I’m back on the PhD with a vengeance lately. This means I’m reading some academic papers that get me angry with their generalisations.
‘the ideal heroine in a romance is passive…’ Mary Ellen Ryder
‘Romance’s generic requirement that the hero should be volatile in his affections and sexually intimidating…’ Doreen Thierauf
These are throw away lines in articles that have some good in then but the stuff mentioned above makes me scribble ‘bullshit!’ in the white space.
Ryder in particular made me growl this week.I get strange looks from other PhD candidates. Ryder read some Barbara Cartland. Each to its own I suppose, but her greatest flaw was saying that because Cartland published 24 books when she was 93 she obviously wrote to formula…’which means that examining just one of her books should reveal a great deal about the whole romance genre.’ For godssake, the whole fucking genre, really? I wouldn’t say one book from any author would allow me to talk about all their works, let alone the whole genre.
Her actual analysis of the text was really quite interesting but why put that tripe at the beginning of her paper? And it was a gothic bloody romance to boot.
I pull my hair out and shout why, why, why?
Luckily there were some good articles, like from Mairead Owen and possibly Laura Struve (I’m still pondering it). I guess I’m learning to be critical. Step one for me.
Also, I find that when academics talk about Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey they lose their shit when it comes to romance. They may be blockbusters but that doesn’t mean they are the typical romance novel.
Actually, I don’t think there is a typical romance novel. There are key features of a popular romance novel but I won’t go into that. Others like Pamela Regis have already done that.
My current fiction reading though has run counter to what these people are saying about passive heroines and violent and volatile heroes. I’m reading some vintage, retro if you like, Amanda Carpenter. I’ve mentioned her before in past posts. The Great Escape (1984) and The Passage of the Night (1990). (Amanda Carpenter writes as Thea Harrison these days.). These book are examples of her early works. She’s a damn fine writer and I think has a great mind to boot. I can certainly tell she had the chops for paranormal writing in those early days. (I’ve read four of her books so far. They have been very different from each other!)
The Great Escape features a 17 year old protagonist. She’s an heiress, unhappy but quite clever. She escapes from her guardians and is pursued by a PI, whom she outsmarts. In this book, she drugs the PI, she punches him, she seduces him and then after they fall in love, she gives away all her money without consulting him once about it. She hates the money. It defines her too much. If this book had been published later, I suspect it would have been a romantic suspense because someone is trying to kill the heroine.
So in this 1984 story, the heroine is not passive and has agency.
The Passage of the Night is also very interesting. The heroine kidnaps the tycoon hero at gunpoint, she drugs him and then takes him to a mountain top in Vermont. The reason she has kidnapped him is to save her sister, but the hero isn’t anything like her sister said he was. He’s angry at being kidnapped, of course, but he is never aggressive or violent. He chops wood continuously to ‘sublimate’. He’s not going to have her charged. He voluntarily stays with her and then she flies him back because she can’t justify her actions anymore. She’s a helicopter pilot and plane pilot and her family has a bit of money. She’s also loyal and brave. He’s on seven figures. She sees his life and doesn’t like the long hours etc. She doesn’t demand he change his lifestyle but she’s walking out until he sorts his priorities. In the end, he gives up his job. I think that about reverses the tropes.
I’m not done with the Carpenter read through yet. It’s fascinating.
Other fiction reading, Full Moon Rising, Keri Arthur. I’m sorry. Riley Jensen kicks butt. It’s urban fantasy on the’ boil the coffee over’ end of the spectrum but mmm…not much passivity there.
I’ve started rereading JD Robb’s …In Death series. I’m on book five so far (it’s been a week?) and there’s no sign of passivity there.
The In Death series is harder to peg. It’s futuristic urban fantasy with romantic elements or romantic suspense or just SF crime with romance. The heroine and the hero are the same couple all the way through (very well done by the way) and for me the series discusses child sex abuse all the way through, even peels it back to a very stark and dark root that makes me blanch. But I applaud JD Robb for doing it (JD Robb is Nora Roberts btw) and I think she’s brilliant.
In my reading of retro Mills & Boon, there are occasionally passive heroines and other times not. I’ve not read everything. No one will be able to. I’m not as well read in romance as people I know, but I know enough not to generalize about it.
But I’m happy to get angry at people who do and blog about it…maybe…
BTW I still have my survey going for my PHD study. If you write or read popular romance fiction, please check out my survey. I’d really appreciate the contribution. See blog post here.
Owen, M, Re-Inventing Romance: Reading Popular Romance Fiction, Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol. 20. No. 4, pp.537-546, 1997
Ryder, M. E, Smoke and mirrors: Event patterns in the discourse structure of a romance novel, Journal of Pragmatics, 31 (1991) pp. 1067-1080
Struve, L, Sisters of Sorts: Reading Romantic Fiction and the Bonds Among Female Readers, The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 44, No. 6, 2011.
Thierauf, D, Forever After:Desire in the 21st-Century Romance Blockbuster, The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 49, No. 3, 2016.