What does seem clear [...] is that the struggle over the romance is itself part of the larger struggle for the right to define and to control female sexuality. (Radway 17)
That was the assessment made by Janice Radway, writing in 1991 about “writers who are trying to incorporate feminist demands into the genre” (17), but it seems no less applicable to the genre today, except that nowadays the struggles related to sexuality are not solely about “female sexuality” but about a much wider range of sexualities. For example,
In what appears to be yet another line drawn in the sand between conservatives and liberals in the broader cultural debate on LGBT rights, a letter from Romance Writers of America member Janet Butler, published in the July 2006 issue of the Romance Writers Report, asks that the RWA redefine the romance genre to include only love stories between one man and one woman. [...]
In her letter, Butler responded to a letter printed in the May 2006 issue of RWR on redefining romance. She argued: “Romance isn’t about just any ‘two people’ celebrating ‘love in all its forms.’ [...] What brought romance fiction to its present level of success is a collection of decades’ worth of one-man, one-woman relationship stories, in all their richness, variety, and power. RWA should be the first to endorse that, rather than attempting to placate fringe groups trying to impose their standards upon the rest of us. If anyone’s in danger of being ‘censored’ here, it’s believers in ‘what comes naturally’: one-man, one-woman romance.” (Lo)
Dear Author isn’t censoring anyone; this week it’s giving away “more than 125″ books with LGBT protagonists as part of its “Gay Writes” campaign. Here’s Sarah Frantz, explaining why, in a video posted as part of the It Gets Better project, begun
by Dan Savage in September 2010, in response to the suicide of Billy Lucas and a number of other teenagers who were bullied because they were gay or their peers suspected that they were gay. Its goal is to prevent suicide among LGBT youth by having gay adults convey the message that these teens’ lives will improve. (Wikipedia)
I was interested to find out more about Sarah’s view of her role as a literary critic of the genre, and she’s agreed to be interviewed for Teach Me Tonight.
Laura: In the video you say that
One of the reasons that I’ve always had faith that it would get better is because I read romance novels. Yes, romance novels, like these… with the mantitty [...] … but increasingly romance novels like these … about two women, and romance novels like these … about two guys. In fact, I love these books so much, and I’ve learned so much from them about how everyone deserves their happy ending that I’ve made a career out of them.
A lot of people would scoff at the idea that one could learn anything useful from a romance novel. Could you mention just a few of the things that readers can learn from romances?
Sarah: I have always claimed that I learned everything I know about communication in a relationship from romance novels. I learned to make sure both partners get heard, that we keep talking until no one feels resentful anymore, to make sure that both partners figure out how to talk to each other. And it’s served me well for 20 years. But I have also learned that everyone deserves love, no matter their past traumas, past relationships, or how they’re viewed by society. And of course, reading romance is a way to gain sexual knowledge in a way that demystifies a sexual practice. These, of course, combine to demystify all sexual identities, GLBT and BDSM.
Sarah: Yes, but I think the opposite way Radway means it. I’m not clear whether Radway’s talking about the struggle during the romance narrative, or the struggle over the romance genre itself. I’m talking about the romance genre: I think, fundamentally, romances are about female pleasure. And part of that pleasure is sexual pleasure, but it’s also the pleasure of reading and the pleasure of choice. People don’t tend to engage in activities they don’t enjoy, that don’t bring them pleasure. So romance’s ability to bring pleasure to its readers is very important and, I think, utterly untheorized.
Laura: Do you see some of your literary criticism as activism?
Sarah: I absolutely do. This became very clear to me during #amazonfail. My championing of romance is a championing of the normativity of sexuality and women’s pleasure. And my championing of GLBT and BDSM romance is the championing of the normativity of alternate sexual identities, and I think all that’s pretty important.
Laura: You mention in the video that you started writing reviews for Dear Author “specifically to review romances about characters with alternate sexualities because [...] everyone deserves their happy ending and because there are some brilliant GLBT romance novels out there.” Are you currently writing any literary criticism of some of these novels?
Sarah: Heh. Short answer: yes. I’m deep in an article on the construction of the submissive male in Joey Hill’s Nature of Desire series. One of those books is a m/m romance, all of them are BDSM books. I have a not-so-secret desire to write an analysis of Anah Crow’s Uneven, which is the very book for which I started writing at Dear Author, and that’s a m/m book. My book project, Alpha Male: Power and Masculinity in American Popular Romance Fiction, will have a chapter on m/m romance (perhaps combined with a discussion of BDSM romance, perhaps separate from it). I feel my post on historical accuracy in m/m romance counted as a form of literary criticism, or at least literary commentary.
Laura: Thanks very much for answering my questions, Sarah.
If you head over to Dear Author you can read more about their Gay Writes week, organised by Sarah.
- Lo, Malinda. “A Romantic Brouhaha.” AfterEllen.Com. August 16, 2006.
- Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. 1984. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991.