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A Masculine Romance: The Sentimental Bloke and Australian Culture in the War- and Early Interwar Years
by Melissa Bellanta

In 1915, the Australian poet and journalist C. J. Dennis published a book of verse called The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke. When read in sequence, the verse told a love story about an uncultivated young man, Bill, and his sweetheart, Doreen, who worked in a [End Page 1] Melbourne pickle factory. Though written in verse, the narrative was what we might now call a romantic comedy. Its humor sprang from the fact that Bill was the antithesis of a romantic type, yet he proved himself a hopeless romantic just the same. In the parlance of the day, Bill was an Australian “larrikin.” He was a young rowdy from the city who spent most of his time fighting, gambling, drinking and street-hawking – yet by the end of the narrative he had transformed into a loving husband and family man. Told in the first person by Bill, the work proved enormously popular. It sold prodigiously during the First World War, prompting Dennis to write four spin-off works over the following decade. Over that period, the currency of The Sentimental Bloke (as it became known) grew rather than waned. It became a multi-media phenomenon, comprising a silent film and travelling stage musical, and it was frequently recited on radio and in concert halls.

Crucial to the success of The Sentimental Bloke was the fact that it was a masculine romance. It was a love story expressing heterosexual romantic feeling from a male point of view and in a self-consciously masculine way. As such it touched a cultural nerve. The war and early interwar years were rife with confusion about men’s relationship to women and romance. Australian men had been expected to be warriors during the war, but upon return were expected to transform into caring spouses (Garton). Romantic Hollywood leads such as Rudolph Valentino became celebrities in early interwar Australia, admired for their sophistication and charm (Matthews 4; Teo 2012: 1). At the same time, however, prominent voices such as the bohemian artist and writer, Norman Lindsay, decried romantic love as feminine and marriage as suffocating to men (Forsyth 59). The Bloke helped audiences to navigate these conflicting messages. It insisted that it was possible for a modern Australian man to be romantic without compromising his masculinity, provided he did so in a sufficiently straightforward manner and steered clear of “Yankee” suavity.

The content and reception of The Sentimental Bloke requires us to think more subtly about the relationship between Australian masculinity and romantic sentimentality across the early decades of the 1900s. Chiefly, it requires us to give more credence to Australian men’s interest in certain forms of romantic popular culture, and to masculine constructions of romantic feeling, than most previous scholars have allowed. Yet Australianists are not the only ones who will benefit from contemplating The Sentimental Bloke. In the field of romance studies at large, romantic love is still largely treated as “feminized love,” to borrow Anthony Giddens’ phrase (43). As things stand, the phrases “masculine romance” and “masculine sentimentality” function almost as oxymorons within romance studies – the key exceptions being in a few discussions of homosexual romance (eg. Shuggart and Waggoner 26–7). My hope is that this discussion will prompt romance scholars to take more interest in masculine romance, and to consider in particular how this relationship developed in the war and early interwar years.

The multi-media phenomenon of The Sentimental Bloke

Almost as soon as it hit the bookstores in late 1915, it was apparent that The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke (later shortened to The Sentimental Bloke) held a powerful popular appeal. Dennis had engaged in canny publicity for The Bloke in the preceding years, [End Page 2] publishing a few poems about Bill in an earlier work (“The Sentimental Bloke”, Bulletin). The publicity paid off because by 1920 approximately 110,000 copies of the book had sold in Australasia and the United Kingdom (McLaren 92). That was an astonishing figure for any Australian work given the country’s population was less than five million at the time. Yet it hardly represented the total number of those familiar with its verse. Reports of The Bloke being read aloud in workplaces, performed on recital stages, borrowed from the New South Wales Bookstall Company Library and handed around among Australian servicemen indicate that it reached a considerably larger audience (Chisholm 58; Lyons and Taksa 67; Laugesen 51).

In 1919, the Australian film-maker Raymond Longford released a cinematic version of The Sentimental Bloke. Longford’s film was also a commercial success. It broke box-office records for an Australian-made film after it premiered in Melbourne that October (Bertrand; Pike and Cooper 120). A theatrical version of The Bloke was also successful after it opened at Melbourne’s King’s Theatre in September 1922. It starred Walter Cornock in the lead role, a man described for years afterwards as the “Original Sentimental Bloke” (“Walter Cornock Coming”; “Pot Luck”). The production played for twelve weeks in Melbourne before touring Australia and New Zealand for almost two years. Versions of the musical continued to be performed throughout Australasia for the rest of the decade, during which time recitations of the verse were also broadcast on radio and performed on the elocution stage (e.g. “Today’s Radio”; “Today’s Broadcasting”; “‘The Sentimental Bloke’: A Triumph of Elocution”).

Inspired by the success of The Sentimental Bloke, Dennis wrote four loosely-connected works of verse between 1916 and 1924. These were The Moods of Ginger Mick (1916), Doreen (1917), Digger Smith (1918) and Rose of Spadgers (1924). The Moods of Ginger Mick was also narrated by Bill and became a best-seller in its own right. It concerned the decision by Bill’s larrikin friend Ginger Mick to enlist in the Australian Imperial Forces and travel overseas to take part in the war. Ending with Mick’s tragic death in battle, it had sold over 70,000 copies by 1920 (McLaren 119). Ginger Mick was also made into a film by Raymond Longford in 1920 (Pike and Cooper 129). Although beyond the scope of my discussion here, fresh adaptations of The Bloke continued to appear throughout the rest of the century. These included a talkie film directed by Frank Thring in 1932 (poorly executed and unpopular, and thus omitted here), a ballet by Victoria’s Ballet Guild in 1952, a new stage musical and recordings of the verse by the country music singer Tex Morton in the 1960s, a television drama in 1976, and another rendition in dance by the Australian Ballet in 1985 (Boyd; Dermody; McLaren 199–200; Ingram). Across this period the book continued to sell: indeed, it is still the highest-selling work of poetry in Australian history (Butterss 2009: 16).

The larrikin everyman

When The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke first appeared, some critics hailed Bill as a novel figure in Australian popular culture. According to a writer for the Sydney Morning Herald, Dennis had broken new ground with the work: “a poetic cycle has never been written about such an unpoetic individual as Bill” (“The Sentimental Bloke” SMH 1915). [End Page 3] This claim was inaccurate. Dennis was not the first Australian writer to use a rough male figure as a romantic protagonist. Four years earlier, in fact, the Sydney-based writer Louis Stone had published Jonah, a novel about a street-fighting larrikinwho fell in love with a poor-but-genteel woman and struggled to win her regard. The Melbourne writer Edward Dyson had also included a romantic larrikin as a supplementary character in his collection of narratively-connected sketches, Fact’ry ’Ands (1906).

Back in the 1890s, the romantic larrikin had been sent up in the odd vaudeville act performed on Australia’s Tivoli Theatre circuit. These were modelled on English offerings about romantic Cockneys such as Albert Chevalier’s famous music-hall song, “My Old Dutch” (Bellanta Larrikins 35). The use of Cockney figures to voice masculine romantic sentimentality was indeed a feature of British popular culture from the last years of the nineteenth century. In Australia, however, theatrical songs such as “I’ve Chucked Up the Push for My Donah” (meaning “I’ve given up my street-fighting friends for my sweetheart”) had a mocking rather than celebratory air. Created in 1892 for the touring British burlesque comedian, E. J. Lonnen, this act ridiculed the very concept of larrikin romance (Bellanta Larrikins 36).

Though the idea of writing about a romantic larrikin was not original, the way in which Dennis went about it was. The bushman had long been presented sympathetically in Australian culture: a spare, usually solitary figure often portrayed as the essence of the Australian character. The same could not be said for the urban larrikin. In spite of Dyson’s and Stone’s efforts and the occasional story by Henry Lawson (e.g. “Elder Man’s Lane”), larrikins had overwhelmingly been portrayed as vulgar or frightening before Dennis published his work. Back in the 1880s, in fact, the press had fomented a full-scale moral panic about a “larrikin menace” in the colonial capitals after a number of nasty pack rapes of young women took place in inner-industrial Sydney. News reporters had written sensational stories of these outrages, calling their youthful perpetrators larrikin “brutes” and “fiends.” (Bellanta Larrikins 86–91). By the turn of the century, some writers and artists had started creating mocking caricatures of larrikins – the vaudeville routine just mentioned being an obvious example. Bill was obviously different from these earlier representations in that he was offered as a subject with whom audiences could identify.

The fact that Bill was offered to audiences as a subject of affectionate identification was apparent from the opening moments of The Sentimental Bloke. He was depicted in the throes of dissatisfaction with his ne’er-do-well life, wishing for something more uplifting, though he scarcely knew what it might be:

 … As the poit sez, me ‘eart ’as got

The pip wiv yearning for … I dunno wot.

The preface, written by Henry Lawson, an iconic literary figure in Australian culture, signaled that this yearning of Bill’s gave him the status of everyman. “Take the first poem”, he wrote. “How many men… have had the same feeling – the longing for something better – to be something better?” Bill was thus presented as an ordinary “bloke” rather than the denizen of a brutish underworld. Though his quaint vernacular and lack of guile, he was able to voice the feelings of any fundamentally decent man, rough around the edges or otherwise. [End Page 4]

The romantic properties of The Sentimental Bloke

Bill might have appeared alone and vaguely yearning in the opening stanzas of The Sentimental Bloke, but it was clear from the next poem that the narrative concerned romantic love. From that moment, the plot proceeded almost as if anticipating Pamela Regis’ hard-line definition of romantic fiction in her Natural History of the Romance Novel. Following its trajectory, one can tick off each of her “eight essential elements” of romantic narratives (30). In the first place, it began with a description of “the initial state of society in which heroine and hero must court” in the form of Bill’s disconsolate musing about his larrikin life (30). It then proceeded to the meeting between hero and heroine; introduced obstacles to their union in spite of their mutual attraction; and came to a point of what Regis calls “ritual death” (35–6), in which it seemed impossible that Bill would prove himself capable of true romance. As one would expect, it then showed Bill’s prospects being reborn, ending with the pair joyfully united against the odds.

The first obstacle to Bill’s romantic union with Doreen was in the form of a straw-hatted suitor, a man Bill called the “stror ‘at coot” (47–52). Unable to help himself, he challenged this socially-superior rival to a fist-fight (50). Doreen was so displeased by this show of roughness that she quarreled and split from Bill. The pair reconciled soon afterwards, after Bill heard her singing a plaintive love-ballad at a neighborhood “beano” (party) and decided to make amends. A more serious obstacle arose after the pair was wed. This took place after Bill was tempted into a drunken bender with his larrikin mate, Ginger Mick. Nursing his hangover in bed the next day, he was painfully aware that he might have destroyed his romance with Doreen. “Eight weeks uv married bliss / Wiv my Doreen, an’ now it’s come to this!” (86). This point of “ritual death” was soon turned to new life, however, when the couple left the city for a small farm. In the final moments of the action, Bill and Doreen appeared blissfully ensconced in their own cottage, mutually delighting in a newborn son.

The illustrations accompanying the print version of The Sentimental Bloke highlighted its romantic properties. Drawn by Dennis’ friend Hal Gye, they portrayed Bill as a “Cupid” or “chivalric innocent” (Elliott 254; Cross 57), complete with chubby thighs and stubbily diaphanous wings. On a dust-jacket for an early edition, Gye depicted the couple à la Romeo and Juliet, with a cherub-like Bill playing a concertina at the foot of a balcony as Doreen looked down from above (Figure 1). Advertisements for the silent film similarly highlighted its romantic character. One created for West’s Olympia cinema franchise broke down the narrative into its key romantic elements. It comprised four cartoons representing stages in Bill and Doreen’s love-story. In the first, Bill appeared, sad and lonely before he met Doreen; in the second, Doreen was shown snubbing Bill after their quarrel; in the third, the pair were tearfully reconciled; and in the fourth, “hitched.” [End Page 5]

Sentimental Bloke cover

Figure 1: Cover image by Hal Gye for a 1919 edition of Dennis’ work

[End Page 6]

Brisbane Courier 26 December 1919

Figure 2. Brisbane Courier 26 December 1919

[End Page 7]

Australian masculinity and the “open secret” of romantic sentimentality

Since The Sentimental Bloke was so obviously presented as a romance, one might be forgiven for expecting that the text and its protagonist would have been ridiculed in the Australia of its day. A great deal of what we hear about Australian culture and masculinity in this period emphasizes the dry-witted bushmen as a key figure, “laconic” and “sentimental as a steam-roller” (“Anzac Types” cited in Caesar 150). Much has also been written about the celebration of the tough and irreverently humorous returned serviceman in 1920s Australia (e.g. Seal; Caesar; Williams 127–33; Fotheringham 2010). Historian Richard Waterhouse has argued that opposition to Victorian-era piety and morality was paramount in urban Australia’s popular culture by the end of the First World War (176), while Peter Kirkpatrick (52) and Tony Moore (117–43) show that members of interwar Sydney’s bohemian scene regarded marriage and domesticity contemptuously. In actual fact, one of these bohemians did ridicule the Bloke for his romantic sentimentality. The earlier-mentioned artist and writer, Norman Lindsay, burnt a copy of The Sentimental Bloke on a crucifix and described Ginger Mick as “maudlin rubbish” (Butterss 2009: 16; 2005: 118).

Fascinatingly, though, mocking reactions of this kind were rare. Even masculinist papers such as the Bulletin and the Lone Hand produced glowing reviews (“The Sentimental Bloke” Bulletin; “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke”; “C. J. Dennis”). The vast majority of critics responded to Bill much as he was presented to them: with affection and/or empathy. After the silent film was released, for example, a reviewer for the Green Room suggested that he had been nervous about whether Arthur Tauchert, the actor playing Bill, would do the justice to the character. “Nearly everybody knew Dennis’ creation by heart, and we all had a hazy mental vision of the gentleman who loved Doreen to distraction”, he wrote. Happily, the actor had acquitted himself admirably: “Tauchert’s Bloke is the Bloke of Blokes” (“C. J. Dennis’ Characters”). Five years later, in 1924, a country Victorian critic waxed rapturous about The Sentimental Bloke musical: “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry… and you’ll join in and say it is the greatest of all” (“The Sentimental Bloke” Horsham Times).

Reports of audiences laughing and noisily applauding recitations of The Bloke point to the fact that ordinary citizens also responded warmly to Bill (e.g. “Lawrence Campbell’; “The Sentimental Bloke” SMH 1922). One of Dennis’ friends, Alec Chisholm, would later recall the enthusiasm he and his colleagues at a country newspaper felt for The Bloke early in its career. Even the most “hard-bitten” of compositors used to beg him to read from it as they worked, Chisholm wrote. “We knew in particular ‘The Introduction’, that delicate tale … of the initial meeting between the Bloke and the ‘bonzer peach’ [Doreen]” (58). Another middle-class reader recalled that even though she had not been a fan of the colloquial verse during her childhood in the 1920s, “The Sentimental Bloke was a great favorite of Dad’s” (cited in Lyons and Taksa 67).

Because The Sentimental Bloke relied so heavily on colloquialisms, it was never regarded as Literature. As Martyn Lyons and Lucy Taksa observe, the work never received “official sanction” (67). It was left off school and university curricula and ignored by most academics until the late twentieth century. Yet this lack of official approval offers vital clues as to why Bill was regarded so affectionately. One of the reasons he was so widely favored [End Page 8] was that he tapped a vein of “unofficial” knowledge about men and romance that had long existed on the sly, as it were, in Australian culture. The Bloke presented masculine tenderness as what Eve Sedgwick would call an “open secret” (145), in other words. Its comedy sprang from the suggestion that all men had the capacity for romantic feeling, even though they tried to hide it beneath a hard-bitten or laconic exterior. Everyone knew that men could be sentimental even though “officially” this was not supposed to be true.

One of the ways that The Bloke gestured at an ordinary belief in male sentimentality was via its original title, The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke. By this means it likened its fourteen poems to romantic songs performed by the earnest young Bill. Male vocalists sang romantic ballads such as “Annie Laurie” and “Belle Mahone” any night of the week in Australian homes or vaudeville shows in the years before, during and immediately after the war (Bellanta “Australian Masculinities”). Just in case fans missed the allusion, the sequel Ginger Mick made explicit reference to these commonplace songs. In a letter written to Bill from a military camp in Egypt, Ginger Mick declared that ballads such as “Bonnie Mary” and “My Little Grey Home in the West” were dear to Australian servicemen’s hearts. Laced with memories of sweethearts and romantic picnics, these songs helped to sustain Australia’s soldiers as they coped with battle far from home. “When I’m sittin’ in me dug-out wiv me rifle on me knees”, Mick began:

 An’ a yowlin’, ‘owlin’ chorus comes a-floatin’ up the breeze,

Jist a bit o’ “Bonnie Mary” or “Long Way to Tipperary”–

Then I know I’m in Australia, took an’ planted overseas.

… O, it’s “On the Mississippi” or “Me Grey ‘Ome in the West”.

If it’s death an’ ’ell nex’ minute they must git it orf their chest.

’Ere’s a snatch o’ “When yer Roamin” – “When yer Roamin’ in the Gloamin”.

’Struth! The first time that I ’eard it, wiv me ’ead on Rosie’s breast.

We wus comin’ frum a picnic in a Ferntree Gully train…

But the shrapnel made the music when I ’eard it sung again (61).

In her rich study of Australian servicemen’s reading habits and entertainments during the war, Amanda Laugesen reveals a considerable interest in romantic and otherwise sentimental cultural forms. In their letters home, she tells us, numerous Australian soldiers mentioned the works of Gene Stratton Porter, “a [female] American novelist who wrote romantic novels with a strong moral message and whose works sold in the millions” (62). Others mentioned the sentimental novelists Marie Corelli, Jean Webster, Hall Caine and Charles Garvice (who also wrote under the female pseudonym Caroline Hart) (61–2) – many of whose works were made into films in the 1910s. Laugesen also notes that troop publications “clearly articulated a strong sentimentality focused on home and family” (61), and that servicemen’s vaudeville shows routinely featured romantic songs of the sort referred to in Ginger Mick (79–104; Bellanta “Australian Masculinities).

In pointing to a significant cross-gender interest in romantic ballads and novels, Laugesen gives us a sense of why Dennis was able to appeal to folk knowledge about masculine sentimentality in The Sentimental Bloke. Her examples also suggest that we need to revisit the standard scholarly accounts of male cultural preferences in early-twentieth century Australia. Those accounts tell us plenty about adventure novels and sporting [End Page 9] dramas (e.g. Crotty; Dixon; Fotheringham 1992). Some also tell us about “galloping rhymes” and stories about stoic bushmen (e.g. Schaffer; Murri; Dwyer), but are silent on the topic of a male investment in popular romance. As The Bloke’s success makes clear, however, neither representations of galloping adventurers nor of laconic bushmen amounted to the sum total of popular understandings about Australian masculinity. Nor did men confine themselves to cultural forms that promoted such stereotypical versions of masculinity in the early 1900s. Their cultural consumption was always more complex than that.

A plain approach to romance

If The Sentimental Bloke tapped a vein of unofficial knowledge about masculine romantic feeling, it also, as I said earlier, touched a cultural nerve. The work’s combination of comedy and sentiment sprang from the fact that masculine romance was indeed edgy territory in the war- and early interwar years. It is true that ballads such as “Bonnie Mary” continued to be performed and cherished in the 1920s and even beyond. They were starting to be seen as old-fashioned by then, however, with their quaveringly tender choruses and address of the beloved as “thou” and “thy” (“I have watched thy heart, dear Mary… / Bonnie Mary of Argyle”). Earnest songs of this kind were made the subject of irreverent parodies, in some cases by men who were embarrassed by their emotional impact and wanted to demonstrate that they were not in their thrall (Seal 57–9; Bellanta “Australian Masculinities” 426–7). Similar things may be said of the sentimentality focused on home and family among Australian servicemen during the war. That sentimentality had to be carefully managed in order to prevent it from detracting from military solidarity, hedged about by jokes and the celebration of male-on-male company (Seal 66, 75–7).

