Monday, August 29, 2011

Words in my defense

(I discovered the following in some old computer files.  This is the "script" I wrote for my May 2000 defense of my honors thesis Half Heaven, Half Heartache:  Discovering the Transformative Potential in Women's Popular Fiction.  Both a personal testimony and academic analysis, this defense states as clearly as I could what issues I wanted to explore.  I have cleaned up some typos, but this is virtually the original text presented at the defense.)

I conceived this project because I had been inside the community of the romance novel and believed I had, therefore, an opportunity to analyse it from both a feminist and a devotee standpoint. I had been a victim of attacks on romance fiction and I had ardently defended the genre. I’m not sure my defenses were valid, however. As I came into the academic community, I saw how little communication there had been between the two, and that what communication there had been had served only to widen the gap. The one attempt to bridge the gap, Jayne Ann Krentz’s Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, seemed to contain so many contradictions that it was embarrassing, and yet it was the only "victory" the romance community had within the academic community.

As a writer comfortable with my competence with words, I felt I had both an opportunity and an obligation. The millions of women around the world who avidly read romance novels had no voice.

Unlike some of the researchers who preceded me, I’m not afraid to dive into the subject and read, read, read, read, read, read romance novels.  For one thing, I’ve been reading them since I was about eleven, which is just about the same time I began writing them. I’ve never kept track of how many I’ve read, and although I have a very extensive collection -- several thousand paperbacks -- I do not have every one I’ve ever read.

I also wrote romance novels for many years, and published seven of them. I therefore have the experience of writing, sending in proposals, dealing with contracts and agents and editors, suffering over artwork, and waiting to see sales figures. As a member of Romance Writers of America for fifteen years, I saw and heard and participated in hundreds of discussions and conversations and workshops on virtually every aspect of the romance fiction business.

What I hoped to do, therefore, was synthesize all this information from all these points of view, to create a more complete picture of what a romance novel is and what it does to, with, and for the reader.
My intention was to present an examination of the existing analytical material, compare it to some of the analyses made of other genres, then apply some of the same analytical tools that had been used on other forms of literature to the romance novel form in a way that shows how there can be a feminist reading of at least some texts. The purpose in this was to elicit interest in further exploration of the genre.

I’m still not sure exactly what the term means, so I’m going to stick with "method."

I read most of the reasonably accessible critiques/analyses of romance fiction: Carol Thurston,Tania Modleski, Kay Mussell, Janice Radway. I also found several more scholarly works, such as those by Georges Paizis, Jan Cohn, and Bridget Fowler. To this bibliography I added works that examined other forms of fiction, including analyses of nineteenth-century women’s fiction. I discovered that there seemed to be far more willingness to grant importance to a subject of study if that subject were removed in time, even if the literature itself had not been admitted to the canon, was not "acceptable" as "high art."

I also surveyed , but did not read, a number of dissertations. There are very, very few, and they are very limited in scope. Mass market women’s romance fiction of the late twentieth century is simply not studied. There are far more dissertations and theses on A.S. Byatt and her works (and Stephen King, for that matter) than there are about the entire genre of popular women’s fiction.

I also looked at several books on theories of reading. I think it’s important to understand that reading for many romance readers is not just a way of passing time or mindless escape from the cares of the day. While most fans of science fiction tend to outgrow their passion -- Joanna Russ has a comment on this somewhere -- the women readers of romance continue well beyond their 20s and 30s. And they swap the books, they talk about them, they reread them. Having attended both romance writer/reader conventions and one major science fiction con, I know that there is a similarity in the kind and level of fan involvement. But the science fiction fans tend to either leave their fanhood off when they re-enter the real world, or they do not re-enter; the women who go to romance cons act there very much the same way they do in their real lives.

The readers of romance also identify very strongly with both the writers and the characters, because the characters are written to facilitate that identification. There had to be, therefore, some strong and enduring link between the act of reading a romance novel and the development of some kind of feminist consciousness, either positive or negative or both.

