Issue #91 (March 15, 2000)

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Romance, Then And Now (by Laurie Likes Books):
I rarely read or buy romances written before the mid-1980's. Many of the old historicals feature older men and much younger women; lots of yelling and screaming, followed by lots of lovemaking; and/or lots of raping and pillaging. In fact, AAR Reviewer Anthony Langford remembers that one of the first romances he ever read was Johanna Lindsey's A Pirate's Love, about which he says, "these were the days when heroes raping heroines was part of the courting process."

Some years ago while on a Johanna Lindsey glom, I picked up a copy of A Pirate's Love. It sat in my study until recently, when I noticed its reissue on our Coming Attractions page. My assessment of the book? Abysmal. Whether or not Lindsey's style has changed drastically since the book was originally released in 1978 or my own tastes have changed since reading several of her other books in the early 1990's, I'm not sure. It's probably a combination of them both. Regardless, as far as I'm concerned, this book does not stand up well against the test of time. If it was ever good, it is most assuredly not good now.

I read and thoroughly enjoyed several of Lindsey's books in the early 1990's. One became a Desert Isle Keeper - Prisoner of My Desire, although I originally gave it a grade of B. It was only after I received the DIK Review of it that I re-read it and discovered I loved it. As for my other favorites by this author, they include Man of My Dreams, which was among the first romances I ever read, and Once a Princess, which was equally good fun. It wasn't until I got stuck in its sequel, You Belong to Me, that I discovered the "down" side to Johanna Lindsey. That "down side?" Characters screaming at one another until my head throbbed.

When I discovered the shrill side to Lindsey's writing, I put my glom on hold. Oh, I read a couple other of her books in intervening years, but until A Pirate's Love was reissued, my desire to read her again returned. Then, after having so thoroughly enjoyed Once a Pirate by Susan Grant, I decided to read some more pirate romances. And so, the timing was perfect for me to read A Pirate's Love. The timing may have been perfect, but the book surely was not.

In addition to the shrill side of Johanna Lindsey's writing, this book originally issued in 1978, treats us to a series of kidnaps/rescues - rapes - recriminations. This sequence of events occurred with such alarming regularity throughout the story that I whipped through it. This chorus of rescue/rape/recriminations created a kind of reader's cadence that allowed me to read the book much faster than I generally can read a horrible book.

So many of the romances considered "classics" by many romance readers are ones I'll never read because I don't particularly care for those features of the "old style" of romance. It is these same romances that earned the genre the "bodice ripper" label, and that label has stuck. Kathleen Woodiwiss, Rosemary Rogers, Jennifer Wilde - these are the authors I associated with romance novels when I began to read it in earnest in the early 1990's. These are the authors whose "classic" romances helped define the modern genre.

Others may argue that Georgette Heyer and some of the "gothic" authors were the true "mothers" of the modern romance, but these are not the authors most known to the general public. I can remember picking up books by Rogers and Wilde during my freshman year at college in 1978. I was 17, away from home for the first time, and my sexuality was burgeoning. I distinctly recall trips to the Skaggs Supermarket a few miles from the SMU campus where we young women would buy snacks and books for our binges. Two trips in particular yielded my purchases of Sweet Savage Love (1974, Rosemary Rogers) and Love's Tender Fury (1976, Jennifer Wilde aka Tom Huff).

These books were very different from the "adult" books I'd caged from my mom's library. Sure, Scruples and The Betsy featured explicit love scenes, but nothing like the relationships explored in these two books. I never read another Rogers, but did read a couple of Wilde's other books, then quickly moved past the romance genre and into my more literary phase of fiction. A few years later, I joined the Book-of-the-Month Club and received Come Love a Stranger (1984, Kathleen Woodiwiss). This was the first gothic-style romance I'd ever read and it too didn't satisfy me. Romance went on the back burner for nearly a decade.

These books were so melodramatic! They were so filled with the "I hate you, now let's go make mad and passionate love!" style that I despise to this very day. Many of the romances I read when I truly discovered romance in the early 1990's shared some of these excesses, but there was a difference. The writing was better, the relationships were built upon more than love/hate relationships, and the stories were more focused. Yes, some of these books, particularly those by authors who had begun writing in the late 1970's (such as Coulter and Busbee), were pretty bad, but few were as bad, although some came very close.

