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Posts Tagged ‘popular romance studies’

Fifty Shades of Remix: The Intersecting Pleasures of Commercial and Fan Romances
by Katherine Morrissey

The commercial success of the Fifty Shades of Grey books has prompted an outpouring of media coverage on the trilogy and its rapid success. Much of this coverage has focused on the idea of “mommy porn” and the notion that not only do female readers seem to enjoy erotic literature, but there is also potential for making money off this trend. For readers of all kinds of romantic fiction, however, this news is neither particularly shocking, nor, in any way, news. What may be of more interest to many romance readers [End Page 1] and scholars are, instead, the origins of Fifty Shades, and the fact that the series has made the move from a not-for-profit piece of Twilight fan fiction to a set of commercial books. Fifty Shades’ history and success marks an opportunity for fan studies and popular romance scholars. This is an occasion to revisit past conversations regarding the connections and disconnections between romantic fan fiction and commercial romances.

Past explorations of fan fiction as romance have often focused on the categories of het (male/female relationships) and slash (male/male) fan fiction. This work often either categorizes fan fiction as a type of romance writing, or works to mark out boundaries, separating fan fiction and romance into two different storytelling types.[1] Fifty Shades refuses such clear categorizing. In its transition from a lengthy work of fan fiction titled Master of the Universe by fan writer Snowqueens Icedragon to the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy authored by E.L. James, Fifty Shades blurs the lines between fan work and commercial fiction, amateur and professional, as well as the romantic and the erotic.[2] Fifty Shades compels us to look beyond taxonomic mappings of what does or does not constitute romance. The series reminds us that the differences perceived between categories can be shaped as much by networks of production and distribution as they are by story content.

With these themes of intersection and blurred boundaries in mind, I want to use the grey-ness of Fifty Shades as an opportunity to explore the connected pleasures that fan and commercial romances bring to their readers. First, I will review some of the concerns raised regarding the reconfiguration of fan work for the commercial market. Next, I will turn to past scholarship on the similarities and differences between fan fiction and commercial romances, discussing the challenges faced by scholars exploring these different modes of production. Finally, I will outline the importance of play with form and intertextuality across fan and commercial romances, emphasizing the significance of these elements to readers’ pleasure. While scholars need to be attentive to disciplinary concerns and medium specific contexts, the impulse to deny intersection and to quickly apply labels like “original,” “derivative,” and “formulaic” can signal problematic assumptions and artificially segregate certain storytelling forms. As Abigail Derecho argues, “[t]o label [a] genre of fiction based on antecedent texts ‘derivative’ or ‘appropriative’ then, throws into question the originality, creativity, and legality of that genre” (64). These terms reinforce stigmas long connected to women’s authorship and reading. In exploring intersections between fan fiction and commercial romances, new opportunities emerge to explore the ways that romantic storytelling is working within and against social norms and testing new possibilities for the representation of relationships and desire.

Reacting to Fifty Shades

For many readers and writers of fan and commercial romances, the repackaging of works of fan fiction as commercially sold texts is seen as a growing problem or threat to their reading experiences. While Fifty Shades has gained notoriety as a media event, it represents neither a first incident nor an isolated one. As digital publishing opportunities expand, a growing amount of stories and authors are moving from non-commercial fan spaces into digital-lit markets. This movement is facilitated by increased opportunities for [End Page 2] self-publishing as well as a growing digital publishing industry. Recently, Amazon.com has even taken steps to get involved in this trend, marketing their new Kindle Worlds service as a self-publishing platform for authorized works of fan fiction.[3] Readers and writers of commercial romances and fan works are observing these trends and wondering what Fifty Shades’ success may signal. Fifty Shades has offered these two communities an opportunity to discuss this type of crossover literature. In spaces like Dreamwidth, LiveJournal, and Tumblr, many fans have posted their reactions to the Fifty Shades series and its success. There have also been lengthy discussions on popular romance blogs like Smart Bitches Trashy Books and Dear Author. These discussions have raised questions regarding the ethics of converting fan fiction into a commercial product and the impact this may have on fan communities. Discussion has also focused on aesthetics and the perceived quality of fan work, fan fiction’s legal status, and whether something like Fifty Shades, a story that began as fan fiction and has been converted, qualifies as “original” work.

For many fans, the monetization of fan work has often meant a fan author “pulling to publish”: removing their writing from the community, deleting files on fan archives, and erasing as much of the work’s history as possible on fan websites and archives. Since fan fiction is generally produced within a community setting, pulling creative work from this setting is viewed negatively by many fans. The processes of both production and reception for fan works are highly social and the stories are often perceived as part of this larger community network, a network of exchange built around themes of sharing and giving, rather than profit and commerce (De Kosnik; Hellekson). Fan work is also particularly intertextual. Fan fiction writers use their fandoms as common frames of reference and extrapolate on these frames as they develop their own interpretations of settings and characters. This intertextuality goes beyond the relationship between the fan work and the source text it responds to and encompasses social relations between fans. As Louisa Stein and Kristina Busse explain:

[b]y definition, fan fiction is in intertextual communication with the source text; however, in practice, it also engages with a host of other texts, be they clearly stated requests [from other fans], shared interpretive characterizations, or even particular instantiations of the universes that the fan writer chooses to expand upon. (199–200)

Fan writers utilize and comment on these broader community ideas, critiques, and interpretations, adding to them with their own writing. Stories in this network influence and rub up against each other, feeding into a broader community dialogue around characters, narrative choices, and various potentials within different story worlds. Removing a particular story from this network threatens the gift economy through which fan networks often operate.[4] It erases a social history, moments of conversation, and moments of pleasure from a particular network of fans.

For readers of commercial romances, the repurposing of fan fiction stories into commercial ones is becoming increasingly visible with the growth of digital publishing, particularly within the category of m/m romance. The reworking of stories without disclosing their origins is sometimes framed by romance readers as a form of deception or a kind of cheating. (An allegation that implies fan authors are simply repurposing other people’s ideas and labor without putting in much work of their own.)[5] This sense of [End Page 3] deception may arise simply from a reader’s desire to know the history of the manuscript. However, a sense that the author is cheating can also reflect a deeper ambivalence regarding the very process of fan production itself and whether that process constitutes original work or, indeed, any work at all. While fan work has become more visible as a social practice in recent years, fans’ creative practices remain contested and debated. Fan work challenges traditional notions of authorship, ownership, and labor practices around creative production. In this way, fan work and the blurring of romance and fan fiction as writing categories may also serve as a threat to readers and writers of commercial romances. In a community that is so often told by society that romance is not real literature and where romance authors are often perceived more as hobbyists than authors, the prospect of being connected with the proudly unprofessional world of fan fiction may spark understandable concern.

Just as commercial romance readers and writers are concerned about larger public perceptions of romantic literature, fans may also be uncomfortable with their work being associated with romance. (The history of this in fan scholarship will be discussed further in the next section of the paper.) It is important to remember that here too, there is a community reacting protectively against larger public perceptions. Fan practices are often characterized as obsessive, frivolous, and aberrant in ways strikingly similar to the ways that commercial romance reading practices have been positioned.

Stigma around romance and fan writing is part of a long legacy of public concern around women’s writing and reading practices. Concerns about women’s reading and writing have come from many different directions, conservative and liberal, academic and cultural. As Joanne Hollows explains, due to the genre’s association with women, “[m]any literary critics [have] regarded romantic fiction as the ultimate example of the trivial” (68). Romance has also been positioned as work “produced for mindless, passive consumers” (Hollows 68). Similar concerns have been raised regarding fan fiction. Discussing the ways shame operates in many predominantly female fan communities, Lynn Zubernis and Katherine Larsen note that there is a “cultural fear of female sexuality which sometimes lies beneath criticism of female fan behavior” (60). In particular, Zubernis and Larsen observe that cultural discourse around “the ‘wrong’ kind of desire is powerful… and is an integral part of the cultural containment of female desire in general” (60).

The public nature of Fifty Shades’ success and the equally public media debate over the “threat” BDSM content might represent to susceptible (i.e., female) readers has brought both fan fiction and romance into the spotlight again, reactivating many conversations about the relationship between these two modes of writing. Of course, the reactions and concerns described here do not reflect the views of all fan or commercial romance readers. More importantly, while here these reactions have been organized as emerging from two different writing and reading communities, the reality is that there is also a great deal of crossover between these spaces. Many fans of romantic stories read both fan fiction and commercial romances. Although there are differences between fan fiction stories and commercial romances, the success of Fifty Shades reminds us that stories, readers, and writers are flowing across these community boundaries. [End Page 4]

Romance(s): Problematizing the Slash/Romance Binary

Scholarship examining the relationship between fan fiction and commercial romance has a tendency to either rapidly align the two modes of writing and move on or position them in opposition to each other. More often, the tendency has been to focus specifically on one category of fan fiction, slash, contrasting the m/m relationships found in slash with the traditionally m/f world of commercial romances. This approach excludes het fan fiction and tends to footnote femslash (f/f relationships) entirely, dismissing it as a smaller and less relevant fan fiction category.  As Laura Kaplan describes it, “[t]he comparison usually carries with it a whiff of scorn for romance, if not for slash. Romance, it is to be understood, is a simplistic and static genre… slash fiction is either more of the same or is essentially the same but somehow improved” (121). This history sets up problems for scholars interested in exploring Fifty Shades and its position within both fan and commercial spaces. Fifty Shades began as Masters of the Universe, a lengthy piece of fan fiction connected to Twilight, a young adult paranormal romance series. As Masters of the Universe, it explored and reworked Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, adding more sexually explicit content and investigating the power dynamics of Bella and Edward’s relationship in Twilight through the context of a fictional BDSM relationship. Later, as the commercially sold Fifty Shades series, the same content was repackaged with new character names and sold as a boundary pushing erotic romance. Where do we place such a story? Do we analyze it only as fan fiction? Do we ignore the text’s ties to Twilight and focus more on the ways that Fifty Shades pushes at the boundaries of erotic romance? In order to better understand a text like this and the intertextual moves it makes, we need to revisit past scholarship and investigate some of the assumptions made regarding the relationship between romance and fan fiction.

Many early pieces of scholarship on fan fiction and romance seem overly focused on answering the question: Why would women want to read that? Often making problematic assumptions about what “that” is. Working in a variety of disciplinary fields, scholars often use terms like romance, pornography, and genre in ways that do not cleanly intersect, frequently causing communication errors. More recently, however, there has been a great deal of popular romance scholarship calling attention to the problems inherent in defining a single universal type of romance. Similarly, in fan scholarship, others are calling for a reconsideration of the slash/romance binary. As popular romance studies emerges as an interdisciplinary field looking at various modes of romantic storytelling, it is important that we treat this history with care and be mindful of the different ways our disciplinary fields may position us and the terms we use.

In scholarship on fan fiction, slash has often been framed as a kind of feminist and/or grassroots counter to a predominantly heterosexual mass-market romance (Lamb and Veith; Penley; Kustritz). Slash is also sometimes aligned with the pornographic or seen as utilizing and renovating pornographic elements into a new and distinct mode of romance writing (Penley; Woledge). In this configuration, the pornographic is often problematically positioned as active and romance assumed to be passive (Driscoll). The problem with positioning slash in opposition with commercial romance is that it overlooks the many shared interests and themes between these two modes of writing. It also ignores the diversity of commercial romances and the various ways that romance sub-genres [End Page 5] approach sexual content. Furthermore, the heavy focus on slash artificially isolates it from the larger field of fan fiction, which includes a variety of romantic stories, as well as stories with no romance plot at all. The relationship between slash specifically and fan fiction generally is far more intertextual than confrontational. Similarly, the heavy focus on “pairings” and “ships” across fan fiction, and a focus in these stories on overcoming obstacles to place two characters in relationship with one another, suggests that fan fiction and commercial romances are not oppositional modes of writing, but instead are modes of writing with linked interests.[6]

In much past analysis of slash, romance has been positioned as a problematic starting point which slash renovates and improves on. Penley, Lamb and Veith, Kustritz, and others contrast romance with slash, positioning slash as a “redoing,” a “radical departure,” or a “tear[ing] down” (Penley 318; Lamb and Veith 238; Kustritz 377). For example, Patricia Frazer Lamb and Diana L. Veith find consistent themes of “psychological, emotional, and physical intimacy” in slash when they look at Star Trek fan zines from the 1980s (238). The difference between slash and romance, they argue, is that slash zines insist “that true love and authentic intimacy can exist only between equals”—the implication being that this equality is not possible in a relationship between a man and a women (244).  To find this equality, Lamb and Veith argue that Star Trek slash writers and readers move beyond their day to day realities, and look instead to m/m romances and fantastic futures as a way of transcending the complicated realities women negotiate in their own relationships.

If slash renovates romance, this still implies that it is heavily dependent on and exists in conversation with romantic conventions. Furthermore, this notion of slash as a kind of romance improvement model can overlook ways that themes of intimacy and equality are also popular in commercial romances. As Pamela Regis observes, a common element in much commercial romance literature is a flawed society which “may be incomplete, superannuated, or corrupt” and “always oppresses the heroine and the hero” (33). According to Regis, this setting often becomes a major part of the external and internal barriers that the protagonists struggle to overcome. In negotiating with these obstacles, romance is often working to bring its characters from a place of inequality and misunderstanding into greater intimacy and connection. Commercial romances also take flawed relationships and remodel them for their protagonists. Indeed, it might be said that a key element across romantic storytelling is the constant return to and reworking of relationship dynamics.

While much scholarship on the relationship between fan work and romance has focused exclusively on slash, it is also important to remember that slash is not the entirety of fan writing. Slash is one piece of a larger network of fans’ creative work. While there are many fans who prefer one particular variety of fan fiction over another, the fandoms themselves weave together different threads of fan interest, serving as loose social networks that connect many types of fan fiction readers and writers. Thinking about slash in connection with other types of fan fiction reveals larger patterns. It reminds us of the significance of “pairings” and “ships” across fan fiction and suggests that the relationship between commercial romances and fan fiction is less oppositional and more interdependent.

Catherine Driscoll uses the existence of general, or what fans call “gen,” fan fiction as evidence of the dominance of pairing culture within fan work. “Gen,” she explains, “is [End Page 6] defined mainly by opposition… [it] is fan fiction that falls predominantly into no other available genre” (83). In this way, gen becomes a kind of catch-all categorical other to het and slash, suggesting “a layering effect to classification in fan fiction, where pairing and rating function as more important generic markers than comedy or angst” (Driscoll 84). Driscoll observes that common romantic patterns “of ignorance and revelation,” as well as “obstacles arranged around status of different kinds,” are used in fan fiction (84). These elements are used as barriers “to defer romantic fulfillment, which is the usual point of narrative closure” in fan fiction stories (84). As with any attempt at mapping out a mode of writing, there are ways Driscoll’s description both encompasses many fan fiction conventions and also cannot cleanly apply to all of them. Her observations are still a reminder, however, that romantic conventions are common across many types of fan fiction. Each mode of writing (fan romances and commercial ones) varies in its use of these conventions and takes them in different directions. In particular, differences in production medium, editing systems, and distribution/reception networks all influence the kinds of romantic stories told within fan and commercial spaces.

A Blurry Field of Reference

Conversations regarding fan fiction and romance can be tripped up by terms and stalled by attempts to deflect stigma. Scholars interested in the larger questions that cross these writing spaces are often hindered by the meanings, implications, and histories different terms carry with them. Fan and popular romance studies are both interdisciplinary fields. Within their various research disciplines, fan and romance scholars are working to address and move beyond stigmas collectively faced by many modes of storytelling associated with women. With these goals in mind, greater care needs to be taken to ensure that this research is not deflecting stigma by constructing problematic hierarchies of its own.

The study of popular romance is an interdisciplinary field featuring various media, industries, and modes of storytelling. An interest in representations of love and sexual desire often connects this work, but terms like “romance,” “erotica,” and “pornography” can mean very different things in different disciplinary spaces. As the field of popular romance studies grows, our ability to place terms in relationship with one another and explore how various texts represent love and desire will be equally dependent on how we approach these words and our attentiveness to how others are using them.

This issue of terms also seems to saturate conversations regarding Fifty Shades. Readers and scholars alike struggle over whether Fifty Shades should be labeled romance or erotica, “original” work or “derivative” fan fiction, bad role model or good. The more complicated answer may be that Fifty Shades is all of these things at the same time. What different reading communities want to argue Fifty Shades is not may indicate as much about the person doing the analysis and their own perspective as it does Fifty Shades. While broader, cross-media analysis is challenging (and will always need to be balanced with focused and site specific analysis), this work remains important for scholars interested in broader cultural conversations and in thinking about genre beyond medium and industry specific zones. Despite the challenges, it is important that popular romance scholarship [End Page 7] considers romantic storytelling at both micro and macro levels of genre and culture. It also requires that scholars remain particularly attentive to and reflexive about the ways disciplinary context and medium shape their research and analysis.

Rethinking terms and taking care in how they are used seems particularly important at a time when romance scholarship, so traditionally located in the medium of print, is experiencing its own remediations and fluctuations. Genres are constantly undergoing change, but, at the current moment, the influence of digital publishing on the broader world of romantic literature warrants greater attention and study. Popular romance studies is working simultaneously to adapt to and trace this process. This makes seeking a clean classification system to either separate or connect commercial and fan romances a quest that is fraught with issues. Rigid taxonomies are not useful when examining a flow of texts and culture which is inherently intertextual, multi-modal, and constantly changing to address both market demands and shifting cultural norms.

Within and Against / Unique and Familiar

With these themes of intertextuality and interdisciplinarity in mind, this paper will now return to the issue of the “formula.” I want to look again at the significant roles that intertextuality and a spirit of play (with form and archetype) perform within fan and commercial romance writing. Being mindful of the differences between them, we can also find clear intersections between the intertextual play of fan work and that of commercial romances. Recent fan and romance scholarship suggests that these are processes that lie at the heart of both modes of writing. Within fan and commercial romances, intertextuality can function at the level of archetype/setting, as well as shared forms and narrative rhythms. Noticing these patterns reveals processes of storytelling in which texts and authors are constantly in conversation with one another, pushing each other to explore new configurations and possibilities for love and desire. Given Fifty Shades’ success as an erotic romance series and the text’s history as a lengthy work of Twilight fan fiction, Fifty Shades invites analysis from the perspectives of both fan and popular romance studies. With this need in mind, I want to place recent works of fan studies and popular romance scholarship in conversation with each other and then use these connecting ideas to think about some of the possibilities this scholarship has for a text like Fifty Shades of Grey.

Scholarship on romance novels has often worked to refute the stereotype of a mechanically reproduced romantic form. Carol Thurston, Jayne Ann Krentz, Pamela Regis, and others have worked to explore historic shifts in romance conventions, to reconsider formula as generic codes with nuanced meanings to readers, and to consider them as narrative elements found across literary history. Recent work by Pamela Regis and An Goris has called for these formulas to be seen instead as common frameworks: story elements available as creative tools for authors to work with.

Similarly, in fan scholarship, there has been increased attention to the intertextuality of fan work, positioning transformative work or remix as a long-standing cultural and creative practice. In this way, fan scholars are arguing that the remixing of characters and settings from individual fandoms should not simply be seen as a derivative process. They argue instead that the fandom (or source text) for fan work is only one [End Page 8] component of the process through which fan fiction is produced. In both fan and commercial romance communities, these processes of play with form and archetype seem to provide an important component to the pleasure of reading and writing romantic stories.

Play with formula is now being argued to be a principle part of the pleasure of reading and writing commercial romances. An Goris discusses this in her article “Loving By the Book,” a project which analyzes “how successful romance writing is… conceptualized from within the romance industry” (73). Goris points out that, despite dismissals of romance novels “as repetitive and formulaic… [romance writing handbooks] define and locate the genre’s success precisely in its ability to… [offer] its readers experiences of both comfort and surprise” (76). This practice, Goris continues, “translates into the simultaneous and interacting occurrence of familiar and new creative features in the romance’s narrative, as well as in its rhetoric, thus profoundly influencing a reader’s entire textual experience” (76).

Goris further emphasizes that, since this practice of repetition establishes a clear framework for all works in the romance genre, each text serves to provide a consistent and affective reading experience of “escape, relaxation, and positive emotions” (77). Consistency and predictability are not what is happening here. Readers expect common features, but look for them to be utilized in new ways. As Goris explains, “the romance reader expects and demands a new, exciting, and surprising reading experience… a unique new story which is still somehow familiar” (77). Key in building this encounter is the combination of an author’s voice with the traditional patterns of romance literature. In this formulation, the often-derided notion of the generic formula can be seen more as a basic narrative pattern providing a particular affective rhythm to the reader. This is a pattern that comes with common character archetypes and relationship dynamics, but these are elements that the author can be playful with, use creatively, and personalize. Authors bring the reader the affective rhythms they enjoy while also offering new possibilities, settings, and interpretations.

Goris is, of course, not the only romance or genre scholar to explore this process of playing with the familiar and to note its pleasures. As Eric Selinger and Sarah Frantz observe in their introduction to New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction, whatever the genre, “competent readers… take their pleasure in individual texts by reading them at once within and against the traditions and possibilities of that system” (6–7). Selinger and Franz observe, however, that genre scholars have historically hesitated to explore how this process plays out within romance. This is one reason why Goris’ analysis seems so useful. Mapping out the pleasures that familiarity and surprise brings to readers, Goris argues that the emphasis on voice and creativity within romance writing handbooks offers scholars a counter to the accusations of unoriginality and repetition the genre is often subjected to. Also notable here, beyond this notion of working with and against the familiar, is an underlying spirit of play, both with form and the reader’s expectations. A reader may read for a particular emotional journey, but part of writers’ work is to deliver a consistently happy point of narrative closure, while simultaneously producing a sense of risk and surprise in the reader. Additionally, particular settings and archetypal characters are both reused and reworked to test different configurations and possibilities. Within this play, intertextuality serves an important role for both readers and writers, with narrative patterns and archetypes becoming a shared referent for a writer to work and rework. [End Page 9] Readers, then, have the pleasure of experiencing this process as it unfolds, uncovering the ways that each text in the genre links to those around it. This can occur in common patterns which a text utilizes or by offering a kind of rhythmic counterpoint to other texts in terms of approach, articulation of character, and the ways an individual author chooses to narrate one particular instance of romance.

