When the manila folder containing my mother's unpublished romance novel arrived in the mail, it came with a few scraps of memorabilia in it: an encouraging note from me -- "Mom! A definite best-seller. (This will sell!) I want more ... write! E.W." -- and two Harlequin romance novel covers I designed, with the appropriate teasing captions, titles, and Harlequin symbols in their upper left corners. Re-reading the captions transported me back eleven years, to a time when, it seemed, I lived and breathed the Harlequin romance.
For the novel cover I had titled, Love Me, Cowboy, I contrasted the heroine's professional success (as a singer) with her success in romance, the built-in assumption being that The Relationship was what really mattered.
- Pamela walked on stage, breathless. 'This song is called, 'Love me, cowboy ...' she began. A cheer broke out in the crowd. Bob Harrison smiled and urged her on. She sung the ballad in a clear, sweet tone, her voice quivering with emotion toward the end, and when she was finished, glistening with sweat and exhausted, she heard the crowd cry for more. She smiled. After all, no one knew her heart was really breaking...
Harlequin-flavored rhetoric had crept into my writing almost unconsciously, so that even my most casually written notes betrayed that perky, feisty, plucky heroine's voice. On the romance novel cover titled Love's Special Melody, " I'd written, "Mom! I did the cover for the "Polly" story! Nice? Love Erika," and on Love Me, Cowboy, it was, "Another? Perhaps mine."
Perhaps mine. That year I did write a romance novel, alongside my mother. It was 1982, I was thirteen years old, and the category romance industry was booming. High taxes had forced us to move to Maine, where real estate was cheaper, the standard of living was lower, and there were even fewer jobs for part-time musicians/prep cooks (my stepfather's two vocations). My mother had a Master's degree in English, which overqualified her for teaching at the local schools, so she became a welfare mother who taught her children at home. But to us, her children, she was always a Struggling Writer. She decided to write a Harlequin for economic reasons -- she wanted the Struggle to end -- and because she was sure she could do it. She was not a reader of romances, she was not a lover of romances, but she was sure she could write one, and that if she did, she could make a lot of money in "royalties" (a term I imagined meant piles of shining glittery British coins). So she sat down at her Underwood and began, unaware of what lay ahead.
She did not do the market research I did. At the local library, I'd grab a stack of four Harlequins at a time when the librarian turned her back, shuffle quickly into the children's section, and read to my heart's content. Shame and pleasure mingled in delightful proportions as I hunched over Sweet Ecstasy's Hidden Desire for Savage Love while my peers read Nancy Drew mysteries in the other corner of the room. I knew there was something wrong with Mom's novel when I read her first chapter, but I couldn't make her understand exactly how she diverged from the norm. She had the Harlequin tipsheet by her desk, but perhaps the prescriptive phrases allowed too much latitude, because First Mate was the most unusual category romance novel I had ever encountered.
It opened with a thoughtful sequence on the heroine's enjoyment of the essence of New England, and the hero, when he arrived, was handsome and friendly and helpful, but he did not possess what Rebecca lacked, filling in her empty spaces. He did not save her. Mom's heroine was strong, self-confident, and independent -- she knew how to take care of herself. The hero was her equal, barely, and hence material for easy companionship (the kind of love you find in real life, if you're lucky), not high drama. And in chapter one, after Rebecca saved herself from a flooded footbridge, her interest in the local library and in myth and in history subsumed the bare stirring of interest this handsome stranger had aroused. Later on, when she agreed to become his "first mate," on his ship, you could feel her excitement -- but it was not for him, it was for this fortuitous job which would give her the opportunity to repay debts, to stretch her muscles, to enrich her mind, not find the missing piece to her soul which would (according to tradition) be him. They would fall in love -- this was a romance, after all -- but it would not be the cataclysmic moment of her life, but a kind of pleasant, albeit passionate, afterthought.
"His lip didn't curl enough," said my mother the last time we spoke about this still unpublished work, a phrase which has become our shorthand to describe the heart of the problem. But it was more than that. Rebecca represented my mother's dreams, and as such she could not fulfill the role expected of her. Mom did not want to be saved, she wanted the strength to save herself. Her failure to publish First Mate had less to do with the mere absence of curling lips and punishing kisses than it had to do with a mind set she would have had to adopt as the author of romance fiction. Despite my mother's determination to make money, she could not flesh out a fantasy she didn't believe in.
I had almost finished my romance novel when a blistering critique from my twin sister made me chuck the whole project. It was the end of the summer anyway, and the unknown world of high school lay just ahead. Soon I was absorbed in writing papers, the main type of writing I would be doing throughout my years in higher education. Writing creatively took a back seat while I labored to prove myself as an academic. Needless to say, my budding career as a romance novelist never flowered; in fact, I omitted mention of my trashy training in writing except when I wanted a laugh, and even then I made sure to qualify it with the statement, "I was only thirteen!"
As a feminist (a definition of which was put forth in the 1985 Women in Publishing Conference: a feminist is "a woman who writes") (Spender 47) I have sometimes found it hard to come to terms with my early Harlequin obsession. Yet as my interest in the barriers facing women writers has grown, so also has my desire to understand the politics of writing romance. While researching contemporary cultural representations of women's authorship, I discovered that representations of romance novelists held for me a particular appeal; because women writers are often seen to write "en masse, the lowly form of romantic fiction," (Spender 21) cultural attitudes about women and writing seem almost to magnetize around the persona of the romance novelist.
I am interested in examining the same "elaborate social fiction" Joanna Russ explores in How to Suppress Women's Writing: that women can't write as well as men can (4). Russ studies cultural assumptions about women's writing which have been effective tools of suppression of that writing throughout history. Although all the patterns of suppression Russ explicates in her work are entirely relevant to this thesis, the "double standard of content" (39) is particularly pertinent; for it is mainly the content of women's writing which is criticized when women's writing is associated so closely with the romance genre. As Russ writes, "we have added to She didn't write it and She did, but she shouldn't have, a third piece of denigration: She did, but look what she wrote about" (40). Russ found these cultural assumptions about women's writing articulated not only in reviews of women's writing by male critics, but also in the work of feminist critics and women writers themselves. The point is that these assumptions are perpetuated not by an isolated group of "bad guys" (male literary critics, for instance) but by and within the patriarchal culture as a whole.
The emphasis on the cultural or societal origin of these assumptions is important because it is that movement -- from individual culpability to cultural responsibility -- which defines the mode of analysis I will be utilizing in this thesis. It is a critical stance which recognizes the social construction of identity, and to use a definition of postmodernism provided in Off-Centre: Feminism and Cultural Studies, it poses a challenge to "both to conventional understandings of the standpoint of the knowing subject (objectivity, neutrality, distance) and the traditional object of knowledge (a separate reality about which truth can be discovered)" (Franklin, Lury, Stacey 6). I will seek in this thesis to understand the ways in which sexual inequality has been reinforced in popular cultural representation. And, like Joanna Russ, I will examine the cultural myth of sexual inequality as it relates to issues of authorship.
Feminist critiques of category romance fiction have been bolstered in recent years by the work of academics whose goal has been to understand the enormous appeal and popularity of category romance fiction. In Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women, Tania Modleski takes a psychoanalytic approach, calling Harlequins "hysterical texts" which first express subversive female rage and then contain it (Frenier 14). In her ethnographic study, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Culture, Janice Radway attempts to discover the appeal of the romance by studying reader response, analyzing that response psychoanalytically. More recently, Mariam Frenier and Jan Cohn have broken from psychoanalytic interpretations and looked elsewhere for romance's appeal: in Good-bye, Heathcliff, Frenier contends that it is the acquisition of power, not love or nurturance, that gratifies the reader of contemporary romance; Cohn, in her materialist interpretation of the genre, Romance and the Erotics of Property, insists that in our capitalistic society, it is the money that matters.
What all of these critiques share is the recognition that the success of the category romance industry is worthy of attention. Specifically, it is important for feminists to understand the cultural power of the genre of which they are most ashamed. As Helen Taylor writes in her article, "The Romance Reader,"
- Romantic fiction is believed to be read mainly by women and it is
therefore crucial for feminists to examine its success and appeal for
women readers ... Feminist debates about romance have all acknowledged the existence and significance of these women readers, either
self-consciously and with some embarrassment, or with scholarly enthusiasm and utter seriousness. As many critics have observed, it is
other people who read romances -- your grandmother, mother, friend, you as a teenager. I know of no feminist critic who compulsively reads romances on a scale romantic publishers claim (4-5 a week) though
many of us are now dedicating ourselves to such reading -- with of course, knees together and pencil in hand to make scholarly notes.
(Carr 59, italics mine)
Other people read romances, and other people write them. The same group of women who defined the term feminist as "a woman who writes" -- Women in Publishing -- awarded romance novelist Barbara Cartland the "Pink Pig" for her contributions to sexism in 1981 ("Pink Pig Award for Cartland" 3a). This personal attack on a fellow "woman who writes" promotes the message that in order to be considered a feminist one must write with a spirit of resistance -- that is, as Helen Taylor puts it, with knees together. Cartland does not resist; she writes with her knees apart, in willing surrender to the cultural myths many feminists reject.
If it is important for feminists to discover the appeal of reading romances because it is primarily women who read them, isn't it just as important to discover the appeal of writing romances because it is primarily women who write them? The question needs asking. Feminist presses churn out anthologies of women's writing, but exclude category romantic fiction (and thus, romantic fiction writers). Compilations of interviews with women writers also exclude romantic fiction writers, even though other category writers (women who write mysteries, for instance) are given their say. The serious, critical attention given many women writers by the feminist press is denied category romance writers; books which feature women-writers-at-work do not consider the writing processes of romance novelists. Category romances are rarely reviewed in the mainstream or feminist press.
