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

The Romance Hero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dynamism of the Romance Hero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Readers’ Reproduction of the Romance Hero

A: Fanfiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Edward,’ I asked softly.

‘Yeah Bella.’

‘Promise me something,’ I said.

He glanced over to me, ‘Anything.’

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

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

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

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

But my heart couldn’t slow.

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

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

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

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

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

B: Image-macro memes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Popular Romance Novels.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies, vol. 2, no. 1, 2011, Accessed 12 September 2016.

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

Ames, Melissa. “Twilight Follows Tradition: Analyzing ‘biting’ Critiques of Vampire Narratives for their Portrayals of Gender and Sexuality.” Bitten by Twilight: Youth Culture, Media and the Vampire Franchise, edited by Melissa Click, Jennifer Aubrey and Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz, Peter Lang, 2010, pp. 37-54.

Bealer, Tracy. “Of Monsters and Men: Toxic Masculinity and the Twenty-First Century Vampire in the Twilight Saga.” Bringing Light to Twilight: Perspectives on a Pop Culture Phenomenon, edited by Giselle Liza Anatol, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, pp. 139-152.

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

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

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

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

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

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

ForeverJupJewel, “One.”, 2010, Accessed 3 August 2016.

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

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

Gibron, Bill. “A Twi-Haters Guide to Twilight.” Popmatters, 2010, Accessed 11 August 2016.

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

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

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

[End Page 17]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Larcombe, Wendy. Compelling Engagements: Feminism, Rape Law, and Romance Fiction. Federation Press, 2005.

Matthews, Mason Taylor Matthews, “Dusk: the Twilight Saga.”, 2013, Accessed 20 August 2016.

Meyer, Stephenie. Twilight. Atom, 2005.

Meyer, Stephenie. Eclipse. Little, Brown, 2007.

Miller, Melissa. “Maybe Edward Is the Most Dangerous Thing Out There: The Role of Patriarchy.” Theorizing Twilight: Critical Essays on What’s at Stake in a Post-Vampire World, edited by Maggie Parke and Natalie Wilson, McFarland, 2011, pp. 165-177.

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List of Image-macro Memes

Image-macro 1, Twilight Meme, Everyday Feminism, 2012, Accessed 11 May 2014.

Image-macro 2, Twilight Meme, Meme Centre, Accessed 14 May 2014.

Image-macro 3, Dracula is Disgusted, Gagaholism, Accessed 24 October 2019.

Image-macro 4, Meme, 2012, Accessed 24 October 2019.

Image-macro 5, Twilight Meme, We Heart It, 2014, Accessed 11 May 2014.

Image-macro 6, Twilight Meme, Meme Centre, Accessed 14 May 2014.

Image-macro 7, Real Movie Heroes (Then and Now), Funny Picture Plus, 2012, Accessed 14 May 2014.

Image-macro 8, Twilight Meme, Pinterest, Accessed 24 October 2019.

[End Page 19]


Chick Lit in Historical Settings by Frida Skybäck
by Helene Ehriander

Chick lit is a genre that usually depicts what life is like for young women in big cities, or occasionally—for the sake of variety—on fashionable country estates. They pursue their careers, go to parties, gossip with their girlfriends, and shop, while dating a series of men in their hunt for the right one. They contemplate their identity and their life, and they want everything at once so that their life will be perfect. Being slim and fit, having flawless nails and well-coiffed hair, enjoying success at work, and having a beautiful, well-kept home is a must for these women who aim for perfectionism and long for happiness. Chick lit is usually associated with the present day, and tends to be regarded as a humorous and ironic commentary on contemporary ideals and expectations. Most of the books classified in this genre take place in our own time. [End Page 1]

There are, however, several novels very close to chick lit that take place in a historical setting. These novels include many of the ingredients that we find in chick lit, but here it is grand balls instead of clubbing, muddy streets instead of asphalt, horse-drawn coaches instead of sports cars, rustling silk and bobbing tulle from dressmakers in Paris instead of famous designer brands, and visits to the confectioner instead of a latte at the sidewalk café. The important questions that the young female protagonists have to confront are not very different from those occupying Bridget Jones and her sisters, and it is not difficult for the reader to recognize herself and identify with them (Ehriander).

“Chick lit in corsets” is written by women, read by women, has female heroes, and conveys a picture of women as being basically the same throughout the ages, so that much is still as it was in the past. The readers, moreover, are often young, and this is the type of book that attracts teenage girls and their mothers. In this article I discuss Swedish “chick lit in corsets” with examples from two novels by the Swedish author Frida Skybäck (born 1980): Charlotte Hassel (2011) and The White Lady (Den vita frun) (2012). I am particularly interested in these narratives as adolescent literature and adolescent reading. Frida Skybäck’s novels are marketed by the publisher Frank Förlag as adult literature, but Skybäck deliberately writes primarily for teenage girls, and Charlotte Hassel has been offered to teenage readers in the children’s book club Barnens Bokklubb (Skybäck, interview).

Chick lit in historical settings

According to Rocío Montoro, “Chick Lit is sometimes seen as a revamped version, a rebranding, or (for some) simply a renaming, of other more traditional forms of popular writing, namely romance or romantic fiction” (7). “Chick lit in corsets” can be regarded as a genre hybrid with some of its roots in older romantic literature. The novels are very close to what is usually called “romance” but they also have several typical features of chick lit. Many of them could also be called “feel-good” novels, a designation that comes from the emotions they arouse in the reader. Kaye Mitchell writes in her article “Gender and Sexuality in Popular Fiction” about how chick lit has also influenced the traditional romance. Chick lit is considered to have higher status and is treated with greater respect than romance, and authors and publishers alike believe that the romance genre has something to gain from being influenced by chick lit as regards, for example, the portrayal of better-educated, more ambitious heroines (Mitchell 134). Chick lit has also challenged the old boundaries between popular culture and more highly esteemed literature, and publishers tend to advertise romance together with chick lit so that the two genres will attract readers from each other (Harzewski 2011, 32, 41). That genres in today’s literature cross-fertilize each other is the rule rather than the exception, and there are many reasons for this. Authors who write in a particular genre are often regarded as innovative if they break one or more of the traditional structures. They can also profile themselves and express their personal authorial style by relating to the set framework of the genre, and by going against the conventions they can criticize the accepted norms and values of the genre. [End Page 2]

Maria Ehrenberg, in a book about present-day romance from Maeve Binchy to Marcia Willett, divides light historical novels into four categories:

  1. The unique person. In this category we meet historical personages and read about historical periods and events from the perspective of one person’s actions.
  2. Laborious everyday work. These books describe the misery and toil of everyday life.
  3. Recent history. The Second World War is a common topic here, and the narrative often continues down to the present day.
  4. The Miss Novel, also known as the governess novel or the manor-house novel. Here we find mystery and elements of thriller, as well as issues of class, money, and wealth. The historical backdrop is often sketchy and stereotyped, and the stories end with the by tradition dictated kiss (39-40).

Frida Skybäck’s novels do not fit into any of these four categories, although there are elements of the Miss Novel in particular. Maria Nilson writes that it may seem strange to call historical portrayals “chick lit,” and she cites as an example Anna Godbersen’s four-part suite The Luxe, which takes place in Manhattan in 1899–1900, of which at least the first part is close to chick lit (40). Nilson writes that it is fairly unproblematic to call the first book, The Luxe, chick lit jr., that is, chick lit for young readers: “There are parties and clothes and shopping and intrigues in an upper-class milieu. Then the series develops in a different direction, turning much darker, and it also becomes more difficult to identify the genre” (40, author’s own translation). Chick lit jr. is characterized by the inclusion of typical chick lit ingredients while simultaneously considering matters such as reaching adulthood, identity, awakening sexuality, the future, and relations to friends, customary elements in stories for adolescents and young adults (Johnson 141 ff.).