This play with voice and narrative rhythms can be seen in both Masters of the Universe and Fifty Shades of Grey. Both texts follow a similar narrative arc to the one provided by Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight (a pattern that is also common to many romantic stories). In each text, the male and female leads encounter each other and immediately experience attraction and desire. Edward/Christian warns Bella/Ana away and this warning serves as a mystery that only draws her closer. Over time, secrets about the hero are revealed and these secrets challenge the couple’s ability to form a normative romantic relationship. Like the first book in the Twilight series, the first book in the Fifty Shades trilogy also concludes with our heroine alone and grieving over the apparent end of the relationship. The couple then spends the next books in the series working through the different barriers blocking intimacy and a long-term relationship between them.

To a degree, the narratives of all of these texts share a common momentum. Once Bella discovers that Edward is a vampire and Ana learns that Christian is a Dom, each text begins to work through this disclosure and feel out the kinds of obstacles it will present to the protagonists forming a romantic relationship. In each text, the hero presents some danger to the heroine and this threat becomes a part of the novel’s sexual charge. What is immediately apparent as different in the ancillary texts, however, is the way the narrative handles desire and sexual attraction. Masters of the Universe/Fifty Shades diverges from Twilight by insisting on addressing and satisfying Bella/Ana’s sexual desire for Edward/Christian. As a paranormal romance targeting a young adult audience, sexual desire is present in Twilight, but it also remains carefully under wraps. Masters of the Universe/Fifty Shades aggressively departs from these limits, pushing desire to the surface and making the couple’s sexual relations a primary focus of the narrative. Rather than reading about Bella and Edward spending many chaste and intimate hours talking together in the woods of Forks, Washington, in Masters of the Universe, these characters spend this time locked away together in Christian’s sexual playroom. In the process, Masters of the Universe/Fifty Shades reconfigures the narrative patterns of Twilight to bring different relationship elements to the surface of the text. As the characters negotiate the terms of their sexual relationship in Masters of the Universe/Fifty Shades, the subtextual desire present in Twilight becomes quite literally textual. Now the extent and form of the protagonist’s sexual relationship is discussed via numerous email exchanges, and Christian attempts to codify it further in the form of a contract between dominant and submissive partners.

In transitioning from Masters of the Universe to Fifty Shades, the revised text clouds the story’s legacy as fan fiction by changing character names and making small alterations to the story. The familiar shifts again into something new. In the process of changing publishing environment (and, eventually, moving from digital publication to print), the text’s ties to fan culture and the Twilight series fade from immediate view. Instead, the traditions and possibilities of each publishing system work to open up new angles of analysis. As Fifty Shades moves into the sphere of commercial literature and the references to Twilight become less vocal, the story’s broader ties to other bodies of romantic and [End Page 10] erotic literature may now be better able to come to the surface. For example, Fifty Shades’ frequent references to Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and the parallels drawn between Hardy’s Tess and E. L. James’ Ana, subtly remind the reader that Bella and Ana (in all their textual iterations) are part of a long line of romantic heroines struggling with their desire and the themes of power, submission, and danger long attached to representations of female sexuality.

As a product, Fifty Shades also shifts the text’s target audience from the younger readers associated with Twilight to a more adult demographic. The focus now moves from implications of desire and a narrative that focuses more on longing and delay towards a story in which desire is brought to the surface and made explicit. The sexual encounters between the lead characters of Fifty Shades and Masters of the Universe are not possible within the publishing realm of young adult paranormal romance. Sexual content is, however, a familiar story element for fan fiction and commercial romance readers.

These themes of intertextuality, play with form and archetype, reading for an emotional experience, and the pleasure that comes with balancing familiarity and surprise seem strikingly familiar to many of the elements fan studies scholars have described as pleasurable and central to many fan fiction communities. Indeed, Selinger and Frantz’s description of readers taking their pleasure by reading “within and against the traditions and possibilities of that system,” feels profoundly similar to some of the core pleasures fans describe finding in the reading and writing of fan fiction (6–7).

Selinger and Frantz refer to genre as a single system, but in fan writing, it is often possible to locate multiple systems that fans are working within and against. In addition to a fandom’s system of romantic conventions, fan writers are also working with an immediate referent text (a fandom and its characters/story-world), a system of conversation within fans’ social networks, as well as broader generic systems like romance (Stein and Busse). The multiple systems activated within fan fiction may help to reveal further layers in commercial romances as well and, in particular, help to shed light on the ways that commercial romances utilize formulaic elements associated with the pornographic or the erotic. This, in turn, may help scholars to better understand the various generic systems at work within Fifty Shades of Grey.

Comparing slash fan fiction and commercial m/m romances, Deborah Kaplan argues that “[s]lash and romance conventions play off one another intertextually [in slash] to create something which is difficult to pin down” (126). Still, there are striking parallels that emerge within the reading and writing process for both noncommercial fan work and commercial romance. This suggests that fan studies scholarship exploring intertextuality may offer useful insights to romance scholars. Goris suggests that further analysis of romance’s process-oriented reading and writing systems may help romance scholars blur the high/low cultural divisions still producing literary hierarchies within our contemporary culture (82). Fan studies scholarship exploring intertextuality may offer useful insights to romance scholars pursuing these questions.

There have been numerous explorations of the functions of intertextuality, repetition, and play within fan work. Abigail Derecho has, for example, identified an “archontic” process at work in fan fiction, a term which Derecho uses to describe “works that generate variations that explicitly announce themselves as variations” (65). Derecho’s concept of an archontic work is derived from Derrida’s notion of the archive and an archive’s drive to expand and multiply. Archontic literature repeats with difference, [End Page 11] explores potentialities, and is shaped in relation to other texts (73–75). Within archontic literature, there is a drive to build on what came before, referencing other texts and adding new variations with each new iteration. Derecho sees the archontic process as a way to expand existing canons and add variation to norms (72).

This impulse to draw upon previous models and offer alternate interpretations to the canon can clearly be seen in Masters of the Universe, as well as being found across fan fiction and commercial romance writing more generally. In the Twilight series, Edward’s fascination with Bella leads him to regularly sneak into her bedroom to watch her sleep, and he insists on controlling when and how she touches him. Bella is regularly threatened by different vampires in the series because of the temptation she presents to them. These details point to an underlying tension in Twilight around issues of desire, temptation, and control. Masters of the Universe takes up these same power dynamics and examines what they might look like within a relationship between adults where they are addressed more directly as aspects of fictional BDSM relationship. As Fifty Shades, the references to Bella and Edward are removed and, instead, the broader ways that the text works within and against generic borders come into view. Fifty Shades is a bestseller, but it is also just one of many erotic romances currently on the market tackling issues of power and control within a sexual relationship. In this way, Fifty Shades is one text of many within this conversation and builds on a long literary archive of works exploring the relationship between the erotic and the romantic.

Derecho argues that archontic literature’s drive towards expansion and variation means that this type of literature will always appeal to the subordinate and provide those with less cultural privilege a place to speak. This is a tricky claim to uphold in relation to fan fiction given that, like all cultural products, it too struggles with issues of diversity and can reinforce hierarchies of cultural capital. Nonetheless, by framing archontic literature as a kind of expanding archive that gives voice to alternate possibilities, Derecho’s work opens up new opportunities for thinking about the environments that fan fiction and commercial romances have traditionally been produced in. A writer’s ability to be a voice for the subordinate or to deviate from norms also depends on conditions of production and market interests. Thinking about the ways different production environments facilitate or limit variance within romantic storytelling may provide alternate possibilities for discussing differences between various fan and commercial romances. This also raises intriguing questions about works and authors that cross these spaces. What enables a work like Masters of the Universe/Fifty Shades to move from fan fiction to commercial product? What drives authors to leave their publishing contracts and explore self-publishing or to write within fan networks? These are questions both fan and romance scholars will face as digital publishing opportunities expand and reading habits change.

Moving away from the metaphor of the ever-expanding archive, Mafalda Stasi describes slash fan fiction instead as an “intertextual palimpsest,” connecting “the various types of intertextuality in slash… to other textual strategies in different genres, styles, and periods” (119). Stasi uses the palimpsest—a surface that has been cleared for new work, but still contains traces of what came before—as a metaphor for fans’ use of existing characters and story-worlds as archetypal tools with which fan writers test new possibilities and variant histories.

Fifty Shades is a surface that contains the traces of many different texts within it. The two most visible influences are the work of fan fiction it was (Masters of the Universe) and [End Page 12] the Twilight series that initially inspired it. For example, Fifty Shades’ use of first-person narration leads directly back to the first-person narration in Twilight. The story’s regular references to Tess of the d’Urbervilles also remind the reader of traces of even older texts and literary traditions. Fifty Shades is not unique, however, in the ways that it contains traces of past texts. The reuse and repurposing of certain archetypes and paradigms is common across commercial romance literature.

Fifty Shades’ sexual language, however, and the use of non-conventional sexual encounters may also help explain the difficulty different zones of production have in fully claiming this text as one of their own. Frank discussions of menstruation are not necessarily standard fodder for romantic sex scenes in mass-market literature. Slowly working through barriers to intimacy, however, to form a mutually satisfying relationship is a paradigm at the heart of many romantic narratives. Fifty Shades is a story that borrows from many different writing traditions, high and low. The fact that this story emerged first online as a transformative fan work, and later made its way into print, may help explain Fifty Shades’ jumble of influences and literary reference points.

In their discussion of archontic literature and intertextual palimpsests, both Stasi and Derecho also seek to cross between notions of high and low culture, as well as folk processes of retelling (as craft) with creative legacies and influences in art and literature. Like Goris, they are aware that intertextuality and reference are traits that all creative works share at some level, yet each of these scholars is also exploring the heightened role that intertextuality seems to play within their particular sphere of romance writing.

Expressing a frustration that should feel familiar to many romance scholars, Stasi argues that, “[f]ar from being a monolithic, repetitive set of substandard texts created by a naïve set of scribbling women, whose bizarre hobby stands apart from any self-respecting body of literature, slash is a legitimate part of the literary discursive field” (119). In Derecho and Stasi’s work, we see two fan studies scholars working through the particulars of intertextuality in fan writing, but also connecting these aspects of fan fiction to longstanding creative practices. Within Stasi’s insistence that slash is more than a “repetitive set of substandard texts created by… scribbling women” and Selinger and Frantz’s earlier frustration with genre scholarship’s reluctance to explore romance’s repetitions at an aesthetic and formal level, we see both romance and fan scholars struggling with a similar problem: The ways that intertextuality and play with form within genres associated with women have culturally been relegated to the role of mechanized formula, labeled a particularly feminine pleasure, and categorized as pastime or hobby. The intersecting modes of pleasure in these storytelling forms have historically been stigmatized and diminished within academic institutions and in broader society. This should remind us that, while these clusters of texts are not identical, fan and romance scholars still struggle against similar forces. Both fan and commercial romances constitute important and connected pieces of a larger conversation about women’s leisure time, female desire, and women’s creative work in our contemporary society. Fifty Shades makes these conversations and interconnections particularly visible, but this conversation should not be limited to Fifty Shades. [End Page 13]

The Borders Are Always Grey

Past scholarship linking romance and fan fiction has sometimes been guilty of oversimplifying the similarities between these two storytelling modes, using them reductively to draw conclusions about “good” versus “bad” romantic formulas. This work has a difficult history. Both fan studies and popular romance studies scholars are warranted in their rallying call for more careful, contextualized, textual analysis of individual works within these different spaces. There is still much to be gained, however, in exploring the intersections between fan and commercial romances. Fifty Shades of Grey‘s massive popularity reminds us of the impact that digital publishing is having on the broader romance market. As a text, Fifty Shades shows us that fan and commercial romances not only intersect, but that movement across these writing spaces may be increasing. Many of the broader public reactions to Fifty Shades— asking, should women read this? is this good for them?— represent concerns that, hopefully, romance scholarship is starting to move beyond. In this way, Fifty Shades is also an opportunity to push the conversation further. Authors, readers, and scholars interested in fan and commercial romances still struggle against ongoing discomfort with expressions of female desire, writing and reading connected to emotion and sensation, and work that challenges capital “R” Romantic notions of authorship and originality.

The intertextuality underlying commercial and fan romances may sometimes play out in different ways, but these are stories in which the blending of personal voice with shared characters and forms is profoundly pleasurable. Fifty Shades of Grey reminds romance and fan scholars that, while drawing up disciplinary boundaries is necessary to develop fields and methodologies, scholars also need to be mindful of interdisciplinary flows and of the intertextuality of their own work. Stories and readers do not easily stay in fixed categories, and in today’s transmedia market, genres flow messily across media forms. Thankfully, however, as much as comfort and surprise are part of the pleasure of reading and writing romances, they also constitute part of the pleasure of studying it. Exploring the familiar in a new way seems a useful place to begin.


[1] Some of this history will be covered later in this paper; however, a sampling of work on the relationship between romance and fan fiction includes:  Lamb and Veith 1986; Penley 1994, 1997; Kustritz 2003; Salmon and Donald Symons 2004, 2004; Woledge 2006; Kaplan 2012.

[2] Both Snowqueens Icedragon and E.L. James are pseudonyms.

[3] Of course, many in fan studies have countered that this service is simply a new spin on the traditional practice of licensing tie-in novels for popular media franchises. For more on Kindle Worlds, see the announcement from the Amazon Media Room: http://phx.corporate-ir.net/phoenix.zhtml?c=176060&p=irol-newsArticle&ID=1823219.

[4] For more on gift economies and fan cultures, see Hellekson, Karen. “A Fannish Field of Value: Online Fan Gift Culture.” Cinema Journal 48.4 (2009): 113–118.

[5] Debate about the legality or ethics of commercially profiting from fan fiction are beyond the scope of this paper. However, conversation about these issues has certainly circled around the Fifty Shades series and has long been a topic of debate in relation to fan fiction more generally. For a sampling of these conversations in relation to Fifty Shades, the [End Page 14] Dear Author blog’s series of posts on Fifty Shades (and its comments section) may be a useful place to start. For example, see the varied responses to blogger Jane Litte’s suggestion that disclosing Fifty Shades origins as fan fiction would be “courteous… truthful advertising”: http://dearauthor.com/features/industry-news/master-of-the-universe-versus-fifty-shades-by-e-l-james-comparison/.

[6] Pairings and ships (relationships) are terms fans use to refer to romantic/sexual pairings of characters. Individual pairings and ships help to organize a great deal of fan work, often serving as key terms used to structure fan fiction archives, guide web searches, etc.

Works Cited

Boog, Jason. “The Lost History of Fifty Shades of Grey.” Galleycat. 21 Nov. 2012. Web. 1 Oct. 2013.

De Kosnik, Abigail. “Should Fan Fiction Be Free?” Cinema Journal 48.4 (2009): 118 – 124. Print.

Derecho, Abigail. “Archontic Literature: A Definition, a History, and Several Theories of Fan Fiction.” Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet. Ed. Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2006. 61–78. Print.

Driscoll, Catherine. “One True Pairing: The Romance of Pornography and the Pornography of Romance.” Fan Fiction And Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet: New Essays. Ed. Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse. McFarland, 2006. 79–96. Print.

Frantz, Sarah S. G., and Eric Murphy Selinger. “Introduction: New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction.” New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays. Ed. Eric Murphy Selinger and Sarah S. G. Frantz. Jefferson: McFarland, 2012. 1–19. Print.

Goris, An. “”Loving by the Book: Voice and Romance Authorship.” New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays. Ed. Eric Murphy Selinger and Sarah S. G. Frantz. Jefferson: McFarland, 2012. 73–83. Print.

Hellekson, Karen. “A Fannish Field of Value: Online Fan Gift Culture.” Cinema Journal 48.4 (2009): 113–118. Print.

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

Kaplan, Deborah. “‘Why Would Any Woman Want to Read Such Stories?’: The Distinctions Between Genre Romances and Slash Fiction.” New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays. Ed. Eric Murphy Selinger and Sarah S. G. Frantz. Jefferson: McFarland, 2012. 121–132. Print.

Krentz, Jayne Ann, ed. Dangerous Men & Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. Print. New Cultural Studies.

Kustritz, Anne. “Slashing the Romance Narrative.” Journal of American Culture 26.3 (2003): 371–384. EBSCOhost. Web.

Lamb, Patricia Frazier, and Diane L. Veith. “Romantic Myth, Transcendence and Star Trek Zines.” Erotic Universe: Sexuality and Fantastic Literature. First Edition. Ed. Donald Palumbo. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1986. 235–55. Print. [End Page 15]

Litte, Jane. “Master of the Universe Versus Fifty Shades by E.L James Comparison.” Dear Author. Blog. 13 Mar. 2012. Web. 14 Oct. 2013.

Meyer, Stephenie. Breaking Dawn. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008. Print.

—. Eclipse. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2007. Print.

—. New Moon. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2006. Print.

—. Twilight. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2005. Print.

Penley, Constance. “Feminism, Psychoanalysis and the Study of Popular Culture.” Visual Culture: Images and Interpretations. Ed. Norman Bryson, Michael Ann Holly, and Keith Moxey. Wesleyan University Press, 1994. 302–324. Print.

—. NASA/Trek: Popular Science and Sex in America. London ; New York: Verso, 1997. Print.

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

Salmon, Catherine, and Don Symons. “Slash Fiction and Human Mating Psychology.” Journal of Sex Research 41.1 (2004): 94–100. Taylor and Francis. Web. 11 Sept. 2012.

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

Snowqueens Icedragon. Masters of the Universe. Fan fiction. 2010 (estimated). Print.

Stasi, Mafalda. “The Toy Soldier from Leeds: The Slash Palimpsest.” Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet. Ed. Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2006. 115–133. Print.

Stein, Louisa, and Kristina Busse. “Limit Play: Fan Authorship Between Source Text, Intertext, and Context.” Popular Communication 7.4 (2009): 192–207. EBSCOhost. Web.

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

Woledge, Elizabeth. “Intimatopia: Genre Intersections Between Slash and the Mainstream.” Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet. Ed. Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2006. 97–114. Print.

Zubernis, Lynn S., and Katherine Larsen. Fandom at the Crossroads: Celebration, Shame and Fan/Producer Relationships. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012. Print. [End Page 16]

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“Charm the Boys, Win the Girls: Power Struggles in Mary Stolz’s Cold War Adolescent Girl Romance Novels” by Amanda K. Allen

Here was what she’d been waiting for. Not something—someone. Here, as so often in the daydreams, Douglas Eamons was talking to her. Doug . . . in college now, emptying the vast high school when he left, leaving the crowded corridors, the wide classrooms empty, taking the flicker of promise from lunch hours, when she might see him, stripping the crisp, vivid pageant of football to nothing but bands, color, battle, and hundreds of people. (Stolz To Tell 15)

So begins Mary Stolz’s first teen girl romance novel, To Tell Your Love (1950), the story of seventeen-year-old Anne Armacost’s summer of first love, wrapped in the arms (and popularity) of Doug Eamons. From the outset, Anne knows that her meeting with Doug is critical: “She was a girl well used to charming and captivating boys. But this time, she told herself, I must be very careful. This time it’s very, very important” (16). In the world of post-war/Cold War adolescent girl romance novels—what I call “female junior novels”—Anne is right. Her meeting with Doug is important, for if Stolz follows the major tropes of the genre, Anne’s future happiness—and social status—is entirely dependent on her ability to “captivate” Doug.

Female junior novels were a new genre of adolescent romance literature, published between 1942 and 1967, and aimed at the freshly-minted American teenage girl consumer. Written by authors such as Betty Cavanna, Anne Emery, Rosamond du Jardin, Amelia Elizabeth Walden, and Mary Stolz, these novels showcased the brave new world of malt shops and high school clubs, as well as eagerly narrating the first loves, dances, and class rings that formed the teen girl realm. While Maureen Daly’s 1942 novel, Seventeenth Summer, provided the wellspring for the genre, hundreds of novels quickly followed over the next two decades, all eagerly imparting stories of female maturation through romance. Simple, pleasurable, and often formulaic, the female junior novels divided those working in the newly emerging field of literature for adolescents. Although they were initially welcomed by many practitioner-oriented critics (such as librarians and educators) as “wholesome” because of their capacity to show girls “how to approach the problems of dating with common sense” (Edwards 465), the texts were often simultaneously derided by then-contemporary academic critics. Richard Alm, a professor at the University of Hawaii,[1] was clear in his emphasis on the pejorative positioning of the female junior novels:

most novelists present a sugar-puff story of what adolescents should do and should believe rather than what adolescents may or will do and believe. [ . . . ] Their stories are superficial, often distorted, sometimes completely false representations of adolescence. Instead of art, they produce artifice. (315)

Of course, the division between the two types of critics was not entirely clear-cut, and even the practitioner-oriented critics had their reservations about these texts. Margaret Edwards, for example, head of young adult services at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, and arguably the most staunch supporter of the female junior novels, also admitted that “the warmest defender of these stories would not recommend them for the Great Books list nor ask to be marooned with them on a desert island, but they have their good points” (465).

While now-contemporary critics have a tendency to be just as condescending toward these texts as our academic forebears, I believe that to continue to neglect these novels is to do a disservice to the fields of both young adult literature and popular romance studies. Indeed, the female junior novels may be “sugar puff” stories, but they also highlight competition, machinations, and general manipulations involved in the girl protagonists’ attempts to “land” the perfect boyfriend, thereby revealing the social structures that force the protagonists to think, feel, and behave in pre-established manners. This paper focuses on texts written by one prolific author in this genre, Mary Stolz, and suggests that the heterosexual romance plots within her novels mask complex female power struggles within an adolescent social hierarchy—struggles which further suggest the possibility of a surprising female-focused alternative to patriarchy.