Contending claims made about the relationship between men and romantic sentiment became even more apparent after the armistice, when servicemen were being repatriated en masse into the world of civilian work and family. During this period, the allure of marriage and domesticity on the one hand, and of carousing and military fellowship on the other, made for a degree of ambivalence about both sets of ideals (Garton). It was in this context that The Sentimental Bloke’s suggestion that all men were romantic in spite of their hard exteriors (and friendship with mates) really came to the fore. Yet the work went a lot further than gesturing at the “open secret” of men’s romantic feelings. It also suggested that there was a distinctively masculine approach to romantic sentimentality that any man might adopt without fear of embarrassment, the hallmarks of which were plainness and straightforwardness. These were the qualities that marked out a “real” man’s romantic tendencies from a woman’s, and distinguished him from effeminate types.

The key way in which The Sentimental Bloke constructed a masculine approach to romance was by juxtaposing the exemplary Bill with two other male characters, both of whom were portrayed as comparatively effete. The first of these men was the parson who conducted Bill’s marriage to Doreen. The second was the straw-hatted rival who also sought Doreen’s hand. Of these, the parson was the most effeminate. In both Dennis’ original text and Longford’s adaptation, he was dressed in flowing vestments and comically labelled “’is nibs” or “the pilot cove” by Bill. At the start of the wedding scene, Bill mocked [End Page 10] his mincing manner, mimicking his reading of the vows in what was supposed to be a sing-song voice: “An’–wilt–yeh–take–this–woman–fer–to–be / Yer–wedded–wife?” Bill then interjected robustly:

 O, strike me! Will I wot?

Take ’er? Doreen? ’E stan’s there arstin’ me!

As if ’e thort per’aps I’d rather not!

Take ’er? ‘E seemed to think ’er kind was got

Like cigarette-cards, fer the arstin’.

Still, I does me stunt in this ’ere hitchin’ rot,

An’ speaks me piece: “Righto!” I sez, “I will.” (77)

As the ceremony proceeded, Bill became steadily more frustrated with its “swell” and “stylish” character:

 … Ar, strike! No more swell marridges fer me!

It seems a blinded year afore ’e’s done.

We could ’a’ fixed it in the registree

Twice over ’fore this cove ’ad ’arf begun.

I s’pose the wimmin git some sorter fun

Wiv all this guyver, an ’is nibs’s shirt.

But, seems to me, it takes the bloomin’ bun,

This stylish splicin’ uv a bloke an’ skirt. (79)

This scene was instrumental to The Bloke’s message that plainness and directness were characteristic of a masculine approach to romance. There was no doubting that Bill was powerfully in love with Doreen (“Take ’er? … ’E stan’s there arstin’ me! / As if ’e thort per’aps I’d rather not!”) Unlike the parson or the “wimmin”, however, he believed that his feelings stood for themselves without need for elaborate packaging.

The idea that Bill’s stance on romance was solidly masculine was reinforced by his contrast with the “stor ’at coot.” This “coot” was full of simpering smiles and “tork” about his office job in Doreen’s company. Bill, on the other hand, was incapable of glib eloquence: “No, I ain’t jealous – but – Ar, I dunno!” (39). His inability to “tork the tork” was portrayed as a sign of the genuineness of his romantic intentions: a cause for laughter, perhaps, but also proof of his salt-of-the-earth straightforwardness. The “coot” also dressed in what Bill contemptuously described as a “giddy tie an’ Yankee soot” (49), while Bill himself preferred ordinary street attire. The film made this distinction even more conspicuous by choosing the weedy Harry Young to play the “coot”. His slender physique was an obvious foil to the burliness of Arthur Tauchert’s Bill. [End Page 11]

Figure 3. A still from the Longford film showing Bill’s confrontation with the ‘stror ’at coot’. Courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive, Canberra, Australia.

Figure 3. A still from the Longford film showing Bill’s confrontation with the ‘stror ’at coot’. Courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive, Canberra, Australia.

 Australian masculinity and the Americanized culture of romantic love

Preserved in the subtitles to the film, Dennis’ description of the coot’s dress as “Yankee” added another dimension to the representation of Bill’s masculinity in The Sentimental Bloke. In the eyes of certain interwar critics, at any rate, the Bloke was seen as quintessentially Australian, a refreshing change from the American characters who were becoming increasingly prominent in Australian popular culture. As early as 1916, in fact, a writer for the Sydney Morning Herald described The Bloke’s use of an Australian vernacular as a welcome break from the “Yankee slang” so often served up to Australian audiences in “comedies and in plays dealing with the American criminal class” (“The Sentimental Bloke” SMH 1916). Comments of this kind were also made in relation to Longford’s film. One Brisbane critic praised its Australian scenery and ambience, pleased that it moved “right away from the rather hard and artificial American convention” (“Entertainments.”)

The idea that Bill represented a specifically Australian masculinity was partly influenced by the surge of interest in national identity that accompanied Australia’s effort in the First World War (Seal; Williams). Yet it was also influenced by a consciousness of the [End Page 12] growing clout of American popular culture in Australian society. As Jill Matthews tells us, all manner of mass-produced American commodities began making their way to Australia during the 1910s. These included “technology, machines and gadgets, business methods, fashions and amusements” (Matthews 11). The arrival of “Yankee” commodities was even more apparent in the 1920s, a decade in which American manufacturers and entertainment companies vigorously expanded their international reach (12; Teo 2006: 182; Glancy). The majority of the Australian public was manifestly enthusiastic about American culture and products in this period; there would not have been a market for them otherwise. Even so, a niggling concern about Americanization was growing among the general populace. This was apparent in a defensive insistence on the Australianness of The Bloke, which in cinematic form was vaunted as a “True Australian Film.” After the premiere of Longford’s Bloke, a writer for Sydney’s Picture Show even commended him for marshaling a team “as great in their particular sphere of acting as any teams D. W. Griffith ever assembled”, attempting to place him on a par with the great American filmmaker (cited in Tulloch 65).

In press interviews about his films in the early interwar period, Longford emphasized his nationalist passion for Australian settings and characters (“C. J. Dennis’ Characters”; “The Man Behind ‘Rudd’s New Selection’” 32). Later in the 1920s he would speak bitterly of the early troubles he had experienced trying to convince cinemas to screen The Sentimental Bloke. Australian film distributors and cinema owners had been so much under the thumb of American operators that he had been forced to hold the premiere for the film in Melbourne Town Hall, he complained (Blake 35–36). These complaints reinforced the fact that the Bloke came to be regarded as “intensely Australian in type” during the 1920s, investing him with a normative power through his association with Australian national identity  (“Sentimental Bloke” Townsville Daily Bulletin; see also “The Sentimental Bloke” Brisbane Courier). More pertinently, they helped to ensure that Bill’s approach to romance was understood as an Australian alternative to the American culture of romantic love.

As Hsu-Ming Teo tells us, Australia’s culture of romantic love was undergoing a process of Americanization in the 1920s (2006). By this, she means that a more commodified approach to courtship and romantic fantasy was emerging, modeled on developments that had already taken place in the United States. For decades in America, a premium had been placed on gifts and paid outings as the key means for a man to express romantic feelings towards a woman (174–77; Illouz). American popular culture also celebrated men who made declarations of love with a suave eloquence: Al Jolson singing the smash hit “You Made Me Love You” (1913), or the alluring heroes of romantic films such as The Sheik (1919) and The Big Parade (1925). In addition, American advertisers promoted commodities such as soap and lipstick to female consumers on the basis that they would enhance their chances of romance with glamorous men. A similar process was just starting to become evident in Australia at the end of the First World War.

The Americanizing influences on Australia’s culture of romantic love were largely directed at young women in the 1920s. Advertisers did not begin inducting Australian men into romanticized consumerism until the 1950s. Before then, “items of personal or leisure consumption for men” – products such as Berger Paints, Dunlop rubber, Boomerang whisky, and General Motors-Holden cars – were advertised through images of factories rather than appeals to men as consumers with romantic desires (Teo 2006: 181–86). This [End Page 13] made for a disconnect between young Australian men’s and women’s approach to the culture of romantic love that became increasingly apparent over the interwar era. The disparity was strikingly evident by the time American servicemen arrived in Australia in their thousands during the Second World War. Young Australian women tended to regard these “Yanks” as romantic heroes, while Australian men resented the Americans’ success with “their” women and superior access to consumer goods (Lake 1990; 1992; Connors et al 140–88).

Knowing what we do about the representation of Bill in The Sentimental Bloke helps us understand why Australian men’s approach to romantic love tended to be so different from Australian women’s. The work treated Bill’s lack of glamor and suavity as a boon; proof not just of the genuineness of his romantic intentions but his Australianness. Crucially, it also suggested that Australian men risked compromising their masculinity if they entered too enthusiastically into the Americanized culture of romantic consumerism. “Intensely Australian” types were neither supposed to indulge in glibly romantic “tork” nor trouble over their appearance if they wanted to avoid accusations of effeminacy. They were supposed to regard being plain and unadorned as a good thing, even in their dealings with women. This was not because Australian men did not care about romance, however, but rather because such things detracted from the honest force of their feelings.

The gender of romantic love

With all this talk of Australianness, it would be easy to assume that non-Australian scholars have little to learn from The Sentimental Bloke. This is not the case. Admittedly, the fact that plainness and straightforwardness were claimed to be characteristic of “intensely Australian types” suggests that an unusual degree of emphasis on these qualities could be found “Down Under.” Yet Australia was not the only place in which one could find critiques of elaborately packaged sentimentality, or of an Americanized culture of romantic love, in the war- and interwar years. In Hollywood and the Americanization of Britain, for example, Mark Glancy discusses divisively gendered reactions to the romantic actor Rudolph Valentino, whose glamorous masculinity was regarded as suspicious by many British men in the 1920s. In The Decline of Sentiment, American film scholar Lea Jacobs also speaks of a decisive shift in cultural taste taking place in the United States if not also Anglophone society more broadly, beginning in the 1910s and reaching critical mass the following decade. This shift was away from the “genteel” conventions of Victorian sentimental culture, she tells us, and towards a more informal and understated aesthetics. Its predominantly male advocates presented it in gendered terms: as a movement away from feminine standards of taste towards something simultaneously more modern and robustly masculine (1–24).

As Jacobs sees it, the movement away from elaborate or genteel sentimentality attracted a motley collection of participants. Some were modernist cultural producers. Others included the naturalist writers, film-makers and critics who gravitated to New York in the 1910s. Both the naturalist novelist Theodor Dreiser and the critic H. L. Mencken, for example, were keenly interested in experimenting with vernacular speech. They believed [End Page 14] that the vernacular conveyed feeling more honestly and forcefully than the polished language of Literature (11–12). In this they had something in common with Dennis, regardless of their other differences. Similarly, the film-maker Thomas de Grasse and his colleagues had something in common with Raymond Longford in spite of the fact that they were unlikely to have been aware of each other’s work. Like Longford, America’s naturalist film-makers rejected glamorous characters in favor of depicting “plain folks” on screen in the 1910s and 1920s (29).

While there was a wide-ranging reaction against Victorian-era sentimentality in English-speaking society, The Sentimental Bloke suggests that scholars such as Jacobs go too far. It reminds us that not all reactions against “genteel” involved a rejection of sentimentality per se. An analogous point may be made about reactions against a glamorously consumerist culture of romantic love. It was possible for a critic to take umbrage at the commodification of romantic love in American[ized] popular culture without spurning romantic love in its entirety. Jacobs’ use of the phrase “decline in sentiment” is misleading because of this, for it implies a wholesale rejection of tender feeling rather than a more limited movement away from a certain sentimental style among certain cultural arbiters.

Another reason that the concept of a “decline in sentiment” is misleading is that it overlooks the fact that “genteel” sentimental forms continued to be consumed and enjoyed in Anglophone culture on the sly, in spite of the fact that they were criticized as old-fashioned or embarrassing. A continued interest in romantic ballads was an obvious example of this. In Britain, at any rate, regular performances of such ballads by male vocalists continued well after the Second World War (Hoggart 53–66). More pertinently, the concept of a wholesale feminization of sentiment – of the rejection of sentiment on the basis of its connections to femininity – overlooks the likelihood that a range of “masculine” expressions of romantic sentimentality developed in the early twentieth century. I have explored only one example of this here, although I began by noting that Australia’s first examples of romantic larrikins were influenced by British depictions of romantic Cockney men. It would be fascinating to explore the use of the Cockney vernacular and characters to voice masculine approaches to romantic love in British culture in the early 1900s, as well as to investigate analogous examples in the United States and elsewhere. The multi-media character and enormous popularity of The Sentimental Bloke in Australia certainly suggests that examples of masculine romance might fruitfully identified and explored elsewhere in Anglophone society.

The persistence of masculine sentimentality in Anglo- or American culture across the twentieth century has attracted attention from a number of scholars in recent years. International scholars such as Jennifer Williamson and Eve Sedgwick (131–46) have indeed grappled with similar issues to those discussed in an Australian context here (see also Chapman and Hendler; Shamir and Travis.) Sedgwick in particular has highlighted the fact that heterosexual men’s expressions of tender feeling remained an “open secret” in American culture and everyday life long after masculinity was “officially” supposed to have become incompatible with sentimentality. At the very least, this work should alert romance scholars to the need to take the relationship between heterosexual masculinity and romantic sentimentality seriously. It suggests that romance scholars should give more [End Page 15] thought to the complex relationship between masculinity and romance in twentieth-century culture instead of treating romantic love as “feminized love”. Many men were uncomfortable with elaborate expressions of romantic feeling or the consumerist culture associated with American popular romance by the 1920s. Demeaning romance as feminine was not the only response to this discomfort, however – another was the construction of avowedly masculine articulations of romantic sentiment such as that of The Sentimental Bloke. [End Page 16]

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Romantic Love in Mexico and Latin America: An Interview with Enrique Serna
by Michael K. Schuessler

Enrique Serna (Mexico City, 1959) is one of Mexico’s most celebrated living writers. Although he is best known for his novels of historical fiction, for example, El seductor de la patria (1999) and Ángeles del abismo (2004), Serna’s literary career began in 1987 with the publication of Señorita México, a crude portrait of an erstwhile beauty queen whose life as told to a reporter is a pretext for much deeper (and biting) social criticism. This inclination flowers most brilliantly in El miedo a los animales (1995), a piercing satire inspired by the author’s own experiences within the perplexing mafia of Mexico’s intellectual and political underworld. Not only a novelist, Serna is also one of Latin America’s most talented short story writers, and his first collection, entitled Amores de segunda mano (1991), foresaw the publication of El orgasmógrafo (2001) and his most recent book, entitled La ternura caníbal (2013).  In 2002, the literary review Nexos included Serna in a list of the top ten Mexican short story writers of the last twenty-five years. Given his enormous success in Mexico, it is at once surprising and discouraging to consider that of his twelve works, only one of them (Fear of Animals [Aflame Books, U.K. 2008]) has been translated into English. In this interview, Serna discusses his ideas regarding romantic love in Latin America, an underlying theme to be found in many of his literary creations, where the sheer tawdriness (and cheesiness) of many intimate relationships experienced by his literary characters is imbued with the saccharine verses of Mexico’s romantic ballads, soap operas, films, and other manifestations of popular culture. [End Page 1] 

Michael K. SchuesslerEnrique, I’d like to talk with you about the concept of romantic love in the literature and culture of Mexico and Latin America. I have assembled some questions and I would like to start with this: In what ways has romantic love been portrayed in cinema, literature, television, and popular music in Mexico and in Latin America, now and in the past?

Enrique Serna: In my opinion, the 1930s were the golden age of Mexican popular culture. This period came before the intensification of mass popular culture, with its wide range of marketing strategies, all designed to evaluate the reaction of the consumer… that is to say, to prevent the reaction of the consumer. This was the era of XEW radio broadcasting, and the owners of the station believed that by hiring the best composers and singers, they would corner top ratings. So, it was understood that the owners would allow free artistic license, which was necessary, of course, and they gave us the works of Agustin Lara, for example…

Starting in the 1920s, Lara began to frequent the brothels of Mexico City, and, in fact, most of his songs were composed based on his experiences there. It is curious how music composed in bordellos became the popular music of the day, listened to by housewives, whose fantasy was to be treated like “adventuresses” or “loose women” invoked in his songs.

MKS And I believe that this phenomenon also occurred in Mexican cinema of the period. The 1932 film Santa, for example… Does this movie have anything to do with what you are describing?

ES Of course it did. First there was the silent version and then the “talkie” version that included a soundtrack and Lara’s song (of the same name). It was perfect for the movie. The song is about a prostitute, and it is likely that Lara got his inspiration from the special type of love he came to know in the brothels.

There is a difference between this type of ballad and that of the Yucatecan trova, the songs composed by such artists as Guty Cárdenas, whose style has been kept alive by artists such as Armando Manzanero. The trova-type ballad is more in keeping with conventional morality. These kinds of songs can be sung to your girlfriend and her parents can enjoy them, too. There’s no strong erotic content, as in the compositions of Lara and later in the works of another famous songwriter: Roberto Cantoral. He was the author of Reloj and other songs like Soy lo prohibido. In this era, we also have Ranchera music. This type of music is more dramatic and exalts lost love. In this sense it is similar to the music of other countries, like the Blues of the US or the Argentine tango. These genres also elevate failure as an emotion: it hurts, but it gives you pleasure.

MKS Might one affirm, then, that Mexican popular music begins with the compositions of Agustin Lara in the 1920s, and that subsequently what was originally conceived as a literary manifestation enters the world of cinema, as well as a music that modifies the way love and suffering are portrayed?

ES Not precisely. Lara had literary abilities; as a youth he studied in the French Lycée. He had read the works of Baudelaire, for example. He created sumptuous metaphors inspired by the modernistas, that is, the Latin American symbolists. These metaphors were complex: “eyes made drunk by the sun”… they were not common clichés. What he did was to mix [End Page 2] these metaphors with lines that were more easily understood. And in this way he kept the public from being frightened away (or confused) by these unusual images.

MKS How do you compare these romantic composers, along with parallel representations in cinema and literature, with others presented to the general public? How have they been used to serve the aims of national, state, and regional political figures of the time, and how did they affect political change?

ES Well, for Ranchera music, the center of action was the Mexican state of Jalisco. In fact, it was the image of the “charros cantores – singing cowboys” that Mexico first exported to the world. The first hit was Allá en el Rancho Grande, and the second was ¡Ay Jalisco no te Rajes! As a result, this style becomes known as the epitome of Mexican music. The original mariachis were poor Indian farmers who wore plain cotton clothing, while the charro costume of the time was worn by the hacienda owners. Consequently, the mariachi groups settled on outfits that were considered elegant apparel of the time. In turn, the musical groups that traveled to Mexico City to play at elegant parties also wore this signature outfit.

There are old photographs where the mariachis appear in plain clothing, but then stars such as Jorge Negrete and Pedro Infante came onto the scene wearing the elegant traje de mariachi costume. As I have said, without doubt they became symbolic of Mexican music and were warmly embraced by the population at large. The songs are representative of an age; they also clearly were identified with the criollo (white) hacienda owners. In all honesty, this is the music that really touched the Mexican soul. Ranchero music is similar to styles such as Flamenco – it is a plaintive music very similar to cante jondo (of Andalucía). This is one of the reasons that Mexican mariachi music was so well accepted in Spain. The mariachi are heroes there. Their music can be heard everywhere.

MKS And does this concept of romantic love–painful and cruel–make Mexican romantic music stand apart from the romantic music of other countries?

ES I don’t think there’s much difference. After all, the Blues, the Tango, the Ballenato from Columbia, and the Cante jondo of Spain all generally speak to failure in love. I think it’s a universal tendency. But in Mexico, the particular mournful style has enriched the genre worldwide. But what has made the huge negative difference and degraded Mexico’s image is mass-marketing. It has tried to take the musical artists away from the people. It has attempted to dictate and manipulate their tastes while seemingly giving the public what it wants. That is not to say that since the 60s, everything produced has been garbage, but I venture to say that we have moved away from the excellence of the earlier times.

