Friday, October 10, 2014

Thoughts on Jayashree Kamblé's MAKING MEANING IN POPULAR ROMANCE FICTION part 2

Last week, I discussed the groundwork Jayashree Kamblé laid in the Introduction of her new monograph, Making Meaning in Popular Romance Fiction: An Epistemology. Today I'd like to focus on the four chapters that build on that groundwork, and which up the body of the book. Each of these chapters focuses on the figure of the romance hero, a figure previous scholarship has,  in Kamblé's view, under-theorized. Rather than the static figure of the stereotypical alpha male, the hero in romance is an ever-changing construction, a construction that not only mirrors the larger changes about ideal masculinity in the society around it, but also reflects anxieties about those changes.

Drawing on Bakhtin, Kamblé reads the romance novel as "as a form that attempts to deal with the explosion of meaning facing a society encountering a new world—meaning that it can only process through a protagonist possessing multiple identities" (30). Unlike the static hero of the epic, the hero of the novel wears "multiple masks" that attempt to navigate this explosion of meaning. For the romance novel hero, these masks typically take on one or more of four forms, what we might refer to as tropes of the genre: the mask of the capitalist, the soldier, the heterosexual, and the Caucasian. Kamblé devotes a chapter to each of these heroic guises.

Chapter 1 focuses on the hero as capitalist, the successful businessman whose repeated appearance in the genre reflects "the repercussions in its [the romance genre's] encounters with the growth of capitalism" (31). Both the "faults" and the "attractions" of Western capitalism are represented in the businessman/hero's "corresponding off-putting or seductive traits" (32). In choosing to love the capitalist hero, the heroine, and through her, the reader, is simultaneously invited to buy into the belief that a capitalist economic system is a "prerequisite for happiness" (33).

Kamblé points out that before World War II, heroes and heroines in most Mills & Boon publications were of the petit bourgeoisie, with the wildly wealthy businessman emerging only in the 1950s, with the rise of the postwar era of free trade. The Mills & Boon romance formula, played out over the course of thousands of novels published between the mid-20th century and the present, is the "fantasy... of financial security, which is guaranteed solely by an alliance with the intruding force of free market capitalism" (35).

As Kamblé notes, it is hardly surprising to find that popular romance, "a highly refined product of consumer capitalism, valorizes the system that produces it" (32). But Kamblé also argues that the genre simultaneously critiques that which it endorses, with romance novels registering the class struggles during the unfolding of the romantic relationship between their (petite bourgeoisies/proletariat) heroines and their capitalist heroes: "the novels contain reservations about the capitalist's ethics, often as anxieties over his [the hero's] conduct in his sexual/romantic life" (36). Such anxieties are inevitably resolved by novel's end, however, with the hero's love declaration, "suggesting that she [the heroine] holds more power over him than he does over her" (36). Symbolically, then, each Mills & Boon novel "neutralizes the threat of the all-powerful capitalist" by making him subject to the taming influences of female love (35); by accepting that her hero is truly, at heart, benevolent, the heroine's fears of him, as well as of the potential damaging impact of free market capitalism, are appeased.

Kamblé argues against reading this narrative pattern as simply "another example of the way mass culture creates false consciousness and encourages readers to accept bourgeois ideology" (38). Instead, she urges us to view the hostility between heroes and heroines before the love declaration climax, as well as the "relatively limited narrative space" the novels devote to their happy endings, not as a wholehearted embrace of free market capitalism, but instead a "voicing of the conflicted British response to the gradual dismantling of the British welfare state, the privileging of employer interests over those of employees, and the increasing bent toward privatization in the postwar years" (38).

Kamblé presents little in the way of specific evidence from Mills & Boon romances to support her claims, perhaps assuming that its capitalist hero is so familiar he needs no introduction. I certainly recall plenty of high-powered businessmen heroes from my own 1970s and 80s Harlequin reading. But I can also recall other types, too: a painter, a playwright, a playboy-about-town. Kamblé's arguments made me wonder: what percentage of Mills & Boon/Harlequins feature the capitalist, as compared to men in other professions? And did that percentage change over time? Or would Kamblé argue that a hero's stated profession doesn't matter, because all the M&B/H heroes are capitalists at heart?

