Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Romance Fiction: Feminist?

I’ve always had a suspicion that romance novels are actually underground feminist literature. After all, the writers are women, the readers are women – even the editors at Big Six publishers are women, as are the vast majority of e-publishers.

And romance is the 800 pound gorilla of the book market. As Marla Bustillos notes in her article at the Awl.com, “romance is by far the most popular and lucrative genre in American publishing, with over $1.35 billion in revenues estimated in 2010. That is a little less than twice the size of the mystery genre, almost exactly twice that of science fiction/fantasy, and nearly three times the size of the market for classic/literary fiction, according to Simba Information data published at the Romance Writers of America website."

(This is a great article, by the way. She seemed to view romance the same way I always have. Which is what inspired me to write this blog.)

Yet despite the undeniable popularity of romance, everybody absolutely SNEERS at the genre. Why? That’s simple.

Anything involving so many women must suck.

Especially if it deals with subjects like how women perceive men and themselves; how they feel about men, how they experience sex, and how they manage their lives and children.

We romance authors use historical and fantasy settings to examine, in an metaphorical way, how women deal with social pressures such as the mother who demands “Why aren’t you married?”

Or how it feels to be a woman in a society which insists that women are inferior to men. Period.

Look at some of today's political discussions of women in combat roles. One female television commentator this week discussed the 60 percent increase in rape in the military. Her basic point was, Of course they’re being raped. What do they expect?

The subtext is, if you’re in the service and you get raped by a fellow soldier, you were asking for it.

Now, as a romance novelist, this is the kind of thing that makes me want to write something. Thing is, I can’t come right out and say what I really think about this commentator; that might offend a large segment of my readership.

What I can do is set a novel in, say, 1823, show a woman of the period who is raped, and then examine her experiences of both the rape itself and the reaction of Society matrons who are quick to say she must have asked for it.

I would then use the story to ask why a woman might say another women asked to be raped. Perhaps the society matron believes that since her own precious daughter doesn't wear revealing clothing or break social rules, she'll be safe from this horrific crime. (Perhaps the Fox commentator believes that as long as you don't serve in the military, you, too, will be forever safe.)

I could show the mind of the rapist, who really doesn’t give a damn what the woman was wearing. He just saw an opportunity and took it. His whole focus is on the sense of power raping this woman gives him, when in his ordinary life, he’s basically a weakling at the bottom of the male status chain. (This actually is closer to the psychological reality of serial rapists than the view of them as mysterious, all-powerful monsters.)

Using these characters, I can really look at the crime and explore it in a way that makes the reader experience ALL sides of rape: the victim’s, the offender's, the society matrons', and the judge’s.

I could show you how the law at the time viewed rape as basically a property crime: the woman’s father “owned” a virgin he could have married off for financial advantage, but who is now no longer valuable because she’s been raped. So the thief -- or rapist -- must be punished for his crime. Which is not really against the woman at all in this social view: it's against her father.

I could also give you a hero who comes to love the woman despite social attitudes that she no longer has value. I could examine how the two of them work to overcome her emotional scars.

And it would take BOTH of them. He couldn’t save her from the rape, but his willingness to love her helps her realize that she’s not a wounded, worthless object, but a human being who deserved far better from society than she got.

I could thus show you rape and its emotional effects, even make you experience those effects through my characters. I could examine the egregious way all societies treat rape. (In some countries, female victims are jailed for being raped, which makes no damned sense whatsoever.)

In so doing, I could create an argument against blaming the rape victim with considerable emotional power, without actively preaching to the reader.

This would have far greater impact on the reader than a ranting blog post talking about how a certain Fox commentator is a f****ing moron. If you happen to be a Fox fan, that’s not going to change your mind one bit.

But reading my novel just might.

Feeling the emotions of all those involved might make you think. Might make you reassess what you believe and why you believe it. (As long as I don’t overtly preach, and all my points are made in subtext rather than coming out of the heroine’s mouth.)

That’s the power of the romance novel. That’s why women write them, and that’s why women read them. It lets us talk about these things without having to worry about how men are going to react to what we have to say.

Unfortunately, said male reaction is likely to be: What IS this shit?”

Neurological studies have shown men and women have very different brains which process emotion in very different ways. So when a man reads a romance novel, the emotional experiences the book describes are not how he experiences the same things. So he just doesn't get it.

A man reads a romance and thinks, “This is not how I perceive reality. This is just smut for women.”

As a result, romance is viewed as unworthy, stupid, purple, florid….I could go on, but I’m getting depressed. Anyway, the end result is that only 9 percent of the romance readership is male, according to the Romance Writers of America.

Feminist critics are just as likely to deplore our fiction as men are. I suspect few of these women have read a romance published after, say, 1990. For one thing, many feminist literary critics proclaim our heroes are all rapists, something that has been unacceptable in romance fiction since 1988 or so.

Today we tell our readers that making a violent assault on a helpless person is not heroic. Today's romance heroes are far more likely to kill a rapist than BE one.

Then again, perhaps feminist critics decry romance for more pragmatic reasons. They have sense enough to know that if they defend the romance genre in the literary establishment, men will laugh at them. Which does not bode well for one’s academic career.

I, happily, am not a critic. I'm a romance novelist, and I'm damned happy to be one.

And I have this great idea for a book...

1 comment:

Courtney said...

I think you offer some interesting points. I myself enjoy romance novels and also consider myself a feminist. I am happy to see that there is a market validating female experiences in regards to romance, sexuality and many other things. But I do find a lot of romance novels, even ones published after 1990, often have both feminist as well as anti-feminist discourses. This is readily apparent in historical settings; even when the women is more educated or empowered than some of her contemporaries, there is still a strict double standard in regards to female and male behavior, especially in regards to sexuality, and there is a lot that feminists could critique. But I guess it makes sense that there are conflicting messages about femininity and masculinity as these discrepancies still exist in our culture today. Thanks for the interesting post.