MKS  And how do you relate these concepts to romanticism in literature, for example, in that of Mexico. This Romanticism, is it too related with romantic love? Is there continuity from the 19th to the 20th century?

ES Well, I don’t know if the Bolero is very faithful to the concept of romantic love without analyzing romanticism in literature of the 18th and 19th centuries: the German school or that of French Romanticism. It is more of a sentimental type of music than a melodramatic one. It has been called Romanticism, but this is an oversimplification. This music has, of course, had a great impact on Mexican literature during the second half of the 20th Century. Titles such as “Arráncame la Vida” by Ángeles Mastretta come to mind, and the Bolero is [End Page 3] still the fountain of inspiration. This is logical because many of us were educated listening to music. In my case, this was the music my parents listened to, and I liked it. I continued listening to it, and I think this is the characteristic of Mexican popular music: its longevity. And we can see that now, the music of Agustín Lara has outlasted the music of the 70s, for example, which has been more or less forgotten.

MKS How are such stereotypes as that of the Latin Lover developed in countries like the US?

ES Well, I think this is a stereotype promoted by people from the United States. There they see the Latin Lover as someone exotic and attractive. Probably they see this figure as someone like Rudolph Valentino. In the US, the figure of the Latin Lover was converted into that of a sex symbol, whereas in Mexico it is the reverse. Here the sex symbol is the blond – we Mexicans have always found them attractive. Moreover, the blonde gringas are seen as the ultimate sexual conquest. And we see this a lot in the novels of José Agustín, Ricardo Garibay, a little in those of Carlos Fuentes, such as Frontera de Cristal, in which bedding a gringa is the maximum sexual conquest that a Mexican macho can aspire to. I think this comes from the way many gringas come to have sexual flings with the beach boys in Acapulco. And of course, the gringos do the same…

MKS Are there expressions of love, of romantic love, in Mexico’s gay culture, as well? Is there transference or a rejection of these heteronormative phenomena?

ES Actually, these are not gay songs, but the gay community has appropriated them. There are legends, and you probably have heard them; for example, there is the story that the song “Usted es la culpable de todas mi angustias,” written by Gabriel Ruiz Galindo, was originally entitled “Daniel” and written for a man by a man. The song’s author apparently sold the rights to the person who is now credited as being the composer, a composer from Chiapas, I believe, but I forget his name. And then in the 70s, things started to become much more liberal. There are strong insinuations in the songs. For example, the one by José José that says: “I have rolled around from here to there, everything within reason… with this one (éste y aquel) and that one (ésta y aquella) with everything (con esto y aquello).” It’s a great song!

MKS Now, to finish up, I’d like to know if you think there’s an enormous difference between “high culture” and “popular culture” in Latin America, and if this distinction is gradually becoming blurred?

ES There is a difference in the different countries of Latin America. I think that in countries where a cultural elite exists, you will find a distinction between “high culture” and “popular culture,” and for this reason, the “higher class” rejects “the popular class.” However, this has been changing. For example, the national writers’ guild contains in its roster many composers of Boleros: they include Lara, Álvaro Carrillo, Luis Alcaraz, and others. This indicates to me that this music is considered among the best in Mexico. And I think this trend will continue. But still there is a tendency to maintain separate worlds. There are other countries where great poets also write music. In Brazil, for example, there is Vinicius de Moraes, a member of the country’s avant-garde, as well as Chico Boarque. Both were great poets and composers. In these cases we have no distinction. And then we have the tangos… [End Page 4] 

MKS And what to say about the television genre that Americans see as wholly Latin American – the telenovela? How do you relate the telenovela with this concept of romantic love?

ES The telenovela is a form of entertainment that has borrowed much from the Bolero – in fact, many telenovelas are named after songs. I remember in the 1960s there was a telenovela called Fallaste Corazon, just like the famous song by Cuco Sánchez. And so we can see that the songs have outlived the telenovelas. This phenomenon began towards the end of the 1950s. The first telenovela was Sendas Perdidas, written by Fernanda Villeli.

MKS These were women scriptwriters? Did they write to express their point of view, their personal experiences?  How do you see this?

ES Well, I think it was always a purely commercial enterprise. I don’t think anybody has written a telenovela as a means of expressing themselves. That didn’t exist before, and I don’t think it exists now. But now there is more creative freedom. There was not in the beginning. Early scriptwriters like Caridad Bravo Adams lived these dramas authentically; they believed in the drama and they transmitted it to the public. For this reason, they were so effective. Normally these dramas were based upon the story of Cinderella. That’s why there have been hundreds and hundreds of telenovelas about the poor girl who overcomes bad treatment by her employer and ends up marrying the son or the boss and consequently has the last laugh. In the end, the producers want to exploit the same successful formula, over and over, until they “kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”

MKS It certainly is a theme that is repeated time and again in the telenovelas of Latin America in general and those of Mexico in particular.

ES Well. It’s the same every time because in Mexico and Latin America you can’t have love without passion. And this love includes ardent sexual desire. So I think in the most representative Mexican popular songs we find this fervent, blood-boiling passion of Latin America that is identified with the region, thus it is seen by the world as a characteristic of Latin America, for better or worse. [End Page 5] 


“Love in the Stacks: Popular Romance Collection Development in Academic Libraries” by Crystal Goldman


As the field of Popular Romance Studies grows, greater emphasis needs to be placed on how and where popular romance scholars gain access to research materials, specifically in regard to academic libraries. While there is a growing amount of information available freely on the internet, relying solely on web-based sources can leave gaps in research. Libraries provide access not only to proprietary subscription journals, databases, and books, but also to rare and fragile primary source material in their special collections.

Some attention has been given to the collection of popular romance1 works in public libraries in the United States (Adkins et al.), but very little has been documented on the collection development practices of university libraries, which facilitate access to primary and secondary sources for popular romance studies. Unlike the U.S., Australia remains a forerunner in popular romance collection development. In 1997, Juliet Flesch wrote about the University of Melbourne’s Australiana collection beginning to include romance novels written by Australian and New Zealand authors, although they do not seek a comprehensive but rather a representative collection (Flesch 120-121). However, this is vastly more than can be said for academic libraries anywhere else in the world.

Most university libraries actively purchase resources that support departments on their campus—with shrinking acquisitions budgets, this is often all that libraries can afford to collect. Despite Nora Roberts’ donation to McDaniel College to establish a minor program, Popular Romance Studies has yet to gain a toehold as a major department on any university campus in the United States, which means that collections in this area tend to be haphazard, at best (“Nora Roberts Foundation”). In addition, the cross-disciplinary nature of this field makes purchasing new sources difficult for librarians who serve as liaisons to specific academic disciplines and have only the power to buy materials for their assigned departments. Library special collections may collect popular romance materials, despite the lack of a major department on campus; however, this is often dependent on donations rather than a commitment of funds toward a comprehensive collection (Sewell 459; Flesch 121).

With no cohesive vision for which items to collect and little justification for fiscally supporting popular romance studies material, vital monographs, papers, and articles are not being preserved by libraries for future researchers’ use and may, indeed, be lost from record entirely. The question of how to assure ongoing access to resources that are valuable to this field is one that must be acknowledged and addressed as soon as possible.

Defining Library Collections

There are multiple models for who is responsible for collection development in university libraries. The most common model is that each librarian specializes in different academic disciplines and serves as the liaison to that department or set of departments. What this means is that those who are liaison librarians are responsible for all library instruction, reference consultations, and collection development for their assigned departments. Note that with each librarian tied to major departments, collection development becomes problematic for areas such as Popular Romance Studies, which is not a major or minor available at most universities. An exception to this model are librarians who work in special collections, which focus on collecting and preserving rare and valuable items for future researchers, whereas subject liaison librarians typically collect for their library’s general collection.

Collection development may be carried out by different librarians, depending on the practices, policies, and organizational model each library employs; however, the process and goals remain essentially the same.

Collection development is a term representing the process of systematically building library collections to serve study, teaching, research, recreational, and other needs of library users. The process includes selection and deselection of current and retrospective materials, planning of coherent strategies for continuing acquisition, and evaluation of collections to ascertain how well they serve user needs. (Gabriel 3)

The strategies involved in planning for continuing acquisition of library materials must inevitably touch on the deep budget cuts most U.S. universities and their libraries have faced in the last decade. What libraries can afford to spend money on has become increasingly narrow. In the course of collection development, librarians have to ask themselves what the library cannot do without—what make up the core works in each area—so that the library has the essentials for students and faculty to use for their research. The fundamental principle of a core collection is that “certain books and films are standard classic titles that are at the very heart of a library’s collection and form the foundation upon which a library’s collection is built” (Alabaster vii).

However, what has also become an issue in the field of Library and Information Science is the very definition of a collection. While collection development for librarians is a “process of dealing with the collections they acquire, maintain, and evaluate. These three areas of collection development have undergone extensive technological expansion in the past few years and this has lead to a conflict with the more transitory nature of genre literature” (Futas 39). What we see is that collections have been traditionally defined by four criteria: ownership, tangibility, a distinct user community, and an integrated retrieval system (Lee 1106). The proliferation of freely available information online, combined with users from across the globe entering the library through search engines such as Google Scholar, instead of patrons from the home institution finding library sources through the traditional catalog, makes it difficult for librarians to define which users they are serving primarily and how best to facilitate that service so users find the most relevant sources. Compounding that issue are the many electronic refereed journals that are open access, such as the Journal of Popular Romance Studies. It is online and available to anyone to view, so can every library consider it part of their collection, or can none of them? It is not tangible and the library will never own a physical copy to keep on their shelves, so the question becomes as nebulous as trying to define a collection.

Moreover, the research status of a library—very high research activity, high research activity, etc—is partially determined by counting the volumes available in the library, meaning ownership plays an important role in this determination. Unfortunately, this is not an accurate representation of how patrons use the library. Circulation statistics for books and other physical items are going down, and use of online sources such as article databases and ebooks is skyrocketing. However, this kind of content is neither tangible nor owned. In many cases, it is leased, licensed, or rented, but it is not owned as part of a library collection, and if a library gives up a subscription, the back files often go with the subscription, unlike a print journal where the older volumes would still belong to the library.

Without the constraints of the traditional criteria, the best definition for a collection is that it is an “accumulation of information resources developed by information professionals intended for a user community or a set of communities” (Lee 1106). How one defines the community or communities one serves is a matter decided by the administration of each library or university.

Who Should Collect Popular Romance?

With shrinking budgets, librarians must decide what is essential to their collections and spend what monies they have on those items. The audience or community most academic librarians serve is the faculty and students of their home institution. With that in mind, the first priority has to be to buy for the departments on campus. So far, only McDaniel College has a department on campus with a popular romance minor, and thus a mandate to purchase materials in that area. There are other universities who collect popular romance as part of a larger popular culture collection or in their special collections, but those collections are, by definition, special and not always accessible to those who use the general collection. Furthermore, libraries may acquire romance as a subset of the general collection, specifically geared toward leisure reading for students and faculty rather than as material used for scholarly study (Dewan; Heish and Runner).

There are those librarians who advocate for buying best-sellers such as romance novels for research purposes in academic libraries because these works are a reflection of our culture and, if we do not collect and preserve them now, these materials may be lost forever (Sewell 450; Crawford and Harries 216; Moran 6; Hallyburton, Buchanan, and Carstens 109). A study conducted by Justine Alsop confirms that collecting contemporary popular fiction as part of the library’s general research collection has found increasing acceptance among English literature librarians (584), but this movement has a long way to go before it receives the mass acceptance needed for popular romance to be a significant part of academic library collections.

Several factors play into why popular romance may not be collected by university libraries. For example, librarians have variously claimed that popular culture materials: do not relate to their institutional mission, are delivered by public libraries, garner only transitory interest from patrons, place too high a demand on limited budgets, shelf space, and staff time, and are often printed in paperback format, which is a preservation nightmare (Sewell 453, 459; Van Fleet 71; Alsop 581-582; Hsieh and Runner 192-193; Odess-Harnish 56; Hallyburton, Buchanan, and Carstens 109).

Mass-market paperbacks are often printed on acidic paper that becomes yellow, brittle, and unusable over time. The options available for preserving these works, such as performing a deacidification process on the paper or reformatting the books by microfilming or digitizing, are all quite costly, especially considering the volume of romance novels printed per year. Pillete (2003) estimates that the cost for microfilming one book is $125 U.S. dollars, digitizing is $50 U.S. dollars per book, and neither of these methods does anything to preserve the original work. Deacidification, even if done in mass quantities, could still be as much as $16 U.S. dollars per average volume (Pillete 1-5). One might think that ebooks would be a viable solution, considering they are in their native digital format and solve many preservation and space-saving concerns; however, many older romance titles are not yet available in ebook format and the licensing agreements for ebooks with libraries can become a barrier to access, especially since there is no possibility of checking out an item to a researcher who is not a patron of the library that has licensed the ebook, as in the case of interlibrary loan.

Another reason for lack of collection in this area is that liaison librarians tend to depend on review sources to help make collection development decisions. Popular romance is not generally covered by standard review sources, and it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. Review sources claim there are too many romance novels to possibly begin to review them all, and there is not enough space to deal with them on the pages of the review issues (Fialkoff 118). Consequently, librarians claim there is not enough space to handle romance novels in the stacks of the library, especially when librarians must ask themselves if this is the best use of the space they have. Is this what researchers are going to need or use the most? Is it the best way to spend a limited library budget, especially if they cannot even get reviews of these books in their normal sources to indicate the quality of the work?

This could be seen as a string of excuses, or prejudice against popular culture materials, or prejudice against popular romance, specifically. There has been an ongoing resistance to collecting popular materials in academic libraries, with these items viewed as a “disposable culture” not worthy of preserving (Hoppenstand 236), and libraries are slow to change to a new way of collecting (Sewell 453; Odess-Harnish 56). However, beyond any prejudice is the reality of romance publishing. According to the most recent statistics from the Romance Writers of America, romance makes up 13.2% of the consumer market and produces over 9,000 books per year (RWA, “Romance Literature Statistics: Industry Statistics”). Not only would collecting all of these works take up a lot of shelf space, but it would also require a library to invest a not insignificant amount of money into purchasing the books, and also preserving them. It is perhaps for this reason that even libraries that do collect popular romance materials often rely heavily, if not exclusively, on donations to grow their collections (Sewell 459; Flesch 121; Adkins et al. 63).

Where Should Popular Romance Materials be Shelved?

Despite the budgetary and spatial constraints, there are libraries that have impressive collections of popular culture materials, which may include popular romance. If a library acquires popular romance, a decision must then be made about where these materials should be housed within the library’s collections. The two usual options are a special collection, which can mean the main special collection of a library or a smaller subset, such as a popular culture special collection; or the general collection, which may indicate the library’s main stacks or a subset called a “browsing collection” or “leisure reading collection.” There are clear benefits and drawbacks to both special and general collections. The benefit of a special collection is that special collections librarians actively work to preserve their materials, and the drawback is that sometimes their finding aids may describe their collections, but not the individual items in that collection. If a patron is looking for a specific book, finding out if the library owns it can become an issue. Conversely, general collections usually provide full cataloguing for materials, but there is less concern for preservation. Any patron can check these materials out, not just researchers, and if these books are lost or damaged, they may not always be replaced.

Even within the main stacks of the general collections, it is often unclear where popular romance material will be shelved. The field of Popular Romance Studies is cross-disciplinary, as noted on the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance’s (IASPR) and the Journal of Popular Romance Studies’ (JPRS) websites. IASPR’s Mission page claims that the organization is “dedicated to fostering and promoting the scholarly exploration of all popular representations of romantic love,” and the JPRS’s About page adds that these representations may be in “popular media, now and in the past, from anywhere in the world.” This is an undeniably, and deliberately, broad definition for the field. The JPRS About page goes on to elaborates that

we welcome [ . . . ] contributions from all relevant disciplines, including African American / Black Diaspora Studies, Art, Communications, Comparative Literature, Cultural Studies, Education, English, Film Studies, History, LGBTQ Studies, Marketing, Philosophy, Psychology, Religious Studies, Sociology, Women’s and Gender Studies.

There is nothing wrong with a field having a broad scope, especially when the journal publishing these resources is online. However, libraries are physical buildings that are “highly organized systems which provide information which is, by and large, contained in print materials [ . . . ] that can be only in one place at a time” (Searing 7). Cataloguing materials for the general collection of most academic libraries in the United States involves using the subject headings from the Library of Congress Classification system. While multiple subject headings can be assigned to each work, only one can be primary, which then indicates where an item will be shelved. A small sampling of subject headings assigned to scholarly monographs in Popular Romance Studies include

Love stories — Appreciation.

Love stories, American — History and criticism.

Love stories, English — History and criticism.

American fiction — 20th century — History and criticism.

Authors and readers — United States.

Sex role in literature.

Popular literature — History and criticism.

Popular literature — English-speaking countries — History and criticism.

Women and literature — Australia — History — 20th century.

Women — Books and reading — United States.

Therefore, as with all interdisciplinary fields, even if a library does acquire popular romance, the materials will be scattered throughout the general collection, unless it is placed together in a special collection. There is no uniform approach to handling popular culture materials in academic libraries. How each library chooses to handle this issue is individual to the library and the group of librarians entrusted with managing the collection.

Popular Romance Scholarship Core Collection

While “academic libraries may collect mainstream fiction, it is more often the case that works about a particular author or novel [or film] will be included in the collection, while the specific works (primary sources) are unavailable except through interlibrary loan or a visit to a local public library” (Van Fleet 66). If this is the case, one might ask how likely it is for academic libraries to collect these secondary sources when they do not have a popular romance major or minor program? Secondary sources can also be primary sources, but for the sake of simplicity, this article is going to label secondary sources as those which analyze or examine popular romance for a scholarly audience.

Van Fleet’s statement again raises the issue of the need for a core collection. Which works define the absolute minimum that would be required to say a library had a core collection of romance scholarship? If popular romance scholars cannot define this, it will be difficult for a library unversed in popular romance to do so either. To begin the process of defining a core collection, and to find out how likely it is for those core works to be collected by academic libraries, this article will borrow from a list complied by Pamela Regis and posted on the RomanceScholar Listserv (see Appendix A). Also, the author of this article received a $1,000 U.S. New Faculty Fund to buy monographs for the library collection when hired in 2009 at San Jose State University in California. This fund was used to purchase popular romance scholarship, and a list of those purchases was compared to Pamela Regis’s list. The two lists compiled many of the same works, with the exception of approximately 10 titles (see Appendix B). Combined, these lists make up a rough estimate of the core collection in this area, which added up to 45 titles in total.

To gain an understanding of how likely it is for universities to collect popular romance scholarship, this article examines the two public university systems in California as a case study.

The California State University (CSU) system has 23 campuses, a full time undergraduate enrollment of almost 350,000 students, and an additional 49,000 graduate students. The CSUs are teaching institutions that offer Bachelors and Masters degrees. A few CSUs offer joint or gateway doctoral degrees and several campuses are in the process of opening doctoral programs in education, physical therapy, and nursing, but these programs are the exception rather than the rule (“CSU Term Enrollment Summary – Fall 2010”; “CSU Historic Milestones”).

The second system is the University of California (UC), which has 10 campuses with a full time undergraduate enrollment of approximately 180,000, and a graduate enrollment of 45,000. The percentage of graduate enrollment is much higher in this system because these are research institutions, offering doctoral studies for many of their major departments (“UC Statistical Summary of Students and Staff – Fall 2010”).  It would seem logical that the UC campuses would have more romance scholarship in their collections because they have more money to spend on research materials, but with no major departments in the area, it did not seem likely that many of the core list items would appear in their collections.

In addition to examining the collections of California’s public university systems, this study also took an initial look at how many libraries worldwide owned the popular romance core works. This was accomplished by searching for each title in WorldCat, the largest catalog in the world, which indexes the holdings of about 72,000 libraries in 170 countries (“WorldCat Facts and Statistics”). All of the CSU and UC libraries are represented in WorldCat, so there was some cross over in the results.

