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Genre, Author, Text, Reader: Teaching Nora Roberts’s Spellbound
by Beth Driscoll


Teaching popular romance fiction in the university is a sharp reminder of the importance of the syllabus in shaping society-wide notions of literary value. As Pierre Bourdieu explains, educational institutions legitimise specific literary texts by cultivating familiarity with and appreciation of them (Field 121). The omission of popular romance fiction from the literary studies syllabus judges the legitimacy of romance, but it also has far-reaching consequences for the formation of students’ reading practices. Educational institutions promote particular attitudes towards reading and the “pursuit of culture” (Field 233). The cultural capital, or cultural competencies, that universities provide for [End Page 1] students reflects this twofold role: universities confer qualifications that guarantee a student’s familiarity with legitimate culture and also foster long-lasting beliefs about literature over years of training in literary studies (“Forms” 87). The effects of the exclusion of popular romance fiction from the university curriculum are that students actively resist these texts and do not have the required skills to read and understand them.

My own reading experiences illustrate this process. As an undergraduate, I didn’t study romance fiction. I was intellectually excited about modernism and postmodernism, and learned to appreciate older canonical texts. While I was immersed in learning about high literature, my mother and my sister were reading Nora Roberts. After I completed my PhD in literary studies, I finally took them up on their reading recommendations and became obsessed: I read 32 of Roberts’s novels while on maternity leave.

My conversion to Roberts was accelerated through my involvement in teaching an undergraduate literary studies subject at the University of Melbourne. The subject Genre Fiction/Popular Fiction was developed by Ken Gelder. I tutored in the subject in 2006 and 2007, and since 2008 have given a number of its lectures, including one on Roberts. My current position as a lecturer in the Publishing and Communications program at the University of Melbourne informs my approach to teaching popular romance fiction; in addition to my longstanding interest in texts, my current research investigates the production, dissemination and reception of books in contemporary culture.

This article responds to Lisa Fletcher’s call to use writing about teaching practice as a “launch pad for interrogating more deeply the place of popular romance studies in higher education” (“Scholarship”). It begins by briefly outlining Genre Fiction/Popular Fiction’s overarching pedagogical approach: its objectives, syllabus and assessment. The second section summarizes my lecture on Roberts and her novel Spellbound. Finally, I consider students’ responses by reporting on a survey I undertook in 2013 on the experience of studying Spellbound. While a single subject cannot transform a lifetime of educational indoctrination about the kind of literature worth valuing, Genre Fiction/Popular Fiction aims to challenge students’ preconceptions and to open up avenues for them to think critically about popular romance.

The subject: description, objectives and structure

The unit description for Genre Fiction/Popular Fiction is as follows:

This subject takes popular fiction as a specific field of cultural production. Students will analyse various definitive features of that field: popular fiction’s relations to “literature,” genre and identity, gender and sexuality, the role of the author profile, cinematic and TV adaptations, readerships and fan interests, and processing venues. The subject is built around a number of genres: crime fiction, science fiction, horror, romance, the “sex and shopping” novel, the thriller and the blockbuster. On completion of the subject students should be familiar with some important genres of popular fiction, and some representative examples of each genre and have a developed sense of the role of popular fiction in the broader field of cultural production. [End Page 2]

So the subject is organized along two lines of enquiry. It raises large questions about popular fiction and its relationship with what Gelder describes as Literature with a capital L (11), and it also offers more focused analysis of a range of popular fiction genres. Romance fiction was first incorporated into the syllabus in 2007, when Spellbound was added. In 2013 Charlaine Harris’ first Sookie Stackhouse novel was also included to diversify the presentation of romance. The texts are taught in chronological order, and in 2013 the syllabus was:

  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle)
  • The War of the Worlds (H.G. Wells)
  • The Hobbit (J.R.R. Tolkien)
  • A Murder is Announced (Agatha Christie)
  • Dr No (Ian Fleming),
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Philip K. Dick)
  • The Stud (Jackie Collins)
  • Jurassic Park (Michael Crichton)
  • Spellbound (Nora Roberts)
  • The Litigators (John Grisham)
  • Dead Until Dark (Charlaine Harris)

The subject is taught to second- and third-year students, and enrolments for the subject are usually around 120. The teaching pattern comprises a 90-minute lecture, followed by small group tutorials in which students discuss the set text and associated readings in the subject reader.

At the end of semester, student must complete a long essay of 2,500 words that compares two texts, worth 60% of their final mark. An earlier essay of 1,500 words is due mid-semester and must address one of the first four texts studied, so students cannot write about romance for this task. A class presentation forms the basis of one of the essays. The topics for the long essays are comparative and broadly framed. Gelder’s task outline includes this advice: “A good essay outlines significant critical positions and engages with them; it also looks closely at passages or scenes from the novels themselves, of course, and you will have to make decisions about what you’ll look at here, and why.” Topics that allow students to write about Spellbound include:

  • comparing Spellbound with The Stud as examples of romance and “anti-romance” fiction;
  • comparing Spellbound with Dead Until Dark as examples of supernatural romance fiction;
  • writing about heroes in two novels;
  • writing about heroines in two novels;
  • writing about popular fiction and genre;
  • writing about popular fiction and literary style; and
  • writing about popular fiction and characterization.