For a time in the early 1990's, it was easy to tell the age of a romance by the cover it had. If it had a non-clinch cover, I deemed it "safe." If it had an old-fashioned clinch or "bodice-ripper" cover, I generally shuddered, then passed it by. Only later did I realize that some old books were reissued with new covers, which was when I started to check copyright pages, which I continue to do.

Some of the authors I've come to love started to write when the "old style" reigned supreme. Some of these authors have a tendency to write in that "old style," albeit in a less extreme manner. More of them, however, either changed, more or less, with the times, or were writing very differently, even back then.

Authors such as Johanna Lindsey began to write in the "early modern" period of romance writing - the 1970's. A Pirate's Love came very early in her career. I don't know whether others consider it a "classic" Lindsey; all I know is that I don't. Lindsey peaked for me in the early 1990's. Although we've graded one of her most recent books in the B range, few readers I've come into contact with have been ecstatic about her work in the past few years.

Lindsey continues to write a book a year, and her current releases are in hardcover form. Rosemary Rogers began to be published again a couple of years ago, although in paper. Woodiwiss' recent books have been in trade size, and have not been well received by our readers. Although many current romance authors fell in love with romance based on the writings of these women, have they stood the test of time?

A Look at Romance and Academia in the Eighties

While browsing through rows and rows of feminist studies in our university, I discovered Reading the Romance, first published in 1984. To my surprise, it turned out to be an academic study of romances, which is rare enough in itself. During the early eighties, the author Janice R. Radway, then professor of American Civilization at the University of Pennsylvania, studied a group of 42 romance readers in a midwestern town, called by the fictitious name of Smithton. She investigated their reading habits, their motivations for reading romances of all genres, and the reasons why certain romances appeal to readers while others fail to do so. She also gives us some insight into the publishing industry and provides a psychological background to romance reading.

Some aspects of Radway's study are most assuredly outdated. The romances she explores - among them Woodiwiss’ The Flame and the Flower and The Wolf and the Dove, Johanna Lindsey’s Fires of Winter, and Laurie Mcbain’s Moonstruck Madness, all listed as the readers’ favorites - no longer represent what romance is all about. I agree with Radway, to some extent, when she admits that the virtues of passive female sexuality presented in these novels may stitch the reader more firmly into the fabric of patriarchal culture. Like Radway, I'm critical about equating of female virtue with innocence and virginity, as well as the heroines' willingness to condone cruel treatment and the occasional rape, that used to appear in many of those early romances. The heroes’ sudden transformation from an overbearing and insensitive superior into a tender and expressive intimate was unbelievable. Yet the romance readers of "Smithton" accepted this metamorphosis for the sake of a happy ending.

You will probably all agree that modern romances have come a long way since the good old days when they were still fledglings. Readers have also changed, and current discussions on romances are much more outspoken than the ones Radway conducted. The women she interviewed were unwilling to discuss whether they were sexually excited by the love scenes in romances, and didn't like explicit love scenes or precise descriptions of bodily reactions. They favored a woman whose sexuality is only awakened by the hero and who represses sexual urges before marriage. Today sexuality in romances is more balanced. I would even claim that female sexuality has become much more valorized in recent romances.

Another topic which was discussed in the book is closely related to a recent issue of At the Back Fence, asks why we turn preferably to romances rather than to other types of fiction. The unanimous reply to this question among the Smithton women was to escape - to escape from their everyday pressing concerns, from a harsh reality, from the constant demands of their families. Romances provided them with a sense of emotional well-being and happiness; they appreciated them for their optimistic outlook on life. A happy ending was the prerequisite for a successful romance. They did not want to read about ugliness, despair or serious human problems.

Many of today's romance readers also say that they read to escape. Radway's interpretation is that women seek out romances because, through the identification with the heroine, they can vicariously feel worthy of love and attention. Taught to be self abnegating nurturers, women feel guilty about supposedly neglecting the family. But they need free time and space to attend to their own needs as independent individuals. Because these needs are not met by their husbands, romances become a kind of compensatory literature through which readers search for emotional gratification and try to experience the care they usually give to others.

