Friday, May 13, 2016

The Stars (and bars): race and racism in Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s Chicago Stars series

Last week I reread a book that reminded me quite forcefully that a major pitfall of the contemporary subgenre is its susceptibility to aging badly. As society’s attitudes and understanding on topics such as race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and consent evolve, a contemporary romance risks becoming outdated to its readership in the span of its author’s career.

The book I was rereading is Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s It Had To Be You (1994), the iconic opening installment of her bestselling Chicago Stars series. Phillips pioneered the sports romance subgenre with this novel about a woman who unexpectedly inherits a pro football team and must negotiate her professional and personal relationship with its macho coach. It Had To Be You won the prestigious RITA award for Best Romance of 1994. It has been reprinted multiple times, and Phillips has penned six more novels in the Stars series, with an eighth installment due out later this year.

When I first read It Had To Be You, I got caught up in its sexual politics; its workplace battle-of-the-sexes certainly reflects the period in which it was written. On this reading, however, I was struck by the novel’s pervasive touches of racism. I suspect that many of them went unnoticed by its white readership at the time (and a number of details I will mention below do indicate Phillips was writing for a white audience), but they are unmistakable today and merit some attention.

It Had To Be You does not contain the brand of racism I’m accustomed to encountering in escapist historical romances that portray the inscrutable, exciting Other—the desert sheik, the Native American warrior, the Russian aristocrat. Novels in this vein are nearly always predicated upon racial, ethnic, or cultural stereotyping and playing up differences; a savvy reader choosing such a work will be unsurprised to encounter racist language or ideas in it.[1]

Unlike escapist historicals, however, It Had To Be You is set in a recognizable ’90s Chicago. While its protagonists are wealthy and move in elite circles, they ostensibly share the reader’s reality, reference points, and anchoring in (American) history. Their fictional world is intended to approximate real-life ’90s America. Because of this mimetic quality, which is so much stronger in contemporary romance than in historicals or paranormals, it is harder to dissociate the story from real-life political concerns, harder to brush off problematic content as “just an escapist story.”

By the same token, a contemporary romance’s blind spots on an important issue may reveal something useful about real-world attitudes and shortcomings. And the more time passes after a book is published, the more those blind spots become discernible. That’s why I think it makes sense to look at It Had To Be You more than two decades after its initial publication to scrutinize its engagement with issues of race, erasure, and American heritage. Details that may have seemed normal—even progressive and inclusive—when the book first appeared now feel problematic and insensitive in 2016.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Rinse and repeat

With the release of J.R. Ward’s The Beast, the latest installment in her long-running Black Dagger Brotherhood (BDB) series, I am reminded that it was this series that first drew my attention to the erosion or destabilization of the Happily Ever After convention in popular romance.

The Beast, the sixteenth book in the series about a band of vampire warriors who protect their race from supernatural threats, is also the second centered on protagonists Rhage and Mary; both were first introduced in the BDB’s second installment, Lover Eternal.[1] At the end of that book, Rhage made a magical bargain to bring Mary back from the brink of death, thereby assuring them a long, happy future together. More than a dozen volumes later, the series has returned to these popular heroes and thrown new relationship-threatening obstacles into their path. The protagonists have gotten a second love story, a relative rarity in the popular romance genre. 

Rhage and Mary are not, in fact, the first “recycled” couple in the BDB series. Back in 2008, Ward released Father Mine, a follow-up novella about Zsadist and Bella, the heroes of Lover Awakened. Bella and Zsadist got their HEA in Lover Awakened; he overcame his fears about committing to a relationship and she revealed her pregnancy. The book concluded with an epilogue set 20 months later in which readers got a glimpse of Zsadist as a loving mate and father. Father Mine takes place during the interval between the love avowal and the epilogue. It rehashes some of the conflicts that originally impeded the formation of the couple and adds a new twist: Zsadist’s overwhelming fears about fatherhood and the toll they take on his marriage.

This “aftermath” novella acknowledges that couples encounter conflicts and strife even after the teleologically-imposed “I love you.” Love may conquer all in a romance, but that doesn’t mean that obstacles are wiped away by the avowal. 

The other BDB couple Ward revisits prominently is Wrath and Beth, who inaugurated the series in Dark Lover (2005). That novel ended with the protagonists cementing their relationship and with the hero taking up his place as leader of his race and the elite fighting force charged with protecting all vampires from evil. This opening novel laid the groundwork for Lover Eternal so that the love story baton could be passed to Mary and Rhage in the next book. But the series returns to the couple twice. The first time they feature in an elaborate subplot of Rehv and Ehlena’s book, Lover Avenged (2008). Wrath, who has always had poor vision, loses his sight entirely and must contend with what his disability will mean for his personal autonomy, his relationship with Beth, and his role as king of a warrior race. The series again returns to the couple in The King (2014) to work through related issues.