For the UC libraries, a search for each popular romance core title was conducted in Melvyl, the union catalog for the UC system, which lists the holding for each edition and format of the volumes in those libraries. The union catalog for the CSU libraries was also searched for each title. It is important to note that this study was not weighted toward any specific edition or format. If a library held a first edition in hardcover in their collections, it would be counted equally with a library that held a third edition in ebook format, for example.

Fig. 1 displays the results for the search of the CSU libraries. Only one campus had none of the books on the list, but it was the California Maritime Academy, which focuses on educating those who want to join the merchant marines. The CSUs at Channel Islands and Monterey Bay are both the smallest and newest campuses, which would attribute to a smaller collection overall and thus lower numbers in this study (“CSU Term Enrollment Summary – Fall 2010”; “CSU Historic Milestones”).

Fig. 1 Number of core popular romance titles held by each CSU library.


The results for the UC institutions are displayed in Fig. 2. Again, the newest and smallest campus at UC Merced returned low numbers, as well as UC San Francisco, which focuses heavily on medicine and the hard sciences and thus would be less likely to collect in an area such as Popular Romance Studies, which, despite its interdisciplinary nature, is still weighted toward social science and humanities disciplines.

Fig. 2 Number of core popular romance titles held by each UC library.


Overall, the CSU average was 17.4 of the 45 popular romance core titles, and the UC average was 28.5 titles. The highest collectors in the CSUs were San Jose with 34 titles, which can be attributed to the selections made with the author’s New Faculty Fund, Fresno with 29 titles, and a tie between East Bay and San Bernadino, each with 28 titles. There are two librarians at East Bay who have most likely contributed to the high number of core titles there. Doug Highsmith, who has published several times on the importance of collecting popular culture materials, and Kristin Ramsdell, who co-wrote an article called “Core Collections in Genre Studies: Romance Fiction 101” (Wyatt et al.). It is unclear, however, why San Bernadino or Frenso would rank above the other CSUs in this area.

The top three UC libraries were Berkeley with 39 of the core titles, and Davis and Irvine, each with 36 of the titles. Other than the fact that these are some of the largest UC campuses, there is no clear reason why they collected more popular romance scholarship than the other UCs. A key question is whether librarians specifically selected these titles for acquisition, or if they came into the library’s collections via an approval plan.

Many libraries do not make all of their acquisitions decisions. Instead, they subscribe to an approval plan through a book vendor, which sends a selection of books based on a profile of the library’s patrons. These approval plans can save libraries money both in staff time as well as through discounts from the vendors. However, the vendors often overlook smaller publishers in their approval plans; therefore, librarians need to fill in those gaps with individual title selection. If the popular romance titles became part of the library’s collections through an approval plan, it is possible the librarians, faculty, and staff on that campus had very little or nothing to do with those acquisitions. If they were individually selected titles, one has to wonder which librarian supported popular romance studies, or which major department she was gearing the selection toward. There are many questions still unanswered, and further research needs to be conducted in this area.

Regardless of how or why the titles became part of library collections, they are still available to the faculty and students of those campuses for research. Of the titles on the core list, which were the most likely to be collected, for whatever reason? This is a broader question than the CSU and UC systems, so it was important to include results from WorldCat as well. Fig. 3 shows the top five titles collected by libraries indexed in WorldCat. There are columns comparing how many UC or CSU libraries also collected these same titles. In WorldCat, Germaine Greer’s work was the most collected and was held in over 3,000 libraries. In the top five, Greer was followed by Janice Radway, John Cawelti, Northrop Frye, and Tania Modleski.

Fig. 3 Popular romance core titles held by the greatest number of libraries in WorldCat.


For the CSUs, we see the same titles, but in a slightly different order, with Frye jumping up from fourth to third. Cawelti, Modleski, and Leslie W. Rabine were in a three-way tie for the final spot. These numbers and their comparative UC and WorldCat rankings are displayed in Fig. 4.

Fig. 4 Popular romance core titles held by the greatest number of CSU libraries.


In the UC results displayed in Fig. 5, a few other titles rose to the top. Greer tied with Lynn Neal and Lynn Pearce as the most collected works in the UC system.

Fig. 5 Popular romance core titles held by the greatest number of UC libraries.


Interestingly, there were sixteen titles held by eight of the ten UC campuses, lending some credence to the idea that research universities are, on the whole, more likely to collect popular romance scholarship, despite the lack of a Popular Romance Studies program.

Fig. 6 Sixteen popular romance core titles held by eight UC libraries.


None of the UC or CSU libraries had a complete collection of the core list; however, only one title was not collected at all, and that was Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan. One might speculate that this book would be considered the least “academic” of the works listed, and was thus overlooked by academic librarians and not included in approval plans for these university libraries.


There are several recommendations for popular romance scholars that can be given based on the information presented in this article. The first is that, if popular romance scholars want libraries to collect their core list of titles, especially with the vast amount of primary source material produced each year, they need to have a list of core titles. Librarians rely on review sources to help them choose which titles to select, and the review sources neglect popular romance materials. To fill this gap, it is recommended that IASPR put together a committee to compile a true core list of primary and secondary titles for popular romance studies. This list would need to be updated annually to include new titles.

As demonstrated by the comparison of research institutions, the UCs; and teaching intuitions, the CSUs; it is much more likely for research institutions to have the fiscal ability to collect new materials. Therefore, it would seem the best way to have an academic library dedicate the funds towards collecting popular romance materials would be to have a university—preferably a research level, doctoral granting institution—with a major department for Popular Romance Studies. How likely or how soon that is to happen is unknown, but it is a goal romance scholars should continue to strive for.

While it is possible for an academic library to collect every scholarly work on the popular romance core list, it would be an overwhelming expense for any one library to acquire a comprehensive collection of every primary source in popular romance studies. Therefore, a final recommendation would be to identify several libraries interested in collecting in this area and focus on a coordinated collection development effort at a national, regional, or consortial level in order to spread the cost and ensure a broader coverage of materials. In this way, romance scholars can ensure every primary and secondary core title is held and preserved by at least one library, and that there is no danger of losing valuable research materials forever, which, in the case of romance novels printed on acidic paper, becomes ever more likely with each year that passes.

Works Cited

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Appendix A

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Belsey, Catherine. Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture. Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell, 1994.

Betz, Phyllis M. Lesbian Romance Novels: A History and Critical Analysis. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009.

Cadogan, Mary. And Then Their Hearts Stood Still: An Exuberant Look at Romantic Fiction Past and Present. London: McMillan, 1994.

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

Cohn, Jan. Romance and the Erotics of Property: Mass-Market Fiction for Women. Durham: Duke University Press, 1988.

Cranny-Francis, Anne. Feminist Fiction: Feminist Uses of Generic Fiction. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990.

Dixon, jay. The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon, 1909-1990s. London: Routledge, 2003.

Flesch, Juliet. From Australia with Love: The History of Australian Popular Romance Novels. Fremantle, WA: Curtin University Books, 2004.

Fletcher, Lisa. Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008.

Frenier, Mariam Darce. Good-bye Heathcliff: Changing Heroes, Heroines, Roles, and Values in Women’s Category Romances. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.

Frye, Northrop. The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Goade, Sally, ed. Empowerment versus Oppression: Twenty First Century Views of Popular Romance Novels. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007.

Greer, Germaine. The Female Eunuch. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970.

Grescoe, Paul. The Merchants of Venus: Inside Harlequin and the Empire of Romance. Vancouver: Raincoast, 1996.

Kaler, Anne K. and Rosemary Johnson-Kurek, eds. Romantic Conventions. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1999.

Krentz, Jane Ann, ed. Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers and the Appeal of the Romance. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.

Mann, Peter H. A New Survey: The Facts About Romantic Fiction. London: Mills & Boon, 1974.

Mann, Peter H. The Romantic Novel: A Survey of Reading Habits. London: Mills & Boon, 1969.

McAleer, Joseph. Passion’s Fortune: The Story of Mills and Boon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Modleski, Tania. Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women. Hamden, CN: Archon, 1982.

Jensen, Margaret Ann. Love’s $weet Return: The Harlequin Story. Bowling Green,  OH: Bowling State University Popular Press, 1984.

Mussell, Kay, ed. “Where’s Love Gone?: Transformations in the Romance Genre.” Paradoxa Vol. 3, No. 1-2. Vashon Island, WA: Delta Production, 1997.

Mussell, Kay. Fantasy and Reconciliation: Contemporary Formulas of Women’s Romance Fiction.  Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 1984.

Neal, Lynn S. Romancing God. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

Paizis, George. Love and the Novel: The Poetics and Politics of Romantic Fiction. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998.

Pearce, Lynne and Gina Wisker, eds. Fatal Attractions: Re-scripting Romance in Contemporary Literature and Film. London: Pluto Press, 1998.

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

Rabine, Leslie W. Reading the Romantic Heroine: Text, History, Ideology. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1985.

Radford, Jean, ed. The Progress of Romance: The Politics of Popular Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1986.

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

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

Ross, Deborah. The Excellence of Falsehood: Romance, Realism, and Women’s Contribution to the Novel. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1991.

Stacey, Jackie and Lynne Pearce, ed. Romance Revisited. New York: New York University Press, 1995.

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

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

Wendell, Sarah and Candy Tan. Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels. New York: Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 2009.


Appendix B

Byatt, Antonia. Passions of the Mind: Selected Writings. New York: Turtle Bay Books, 1992.

Carr, Helen, ed. From My Guy to Sci-fi: Genre and Women’s Writing in the Postmodern World. London: Pandora Press, 1989.

Frantz, Sarah S.G., and Katharina Rennhak, eds. Women Constructing Men: Female Novelists and Their Male Characters, 1750-2000. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2010.

Hollows, Joanne. Feminism, Femininity, and Popular Culture. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 2000.

McKnight-Trontz, Jennifer. The Look of Love: The Art of the Romance Novel. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002.

Salmon, Catherine, and Donald Symons. Warrior Lovers: Erotic Fiction, Evolution and Female Sexuality. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

Schurman, Lydia Cushman, and Deidre Johnson, eds. Scorned Literature: Essays on the History and Criticism of Popular Mass-produced Fiction in America. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.

Watson, Daphne. Their Own Worst Enemies: Women Writers of Women’s Fiction. London: Pluto Press, 1994.

1 “Popular romance” can also be referred to as “romantic fiction,” and either term can include works that do not have a happily-ever-after ending. Although novels are not the only medium for popular romance/romantic fiction, this article relies on definitions provided by romance author organizations such as the Romance Writers of America, the Romance Writers of Australia, and the UK’s Romantic Novelists’ Association for its definition of popular romance/romance fiction. While the Romantic Novelists’ Association sidesteps a true definition, it does call for a love story within the scope of the work (“What is Romantic Fiction?”). Both of the other organizations’ basic definition of romance includes works that have a central focus on a love story with an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending (“About the Romance Genre”; “Romance Genres”). This article prefers the narrower parameters offered by America and Australia, but embraces the idea that popular romance/romantic fiction need not conclude with the traditional happily-ever-after.


“When chick lit meets romanzo rosa: Intertextual narratives in Stefania Bertola’s romantic fiction,” by Federica Balducci


This article examines the work of Stefania Bertola (b. 1952), a prolific Italian writer of romantic fiction who creatively blends the codes and practices of romanzo rosa, Italy’s tradition of popular romance, with narrative tropes and cultural trends set up by contemporary Anglophone chick lit. In the landscape of Italy’s contemporary romantic fiction, where the dramatic and educational tones of romanzo rosa still permeate the genre in form and contents alike, Bertola’s novels represent a truly innovative and refreshing voice: one that has intertextuality, humour, and comedy as its key features. I discuss Bertola’s original position within the genre through a reading of the four titles that constitute the core of her production: Ne parliamo a cena (Let’s Talk About It Over Dinner), Aspirapolvere di stelle (Star Hoover), Biscotti e sospetti (Biscuits and Suspects), and A neve ferma (Firm Slopes).[1] As we shall see, in Bertola’s writing the generic features at work in romanzo rosa and chick lit are not only acknowledged, but also rearranged and reinterpreted, resulting in a complex, innovative body of work that successfully overcomes literary and stylistic boundaries in genre fiction.

In order to understand Bertola’s novels and their relationship with Anglophone chick lit and Italian romanzo rosa, it helps to have some sense of the latter tradition. To begin, then, I will give an overview of the romanzo rosa, followed by an account of the arrival of chick lit on the international stage, and more specifically in Italy. Finally, I will draw on scholarly work on parody and romantic comedy films to explore the role of humour, comedy and intertextuality in Bertola’s fiction.

Romanzo rosa: an overview

Critic Eugenia Roccella defines the romanzo rosa (often shortened to rosa) as a modern literary product, the result of changes in the Italian publishing market that took place in the early twentieth century (31). In those years, the development of a modern economy, particularly in Northern Italy, led to the growth of a literate middle class that, along with economic wellbeing, was seeking social and cultural acknowledgment. Publishers identified different targets based on factual data such as age and gender as well as potential interests, and the romanzo rosa established itself as the genre written by women, for women, about women (Spinazzola Modernità letteraria 211). Its rise can be located in the early 1920s with publisher Salani’s “La Biblioteca delle Signorine” (The Young Ladies Bookshelf), a series featuring sentimental stories with an edifying message and dedicated to upper-middle class young female readers (Ghiazza 137). Along with the occasional Italian author, the novels were mainly translations of English and French works;[2] as they were intended to have a pedagogical purpose for young women, female characters strictly adhered to the binary opposition between good and evil, that is, those who conformed to established moral and social codes of the time were awarded the happy ending, and those who failed at it were punished instead, quite often with death (Ghiazza 153). The success of the series prompted the reprint of the books a few years later under a new name, “I Romanzi della Rosa” (The Novels of the Rose), featuring a design characterised by a pink cover and a rose on the jacket, the graphic elements that would eventually label the genre itself.[3]

The popularity of such novels attracted the attention of other publishing houses that began releasing their own series. As Silvana Ghiazza maintains, in this phase the focus was not on the writers but almost exclusively on the imprint, which guaranteed the quality and tenor of the stories (136-37). While critics have mostly focused on the conventional aspects of the rosa novels produced during/within fascism, such as their homogeneous and repetitive formulas and their conservative representation of female fantasies, Robin Pickering-Iazzi holds a different and more challenging view. In Politics of the Visible: Writing Women, Culture, and Fascism she analyses Italian romance fiction and its conventions during the interwar years, exploring the implicit and explicit politics present in these texts. Using a critical model elaborated by Teresa de Lauretis and Cora Kaplan in the context of female identification in narrative and cinematic fiction, Pickering-Iazzi convincingly argues that “[w]ithin the hegemonic system predominated by Fascist institutions and the Catholic Church, which promoted models of femininity dedicated to the role of wife and mother, cast respectively as political and sacred, the romance novel, and mass culture in general, represented an alternative authority on modern canons of beauty and fashion, etiquette, and love” (103). Likewise, Antonia Arslan and Maria Pia Pozzato say that one of the most significant traits of rosa narratives is their active role in inviting both the expression of and a discussion about sentimental and sexual issues in Italy’s sociocultural landscape: “il rosa non si limita a raccontare l’amore e il sesso così come sono valorizzati e vissuti nella nostra società ma è anche un invito all’amore e al sesso” (“rosa does not just narrate love and sex as they are valued and approached in our society but is also an invitation to love and sex”; 1036).

The master of romanzo rosa was Liala (Amalia Liana Cambiasi Negretti Odescalchi, 1897-1995), who remains the most popular romance writer to date (Arslan and Pozzato 1039; Roccella 12); all her novels have been continually reprinted through the decades. Her career stretched from the early 1930s to the 1980s, and her life and writing are so deeply interwoven that they have become the rosa’s prototype and foundation stone (Lepschy; Roccella 53). A member of the Italian aristocracy, Liala married Marquis Cambiasi, almost twenty years her senior. Shortly after the marriage she met the aircraft pilot Centurione Scotto and the two fell in love. Cambiasi agreed to divorce but in 1926, before the paperwork could be completed, Scotto died while performing an acrobatic flight. Liala’s first novel Signorsì (Yes, Sir) published in 1931 by Mondadori, is inspired by these events and became an instant bestseller (Lepschy 183-84).

According to Pozzato, Signorsì presents the “estetismo di massa” (“mass aestheticism”) that would become a trademark of Liala’s writing. Characterised by a sophisticated vocabulary and syntactical constructions, this style was rooted in the late-nineteenth century literary movement of decadentismo (Decadence), whose tones and values Liala absorbed and reworked in a more popular form, aimed at a broader readership (90). The main features of Liala’s “mass aestheticism,” Pozzato explains, are stunning heroines and stylish heroes, moral integrity, exquisite settings infused with a sense of grandeur, and refined tastes expressed through close attention to visual details, particularly when describing clothes, houses, cars and other material belongings (90). From a formal perspective, Anna Laura Lepschy identifies a strategy of “double focalization” in Liala’s courtship plots; that is to say, the emotions of both male and female characters are granted equal visibility and importance in the story (186). There is no room here for a detailed analysis of Liala’s place and in Italian literature and culture, as it would require a much lengthier discussion.[4] However, I would point to Pickering-Iazzi’s fascinating analysis of Signorsì, which underlines the “culturally specific” form of the novel and considers it a landmark text in the genesis and development of a genre that, for the first time, was entirely “fashioned by Italian authors and stories” (99).

Indeed, Liala’s success boosted the rosa publishing market and while she wrote well into the mid-1980s, many other authors came along as the genre evolved. Some of them soon disappeared into the crowd of an overpopulated genre, but others built close relationships with their readers from the 1930s until the late 1970s through the pages of dedicated magazines, where they published their stories in instalments but also worked as journalists and often as personal advice columnists. As Roccella notes, simply by virtue of their novels’ subject matter, rosa writers came to be perceived as motherly figures as well as experienced friends, so to speak, assisting readers with complicated questions on issues related to everyday life and emotions (76).

During the 1980s, however, the landscape of Italian publishing changed. In 1981 the leading worldwide publisher of serial romance, Harlequin Enterprises, joined forces with Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, the historical Italian publishing house that had been one of the first to actively engage with mass-market fiction since the late 1920s, and launched Harmony, a joint venture designed to publish exclusively serial romances in translation. Harmony became almost immediately the reference point for a new kind of romance fiction in Italy, one that decreed the death of the so-called “rosa artigianale,” that is, the locally crafted romanzo rosa, in favour of new and imported serial romances (Roccella 109-14). The latter hit the marketplace with an abundance of titles ranging from historical to Regency to contemporary romance, and within a couple of years the success of Harmony novels among Italian readers was staggering: in 1983 readers were offered 25 new titles each month, all translated from English and quickly recognisable through definite visual features (Brodesco 42-45).[5] In fact, it could be said that Harmony brought romance back to the early 1920s, when the imprint, rather than the author, was the element that guaranteed the reader’s fidelity to the genre.

From the 1980s onward the home-grown rosa production and its literary tradition, which were already struggling to reposition themselves in Italy’s rapidly-changing society and publishing market, slowly disappeared under the weight of what Arslan and Pozzato have called “l’acritica colonizzazione da parte di modelli stranieri” (“the acritical colonisation by foreign models”; 1046). Those “modelli” included not only the serial Harmony romances, but also, after the 1990s a new genre of popular literature—chick lit—whose relationship with local Italian tradition would play out rather differently from the colonising pressure of Harmony.

The new kid in town: chick lit

Emerging in English-speaking countries in the mid 1990s with Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary and Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City, chick lit rapidly evolved into a worldwide cultural and literary phenomenon.[6] As Joanne Knowles maintains, chick lit novels feature “a female protagonist seeking personal fulfilment in a romance-consumer-comedic vein” (3). Knowles’ definition highlights the multifaceted and comedic nature of the genre, which Claire Squires reinforces by arguing that nowadays Bridget Jones is “not only a term for a certain social type [ . . . ] but also shorthand for a certain sort of novel and a certain sort of success” (159). Indeed, the resounding success of Fielding’s and Bushnell’s works (for the latter due largely to its TV adaptation) resides in their hybrid status, located as they are at the crossroad of social commentary, escapist fiction and literary tradition.

In Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction, the first comprehensive scholarly study of chick lit, Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young point out the novelty factor that the genre brought into the cultural and literary landscape of the mid-1990s worldwide. On the one hand, chick lit was a decidedly new kind of women’s popular fiction, whose formal and stylistic features presented innovative elements such as the humorous tone used to negotiate sentimental relationships; on the other hand, write Ferriss and Young, these novels were explicitly “about and for” a new type of woman—middle-class, white, heterosexual and financially independent—caught in intricate discourses of consumerism, sexuality, race and class at the turn of the century (12). Some years later, the debate among scholars on the qualities and shortcomings of chick lit confirms that the genre is an intriguing subject for analysis, one that has been discussed equally as a marketing ploy, a “post-literary” and “post-romantic” cultural product, a genuine attempt at addressing the experiences and issues of contemporary women in Western society, and a commentary on feminism and its place in today’s society (Whelehan; Smith; Harzewski; Modleski; Knowles). As Imelda Whelehan points out, chick lit must be acknowledged as “a tendency found in popular women’s writing of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century which alerts us to key concerns and themes also to be found in popular culture more generally” (Teening chick lit).

Whether happily embraced or forcefully rejected—by critics, writers and readers alike—the genre has generated a great deal of debate in the social, cultural, and literary arena, crossing geographical and linguistic boundaries. A New York Times article on international chick lit published in 2006 observed that parallel to the novel’s success in English-speaking countries, translations of Bridget Jones’s Diary immediately came out worldwide: in Italy, France and Japan in 1998, then in Hungary and Indonesia, to name but a few (Donadio). The novel’s gesturing at both “triviality and seriousness,” pointed out by Squires (160), fostered its appeal across the global market, building the base for subsequent variations. Alongside the translations of American and British authors, local publishers around the world promoted and launched domestic writers, who, for their part, addressed local socio-cultural needs and values. In 2002, freelance journalist Zsuzsa Rácz published a novel that was hailed as the “Hungarian Bridget Jones,” prompting Nora Sellei to investigate the reception of both Fielding’s character and her local counterpart in postcommunist Hungary (173-74). In calling for a new interpretative framework for Rácz’s novel, Sellei maintains that while it openly acknowledged its debt to Bridget Jones’s Diary, the book was also “rooted in a complex but subtle way in Hungary’s postcommunist present,” capturing in real time the changes in language, society, and culture of the country (179-85). Similarly, Jenny Mochtar Djundjung’s study on chick lit in Indonesia offers a comparative reading of British and Indonesian texts that focuses on the representation and reception of key elements such as the female body and the single urban woman. Likewise, the rise in China of a new generation of young women writers engaging with themes such as consumerism, eroticism and urban lifestyle has been dubbed “Chinese chick lit” and read in the context of the recent changes in the market economy of the country, where discourses of globalised consumer culture, female empowerment and neoliberal agency borrowed from Western postfeminist media culture are shaping—but are also being shaped by—urban Chinese women at ease with mainstream commodities and languages from the West (Chen; Ommundsen).

In Italy, the translation of Bridget Jones’s Diary (Il diario di Bridget Jones) came out in 1998 and was received with great enthusiasm; two years later the HBO’s Sex and the City was aired in Italy, becoming an instant hit. In 2002, Mondadori teamed up with Harlequin Enterprises for a second time, looking to recreate their success with the Harmony books, and brought the chick lit concept into the country through Red Dress Ink (RDI). Established in 2001 as the dedicated chick lit imprint of the Canadian-based romance fiction giant, RDI claimed to “define, as well as offer books relevant to, the 21st-century woman [ . . . ] leading women’s fiction with attitude” (RDI Writing Guidelines).[7] In presenting the new genre to the Italian market, editorial director Alessandra Bazardi emphasised its innovative nature (compared to the traditional romance fiction published by Harmony until then), its role as social commentary, and the new and younger readership it was attracting (De Luca). In 2004, the New York Times featured an article about the first Women’s Fiction Festival held in Matera (Italy), underlining “trendy upstarts like chick lit” as particularly successful in the country: “Italians [ . . . ] have taken to chick lit, the post-Bridget Jones literary phenomenon, and Italy has been the strongest foreign market for Red Dress Ink, Harlequin’s chick lit imprint” (Povoledo).[8] Indeed, other Italian publishers—particularly the ones with a solid background in popular romance—had started to launch dedicated chick lit series, such as Sperling & Kupfer’s “Pandora Shocking,” Salani’s “Femminili,” and Newton Compton’s “Anagramma.” As with Harmony, initially such series offered only translations, introducing the Italian readership to the most successful American and British chick lit writers, but local authors became gradually more and more visible.

Some Italian critics and reviewers have recently started to examine the sociocultural reasons behind the genre’s success and the generational representations that emerge from its contents, yet the object of their enquiry has been confined to foreign chick lit novels translated into Italian, with local writers going mostly unnoticed (Corbi; De Luca; De Rosa; Giovanetti; Manera). Admittedly, for many of these local writers, “chick lit” was a ready-made commercial label that would bring them visibility in the marketplace, and their works simply imitated the genre’s key features, roughly adapted to the Italian context. Others, however, begun to develop their own take on the genre and produced a genuinely domestic version of it. This is the case of Bertola, who retrieved the abandoned rosa tradition and blended it with chick lit themes and tropes, delivering an original narrative that, in the context of Italy’s popular genres, successfully reinterprets both genres in light of humour and comedy (Lepri).

Celestino Deleyto’s The Secret Life of Romantic Comedy (2009), a study on romantic comedy films that examines the genre from both a cultural and historical point of view, is particularly helpful for the analysis of Bertola’s approach to chick lit and popular romance. Deleyto defines romantic comedy as the genre “which uses humour, laughter and the comic to tell stories about interpersonal affective and erotic relationships” (30). Rather than focus on the genre’s narrative structures, which in romantic comedy must follow a fixed pattern, Deleyto draws our attention instead to the transformative power of the comic perspective. In Deleyto’s view, the presence and scope of humour in romantic comedies has an importance far beyond merely making these films enjoyable; in fact, humour becomes instrumental for the interpretation of all the many issues and themes at work in the story. Certainly, writes Deleyto, romantic comedies draw from ideas about love and relationships that are specific to the cultural and historical context in which they are created, and they always feature a tidy closure where these ideas are wrapped up in a satisfying (if not predictable) ending, but it is humour that provides the unique angle from which these ideas are read and evaluated. The comic perspective, Deleyto continues, accounts for the way the characters interact and evolve in spite of their sociocultural habits and constraints, creating “a space of transformation and fantasy” where both the characters and the audience understand the complexity of sentimental relationships (45-46).

Although elaborated within film genre studies, Deleyto’s observations can be applied to narrative fiction as well, and in particular to Bertola’s works, where humour and comedy play a fundamental role in storytelling, creating a space of “transformation and fantasy” through the playful deployment of various narrative codes and conventions. In this respect, Bertola’s technique is better understood in light of Margaret A. Rose’s Parody / Meta-fiction, in which she discusses parody as “a form of meta-fiction” or “a technique of stylistic ‘imitation’ and distortion” (19). Central to Rose’s argument is the idea of parody as “the meta-fictional ‘mirror’ to the process of composing and receiving literary texts” (59), a concept that she explains through the analysis of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. Rose notes that Austen “marks herself as a reader of the text, the value of which she is questioning [and] ironically mirrors her use of parody in the use of parody by one of her characters”; this way, says Rose, the mirror adds to its “mimetic” function a “dialectical” one, as it works in several directions at once, inside and outside of the novel itself, making “characters, author and reader [all] simultaneously the targets and the tool of satire” (70-72). Rose also introduces the notion of the transformative power of parody, which she locates in its structure:

[T]he structure of the parody—based on the imitation, quotation or distortion of the target text creates a dialectic of imitation and transformation, superseding the act of imitation itself, and uniting the parody work with another text and literary tradition, while at the same time changing the direction of this tradition through its refunctioning of its models. (158)

Such process of transformation through “imitation, quotation or distortion of the target text” holds with regard to Bertola’s novels, and is at the core of her creative engagement with cultural and stylistic models derived from opposite directions: the tradition of romanzo rosa and contemporary chick lit. If Italian popular romance had always been permeated by a “serietà assorta” (Spinazzola Immaginazione divertente 54), a distinctive tone of sombreness in support of the educational message that the story was required to deliver to its (female) readers, Bertola borrows the comedic nature of Anglo-American chick lit in order to infuse with an ironic tone the melodramatic seriousness that is romanzo rosa’s hallmark and its most enduring legacy.

Chick lit, romanzo rosa and comedy in Bertola’s fiction

A first example of Bertola’s use of irony and comedy to mediate chick lit and rosa comes from the management of male characters. Following the rosa tradition, Bertola’s heroes are still temperamental, have striking features and are well upward on the professional ladder, but these stock characteristics are always cleverly rewritten. A case in point is Filippo Corelli of Aspirapolvere di stelle, a bestselling writer whose striking features and passionate prose make him particularly successful among female readers:

Era una specie di Brad Pitt padano, profumato e vitale come un albero di arance. Era alto, forte, sorridente, era tutto dorato e appassionato, metteva felicità a vederlo, e tanto più seducente e misterioso appariva il contrasto con le sue occasionali malinconie [ . . . ] Era più luminoso, più caldo e più profumato degli altri uomini. E che profumo . . . Cos’era? Non lo aveva mai sentito . . . E quel colore di capelli? Che biondo era? Non lo aveva mai visto. Anche l’azzurro degli occhi era di una sfumatura sconosciuta. Non proprio blu. Turchese. Non proprio celesti. Blu? Non troppo azzurri. Verdi?

He was like a Brad Pitt from the Po Valley, fragrant and vigorous like an orange tree. He was tall, strong, smiling, everything in him was golden and passionate, just looking at him would make you happy, so that the contrast with his occasional melancholy seemed all the more alluring and mysterious [ . . . ] He was brighter, warmer and more fragrant than other men. And that scent . . . What was it? She had never smelled it . . . And that hair color? What shade of blond was it? She had never seen it. Even the blue in his eyes was an unknown shade. Not quite blue. Turquoise. Not really celeste. Blue? Not too light-blue. Green? (62-65)

Together with the reference to movie star Brad Pitt, displaced in the rural landscape of Italy’s Po river valley, Corelli’s features come across not so much as rapturous but rather as comically exaggerated in the meticulous yet unsuccessful attempt at capturing the exact shade of his eyes. Here Bertola is playing on the redundant descriptions of stunning and sensitive male heroes in popular romance, which readers would perhaps overlook if the writer had not previously cast Corelli as a narcissistic sexual predator, who relentlessly uses his good looks to seduce women. Because the main plot is based on the fact that all the female characters in the novel are unaware of Corelli’s true nature and easily fall under his charming spell, the audience is put in the position of truly enjoying the comic effect at work.

Bertola’s use of the comic also recreates the “transformation and fantasy” proposed by Deleyto as a key feature of the romantic comedy genre, as humour often helps the characters (and the audience) in understanding and negotiating intimate matters. In Aspirapolvere di stelle, for example, Gabriele confesses his love to Ginevra with a dramatic “because I love you” in the middle of a quarrel. But as the excerpt below shows, Bertola immediately puts under comical scrutiny this fundamental trope of popular romance:

“Mi può venire in mente” le spiegò con pazienza Gabriele, “perché ti amo.”
Si bloccò, sconvolto lui stesso da quello che aveva appena detto. Mai e poi mai, in tanti anni di dedizione alla femmina, aveva pronunciato quella formula spaventosa. Aveva detto di tutto, dal desolante “Lo sai che a te ci tengo” all’ingannevole ardente “Ti adoro” [. . . ] Per fortuna, la stasi temporale passò inosservata perché si era bloccata anche Ginevra, a cui nessuno aveva più detto “ti amo” dai tempi di un remoto fidanzato giovanile. [ . . . ] Ma un “ti amo” così, a dieci centimetri, con quegli occhi fiammeggianti, be’, era qualcosa.

“I can come up with it” Gabriele explained patiently, “because I love you.”
He stopped, shocked by what he had just said. Never, ever, in many years of dedication to women, had he pronounced those frightening words. He had said everything and anything, from the bleak “You know I care for you” to the deceitfully passionate “I adore you” [ . . . ] Fortunately, the temporary standstill went unnoticed because Ginevra was shocked too, as no one had said to her “I love you” since the days of a remote high-school boyfriend. [ . . . ] But an “I love you” like that, ten inches away, with those burning eyes, well, that was something. (86)

The declaration of love is one of the eight essential elements of the romance outlined by Pamela Regis (34) and Bertola’s reassessment of the hero’s momentous “I love you” equally dismisses and holds up the codes and language of romance fiction. The impenitent bachelor Gabriele cannot believe that he has just uttered “those frightening words,” which he has always avoided and paraphrased with less compromising ones, and realises that his attitude toward commitment may have changed just because he has been able to say them. Ginevra, who on her part is aware of Gabriele’s feelings but is not ready to reciprocate them yet, is forced to admit to herself that such passionate words are indeed “something.” This way, the writer has reaffirmed the pivotal role of the declaration in romance narratives, but the comedic tone has displaced its usual frame of reference, to the advantage not only of the plot and its development, but also of the audience, who is engaged in a richer, more playful reading experience.

A further example comes from Biscotti e sospetti, where after a very long courtship Mattia finally spends the night with Violetta. The morning after, the two have the following conversation over breakfast:

“Non vuoi sapere quando torno? Quando ci rivedremo? Che ne sarà di noi? Se abbiamo solo passato la notte insieme o se c’è di più?”Lei ridacchiò. “E tu? Vuoi saperlo?”

Mattia le andò vicino e la baciò molto.

“Io lo so.”

“Okay, allora prima o poi confronteremo le nostre informazioni.”

“Don’t you want to know when I get back? When we’ll meet again? What will become of us? If we have just spent the night together or there’s more?”

She giggled. “And you? Do you want to know it?”

Mattia went over and kissed her a lot.

“I already know it.”

“Okay, then sooner or later we will compare our data.” (227)

The dialogue humorously mocks the load of emotional expectations after a sexual encounter, with Mattia taken aback by Violetta’s lack of concern about their relationship, and it does a very good job in delivering a happy ending that is both predictable and unconventional: on the one hand, the characters carefully avoid the declaration of love that would celebrate them as a couple; on the other hand, Mattia’s bold kiss and Violetta’s laid-back response leave no doubt about their blissful future, giving the scene a romantic closure that is understated and emotionally satisfying all the same.

The characters’ jobs are another area where Bertola engages with both chick lit and romanzo rosa features in a comedic way. In Biscotti e sospetti, for example, Caterina proudly embraces her family’s working-class tradition of seamstress but with a twist, as she specialises in quality clothes for blow-up sex dolls: “Io faccio vestiti per le bambole gonfiabili. [ . . . ] Sarta, non stilista. Sono una sarta come mia madre e la mia prozia, però in un altro ramo. Loro fanno vestiti per le signore vere” (“I make clothes for blow-up sex dolls. [ . . . ] Seamstress, not designer. I am a seamstress like my mother and my aunt, but in another branch. They make clothes for real women”; 17) The humble profession of seamstress, reclaimed by Caterina as opposed to the modern and more glamorous designer, frames her within the traditional feminine domestic sphere as her mother and aunt before her. At the same time, those class-inherited skills are now updated and transferred to a different field, one that could not be more edgy and sexually charged. As a result, Caterina ironically embodies dispositions that are antithetical to one another: chick lit’s middle-class, smart and sexually savvy professional, and the working-class, humble and chaste labourer of the traditional popular romance. Likewise, in Aspirapolvere di stelle the three protagonists Penelope, Ginevra and Arianna run a cleaning and catering company called “Fate Veloci” (Speedy Fairies). Each of them specialises in a domestic task (cleaning, gardening and cooking, respectively) and their services are in high demand among Turin’s upper-class families. When they are hired by a critically acclaimed writer (Filippo Corelli) to perform domestic duties in his villa, the brief they receive describes the tasks in detail:

Quello che Filippo Corelli voleva dalle Fate Veloci era una perfetta e totale gestione di ogni faccenda domestica, dalle pulizie alla cura del giardino. Voleva cibi perfetti ma solo quando li avesse richiesti, voleva mobili lucidi e profumati, voleva un terrazzo accogliente anche nel cuore dell’inverno, voleva legna per il camino sempre ben impilata nelle ceste, voleva lenzuola profumate, camicie stirate, bagni schiuma che non finissero mai, dentifrici sempre nuovi, frigorifero sempre pieno ma sempre pieno di sorprese. E non voleva, invece, nessuno che gli parlasse, gli chiedesse, gli stesse fra i piedi, passasse davanti allo studio in cui lavorava.

What Filippo Corelli wanted from the Speedy Fairies was the perfect and total management of all household chores, from cleaning to gardening. He wanted the perfect food, but only when he requested it, he wanted shining and fragrant furniture, he also wanted a cozy balcony in the middle of winter, he wanted firewood always well stacked in baskets, he wanted scented linen, ironed shirts, endless bubble baths, always new toothpaste, a refrigerator always full but always full of surprises. He didn’t want, however, anybody speaking to him, asking him questions, bothering him, wandering in front of the studio where he was working. (23)

As we can see, the “the perfect and total management of all household chores” is intended literally and encompasses a list of impossibly exaggerated duties that, indeed, could be successfully carried out by magical creatures only. The image of the “domestic goddess” portrayed in popular media culture is upgraded to a better and more efficient domestic fairy, who does her magic and quickly disappears.[9] By stretching this fantasy to its limits, Bertola plays on the supposedly natural competence of women in relation to domestic duties and intensifies the gendered nature of such a fantasy in a way that is less denigrating than ironic, emphasised by Corelli’s childish repetition of “he wanted”.

Finally, the following excerpt from A neve ferma offers a good example of how Bertola recasts chick lit’s obsession with beauty and appearance:

Ginevra aveva compiuto trentadue anni in ottobre, e quindi avrebbe dovuto combattere [le rughe] già da sette anni. Invece aveva appena cominciato. Si era data alle creme la settimana prima, e adesso cercava di recuperare con lo zelo. Dopo la crema idratante, considerò con attenzione gli altri barattolini allineati sulla mensola del suo bagno tutto rosa. Meglio l’emolliente con la calendula, carota e ginseng, o quello al ginko biloba e alla vite rossa? E buttarsi decisamente sulla crema tonificante all’olio di jojoba e al burro di karité? Si guardò ben bene allo specchio. Non vedeva la minima traccia di rughe di nessun genere. Cedimento dei tessuti? Assente. Con un sospiro di sollievo, scelse la crema alla vite rossa, che meglio si accordava alla stagione.

Ginevra had turned thirty-two in October, and should have started to fight [expression wrinkles] seven years ago. Instead, she had just begun. She got seriously into creams the week before, and now was trying to catch up. After the moisturizer, she carefully considered the other jars lined up on the shelf of her all-pink bathroom. Better the emollient with calendula, carrot and ginseng, or the one with ginkgo and red vine leaves? And how about going decidedly for the jojoba oil and shea butter tonifying cream? She took a very good look in the mirror. She couldn’t see a trace of wrinkles of any kind. Sagging skin? Nope. With a sigh of relief, she chose the cream with red vine leaves, in tone with the season. (5)

As Rosalind Gill and Elena Herdieckerhoff have noted, in chick lit narratives “the body is constructed in a highly specific way: it is a body that is always already unruly and which requires constant monitoring, surveillance, discipline, and remodelling in order to conform to judgments of normative femininity” (498). In the quoted paragraph, Ginevra, at the age of thirty-two, feels that she should engage with a plethora of skincare products in order to avoid wrinkles and premature skin ageing. In evoking the surveillance of the female body that so often recurs in chick lit, Bertola plays on discourses of normative femininity presented in women’s magazines and adverts, whose language she mocks in the detailed description of exotic and mysterious ingredients that promise miraculous effects. Moreover, the passing nod to Ginevra’s all-pink bathroom adds a visual detail that frames the scene in an utterly feminine space. The writer then works by subtraction, formally and stylistically: on the one hand, the passage stresses the contrast between Ginevra’s commitment to catch up with time and discipline her body—she is seriously into skincare now—and her overwhelming inability to choose the appropriate product among the many she has bought. On the other hand, the narrative structure builds a tension that is eventually released in a comic anticlimax where Ginevra, upon realising that her skin is still quite flawless, chooses a cream that complements the autumn season.