This article is organized into four main parts, each of which corresponds with four overarching factors that contribute to the possibility of the female alternative to patriarchy: i. girls’ conformity, ii. use of “boy capital,” iii. establishment of a female dominant society, and iv. recognition of the prom queen as the object of her own desire. Thus, in the first part I focus on female conformity, and suggest that it is necessary for the protagonists’ romantic success and acts as a measuring rod against which female maturity can be measured. In the second section I draw on Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of distinction as a lens through which to study the girls’ use of “boy capital” to raise their positions in the teen society. While the society in Stolz’s novels is patriarchal, it is paradoxically run—and regulated—by the popular girls. Luce Irigaray’s theory of the commodification of women is therefore my dominant tool in the third part, and I employ her ideas to suggest that Stolz’s novels incorporate a kind of all-female commerce, subordinate to and reliant on male characters, but functioning based on the protagonists’ desire to be recognized, accepted, and codified as one of the popular girls. Finally, in part four, I examine girls’ homosocial / homoerotic desire through Stolz’s use of a female gaze, in which the female protagonists watch the most popular girls, and in which the girls’ yearning for social dominance becomes visible. In their moment of prom crowning, the popular girls become not only the object of other girls’ desire, but the object of their own. They therefore somewhat remove themselves from male commodity exchange, and instead entrench their status as governing figures within the adolescent society. In doing so, they reveal that the romance plot at the heart of Stolz’s novels ultimately creates and masks complex female power struggles within a highly regulated adolescent social hierarchy.

Female Conformity in Female Junior Novels

I take as the starting point for my argument a quotation from the preface to Pamela Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel, in which Regis states:

The [romance] genre is not silly and empty-headed, as mainstream literary culture would have it. Quite the contrary—the romance novel contains serious ideas. The genre is not about women’s bondage, as the literary critics would have it. The romance novel is, to the contrary, about women’s freedom. (Regis xiii)

The concept of women’s freedom—or, at least, a hint of the possibility of such freedom—is what underscores many of Mary Stolz’s female junior novels, although its presence is not always obvious. Indeed, the majority of current criticism of the female junior novel genre positions its texts as reinforcing a kind of female bondage or lack of agency. As girls’ literature critic Anne Scott MacLeod states regarding female junior novel protagonists:

More striking [ . . . ] is the pervasive leveling pressure in these novels. In dozens of ways, implicit and explicit, the literature counsels acquiescence, acceptance, and adjustment to undemanding prospects. Ambition is decidedly not “part of it”; in fact, fictional girls often reduce their already meager choices by adopting further, and self-constructed, boundaries. [ . . . ] Whatever else she may consider doing, a girl must conform to conventional ideals of feminine attractiveness and behavior, even if it means putting her own tastes and aspirations aside. (MacLeod 60-61)

If one focuses on the heterosexual romance plots of these novels, MacLeod’s statement is absolutely correct: the female protagonists are repeatedly taught to conform, particularly when it comes to the behavior and trappings of a 1950s femininity aimed at luring future husbands. Moreover, for some protagonists that conformity is not only necessary for romantic success, it is desired and actively sought.

Before I detail this conformity in Stolz’s texts, I should include a brief caveat: Stolz’s novels are representative of the female junior novel genre because they incorporate many of the typical tropes and concerns of the genre, not least of which are the four that provide the foundation of my current analysis: conformity, “boy capital,” the female dominant society, and the crowning rite of the popular girl/prom queen. While Stolz’s novels share these characteristics with other texts in the genre, however, they are also very different in a multitude of ways, particularly when it comes to quality of writing and age of readership. Thus when I state that Stolz’s texts are representative, I hope that the reader will accept that “representative” does not necessarily equate with a sense of “all female junior novels are completely like this.” Indeed, Stolz was often singled out from the other female junior novelists by academic critics like Alm, who declared Stolz to be “surely the most versatile and most skilled of that group” (320), and one who “writes not for the masses who worship Sue Barton Barry” (320). Practitioner-based critics similarly separated Stolz from the other authors of the genre, although this separation was sometimes to Stolz’s detriment. Margaret Ford Kiernan, for example, observed in her Atlantic Monthly review of Stolz’s In a Mirror (1953) that

[In a Mirror] is as penetrative and analytical as anything [Mary Stolz] has ever done. But is it a teen-age book? I confess I bogged down for a minute while I went through it because, as a stream-of-consciousness journal of a present-day college girl, it would surely have Henry James looking to his laurels. [ . . . Well-balanced teenagers] could handle it and would thoroughly enjoy it, no doubt, but for the more immature I think it is too introspective and somehow disturbing. (547)

Still, although the level of writing sophistication within Stolz’s texts may separate them from the other female junior novels, they still share the fundamental tropes of the genre, including an actively-sought conformity. Jean Campbell, in The Sea Gulls Woke Me (1951) watches all the other girls in her class “producing by sleight of hand the little colored combs that were as much a badge as the white, everfresh turned-up socks they wore” (2). Jean, whose hair, “braided and heavily hairpinned in the morning, required no further care till evening” (2) looks “with accustomed and unhopeful longing at the sleek shining caps of the girls around her” (2). Later, in a moment of adolescent rebellion, Jean visits a department store in New York City to have her hair cut. This act leaves her feeling “divinely content,” (37), and she joyfully exits the hair salon “in an access of the poise that comes, at sixteen, from looking exactly like everybody else of sixteen” (37). Interestingly, this act of conformity is not celebrated by the adults in the text who, with the exception of Jean’s father, all seem disappointed by the loss of Jean’s hair. Mr. Armando, her hairdresser, mourns: “Mr. Armando walked around her, lifting the unbound locks, hefting them. His face was brooding. ‘Glorious,’ he murmured, almost reluctantly. He sighed” (36). Similarly, when Jean asks her Aunt Christine if she likes the haircut, Christine replies:

“Oh, very much,” said Christine, who thought it was a great, if understandable, pity. “I suppose there aren’t many girls of your age with long hair.”

“I was the only one left in the United States.” (55)

Jean’s haircutting act may appear trivial, but it is one of many seemingly superficial acts within Stolz’s texts that demonstrate the sheer joy that her female protagonists experience whenever they are able to behave or appear like “everyone else” (or, in other words, like the popular girls). As Amy Pattee notes in Reading the Adolescent Romance: Sweet Valley High and the Popular Young Adult Romance Novel, “in the adolescent novels of the mid-century, the ‘question of maturity’ was successfully answered by the hero or heroine who succeeded in adhering to and maintaining dominant scripts” (11). Jean’s act of conformity not only establishes her desire to be part of the group, it also hails the beginning emergence of her maturity—a maturity that will be further established as she slowly develops her first love affair.

In many of the female junior novels, looking and acting like everyone else is, of course, the key to attracting a boyfriend. Once the girls achieve that, their conformity ensures that they will fulfill their gendered roles and pass through the prescribed checkpoints of their burgeoning heterosexual relationships: from the promise indicated by a class ring, to engagement, and finally to marriage (and, one would assume, to the eventual production of a family). Although the majority of female junior novels end with a token of the future relationship (through a pin, a class ring, or a kiss), rather than an actual engagement or marriage, the longevity of the couple is assumed. An exception to this trope, however, may be seen in Mary Stolz’s secondary characters, such as Nora in To Tell Your Love, who “loved her baby and longed to be free of him” (174), who act as cautionary tales regarding the danger of too-early marriage and children.

In the majority of these texts female maturity is not just tied to conformity and the establishment of long-term heterosexual relationships, it is implicitly founded on such factors. Indeed, there is an obvious pattern in hailing male characters as “men” while female characters remain “girls” until they become married “women.” Still, although the elements that determine the heterosexual romance plot within these novels—the focus on clothing,[2] dates, dances, and first kisses—suggest a pressure on female conformity, they also mask complex machinations that point not to female bondage, but rather to the potential for the kind of women’s freedom that Regis ponders. Indeed, as the next sections of this article will demonstrate, the very elements that may appear most conformist and superficial (dates, dresses) are the same elements that allow the protagonists to form their own semi-autonomous female society, hidden in the plain sight of heterosexual romance.

“Boy Capital” and Gatekeeping

The potential for female autonomy emerges from the structure and functioning of the adolescent society in which the girl protagonists reside. On the surface, the female characters in Stolz’s novels dwell in a kind of hieroglyphic world, in which possession of the right dress, the correct “slang,” or the proper seat in the malt shop all determine one’s place within a firmly entrenched adolescent social hierarchy. While the ability to follow social codes regarding what to buy or wear implies a common democratized culture, the adolescent classes are predicated on more than simple economic ability.  Rather, they function according to Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of capital, which extends traditional notions of economic-based capital to include other forms (including social capital, cultural capital, and symbolic capital), all of which work to define a person’s position within a multidimensional social space. In other words, capital acts as a kind of resource that enables a person to gain or to maintain a position within a status-based social hierarchy. Although economic capital may seem to be the dominant form in a capitalist society, Bourdieu notes ways in which different categories of capital can be exchanged and transformed into each other. Such conversion, however, requires the complicity of all people. Part of this complicity stems from the habitus, which is a residue of one’s inherited class past (functioning below one’s consciousness) that shapes one’s present perception. The complicity is also based on the impact of the habitus on a person’s drive or desire to acquire symbolic capital. This symbolic capital, moreover, can manifest itself in any form that is recognized through socially-inculcated classificatory structures.

In Stolz’s female junior novels, that symbolic capital takes the form of what I call “boy capital:” a girl’s ability to date—that is, to accumulate—multiple dominant-class boys. The more higher-ranked boys who are willing to take a girl to the movies, or the malt shop, or—and this is the really important, Cinderella-creating event—the prom, the more dominant a girl becomes within the adolescent social hierarchy.

To understand the girls’ use of “boy capital” in these novels, one must first recognize the gendering of Stolz’s teen societies. Considering the time period in which they were written, it is likely no surprise that they appear to function within a patriarchal paradigm. As Linda K. Christian-Smith notes in her study of what she hails as Period I adolescent romance novels (1942-1959, the period that coincides with many of Stolz’s female junior novels):

romance is about learning how to relate to males and the importance of this. [ . . . ] What [the female protagonists] learn is that the ability to “get along” is primarily worked out within romance, a set of relations of power and control, that do not favor feminine power and initiative. The novels contain no mention of female and male parity. Rather, the romance situates girls within a set of relations whereby they are the ones that must compromise and change. (375)

Indeed, as Betty Wilder in Stolz’s And Love Replied (1958) remarks concerning the gendered social division around her:

It was, as Carol frequently complained, a man’s world. And in this man’s world, Betty thought now, a girl has to take what she can get by wiles, subtlety, coercion, or blandishment. But she can never, not ever, say simply, honestly, and aloud, This is what I’d like. (51-52)

Like Betty, many of Stolz’s female junior novel protagonists profess Bourdieu’s “that’s not for the likes of me” slogan, which Leslie McCall characterizes as “the dominated classes’ practical consideration of their lack of opportunity to join in the cultural and economic life of the dominant classes” (849). McCall adds that these “social divisions appear obvious and self-regulated by individuals and social groups” (849), and thus most Stolz female characters rarely question this gendered social arrangement.

Still, while I agree with Christian-Smith that these adolescent societies are patriarchal, I would complicate her analysis by suggesting that they are—paradoxically—ruled by females, not males. That is, male and female characters rarely struggle for dominance against each other; they only battle against characters of their own gender. The lack of struggle between the genders is predicated on the seemingly automatic dominance of the males. Although boys are powerful in Stolz’s teenage societies, their power is that of accessories to legitimation: they are not legitimizers themselves—and this is where the paradox emerges. The boys exist somewhat above the social hierarchy, in a kind of super-terrestrial twilight where their presence affects the lives of the girls, but where the girls have less effect on them. Consequently, while dating a boy can help a girl to gain the necessary symbolic capital to climb the hierarchy, it is the girls on the top rung of the ladder who ultimately determine each social climber’s place, not the boys who help them. Or, as Betty Wilder eloquently phrases it, “boys might be kings, but it was the girls who ruled the court” (And Love 123).

This queendom becomes obvious in the way in which Pris and Madge, two girls who possess the most boy capital in Stolz’s Because of Madeline (1957)—and who therefore hold the highest ranks in their adolescent society—refer to their boyfriends. Rather than using their given names, the girls refer to the boys by the names of the boys’ prep schools: “Exeter was in town last week end. Woodbury Forest was coming all the way up from Virginia for the Junior Assembly. They weren’t seeing Choate any more, he was just too darn fresh, and if he thought for a minute [ . . . ]” (Because 36). Although they decide to drop Choate for being “too darn fresh,” Pris’s and Madge’s language makes it clear that the boys’ individualities matter far less than which prestigious preparatory school they attend. The boys are simply forms of capital, to be collected and used at the Junior Assembly or some such social gathering, then disposed of when they become bothersome.[3]

While Pris and Madge know how to seek and wield their boy capital, it is Dody Jenks, in Stolz’s Pray Love, Remember (1954), who becomes the most trenchant example of a girl whose ability to brandish boy capital in manipulating her adolescent society rivals that of the Marquise de Merteuil or, in a more contemporary analogy, Gossip Girl’s Blair Waldorf. Dody may come from a working-class background, but within her adolescent society she is still “the high school girl who would incontestably be elected Snow Queen that year” (39). Stolz makes it apparent that the reason for Dody’s social success is her ability to manipulate boy capital:

But there were other girls, as pretty, a good many with more pleasing backgrounds . . . more clothes, better manners, homes to which they could freely and without embarrassment invite people. None of this had prevailed against Dody, who knew by instinct how to charm boys. And, she had told herself simply, charm them and the girls will have to like you, whether or not they do. (40)

Dody is masterful in charming men, and acknowledges it as an inherent talent:

how had she known that directness was the lure which would bring Ben to her side? [. . .] She simply knew, as she knew Roger liked vivacity, Mr. Newhall a sort of ingenious coquettishness, the young policeman at the corner a bright-eyed dependence. (56)

This seemingly inborn knowledge of how to attract men exists in almost all of Stolz’s popular characters. Lotta Dunne in Who Wants Music on Monday? (1963) purposely looks at a boy with “an oblique and fetching glance—a practiced glance, one that had not yet failed her” (207); Honey Kirkwood in Hospital Zone (1956) knows how to “lift her head in the way she knew was winning” (174) and to “look into his eyes a fraction of a second longer than an introduction demanded” (174); and Betty Wilder knows how to enter a room with

the quick sweet smile, the airy walk, the heightened sensibility that automatically took possession of her in the new presence of any young man. [. . .] You held your head so, you moved and lifted and dropped your eyes thus, you put into your voice something it was innocent of in the sole presence of your family, say, or of Carol. If the boy was dull, or obviously chartered by someone else, if no slightest current moved between you and him, why, you tucked the whole pleasant pantomime away, not because it was artificial, but because it served no purpose. (And Love 18)

While Stolz’s popular girls seem to have no difficulty in attracting their male counterparts, it is important to note that possession of boy capital does not automatically equate with entry into the ranks of the social elite. Although Dody Jenks is partly correct in suggesting that the dominant girls are forced to accept an outsider if she dates a dominant boy, possession of too much boy capital risks the danger of a reputation of promiscuity. These are, after all, postwar teen romance novels. In Rosemary (1955), Rosemary Reed attempts to gain social mobility through a dominant class boy, Jay, but unknowingly pushes her possession of boy capital too far:

She was aware of talking a little too much, a little too loudly. Aware, too, that many of these boys were holding her closer than they should, but she laughed with them excitedly, and thought how Jay would certainly have to be proud of his date, his vivacious, popular, sought-after-date. [. . .] She danced endlessly, and though the girls at the table ignored her more pointedly than they had earlier, Rosemary assured herself she didn’t care. (24)

Whereas Rosemary’s date with Jay has the potential to pave the way into the dominant society, her attempts to appear popular by gaining more boy capital ultimately create a barrier to that movement.

While Rosemary’s failure demonstrates the danger of too much boy capital, it also highlights the fact that boy capital is only helpful when it is recognized—even reluctantly—by dominant girls. The girls—not the boys—are the gatekeepers to teen popularity. An obvious example of this gatekeeping can be seen in Stolz’s The Sea Gulls Woke Me, in which Jean Campbell, an unpopular girl, hides in the lavatory during the school dance, and overhears Sally Gowans and a few other popular girls mocking both her dress and her date, Rhet Coyne. When Jean steps out of the lavatory, the rest of the girls, “giggling a little through nervousness, or perhaps remorse, ran out, looking at one another as they fled” (26). Sally, however, stays, and attempts to apologize. In that moment, Jean realizes that Sally’s sympathy for her could be her entrée into the popular crowd:

Jean thought later that she probably had her chance there to escape through the dark mirror into the Wonderland of acceptance. This girl was Sally Gowans, acknowledged leader of the school. [ . . . ] But Jean, at the moment she might have received help, was too numbed by the evening to realize it. (27)

The fact that Jean fails to accept Sally’s help does not negate the fact that it is Sally’s judgment of Jean, more than the influence of Jean’s date, Rhet, and certainly more than Jean’s own opinion of herself, that establishes Jean’s place within the social hierarchy.

The Female Dominant Society

In Stolz’s texts, then, female control of the adolescent society suggests not only the partial subversion of traditional forms of (patriarchal) dominance, but the emergence of a semi-autonomous female society—what I call the “female dominant society”—which functions within patriarchy, yet still remains somewhat separate from it. In acknowledging the contradictory nature of the heterosexual romance plot for female junior novel protagonists, Linda K. Christian-Smith notes that the process of romantic recognition

creates young women themselves as terms in a circuit of exchange where their value is acquired through affiliation with males. Romance is one of the sites for the learning of gendered relations of subordination and domination. The code of romance is ultimately about power: who has it and who may legitimately exercise it. (375-376)

Christian-Smith’s suggestion that these girls act as “terms in a circuit of exchange” is reminiscent of Luce Irigaray’s theory of women as commodities, in which Irigaray suggests that the foundation of heterosexual society (as we know it) is based on the use, consumption, and circulation of women. Women function exclusively as “products,” in that “men make commerce of them, but they do not enter into any exchanges with them” (172). Instead, women’s otherness stimulates men’s exchanges of other forms of “wealth” while simultaneously smoothing the relations between men. In terms of women’s relations with other women, Irigaray states: “uprooted from their “nature,” [women] can no longer relate to each other except in terms of what they represent in men’s desire, and according to the “forms” that this imposes upon them” (188).

Still, Irigaray questions: “But what if these ‘commodities’ refused to go to ‘market’? What if they maintained ‘another’ kind of commerce, among themselves?” (196). In Stolz’s texts, this other kind of commerce is the “female dominant society.” While it may be subordinate to and reliant on male characters, its power stems from female desire. That desire functions as related forms of longing: to be recognized, to be accepted, and ultimately to be codified as one of the popular girls. Thus Betty Wilder spends much of And Love Replied falling in love with Clifton Banks, but spends an equal amount of time pining to be accepted—perhaps even loved?—by the dominant girls in her new high school:

One morning , when a couple of girls whose names—Ginny and Rowena—she knew, and whose place—at the summit—she knew, passed her in the hall and waved pleasantly, not slowing their steps, and called, “Hi, Betty, how are you?” not waiting for her reply, she stood rooted, looking after them. A girl named Eleanor, whose command was queenly in these halls, gave her a queenly nod and sailed by among her cohorts. The cohorts glanced quickly to see who’d been favored, but pressed in so as not to get out of the royal train.

Take a chance on me, Betty cried in her mind. You’d like me if you knew me. . . . Oh, please! (And Love 120)

Rosemary Reed, similarly, dreams of membership in the female dominant society. In her mind, girls from the college “would stop by of an evening for a Coke and gossip” (Rosemary 8). Her craving to belong is almost entirely female-oriented:

She wanted to sit, on a winter’s night, as girls must be doing this moment, pajamaed ridiculously like the girls in ads, crowded into one lovely bedroom, eating things out of bakery boxes and drinking coffee and talking, talking. [. . .] Rosemary, want some more cake? Rosemary, could I borrow your yellow jacket? Rosemary . . . Rosemary . . . Rosemary . . . (122)

This scene of the “pajamaed” girls-only sleepover is repeated in multiple Stolz novels,[4] and in each the emphasis is on a kind of female communication and understanding that seems to be absent from the protagonists’ interactions with boys. In Stolz’s Good-by My Shadow (1957), Barbara Perry experiences a daydream that is similar to Rosemary’s, only Barbara’s dream is fixated on a single popular girl:

She pictured herself and Margaret Obemeyer, spending the night together at one of their houses, doing their nails perhaps, and talking things over. They’d be such good friends that they could discuss anything . . . not just boys and sex, though those would certainly form a part of their evening’s communication . [. . .] Yes, she could hear herself, going on and on, confident of understanding. (Good-by 74-75)

As Barbara’s dream suggests, the girls’ desire in each of these instances is not simply to be accepted by the female dominant society, but to be fully understood and valued.

The Gaze and the Prom Queen

Of course, while Betty’s and Rosemary’s hopes focus more on the female dominant society as a group, Barbara’s intense concentration on Margaret as an individual suggests a possible move from the homosocial to the homoerotic. Situations that can be read as indicative of both homoerotic and homosocial desire are actually quite common to girls’ interactions within the female junior novel genre.[5] For the majority of Stolz’s female protagonists, however, the underlying cause of either type of longing remains the desire for social status.

The merging of homosocial/homoerotic desire with a yearning for social dominance becomes visible through Stolz’s use of a female gaze, in which the female protagonists watch the most popular girls in the female dominant society. By the end of Good-by My Shadow, Barbara has achieved enough social status that when Randy Lawson (or Boy Capital) takes her to a party at Margaret’s house, Barbara is able to relax and enjoy watching Margaret:

Margaret was beside her, saying in her slightly husky voice, “How’re you, Barby? I’m so glad you could come.”