Significantly, for the purposes of this study, what the romance novelist lacks in serious attention she gains in infamy. The two types of woman writers most often portrayed on television are hard-boiled female reporters and romance novelists. A few romance novelists are treated as celebrities, but that does not mean that what they do is considered worthy of such attention. If cottage industry romance writers like Barbara Cartland and Judith Krantz are given respect, it is only for their financial success and prolificity, not for their skill as writers. That is what you hear about romance writers: they are rich. Helen Taylor puts it this way:
- Writers like Shirley Conran, Danielle Steele, Sally Beauman. All these women, like their heroines, are celebrated in their publicity hand-outs and interviews as ideals of contemporary career feminism -- Thatcherite models who demonstrate the fact that you too can get a multi-million advance if you work fourteen hours a day, regard yourself as a serious novelist, but accept the necessity for your novel to be packaged and marketed as a commodity. (Carr 61)
The packaging of romance category fiction "as a commodity" is an important aspect of the politics of writing romance. Not only does this marketing technique contribute to the general public's perception that every romance tells the same story, it also makes it difficult to distinguish between romance authors. Thomas Roberts writes in The Aesthetics of Junk Fiction, that for those readers who revere the "secular sacred" ("high art") certain genres cross an "aversion threshold" (Roberts 54). Category romance fiction is so heavily associated with commercialism that it not only crosses this threshold, it seems almost to define it. The producers of "chthonic" texts (the antitype of the secular sacred) are necessarily held in contempt: "The detestation in which some readers hold professional writers (the people who say, 'I write for money'), especially the men and women who openly declare themselves fiction factories, can be traced back to an unconscious, perhaps even an unwanted, sense of art as sacred" (Roberts 54). Romance novelists, because their works are marketed as commodities, in effect declare themselves fiction factories simply by writing in the genre.
At the time when my mother wrote her Harlequin (and I wrote mine) feminist scholars had already begun to consider the category romance seriously -- Ann Douglas in 1980 had labeled Harlequin romances "dramas of dependency" (Frenier 13) -- yet such critiques had significantly less impact then than they do now. Mainstream critiques concentrated on the sexual content of category romances, denigrating Harlequins as "pornography for women," and seeing evidence of moral decay in the outstanding success of the genre. This was the attitude my mother encountered whenever she revealed that she was writing a romance, and her defense was that she was doing it for the money. So when I asked for my mother's original copy of First Mate for my research on cultural representations of female authorship, I was surprised to discover that she had another reason.
"I didn't think I had anything to write about," my mother said when I asked her about why she wrote a romance and not the Great American Novel. I realize now that my question was a manifestation of the way this culture constructs those genres as binary opposites. I had wondered how a strong, independent, progressive intellectual like my mother could justify writing First Mate; her answer confirmed for me the power of cultural myths (social fictions) to shape the aspirations of women who write. Here was a woman whose life had been full of challenges and triumphs, humor and sadness, whose love of writing led her to create ... a Harlequin romance? Something about the way this culture constructs female authorship makes writing romance appealing for many women, despite the criticism the genre receives from feminists and society at large.
In this thesis I will attempt to answer the question of the appeal of writing romance in two ways. In Part One, I will analyze two films which feature representations of romance novelists (male and female), Misery and Romancing the Stone. These representations demonstrate the power of the "double standard of content" in reinforcing cultural assumptions about female authorship. In this section I will examine the way culture constructs identity -- specifically, the identity (or 'persona') of the woman romance novelist. In Part Two, I will take a look at how this persona has been interpreted by category romance novelists themselves. For this section, I will concentrate on a series of essays compiled by romance novelist Jayne Ann Krentz, Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of Romance, as well as the results of an informal survey of romance writers which Eileen Fallon conducted in her guide to category romance, Words of Love.
Although feminist scholarship has focused on the appeal of reading the romance (in a variety of ways and in with a variety of approaches) the appeal of the genre for women who write has not yet been fully explored. Researching cultural representations of female authorship led me to focus on the connection between cultural assumptions about women and writing and the pop culture persona of the romance novelist. This thesis, Willing Surrender: The Politics of Writing Romance, is designed to expose (and, hopefully, "debunk") the cultural myths which shape women's choices in writing.
Dale Spender's 1989 study, The Writing or the Sex? is an effort to document the discrimination women writers face in their careers, in order to justify the absence of works by women in the canon, and to champion the success of some women writers "against all odds." Spender concentrates on the obstacles barring women writers from creating "serious" (potentially canonical) literature. Though she -- like Joanna Russ -- considers the "double standard of content" a serious threat to women writers, she does not link issues of content with the production of genre fiction. Her attitude toward category romance fiction can be summarized in the phrase, "Not all of us write that junk." It is an attitude which doesn't go far enough in resisting the value hierarchy which inform judgments about women's writing in this society. Spender writes, "From Jane Austen to Barbara Cartland -- and despite all the dramatic diversity in between -- there is the implication that all women's writing is romance, in much the same way as all women's talk is gossip" (21). Spender reinforces the value hierarchy which places the writer of secular sacred or "classic" texts on one side of the spectrum, the writer of chthonic or "junk" texts on the other: "From Jane Austen to Barbara Cartland."
Unintentionally perhaps, Spender answers her own question -- the writing or the sex? -- obliquely. In not directly challenging the high art/low art dichotomy which makes possible her own 'sight unseen' judgment of "lowly romance fiction," Spender leaves room for doubt as to whether it really is the sex which determines value judgment, not the writing. If all women writers did write only Harlequins, Spender would have to answer her question with "the writing." Postmodernist critic Leslie Dick writes in "Generic Strategies" that "insisting on the relevance of genre" -- reading Moby Dick as an adventure story, for instance, or Jane Eyre "as a 'penniless servant ends up marrying the master of the house' Mills & Boon-style moral romance," is a critical strategy which rejects modernist modes of classification (Carr 207). The binary code of literary judgment (writing by women is "fluff," writing by men is "serious") is most effectively undone by such an approach.
This thesis is postmodernist in the sense that I mean to challenge certain value hierarchies by exposing them, and poststructuralist in that I intend to go a step further, examining the ways in which these values and assumptions are reinforced culturally. Like Dale Spender, I am concerned with the obstacles facing women who write; like Leslie Dick, I am interested in the politics of genre. I will explore the ways in which these issues are related by focusing on cultural representations of the category romance writer.
Romancing the Stone was released in 1983, at the height of the category romance boom. No less than six new category romance series were introduced in 1983, and the romance fiction "phenomenon" was featured that year in Time, Psychology Today, and Forbes magazines, as well as in newspapers across the country (Frenier 5). By the end of the decade category romance had suffered a little, in prominence if not in sales; cottage industry writers like Danielle Steele (who never wrote category fiction) were stealing the spotlight. Romancing the Stone's protagonist was created before media interest in romance novelists became more firmly centered on the multi-million dollar advances they received or on the furnishings of their palatial homes. Misery, adapted from the novel Misery (written by popular horror fiction writer Stephen King in 1987), was released in 1990, after the success of the category romance industry had already been well established, and a select few romance novelists had gained name recognition, aided by made-for-television movies based on their novels. The differences between the characterizations of Paul Sheldon, Misery's main protagonist, and Joan Wilder, Romancing the Stone's protagonist, can therefore be partly attributed to what was seen as the changing economic status of the romance novelist.
Other factors to consider in this comparison include the possibility that Romancing the Stone influenced Misery to some extent; certain similarities -- such as the fact that both films open with a depiction of the writer's creative process -- suggest such a connection. Additionally, it is important to note that both films were directed and produced by men; neither film represents what might be termed a "woman's vision" of the romance novelist. The screen writer for Romancing the Stone was a woman, Diane Thomas, but it was directed by Robert Zemeckis, and produced by Michael Douglas, Jack Brodsky and Joel Douglas. Misery was adapted from King's novel for the screen by William Goldman, directed by Rob Reiner, and produced by Andrew Scheinman and Rob Reiner.
Misery opens with the sound of a typewriter clacking, followed by images of a cigarette and match, a champagne glass, and a bottle of champagne in a bucket, all placed in clear focus at the foreground of each camera shot. At one point, we see the typewriter keys up close, clacking out the sentence, "Without it, what else was there?" an enigmatic (but undoubtedly profound) statement which is, we find, the final sentence of this composition, for in the next frame we watch as the author pulls this page out of his typewriter and stares at it with a thoughtful, serious expression on his dramatically shadowed face.
Next we see his title page, a plain white sheet of paper with the words, "Untitled" and "By Paul Sheldon" on it, and the keys clacking out "The End." The expression on Sheldon's face as he completes his work is at once self-satisfied and self-critical, a balance which indicates careful, sober judgment. The author gingerly places the final sheet on a neat stack of paper, and puts the finished manuscript in a worn leather pouch. He pops the champagne cork, pours himself a glass, strikes a match on his thumbnail, lights up and exhales deeply and pensively. Outside, he throws a snowball, which hits its target. "Still got it," he says aloud, and gets into his car, placing the leather pouch containing his manuscript carefully on the seat beside him.
The opening moments of the film convey a sense of momentousness, of ceremony, and of fulfillment. The clacking sound of the typewriter is a familiar background noise, striking the same note of authentic and serious intent as it does on the evening news. This private celebration, replete with the traditional masculine symbols of success (tobacco and alcohol) is a depiction of the fabled writer's ritual which reinforces the authority of this author -- both as a man and as a writer. Throwing the snowball caps the episode; athletic achievement parallels intellectual achievement. He competes with himself and wins: he's "still got it."
