Saturday, August 9, 2014

Summer Reading?

I've been in the midst of packing up to head out for a summer vacation with family, and have been mulling over which books to bring along. Paring down the pile of potentials is always difficult, especially when you know you have to carry your own luggage...

But the task is finally accomplished. Here's the final selection (at least of the ones in paper; lots more on the e-reader):

A few romances in the stack, of course! And even more on the e-reader...

August has once again been declared "Read a Romance Month"—what romances are you most looking forward to indulging in as you vacation or simply enjoy the last days of summer?

RNFF will be back with more book reviews, critical opinions, and intellectual musings in September. Enjoy the rest of your summer!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Resisting Internalized Sexism: Ruthie Knox's TRULY

If I asked you to name some examples of sexism, which would most quickly come to mind? Sexual assault? Sexual harassment? Job discrimination? Laws limiting women's rights and/or freedoms? What about the more mundane, everyday, and invidious kind of sexism that comes not from without, but from within? Internalized sexism—hearing, accepting, and believing sexist stereotypes about what it means to be a girl or a woman, and then enforcing these beliefs on other women, or enacting them themselves—may be less newsworthy than more overt, political sexist acts, but it may have an impact at least as far-reaching. And it certainly can get in the way of a woman's attempts to forge a romantic relationship with a potential partner.

I've certainly read romances that call attention to, and protest against, more overt forms of sexism. But I couldn't name a romance that confronts internalized sexism, particularly internalized sexism that a romance heroine must recognize and fight in herself. Until, that is, I got hold of an ARC of Ruthie Knox's latest contemporary romance, Truly.

Knox's latest heroine, May Fredericks, is your quintessential Midwestern good girl. May "hated drama and anger, disapproval, any kind of tension" (Kindle Loc 1664), and constantly finds herself apologizing, even for things that are clearly not her fault. She often does her best to be invisible, but disappearing can be a bit difficult "when you were five foot, eleven-and-three-quarters inches and had some meat on your bones" (Loc 75). We're introduced to her shortly after her penchant for keeping her true feelings bottled up has come embarrassingly, publicly uncorked—the rejection of a most suitable suitor, a rejection involving lots of cameras, lots of witnesses, and the less-than-conventional use of an uncommon table utensil. And after a series of mishaps had left her alone, without money or ID, loitering in a New York bar devoted to Green Bay Packers fans, hoping to find a friendly Midwesterner to offer her a helping hand.

Instead, May finds herself "rescued" by belligerent Ben Hausman. Ben, like May, is in the midst of major life upheavals—recently divorced, the restaurant in which he'd been chef and co-owner taken away in the settlement, unable to take on another cooking job due to a non-compete clause, and squatting in the apartment of a friend who is due to return home in a week. Surly and angry, he's about as far from an affable Midwesterner as anyone could find:

He'd wanted to be the best chef in New York. And that was great, except he'd also been a miserable bastard with stress-induced hypertension, insomnia, and a tendency to fly into unprovoked rages. He'd screamed at his kitchen staff and fought with his wife so much, they'd practically made an Olympic sport of it. (Loc 255)

His friend Connor teases him—"I bet you couldn't be nice if you tried"—and surly Ben suddenly sees the woman whom he'd rudely blown off at the bar not as a potential date, but instead as an "opportunity": "Because how was he supposed to learn how not to be a dick, except by talking to someone who actually seemed to notice when he was one?" (Loc 321)

May finds snarly, snarky Ben fascinating, particularly the way he doesn't seem to worry about what others think of him. "How liberating it must be to be able to say whatever you wanted that way. To be rude without guilt—without even obvious awareness. How did someone get to be that way? If she asked him, would he teach her?" (Loc 958). Ben may prove a potent example, but part of May's journey is to realize that the only one who can teach her not to care, not to embody the stereotype of the good girl that everyone around her wants her to occupy, is herself.

Part of May's journey involves a make-over scene, a standard trope of romance fiction. Yet in Knox's hands, the make-over is less about a transformation from ash girl to princess than about allowing May's true self to be seen—not by others, but by May herself:

It wasn't Dan's May, plain and steady. This was a tall stranger whose honey-blond hair had dried wavy and windblown. An unknown woman in snakeskin pants who looked like she might eat you up and spit out your bones if you crossed her. This was the woman who'd exacted vengeance against Dan for wrecking what was supposed to be one of the most beautiful moments of her life. A powerful, impolite, passionate woman. And the weird thing was, May recognized her. She was the person May had always known she was, deep down. The person no one had ever encouraged her to be. But in New York, she could be whoever she liked. (Loc 1447)

Rejecting social messages that large women are not sexy, that nice girls never get angry, that other people's worries are not always your responsibility to fix, is not a one-time event for May; rooting out internalized sexism is not easy, and takes a lot of practice. May does a lot of backtracking, two steps forward, one step back. But recognizing that "there was no black line drawn through her life, no way of making herself over into a new person at a moment's notice. There were only the choices she made, each of them separate and individual" is a vital, life-changing shift (Loc 2655). As is understanding that each choice is a political one, either a passive acceptance of internalized sexism or a shout of protest against it. A woman who damns her Spanks, who learns to express her needs during sex, and who refuses to let a man who gives up on her steal away her hope seems well on her way to yanking out the invidious tendrils that internalized sexism implants in every woman living in a culture grounded in patriarchal ideals.