As we have seen, Bertola’s relationship with rosa and chick lit narratives is not just a passive update of formulaic conventions in light of contemporary literary trends; rather, it actively re-contextualises generic rules and conventions through comedy and humour. From this perspective, Bertola’s dynamic engagement with chick lit and romance narratives is most evident in the intertextual and metafictional subtext of her novels, inasmuch as it sets up a transformative dialogue between the old texts, the new ones and their readership, as I shall discuss in the final part of this article.

Intertextuality and metafiction in Bertola’s novels

As many critics have noted, intertextuality and metafiction are at the core of chick lit, a genre that Claire Squires aptly describes as a “genre-crossing fiction [ . . . ] placed between the ‘mass’ and the ‘literary’ market, by appealing to and playing on the conventions of romance fiction” (160). Suzanne Ferris, for example, has discussed Fielding’s overt borrowing of and homage to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (72), while Stephanie Harzewski has investigated the influence and presence of Edith Wharton’s fiction on Bushnell’s writing (108-14).

Bertola addresses mass-market popular romance and its place in Italy’s literary scene in Ne parliamo a cena and Aspirapolvere di stelle, with different yet related purposes and outcomes. In the first case, Veronica is an upper-class, stay-at-home mother who lands a well-paid contract with Harmony, and her family’s reaction is self-explanatory: “Scrivi Harmony? Gli Harmony?” (“You write Harmony? The Harmony?”; 214). The italicised definite article exposes the notorious fame that accompanies the publisher in Italy’s literary landscape, where over the years the word “Harmony” has become shorthand for cheap writing and inappropriate readings, regardless of the genre they belong to, and effectively conveys a sense of disbelief that is implicitly judgmental. Bertola, however, immediately reframes such conversation when Veronica impatiently dismisses her family’s biased notions and comments that being an accomplished writer in a highly specialised and thriving genre where competition is fierce will give her independence, both in the personal and the professional sphere. In the case of Aspirapolvere di stelle, by contrast, Bertola uses the complicit relationship that her characters entertain with mass-market romance to address and re-contextualise chick lit tropes:

Sono fantastica, pensava. Nessuna di queste slavate schiave del dovere potrebbe immaginare che nel mio cuore di perfetta e amorevole madre brucia un vulcano di passione (in effetti, Arianna aveva ricominciato a leggere gli Harmony). Sono una vera donna moderna, che concentra in sé la madre, la femmina, la compagna, l’imprenditrice . . . proprio come in un articolo di “Marie Claire”!

I’m amazing, she thought. None of these washed-out wage-slaves could ever imagine that in my heart of perfect and loving mother burns a volcano of passion (in fact, Arianna had started reading Harmony novels again). I am a truly modern woman, mother, feminine, partner, and entrepreneur all at once . . . Just like in a “Marie Claire” article! (78)

Arianna’s final line brings to mind the ambiguous relationship that chick lit characters entertain with glossy women’s magazines and the unachievable models of femininity they present, along the lines of Bridget Jones’s famous claim of being a “child of Cosmopolitan culture [ . . . ] traumatised by supermodels and too many quizzes” (59), yet it is the phrase in brackets that offers the chance to discuss Bertola’s interest in the forms and conventions of chick lit and popular romance. A few paragraphs earlier, Arianna said that she was not interested in Harmony romances; however, since the way in which she talks is indeed modelled on romance stock phrases (such as “in my heart [ . . . ] burns a volcano of passion”), the narrator intervenes to point out that Arianna is in fact reading such novels. Once again, Bertola introduces Harmony novels to play on the stereotype of the unsophisticated woman duped by these readings, but this time around her narrative strategy invokes a more active involvement of the audience. Indeed, the shift in the mode of address (where the writer uses a free indirect discourse that combines third person narrator, first person narrator, and external omniscient narrator) emphasises the stereotype but simultaneously tweaks it in a way that, as Rose reminds us, becomes a parodic “refunctioning” of it (158).

More examples of “genre-crossing” appear in A neve ferma, a novel where metafiction and intertextuality are performed through a direct and explicit engagement with the Italian tradition of romanzo rosa. One of the main characters is an aristocratic lawyer who secretly reads love stories and dreams of a love-life modelled on their characters, as the following excerpts shows:

Mario Mongilardi leggeva romanzi d’amore. Questa sua segreta attività era iniziata quando aveva nove anni, e passava le vacanze con sua cugina Ada, tre anni più grande, accanita lettrice dei Romanzi della Rosa Salani, che aveva trovato a mucchi nella soffitta di casa. … Mario aveva cominciato a spararsi Prima o Poi, Oltre gli Scogli, Sei giorni e altri significativi titoli. Poi, ormai assuefatto, era passato a più nobili autrici, e aveva letto tutta Jane Austen, le più significative fra le Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell e via via, fino a Margaret Mitchell e Rosamund Pilcher. Naturalmente erano letture segrete, portate avanti con somma discrezione. … Sul suo comodino sbandierava Clive Cussler, Stephen King e, quando voleva darsi un tono più intellettuale, Niccolò Ammaniti, ma nel cassetto chiuso a chiave c’era sempre un romantico romanzo femminile. Quindi lui sapeva. Sapeva da sempre, si può dire, quale fosse il suo destino.

Mario Mongilardi read romance novels. This secret activity had begun when he was nine years old and was on holiday with his cousin Ada, three years older, serial reader of the Romanzi della Rosa Salani. [ . . . ] Mario had started to feed himself on Prima o Poi, Oltre gli Scogli, Sei giorni and other meaningful titles. Later, by then addicted, he had moved on to the noblest authors, and had read all of Jane Austen, the most significant among the Brontë sisters, Elizabeth Gaskell and so on, up to Margaret Mitchell and Rosamund Pilcher. Of course these were clandestine readings, carried out with utmost discretion. [ . . . ] On his bedside table there were Clive Cussler, Stephen King and, when he wanted to appear a bit more cultured, Niccolò Ammaniti, but in a locked drawer he always kept a woman’s romantic novel. Therefore he knew. He had always known, one might say, what his fate was. (94)

The educated, professional male passionate about romance but ashamed to admit his guilty pleasure is not an original creation, but Bertola positions this narrative device in an intertextual framework that refers to a very specific literary tradition. Alongside with critically sanctioned female authors such as Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, and mainstream romance writer Rosamund Pilcher, the narrator of A neve ferma mentions the Salani’s imprint “Romanzi della Rosa” as part of Mario’s book collection, quoting actual titles to back up the character’s extensive knowledge of the genre.[10] By doing so, Bertola goes to the roots of the Italian tradition and, instead of making up romance titles by exaggerating their flamboyant style, she takes advantage of existing novels and links them to the works of critically sanctioned women writers. The metafictional and intertextual elements are even more subtle when we note that Salani, the publisher of Mario’s “meaningful” novels, is also Bertola’s publisher, thus inscribing A neve ferma itself in the very same tradition. As a result, while it is up to the reader’s awareness to notice and fully appreciate all the references at work in the quoted passage, the “Romanzi della Rosa” series is deployed as the bait that would lure Mario into the underbelly world of women’s romantic fiction. The dangers of such gendered and clandestine activities are then reinforced by the language and phrasing, which on the one hand cleverly imitate the lexicon of drug addiction, and on the other hand hyperbolically frame the novels as womanly readings. A few sentences later, the comic element is reinforced by the nod to manly popular writers such as Clive Cussler and Stephen King, but particularly to the critically acclaimed Italian pulp author Niccolò Ammaniti, whose books Mario puts on display in order to show a less feminine, more gender-appropriate taste.

Moreover, Mario is depicted as an avid reader unable to separate fiction from reality who constantly uses romanzi rosa to decipher people and situations, a narrative technique that is consistent with Rose’s aforementioned observations on parody as metafiction in Austen’s Northanger Abbey. According to Rose, parody is a transformative process which “mirrors the process of composing and receiving literary texts” (59), which we see clearly at work when we learn that Mario, duped by these readings, has been waiting for his true soulmate to come along, and when he meets his childhood friend Emma he convinces himself that she is the one:

Inevitabile, inaspettata, un giorno avrebbe incontrato LEI [ . . . ] la donna del destino, la magica fanciulla che avrebbe spazzato via tutte le altre, trasformandolo in un marito fedele e appassionato, proprio come i vari Conte Hubert e ingegner John e Darcy e Rochester dei suoi libri preferiti. E adesso, da vari indizi, aveva identificato questa nemesi dei sentimenti in Emma. Proprio come in una storia dei Delly, era una ragazza del paese, di bell’aspetto, colta, gentile, elevata, figlia di semplici ma oneste persone. [ . . . ] Una sola cosa lo disturbava. Doveva esserci, da qualche parte, un ostacolo. C’era sempre, nei romanzi.

Unavoidable, unexpected, one day he would meet HER [ . . . ] the woman of his destiny, the magical young lady who would sweep away all the others, turning him into a faithful and passionate husband, just like Count Hubert and Darcy and Rochester from his beloved books. And now, from various clues, he had identified this nemesis of the feelings in Emma. Just like in a Delly story, she was a girl from his hometown, handsome, intelligent, gentle, refined, the daughter of simple but honest people. [ . . . ] Only one thing bothered him. There must have been, somewhere, an obstacle. There was always one, in the novels. (94-95)

The above passage reveals Mario’s function in the narrative as a self-reflexive, metafictional approach to romance fiction: just like in a story written by the French siblings Delly, best-selling authors of early 20th century romance across Europe, Emma displays all the traits of the conventional romance heroine, as she is of humble origins, beautiful and tender. At this point, to conform to the romance narrative structure and match the courtship plot that Mario has in mind, their relationship must encounter an obstacle that would make their final union all the more meaningful. Here Bertola applies the parody to the romance trope of the “barrier” between the heroine and hero analysed by Regis, who defines it as the element that “drives the romance novel” (32). It could be external, such as a physical separation or rules imposed by society, but also internal, and in this case it will refer to the motivations, feelings and personality of the hero and heroine. Furthermore, Regis points out that “through [the barrier] element the writer can examine any situation within the heroine’s mind or in the world itself” (32), and Bertola makes the most of such an opportunity to further characterise Mario. In fact, when he learns that Emma is still in love with the man who has just dumped her, his reaction is one of relief: “Mario respirò sollevato. Tutto andava per il meglio” (“Mario sighed in relief. Everything was fine”; 105). Later on, when he tells his cousin and fellow romance reader Ada that he has finally found the woman of his destiny, he triumphally adds: “È perfetta Ada. C’è anche l’ostacolo (“She is perfect, Ada. There’s even the barrier”; 125). To make the situation all the more comic, shortly afterwards Mario falls in love with Emma’s friend Camelia, but once again, blinded by his beloved stories, he understands this event as an additional barrier in his relationship with Emma, stubbornly reading his situation in terms of the many love triangles he has seen in old romances.

The intertextual framing and Bertola’s use of parody become more evident when we look at specific tropes of the genre and how they are recast. In his study on the language of humour, Walter Nash argues that “a test of good parody is not how closely it imitates or reproduces certain turns of phrase, but how well it generates a style convincingly like that of the parodied author” (84). The focus here is on the writer’s “creative allusiveness,” which directs the audience toward either a specific author or text or, more generally, on “pseudoparody,” which Nash defines as the technique that evokes “a hazy recollection of rhetorical procedures” that readers would immediately recognise as familiar (100). Bertola’s “creative allusiveness” is well on display in the next passage, where the fierce and temperamental male protagonist is put under scrutiny. Mario is on his first date with Emma but does not know how to behave, so once again he resorts to his fictional role-models:

Darcy, l’aviatore John o il Conte Hubert, di fronte a una frase così avrebbero inchiodato la Donna Del Destino al più vicino faggio, sussurrandole incoerenti parole d’amore. Mario si sentiva un po’ pigro, quella sera, ma comunque baciò Emma.

Presented with a sentence like that, Darcy, John the aviator or Count Hubert would pin the Woman Of Destiny to the closest beech tree, whispering incoherent words of love to her. Mario was feeling a little lazy, that evening, but he kissed Emma anyway. (105)

Here Mario finds himself in a very tricky place: he acknowledges that the situation would require him to act boldly and audaciously, because this is what romantic heroes like Darcy or Rochester would do, but at the same time he is feeling a bit lazy, and eventually the dramatic and romantic gesture turns out to be an ordinary kiss. The effect is an anticlimax highlighted by the use of the adversative “but,” which pinpoints the split between the two worlds that Mario inhabits and brilliantly conveys his feeble attempt at living up to his fictional standards.

Likewise, the trope of the barrier is played throughout the narrative as Camelia and Mario, clearly in love with each other and sharing the same romance-mediated fantasies, withhold their passion in the name of the barrier—that is, Emma—until the end of the novel, when the obstacle is removed and the pairing successfully settled. Here Bertola’s parody takes a step further, as the removal of the obstacle comes in the form of a friendly (and anticlimactic) agreement between the two women, which leaves Mario quite baffled:

“Ma io non voglio sposare Camelia. Voglio sposare te.”

“Strano. Sei pazzo di lei.”

“Sì, be’, è solo una cosa . . . cioè, perché tu ami quell’altro, e allora io . . . si tratta di superare gli ostacoli, in modo che il nostro amore possa . . . be’. . . diciamo trionfare.”

“But I don’t want to marry Camelia. I want to marry you.”

“That’s odd. You’re crazy for her.”

“Yeah, well, it’s just . . . I mean, because you love that other guy, and then I . . . it all boils down to overcoming obstacles, so that our love can . . . well, triumph, so to speak.” (222)

Mario’s hilarious struggle to make sense of such an infringement of the genre’s main trope, in which the long-suffering lovers eventually triumph over the adversities, is all the more significant because he does not realise that he has been part of it all along, just in a different role and from a different perspective—one that readers, by contrast, have been able to anticipate and enjoy throughout the narrative.


Bertola’s novels occupy and innovative place in Italian romantic fiction. Rather than approaching Anglo-American chick lit and the Italian tradition of romanzo rosa as formally distinct genres, Bertola opts for a smooth interplay between the two. The result is an artful intergeneric dialogue in which these traditions are put in relation to one another in terms of themes, narrative structures and stylistic features: from chick lit’s comedic and tongue-in-cheek tone, to the intertextual references within the romance canon, to the multilayered and metafictional structure of the plot, as in the case of A neve ferma. More specifically, Bertola’s most important contribution to the genre is her use of comedy and intertextual parody, a strategy that is best read in relation to Deleyto’s transformative power of the comic space in romantic comedies. The comic space outlined by Deleyto is one that allows the interaction of several generic, cultural and social signifiers, which in turn loosens (and simultaneously enriches) the fixed set of features that the genre deploys. Similarly, in the landscape of Italy’s romantic fiction, Bertola’s comedic and intertextual approach to rosa and chick lit staples sets up an equally flexible framework that, running through all her work, plays on the social, cultural and literary background of both genres. The result is a new romantic narrative that is not derivative, but thought-provoking and creative in its own right.

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“RDI Writing Guidelines.” Web. 28 January 2008. articlepage.html? articleId=558&chapter=0.

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

Roccella, Eugenia. La letteratura rosa. Rome: Editori Riuniti, 1998. Print.

Rosa, Giovanna. “Lo specchio di Liala.” Il successo letterario. Ed. Vittorio Spinazzola. Milan: Unicopli, 1985: 37-69. Print.

Rose, Margaret A. Parody / Meta-Fiction. London: Croom Helm, 1979. Print.

Sellei, Nora. “Bridget Jones and Hungarian Chick Lit.” Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction. Ed. Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young. New York: Routledge, 2006: 173-88. Print.

Smith, Caroline J. Cosmopolitan Culture and Consumerism in Chick Lit. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.

Spinazzola, Vittorio. “Qualche ipotesi sulla narrativa ‘rosa’. Conversazione con Brunella Gasperini. ”Pubblico 1977. Ed. Vittorio Spinazzola. Milan: Il Saggiatore, 1977: 126-43. Print.

—, ed. Il successo letterario. Milan: Unicopli, 1985. Print.

—. L’immaginazione divertente. Il giallo, il rosa, il porno, il fumetto. Milan: Rizzoli RCS, 1995. Print.

—. La modernità letteraria. Milan: Net, 2005. Print.

—, ed. Tirature 05. Giovani scrittori e personaggi giovani. Milan: Gruppo editoriale il Saggiatore/Fondazione Mondadori, 2005. Print.

Squires, Claire. Marketing Literature: The Making of Contemporary Writing in Britain. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print.

Whelehan, Imelda. Overloaded: Popular Culture and the Future of Feminism. London: The Women’s Press, 2000. Print.

—. Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary: A Reader’s Guide. New York: Continuum, 2002. Print.

—. The Feminist Bestseller: From Sex and the Single Girl to Sex and the City. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Print.

—. “Teening Chick Lit?” Working Papers on the Web 13 (2009). Web. 20 July 2011.

—. “Remaking Feminism: Or Why Is Postfeminism So Boring?” Nordic Journal of English Studies 9 (2010): 155-72. Print.

[1] Unless otherwise stated, all translations from Italian in this article are mine. Bertola has also written a comic self-help manual on how to cope with a sentimental break-up, and in 2010 published a collection of short stories. She is a literary translator and an accomplished screenplay writer involved in the production of successful TV series for many Italian networks, for example the sit-com I Cesaroni (2006-ongoing) and the historical romance Elisa di Rivombrosa (2003-2005). The latter has been exported to Spain, Germany, France, Canada, Belgium Poland and Russia among other countries.

[2] Under the pseudonym Delly, brother and sister Frédéric (1876-1949) and Marie (1875-1947) Petitjean de la Rosière wrote more than 100 books. Ghiazza argues that their production is the epitome of the conservative ideology and educational purposes of the genre (153-55).

[3] For the history and development of romanzo rosa, see Arslan and Pozzato; Banti; Ghiazza; Pozzato; Roccella; Spinazzola (1977; 1985; 1995).

[4] See Pozzato; Rosa; Roccella (51-74). Also, it is worth noting that in 1963, Italian Neoavanguardia (or “Gruppo 63”) belittled critically acclaimed novelists such as Giorgio Bassani (1916-2000) as the “Liala” of Italian literature because of their conventional use of language and narrative structure, which the avant-garde movement rejected in favour of experimental writing and political engagement.

[5] According to Harmony’s website, the latest sales figures account for 5 million copies sold each year (400 million in thirty years), with around 50 titles released monthly (Harlequin Mondadori). On serial romance, see also Rak (81-88).

[6] The term “chick lit” first appeared in 1995, as the title for the anthology of women’s short stories Chick-Lit: Postfeminist Fiction, co-edited by Cris Mazza and Jeffrey DeShell. The collection promoted a new kind of fiction rooted in feminist women’s writing that was also an ironic and thought-provoking commentary on issues concerning young women (Mazza 18).

[7] RDI’s publications ended in 2009; the guidelines have since then been withdrawn from Harlequin website. See also Craddock.

[8] The article also explains the marketing strategies adopted by Harlequin Mondadori to launch the new imprint, such as merchandising tie-ins like moisturisers, instant coffee and jewellery brands.

[9] On the figure of the “domestic goddess” in popular culture, see Hollows.

[10] All the cited novels were written by British novelist Elynor Glyn and published by Salani between 1925 and 1934, obviously in translation.


“Does This Book Make Me Look Fat?” by Sonya C. Brown

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”[1] 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” ( 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”[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] 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 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.

Works Cited

Bacon, Linda. Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth about Your Weight. Dallas, TX: Benbella Press, 2008. Print.