Barbara looked at her, at the short springy hair, the direct bright eyes, the fine bones and animated posture. Margaret had always given her the impression that she could, if she wished, merely leave the floor and sail from one point to another. She listened to the throaty, friendly voice, and the tension within her loosened. She could almost feel it flowing away through her fingertips, as she said, “I’m glad, too.” Did she dare to call her Margy? “Margy.” (Good-by 197)

While this passage has the potential to be read as Barbara’s homoerotic desire for Margaret, it can also be read as Barbara’s desire to be Margaret, in terms of wielding Margaret’s power to be “everybody’s dream girl” (116), or the most dominant of the female dominant society. Barbara’s impression that Margaret can “leave the floor and sail from one point to another” (197) suggests a level of social ability that Barbara still lacks, but ultimately desires (although her date with Randy Lawson and inclusion in the party suggests that she, too, will soon gain social dominance).

The visual climax of the desiring female gaze is revealed in the culminating event of many of the female junior novels: the prom. For dominated girls within Stolz’s novels, this is the instance when the struggle for dominance ceases momentarily, and the apotheoses of the female social elite—those beautiful and popular sovereigns, the prom queens—are watched and celebrated in all their glory. These are the girls who, according to Lotta Dunne’s Aunt Muriel in Stolz’s Who Wants Music on Monday (1963),

sail lightly along the surface of their youth, never suspecting the existence of undercurrents, riptides, rapids. The cheer leaders, the prom and hop belles, the flirts, who look forward to the next date, the next dress, anticipate college as a more glamorous extension of high school and marriage as a state of being adored by a perfect man. (54)

In that fateful moment of prom crowning, these girls, the most dominant of the female dominant society, become not only the object of other girls’ desire, but the object of their own. In Girls: Feminine Adolescence in Popular Culture and Cultural Theory, Catherine Driscoll examines the role of the bride in popular culture. She notes that the bride can be understood as both the object of patriarchal desire and as an instance of identified passivity, but she also suggests that “the desire to be the bride that looks at the bride is not a desiring gaze defined by this standard heteropatriarchal narrative, and perhaps contains no narrative of sexualized possession at all” (187). The same, I suspect, may be said of the prom queen within the female dominant society. She is no longer a commodity passed between men, although she may view her position as a sort of commodity in itself, since it entrenches her as a governing figure in the adolescent society. Still, even if she holds that view, she is the only one who enacts the possessing. Her prom king or date—for there has to be a male figure to provide her with the appropriate boy capital to enable her to gain her position—is simply an accessory; as Driscoll explains, the bride (prom queen) “is her own ideal and love object, and any groom (the one who loves me) is a means to that idealization” (187). Thus although Dody Jenks plans and implements a social coup to secure her date, Ben, in Stolz’s Pray Love, Remember, Ben is completely forgotten in the instant of her social crowning. Instead, the moment becomes solely about the rightful homage that must be paid to Dody Jenks, Snow Queen, most dominant member of the female dominant society:

The music changed to Strauss, the big doors swung wide, and Dody, with the faintest of smiles, surveyed her domain. As at home, there was complete silence, except for the music, and then a long breath of capitulation [. . .] as they all stared. [. . .] There had been lovely queens in Plattstown High other years, but without question, Dody Jenks, in her frosty green sheath with the rhinestones sparkling like icicles against her hair, was a Snow Queen from a fairy tale. (121)

Irigaray’s vision may not be completely fulfilled, but the female dominant society of Stolz’s texts—and her prom queens, in particular—certainly express a possible alternative to a society in which women are exchangeable commodities in relations between men. They may still exist under the ultimate rule of patriarchy, but their paradoxical power within the teen society suggests a kind of hope for the protagonists, regardless of whether or not the reason behind that hope—the establishment of “‘another’ kind of commerce, among themselves” (Irigaray 196)—is truly possible.[6]

As this article has attempted to articulate, the elements that form the romance plot of Stolz’s specifically 1950s style of female junior novel—the female conformity, “boy capital” and girls’ attempts to gain social dominance by dating boys, pajama parties and the emergence of the female dominant society, and, of course, the recognition of the prom queen as the object of her own desire—may seem “sugar-puff” or “saccharine,” but they ultimately create and mask complex female power struggles within a highly regulated adolescent social hierarchy. Perhaps Betty Wilder’s observation, which feels both suffocating and combative in its surface reading, may actually suggest a course of action, and a hope: “boys might be kings, but it was the girls who ruled the court” (And Love 123).

Lingering Questions

The first question that inevitably arises following an analysis of Stolz’s novels through the lens of either popular romance or young adult literature is this: to what extent did the teen girl readers recognize the female struggles hidden within these stories of first love? My answer is, unfortunately, necessarily inadequate: we cannot know. The teenage girls of the 1950s and 1960s have long since grown up, and very little record remains of their relationships with these novels.

There are a few studies available regarding the use of Stolz’s texts in relation to educational and psychological theories of their day.[7] The most notable of these is Cynthia Frease’s 1963 dissertation, in which she examines Stolz’s texts in terms of bibliotherapy and R.J. Havighurst’s developmental tasks. In 1950 David Russell and Caroline Shrodes created the dominant definition of bibliotherapy, or therapy through reading, as:

a process of dynamic interaction between the personality of the reader and literature—interaction which may be utilized for personality assessment, adjustment, and growth . . . it conveys the idea that all teachers must be aware of the effects of reading upon children and must realize that, through literature, most children can be helped to solve the developmental problems of adjustment which they face. (335)

Connected to educational bibliotherapy was psychologist Robert J. Havighurst’s concept of a developmental task, which he defined as “a task which arises at or about a certain period in the life of an individual, successful achievement of which leads to his happiness and success with later tasks, while failure leads to unhappiness in the individual, disapproval by the society, and difficulty with later tasks” (6).[8] Frease’s dissertation uses these connected concepts to focus on “the popularity of the Stolz books with adolescents,” “the recognition by adolescents of the novels’ literary merits,” and “the help received from them by teen-agers striving to master the developmental tasks of adolescence” (206). Thus we know from Frease the assumed popularity of Stolz’s novels,[9] whether or not the girls recognized the texts’ literary merit (as defined by Frease),[10] and whether or not the girls thought that the novels helped them to mature successfully.[11] We still do not know, however, how the girls actually read these texts, or what they thought about them.

Fan letters to Stolz (from 1967 onwards), preserved in the De Grummond Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi, record some of the girls’ thoughts. One letter-writer was Gail Morton, from Albuquerque, New Mexico, who read A Love or a Season for her English class and informed Stolz that “the characters seemed so real and the way it was written made me feel as if I were a part of it” (Morton). Eleven-year-old Kim Richardson, from North Versailles, Pennsylvania, similarly noted that “I liked your book Ready or Not because I felt that I could just go around the corner and meet the characters” (Richardson). Her favorite part was when “Morgan was telling Tom that she loved him. And guess what I was doing! Crying. When things are really happy I get all filled up inside a [sic] cry.” The tone and content of many of these letters are similar: the majority of the girls seem to feel that Stolz’s characters are realistic, and that they can empathize with them. They (sometimes effusively) express great joy when the protagonist achieves her “happy ending” with her boyfriend. One may speculate, however, whether these girls’ sensations of realism are predicated solely on Stolz’s mimetic abilities, or whether they recognize—however hazily—Stolz’s articulation of both acknowledged and unacknowledged codes and rules of feminine adolescence.

Some letters suggest that these girls perceived something existing behind the love plot. Carol Piascik, from Cleveland, wrote to Stolz regarding her experience of reading about Anne Armacost in Stolz’s To Tell Your Love. Notably, that text is one of Stolz’s female junior novels that does not include a happy ending, in that the boy Anne loves—Douglas Eamons—ends up with another girl, Dody:

Well, this is the way it happens. You don’t believe it, but it does. All this time, underneath all the ache, I’ve been thinking there’d be a day that he’d come back, a day when he’d explain, and it would be all right again. He isn’t going to explain. He’s never going to tell me one word of a reason. And he doesn’t have to . . . because I know. He’s afraid of me. He’s worked too hard, he and his father, for him to go to college, and that’s all he wants right now. So Dody was smarter than I was. I loved him too much, and he didn’t love me enough, and neither of us knew what to say. . . . (242)

As Piascik stated: “it was sad in a way how things worked out for her. It gives a person who’s reading the story a funny feeling.” This “funny feeling,” of course, may simply be a kind of sadness for Anne’s heartbreak. I wonder, though, if it may also be a response to the complex layers and struggles present in Stolz’s texts—a sense of “not rightness” that is greater than the loss of the happily ever after ending.

The second question that seems to arise when studying Stolz’s novels—and which I again cannot answer—is once more directly related to the issue of readership, and particularly to adolescent readership. Are these books “good” or “bad”? Implicit in this question are anxieties that lie at the heart of both the field of children’s and young adult literature, and the field of popular romance studies. Responding to the good/bad debate in children’s literature, Peter Hunt suggests that:

instead of saying ‘better/worse’, or ‘suitable/unsuitable’, criticism would be more profitably employed in saying ‘This text has certain potentials for interaction, certain possibilities of meaning.’ If nothing else, we would escape from the present confusion of ‘good’ with ‘good for.’ (83)

In the difference between “good” and “good for” lies the relationship between the major disciplines that participate in the fields of children’s and young adult literature: English, Education, and Library Science.[12] The power imbalance involved in creating texts for younger and seemingly less powerful (although such positioning is debatable) readers, coupled with the interdisciplinary nature of the fields, causes the questioner of whether Mary Stolz’s books are “good” or “bad” to contemplate numerous other questions and suppositions, most of which are unanswerable. Such questions might include: how do we determine what is “good”? Who determines “good”? Does “good” change over time? Is “good” affected by readership? How does “good” relate to any of the following: literary value, helpfulness in promoting literacy, helpfulness in creating literacy, helpfulness in navigating life events, etc.?

The seeming need to assess texts as “good” or “bad” also lies at the heart of stigmatized fields. The popular romance field, like the field of children’s literature, has traditionally addressed the question in an effort to bolster its validity as a scholarly field, as if empirical evidence that its texts are “good” (or, at least more than “not bad”) will promote its legitimacy to those prejudiced against it—both readers and scholars alike. In their introduction to New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction, Eric Murphy Selinger and Sarah S.G. Frantz trace the “generations” of popular romance scholarship, starting with the foundational studies that argued against judgments of popular romance fiction as escapist, formulaic, or trivial. Instead, these early studies focused on the ideological complexity within the genre to suggest that “what seemed like formulas were, in fact, a ritual struggle with ‘very real problems and tensions in women’s lives’” (3), and that “beneath the trivial exterior lay ‘elements of protest and resistance,’ a ‘hidden plot’ of ‘buried anger or hostility’; far from an escape, these novels encoded ‘anxieties, desires and wishes which if openly expressed would challenge the psychological order of things’” (3-4).[13] Selinger and Frantz note the usefulness of this early attention to the subtexts of power, but further suggest that

The ideological focus of that first generation of scholars, for example, had its uses—but it also implicitly framed their work as an updated, feminist version of a very old, patently moralizing question: “Are these books good or bad for their readers?” [ . . . ] Only with popular romance fiction [ . . . ] do otherwise sophisticated academics continue to treat this question seriously, whether raising it in the context of political debates or fretting over the practical, empiricist exigencies of how “to measure and understand the actual consequences of romance reading.” (5)

Thus, I choose not to state whether Stolz’s female junior novels are “good or bad.” Rather, like Hunt, I suggest that these texts have certain fascinating possibilities of meaning. In fact, I like to hope that, with all their underlying tales of girls’ struggles and attempts to wield power, the female junior novel genre, with Stolz’s texts as representatives, fulfills the possibility inherent in Pamela Regis’s earlier statement: “the genre is not about women’s bondage, as the literary critics would have it. The [female junior novel] is, to the contrary, about women’s freedom” (xiii).

Works Cited

Alm, Richard S. “The Glitter and the Gold.” The English Journal 44.6 (1955): 315-322, 350. Print.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. New York: Routledge, 2007. Print.

Cart, Michael. From Romance to Realism: 50 Years of Growth and Change in Young Adult Literature. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. Print.

Christian-Smith, Linda K. “Gender, Popular Culture, and Curriculum: Adolescent Romance Novels as Gender Text.” Curriculum Inquiry 17.4 (Winter 1987): 365-406. JSTOR. Web. 24 May 2011.

Donelson, Kenneth L. and Alleen Pace Nilsen. Literature for Today’s Young Adults. 7th Ed. Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, 2005. Print.

Driscoll, Catherine. Girls: Feminine Adolescence in Popular Culture and Cultural Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. Print.

Edwards, Margaret. “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning.” English Journal 46.8 (Nov. 1957): 461-469, 474. Print.

Enciso, Patricia, Karen Coats, Christine Jenkins, and Shelby Wolf. “The Watsons Go to

NRC—2007: Crossing Academic Boundaries in the Study of Children’s Literature.” 57th Yearbook of the National Reading Conference. Oak Creek, Wisconsin: National Reading Conference, 2008. Print.

Frease, Cynthia. “Mary Stolz, Junior Novelist: An Analysis of the Literary Characteristics and the Concern with Developmental Tasks of Adolescence in the Stolz Junior Novels and the Reactions to Them of Professional Critics and Adolescent Girls.” Diss. Greeley, Colorado: University of Northern Colorado, 1961. Print.

Havighurst, Robert James. Developmental Tasks and Education. New York: Longmans, Green, 1948. Print.

Hunt, Peter. Criticism, Theory, and Children’s Literature. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991. Print.

Irigary, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985. Print.

Kiernan, Margaret Ford. Rev. of In a Mirror, by Mary Stolz. “Mary Stolz (1920-).” Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 12. Eds. Dedria Bryfonski and Gerald J. Senick. Detroit: Gale Research, 1980. 547. Literature Criticism Online. Web. 8 December, 2009.

Lambert, Janet. Candy Cane. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1943. Print.

MacLeod, Anne Scott. American Childhood: Essays on Children’s Literature of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994. Print.

Morton, Gail. Letter to Mary Stolz. 7 March, 1967. Mary Stolz Papers. Box, Folder . De Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, University of Southern Mississippi.

McCall, Leslie. “Does Gender Fit? Bourdieu, Feminism, and the Conceptions of Social Order.” Theory & Society 21.6 (1992): 837-67. Academic Search Complete. Web. 25 October 2009.

Pattee, Amy S. Reading the Adolescent Romance: Sweet Valley High and the Popular Young Adult Romance Novel. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2011. Print.

Piascik, Carol. Letter to Mary Stolz. 12 March, 1967. Mary Stolz Papers. Box, Folder. De Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, University of Southern Mississippi.

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

Richardson, Kim. Letter to Mary Stolz. 16 January, 1969. Mary Stolz Papers. Box, Folder. De Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, University of Southern Mississippi.

Russell, David H. and Caroline Shrodes. “Contributions of Research in Bibliotherapy to the Language-Arts Program I.” The School Review 58.6 (Sept. 1950): 335-342. JSTOR. Web. 4 September 2008.

Selinger, Eric Murphy and Sarah S.G. Frantz. “Introduction: New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction.” New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2012.

Stolz, Mary. And Love Replied. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958. Print.

—. Because of Madeline. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957. Print.

—. Good-by My Shadow. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957. Print.

—. Hospital Zone. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956. Print.

—. Pray Love, Remember. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1954. Print.

—. Rosemary. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1955. Print.

—. The Sea Gulls Woke Me. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951. Print.

—. To Tell Your Love. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950. Print.

—. Who Wants Music on Monday? New York: Harper & Row, 1963. Print.


[1] Alm was also a member of the Committee on Senior High School Book List of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), as well as an editor of the English Journal.

[2] For a closer examination of the use of clothing in the female junior novels, and how it relates to girls’ attempts to climb their social hierarchies, please see Amanda K. Allen, “The Cinderella-Makers: Postwar Adolescent Girl Fiction as Commodity Tales.” The Lion and the Unicorn 33.3 (Sep. 2009): 282-299.

[3] Linda K. Christian-Smith notes that, in each period of her 1942-1982 study of teen romance novels, “sexuality constitutes a troublesome element of romance as far as girls were concerned. [. . .] Although girls understand that sexual favors are one element of exchange in romance, they are by no means happy about it [. . .] one is expected to pay for an evening’s entertainment with kisses” (373).

[4] Other texts that emphasize either the pajamaed sleepover scene or the desire for it include The Organdy Cupcakes (1953), In a Mirror (1953), and Hospital Zone (1956).

[5] In Janet Lambert’s Candy Cane (1943), for example, Candy’s recollection of her first meeting with Anne seems quite ecstatic:

Anne was golden-brown and black. Black hair like Barton’s, brown eyes that danced, and a smile—Candy felt faint from joy because, oh miracle, Anne’s smile was for her. Anne had come to see her. [. . .] Candy clasped her hands around her thin little knees and sat looking at Anne like a thirsty flower in a warm spring rain. (36-37)

[6] Indeed, although I view the presence of this semi-autonomous female society as positive, the protagonists’ use of boy capital does cause me to wonder just how far these characters may actually invert Irigaray’s theory of exchange, to the point at which the male characters could become the new objects of exchange intended to soothe relationships between women (although still, paradoxically, within a patriarchal society).

[7] Such studies include Cecile Magaliff, The Junior Novel: Its Relationship to Adolescent Reading, (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat P., 1964); Mary Quarles Whitehurst, “An Evaluative Bibliography of Adolescent Fiction by Rosamond Dujardin, Jackson Scholz, Mary Stolz and John Roberts Tunis,” (Diss. Washington, Catholic University of America, 1963); and, more generally, Dwight L. Burton, Literature Study in the High Schools (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964).

[8] Havighurst included his first list of tasks in his 1941 publication, Adjusting Reading Programs to Individuals, but developed the concept more clearly in Developmental Tasks and Education (1948) and Human Development and Education (1953).

[9] Summarizing her findings, Frease notes that:

the Mary Stolz junior novels are well represented in the large secondary-school libraries in Colorado; that they are checked out frequently in a majority of the schools queried; that grades eight, nine, and ten are the ones in which Stolz novels seem to be most in demand; that the Stolz novels are noticeably less popular at the junior-high level than junior novels by other prominent authors but are in the category of one of the most popular at the senior-high level. (216)

[10] Frease states that the girls’ judgments “correspond fairly closely to those of the professional critics and the writer’s own, especially in the recognition of virtues” (223).

[11] Frease seems almost disappointed in these particular findings:

Students recognize that they have received help in mastering the developmental tasks of adolescence from reading the junior novels by Mary Stolz. The evidence is not so marked as the writer had anticipated, however, nor are the tasks which the writer’s own analysis of the novels indicated the books would be most helpful with exactly the ones the students found more usefully presented. Perhaps the students are still too close to some of their reading experiences to be able to judge exactly what benefits they have received from them. (228)

[12] As Patricia Enciso, Karen Coats, Christine Jenkins, and Shelby Wolf describe in their analysis of the three major disciplines that study children’s literature, as they relate to Christopher Paul Curtis’s novel, The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963:

In Library and Information Science (LIS) courses, Curtis’s novel raises questions of its historical significance in relation with other Civil Rights era narratives. In education courses, students discuss how they will mediate children’s responses and how they will develop critical, intertextual insights across this story and other novels, poems, and curricula. While English professors might address all of the questions considered by education and LIS scholars, they focus primarily on theoretical frames to interpret the story’s narrative structure, character development, extended metaphors, and imagery. (219)

[13] As they state in their book, Selinger and Frantz are drawing their observations of the foundational studies from three watershed texts in particular: Tania Modleski’s Loving with a Vengeance: Mass Produced Fantasies for Women, Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature, and Kay Mussell’s Fantasy and Reconciliation: Contemporary Formulas of Women’s Romance Fiction (3).

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“Mind, Body, Love: Nora Roberts and the Evolution of Popular Romance Studies” by An Goris

Introduction

These are exciting times for popular romance scholars.[1] Over the last few years a number of interconnected developments—including the founding of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR) in 2009 and of the peer-reviewed Journal of Popular Romance Studies in 2010, the increase of international conferences about popular romance (Brisbane (2009), Brussels (2010), New York (2011), McDaniel (2011), York (2012), Freemantle (2013)) and the funding of substantial academic grants by Romance Writers of America (RWA) and The Nora Roberts Foundation—have stimulated the increasing institutional establishment and recognition of the field of Popular Romance Studies. As the overall study of the representation of romantic love in popular culture gains academic ground, the scholarly examination of one of the genres at the epicenter of this emerging field—popular romance fiction—is in transition as well. The inclusive, genre-wide and generalizing approach that characterizes many older studies of popular romance fiction, including such foundational works as Tania Modleski’s Loving with a Vengeance (1982), Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance (1984), Carol Thurston’s The Romance Revolution (1987) and even some parts of Pamela Regis’ seminal A Natural History of the Romance Novel (2003), is slowly being replaced by a more focused and differential approach.

Such a differential approach to the study of popular romance fiction seeks to address not the whole of the genre (as older studies are wont to) but specific subparts of it. These studies are then based on more specified corpora of primary texts. Examples of such studies are recent work on romance subgenres (see e.g. Neal (2006), Fletcher (2008) and Betz (2009)), particular authors (see e.g. Frantz (2009)) and even individual novels (see e.g. Selinger (2012)). The findings and conclusions formulated in these studies are usually less general and wide-ranging than those often formulated in older romance studies. Slowly, the decades-old scholarly tradition of making very general claims about the popular romance genre as a whole is then being replaced by a more specified perspective in which the scholar seeks to address not the similarities of the whole, but the specifics of the parts of the whole. In this setup, the general claims of older studies often serve as a (normative) framework against which individual cases—of particular romance authors or novels, for example—are being tested. As will be illustrated in this paper, such a more differential approach to the study of popular romance leads to analyses that recognize (instead of obscure) the variety that exists within the genre and that are often more refined, nuanced, and sophisticated than before.[2]

The general claims about popular romance fiction that are taken to task in this paper have to do with the representation of romantic love—and, more particularly, of the mind and the body in love—in popular romance novels. Specifically, the paper investigates Catherine Belsey’s claim that popular romance novels offer a particular construction of the mind and the body in love that purports to resolve the (postmodern) tension between the body and the mind—the material and the immaterial—but eventually fails to do so. This recurrent construction, Belsey suggests, explains the massive appeal of the popular romance novel as well as the curious disappointment readers supposedly feel at the end of the happily ending romance tale (21-41). In this paper, Belsey’s general(izing) claims about popular romance novels are used as a framework to study the work of Nora Roberts, the single most popular romance author of our time. In particular, the paper analyzes the representation of the body and the mind in Roberts’ construction of romantic love on the basis of eight of the author’s novels. By investigating if Belsey’s claims about the irresolvable tension between body and mind hold true for Roberts’ hugely popular work, this paper develops a nuanced understanding of one of the core motifs in Roberts’ vast oeuvre that might shed some light on its immense popularity.