I found the subplot of Wrath’s blindness striking when Lover Avenged was first released, precisely because it seemed to undermine the romance genre’s HEA imperative. Underlying the HEA is the willing suspension of disbelief. “Happily ever after” implies a rosy future for the newly formed couple. It is a reality-defying fantasy that enables readers to imagine that after surmounting their narrative obstacles, the couple will never again deal with tragedy, disaster, or untimely death.[2] By extension, the HEA generally allows readers to assume that the protagonist will not be struck with a life-altering injury or illness shortly after the conclusion of the novel. By contrast, Wrath’s struggle with his new disability, narrated from his POV, forces the reader to contend with a substantial wrench in the HEA scenario presented in Dark Lover.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Blog, interrupted

Hi, there. It’s been a while. This is my first post to Penetrating Analysis after a nine-month hiatus.

There are two main reasons I haven’t been posting in recent months. The first is that my teaching load in 2015 was grueling enough to limit my time and energy for maintaining a blog.

The second is that last spring, I started making a concerted effort to branch out in my reading beyond my comfort zone of historicals—at the time, with the intention of blogging about a greater range of romance. I discovered a lot of authors and made inroads in sub-genres whose surfaces I had only scratched before. I read sports romances and new adult romances, steampunk and urban fantasy romances.  I read same-sex and diverse/multicultural romances across a number of new-to-me subgenres as well as in more familiar historical terrain.

Along the way, I found myself making a lot of observations and mentally composing posts about aspects of texts I found noteworthy. What stopped me was the nagging awareness of my relative unfamiliarity with these books’ contexts and generic conventions. In one instance, I was struck by a recurring turn of phrase in a book. But since it was my first book by that author and I hadn’t read widely within the subgenre, I had little basis for evaluating whether that turn of phrase was particular to the book, or the author, or whether it was commonplace within its subgenre.

In short, I didn’t think I could speak with confidence, or very usefully, based on having read just a smattering of books of a given type; I lacked requisite background knowledge. The more I read, the more I knew I needed to read. (It put me in mind of the early days of my dissertation writing process!)

So I’ve spent nine months reading and reflecting, and now I think I’m ready to blog some more. I suspect I’ll be posting approximately once a month. As before, I plan to write about the literary aspects of romance.

I look forward to resuming my part in romance-as-literature discussions and hope that you will join me!

Monday, April 27, 2015

On my shelfie

You may have noticed that I recently updated my blog's background image of a shelf full of romance novels. Both the new one and the old version are indeed photos of my own romance bookshelf. Today I’m going to talk a bit about where the first one came from, why I changed it, and why I’m still dissatisfied.

In 2013, I participated in a Facebook thread with a group of scholars (mostly medievalists like me) who were sharing shelfies, the bookshelf play on a selfie photograph. While most of the posted photos contained literary and critical tomes, I decided to share my romance shelf, bringing my personal reading into a quasi-professional domain. 

Original shelfie, 2013
At the time, it felt like a brave gesture, a way of identifying myself as a romance reader to colleagues in academia who may hold a derogatory view of the genre. But I got nothing but positive feedback from my fellow scholars, who expressed enjoyment at seeing a different sort of shelf. So when I started designing this blog a year ago, it was a natural choice to incorporate the image as a testament to my own reading experience. And I very much like the personal touch of having a photo of my own collection accompanying my posts on the genre.

A key drawback of this original photo, however, is that because I tended to loosely group my romances by author, the shelfie gave a lot of space to a few authors and did not reflect the variety of romances I read.

So I decided last month to see whether I could update my shelfie to make it more representative of my engagement with romance. While moving over the summer, I had scrapped the sorting-by-author system. I thought that with a little massaging I could include a broader array of novels. The results were not entirely satisfactory.

As I rearranged my books, I was able to bring in a wider range of subgenres, displaying more paranormal and science fiction romance and a few more contemporaries. A greater number of authors are now featured. And the temporal span reaches from the early ’80s to this year. But when I evaluate the end product against my contact with the genre, I still see massive lacunae.[1]

Updated shelfie, 2015
The main culprit, beyond the usual complaints of too many books and not enough space to keep them all, is my switch over the past five years to reading romance predominantly on e-readers. During that time I’ve gone on major reading jags and discovered plenty of authors that can be found nowhere on my physical shelf. Two years ago I tore through Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s Chicago Stars series. But I don’t own a single hardcopy. I’ve likewise read nearly all of Sherry Thomas’s historical novels. Just about every new adult, queer, ménage, and erotic romance I’ve read is stored on my Nook or Kindle.

