration” of love, identified as one of the eight essential elements of the genre by Pamela Regis in A Natural History of the Romance Novel. How can characters or readers trust a declaration of love made by a con artist who has a pattern of lying to both family and friends? More important, do readers trust such a declaration, or are they just charmed by the writers and the generic promises of romance?
To talk about Crusie and the con is to enter into at least three existing critical conversations. First, Crusie’s writing is of interest to romance scholars, as this edition of JPRS attests. Herself a literary critic as well as a novelist, Crusie has weighed in on the long-standing debate of whether romances are “bad” for readers or “good” for readers (see, for example, Radway, Modeleski, Krentz et al, Regis, Crusie herself). My consideration of the con in Crusie’s work, and my argument that the exchange between romance writer and romance reader itself resembles a con, focuses on the agency of the reader in the exchange, on her willing participation in this literary shell game. If we extend the conversation beyond the moral debate, the author’s intent, or the text’s effect, we can consider more completely the reader’s role in constructing the meaning and negotiating the impact of the text.
The second conversation that informs this study of Crusie’s cons is research that has been conducted by communication scholars and those who study criminal justice. Con games rely on old and established patterns of interpersonal behavior like flattery and concession, well documented in a variety of scholarly and practical publications. I rely on several of these sources to illustrate the criminal behavior and highlight the precise parallels between a con and a romance.
Finally, Crusie’s con artist characters are part of a tradition in American literature, most famously dramatized in Herman Melville’s last novel, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857). Although Crusie alludes to that story and its steamboat setting in the opening lines of Trust Me on This, her con artist characters are more in the spirit of Horatio Alger, Jr.’s Ragged Dick (1868). Karen Halttunen identifies this character as part of a late nineteenth-century shift, when the figure of the confidence man changed from threat to model. She argues that “Dick’s rise depends on three qualities new to American success ideology: aggressiveness, charm, and the arts of the confidence man” (202). In the three Crusie novels about cons, there is only one con man who plays the part of a (not very villainous) villain. Instead, “aggressiveness, charm, and the arts of the confidence man” are apt descriptors of the romantic heroes and heroines in the novels.
As the characters who con become increasingly central to the romance story, their paths to Happily Ever After endings are complicated by the shifting terrain of trust, intent, and capacity. In fact, the very qualities that make a character a capable con artist make him or her unlikely to be successful in other, more lasting interpersonal relationships. To trust that such characters will arrive at their HEA regardless of such history or tendencies may be a well-established genre expectation, but it also requires a reader response well worth our critical attention.
Part I: Trust Me on This–Chasing the Con
As its title suggests, Crusie’s 1997 Bantam “Loveswept” novel Trust Me on This examines the ways that trust is essential to a Happily Ever After ending in a romance. If hero and heroine can learn to trust each other, the novel hypothesizes, they are well on their way to their HEA. Only in its broadest strokes, however, does the novel support that reading. The devilish details suggest instead that the appearance, statements, actions, and intentions of the “heroic” couples and the “villainous” one are disconcertingly similar. According to one criminal investigator, “Successful con artists are charming, manipulative, and able to exploit the innate trust and greed of many people.” By that definition, protagonists Dennie Banks and Alec Prentice, as well as their “sidekicks” Harry and Victoria, are as guilty of conning as the alleged con artist in the novel. All four of those characters are rewarded with a happy ending, though none of them is unconditionally trustworthy.
Crusie’s heroine, Dennie Banks, is a reporter trying to get a story, and her hero, Alec Prentice, is an undercover cop trying to get the conman. Alec attends a literary conference taking place, with a nod to Melville’s Confidence-Man, at the “Riverbend Queen Hotel,”hoping to catch Brian Bond, a con artist who is there to perpetrate what seems to be a real estate scheme. Alec also hopes to apprehend the mysterious brunette who is Bond’s partner in crime. Interestingly, there is initially nothing in Alec’s appearance, actions, or statements that would encourage Dennie to trust him. His manner and appearance are much like those of Brian “Bondman,” the name the con man uses in this caper. His interest in Dennie stems primarily from his suspicion that she is the “mysterious Brunette” who often helps Bond perpetrate his schemes. In his effort to trap, or entrap, Bond, the romantic hero lies to the heroine, the villain, and several secondary characters, charming and manipulating them all into a situation where Bond is likely to step across a criminal line.
Likewise, Dennie’s trustworthiness is frequently called into question, despite her ostensible role as the novel’s romantic heroine. Her appearance is not a reliable indicator of her trustworthiness; her brunette hair makes her fit the description of Bonds’ partner-in-crime. Furthermore, Dennie changes her clothes to change her appearance of reliability, choosing a gray suit to be “serious” and showing cleavage when she’s trying to manipulate someone. Neither are Dennie’s thoughts and actions trustworthy. Dennie fakes a personal interest in Alec to secure an introduction to his aunt; she fakes a personal interest in Bonds to encourage his fraudulent behavior.
The blurred lines between heroic and criminal behavior continue down to the level of the secondary characters. The conman, Brian Bond, spends most of the novel telling the truth: he is sincerely romantically (or at least sexually) interested in Dennie and he really does have some land in Florida to sell. By contrast, Alec’s Aunt Victoria, initially a model of forthright speech, eventually joins Dennie in the series of falsehoods and lies that will lure conman Brian Bond into a legal trap. Victoria also lies to her would-be suitor Donald, a secondary character whose only purpose in the novel is twice to play the gullible, romantic fool. Victoria expresses a romantic interest in him when she in fact sees no such potential; instead, her objective is to enhance the trap that Alex and Harry are setting for Bonds.
Because the romantic principals do not trust each other for much of the novel, and are not reliably trustworthy for the rest of it, their potential for a happy romantic ending actually comes to rest on their intent. Alec and Dennie address this issue explicitly more than halfway through the novel, as it is clear that Dennie still does not trust Alec.
“Do you think I’m a crook?” Alec smiled his open, honest boyish smile at her.
“I think you could be.” Dennie stared back, unsmiling. “I think you’d probably do just about anything if you thought the reason was right. And I haven’t known you long enough to know what reasons you think are right.”
Once Dennie understands Alec’s reasons for his behavior, she does come to trust him. For his part, Alec learns to trust Dennie when she finally joins him in Chicago to marry him and live with him after she has the career success she has been pursuing all along.
Trust Me on This serves as a good introduction to the discussion of the shared ground between a romance and a con. It posits and then dismisses the idea that trust is easy to give or to come by. It rejects the notion that trustworthiness can be ascertained by appearance, actions, or statements, and insists that trust is only established once characters know each other well enough to ascertain intent, an issue fundamental to Crusie’s next con novel, Welcome to Temptation.
Trust Me on This likewise raises the issue of the reader’s response in accepting the supposition that situational trustworthiness and honorable intent are necessary to secure a happy ending, even in the world of a romance novel. Brian Bond, for example, goes to jail at the end of the novel, despite the fact that he turns out to have been behaving in a trustworthy manner and had, in this case, honorable intentions, until Dennie bared enough cleavage to entrap him into lying to her and promising something he could not legally deliver. His erstwhile assistant Sherée, in contrast, goes free and seems rewarded for her stupidity and mendacity by a new relationship with a man who will “take care of her” (Victoria’s silly but sincere suitor Donald). Is the reader’s sense of justice not engaged in her reading of the novel? Is it served well enough by the happy endings doled out to the two romantic leads and their loved ones? Is the reader’s pleasure instead in the seeming irony in the details of the ending? In these complications and contradictions Crusie’s novel asks not the question of what the reader’s response might be, by why she might respond the way she does to the various outcomes of the novel.
Part II: Welcome to Temptation—Abandoning the Con
Crusie’s single-title release Welcome to Temptation (2000) includes a hero who is trusting and trustworthy, while the heroine, for most of the novel, is neither. In terms of a discussion of the parallels between romance and a con, Crusie’s inclusion of a con artist as one of the romantic principals complicates the question of trust and suggests that it is not as essential to romance as it might seem. As they were in Trust Me on This, issues of trust in this novel are ultimately trumped by the question of intent. In the later novel, however, the happy ending depends not on clarifying characters’ intents but in changing them.
The romantic hero is Phineas T. Tucker, the mayor of a small Ohio town, who has very little to hide. The heroine, Sophie Dempsey, has by contrast very little she is willing to reveal. Phin is a life-long resident of Temptation, who has reluctantly followed in the footsteps of his great-grandfather, his grandfather, and his father in serving as mayor, despite the fact that he would rather be spending time with his daughter Dillie, working in his bookstore, or playing pool. Sophie and her sister Amy are makers of wedding videos who have come to Temptation to make a “comeback” film for a former resident, Clea Whipple, who used to star in porn films and B-movies and used to be married to Sophie and Amy’s brother Davy. When Amy and Sophie end up on the wrong side of a town ordinance prohibiting the filming of porn, Sophie and Phin’s burgeoning relationship is threatened by her uncertain allegiances and the damage to his reputation as mayor. The conflict is resolved when Sophie charms and cons the town council and populace, restores Phin’s reputation, and agrees to stay in Temptation and marry him.
Issues of trust and intent are predictably crucial in a romance between a con artist and an upstanding mayor. Sophie arrives in Temptation intending to go straight, but she’s quickly sucked into her sister Amy’s agenda to make a (possibly illegal) soft-porn film and to exploit the participants by simultaneously shooting a documentary about the filmmaking. Sophie’s relationship with Phin begins as one of satisfying, casual sex, so she does not have many qualms about using their real-life dealings and dialog as fodder for her film script. Having previously been burned by the rich scions of Small Town, USA, Sophie neither trusts Phin nor expects him to trust her. Further, Sophie is hardly unique in her lack of full disclosure; at one point in the novel, Phin observes to his friend the police chief Wes Mazur that everyone is lying to him (including Phin himself). In short, almost no one in town is entirely trustworthy. Because the sheer number of lies and liars negates temporarily the issue of trust, the crucial qualities of the characters become instead one of intent: what are their reasons for lying? The reasons are as varied as the characters—self-defense, sex, money, political gain, family, love— but only the last two are ultimately established as acceptable reasons.
From the start Sophie is a somewhat capable if reluctant con. She deploys her share of the family’s gift for the game in order to protect herself, her sister, and later her brother. As her feelings for Phin change and grow, so do her conflicts. Phin says with certainty that Sophie isn’t playing him, when in fact she is. When a disgruntled citizen broadcasts the soft-porn film Sophie and her sister have made, Phin confronts her about her lying, and about the fact that she used some of their conversations for dialogue in the film:
“You’re not supposed to betray the people you sleep with,” Phin said.
“By the time I realized there might be something to betray, it was too late,” Sophie said. “I owed Amy, too. And we didn’t think anybody would ever know.”
If Sophie’s trustworthiness were the first and last issue, this confrontation might well signal the end of the relationship. Instead, the novel introduces the relevance of intent. Phin ultimately recognizes that Sophie has been lying to him to protect her siblings; his own inclinations have been to protect his family, including his meddling mother. Sophie’s Happily Ever After is a result of her willingness to redefine her family, to abandon her siblings to their own devices, and to make Phin and his daughter the family she’ll do anything to protect. She reassures Phin as she decides to take his name, and his “Tucker for Mayor” posters, that there is “Nothing but good times ahead.” After watching the lengths to which Sophie will go to protect those she loves, readers leave the novel reassured that Phin and Dillie, as well as most of the town of Temptation, are in the slightly shifty hands of a woman who wants the best for them, and is likely to be able to deliver.
Sophie and Phin have both been intensely loyal to their families of origin, so their happiness seems secured when they shift that loyalty to the new family they will form with each other and Phin’s daughter Dillie. Even Sophie’s brother, who benefited from his older sister’s protection, encourages this shift: “Listen to me: Marry the mayor and keep the dog and live happily ever after in this house. That’s what you want. Forget about me and Amy and go for it.” With her brother’s blessing, Sophie does shift her allegiance to Phin and his daughter and her newly-adopted town. The novel rewards not her trustworthiness but her good intentions.
As if to accentuate the fact that trustworthiness is not enough and intentions are what dictate outcomes in the fictional world of Temptation, even Phin, who has been trustworthy throughout, must reconsider his intentions. His loyalty to his mother must be tempered if he and Sophie are to build a successful and independent family unit.
“She’s corrupted you,” Liz said, almost spitting in her frustration. “She’s—”
“Well, it runs in her family,” Phin said. “The rest of your grandchildren are going to be half-degenerate.”
Phin nodded at her sympathetically. “Yeah, I have to marry her. I’m sorry, Mom. I know this wasn’t what you had planned. Any last words before you disown me?”
Liz’s initial reaction may be one of intense distrust and concern, but she too is able to shift her loyalties to include Sophie once she understands that Sophie has been the target of another town matriarch who has been trying to clear the way for her own daughter to marry Phin. She warns Virginia Garvey, “Don’t ever come after my family again,” and then adds, “And that includes Sophie.”
In an overall analysis of the parallels between romance and con in terms of trust, intent, and ability, Welcome to Temptation makes a strong case for the importance of the characters’ intents. Sophie comes from a family of cons and will probably always be somewhat of a con, but once her schemes are used to help Phin and the town, the fact that she is usually lying or misleading seems to stop being an obstacle to her Happily Ever After. The final scene of the novel includes Phin’s proposal and Sophie’s agreement to marry him, but that standard element of the genre segues quickly into Sophie’s decision to become a politician and run for mayor once Phin retires. With an eye toward the four thousand Tucker for Mayor posters still available, Sophie announces
“I think I’ll take your name,” she said, smiling up at him sweetly. “Sophie Dempsey Tucker. It sounds…” She looked at the ring again. “…powerful.”
“Why do I have a bad feeling about this?” Phin said, and she said, “Because your life just changed, but it’s okay. You can trust me.”
This exchange captures several con elements that might well undermine Sophie’s assertion in the last line of the book, “Nothing but good times ahead.” A married woman could be expected to take her husband’s name, but a con artist also changes her name to suit her purposes. Phin is at least somewhat uncomfortable with Sophie’s oblique reference to some future plans, a reminder that she had lied to and manipulated him through most of their courtship. Sophie’s acknowledgement that Phin’s life has drastically changed is quickly followed by her reassurance that he can trust her, but on what would that trust be based? For Phin, and for Crusie’s readers, to believe that there are nothing but good times ahead for these two characters requires them to accept Sophie’s word and/or to believe that she has changed as much, and even more, than he has.
Part III: Faking It—Embracing the Con
In the sequel to Welcome to Temptation, Crusie takes the romance/con connections one twist further. She has established by the outcomes of the two earlier books that even a romance hero or heroine may not be entirely trustworthy when it comes to what he or she says or does; she has argued, by way of granting limited “Happily Ever Afters,” that love and family are the best of the good intentions. In Faking It (2002), she introduces the Goodnights, who revisit all those same questions and add one crucial question more: does the character have the ability to deliver on the promises that he or she has made? Because Sophie and Phin had demonstrated their abilities to keep their promises to their families of origin, no matter how misguided those promises may have been, the ways in which their romance was a con are presumably curtailed once they are each other’s first loyalty. Faking It presents some characters for whom that presumption falls flat.