Are there other romances that confront internalized sexism that I'm not remembering? Not books just about self-esteem issues, but ones with a protagonist learning to recognize and reject the stereotypically negative messages about femininity culture conveys?

Photo/illustration credits:
Women's brains: Femina invicta
Nice Girls Don't: Audrey Nelson

Ruthie Knox, Truly
Loveswept, 2014
(originally published via Wattpad, 2013)

Friday, August 1, 2014

A Few Statistics to Mull Over

A birthday trip to the local spa (my first time), as well as some frustrating familial health care issues, had me wondering this week—how does spending on women's health care research compare to spending on beauty and personal care items? After a bit of internet digging, I found the following statistics:

U.S. cosmetics and toiletries sales (2011): $38 billion

U.S. federal funding for women's health research (2012): $33.5 billion

And, just to tie this all in to the blog,

Annual spending on romance novels (2013): $1.08 billion

If you were in charge of the world, how would you proportion its budget for these three areas?

Romance novels: BookStats, via Romance Writers of America
Cosmetics and toiletries sales: The Beauty Company
Women's health research funding: Women's Health Research

Photo/Illustration credits:
Makeup: World Discount Cosmetics
Women & Health: Women's Health Research logo
Romance novel shelves: Jessica Luther's blog

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Feminism in Romantic Suspense: Jill Sorenson's BACKWOODS

Jill Sorenson, you're making me eat my words. In a post last year about Robin Schone's The Lover, I asked, "Is there any such thing as a feminist romantic suspense novel?" and suggested the answer was "no." Because romantic suspense, like a related genre, the Gothic, relies so heavily on the threat of violence against women to propel its narrative and to create tension in its readers, I theorized that feminism and romantic suspense might be inherently at odds.

Several readers, including Sorenson, took exception to my overgeneralized and unsubstantiated claim. Sorenson wrote:

I've always thought of romantic suspense as being a little more progressive than other sub-genres. The characters are often evenly matched as far as power and socioeconomic status (vs. the duke and pauper, billionaire and secretary, Dom and sub, etc.). Most RS heroines have established careers. Many of the heroines work in law enforcement, in addition to or instead of the hero. Sure, there are damsels in distress, but not always. For me the appeal is in a protective hero and a strong heroine, who are both in danger and work together to get out.

One of my favs from Sorenson's
Sorenson herself is an author of romantic suspense, and in the wake of her responses to this post, I borrowed several of her backlist books from the library. I enjoyed all of them—Sorenson is a strong writer, well-versed in creating compelling characters and placing them in a story that keeps you eagerly turning the pages—but none of them quite hit my feminist sweet spot. This weekend, though, as  I raced through her latest, Backwoods, I couldn't stop folding down page corners and marking relevant quotations, eager to write more specifically about what bothers me about much romantic suspense, and how Backwoods refuses to engage with those more disempowering aspects of the sub-genre.

Sorenson argued in another comment to the above-mentioned post that the trope of the "damsel in distress" is "an inherent part of the subgenre," but that "I'm just not sure I agree that it undercuts the image of an empowered woman." She goes on to note, "When the hero is in danger, which is the case in all or most suspense, mystery, and thriller novels, do we see that as not empowered? Only if he can't rescue himself. Often he's challenged by another man or men, so there is no gender inequality to the question." Sorenson seems to be arguing that since we don't regard men as disempowered when they are being chased by a villain, it is sexist to see women being chased by a villain as disempowered. And also, that a heroine in romantic suspense should not be seen as disempowered if she acts to rescue herself, rather than simply being a passive victim waiting for her hero to do all the rescuing for her.

In Backwoods, neither Abby Hammond, nor her college-aged daughter, Brooke, are presented as passive. After Brooke disappears during a hiking trip, Abby is determined to track her kidnappers, refusing to listen to the hero, Nathan Strom, when he tells her she's "not thinking clearly" and threatens to tie her to a tree to keep her from what he considers a foolish pursuit. She attacks and distracts one of the kidnappers when she sees he's poised outside a cave, waiting with a shotgun for Nathan and his son Leo to emerge. And she is able to use her wits (and a surprising source of wire) to break free both from the plastic zip-tie with which the kidnapper restrained her and from the locked cage in which he'd imprisoned her. Brooke uses a different set of skills—her ability to connect with others—to win the sympathy of the second kidnapper. Neither woman plays the passive victim, but instead actively works by herself, and later with others, to rescue herself.