The action of Frida Skybäck’s debut book Charlotte Hassel (2011) takes place in 1771, with flashbacks to 1758. In 1758 Charlotte is a young woman from a well-off family who falls in love with a man of her own age. After a party she walks the short distance to her home, waiting for her parents, when an older man, influential and wealthy, follows her closely in order to assault her. Charlotte puts up a fight when he finds his way into her bedroom and tries to rape her, and she kills him with her letter opener in self-defense. When her parents arrive they help her get rid of the body and they send her to safety in England, where she finds a good life with a male friend, to whom she becomes engaged. Her parents and sister suffer fraud and extortion, and after thirteen years Charlotte decides to come back to Stockholm incognito to try to put things right. She also understands that a coup d’état is in the making. She meets once again the man she loved in her youth and breaks off the engagement in England; it turns out that her fiancé is homosexual and that they can only ever be good friends, which they remain even after Charlotte marries someone else. The kind, thoughtful homosexual male friend, with interests in fashion and interior decoration, is a common character in chick lit. The female characters in the novel are complex, and Skybäck plays with the stereotypes of the whore and the Madonna when she allows room for young women’s thoughts and feelings. [End Page 3]

In this novel there is plenty of female culture and feminine attributes: Charlotte buys mineral makeup, enjoys delicious pastries, and has exquisite dresses made for her. However, there is also a feminist intention in that Charlotte takes control over her life and her situation. She gets involved in the game of politics, showing a clear vision and sense of purpose as she averts the planned coup d’état. The reader follows Charlotte from the time when she is a young and somewhat insecure girl, which makes it easier for younger readers to identify with her, up to the happy ending, when she has developed into a grown-up woman who takes her share of what life has to offer.


The term “romance” is one that embraces a wide variety of literature on the theme of romantic love.[1] In Barbara Fuchs’s book Romance the analyses range from ancient Greece, through medieval tales of chivalry, Shakespeare and the Renaissance, to end with Harlequin romances. Fuchs also underlines how many sub-genres there are, and how popular contemporary romance literature is (124 ff.). Romances in the sense of romantic literature written by women for women usually have a similar construction, consisting of a number of set narrative structures that are varied in a more or less predictable way up to the happy ending when the heroine receives a kiss, an offer of marriage, or both. Frida Skybäck’s second novel, The White Lady (2012), contains less chick lit and more romance in the narrative, but it is powerful in its feminist message when it comes to emphasizing women’s right to shape their own lives and to be respected even if they are neither beautiful nor rich. This novel combines several literary motifs and patterns that often occur in both romance, chick lit and books for young adults: for example, the “ugly duckling”, “Cinderella,” and the orphan child (Harzewski 2006, 38). Most of the action takes place in the castle of Borgeby in Skåne. The story is about the fates of individual women, insolvency, and love across class boundaries: “love across the classes [is] an extremely common theme in historical romance,” Jerome de Groot writes in his survey in The Historical Novel (58).

Janice A. Radway, who has written a study of female readings of romance literature, Reading the Romance, states that the reading works for readers “as the ritualistic repetition of a single, immutable cultural myth” (194). But Radway goes on to claim, albeit in a rather limited study, that the reading women display different strategies and that their reading serves a number of different purposes. This is interesting given that romance literature and the reading of it has been criticized from many quarters for being conservative, presenting a distorted picture of society, fooling its readers, and even turning them into addicts and slaves since their real problems are never solved; instead they get stuck in a reading that brings temporary relief through illusory solutions. This outlook on the reading of romantic literature and female readers as victims has a long history. Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary (1856–57) has achieved great significance with its portrayal of a reading girl who through time loses contact with reality and as a young woman falls into a destructive pattern with reading, eroticism, fashion, and shimmering pink dreams of romantic rendezvous, while she cheats on her husband, runs up huge debts, and ends up seeing suicide by arsenic as the only way out. [End Page 4]

Perhaps some romance literature over the years could be called escapist, and can justifiably be accused of building on stereotyped gender roles, with protagonists that are poor role models for young readers, but in today’s romance and chick lit there are interesting exceptions which actually use the genre and the form to communicate feminist messages to their readers through playful, knowing hints and examples of energetic heroines who shape their own lives. It is also not infrequent that the genre comments on itself in its portrayal of literature and reading. This gives readers the chance to read subversively and to read against the text; instead of passivizing the reader, this can give strength. It is also quite common for the female protagonists to be interested in literature, and using the wisdom they have derived from their reading. Maria in The White Lady enjoys the castle library and immerses herself not only in romantic novels but also reads, for example, contemporary female poetry.

Diana Wallace, who has written a study titled The Woman’s Historical Novel: British Women Writers, 1900–2000, argues that the historical novel was one of the most important forms for women’s reading and writing during the twentieth century. She testifies to how she herself and many of the women she knows have read historical novels by and about women ever since childhood: “From an early age I read women’s historical novels avidly, as did my mother and sister. The same was true, I later discovered, of many of my female friends and colleagues, and of many of the literary critics, writers, and theorists who have been central to the development of feminist literary criticism” (ix). She points out, however, that there has been a tendency to associate female authors’ historical novels with romance and label them as escapist: “Associated with the ‘popular’, women writers have thus been doubly excluded from the established canon” (Wallace 10). What I think becomes clear when one studies what has been written about the different genres is that romance is perceived as a female genre while historical novels are masculine (and “serious”).

 Historical novels

Då som nu (“Then As Now”) by Hans O. Granlid from 1964 is still the standard Swedish work about the historical novel. Granlid does not write anything about children’s and young people’s literature, nor about young people’s reading, and of all the novels he analyses, only one is by a female author. The situation is similar in major English-language studies, and another remarkable thing is that, when the origin of the historical novel is described, only male authors are highlighted, with Walter Scott taking pride of place. Female authors and the genres they have developed and published their works in have to take a back seat as male authors set the pattern for how historical novels should be written.

In his introduction Granlid poses interesting and fundamental questions about what a historical novel is and what characterizes it. He is interested in the problems of analogy and archaization: that is, how the historical period is described in the literary work, how the matter is presented and placed in a particular time, how it is related to the present, and what specifically is archaized in content and style. Closely linked to the problems of analogy and archaization is the problem of anachronism: that is, what happens when writing about something from the past that is to be read in the present, made comprehensible to contemporary readers (Granlid 16 ff.). Archaization is thus about how the text is made [End Page 5] “old-fashioned”: anachronisms are things or expressions that are out of place in the period, and analogies are agreements between our time and the historical time.

Historical books often incorporate a large amount of fact in the narrative, which means that people often ask where the dividing line between fact and fiction runs. A historical novel can never be regarded as “true,” for somewhere the author has decided where history ends and the story begins: in other words, where facts give way to fiction, and if a factual event is described we must remember that it is slanted in some way by the author.

Maria Nikolajeva, in her book Barnbokens byggklossar (“Building Blocks of the Children’s Book”), discusses what a historical portrayal is, with examples from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, published in 1868. The novel is about the author’s experiences in a domestic setting during the America Civil War, and it is partly or mostly autobiographical. The book has been read by many generations of girls and has also been filmed:

Historical novels are set in the past. It is important to remember, however, that it is the author’s past, not the reader’s, that determines whether a novel can be called historical. From the perspective of a reader in the 1990s, Tom Sawyer, Little Women, Nils Holgersson, and Elvis Karlsson all depict a bygone time, but they were written as contemporary accounts. This may seem unimportant, but it is crucial when we judge values in the text. Little Women expressed its period’s view of the role of women in society. A modern young people’s novel set in the same historical period as Little Women would perhaps express our modern view of the same issue. (Nikolajeva 49)

With regard to values, which Nikolajeva finds important, a story thus cannot just lie maturing and subsequently become historical (49).

Ying Toijer-Nilsson writes that most historical novels for young readers have a boy as the leading character (24). This no doubt has something to do with the conventions of historical books for young people, where war, for example, is a common topic, and girls have traditionally stayed at home while boys have been at the center of the exciting events. Moreover, girls and women learned early on to read texts where boys and men have prominent roles, whereas boys and men tend to read only about their own gender, since they are brought up to view anything associated with the female sphere as less important. However, Maria Nikolajeva writes in Children’s Literature Comes of Age: Toward a New Aesthetic that one can discern a change in historical narrative as regards the leading characters: “In particular, the masculine viewpoint of the earlier historical novel has been challenged by contemporary writers in favor of the ‘her-story’” (131). To attract all readers it has often been considered important that the protagonist should be a boy or a young man and that there is excitement enough to keep the reader’s interest to the very end. It has also been common for the author to choose to have both a girl and a boy, often siblings, so that readers of both sexes can identify with one of the leading figures. Kent Hägglund has written about the significance of the historical novel both for our perception of history and as reading matter for young people:

Ever since the middle of the nineteenth century, the historical novel has meant a great deal for the interest that children and young people take in [End Page 6] history. Novelists have often taken the lead in giving new perspectives. Women, children, minorities, and war victims of bygone times were given a central position in literature, long before they were included in school history books.

It has even happened often that authors of young people’s books have taken up an interesting topic before historians have tackled it. There is nothing strange about that: both historians and authors are driven by a conviction that knowledge of the past can help us in our lives here and now.