Baum, L. “Extra Pounds Can Weight Down Your Career.” Business Week. Aug 1987: 96. Print.

Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley:University of California Press, 1993. Print.

Braziel, Jana Evans. “Deterritorializing the Fat Female Body.” Bodies Out of Bounds: Fatness

and Transgression.” Ed. Braziel, Jana Evans and Kathleen LeBesco. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001: 231-54. Print.

Brown, Sonya. “An Obscure Middle Ground: Size Acceptance Narratives and the Body Photographed.” Feminist Media Studies 5.2 (2005): 246-9. Print.

Campos, Paul. The Obesity Myth: Why America’s Obsession with Weight is Hazardous to Your Health. New York: Penguin/Gotham Books, 2004. Print.

Crusie, Jennifer. Bet Me. New York: St. Martin’s, 2004. Print.

Donovan, Susan. He Loves Lucy. New York: St. Martin’s, 2005. Print.

Gaesser, Glenn A. Big Fat Lies: The Truth about Your Weight and Your Health. Carlsbad, CA: Gurze Books, 2002. Print.

Frater, Lara. “Fat Heroines in Chick-Lit.” The Fat Studies Reader. Ed. Esther Rothblum and Sondra Solovay. New York: NYU Press, 2009: 235-40. Print.

Hebl, Michelle R. and Laura M. Mannix. “The Weight of Obesity in Evaluating Others: A Mere Proximity Effect.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 29.1 (2003): 28-38. Print.

James, Eloisa. Pleasure for Pleasure. New York: Avon Books, 2006. Print.

—. The Taming of the Duke. New York: Avon Books, 2006. Print.

Joanisse, Leanne and Anthony Synnott. “Fighting Back: Reactions and Resistance to the Stigma of Obesity.” Interpreting Weight: The Social Management of Fatness and Thinness. Ed. Jeffrey Sobal and Donna Maurer. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1999: 57-8. Print.

Kenyon, Sherrilyn. Night Play. New York: St. Martin’s, 2004. Print.

Kleypas, Lisa. Suddenly You. Rockland, MA: Wheeler Publishing, 2001. Print.

Kolata, Gina. Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss—And the Myths and Realities of Dieting. New York: Picador, 2008. Print.

LeBesco, Kathleen. Revolting Bodies? The Struggle to Redefine Fat Identity. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004. Print.

Lerner, R. M. “The Development of Stereotyped Expectancies of Body Build Behavior Relations.” Child Development 40.1 (1969): 137-41. Print.

Lerner, R. M. and E. Gellert. “Body Build Identification, Preference and Aversion in Children.” Developmental Psychology 1 (1969): 456-62. Print.

Linz, Cathie. Big Girls Don’t Cry. New York: Berkley Sensation, 2007. Print.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 (1975): 6–18. Print.

Murray, Samantha. “Locating Aesthetics: Sexing the Fat Woman.” Social Semiotics. 14.3 (2004): 237-47. Print.

Paulery, L. L. “Customer Weight as a Variable in Salespersons’ Response Time.”  Journal of Social Psychology (1989): 713-4. Print.

Register, C.A. “Wage Effects of Obesity Among Young Workers.”  Social Science Quarterly 71

(1990): 130-41. Print.

SB Sarah. “GS vs. STA: The Plus Size Heroine—The One Who’s Well-Adjusted.” Smart Bitches Trashy Books website. Web. 26 Jul 2008.

Sitton, S. and S. Blanchard. “Men’s Preference in Romantic Partners: Obesity Vs. Addiction.” Psychological Reports 77.3 (1995): 1185-87. Print.

Solovay, Sondra. Tipping the Scales of Justice: Fighting Weight-Based Discrimination. Amherst, New York: Promethus Books, 2000. Print.

Stinson, Susan. “Fat Girls Need Fiction.” The Fat Studies Reader. Ed. Esther Rothblum and Sandra Solovay. New York: NYU Press, 2009: 231-4. Print.

Works Consulted

Brockmann, Suzanne. Hot Target. New York: Ballantine Books, 2005. Print.

Foster, Lori. Too Much Temptation. New York: Zebra, 2007. Print.

Fox, Elaine. Guys and Dogs. New York: Avon Books, 2006. Print.

Green, Jane. Jemima J. New York: Broadway Books, 1999. Print.

Hoyt, Elizabeth. The Raven Prince. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2006 Print.

James, Eloisa. Kiss Me, Annabel. New York: Avon Books, 2005. Print.

—. Much Ado About You. New York: Avon Books, 2005. Print.

Kenyon, Sherrilyn. Fantasy Lover. New York: St. Martin’s, 2002. Print.

Kinsale, Laura. Seize the Fire. New York: Severn House Publishers, 1990. Print.

Lee, Marilyn. Full-Bodied Charmer. Ellora’s Cave Publishing, 2008. Web.

Medeiros, Teresa. The Bride and the Beast. New York: Bantam Books, 2000. Print.

Ortolon, Julie. Too Perfect. New York: Signet Eclipse/Penguin, 2005. Print.

Weiner, Jennifer. Good in Bed. New York: Washington Square Press, 2001. Print.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.”

[3] 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.

[4] 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” (

[5] 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.

[6] 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.


“Getting a Good Man to Love: Popular Romance Fiction and the Problem of Patriarchy,” by Catherine Roach

The “story of romance” is the guiding text offered by contemporary American culture, and more generally the culture of the modern West, on the subject of how women and men (should) relate: find your One True Love—your one-and-only—and live happily ever after.[1] To the ancient and perennial question of how to define and live the good life, how to achieve happiness and fulfillment, American pop culture’s resounding answer is through the narrative of romance, sex, and love. The happily-in-love, pair-bonded (generally, although increasingly not exclusively, heterosexual) couple is made into a near-mandatory norm by the media and popular culture, as this romance story is endlessly taught and replayed in a multiplicity of cultural sites: Disney princess movies consumed by three-year-olds, the wedding industry, Hollywood, pop music lyrics, advertising, popular magazines, the diamond jewelry industry, and more. One of the most important of these sites, where romance is taught, re-told, and—a crucial point—experimented with in new forms, is in the literal “romance story” of mass market genre fiction.

While there are clearly significant differences—among these media forms and certainly among the diversity of the immense romance readership, as well as in the variety of subgenres and plots within the romance publishing field—nonetheless there are significant similarities across these categories as well. The basic plotline of the romance narrative holds true despite subgenre variation, which, as we’ll see in the case of erotica and paranormal, can serve simply to highlight the core genre message. As such, likening readers and novels and considering the phenomenon of romance narrative as a whole allows important insights to emerge. More specifically, in this article, I argue romance novels are so popular partly because they do deep and complicated work for the (mostly) women who read them—work that derives from the mythic or religious nature of the romance narrative that serves to engage readers in a “reparation fantasy” of healing in regards to male-female relations. Romance novels help women readers, especially heterosexual women, deal with their essentially paradoxical relationship toward men within a culture still marked by patriarchy and its component threat of violence toward women.[2]

Most baldly put, this paradox has women in a position of simultaneously desiring and fearing men. Romance novels function as an antidote, as a way of pleasurably working through—in fantasy, in the safe and imaginative play world of fiction—the contradictory position of the heterosexual woman within patriarchal rape culture. This complex work, we will see, involves reconciling women to the limits and threats specifically posed to them as women by the culture, yet also teaching women to refuse to accept such limits and threats as normative and empowering them to expect or demand better for themselves. Furthermore, I argue that the industry subcategories of erotica (including gay/lesbian and “slash” romance) and paranormal—both areas of strong recent growth within the overall genre—offer new and highly effective literary means for women to use romance fiction as a way of working out their position within the culture. Indeed, the mainstream growth of erotica in particular signals important changes in American cultural attitudes towards women’s sexuality and perhaps, finally, a loosening of the patriarchal knot of allowable sexual expression.

This article forms the initial part of an ongoing monograph project on the romance narrative in popular culture, focusing especially on popular romance fiction. I seek to understand how this romance narrative functions and how it is currently changing, both as a genre of popular literature and as a form of human relationship. Unlike some lines of previous academic inquiry into romance fiction, my goal has little to do with either critique or defense of the genre, nor do I aim for close literary reading of individual authors (e.g., Radway 1991, Coddington 1997, Regis 2003, Goade 2007). Like Tania Modleski, I seek to read “symptomatically” (2008, xix), not intending by this metaphor for romance fiction to be taken as illness or pathology, but simply as a rich cultural site that yields much insight into critical issues of gender and sexuality in America today. I seek to place romance fiction in the broader context of the romance narrative in popular culture; and to adopt a framework of cultural studies, religious studies, gender studies, and sex-positive feminist theory to ask questions about meaning, fantasy, fear, and desire in how the romance narrative plays out in the realms of both popular and high culture in which this story holds such vast sway.

Love as God: Healing and the Religious Eschatology of the “Happily Ever After”

What fascinates me is how, even with the possibility of new and more open twenty-first century norms for gender equality and sexual experimentation, the romance narrative continues to thrive and endure. The power of the story does not die. In fact, romance sales show new dominance in the market; for example, yearly growth in number of new titles rose from 5,184 in 2003 to 10,497 in 2007 (Romance Writers Report 2009). According to industry research compiled by Romance Writers of America (RWA), romance novels constitute, by far, the largest segment of fiction publishing, with $1.4 billion in yearly US sales and half of mass market paperbacks sold.[3] We chase romance—even when it is to our detriment—we structure our lives around it, we fashion much of our art and pop culture from it. There is a mythic and even religious nature to this endless quest for love, this search for our “One True Love,” this desire and yearning for happily ever after.

Although the romance narrative finds one of its major contemporary expressions in the publishing industry of popular romance novels, more broadly speaking, the story of romance is perhaps the most powerful narrative at work in popular culture and, since its ascendance in the nineteenth century, may well be the most powerful narrative in art and culture in general (Coontz 2005, Polhemus 1990). By calling romance a “cultural narrative” here, I mean a guiding story that provides coherence and meaning in many people’s lives; a story whose truth value lies in the extent it is held to be true by people who shape their lives around that story, whether consciously or unconsciously. It is in this sense that the romance narrative is mythic or religious: it often functions as a foundational or idealized story about the meaning and purpose of life.[4] According to this story, it is love that gives value and depth to life; our purpose is to find a well-suited life-mate worthy of our love and to love well and be loved by this mate and a circle of family and friends.

Part of my jumping off point here is Robert Polhemus’s powerful study of nineteenth-century British novels of love and romance, Erotic Faith: Being in Love from Jane Austen to D.H. Lawrence (1990). In his analysis of these novels that stand as high literary precursors to twentieth-century popular romance fiction, his key concept of “erotic faith” provides a reading of the emotional dynamic that the romance narrative then turns into story. Erotic faith, he writes, is “an emotional conviction, ultimately religious in nature, that meaning, value, hope, and even transcendence can be found through love—erotically focused love” (1). Erotic faith is the belief “that people complete themselves and fulfill their destinies only with another … that in the quest for lasting love and the experience of being in love men and women find their real worth and character” (27). John Keats, for example, in a recent movie dramatization, proclaims, “There is a holiness to the heart’s affection” (Bright Star 2009). Polhemus’s point is that we have faith in love, a reverence for it. Starting in the late eighteenth century with the growth of secularism springing from the Enlightenment, in the art and in the marriages of  western Europe and North America, people increasingly fell in love with the idea of being in love. This faith in love has become a new form of faith, to “augment or substitute for orthodox religious visions” (4), but with such close psychological functionality between the two forms of faith that “religious feeling and eroticism run close together” (10) and “love and theology may be surrogates for each other” (19).

Erotic faith takes on story form in what I’m calling the romance narrative: spun out in prose in the novel, be it the literary high fiction of Pride and Prejudice or the popular mass market fiction of The Sheik and the Vixen; or in advertisements, Hollywood flicks, and pop lyrics; or again as mythic or archetypal template to make sense of one’s own relationship practice. In all cases, the shared and underlying mythic conviction is in the idealizing power of love to make the world, in reality so often harsh and even tragic, a better place. In line with the promise of orthodox religious faith, love offers the promise of redemption and even salvation. In novels, the love plot is the story arc by which characters mature and, the novel teaches, is the means by which real-life people can mature as well. Love leads to compassion, mercy, understanding, and kindness; it tempers pride, harsh judgment, and the violent outbursts of a reflexive defensiveness; it grants the inner peace and self-confidence for the lover to be a stronger and wiser person. In all these ways, erotic faith is the conviction, explored in the ups and downs of the romance narrative—girl and boy meet, fall in love or lust, suffer through internal and external conflicts, break up, get back together, and then live happily ever after—of the healing power of love.

But to go further and flip the equation: while the romance narrative is “religious” in its faith in the healing power of love and in the scope of its mythic quest for love, the central religious narrative of western history is also “romantic.” Christianity, that central religious narrative, is easily read as a love story. In the context of  western culture, wherein the artistic, literary, philosophical, and scientific heritage are all strongly shaped by the Christian religious tradition, the narrative core of that tradition is essentially a romance story. The mythic narrative of Christianity follows the pattern of the romance narrative, with a guaranteed happy ending (for well-behaved believers or the “saved”), wherein all works out and you live forever after. “Find your one true love and live happily ever after” is one way to describe the narrative content of Christian theology, of the ideal relationship between the believer and the One True Love of Christ the Son or the Christian Father God, and then the believer’s reward of life everlasting. “Are you the One?” the disciples of John the Baptist ask Jesus, as many a lover has pondered early in the game (Matthew 11:2-3; Luke 7:18-20). “God is love,” asserts a key New Testament passage (1 John 4:8, 16), a theological notion that erotic faith easily flips into its own central dogma that “Love is God.”

This two-directional religious analysis allows us to see both the romance narrative within the Christian religious story, thus highlighting the omnipresence and cultural power of this narrative, as well as the religious aspect of the romance story itself, thus highlighting the mythic work of healing and salvation carried out by this story.  The point I seek to make through this parallel is the deep-rootedness of the cultural belief that there is a resurrection power to love. The love of a good woman (or man, or God, or Son of God) heals all wounds, forgives all sins stretching back to the stain of original sin, resurrects a dead man, saves a lost soul, integrates false persona and true self, can make a real man—or real woman—out of you. The belief in the healing power of love is the central trope of erotic faith,  western Christian culture, and romance novels alike. Whether the romance narrative borrows this belief from the Christian religious tradition or whether the latter takes this perennial belief and incorporates it as central to its theology is a chicken-and-egg question that need not concern us here. Either way, love, in various forms of agape, phile, and eros, is the central emotional dynamic in the life quest for meaning, happiness, and—the point on which I want to focus—the crucial category of wholeness or healing.

To make this argument clearer, we need to consider one particular aspect of the romance novel: namely, the ending. In romance, the ending is crucial. Romance novels, as well as the romance narrative more generally, are defined by their “HEA”: the happily-ever-after ending, or what RWA calls the “emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending” (Web), wherein the protagonists resolve their various internal and external conflicts and commit their lives lovingly to one another. Stereotypically, this ending involves the hero and heroine solving the problems that kept them apart, declaring their mutual love, getting married, and often conceiving or bearing a child. Increasingly in contemporary romances, the protagonists may not marry and reproduce, but still make some sort of deliberate decision to be together, a decision that brings to their lives a sense of fulfillment, joy, and the ongoing promise of hot sex.

This ending is important because it highlights the core fantasy work of the romance narrative: everything will be all right; it will all work out; whatever pain and betrayal and disappointment and loneliness haunts you will end; you will be loved by a most worthy partner despite your flaws: absolutely, devotedly, without fail, never-endingly (“for all eternity, and even beyond” promises Mary Balogh’s The Secret Pearl [386]). This fantasy is the idealized version of reality that Northrop Frye (1957) sees as the central characteristic of the romance myth.[5] Authors I’ve interviewed talk about the ending as a contract they have with their readers: no matter how wounded are their characters at the book’s beginning and how further tortured are those characters by the plot conflicts in the book’s middle, all will be well by the end. The HEA is a sacred guarantee in a romance novel: the author will not let the readers down by failing to provide the emotional resolution in the reading experience of love conquering all, healing all wounds, and leading to the promised happily ever after.

The true significance of this HEA, I submit, lies not in its presence at the end of every romance novel, but in its presence in the larger culture. The Christian mythic narrative and the romance narrative both highlight eschatology. Both are narratives concerned with the eschaton, the end of the world or the ultimate destiny of the characters involved (from the Greek eschatos for “last” or “farthest”). A romance, from the very beginning of the story, promises its HEA; the end of the story is inherent from the very beginning, as part of its very narrative structure. The romance story is narrative eschatology. A romance is a story about how to get to a healing end—an eschaton of love, commitment, completion, fulfillment, happiness, generational continuity, maturity, and hope. The happily-ever-after ending functions as a foundational psychological component of human wish-fulfillment: we yearn for this ideal paradise where we are loved, where the quest for wholeness is granted, where wounds are made right, where pleasure and security reign guaranteed. To be human is to desire and quest for love. This is what is both wonderful and foolish, even dangerous, about the human condition. The romance narrative tells this story of love and the human condition, in all its vulnerability and risk and wonder and foolishness.

To connect this analysis back to the context of patriarchal culture—true to eschatology, this HEA ending is not just the ending of a particular book nor of a genre of popular literature. The ending of romance novels—in which the heroine and hero will love each other well, for all their lives, and their love binds up their wounds—is not just the conclusion of a story. The romance ending, like the Christian eschaton, is the end of all endings, the ending beyond endings. It is the foundational premise of hetero-normative masculinist culture: that a woman must be under the protection of a man, yoked to him and to at least some extent in his control. But here’s the rub: as evidenced by the enormous female readership of romance novels, this premise is foundational as well to much female fantasy life: that a woman will be protected, yet also pleasured, by the perfect love of a good man.

Lust, Loins, and Literature: Romance Novels as Mirror of Changing Sexual Norms for Women

Feminist scholars of the romance genre have long been engaged and troubled by this paradox: women seemingly love to read novels in which they are bound to men. Thus, the genre limits women (but does it?), yet the genre empowers women (but does it?). Much scholarship has prodded, and continues to prod along these lines, as variously nuanced feminist critique and/or apologia for the genre (e.g., Radway 1991, Coddington 1997, Regis 2003, Goade 2007). From a feminist perspective worried about romance novels’ take-away message for women, there is room for concern. However, while readers may sometimes consume these novels in voracious quantity and with great attachment to the genre (reading “religiously” in another sense of the term), they by no means read uncritically. The advent of online readers’ communities exposes the rich interplay among readers, texts, and authors; far from accepting characters’ choices and any views implied by authors, readers often argue back (Wendell and Tan 2009). They post comments deriding the “too stupid to live heroine” along the lines of “why would any sane woman act like that?” or “why would she fall in love with a jerk like him?” Nevertheless, it is reasonable to assume readers, perhaps especially young adolescent girls, do derive something from their reading experience in terms of a “moral of the story,” and that this moral may well have some sort of ramification in the lives of women. In the books’ complex and ambiguous nexus of women’s imagined fear and desire, shame and pleasure, hurt and healing, vulnerability and protection, pleasure and anxiety, risk and reward, bondage and freedom—what lessons then emerge for readers?

Contemporary romance novels do feature, almost universally, strong and empowered heroines in storylines bucking patriarchal convention mandating male leadership and female submission, but they also, by definition, pretty much always end in monogamous pair-bonding. In contrast to the second-wave feminist slogan “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” to live happily ever after in a romance novel, a woman does need a man (and a man needs a woman). To the extent that romances push a vision of women’s lives as incomplete unless they are with a man, a vision of women’s happiness and mature fulfillment necessarily achieved through monogamous, heterosexual marriage and motherhood, this would remain a rather limited, traditional, and patriarchal vision of a woman’s life possibilities. In this regard, I am heartened by the growth of erotica, paranormal, and the new lines of gay and lesbian romance with their ménage stories; non-“vanilla” sex scenes; and heroines who even after pair-bonding remain kick-ass vampire-killers, or vampires, or some other form of strong female alpha or high-achieving professional. Although romance fiction can sometimes seem to offer a narrower vision of women’s lives—perhaps even create false expectations and impossible goals—on the other hand, judging by its massive readership, this vision is hugely appealing to women. So, why, and is that a problem? Just what is at stake in the romance novel? What does happen in reading it? What work does it do for its women readers, and does this work have any feminist liberatory potential?