Without meaning to generalize, there might be something to the idea that we seek in romances what we do not have in life. I frequently plead for not praising women constantly for being the only redeemers and nurturers of the world, because this is likely to put us into roles where we sacrifice our own interests for others. After all, men might just as well be the domestic part of the family and be able to perform altruistic tasks.

One thing hasn't changed, though. The women of Smithton were troubled by their obviously pleasurable activity of reading and felt guilty for indulging in such “hedonism." I suppose many of us have at one point or another experienced a certain uneasiness about reading something which is regarded as frothy and light entertainment, or even outrageously enough as “soft pornography for women." This argument, by the way, already enraged those women. In addition to that, they felt culpable about the highly private reading experience to which their husbands and children objected because it took the women's attention away from the family circle.

We sometimes continue to look for ways to justify reading romance novels. Our culture seems to be a suspicious of the free expression of female sexuality and on top of that values work more highly than leisure time, especially, if we fill that time - gasp! - with reading for pleasure.

A way of rationalizing romance reading which the Smithton women often resorted to was to stress its instructional value: we learn about history and other times and places, from authors who have carried out careful research. Isn't that a point we have also made repeatedly? I think it is a valid argument. On the other hand, it seems we try to upgrade and legitimize our reading by linking it with the values approved within our culture. We do not want it to be pointless, but useful and challenging. We do not want to be passive consumers, but “hard-working" achievers, because this is still the prevailing work ethic. I never thought of it from this perspective, but I am afraid I might be a victim of this ideology.

I'm skeptical of Radway's argument that repetitive reading is nothing but mass consumption. She elegantly explains glomming and “chain-reading," saying that advertisements promise that pleasure, happiness and pride can be derived from buying any number of mass-produced objects, even though this pleasure is only temporary and experienced secondhand. According to her, we undergo the same process when we read books because we only feel pleasure vicariously for a while and immediately after finishing a book want to repeat this experience again.

I doubt it. I don't read because I'm emotionally neglected or deprived. In fact, I only started reading romances when I became involved in a perfectly happy relationship. I enjoy romances because I read in them what I have experienced myself: that love is strong and conquers all, to use a hackneyed cliché.

Reading romances complements my own love life. It reminds me time and again of what it is like to fall in love: the heartstopping, tingling excitement, the irresistible sexual attraction, the feeling of utter happiness. . .I suppose I would be much more cynical about the romantic fantasy I read about every day if I did not experience parts of it in my own life.

I don't necessarily identify with the heroine, as Radway claims we do. A good romance hinges on whether the hero is likable. A keeper must have a memorable hero. If the hero is a selfish brute, not even the spunkiest heroine can save the book.

My reading is not repetitive mass consumption. Radway’s theory is hard to disprove, but I can't accept it . Anyway, the only advertisements for romances I am aware of, are the nondescript promises of editors and the back cover blurbs. We all know how reliable those are. . . . Although romances are mass produced, they are still a marginalized genre and really only promoted among insiders.

Radway says that romances can be criticized because they do nothing to alter the social situation of women, which caused the alleged dissatisfaction that made women turn to them. Romances, according to Radway, assuage discontent by providing a vicarious fulfillment of wishes. Since reading is such a private, isolated experience, a female community that could lead to real change cannot be established. I guess we all agree that this point must be somewhat modified now. Through organizations like the Romance Writers of America (which Radway mentions in passing, they had only just begun to organize when she began her research) and discussion forums like AAR, women's traditional isolation from one another is - at least on a cyber-level - counteracted. They are brought together over an issue that concerns them especially. In a way, thus, what Radway imagined ideally for the future has come true: that through the collective sharing of experiences, women, both readers and writers, have a voice and strength.

Radway believes that romance reading is generated by dissatisfaction and she hopes that some day a world will be created in which we no longer need the vicarious please supplied by reading romances. Now here you will find me cry out in protest: I hope that romances will never cease to exist and please us. After all, they are not static, but actually develop just as society has developed since Radway conducted her study. They no longer feature mainly childlike, inexperienced heroines, domineering alpha heroes and stereotypical plots (even though not all early romances fit this pattern, and some current romances still relapse into it).