Both use knowledge and imagination to explore people and phenomena in a bygone time. But the researcher always reaches a limit where he or she must stop, and dividing lines between what we know, what we can assume, and what we have no idea about. The author has the freedom—or perhaps rather the compulsion—to step over that line, to give life to persons who never existed, to forge links, to invent. (Hägglund, author’s own translation)

Hägglund goes on to say: “Of course there are novelists who use a historical setting merely as a backdrop for stories that could just as well have been enacted in the present.” The concept of the historical novel thus includes not only the time aspect but also a quality aspect. In research on literature and history there has long been awareness that history and fiction are closely related since all attempts to depict our past take some form of narrative, but this can be done in more or less responsible ways. There are and have been authors who have endeavored to write serious historical novels and there are those who have written what are somewhat condescendingly called “costume novels,” seeking to tell an entertaining story in a historical setting. In costume novels the historical period is just a backdrop; the historical details can be quite correct while the people and relationships are not put into any factual historical context.

There are thus many levels to take into consideration as a reader when reflecting on a historical novel and what is “true” and “correct”. The details must be accurate in that the clothes, for example, should correspond to the period and that there should be no cars in a period before the car was invented. In Frida Skybäck’s novels, the characters are placed in a historical time where genuine historical figures are named and possible historical events are depicted. Frida Skybäck, who teaches history and English, faithfully uses the vocabulary of the period and she is also careful to try to get the historical details right. During the time she was working on Charlotte Hassel, one of the books she read was the diary of Märta Helena Reenstierna (Årstafruns dagbok 1793-1839), and she learned how modern that lady was in her way of expressing herself, and how her thoughts did not differ noticeably from the way we think today. In both of Skybäck’s books there is an afterword outlining how much of the narrative is fact and how much is fiction.

Historical events must be correctly depicted, but as a reader one also has to be aware that they are probably depicted from a particular angle, perhaps with a specific intention, and that it is often the victor who writes the history. In historical accounts women, poor people, and children are portrayed less frequently than men, kings, and well-off people, although this is slowly changing (Brown and St. Clair 186). It is even more problematic in a historical narrative to picture how different people have thought and felt [End Page 7] through the ages. There is more documentation and material when it comes to men, but the material for women and children is very limited.

People are the same through the ages

“The problem for historians,” Karin Norman writes, “is that we have so little access to the way people perceived their own situation and justified their actions. It is easy to resort to ascribing our own thoughts and values and emotions to other people. It takes a balancing act between generalizing and relativizing: how similar or different were people in the past from us today? Similar or different in what way?” (51, author’s own translation). Authors have greater freedom in this matter than historians do. John Stephens, in his study Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction, says that major historical events tend to be described through love stories and human relations in this kind of fiction (206). On several levels, as Stephens also points out, there lies a contradiction within historical fiction. While the text links past and present, it simultaneously gives the illusion of an older literary discourse. The discourse constantly balances between “the same” and “different.” In a broader perspective this is a matter of a transhistorical outlook versus cultural relativism (Stephens 202 ff.). As I see it, it is not a question of either/or, but of where the discourse is positioned on different occasions on a scale between these two poles. In portrayals of the past there must be more similarities than differences to facilitate understanding, especially for young readers. A text that is placed too far on the scale towards “difference” makes identification difficult and risks not being perceived as plausible, and may even be incomprehensible. It is also a matter of the level on which one wants to put the interpretation. If you go straight into the text and look at the details, relations, or emotions that display similarity or difference, you tend to perceive the text as showing a high degree of cultural relativism. If, on the other hand, you choose to abstract and raise the relations and emotions to a higher level, there is a good chance of seeing the text as transhistorical and common to all mankind. The foundation is similar but the constituents take on relative expressions depending on the time in which they exist and the culture and social class they reflect. The transhistorical position means that humanity, wishes, and needs are the same through the ages, but that they find different social expressions. In other words, one could say that people are alike through the ages and that it is the stage on which they act that differs from one period to another. People are steered by their environment and their culture, but they are basically the same; if we peel away or abstract the exterior, the human core is constant. By emphasizing the similarities and the basic correspondences, it is possible to create an understanding of both past and present.

This understanding is also used by Frida Skybäck. The distance from the historical period allows readers to see their own lives and their own problems in perspective, and it offers an opportunity to come to terms with these. Moreover, the reader gets an idea of what it means to be a woman here and now in comparison with what it could be like in the past. When women read about women and the things that have occupied women’s time and interest through the ages, it also establishes a historical community. Family sagas tend to be popular, and by reading them one can glimpse historical connections that would not otherwise be visible. Women get their share of history and can draw parallels to their own [End Page 8] experiences. Frida Skybäck’s The White Lady depicts two generations of women in parallel. The older woman has just had a daughter, and since she is growing increasingly weak from a terrible illness that she does not understand, she writes a diary for her newborn daughter. The novel ends with the daughter reaching adulthood and having a daughter of her own, for whom she starts writing a diary. Through her own mother’s notes she has found out who she is and has got to know the mother who drowned herself to save her newborn daughter when she was just a few months old. Diana Wallace writes: “As a genre, the historical novel has allowed women writers a license which they have not been allowed in other forms. This is most obviously true of sexuality where it has allowed coverage of normally taboo subjects, not just active female sexuality but also contraception, abortion, childbirth and homosexuality” (6).

In Frida Skybäck’s two books we find, beside the portrayal of the young woman who does not understand that she has contracted syphilis from her husband, accounts of pregnancy before marriage, the contraceptive methods used in those days, attempted rapes, a sexual relationship with a man who is not a potential future husband but a tender lover who teaches the young woman “the art of love”, and sexual relations across class boundaries. History is written here from a female perspective, and female concerns are visibly in focus. At the same time, this can be viewed as a comment on life today, an explanation for why we relate to these parts of life in a particular way. Girls and women are lifted out of their exclusion and marginalization, and the author has the liberty here to write alternative history. John Stephens says that what is depicted as universal human experience in a historical account can mean that our descriptions of the past are colored by our image of present-day reality (202 ff.). In Frida Skybäck’s books this is entirely intentional, a narrative device to enable the reader to reflect on herself and her own life as she reads.

Role play in a historical setting

Diana Wallace writes in her preface how history lessons in school disappointed her since they were never about women, and she sees this as one reason why so many girls and women have read and still read historical novels where women are allowed to be central figures (ix). Wallace goes on to write:

The “woman’s historical novel”, then, encompasses both the “popular” and the “serious” or “literary” ends of the spectrum, but one of my arguments here is that the two are intimately linked. [. . .] We need to read both “serious” and “popular” historical novels together and against each other if we want fully to understand the range of meanings that history and the historical novel have held for women readers in the twentieth century. (5)

Eva Queckfeldt has written about “the historical novel without history” in the annual of the history teachers’ association: [End Page 9]

To restrict the discussion solely to historical novels, these have been considered and discussed both as a source of knowledge and as an educational aid, not least by history teachers. The advantages of the novels are thought to be, among other things, that they let the reader experience the past in a different way from the textbooks. For example, the reader meets figures from the past and it is, probably rightly, assumed that this makes him/her familiar with the people of bygone times, their context, their everyday life, and their thoughts. This almost always concerns the “good” historical novels: Per Anders Fogelström’s novels about Stockholm, Vilhelm Moberg’s emigration epic, Väinö Linna’s crofter trilogy, to name just a few examples. These are novels written by authors who took pains to give as correct a picture as possible of the past. Often they were accounts that not even professional historians could object to.

The problem is that these good novels are just a small proportion of all the “historical novels” produced. There is also a whole undergrowth of novels that call themselves “historical.” (63, author’s own translation)

The good historical novels mentioned by Queckfeldt are also all by male authors, and she contrasts these with seven “pulp novels” in which reality is doctored for the reader and the novels’ “conflicts become simple and are explained as a result of the individual persons’ actions.” The plot “circles around LOVE for the female readership” (64, author’s own translation). These novels have such great defects in their language, the anachronisms are piled on top of each other, and all the historical details are so vague that they could be used almost anywhere. Queckfeldt argues that these novels, carelessly thrown together and trivial in content, are “without history.” Frida Skybäck’s novels counteract this by showing, from a female perspective, how history repeats itself and how today’s women are a part of the past, therein giving women a place where they refuse to “take shit from anybody.”[2]

Frida Skybäck plays with historical depiction, with romance and chick lit, and with the stereotyped characters of the whore and the Madonna, in order to give scope to women’s thoughts and feelings. By playing with genres she opens possibilities for readers to read subversively, to try out new roles and lines, and to find themselves and stand up for who they are. Frida Skybäck, who works as a teacher at an international high school in Lund, is also aware that in other countries much more historical material is used than in the Swedish school. In Sweden, history as it is taught is comparatively dry and lifeless, and she thinks that it is important to arouse an interest in the source of power that history represents through literature that can move people. Diana Wallace writes about how women in Mussolini’s Italy were prohibited from studying history at university: “A knowledge of history, this suggests, has the potential to be dangerously subversive [. . .]. It is not surprising that in women’s hands the historical novel has often become a political tool” (2). Compared with Madame Bovary’s tragic fate, this is the reverse way to view women’s reading: either girls and women read with emotion and can then be affected to the point of madness, or else they are able to read with the brain connected and the result can be a threat to the prevailing society.