In the second half of this opening chapter, Kamblé's focus shifts from England to America, and from category to single-title romance. Strangely enough, it also shifts from contemporary to historical romance, using novels by Loretta Chase, Lisa Kleypas, Gaelen Foley, and Judith McNaught to suggest that while American romance writers focus far less on cross-class antagonism, their romances still demonstrate an immersion in "business-speak and the ethos of late capitalism" (43). The heroes of English-set historical romances written by Americans may be littered with dukes and viscounts, but these are aristocrats in dress only, really capitalists under their greatcoats and pantaloons. Kamblé's analysis is not always persuasive here—is the prenuptial legal wrangling in which Lord of Scoundrels' Sebastian and Jessica engage truly in the "register of the corporate takeover"? Or rather a historically accurate reflection of the common practice of negotiated marriage settlements between aristocrats in this period? What of the contract negotiations between an aristocrat and his courtesan in Foley's novel? Are these really (or only) reflections of "the pervasive nature of industrial and postindustrial capitalism's worldview," or do they reflect the pre-capitalist systems in place during the periods in which these novels are set? (Kleypas's novels may be the exception, here; they have always struck me as quite different than the majority of historical romances, in their pointed exploration of emerging capitalism and their explicit rejection of the non-working aristocratic male in favor of their more forward-thinking industrialists and businessmen).

Kamblé concludes this chapter with a discussion of more recent novels that voice more overt reservations about the emergence of multinational capitalism than did earlier romances, novels that explore capitalism's dark side: J. D. Robb's In Death series and Judith McNaught's Someone to Watch Over Me. Kamblé's analysis of the McNaught is persuasive, but I did wonder if the In Death books' reservations about capitalism might be due as much to the sub-genre—dystopian futurism—in which Robb has chosen to write as to change in social attitudes toward global capitalism.

Kamblé's second chapter shifts from the boardroom to the battlefield, exploring the proliferation of warrior-heroes in the romance genre. I found this chapter far more persuasive than the book's first, in part because its argument is more complex, and in part because its subject is far narrower: romances with soldiers as main characters.

In part a reflection of capitalism ("if the romance genre is tied to the economy... it would also echo current public rhetoric that calls for a defense of (capitalist) democracy by means of war") (61), the warrior hero has proven far more malleable over the course of the genre's history than his capitalist counterpart. Early twentieth-century romances, Kamblé argues, embraced wholeheartedly the nationalism underlying the heroic warrior romance lead. But the changing environment in the post WWII years "led to the genre's evolution, with heroes (and plots) adapted in ways that break away from the previous wholehearted faith in wars fought by Western democracies" (63). Kamblé's analysis and documentation of the changes the warrior has undergone during the second half of the 20th century, and the opening decades of the 21st, is quite persuasive, highlighting both the continuing presence of a Cold War, America-first attitude in genre romance, even as new elements of self-doubt and self-critique begin to emerge in warrior hero depictions, particularly in books written after the Gulf War and 9/11.

More recent warrior-hero romances, those that look more critically at the costs of war, tend to fall into two recurring patterns, Kamblé notes: those which feature a hero who has been physically or emotionally damaged by war, or, less commonly, those which "motion toward the amorality that jingoistic policy breeds in its enforcers" (64). Most interestingly, Kamblé points out "a fundamental incompatibility between different structures in the mechanism of power instituted by the bourgeoisie—allegiance to the capitalist state and allegiance to the nuclear family," an incompatibility that the genre itself brings to the surface (68). A warrior committed to defending his country is often called to sacrifice companionate marriage and affective individualism, a sacrifice that the romance novel asks its readers to question, if not to reject outright. Paranormal romances, which feature warriors fighting not in the government-sponsored military but as private warriors, "allow the twin desires to be reconciled to some degree; the narrative can symbolically attain the goal of American security but without admitting the potential sacrifice of moral stature on the part of actual US armed forces, that is, the nation itself" (79).

