The first article, "Love in the Desert: Images of Arab-American Reconciliation in Contemporary Sheikh Romance Novels" by historian Stacy E. Holden, is far longer than the second, "Stacy Holden's 'Love in the Desert': A Response," by romance author Megan Crane—17 pages, plus 2 pages of "Works Cited" references, in contrast to Crane's less than 3 pages, with no sources cited. Academics are trained to point to past work that has been done in their field, and then build their own arguments in response. As one of the professors in my graduate English program once said, "You have to show how your work is intervening in the current critical conversation." Whenever a scholar writes an essay, s/he must show awareness of what previous critics have said about the topic, as well as explain how the argument made here differs from that previous criticism.
|A book by Megan Crane (under her pen|
name, Caitlin Crews)
Holden's article argues the increase in the number of sheikh romances published in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, as well as the narrative patterns within them, "highlight the vast cultural differences between the Arab hero and the American heroine that will be overcome during the course of the book. In this way, they emphasize an implicit political fantasy that undoubtedly contributes to this genre's popularity in a post-9/11 world" (1). Crane takes issue with Holden's thesis, arguing that "As a life-long romance reader, former scholar of literature, and a current author of romances, I feel one could as easily substitute 'Scottish highlander' or 'Greek tycoon' for 'sheikh' and make many of these same arguments. Which is more persuasive? Your answer may have as much to do with your own background as anything in each of the essays.
Though Crane cites no specific archetypal critics, she displays her archetypal leanings in statements such as these:
"The reconciliation fantasies that lurk within romance novels are between the heroes and heroines first and mainly, are not specific to any particular culture or even in some cases species, and are certainly not restricted to stories featuring sheikhs" (2-3)
"Romance novels are not the exclusive province of Americans or, indeed, Western women, and tus, the fears they strive to address lie more within the scope of human frailty and the darkness of the human soul than any purely Western, quasi-colonialist gaze on the shifting geo-political landscape" (3).
(emphasis in both quotes added by RNFF)
|Old Skool literary criticism?|
Though Holden, like Crane, identifies patterns, she uses culturally-specific, historically situated lenses to explore the meaning of such patterns. Each section of her essay presents a specific sub-argument that works to support her overall claim. First, she references two previous studies that showed a sharp increase in sheikh romance titles since 9/11 (six in 2000, eighteen in 2002) to back up her claim that there is something different about sheikh romances published before 9/11 and those published after. Then, she notes how the fictional sheikh kingdoms in romance novels leave out the urban settings common in contemporary Arab countries, preferring to focus instead on desert settings. Third, she points to the pattern of cultural clashes in the novels she examined, clashes between male Arab sheikhs and their Western female loves. Finally, she analyzes how these clashes are resolved, finding that "The careful negotiation between sameness and difference... —ultimately, sameness is primary, though difference must be there—can also be found in any given sheikh romance's denouement, and in the political fantasy offered in it" (13).
|Historically-situated literary theory|
Holden's interviews demonstrate that the authors of sheikh romances themselves typically intend their books to be culturally positive: "I would love to think that we are in some way getting people to look at other people and other places, and saying it doesn't all have to be, you know, American Velveeta cheese on white bread" says Sandra Marton (14). But at the same time, she uses her interviews as only one of many types of evidence she brings to bear in her analysis. And ultimately her analysis demonstrates that there is often a gap between what an author intends and the cultural work the text she produces actually accomplishes:
Marton and other authors express the desire to break free from the negative stereotypes of Arabs put forth in other media via the vehicle of romance, a worthy intention indeed. In order to accomplish this goal, however, authors sometimes suppress certain aspects of Arab culture and contribute inadvertently to Orientalist discourse" (14).
Holden concludes her essay by suggesting two possible readings of sheikh romances:
Read skeptically, against the grain, these novels present a fantasy in which autocratic leaders of the Arab world—those sheikhly heroes who love American women—embrace the values of their Western fiancées and wives, reconciling their two cultures in a way that secures and privileges American interests. But read more generously, in light of their authors' intentions, the sheikh romance novel does present a hopeful vision of the world, one which exchanges Huntington's Clash of Civilizations for a world in which the class between individuals from two worlds, now at odds, is ultimately an erotic clash: one which leads them to fall in love, resolve their differences, and live harmoniously together" (17).
In contrast, Crane's essay opens by reducing Holden's nuanced argument from two open possibilities to one closed interpretation:
"Do contemporary sheikh romance novels fetishize Arabs and subject the to the unwavering, privileged glare of the Western imagination as Holden asserts? Or is there a way in which all stories of the beloved fetishize and objectify the beloved—both heroine and hero in their turn, regardless of their cultural background or racial make-up, across all subgenres of romantic fiction?" (1)
Crane, then, misreads Holden, just as she claims Holden misreads sheikh romances. And just as many romance authors feel scholars of romance do...
|The "archetypal" Western sheik:|
If you're curious. both Holden and Crane's essays are available online:
Holden, Stacy E. "Love in the Desert: Images of Arab-American Reconciliation in Contemporary Sheikh Romance Novels." Journal of Popular Romance Studies, August 2015.
Crane, Megan. "Stacy Holden's 'Love in the Desert': An Author's Response." Journal of Popular Romance Studies, August 2015.
I've also cited from M. H. Abrams' canonical A Glossary of Literary Terms. 8th edition. Boston: Thomson/Wadsworth 2005.
Archetypal chickens: The Educated Imagination
Postmodern cross-dressing: Frank Grady syllabus