In the newly-introduced Tilda Goodnight and her love interest Davy Dempsey (Sophie’s brother), readers find a heroine/hero pair who are suspicious of everyone, for very good reasons. Each has something—in fact, many things—to hide. Further, they, like some of the characters in Crusie’s previous work, seem better off establishing some healthy boundaries from their families of origins rather than falling into martyr roles that would have them protect the family at too much cost to themselves. The way each character must determine his or her loyalties going forward, raises, as it did in Temptation, the issue of intent. Finally, Davy and Tilda have been playing their con games for so long, they are unwilling or unable (or both) to stop. Their relationship—both emotional and sexual—works best when they embrace their own, and each other’s, authentic selves, complete with criminal pasts and a penchant for performative play. The end of the novel, which acknowledges their mutual shiftiness even as it posits a Happy Ever After ending, calls in to question whether these characters have the ability to keep the promises they will make.
Davy and Tilda’s paths first cross when they are both chasing Clea Whipple. Tilda is trying to recover a painting she forged, Davy is trying to recover some money Clea took, and they work together to recover the other five “Scarlet” paintings so Tilda can put her fraudulent past to rest. Davy moves in with Tilda and the Goodnights initially to be close to Clea, but he eventually stays because of his affection for them and his inclination to be their protector.
Taking literally the old con cliché of “honor among thieves,” Crusie establishes trust between Davy and Tilda in the opening scene of the novel when they simultaneously break into the house where Clea is staying, Tilda to get her painting, Davy to get his money. Tilda kisses Davy and asks him to steal the painting for her, but importantly she does both in the anonymity of a dark closet. He moves her physically into the light before he agrees to the crime, but the metaphor only serves to accentuate how little about Tilda can actually be “seen” at this stage of the story. Tilda is disconcerted when Davy follows her home, but she continues to trust him with her agenda of acquiring all the Scarlet Hodge paintings, without revealing to him that she is the artist/forger. Davy initially will not disclose his criminal agenda at all. Their second “breaking and entering” adventure includes another closeted kiss, but it culminates in an unsatisfying sexual encounter back at the gallery/apartment building where Tilda is, as the title forecasts, “faking it.”
As partners in crime who trust each other as much as they trust anyone, Davy and Tilda embark on a series of performances to con or steal back the six Scarlet Hodge paintings. But the performances themselves serve ironically to reveal the various truths of Tilda. As she takes on the roles of the sexy Vilma, the sweet Celeste, the talented Scarlet, the shy Betty, the virago Veronica, she is actually showing, rather than hiding, aspects of her personality. Tilda’s sister Eve serves as a foil in this respect as she has two separate personalities: “Eve,” Nadine’s mild, schoolteacher mother, and “Louise,” the erotic singer who performs at her gay ex-husband’s nightclub. Eve/Louise makes clear that a healthy relationship is not about having multiple personalities, as both of her romances end painfully (her marriage, and her fling with Davy’s friend Simon). Instead, Crusie argues through the implications of these various performances, a healthy relationship seems to depend on the partners’ ability to embrace—both literally and figuratively—all of the existing and developing facets of the person they love. In Davy and Tilda’s relationship, that success is dramatized by their last and best sexual interaction, on the bed Tilda has painted in “Scarlet’s” style, as Tilda regales Davy with family tales from a long tradition of art and fraud, “naked and unashamed.” In this scene Tilda finds the self-confidence to reveal everything, and Davy accepts and loves her not in spite of those long-hidden depths but, in many ways, because of them.
Because Crusie establishes “trust” among these thieves so quickly, that element of their relationship does not function according to romance genre expectations. Both Tilda and Davy seem to give and take trust on credit they have not yet earned with each other. Crusie also complicates the question of “intent” in this novel, calling attention to the power of charm, and the need to distinguish somehow between charm and a con. Davy’s father, Michael Dempsey, provides a foil for Davy in this regard as he, like Davy, needs a place to stay and establishes a “romantic” relationship to secure lodging. While Michael is presumably having sex with building resident and painter Dorcas Finsterto secure a place to sleep, Davy is not having sex with Tilda in order to acquire the same. Michael is a charmer who cons people to get what he wants, and the Goodnights recognize those qualities quickly. Gwen acknowledges that Michael would probably “sell everything they have including [the dog] and then leave with the money.” Crusie uses limited omniscience as this novel’s narrative voice, so any character assessment of Michael is based on what he says and does, and on the other characters’ opinions of him. Readers gain no additional information and Gwen’s assessment of Michael proves accurate.
In contrast, Davy’s intentions are revealed by his thoughts, which the narrator does provide. At one point after he has established himself at the gallery and among the family he thinks, “This family needs a keeper,” and he proceeds to fill that role. While Michael secretly takes money, Davy secretly gives money, paying off the mortgage on the building to free Gwen and Tilda and Eve from that responsibility and restriction.
On multiple occasions, Davy’s intentions seem unarguably good, which is why his argument with Tilda over whether or not to tell Simon that Eve and Louise are the same person raises such effective questions about the value of intent.
“Face it,” Tilda said. “You want to tell him because it’s the right thing for you to do, not the right thing for him to hear.”
Davy frowned at her. “So I’m a selfish bastard for wanting to do the right thing.”
“Yes,” Tilda said.
“I know that’s wrong.” Davy stood up. “Let me get back to you on why.”
“Well, until then, keep your mouth shut,” Tilda said. “You honest people can make life hell for everybody else.”
This exchange highlights a variety of ways that Crusie is complicating concepts like trust and intent, and consequently subverting the expectations of genre romance. First, Tilda’s instructions for Davy to “Face it” resonate nicely with the title’s suggestion to “fake it,” which is exactly what Davy will need to do if he keeps this knowledge from his best friend. Often in this novel, “faking it” is an efficient idea and sometimes even a moral one. Second, Tilda suggests that doing the right thing might not always lead to the right result; that the truth, in cases like this, is not always welcome. This subversion of a seeming good, like “truth,” suggests a rather complicated morality. Tilda’s assertions here seem valid for two reasons: in this scene, Davy cannot rebut them; and in a later scene, Tilda’s prediction about Simon’s reaction to the “truth” about Eve/Louise proves accurate and heartbreaking. Finally, Tilda is encouraging Davy to “keep [his] mouth shut,” in order to spare others pain. In a genre that may be assumed to expect truth and declarations, this exchange nicely constructs the possibility of a greater good, and one that is far more difficult to achieve and maintain.
In Faking It, Davy is one of a series of characters in a variety of situations whose good intentions are doomed. Gwen’s intention to protect the family and the gallery has actually kept her and her daughters trapped in unfulfilling lives. The Giordano/Goodnight family ancestors intended to leave valuable fakes for their descendents’ profits, but those locked-up paintings are actually a major source of Tilda’s pain. Nadine may intend to follow in her progenitors’ footsteps and choose a career that can take care of the family, but those paths are not choices that any of the people who love her would be happy to see her make.
Crusie’s con novels all interrogate whether characters have good intentions and whether good intentions lead to good outcomes, questions which seem more suitable to ascertaining whether someone has been conned than whether a romance will succeed. The lying, greedy assistant to the villain of Trust Me on This is rewarded by a relationship (however unsatisfying to the other characters or the reader) which perfectly fulfills her desire to be taken care of by a wealthy man. Sophie Dempsey’s good intention in Temptation, specifically to protect her siblings from their own suspicious behavior, leads to seeming disaster before she begins to effectively use her conning skills to help Phin instead. Michael Dempsey has the best of intentions when it comes to visiting Sophie and meeting his grandson, but every involved character, except for him, clearly sees how such a visit could be ruinous.
In his desire to have close relationships with his grown children, Michael Dempsey manifests the final, telling parallel between romance and a con: he is incapable of realizing that kind of relationship. Whether characters are trusting or trustworthy, whether their actions and iterations are sincere, and whatever their intentions might be, they have to be able to “deliver the goods.” If they cannot, because they do not own the land they are selling or because they are making interpersonal promises they will not be able to keep, there can be no “Happily Ever After.” Although he is a secondary character in the Dempsey character stories, Michael serves a crucial role, and he may be the best indicator of the work the reader is doing in crafting her response to the romance and its standards. Like the grown Dempsey children, Michael believes himself trustworthy to his family, though not to strangers. He intends to love and support his children, although references to their unsettled childhood provide evidence to the contrary. Most important, Michael Dempsey lacks the ability to sustain any of the good impulses he may feel. When he heads to Temptation to see Sophie, Davy calls her husband Phin to intervene:
Phin picked up.
“What’s wrong?” he said. “Dillie says it’s an emergency.”
“It is,” Davy said. “Dad figured out where you are. He’s heading your way. Hold the fort until I get there and remove him. Do not let him alone with Sophie and do not give him money.”
“I’m not stupid,” Phin said.
“Neither is he,” Davy said. “I like to think of him as washed up, but the man can talk anybody into anything.”
Davy’s use of military jargon (“hold the fort,” and later in the scene, “Head for high ground”) suggests that Sophie’s family is under siege during her father’s visit. He has been presented as the foil to Davy and the exception to the new Dempsey family rule of love, trust, good intentions, and long-term commitment, but he haunts the pages as a reminder of the kind of toll one person can take on another if his charm is a cover for his con abilities rather than the surface demonstration of a real ability to effectively love. To believe that Davy Dempsey and Sophie Dempsey will get their enduring HEAs, readers must either ignore the specter of Michael Dempsey and his destructive impulses or convince themselves that he is now the exception to the new Dempsey family rule.
Part IV:Conclusions—Buying the Con
By calling attention to these powerful parallels between romance and a con, Crusie is then simultaneously subverting and substantiating the genre. Her books that include cons and con artists can be read as completely undermining genre staples like the “declaration” of love between the two main characters. If, for example, Davy and Tilda’s declaration scene that ends the book uses their nicknames to indicate their mutual familiarity, intimacy, and joie d vivre—Davy calls her “Matilda Scarlet Celeste Veronica Betty Vilma Goodnight,” for example—on the other hand it also highlights the possibility that these two declarations are empty iterations and mere verbal play. In some ways, Crusie demonstrates that romance is always a con, a series of moves one communication scholar interestingly calls “stroking”: “verbal reinforcements that create a feeling of happiness, success, and well-being.” For this ending to be a happy one, characters and readers alike must believe that the statements of these two life-long liars are not just lines, but are somehow utterly and enduringly true.
So are readers of Faking It, readers of Crusie, readers of romance in general, making a leap of faith, or are they themselves being conned? What would such a con look like? What is at stake? Faking It offers a provocative if unflattering comparison in the success Michael Dempsey has in selling the awful paintings of Dorcas Finster.
Davy watched for a moment to see Michael’s newest mark turn to him and expand under the light in his smile and the glint in his eye. That’s wrong, he thought, but she looked so happy as she bought a Finster that it was hard to explain why it was wrong.
Maybe when she woke up the next morning and realized she’d bought a watercolor of sadistic fishermen drowning fish, maybe that was when it was wrong. Assuming she did. Maybe she’d look at it and remember how she felt when she bought it. Maybe it would make her happy.
Readers know Michael Dempsey cannot be trusted in what he says; his intentions are almost exclusively and unapologetically mercenary. His son Davy knows these facts better than anyone, and yet he seems to suggest an interpretation of this con game that lets the outcome, not the intent, determine whether or not a con has occurred. Caveat emptor, indeed.
Crusie declared her intent early in her writing career, as she made the choice to switch from studying romance to writing it: “By the end of the month, I’d skimmed or read almost a hundred romance novels and two life-changing things happened to me: I felt more powerful, more optimistic, and more in control of my life than ever before, and I decided I wanted to write romance fiction. Anything that did that much good for me, was something that I, as a feminist, wanted to do for other women.” But writerly reassurances and genre guarantees aside, one might well wonder to what extent Crusie is romancing, or conning, her readers. She even explains, over the course of Welcome to Temptation and Faking It exactly how she might pull off such a scheme, in her dramatization of the Dempsey family’s five steps to making people do what you want them to do. In the opening pages of Welcome to Temptation, Sophie Dempsey attempts to “con” Stephen Garvey to minimize the damage of the fender bender they’ve just had. As she feeds him the appropriate lines, she holds up the relevant number of fingers behind her back to communicate to her sister Amy, who also knows this game, exactly what she’s attempting to accomplish:
“One: make the mark smile.”
“Two: make the mark agree with you.”
“Three: make the mark feel superior.”
“Four: give the mark something.”
“Five: get what you want and get out.”
Because Amy interrupts the process, Sophie does not succeed at this particular con. Crusie, however, has just given readers an outline to understanding this particular interpersonal relationship, one which shows how the criminal version of this game is played in real life.
In this discussion of the parallels between romance and a con, however, it’s worth taking a meta-cognitive moment to look at the parallels between romance fiction and a con. The opening pages of Welcome to Temptation, for example, up to and including the scene between Sophie and Stephen Garvey, themselves seem to follow the steps of a Dempsey con. Several examples of Crusie’s wit abound in the first few pages to “make the mark smile.” The limited omniscient narrator gives readers insight into Sophie’s thoughts, so while the character is earnest, readers are laughing: “More riotously happy, southern Ohio landscape. That couldn’t be good.” Readers familiar with Crusie’s biography and her own affection for “riotously happy, southern Ohio landscape” are rewarded with an additional layer of humor, as the character’s feeling diverges so completely from the author’s.
An early example of the way these opening paragraphs might parallel the second step in a con, “make the mark agree with you,” involve a wink toward generic conventions. As Amy tries to offer her sister reassurance about their time in Temptation, she asks, “What could go wrong?” Sophie responds, “‘Don’t say that.’ Sophie sank lower in her seat. ‘Anytime anybody in a movie says, “What could go wrong?” something goes wrong.’” Movie quotes are a Dempsey family hobby, but the observation is apt for popular fiction as well; in this case, the fender bender with the Garvey’s Cadillac is literally just around the bend.
The third step in the con process, “make the mark feel superior,” has to be handled delicately in the courtship of both a real-life mark and a romance reader. If the mark feels too superior, she may get suspicious or lose interest. Crusie and other romance writers would lose readers who felt superior to the writers; it might not be worth the reader’s time or money to continue with the text. Similarly, if readers feel too superior to the characters, they may rapidly lose interest. A key ingredient to comic genres, those with happy endings, is the audience’s certainty that everything will work out even as the characters worry about impending disaster. In the opening pages of Welcome to Temptation, readers can sympathize with Sophie’s desire to avoid trouble even as they know with certainty that her story will have a happy ending. A detail like Sophie’s romance with her (ex) therapist, for example, lets readers know that this character has some growing to do on this journey without costing her their attention or their sympathy. Sophie initially feels guilty about her sexual experimentation with Phin, and she calls Brandon, her ex-therapist and current significant other, to confess. He seems unconcerned with the infidelity, misdiagnosing her motivation and reassuring her that “When you get home, we’ll have a long talk and get you straightened out.” Readers may quickly see, as Amy does, that Phin has better potential as a partner than Brandon, but until Sophie sees that for herself, readers may well have the sensation of feeling superior and knowing better than Sophie does.
The last two steps in a con, “give the mark something” and “get what you want and get out” raise interesting questions about reader response, the relationship between Crusie and her readership, and the relationship between romance readers and writers in general. In the first eleven pages of Temptation, for example, Crusie provides snappy dialogue, an engaging setting, a sympathetic heroine, a pesky sidekick, an infuriating villain (or two), and an oblique introduction to a worthy hero. In fact, in Sophie and Amy’s easy and erroneous dismissal of “the mayor” who must be as old as the signs with his name on them, Crusie foreshadows both Sophie’s tendency to misunderstand Phin and her accurate assessment of the importance of town, the Tuckers, and tradition in the story to come. As the first eleven pages deftly serve as a microcosm of the novel they launch, Crusie has in some ways been able to get what she wanted and get out. That is, she has both established and raised reader expectations, and, if the novel’s run on the New York Times Bestseller List is any indication, hooked her reader.