Janice A. Radway has exposed the narrative structures in romances in the same way that Vladimir Propp in the 1920s identified the set narrative features of Russian folktales. Radway has found thirteen recurrent features, which she calls functions, in romances: [End Page 10]

  1. The heroine’s social identity is destroyed.
  2. The heroine reacts antagonistically to an aristocratic male.
  3. The aristocratic male responds ambiguously to the heroine.
  4. The heroine interprets the hero’s behavior as evidence of a purely sexual interest in her.
  5. The heroine responds to the hero’s behavior with anger or coldness.
  6. The hero retaliates by punishing the heroine.
  7. The heroine and hero are physically and/or emotionally separated.
  8. The hero treats the heroine tenderly.
  9. The heroine responds warmly to the hero’s act of tenderness.
  10. The heroine reinterprets the hero’s ambiguous behavior as the product of previous hurt.
  11. The hero proposes/openly declares his love for/demonstrates his unwavering commitment to the heroine with a supreme act of tenderness.
  12. The heroine responds sexually and emotionally.
  13. The heroine’s identity is restored. (134)

It is important to have knowledge of how narratives are built up, since this is also the foundation for our interpretation of them. When we recognize the set form, we know what type of story we are reading, and when we have read several of them we soon detect when an author is going against the familiar pattern. In these deviations an author’s ideological intentions can be obvious: for example, when an author with feminist ambitions breaks the pattern in a traditional romantic narrative. This also opens up for questions about how historical literature functions, namely, that it brings our history to life and invites the reader to take the step into an alternative time, a kind of role play where one can learn something about our history, about our own time, and about ourselves and the contexts to which we belong as girls, women, and humans.

[1] “The term romance derives from the French and was first used exclusively to refer to medieval romances (sometimes called ‘chivalric romances’) written in French and composed in verse. These narratives were concerned with knightly adventure, courtly love, and chivalric ideals, often set at the court of King Arthur. Later the term was used to refer to any medieval romance, whether in verse or prose, and regardless of country of origin” (Harzewski 31).

[2] This idiomatic expression is often used by young women in Sweden today to indicate that they do not accept infringements of their integrity, outdated values, stupid comments, or lack of respect. [End Page 11]


Brown, Joanne, and Nancy St. Clair. The Distant Mirror: Reflections on Young Adult Historical Fiction. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press Inc, 2006. Print.

Ehrenberg, Maria. Nutidsromantik: Från Maeve Binchy till Marcia Willett. Lund: BTJ Förlag, 2009. Print.

Ehriander, Helene. “Chick lit i korsett.” Chick lit – brokiga läsningar och didaktiska utmaningar. Ed. Maria Nilson and Helene Ehriander. Stockholm: Liber, 2013. 159-173. Print.

Fuchs, Barbara. Romance. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Godbersen, Anna. The Luxe. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. Print.

Granlid, Hans O., Då som nu. Historiska romaner i översikt och analys. Stockholm: Natur och kultur, 1964. Print.

Hägglund, Kent. “Mot främmande land på Attilas häst.” Dagens Nyheter. 14 May 2001. Print.

Harzewski, Stephanie. Chick Lit and Postfeminism. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011. Print.

— — —. “Tradition and Displacement in the New Novel of Manners.” Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction. Ed. Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young. New York: Routledge, 2006. 29-46. Print.

Johnson, Joanna Webb, “Chick Lit Jr.: More Than Glitz and Glamour for Teens and Tweens” Chick Lit. The New Woman’s Fiction. Ed. Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young. New York: Routledge, 2006. 141-157. Print.

Mitchell, Kaye. “Gender and Sexuality in Popular Fiction.” The Cambridge Companion to Popular Fiction. Eds. David Glover and Scott McCracken. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 122-140. Print.

Montoro, Rocío. Chick Lit. The Stylistics of Cappuccino Fiction. London: Continuum, 2012. Print.

Nikolajeva, Maria. Barnbokens byggklossar. Lund: Studentlitteratur, 1998. Print.

— — —. Children’s Literature Comes of Age: Toward a New Aesthetic. New York: Garland, 1996. Print.

Nilson, Maria. Från Gossip Girl till Harry Potter: Genusperspektiv på ungdomslitteratur. Lund: BTJ Förlag, 2010. Print.

Norman, Karin. Kulturella föreställningar om barn: Ett socialantropologiskt perspektiv. Stockholm: Rädda Barnen, 1996. Print.

Queckfeldt, Eva. “Den historielösa historiska romanen.” Historielärarnas förenings årsskrift. N.p., 1995-96. 63-70. Print.

Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. 1984. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991. Print.

Skybäck, Frida. Charlotte Hassel. Stockholm: Frank, 2011. Print.

— — —. Den vita frun. Stockholm: Frank, 2012. Print.

— — —. Interview by Helene Ehriander. 2 August 2012.

Stephens, John. Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction. London: Longman, 1992. Print.

Toijer-Nilsson, Ying. “Lite välkommen ‘herstory’.” Abrakadabra 6 (1997): 24-25. Print.

Wallace, Diana. The Woman’s Historical Novel: British Women Writers, 1900–2000. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Print.

[End Page 12]


Love in the Digital Library: A Search for Racial Heterogeneity in E-Books
by Renee Bennett-Kapusniak and Adriana McCleer

[End Page 1]

Introduction and Background

The romance genre is one of the bestselling genres in the United States (US). It is also the largest genre read in e-book (electronic book) format in the consumer market (RWA). An e-book format, for the purpose of this study, is defined as Adobe PDF, Mobipocket, Adobe EPUB, OverDrive Read and Kindle library downloads (OverDrive). The discovery of e-books and the growth of e-reading is rapidly increasing as more materials become available online and accessible on different technological devices. With this growth in e-reading, the demand for a diverse range of titles in e-book format is increasing. OverDrive, a global digital system that distributes e-books and other multimedia, offers the primary source for e-book library downloads. The Wisconsin Public Library Consortium (WPLC) currently has an OverDrive digital library (DL) of electronic materials for Wisconsin residents.

This exploratory case study examines how Wisconsin public libraries’ digital collections present a range of racial and ethnic perspectives and reflect the racial and ethnic demographics of their service communities by reviewing multicultural romance genre e-book title records in the WPLC digital library. Within this context, the study addresses the following questions: Do public libraries’ digital collections present a diversity of racial and ethnic perspectives and reflect the racial and ethnic demographics of their distinct service communities? What is the accessibility of these e-books within the digital system? This study analyzes the availability (number of titles, copies and holds) of the books as well as their accessibility (language selection and classification of titles) within the WPLC digital library system, determining whether the DL was supplying racially and ethnically diverse romance titles in e-book format and whether the e-books were accessible to potential users. The study also examines whether the DL is increasing the amount of these e-books in the collection to assist in the demand for the popular romance genre.

Romance Fiction and Multicultural Romance Fiction

Romance fiction has developed and expanded as a genre since its early beginnings. It is, by definition, a genre of literature that presents a fictional or legendary love story, tale, or prose narrative, which may include heroism, chivalry, adventure, and mysterious and/or supernatural elements (Merriam­-Webster). Romance fiction writing and leisure reading has been a popular activity for centuries. Subgenres include historical, contemporary, paranormal, suspense, westerns, inspirational/religious, fantasy, and young adult romance (RWA). Romance novels specifically focus on relationships. They may contain varying sensuality degrees, from sweet to extremely hot (Bouricius 3-11). Readers can become involved on an emotional level with the story’s characters, experiencing a journey to a “Happily Ever After” that makes them feel satisfied at the end (Radway 61; Wendell 8). [End Page 2] Romance fiction has traditionally presented homogeneous representations of White, non-Hispanic characters, cultural traditions, and social values.