Paul Sheldon's solitude is purposeful and productive; he is the brave warrior who faces his demons alone -- and conquers them. The musical arrangement reinforces this sense of accomplishment. The typing sounds which open the film (they begin when the screen is still dark) continue until the author's face fills the screen and he pulls his final page from the typewriter, at which point a sweetly solemn piano melody begins. This music carries through until the author's car door slams, when a riotous Motown tune sets a lighter mood. The piano music ("high art") signals the completion of his intellectual accomplishment; the rock music ("low art") signals the completion of his athletic accomplishment. He succeeds at being both an artist and "regular guy."
When the car skids off the road, a flashback sequence begins which brings us into Paul Sheldon's publisher's office. He is sitting on a couch clutching the leather pouch his manuscript holds. The office is in a tall building with a view of the city sky line. On the back wall, a large, framed poster of a romance novel cover is displayed. The first words in the scene are spoken by actress Lauren Bacall, clad tastefully in herringbone and silk: "What's that?" she asks, indicating the leather pouch. Sheldon explains that it is an "old friend" -- "When I wrote my first book I used to carry it around when I was looking for a publisher. I was a writer then." Bacall, his publisher, protests with, "You're still a writer," to which Sheldon replies, "I haven't been a writer since I got into the Misery business."
As Sheldon and his publisher speak, she carries a large portfolio containing the cover of his latest book (Misery's Child, the "biggest [printing] ever -- over a million.") over to show to him. As he looks at it with barely masked disgust, Bacall explains that the "Misery business" is "Not a bad business ... Misery Chastain put braces on your daughter's teeth, and is putting her through college, bought you two houses and floor seats to the Knicks, and what thanks does she get? You go and kill her!" He replies with "Marsha, please!" and then finally, "I never meant for it to become my life. And if I hadn't got rid of her now, I would have ended up writing her forever ... I'm leaving ... to finish the new book. If I can make this work, I might just have something I want on my tombstone."
This scene in the publisher's office adds significance to the opening moments of the film and establishes a thematic framework within which this representation of authorship is fleshed out. We understand from this scene that one is not a "writer" if one writes romance novels. In fact, writing romance novels is purely a "business" which earns one money; its lucrativeness is its only worth as a profession. When Sheldon denies he is a writer, his publisher does not encourage him by praising the artistic merit of his work, but instead focuses on the financial aspects of the "Misery Chastain" business. He is a writer, according to her, because the first printing of Misery's Child was the "biggest ever."
Paul Sheldon, however, is determined to create eternal prose, something he might want on his tombstone. Writing for money is antithetical to such an enterprise; for Sheldon, writing for money means creating Misery (double entendre intended). In the conversation between Paul and Marsha, Misery is "low art" personified, and Sheldon's refusal to put up with her is a matter of personal dignity. Creating her has been profitable for him, but she can no longer be his "life;" he has been dependent on her long enough, and he is no longer interested in prostituting himself. For Paul Sheldon the Misery Chastain business is profitable but ultimately emasculating. Somewhere along the line the power balance shifted from Paul to his creation, Misery. He once intended to be her pimp; now she is his. In order to restore his manhood, Sheldon must kill Misery and become a "writer" again.
The opening scenes of Misery document the re-establishment of Paul Sheldon's identity as a "writer" and (thus) as a man. The importance of this newly reclaimed identity is illustrated in the scene which follows the flashback; Paul Sheldon, dragged out of the car wreck, unconscious, impossibly clutches the handle of the leather pouch firmly in his fist. It is a striking visual image, underlining the value of the work Sheldon has just completed, making literal the common phrase, "holding on for dear life."
Misery begins, then, by establishing a conflict between two identities: Paul Sheldon the romance novelist, the creator of chthonic texts, who is not a "writer," who is not a real man because he is dependent on a woman (Misery) -- and Paul Sheldon the "writer," the man, the artist. Throughout the film, Paul Sheldon rejects everything associated with the former identity -- femaleness, dependence, "low art" -- in order to reclaim the latter, an identity associated with maleness, autonomy, and "high art." At the opening of the film, Sheldon has already killed Misery with his typewriter, and believes that he has rid himself of the Misery Chastain business forever. The problem is he has forgotten his audience. At one point in the film, Annie Wilkes, Sheldon's "number one fan," tells him, "If I die, you die." It is true that without his audience, Paul Sheldon, the romance novelist, would not exist. So Paul kills Annie with his typewriter too -- this time, literally. Killing Annie, he kills the identity he seeks to reject.
It is Annie who saves Paul Sheldon from the car crash, nursing him back to health in her home. Ironically, she saves him from a respectable death so that he can live an ignoble life, writing Misery back into existence. She also forces him to burn his precious "Untitled" manuscript in order to rid the world of "filth." That this new book is about "slum kids" reinforces the cultural assumption that "high art" is about "reality," while "low art" -- particularly romance -- is "fantasy." A lover of romantic fiction, Annie's sensibility is offended: "The problem is the swearing ... there's no nobility in it." It comes as no surprise that when Paul first sets to work writing Misery's Return, he writes the word "fuck" over and over in rebellion.
For Annie, Paul's beloved "Untitled" work is filth, but Misery's Child is a "perfect, perfect thing." In fact, according to Annie, it is more than perfect, it is "divine." Annie is ignorant of the value hierarchy which places genre fiction in the mire, and serious, "realistic" literature on a pedestal. Her secular sacred texts are the Misery novels, novels Paul obviously considers chthonic. Shortly after Annie compares Misery's Child with "that ceiling that dago painted," the Sistine Chapel, she introduces Paul Sheldon to her pet sow (which she has named after Misery) and shuffles after it down the hall, snorting like a pig herself. Although it is apparent throughout the film that she represents everything Paul has an aversion to, this moment is a particularly effective graphic visual representation of his attitude towards her: Misery -- romantic fiction -- is a pig, and Annie Wilkes -- the romance reader -- is a pig-like human, delighting in the filthy beast she follows.
Evidence of Annie Wilkes' bad taste is all-pervasive. She eats junk food while watching game shows on television, plays her Liberace records to "fill the house with romance," makes "fancy" meatloaf with Spam, and decorates her home with cheap porcelain figurines. She is ignorant in ways which grate on Paul's nerves, mispronouncing the name of his favorite champagne (she says "Dom Perignon" with a hard 'g'), and yelling that the erasable bond she bought him can't possibly smudge "because it cost the most." The classist implications are clear; Annie loves Misery books because she is not "cultured" enough to distinguish between good and bad, art and trash. She is, however, well-versed in the rules which govern the writing of genre fiction. When Paul makes his initial attempt to write the first chapter of Misery's Return, he breaks the sequence of the narrative, causing Annie to reprimand him for "cheating:" "Misery was buried in the ground. So you'll have to start there." This is the extent of Annie's literary expertise. A writer cannot defy the laws of nature by suddenly reviving a dead character -- that is, not without a medical excuse.
Annie's insistence that Paul not "cheat" leads him to contrive a bizarre and implausible medical explanation for Misery's apparent revival from the dead. The implausibility does not phase her, despite her training as a medical nurse. What is important is that Sheldon uphold the illusion of reality in "good faith" to his readers. She is willing and able to sustain her belief in the integrity of the narrative even if the plot is fantastically contrived, for she values realism in literature only in a limited sense. This willingness to overlook implausible plot twists and coincidences is not the only thing marking her as a stereotypical genre fiction reader. She is held in exquisite suspense by a story she knows must end "happily ever after." Critics of genre fiction naturally find it incomprehensible that readers find enjoyment in reading essentially the same story over and over. This attitude is mirrored in Paul Sheldon's palpable contempt for Annie when she delights in each new chapter of Misery's Return. He is disgusted and repulsed by her enthusiasm, finally using it against her when he seeks his revenge.
By the time he has finished Misery's Return, Paul has got Annie right where he wants her. He reclaims his power as a writer (and as a man) by exciting her -- telling her that everything she wants to know about Misery is "all right here" -- and then withholding her satisfaction. Annie is at the peak of her excitement (her "narrative lust," to use a term from A. S. Byatt's Possession) when he drops a lighted match onto the manuscript. As soon as she dives for the manuscript, swearing angrily for the first time, Sheldon heaves his typewriter up over his head, and brings it down on hers, knocking her temporarily unconscious. He's momentarily convinced he's achieved poetic justice -- killed Annie with the instrument of her pleasure, his torture -- but she revives minutes later. This time he wrestles with her on the floor, stuffing the manuscript into her mouth, a punishment which graphically asserts his disgust for her need to consume and possess him and his writing. Annie's appetite is what he most abhors, and that is why this part of his revenge is so resonant, so laden with meaning.
It is not just the popular conception of romance fiction as "pornography for women" which makes this scene so effective. Certainly Annie is threatening to Paul sexually, demanding that he satisfy her with his writing. Stuffing Misery's Return into her mouth, he -- symbolically -- rapes her (forcing entry into an orifice) to punish her for her desire. But she also threatens Paul partly by mothering him; he prizes autonomy, and she makes him dependent on her for his every physical need, as if he were a baby. He effects a reversal of roles by force-feeding her, just as she had force-fed him.
The final scene takes place in an upscale restaurant in the city. Paul Sheldon meets his publisher once more, this time to discuss his new book, The Higher Education of J. Philip Stone, which is, of course, not a new Misery novel. Its cover is plain and tasteful, lettered in black and red. According to Marsha, the book is going to be reviewed favorably by the New York Times Review. Sheldon's response is appropriately sober: "I'm delighted the critics are liking it, and I hope the people like it, too. But I wrote it for me. Don't think I'm completely nuts, but in some way Annie Wilkes ... that whole experience helped me." He has experienced the peril of dependence, and has learned to be completely autonomous, to write only for himself, not for an audience, not even for the critics. He is a "writer" at last.