Perhaps the metaphor of romance and romance writing as a con works best when we consider it as a kind of courtship. Generic expectation dictates that romance writers will “stroke” their readers, offer them assurance in the story’s openings that they’ll get what they came for. With an established writer like Crusie, readers can trust the author, can rely on her intent, can have confidence in her ability to “deliver the goods” as she has so many times before. In her capacity to deliver happy endings, Crusie meets genre expectations and readers are rewarded.
While such happy endings may be read as substantiating the genre and all of its potential to please readers, they also can be read as calling somewhat circumspect attention to the genre itself. In some ways those Happily Ever Afters that the genre promises, writers like Crusie deliver, and readers enjoy, are a version of the “three-card monte” at which Michael Dempsey and Davy Dempsey are particularly masterful. Michael teaches Tilda’s niece Nadine how the game is played, but Davy shows her how the game is beaten.
“I love it,” Nadine said. “It’s a sure thing.”
“There are no sure things.”
“Oh, yeah?” Nadine said. “You can’t beat me.”
Davy took a five out of his pocket and slapped it on the table. “Where’s yours?”
Nadine held out her hand to Ethan, and he sighed and dug a five out of his pocket and handed it to her. “You’ll get it back, Ethan,” she said.
“No you won’t, Ethan,” Davy said. “Deal ‘em.” He watched her shuffle the cards, show him the queen, and then palm it while she moved the rest around. For only having practiced a couple of hours, she was damn good.
“Okay,” Nadine said, still moving cards. “Now, where’s the queen?”
“Right here,” Davy said, putting his finger on the middle card.
“Well, let’s look and see,” Nadine said, smug with her queen up her sleeve.
“Let’s,” Davy said, keeping his finger on the middle card. He turned over the eight of clubs to the right and the four of spades to the left. “Will you look at that? Neither one is the queen, so it must be the middle one.” He took the two fives on the table.
Davy beats the game by not looking under the third card, by not showing what isn’t there. The happy endings of romance fiction may work the same way. It might be an over-simplified ending to a category romance where the unworthy criminal and the worthy heroines get the same reward, as in Trust Me on This. It might be the blithe reassurance that a hero and heroine who have only known each other for three weeks, who have painfully different backgrounds and complicated families, will successfully blend into an ideal family unit—parents, child, dog, and Dove bars—as in Welcome to Temptation. Or it might be faith in a promise of commitment from two people with limited experience in keeping promises or commitments, as in Faking It. Trust me on this. Nothing but good times ahead. The happy ending is that queen, the unrevealed card, unless what really lies under that third card might be a Dorcas Finster painting.
If the relationship between a writer of romance fiction and a reader of the genre does share some qualities of the kind of courtship in a con or a romance, readers may never know that they have been scammed. Fraud investigators call this step “losing the mark”; “the victim is separated from the scam operation, often not realizing that she has been victimized.” Double entendre aside, verbal “stroking” is not the only way that a scheme engages a victim’s physiological response: “swindlers commonly employ rewards that appeal to visceral factors when luring potential victims. [ . . . ] The common thread is simply an appeal to basic human desires.”Desire can short-circuit deliberation: “visceral factors are often associated with a feeling of being ‘out of control’. [. . . ]Thus, rational, considered deliberation is a small part of the decision process. Instead, action is driven by instinct and gut feelings, and careful analysis is abandoned.” When Crusie’s heroes are in a state of sexual arousal, she often describes them as feeling as if they have “no blood left in the head.” This is as much a psychological description as a sexual one: watching Sophie work over the pool table wearing a tight pink dress and no underwear, Phin cannot think “straight,” despite the fact that Sophie is finally admitting that she’s crooked.
Researchers Jeff Langenderfer and Terence A. Shimp observe that “With cognitive resources devoted to reward attention, people under the throes of visceral influence are more likely to ignore the nuances of the transaction and fail to decode the scam cues that a cooler, more cognitive evaluation might uncover” (770). That varying level of cognitive ability to discern a fraud in the face of desire might explain why Michael Dempsey sees immediately that Eve and Louise are the same woman, Davy sees it once his attraction to Eve is tempered by his connection with Tilda, and Simon never sees it at all. Like lust, Langenderfer and Shimp report that “visceral influences tend to produce decisions that are nearly devoid of cognitive deliberation, at least in the traditional sense” (769); Michael sums up the research with his own common-sense version of why Davy couldn’t see through Louise to Eve, “You were distracted. . . . Sex will do that to you.” Perhaps sex will do that to readers, too.
In the ongoing albeit somewhat tired debate about the status and worth of romance fiction, those who argue that the genre is unhealthy, ideological escapism are frequently rebutted by readers and writers who claim that nothing that makes so many people happy can be inherently unhealthy or unworthy. Over and over again the relationship between romance fiction, writer, and readers comes to a mutually satisfying conclusion for the players involved. In highlighting all the parallels between a con and a romance, Crusie has also called to our attention to the similarities between a con and romance fiction. Readers choose writers like Crusie because they trust the kind of book they will get; writers like Crusie have declared their good intentions and demonstrated their ability to deliver the goods: the Happily Ever Afters that work as long as no one gets a closer look under that third card. Romance fiction would then represent an escape in the sense that readers agree not to look too carefully at the endings, which might not be reassuring at all in a real-world context, just as something that looks exactly like a romance might turn out to be a con.
In my opinion, the most important conclusion we might draw from the moral ambiguities of Crusie’s con novels is that readers are, in fact, choosing their part in the play. The overly optimistic endings of romance novels are not necessarily creating unrealistic fantasies in the minds of readers, nor reinscribing the subtle laws of patriarchal fathers. And, despite the declared good intentions of Crusie and other romance writers, not every reader will leave a romance novel uplifted and with a more optimistic outlook on life, certain there are “Nothing but good times ahead.” Some will, as Crusie has acknowledged, walk away. I would like to see our ongoing critical conversations about Crusie’s work and other popular romance embrace a more nuanced approach to reader response.
We can start with an acknowledgement that readers have willingly paid to play. We can consider the pleasures of escape into fantasy without worrying that readers cannot distinguish between the real and the fantastic. We can factor in the physiological responses of laughter and arousal that romance reading may evoke. We can acknowledge that sometimes people find pleasure in being swindled or conned, especially when the stakes are not too high. Romance readers continue to buy in, risking their own five dollars for the pleasures of watching a character like Davy Dempsey handle the cards. Our critical examination of complex writers like Crusie can help us to continue to move the conversation from whether they should, to why they do.
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Thanks to Eric Selinger, Rachel Toor, and two generous anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback on earlier versions of this article.
 For a list of romance novels featuring characters who are cons, see the website All About Romance: http://www.likesbooks.com/cons.html
 On her blog, Crusie recently distinguished her various publications among the genres of “chick lit,” “romance,” “women’s fiction,” “romantic adventure,” and “paranormal romance.” She calls the stand-alone novels published by St. Martin’s Press, “women’s fiction”: “sometimes… romance, but…always about a woman’s emotional journey”
(http://www.arghink.com/2010/04/08/trade-paperback-reissues-the-covers/#more-3002). For the purposes of this paper, I’ll be focusing on the romance elements of the two SMP stand-alones I consider.
 Although Crusie does not identify this line in her list of movie quotes for the novel (http://www.jennycrusie.com/trivia/moviequotes.php, accessed 08/01/2008), this line is resonant of the many declarations of “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” in George Lucas’s screenplays for the Star Wars films. In that way it serves as a reminder that often the Dempseys are, in one way or another, saying a line and/or reading a script. Phin has usually missed such references, but here he is offering more of the same.
 Read from one perspective, Tilda is really none of those people, as all of those names (Scarlet, Celeste, Veronica, and so on) are identities she can put on and take off. Who, then, is Davy marrying? From another perspective, however, Crusie is also calling attention to the fact that Tilda is all of those women, and each name or nickname represents an aspect of her whole person that Davy knows, respects and loves. (412)
 See, for example, notes on Crusie’s website: “She lives on the Ohio River where she often stares at the ceiling and counts her blessings.” http://www.arghink.com/
 As an example of Crusie’s consideration of reader expectations, see the discussion on “Reader Rage” on her website, where she reports her own “rage”-filled reaction to being let down by two of her favorite writers and asks her readers what makes them “walk away” from a book; http://www.arghink.com/2009/11/23/reader-rage/#more-2083
 Crusie has used John. G Cawelti’s phrase “moral fantasy” to describe this dynamic. Cawelti writes, “these formulaic worlds are constructions that can be described as moral fantasies constituting an imaginary world in which the audience can encounter a maximum of excitement without being confronted with an overpowering sense of the insecurity and danger that accompany such forms of excitement in reality.” John G. Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 16.
Jennifer Crusie has stated that “the details of the way people present themselves are heavy with meaning” (“Romancing” 86) and this is certainly true of the lingerie she depicts in her own novels. Lingerie plays a significant role in many of her romances from Sizzle, “the first book I wrote even though it was published as my third” (Crusie “Sizzle”), through to Bet Me, which she has described as her “last classic romance” (Jorgenson). Its functions and symbolism vary: in Bet Me sexy underwear is advocated as a way to catch a husband but in Anyone But You a padded bra forms a barrier to intimacy; lingerie deceives and is discarded in Tell Me Lies but speaks eloquently about its wearers’ sexual desires in Crazy for You.
If, as Alison Lurie has argued, “clothing is a language” (3) then the words uttered by underwear are surely among the most intimate for although “such garments have had a utilitarian function the fact that they may have also served an erotic purpose is frankly recognized as a social phenomenon” (Willett & Cunnington 11). In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries
[m]arried women began to assume the role of sexual partner; reproduction and sexuality were no longer so closely connected because of altered moral attitudes and the availability of contraception. A number of women underlined their more liberal morality by, among other things, wearing decorative and seductive underwear. (Thesander 105)
Lurie has observed that “Often […] it is not until we see this private costume that we have a real clue as to its wearer’s erotic identity” (246). By describing the lingerie choices of her heroines Crusie can therefore convey important information about their sexuality which might not be apparent from their outerwear.
The cut, fabric and colour of a particular item of lingerie all play a part in shaping its meaning. Tell Me Lies opens as “Maddie Faraday reached under the front seat of her husband’s Cadillac and pulled out a pair of black lace underpants. They weren’t hers” (1). The design of this particular set of underpants, intended as “a plant, something so shocking Maddie would have to confront Brent” (332), emphasises the purpose it serves: “black lace crotchless” (23) underpants are supremely functional only in the context of a sexual relationship. The statement they make about Brent’s adultery is given additional force by their fabric and colour.
C. Willett and Phillis Cunnington, commenting on the introduction and widespread adoption of coloured underwear, observe that “For centuries ‘white’ had been recognized as a symbol of the chaste ‘pure mind’; it has no emotional tone. It represents the antithesis of erotic colours” (236). In Crusie’s Crazy for You Bill, the anti-hero, associates “Plain white cotton” with a muted sex life and he would prefer to think of Quinn, the heroine of the novel, as “clean, white, plain, good” (218) with underwear to match. He rakes through her lingerie drawer, hating all the items which are neither “plain” nor “white,” until at last he finds a pair of underpants which although not “plain white cotton, they were lacy and brief, bikini pants—not the kind that really covered her up, […] were white” (218). White cotton underwear has similarly chaste connotations for Maddie, the heroine of Tell Me Lies: she “stripped off her white cotton underpants and dropped them on the floor. Nobody committed adultery in white cotton underpants” (99). Lace is clearly more daring than cotton, which is why, when asked if she has “anything sexy or fun in your whole wardrobe” (23), Emily, the heroine of Sizzle, claims to own “some white lace. Sort of” (23). Her friend Jane’s response, “You may already be too old to wear pink lace. Mentally you’re already in gray flannel long johns” (23), suggests that the wearing of “gray flannel long johns” would symbolise a total renunciation of sexual activity. It also indicates that white lace is not as “sexy or fun” as pink lace. The sexiness of pink lace does, however, depend on its shade: Lurie observes that “As more and more white (purity, innocence) is added, the sensual content diminishes and finally disappears” (196).
Later in the novella Emily buys some pink underwear and its “sensual content” is evident from its lack of pallor: it is not a light, innocent, girlish pink, but a “hot-pink” (18), a “wicked pink lace” (73) which she wears when she wants to try something a little “kinky” (73). It seems to assert a strong, sexual femininity with a symbolism more akin to that of red. Red brings to mind danger, heat and red light districts: “bright scarlet and crimson garments have traditionally been associated both with aggression and with desire” (Lurie 195). In Sizzle ruby-red, in combination with black, is used in the packaging of a perfume which indicates that the wearer has “a little bit of devil” (89) in her. Black is less aggressive than red, but neither childlike nor pure: “white suggests innocence, black suggests sophistication” (Lurie 188). In Sizzle when “Emily thought about Richard. Sex with Richard” (33) she almost immediately decides “I need some black lace underwear” (33). On top of the black lingerie she wears “her best short black dress” (34) and then “congratulat[es] herself on how sophisticated and adult she looked” (34-35).
Here Emily’s outwear transmits roughly the same message as her underwear but this is not always the case, for as Martin Scott has observed,
[i]f our clothes, our outer image, mediate between us and the world, then our underwear mediates between us and our clothes; we define our relationship to our outer image by what we wear under it, the interior fashion only we and a chosen few know about. This would be the case with the corporate lawyer who wears red satin bra and panties under the painfully gray dress suit […]. Underwear reminds us that there is a level the outer world does not fathom, and does not even dare admit exists.
In certain circumstances a woman’s lingerie can therefore serve as an undercover protest or a reminder of aspects of her personality which cannot be expressed openly. In Crazy for You Quinn’s underwear contrasts with the image presented by her work clothes. Bill, her ex-boyfriend who has broken into her house, knows that it expresses a sexuality that he “does not even dare admit exists”:
Quinn’s underwear. My secret life, she’d called it. Absurd colors, screaming pinks and metallic golds and acid greens and—
He plunged his hands into the drawer, into the lace and the satin and the silk—“I have to dress like a dockworker to teach art,” she’d said once, “but I can be all dressed up underneath”—all the stuff he didn’t really like, not really, all those weird, bright colors, that wasn’t how he wanted Quinn, bright and hot; his Quinn was clean, white, plain, good—he clenched his fists around the vile stuff […].
He threw the underwear back in the drawer as if it were unclean, contaminated, it contaminated her, he wanted to rip it up, shred it, burn it so it never touched her again. (218)
Bill is evidently threatened and disgusted by Quinn’s lingerie: it asserts her longing for an exuberant, varied sex life.
In Manhunting the heroine’s outerwear also presents a contrast to her lingerie: “She put on some of the new lacy underwear Jessie had picked out for her, and then covered it sensibly with beige shorts and a white sleeveless blouse” (47). Looking at her “dressed in those blah colors” (54) Jake concludes that “There was no heat in her” (54). He changes his mind, however, when a somewhat tipsy Kate shows him what lies beneath the “white sleeveless blouse”:
It was really hot in the sun, but could she go topless? Noooo. And why? Because she was female. Life was sexist. And really, really unfair. She looked over at Jake, cool and comfortable and shirtless, and decided to strike a blow for women everywhere. This is for all the hot women, she thought, and took off her blouse. She was wearing a peach satin and white lace bra […]. It covered, she reasoned, a lot more of her than a bikini top. She felt much better. […]
So much for sexless. Jake shook his head as he watched her […] there must have been something about Kate he’d missed, because he hadn’t pegged her as a satin-and-lace type. Plain white cotton would have been his guess. (56-57)
Kate’s inadvertent verbal double entendre, “hot women,” parallels the unintended message her lingerie sends to Jake. He is correct in his reading of Kate’s bra; by the end of the novel he will have received abundant proof that she is not sexless. Nonetheless, her intentions here were feminist rather than flirtatious and the scene therefore demonstrates that, as Lurie warns, “If a complete grammar of clothing is ever written it will have to deal not only with […] dishonesty, but with […] ambiguity, error, self-deception, misinterpretation, irony and framing” (25).
