Friday, August 23, 2013

Romance Authors on "Why Does Romance Matter"

This month, writer and reviewer Bobbi Dumas, author of the popular NPR Books blog essay "Don't Hide Your Harlequins: In Defense of Romance," declared August "Read-A-Romance Month." Tired of being the butt of jokes at parties for her literary leanings, tired of being condescended to because of her love of romance, Dumas decided to do something more than just defend her beloved genre. With the support of several major romance publishers and nearly 100 romance authors, Dumas created the Read-A-Romance Month web site. The site is clearly a promotional one, with publishers and authors sponsoring contests and give-aways for visitors who leave their names and email addresses. But by publishing short posts by romance authors responding to the prompt "Why Romance Matters," Dumas is also attempting to jump-start a broader conversation about romance, one not based on stereotypes about romance novels or their readers.

Will feminism play a role in this broader conversation? I was interested to see how many of the authors posting on the site would refer to feminism as a reason why the genre matters.

Susan Mallery, the site's inaugural poster, began the month with a bang, opening her essay by asserting:

I am a feminist.
I read and write romance. 
Those two statements do not contradict one another.

In particular, Mallery argues, romances "empower women" in two specific ways: "Romance novels teach women that they can do or be anything" and "Romance novels teach women how we deserve to be treated by the men in our lives." I've only read one Mallery book (The Best of Friends) and found it rather flat, but her open embrace of a feminist identity makes me eager to read more.

In her post, Maya Rodale doesn't explicitly claim a feminist identity, but tells readers they must read a blog post by a "brilliant feminist blogger" (Caitlin O'Donnell at Drake University, who blogs at Help. I'm Alive), to find one of the reasons why she believes romance matters. Clicking to the post, readers discover O'Donnell's list of reasons "Why Society Still Needs Feminism", a biting and succinct summary of the ways in which our post-feminist age is not quite as kind to women as we'd like to believe. Rodale's list of reasons why she believes romance matters are all feminist ones: economic self-sufficiency; respect; safety; personal choice; empowerment. I wonder, then, why she herself doesn't use the word "feminist" to describe herself? Would the identity fit the books she writes? (Again, I've only read one of them to date).

Lucy March (also known as Lani Diane Rich), offers the most compelling (and the most amusing) post, by openly rejecting the prompt she'd been given. Having difficulty writing her post without "charging in here on my big feminist horse (her name is Betty, by the way, and she's kickass)," March tries to figure out why what is supposed to be a celebratory post keeps coming out as an angry screed. The reason is easy to discern: 

To say "Romance Matters," makes me feel like I'm acknowledging and accepting that romance is somehow different from any other genre and while we don't have to say that Mystery Matters or Thrillers Matter or Literary Fiction Matters, we do have to say out loud that Romance Matters, because somewhere deep down, we've internalized and accepted this nonsense that, by default, it doesn't.  And then there's the idea that it doesn't matter because its written predominantly by women, predominantly for women, and women are made to feel like we don't matter because misogyny is woven into the damn fabric of our culture...

Well, hell. I'm on the horse again.

Lucy March, you've just risen to the top of my To-Read pile. And I'd be happy to offer a carrot to Betty, any time you'd care to bring her by...

As of the writing of my post, we're on day 21 of Read-A-Romance Month. And only three authors have used the "f" word in their essays. These posts are making me wonder, how many romance novelists openly claim a feminist identity? And do those who claim the mantle of feminism write books with more feminist sensibilities than writers who don't? Are writers who write for the big NYC publishers (authors selected to participate seem to be primarily those who write for the web site's sponsoring publishers) less likely to claim feminist leanings than those who don't? If so, why might that be?

Photo credits:


  1. I loved Lucy March's post. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I'm sorry, you've just opened a big can of worms for me -- such a large can of worms that it can't be contained in one comment box.

    The real reason writers write romance is that it's the genre that allows them to tell the stories that they find most compelling or suited to their writing abilities and interest, not some rah rah nonsense about supporting women and sisterhood. Anything else is just more defensive justification.

    I agree with Cecilia Grant that het romance is not inherently feminist. In fact, I'd go even further and argue that it's inherently non-feminist because it advances the notion that falling in love and having sex with a man (or vice versa, as is the usual order of things both in life and romance novels these days) is the end all and be all of a woman's life.