Misery tells the same story twice, a story which is a central part of patriarchal culture: the defining of the masculine self via rejection of the feminine (what Lacan terms "the (m)Other"). In Misery this psychic drama is intimately tied to issues of authorship. Paul Sheldon gains his dominance in the symbolic order by rejecting an identity associated too closely with femaleness -- the identity of a romance novelist. Significantly, Paul does not specifically label his former identity (he doesn't, for instance, call himself a "hack") -- we only know that what he was something other than a "writer."
Romancing the Stone
In the opening scenes of Romancing the Stone we are offered a very different version of the romance writer's creative process. A sweeping, romantic score accompanies the appearance of the title, in clearly identifiable romance novel cover lettering. The next image we see is a woman's torso, her head cut off by the frame of the shot, her breasts outlined by a wet, white blouse with a plunging neckline. It is not clear whether this is a memory or a dream sequence until actress Kathleen Turner's voice-over (which narrates the action) becomes cliché-ridden and melodramatic, and the sneering villain, leering at the faceless torso before him, actually responds to the seasonal commentary Turner is making with, "But it's July." It is a comic moment, but also one which significantly complicates the relationship between the narrator, the female character, and the male character. Up until this point, the woman's speaking voice could have been:
- The female character's thoughts.
- The female character's speaking voice, as she is recalling a memory or telling a story.
- Turner's speaking voice, as the omniscient narrator, telling a story in which, so far, the female character has been silently thinking.
Each of these alternatives would have been unproblematic, since each would clearly identify the speaker as a discrete individual subject. But when the male character talks back these possible identities merge; Turner is at once the heroine of a romance adventure (either living or recalling her experience) and the omniscient narrator, the storyteller who is creating this adventure. She is the subject and object of this work, its creator and its created. The woman as artist and the woman as art object are conflated; the visual image which most emphatically suggests this fusion of subject positions is the headless torso which speaks (or thinks) -- what I call the "talking breasts." The part of the female body at which the male character stares (and seems to interact with) is the only logical origin of this voice. The object of the male gaze speaks back, but only as an object.
The heroine quickly dispatches the villain with a knife and rides to meet her "beloved Jesse" in the desert, who saves her by shooting the villain's three brothers with a rifle in quick, miraculous, comic succession. The last line of narration, "I knew that we would spend the rest of our lives together ... forever" is spoken in a voice cracking with emotion, and with the final word, "forever," the sequence in the desert ends, and we see "forever" clacked out with the typewriter keys in a shot identical to the one in Misery (the direct analog is Sheldon's "Without it, what else was there?").
The next shot shows us Kathleen Turner's tear-streaked and ecstatic face, as she wipes her eyes and says proudly, "Oh God, that's good!" and then types/speaks the requisite final phrase, "The End," triumphantly. It is a jubilant, emotionally fulfilling moment. She is laughing and crying at once, and suddenly realizes she needs to blow her nose. This realization brings her back to the reality of the moment. When she goes to look for tissue to wipe her nose with, we notice notes stuck to several surfaces in her pleasantly cluttered apartment, which is decorated with poster-size romance novel covers. The notes are reminders: the one she takes off the bathroom mirror reads, "Buy toilet paper." Obviously, writing the novel has absorbed all of her attention and energy, sweeping her away into another world, untouched by practical everyday concerns. She stares into the mirror at eye-level and says, "I finished sweetheart, want to celebrate?" The door behind her creaks open and she turns around, her gaze falls to the ground, where we see that "sweetheart" is a cat.
Romantic music begins when Joan, in her plaid pajamas and wool socks, lights a candle on the mantelpiece and prepares a dish of tuna for her cat, carefully placing a sprig of parsley on the side. Her liquor cabinet is a shelf filled with tiny airline bottles, which she cannot open with her bare hands, so she uses pliers. She calls to the cat -- "O Romeo, Romeo, where art thou Romeo?" -- and serves him his tuna as she pours herself a glass of wine, looking up at a poster of her book cover on the wall, which features a man in a hat whose face is darkened by shadow. The camera remains on this shadowed face for a few long minutes, then returns to Joan on her couch. She raises her glass in a wistful salute, the camera angle showing only half of her face: "Here's to you, Jesse ..." she sighs, "wherever you are." On a sudden whim, she throws her glass into the fireplace, and, after asking Romeo if he is finished, throws his plate in as well. It is the final gesture of a celebratory dinner played out according to romantic tradition, but with all the main ingredients replaced with substitutes.
The presence of absence is overwhelming in this representation of authorship; every expectation is unfulfilled. Joan Wilder, in plaid pajamas and wool socks, does not resemble the fictional character she gives voice to at all. Her Romeo is no "Jesse" and the carefully garnished tuna is most definitely not a gourmet dinner (though she says to Romeo, "Here -- it's Bumblebee kiddo -- just so you know I spare no expense when I celebrate."). The airline liquor bottles cannot replace a bottle of champagne. We are meant to understand that the narrated sequence which opens the film is not and cannot be a viable substitute for the "real thing" -- that is, for a real man and a real romance. Although writing provides Joan with a momentary escape from reality, completing her work means having to return to the recognition that she is alone. As her salute to "Jesse" reveals, Joan is not satisfied with fantasy; in order for her to be truly happy, fiction must become reality. "Jesse" is not her muse towards which she is grateful for inspiration, but a symbol of her destined partner, a "stand-in" with whom she must satisfy herself until her true Romeo arrives.
We do not find Joan Wilder in Paul Sheldon-like ascetic, self-imposed isolation, but passionately involved in a fictional world she seems to be simultaneously living and creating. Her creative process is emotionally involved, free-flowing, and uninhibited. She does not pause to critique herself, even as her heavily clichéd melodrama unfolds with comic pathos. Joan is swept up in a wave of extravagant emotion which peaks as she types the final sentence, and she returns to the real world reluctantly. Although she is clearly very proud of her work, it is not sufficient in itself to make her happy; it is, in fact, just a substitute for the real experiences she would rather be having. Whether or not she wants this work on her tombstone -- whether or not she considers herself a "writer" in the Paul Sheldon sense of the word -- is not at issue. It is, in fact, entirely beside the point. For Joan Wilder, writing is a substitute for a fulfilling life, not a part of one. Once Paul Sheldon has finished his work he knows that he has "still got it;" Joan Wilder knows that she is still alone.
While the opening scenes of Misery document the re-establishment of Paul Sheldon's identity as a writer (and thus as man) the opening sequence of Romancing the Stone establishes Joan Wilder's identity as a writer in order to point out how deficient she is as a woman. It is not Joan alone who recognizes that her life is empty without a man, but her publisher, Gloria, believes this as well. She insists on meeting Joan at a singles bar, brushing aside her token protests, and proceeds to choose a man for her. When Gloria finally settles on one who winks at them, Joan objects, saying "No he ... he's not ..." and Gloria interrupts with, "Who ... Jesse?" The implication is that Joan must stop longing for a romance novel hero, and get herself a real man. It is clear that neither woman thinks that Joan's work is fulfilling in and of itself. Whereas Misery explores the non-writer/writer (low art/high art) dichotomy in order to reinforce the dominance of high art, the dichotomy which is examined in Romancing the Stone is the fantasy/reality conflict, represented as a choice Joan makes to give up writing low art in favor of living it. She chooses to stop "dreaming" about having a romantic adventure (by writing about them) and instead becomes the heroine of her own "real life" romance.
Much of the main action of the film involves Joan's personal transformation, from the "homebody" writer she appears to be at the beginning of the film to the romance heroine she is at the end. This kind of transformation is a cinema cliché, a classic formula exemplified by the film My Fair Lady, in which a woman becomes something "better" through her relationship with a man. Jack Colton, Joan's real-life "Jesse," is that man, and he changes her life by first changing her appearance. Joan's transformation begins when her conservative linen outfit begins to disintegrate in the jungle rains, and Jack Colton looks at her legs (through the tear in her skirt) with new appreciation. From this point onward, the camera lingers on Joan Wilder's increasingly revealed physique; the transformation is complete when Jack buys Joan a new dress with a plunging neckline and a slit skirt, and they make love.
Joan Wilder's behavior changes at this point as well. Suddenly, she acts more secure and confident than she has before; she is a "new woman" because she has a new man. The more beautiful (and thus more admired, and more confident) Joan lives out her romantic adventure with gusto and enthusiasm, until the time comes when Jack Colton leaves her in search of the stone they have discovered together (an emerald). He is about to dive off a high stone wall into the ocean when she clings to him a desperation we have not glimpsed since the new Joan arrived. Once again she is unsure and fearful, as she was before she and Jack became lovers. "You're leaving me, you're leaving me ..." she says to him, her voice breaking. He kisses her good-bye, and then breaks away from her with these words: "You're going to be all right, Joan Wilder, you always were."
Joan does not believe him. The final scenes of Romancing the Stone are testimony to the fact that Joan does not think she is "all right" without Jack Colton. As soon as Jack Colton dives into the ocean, Joan calls after him (to no avail) with a wistful expression on her face, and then we see her profile as she tugs at the necklace he gave her, which hangs around her neck. She is in the same position in the next shot, which brings us back to New York, in Gloria's office. Gloria is crying. It turns out that Joan has written a book about her adventure with Jack; when Gloria asks how she did it, she says, "I was ... inspired." The meaningful pause is accompanied by a sad, wistful smile. Gloria wipes her eyes, and pronounces Joan a "world class hopeless romantic," to which Joan replies, with a touch of melodrama, "No ... hopeful. Hopeful romantic."
