Monday, August 29, 2011

Echoes of old words

Half Heaven, Half Heartache:
Discovering the Transformative Potential in Women’s Popular Fiction
by Linda Ann Wheeler Hilton

An Honors Thesis Presented in Partial Fulfillment
of Honors College Graduation Requirements
Women’s Studies

Arizona State University West
May 2000

There is, or should be, little doubt that women love romance novels (Paizis 10-12; Thurston 3).  They also love romantic movies, romantic dinners, sentimental greeting cards, and flowers on their birthdays.  The difference is that movies, dinners, cards and flowers are commonly shared experiences, shared with and often even provided for by the woman's intimate partner, who also receives a benefit.  His benefit may be in the form of enjoyment of the movie or increased intimacy in the relationship.  (Crudely put, it means that buying her flowers and treating her to dinner and a movie entitles him, in his estimation, to sex.) fn 1

The reading of a romance novel, on the other hand, is a very private and personal effort (Brownstein 25), with little if any direct benefit to the man in the woman's life.  Though studies have shown women who read romance novels have a more active sex life (Grescoe back cover; Thurston 10), and this could be seen as a benefit to their intimate partners, the reading itself is rarely a shared activity.

Half Heaven, Half Heartache will look at romance fiction from the unique perspective of a radical feminist who has been "inside" both the romance reader's and the romance writer's worlds, as well as academia.  I hope to raise a new awareness of the complex issues involved.

1.  If the above definition seems resolutely heterosexist, I plead guilty, at least in terms of the definition of romance novel.  The mass market romance novel itself is resolutely heterosexist.  Although there are gay and lesbian romance novels, they have neither the quantitative audience nor the mainstream effect of heterosexual mass market romance novels.  Therefore, this study focuses only on the latter, with no cultural slight intended toward any other form.

Much has changed in Romancelandia since I wrote that thesis over 11 years ago.  Certainly the mainstreaming of gay and lesbian romances is one change, and then there is the whole e-publishing revolution which had just barely begun in the very late 1990s.  The various online communities of readers such as Dear Author and All About Romance and Good Reads have made reading much less of a solitary experience, as readers gather to discuss what they're reading, what they like, what they don't like.  Oftentimes the authors participate in the discussions, either to defend their work against critics or to join in celebration of good reviews and remunerative sales.

One thing that hasn't changed, however, is the short shrift romantic fiction gets from the critics.  As I posted here a few months ago, even academics who appear to have given the genre critical respect often just don't get it.

So after the encouragement I've received today over at Dear Author, I posted the opening sample above and now I'm going to settle back and review the possibilities.  As I wrote there, since I've gone back to actually writing romance novels after my long and not entirely voluntary hiatus, maybe I should revisit this thesis, too.

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