The genre-based approach taken by this subject has, inevitably, both strengths and limitations. Arguably, the subject ghettoises popular fiction and each of its genres, obscuring what romance has in common with other genres and with Literature. Students [End Page 3] sometimes object to drawing a strict demarcation between Literature and popular fiction, or between genres (such as science fiction and fantasy), and it can be useful to remind them that examining the stability of these categorisations while acknowledging their effects is an important critical skill developed through the subject. Other students are very aware of the difference between genre fiction and Literature, and sometimes complain about the lack of literary features in texts such as The Stud: a student once told me the subject should be called “ShitLit.”

Teaching popular romance as one genre amongst many is perhaps an older model of approaching romance (see Goris). Some recent scholarship models other ways of teaching popular romance texts. For example, Lisa Fletcher, Rosemary Gaby and Jennifer Kloester use an “embedded” approach, where a romance novel is taught alongside more literary texts. An Goris argues for a “focused and differential approach,” that draws out the variety within the romance genre. Teaching according to genre, however, can be done in a nuanced way that addresses the dangers of simplification and generalisation. Genre Fiction/Popular Fiction, for example, includes two different romance texts as well as an anti-romance, or “sex-and-shopping,” novel. This variety allows intra-genre distinctions and subtleties to emerge. Even within the week on Roberts, students are taught not only about romance fiction as a genre but also about the specific details of Roberts’s career and of Spellbound as a text, which are in some ways typical and in other ways atypical of the genre.

The genre-based approach also has particular advantages. Focusing on the genre of romance allows discussion from a publishing studies perspective, of romance’s place at the cutting-edge of digital- and self-publishing developments. This introduces a new theoretical framework for students, broadening conventional literary studies by insisting on the relevance of the social and economic contexts of contemporary texts. Looking at how romance as a genre has been dismissed by the academy also allows students to be self-reflexive, drawing upon Bourdieu. Students are invited by this subject to feel estranged from romance, to confront their own ignorance of the phenomenon, to think about what has been excluded from their education, and why, and what limitations this might produce in their ability to engage with contemporary culture. Pedagogically, this subject challenges students to think reflexively about what textual qualities they have been taught to value. When they say a book is “good” or “bad”, what criteria are they using and what assumptions are they making? Students find this line of discussion confronting, but it equips them to be more thorough and careful in their literary criticism, and more aware of the broader context of cultural production that surrounds their experience in academia.

Lecture summary

Before the lecture, students are asked to read the set text, Spellbound, and two scholarly book chapters: “The Institutional Matrix: Publishing Romantic Fiction” from Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature and “One Man, One Woman: Nora Roberts” from Pamela Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel. The lecture has three broad aims: to introduce the genre of romance fiction, to describe the career of Roberts, and to model some close reading of Spellbound’s setting and its depiction of gender roles.[2] [End Page 4]

I begin the lecture with some dramatic statistics about Roberts. She has published over 200 novels, including 180 New York Times bestsellers, and releases six new titles a year. There are 400 million copies of her books in print, and over the last 30 years, an average of 27 of her books have been sold every minute. Roberts, I want them to know, is a big deal.

Then I summarise some of the judgements made about romance fiction which position it as anti-literary. Romance is cast as formulaic. It is dismissed as being read passively by women looking for a mindless distraction. Romance is also heavily commercialised. The lecture then works through these positions and complicates them.

The “romance formula” is a familiar idea for students. A number of writers have presented their own versions of this formula, and as Eric Selinger observes, a formula can be an effective pedagogical tool to prompt discussion and enable comparisons across different novels. Formulae range in complexity. A simple version is presented by Canadian romance writer Deborah Hale on her blog: ((H + h) x A) ÷ C + HEA = R. In this formulation, H and h= Hero and heroine, A= Attraction, C= Conflict, HEA= Happy Ever After and R is Romance. Despite the apparent reductiveness of this formula, Hale emphasises that each of these abstractions can be filled by a multitude of different possibilities: “The hero could be anything from a medieval knight to a Navy SEAL to a sexy werewolf. The heroine could be a bluestocking governess, a fashionista or a single mom … romance writers can produce an infinite number of unique combinations.” This formula recognises the central elements of romance and its potential diversity.

Janice Radway’s 13-step formula (Reading 134), by contrast, is extremely specific. Presenting this can be humorous, as students realize how much of a romance plot is “scripted,” but it also tracks some of the complex and dynamic relationships that run through romance novels. Pamela Regis’ 8-step formula, recognized by Eric Selinger as a “Middle Way” between the simplistic and complex, is also valuable to share with students. This part of the lecture confirms that popular romance novels can be formulaic and acknowledges conventionality (particularly the happy ending) as part of the appeal of the genre. At the same time, the lecture invites students to see formulae as available analytical devices that illuminate some of the concerns of the genre.