The distinction -- not hopeless, but hopeful -- is significant in that it suggests that Joan is even less satisfied with 'dreaming' about romance (writing) than she was at the beginning of the film. Joan Wilder's writing is her living, but it is not her "life." She wants to live the life of romance heroine, not the life of a writer; so much is made explicit in the final scene of the film, when she drops everything (but the flowers!) to ride off into the sunset with Jack Colton. He says, "I even read one of your books," and she answers, "Then you know how they all end." Appropriately, Romancing the Stone ends with a shot of Joan and Jack embracing and kissing as they ride off into the sunset on a yacht. Joan has found her "Jesse," and no longer needs to write him into existence. These final moments of the film once again beg the question, "Why write fiction when you've got the 'real thing?'"
The marketing of the novel Misery doubly reinforces the value hierarchy the film and the book uphold. The paperback cover of Misery is a mock romance novel cover, featuring an airbrushed and musculature-enhanced version of the author, Stephen King, as the romantic hero, a beautiful and tightly corseted woman clinging to him. He looks strong and in charge, staring straight ahead; she is weak and looks up to him with an expression nearing worship. It is a visual metaphor: King is to Misery ("low art" personified) as a romance novel hero is to his heroine. The message is clear. It is as though King is saying, "If I am involved in this dirty business (writing for money, not immortality) I am, at least, in the powerful role."
The cover of the videocassette of Romancing the Stone shows Michael Douglas (the actor portraying Jack Colton) swinging confidently on a vine in true romantic hero fashion, Kathleen Turner clinging onto him with a fearful expression. Actually, this never occurs in the film; Joan is the brave one who swings across the chasm first herself, followed by a frightened and inept Jack Colton, who barely makes it.
Each of these representations depict powerful-looking men in dominant, aggressive poses next to clinging, flimsy, sexy women. In the category romance industry, this pose is called a "clinch." Kathleen Turner's position on this cover is identical to the position of the faceless heroine at the end of the opening sequence of the film -- being carried away in Jesse's lap on his horse (her own horse nonsensically tethered behind) is roughly analogous to these two sharing one vine. It is the familiar romantic motif of "willing surrender."
Comparisons & Conclusions
The Writing or the Sex? Dale Spender's question seems to be the most appropriate to begin with when comparing these representations of romance writers. After all, we have here a good "test case:" two representations of romance writers, one male, one female, in films which are roughly contemporary with one another. Yet we immediately recognize mitigating circumstances, differences which disturb the "scientific" or "objective" pretense of such an inquiry. First of all, Paul Sheldon is no longer a romance novelist when Misery begins, having made the decision to give it up. Therefore it is not "fair" to compare the representation of the creative process in Misery to its analog in Romancing the Stone; it could be the writing -- not the sex -- which accounts for the difference between Paul's process and Joan's. It is also true that Misery is primarily about writing and horror, while Romancing the Stone is primarily about romance. This difference must be taken into account before conclusions may be drawn about the protagonist's relations to their work.
It is a mistake, however, to assume that these larger differences are themselves value-neutral. It is entirely relevant -- crucial, in fact -- that Paul Sheldon gave up writing romance, and that Romancing the Stone is not about writing. Paul is ill-fitted for writing romance because he is a man, and should be writing something he wants on his tombstone; Joan is ill-fitted for a writing career because she is a woman, and should be living a romance rather than "dreaming" about one. These differences are not unrelated to issues of gender identity, but in fact absolutely dependent on them. It is almost impossible to imagine Paul Sheldon leaving the Misery Chastain business because he needs to find a real woman to love. It is just as hard to imagine Joan in Paul's position, fighting for independence and her right to write about "slum kids" while an obsessed male fan forces her to write a romance for him.
Our cultural assumptions guide our interpretation of these representations of gendered authorship, providing a critical framework which 'normalizes' the relations of power within the symbolic order. Kay Mussell writes:
- The great questions of literature, like the great questions of human life, are often gender-specific; and most serious literature tells the story of male aspirations and male experience. The literary canon includes works concerned with how men relate to the natural world, how men relate to each other, how men relate to society, how men relate to themselves. For women, however, literature and life pose another question, an issue they must usually confront before they address other adult choices. And for generations, many women who wrote fiction -- serious or popular -- have concentrated on that prior question: how women relate to men. (169-170 italics mine)
In Fantasy and Reconciliation: Contemporary Formulas of Women's Category Fiction, Mussell examines the ways in which romance novels describe the "limits of the imagination" for women in this culture. Cultural assumptions define these "limits," and cultural representations reinforce them; that is why we have trouble picturing Joan Wilder in Paul Sheldon's place, or vice-versa.
What are the cultural assumptions which these films reinforce? I have already noted a few: that men are not really fit to write romance, and that women are not fit to write at all. But if women do write, they should write romance because they are all "hopeless romantics" at heart. After all, women can't distinguish between trash and literature anyway, since they read romances. And since they find reading romance easy and pleasurable, then they must find writing romance to be just as easy and pleasurable. If they're good at writing romance, it just means that it comes "naturally" to them, like dreaming. And anyway, how can they write about the way things really are -- the "ugly truth" about life -- when they haven't had the right kinds of (male) experiences? As for men who write romances, their only possible excuse is that they are doing it for the money -- why else would a man write such "fluff" when he could be writing immortal prose?
Representation & Choices
So what does this set of representations say about the choices women writers make -- the choices that are presented them -- in this society? My interest in examining cultural representations of romance writers was spurred in part by this question: what is it about the way romance novelists (and the act of writing romance) are portrayed in popular culture which makes writing category romance such a popular option for women writers, even in this so-called "post-feminist" era? I remembered watching Romancing the Stone and loving it, even becoming inspired by it to continue aspiring to be a writer. Looking back now, I realize what made me so enthusiastic about the film was the idea that Joan could make a living writing, and that for her, writing was both pleasurable and emotionally fulfilling. It looked not only fun and easy, but also profitable to write a romance. These aspects of this representation of authorship are still attractive to me today; the image of Joan Wilder, her face streaming with tears as she jubilantly writes, "The End," in her own apartment, still delights me.
But this image -- of the self-sufficient and self-satisfied woman writer --fades all too quickly. The rest of the film represents this image of Joan as a kind of "before" picture in a makeover, celebrating the moments when Joan discards elements of her old identity in favor of the preferred new one. The rewards of writing romance (presented here as financial independence, "escape" from loneliness, and emotional catharsis) are soon outweighed by the rewards of being romantic. That Joan must choose between writing romance or living one reinforces the assumption that for a woman writer, fictional experiences necessarily replace authentic "real life" experiences, instead of the two being integrated. Whereas Paul Sheldon is able to be an artist and a "regular guy," for Joan Wilder, writing and living a "normal" life are mutually exclusive options.
Constructing a persona of the romance novelist from these films, we find her to be a woman (not a man) who is very sentimental, emotional, and has a vivid imagination. Romantic fantasy is the raw material with which she crafts her novels. If she could, she would stop writing and become the heroine of a real-life romantic adventure. She is an uninhibited, prolific writer who is not self critical or, indeed, critical at all, since she writes what other people consider trash. Her work is "empty" and "escapist," not in the least serious or realistic. While other (male) writers labor at their work, woman romance writers simply ("naturally") fantasize their way through them. She works for a woman (not a man) whose main priority is profit.
We've seen how romance novelists are represented by others, but how do they represent themselves? How do they see themselves in the (culturally constructed) role of the romance novelist? How do they understand the issues which are negotiated in Misery and Romancing the Stone? How do they justify their work to themselves and to their critics? Questions like these point to the ways in which cultural assumptions shape individual choices.
Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance was published in 1992 as part of a part of a series entitled New Cultural Studies. According to the volume's editor, romance writer Jayne Ann Krentz, this book was "born out of a host of conversations that took place over the years among members of the romance writing community" (xi). Certainly the current popularity of cultural studies, as well the work of feminists who have examined category romance fiction over the past decade, has also helped open the doors to this kind of study. Krentz singles out feminist critics Janice Radway and Kay Mussell in her acknowledgments, citing their work as "distinguished" (xi). Both Radway and Mussell analyze the appeal of romance fiction without condescending to the romance reader. Neither author considers romance fiction "dope for dopes," to use Germaine Greer's phrase (Carr 60). It is no wonder, then, that Radway and Mussell are seen to be more sympathetic to romance writers.
In her ethnographic work, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature, Radway insists on listening seriously to romance readers rather than dismissing them as women who cannot distinguish either between good and bad fiction (as mainstream critics suggest) or good and bad value systems (as many feminists argue). Kay Mussell writes in the introduction to her work, Fantasy and Reconciliation: Contemporary Formulas in Women's Romance Fiction:
- I write ... as a woman who finds it impossible to denigrate those who make choices different from mine and as one who understands the attractions of a life as wife, mother, and homemaker. That life was not and is not my only choice, and yet I think I understand the attraction of a fictional fantasy that celebrates the domestic values the women's movement has set out to change. (xiv-xv)
Radway and Mussell do not personally endorse the domestic values reinforced in romance fiction, yet neither do they blame women for believing in them. Their analyses are attempts to discover what it is about those values which makes them so attractive to romance readers.
The women who contributed essays to Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women have the same focus. The difference is, of course, that they are also justifying their profession, defending their right to write romance, no matter what others -- mainstream critics, feminists, other writers -- have to say about it. Jayne Ann Krentz writes of the romance reader,
- Few people realize how much courage it takes for a woman to open a romance novel on an airplane. She knows what everyone around her will think about both her and her choice of reading material. When it comes to romance novels, society has always felt free to sit in judgment not only on the literature but on the reader herself. (1)
But if it takes this kind of courage simply to read a romance, what kind of courage does it take to write one? Romance writers bear the responsibility of reproducing a genre which is almost universally disrespected. That the romance writers who contributed essays to Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women feel judged is unquestionable. The title of Kathleen Gilles Seidel's essay makes it explicit: "Judge Me by the Joy I Bring." Suzanne Simmons Guntrum opens her essay with the words: "I never wanted to be a romance writer"(151).