    The idea that sex and love go hand in hand and that sex is a way to get men to love us, both of which much of genre romance encourages or endorses, particularly disadvantages young girls. It encourages the kind of passive, non-complaining going along with whatever boys and men want instead of claiming one's own sexuality and having sex when and with whom one wants and not having sex when one wants that is such a large part of rape culture.

    Relations between the sexes are not going to be healthy until society considers mutual enjoyment (and when both parties want it, procreation) the sole purpose of sex and uphold relationships that are committed but don't necessarily involve sex, or are between two men, or two women, or trans people, or more than two people, or that involve non-exploitative BDSM, as just as legitimate and valid as relationships between non-trans men and women.

    Just as the way to end rape culture is to teach our sons not to rape, flooding general literature and other genres that aren't 99% written and read by women with stories depicting healthy relationships between the sexes is a more effective way for novels to contribute to a more equitable society in which men treat women well, not putting all the emphasis on a genre that is, for all intents and purposes, a female ghetto. After all, it's the Philip Roths and John Cheevers we need to counteract rather than the Kathleen Woodwisses. Or pick your personal example of a romance writer you consider regressive; I haven't actually read Woodwiss myself and don't intend to, but I know that her books are often offered as examples of the bad old days.

    The one genre where romances or novels with romantic elements might do some good here is YA/NA, as some of them seem to cross gender lines when it comes to readership in a way that is not true of adult romance novels. Otherwise, the most the romance genre does is show women what men to choose, what men to avoid, and what good treatment consists of, and I'd argue that a lot of what passes for "good treatment" in romance, which so often shows men rescuing women or taking care of them in ways that are not mutual, is not.

    Otherwise, romance primarily acts as an echo chamber that fetishizes a certain kind of man who in real life often runs roughshod over women. In that respect, it serves the purpose of fantasy and wish fulfillment (or, alternatively, entertainment, which is a perfectly valid reason for reading books; I don't hear any of the men (or women, for that matter) who read thrillers, which are pretty much pure entertainment without the element of logic or societal justice that most mystery and detective novels can claim, apologizing for it) that can be psychologically uplifting, even emboldening, for individuals but can and will never be a solution to institutional imbalances between men and women. If anything, by suggesting that alpha males can be tamed if only one is the right partner or acts the right way, genre romance perpetuates these imbalances.

    1. Lawless:

      Your can of worms have been wiggling throughout my brain for the past few days, and (I hope) have produced some fertile castings. Here are a few thoughts:

      First, while I agree with you that ONE of the reasons writers choose to write in the genre they do is because it is the genre that works best for the story they wish to tell. But authors write for a myriad of reasons; why do you find the idea that a writer might be moved to write out of feminist concerns so worthy of contempt? Yes, some writers may claim "feminism" as an easy defense against critics of romance, but can't you image that some actually do feel inspired by the thought of writing romances that depict equitable gender relations?

      A feminist romance would work against the common trend in the field to equate sex and love, I'd argue.

      I've been thinking a lot about Grant's argument, that the genre expectations of romance make it inherently anti-feminist. And I think that in large part she's correct. But what intrigues me is that while a genre may as a whole lean toward ideological hegemony, individual examples of said genre may challenge said hegemony. And possibly change the genre as a whole in the process.

      I'm all in favor of flooding other literatures besides romance with depictions of healthy, equitable relationships. But does it have to be an either/or? Why can't it be a both/and?

      Feminist romance certainly will never, on its own, be a solution to institutional imbalances between men and women. But I believe that it can play a role in helping readers imagine what a world free of said imbalances might look like, and how to go about creating it, one relationship at a time.

      As you've probably guessed, the alpha male is not my favorite kind of guy ;-)

    2. The essays you linked to hit my buttons, hard. By now I've read others by Meljean Brook, Sherry Thomas, Lauren Willig, and Mary Balogh that didn't tick me off the way those did.

      So why is it that the ones that claim some form of feminist heritage turned me off while others that didn't mention the word feminism once didn't? For one thing, because the latter didn't make claims I considered unsubstantiated or disingenuous. The latter acknowledged the limitations of the form and how the emphasis on love between men and women can look sexist.

      I'm sorry if I came across as showing contempt for the idea that a writer might be moved to write out of feminist concerns. I don't bear such contempt; for example, as I point out, Courtney Milan writes out of feminist concerns. What I was trying to say was that the concerns the two author essays you linked to evinced weren't actually feminist.

      I don't disagree with the other points you make, including that it doesn't have to be either/or when it comes to romance and other genres. What I'm saying is that it largely is either/or and that the basic premises (or maybe a better word is biases) of modern romance are to blame for it, in large part because that's what's popular with the audience.