The General Claim: Mind, Body and Love in Popular Romance Novels

Catherine Belsey’s claims about the popular romance novel appear in the second chapter of Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture (1994), the scholar’s theoretically sophisticated and wide-ranging study of the representation of desire in Western texts. In line with this work’s overall theoretical interests, Belsey turns to critical theory to try to explain the popular romance novel’s massive appeal. Her analysis focuses mainly on the representation of romantic love as a phenomenon that impacts both the body and the mind in popular romance novels. This dual conceptualization of love, Belsey notes, is in line with long-standing Western traditions of dual conceptualisations of identity and the self that originated with René Descartes and his colleagues of the Enlightenment. These thinkers put forth conceptualisations of the human subject as internally disjointed and divided along the line of the body and the mind that have held sway in Western culture ever since. Although Belsey notes that such dual conceptualisations have come to seem “natural and inevitable” (23), the notion that the self is internally disjointed remains a deeply unsettling idea in many ways. Popular romance novels, Belsey finds, capitalise upon this anxiety and this is the secret to their extraordinary appeal. In these novels, romantic love offers “a promise to bring mind and body back into perfect unity, to heal the rift of experience which divides individuals from themselves” (23). Such a promise, Belsey posits, strongly appeals to the contemporary reader.

However, Belsey is quick to note, fulfilling this central promise is easier said than done and herein lies the romance genre’s problem. Romances attempt to bridge the gap between mind and body by consistently connecting intense sexual sensations to moral and emotional feelings of commitment and love (23). This goal, Belsey elaborates, induces the genre’s rather specific representation of sexuality as “elemental, beyond control, majestic, thrilling, dangerous” (27)—a construction that is in part achieved by the stereotypical representation of sexual passion in metaphors of powerful natural phenomena such as a hurricane, a flood, a storm, an earthquake or a wave. While such extremely intense sexual sensations ensure the involvement of the body in the experience of romantic love, physical passion alone is not enough. Indeed, Belsey observes, for this passion to constitute true love, not only the body but also the mind has to be engaged: the rational, knowing subject is, in love, “required to speak, to assert his identity as a subject” (29).

It is here, Belsey claims, that the crux of the problem lies. Words spoken in the heat of passion are not to be trusted since this passion has explicitly been presented as “bewildering, transporting of consciousness, sweeping away all sense of the self, [which] precisely deflects subjectivity and consequently defers the moment of moral commitment” (29). Only the words that are spoken afterwards, “independently [from the bodily experience], once the knowing, willing subject is restored,” are the words that really matter (30, emphasis mine). But herein lies also the failure of the romance novel to live up to its promise of unifying mind and body. Inasmuch as the romance project hinges on words spoken in this separate, post-passionate context, it does not bring body and mind together, but rather enforces the distinctions between them. “To the extent that the aim was to dissolve the opposition between mind and body in a story of true love,” Belsey concludes, “the project signally fails in these instances” (30). This failure, Belsey finally suggests, explains why “the fantasy [romances] offer is a little disappointing” (31): romance novels consistently fail to live up to the promise that constitutes (at least in Belsey’s eyes) their biggest appeal.

The sense of disappointment Belsey speaks of is not, as such, identified or described by romance readers. To the contrary: in Janice Radway’s classic study, to which Belsey repeatedly refers, readers consistently identify positive emotions at the end of the romance reading experience and claim romance reading makes them feel good (60-66). Belsey does not consider these claims to be incompatible with her own conclusions, however. Instead she suggests that the frequent repetition of the romance reading act Radway observed likely confirms her hypothesis:

It emerged that the Smithton women were reading a great many romances. [ . . . ] Is it conceivable that this avid reading is an indication that the optimism created by romance is more precarious than it is possible to say? Perhaps the next romance is there to compensate for the disappointments engendered by the last? All we can be sure of is that readers of romance tend to crave more romance. A number of the Smithton women acknowledged an anxiety about whether they might be depressed by their reading [ . . . w]hat if the anxiety is precisely an effect of their extensive reading experience, a silent recognition of unconscious disappointment that the stories have consistently failed to resolve the divisions they depend on? (34-35)

Although Belsey formulates her ideas as questions, she quite strongly suggests that the repetition of the romance reading act is not, as readers tend to claim, primarily motivated by positive emotions, but rather by a sense of disappointment that readers might not be consciously aware of: a disappointment which is, in Belsey’s eyes, very likely a consequence of romance reading itself.

Belsey and the Evolution of Romance Scholarship

Although Belsey’s claims have found very little response in subsequent romance criticism, she puts forth a set of interesting, challenging and even provocative ideas. The notion that the popular romance novel’s massive appeal—a (seeming) conundrum that has confounded many a critic—has something to do with the texts’ complex relation to anxieties about self and identity that are typically associated with the (post)modern condition is a new, intriguing and valuable suggestion that certainly deserves further scrutiny. While Belsey’s discussion of the romance reader’s lack of awareness of her own negative response comes off as somewhat belittling, the suggestion that romance reading triggers a more complex reaction than straightforward happiness—and that this reaction might have something to do with the desire to read more romance—is fascinating nonetheless. Belsey’s study thus offers a number of suggestions that deserve further exploration.

Such further exploration is undertaken in this paper, but in line with the ongoing development in the field of Popular Romance Studies there is an important methodological difference between this study and Belsey’s. Notwithstanding the impressive theoretical suggestions the latter makes, Belsey commits an important methodological faux pas in her study by failing to adequately discuss the size, composition and selection of the primary corpus on which her findings are based. Moreover, since in the course of her discussion Belsey refers to no more than six romance texts, the (apparent) size of her corpus seems decidedly too small to warrant the genre-wide scope of her claims. The present study deliberately makes different methodological choices by first, focussing on the oeuvre of a single author and second, selecting novels from that oeuvre according to explicit, clear-cut principles.

Nora Roberts

This paper focuses on American writer Nora Roberts, who is widely considered the most popular and successful romance author of our time. Since her first category romance novel was published in 1981, Roberts has written more than 200 romance novels. A staggering 178 of these have appeared on the New York Times bestseller list, on which the author’s novels have so far spent a total of 932 weeks (or 17 years). As the first (and only triple) inductee in RWA’s Hall of Fame and the recipient of a record-breaking twenty-one RITA Awards, Roberts is one of the most distinguished romance authors in RWA’s and the romance genre’s history. With more than 400 million copies of her books currently in print Roberts is, moreover, not only the top-selling romance writer, but also one of the bestselling authors in the world.

Remarkably, Roberts is also one of the most understudied authors in the world. Whereas the oeuvres of Roberts’ fellow bestselling authors such as J.K. Rowling, Stephen King and John Grisham are studied regularly, Roberts’ romance oeuvre has hardly drawn the academic gaze.[3] Barely a handful of studies on her work have been published; a monograph that takes on Roberts’ complete oeuvre does not currently exist.[4] In this regard Roberts does not differ from other contemporary romance authors—the author study remains an important lacuna in scholarship on this genre—but her status as one of the bestselling authors in the world makes the lack of studies on her work especially remarkable.

Perhaps one of the reasons scholars have been reluctant to take on Roberts’ oeuvre is its sheer size. Already counting more than 200 novels and increasing by an average of five new novels every year, Roberts’ body of work is simply colossal. It is also decidedly too large to subject to the close reading analysis on which this present study is based, so for the purposes of this study a selection had to be made. This selection takes into account a number of the most significant variables present in Roberts’ oeuvre—including year of publication, subgenre, part of series or standalone and original publication format—and eventually resulted in eight novels.

  Publication Subgenre Series / stand alone Original format
Irish Thoroughbred 1981 Contemporary Irish Hearts series Category
One Man’s Art 1985 Contemporary MacGregor series Category
Suzanna’s Surrender 1991 Contemporary/

Suspense

Calhoun series Category
Montana Sky 1996 Western/

Suspense

Stand alone Single title

(hardcover)

Morrigan’s Cross 2006 Paranormal Circle Trilogy (1) Single title

(paperback)

Dance of the Gods 2006 Paranormal Circle Trilogy (2) Single title

(paperback)

Valley of Silence 2006 Paranormal Circle Trilogy (3) Single title

(paperback)

High Noon 2007 Suspense Stand alone Single title

(hardcover)

Although this collection of eight novels does not represent the full range of Roberts’ oeuvre—Roberts’ alter ego J.D. Robb is missing and the decade between 1996 and 2006 is underrepresented, to name its two most important shortcomings—the corpus is nonetheless fairly well-balanced and compatible with the practical constraints of a study like this one.

The Integration of Body and Mind in Nora Roberts’ Romance Fiction

Catherine Belsey’s claims about the pivotal importance of the representation of the body and the mind to the immense appeal of the popular romance genre open up interesting avenues of inquiry for the study of Nora Roberts’ work. As Belsey’s observations imply, the complex relation between body and mind plays a central role in Roberts’ representation of romantic love, which is indeed conceptualized as a dual force that impacts the body as well as the mind. While to a large extent Roberts’ romance novels follow the patterns of the genre insightfully uncovered in Belsey’s study, in one crucial regard Roberts’ novels deviate from this pattern. Whereas Belsey claims that popular romance novels consistently fail to realize the bridging of the gap between body and mind their conventional representation of romantic love promises, the analyses in this paper reveal that in Roberts’ romance fiction the unification of body and mind is always represented as successful. The potential implications of this observation for our understanding of Roberts’ popularity are addressed in the conclusion to this paper after the pattern that achieves this unification is described in more detail.

Divided Selves During the First Meeting

In Roberts’ romances, the process that ends with the complete and successful integration of the lover-subject’s body and mind starts with their explicit separation. Indeed, at the beginning of Roberts’ stories the division between the lover’s body and mind is repeatedly stressed in the narration. All first meeting scenes analyzed in this study emphasize the protagonists’ double, diverging response to each other: strong and immediate physical attraction is combined with a form of conscious dislike, irritation, or anger. Although this representation differs slightly from the pattern observed by Belsey—who finds that the division between mind and body is mainly situated in the heroine’s emphatic bewilderment over, lack of understanding of, or even full-out distrust of her body’s uncontrollable, explicitly sexual response to the hero (24-26)—the first meeting scenes in Roberts’ romances nonetheless systematically introduce, and emphatically stage, the basic dichotomy between body and mind around which the rest of the romance narrative essentially revolves.

The first meeting scene between hero Grant Campbell and heroine Gennie Grandeau in Roberts’ 1985 category romance One Man’s Art is an example of this construction. Hero Grant is severely “annoyed” (264) when heroine Gennie shows up at his doorstep during a stormy night, disrupting his much-valued solitude and privacy. Roberts quickly adopts the hero’s point of view to emphasize that barely seconds after letting the heroine in he already “wished fervently he’d never opened the door” (263). Gennie, put out by Grant’s “unfriendly, scowling face” and rude and unwelcoming behavior, adopts an “icy tone” and remains “distantly polite, [ . . . ] frigid and haughty” (264), but privately “seriously consider[s] heaving her purse at him” (265). The narration of this immediate dislike and annoyance is instantly complemented with the narration of their physical attraction. Grant is “thrown” by Gennie’s “sea green, huge and faintly slanted” eyes (264) and “when the sight of her [ . . . goes] straight to his gut” he realizes she is “too beautiful for his peace of mind” (267). The unambiguous statement that Grant is “furiously annoyed by the flare of unwelcome desire” (268) makes the opposition between his mental and physical response textually explicit. Gennie is portrayed as equally attracted, experiencing a physical “stir” and “a thrill [of . . . ] anticipation” (269). Again, the body’s response is explicitly opposed to the mind: she is depicted as “catching herself” and internally lecturing that “even her imagination ha[s] no business sneaking off in that direction” (269). The division between body and mind, staged continuously throughout this first meeting scene, is once more explicitly narrated in the scene’s closing paragraphs:

He wondered what she would do if he simply got up, hauled her to her feet and dragged her up into his bed. He wondered what in the hell was getting into him. They stared at each other, each battered by feelings neither of them wanted while the rain and the wind beat against the walls, separating them from everything civilized. (270)

The parallel syntactic construction of the first two sentences (“He wondered . . . He wondered”) discursively reinforces the notion—made explicit in the narration—that within one person, one self, two opposing reactions are simultaneously ongoing; the physical, sexual response is represented as a force separate from the conscious self—indeed, Grant experiences it as “getting into him.” The opposition between mind and body is again stressed in the statement that both Gennie and Grant are “battered” by physical “feelings neither of them want.” The subsequent sketch of the violent natural setting in which these “feelings” occur explicitly underlines the distinction: the “civilized” mind is “separated” from the unruly, feeling body.

The Body As Marker of Sincerity

A fundamental aspect of Roberts’ representation of the divided self at the beginning of her romance novels is the emphasis on the mind’s inability to control the body in these instances. Roberts’ narrations consistently stress the passive, powerless position of the mental self who undergoes the sexual attraction, the invasive physical impact of the romantic other, but who emphatically lacks power over these bodily reactions and cannot stop them. This uncontrollability not only stresses the schism between body and mind that exists within the lover’s self at this early stage of the romance narrative, but is also an essential aspect of Roberts’ construction of the body as a site of (emotional) truth. In Roberts’ fictional universes the body consistently functions as a marker and display of (emotional) truth. Profound, heart-felt, sincere emotions instantly manifest bodily: faces pale in shock, fingers tremble from sadness, hands jerk in surprise, voices shake from anger and eyes are bruised, battered or smudged from emotional pain. Time and again, Roberts’ narrations stress that the mind—the conscious, thinking self—has no control over these physical manifestations.

Importantly, this emphatic lack of mental control implies an inability to consciously manipulate the body—in Roberts’ fictional worlds, when true love is involved, the body cannot lie. The uncontrolled body thus necessarily and certainly displays true, sincere, authentic emotion—and to say that the body displays these emotions means, in effect, that in Roberts’ romance fiction the body becomes a text that can be read in order to gain insight into one’s true emotional state, even when the novel at hand does not explicitly deploy textual metaphors. This “reading” of the body is undertaken by both the characters within the fictional world and the novels’ readers outside of it. Indeed, in an interesting doubling act, the novels’ characters, like the novels’ readers, become readers and interpreters who turn to the body-text to gain insight into their own or another character’s true emotions.

Roberts’ deployment of the body-text as a marker of sincere emotion is exemplified in a scene from the 1996 single title Western romance Montana Sky. The scene depicts the story’s heroine, Willa Mercy, in a state of profound emotional distress. She has just discovered the murdered and mutilated body of her long-time employee Pickles and faces the loss of her home, ranch and livelihood due to the murder. While throughout the novel Willa is usually characterized as an exceptionally strong and decisive woman, this is a point in the narrative where she reaches emotional rock bottom. In the following excerpt she is confronted with her two half-sisters, with whom she has a strained relationship, and experiences a range of conflicting emotions. Willa’s complex emotions—which include grief over Pickles, horror over the image of the mutilated body, guilt because she had words with the victim mere hours before his death, bone-deep fear of losing her home and livelihood and eventual extreme relief when she realizes the ranch is safe—impact her body, which instantaneously displays them.

Willa came into the kitchen, stopped short when she saw the women at the table. Her face was still pale, her movements still jerky. [ . . . ] She slipped her hands into her pockets as she stepped toward the table. Her fingers still tended to shake. [Her sister confirms the ranch is safe. . . . ] Because wine seemed like a fine idea, Willa crossed to the cupboards and took out a tumbler. Then she just stood there, unable to move, barely able to think. She hadn’t been able to fully consider the loss of the ranch. [ . . . ] But it wasn’t until now, until she knew [it was safe], that it hit her. And it hit her hard. Giving in, she rested her head against the cupboard door and closed her eyes. Pickles. Dear God, would she see him for the rest of her life, what had been done to him, what had been left of him? [ . . . ] But the ranch, for now, was safe. “Oh God, oh God, oh God.” She didn’t realize she’d moaned it out loud until Lily laid a tentative hand on her shoulder. (110)

In this scene, Willa’s body clearly functions as a text displaying her emotions as both the characters within the fictional world and the novel’s reader outside of it interpret Willa’s emotional state of mind via the physical signs displayed by her body. Her pale face, jerky movements, shaking fingers, closed eyes and unconscious moaning are conventional physical signs of emotional upheaval. The pronounced contrast between her purposeful, controlled physical actions—“cross[ing] to the cupboards and tak[ing] out a tumbler”—and the purposeless, uncontrolled ones—“just [standing] there, unable to move, [ . . . ] rest[ing] her head [ . . . ] clos[ing] her eyes”—constructs and reinforces the interpretation of the latter as manifestations of and responses to profound emotions.

The character’s lack of conscious control over her body’s display is stressed multiple times in this short scene and ensures the sincerity of these emotions. It is clear that the characters in this fictional world are aware of their bodies’ truth-revealing and communicative potential: Willa attempts to hide her shaking fingers, knowing those bodily manifestations would reveal a depth of emotional turmoil she is uncomfortable displaying in front of her sisters. Lily’s supportive “hand on [Willa’s] shoulder” indicates, reversely, that not only grief but also support and comfort can be communicated solely by the body. The marked absence of language—dialogue—in this scene adds to its emotional impact as it constructs this world as one in which emotional truth can be read directly from and conveyed by the body-text, making emotional deceit and insincerity virtually impossible.

Sex: So Much More Than Just Sex

Roberts’ construction of the body as a marker of emotional truth—which is pervasive in her texts and an important conceptual pillar on which her fictional worlds rest—implies that the body uncontrolled by the mind displays emotional truth. This notion puts another perspective on the function of sex in the representation of romantic love. Roberts’ texts emphasize the physical, natural, powerful and non-rational aspects of sex and sexual desire, which are represented as ultimate acts of the body as opposed to the mind. In the experience of sexual sensations “the body rule[s] the moment” (High Noon 222) and the thinking, rational, controlling self is temporarily suspended as the natural impulses of the body take over. This representation is frequently based on the association of sex with powerful natural phenomena and a lack of rationality and control on the part of the mental, conscious self. As Belsey notes, metaphors of powerful natural phenomena and disasters are often used to describe sexual sensations in popular romance novels, and Roberts indeed tends to depict sex in rather unimaginative and very conventional—even clichéd—metaphors. Sexual sensations are like a “flame [ . . . and] fire, in the blood, in the bone” (Valley of Silence 62), “long, liquid waves” (High Noon 312), “turbulence,” “a tidal wave” (Irish Thoroughbred 195; 129), “a rage” (Montana Sky 134), “a fever” (Suzanna’s Surrender 389), “a full-scale explosion” (One Man’s Art 306) and “liquid flames” (Dance of the Gods 96). Via these metaphors Roberts not only emphasizes the powerful, uncontrollable force of the sexual experiences—sex is literally and metaphorically depicted as a force of nature—but of course also inscribes the texts in the conventions of the romance genre.

The rational subject’s lack of control in the physical sexual experience is further emphasized in Roberts’ narration by her representation of sexual desire and sensations as a near-violent force that seems to attack the body. Descriptions such as “desire [ . . . ] pierced through him” (Morrigan’s Cross 43, emphasis mine), “each separate scent slammed into his system, pumping through his blood, roaring through his head,” “dozens of sensations knifed into him, all sharp and deadly” (Suzanna’s Surrender 389; 429, emphasis mine), “the stab of desire [ . . . ] left a nagging ache,” “it rocket through him, fierce and fast,” and is “an assault on the system” (One Man’s Art 304-5, emphasis mine) systematically invoke the semantic field of violence and thereby stress the uncontrollable nature of this desire.[5] These descriptions also serve to represent the subject’s experience of sexual desire as an external phenomenon which does not seem to originate within the (conscious) self. The gap between body and mind seems wider than ever in these passages.

This dissociation between body and mind is reinforced by the recurring and explicit associations of sex with a lack of rationality; physical sexual sensations are repeatedly represented as causing the mind to “turn off” (Valley of Silence 141). Here are two exemplary passages:

He brushed his thumb over her nipple, watched the shock of pleasure flicker over her face. “Turn that busy mind off, Moira.” It was already as if mists clouded it. How could she think when her body was swimming in sensation? [ . . . H]er mind misted over again as his hands, his mouth, slid like flaming velvet over her body. [ . . . ] She was nothing but feelings now, a mass of pleasures beyond any possibility. [ . . . ] His hands simply ruled her until she was a hostage to this never-ending need. Half-mad she struggled with his shirt. (Valley of Silence 141)

But right at the moment, with her back up against the door and his mouth hot on hers, thinking wasn’t part of the equation. [ . . . ] His hands dove into her hair, skimmed over her shoulders, molded down her body with such purpose and skill that any idea [ . . . ] went straight out of the window, and kept on flying. [ . . . ] With her mouth under assault and her blood flashing from comfortably warm to desperately hot, her body ruled the moment. [ . . . ] The sensations careening inside her flew too fast, too high for [ . . . ] any hope of sanity. (High Noon 221-22)

Physical sexual pleasure is explicitly presented as causing a temporary suspension of the self’s rational capacity: Moira’s mind is “clouded” by “mists” and “misted over” due to the hero’s sexually arousing touches; “thinking [isn’t] part of the equation” in these scenes as rational thoughts go “straight out the window and [keep] flying.” Again, the sexual body is presented as the opposite of the rational, thinking mind: “how could she think when her body was swimming in sensations?” During sex the self is then reduced to “nothing but feelings, a mass of pleasures” and the “body rule[s] the moment;” the rational self is temporarily suspended in this act and, the love scenes stress over and over again, overpowered by the natural body that for an instant overtakes and occupies the entire self. This hyperbolic representation of sex—Roberts projects the feelings surrounding the orgasmic moment to all sexual sensations—emphasizes and exaggerates the uncontrollable nature of sex and, by extension, the body.