Multicultural romance fiction includes works written by authors who identify as Hispanic or Latina/o, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska native, and/or Asian. It also includes romance fiction that depicts characters of color or indigenous characters and culturally diverse narratives, either by authors from that same racial/ethnic group or not (Bostic 214). The representations of characters of color or indigenous characters vary within romance fiction (and among other genre fiction), ranging from one-dimensional, stereotypical characters to characters with three-dimensional depth and realistic characteristics. The range contains problematic stereotyping of women of color and indigenous women as hypersexual, sexually aggressive, violent, or submissive sex objects in contemporary fiction (White 1-3; Gregor xiv). Characteristics of less educated people or those from lower socioeconomic classes have often been used to add “ethnic flavor” to stories (Forster paragraph 10). Narratives that interrupt and challenge such stories introduce more positive, relevant representations, highlighting culture, empowerment of families and communities, and a range of realities (White 7). Multicultural romance encompasses a variety of cultures, with the most frequent emphasis on African American romance (Ramsdell 290).

Authors of color and indigenous authors have been writing and publishing romance works for centuries, but it has only been within the past twenty years that they have benefited professionally and financially from such publications (White). Publishing companies did not publish African American authors’ romance fiction until the 1980s and only began introducing publications representing African American characters in the 1990s (White 6). Before this time, publications with African American and American Indian characters were rare (Osborne; Gregor 175-176). The early 1990s brought a boom in multicultural romance publications, with major publishing companies establishing specific multicultural imprints. In 1991, Ballantine was the first major publishing company to establish an imprint specifically focusing on multicultural books of “African-American, Asian, Latin, and Native American interest” (One World). In 1994, Kensington established “Arabesque Books,” an imprint focusing on African American romances (Osborne; White), and in 1999, “Encanto,” a line of “Hispanic contemporary romances.” The “Arabesque” imprint was sold to B.E.T. in 1998, which prohibited Kensington from publishing competing books. After this limitation was lifted, Kensington launched “Dafina” in 2000 “by and about people of the African descent” (Publishers Weekly, “Kensington Returns to African-American Market,” 1; Kensington Publishing Corp.). Furthermore, Harlequin developed Kimani Press, a division publishing mainstream fiction predominantly featuring African American characters, in 2005. Kimani now includes five distinct imprints (Harlequin; Reid). Harlequin also publishes Spanish translations in their “Bianca” and “Deseo” lines, which are popular romance novels written by White, non-Hispanic authors, featuring White, non-Hispanic characters (Engberg 237). Independent publishing companies have likewise committed to the publication of multicultural romance novels. Genesis Press, established in 1993, is the largest privately owned African American publishing company in the US. It has expanded to produce eight distinct imprints as well as classic and new books that are translated into Kiswahili. Parker Publishing is a small publishing company that was developed in 2005 to create literature for “Black and multi-ethnic readers,” including the Fire Opal line of publications (Parker Publishing). [End Page 3]

Encounters with literature that reflects one’s own experience, familiar settings, or recognizable themes can be empowering and validating. Encounters with literature that portrays a diverse range of representations and narratives can expand individuals’ worldviews. Librarians have the opportunity and the responsibility to facilitate such encounters by developing collections that portray diverse perspectives and representations, regardless of the local community (Bostic 216). Van Fleet in 2003 addressed the lack of diversity in popular fiction library collections by recognizing the failure to understand popular literature’s impact on social and personal validation (70). Library materials need to reflect the diversity of their service communities and present a diversity of ideas. These goals can be fulfilled through the development and maintenance of an e-book DL.

E-Books in Public Libraries

E-books range in format variety and are downloaded on an e­-reader or other technological device (Pawlowski 58). While the first e-book became available in 1971 via the Internet DL Project Gutenberg, e-book commercialization in the late 1990s was a turning point for their current ubiquity and popularity (Galbraith). Downloadable audiobook availability in 2004 helped spur librarians’ interest in providing access to e-books in public libraries (Pawlowski 55). NetLibrary became the first e-book lending platform for libraries in 1998 (Galbraith), while current library e-book vendors include Baker & Taylor Axis 360, EBSCO eBooks, Gale Virtual Reference Library, Ingram MyiLibrary, OverDrive, ProQuest ebrary, and 3M Cloud Library (Blackwell et al. “ReadersFirst” 4). OverDrive is the highest ranked vendor for e-book services in libraries by ReadersFirst, a group of 292 library systems working to improve e-book access and services for public library users (3-6). OverDrive offers the most e-book format options for libraries (Pawlowski 61). Adobe EPUB, or “electronic publication,” is the current industry standard for e-books as developed by the International Digital Publishing Forum (Pawlowski 58-59). These e-books are accessible via e-readers, computers, handheld mobile devices, and tablets (Griffey 8; Library of Congress).

E-book popularity has been increasing in the last few years. There was triple digit growth in 2011 of e-­book discovery and online readers due to the expanding use of digital devices and consumer awareness (Burleigh). E-book collections and overall demand have stabilized, yet a 2013 public library survey reported that e-book circulation in libraries has continued to rise (Enis, “Library E-book Usage,” 3). Keeping note of item usage can show how popular the item has been among users over a period of time (Wolfram 169). A 2012 Pew study of e-book usage illustrated that 21 percent of the American population has read an e­-book (Rainie et al.). The most popular genre read in e-book downloads is romance (Veros 303). In 2011, OverDrive’s data from over five million users indicated romance was one of the top four genres searched in a DL (Reid). Libraries need to understand user habits to connect them to digital content (Menchaca 109).

Library development and maintenance of digital and print collections provides a diverse range of materials and formats for all users. Results from a 2013 PEW study indicates more than half of American participants definitely want more e-books offered as a library service (Zickuhr, Rainie and Purcell). With the increase in e-book availability and popularity, public library collection practices have changed to include print and digital [End Page 4] content (Bailey 57). Findings from a 2013 study showed that 89 percent of public libraries offer e-books to their patrons and a majority (also 89 percent) expect their e-book circulation to increase within the next year (Enis, “E-book Usage Survey,”3). A study tracking e-book circulation from 2004-2010 at the New York Public Library (NYPL) depicts an increase in patrons and e-book usage, with e-book usage disproportionately higher. A 2009-2010 NYPL e-book study showed that usage rose 37 percent and reported that library e-book users read digital content repeatedly (Platt 252). Libraries need to refine e-book services to accommodate users’ interests and needs. Public libraries provide collections of popular digital materials by working with a commercial vendor, rather than through a direct relationship with publishers (Pawlowski 56), which can present a cumbersome user experience (Blackwell et al. “ReadersFirst” 3). A PEW survey comparing e-book and print titles revealed 50 percent of library e-book borrowers feel there are long waiting lists and a lack of novel titles in e-book formats (Rainie and Duggan). While few studies have examined public libraries’ e-book services (Platt; Rainie and Duggan; Zickuhr, Rainie and Purcell), none specifically analyze racial and ethnic diversity within a public library’s e-book collection. This study explores diversity in the popular e-romance genre.

Library Policies and Philosophies

The Wisconsin state legislature’s policy for libraries states that libraries need to provide free access to information, a diversity of ideas, and knowledge, as well as providing electronic delivery of information, in order to maintain eligibility for state aid (Wisconsin Public Library Legislation and Funding Task Force; Wisconsin Statutes 43.00(a-b); Wisconsin Statutes 43.24(f-m)). Local policies and professional ethics drive public librarians’ commitment to providing materials that respond to community interests and needs, including racial, ethnic, and linguistic relevance and format interests.

The American Library Association Code of Ethics provides normative ethical guidelines for library and information professionals, beginning with, “We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests” (“Code of Ethics”). This principle recognizes the profession’s commitment to serving all library users with equitable access, without distinction based on race or ethnicity. Librarians have the opportunity as well as the obligation to provide encounters with e-books that reflect their diverse communities’ experiences and portray a diverse range of narratives with the potential to expand their worldviews.

E-book collection development

The WPLC mission is to provide Wisconsin residents with access to a broad, current, and popular collection of electronically published materials in a wide range of subjects and formats (Gold et al. “Collection Development Policy” 2). The Digital Library Steering Committee manages the WPLC digital library, including the development of policy and budget recommendations approved by the Board, decision-making for daily operations of the DL, and the establishment and management of a Selection Committee tasked with selecting materials for the DL. It is led by a member-selected Chair and membership is [End Page 5] comprised of one Board representative and one or more representatives from each partner, based on annual investment (Gold et al., “Members,” 2012).