The feminist bra-burning of the 1960s provides a particularly noteworthy example of the reframing or deliberate misinterpretation of underwear. The feminists whose actions led to the coining of the term “bra-burners” did not, in fact, set fire to any bras, but they did include them in a group of objects which were chosen for disposal during the protests against the Miss America beauty contest:
Bras were only one of many items that were tossed into a “freedom trash can” on the boardwalk in Atlantic City on September 7, 1968: also included were girdles, high heels, cosmetics, eyelash curlers, wigs, issues of Cosmopolitan, Playboy, and Ladies Home Journal. (Dow 130-31)
It was the bras, however, which caught the imagination of the media and this was no doubt due in large measure to the sexual connotations of underwear. As with Kate’s display of her lingerie, the feminists’ disposal of their bras was not interpreted by viewers in the way the women had intended: “Bra-burning, it was implied, was the desperate bid for attention by neurotic, unattractive women who could not garner it through more acceptable routes” (Dow 129).
Emily, the heroine of Sizzle, is never considered attention-seeking or unattractive but her underwear also becomes a site of conflict between feminism and patriarchy. The novella opens as she is being informed by her boss, George, that henceforth her budget will be controlled by Richard Parker; she observes that “I’m working for narrow-minded patriarchal creeps” (7). George, who is “short, fat and balding” (5) and leans “back in the chair while I stand at attention” (5), is literally and metaphorically the unattractive face of patriarchy whereas Richard is its most seductive one:
The door at the other end of the conference room opened, and Richard Parker came in, tall, dark and serious. And indisputably the best-looking man Emily had ever seen. Distinguished. Beautifully dressed. Powerful. And sexy. […] For everyone there, Richard Parker radiated power and authority. (12-13)
Richard is, in appearance, a stock romance hero, one of the “‘dark, tall and gravely handsome’ men, all mysterious strangers or powerful bosses” (Snitow 248). He escapes being a cliché, however, due to his awareness of the image he presents:
Without realizing it, she’d let her eyes narrow as she looked at him, so that when he gazed idly around […] he saw her look of undiluted antagonism. His eyes widened slightly, and then he grinned at her as if he was seeing her for the first time, a real smile that accepted her challenge and recognized her as an equal, sharing the absurdity of the moment and of his own new-kid-on-the-block power play. (15)
It takes some time, and considerable effort on Emily’s part, to ensure that he fully recognises her as an equal and listens to her in both their personal and professional lives; the developments in their relationship are accompanied by descriptions of Emily’s underwear.
After one meeting Emily feels only slightly more antagonistic towards her panty hose than she does towards Richard:
“How did it go?” Jane asked, following her into the office.
“Not well, but not badly, either.” Emily kicked off her shoes. “I really hate panty hose. They itch.” (22)
Emily actively resists oppression but the struggle wearies her and she finds relief in throwing away her hated panty hose:
Emily kicked off her shoes and sat in the gloom of her office. I’m so tired, she thought. And my panty hose are driving me nuts. I hate panty hose. They’re an invention of the devil. I’m never wearing them again. She took them off as a gesture of independence and threw them away. There was a run in one leg, anyway.
Instantly she felt better, cooler. She leaned back in her chair and spread her legs apart to cool them, reveling in the relief from the scratchy heat of the hose. (56)
This throwing off of an oppressive garment soon gives rise to sexual thoughts: “It reminded her of other ways of feeling good. It reminded her that she was still so [sexually] frustrated from the night before she wanted to kill” (56). Emily’s freedom from panty hose also pleases Richard sexually, though this was not her intention, and in a scene which may be the most memorable in the novella, Emily is dominated professionally by George (via the telephone) and sexually by Richard, who is under her desk:
“Stop it.” Emily tried to shove him back with her free hand.
“Now, Emily,” George said. “Relax. I’m not interfering with your project.”
“Relax.” Richard put his mouth against the softness of her inner thigh.
Emily moved her hand to his head and tried to push him away. Great day I picked to stop wearing panty hose and start wearing stockings, she thought wildly. Oh, God, what is he doing? We’re in my office, for heaven’s sake.
“Emily?” George said. “Emily, don’t be difficult about this.”
She twined her fingers in Richard’s hair and jerked his head up. He winced and pulled her hand away. “The garters are a good idea,” he said. “Don’t ever wear anything else.” And then he lowered his head again, clamping her hand at her side. (62-63)
Emily’s “gesture of independence” is thus subverted: having chosen to wear stockings, she is now commanded not to “wear anything else.” The desk scene also serves to remind the reader of the similarities between George and Richard, the two figures of authority and patriarchal oppression. The two men echo each other, each telling Emily to “Relax,” and over-riding her objections. Although they both appreciate her talents, neither is willing to treat her with the respect they would accord an equal: Richard is clearly delighted with Emily’s body and underwear and, in the first scene of the novella, George admits that Emily is “smart, and you have a sixth sense about marketing that I’d kill to have” (6), but both ignore her objections. Although Emily enjoys sex with Richard she is aware that she is being metaphorically as well as literally manipulated and, as she makes clear to Jane, she is disturbed by the implications of this:
“Richard is always the one in control. If I make a decision, he approves of it or says no. If he makes a decision, he just informs me of it. If I say something he disagrees with or feels isn’t important, he ignores me. Today is a perfect example. I was on the phone, and he just came around the desk and put his hand up my skirt.” She closed her eyes for a moment at the memory.
“And you loved it.”
“That’s not the point. The point is that he always decides everything, and he never listens to me. I want a little power here, too.” (67)
Emily and Jane at last devise a plan to make Richard listen to Emily by showing him how it feels to be dominated and to have one’s opinions remain unheard. Emily’s underwear is essential to the plan’s success.
Having agreed to “do exactly what I say” (77) in the bedroom, Richard “looked bored and a little chilly” (78). Then Emily’s underwear piques his interest:
She drew her fingertips up her leg, pulling her skirt back over her thigh to reveal her garters, never taking her eyes off Richard. The garters were pink.
Richard began to look more interested. (79)
A little later she is
wondering if any of this was exciting Richard in the slightest. […] When she opened her eyes, Richard was still looking at her.
She unsnapped her garters with one hand.
Richard was definitely interested. (79)
If all Emily had planned was a striptease, it would merely prove that her body and her underwear could attract male sexual attention, which is something she, and the reader, already knows it would. What follows is the use of a stocking in a way which transforms it into part of another “gesture of independence” (56):
[S]he wrapped the stocking around his wrists and pulled them back.
“What are you doing?” He tried to jerk his hands away, but she’d already tied the ends of the stocking to the brass bed frame. […]
“This isn’t funny, Emily.” He yanked at his bonds. “Let me go.”
“What?” Emily asked, smiling at him gently. “I didn’t hear.” (81)
Richard does indeed learn his lesson and on the last page of the novella, with his hand “cupping her lace-covered breast” (92), he states that he’s listening. In an earlier scene Richard had ignored Emily’s advice about how to undo the bra:
[H]e slid his hands beneath her back to find her bra clasp.
“It’s in front,” she whispered, but he still ran his fingers along her back. “Richard, the hook is in front.”
“What?” he murmured into her ear, not listening.
She closed her eyes in irritation […]. She unhooked her bra herself. (52)
This time “‘The hook is in the front,’ Emily said, and he unfastened it” (92); with this unfastening, new prospects open up for their personal relationship.
Clearly a little light bondage is not going to topple patriarchy. It is, however, indicative of a change in Emily. As she observes early on in the novella:
Change him, Emily thought. No, better yet, change me. I’m in this position because I’m modest, cooperative and polite. Because I’m modest, cooperative and polite, I’m working for a vain, obstructive rude man like George. And as if George wasn’t enough, now I have Richard Parker, the Budget Hun. (24)
In using her lingerie to tie Richard up, Emily demonstrates that she is no longer “cooperative and polite.” The final exchange between Richard and Henry Evadne, the owner of the company Emily, George and Richard work for, vindicates Emily’s new assertiveness:
“[…] if Emily feels strongly about the product placement, we will, of course, go with it.” He smiled tightly at Richard. “We don’t know how she does it, but we’ve learned that when it comes to marketing, the best thing we can do is listen to Emily and do exactly what she wants.”
“Yes.” Richard smiled. “I’ve learned that, too.”
“Good.” Henry leaned back, satisfied. “You make a good team. […]”. (91)
In the scenes described above, lingerie is a site of conflict and Emily eventually uses it to assert her power and gain equality. In the professional sphere, however, she is still subordinate to Henry, whom she pleases by devising strategies to sell other women products which may promise more than they can deliver.
Emily admits that “We’re selling emotions here, the sizzle not the steak” (21). The advertising for many products creates “sizzle” by implying that they have semi-magical properties:
In civilized society today belief in the supernatural powers of clothing […] remains widespread, though we denigrate it with the name “superstition.” Advertisements announce that improbable and romantic events will follow the application of a particular sort of grease to our faces, hair or bodies; they claim that members of the opposite (or our own) sex will be drawn to us by the smell of a particular soap. Nobody believes those ads, you may say. Maybe not, but we behave as though we did: look in your bathroom cabinet. (Lurie 29-30)
Emily claims that the perfume, Sizzle, has special powers: “It makes strong men putty in my hands” (Sizzle 92). This is not a literal assertion that it is a magic potion but Emily’s earlier use of Sizzle in the bondage scene (in conjunction with carefully chosen “wicked pink lace” (73) lingerie, candles and food) does take on the appearance of a magical ritual when read in the context of her words about how Sizzle will be marketed:
“You’ll note that the bottle [for Sizzle] is the same as Paradise [another perfume], but it’s black, instead of white, with a ruby-glass stopper, instead of a diamond-glass stopper.” […]
“We’re confident that the consumer will make not only the connection with Paradise, but will also subconsciously pick up the dualism here. She’ll wear Paradise when she wants to feel sexy, but sophisticated and in control, Sizzle when she wants to feel sexy and wanton. […]
“And since there’s a little bit of angel and a little bit of devil in every woman, every woman will need both these perfumes,” Emily said. (88-89)
The white bottles of Paradise match the name with a colour associated with spirituality and purity: “In the Christian church, white is the color of heavenly joy and purity […]. In secular life white has always stood for purity and innocence” (Lurie 185). In contrast, black has long been associated with the more malevolent supernatural powers: “The Furies, the three avenging goddesses of Greek drama, always dress in black, and so do witches, warlocks and other practitioners of the Black Arts” (Lurie 188).
Emily incorporates the perfume which expresses the “bit of devil in every woman” into the ritual which Jane has promised “will work. I guarantee you, this time, he’ll listen” (73). Although the references to hell, “What the hell are you going to do?” (77) and evil, “wicked pink lace” (73), as well as Richard’s cry of “Oh, God” (81) and his unease with Emily’s actions, “Don’t ever do that again […] You damn near killed me” (84), can all be read (and, it appears, are uttered by the characters) as mere figures of speech, the allusions to the spiritual realm reinforce the magical subtext of the scene. Threatened with “the spiked heel” (78) of Emily’s black shoe, naked and tied up, Richard takes on the aspect of a sacrificial victim in a satanic rite. Emily’s choice of “black spike heels with open toes” (78) and a “little black slip” (80) reinforce the impression that something occult is taking place. The transition back towards goodness is marked by Emily untying Richard and letting him inside her body, “he felt so good inside her. The feel of his body hot and strong and hard against her, inside her, pushed her out of the limbo of lust she’d been drifting through” (84, my emphasis) and the next morning she prepares food which makes the kitchen smell “like heaven” (85) and perhaps both literally and metaphorically removes any bad taste left by the black magic.
On this occasion Sizzle and the “wicked pink lace” (73) lingerie fulfill the promises made by their colouring but in general the magic of lingerie, if it has one, is dependent on the power the wearer and the viewer give it and for this reason scenes of seduction do not always succeed. Prior to her first dinner-date with Richard, Emily asked Jane to go out and buy her some underwear:
The evening started well. Emily brushed her hair in a cloud around her shoulders and wore her new black lace underwear, one of two sets Jane had splurged on with her money.
“Always have a backup set,” Jane had told her. “You never know, he may rip this stuff off you with his teeth in the throes of passion.”
Emily visualized it. “Sounds good.” (34)
Unfortunately for Emily it is her hair, not her lingerie, which seems most likely to be ripped off that evening: “She pulled away from him, holding on to his arm so he wouldn’t jerk her hair out. A lock of her hair was wound around his sleeve button” (39). As a result Emily develops a bad headache and declines to participate in any further sexual activity. In Crazy for You, Darla has made even more of an effort in preparation for sex:
Darla stared in her bathroom mirror, appalled. Forget that the thing she had on was called a merry widow, not the best omen under the circumstances. Forget that it was black lace and scratchy, forget that it was so tight her breasts stood out like they were propped on a shelf […]. Concentrate on the fact that she looked like a rogue dominatrix. […]
She let her hands drop and tried to look less angry. It was the anger that was doing it, she decided. The anger that she was having to try this hard to seduce her husband, to wear this stupid lace thing that Quinn assured her was sexy. (128-29)
Max initially responds by holding and kissing Darla but he then breaks off to discuss her actions and they have a row. After this Darla “peeled the merry widow off […] yanked on her long flannel nightgown” (130) and concludes that she is “[j]ust not a sexy woman” (130).
Although lingerie lacks any intrinsic magical powers, it can have a significant physical effect on the women who wear it. When wearing the black lace “merry widow,” for example, Darla’s waist is “cinched tighter than usual, smaller, so that his hands on her waist made her feel sexy” (130). Most modern lingerie cannot create sensual effects as intense as those produced by a corset:
Tight-lacing […] heightens sexuality by quickening the action of the lungs. […] Many women experience inhibition of breathing, on a swing or by other means, as erotic, ‘breathtaking’. […] Elimination of abdominal in favour of pectoral breathing creates, moreover, movement about the breasts, which may be imagined constantly palpitating with desire. […]
The spasms to which the body is subject during orgasm involve, of course, an often violent quickening of breathing, sensations of breathlessness, heaving of the chest, and contraction of the belly, all of which may be erotically enhanced by manual pressure at the waist, and artificially induced by means of a corset. (Kunzle 18)
Nor can lingerie produce the physical effect of the fictional perfume in Sizzle:
“[…] Suppose we put something in this stuff to make it really sizzle? […] Tingle. Only with heat. A woman wears perfume on the warmest parts of her body—the pulse points. Suppose when she touched the perfume to those places she felt a subtle heat and tingle. It would make her feel excited. Exciting. It would feel like. . .”
Lingerie can, however, be used in foreplay and have a sensual effect on the wearer: as Emily seduces and dominates Richard she “stroked the inside of her thigh with her fingertips, feeling them glide across the smoothness of the nylon, closing her eyes, trying to concentrate on the sensation […]. Surprisingly enough, it was beginning to excite her” (79). Later she leans forwards, “her breasts almost spilling out of the lace. She stopped for a moment, savoring the feel of their weight against the brief bra” (82). Lingerie, then, can in itself give a woman physical pleasure.