What is most interesting about these essays, however, is not the degree to which romance writers feel persecuted, but their excellent articulation of the politics of writing romance. These women are uniquely aware of the cultural assumptions which define their roles as romance writers. Penelope Williamson writes that romance novels "account for roughly forty percent of all mass market paperback sales with annual revenues reaching hundreds of millions of dollars. Yet I doubt there is a romance author breathing who hasn't been asked the question: When are you going to write a real book? I cannot help but suspect that romance is so often ridiculed and denigrated because it is a literature written almost exclusively by women for women. It is a man's world, after all" (Krentz 125-6). In this man's world, romance writers must assert their personal and professional identities in relation to the cultural assumptions which define their roles. Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women is a collection of nineteen individual responses to these cultural assumptions.
Although Words of Love: A Complete Guide to Romance Fiction, published in 1984, is not explicitly a defense of romance fiction, it functions as one in that it claims contemporary romance fiction as the direct descendant of canonical "women's fiction." Author Eileen Fallon provides a comprehensive list of "Historically Important Writers" (whose ranks include such diverse authors as Mary Wollstonecraft, Louisa May Alcott, and Nathaniel Hawthorne) followed by an equally impressive list of "Current Romance Authors." The terms Fallon uses are significant-- consider the connotation of the word "author" as opposed to "writer;" ordinarily, the contemporary romance novelists would be the ones bearing the less glamorous title, "writer." Like Jayne Krentz, Fallon sees contemporary category romance as part of an "ancient tradition of literature."
Fallon is not unaware, however, that others do not view current romance fiction in the same light. She includes in the listing of current romance authors the results of her survey which was sent out to major category romance publishing houses in the spring of 1982. The individual responses authors gave to questions Fallon asked in the survey are given with each listing, under the headings, "Favorite Authors and Books," "Thoughts On Writing," and "Becoming Published/Finding an Agent." The section entitled "Thoughts on Writing" is prompted by questions revealing Fallon's knowledge of the politics of writing romance, inside the industry and out:
- Thoughts on Writing -- particularly on writing romance, since it's so often considered a step-child of publishing. Do you see these books as pure escapism? Were you a fan for years before becoming a writer? In a sense, what is your philosophy of writing? (168)
It is clear Fallon expects romance writers to defend romance writing by arguing that it's not the "step-child" of publishing, denying romance fiction is "pure escapism," and declaring that they, too (like the readers of this book) were fans of romance before they started writing them. That she supposes that the answers to these questions would constitute a "philosophy of writing" is interesting, since it seems more appropriate that a "defense of writing" would be constructed from such questions.
Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women and Words of Love provide us, then, with a cogent defense of the romance fiction genre and the romance writers role in reproducing that genre. In each of the responses romance writers provided in these books, cultural assumptions which inform our perceptions of the genre, its readers, and its writers, are subjected to intense critical scrutiny. Many of the assumptions these romance writers attack are less genre-specific than gender-specific; that is, they are assumptions which control our perceptions of all women who write, not just romance writers. As I stated in the introduction, cultural attitudes about women writers seem almost to magnetize around the pop culture persona of the romance novelist, giving us the opportunity to examine issues which face every woman writer.
Fantasy and Reality
Is romantic fiction "pure escapism?" Though this question is from the Words of Love questionnaire, many of the women writers who contributed essays to Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women also seem to be responding directly to the issue of whether romance fiction is "just fantasy."
Before we look at these responses, however, it is important to note the negative connotation of the term, "escapism" as it is applied to literature. It is a term used to describe writing believed to have no purpose other than to create a temporary diversion for the reader. "Escapist" literature is not meant to convey any particular significant message or teach any important lesson; on the contrary, it "takes you away" from your present cares, allowing you to escape reality, escape meaning, escape thinking. Literature is "escapist" if it is "just fantasy," and nothing else. Genre fiction in general has traditionally been characterized as escapist, and romance fiction particularly -- even quintessentially -- so. "Realist" literature, on the other hand, is supposed to be mimetic, mirroring life and hence revealing "higher" or "greater" truths about the human condition.
The differences between popular conceptions of escapist literature and realist literature are articulated with clarity in Misery. Annie Wilkes does not approve of the swear words Paul Sheldon puts in the mouths of his "slum kids"-- there's "no nobility in it." Paul's defense is that "everybody talks like that," but for Annie this is no defense at all. She much prefers the beautiful lie (fantasy) to the ugly truth (reality). This preference is part of a larger dementia; we discover that during her real-life trial for murdering the babies under her charge, she wholly inappropriately quotes Misery's "noble" words in order to defend herself: "There is a higher power than man, and I will be judged by Him." For Annie, Paul's "fantasy" (Misery) ought to be (and sometimes is) reality, and his "reality," the novel about slum kids, is filth.
Paul understands that his Misery novels take place in a world removed from reality, but Joan Wilder shares Annie's dementia, confusing fact and fiction; at least, that is what Gloria implies when she urges Joan to stop searching for "Jesse." The implication is that women who write romance, like the women who read them, cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality. Jayne Anne Krentz writes:
- Most people understand and accept the way in which fantasy works when they sit down to read [Robert] Ludlum, [Stephen] King, [James] McCaffrey or others. Furthermore everyone understands that the readers know the difference between real life and fantasy and that they do not expect one to imitate the other. But, for some reason, when it comes to romance novels critics worry about whether the women who read them can tell the difference between what is real and what is not. (2)
This is one of the most significant cultural assumptions which the romance writers represented in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women and in Words of Love reject: the notion that romance readers and writers cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality, and that they expect fantasy to be reality. It is an assumption which is as condescending as it is illogical. As Kathleen Gilles Seidel writes in her essay, "Judge Me by the Joy I Bring,"
- Yes, people get information about life from their reading, but they test that against other data. Too often when I read feminist commentary on romance readers, the picture that emerges is of children with childish reading strategies. Romance readers are grown women, able to distinguish between art and life, the literary and the actual. (173)
Behind this notion that women who write romances cannot distinguish between art and life lurks the fear that what these women really want is the fantasy, not the reality. Many feminists find the idea of women wanting to live the fantasy which romance novels describe to be a frightening one. According to Helen Taylor,
- Many share a puritanical dismay at the popularity of texts which appear to confirm all the worst aspects of patriarchal capitalist society: missionary-position male dominance, female submission at work, play and in bed; the norm and ideal of white heterosexual marriage, the suspect nature of celibacy, careerism and feminism; the privatization of love and the idealization of the young male/female couple as the supreme model relationship. (Carr 60)
Some romances, known as "bodice-rippers" add to this list the eroticization of rape. Daphne Clair, in her essay, "Sweet Subversions," writes:
- In the very teeth of women's liberation, Kathleen Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower, and Rosemary Rogers's Sweet Savage Love generated a flood of immensely successful rape-romances that enraged feminists, created guilt in many avid readers, and were cited as perpetuating the notion that women really do like being forced. (We might assume then that men, major consumers of thrillers, westerns, and detective fiction, enjoy being beaten up, tortured, shot, stabbed, dragged by galloping horses, and thrown out of moving vehicles). (Krentz 69)
While many feminists find the values reinforced in romance fiction threatening because they represent "the worst aspects of patriarchal capitalist society," many mainstream (primarily male) critics are threatened by the sexual component of romance fiction. These critics dismiss romance fiction as "pornography for women," even though the emphasis in most romance novels is not on sex, but on love. Part of this attitude may stem from a feeling of inadequacy in the face of the ideal of the studly romance hero, who never -- absolutely never -- fails to satisfy his heroine in bed. Part of it certainly is a "puritanical dismay," to use Helen Taylor's term, rooted in the notion that women should not be thinking (let alone writing) about what they find sexually satisfying. These critics fear that women may be prompted by romance novels to become either more sexual, or more sexually demanding.
The assumption that romance writers and readers cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality can be interpreted, then, as an expression of fear. It is interesting that this genre, which reinforces the domestic values our culture reveres, should be viewed as threatening by those who would uphold these values as well as by those who seek to challenge them.
Is romance fiction "pure escapism?" For the romance writers in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women and Words of Love, two qualifications emerge in answering this question: 1) Yes, but so is all other popular fiction, and 2) Yes, but so is all fiction. Sandra Brown ends her essay, "The Risk of Seduction and the Seduction of Risk" with this succinct assertion: "Why has the immense popularity of romances endured? They're fiction. They're fantasy. They're fun" (Krentz 149). It is the recognition of the negative connotation of "escapism" which causes many romance writers to defend and rationalize their "escapist" literature by claiming that most or all literature is escapist. Yet ultimately they retain the value hierarchy which they attempt to subvert. In "Welcome to the Dark Side," Mary Jo Putney writes, "while all romances are fantasy, the tone varies greatly from pure escapism to stories that contain more realistic elements" (Krentz 99).