Romance heroes and heroines have matured, great new writing talents have emerged, and the genre itself has become a symbol of female consciousness and self-confidence. If this sounds like a celebration of the romance, I suppose it is, and it should be worthwhile to re-evaluate romances as they are today from an academic angle.

On What She Said (by Robin Nixon Uncapher):
There aren't many academic articles that make me itch to repeat a research project but that's just what Vivien's article on Radway's academic research made me want to do!

I would just love to know what things have changed over the past sixteen years. Knowing that the study was done in 1984 made me wonder about the reading tastes of the women who participated and whether romance novels are reaching a wider audience these days. I began reading romance novels in October 1998 and the kinds of books that Radway describes - ones with a lot of forced seduction and overwrought writing - don't match the kind of books that I've been spending the past year and a half reading.

Vivien rightly says that romance has come a long way. One of the ways that I think it has come is that good historical romance novels are now often very good historical novels. This is not a first of course Gone With the Wind is a stunning, if extremely biased historical novel that won the Pulitzer Prize.

One of my favorite romances of all time is Mary Jo Putney's stunning Shattered Rainbows. During most of this book the heroine, Catherine is married. She is the wife of an army officer who follows the drum with her daughter and is know for her nursing skills. The book is not only a beautiful story of two people who fall in love and do not act on it (there's no adultery in this book), but it also describes in fascinating detail, the lives of the women and children who followed the British army during the Napoleonic Wars. Putney describes Catherine as she, and another wife, search for a house in Belgium as the army prepares for Waterloo. You watch her cook for her husband's friends and listen to their casual conversations. The book is certainly sensual. It contains the best love scene I've ever read in a romance. But it describes a kind of life that few people even realize existed and you can't get around the fact that this book is every bit as much of a historical novel as many of the mainstream historicals published.

Could Shattered Rainbows have been published in the early eighties? Perhaps, but I strongly suspect it would have been written as a straight historical marketed to men and women like M. M. Kaye's The Far Pavilions. It probably would have contained less sex.

Another thing that Radway seems to take for granted is the lack of literary merit in romances. That is a shame and I suspect that she is limited her idea of romance to books like Rosemary Rogers' Sweet Savage Love. One thing that many people unaware of is that is a rich tradition of romance precedes the Rosemary Rogers period. Daphne DuMaurier, Anya Seton, and Mary Stewart, to name a few, wrote books that were romances but also had literary merit and were often read by both men and women.

When it comes to classic romance, romance writers know that romance readers know their stuff and, as a result many books are quite delightful and literate stories. Deborah Simmon's The Devil Earl is a book that absolutely knocked me over with its clever allusions to Jane Austen. The heroine of The Devil Earl is Gothic author Prudence Lancaster; she is very much like the famous Mrs. Radcliffe author of The Mysteries of Udolfo. Anyone familiar with Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey will find herself in stitches over the way that Prudence goes about exploring the mysterious castle Wolfinger. This is a book that anyone who enjoys Jane Austen could love.

Carla Kelly is a writer who combines wonderful writing with wonderful history. I defy the person who reads one of her stories and says (as a male friend of mine recently did) that romance novels are the literary equivalent to the World Wresting Federation. The opening lines of Reforming Lord Ragsdale let you know just what a clever treat you are in for:

"I wonder why it is that my mistress is so ignorant," Lord Ragsdale thought as he took a sip of his morning brandy and gazed at the heavily scented letter spread out before him on the breakfast tray. "Could it be that no one ever told her the difference between 'there' and 'their' - and what on earth is this word?"

He held up the paper closer to his good eye. "H'mmm, it appears that I am either thoughtless thankless reckless or feckless, and I don't think that Faye knows that word."

Some other things made me think hard about how far we've come, and not just in terms of books. I am forty-six, old enough to remember when women were discouraged from showing even the slightest signs of sexual interest. When I was a kid watching old movies on television, it seemed that virtually every love story started with the heroine snarling at the hero. Almost all of these stories culminated in a big dramatic scene where the hero would forcibly take the heroine into his arms and "show her" that he knew what she felt underneath the bravado. The best example of this is probably Gone With the Wind, where Scarlet never kisses Rhett willingly even when she is trying to convince him to make her his mistress!