The lecture next explores the idea that romance fiction is escapism for women. Students in this subject have already encountered Andreas Huyssen’s “Mass Culture as a Woman: Modernism’s Other” (from After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture Postmodernism) which argues that the proto-modernist Flaubert creates, through his character Emma Bovary, a dichotomy between woman as the emotional, passive reader of inferior literature and man as the objective, ironic and active writer of authentic literature. A Flaubertian view of female romance readers is evident in Germaine Greer’s feminist critique in The Female Eunuch, which argues that the fantasies women encounter in romance fiction negatively affect their real life relationships: “Although romance is essentially vicarious the potency of the fantasy distorts actual behaviour” (203). For this reason, Greer attacks the depiction of the romance hero as strong, successful and powerful: “The traits invented for him have been invented by women cherishing the chains of their bondage” (202). In this feminist reading, readers of romance fiction contribute to their own subordination in patriarchal culture.

One way to complicate the second-wave feminist attack on romance is through Janice Radway’s 1984 study of romance readers, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy [End Page 5] and Popular Literature. This work differs from critical perspectives such as Greer’s because it incorporates the views of readers themselves. This is a point where there is a close nexus between my teaching and my research, which also involves paying attention to how readers participate in literary culture (Driscoll). Following Radway’s interviews with readers in the town of “Smithton,” she suggests that romance fiction can operate as a way for women to cope with their real predicaments and the demands made of them: a small-scale “protest.” Romance reading is not so much escapism, as a (temporary) act of refusal (Reading 211). Radway’s study restores agency to romance readers: they emerge as active and strategic participants in culture, not mindless consumers.[3]

The final view of romance to complicate is that it is heavily industrialised. It is undeniable that romance is big business: 35-40 percent of all global mass market paperback sales are romances. In 2011, romance was worth $1.36 billion – double or triple the market for science fiction, fantasy or mystery. I show students the websites of Mills and Boon and Harlequin to explore the way these companies market romance texts: we consider the types of formats for sale, the ways readers are drawn in through book clubs, forums and special offers, and, most of all, through the proliferation of subgenres. Subgenres standardise the production and consumption of romance fiction: readers can subscribe to a subgenre of a publisher and have new titles delivered/downloaded periodically. Readers know what to expect and publishers know how many they can sell.

This sophisticated industrial machinery can create a sense that romance fiction is writerless and that it is consumed rather than read in any meaningful way. For example, Ken Worpole writes that

there is a strong sense that the main problem about the romantic novel is that under heavy commercial pressures, it has become over-determined and over-conventionalized … Certainly the prolific output of some writers in the genre confirms this view that once the setting has been chosen, the characters assembled and named, the novels more or less write themselves (qtd. in Gelder 44).

However, the industrialisation of romance is complicated by the genre’s simultaneous creation of personal connections amongst readers and writers. A high level of (mediated) intimacy characterises the romance community. Many romance writers nurture close relationships with their fans, often through active websites. To illustrate this point, I show students Roberts’s website,, which also functions as an introduction to her as an author. Under the menu item, “About Nora,” a section titled “Up Close and Personal” offers a humorous, intimate biography. It begins by describing Roberts’s life as a stay-at-home mother: “I macramed two hammocks,” she admits now, “I needed help.” After a blizzard led to “endless games of Candy Land and a severe lack of chocolate,” she began to “look for a little entertainment that was not child-related. She took out a notebook and started to write down one of the stories she’d made up in her head.” This presentation of Roberts’s story vividly personalizes her and forges connections with her likely readers.

These website analyses lead to a discussion of another industry practice: digital publishing. Romances titles dominate ebook bestseller lists, and Roberts has a strong presence in digital sales: she was the third author to sell more than a million books for the Kindle. Romance publishing is moving online: two out of every five romances bought in the [End Page 6] fourth quarter of 2011 were ebooks. E. L. James’s 50 Shades of Grey began life as a piece of online fan fiction before becoming an ebook bestseller, then securing a print publishing deal and becoming a hard copy bestseller. At this point I open the lecture up to a discussion, asking students why they think romance titles seem to be a particularly good fit for digital publishing. Most students realise that ebooks neutralise the social stigma of reading romance fiction—no one can see what you’re reading on your Kindle or iPad. Other suggested reasons for the popularity of digital romance include the ability to instantly purchase and download new titles, to store large numbers of texts, to access more of the backlist, and to try self-publishing.

The second section of the lecture concentrates on Roberts as an author. Roberts began writing category romances for Silhouette, Harlequin’s US imprint, in 1981. Her work is often adapted for TV (the Lifetime channel) but not for film. She publishes six new titles each year: two J.D. Robb crime novels, two trade paperbacks (parts of a trilogy or quartet), one hardcover (released in summer, “the big Nora”) and one mass market title or novella (often also a J. D. Robb story). Throughout the subject students have learnt that popular fiction writers work at a different pace to literary authors. They often write one novel a year, like John Grisham, rather than one every ten years, like Jonathan Franzen. However, Roberts’s pace is dramatically faster than the other popular fiction authors they have studied and her level of output is often challenging for students to comprehend.