      Equating popularity with women with feminism is illogical and is a sad misreading of what the word feminism means. For one thing, if the quest for heterosexual love is so important in life, why aren't men reading and writing it in more than the small numbers they already are? Keep in mind that research shows that married men experience greater health, longer lives, and a sense of well-being compared to their bachelor counterparts, whereas the opposite is true for women. We should expect to see married men sing the institution's praises. But we don't.

      I'm rereading Carolyn Heilbrun's Toward a Recognition of Androgyny, and in her introduction, she mentions Simone de Beauvoir's assertion that women are more complicit with their oppressors than one usually sees in similar circumstances and self-police patriarchal ideas about what is appropriately feminine. That's what I see going on here.

  3. Cont'd from above...

    That doesn't mean that there aren't any het romance novels that are feminist, but in my experience, they mostly consist of erotica, historical romance, and a few erotic romances. To me, the emphasis on the primacy of falling in love and the way that is foregrounded over everything else makes it very difficult to write a feminist contemporary romance about adults.

    So far, I've only read one contemporary romance I've liked a lot (LAST SUMMER by Teresa Weir), and while I wouldn't call it anti-feminist, I wouldn't call it feminist either when the female MC's failure to use or insist on birth control is the direct cause of an unplanned out of wedlock pregnancy. That veers alarmingly close to TSTL or, more charitably (and probably more accurately), plot device territory.

    I also enjoyed Cara McKenna's AFTER HOURS, but that's an erotic romance, not a contemporary romance, and even so I am not eager to read more of McKenna because the male MC in both of the het romances of hers I read (the other, RUIN ME, uses a menage to transition from one relationship to the next) is an ubermasculine "caveman" type. One here and there is okay, but I'm not interested in a steady diet of them, and I'd argue that by only focusing on one type of man (if indeed that is what she does), thus by implication holding that type up as the pattern of masculinity, McKenna is undercutting any feminist message her books have.

    I've enjoyed historical romances by other authors, but Courtney Milan is the only romance novelist who's an autobuy for me because her novels are explicitly feminist, something she freely admits and has written about on her blog. I notice that she's due to post on the Read-a-Romance website but hasn't yet. I'd be interested to see what she says and whether it echoes the explanation she's offered to her readers as to why she writes what she writes and why anyone who expects the historical romances they read to buy into and uphold then-current notions about the sexes instead of challenging them should not buy her books.

    The only other author of historical romances who strikes me as coming close to her in having a feminist outlook in at least some of her novels is Sherry Thomas, and in her case I think it's more a matter of allowing her characters to be more flawed or difficult, or to tolerate or engage in more unconventional relationships, than the norm rather than an openly or consciously feminist objective on her part.

    1. For me, the most interesting authors are those who can create different types of masculinity and different types of femininity, from book to book, rather than simply repeating the same constructions over and over, and simply changing the names and clothing. Some readers like knowing they'll be getting the same thing whenever they pick up a book by X author. Repetition in some things is appealing, but repetition in the construction of gender is not only annoying, it's reductive and constraining.

      Why should it be harder to write a contemporary feminist romance than a historical one, do you think?

    2. Does McKenna only write about one type of man? It's hard to tell from the blurbs, and I'm reluctant to invest the time in reading a bunch of excerpts in order to find out.

      Historically, women have had to marry in order to enjoy economic security and societal approval. There's no need to present marriage and an approved heterosexual relationship as the end all and be all of a woman's existence or as something that necessarily springs from love; the loveless and often unhappy arranged marriage is a well-known historical phenomenon. So that leaves the space, and sometimes the imperative, to present the marriage as satisfying other needs, including the need for respect and equality, in order to make the ending a happy one.

      On the other hand, contemporary romances take place in an era where women are far less constrained socially and economically, so by foregrounding a relationship with a man, contemporary romances are implicitly stating that engaging in such a relationship is the most important thing in a woman's life. I don't see the romances making that same implicit statement about the man.

      It's true that it's something many women do and want IRL, and that isn't anti-feminist if they are doing it because that's what they want out of their own free will, not because society has convinced them that they're incomplete without a man. But in context and sometimes in content, this emphasis in modern romance on relationships with men comes across as terribly anti-feminist, especially when the relationships themselves don't look so equal to me. Also, as a matter of ideology, realism, or both, these books replicate whatever inequality exists in everyday life, such as women making more compromises for relationships than men.