Women in the movies who showed sexual interest were inevitably portrayed as being not the kind of woman a man would marry. Marilyn Monroe got a lot of attention but not many of her parts featured a man begging to make her the mother of his children. Boy oh boy, talk about working against your own interests! Didn't these men realize that if you continually punish a woman for showing sexual interest you will get what you ask for, namely frigidity? Not only did this whole problem lead to many unhappy scenes in the back seats of cars, it led woman to fantasize about sexual experiences where she could take part without guilt.

Barbara Samuel's The Black Angel addressed this problem in a different and utterly captivating way. The heroine is a young woman who has been ruined. Unlike 99% of the ruined heroines in romance novels this young woman actually had sex with a cad who seduced her. She has paid heavily for her behavior and now does everything she can to squelch her "sinful nature." On their wedding night, the hero discovers rather late that all signs to the contrary, his new wife is completely aroused. I found the scene wonderful because the heroine was allowed to be a sexual person on her own, not one who simply was "awakened" by the hero.

Another thing that struck me about the article was Radway's assumption that happy endings cause complacency. Although I don't accept the idea of romance novels as male propaganda, it is nice to note that very few romance heroines in today's novels happily settle down with a serial rapist. In fact, most heroines nowadays have a part in making their own happy ending. Rarely is today's romance hero allowed to rescue the heroine on his own. Usually the heroine plays an important part in the resolution of any plot that requires action. Just this year I have read heroines who do the following:

  • Fly the English Channel in a biplane (My One and Only by Katherine O'Neal)
  • Pull a large man from certain death in -25 degree weather (Duncan's Bride by Linda Howard)
  • Save a town full of gold miners from smallpox (Silver Linings by Maggie Osborne)
  • Save the hero from torturing himself to death with post traumatic stress disorder (Reckless by Ruth Wind)

Whew! Hear me roar!

Lastly, I also wondered, (dare I bring this up) if today's woman is less likely to dump on a heroine for not being a virgin. Yeah, yeah I know, there are lots of virgins out there, but lots of us aren't virgins and weren't virgins when we met the love of our lives and we aren't ashamed of it. My personal feeling is that being "pure" and being a virgin are two entirely different things and the idea that I was impure when I met my dear husband is a pretty offensive thought. But more to the point, are we finally done bashing women for making their own choices with their own bodies?

The odd thing is that recently many contemporary writers have been writing something I call the accidental virgin. This is a woman who is a virgin not because of religious of moral scruples but because it just happened, apparently by accident. Some of these women, like Emma in Susan Elizabeth Phillips' Lady Be Good, seem to have actually forgotten this rather major life passage. Talk about an opening. Okay I'll bite.

As Freud said, "There are no accidents."

Nora Roberts solves the problem in a way that reflects the lives that many of us lead. Her heroines, like Eve Dallas from her J.D. Robb In Death series, are seldom awakened by sex. They are awakened by love. Eve has an incredible sex life with her husband Roarke, but what is really groundbreaking is the love. Eve is a kind of emotional virgin. Not only has she never been in love, she has had very few friends. Eve's emotional development in the series is every bit as riveting as a Clark Gable clench and I think that is why she is repeatedly cited as the favorite heroine of so many readers.

I'm curious to read the reactions of those of you who read the article.

On What She Said (by Laurie Likes Books):
Although some readers do not like Jayne Ann Krentz's Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, I've found it quite useful when thinking about the romance genre. Krentz and the authors who wrote this non-fiction book about the appeal of romance novels met the attacks of scientists like Radway head-on. Both Laura Kinsale and Linda Barlow dispute Radway's claim that romance readers identify with the novels' heroines, and that they do so in order to vicariously feel worthy of love and attention.

Kinsale writes that: "the reader does not identify with, admire, or internalize the characteristics of. . .a heroine. (Instead,) the reader measures the heroine by a tough yardstick, asking the character to live up to the reader's standards, not vice versa." She adds that, "a romance reader. . .is experiencing herself as hero, and as heroine, completely within her own personality." Kinsale goes on to state that proof of this identification with the hero can be found in his point of view being an important part of modern romance, that "by desiring the hero's point of view. . ., readers are actually asking for emotional identification with the hero, not simply his viewpoint."