I discuss the different formats Roberts writes in, beginning with her recent “Inn at Boonsboro” trilogy. One of the engaging features of this trilogy is that it is set at the real life Bed and Breakfast owned by Roberts, in the town of Boonsboro where she lives, and features other real businesses owned by her family members such as the Turn the Pages bookshop. I ask students what might be going on here: why would an already wealthy author write a fictional book about her real world business? Cross-merchandising seems too simplistic an answer, although that is undeniably part of it: for example, the online store at sells the themed toiletries that appear in the novels and are used in the Inn. I suggest that the novels romanticise her business: the first line of the first book in the trilogy, The Next Always, reads, “The stone walls stood as they had for more than two centuries, simple, sturdy, and strong. Mined from the hills and the valleys…” (1). Becoming a setting for a romance novel has imbued this building with emotion. This halo effect extends to the town of Boonsboro: there’s a romanticising of the small-town mythology of America at work in these novels, a celebration of a particular ideal of American life.

The “Inn at Boonsboro” trilogy uses the genre conventions of romance to blur the lines between reading, tourism and the lived experience of Roberts and her family. Roberts clearly uses genre in some deft and creative ways. Her ability to manipulate genre conventions is showcased through the 40 plus books of the “In Death” series, penned as J. D. Robb. This series participates in multiple genres, the most obvious of which is crime fiction. In each book Lieutenant Eve Dallas and her team solve a homicide case. The covers use dark colours and bold graphics, with the gender-neutral pseudonym prominently featured. Crime is a genre of popular fiction with more prestige than romance, and more male readers, so this genre-based marketing extends Roberts’s audience. Crime genre conventions influence characterisation in these books, particularly Dallas and her police colleagues, and there are crime logics at work in the telling of the stories: lots of hard work, danger, exhaustion and strong, black coffee. The books are also futuristic science fiction, as the series begins in the year 2058. While there is no world-changing “novum” such as [End Page 7] nuclear apocalypse, there are a host of playful details that add interest to the setting: cars that travel vertically, “auto-chefs” that cook for you, droids as servants and pets and off-planet locations for prisons and theme parks. The science fiction setting also assists in the plotting—less research into crime scene investigation methods or forensic science is necessary when Roberts can talk about “sealing up” in a vague but intriguing way. Science fiction tropes sometimes provide plots: Creation in Death is about cloning, while Fantasy in Death involves murder by hologram video game. The science fiction elements also facilitate some social commentary: for example, guns are banned and the police instead use “stunners.”

Underneath these genres, however, the books follow the core conventions of romance. The narrative drive of the series is the developing relationship between Dallas and the sexy, dangerous Irish billionaire Roarke. There are at least three sex scenes between them in most of the novels. Roarke is a classic romance hero: tall and rangy, with long, dark hair, a face with “strong, sharp bones and seductive poet’s mouth” (Reunion 5), “the wisp of Ireland magical in his voice” (Vengeance 10). He is a reformed criminal and wealthy businessman who nurtures Dallas emotionally and practically, by providing meals and medical care and encouraging her to sleep. Dallas and Roarke are married by the third book in the series, but Roberts maintains interest in their relationship by focusing on their shared psychological journey as survivors of childhood abuse. With each novel, they confront and overcome reminders of their past trauma, and their mutually-supported healing forms a spanning narrative across the series.

Not only do the “In Death” books combine several genres, but also Roberts plays the genres against each other, often for comic effect. For example, Dallas’s tough cop persona means that she must show discomfort with Roarke’s romantic gestures, including the beautiful clothes and jewellery he buys her. However, Roberts” combination of genres is not postmodern. It’s unironic: there is no sense of parody or pastiche. We might characterize Roberts’s approach as “more is more” as she builds a blockbuster super-genre. An illustrative scene occurs in Fantasy in Death when Dallas and Roarke test a holographic video game that offers a time travel experience to players, allowing them to experience various historical eras in a realistic way. The game play begins in science fiction mode: “He slid [the disc] into a slot as he spoke, used both palm plate and retinal scan, added a voice command and several manual ones” (Fantasy 106) then the tone shifts as the game begins: “With barely a shimmer this time, she stood on a green hill, her hair long and tied back. She wore, as Roarke did, some sort of leather top that hit mid-thigh and snug pants that slid into the tops of boots” (107). This is “Ireland, Tudor era” (107): “She turned back to him and didn’t he look amazing with all that black hair blowing in the wind, in that scarred leather and with a bright sword in his hand. ‘I won’t be calling time-out.’ She lifted her sword. ‘Let’s play’” (Fantasy 108). The narrative device of the hyper-realistic video game allows Roberts to insert a scene like the ones she writes in Spellbound, of ancient combat in a mystical landscape, into a futuristic crime thriller. She provides the pleasures of multiple genres in one reading experience.

The final part of the lecture reads the set text, the novella Spellbound, which students are now equipped to approach using a range of critical frameworks. Spellbound has a varied publishing history. It was first published in 1998 as a short story in Jove’s collection Once Upon a Castle, and then released as a standalone mass-market title in 2005 with a price point of US$2.99. The endmatter of this edition describes the 81-page novella [End Page 8] as one of a series of “hotshots,” “six quick reads from your favourite bestselling authors.” Spellbound is also available in two other formats: as a 2-in-1 with Roberts’s Ever After and as an ebook for US$2.99. Spellbound participates in the subgenre of paranormal romance, incorporating supernatural elements such as witches, wizards and magic spells.