Third, I looked at books on literary criticism, both theoretical and applied. Virtually none, of course, had been done on romance novels. This was an area where I came with virtually no knowledge and struggled very desperately to make sense of what I read. One of the essays in Jane Tompkins Reader-Response Criticism, for example, completely escaped me, no matter how many times I tried to understand it. But enough of what I read made sense, possibly most of all Phyllis Trible’s Texts of Terror. I could see, in her word-by-word analysis of several Biblical stories of brutal misogyny, that such an analysis might illuminate some hidden messages within romance novels.

So the fourth step in my analysis was to apply my own interpretations to one particular romance novel. As I explained in the thesis, I chose Lisa Gregory’s The Rainbow Season because of its place in the chronology of the romance novel boom post 1972. It was published in 1979 and therefore was probably not written before the boom; I wanted something with that specific influence. But it was written early enough to have been untainted, if you will, by the first wave of romance novel criticisms such as Hazen and Faust.

Also, I had read The Rainbow Season at least twice before, so I could read it again for analytical purposes as a "familiar" text, rather than something brand new. I could look at events and passages and characterizations more closely than if I were reading just to find out how the book ended.

Significant Findings:
I’ve already outlined some of the things I found, but I think the most important were the disdain the academic community has for women’s popular fiction and the really superficial study they have given it. Most appalling was Paizis’ study, in which he used a grand total of 30 books, 30 Harlequin romances, on which to base his analysis. A true study of women’s popular fiction even in the past 30 years, not to mention the whole twentieth century, could hardly be considered valid on such a tiny sampling.

To illustrate that point, I brought with me a few "representative" books of what really constitutes women’s popular fiction these days. I’ve left out the general audience mysteries and adventures because I want to show that there is a distinct woman’s voice that crosses genres. Many of these books, because they are packaged under different labels, appeal to male readers, and many of those male readers would turn up their noses at a "romance novel."

In my entire college career, which began in 1966, I’ve had only one literature course -- 20th Century Women Authors here at ASU West. I struggled through that class, and I occasionally defended romance novels and the happy ending against the plethora of dreary, convoluted, depressing "stuff" assigned for that class. I struggled to understand post-modernism -- and I’m not sure I’ve won that battle yet -- and I struggled to understand why all that academic stuff couldn’t be applied to romance novels. If I could show how Rocky and Bullwinkle were quintessentially post-modern, couldn’t I find something in romance novels, too, and thereby attract some notice, other than a sneer, from academia?

I think I did, finally, and almost after the paper was written. It’s in the ambiguity, the messages at cross purposes. As I learned about narrators and narratees, and thought back to The Ravishing of Lol Stein by Marguerite Duras, I recalled my own tentative analysis of that novel: that it represented the theft of every woman’s voice from the telling of her own story. The fictive narrator, Jack Hold, invented Lol Stein’s story as he would have wanted it, as it made him look good and feel good. There was a kind of pornographic essence to that novel. But I had to have my feminist consciousness raised first in order to see that theft.

Afterward, I was able to read one romance novel after another and see where the woman’s voice had been silenced, her power neutralized, her body appropriated, her desires perverted --- BUT, I could also see where the woman’s power and autonomy had been left intact, where she had submitted only because she had no choice and because it was the way to maintain what little autonomy was granted to her.

It’s there, in some of the books. It simply has to be found.

As you can see both by the analysis in the thesis and by the book itself, I found an enormous number of what I would call "feminist" messages in the text of The Rainbow Season, enough that I believe it’s time for academics to take the clothespins off their noses and teach the reading of romance fiction. If academic feminism is to have any praxis at all, it has got to reach down out of its ivory tower and grab hands with the masses of women out there in the fields and villages, towns and cities. Academic feminism has alienated the very people it should have embraced and recruited, and I don’t know if the damage is reparable.

