Symposium: Representations of Romantic Relationships and the Romance Genre in Contemporary Women’s Writing

An Events Report by Lucy Sheerman

I went to the PGCWWN conference on Representations of Romantic Relationships and the Romance Genre with a sense of burning shame. I wanted to address a theme from the conference call out that fascinates me – the idea of shame which is so often linked to reading romantic fiction, namely ‘The perception of romance as a low-brow genre, and the extent to which this perception offers critical and intellectual insights into debates about how we define women’s writing and cultural contribution’.

In answer to the question about why romance is so often and so frequently denigrated Sarah Wendell editor of the romance blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Fiction writes, ‘Are you a woman? Look in your pants. That could be why.’ It is a genre ‘written mostly by women, mostly for women’ with what Nora Roberts calls ‘the hat trick of easy targets: emotions, relationships and sex’.

I had been struck by the descriptions on Wendell’s website of how readers had had their romance books confiscated, thrown away and even burned and the resonance with Charlotte Bronte’s description of how her father burned her collection of ‘foolish love stories’ which had belonged to her mother. It seems that the idea of shame is rooted in the earliest origins of and attitudes to romantic fiction. Later, her husband Arthur Bell Nichols insisted that her friend must ‘burn’ Bronte’s letters to her. According to Bronte their ‘communication’ was something which ‘men don’t seem to understand’ and ‘dangerous as lucifer matches’.

The representation and correlation of sexual desire with both shame and fire is pivotal in Jane Eyre and in its subsequent iterations, Rebecca and Fifty Shades of Grey. In Jane Eyre desire erupts in the flames set by the passionate wife, flames which also threaten to engulf Jane literally and metaphorically. In Rebecca the narrator’s gaze is continually drawn to DeWinter’s compulsive smoking which masks the blaze or blush of his own shame and the experience of repressed and conflicted desire. Fire and burning, the heat and blaze of skin, eyes and touch in Fifty Shades of Grey is figured as sexual arousal and desire without literal fire. No longer a metaphor it is the experience and state of desire and climax. What does such a shift in meaning suggest and what has happened to the representation of ‘burning shame’?

My focus has mostly been on the authorial process at work in romance – I am interested in how writers use the conventions of the form and how these can, in turn, be read. The PGCWWN symposium offered a wide-ranging analysis of romantic fiction with approaches ranging from literary theory to social history and political manifesto.

Amy Burge gave a keynote on the representation of masculinity and nationality in the Mills & Boon Modern series. She looked at how the representation of otherness – foreignness and masculinity – is portrayed in the figure of the exotic Alpha heroes of these books. Her talk included a meticulous breakdown of the frequency of different nationalities for heroes, (how many Italians, Greeks, Sheiks, etc – the made-up tiny European principality had its own category) as well as a rather stunning spreadsheet of the buzzword titles which look like putative and subversive titles in their own right:

His, Billionaire, Millionaire, Boss, Tycoon

Italian, Sicilian, Billionaire, Boss

Greek, Tycoon, His, Boss, Millionaire

Martina Vitackova, by contrast, gave an account of the huge success of a white South African author writing romance novels in Afrikaans which, despite the focus on white protagonists, attracts diverse and widespread readership and sales. In part this must be because, according to Vitackova, it is almost the only contemporary romantic fiction currently available in the language. However the reception resonates with the link between escapism offered by reading romantic fiction and the process of othering or displacing desire which this can also permit implicit in Burge’s work and in Jane Eyre. I’m thinking, in part, of Esther Wang’s article ‘Watching And Reading About White People Having Sex Is My Escape’ about the experience of racial dissonance between the reading and written worlds.       https://www.buzzfeed.com/estherwang/why-i-love-watching-and-reading-about-white-people-having-30?utm_term=.fdDEEQgqPD#.mmz33pwdqa

Many of the papers concerned themselves with the nature of the metaphoric freight which sexual desire carries in romance novels. Political ideology, social and sexual dissonance, the othering of desire onto a foreign, domineering male challenger, the possibility of happiness within a compromised and far from ideal social order, sexual agency and control are played out within the trope of sexual attraction, desire and consummation. Fran Tomlin considered the use of the romance genre in the work of A.L.Kennedy and in particular its negotiation and resistance of the HEA (Happy Ever After) trope. Val Derbyshire discussed how Penny Jordan reflected the social impact of economic recession through characterisation and story arc in two of her Mills&Boon titles. Alicia Williams also took an instrumental view of category romance and the degree to which writers engaged with social issues. She looked specifically at the way in which the ‘Dear Reader’ letters which open many books set up direct communication between reader and author. This gesture, she argued, subverts the assumption that these books are only to be viewed as escapist fantasy and have been abstracted from real-world concerns.

Veera Mäkelä looked at the development of female agency in the novels of Mary Balogh while Deborah Madden, considered novels of1930s Spain and Portugal whose politically engaged heroines subvert the tropes of romantic love and an HEA in narratives which mirror their own resistance of the social and political worlds they inhabit. Fiona Martinez also considered the link between feminism and romance and the degree to which the tropes of romance permit a place to renegotiate and interrogate the feminine.

And so back to burning shame. The OED gives the roots of the word shame as ‘infamous man or woman’ and ‘to cover .. covering oneself being the natural expression of shame’. In her paper Elizabeth Dimmock discussed Fifty Shades of Grey in relation to Bakhtin’s theory of carnival. The reception and readership of the book linked to a ritualistic subversion of normative behaviours ‘played out via kindle under a cloak of erotic invisibility’ which reflects that of its protagonist whose sexual contract with his lover specifies ‘no piercing of skin’. Grey masks the redness and soreness he causes by spanking with the application of cream – an act both tender and dissembling as the evidence of his desire and need for control is covered up.

All in all? A shame it had to end so soon. So much to think about – I’m still mulling over the talks and chatting to participants and following up leads that were tantalisingly trailed throughout the day like so many breadcrumbs into the forest. Laura Vivanco gave a detailed review of all of the papers on her blog which is a comprehensive record of an inspiring day: http://www.vivanco.me.uk/blog

I’m enormously grateful for the chance to take part and for the generous award of a bursary which supported my travel and accommodation expenses.

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