Friday, October 19, 2012

Cheers for romances that talk about romance

In the world of literary scholars, there's a type of book called metafiction: a book that reflects on what a book is, or could be. Many different literary devices can be used by the author interested in exploring the nature of story within his or her book: a novel in which a reader reads a book to another character (William Golding's The Princess Bride); a book in which the book asks its reader to interact with it (Mo Willem's Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!); a book whose characters realize and comment upon that fact that they are characters in a book (David Wiesner's Three Little Pigs). Works of metafiction actively seek to challenge readers to consider the relationship between reality and fiction, to break down the boundaries between reader, author, and text.

One pig helps another escape the book: Wiesner's The Three Pigs
Perhaps because they rely so heavily on reader identification with their protagonists, romance novels rarely feature metafictive elements. But I've noticed one metafictive strand in several books I've read or reread since starting this blog: romance novels that openly refer to, or debate with, the conventions of the genre of romance. In future posts, I'll look at books that do this implicitly, by constructing characters or plots that actively subvert the rules of romance. But some romance novels also include scenes in which characters explicitly discuss and debate romance's conventions. I'm sure there are many others, but I noticed such scenes while rereading two books I discussed in earlier posts—Victoria Dahl's Start Me Up, and Ilona Andrews' Magic Strikes. Each of these books include brief, but provocative discussions of romance, focusing in particular on the relationship between readers and the genre.

In Magic Strikes, shape-shifter Raphael has been courting a reluctant Andrea for months. Andrea's friend Kate tells him that one way to win Andrea's regard would be to find the novels missing from her collection of the works of Lorna Sterling, an author of romance novels such as The Privateer's Virgin Mistress. Raphael not only tracks down and purchases some of these rare editions of Ms. Sterling's books, but actually reads them, looking for a clue as to why Andrea, despite her obvious attraction to him, continues to rebuff his advances.

Lorna Stirling's cousin??
Raphael's reading leaves him not only puzzled, but dismayed. Why would a strong, gun-toting woman such as Andrea want to read about men who kidnap the heroine's brother and hold him for ransom until the heroine has sex with him? What's with these "pseudo-bad guys just waiting for the love of a 'good' woman"? Does Andrea really want a "bad and aggressive as shit" man, one who, after meeting "some girl" is "not an ├╝ber-alpha" anymore, but rather a "misunderstood little boy who wants to talk about his feelings"? (201) Because if she does, Raphael doesn't stand a chance.
Raphael assumes a one-to-one, direct relationship between the type of romance hero a reader likes and the type of man she'd like to court/date/marry. Kate tries to help Raphael by disabusing him of this overly simplistic view, pointing to the difference between a romance reader's fantasy and reality:

I'm guessing—and this is just a wild stab in the dark—that Andrea might not mind if once in a while you dressed up as a pirate. But I wouldn't advise holding her relatives for ransom nookie. She might shoot you in the head. Several times. With silver bullets. (202)

Romance novels are not always reflections of what readers desire in their day-to-day lives and lovers, Andrews, through Kate, suggests. Instead, they can also function as written versions of inner fantasies. We might consider performing a role described in a fantasy, for a short time, to enhance romantic or sexual pleasure, even if we have no desire to take on such a role permanently in everyday life.

We might even find pleasure in reading about sexual situations we'd never want to experience, even in a role-playing situation. As erotica-writer Molly explains to her friend Lori, the protagonist of Dahl's Start Me Up, when Lori asks if she could ever write a story featuring sexual practices that she's not into:

"I've got a friend.... Delilah Hughes. She writes stories about pretty heavy submission and bondage. Stuff I'm totally not into. But her books are beautifully done, charged with emotion and conflict. Very sexy. I love them. And Ben [her boyfriend] always appreciates it when I read them, if you know what I mean." (44)

Molly's "if you know what I mean" suggests that even though she herself has no desire to experience "heavy submission and bondage," she can still be turned on by stories which explore such sexual situations. Just because our complex, messy minds dream about cruel, ravishing pirates, or stern men (or women) wielding handcuffs, and search for parallels in our reading, doesn't mean that we have any desire to date Captain Blood or Christian Grey.

What other romance novels can you think of that contain provocative discussions of romance as a genre?

Photo credits:
David Weisner, The Three Pigs, page 7. From the collection of Jackie Horne.
Book covers courtesy of Goodreads
Captain Blood poster courtesy of Wikipedia.

Next time: RNFF recommends Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander



  1. "What other romance novels can you think of that contain provocative discussions of romance as a genre?"

    A fair proportion of the Harlequin Mills & Boons I've read have got metafictional elements; it's something I discuss in chapter 3 of For Love and Money. We've also written quite a bit about "metaromances" at Teach Me Tonight.

  2. Thanks, Laura. I like the term "metaromances." I don't remember the discussions on TEACH ME TONIGHT -- likely they were up before I started following your blog. Will go back and take a look at the archives.