I’m a polemicist; Paul Grescoe says so. I still haven’t decided if it’s a compliment or not; some of these words still defy my intellectual assimilation. I still love romance novels. I still think a happy ending is a good thing. I still have hundreds of stories inside me I’d love to tell someday, and see them make it into print. But I also want women to win in real life, not just on the pages of a fantasy.

The Future:
Half Heaven, Half Heartache: Discovering the Transformative Potential in Women’s Popular Fiction will be expanded into book-length. McFarland Publishers of North Carolina has already expressed interest in it. I had hoped to write the thesis as Chapters Two and Three of the book, but it didn’t work out; the material from Chapter One would have been necessary, and you would have ended up with 150 pages instead of 90.

Kay Mussell, whose work I in many ways did not like, makes one very good point in Women’s Gothic and Romance Fiction: She offers an analysis of the movie Ryan’s Daughter. There is a great deal of the romance novel format being put on the screen, and most of it is pretty much dismissed as fluff. The most obvious, I’m sure, is the 1981 (I think) classic, Romancing the Stone. When I saw it, back in the little theatre in Angola, Indiana, there were only about 15 people in the place; the film had been running for several weeks. As a romance writer, I could identify not only with Kathleen Turner’s character Joan Wilder, but with the foibles of the romance publishing industry, the inaccuracies, and the production screw-ups. I laughed far louder than anyone in the theatre; I got the in jokes. But what I didn’t get until much later was the not really very subtle message in that film: Joan Wilder, the wimpy, lonely, dreamy romantic romance novelist, was the one who got them out of trouble every single time. Not always intentionally, but she did it.

What a contrast that is to Thelma and Louise. As I told my friend Beth the other day, Thelma and Louise is not a woman’s movie: You don’t win if you die.


  1. Linda, is that bit about "The Future" also something you wrote in 2000 or is it an update on the situation? In other words, are you currently planning to expand "Half Heaven, Half Heartache: Discovering the Transformative Potential in Women’s Popular Fiction [...] into book-length"?

  2. Hi, Laura --

    Oooh, thanks for your response!

    "The Future" was the future as of May 2000. I had met with an editor from McFarland at women's studies conference and we talked about the project. There followed some correspondence, as they maintained interest in it for quite some time, but as I posted on DA, my life intervened and I was never able to finish it. When Pamela Regis' "Natural History" was published in 2003, I just set the whole HH, HH project aside.

    As I now read through the original thesis from 2000, I see areas that beg for expansion and updating. And the more I read of Regis, the more gaps I discover that leave whole concepts unexplored. Would I like to expand HH, HH into book length? Hell, yes! That's why I keep scouring Amazon for affordable copies of reference books like Dekker's. Unfortunately, I also have a day job and a real life that require commitment, so I'm not sure just how much time I can/could devote to it.

    But as I continue to read the discussions on Dear Author and SBTB and elsewhere, the need for a serious examination of the romance novel as it developed as a post-WW2 art form (and commercial commodity) seems desperate. The novels seem to be becoming more and more anti-feminist, the heroines more and more willing to go right back to the barefoot and pregnant cliche. That scares me, and I think it scares other people, too.

  3. That's why I keep scouring Amazon for affordable copies of reference books like Dekker's

    Sounds interesting. What is it?

    the more I read of Regis, the more gaps I discover that leave whole concepts unexplored

    It seems to me that your thesis and Pam's book are really on quite different topics. I know Pam does discuss feminism and feminist criticism of the genre, but her primary focus is the structural elements of romances (barrier, moment of ritual death etc).

  4. "The American Historical Romance" by George Dekker, Cambridge UP, 1987. While it's not about the literary form the romance novel took as we know it today, the mass market paperback (and as it evolves into the e-book), there are structural elements and even ideological elements that pertain to both.

    As far as Regis and structural elements, Chris Vogler imho did all that. None of it is unique to romance; the fact that romance contains the exact same "good story" elements as other fiction should mitigate in its favor.