The Irish setting of the novella offers a productive analytical pathway. Spellbound has a heavy investment in Ireland’s romantic landscape. Roberts has Irish heritage, and frequently creates Irish settings and characters in her writing. In Spellbound, she constructs Ireland as a place of mystery, myth, possibility and enchantment. Calin Farrell, the hero, begins the novel in New York and flies to Ireland to address a deeply felt but inarticulate yearning. In Ireland, Calin meets Bryna, a young witch who lives alone in a cottage at the foot of a ruined castle. Bryna has been waiting for Calin: she knows that they are reincarnations of lovers from 1000 years ago, a warrior and a witch, who were separated by the wizard Alisdair when he accused Bryna of being unfaithful and killed Calin in battle. Bryna’s mission in the novella is to convince Calin of the truth of this story in time for him to battle Alisdair again, one day after he arrives in Ireland: only true love between Bryna and Calin will enable Calin to win. Calin is immediately attracted to Bryna, but his twofold task in the novel is to accept the supernatural story and to commit himself fully to her.

Like Calin, readers of Spellbound travel to a world removed from the everyday, a mystical world of fields, mists, stags, forests and castles. At points, the novella reads like a tourist advertisement for this mythologised Ireland. Halfway through the novel, Bryna soliloquises on Ireland as a “dreaming place”:

“We’re proud of our dreamers here. I would show you Ireland, Calin. The bank where the columbine grows, the pub where a story is always waiting to be told, the narrow lane flanked close with hedges that bloom with red fuschia. The simple Ireland.”

Tossing her hair back, she turned to him. “And more. I would show you more. The circle of stones where power sleeps, the quiet hillock where the faeries dance of an evening, the high cliff where a wizard once ruled. I would give it to you, if you’d take it” (47).

This, clearly, is not the Ireland of poverty, alcoholism and sectarian violence. Rather, it is the Ireland of postcards, an Ireland likely to appeal to those who have yet to visit the country.[4] In Spellbound, the escapist imperative of romance fiction is built not just into the romance plot, but into its setting, which is an imaginative space of alternative possibilities. It is also an emotionally charged landscape. Roberts’s descriptions of place contribute to the affective impact of her story, as natural features stand in for the passions of her characters. Consider Calin’s first view of the castle above Bryna’s home:

The ruined castle came into view as he rounded the curve. … Perched on a stony crag, it shouted with power and defiance despite its tumbled rocks.

Out of the boiling sky, one lance of lightning speared, exploded with light, and stung the air with the smell of ozone.

His blood beat thick, and an ache, purely sexual, began to spread through his belly (11). [End Page 9]

In this tightly written novella, no words are wasted. All the prose is geared towards providing emotional satisfaction for the reader.

A second way to approach Spellbound is through its depiction of gender. One of the key differences between this novel and the majority of romance fiction is that it is written largely from the perspective of the hero. Like the Irish setting, a focus on male characters is a characteristic of many of Roberts’s novels. As the “bio” on her website notes:

Through the years, Nora has always been surrounded by men. Not only was she the youngest in her family, but she was also the only girl. She has raised two sons. Having spent her life surrounded by men, Ms. Roberts has a fairly good view of the workings of the male mind, which is a constant delight to her readers. It was, she’s been quoted as saying, a choice between figuring men out or running away screaming.

The female focus of much romance fiction reflects the genre’s historical association with the rise of companionate marriage in the late eighteenth century (Regis 57). The heroine is typically the protagonist because her choices determine the marriage that takes place at the novel’s end. Spellbound reflects some of the changes in gender relations between the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries. In this story, Bryna pursues Calin. She knows that she is destined to be with him – “they were meant to be lovers. This much she believed he would accept” (16). It is Calin who must make the choice to accept her offer of love. He is effectively seduced by Bryna in the novel, and this places him in a feminised position. We see this most clearly in the passage where Cal begins to worry that Bryna might be an obsessed fan who has drugged him:

Cal awoke to silence. His mind circled for a moment, like a bird looking for a place to perch. Something in the tea, he thought. God, the woman had drugged him. He felt a quick panic as the theme from Stephen King’s Misery played in his head (18).

Bryna has taken control here, and Calin feels threatened and disoriented. If a heroine were placed in a similar position to Calin, this scene would invoke the heroine’s fear of rape. Calin may be the protagonist but Bryna has power, and in Roberts’s writing, this reversal of typical romance gender roles becomes enjoyably comic. When Calin asks Bryna why she stripped him and put him to bed, Bryna retorts, “Oh Cal, you have a most attractive body. I’ll not deny I looked. But in truth, I’m after preferring a man awake and participating when it comes to the matters you’re thinking of” (23).

Despite these shifts in the roles of heroine and hero, most aspects of the novel fulfill the genre expectations of conventional romance fiction. Calin is handsome, wealthy and famous: “He was thirty, a successful photographer who could name his own price, call his own shots” (7). Bryna, despite her sexual forwardness, has some conservatively feminine qualities. Much attention is placed on her domestic skills and the clean, welcoming cottage she has created. She even spins her own wool. Calin’s reaction to this validates traditional female labour, even as it carefully avoids offending more modern female readers. Roberts writes, from Calin’s perspective: “Most of the women he knew couldn’t even sew on a [End Page 10] button. He’d never held the lack of domesticity against anyone, but he found the surplus of it intriguing in Bryna” (33). So Spellbound plays with some gender conventions of the genre by allowing the heroine to be sexually proactive, but other conventions are left intact.