Granting that romance fiction is "escapist" literature, many romance writers argue that what matters in judging their work is the quality of the escape. Cathy Jo Ladame Baldwin's answer to the "escapism" question is a characteristic response:
- When [my novel] was published, I had the sense to listen to my husband (MA. in English) and others I respected, including former professors, when they pointed out the differences between entertainment and "Art." Escapism? Absolutely -- but what painting, drama, motion picture or great novel doesn't offer escape into another world? ... Whether or not romances are 'pure escapism' depends on how successfully and totally that world has been created and on how much effort the reader is willing to expend
to escape, to make that marvelous leap into the author's landscape of dreams. (Fallon 175)
While defending the quality of the escape (Yes, it is escapist, but look at how well I've done it!) is sufficient for a large portion of the romance writers whose essays I've read, there are those who go a step further in defending their right to write romance. These women claim that their fantasies "coincide" with fantasies women have had for generations, fantasies which 1) offer a good respite from daily pressures, 2) are empowering to women. Judith Arnold's voice is perhaps the strongest in this regard: "To belittle romance fiction is to belittle women. To read romance fiction is to confront the strength of women, the variety of their experience, and the validity of their aspirations and accomplishments. To appreciate the kind of romance fiction I write is to admit that women can do, and that given the opportunity, they can change the world for the better (Krentz 139).
Jayne Ann Krentz concurs, "For those who understand the encoded information in the stories, the books preserve elements of ancient myths and legends that are particularly important to women. They celebrate female power, intuition, and a female world view that affirms life and expresses hope for the future" (8). And finally, in perhaps the most convincing argument, Stella Cameron asserts that, "Romance novels underscore what many women believe: love and by extesion sex are not death but birth, not loss but gain"(Krentz 144).
The "life-affirming" female world view Krentz embraces is one which reinforces domestic values. The "female fantasy" is prescribed within the context of patriarchal society, and though elements of that fantasy have changed throughout the years, it is still The Relationship with a Man, and the Creation of a Family -- above all else --which is significant and meaningful for the female protagonist. Lord Byron's oft-quoted lines, "Man's love is of man's life a thing apart/'Tis a woman's whole existence," neatly summarizes the limitations of the "female world view" as it is expressed in romance fiction. Kay Mussell, echoing many romance writers, questions the purpose of criticizing romances because they do not provide alternative roles for the female protagonist in literature:
- Critics frequently identify the ... undesirable conventions of romances as harmful to women's right to participate in a wider sphere, for they assume
that traditional patterns of female existence lack significance. More
significantly, however, in denigrating romances they condemn romance
readers for failing to share their own values and commitments, while
forgetting that popular art is by nature unrealistic and shallow, and the
pleasure derived from formula fiction depends on neither its realism nor
its politics. (Mussell 24)
Yet it is precisely this idea, that romances provide pleasurable fantasies for women which are expected to be neither realistic nor politically correct, which should cause us to take a second look at this "harmless" genre. Pleasure is not insignificant.
Joan Wilder finds a great deal of pleasure in writing (and living) a romantic fantasy. Romancing the Stone is an attractive and compelling representation of female authorship because of that pleasure. She fantasizes her way through the writing process with effortless, breathless enthusiasm. This characterization is built on the "easy-to-read-easy-to-write" theory of writing, which assumes that writing formula fiction is as easy and fun as reading it. Nancy Morse responds humorously to this assumption with the following: "Writing romance is fun, if you can call being hunched over a typewriter for twelve hour stretches fun ... To me, writing is demonic possession"(Fallon 308). The "easy-to-read-easy-to-write" assumption fed by the association of romance fiction with so-called "true confession" narratives, and with the eroticization of women's diary keeping. Romance fiction is viewed by some to be the "natural" expression of women's fantasies. The assumption is that romance fiction represents the "reality of fantasy;" the fantasy described in the Harlequin is understood to be the hidden truth of female desire. Viewed as such, it serves only to titillate.
To summarize, we find that in literature the fantasy/reality binary serves to define romance fiction as always other than that which is valued. Moreover, the romance writer is defined as other as well; she is the quintessential non-author. The hierarchization of meaning -- fantasy/reality, low art/high art, escapism/realism -- serves to subordinate the feminine to the masculine order.
The Double Standard of Content
- A smoking .45 and six corpses at his feet is a male fantasy. A woman will settle for one live hero at hers. And if she places a dainty foot upon his neck, it is only to invite him to kiss it. (Krentz 71)
Daphne Clair ends her essay, "Sweet Subversions," with this comparison of male and female fantasy. Her point is to illustrate that men's fantasies are no more "valid" than women's; reading a Stephen King novel or a Louis L'Amour novel is no less an escape from reality than reading a novel by Danielle Steele, or a Harlequin romance. Victoria Heland affirms Clair's argument: "I have never quite understood exactly what it was romance authors (and readers) were supposed to apologize for. Is love any less worthy a subject than murder or politics? (Fallon 265). Yet, as Jayne Krentz points out in the introduction to Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, "the person who does not like to read horror or science fiction is unlikely to criticize the genres or chastise and condemn the readers who do love them but simply shrugs and accepts the fact that the stories hold no personal appeal" (1). Again, the question must be asked: is it the writing or the sex? And again, the answer is "the sex," for, as Kay Mussel asserts, "Romances are no more untrue, over-wrought, and destructive of human relationships than the popular male fantasies of Ian Fleming and Mickey Spillane, whose heroes frequently treat women with violence or contempt ... Women's fantasies may differ from men's, but they are no less legitimate" (18).
Romance fiction is often viewed as less legitimate than other genre fiction because the action of the romance novel is thought to be "confined" or "limited" to the domestic sphere, a space which has been traditionally coded as feminine. Our ability to distinguish so easily between masculine and feminine fantasy "territory" is testimony to the way in which "culture first specifies spheres of activity and then genders space as masculine or feminine" (Hassam 119). The commonplace advice to "write what you know," is a trap for women writers, since what they are supposed to know most about -- traditional feminine activities, such as child rearing or housekeeping -- is so often dismissed as trivial or banal. Russ opines, "[As long as] women's experience is defined as inferior to, less important, or "narrower" than men's experience, women's writing is automatically denigrated" (47-48)
Daphne Clair reveals the recursive nature of the double standard of content in her summary of men's attitude toward women's fiction in the eighteenth century:
- Men scoffed at stories of love and marriage even while they insisted
that love and marriage and housekeeping were the proper province,
and the only proper province, of women. They labeled the writers
uneducated while they denied to women the educational opportunities
they themselves enjoyed, and they called the readers ignorant and silly
yet were offended by women who showed themselves to be anything
else. (Krentz 62-63)
Women are "fit" to write romance, yet when they write it they are disrespected (after all, romance is women's work, like housekeeping). It is a catch 22 situation. Joanna Russ writes: " If the writer has the good fortune to fit fairly easily into what women can write, or what women should write, this very fact can be used as an automatic criticism of the work in question" (69).
The Commodification of Romance Fiction
Is romance fiction the "step-child of publishing?" What does the term mean? What are the implications of such a label? Romance writer Diana Palmer finds it perplexing; in the introductory paragraph to her essay, "Let Me Tell You about My Readers," she states,
- It is ironic that romance appeals to almost everyone, but in literature
it is something of a ragged stepchild and needs defending. I find it
fascinating that the other genres -- mystery, horror, science fiction,
fantasy, suspense, and western -- never have to be justified or explained.
Yet romance novels, the revenues from which comprise the bedrock
earnings of a large segment of the publishing industry, seem always to
stand in need of defense. (Krentz 155)
It is clear that Palmer does not understand the full connotation of the phrase, "step-child of publishing." She imagines romance fiction to be Cinderella (a "ragged" step-child) and then complains that the industry fails to see that Cinderella has a host of fairy godmothers -- the readers to whom she dedicates her essay -- whose financial and emotional support assure Cinderella's future. The step-child label has less to do with a relationship of dependence on the publishing industry (romance fiction is no poor relation) than it has to do with the notion that romance fiction is 1) more related to publishing than other, "purer" genres (owing its success more to marketing than to quality) and that it is 2) less respected than other genres.
How do the true mothers of these step-children, the romance writers, feel about their work being understood as such? Jo Calloway and others like her claim that they don't care, that romance has proven itself as a genre simply by enduring:
- So what if the romance is considered to be the stepchild of publishing? So what if the critics aren't kind to either the romance or the writer? It has, after all, proven its strength. It doesn't need to be considered on the same level established by other genres. It has established its own level, on which I, as a romance writer, take pride. It has always been my belief that romance existed long before heralded literature, and my belief that when romance dies, so does mankind." (Fallon 194-195)
Lynn Lowery Hahn agrees: "I know that many critics or people who consider themselves 'connoisseurs of fine literature' look down on the romantic genre, but I am not concerned with pleasing those people. I know that romances, including mine, bring joy to millions of readers, and that is my major reward in writing them" (Fallon 256).
Many romance writers are willing to grant that romance is a step-child of publishing, but then they argue that she is often a very good step-child, and deserves better treatment. It is analogous to how many handle the issue of "escapism," recognizing the validity of the criticism in some cases, but making sure to point out the diversity of quality within the genre. Yes, romance is escapism, but look at how well some of us (including me) have crafted that escape. Yes, romance is the step-child of publishing, but, Jane Le Compte avers, "when they're well written -- and I do my best to write well -- the romance is no more the stepchild of publishing than a good mystery or thriller" (Fallon 293). Mary Fanning Sederquest writes, "It bothers me to hear romance called 'publishing's stepchild.' Where is it written that a romance can't be well-written, can't involve real, believable characters, can't move the reader?" (Fallon 330)
It is written everywhere. The "step-child of publishing" has earned her name over the years for several different reasons. The marketing technique which created a new publishing phenomenon, the "Harlequinizing" of original romance fiction, is the main culprit. There are at least three aspects of the marketing of the early Harlequins which downplay the importance of the author, thus encouraging the commodification of romance fiction: the similarity of the covers, the near-mandatory use of pseudonyms, and the marketing of the romances as a brand-name product. The overall message is that it doesn't matter who the author is, or how well she writes, a romance is a romance, one Harlequin is just like another. Unlike other genre fiction series (for instance, the Nancy Drew mysteries, ostensibly written by Carolyn Keene) Harlequins were not (and are not) connected to any particular name other than the name of the publishing house itself. The use of pseudonyms adds to the obscurity of the romance writer and greatly diminishes her status as the creator of an original work.