The WPLC has a Digital Media Vendor/Product Selection Committee of eight members representing public library systems, individual libraries, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, and Wisconsin Interlibrary Services. This committee surveys the marketplace for products to support digital media material distribution in public libraries, develops criteria for WPLC vendor selection and contracts, and recommends a purchasing strategy for digital media to the WPLC Board (Bend et al. “Digital Media Vendor”). In 2011, the Vendor Selection Committee reported an “awareness of the inadequacy of the WPLC E-Book collection to cope with current demand” and a commitment to focus on offering “a rich collection of E-Books to public library patrons” (Bend et al. “Vendor Selection Committee”). The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction Division for Libraries, Technology, and Community Learning organized an E-book Summit in 2012, which spurred WPLC organization of a statewide initiative to pool funds and purchase $1 million of e-books and audiobooks (Gold et al. “Collection Development Policy” 2). As of 26 April 2014, the WPLC digital library collection contains 9,433 romance e-book items, which has steadily increased by 505 items over the past two months.


            The researchers in this study investigated how the WPLC digital library collection presents a range of racial and ethnic perspectives and reflects the racial and ethnic demographics of their service communities by conducting an exploratory case study with targeted searches for multicultural romance e-book authors and book titles in the WPLC digital library. A case study method was chosen to examine and better understand (Stake “Case Studies” 237) this particular DL and was the first phase of a longitudinal examination (Glesne 22). Future phases will include triangulation of multiple sources of evidence to validate findings (Stake “The Art of Case Study Research” 45).

Wisconsin Demographics

            Out of the 5.6 million residents of Wisconsin, 878,000, or 15.5 percent, self-identified as Black or African American, Hispanic or Latina/o (of any race), Asian, and/or American Indian or Alaska native in 2010 (United States Census Bureau). Within this group, 6.3 percent of Wisconsin Census respondents identified as Black or African American, 5.9 percent identified as Hispanic or Latina/o (of any race), 2.3 percent identified as Asian, and 1 percent identified as American Indian or Alaska Native (see Fig.1). Additionally, 2.4 percent self-identified as some other race and 1.8 percent identified as two or more races. [End Page 6]

Figure 1: Wisconsin residents, by race and ethnicity, 2010

Figure 1: Wisconsin residents, by race and ethnicity, 2010.

Wisconsin Public Library Consortium

The WPLC was formed in 2000 as a partnership of eight library systems and now includes 17 libraries and systems, covering almost all public libraries within the state (Gold et al. “For Patrons”; “Members”). WPLC focuses on increasing public access to information technology and digital materials through research, development, public awareness, library staff training, and public library cooperation (Gold et al. “About”). Advantages of consortium partnerships are vendor discounts, access to a larger breadth of titles, and less local spending on bestsellers that may quickly lose interest (Wisconsin Public Library Legislation and Funding Task Force; Schwartz, “OverDrive Data,” 6). The WPLC Collection Development Policy states its intention to “portray different viewpoints, values, philosophies, cultures, and religions in order to serve the varied statewide community” (Gold et al. “Collection Development Policy” 2).

Selection Process

The general descriptors for race and ethnicity by the US Census Bureau that are used as categories for exploration of multicultural romance e-books within the WPLC digital library are Black or African American, Hispanic or Latina/o, Asian, and/or American Indian or Alaska native. The researchers use the term multicultural to represent the collective racial and ethnic groups throughout this paper. The researchers explored a [End Page 7] variety of romance websites, wikis, and books to select a range of racially and ethnically diverse authors and book titles to include in the study.

The Reader’s Advisor Online website is based on the “Genreflecting Advisory Series,” a print book series published by Linworth Libraries Unlimited which is designed to help library staff with readers’ advisory, reference, and collection development in various fiction genres (Maas et al. “About”). The modular tab “Sample Core Collection” provides a recommendation list for basic romance collections, which includes a section for “ethnic/multicultural” authors and book titles organized under headings of “African American,” “Asian,” “Latino,” and “Native American (sometimes called ‘Indian’ in the trade)” (Maas et al. “Sample Core Collection”). The listing includes 31 authors, though the list might be used as a guide to be adapted and expanded to respond to the libraries’ specific needs. The modular tab “Publishers” lists trends in romance publishing and provides detailed information about various publishing companies and imprints, including Ballantine, Fawcett, One World, Genesis, Arabesque and Kensington (Maas et al. “Publishers”). The RT Book Reviews website is based on the RT Book Reviews Magazine that feature reviews of romance novel published along with blogs, news, awards, upcoming releases and themed booklists (Romance, “RT Book Reviews”). The website lists two themed (Asian and Native American) titles and a list of titles by author as recommended reads in 1999 and 2001 respectively (RT Book Reviews Themes: “Asian”; “Native American”). The All About Romance website consists of reviews, blogs, lists and features from readers and romance writers. The website offers a compiled list of Native American titles and authors from 2001-2007 (“American Indian Romances”). The Goodreads website includes options for a reader to find and share books as well as to create an account to keep track of personal books wanted or read (Chandler). Under the modular tab “Genre” is African American Romance, consisting of Most read this week titles tagged African American Romance and Popular African American romance books (“African American Romance”). These books are compilations from reader tags where contributors review books and place information on the website. The RomanceWiki website is based on the premise of Wikipedia, where anyone can contribute to the website., a leading literary blog, produces it. The website contains a range of information, featuring romance history and today’s leading romance bestsellers as well as reviews, books, publishers, authors, and articles of the romance genre (Simpson). Different categories in the RomanceWiki include information on titles, authors and publishers under the different category names. The categories examined on the website were African American, Chica Lit, Cuban-American Authors, Interracial Romance, Latina, Latina Lit, and Multi-Cultural (“Romance Sub-Genres”). The authors and book titles from these resources are categorized for inclusion in this study.


Study results were analyzed by examining the history (Huberman and Miles 436) of the collection, including availability and accessibility of titles within the WPLC. Data was then scrutinized for underlying themes or patterns and clustered into meaningful groups (Creswell 101). [End Page 8]


A total of 151 individual authors in the study identified as Black or African American, Hispanic or Latina/o, Asian, and/or American Indian or Alaska native; or as authors who write multicultural romance fiction. A total of 153 individual book titles were identified as Black or African American romance book titles, Hispanic or Latina/o romance book titles, Asian romance book titles with settings in China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, or historical and contemporary American Indian romance book titles. The researchers searched for each author and title individually in the WPLC digital library between 12 February 2014 and 26 April 2014. Keyword searches were conducted for authors’ names and book titles. Search results were limited to e-books, excluding some available audiobooks by selected authors.

Figure 2: Authors searched and findings in WPLC, February 2014.

Figure 2: Authors searched and findings in WPLC, February 2014.

The results of these searches returned records for individual author titles and records for multiple author titles. In some cases, the catalog had multiple records of the same title, such as when WPLC digital library purchased copies of a title and partner libraries purchased additional copies of the same title for exclusive use by their local library cardholders. Additionally, 29.8 percent of the authors had e-book titles (see Fig. 2) and 15.7 percent of the individual book titles were available in e-book format within the WPLC digital library (see Fig. 3). [End Page 9]

Figure 3: Titles searched and findings in WPLC, February 2014.

Figure 3: Titles searched and findings in WPLC, February 2014.

Data for each search includes the number of e-book titles present in the WPLC digital library; the number of copies of each title, the number of holds on each title, and the number of available copies of each title (see Fig. 4). Additional data includes subject headings (e.g., romance, fiction, African American fiction, historical fiction, urban fiction) and e-book format (e.g., Kindle, Overdrive, Adobe EPUB, Adobe PDF).

Racial or ethnic group Author Number of titles Number of copies of each title Number of holds on each title Number of available copies of each title
Black or African American Alers, Rochelle 18 2

Figure 4: Example of monthly data collection.

Additionally, the researchers found that in February 2014, at least 10.3 percent of the WPLC romance e-book collection was multicultural romance e-books, and in April 2014, 10.2 percent of the total romance collection was multicultural romance e-books. The total of multicultural romance e-book records (i.e., individual authors, individual titles, and titles by multiple authors) in the collection in February 2014 was 430 items and 926 copies, which increased by 19 items and 41 copies over the two-month study period. There [End Page 10] were likely additional multicultural romance e-books within the WPLC digital library that were not found in this study because of the limited selection of multicultural romance authors and book titles.