Student responses

To explore the effects of this lecture on students, I prepared an online survey through the free service SurveyMonkey which I announced in the lecture and in a follow-up email. This survey comprised nine multiple choice and open-ended questions and took about five minutes to complete. Twenty students responded from a total enrolment of 120 students, a response rate of 17 percent. This low level of participation in the survey means that the results should not be read as reflecting the experience or viewpoints of all students in the subject. The respondents were self-selecting, which may have introduced a bias towards those who were already interested in Roberts or romance. Eighty-five percent of respondents were female, a slightly higher figure than the percentage of female students enrolled in the subject (71 percent).

The first set of questions in the survey explored students’ pre-existing familiarity with popular romance. Question 1 of the survey asked “Had you heard of Nora Roberts before you took this subject?” The purpose of this question was to assess students’ awareness of this bestselling author. Fifty percent of students answered yes, and fifty percent no. This indicates that many students lack knowledge not only of romance fiction but of commercial fiction: Roberts is an author prominently displayed in bookshops and frequently mentioned on bestseller lists, for example, but has not been consciously noticed by many university students.

Question 2 asked “Had you read any novels by Nora Roberts before taking this subject?” If the answer was yes, students were prompted to identify which ones. Only three respondents (15 percent) had read any novels by Roberts before taking the subject. One was evidently a genuine fan, having read “Northern Lights, Jewels of the Sun, Tears of the Moon, Heart of the Sea, Valley of Silence, Dance of the Gods, Morrigans Cross, a few from the “In Death” series. Probably more but I cannot recall the titles.” Another had read Northern Lights, and another had read “One of her JD Robb novels.” A fourth student noted that they “hadn”t read any but my mum is an avid reader of her novels.”

Question 3 broadened the inquiry by asking “Had you read any romance novels before taking this subject?” Eight students (40 percent of respondents) had previously read a romance novel. The question followed up with, “If yes which ones?” The titles nominated by students included “Nicholas Evans and Rachael Treasure novels,” “Louise Bagshawe – The devil you know” and “I’m a big fan of Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark-Hunter series, Rachel Gibson’s novels, and Fiona Walker’s ‘Well Groomed’.” The specificity of these answers suggests that these students may belong to fan communities of romance, with a high level of knowledge of the genre. One student wrote “Jane Austen novels,” which showed insight into the history of romance fiction. Another reported reading “anything available on the op shop[5] shelves—historical romance, Collins … I never paid attention until I read A Woman of Substance!” This response begins with a generalised conception of romance fiction and [End Page 11] one of its primary purchase locations (the op shop), before moving on to a specific author (Collins) and a particular novel to sketch a growing interest in romance fiction.

Having established students’ connections with romance fiction, I went on to ask about their experiences with the set text, looking at both enjoyment and intellectual engagement. Question 4 asked “Did you enjoy reading Spellbound?” and Question 5 asked “Did you find Spellbound interesting, from an academic perspective?” Only 20 percent of respondents said they enjoyed reading Spellbound. By contrast, 70 percent of respondents said that they did find Spellbound interesting from an academic perspective. These suggestive findings indicate that many surveyed students do not associate reading this romance text with pleasure, but that adopting a critical posture increases their comfort with the genre. The nuances and implications of these results are teased out in the responses to the later survey questions.

Question 6 asked “What did you like most about Spellbound?” The students who responded to this question fell into some discernible groups. A number of responses were ironic: one student enjoyed “When it finished,” one thought “it was so bad it was good.” Another wrote, “I did not particularly enjoy any of it, to be honest. The fact that she named her lead male ‘Calin Farrell’ was ridiculously hilarious, however.”[6] These students display something of a camp sensibility in their reading of the text. In the Genre Fiction/Popular Fiction subject, students discuss camp when they study Collins’s The Stud, so this is a mode they are familiar with by the time they encounter Spellbound.

Another group of students enjoyed the novel on its own terms. One wrote that:

It was easy and fun to read. I liked the fact that the female was in the dominant role. I actually think the writing was decent, too. It certainly wasn’t a dumb book as some would lead you to believe.

Another enjoyed the setting, “the gradual shifting perspective from the reality of life in New York to the fantastic supernatural of Ireland” and others the characters: “It was so easy to read, the characters were well defined despite the very short length of the novel.” These students take pleasure in the constitutive elements of the text: characters, setting, plot, themes and writing style.

A final group of students wrote that they enjoyed looking analytically at the text. One appreciated “Seeing a genre usually dismissed taken seriously” while another responded, “I didn’t so much enjoy the book as a book, but rather as a representation of the vast industry of romance fiction.” Three students commented specifically on the feminist aspects of the book. One wrote, “The overwhelming gender performativity astounded me, because it was written in the 90s, a decade when women were gaining independence, yet it was interesting how Bryna was so domesticated.” Another enjoyed “studying feminist critiques of it” and a third was interested in “social commentary on romance as perpetuating women’s subjugation, and why the genre remains appealing.” These students, then, did not appreciate the book as a leisure reading experience, but could value it as a text to be studied analytically (“taken seriously”) through a conceptual framework such as feminism or through its participation in industrial practices and genre conventions.