Whereas Belsey interprets this representation of sexuality as indicative of how body and mind are and remain separated, my reading of Roberts’ use of these topoi recasts them as a pre-condition for the authenticity of the true love that is later realized in the complete unification of body and mind. This interpretation builds on Roberts’ construction of the body as a marker of emotional truth—an interpretive strategy that constructs sexuality as undeniable physical proof of the authenticity of an as-yet mentally unacknowledged emotion. This interpretation of sex is further supported by other, explicitly non-sexual manifestations of the body. Indeed, the bodies of Roberts’ lovers/protagonists do not exclusively respond to the other in a sexual way, but also experience and display strong non-sexualized reactions. These are diverse and range from the small and seemingly unremarkable—an “uneven beat of [the] heart” (Irish Thoroughbred 43), hands that naturally “belong” (One Man’s Art 328) together, a “quick hitch in [the] gut” upon seeing the other cry (Montana Sky 65), a throat snapping shut when being “wooed” (Dance of the Gods 90), and the natural “fit” of each other’s bodies (Montana Sky 115)—to more elaborate physical responses.

In the following brief scene from the 1991 category romance Suzanna’s Surrender, for example, hero Holt’s body experiences and displays his strong emotional response to heroine Suzanna at a time in the narrative when he has not yet consciously realized or acknowledged his feelings for her (let alone openly confessed them to her). Holt’s body displays as-yet-unspoken feelings of affection and love, but this display is clearly not sexual:

[Holt] rubbed a thumb over the line between [Suzanna’s] brows in a gentle gesture that surprised them both. Catching himself, he dropped his hand again. (Suzanna’s Surrender 421)

Again the conscious self’s lack of control over this bodily act (“catching himself”) is stressed; the body, disconnected in these acts from the mind, displays and reveals an emotional truth the rational, conscious self has not yet acknowledged. While the overwhelming sexual response then generally dominates the protagonists’ physical reaction to one another, such non-sexual physical manifestations confirm what the emphatic uncontrollability of the sexual acts already indicate, namely the existence of an as-yet linguistically unacknowledged emotion of which these bodily manifestations are both the physical trace and proof.

The Meaning of the Body

Although these physical manifestations and reactions are an essential part of true love, they do not suffice: as Belsey remarks, for popular romance novels the difference between love and lust lies in the complete involvement of the mental self (28-29). In Roberts’ novels as well, true romantic love comes into being when not only the bodily but also the mental self is involved in the phenomenon. This mental involvement consists, as Belsey already indicates, essentially of language: the lover speaks about love, in doing so asserts his/her identity as a subject and involves his/her complete self in the romantic love he/she speaks of. However, whereas Belsey posits that it is in this speaking that the dichotomy between mind and body is reconfirmed and reconstituted—the words have to be spoken “independently” from the body (Belsey 30)—I claim that in Nora Roberts’ romances in this speaking of love the gap between body and mind is definitively bridged.

In a fictional world in which the body functions as a text the physical manifestations of love have double significance: they offer the unquestionable physical proof of love’s truth by making it tangible, anchoring the immaterial to the material, and they signal and display this truth to be read, interpreted and linguistically realized. Still, Roberts’ representations of romantic love consistently make the point that without the active intervention of the conscious, thinking, speaking self this physicality is and remains mute. It is only when the thinking, speaking subject intervenes with the transformative act of interpretation that these otherwise meaningless physical manifestations become significant and meaningful, in the etymological senses of both words. This transformative act, the “making” of meaning and sense, takes place in language; physical reality (the body) is “put into words” and thereby transformed from meaning-less to meaning-full. As long as love is only apparent in the body and remains consciously, rationally and linguistically unacknowledged, it remains without meaning, regardless of how materially real and true the bodily manifestations prove it to be. It is in this transformative process of making the meaningless physical truth meaningful that the gap between body and mind—emphatically staged at the start of the romance—is bridged in Roberts’ conceptualisation of true love. This bridging takes place in three successive stages.

The first stage consists of a remarkable discomfort, unease and even fear the protagonists experience over (some of) their physical reactions. Montana Sky hero Ben, for example, is “unnerved” (115) by the way Willa fits in his arms, Irish Thoroughbred’s Adelia finds her physical “awareness” of Travis “disturbing” (47), Blair, in Dance of the Gods, feels “wary” (48) about kissing Larkin, Holt and Suzanna both “resent and fear” (Suzanna’s Surrender 383) the intensity of their physical attraction, and Morrigan’s Cross’ Hoyt “fears” (82) the intensity of his desire for Glenna. This resentment and fear is all the more remarkable because it is often connected to physical and sexual sensations that are essentially pleasurable (exceptionally so even). The lovers’ marked unease then indicates a consciously unarticulated awareness on their part that the intensity of their bodily response is a sign of an otherwise as-yet-unacknowledged emotional truth: they are falling in love. The concept of love—that is, the signifier ‘love’—remains strictly unarticulated by the protagonists in this stage of the story, however.

The second phase in the bridging of the gap between mind and body by making meaningless physical truth meaning-full via interpretation and linguistic actualisation consists of a rudimentary linguistic acknowledgement of the physically enacted emotional truth. This elementary linguistic acknowledgement takes place in the use of the explicitly vague and generic term “something” (sometimes “it”) to refer to the phenomenon that in a later stage will be acknowledged as true love. Roberts uses this word in this way multiple times in all the novels in this study; a few examples:

[S]he had tapped into something inside him he hadn’t known was there—and was still more than a little uncomfortable with. Finding it, feeling it left him as vulnerable as she. (Suzanna’s Surrender 470)

 

I feel for you. You stir something in me. Yes, it’s difficult, and it’s distracting. But it tells me I’m here. (Morrigan’s Cross 127)

 

There was longing in him for her, which he thought as natural as breath. But there was something tangled with it, something sharp that he didn’t recognize. (Dance of the Gods 100)

 

Still, there was something inside her, something she couldn’t quite see clearly, or study, or understand. Whatever it was made her uneasy, even nervy around him. (Dance of the Gods 212)

“Something” is an interesting choice of words: on the one hand it signifies a rudimentary linguistic actualisation of the physically manifesting truth, which is at this stage in the story still unnamed and thus unsignified; “something” changes this and brings the uninterpreted, mute physicality into the meaning-full, human world of language. On the other hand, however, “something” is a word that essentially means nothing. It is so vague and generic that in the act of naming it signifies not-naming; even as it puts into words—signifies, linguistically actualises—a physical reality, it refuses to assign it actual, concrete meaning. Still, this use of “something” signals the beginning of the bridging of the gap between mind and body as it starts the mental naming process of a bodily experienced truth. It does not, however, fully bridge the gap; the lack of concrete meaning makes the transformative act of interpretation and signification incomplete.

The gap between body and mind is fully bridged in the third phase: the actual use of the word “love” in naming the physical and emotional phenomenon the protagonists are experiencing. This first conscious naming takes place in the protagonist’s initial, introspective realization or acknowledgement that he/she is in “love” with the other. It is one of the most important moments in the romance novel and its representation as an isolated, crystal clear moment poised in time and place reinforces its perceived significance.

Why did he always send her into a flutter? she wondered. Why did her pulses begin to race [ . . . ] whenever she looked up and met those marvelous, blue eyes? [ . . . ] She’d lost. She’d lost the battle, and though she fought against it, she was in love with Travis Grant. (Irish Thoroughbred 78)

 

Love. He’d managed to avoid it for so many years, then he had thoughtlessly opened the door. It had barged in on him, Grant reflected, uninvited, unwelcome. Now he was vulnerable, dependent—all the things he had promised himself he’d never be again. (One Man’s Art 408)

 

He glanced toward her and felt the punch low in his gut. [ . . .] When his palms grew damp on the wheel, he looked away. Not falling in love, he realized. He’d stopped falling and had hit the ground with a fatal smack. (Suzanna’s Surrender 442)

 

Love. His heart ached at the word so that he pressed his hand to it. This was love then. The gnawing, the burning. The light and the dark. Not just warm flesh and murmurs in the candlelight, but pain and awareness in the light of day. In the depths of the night. To feel so much for one person, it eclipsed all else. And it was terrifying. (Morrigan’s Cross 247)[6]

In these scenes, the most crucial step in the bridging of the gap between mind and body is taken: the physical materiality of the body—already rudimentarily signified by “something” but still lacking true meaning and thereby a place in the ordered, comprehensible, signified human world—is transformed into a signified linguistic entity and irrevocably takes on meaning. The gap between mind and body is then completely bridged in these scenes since these words are not spoken independently from the body, as Belsey would have it, but are to the contrary both a linguistic, mental actualisation of the bodily experience which cause further bodily repercussions. Indeed, the use of the word love impacts the body. Body and mind are intimately connected; the self is unified.

From Love to True Love Via “I Love You”

Although in the initial linguistic actualisation of love the gap between the lover’s body and mind is bridged, the love that is realized here does not yet qualify as the utopian true love around which popular romance novels conventionally revolve. The discourse that is used in the initial realization scenes tends to signal that something is still amiss. In the examples cited above, for instance, love is considered a “lost battle”, it “aches [ . . . ] gnaws [ . . . ] burns,” brings “pain” and uncomfortable “awareness;” and is explicitly “uninvited, unwelcome,” “terrifying,” and “fatal.” The semantic fields of battle and violence which are systematically invoked in thinking about love in this stage of Roberts’ romance narratives are discursive traces of an underlying problem: the lover has not yet freely, rationally, actively chosen this love. Instead, this love is a physically proven truth, a fait accompli, a material fact the existence of which the lover can no longer ignore or deny, but to which he is at this point essentially subjected. In other words, the lover lacks agency in love.

That the lover’s agency and volition, his free and active choice to accept and embrace love, is crucial to Roberts’ conceptualisation of true love is something that is established repeatedly in the narratives in this study. Roberts’ lovers tend to make a clear distinction, for example, between the physical manifestation of sexual desire and other bodily signals of love on the one hand and the choice to accept and want those desires and manifestation—to want, in other words, romantic love—on the other. Morrigan’s Cross’ heroine Glenna Ward pointedly formulates the central dilemma Roberts’ lovers/protagonists face in this regard when after her first, fiercely passionate kiss with reluctant hero Hoyt, she muses: “He wanted her, there was no question of that. But he didn’t choose to want her. Glenna preferred to be chosen” (Morrigan’s Cross, 83). The signifier “want,” here a reference to sexual desire, and “choice,” here a reference to the innately human capacity of free will, explicitly differentiate between the desires of the body and the mind in play in this scene and the entire romance. The heroine’s explicit assertion that she “prefer[s] to be chosen” indicates the importance of the lover’s conscious volition in the matter of true love. In deliberately choosing to accept and actively embrace love—a love that has been constructed as both physically and emotionally overwhelming—the lover takes on agency in the experience and finally completes the realization of true love.

Lovers in Roberts’ popular romance novels take on the necessary agency in the declaration of love, which is constituted by uttering the deceptively simple words “I love you.” The communicative nature of the declaration of love distinguishes it from the earlier, interior linguistic realization of love. In uttering the words “I love you,” the lover openly declares his love to the other and transforms the status of his love from private to public. As love becomes a shared knowledge between the lover and the beloved, it also becomes part of the world outside the self and, consequently, requires a place within that exterior world. The successful declaration of love signals the lover’s free will to assign love that place in the world, to freely and completely accept the potentially overwhelming experience and give it a meaningful place in his reality, as we can see in this example of a successful declaration scene:

I love you. [ . . . Y]ou’re my breath, and my pulse, my heart, my voice. [ . . . ] I’ll love you even when all of them stop. I’ll love you, and only you, until all the worlds are ended. So you’ll marry me, Blair. And I’ll go where you go, and fight beside you. We’ll live together, and love together, and make a family. (Dance of the Gods 313)

The lover first re-establishes the truth of the love-phrase by explicitly referencing the body and then places his declared love in the meaningful, recognizable socio-economic and cultural order of the world by tying it to the culturally conventional institutions of marriage and family. In this way the lover takes on agency in the experience of love as he performs the choice to accept and embrace the potentially overpowering natural phenomenon and places it in the meaningful world of culture. The subject’s cultural placing of love in the conventional entities of marriage, home and family checks love’s natural, potentially uncontrollable power and transforms it into a steady and strong basis for the protagonists’ lives together.

Although the successful declaration of love that completes the realization of true love is always constituted, in Roberts’ popular romances, by the phrase “I love you,” the words alone are not enough. “I love you” is only successful as a declaration of love when it performs the lover’s volition to place love in the cultural order and to make romantic love into the foundation of the culturally conventional entities of marriage (a lifetime spent together), home and family.[7] That simply speaking the words “I love you” does not constitute the successful declaration of love becomes clear when we look more closely at one of the few unsuccessful declarations the corpus of this study includes. In One Man’s Art, for example, the protagonists declare their love to one another for the first time about halfway through the novel, but these declarations are ultimately unsuccessful (the relationship still falls apart afterwards). A closer reading of the scene reveals the problem:

[Hero Grant:] “I feel like someone’s just given me a solid right straight to the gut. [ . . . ] So now I’m in love with you, and I can tell you, I’m not crazy about the idea.” [ . . . ]

[Heroine Gennie]: “If you’re in love with me, that’s your problem. I have one of my own because I’m in love with you.” [ . . . ]

[Grant] “We both would have been better off if you’d waited out that storm in a ditch instead of coming here. [ . . . ] I’m in love with you, and damn it, I don’t like it. [ . . . ] I love you [ . . . ] I don’t like it, I may never get used to it, but I love you. [ . . . ] You make my head swim.” (405-7)

Although both hero and heroine speak the conventional words of love—words which are, moreover, explicitly connected to the body, so the material truth of this love is not in doubt—the characters do not perform the free choice to accept that love. Grant’s repeated assertion that he “does not like” being in love with Gennie signals his lack of agency in the experience. The love he speaks of is the one over which he has no control and in which he makes no choice; it is the powerful, dangerous, potentially overwhelming kind of love which has not yet been brought into the cultural system—love without a place in the conventional cultural order. This unplaced love, though physically real and linguistically declared, is a “problem” to which neither character, in this stage of the story, has the solution. This problem is solved in the final scene of the novel when the protagonists’ declarations of love lead to a marriage proposal and, implicitly, the perspective on a shared home and family (492-98).

As a successful declaration of love, the phrase “I love you” then works in a very particular way in Roberts’ romance novels. Declared under the appropriate circumstances and conveying a particular set of meanings, the declaration realises—actualises, makes real—true love and thereby literally changes reality. Indeed, it is precisely in saying the words that true love is realised: the declaration “I love you” performs true love. “I love you” functions as a performative speech act in all of Roberts’ romance novels, but this functioning is especially clearly illustrated in the paranormal romance Morrigan’s Cross, in which the story’s paranormal setting is used to explicitly depict the reality-changing impact of the declaration of love.

“I love you.” She saw his eyes change. “Those are the strongest words in any magic. I love you. With that incantation, I already belong to you.”

“Once I speak it, it’s alive. Nothing can ever kill it. [ . . . ] I love you.” A single beam of light shot out of the sky, washed over them, centred them in a circle of white. (249-50)

“I love you” is considered an “incantation,” “strong [ . . . ] magic[al]” words which perform the belonging to each other that romantic love implies. This scene emphasizes the power the spoken love-word has in Roberts’ romances: once love is spoken, it is “alive. Nothing can ever kill it.” The words, moreover, not only have an immediate effect on the body (“his eyes change”), but also literally change reality (“A single beam [ . . . ] white”).

This performative speech act, which can only be realized by a lover whose body and mind are harmoniously unified within the self, completes the lover’s journey and often heralds the beginning of the romance novel’s (in)famous happily-ever-after ending. The unification between body and mind—between the order of the material and of the immaterial—that is ultimately achieved in the experience of true love in Roberts’ romance novels turns these happily-ever-afters into epistemologically very appealing fictional universes. In these implied fictional worlds the radical insecurities that are part and parcel of the (post)modern condition are overcome and replaced by epistemological certitudes. These are worlds in which the self is unified, the body displays truth and the truth can be spoken. In these worlds true love not only exists, but becomes the epistemological, emotional, cultural, and economic foundation on which all else rests. These are, in short, the massively appealing fictional worlds that Belsey claims the popular romance novel promises but fails to deliver.

Conclusion

If Nora Roberts succeeds where, at least according to Belsey, other romance authors fail, is this success then the secret to Roberts’ unprecedented popularity? According to the terms set by Belsey’s older study, this would be the logical conclusion indeed. If Belsey is right in claiming that the massive appeal of popular romance fiction lies in its promise to unite mind and body and if Nora Roberts is the only author to actually consistently achieve this fictional unification, the logical outcome would be that it is Roberts’ mastery of this particular construction of romantic love that underlies her exceptional popular success.[8] This suggestion is certainly intriguing and deserves further scrutiny in future work. But for the moment methodological rigor—of a kind that is characteristic of the further maturation of the field of Popular Romance Studies discussed in the introduction to this paper—urges caution in an attempt to avoid hasty conclusions.

A number of questions in fact remain open. While it is, for example, clear that this construction of romantic love recurs in Roberts’ romance novels, it remains unclear whether it is specific to Roberts’ work. Comparative analyses of other authorial romance oeuvres are necessary to determine the wider occurrence of this pattern. If the construction turns out to be specific to Roberts, further sociological or anthropological study of the reception of these novels is necessary to substantiate Belsey’s theory-based claim that it is precisely this particular representation of romantic love that determines the massive appeal of Roberts’ oeuvre. If the construction is not specific to Roberts’ oeuvre, it is possible that this study points towards an important wider historical shift in the romance genre. It is imaginable, for example, that the representation of the body and the mind as it was recorded by Belsey is a textual reflection of a particular cultural moment of anxiety about female sexuality. In the more than two decades that have passed since the publication of the novels used in Belsey’s study, this cultural anxiety surrounding female sexuality has lessened. Roberts’ representation of romantic love might in fact be a textual trace of this wider socio-cultural evolution. Further study is necessary to substantiate such speculations.

As the scholarly study of popular romance fiction enters its fifth decade, transformations in the practice of this scholarship are in full swing. While these transformations necessarily imply a certain degree of distancing or separation between older and younger generations of romance scholars, the discussions in this paper illustrate the continued relevance of older studies to the present generation of popular romance scholars. Although we might be inclined to reject many of these older studies because of their (over)generalizing approach to the genre (see e.g. Selinger (2007)), this paper has shown how such general claims continue to be valuable as they provoke new and interesting analyses of the genre. The future of the study of popular romance fiction lies neither in the outright rejection of older claims nor in the uncritical acceptance thereof, but in our ability to use the powerful tools we find in earlier work to further our growing understanding of this complex and evolving genre.

Works Cited

Belsey, Catherine. Desire. Love Stories in Western Culture. Cambridge (U.S.A.): Blackwell, 1994. Print.

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

Fletcher, Lisa. Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity. Hampshire: Ashgate, 2008. Print.

Frantz, Sarah S.G. “Darcy’s Vampiric Descendants: Austen’s Perfect Romance Hero and J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood.” Persuasions 30.1 (2009): n. pag. Web. March 14 2012.

Goris, An. “Response to Pamela Regis: Matricide in Popular Romance Scholarship?” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 2:1 (2011): n. pag. Web. August 30 2012.

Lennard, John. Of Modern Dragons and Other Essays on Genre Fiction. Humanities-Ebooks, 2007. Ebook.

Modleski, Tania. Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-produced Fantasies for Women. New York: Routledge, 1982. Print.

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

Olivier, Séverine. “ “Femme, je vous aime…”? Nora Roberts, une inconnue sortie de l’ombre dans l’univers sentimental.” Belphégor 7.2 (2008) n. pag. Web. 4 May 2010.

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

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

—. “Complicating Romances and Their Readers: Barrier and Point of Ritual Death in Nora Roberts’s Category Fiction.” Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres 3.1-2 (1997): 145-54. Print.

—. “What Do Critics Owe the Romance?”  Journal of Popular Romance Studies 2:1 (2011): n. pag. Web. August 30 2012.

Roberts, Nora. Dance of the Gods. New York: Jove Books, 2006. Print.

—. High Noon. London: Piatkus, 2007. Print.

—. Irish Thoroughbred. 1981. Nora Roberts. Irish Hearts. New York: Silhouette Books, 2000. 9-205. Print.

—. Montana Sky. 1996. New York: Jove Books, 1997. Print.

—. Morrigan’s Cross. London: Piatkus, 2006. Print.

—. One Man’s Art. 1985. Nora Roberts. The MacGregors Alan-Grant. Richmond, Surrey: Silhouette Books, 1999. 249-498. Print.

—. Suzanna’s Surrender. 1991. Nora Roberts. The Calhoun Women. New York: Silhouette Books, 1996. 361-506. Print.

—. Tonight and Always. 1983. Nora Roberts. From the Heart. New York: Jove Books, 1996. 1 – 166. Print.

—. Valley of Silence. New York: Jove Books, 2006. Print.

Selinger, Eric Murphy. “How to Read a Romance Novel (and Fall in Love with Popular Romance).” New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays. Eds. Sarah S.G. Frantz and Eric Murphy Selinger. Jefferson: McFarland, 2012. 33-46. Print.

–. “Re-reading the Romance.” Contemporary Literature 48:2 (2007):307-324. Print.

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

Valeo, Christina. “The Power of Three: Nora Roberts and Serial Magic.” New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays. Eds. Sarah S.G. Frantz and Eric Murphy Selinger. Jefferson: McFarland, 2012. 229-240. Print.


[1] This paper could not have been realized without the help and support I received from Professor Eric Selinger; I thank him most cordially for his feedback. I am also grateful to the anonymous reviewers who reviewed earlier versions of this piece and provided many valuable suggestions.