  4. BTW, that should be that Courtney Milan is the only het romance novelist who's an autobuy for me. Plenty of m/m romance authors are or are close to it.

    1. Are the conventions of m/m romance so very different than those of m/f, different enough that your beefs with het romance do not apply? Does sex never get conflated with love? Does the genre not insist that falling in love is the most important aspect of a gay man's life?

    2. I wrote a well thought out response to your questions at the same time as I responded to your other comments and lost it before I could post it. It was so well thought out that I can't possibly replicate it; I'm not even sure exactly what I said. So here's another stab at it.

      It's common, even conventional, for m/m stories to start with sex first and for at least one MC to be reluctant to commit to a relationship or to fall in or be in love. Both of those things conform to conventions about men that are present in society and in much of m/f as well, but whether they're inherent or conditioned (I'd argue that they're both conditioned and that although the sex aspect of it might be somewhat inherent, there's no way to tell definitively), there is at least a grain of truth to them, possibly in large part because that's what society says they're supposed to do.

      For example, a study shows that gay men report the greatest number of lifetime sexual partners (hopefully the study or studies controlled or adjusted for age) and lesbians the least. (Of course, people can lie; the question then is whether they're all lying in the same direction to the same degree, which wouldn't make much of a difference when making comparisons.) Heterosexual men reported a larger number than heterosexual women, though I don't remember how much larger; I don't think it was a vast difference.

      No, I don't think the genre insists that falling in love is the most important aspect of a gay man's life. I think the genre insists that recognizing himself and his desires for what they are is the most important thing in a gay man's life. No lasting romance can exist until that happens.

      It's that aspect of finding one's true self that particularly attracts me to the genre. M/f romance could do that too; heaven knows, most women still struggle with that. Not that heterosexual men can't struggle with that as well, but the kinds of men who do aren't the kind romance readers seem to like to read about; struggling against patriarchal constraints seems to be the antithesis of what a romance "hero" does. I find it hard to imagine many romances with male MCs who give up high-powered jobs for love or move for their girlfriend's or spouse's jobs being published, let alone successful. That's too beta, too ordinary, and too much like real life -- more the stuff of women's fiction than romance.

      So much of romance is about making a path to true love and happiness forever believable, which it inherently is not (the part about forever without any further effort, anyway), and that fantasy generally comes in very traditional guises, with the man manly and the woman womanly, both of them attractive and willing and the man usually of higher status or wealth than the woman (and taller, too).

      As for falling in love, the men in the m/m books I like best don't gush. They might not even mention the word love, or it is said haltingly. Their actions are more apt to speak for them than words.

      That's another aspect of such books I enjoy -- it's fun to watch usually emotionally restrained men have to identify and talk about their feelings not just about love, but about their conflicts as well. So the "feel" of the book is quite different from much of m/f. In fact, I tend to prefer female MCs in romance whose emotional expression is more restrained -- characters like Minerva in The Duchess War, the female MC in Milan's Unraveled, and the female MC in Tessa Dare's A Week to Be Wicked -- although they usually are as aware of their feelings as their more emotionally expressive genre compatriots.

  5. And after that screed, I should add that I consider Mary Stewart's romantic suspense novels from the 50s, 60s and 70s more feminist (and certainly better written) than any contemporary het romance novels I've read. This is true even though they're set in a time that no longer exists in which the jobs and roles available to women were far more circumscribed. They don't confuse sex with love or everyday relationship building and they foreground the story, letting the relationship unfold subtly and delicately in the background.

    The lack of sex in these books matters because most modern romance novels equate sex and love, which reinforces the view that women are always instantly hot for the right guy and that sex is the end all and be all of a relationship, not friendship or respect or equality. It also suggests that people who are for whatever some reason are uninterested, unable, or unwilling to engage in sex at the moment, in some cases because of disabilities or other medical conditions (thus hitting the "insensitive to those with medical challenges or whose bodies are anything other than fully healthy and perfect" nail on the head), aren't worthy of romance, but that's a can of worms for another day.

    That is not to say that telling the story of a relationship through sex is invalid or regressive, just that it belongs in erotic romance or erotica, not just about every romance novel on the shelves. Also, it's not as though I expect modern romance to pretend that the characters are not having sex; I just think in most cases too much is lost and not enough gained by describing it.