This positive aspect of lingerie may, however, be offset by the negative effect of lingerie advertising which encourages the viewer to feel that her body is imperfect. As Rosalind Coward observes
The ideal promoted by our culture is pretty scarce in nature […]. Only the mass of advertising images, glamour photographs and so on makes us believe that just about all women have this figure. […]
Somewhere along the line, most women know that the image is impossible, and corresponds to the wishes of our culture rather than being actually attainable. We remain trapped by the image, though. (45)
Thus, although the images of women’s bodies used in lingerie adverts can create anxiety and feelings of inadequacy, female viewers may nonetheless perceive the lingerie itself as a means to attain a look more closely approaching the ideal. In Manhunting Kate meets a woman who does have one of those few perfect bodies:
Miss Craft, young, blond, and built like a Barbie doll, had eyes of cornflower blue, a tilted-up nose, and a genuinely sweet smile on her lovely full lips. She looked about nineteen.
Great, Kate thought. My competition. I bet nothing on her droops. I bet she doesn’t even wear underwear. (30)
Kate would seem to believe that only a woman “built like a Barbie doll” is free from the need to wear underwear. Nina, the heroine of Crusie’s Anyone But You, demonstrates how concerns about having an imperfect body may convince a woman that she will be undesirable, and therefore unlovable, without the concealment and support provided by lingerie. Nina hides behind her “Red lace Incredibra” (100), a bra so padded it is “round and shapely without her. It practically had cleavage without her. […] It sort of pushes everything together and then shoves it up” (100). Although Nina eventually plucks up the courage to have sex with Alex, she steadfastly refuses to let him see her breasts; her friend Charity is astonished to discover that Nina “slept with this guy for two months, and […] never took your bra off with the lights on” (212). Charity had previously told Nina that “The real problem is that you don’t believe Alex could love you because your body is forty years old and your face has some wrinkles. […] You don’t believe in unconditional love” (144).
According to Coward
Self-image in this society is enmeshed with judgments about desirability. And because desirability has been elevated to being the crucial reason for sexual relations, it sometimes appears to women that the whole possibility of being loved and comforted hangs on how their appearance will be received. (78)
Max, a gynaecologist and Alex’s brother, blames the media and the fashion industry for making women feel this way:
They look at magazines and see all those damn seventeen-year-old anorexics in push-up bras, or they go to the movies and see actresses with tummy tucks and enough silicone to start a new valley, and then they look at their own perfectly good bodies and decide their sex lives are over. […] And if you tell them their bodies are normal and attractive, they think you’re being nice […] Sometimes, I swear to God, I’d like to set fire to the fashion industry. (158)
Germaine Greer, writing in 1970, said much the same thing:
Women are so brainwashed about the physical image that they should have that, despite popular fiction on the point, they rarely undress with éclat. They are often apologetic about their bodies, considered in relation to that plastic object of desire whose image is radiated throughout the media. […] The woman who complains that her behind is droopy does not want to be told, ‘I don’t care, because I love you,’ but ‘Silly girl, it’s a perfect shape, you can’t see it like I can.’ (261)
Crusie’s Anyone But You, despite being a romance and therefore “popular fiction,” gives us a heroine who does not “undress with éclat” and who, when she expresses concern about her droopy body, is told by her male partner that he doesn’t care “if it’s on the floor. I want you naked now” (185). It takes Nina time to realise that Alex does indeed love her and find her sexually attractive despite the fact that her body is not perfect according to the standards set by the media. Once she has accepted that this is the case, however, she discards the Incredibra, stating that “There was nothing wrong with her body. All right, it was softer than it had been, and her waist was thicker than it had been, and nothing about it could be called perky, but it was a good healthy body, and Alex loved it” (218). Only then can she stand “naked in front of him, with all the living-room lights on” (219).
Nina’s rejection of the Incredibra marks her acceptance of both her body and Alex’s love. Lingerie is also discarded at an emotional turning-point in Tell Me Lies. When Maddie decides to get “rid of the old Maddie completely” (322-23) she throws caution and her clothes to the wind:
[S]he took off her scarf and held it above her head and let the wind blow it away […] she stripped her T-shirt over her head and let that go in the wind, too […] and […] pulled her bra off over her head and threw it in his lap where it immediately blew back over to her side and out of the car. (324)
The final paragraphs of this novel, which opened with Maddie’s discovery of the shocking black lace crotchless underpants, show us Maddie once again holding a pair of woman’s underpants. This time, however, they are her own underpants and instead of concealing them she puts them on display as an indication that there will be no more lies. They announce, to both her neighbours and her lover, C. L., that she is unashamed of being a sexually active unmarried woman:
She stripped off her baby blue bikini underpants and left them on the hall floor for him to find, and then reconsidered and went out on the front porch and hung them on the doorknob instead, waving to Mrs. Crosby, who was squinting at her from her own porch. Then she went back inside. She was sure finding the pants would have an electrifying effect on an already electrified C. L. (347)
Here nakedness is not just about “electrifying” a lover; it also indicates Maddie’s desire for truth and can be read as a rejection of the culture of shame which has surrounded her.
Nakedness is also associated with truthfulness and a lack of shame in Faking It where, in an echo of the words in Genesis describing Adam and Eve who, prior to the Fall, were “both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed” (Genesis 2: 25), Tilda tells Davy her secrets and “I love you, she thought and kissed him back, naked and unashamed” (317). Tilda is revealing not just her body but also the truth about her family’s history of art forgery. The knowledge Nina tries to hide may seem more trivial: it is merely the truth that ageing has changed her body. To Nina, however, this is a shameful secret which she is desperate to conceal because age, as indicated by Jane’s comment about “gray flannel long johns” (Sizzle 23), is often assumed to bring with it a lack of both desire and desirability.
Although Nina’s Incredibra is worn in an attempt to conceal the truth from masculine eyes, she acquired it as a result of emotional openness with another woman. Having asked her friend Charity to help “rev up my image” (99), Charity obliged by selecting a variety of garments for Nina, including “Red lace panties. Red lace Incredibra” (100). When Crusie’s female characters are friendly with each other they not infrequently discuss underwear. In Manhunting Kate arrives at her holiday destination thinking about “the fancy underwear that Jessie had talked her into buying as inspiration” (27) in Kate’s search to find a husband. Later we see the formation of a new female friendship: Kate “and Nancy talked on through the evening […] comparing life stories and falling into the kind of friendship that women with the same outlook on life can form easily and permanently” (113). When Jake becomes aware of how much information they’ve shared, including details of his financial involvement with Nancy’s business “Jake winced. ‘Did she show you her underwear, too?’” (122). Jake does not mean this literally but there is clearly an association in his mind between female intimacy and lingerie. In Crazy for You, Quinn advises Darla to wear black lace to revitalise her marriage:
“[…] maybe you should go for something really in-your-face.”
“How about I grab him by the throat and say, ‘Fuck me or die’?” Darla said.
“I was thinking more about black lace,” Quinn said. “You know, something incredibly tacky. The kind of thing guys like and we laugh at.” (122)
In Sizzle Jane describes the activities she’s going to engage in while wearing the pink lingerie:
Emily sighed. “Sounds like fun.”
Jane pounced. “You buy some, too.” (19)
Nanette, the mother of Bet Me’s heroine, discusses lingerie’s role in catching and keeping a husband and informs her daughter that
“[…] [y]our prime years are past you, and you’re wearing white cotton. […] If you’re wearing white cotton lingerie, you’ll feel like white cotton, and you’ll act like white cotton, and white cotton cannot get a man, nor can it keep one. Always wear lace.”
“You’d make a nice pimp,” Min said […]. “But honestly, Mother, this conversation is getting old. I’m not even sure I want to get married, and you’re critiquing my underwear because it’s not good enough bait. […]” (63)
There is a difference, however, between Nanette’s approach to lingerie and that of Kate, Jessie, Nina, Charity, Darla and Quinn. It may seem a trivial one given that Kate is husband-hunting, Nina is dating, and Darla is trying to improve her marriage, but it is a difference which is important to Crusie who
graduated from high school in the sixties. […] The madness that defined women’s lives back then was based on four Big Lies:
- A woman wasn’t a real woman until she was married.
- A woman had to distort herself and deny her own identity in order to catch a man to marry. (Remember girdles, spike heels, inane laughter, playing dumb, and flunking math?)
- Any husband was better than no husband.
- Staying in a bad marriage was better than divorce because God forbid a woman should be unmarried again once she’d finally achieved the goal.
[…] Writing and living are about us, about who we are and what we want, about satisfying our needs as individuals, about listening to our hearts. Please note, I am not saying give up publication (or marriage) entirely; I’m saying give it up as a goal. (“A Writer”)
For Nanette, a woman of Crusie’s generation, lingerie is not a way for woman to express her personality or obtain pleasure; she only considers its function in terms of the “goal” of marriage.
Nanette is correct in assuming that coloured, lacy lingerie will attract a man’s attention: when Cal “looked down the v-neck of her [Min’s] loose red sweater and saw a lot of lush round flesh in tight red lace” (95) he felt “a little light-headed” (95). Min notices:
“You’re looking down my sweater.”
“You’re leaning over. There’s all that red lace right there.”
“Lace is good, huh?” Min said.
“My mother wins again,” Min said. (96)
Nanette has not, however, really won: Cal finds Min attractive regardless of what she wears and Cynthie, his ex-girlfriend, was the very thin and beautiful possessor of highly sensual lingerie. In one of the final scenes of the book Min wears “a strapless black lace nightgown” (359) and Cal states that “I like this thing you’re not wearing. But I still want a chance to rip your sweats off you, too” (362). To Cal, Min looks “wonderful” (187) even in her “godawful sweats” (187). As in Crazy for You, it is made clear that sexy lingerie cannot hold together a troubled relationship and, as in Anyone But You, neither a lack of sexy underwear nor a less-than-perfect body will damage a sexual relationship based on true love.
Regardless of its reception, in Crusie’s fiction even the flimsiest piece of lingerie can be “heavy with meaning” (“Romancing” 86). This meaning is only partially encoded in the fabrics, styles and colours chosen: it is also dependent on the context in which a particular item is worn or discarded. In one situation, therefore, lingerie can function as an instrument of patriarchal oppression while in another it may serve as a weapon in the feminist struggle; it can be used to signal sexual interest and boost a woman’s confidence but may also reinforce her feelings of inadequacy about her body; it can cause her physical discomfort or give sensual pleasure; although it can indicate a lack of openness and truth, female intimacy is promoted as women discuss their lingerie and via such discussions give each other emotional support that complements the physical uplift of underwiring and padding. Crusie’s literary lingerie reflects the complexity of women’s relationships with their bodies, their desires, their sexual partners and their friends.
Crusie, Jennifer. Anyone But You. 1996. Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2006.
—. Bet Me. New York: St. Martin’s, 2004.
—. Crazy for You. 1999. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000.
—. Faking It. 2002. New York: St. Martin’s, 2003.
—. Manhunting. 1993. Don Mills, Ontario: MIRA, 2000.
—. Sizzle. Don Mills, Ontario: Worldwide, 1994.
—. Tell Me Lies. 1998. New York: St Martin’s, 1999.
—. Trust Me on This. New York: Bantam, 1997.
Coward, Rosalind. Female Desire: Women’s Sexuality Today. London: Paladin Grafton, 1984.
Crusie, Jennifer. “A Writer Without a Publisher is like a Fish Without a Bicycle: Writer’s Liberation and You.” Romance Writer’s Report (2002). <http://www.jennycrusie.com/for-writers/essays/a-writer-without-a-publisher-is-like-a-fish-without-a-bicycle-writers-liberation-and-you/>.
—. “Sizzle.” JennyCrusie.com <http://www.jennycrusie.com/books/sizzle.php>. Internet Archive. 25 Oct. 2006. <http://replay.web.archive.org/20061025035035/http://www.jennycrusie.com/books/sizzle.php>.
—. “Topic: Crusie, Jennifer: Anyone But You (Romance).” CherryForums.com 15 May 2006. <http://www.cherryforums.com/index.php?topic=578.0>.
Crusie Smith, Jennifer. “Romancing Reality: The Power of Romance Fiction to Reinforce and Re-Vision the Real.” Paradoxa 3.1-2 (1997): 81-93.
Dow, Bonnie J. “Feminism, Miss America, and Media Mythology.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs, 6.1 (2003): 127-49.
Greer, Germaine. The Female Eunuch. 1970. London: Paladin, 1972.
Jorgenson, Jane. “Writer’s Corner for October, 2004: Jennifer Crusie.” All About Romance. <http://www.likesbooks.com/crusie.html>.
Juffer, Jane. “A Pornographic Femininity? Telling and Selling Victoria’s (Dirty) Secrets.” Social Text 48 (1996): 27-48.
Kunzle, David. Fashion & Fetishism: Corsets, Tight-lacing & Other Forms of Body-Sculpture. Thrupp, Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton, 2004.
Lurie, Alison. The Language of Clothes. 1981. London: Bloomsbury, 1992.
Scott, Martin. “Underwear.” Agora 30.3 (2005). <http://castle.eiu.edu/~agora/Feb05/MartallB.htm#uw>.
Snitow, Ann Barr. “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different.” Radical History Review 20 (1979): 141-61. Rpt. in Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality. Ed. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell & Sharon Thompson. New York: Monthly Review P, 1983. 245-63.
Thesander, Marianne. The Feminine Ideal. Trans. Nicholas Hills. London: Reaktion, 1997.
Willett, C. and Phillis Cunnington. 1951. The History of Underclothes. Mineola, New York: Dover, 1992.
 The Victoria’s Secret lingerie “catalog functions, […] for many of its consumers, as a kind of sexually explicit representation of the female body not too far afield from Playboy’s images” (Juffer 27-28) and “Lingerie fetishism […] is, like the voyeurism upon which it thrives, relatively uncontroversial, customarily acceptable and commercially profitable” (Kunzle 5).
At this time many women, whether in the [women’s] movement or not, got rid of their bras — some for a short period, others for ever; some because they sympathized with the struggle for the liberation of women, others simply because it became fashionable. As early as 1968 Yves Saint-Laurent had shown transparent blouses worn without a bra at his fashion show in Paris. (Thesander 185-7)
 The suggestion that Richard “may rip this stuff off you with his teeth in the throes of passion” perhaps contains an allusion to the term “bodice-rippers,” considered derogatory by authors and readers of romance novels. In this context the fact that Emily’s underwear remains unripped is perhaps a subtle rejection of the term.
 The “baby blue” colour of these underpants contrasts with the darkness of the “black lace crotchless underwear” (23) and perhaps symbolises openness and lack of deceit: Maddie is not ashamed of her relationship with C. L.
 Crusie vigorously challenges this stereotype in some of her later works through her older characters who have extremely active sex-lives. In Anyone But You not only is the heroine older than the hero (forty to his thirty), but her seventy-five-year-old upstairs neighbour, Norma Lynn, quite clearly has an active sex-life. Gwen, the heroine’s mother in Faking It is “only fifty-four” (270) and in the course of the novel has sex with two suitors. Trust Me on This includes a secondary romance between the hero’s aunt, sixty-two-year-old Victoria Prentice, and his boss, fifty-eight-year-old Harry Chase. At one point Victoria is described as standing in front of Harry, her body “curving and warm in black lace, and Harry told himself not to have a heart attack” (86). Victoria may be over sixty, but she’s not over sex or an appreciation of sexy lingerie.