[2] For a more extensive discussion of the development of the study of popular romance fiction and the relation between older and more recent studies of the genre see Regis (2011) and Goris (2011).

[3] That vastly less scholarly attention is paid to Roberts than to other contemporary bestselling author of genre fiction is indicated, for example, by data in the academic databank JSTOR which stores bibliographical information about scholarly articles. Several sample searches of JSTOR in September 2010 and September 2012 resulted in 599/800 hits for the search term “Rowling” (“Harry Potter” gave 607/1064), 1158/1449 for “Stephen King”, 213/264 for “John Grisham”, but barely 11/17 for “Nora Roberts” (three of these articles are about a different Nora (Ruth) Roberts and none of them are actual studies of the romance author).

[4] The most important academic discussions of Roberts’ oeuvre are by Pamela Regis (“Complicating Romances” and Natural History 183-204), John Lennard (2007), Séverine Olivier (2008) and Chris Valeo (2012). A first academic monograph on Roberts is currently being prepared by the author of the present paper and is expected to be published by McFarland in 2014.

[5] Given the popular romance genre’s infamous history with rape, an important distinction has to be pointed out here: while Roberts unabashedly emphasizes the violent force of the desire within the self, this violence does not translate into any kind of forced sexual interaction. Choice and free will are of paramount importance in Roberts’ romance fiction and the texts never leave any doubt that the protagonists fully consent to all sexual interaction they have. There is, arguably, one exception in Roberts’ entire oeuvre: in Tonight and Always (1983) the hero comes very close to raping the heroine. Although she eventually “stop[s] struggling … soften[s] and surrender[s]” (142) to him, it can be debated if this is consensual sex or so-called “forced seduction.”

[6] For similar scenes in these and other novels in this study, see: One Man’s Art 348, Susanna’s Surrender 431, Montana Sky 426, Dance of the Gods 228 and High Noon 282.

[7] The idea that “I love you” functions as a performative speech act in popular romance novels has been developed and discussed much more extensively by Lisa Fletcher in her ground-breaking study Historical Romance Fiction; see in particular pp. 25-48.

[8] The keen reader notes a logical inconsistency here because Belsey in fact suggests that the disappointment readers supposedly feel over the failed unification of mind and body drives the desire to read more romance. From this perspective, Roberts’ exceptional success is inexplicable according to the terms set out by Belsey.

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“Matricide in Romance Scholarship? Response to Pamela Regis’ Keynote Address at the Second Annual Conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance” by An Goris

See also: “What Do Critics Owe the Romance? Keynote Address at the Second Annual Conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance” by Pamela Regis

“What do Critics Owe the Romance?”, one of three keynote lectures at the 2010 IASPR conference, is a strong and much-welcome contribution to the development of a meta-perspective on the practice of popular romance criticism. Such self-reflexive, meta-critical accounts of the scholarly study of popular romance fiction are still rather rare. Indeed, although the field of popular romance studies is currently booming, there are relatively few discussions of the state of the art of popular romance criticism which thoroughly consider the scholarly and conceptual origins and histories of this rapidly developing field.[1] Moreover, the few meta-critical reviews that do exist have such a wide-ranging group of studies to cover that they rarely manage to move beyond an enumerative overview of the different scholarly claims that have been made regarding the popular romance novel. With “What Do Critics Owe the Romance?” Pamela Regis does precisely this: she looks beyond the enumerative overview that merely establishes and describes differences between different studies and starts to consider both how and why such differences occur.[2] This brief response to Regis’ endeavour argues that while her meta-critical efforts are overall strongly commendable and insightfully identify and elaborate upon some of the key challenges of romance scholarship, Regis’ overall disregard for the historical and theoretical frameworks in which other scholars work could be considered problematic.

In order to get a grip on some of the dynamics that underlie the diverging interpretations of popular romance novels put forth in different scholarly studies of the genre, Regis adopts as a methodological approach the rhetorical analysis of literary criticism as texts constituting a discourse community. This approach allows her first to establish that the critical community of popular romance scholars shares a set of values, and second to analyse how the critics’ different positioning of the object of study (the contemporary popular romance novel) in relation to these shared values informs the rather different findings, interpretations, claims, and conclusions formulated by each of them. By emphasizing the notion that all romance scholars are essentially answering the same, community-imposed question—namely, are popular romance novels complex?—Regis draws attention to a core issue that all romance critics have in common, regardless of their many different approaches, frameworks, and objectives. Each act of criticism, Regis’ analysis makes irrefutably clear, requires the scholar to take up a position in relation to the object of study—requires, that is, a basic conceptualisation of the romance novel. It is in this process of conceptualising the romance novel, Regis essentially argues, that one of the core explanations can be found for critics’ rather differing takes on the same genre.

One of the most important elements of Regis’ discussion is her eloquent articulation and clarification of one of the basic methodological issues that has haunted the critical community of romance scholars since its inception: the methodologically sound selection of study-texts. As Regis implies, popular romance criticism has a somewhat problematic reputation in this regard: many older studies—like the ones by Ann Snitow, Tania Modleski, and Janice Radway[3]—make quite general claims about the entire genre of “the” popular romance novel despite being based on rather small and/or undiversified corpi. As Regis points out, these methodologically problematic overgeneralisations are often based on a too simplistic conceptualisation of the romance text and reveal that these scholars tend to underestimate or overlook the complexity of the popular romance genre.

However, Regis’ critique of these older critics, correct as it may be, fails to recognise the historicity of these studies—that is, it does not sufficiently take into account the historically and conceptually vastly different context in which these early scholars of the genre were working in comparison to their present day counterparts. Indeed, when these early critics started conducting their at-that-time highly innovative, groundbreaking studies, they were facing somewhat different conditions than we are today. Scholars like Janice Radway, Kay Mussell, and Tania Modleski, who were operating in a context in which hardly any previous scholarship on the genre existed, were taking on a huge and virtually unexplored body of literature that was, nonetheless, surrounded by very strong cultural associations of sameness and simplicity. Negotiating these circumstances, these foundational scholars indeed made too general claims on the basis of too small and undiversified corpi, but the knowledge needed to correct them was simply not accessible to them in the academic context in which they were situated. While Regis then indeed identifies a problematic aspect of these older studies, in now evaluating these methodological errors a consideration of the original historical contexts in which these studies took place—the virtual inexistence of any scholarly knowledge about the popular romance genre and the nearly complete lack of a scholarly tradition or exemplary previous study to guide the way—might further elucidate part of the underlying causes of this methodological problematic.

Whereas the methodological flaws of excessive overgeneralisation can then be, to an extent, if not excused at least explained with regard to the work of the earliest generation of popular romance scholars, this is a different matter today. As the field is moving from the foundational discussion of generalities to a more mature discussion of specifics, the need for a well-considered methodology in the selection of texts as well as in the manner in which the texts are analysed becomes urgent. The field’s genealogical development from studying the popular romance genre’s general properties to focussing on more specific and particular aspects of (subgroups within) the genre is currently ongoing and can be observed in numerous recent works of romance scholarship. It is visible in Regis’ own work, particularly in her much-cited A Natural History of the Popular Romance Novel—perhaps the most influential study of the genre published in the last decade—in which the author devotes two sections to a general discussion of the romance genre and then moves on to a thorough analysis of individual romance authors and novels. Other instances of such recent, more narrowly focussed scholarly discussions of popular romance abound; think for example of recent scholarly work on geographical subgroups of the genre (e.g. Juliet Flesch’s excellent study of Australian romance novels), on particular subgenres (e.g. Lisa Fletcher’s magisterial analysis of historical romance novels), on particular publishers (e.g. Paul Grescoe’s study of Harlequin and Joseph McAleer’s and jay Dixon’s studies of Mills & Boon), on individual authors (e.g. Sarah Frantz’s work on Suzanne Brockman [2008; 2010] and J.R. Ward and my own doctoral dissertation on Nora Roberts) or even individual novels (e.g. Eric Selinger’s sophisticated discussion of Laura Kinsale’s Flowers From the Storm). While such studies use more self-evident and coherent principles of corpus selection, it remains methodologically crucial to adopt a constant and unwavering vigilance for the actual representativeness of the particular with regard to the whole for which it is envisioned to stand. This methodological concern is all the more important in popular romance studies because both the (early) traditions of this developing field and the cultural stereotypes that stubbornly continue to surround its main object of study tend to obscure the diversity and complexity of the genre’s cultural reality that these studies aim to unlock.

Whereas Regis’ concern for the methodologically sound selection of study texts in the study of popular romance novels is very commendable, there are other aspects of her account that are perhaps more problematic, though not less intriguing. One of these elements is the scholar’s acknowledged attempt to gloss over or look beyond differences in theoretical approach or conceptual framework between the studies she critically discusses. That is, although Regis herself advocates “theoretical self-awareness [ . . . ] in any critical endeavour,” she proceeds to compare these critical endeavours without much consideration for their different theoretical and conceptual frameworks. Although this approach is inspired by the findings of the rhetorical studies that form the methodological basis of Regis’ argument, this does not change the fact that the risk of ignoring theoretical positions is that one remains blind to the impact of one’s own theoretical position. This position is relevant to Regis’ meta-critical discussion because it plays a role in shaping her critique and evaluation of other scholars’ acts of romance criticism.

Regis’ own theoretical position fundamentally influences, for example, her evaluative discussion of Janice Radway’s classic Reading the Romance, which is, apart from Regis’ own work, perhaps the best-known and most influential popular romance study to date. Regis’ approach to the study of popular romance is one which she herself characterises in A Natural History as “a traditional literary historical approach” (112) in which the primary site of interest is the text and the secondary site of interest the broader historical and socio-cultural context in which the text figures. Following this approach, Regis defines the genre and traces its history on the basis of textual and narrative features—an impressive endeavour that includes the identification of the now famous eight essential narrative elements which, according to Regis, define the romance novel. Although Regis convincingly argues that the concrete textual embodiments of these eight narrative elements undergo multiple diachronic and synchronic changes in response to wider historical changes, her core position is nonetheless that the romance novel—as literature—is defined by its narrative (that is textual) properties. Underlying this approach is a conceptualisation of romance novels as literature and of literature as something that is primarily and pervasively textual.

While this is of course a perfectly legitimate, interesting, and insightful approach to the study of the popular romance novel—indeed, Regis’ definition of the romance novel is often cited in scholarly and other discussions of the genre—like any other approach it is one which highlights certain aspects and disregards others. For example, Regis pays little considered critical attention to such elements as the materiality of the text (its peritext, that is its physical properties as not only an aesthetic form but also a material object in the world), the reader (that fascinating figure that seemed to endlessly intrigue but essentially elude a scholar like Radway), and the institutions fundamentally shaping both the production and reception of these novels. It is, however, towards these aspects of the genre, which Regis’ approach conceptually obscures, that many scholars, including Janice Radway, have directed most of their critical effort. Radway, who carries out an ethnographic study of romance readers, is, unlike Regis, not primarily focussed on the romance novel’s textual properties, but in the reader’s use and interpretation of this text. While Radway does indeed, as Regis points out, seem to hold a rather simplistic conceptualisation of the romance text, this conceptualisation might in part stem from the fact that Radways’ main conceptual interest is not in the romance text as such—as is Regis’—but in the popular romance novel as a strongly gendered socio-cultural phenomenon.

Radway herself demonstrates a recognition of the important difference between these two approaches when, in the conclusion to the 1984 edition of Reading the Romance, she notes the importance of “analytically distinguishing between the meaning of the act [of reading romance novels] and the meaning of the text as read” (210). The text as such—Regis’ primary site of interest—is of less importance to Radway than the ways in which the text is used by its readers, which, Radway’s account continuously indicates, are highly complex. The “patient unravelling, translating, decoding, interpretation, analyzing” (Wilder 105) that the topos of complexity implies is then performed by Radway not in her discussion of the romance text, but in her discussion of the romance reader, the process of reception and the material production of the text read. If we (re)consider the question of complexity to not pertain solely to textual properties, but to the romance novel as a cultural phenomenon, Radway answers it with a resounding affirmative. The fact that Regis’ overlooks this kind of complexity in her otherwise impressive and articulate discussion stems, it seems to me, from her own conceptual position which obscures or disregards non-textual issues. This brief example then indicates that Regis’ own theoretical position is relevant to her meta-critical discussion and, more generally, that in such meta-critical endeavours an awareness of theoretical positions and conceptual frameworks is important.

On the whole it seems to me Regis’ discussion can be interpreted as an example of a broader developmental dynamic that is currently taking place in the field of popular romance studies. As the field matures the natural tendency arises to look back at its foundations and, in an attempt to distinguish the present from those past origins, to identify, analyse, and even emphasise certain problematic aspects of older popular romance studies. Such endeavours could be considered as figurative instances of ritual matricide in which scholars like Radway, Modleski, and Mussel function as the figurative mothers of the field who, in order to create the possibility for the field to grow up, develop, and mature, have to be figuratively “killed”—taken away, put aside, moved beyond. This process is a natural mechanism of evolution and growth and one which on the whole has positive effects; as is apparent in Regis’ discussion, it enables a much-needed identification and analysis of problems and errors in earlier studies. This is itself a necessary condition for present and future studies and scholars to improve in these regards and avoid making the same mistakes as their predecessors. Although critical accounts such as the one by Pamela Regis can then be placed within a positive broader dynamic that stimulates the further development, maturation, and improvement of the field, prudence is called for in such endeavours because they run the risk of overstating or exaggerating the problematic aspects of older studies. Indeed it seems to me that in particular Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance, perhaps because of its fame and enduring identification with popular romance studies (certainly in the eyes of scholars outside the field), is regularly subjected to quite harsh and even unforgiving critiques which seem to create and perpetuate a stereotypical image and too simplistic interpretation of this complex and theoretically sophisticated study. In this regard Regis’ present meta-critical account is mainly to be praised, since it moves beyond the stereotypical interpretations of past studies and presents a thorough and well-considered critical discussion.

This brief response to Pamela Regis’ meta-critical discussion of popular romance scholarship has pointed out some of what I consider to be the account’s strongest and weakest points. While I endorse Regis’ identification of the methodological problem of overgeneralisation as one of the main challenges that the field of popular romance studies faces, I also critique her account for being too ahistorical and undertheorised. I briefly attempt to demonstrate the potential problems of such a disregard for theoretical positions in meta-critical discussions. In this context I must acknowledge that, much as Pamela Regis’ theoretical position influences her meta-critical discussion, my own critique of her paper is shaped by my position as a scholar inspired by post-structuralism. Instead of considering the clashing of such theoretical perspectives as problematic, it is my firm belief that if we manage to continue to achieve meetings of and conversations between these, and many other, critical and theoretical perspectives—as we did at the 2010 IASPR conference—the future of popular romance studies look brighter than ever before.

Works Cited

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

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

Fletcher, Lisa. Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity. Hampshire: Ashgate, 2008. Print.

Frantz, Sarah S.G. “Darcy’s Vampiric Descendants: Austen’s Perfect Romance Hero and J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood.” Persuasions Online. 30.1. (2009) Web. http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/on-line/vol30no1/frantz.html

—. “‘I’ve tried my entire life to be a good man’: Suzanne Brockmann’s Sam Starrett, Ideal Romance Hero.” Women Constructing Men: Female Novelists and Their Male Characters, 1750-2000. Eds. Sarah S. G. Frantz and Katharina Rennhak. MD: Lexington Books, 2010. 227-247. Print.

—. “Suzanne Brockmann.” Teaching American Literature: A Journal of Theory and Practice. 2.2/3 (2008) 1-19. Web. http://www.cpcc.edu/taltp/archives/spring-summer-2008-2-2-3/spring_summer_2008_merged.pdf/view

Goade, Sally. “Introduction.” Empowerment versus Oppression. Twenty First Century Views on Popular Romance Novels. Ed. Sally Goade. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007. 1-11. Print.

Goris, An. “From Roberts to Romance And Back Again: genre, authorship and textual identity.” Ph.D. diss., Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, 2011. (in preparation).

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

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

Modleski, Tania. Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women. New York: Routledge, 1982. Print.

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

—. “Where’s Love Gone? Transformations in Romance Fiction and Scholarship.” Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres 3.1-2 (1997): 3-14. Print.

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

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

Selinger, Eric. “Milton, Cavell, Kinsale: Thinking Through Flowers from the Storm.” Popular Culture Association / American Culture Association National Conference. New Orleans, April 2009. Address.

Snitow, Ann Barr. “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different.” Radical History Review 20 (1979): 141-61. Rpt. in Women and Romance: A Reader. Ed. Susan Ostrov Weisser. New York: NYU Press, 2001. 307-22. Print.

Wilder, Laura. “‘The Rhetoric of Literary Criticism’ Revisited: Mistaken Critics, Complex Contexts, and Social Justice.” Written Communication 22.1 (2005): 76-119. Print.


[1] Amongst the most important state of the art accounts of romance criticism are discussions by Juliet Flesch (11-23), Pamela Regis (3-7), Kay Mussell (6-13) and Sally Goade (1-5).

[2] Both Juliet Flesch and Kay Mussell provide somewhat similar meta-critical considerations in their above mentioned overviews of romance criticism, though neither of these accounts is as elaborate as Regis’ present one.

[3] Mussell’s study (1984), which is based on a corpus of over eighty romance novels, is somewhat of an exception in this regard.

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Pedagogy Report: Embedding Popular Romance Studies in Undergraduate English Units: Teaching Georgette Heyer’s Sylvester by Lisa Fletcher, Rosemary Gaby, and Jennifer Kloester

Introduction

This paper outlines one model for introducing popular romance studies to undergraduate English programs: teaching romance texts and topics alongside canonical and contemporary literary texts. This “embedding” approach has clear advantages over the teaching of “specialist” popular romance units, not least because of its flexibility in relation to diverse curricula. We discuss one recent example of teaching popular romance—specifically, popular historical romance—at the University of Tasmania, Australia (UTAS), where the authors recently collaborated on the design and teaching of a new unit in which students read Georgette Heyer’s Sylvester alongside literary classics such as William Shakespeare’s Henry V and Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. The paper explains the unit design in detail, presents the case for adopting an embedding approach to teaching popular romance fiction, describes the teaching strategies Lisa Fletcher and Jennifer Kloester used in their lectures on Heyer, and analyzes student responses to this initiative through examination of selected assessment tasks.

1. The Teaching Context: Sylvester and “Fictions of History”

In 2009 a new team-taught unit, “Fictions of History,” was introduced in the English major at UTAS; it was taught for the first time in Semester 2, 2010 (June—November) and will be offered again in Semester 2, 2011. The unit is an elective at the advanced level, aimed principally at students who have completed introductory and intermediate English; however, the prerequisite allows students who have only completed introductory (or first-year) English to enroll. “Fictions of History” was designed to:

  • build students’ knowledge of historicist approaches to analyzing literary texts;
  • encourage critical reflection on the relationship between the treatment of history in literary and popular texts; and
  • enhance skills in conducting research on a diverse range of texts.

An additional impetus for developing this unit was to facilitate collaborative teaching, which would bring together the research interests of academic staff. One common thread linking the work of the lecturers (Elizabeth Leane, Ralph Crane, Rosemary Gaby, and Fletcher) who contributed to this unit is a focus on the intersections of literature and history. At UTAS, achieving a “teaching-research nexus” is especially important at the advanced level as we seek to engage students’ interest in pursuing honors and postgraduate study. The embedding approach therefore has clear benefits for popular romance scholars (in this case, Fletcher) looking to motivate students to pursue postgraduate research, but who may not have the opportunity to teach units devoted to the field.

Unit Description

How does literature represent the past? This unit introduces students to key theoretical frameworks for interrogating the complex and contentious relationship between “fiction” and “history.” Students have the opportunity to discuss “fictions of history” from a range of historical, cultural, and national contexts. Texts will range from literary classics to popular genre fiction to postmodern tours de force. (http://www.utas.edu.au/english/units.htm).

Required Texts (in order taught)

  • Shakespeare, William Henry V
  • Scott, Walter Ivanhoe
  • Heyer, Georgette Sylvester
  • Farrell, J. G. The Siege of Krishnapur
  • Bainbridge, Beryl The Birthday Boys

Teaching Pattern

The unit is taught over thirteen weeks. Students attend a fifty-minute lecture each week and a 90-minute weekly tutorial from the second week of semester. The bulk of lectures focus on analysis of the set texts; two lectures (delivered by Fletcher in 2010 in the 4th and 7th weeks of semester) introduce theoretical approaches to reading fictions of history.

Assessment

Students in this unit are required to complete a 1000-word essay, a 2500-word essay and a 2-hour exam:

2. Teaching Popular Romance Fiction: Why Take an “Embedding” Approach?

The embedding approach to teaching popular romance fiction is based on the view that Literature and popular fiction are distinct, but interrelated fields. Ken Gelder uses the capital “L” for Literature in his book, Popular Fiction: The Logic and Practices of a Literary Field, in order to distinguish the two major sub-fields of the broader literary field. He argues “popular fiction is best conceived of as the opposite of Literature” (11). For Gelder, popular fiction and Literature are antagonistic fields; they each define themselves against the other. Gelder gives us the best starting point yet for theorizing the relationship between the popular and Literary fields of cultural production, especially when the focus of study is on particular genres. He writes: “Popular fiction is, essentially, genre fiction” (1). However, he misses the extent to which genre cuts through the curtain he brings down between, to use different terms, “lowbrow” and “highbrow” texts (Fletcher 4). The tropes and conventions of the romance genre cut across the boundaries of these cultural fields in fascinating and important ways, which the pedagogy of popular romance studies must take into account. Teaching popular romance texts alongside Literary texts can help students recognize that considering the form and function of popular romance is not a trivial pursuit with only narrow cultural relevance.[1]

Critics often speak up for the value of studying romance fiction because of the sheer, unparalleled popularity (in global terms) of the distilled or purer versions of the form—most commonly category romance novels. Readers of JPRS will recognize this argument: studying popular romance fiction is important because of the sheer magnitude of texts and readers it looks to (and respects). The embedding approach begins with a slightly different argument: Romance is relevant to students of English because it does not stop working at the boundaries of the field of popular romance fiction. Heyer is a pertinent example here. While her novels clearly participate in the popular romance genre—she is, after all, the Queen of the Regency Romance—they are both influenced by and influence texts that fall outside the strict parameters of romance. So, perhaps the first step to getting the burgeoning field of popular romance studies into the classroom is to identify texts that, like Heyer’s Sylvester, connect in important formal, thematic or historical ways to texts that already have an established place in the curriculum.