And, though I am loathe to quote myself, I can't think of a better way to describe author Linda Barlow musings, than through my own comments from a 1996 issue of this column. I wrote then that, "Linda Barlow postulates that our love for heroes goes beyond the fact that they are men. They are the archetypal male and let us identify with our masculine side. Without getting all Jungian, they are yin to our yang. The combination of male strength and female nurturing, hunter and gatherer, lover and beloved, makes us whole."

As Linda herself writes:

"If the romance novel is indeed a mythical playing out of Everywoman's archetypal journal toward psychological integration, this may explain why male reviewers (and male-trained female critics) have responded so negatively: they simply don't get it. . .They are foreigners in our emotional landscape."

I've made similar statements in this column for a number of years. I've said before that romance novels are difficult for men in particular to relate to because they deal with the messiness of human emotion. If your husband is like mine, he was taught very early on to hide his emotions. It's easy to denigrate what makes one uncomfortable. And that, of course, leads me to another point, which I only want to touch on here because we spent the better part of the summer in discussions on it - the frightening idea of a woman's sexuality. Today's romance novels present lovemaking from a woman's perspective - most feature women on the receiving end of pleasure. This flies in the face of our historical past and makes many people very uncomfortable.

As to identifying with characters, I find the male lead in romances generally more interesting than the female lead. Not always, but more often than not. Is it because I'm a heterosexual woman attracted to these handsome characters? The obvious answer is, of course, yes - but it's more than that. I certainly don't experience life vicariously through the heroines I read if a heroine isn't smart, brave, and true, I have little interest in her story.

What interests me are the journeys both characters take in order to experience their totality. The characters have to be worth the effort, however. When Joan Wolf began to write her first person romances a few years ago, I was one of few readers I know of not to jump on the bandwagon of approval. For me to fully engage in a romance, I have to be in the heart and the head of both lead characters. And if I cannot come to care for the hero, I cannot come to care for the book.

(BTW, another well-known feminist scholar to look at romance novels is Kay Mussell. She, along with Radway, is heavily footnoted in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women. She wrote a piece for AAR in late 1997 where she refutes many of her original points. If you haven't already read this piece, please feel free to link here.)

A lot has changed since the first wave of "modern romance" hit us in the seventies, and much has changed since Radway conducted her research (and Kay Mussell wrote on the subject). Romance novels are different, as are women, and I'd like to think that as we women have grown and become more comfortable with ourselves as powers unto ourselves, that these experiences have translated into better and more powerful romances.

The politics of gender have infected our lives, it seems, to such a degree that we are in the position of having to defend what we read and our reasons for reading it. Of course, the excesses of the "old style" of romance writing certainly didn't help!

Time to Post to the Message Board: Here are some specific questions to think and post about:

If they ever did, do these assumptions about modern romance hold truth today?
  • That romance novels celebrate the virtues of passive female sexuality;
  • That romance novels equate female virtue with virginity;
  • That romance novels are "consumption-oriented" products which, in essence, serve to keep "women in their place" as self-abnegating nurturers; and
  • That romance novels provide a negative vicarious outlet in order to keep "women in their place" as marginalized members of our society?
For those of you who are long-time romance readers to those of you who are newbies, we'd like to hear from you. Did you begin to read romance in the days when, as Anthony so aptly put it, "rape was a courting ritual?" Or did you begin to read romance more recently?
What did you glean from Radway's research that either offended you or struck a true chord? Did you hear yourself described in those short quotes from Laura Kinsale and/or Linda Barlow?
When reading backlists of authors who began their careers during the "old style" or writing and are still writing today, what is your impression? Do you have cut-off points before which you won't read a romance? On the other hand, do you miss the days of the more epic-style romance, whatever its excesses and politically incorrect behavior?
Do you think that women are less embarrassed about the sexual aspects of romance novels than they used to be? Are women less tolerant of ravishment and rape? Does the woman in the year 2000 have fewer "rape fantasies" than her 1984 counterpart? Are women less likely to demand that the heroine be a virgin?
Do women feel less guilty about spending a bit of reading time away from kids and husbands?

In conjunction with Vivien Fritsche

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Link to all of Vivien's reviews and articles following her DIK Review of Kathryn Lynn Davis' Too Deep for Tears

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