Previous scholars have argued persuasively that increasing demands for gender equality during 1960s and 70s correlate with an increase in the level of machismo displayed by popular romance heroes. In her third chapter, Kamblé suggests another possible cause for the rise of the overbearingly masculine hero: "increasing demands for an end to institutionalized homophobia" (88). Romance attempts to allay anxieties about the (purported) threat posed by homosexuality to the heterosexual family by "adapting its hero trait into the antithesis of the gay male (or the idea of the gay male, at any rate) who is emerging from the closet in the postwar years" (89). This is an intriguing claim, one that I expected Kamblé to demonstrate by comparing romance heroes to their (inevitably wimpy) male rivals. But her analysis overlooks this avenue, making instead a series of more indirect claims about Mills & Boon romances: the "marriage-in-name-only" trope reassures us that "the institution of marriage nurtures love between men and women"; the rise of the alpha male, who embodies no feminine (or, in other words, unmasculine) qualities, as would a stereotypical homosexual; the prevalence of heroes from more patriarchal cultures (especially Latin and Middle Eastern), assuming that patriarchal equates with heterosexism; plots which express indirect anxieties about men's abandoning marriage (and turning toward other men) because of women's refusal (often masked as inability) to give them children.

Two couples in the Castro in the 1960s
During the 1980's, the M&B alphaman acquires a new characteristic: unlike previous heroes, who had no pasts to speak of, the 80's manly man "now has a history that explains his actions to some extent" (105). Kamblé attributes this shift not to feminism's gains, but rather to a waning in panic over homosexuality in the period, particularly in England and Canada: "the hero does not have to be on guard any more against an emotional display that might be viewed as unmanly, a trait popularly associated with homosexuality" (105). In America, in single-title historicals of the 70s and 80s, heterosexual masculinity reaffirms itself against the threat of homosexuality through the trope of forced seduction or outright rape, but by the 90's this trope retreats. "the alpha-male version of heteronormaitvity (i.e., a grim, sexually focused masculinity) turns into a recessive rather than dominant trait whenever homoeroticism is not being repressed (the latter occurring when the gay rights movement is not int he headlines)" (115). The prevalence of romances in the 90s in which men fall for cross-dressed heroines during hints at queer desire, Kamblé suggests, "even if only to use it for comedic effect or as a barrier than can eventually be overcome by straight romance" (111). Allowing heroes to have other male friends also shows a lessening of homophobia during this period.

Kamblé concludes by asserting that the current political debates over gay marriage in the U.S. echo the gay rights activism of the 1960s, and thus "the renewed debate on the right of gay individuals to marry and the swing to conservativism among the American populace on this issue, will see the genre bringing back the mechanism of controlling social anxiety" (124). While she acknowledges the increase in romance novels with gay characters, and makes passing reference to the emergence of a the huge market for gay romance since the turn of the century, she reads the reemergence of the alpha male over the past decade as a clear sign of increasing social anxiety about the homosexual threat to heterosexual marriage.

I found Kamble's theories in this chapter fascinating, but something kept me back from embracing them fully. My own lack of knowledge about the rise of gay rights? Questions about whose anxieties were being addressed (general cultural ones? Publishers'? Female romance readers'?)? Or the fact that correlation (the rise in gay rights movements occurring at the same time as the rise in overbearing heroes) is not always causation? I'm not entirely certain.

Singh's multiracial romance: but
would you know it from the cover?
The final chapter of Kamblé's monograph points out the white protestant ethos that underlies popular romance, even romances published for a global market. Drawing on Richard Dyer's theories of whiteness ("whiteness lies on one end of a spectrum representing beauty, the eternal soul, sexual control, and economic striving, and darkness on the other, suggesting ugliness, a corrupt body, sexual dissolution, and lethargy" [132]), Kamblé analyzes one book by Lisa Kleypas, and many by Nalini Singh, a New Zealander from Fiji who is of South Asian descent. Singh's early category romances for publisher Silhouette conform to white Protestant norms, Kamblé demonstrates, suggesting that "the genre's founding myth of romantic marriage is a particularized white fantasy that has been exported to a nonwhite audience via a global distribution mechanism" (149). Even Singh's single-title paranormal romances rely on the concept of "soul mates," an "affirmation of the preeminence of the spirit over the body" that Kamblé points to as a central component of Protestant belief (151). But Kamblé sees a "rediscovery of ethnicity" in later books in Singh's Psy-Changeling series: more protagonists with skin colors other than white; a focus on the extended family (i.e., the pack) as a trace of non-white social/familial structures; Singh's use of the word "race" to refer to Psys and Changelings as a negation of "the genre's affirmative impulse towards a homogeneous whiteness," one that makes "interracial romance and reproduction the norm, the unmarked state" (154); and a rejection of the "traditional equation of darkness with raging sexuality and of whiteness with ascetic control" (155).