The aspects of Spellbound disliked by students also reveal much about the ways in which students approach romance. Question 7 asked, “What did you like least about Spellbound?” A cluster of responses to this question focused on stereotypes and gender [End Page 12] issues. Two students wrote “stereotypes” and “gender stereotypes,” and another disliked “the part where despite Bryna’s power, it’s Calin who can solve the problem and he did it alone while protecting her.” One response offered a more lengthy feminist critique:

I found the entire plot contrived. I believe she simply utilised the supernatural genre in order to justify the “preordained love” scenario, and to give her female lead some agency, and even that was limited as she relied upon her male hero’s confession of love in order for her powers to flourish.

A second group of responses objected to Roberts’s writing style: these students disliked “the writing style,” “poor expression and writing,” and dismissed the novella as “so poorly written.” One student linked this with the commercialization of romance fiction, criticizing the book’s “lazy writing suggesting Roberts put little or no effort into the book instead relying upon her reputation/name to sell books.”

These prose-related objections are consonant with other respondents who dislike Spellbound because of its genre conventions. One student wrote, “some parts were very cliched (which I guess is part of the romance genre). Some parts were a bit cringe-worthy, too,” while another thought the book’s “strict adherence to romance formula, just made it pretty boring with nothing much to it.” Another student wrote that “the pace in which the events of the book unfolded seemed very unrealistic to me. Also, I had never read a romance novel before but I didn’t particularly enjoy the format.” These students critique the novel using the criteria they have been taught to apply to literary texts: complexity, realism and originality. Measured against these criteria, Spellbound is a failure and students are unable to appreciate it.

In a slightly different vein, two students disliked the novel on the grounds that it was not a strong example of romance fiction. One wrote that “Considering the context, it only served to concrete the stereotypes about romance fiction that people would have had in their minds – shallow and uninteresting, whereas many romance novels have much more depth.” Another compared it unfavourably with other romance fiction and other Roberts novels:

It was extremely predictable and not at all complex like many other romance novels I’ve read. It seemed almost childish with its simplicity and I wasn’t as enraptured with the plot or characters as other Nora Roberts books or other romance novels.

Like the students who disliked romance fiction’s conventional features, these students criticize Spellbound as lacking depth and complexity. So for these respondents, romance as a genre is defensible because it can show traits that are literary – even though Spellbound doesn’t.

The survey also aimed to ascertain which critical approaches to romance were most engaging for students. Question 8 asked, “What did you find most interesting about the lecture on Spellbound?” Selected responses show a number of routes into romance that caught students’ attention. Several enjoyed learning more about the author: such as the one who was interested in “Nora Roberts” entrepreneurial relationship with her readers and her latest series set in her home town: “weird; ballsy” and the one who appreciated “The [End Page 13] parts about Nora Roberts herself (eg the website and biographical info). It was interesting to consider Roberts as the product.” Other students were interested in approaching the text from a feminist angle. One liked “the discussion about the formula of romance novels and the genre’s relationship with feminism,” and another thought that “the feminist critiques of romance novels was very interesting and fuelled lots of discussion in our tutorials.”

The largest group of students was interested in romance as a genre. One was engaged by “the critical theory behind the success of romance novels and the digitalisation of romance novels” and another by “the economy of romance fiction.” One stated that “the general background information of the romance genre was useful. I liked that it was treated as a legitimate book to study. Looking at different romance formulas was also useful.” Another student took a broader perspective on the genre: “I thought the lecture was great, it illuminated all of the problematic aspects of romance fiction and also talked about its more positive/redemptive features.”

Examined as a whole, the insights into students’ thoughts provided by this survey indicate that most respondents did not enjoy reading Spellbound: they resist Spellbound’s conventionality and depiction of gender roles, and find it lacking in qualities such as complexity, realism and depth that they appreciate in literary texts. However, these students do have a strong academic interest in romance fiction: its conventions, logics, practices and authors.


What is the place of popular romance fiction in the higher education system? This article’s account of teaching Roberts raises complicated questions about the interaction between reading for entertainment and reading for university, and the ways in which the academic context affects readers’ appreciation of different kinds of writing. Historically, texts read for enjoyment and texts studied at university have been sharply distinguished. Describing her experiences as an undergraduate, Janice Radway identifies a difference between the books she read for pleasure—“bestsellers, mysteries, cookbooks and popular nature books”—and the high literature she studied in class (A Feeling 3). Following the cultural studies turn of the twentieth-century, the study of popular culture, including genre fiction, has a more prominent place in higher education. Yet, what happens to the pleasure of reading when these texts are co-opted by academia? Radway came to enjoy reading high literary texts at university, but for her this “was always combined with an intellectual distance … my new tastes somehow failed to duplicate precisely the passion of my response to those other, suspect, supposedly transparent, popular books” (A Feeling 3). Texts that are studied as part of the university syllabus are inevitably intellectualized, and are never experienced purely as leisure. Teaching popular romance fiction at university re-situates the genre, valorizing academic readings of romance texts and obscuring what happens when such fiction is read for pleasure.