    This also would have the effect of putting the emphasis on the plot rather than using sex as shorthand for forming a relationship. Writers would have to show couples painting a house together, working on car repairs, cooking dinner, or holding hands. Talking to each other about their lives. You know, the things real couples do and build relationships out of.

    From this standpoint, Stewart's showing a relationship unfolding subtly in the background not only is so much better artistically, it tells us that relationships are what happens in the midst of life, and it's living a good life, not the particular relationships we are in, that is most important. Otherwise all het romance novels become good for is prioritizing having a man over having a life. That's the opposite of gender equality.

    Above all, Mary Stewart's novels depict a couple who may not have equal status or equal abilities but who are equal partners each of whom brings something to the partnership and brings out the best in each other. This, to my mind, is what a feminist romance is all about. More to the point, this is what human romance is all about.

    What really bothers me is that these 40-60 year old books, mostly written before women's lib caught fire, depict couples who are more suited, more romantic, more caring, more equal, and more feminist than 99% of the het romance in print these days. It can't all be because Mary Stewart was and remains light years ahead of everyone else. Surely in the many years since there have been many other equally competent writers who could have done the same thing. It's a large part of what makes me feel that there's something fundamentally flawed about the premise on which most modern heterosexual romance is based.

    1. I've had a library loan request in for months, waiting for my first Mary Stewart novel. It just came in this week, and I'm going to pick it up tomorrow. Am so looking forward to reading it!

      Which Stewart books are your favorites?

    2. It would be hard to say since I've only recently read three of her novels of romantic suspense -- MY BROTHER MICHAEL, TOUCH NOT THE CAT, and THIS ROUGH MAGIC. I seem to recall reading THE MOONSPINNERS awhile ago, but am not certain of that.

      Of the first three, MY BROTHER MICHAEL is probably my favorite and THIS ROUGH MAGIC my least favorite, but it's the difference between a 5 star read and the lowest level of a 4 star read.

      I read her Merlin trilogy shortly after each volume was published and read THIS WICKED DAY (the follow up with Mordred) awhile later. I have yet to dislike anything of hers that I've read, and her prose is reliably good.

  6. Hi there! I just found this, and would love to continue the conversation. Unfortunately it will have to be sometime in Sept at the earliest since I'm a little busy. ;o) I actually think that romance is very pro-woman, and that modern romances especially give women a model for how they should be treated by men. I would like to reflect on this a little, and I am also going to share this with the authors.

    Thanks for the post. Intriguing thoughts. I would also argue that many of the essays depict a more feminist bent, even if they don't use the actual word.

    (I would highly recommend Sarah MacLean, too. Sadly, she did not participate this year.)

    (This won't let me publish with my google account. Feel free to contact me on the Read-A-Romance Month FB page.)

    Bobbi Dumas

  7. Thanks, Bobbi, for stopping by. Would love to hear more from you! Drop in whenever you have the chance.

    And thanks for organizing National Read-A-Romance month. It's great to see someone working so hard to support the genre.

    -- Jackie

  8. I have found lawless523's comments intriguing and have reread parts of them just now. I believe I have made previous comments regarding Mary Stewart's wonderful novels in which I have extolled their many virtues and I feel vindicated whenever someone agrees with me. I began reading them when I was about 11, as well as Georgette Heyer's books and many other authors' works (Phyllis A. Whitney, Victoria Holt, Jane Aiken Hodge, Elsie Lee (and my favorite Harlequin author, Jane Donnelly) to name a few), when I ran out of interesting children's books at the library. Some of those authors suffer from comparisons with modern standards of political correctness, and others from formulaic writing, but few (in my memory and opinion) made sex, love, and romance, i.e. finding the right man and keeping him forever, the be all and end all of the books. Even Harlequin Romances gave me a trip to exotic lands and allowed me to experience different cultures and even jobs/career ideas that were new. I feel that all those books gave me the wherewithal to broaden my horizons, judge what I liked or did not like about people (including patronizing alpha males and females) and what characteristics I appreciated about the people I met.
    I have such a history with "Romance" books that I find it difficult to confine myself to a short comment and I feel so strongly about the issues that I can barely stay on one train of thought long enough to make a point. One important point for me is the fact that I don't like most romances or chick lit these days and I haven't yet zeroed in on why. This blog seems to be helping with that. Maybe it's the current idea that there is no time to wait, we have got to have it or do it all now, no matter what the consequences, that is causing the problem. In other words, I think our culture is shaping the romance novels, they are not shaping us.
    Just need to let this simmer in my head for a while longer.