Few critics have been willing to take up the entire genre of popular romance as their subject, wary of falling into trap of making overly simplistic, and thus misleading, generalizations, as the earliest analyses of the field so often did. I applaud Kamblé for her ambition in tackling the entire genre, as well as for her demonstration of the rewarding insights that result when scholars acknowledge that popular romance is far from an unchanging monolithic body, but rather a rich storehouse of shifting attitudes towards vital social, historical, and political change. While I may not always have agreed with her conclusions about particular texts, each of her arguments made me think, and think hard, about my own definitions of, and assumptions about the field and the changes it has undergone over its decades-long history. I look forward to seeing how scholars in the future will build upon (and/or challenge) Kamblé's intriguing claims about the field.

Photo credits:
Castro couples: Crawford Barton, Gay and Lesbian Historical Society of Northern California

Jayashree Kamblé
Making Meaning in Popular Romance Fiction:
An Epistemology
Palgrave/Macmillan, 2014


  1. I haven't had the opportunity to read this book yet so I'm grateful for your review of it.

    "Each of these chapters focuses on the figure of the romance hero, a figure previous scholarship has, in Kamblé's view, under-theorized."

    Did she use the word "under-theorized"? If so, that would give me certain expectations concerning her use of secondary material: I'd expect her to engage with a lot of it and show why it doesn't go far enough.

    So, with regard to her section on capitalism, I wonder about the extent to which she's engaged with Jan Cohn's Romance and the Erotics of Property (which Google Books suggests she cites but probably not in great detail) and Bridget Fowler's The Alienated Reader.

    Regarding the hero as soldier, a relevant title would seem to be Jane Potter's Boys in Khaki, Girls in Print which discusses the romances of the First World War. As for

    Romance attempts to allay anxieties about the (purported) threat posed by homosexuality to the heterosexual family by "adapting its hero trait into the antithesis of the gay male (or the idea of the gay male, at any rate) who is emerging from the closet in the postwar years" (89).

    I wonder if she mentions Kathleen Therrien's article in New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction in which Therrien argues that in some romances secondary characters who are "Gays and lesbians [...] function [...] as the markers of how far is "too far," of how much change is dangerous" (165): the examples given are from novels published in the 1990s but when these characters are the evil antagonists of the hero, they would presumably support Kamble's case. And doesn't the theory that there was a "rise of the alpha male, who embodies no feminine (or, in other words, unmasculine) qualities" need to deal with Radway's conception of the alpha hero as, ultimately, a somewhat maternal figure who cares for the heroine? Also, re

    "The prevalence of romances in the 90s in which men fall for cross-dressed heroines during hints at queer desire, Kamblé suggests, "even if only to use it for comedic effect or as a barrier than can eventually be overcome by straight romance" (111). Allowing heroes to have other male friends also shows a lessening of homophobia during this period."

    What about the cross-dressing heroines in Georgette Heyer which, obviously, were written in a much earlier period (and on which there is some scholarship). Is that mentioned and does she think these novels suggest there was a lessening of homophobia in that period too?

    As for the question of race in romance, does she mention Stephanie Burley's article about "The Racial Politics of Category Romance"? Or the vogue for romances featuring Native American heroes of the type written by Cassie Edwards (which has also been discussed by a number of scholars)?

    1. Hi, Laura.

      "Under-theorized" was my word, not Kamblé's. One disappointment I had with her book was her lack of engagement with previous romance scholarship. She cites some of it, but doesn't really engage with it in her own analyses. Grappling with all of the work you mention would have pushed her to make her arguments more complex, more nuanced, than what she ultimately gives us.

  2. Fascinating stuff, thank you for posting these reviews of scholarship as well as of novels themselves. :)

    1. You're very welcome! One of my goals with this blog is to bring insights from scholars to a broader audience, to bridge the gap between academia and readers. Glad to know you welcome this aspect of the blog!