 Cynthie’s lingerie includes a “red silk bra [which] matched the lining of the suit” (153) she was wearing and “a shiny pink bra that was so sheer it was probably illegal in several states” (263).
On July 26th, 2008, the website “Smart Bitches Trashy Books,” which reviews romance novels and related genres, featured a post from Smart Bitch (SB) Sarah, who pondered whether romance novels featuring so-called “plus-size” heroines were “GS v. STA” (“good shit” as opposed to “shit to avoid”). SB Sarah’s concerns are threefold: Problem 1) The heroine diets her way to her Happily Ever After, or HEA, which undercuts the idea that a “plus size” woman can have one; Problem 2) The fat character is a “plucky, plump sidekick,” who does not get an HEA; and Problem 3) The so-called “plus size” heroine gripes about her weight/size throughout the book only to reveal that she is really a size 10 “or some shit like that,” well within the range of “regular” sizes for American women. Over the next two days, readers responded in enough bulk to cover over 100 pages of 8.5” x 11” inch paper when printed out. Readers like the idea of seeing “plus size” heroines in romance, yet feel dissatisfied with nearly all the current examples thereof. Their posts reveal ambivalence not only about the novels, but also about the acceptance of “plus size” people, fictional and real.
The idea of diversifying romances to promote size acceptance by featuring heroines whose bodies may not conform to slender ideals seems praiseworthy enough. Using genre literature for social commentary is not unusual. Science fiction writers (Herbert, Heinlein, F. Paul Wilson, etc.) use alternate realities and futuristic societies to critique contemporary ideologies. Romance authors also tackle social issues at times, as when Suzanne Brockmann includes a gay couple in her “Troubleshooters” series. “Plus size” romances challenge social expectations regarding women’s body sizes and weight to advance the acceptance of real women’s bodies that are larger than the current slender ideal, and whose potential as romantic subjects is typically ignored in popular media.
Though few television shows or movies include women of average size, much less larger than average size, size acceptance is a cultural movement, one with which readers of romance posting in response to SB Sarah seemed to have varying degrees of familiarity. In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, nonfiction size acceptance narratives were published in numerous popular media outlets (Brown), and recent issues of the fashion magazines Allure and Glamour (2009-2010) have included “plus size” models, tips for dressing “at every size,” and fashion advice for women whose size typically excludes them from designer fashion. Susan Stinson, novelist and author of “Fat Girls Need Fiction,” writes eloquently to justify fiction for the purpose of size acceptance:
When I say that fat girls need fiction, I mean that we need to read and encourage the writing of a wide range of fiction about subjects both close to our various hearts and past the edges of our far-reaching imaginations. Beyond the desire to see our own lives and experiences reflected in fiction, we need those habits of mind and heart that deepen empathy with others and broaden our sense of both the just and the possible. (233)
Reader reactions to SB Sarah’s post, as well as the post itself, suggest that though most readers like the idea of extending the range of heroines’ sizes upwards—not an insignificant goal—truly fat women as romantic protagonists are currently “past the edges of” most readers’ imaginations.
The term “plus size” itself is vague and euphemistic, but allows readers to avoid using the “f-word,” fat, and the unpleasant medical term obese. Terms like obese and morbidly obese seem not only fact-based but immutable, when they are instead challenged and changeable. In 1998, for example, the American government changed the Body Mass Index (BMI), and millions shifted categories and became “overweight” or “obese” overnight. Twelve years later, the outcry over that move is mostly forgotten by the general public, but an increasing quantity of research in fat studies from a variety of disciplines suggests that fatness may often be wrongly demonized as a threat to health and longevity (see books by Kolata, Bacon, Campos, and Gaesser for a few examples). Other studies suggest that people whose BMI puts them in the current “overweight” category may actually live longer, in general, than those who are “underweight” or “normal” (http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/87934.php). Many argue that the real threat to fat persons’ health is the widespread prejudice against them, including within health services, and the yo-yo dieting they frequently undertake as a result. A movement towards Health at Every Size (HAES) proposes that fitness and good nutrition are keys to good health, as opposed to weight loss for its own sake. At least one woman posting to the Smart Bitches thread (spinsterwitch) specifically argues from an HAES perspective, and another (Suze) mentions Campos’ book to disagree with equating fatness, high mortality rates and illness. Such voices represent a minority, however. The typical romance reader, based on evidence from reader posts to this thread, seems torn between an emergent HAES perspective and the entrenched rhetoric that certain sizes or weights designated overweight, obese and morbidly obese are always detrimental to one’s physical health and longevity.
Thus, though SB Sarah expresses disappointment that heroines who complain throughout the narrative about being “fat” are revealed to be “a size 10 or some shit like that,” characters who are truly fat are rare in romance novels as well as chick lit. As Lara Frater suggests:
[S]ize 16 is a magical number. It is the maximum socially permitted size of a fat character….Size 16 protects the character, the readers, and the author from the dreaded size 20, where the character has to shop (gasp) at Lane Bryant and won’t find anything at the Gap. Once a character reaches size 20, it seems that they are past the point of self-acceptance and are now considered unhealthy. (236)
As in chick lit, so in romance and on this thread: very few people claim to be larger than a size 20, and even fewer characters in recommended books are described as such. Characters who begin their romance novel at high weights may be perceived as “unhealthily” fat—even if those same characters are not described as exhibiting symptoms of physical impairment or disease based in their weight. Such characters’ weight loss is sometimes seen as self-improvement, a necessary feat to gain their HEA’s. Similarly, many readers mention that they have personally deliberately lost weight or decreased their clothing size.
The term “plus size” makes it unnecessary for an author to delineate a size, a refusal or evasion that SB Sarah praises. One critical poster reveals, in a to-the-point comment that several others agree with, that “[m]ost readers (not all, but most) don’t want to encounter heroines beyond a size 12 any more than they want to encounter heroes and heroines beyond the age of 40” (Wryhag, 26 Jul 2008). Thus some readers put the blame for authorial failure to portray fat women (or older women) squarely on readers’ shoulders.
Authors can’t win for losing. If their characters are truly fat (beyond Frater’s “magical size 16”), many readers may automatically imagine them as unhealthy and/or unattractive and therefore unworthy of a hero’s romantic interest. If their characters are not truly fat, they seem unable to satisfy other readers’ desires to read about characters that break the slender mold. By refusing to mention the exact size of a character, an author allows her readers to imagine whatever they wish to about the heroine’s size, but doing so does not help readers do as they seem to want the novels to do, which is, in Stinson’s terms, “broaden [their] ideas both of the just and the possible.” Many readers no doubt wish to challenge beliefs about fatness, health, and sexuality; readers are also at various stages in the process of accepting or rejecting size/fat acceptance ideals. This forum presented an opportunity to explore pros and cons towards real-life size acceptance via discussion of fictitious size acceptance.
At the very least, romance novel readers live in a society that stigmatizes fat women. Research demonstrates that fat people suffer from prejudicial treatment in the workplace and in social life, including romantic relationships (Baum; Bordo; Joanisse and Synnott; Lerner; Lerner and Gellert; Paulery; Register; Solovay). Indeed, research suggests that men may prefer women who struggle with drug addiction over their larger peers (Sitton and Blanchard). In the corporate world, men whose romantic partners are fat women may be judged badly as potential employees in contrast with men whose partners are slender women (Hebl and Mannix). As a result of this stigma, Samantha Murray puts it succinctly: “We do not talk about fat and sex. The two appear as mutually exclusive” (239). The inclusion of larger women in romance novels addresses and perhaps, as Stinson suggests, helps fight very real fears that readers’ own bodies may render them undesirable in the sexual marketplace or liabilities to male partners.
Yet those same societal constraints make it difficult for readers to imagine fat women (as opposed to women size 16 and under) as romantic heroines. As one reader commented about another reader’s desire to read about a happy, confident fat woman as heroine, “Considering I’ve never met a plus-sized, ‘average,’ or fat woman who isn’t obsessed or concerned or worried about her weight and society’s perceptions about her, I don’t know how realistic this heroine would be” (Jana 26 Jul 2008). Size acceptance novels, in theory, offer readers an opportunity to read about just such a woman, enjoying her body within the context of a faithful heterosexual relationship—a woman who enjoys her body regardless of the fact that it does not meet, or to put it in a more optimistic light, is not constrained by, social expectations about women taking up space and limiting their appetites in order to seduce men. The absence of this heroine from size acceptance literature is revealing about the ambivalence of publishers, authors and readers towards size acceptance and HAES, as well as towards what size acceptance might mean about norms that continue to affect heterosexual relationships, such as the function of women’s bodies as pleasing to men rather than as vehicles of the woman’s own pleasure.
Problem One: Heroines Who Diet Their Way to HEA
The book mentioned most often in response to SB Sarah’s first objection that a heroine must diet her way to her HEA is Susan Donovan’s He Loves Lucy. Donovan’s book was a best-seller published three years prior to the Smart Bitches 2008 post, making it fairly current. The eponymous Lucy works in advertising and public relations. To promote her client, a local gym, she agrees to work with a physical trainer there to lose 100 pounds and to have her weight loss chronicled in the media.
Some readers praised the book because, although Lucy loses a substantial amount of weight, they perceived that Theo, the gorgeous personal trainer hero, falls in love with Lucy before she reaches her target weight:
I’d like to see plus-sized being an ok HEA too, w/o losing weight. But I think at least LUCY addressed some of the issues and insecurites [sic], and did a better job than most books do. It was good for a few chuckles, too, which never hurts. And at least Theo loved her long before she lost the weight, which is more than can be said for a lot of plus-sized books. (Anonym2857 26 Jul 08)
Other readers were not so pleased: “He Loves Lucy was one that angered me because she didn’t get her HEA until she lost weight” (Lori 26 Jul 08).
Textual analysis reveals that Theo gradually falls for Lucy, as she loses weight:
That’s when [Theo] saw an attractive woman seated on the edge of a table, talking on a cell phone, one leg bent, her hair falling in glossy waves…
“Lucy.” Her name came out like a gasp. Theo sat very still, realizing with confusion that his pulse was tripping.
Well, of course it was. He was just surprised. That was all. He was looking at the cumulative effect of a good balance of freestyle, cardio, and core strengthening along with lean protein, complex carbs, and fruits and vegetables.
He was merely reacting to all the changes in her numbers made visible. Her body fat mass was down. Her lean muscle mass was up. She’d lost a bunch of pounds and a bunch of inches from her upper arms, chest, hips, waist, thighs and calves. (Donovan 78)
Though Theo attempts to calm himself by putting Lucy’s startling new attractiveness in numerical terms, and Donovan maintains the humorous tone that keeps her books popular, it is easy to see why some readers would be disappointed. Theo’s attraction to Lucy surprises him, indicating that her body prior to weight loss did not attract him. Also, changes in her body prompt the newfound attraction, not her personality or shared experiences. Theo does not suddenly become attracted to Lucy because she is smart, kind, and funny—Donovan depicts her as all three—but rather because her appearance changes. This scene, arriving well into the book and well after Lucy (and through her, the reader) has noticed Theo’s attractiveness, undercuts the goal of having a “plus size” heroine who attracts the hero. Up until this point, Theo has been concerned that poor Lucy has been making “doe eyes” at him, when he was in the relationship for purely professional reasons.
So, readers who notice that Lucy doesn’t merit the lust of the hero or her HEA until she loses weight are correct. Donovan attempts to address this concern in the final pages. Theo and Lucy discuss their future when she shares her fear: If Theo didn’t love her when she weighed 230 pounds, how can she be sure his love will hold true should she regain the weight? Theo replies:
I liked you back then. You intrigued me. You made me laugh. But I didn’t know you well enough to love you, and you changed so fast that for me to love you at your starting weight it would have to have been love at first sight . . . . Luce, I just love you. You have to trust me on this. I mean, hey, how would it sound if I told you I was worried that you’d leave me if I started going bald? Or when hair started to grow out of my ears like with Uncle Martin? (332)
The narrative deflects from the issue of the “plus size” woman and the potential rejection she faces in romance real and fictitious, onto the bodily quirks that might someday appear on the heretofore-perfect body of the hero. Theo also never says he was attracted to her fat body. Lucy remains dissatisfied with Theo’s answer until he proves he intended to propose before she lost all of the weight. Meanwhile, Theo continues to appraise Lucy’s body right up to the final lovemaking scene: “[H]e loved her gorgeous ass and the two little dimples at the base of her spine, and her shoulders—so straight and strong—and the way her waist curved in just at the flare of her hips” (329). Borrowing from Laura Mulvey, we might say that the novel focuses on Lucy’s “to-be-looked-at-ness,” rather than primarily on Lucy’s pleasure in her own sexual feelings. He Loves Lucy reinforces the notion that, even to have the pleasure of being enjoyed, women must achieve an ideal slenderness.
By reassuring Lucy—and the readers who may identify with her fears—that Theo both loved and will love Lucy regardless of her size, the book gives some hope to real-life “plus size” readers and may thereby have staked its claim to popularity. The book also, however, reassures readers that weight loss like Lucy’s is possible and desirable. Though readers may readily identify with Lucy’s body image concerns and the trouble inherent in changing one’s body so radically, He Loves Lucy hardly seems to advance the cause of accepting “plus size” women as heroines in romance. By the end of the novel, there is no “plus size” heroine. At best, Donovan’s novel asserts that “plus size” women can fulfill their fantasies on all three romance novel accounts: the achievement of being beautiful (at least to the hero); a satisfying romantic/sexual relationship; and the career success that is the contemporary romance answer to marrying the hero of historical romances, who so often possesses wealth, if not an aristocratic title. Yet the book suggests that they may do so only by first losing weight.
Problem Three: Whiny Heroines Who Aren’t That Big
Although SB Sarah mentions a second problem, that the fat character is only a friend to the heroine, no reader remarks on that topic on the list. Many readers do respond to the third issue of the heroine who complains excessively about her weight, especially when readers perceive that the character is of average rather than larger-than-average size. One romance mentioned by three separate readers as an example of a good “plus size” romance was Cathie Linz’ Big Girls Don’t Cry. Linz’ novel features Leena Riley, who has returned to her hometown after failing to be successful as a “plus size” model. Although such models are usually really a size 10 or 12 (still one size smaller than the average American woman’s size 14) and so fall into the category SB Sarah laments, Leena is perceived by other characters in the book as larger than average. One female character even viciously berates Leena for her body shape and calls her “fat” each time they meet.
Despite the fact that Leena now works at the front desk in a veterinarian’s office, her putative success as a model seems to make all her female relatives and friends eager to discuss body image as a pressing social problem. One conversationalist mentions that she “read a recent study that showed eighty percent of ten-year-olds worry about their weight . . . Society does that. These kids view celebrities who are painfully thin and think that’s what they should look like. Skeletons. It’s so unhealthy” (163). While it is not unrealistic to imagine women discussing the effects media images have on children, especially considering the overwhelming response to this thread on “Smart Bitches,” a well-informed discussion is replayed almost every time Leena’s career is mentioned, making body image woes central to the novel. This tactic seemed to annoy some readers. One woman who mentioned it as a good book still noted that the novel “irked [her] because [she] felt like [Linz] banged the reader upside the head with the ‘love your body’ message, but it was refreshing to see a plus-sized heroine in a romance novel” (Aubrey Curry, 28 Jul 2008). Clearly, any social message about diversity must be more obviously subservient to the goal of entertainment and fantasy-fulfillment for this reader.