The WPLC digital library provides a range of formats for the multicultural romance e-books. The e-books are available in four different formats, Kindle, Overdrive READ, Adobe EPUB, and Adobe PDF. The findings reveal the first three formats presented balanced numbers, while the lowest availability was in Adobe PDF format. The Library of Congress states that a PDF format is widely used among individuals, so e-books presented in Adobe PDF might be accessible to a greater population. However, there can be limitations with Adobe PDF because the fixed layout can make it difficult to adjust text size. The WPLC digital library provides a balanced number of options, facilitating access to the multicultural romance e-books for current and potential users.

The researchers found that there were an adequate number of copies of multicultural romance e-books available to respond to user interest and appeal to potential users. Most of the multicultural romance titles listed two copies available at a time. One person may check out a copy of the title for seven to twenty-one days, depending on the format. All items are available for at least seven days and Kindle, Adobe EPUB, and Adobe PDF may be checked out for seven, fourteen, or twenty-one days (WPLC). If an item is not available, users may place a hold on the item that prompts the system to send an alert when the item is returned by the previous user and available for checkout. Using NVivo data analysis software, the researchers conducted a text query for all holds and found that 82.6 percent had zero holds on the item, while the next highest holds were one (6.2 percent) and two (2.1 percent). The highest hold was eighty-one, but that was on a single item in one month. This outlier might have affected the results, which show that 78 percent of the holds are on American Indian records (see Fig. 5).


Figure 5: Multicultural romance title copies, availability and holds for February 2014.

Figure 5: Multicultural romance title copies, availability and holds for February 2014.

Data in February 2014 (see Fig. 5) depicted that the majority of the multicultural romance copies are Black or African American romance e-books. This aligns with Ramsdell’s point that there is a current emphasis on African American romances over other [End Page 11] racial or ethnic representations (290). The majority of the multicultural romance e-book titles are Black or African American, which is not proportionate to the percentage of Hispanic or Latina/o residents in Wisconsin. Further, each racial/ethnic category is diverse (e.g., nationality, culture, language, and religion) which may or may not be represented within the findings. For example, the majority of Wisconsin residents who identify as Hispanic or Latina/o also identify as Mexican (72.8 percent), followed by Puerto Rican (13.5 percent) (United States Census Bureau). These findings do not reveal the specific representation of distinct racial and ethnic groups in Wisconsin.

Item availability and holds influence the other, meaning if there are holds on the items, their availability decreases. Within the WPLC, the availability and hold status for each item is quite fluid and can change at any given time because the DL is a consortium of 17 libraries with library cardholders accessing the system 24/7. For example, this study shows a significant difference between the relatively low number and availability of American Indian books and the high number of holds for this category. This may be because of the mainstream popularity of authors who primarily write about White, non-Hispanic characters, and happen to have one or more books with characters who are American Indian. This may also simply be because American Indian stories were particularly popular at the time of the study. Romance readers can be loyal and may want to read everything by their favorite author (Bouricius 29) or might pick up a certain book because it is what they want to read at that particular time. This data is a snapshot of the multicultural romance e-books from February to April 2014. When comparing the three total data sets with the same totals compiled over the following two months, the researchers found there was not a significant increase or decrease in the percentage of total number of copies, item availability, or the number of holds with the percentage range of 5 percent or less for all of the racial and ethnic categories. More research needs to be undertaken to explore the data sets over a longer period to determine if the data remains constant within each racial and ethnic category.


Digital library materials need to be accessible to users with a range of information seeking behavior. A library user’s information needs, interests, and information seeking behavior can vary due to “cultural experiences, language, level of literacy, socioeconomic status, education, level of acculturation and value system” (Liu 124). In addition to exploring the availability of multicultural romance e-books, the researchers conducted advanced searches to investigate the accessibility of multicultural romance e-books. These searches were for all romance e-books available in languages other than English, and all romance e-books under the subject headings, “Multi-Cultural” and “African American Fiction.” Search results were limited to e-books, excluding some available audiobooks.

The WPLC digital library collection offers a minimal selection of romance e-books in languages other than English and the DL interface does not accommodate users that speak languages other than English. In February 2014, the collection contained 11 Spanish romance e-book title records, which increased by four items over the following two months. A German language romance e-book was added in March. While the WPLC digital library also contains materials in Arabic, Chinese, Czech, French, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Romanian, Russian, Swahili, and Swedish, there were no romance e-book titles [End Page 12] found in those respective languages. The DL interface is in English and does not offer any options to change the interface to any other language. The advanced search tools provide access to the limited number of materials in languages other than English, yet access to this search tool is restricted by the tools’ exclusive English accessibility. The records that contain words or names in languages other than English are not consistently precise in their presentation. For example, the Latina author Caridad Piñeiro, a.k.a. Caridad Piñeiro Scordato, is listed as “Caridad Pineiro” and “Caridad Pi¤eiro,” neither record accurately representing the ñ in her name. These factors limit the accessibility for users that speak languages other than English or records for materials containing words or names in languages other than English. At the February 2014 WPLC Digital Library Steering Committee Meeting, members agreed on the future discussion item “Multi language interface: Selecting titles in languages other than English” (Gold et al. “Steering Committee Minutes”). Improvement in this area might make the multilingual materials accessible to users that speak and read languages other than English.

The limited subject headings to classify materials within the WPLC digital library present barriers to accessing racially and ethnically diverse romance e-books. The researchers found an advanced search limited to subject headings “Multi-Cultural” and “Romance” returned zero titles between February and April 2014. Only one subject heading, “African American Fiction,” was used to identify racial or ethnic subjects within romance e-books materials. The only other relevant subject heading, “Multi-Cultural”, was not attached to any of the romance e-books. Print materials need to be physically arranged within a particular section of the library, while digital materials such as e-books do not have such limitations. Additional subject headings might increase the accessibility of digital materials. For example, classifications of the Latina/o romance e-books subject headings were limited to Fiction, Romance, Suspense, Short Stories, Erotic Literature, Fantasy, and Western. There is an invisibility of the range of racial and ethnic diversity represented within the DL collection that is a barrier to the accessibility of multicultural romance e-books.


Access and general issues

System usability is important in the discovery of and access to e-books. If a user is discouraged or disappointed with a search, it can lead to unsuccessful interactions with the system, leaving users unsatisfied (Xie 140). As stated earlier, accessing information from a DL can be challenging for users since some users are familiar with a traditional library of print books on shelves to browse titles (Lesk 204). This poses challenges for libraries to design an accessible system interface since there are many complexities to making digital items available and readily accessible for the online user (Van Riel, Fowler and Downes 244). Further research is needed to examine if the design of the WPLC digital library is a factor in current and potential users’ barriers to e-book access.

There can be additional accessibility issues that hinder users’ interactions with a system. These barriers are not covered in the scope of this study, but are explained briefly [End Page 13] here. Being a novice or expert user can determine the success a user experiences when searching in an online system. Users can have more difficulty finding or retrieving desired information if they have less experience with the system. In addition, a user’s information literacy or digital literacy skills can determine how well the user accesses materials within an online system. The fewer skills users have in understanding how to use a system, the less successful the interaction. Another possible issue is connectivity. Users might not have broadband access at home due to lack of infrastructure or affordability. Internet accessibility issues directly affect users’ access to online systems. If users have limited access to the Internet at home, they might rely on institutions, such as public libraries, to provide the access they need to find information.

Relationships between libraries and vendors

Publishers’ licensing agreements and commercial vendors’ policies limit the number and range of e-books. In 2013, “half of the big six publishers did not allow their e-books to be licensed by public libraries. Since then, Penguin has stated they will begin licensing e-books to OverDrive” (Enis, “Library E-book Usage,” 5). The WPLC Collection Development Policy explains how the selection criteria is based on the availability of titles from vendors (2), since some titles are not accessible for acquisition as a result of publishers’ limitations on digital editions of titles or limited embargos on new titles. The publishers might unexpectedly pull other titles from the collection (3). There are additional limitations on the DL collection from commercial vendors. OverDrive allows independent authors to submit titles for inclusion in DLs only if they have at least ten titles available. If authors have fewer books, it is recommended they work with an aggregator who can represent the independent authors as a collective. WPLC digital library contracts with OverDrive to follow these policies. If a local author wishes to add an e-book to the collection, it must be made available to all OverDrive DLs in the US. This can be beneficial to authors since Zickuhr et al. explained that 41 percent of users who read a library e-book are more likely to purchase their most recent e-book. However, OverDrive’s policies present independent authors barriers to making their works available. The option for libraries to increase their collections with items from individual authors can increase the collection by satisfying the demand for more titles, user-requested titles, and more multicultural romance titles by authors who are not represented by large publishing companies.