    My copy of FOR LOVE AND MONEY is sitting on my "to read" pile. Will definitely pull it off and take a look at Chapter 3. I'll be interested to see how many of the books you mention use metafiction in a feminist commentary on the genre.

    1. I'll be interested to see how many of the books you mention use metafiction in a feminist commentary on the genre.

      They're usually defending popular culture, and in particular romances, and/or defending the consumers of popular culture, against criticisms made of them. I suppose one could see that as a defence of women's writing and reading and, thus, as feminist, but I think that would probably be stretching the phrase "feminist commentary" a bit too far.

  3. Glitter Baby by Susan Elizabeth Phillips has a very funny scene in which the hero tries to recreate a movie scene he knows the heroine loves. (The seemingly threatening scene that really isn't in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." It backfires impressively.

    1. Sounds like fun, Willful. Does it have feminist components, would you say?

    2. Well, it exemplifies the fact that something you might have enjoyed watching/fantasizing about it not necessarily how you'd actually want anyone to act in real life. I'm not sure if that qualifies a a feminist idea, but it's certainly important in the context of discussing romance.

      I just came across a Catherine Coulter book called Afterglow, which looks from the summary to be interesting -- man tries to be like the romance heroes the woman he loves writes about. Which reminded me of another book called The Boyfriend Test by Sarah Bird, which I think would be an interesting read from a feminist perspective.

    3. Sarah Bird's book sounds funny (The Boyfriend School, according to Goodreads) -- I'll have to check it out. Coulter's book is from 1987 -- will be interesting to see what the hero thinks a romance hero should be, circa late 80's. Thanks for the recommendations!

    4. The Boyfriend School was the book that got me interested in reading and teaching romance fiction! Very fun novel, and the discussion of the genre is explicitly feminist (which is part of what got me hooked).

      There was a Harlequin Romance from the late 1980s by Dixie McKeone called "The Harlequin Hero" in which the eponymous hero sets about reading HMB romances to learn how to court the heroine. Very sweet book, as I recall--but I'm a sucker for that particular plot device.

  4. THE SIREN by Tiffany Reisz is an erotica novel about the writing of an erotica novel (and much more). While it explores some intense BDSM subject matter, I found it to be profoundly feminist because it focuses on women (and men) knowing their desires and acting on them openly, without shame. There are also some fascinating discussions of power in that book.

  5. Hey, Kelly:

    Thanks for the recommendation. I haven't read anything by Tiffany Reisz before, but your description makes me want to check her out.

    When someone recommends a new author to me, I usually like to order a copy of his/her book from the library, so I can see if I like it before buying it (our house is already sinking under the weight of a 4,000+ book collection...). But the public library rarely stocks erotica, alas.

    From your description, though, this sounds like a worthwhile purchase. I'll check it out.

  6. Off topic, but I didn't see another way to contact you. I wanted to let you know I'm really interested in what you have to say. but it's difficult to read your blog due to the red background and white font. The words are fuzzy and jiggly and my eyes get strained pretty quickly.

    1. I've been reading the posts via my rss feed, and the comments via email notifications but I thought I'd second CG's comment and add that I'd noticed this too: when I visit the blog I find the choice of colours combined with a small, thin font makes it particularly difficult to read the comments and the list of posts in your sidebar.

    2. CG and Laura:

      Thanks for your note. I've tweaked the design a bit -- is it any easier to read now?

    3. Way better, thanks :-)

  7. Ohhhhh. Metafiction, how I love you! My favorite metafictions include Gissing's novels, The Odd Women in particular, and Austen's Northanger Abbey (which is really less than a metafiction than it is a book about how to be a good reader). I agree with you about Dahl, she dips into metafiction frequently, my personal favorite is in Start Me Up, too. I really love when, Molly, Lori’s best friend, tries to advise her that Quinn’s angry bickering is a sign of love: ”Use your brain. You read romance novels all the time. What are the most obvious signs of true love? Drama! Arguments! Tension!” Lori answers back, “Those are also the most obvious signs of domestic abuse.” In own of my books, a paranormal romance, the heroine has the magic ability that the hero mistakes as controlling time, she insists, "I just see what is and what will be. They are pretty much the same anyway. I don’t brew potions or make people fall in love or make people lucky when they aren’t. That’s magic to me, making something out of nothing. I am just showing what is. I’m not adding anything that isn’t there. I speed the cycle—and, if I am strong enough, I can push the cycle back. But the cycle is already there.” Later, when the hero asks her if they will be alright? The heroine thinks, "She could have told him that the worst wounds suffered in life were in places that people couldn’t see, in places that people couldn’t reach, and that those wounds could take lifetimes to heal. She could have told him that, but she didn’t. Words, even more than magic, had limits."

  8. Northhanger Abbey yes: how to be a good reader, both of words and of people. So smart!