Even as conversations about the importance of representing “plus size” women in the media build Leena as a heroine whose body and would-be career challenge the slender ideal, Leena herself seems constrained by body image issues in ways that restrict the sensuality of the novel. She sneaks food, a potential sign of disordered eating. She also agonizes during lovemaking:
She liked focusing on him. It prevented her from worrying about her own body and what he might think of it. She wanted to come to him as an all-powerful Goddess of Love, but the reality was that confidence was still something she faked sometimes. Like now. He sure helped matters by being so irresistible.
What woman could turn away? Which got her thinking about the other women . . . whom he’d seen naked. All of them probably skinnier than she was.
She took a step away. (253-4)
Leena’s self-doubt, while perhaps realistic, inhibits her enjoyment of the sex that the genre promises will be fantasy-fulfilling, interfering with readers’ potential pleasure in the novel. Linz’ novel realistically depicts the difficulty Leena has in her role as “plus size” heroine, but simultaneously calls into question the legitimacy of feeling beautiful and sexy at any size, or even at a slightly less than average size. Like He Loves Lucy, Big Girls Don’t Cry focuses on the “to-be-looked-at-ness” of the heroine rather than her pleasure in her (big) body.
Readers’ personal examples confirm that Leena Riley’s thoughts accurately reflect the body image concerns of real readers. They also tend to confirm that having fat or “plus size” women in romances, enjoying the pleasures promised by the genre, would help many real women feel better about their own bodies during sex. For instance, when Jana opines that
If women are looking to their fiction to feel better about themselves, and they need “average” looking women to attain that—that’s a problem. You can have all the fat women you want in a book or movie happily fucking away with no regard to their appearance, but that won’t actually make anyone feel good about their own bodies or lives if they didn’t already have that confidence to begin with. (26 Jul 2008),
other readers quickly disagree, including Esri Rose, who believes “[i]t would be great if our confidence about our looks were completely separate from what society considers attractive, but I don’t know of any culture where it is. I think [the scenario you describe] would make a huge difference” (26 Jul 2008). Jana’s comment not only dismisses size acceptance in romance novels as a viable route to size or self-acceptance, but also seems to equate being fat to having “no regard to” one’s appearance, which suggests typical stereotypes of fat people as being lazy. Other posts suggest that women claiming “plus size” status care very much about their appearance as well as health. The online conversation among real women about “plus size” heroines thus parallels the fictional conversations and self-doubts in Linz’ novel, where female characters have different degrees of size acceptance, and therefore different reactions to Leena’s body and heroine status.
Readers also debate popular beliefs about fatness, which some, like Gail, hold as true. Gail argues that the novel He Loves Lucy initially depicts Lucy as unhealthy, and posits that there are healthy “curvy” bodies and “unhealthy fat” bodies. She likes Donovan’s book because it seems to her that Lucy’s quest is for greater control over her life overall, which is manifested initially through her desire to lose weight (Gail 26 Jul 2008). Other readers use physical descriptions of themselves as evidence to support the opposing argument that people can be classified as “overweight” and be both sexy and healthy. These readers cite their own height and weight statistics, defend themselves as healthy, and claim to be in fulfilling sexual relationships, to argue that “plus size” romances are realistic, not mere fantasy or wish fulfillment, and therefore are worth reading when written well. One woman even posts “pictorial proof” that her measurements don’t equate to a perception of fatness (Angelia Sparrow 26 Jul 2008).
The nature of a thread like this is that some readers will respond to particular posts on particular issues, and ignore others, perhaps because those other posts did not appear online until after she had already begun a reply/post, or for any number of reasons. However, it becomes clear as one reads the posts on this topic, in order, that those who argue that fat is unhealthy and those who argue from an HAES perspective do not respond to each other equally. For example, Cat Marsters writes:
I’m not generally a fan of the plus-sized heroine, because quite often it just seems to be a shorthand for saying it’s okay to be fat. Well . . . again this depends on your definition of fat, but hands up who actually thinks it’s a good idea? Any doctor will tell you it’s unhealthy. Unhealthy and sexy are really unmixy things. (27 Jul 2008)
Other posts later react against her post and similar ideas, using personal evidence to the contrary, but Cat Marsters and other similar posters do not reply to defend their anti-fat views. When Jennifer Armintrout claims to be a fat woman (not “plus size” or “curvy”), only others like spinsterwitch who espouse an HAES perspective seem to reply.
Other than a vocal and not-to-be-ignored minority who already had a pro-size-acceptance mentality, then, authors and readers alike generally—though not universally—accept moving the range of accepted sizes for heroines up, but not embracing fat bodies above a certain point. While doing valuable work for women in a range of sizes, such reader narratives of personal size acceptance still, perhaps paradoxically, marginalize other, fatter women.
In “Deterritorializing the Fat Female Body,” Jana Evans Braziel theorizes that the fat female body is “defined by a benign asexuality that is marked by a paucity of representation and exists as the unrepresentable, or near-representable (that which is located on the margins of representability), because of an exclusion that [she] calls the corporeal mark of absence . . . [This] is difficult to grasp, because it renders visible what does not appear to be present at all” (232-3). Braziel suggests that the absence of images of the fat female body actually “evoke[s the fat female body] as outside the frame of signification and representation, while remaining structurally present” (233). Braziel illustrates by describing a lean cover model on a magazine promoting a diet plan; a fat woman’s body is present as an absence justifying the idea of dieting to look like the thin model. A recent issue of Fitness magazine (July/August 2010) provides a real-world example. A lean woman in a bathing suit smiles at viewers while bold black type proclaims “Slim. Sexy. Confident!” The (absent) fat woman is the opposite of the thin woman’s body and, one must assume, every adjective used to define her. For viewers/readers of the magazine, desiring to be(come) like the slim woman by adopting methods recommended within the magazine’s pages is a simultaneous rejection of the absent, unrepresented fat female body—the body they want to be(come) unlike, the body that does not merit anyone’s gaze.
Fat women’s bodies are similarly at the edge of the discussion on “Smart Bitches,” as when SB Sarah laments fictional women who complain about their size but are really only a size 10. Because few women escape body image consternation and fear of fat, a size 10 still isn’t big enough to be viewed as fat, it still isn’t even the average woman’s size in the US, much less the kind of fat that finds ridicule and disgust in the public sphere. Size 10 doesn’t break what Frater calls the “size 20 glass ceiling” (240). Here, contrast may be useful. In “Locating Aesthetics: Sexing the Fat Female Body,” Samantha Murray opens with personal narrative that describes her feelings as a fat woman listening to a story of the brutal gang beating of another fat woman:
I sat in the audience, listening to this story in horror. I suddenly became acutely aware of my own fat bulges and folds. I imagined every eye in the room on me, shaking their heads in pity, revulsion and even morbid curiosity. I pulled my shirt surreptitiously away from the bulges of my belly and my hips, trying to separate the appearance from the reality. I shifted in my chair, and felt my cheeks burn hot and my stomach churn. I was angry, so angry, so humiliated for the fat girl who had suffered . . . she was just a girl, a girl like I was and had been, and she had been made into a ravenous, libidinous, ridiculous creature. And yet I was ashamed. I was aware of the disgust my body inspired, its complete unacceptability and invisibility in the sexual domain, apart from as a figure of ridicule. (238)
Murray’s argument is similar to Braziel’s: the fat woman is expected to be asexual and therefore unrepresented; when she dares to become sexual, her sexuality may be viewed as hypersexual, her appetites for pleasures, both alimentary and sexual, grotesque. By describing her conflicted feelings and describing her body itself, Murray places herself in the category of the fat woman. Very few who post personal information to the thread about “plus size” romance are similarly staking a claim to that category and arguing that their fat bodies, replete with “bulges and folds,” are attractive and healthy. Instead, they reject the fat female body by leaving it unvoiced, or by refusing to respond to voices claiming it, even to argue against those voices. Their silence confirms what Murray goes on to argue:
We do not almost plough into the car in front of us as we ogle a billboard displaying a fat woman in lacy lingerie. We do not gaze lasciviously at a bulbous bottom in tight jeans. We do not fantasize about the fleshy jiggles and wobbles of a fat body in the throes of sexual passion.
Some of us might. But most of us do not. Or at least we know we are not supposed to. (239)
The comparative “silence” that greets most of the posts from women who use the word fat to describe themselves without indicating regret or an intention of losing weight bolsters Murray’s assertion that to believe a fat female body is sexy is to transgress social norms.
The minority of fat-positive readers posting to the list are, on the other hand, extremely “vocal.” Several express frustration with arguments that fatness necessarily equates to unhealthiness. In particular, such readers argue with WandaSue, who describes her different experiences and reading habits and implies that others’ posts are mere bravado. WandaSue notes that she used to be a diabetic size 16 at 5’0”, but is now a happier, healthier size 6. She indicates that she formerly read “plus size” fiction but now refuses to spend her time and money on such novels. Several readers reply directly to WandaSue. One, Stephanie, suggests that WandaSue has missed the point: “[w]e don’t care what size you are. We care what books you read.” And WandaSue suggests in turn that Stephanie has missed the point: readers read and enjoy romances based partly on what they wish to identify with and hope for:
When I was a Size 16, there existed inside of me a very wistful and hopeful Size 6 . . . but if anybody asked me, I’d deny it til [sic] I was blue with indignation. I told myself—and anybody patient enough to care—that I was “happy” and “content” and “secure” being fat. (Deep inside, I wasn’t).
So I’d read the “Plus size” heroine romances to feed that sentiment, and searched high and low for a heroine with whom I could identify—and who could validate my fatness. It fed the fantasy OF THAT TIME IN MY LIFE. (Emphasis hers, 27 Jul 2008)
WandaSue’s comments are perceived as hurtful to the many others who have described their own bodies (Spider 27 Jul 2008; Stephanie 27 Jul 2008). WandaSue’s comments refute not only the boldest “fat = sexy and healthy” claims. She also denies the many others who identify with “plus size” heroines the (sexy, confident) status of the Fitness cover model they covet and claim. She implies by her example that many other readers inwardly acknowledge their kinship with the unrepresentable and unrepresented fat woman whose absence and asexuality underlie their desire to ally themselves with the smaller, thinner women who grace the covers of magazines and romance novels alike. Reading “plus size” romances, she seems to say, makes other readers look fat.
The covers of “plus size” romances also refuse to depict the large(r) female body, more evidence for the ambivalence of readers and publishers towards those bodies. The absence and veiling of women’s bodies in size acceptance literature is actually typical (Brown 248), suggesting that reading about and discussing “plus size” women is one thing, and looking at them is another, more difficult thing to do. Some novel covers depict what appear to be standard cover models, despite the description offered within the narrative of a heroine with a larger-than-typical-cover-model body. The model depicting Josie of Eloisa James’ Pleasure for Pleasure, for example, is not distinguishably “curvier” than the models used to depict Josie’s sisters on their novels’ covers. Other covers depict only images or cartoons of women’s feet or calves, and these body parts are never obviously those of a “plus size” woman. Some cartoons, like the cover for Julie Ortolon’s novel Too Perfect, depict nearly the entire body, yet suggest a slender rather than a “plus size” body. Despite the fact that He Loves Lucy focuses on the heroine’s dietary restrictions, the cover features cupcakes.
To be fair, many contemporary romance covers avoid physical representations of the heroine altogether and instead suggest the feminine focus of the story through use of pastel colors, fonts whose curlicues suggest femininity, and/or images of accessories, such as shoes.
The disappearance of couples on the covers of romances is a trend that predates the emergence of the “plus size” romance subgenre. It seems the desire to escape the “bodice ripper” image of previous generations of romance novels has led to fewer images of heroines on the book covers overall. The message sent by the covers of “plus size” romances is therefore ambiguous, suggesting in some ways that the “plus size” romance is no different than a typical romance but simultaneously suggesting that a “plus size” woman could not sell a romance novel if she appeared on the cover. Similarly, only about half of the plot summaries on the back covers or inside flaps of “plus size” romances suggest that the heroine is a “plus size” woman.
Good for the Gander?
SB Sarah’s post about “plus size” women in chick lit and romance prompts a related reader concern, the issue of whether “plus size” heroes would be welcome, and therefore whether or not readers who prefer “plus size” heroines are holding up a gendered double standard. AnimeJune is the first to pose the question: “Should we have fat heroes then?” The double standard question becomes a key point that many posts revolve around, as readers struggle to recall heroes who were not tall, muscular and/or lean, and handsome, regardless of the size and shape of the heroine. Very few heroes are recommended as such, though many readers claim they have physically imperfect but sexy male partners themselves in real life and would be happy to read about the same in romance novels.
Among the books surveyed for this project, from a variety of romance genres including contemporary, historical, romantic thrillers, and paranormal, none of the heroes could remotely be described as “plus size.” Over and over, the hero is tall and muscular, with chiseled features and a full head of hair. The only variations in mainstream heroes tend to be chest hair (yes or no), scars (yes or no), hair length, and hair and eye color. Just to prove the point, here are a trio of descriptions of heroes in romances with “plus size” heroines, beginning with an excerpt from an Eloisa James’ Regency romance: “[B]efore she could say anything, he stripped off his shirt as well . . . He was all smooth, sharp-cut muscle, beautifully defined” (Pleasure for Pleasure 92).
The following is a description of the hero of Sherrilyn Kenyon’s supernatural romance, Night Play: “Oh, dear heaven! Bride couldn’t breathe as she had her first look at his bared chest. She’d known he had a great body, but this . . . It exceeded anything from her dreams. His broad shoulders tapered to a washboard stomach that could do enough laundry for an entire nation. Forget six-pack, this man had eight, and they rippled with every breath he took” (39). Finally, Lisa Kleypas’ historical romance heroine in Suddenly You views the hero nude for the first time:
Devlin was as sleek and muscular as the black-and-gold tiger she had seen on exhibition at the park menagerie. Divested of his clothes, he seemed even larger, his broad shoulders and long torso looming before her . . . . His midriff was scored with rows of muscle. She had seen statues . . . of the male body, but nothing had ever conveyed this sense of warm, living strength, this potent virility. (103)
While the time period and narrative style of these novels varies, the hero’s requisite physical leanness remains the same. Intriguingly, not all the criticism of this aspect of the books is aimed at the obvious double standard, but is instead launched at its believability. JenB writes, “I’m plus size, and I don’t see the ‘plus size girl gets the super mega hottie’ storyline as realistic” (26 Jul 2008). She also suggests that the truth is that attractiveness in heterosexual couples is usually the reverse, with the female partner being more attractive than the male.
In typical romance novels featuring heroines with slender figures, the hero’s requisite height and muscularity is often juxtaposed against the heroine’s fragility or delicacy. In the “plus size” romance, the hero’s muscularity is similarly juxtaposed against the heroine’s softness. She is “all woman—with sexy curves” (Linz 50) and “abundant pink-and-white flesh” (Kleypas 325), while he is rigid and powerful. Such opposition parallels sexual organs during arousal, a synecdochal way of implying both partners are physically aroused without necessitating terms for body parts that may make some readers of mainstream romance uncomfortable. Such complementary body part descriptions (soft/hard, abundant/lean, curvy/rigid) make the heroine and her hero right for each other, as authors are quick to point out in scene after scene. Thus the heteronormative assumption that, for successful pleasure, male and female bodies ought to have complementary rather than similar physical characteristics is maintained into the “plus size” romance subgenre.