Commercial vendors hold the control over DL interface design and subject heading maintenance, which limits libraries’ system management. The vendors determine the options for e-book content and management systems for necessary or optional adoption by the contracted libraries. For example, in 2013, OverDrive announced its multilingual interface options in French Canadian, Simplified Chinese, and Spanish with plans to develop Japanese, Traditional Chinese, and additional language options. It was not possible for individual libraries to provide a multilingual interface before it was available through OverDrive. Additionally, libraries cannot customize the subject headings of their own DL collection records. The options to add or remove subject headings for specific titles through OverDrive is possible, yet it is necessary for OverDrive to receive multiple recommendations for subject heading changes before they make global changes to the record (OverDrive Partners). Collective groups of librarians, like ReadersFirst, work to improve users’ e-book access and public library services by addressing barriers to access to [End Page 14] e-books because of external issues related to publishing companies and commercial vendors.


The greatest barrier to developing or expanding e-book collections has been funding limitations, although there has been a lack of interest in some cases (Enis, “E-book Usage Survey” 3). Ashcroft mentions how licensing and costs are issues that continue to be a problem in regards to library e-books (405). While financial constraints can leave libraries in a dilemma, multicultural fiction might not be considered a “special” acquisition, since these might be the first items omitted during budget cuts (Bostic 210). Multicultural fiction might be a constant component of libraries’ offerings that requires careful selection and maintenance. A 2013 survey of public libraries reports 42 percent of Midwest libraries state they might purchase e-books, but it was not a priority (Enis, “E-book Usage Survey” 23). This data might foretell future barriers in regards to e-book collection development.

Selecting materials for a library collection involves the library, the library patrons, and an understanding of the literature available (Van Fleet 78). The WPLC Selection Committee is comprised of two representatives from each of the partner libraries, divided into 24 selectors for adult materials and 10 selectors for young adult and children’s materials (Gold et al. “Selection Committee”). According to the 2014 collection development policy, selectors refer to reviews in professional journals, lists of recommended or award-winning titles, and other selection resources to inform their decisions (Gold et al. “Collection Development Policy” 3). Similar to recommending books to library patrons, a librarian needs to have knowledge of the literature and know what appeals to the patrons. Talking to the patrons to gain a sense of the community needs in turn guides the policy and procedures in acquiring the content for the collection (Gold et al. “Collection Development Policy” 73). George Watson Cole points out that “the library is in existence by the grace of the public, and it is a duty to cater to all the classes that go towards making up the community in which it is established” (qtd. in Bouricius 36, emphasis in original). Community interest, anticipated interest, individual requests and reports of satisfaction related to authors, titles, or subjects, are considered important to the WPLC selectors (Gold et al. “Collection Development Policy” 2). Libraries need to focus more attention on collaborative community assessments rather than library use studies alone, particularly to improve library services for racially and ethnically diverse communities (Bostic 217; Liu 131; McCleer 271). It is challenging for libraries to make an informed choice about collection development without knowing the interests, needs or concerns of the users (Ashcroft 399). Continued research needs to explore how the WPLC digital library conducts community assessment and analyses to inform their collection development.

With the popularity of the romance genre, more attention needs to be given to digital collection development of multicultural romance e-books. According to PEW in 2012, 56 percent of respondents specified that their library did not carry the e-book they wanted to borrow, which might be because the libraries are still building their digital collections (Zickuhr et al. “Libraries, Patrons and E-books.”). Moyer states libraries need to acquire different types of novels to give options to readers’ varied interests (230). Most romance readers enjoy reading a new book by their favorite author (Bouricius 47), so [End Page 15] varieties of romance novels are important to have in the collection. Beyond the limited availability and limited funds for multicultural romance fiction, acquisitions librarians must also work to select materials that present accurate representations of the diverse realities of individuals and communities of all races and ethnicities, taking care to recognize materials with subtle and overtly racist or discriminatory representations (Bostic 218). These limitations relate to users and systems that are compounded by external barriers, which affect the accessibility of multicultural romance e-books.

Future Research

This study reveals the current multicultural romance e-book titles’ availability and accessibility within the WPLC digital library. Some of the challenges to diminishing availability and accessibility barriers can be addressed by the WPLC digital library. However, there are challenges presented by external sources: for example, the available subject headings can be limited by the OverDrive system and publishing companies can limit the available e-books. An advanced search in the WPLC digital library for the African American independent publishing house Genesis Press, Inc. returns only one listing. Such limited availability can be a barrier for all romance e-books and for e-books in general. Further research will distinguish the sources for such challenges as well as opportunities for improvement. Interviews with WPLC librarians, particularly Selection Committee members, might provide further insight to the barriers to selecting and purchasing multicultural romance e-books for the DL.

The racially and ethnically diverse authors and book titles selected for this study were gleaned from a variety of romance websites, wikis, and books. Data analysis illustrates that some of the included authors are White, non-Hispanic authors who might have only one or two titles that include characters of color or indigenous representations, which is why they are listed in the various websites, wikis, and book resources for multicultural romances. Further research methods need to refine this selection process by removing these outliers from the data sets. The book titles need to be explored, rather than the individual authors’ comprehensive offerings in the DL. The selection in this study includes predominantly female authors. Future studies need to add male authors, such as African American authors Timmothy B. McCann, Colin Channer, Omar Tyree, Eric Jerome Dickey, Jervey Tervalon, E. Lynn Harris, Franklin White, and Van Whitfield (Cook 1; Rosen 38). Gay and Lesbian romance novels appeal not only to the homosexual reader but can also be of interest to heterosexual readers (Maas et al. “Gay and Lesbian Romance”). A search for “Gay/Lesbian” and “Romance” limited to e-books returns one title in the WPLC collection. Future studies need to specifically include the accessibility of various perspectives of sexuality and gender in romance e-books. Another search refinement needs to focus on how well a digital library presents complete book series (e.g., Brenda Jackson’s “Bachelors in Demand” series contains three out of the four titles).

An advanced search limited to the subject heading “Urban Fiction” resulted in 116 titles in February and increased by 13 titles over the following two months. Urban Fiction, also known as “Street Lit”, is set in a predominantly city landscape with plots delving into the realities and culture of the characters. It is traditionally a genre written by and for African Americans, though there are also urban Latino fiction novels and it is branching out into different sub-genres (Morris 2, 43). The search for urban fiction narrowed by the [End Page 16] subject heading “Romance” returned 20 titles consistently over two months. While some of these 20 titles were Black or African American romance titles, not all urban fiction romance can be categorized as multicultural romance. Further research needs to focus on this subject heading specifically within the DL.

Further studies of multicultural romance e-book accessibility needs to explore items found through the process of browsing. In 2012, OverDrive reported that nearly 60 percent of readers rely on browsing practices to encounter new e-books instead of searching for specific titles, and romance is the most popular genre for browsing (Schwartz). In this study, several items were added to the data sets because of the researchers’ browsing within the WPLC digital library, but this was not an intentional research method. A study designed around browsing digital collections might further explore multicultural romance e-book availability and accessibility.

This exploratory study provides a snapshot of the multicultural romance e-book availability and accessibility in the WPLC collection. Expanding studies in this DL can give area libraries a more comprehensive understanding of the WPLC multicultural romance e-book collection and identify specific areas that need improvement or refinement. A continuation of this exploratory study to include data over an entire year will establish a record of increases or decreases of multicultural romance e-books over a significant period. This data will be beneficial to discover patterns in collection development for distinct racial and ethnic groups.


This exploratory study finds that the WPLC digital library provides a foundational collection of multicultural romance e-books, which presents a range of racial and ethnic perspectives and provides a general representation of the racial and ethnic demographics of Wisconsin. In 2010, a total of 15.5 percent of Wisconsin residents identified as Black or African American, Hispanic or Latina/o, Asian, and/or American Indian or Alaska native (United States Census Bureau), and 10.3 percent of the entire WPLC romance e-book collection were multicultural romance e-books. The findings do not precisely align with the specific racial and ethnic demographics of Wisconsin. The multicultural romance e-books in the WPLC digital library present an adequate number and range of formats, which is beneficial to user access and appeal to potential users. The barriers to the accessibility of these items are related to language, subject headings, and system interface. Further research will explore the source of these barriers and opportunities for refinement. Overall, the WPLC has developed a solid foundation for fulfilling their mission to provide Wisconsin residents with access to a broad, current, and popular collection of electronically published materials in a wide range of subjects and formats. Continued development of the multicultural romance e-book collection will enhance their public library services to all of the 5.6 million Wisconsin residents with an interest in romance fiction. [End Page 17]

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