It is no surprise then that the Romance Writers of America (RWA) was founded in 1980 in order to provide support among romance writers who felt they were getting the short end of the stick. They had entrusted their brainchildren to a stepmother -- the publishing industry -- who refused to acknowledge them. RWA now exerts pressure on the industry which benefits from the labor of its members. However, their efforts have done little to change the popular perception of the category romance as commodity.
Neither, unfortunately, have the romance writers who have gained notoriety over the past decade. It may be that this perception has less to do with these romance writers professed attitude toward their work than it does with the way the media chooses to portray them. Nevertheless, even the romance writers who aren't interviewed as often as Barbara Cartland, for instance, are guilty of making statements which imply that they accept the commodification of their work, even embrace it. Helen Mittermeyer writes, "I became a fan after deciding to crack the market" (Fallon 306) June Casey spells it out even more clearly: "My novels are a product, but a carefully nurtured product whose purpose is to bring the utmost satisfaction to a reader" (Fallon 203).
Most romance writers, however, reject the idea that their novels are products, claiming that there is, as Jasmine Candlish asserts, an "urgent need for more informed criticism of all romantic writing, so that the reader and the public at large can learn that in the romance genre -- as in any other category -- there are good and bad books" (Fallon 200). Janice Radway's ethnography has made it clear that readers are not as undiscriminating as the marketing schemes suggest, and Mariam Frenier confirms that readers resist the effort to make romances indistinguishable from one another by reading selectively by author, not by publishing company: "During spring 1987, readers first chose romances on the basis of their authors. When they exhausted the supply of books by their favorites, they chose those published by Zebra, a non-category publisher" (Frenier 90-91). So while the category romance industry and the media have contributed to the general public's impression that romance fiction is publishing's step-child, romance readers and romance writers have, overwhelmingly, rejected that definition.
- In no area of literature have women writers been subjected to such earnest, constant, and contradictory advice as in the literature of love. Women are the passionate sex, they are always told, and therefore love is their natural subject; but they must not write about it. If they avoid love, that proves
that they are mere women, inferior to men, next to whom women are always told they are cold, narrow, childish. If they dwell on love they are doing what is expected of the worst of women, who are said to be stupid, sentimental, hysterical creatures incapable of thinking of anything else. And, by the ladies on my left, the radical feminists, they are berated as
traitors to their sex, for love is the snare by which women are made the slaves of men. (Moers 143)
I began this thesis by questioning how it is women writers come to the choices they make in regard to writing; more specifically, by wondering how my mother, a strong-minded feminist whose life choices I admire, came to her decision to write the ill-fated First Mate. Needless to say, I have come in the process of researching and writing this thesis to a new understanding concerning the politics of writing romance, and the result has been a reevaluation of the idea that romance writers "willingly surrender" to their role as it is defined by the culture. The term "willing surrender" implies that romance writers have chosen a disempowered position because it is what society expects of them, but I have found that the issue is more complex than that.
For my mother and for other women who write category romance fiction, the appeal of genre lies in a certain set of expectations about themselves and about their writing. These expectations are nurtured by popular cultural representations, representations which reinforce patriarchal assumptions about women and writing. Another important factor in the appeal of writing category romance is the way romance fiction has been marketed over the past decade (what I have termed the "Harlequinizing" of romance fiction). The combination of these factors creates a particular cultural image, or "stereotype" of the romance novelist which is attractive to women because it allows them to imagine themselves comfortably utilizing a powerful mode of expression (writing) in a way which seems to threaten traditional codes of behavior the least.
It is important to remember that for most women, the initial and necessary choice is not between genres, but between writing and not writing. As Dale Spender notes, "for women, [there is a deep] conflict between sex role and artistic commitment ... The successful woman is -- almost by definition -- the one who sacrifices her self, her creativity and intellectuality, who puts them into personal (read "male") and not professional (read "competition") commitments" (121). Choosing to write in the romance genre can be interpreted as the compromise women make between doing what they want to do, but shouldn't -- write -- and being what they are supposed to be, but can't -- strictly housewives, mothers, and lovers. Permission to use a powerful mode of expression (writing) is granted us (women) provided we allow both the content and the form of that expression to be dictated to us (in the most obvious way, via tipsheets).
As active participants in the politics of genre, romance writers must battle with an opponent whose power lies primarily in that he sets the agenda for the debate. It is within the context of this cultural debate that the woman writer utilizes the rhetorical strategy requiring that she grant the opponent his "due" in order to persuade him to become more receptive to her point of view. Hence the prevalence of qualifications such as the ones we have noted in this thesis: Yes, romance is fantasy, but look at how well some of us write it, Yes, romance is the stepchild of publishing, but she is one who deserves better treatment, Yes, I am a woman who writes, but I am harming no one, I am "only" bringing love and joy to the world.
The "opponent," patriarchal society, institutes and reinforces what I'm going to call the "sliding scale" of literary value. A writer's place on this scale is determined both by sex and genre, and the woman romance writer is down on both counts: not only is she a woman, but she writes about womanly things. This is significant not only for women who write romance, but for all women who write. Joanna Russ recalls meeting a young male professor at a cocktail party who, upon hearing she had begun teaching Jane Eyre, remarked, "What a lousy book! It's just a lot of female erotic fantasies!" As if, Russ writes, "female erotic fantasies were per se the lowest depth to which literature could sink" (Russ 46).
The cultural perception of the romance writer is allied so closely to our society's conception of women authors in general that to ignore her would be like ignoring a thorn in your foot. She is the focus of so much pain. It is against her, the quintessential "non-author," that women writers must define themselves in order to be granted legitimacy. But can we separate ourselves from her, make her our "other," and still maintain our integrity as feminists and as women? To my view, it is neither feasible nor desirable to follow such a course. History has shown us that it is a futile political strategy to claim a place on the margin which is just a little closer to the center. We need to declare, loudly and often, that female erotic fantasies are not per se the lowest depth to which literature can sink, any more than male erotic fantasies are. We need to reject outright the assumptions which have placed the romance writer on the bottom of the sliding scale. Otherwise, we run the risk of even more firmly reinforcing the value hierarchy which has served to marginalize women's writing.
Can romance, then, become the "subversive literature of sexual politics" Daphne Clair and other romance writers claim it to be (Krentz 61)? Isn't there some validity to Stella Cameron's assertion that "love and by extension sex are not death but birth, not loss but gain?" Isn't it true that in some sense romances are subversive in that they allow for the expression of female sexuality (albeit an expression dictated by heterosexual male standards)? Kathleen Gilles Seidel asserts that romances "will not allow the first half of Byron's sentence" ("Man's love is of man's life a thing apart") to stand unassailed: "Man's love, says the fantasy of the romance novel, becomes as important to him as it is to the woman" (Krentz 161). Clair calls this the "ultimate" subversion: "Not content with claiming the right of equality with men, [romance writers] demanded that men should, dammit, be more like women" (Krentz 70). To convince men that they should care as much as women do about what occurs in the traditional women's sphere ("women's issues") is indeed subversive, but do romances really serve that function when men don't read them?
Which leads us to the next question: can romance fiction serve to empower those who do read it -- women? According to Janice Radway, some women feel that through an identification with the feisty romance heroine, they have become encouraged to stand up to their husbands in arguments (123). Kathleen Gilles Seidel would argue that reading the romance is subversive to patriarchy simply because it provides the opportunity for housewives to do something for themselves rather than for someone else. She credits Radway's book for "sanctifying" her profession by revealing that for many romance readers, indulging in a Harlequin is the "one thing they do for themselves" (Krentz 177-178). She ends her essay with the words:
- So to my readers I say -- I'm not going to come take care of your kids when they are sick, but when you have a moment away from them or from your latest project at work or from whatever are the stresses of your life, my book will be there for you. I shall do all that I can to write one that is worthy of the precious time you give it. I do this because you too are my sister. (Krentz 177)
While I disagree with the double standard of content (which is built on the assumption that women's fiction is "limited" because women's lives are "limited"), as a feminist I do reject the limitations of the romance fiction formula. Like my mother, I cannot believe that The Relationship is all-important; I cannot accept the notion that, as a woman, my story -- the only story worth telling about me -- ends when I marry. As Kay Mussell writes,
- In romances, the formulaic story confines a heroine to one adventure that must last her for a lifetime ... in romances as in some other literary works
by women, the achievement of the conventional female self is the drama. Life beyond that goal lacks relevance in the patriarchy that dismisses women's issues as unworthy of consideration. (Mussell 182)
In order to assert that there are other stories to tell about women's lives, women writers must begin to stretch the "limits of the imagination" our patriarchal society has imposed, and create what Sara Maitland calls a "visionary fiction," a truly feminist literary genre which can "re-vision us" (Carr 202). This, to my view, is the true challenge for the woman who writes for as long as power for women in this society still means power through and by men.
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Cohn, Jan. Romance and the Erotics of Property: Mass-Market Fiction for Women. Durham: Duke University Press, 1988.
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Franklin, Sarah, Celia Lury, and Jackie Stacey, eds. Off-Centre: Feminism and Cultural Studies. London: HarperCollins Academic, 1991.
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King, Stephen. Misery. New York: Viking Press, 1987.
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"Pink Pig Award for Cartland." London Times 16 Dec. 1981: 3a.
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Spender, Dale. The Writing or the Sex? Or, Why You don't Have To Read Women's Writing to Know it's No Good. New York: Pergamon Press, 1989.
Copyright © 1997 by Erika Wentworth
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