Perhaps no novelist makes clearer exactly how inappropriate the paunchy hero is for his role than Eloisa James. James’ novels deliberately feature diverse heroine body types, from the slender and small-breasted to the plump and well-endowed. Enter Josie, the heroine of Pleasure for Pleasure, whose tendency to dress her plump body unwisely in fashionable corsets earns her the nickname “the Scottish sausage” on London’s aristocratic marriage market—until, that is, the Earl of Mayne, who thinks of her as “ripe and delicious as a peach” (147), teaches her to dress her figure seductively and use her voluptuous body to flirt. Josie fits into the category of the woman who whines about her size—through several books featuring her elder sisters no less—but she isn’t really fat if a change of garment can miraculously render her irresistible to so many men. While helping Josie learn the seductive arts, the Pygmalion-like Mayne predictably falls for her. Mayne, however, is lean. His body is repeatedly described as elegant but muscular, sleek and hard; he features in several of James’ novels as a sought-after bachelor before finally meeting his match in Josie.
By contrast, two characters in other James books demonstrate the problems associated with fat male characters. The first of these is Rafael, the Duke of Holbrook, the guardian of Josie the Scottish Sausage and her sisters throughout the series of four books that detail the sisters’ romances. Initially, Rafe—as the duke obligingly allows his friends to call him—drinks to mask his pain at the death of his older brother. Grief-stricken, he overlooks his duties and appearance, as his flabby gut attests and threadbare clothing implies. Rafe’s interest in life is renewed when he must care for his four female wards, including Imogen, with whom he is destined for romance. In The Taming of the Duke, Rafe realizes he must resist the temptation to drink heavily. He begins to exercise by horseback riding and other activities, and he loses the gut. Finally sober and appropriately muscled for a duke of such wealth, he woos Imogen, who believes herself in love with the Duke’s illegitimate younger brother:
Imogen stared at Rafe. He had the same dusting of black stubble that he always had by noon, but the skin of his cheeks was pink and healthy, and his eyes didn’t have that half-awake, hooded look that he used to have. He shook back a fall of chestnut brown hair, smiling up at the sky . . . . He was a beautiful man . . . . [S]he couldn’t help noticing the way his old shirt pulled free of his trousers as he leaped. What happened to that gut that used to hang over his trousers? Could it have disappeared in a mere few weeks? Because now that body looked as lean and hard as his brother’s . . . even more so, perhaps. (265)
Rafe merits the sexual regard of his paramour only after a physical and mental transformation. Though Josie needs only to work with her curves more adeptly through fashion and flirtation, Rafe must make physical alterations to earn his HEA. While Josie’s softness is revealed to be feminine and therefore appropriately sexy in the heteronormative world of these novels, Rafe’s initial physical softness is inappropriate and marks him as weak.
In another novel, Duchess in Love, James experiments with another fat male character, here not the hero. Miles is the husband of a secondary heroine, Esme Rawlings, whose real romance will occur in a later James novel. Miles and Esme agree their sex lives are better fulfilled elsewhere. Miles has a mistress whom he loves, and Esme has several affairs, earning her the nickname “Infamous Esme,” yet both want a legitimate heir to Miles’ estate. The fat Miles’ physical repulsiveness to Esme is the subject of much query in the book. She wonders if she can bear to have him on top of her long enough to get through the sex act. Finally, they manage intercourse that goes completely undescribed; sex with a fat man is as unrepresentable as the fat female body. When one of Esme’s admirers bolts into the boudoir after the coupling is complete, Miles dies, his fragile heart unable to bear the strain of intercourse followed by the shock of an intruder entering at night. Like Rafe’s, Miles’ fatness is a sign of physical weakness and of his obvious unsuitability to be the hero. This unsuitability justifies Esme’s sexual affairs with unnamed other men when ordinarily the heroine of a romance is expected to maintain chastity unless and until her hero claims her. Visible fat, for men in a romance novel at least, is a sign of something mentally and/or physically wrong, whereas the “curvy” and “lush” heroine is a creature on the brink of seductive discovery.
Although none of the readers posting to “Smart Bitches” comments on this, the virtual nonexistence of the fat hero even in “plus size” romance may stem not merely from women fantasizing more readily or often about heroes with six- (or eight-?) pack abs and a full head of hair. Indeed, many readers describe in their posts that they find their own lovers’ and husbands’ “flaws” sexy. It is difficult not to argue that another reason fat or merely chubby heroes are absent is the hypocrisy, if not of readers, then at least of authors and/or publishers. Heroes with “a gut” are absent even in books by Elizabeth Hoyt, whose trilogy of romances (The Raven Prince, The Serpent Prince, The Leopard Prince) are noted by “Smart Bitches” readers for containing not-so-handsome heroes, including a pock-marked, big-nosed Earl.
This absence stems partly from perception of the hero as trophy. A traditional HEA, from fairy tale to Jane Eyre to Disney cartoon to contemporary romance novel, includes true love and passion, as well as a resolution of whatever issue provided the other narrative element in the book (such as a mystery), plus career satisfaction and/or wealth. Generally, the hero is expected to aid in the resolution of other narrative issues while providing the love/passion and at least some of the money. If a “plus size” heroine were to receive a hero who could be perceived as somehow less than the typical hero, then the “plus size” heroine may be perceived by readers as correspondingly less deserving than the dainty lasses on the cover of most of the books. Such deficiency might undercut the social goal of including a diversity of body types in the first place. However, viewing a lean hero as the only possible physical specimen who can be a trophy for the heroine betrays a size-ist bias.
Conclusions: Everybody Loves Crusie
One book seemed to please nearly all the readers on this thread who mention it: Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie. Why so beloved? Crusie’s novel sidesteps nearly every trope discussed and denigrated by SB Sarah and the readers of “Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.”
Heroine Min Dobbs is halfheartedly trying to lose weight to fit into a bridesmaid’s dress for her sister’s wedding, an attempt lamented by every character in the book with whom readers are encouraged to relate, and advocated by characters readers are encouraged to dislike, including Min’s controlling mother and her unappreciative ex-boyfriend. If Lucy in Donovan’s novel seems expected to lose weight to earn her HEA, Min is expected to realize that she is sexy as is to earn her HEA.
No specifics of Min’s size, such as weight or height, are offered, only varied characters’ opinions on whether Min is voluptuous or fat. Min seems to occupy the border territory many readers are concerned with pushing into the country perceived as healthy, sexy and confident. The debate over Min’s size grounds the novel in a reality most of the readers who post to “Smart Bitches” can appreciate, in which the range of acceptably sexy body sizes is under debate and subject to change.
Crusie’s novel completely avoids any hint that her heroine must or even should lose weight to earn the hero’s sexual attention. The (gorgeous, lean) hero, Cal, is a gourmand with a friend in the restaurant business. Cal is in no way put off by Min’s body or appetite, but rather thoroughly aroused by both, and put off instead by her grumpiness. Readers know what Cal doesn’t: Min’s grumpiness stems from having overheard Cal make a bet with Min’s ex that Cal can easily get Min to go to bed with him. Cal, the perfect mate for Min, redresses her grumpiness by offering her food—the good stuff—once he learns that doing so not only appeases her short temper but also arouses him by causing Min to sigh and swoon suggestively. Crusie’s narration emphasizes all forms of pleasure. When Min’s attempt at cooking a low-fat version of an Italian classic goes predictably awry, Cal scoffs and brings her a proper dinner they both enjoy.
By encouraging Min’s dietary as well as sexual desires, and enjoying her body and her pleasure, Cal validates feminine desires often seen as taboo or subjugated to patriarchal norms. In contrast, books like He Loves Lucy and Big Girls Don’t Cry present a less feminine-centered view of pleasure. Readers themselves sigh and swoon over a scene in which Cal feeds Min a Krispy Kreme doughnut. Although the narration is at this moment from Cal’s perspective, the scene allows readers to interpret Min’s physical feelings while glimpsing Min as desirable through Cal’s eyes:
[H]e popped another piece of doughnut in her mouth and watched as her lips closed over the sweetness. Her face was beautifully blissful, her mouth soft and pouted, her full lower lip glazed with icing, and as she teased the last of the chocolate from her lip, Cal heard a rushing in his ears. The rush became a whisper—THIS one—and he breathed deeper, and before she could open her eyes, he leaned in and kissed her, tasting the chocolate and the heat of her mouth, and she froze for a moment and then kissed him back, sweet and insistent, blanking out all coherent thought. He let the taste and the scent and the warmth of her wash over him, drowning in her, and when she finally pulled back, he almost fell into her lap.
She sat across from him…her dark eyes flashing, wide awake, her lush lips parted, open for him, and then she spoke.
“More,” she breathed and he looked into her eyes and went for her. (90)
Min first gets what she wants without asking and then asks for what she wants and receives it. By contrast, Leena Riley’s timid passion for her hero, and desire to please him in order to feel worthy, come across as tepid; her frequent, guilty snacking when she is alone and depressed seem decidedly lacking in fantasy fulfillment when viewed against Cal’s intimate feeding of Min. Similarly, Theo’s surprised internal description of the lower-fat version of Lucy seem less likely to evoke reader pleasure than Cal’s besotted description of kissing an impassioned Min. The emphasis on how things feel versus look in this passage is typical of the book overall, which avoids portraying Min’s body mostly as object “to be looked at” by Cal. There is something to be said in favor of the alternative strategy, which would be representing the fat(ter?) body through description as a challenge to the imagination and willingness to represent that body, though given the responses on “Smart Bitches,” such a strategy may be received as too transgressive to be popular.
Still, Crusie’s novel does persuasively suggest that Min is a larger than average woman who does not lose weight yet enjoys sex. There is never a doubt that Cal desires and deserves Min. Readers know what Min doesn’t: he never wanted to make the bet about bedding her, and isn’t trying to win money by so doing. He really just wants her, which is the stuff that romance is made of.
The novel acknowledges Min’s social situation as a potential fat person through unique situations rather than endless inner turmoil for the heroine or endless discussions of how morally improving it is to see a larger-than-average woman’s body in the media. Cal likes Min and thinks she’s attractive, while observing in a confused way that other people don’t necessarily find her so. He discusses his perplexity with his lesbian neighbor, Shanna. These conversations are held out of Min’s earshot—but well within that of readers, of course. Shanna helps Cal understand Min’s insecurities about dating a man who is considered as physically desirable as Cal, and Shanna simultaneously provides a second sexual character who sees how outrageously sexy Min is but does not vie with Cal for Min because Min is heterosexual. Those conversations combine romantic ideals (Cal doesn’t see Min as in any way lacking) with reality (Shanna, a woman, understands Min’s social situation). In this way, readers overhear someone in the novel explain that the dating world does unfortunately work against plump women, but it isn’t Min lamenting the cruel world and thus risking heroine status by becoming too whiny, or by putting herself too firmly in the category of fat woman.
Bet Me also avoids over-reliance on physical opposition and instead stresses that both hero and heroine have complementary personality traits, traits that others perceive as flaws. Both Cal and Min stand up for each other against families who don’t appreciate their assets. In Min’s case, Cal insists that she dress to reveal rather than conceal her shape, despite her mother’s wishes that Min would camouflage her body. His appreciation of Min in these new clothes helps Min feel sensual rather than tyrannized anew in her wardrobe selections. In return, Min stands up against Cal’s uptight, wealthy parents in defense of his choice not to go into the family legal practice. Thus, Crusie shrewdly avoids featuring Cal as the hero who rescues Min from a sex-less fate as a “plus size” woman, because Min also rescues Cal. The reciprocity seems emotionally more satisfying to readers than reliance on typical descriptions of the soft female body pressed against rigid masculinity. In fact, Crusie’s descriptions of the couple’s sexual interaction avoids describing their bodies in physical detail while focusing instead, as in the quote above, on gestures, reactions, and feelings.
Finally, the book is full of women thinner and/or younger, but unhappier and far whinier and less virtuous than Min, who possesses confidence and smarts, as well as the traditional Cinderella-like virtues of patience, generosity, and self-control, which all earn her the eventual pleasure and security she feels in her relationship with Cal. The book seems to have just enough body image paranoia and family/friendship issues to feel realistic, and enough allusions to fairy tales and enough sexual attraction overcoming insecurity to put it in the realm of fantasy. As one reader concluded, “I think Bet Me has become my major comfort novel when I think the whole world is being crappy to me” (Vivian, 26 Jul 2008).
Crusie’s novel suggests a “plus size” romance that is successful with readers will find ways to sidestep the tropes identified and bemoaned by SB Sarah and the many readers who commiserated. Not only was Bet Me celebrated on this thread, but it is also included in lists of good “plus size” romance created by enamored readers on Amazon.com and elsewhere. Finding new ways to avoid similar authorial missteps may therefore be key to any novelist hoping for economic success in this sub-genre that promotes Happily Ever Afters for women of size.
As Kathleen LeBesco points out, it may not be possible to change social standards of beauty without “producing [a] subset of unthinkable, unlivable and abject bodies” (5). When readers of magazines targeted towards “plus size” readers called larger women “real women,” for example, there were occasional outcries that petite and slim women were also “real.”
Frater, in her discussion of chick lit, argues in favor of its efficacy for fat acceptance, despite the “size 20 glass ceiling” and other failures. For one thing, she notes, fat bodies are virtually invisible everywhere else in the media (240). “Plus size” romance novels similarly adhere to problematic tropes, in part because their readers seem unready to accept truly fat bodies, female or male, as sexual bodies. Yet these novels still promote the health and attractiveness of bodies larger than those of the slender models and actresses whose images are so ubiquitous in popular media. The eager responses to the “Smart Bitches” post suggest, too, that in the reading and considering these novels, women of many shapes and sizes are encouraged to stake claims to being sexy and confident and healthy, and to imagine pleasurably inclusive possibilities.
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 The term “plus size” usually refers to women’s clothing sizes (American) above the range of 0-16, but there is some overlap between “regular” and “plus” sizes; for example, the “plus size” clothing store Lane Bryant sells sizes 14+, and many “regular” department store sizes go up to 16 or 18.
 Women who respond to this blog maintain the term “plus size” to describe men, but clothing stores typically refer to men whose sizes fall above those considered “normal” as “big and tall.”
 At least one reader mentions The Raven Prince, by Elizabeth Hoyt (Grand Central Publishing, 2006), in which the hero is described as ugly and pock-marked, with a large nose. The heroine, though not fat, is also described as an average-looking rather than beautiful woman. The hero, however, is in every other way a typical hero: tall and muscular and has a full head of dark hair.
 James posts monthly updates to her website section of “Books to Love.” Her September 2005 post praises two books on body image issues, including a romance by Elizabeth Bevarly entitled You’ve Got Mail. In her post, James writes “I’m tired of perfect heroines. Surely I’m not the only one? I love romance; I really do. But if there’s one thing I don’t like about it (other than the manifest truth that my marriage doesn’t seem as perfect as the ones I create in fiction), it’s all these perfect women. Perfect teeth. Perfect waists. Perfects breasts — that goes without saying” (http://www.eloisajames.com/pillow.php?id=84).
 Shanna’s presence as lesbian is not only non-threatening to Min and Cal’s relationship, but also may be Crusie’s nod to the lesbian community’s generally more accepting attitude toward women with diverse body shapes. A few readers also note that lesbian romances seem to include more body size diversity with less anxiety than a heterosexual “plus size” romance.
 Cal is also dyslexic, which disturbs his family though of course Min is untroubled by it and explains how the condition, combined with being a younger son, would make Cal less likely to pursue his father and brother’s profession.