I want to take a new tack on these issues by focusing on the recent rise of erotica, which I argue allows us to probe this paradox differently, by picking up the lines of inquiry I’ve laid out in regards to the HEA and its central motif of the healing power of love. I grew up reading romance novels (indeed, an important part of my motivation in this project is the chance it offers to interrogate my own fascination with the genre). I used to call the books—with amused affection—“trashy novels.” My friends and I, and my mother and some of her friends all bought, read, traded, and discussed our trashy novels. Were I to parse this descriptor now, I would see in it, on the one hand, a fondly-intended denigration of the genre as lowbrow (not the “good” literature I read for school), and on the other hand, a somewhat titillated adolescent sense that I was getting away with something naughty. I wouldn’t have been allowed to read Playboy or watch porn videos in the house, but although these stories were equally sexually explicit, and thus in that sense “trashy” or smutty, they were acceptable because they were both “romance,” with its legitimizing married HEA, and “novel,” thus still better than reading nothing at all. The genre has developed in many ways over the thirty years I’ve been reading it, but one of the most fascinating developments is the rise of the entirely “trashy” subgenres of erotica (which doesn’t necessarily end with monogamous pair bonding) and “romantica” (which generally does).

This rise is a controversial one, and benefits from a brief contextualization within the recent and equally controversial rise of sex-positive culture and sex-positive feminism. Kayla Perrin is a USA Today bestselling romance novelist who wrote this speech for her character Lishelle in the erotic romance Getting Some (2007, 133):

See, this is what I don’t understand. If guys fuck a hundred women, they’re heroes. They feel no shame in bedding a woman they’ve just met. But if a woman has a one-night stand, my God, she’s a dirty whore. How dare she like sex? This is the twenty-first century, honey. It’s high time we women embrace our sexuality and bury the shame. We have needs, the same as men do. Why do we feel so friggin’ bad about going after what we want?

Lishelle’s passionate endorsement for women to embrace their sexuality highlights how the story of romance is rapidly changing, especially for young women today. A new era is opening up wherein women can write or read such erotica, “hook up” with multiple partners and different types of partners, post images of themselves on altporn sites like Suicide Girls, attend Tupperware-style sex toy parties, wear porno-chic fashion, work as strippers, or simply revel in Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives, yet still be “good girls” (“Good Girls Do,” reads one recent newspaper headline). The gay rights movement (LGBTQ) is an important part of opening up this narrative; “romance,” including in publishing, no longer means only heterosexual, female-virginal, monogamous, deeply-in-love pair-bonding. The category of what is culturally acceptable in love and romance has—at least in some quarters—grown much bigger. To use Polhemus’s term, our faith in what legitimately counts as the erotic is expanding. This phenomenon of potentially liberating new attitudes toward women’s sexuality is what commentators and scholars characterize in various forms as “sex-positive culture” or “sex-positive feminism” or “striptease culture” (Nagle 1997, McNair 2002, Johnson 2002, Roach 2007). We see its boldly playful echo in such romance groups and blogs as History Hoydens, Smart Bitches, Word Wenches, Historical Hussies, Rip My Bodice, and the Smutketeers.

This effect is further seen in the recent publishing rise of erotica and romantica, and the concurrent intensification of sexual content in much of mainstream romance fiction. Romance novels, like the wider romance narrative, are in the midst of a sea change as they become affected by this sex-positive culture—indeed, I would argue that many romance novelists today are doing sex-positive feminism in their writing. How can we evaluate the complex implications of this change as a current large-scale cultural experiment, both potentially liberatory and at risk of re-inscribing tired patriarchal norms of women’s erotic desire, fantasy, and pleasure? Does today’s romance fiction help move women’s sexuality from margin to crossroads to center, or simply re-marginalize it anew? How are romance novels affected by—and also responsible for shaping—new societal changes about what’s acceptable sexually, in terms of the novels’ level of graphicness, underlying attitudes toward sexuality, treatment of pregnancy and STD protection, etc.? And how does this new trend toward more explicit sexuality in romance novels and more sexual choices in lifestyle relate to such apparently opposite cultural trends as, for example, the premarital abstinence movements of “True Love Waits” and father-daughter “Purity Balls,” as well as the rise of inspirational romance novel sales (with little to no explicit sexuality)?

I take the rise of women’s erotica as indicative of an important cultural moment of change and counter-resistance. Romance authors are opening up restrictive sexual taboos in ways that have true potential to lessen social injustices (for women, sexual minorities, and men too long restricted to a narrow macho role). These new romance narratives can unchain young women from an often destructive and desperate sense they have to find “Mr. Right” early on and not let go. They can give people permission to explore love and sexuality, and ultimately themselves, in new liberatory ways, but these ways are, admittedly, at the same time clearly fraught with risk and danger. Part of the risk is women turning themselves into what author Ariel Levy (2005) termed “female chauvinist pigs” through the internalization of a sex-bunny sensibility that simply gives flesh to every boy’s wet dream fantasy, and then those women experiencing the type of losses Laura Sessions Stepp laments in her book Unhooked (2007) about the campus hook-up culture. Another part of the risk is the early sexualization of the “porno-tot” phenomenon and the loss of innocence and health risks feared by the abstinence movement. In all of this, there is a daunting challenge for the “new erotica” to pull off, but—perhaps—real potential as well, to help us live in ways that are richer and, ultimately, more loving.

Getting a Good Man to Love in Patriarchy: “Come Back to the Bed Ag’in, Alpha Honey!”

We arrive finally at the crux of the tension, the paradox at the heart of the romance narrative. If romance is one of—or even the—central cultural narrative(s), with roots stretching into the culture’s foundational religious story, and if this narrative is being experimented with in new and potentially liberatory ways for wider sexual justice, then romance novels are doing deep work for their readers and for the culture. By “deep work,” I mean that this work is partly unconscious (Modleski 2008), operating at the level of both individual psychology and larger socio-cultural dynamics. The purpose of this work, I argue, is to assuage the drag and rub of patriarchy, to try to make up for the costs to a woman’s psyche of living in a culture that is always just a little, at least potentially, in certain ways against her. As Frye says, “Translated into dream terms, the quest-romance is the search of the libido or desiring self for a fulfillment that will deliver it from the anxieties of reality but will still contain that reality” (1956, 136).

Let’s put it this way: if, to at least some extent, it’s still a man’s world out there, if the name of the game is patriarchy, then a woman is safer from the dangers that game poses to women—rape and other physical attack, diminished pay rates, employment discrimination, abandonment with children, restricted travel and other life options, general infantilization, misogyny, a life-long low-level anxiety over her sexual vulnerability—to the extent she is in committed relationship with, and thus protected by, a good man. The notion of “good man” here is represented by the romance hero possessing the unlikely profile of high alpha traits that both guarantee he can protect the heroine, and that render him immune to the predations of patriarchy—for patriarchy is a system of violent control and power-over that victimizes lower-caste males as well—in combination with the high sensitivity of the most enlightened pro-feminist lover. This good man/alpha hero is a fantasy, an illusion, in the sense of a powerfully-appealing figure based in wish-fulfillment. As Freud (1927) said, an illusion may have truth to it—for certain lucky young girls, their prince really does come; think Grace Kelly, for example. The story of the alpha hero does have such truth to it—in that love does heal wounds, romance does offer sweetness, most people do seek such and generally find such, to at least some extent—but it is also a fantasy, or illusion, and in the sense of a wish-fulfillment, is highly unlikely to be literally and wholly true. Such is the power of fantasy to offer both truth and illusion. I suspect the resonance of romance novels lies in the central paradox of this interconnected fantasy power of deep truth and of wish-fulfilling illusion.

Romance is fantasy in the sense of pleasure and escape from reality, where true love does not always conquer all nor heal all wounds—key premises of the romance narrative. But more specifically, romance does deep psychic work for its readers by functioning as a fantasy antidote to patriarchy, to the extent that it is still a man’s world out there: the heroine and, vicariously, the female readers get that fantasy paradox of an alpha male who is strong and dominant, yet also caring and sensitive; sexy and desired, yet devoted totally to the heroine and her sexual pleasure; indeed he is helpless and lost without her love. Part of the reading pleasure, too, is the fantasy conquest of patriarchy. According to Frye, one of the central and climactic images in the romance is that “of the monster tamed and controlled by the virgin” (1957, 201). In my reading, this taming is the central dynamic of the romance novel as well. Apart from any realism imparted by rich details, these novels essentially represent a mythic fantasy world in which Woman: the Virgin, the Maiden, the Princess Warrior, Everywoman, tames and controls the monster, Man: the patriarchal alpha hero, who has the power to easily harm her, but who will not, because she has cracked open his frozen patriarch’s heart and taught him to love (Frantz 2002).

These are large claims that must await full unpacking and exploration in future research and writing, but as an exemplar here, I want to focus on the HEA and healing in a final argument that both the subgenres of erotica and paranormal (often combined) highlight or intensify the dynamics of the HEA and of its central reparation fantasy of redemption, salvation, and wholeness. Both erotica and paranormal are highly effective at doing the deep work of the romance novel HEA and thus can more clearly reveal this deep work. The messages to women here are three: you can’t fight patriarchy, you must fight patriarchy, and patriarchy will end. All this is encapsulated in the complex HEA promise: you will get a good man to love. Vignettes from three recent romance novels illustrate these messages.

Maya Banks’s Sweet Persuasion (2009) is a BDSM romantica tale, featuring Serena, a successful business woman whose fantasy is to be a sex slave to Damon, the charismatic owner of a sex club. This, and similar plot lines, allow for exploration of a submission and surrender theme to the erotic desire and possessiveness of a powerful man not widely seen since the “bodice-ripper” domination and rape plots of the 1980s (Wendell and Tan 2009). BDSM romantica allows for a more politically-correct exploration of this dynamic, as here the heroine surrenders willingly, in a fantasy power game, and Damon’s complete authority over her—“I want the security of knowing I am … owned,” Serena says (70)—is ultimately benign. While he puts her in bondage and takes a crop to her, Damon also feeds, clothes, and bathes her—literally by hand; fully supports her professional ambitions; puts up charmingly with her meddling friends; buys her a wardrobe; and sends her to the spa. He demands total control over her, but he’s also a good man, who loves her well and devotedly. “I wanted to own her. I wanted her to own my heart” (253), he says of a previous failed relationship, when explaining his desire to Serena. The lesson Serena learns in the end: “it takes someone strong to give up ultimate power, to allow a man to take care of her, to make decisions for her” (284). Patriarchy is literally the name of the game here: Serena wants to play sex-slave to a strong alpha master. Thus, the message: you can’t fight patriarchy, lest you be a bad slave and displease your master; but you must fight patriarchy, in the sense of holding out for no less than this perfectly egalitarian master. For while the master here rules, no matter—by the time of the HEA, it’s clear he rules to serve and to cherish. And so patriarchy ends. Although he’s in charge, she has him: she owns his heart. Through identification with both the heroine and hero, the female reader experiences her subordinate and vulnerable position within our still-patriarchal culture as one that nevertheless promises her safety and pleasure, precisely because this particular patriarch has capitulated to her, fully and completely.

In Joey W. Hill’s BDSM romantica novel Natural Law (2004), the power dynamic is reversed between two under-cover cops; instead of patriarchy ruling, here it’s the “matriarch” or Mistress in charge. Violet is petite, a “pixie,” yet formidable: a dominant Mistress born. Patriarchy is already overturned here, in that the deep fantasy work of this story is that of resisting and rejecting male rule for a matriarchy where man is the subordinate, required to obey the woman’s every command, and wanting nothing more than to fulfill her will and satisfaction as his own. Yet although Mac is a willing male submissive, he is still the alpha through and through: physically much stronger, a seasoned detective, no weakling who would leave you prey to harm (he in fact takes a bullet for Violet by the end of the story). Like Serena and Damon, Violet and Mac finally find each other after a long and painful life quest of loneliness and self-doubt; these couples complete each other and find healing and wholeness through surrender to their special form of love. Violet, unlike Serena, upends the patriarchal dynamic; she is “someone strong” in a different sense than Serena, but not in any sense that emasculates Mac. He enjoys “serving a Mistress’s pleasure,” he says self-confidently, as much as he enjoys “being a cop, or watching a Buccaneers game, or spending a day out in the Gulf on my boat. Being a sub doesn’t make me less of a man” (277). The female reader fantasy here is one of overt power, but although she’s nominally in charge (you must fight patriarchy), he’s the strong alpha male all the same (you can’t fight patriarchy), perhaps even more so—because if it takes a real man to eat quiche, wear pink, and drink Chardonnay, surely it takes a man on the archetypal level of a romance novel warrior-king to accept bondage and open himself to the pleasure of anal penetration by his Mistress (patriarchy will end).

The warrior-king becomes real, and becomes vampire, in my last example: J.R. Ward’s Dark Lover (2005), the first book in her Black Dagger Brotherhood series. In paranormal romance, the hero can be more alpha—bigger, stronger, more deadly—than in non-paranormal: he can grow fangs, possess supernatural strength, teleport, heal miraculously fast, etc. While “Wrath” is all that—indeed, his name says it all—he, like all males shaped by patriarchy’s “tough guise” or mask of emotional straight-jacketing, cannot love. He can only disdain erotic faith as the religion of women and weak men. He is the über-patriarch: violently aggressive against all enemies, an arrogant macho hardass toward the brotherhood, “six feet nine inches of pure terror dressed in leather” (3). Yet he’s immediately drawn to Beth, a beautiful woman thrust into his keeping, about to turn into a vampire herself. He gives into lust, but fights love. For a man to open himself to love means he’s weak, “pathetic … pussy-whipped,” Wrath goads a happily-mated brother (186-87). But by the end, as Wrath and Beth find peace and completion in their love bond and a new life mission together to rebuild vampire civilization, Wrath is a changed man. Still the ultra-violent patriarch toward any who would dare hurt his queen, he has literally had Beth’s name carved into his back; kneeled at her feet; offered his body, heart, and soul as hers to command; and then asked, with head bowed, “Will you take me as your own?” (333). The reader fantasy here is that patriarchy ends, yet patriarchy continues, and you get a good man to love; that is, you now have the alpha-king for your own, as you have fought and vanquished him on the battlefield of love.

All three of these examples have in common what I am calling a reparation fantasy in the HEA’s work of imagined healing. One of the Latin etymologies for the term “religion” is re-ligare, “to re-bind” or “re-tie” (the term “ligament” has the same root). From this perspective, religion represents a threefold sense of original unity, recognition of loss or wound, and attempt to repair and reconnect sundered parts back into a whole. Plato’s Symposium dialogue famously casts this threefold sense as an origin story of humanity and humans’ rather foolish yet poignant endless quest for love. In the dialogue, humans began as four-footed symmetrical beings, then were cut in half by the gods, and now are forever on a quest for their missing other part: our better half, our soul mate, our one-and-only, our One True Love. In the Symposium and the three romance novels above, love renders us whole, heals and completes us, resolves life’s quest, brings true peace. From this perspective, both romance and religion are reparation fantasies, deep mythic stories of the powerful healing that comes about through meaningful and intimate relations.

One last idea: for Leslie Fiedler, the American literature critic of the mid-twentieth century, American fiction is driven by the dream of interethnic male bonding and the “myth of the dark beloved,” in which people of color forgive and love white folk, despite the predations and horrors of racism. “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” (1948) is his controversial essay on Huckleberry Finn and also The Last of the Mohicans, two iconic American stories authored by white males about a “dark beloved:” an African-American or Native American male other who shares an adventurous quest with a white male protagonist. Fielder’s essay is essentially about the literature of white male America as a reparation fantasy for racism, offered with remorse and affection on the part of the racists. Romance fiction is a different, reverse type of reparation fantasy, one centered on sexism and patriarchy and offered not by those who perpetuated the discrimination (as in Fiedler’s formulation), but by those subjected to it. Instead of a myth of the dark beloved, we have a myth of the “alpha beloved.” Women readers/authors/fictional heroines, like Jim in Huck Finn and in Fiedler’s provocative title, bear no grudge and invite the master, “Come back to the raft”—or the bed—“again, honey.” A woman can proffer this invitation because she has taken her stand against patriarchy, and though the system remains, so too has it ended. The romance fantasy, in other words, is that the hero will come, in all his fierce and possessive patriarchal warrior-king glory, but that he will also forever stay: emotionally vulnerable, devoted unto death, serving his mistress with his sword and with his heart. The fantasy is that patriarchy overall remains in place—he remains a ruling alpha, and so can protect her—but this system, and he as its representative, never threaten or diminish the heroine.

She gets a good man. And she gets him to love.[6]

Works Cited

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Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage. New York: Penguin, 2005. Print.

Fiedler, Leslie A. “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” Partisan Review. June 1948. Print.

Frantz, Sarah. “‘Expressing’ Herself: The Romance Novel and the Feminine Will to Power.” Scorned Literature: Essays on the History and Criticism of Popular Mass-Produced Fiction in America. Eds. Lydia Cushman Schurman and Deidre Johnson. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2002. 17-36. Print.

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Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957. Print.

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Johnson, Allan G. The Gender Knot: Unraveling our Patriarchal Legacy. Rev. and updated ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005. Print.

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Polhemus, Robert M. Erotic Faith: Being in Love from Jane Austen to D.H. Lawrence. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. Print.

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[1] In my use of the cultural descriptor “modern West” here, I draw on Stephanie Coontz’s (2005) history of marriage, with its central thesis that starting in the later eighteenth century, a “gigantic marital revolution had occurred in Western Europe and North America during the Enlightenment” (5). The ideal of the sentimental and passionate love-based marriage—in radical contrast to the more economically and politically pragmatic notions of marriage that had predominated before that time and that continued as the norm in other parts of the world—came to dominate in  western culture through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

[2] By “patriarchy,” I adopt Allan Johnson’s definition of a cultural system that “promotes male privilege by being male dominated, male identified, and male centered” and that valorizes violence and control (2005, 5). High rates of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and violence against girls and women form a central part of such culture, as well as high rates of violence against men. I share in Johnson’s analysis that contemporary American culture remains marked by such patterns, although these patterns have clearly lessened through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with the growth of human rights and the influence of the successive waves of the women’s movement and feminism. To the extent that both patriarchy and popular romance fiction reading are phenomena with global reach, this analysis could be broadened beyond contemporary America as well, but for now, I confine my analysis to this cultural complex.

[3] Romance Writers of America (RWA) is the US-based professional writers’ organization devoted to the publishing genre of popular romance fiction, with a membership of approximately ten thousand published and aspiring authors. For publication and sale statistics, visit the organization’s website at

[4] Northrop Frye’s (1957) archetypal criticism in his classic theory of myths is useful here as well, where he lays out a theory of generic plots or mythic narrative structures: “In terms of narrative, myth is the imitation of actions near or at the conceivable limits of desire” (136).

[5] Although what Frye (1957) means by “romance novel” differs from the popular women’s fiction under consideration here, there is significant continuity between these forms of prose fiction as well. This issue of the historical lineage of contemporary women’s romance novels in terms of the long-established literary forms of both “novel” and “romance” bears further study.

[6] I thank two very astute anonymous peer-review readers who helped me see my text more clearly with excellent suggestions for revision and expansion. I am grateful as well to the College of Arts and Sciences and New College at the University of Alabama and to the Romance Writers of America for academic grant support that made this research possible. Academic audiences at the Popular Culture Association 2009 annual conference and a Women’s Resource Center talk at the University of Alabama provided useful feedback as well in working out my ideas. Finally, I thank Eric Murphy Selinger for leading me to Robert Polhemus and colleagues Deborah Weiss, Fred Whiting, and Ted Trost for helping me think through key ideas in this paper.