The relationship between leisure reading and academic reading is further complicated when students do not enjoy particular works of popular fiction. The survey conducted for this article showed a poor awareness of romance fiction prior to the subject and a determined refusal of its pleasures by many respondents. In this context, the [End Page 14] academic study of popular romance challenges and reframes students’ antipathy. Studying romance fiction offers students an opportunity to explicitly consider varied reading communities and hierarchies of literary value. A pedagogical presentation of romance fiction can extend students’ experience of literary culture and encourage them to reflect on their own reading and critical practices. It can open students up to the possibility of considering other literary texts as cultural products, too: further surveys of students’ experiences with other genres and texts may be illuminating in this regard. My experience of teaching Roberts has reinforced the importance of acknowledging the varying reactions students have to popular romance and of providing intellectual tools that approach romance from a number of angles, such as discussions of feminism, genre conventions and the contemporary publishing industry. These academic frameworks, while unable to fully account for the pleasures of romance, enable student readers to appreciate some of the specific social, cultural and literary qualities of the romance genre, its authors and its texts.

[1] I gratefully acknowledge the input of Ken Gelder and Claire Knowles, whose ideas and suggestions contributed to the development of this article.

[2] Both Claire Knowles and I, at various times, lectured for the subject and this section of the article reflects the collaborative nature of our lectures.

[3] Some students may be interested in engaging with critiques of Radway’s characterization of romance readers and her view that reading romance may be a substitute for social or political action (see, for example, Moore and Selinger 2012).

[4] I am indebted to Claire Knowles for this idea and phrasing.

[5] An “op shop” or opportunity shop is a store run by a charity selling secondhand goods cheaply, including secondhand books.

[6] Presumably because of the similarity with the name of the actor Colin Farrell. [End Page 15]

Works Cited

Bourdieu, Pierre. The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature.Trans. Randal Johnson. Cambridge: Polity, 1993. Print.

———. “The Forms of Capital.” The Sociology of Education. Ed. A. R. Sadovnic. New York: Routledge, 2007. 83-96. Print.

Driscoll, Beth. “Twitter, Literary Prizes and the Conversions of Capital.” By the Book?: Contemporary Publishing in Australia. Ed. Emmett Stinson. Clayton: Monash UP, 2013. 103-119. Print.

Fletcher, Lisa, Rosemary Gaby, and Jennifer Kloester. “Pedagogy Report: Embedding Popular Romance Studies in English Units: Teaching Georgette Heyer’s Sylvester.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 1.2 (2011): n. pag. Web.

Fletcher, Lisa. “The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Popular Romance Studies: What is it, and Why Does it Matter?” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 3.2 (2013): n. pag. Web.

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

Goris, An. “Mind, Body, Love: Nora Roberts and the Evolution of Popular Romance Studies.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 3.1 (2012): n. pag. Web.

Greer, Germaine. The Female Eunuch. London: MacGibbon, 1970.

Hale, Deborah. “The Secret Formula of Romance.” Deborah Hale. 2005. Web. 21 Feb 2013.

Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986. Print.

James, E. L. Fifty Shades of Grey. London: Arrow, 2011. Print.

Moore, Kate and Eric Selinger. “The Heroine as Reader, the Reader as Heroine: Jennifer Crusie’s Welcome to Temptation.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 2.2 (2012): n. pag. Web.

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

———. A Feeling for Books: The Book-Of-The-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1997. Print.

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

Robb, J. D. Vengeance in Death. New York: Berkeley, 1997. Print.

———. Reunion in Death. New York: Berkley, 2002. Print.

———. Creation in Death. New York: Berkley, 2008. Print.

———. Fantasy in Death. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2010. Print.

Roberts, Nora. Spellbound. New York: Jove, 2005. Print.

———. The Next Always (The Inn at Boonsboro Trilogy). New York: Berkley, 2011.

———. Spellbound & Ever After. London: Piatkus, 2012. Print.

Roberts, Nora, Jill Gregory, Ruth Ryan Langan, and Marianne Willman. Once Upon a Castle. New York: Jove, 1998. Print.

Selinger, Eric. “Rebooting the Romance: The Impact of A Natural History of the Romance Novel.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 3.2 (2013): n. pag. Web. [End Page 16]


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

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

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

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

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

Fantasy, Vanity, Reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading an Old-Fashioned Novel (or a Hero)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trading Textual Strategies

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

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

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

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

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

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

Constructing a New “Version of Reality”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worse than that, it was boring.

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

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

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

The Empowerment Plot

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Marriage Shift

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was born to be a politician.


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

—. “Defeating the Critics: What We Can Do About the Anti-Romance Bias,” Web. Jan. 2011.

—. “Let Us Now Praise Scribbling Women,” Web. Jan. 2011.

—. “Romancing Reality: The Power of Romance Fiction to Reinforce and Revision the Real,” Web. Jan. 2011.

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

Holmes, Linda. “Romance Fiction and Women’s Health: a Dose of Skepticism.” Web.

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

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

Modleski, Tania. “The Disappearing Act: A Study of Harlequin Romances.” Signs, Vol. 5. No. 3 (Spring, 1980). Pp. 435-448. JSTOR. Web. Jan. 2011.

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

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

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

Tripler, Jessica, “Susan Quilliam: an Expert in What, Exactly?” Web.

Vivanco, Laura. “Danger! Romance Novels!” Web.

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

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

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

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

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

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