3. Teaching Sylvester

The unit includes two lectures on Sylvester. In 2010, the first lecture was delivered by a guest of the UTAS English program, Jennifer Kloester, author of Georgette Heyer’s Regency World and Heyer’s official biography (forthcoming 2011). Kloester’s lecture explained the historiographic and literary traditions that informed Heyer’s depiction of the Regency period, and encouraged students to think critically about the relationship between “history” and “fiction” in Sylvester. The following week, Lisa Fletcher delivered a lecture focused more closely on the novel, in which she introduced the term “romance” to the discussion and examined Heyer’s self-reflexive use of genre conventions. Kloester and Fletcher worked closely together to plan their approach to the lectures; in particular, they were concerned to spark interest in a text (and genre), with which tutors in the unit had reported most students were unfamiliar.[2] They were aware too of quite open resistance from some students (especially males) to studying a romance novel and concerned to use the lectures to model “serious” scholarly research and analysis.

Lecture Summary: Kloester

In short, the first lecture on Sylvester provided students with background to assist with their study of a novelist and a sub-genre with which they were largely unfamiliar. The first aim of this lecture was to introduce Heyer as a writer, not only of historical romance novels, but also as someone who had a remarkable ability to seamlessly integrate historical fact with enduringly readable fiction. Heyer is universally recognized as the creator of the Regency genre of historical fiction and lauded for her ability to “bring the past to life” (Fahnestock-Thomas; Fletcher; Kloester). Her historical fiction offers students an accessible medium for examining the methodologies required to create this sense of the past and to look at some of the issues rising from the diffusion of historical facts through a fictional text.

The second aim was to raise the students’ awareness of Heyer’s own historical context and how this affected her understanding of what history was and the kinds of historical data she accrued for her novels. An understanding of this aspect of her writing is particularly important given the dramatic shift in historiography that occurred throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century which eventually resulted in the professionalization of history. In order to assess Heyer’s writing and her historical methodology the students needed to know that hers was a nineteenth-century approach to the past. She was greatly influenced by the grand narrative histories written by famous nineteenth-century historians such as Macaulay, Carlyle and Froude as well as by novelists such as Sir Walter Scott, Stanley Weyman, and Charles Dickens, among others.

There are several useful parallels to be drawn between Scott and Heyer: both were the number one best-selling authors of historical fiction in their day and both had a concern for historical accuracy; each attracted a wide audience, introducing many new readers to history; both were innovative in their depiction of the past and each came to be identified by a particular type of novel or historical period. But there were also differences in their treatment of history and in the focus of their novels. Scott was a more historical writer than Heyer, with a more scholarly approach to the past and, unlike Heyer, much of his history is overt—as demonstrated in the later editions of his books where he was at pains to include in their introductions, notes and appendices, many of his novels’ historical underpinnings. By contrast, Heyer made little or no concession to her readers’ possible interest in the historical sources from which she drew her portrait of the Regency. Apart from her two Waterloo books, An Infamous Army and The Spanish Bride, her Regencies are devoid of footnotes or bibliographies and offer their audience no clear way of discerning the historical facts from Heyer’s fictional imaginings.

This narrative paradox forces the reader to trust Heyer in her recreation of the historical period. There is an expectation that factual detail will be accurate and that she has rendered the past faithfully. For Heyer this meant creating fictional stories that were not merely set against a backdrop of historical scenes but that were actually dependent on the historical realities of the era. As in Scott, in Heyer’s novels, the history is an essential element of the books—an inherent part of the story, plot structure and writing technique; the historical past is so closely woven into the fictional story that the history cannot be extracted from the novels without destroying the textual entity. Unlike many modern category historical romances, Heyer’s romantic plots both depend upon and are informed by the historical past she depicts.

This is especially true in Sylvester, a novel which relies for part of its plot on Regency society’s attitudes to women. When Phoebe Marlow is told she is to receive an offer of marriage from the hero, Sylvester, she is aghast. She understands, however, that her social and domestic situation makes it impossible for her to refuse such an offer—even from a man she purports to despise. Heyer’s knowledge of the era, gleaned from her intensive reading of mainly primary source material (especially contemporary letters, diaries, journals and other eye-witness accounts) allowed her to develop her plot in keeping with the known customs and attitudes of the day.

At this point in the lecture it was necessary to explain to the students how Heyer’s specific knowledge of the social aspects of the Regency period pre-dated many of the comprehensive histories of the period. This is vital to understanding the nature of Heyer’s history and her portrait of the Regency. One of the reasons she stuck so closely to the primary sources was because in 1935, when she wrote her first Regency novel, Regency Buck, there were very few secondary sources about the period. Most writing about the era was incorporated into much larger histories of the nineteenth century or books on specific subjects such as the Napoleonic Wars.

An analysis of three major historical bibliographies (Royal Historical Society; Chaloner and Richardson; Brown and Christie) reveals that general recognition by historians of the “Regency” as a specific or distinctive historical period did not begin until the late 1940s (by which time Heyer had already written nine bestselling Regency novels). In the 1950s there was a gradual increase in written accounts of the era, with a more marked increase in historiographical interest occurring in the 1960s and 1970s, which has continued to the present day. From 1950 onwards there was a significant shift in the number of history books with the word “Regency” in their title. Whereas only twelve books were published with the word Regency in their title in the 120 years between 1830 and 1950, in the thirty years between 1950 and 1980, twenty-five books such books were published. Since then the number has grown exponentially (in fact, the increase from the late 1940s runs parallel to the huge growth in popularity of Heyer’s Regencies from 1944).

In Sylvester Heyer makes deliberate use of her knowledge of the era by drawing on the experience of the historical figure, Lady Caroline Lamb. Not only does Heyer refer directly to Lady Caroline and her novel Glenarvon in Sylvester, but she also has her fictional heroine Phoebe anonymously write her own scandalous roman à clef. This parallel juxtaposition of the factual and the fictional typifies Heyer’s approach to her writing. By constructing her novels with an invisible scaffolding of meticulous historical detail she strengthens the verisimilitude of the emotional drama (though only the most knowledgeable readers may be aware of it).

The tone, the style, the color with which history was written in the nineteenth century legitimized and strengthened Heyer’s own work. This is evident not only in her approach to research and her perception of the historical process, but also in the literary construction of her prose. Her form of history was not always so very far removed from the rhythm and language of the works of the great nineteenth-century historians such as Macaulay, Carlyle, and Froude. Heyer was not a historian, if a historian is defined as one who analyzes the past in order to solve a puzzle, or to explain the causes and consequences of a specific event or to clarify the evolution and significance of ideas and movements. She was not interested in “causation”—although a close reading suggests that she was interested in social realities (mainly for the upper class) such as class relations, marriage, money and the role of women. Nor was she an analyst or an explicator; she was a narrator of the past; though she was not a historian, her books are full of history: historical fact, people, events and a remarkable sense of period. She was not interested in critiquing her sources—either for their interpretation of the past or for the internal machinations of their writers’ minds. For her the sources were just that—sources: “authentic” records of past moments waiting to be perused by the researcher and mined for any relevant information which might contribute to the accurate reconstruction of some aspect of the past. Heyer was, in some ways, a consumer—rather than a practitioner—of historical research; she absorbed the historical past and understood it but she did not seek to explain it to her readers.

Ultimately, Heyer offered a picture of the Regency that was (and is) far more than a mere painted backdrop against which her characters perform: she created a carefully constructed social matrix (based on her understanding of the primary source material), which was true to the structure of the society about which she wrote. Heyer was rigorous in her application of historical fact within her chosen slice of the Regency period. By immersing herself in its broader economic, political and social structures as well as in its lively and engaging minutiae, she was able to create characters who not only “lived” within the Regency but whose (albeit fictional) lives were also shaped by its customs, manners and mores.

Lecture Summary: Fletcher

This lecture began by reading two brief 1958 reviews of Sylvester in order to introduce a focus on “romance.” Kirkus Reviews classifies Sylvester as “Another Regency Romp [which] pursues the obstacle course of true love in the marital stakes of Sylvester, Duke of Salford, and authoress-incognito, Miss Phoebe Marlow.” It concludes, “Nothing to put you in a gudgeon [sic] but a pleasant entertainment for Heyer’s following.” The review published in Library Journal is similar: “Period romance of Regency England. [. . .] All ends happily. Frothy, readable, and full of delightful Regency dialogue.” According to these reviews, Sylvester is an uncomplicated, formulaic novel. Neither reviewer takes Heyer’s novel very seriously, but treats it as a light read. For both reviewers, the novel’s defining feature is the love story between the Duke of Salford and Phoebe Marlow; historical detail (“delightful Regency dialogue”) provides the backdrop for the romance, but is not significant in itself. The reviews were a useful starting point because they invited students to consider Sylvester as a historical romance fiction and to examine the meaning and significance of the term “romance” in this context. In brief, this lecture raised and addressed the following questions:

  • What are the implications of describing Heyer as a “romance” novelist? Is this how critics usually classify her?
  • Heyer’s fiction has attracted very little attention in literary studies, certainly in comparison to popular genre writers such as her close contemporary Agatha Christie. To what extent is this neglect related to her reputation as a “romance” writer?
  • Does Heyer’s meticulously researched period detail simply provide the backdrop of a love story, which could be set in any time or place? Or, are the history and the romance ultimately inseparable?

The aim of this lecture was to encourage students to think more critically about their response to Sylvester; and to model the value of close textual analysis when developing arguments about popular romance texts. To this end, we used Gillian Beer’s broad definition of “romance” as a broad and diverse category of literature, which is unified by the “imaginative functions” of “escape” and “instruction.” These two terms were central to the first serious critical responses to Heyer: A.S. Byatt’s essays “Georgette Heyer is a Better Writer Than You Think” and “The Ferocious Reticence of Georgette Heyer.” Byatt writes, “the act of research was for Georgette Heyer, the act of recreating a past to inhabit” (“Ferocious” 37). Sylvester is an ideal text to include in “Fictions of History” because Heyer uses the form of the historical romance novel to reflect on her approach to combining historical and romantic elements, and to consider the role and responsibilities of the historical romance writer.

On the first page, Sylvester is introduced as a man who has forgotten the “lure” of medieval romances; “He and Harry, his twin, had slain the dragons, and ridden great wallops at the knights” (1). Sylvester is consistently described with reference to stock heroic figures from fairytale, but makes the mistake of assuming reality and romance are unrelated categories: “No bad fairy had attended his christening to leaven his luck with the gift of a hunchback or a harelip” (2). He mocks his mother’s belief in “love-matches” (23) and asks whether she would prefer him to behave “like the prince in a fairy-tale” (23). Soon after he says to his godmother “Now if you were a fairy godmother, ma’am, you would wave your wand and so conjure up exactly the bride I want!” (30). Sylvester may have forgotten how to play childhood games of knights and dragons—how to imaginatively inhabit a romance—but he is nonetheless cast by his mother and godmother as the knightly hero in a fairly standard romance plot. Sylvester shocks both women with his anti-romantic plans to marry; to be, in his words “leg-shackled” (11) to a “well-born girl of my own order” (12). But his “godlike” (4) manner is based on a misunderstanding of his role in writing his life story. Sylvester’s confidence that he can plan his transition from the “muslin company” (13) to the “Marriage Mart” is based on his faith that a man of his “rank, wealth, and elegance” (2) is in control. The name of his country estate—Chance—is an early hint in the novel that Sylvester is not necessarily the author of his own fate.

Clearly, on a thematic level, this novel is about novels and novel writing because the chief impediment to Phoebe’s romance with Sylvester is the publication of her novel The Lost Heir, which she and others describe as a “dashed silly book” (282), a “trumpery novel” (283) and a “wretched romance” (313). But Sylvester is also about romance authorship because of the roles played by Sylvester’s mother and godmother (the “Duchess” and the “Dowager”) in their “scheme” to match-make Sylvester and Phoebe. In fact “scheme” is the key word in this book. There is something gorgeously comic in the inclusion of these two women schemers—they are both immobilized by illness, so can’t inhabit the Regency world of the novel to the same degree as other characters. But they’re more in control of the course of events than anyone else. The Duchess is a published poet and the Dowager a careful and accomplished letter writer. So, in effect, they can be read as romance writers—as women like Heyer—possessing unparalleled knowledge of the Regency and its people, they bring the romance to its happy ending without the main players realizing the degree to which they have been manipulated.

The Dowager and the Duchess can be read as surrogates for Heyer within the fictional world. Stranded at the Blue Boar, Sylvester exclaims “I wonder why I embroiled myself in this affair” (101). Of course, he is in this affair because he has been set up by a conspiracy of romancers and their “skilful handling” (206). There are numerous examples of the characterization of the Dowager and the Duchess as romance authors, both in relation to the relationship between Phoebe and Sylvester and in relation to their portrayal of characters in Regency society more broadly: “Unusual: that was the epithet affixed to Miss Marlow. It emanated from Lady Ingham, but no one remembered that” (195).

This section of the lecture focused on the question: how is Phoebe’s literal authorship of her book The Lost Heir and of the Duke’s reputation as a wicked uncle related to Lady Ingham and the Duchess of Salford’s more figurative “authorship” of the romance between Phoebe and the Duke? In effect, all three of these women are rewarded for their roles as authors. The risk that Phoebe will be ruined is never genuine because her book is subsumed by the greater text of her “fairy godmothers’” scheme to marry her to a Duke. There is another “authoress” in the novel: Lady Henry Rayne. Ianthe tells stories to “blacken” her brother-in-law’s name. When Sylvester learns that Phoebe has been talking to Ianthe he asks “Did I figure as the Unfeeling Brother in Law or as the Wicked Uncle?” (192). Ianthe is the actual villain in this novel—vain, petty, unmotherly, seduced by a parody of the Regency hero, Sir Nugent Fotherby. The characterization of Fotherby is a further example of Heyer’s self-reflexive depiction of the Regency as a constructed fictional world. In order to encourage students to look for further metafictional elements in the novel, the lecture concluded by suggesting that they examine Heyer’s depiction of the relationship between genre and gender. For instance, Tom Orde assures Phoebe that Sylvester will never read The Lost Heir, because only “girls” are interested in such books. Soon after he is surprised—and disconcerted—to learn that Sylvester is an avid reader of novels exactly like Phoebe’s “wretched romance.” He shares his mother’s love for popular novels, for whom reading is her “greatest solace” (128).

4. Student Responses

Of the 84 students enrolled in this unit, 26 (31%) chose to write their 2500-word essay on Sylvester. Heyer was also a popular choice in the exam. For one of their exam questions students could choose to answer on Heyer, Shakespeare, or Sir Walter Scott and here 40% of students chose Sylvester. Predictably, although 24 students in the class were male (28%), only one male student chose Heyer for his essay and only four chose to write on Heyer in the exam. Of students with results within the top 15% of the class only one chose to write on Heyer for the essay, and three chose Heyer for the exam. These results suggest that Heyer appealed more to female students and that some of the more serious English students either preferred Shakespeare and Scott, or assumed the choice of more canonical writers might earn higher marks.

Students could choose one of the following broad questions to answer in relation to one or more of the set texts:

Essay Questions

  1. “When historical figures are the central figures in works of fiction, there is a danger that the novel will not present the atmosphere of the age, but a picture of an individual in that age . . . Ideally the protagonist of an historical novel should be a fictitious character within whom the wider and often conflicting pressures of the period can be seen at work.”
    Discuss with close reference to one or more of the texts studied in this unit.
  2. Discuss the representation of at least one category of difference (e.g. race, gender, class, religion) in one or more of the texts studied this semester. How does this relate to the text’s treatment of history?
  3. “Fictional texts which tell stories of the past are inherently contradictory because they cannot meet the competing demands of ‘literature’ and ‘history.’” Discuss with close reference to one or more of the texts studied this semester.

Five students chose to discuss Heyer in the context of question 3, but all other students chose question 2 and focused on gender and (less frequently) class. Nearly all students chose to focus on Sylvester alone, rather than comparing it to other texts in the unit. Results spanned the full range from fail to high distinction, but the small cluster of students choosing to discuss Heyer in relation to “the competing demands of ‘literature’ and ‘history’” did produce the strongest work. These students tended to engage more closely with the theorists introduced through the unit (including Georg Lukács and HaydenWhite) and grappled with the problem of reconciling Heyer’s meticulous historical research with her adherence to romance genre conventions.

Overwhelmingly students were interested in writing about the social restrictions placed on young women in Regency society, and many thought that Sylvester’s unconventional heroine, Phoebe, provided some critique of nineteenth-century gender roles and expectations. Essays generally revealed a limited understanding of the roles occupied by women in Regency society however, and a tendency to view all periods and societies prior to the present as consistently and similarly oppressive. Aspects of Sylvester that worried students included the depiction of Ianthe, particularly in regard to the implicit dismissal of her rights as a mother. According to one essay, “outrage on behalf of the reader at her neglect of Edmund is likely to obscure a more understated reality, which is that regardless of whether Ianthe was motherly or not, in the patriarchal world of the English Regency, a widowed woman’s child could be legally left to another male relative with no argument to be made about it.” The student maintained that in this particular instance Sylvester is “uncritically faithful to the sensibilities of the English Regency period.” A number of the more thoughtful essays on gender also argued that Heyer’s depiction of the pressures and constraints placed on young Regency women is complicated and/or compromised by the pleasures and expectations generated by the romance genre.

Students writing about class often demonstrated difficulty understanding the subtle social distinctions informing relationships in Sylvester, but many essays noted Heyer’s focus on aristocratic characters and found an uncritical acceptance of class difference in her work. One student wrote, “although Heyer makes the reader aware of the hierarchal society; it is, in her novels, essentially a happy and content hierarchy in gender and in class.” Students seemed generally well-informed about Regency fashion and manners, yet despite Kloester’s detailed introductory lecture, occasional references to Sylvester’s “eighteenth-century” or “Victorian” setting still cropped up. Overall the essays on Heyer reflected a strong engagement with the lectures, with several students citing details mentioned in Kloester’s lecture. Many mentioned the interesting preponderance of female authors in the text and some responded productively to Fletcher’s suggestion to explore its metafictional dimensions in further detail.

Although Sylvester did not appeal to all students (and some disliked it intensely), it proved a particularly useful text for tutorial teaching. Most classes contained some dedicated Heyer fans and the range of impassioned responses for and against Sylvester generated lively debate. Perhaps the most important function the text served within the unit was that it operated as an excellent touchstone for measuring the other texts and for considering the various themes of the course. Students were struck, for example, by the contrast that emerged between Scott’s intrusive omniscient narrator in Ivanhoe, whose nineteenth-century view of twelfth-century attitudes is always obvious, and Heyer’s more discreet use of free indirect discourse to guide responses to her characters. Sylvester was followed in the course by J.G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur and again the contrast in narrative style and tone helped students to recognize and appreciate Farrell’s ironic late-twentieth century take on a nineteenth-century colonial world view. Interestingly, questions about the depiction of heroism, masculinity and British nationalism that arose in relation to the other texts in the unit also proved apposite for Sylvester. By the end of the course most students acknowledged that the inclusion of a popular historical romance added breadth to their understanding of the development and range of historical fiction. Sylvester helped to focalize questions about the relationship between fiction and history; about what constitutes valid subject matter for both history and fiction; and about how writers of fiction shape our understanding of the past.

Works Cited

Beer, Gillian. The Romance. London: Methuen, 1986. Print.

Brown, Lucy M. and Ian R. Christie, ed. Bibliography of British History 1789 – 1851. Oxford: Clarendon, 1977. Print.

Byatt, A.S. “The Ferocious Reticence of Georgette Heyer.” 1975. Fahnestock-Thomas 289-303. Print.

—. “Georgette Heyer is a Better Novelist Than You Think.” 1969. Fahnestock-Thomas 270-78. Print.

Carlyle, Thomas. The French Revolution: A History. London: J.M. Dent, 1929. Print.

Chaloner, W.H. and Richardson, R.C. Bibliography of British Economic and Social History. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1984. Print.

Elam, Diane. Romancing the Postmodern. London: Routledge, 1992. Print.

Fahnestock-Thomas, Mary, ed. Georgette Heyer: A Critical Retrospective. Saraland, AL: PrinnyWorld, 2001. Print.

Fletcher, Lisa. Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2008. Print.

Froude, James A. History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Death of Elizabeth. London: J.W. Parker, 1856-70. Print.

Gelder, Ken. Popular Fiction: The Logics and Practices of a Literary Field. London: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Heyer, Georgette. Sylvester. 1957. London: Arrow, 2004. Print.

Kloester, Jennifer. Georgette Heyer’s Regency World. 2005. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2010. Print.

Lukács, Georg. The Historical Novel. 1937. Trans. Hannah Mitchell and Stanley Mitchell. Lincoln and London: U of Nebraska P, 1983. Print.

Macaulay, Thomas Babington. The History of England from the Accession of James II. London: J.M. Dent, 1912. Print.

Royal Historical Society. Writings on British History 1901-1933, Volume 5:1825-1914 and Appendix. London: Jonathan Cape, 1980. Print.

White, Hayden. The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987. Print.


[1] A similar argument drives the teaching of popular romance texts in two other advanced-level units taught by Lisa Fletcher at UTAS: “Popular Fiction: From Page to Screen,” and “Cinema, Costumes and Sexuality,” in which students read romance novels and films under the rubrics of “popular fiction studies” and “feminist film theory.”

[2] The tutorials in this unit were run by Gaby and Guinevere Narraway. We would like to acknowledge Guinevere’s contribution to the planning and research for this paper.

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