I couldn’t buy hardcopies of some of these works, particularly the newer ones, even if I tried. Anna Cowan’s Untamed, for instance, is only available in the U.S. in e-book format, so she’s not in my shelfie. The same thing goes for Alyssa Cole’s Radio Silence and Elle Kennedy’s The Deal, both of which I read last month.[2] So there are substantial obstacles to remedying the situation fully.

This is troubling to me because a casual visitor to my blog could understandably interpret the shelfie as an endorsement of some romances at the expense of others. And I am particularly concerned that certain subgenres as well as diverse authors are still underrepresented.
As I continue to blog and need to consult various texts often I may go back to buying more hardcopies. My bookshelf will not transform overnight, though, so it may be some time before I post another shelfie update. Meanwhile, as a partial corrective, I provide on the right-hand side of the blog a list of the books I read each month. It is my hope that this list can complement my shelfie, which says more about where my reading has been than where it is now.

[1]I want to make clear that I am only comparing my collection to my personal reading history, not to some representative sample of the genre. 
[2]This is not a reproach. E-publishing is connecting me with these books just fine, and a reader’s ability to display a given book on the shelf has got to be dead last among the priorities of any author or publisher weighing print publication.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

An unlikely analogy: romance and seventeenth-century French theater

Note: I’ve been sitting on this post for a couple of weeks. I started it as a rebuttal to the notion that romances are formulaic due to generic constraints. (I had in mind the HEA imperative across romance, as well as textual elements strongly associated with various subgenres.) And I do believe that there are three fundamental approaches to generic constraints that can be applied to romance as well as other genres. But I found my argument breaking down as I seemed to be asserting that the genre is at once highly rigid and quite fluid. By the time I was done writing, I was pretty skeptical of my own argument and the way I had framed it.

One of my beta readers, who knows both French literature and popular romance, is likewise not completely on board with the thrust of this post but found it thought-provoking and urged me not to scrap it. So I’m putting it out here very much as a trial balloon, to help me pin down just how codified the genre is. Are there a lot of generic constraints (as opposed to conventions)? And if so, who or what is upholding or enforcing them? With the explosion of subgenres and formats over the past decade, how much of romance is still dictated by textual codes? Please feel free to chime in and help me work through this.  

Romance fiction is often dismissed on the grounds that it is formulaic and predictable. With so many aspects of the text determined by the genre’s codes, there is little room for originality, or so the argument goes.

Enthusiasts of the genre are quick to point out that other literary and artistic domains heavily marked by conventions do not suffer from the same stigma. I have seen romance likened to fixed-form poetry such as the sonnet, and individual narrative tropes and elements compared to the steps in a ballet or chords in a song. These analogies are intended to convey that while the genre provides structure, there is plenty of room in a given text for originality and variation even when many of the elements are dictated.

French playwright
Jean-Baptiste Racine
I’d like to make a related point: Just because the rulebook exists does not mean that all authors ascribe to it. To illustrate, I’m going to evoke an entirely different corner of the literary world: seventeenth-century French theater

Why seventeenth-century French theater? Because its conventions are as rigidly codified as any corpus I can think of. The literary lights of that period were particularly obsessed by the rules governing the genre, which went far beyond the familiar five-act structure and dictates pertaining to comedy versus tragedy. Applying Aristotle’s precepts on theater with maniacal rigidity, they enforced a series of three “unities,” principles governing the structure and content of a play. These were:
  1. Unity of time: the plot of the play should unfold over no more than twenty-four hours (often from noon until the following noon);
  2. Unity of place: the setting should be limited to one space represented on stage, such as a public square or meeting room, where all character interaction could plausibly take place; and
  3. Unity of action: the play should develop only one storyline with no (or few) subplots.

In addition to these conventions, there was a fourth rule, that of la bienséance. This rule forbade showing on stage anything that might upset the sensibilities of the viewers, to wit, acts of violence and bloodshed. Duels, suicides, and battles had to take place off-stage and could only be recounted indirectly.

Versification, too, was typically prescribed: playwrights wrote in the twelve-syllable meter of alexandrin, typically in rhymed couplets. This was the French analogue to iambic pentameter.

Within this rigidly enforced framework, three of the seventeenth century’s most celebrated playwrights—Racine, Corneille, and Molière—offer three different models for how writers can engage with a highly codified genre.