Yet is disempowered female characters the only anti-feminist thing about romantic suspense? I'd like to think a bit harder about the parallel that Sorenson posits between heroes and heroines, pointing out other areas besides self-rescuing that impact a romantic suspense's underlying ideology.

A lot of the romantic suspense that I've read relies on a particularly gendered, sexualized violence, a violence different from that facing a hero in suspense, mystery, and thriller novels. In much romantic suspense, a male villain is after a female victim, often intent on inflicting sexual violence upon her body. This sexual threat seems far less common when a hero is under threat.

Backwoods features just such a villain. Abby, a worried, vigilant sort, notes the disappearances of three different women in the past four years in the area in which they will be hiking. No one else has connected the three, but Abby cannot help but be suspicious. And it turns out her suspicions are correct; the kidnappers focus only on abducting women (even killing one man in order to capture his companion), and for reasons that turn out to have everything to do with sex and sexual violence.

Yet I didn't have the negative response to this trope that I often do in works of romantic suspense. I think it is because Sorenson chooses not to give the reader access to the villain's point of view, as do so many other works of suspense. Such passages work to heighten reader tension, but they always strike me as icky and distinctly sexist, because as a reader, I am being forced to look at the imperiled woman through the eyes of man who sees her as an object, not as a person. Such passages are intended to make me more afraid for the heroine, which they certainly do. But at the same time, by forcing me to see the heroine through his eyes, they simultaneously ask me to objectify her, to both want her for her sexual appeal and to want to punish her for her for the same, just as the villain has/does. No matter how vigorously I reject such an invitation, unless I skip over said passages, I can't but feel complicit in the villain's objectifying, sexualizing, and ultimately punishing gaze. By refusing to include such passages from the villain's POV, Sorenson refuses to extend the sexist invitation.

Sorenson also weaves in several feminist issues in the non-suspense portions of the story, the parts focused on character growth and development. Nathan, the primary hero, forged a successful career in Major League Baseball by following his father's tough-it-out approach, and overcame a slide into alcohol abuse when a former coach kept on his case. His own son, college-aged Leo, though, has little interest in sports, and does not take at all well to Nathan's tough-love parenting style. Talking his difficulties through with Abby, as well as reflecting on his own upbringing and his differences from his son, allow Nathan to begin to realize that there is not just one way of being a real man, and that acting the same way but expecting a different outcome may not be the smartest move to win back his son's trust.

Leo's not only dealing with his anger at his father, but also at his frustration with his stepsister, Brooke (Brooke's father, Abby's ex, is currently married to Leo's mother, Nathan's ex). Brooke, affectionate but rather naive, is free with her hugs and kisses, especially when it comes Leo. Just out of a less-than-ideal first sexual relationship, Brooke wants love and affection, and tries to get it from her stepbrother, roughhousing with him in that way that young adults sometimes do, pushing past then withdrawing back across the boundary between childish wrangling and adult sexualized play. Given that they are step-siblings, and that Brooke's father has threatened Leo against engaging with Brooke in any sexual manner, Leo's feelings about Brooke's actions are more than a little mixed. I can't recall another adult romance novel that addresses the issue of adolescent female sexual aggression at all, never mind in a way that doesn't point the blame at one or other of the parties involved. Sorenson has a real gift for exploring teen sexuality in a nuanced, sympathetic, sex-positive, feminist way; I'm eager to see how Leo and Brooke's relationship (unresolved at the end of this book) plays out in a later work (although I'd appreciate it if Brooke were not placed in the victim's role—being in an earthquake AND being kidnapped seem quite enough for one girl to take...)

So, Jill Sorenson: thanks for proving me wrong. Romantic suspense can be feminist. Particularly when it is written by you.

Photo/illustration credits:
Stop violence: Trauma, Violence, and Human Rights

Jill SorensonBackwoods
Harlequin, 2014

Friday, July 25, 2014

Phyllis M. Betz's LESBIAN ROMANCE NOVELS and the state of romance scholarship

A few months ago, while doing some research for my posts on the lesbian romance nominees for this year's Lambda Literary Awards, I was excited to come across a reference to Phyllis M. Betz's Lesbian Romance Novels: A History and Critical Analysis (McFarland, 2009). F/f romance is not an area in which I had read widely, either the novels themselves or criticism about them. So I was eager to dig into a work that touted itself as both "history" and "critical analysis" of this unfamiliar field.

When I finally got my hands on a copy of Betz's book, though, I found myself more than a little disappointed.  One of Betz's primary goals is to "discover if lesbian romances differ from their straight counterparts" and "if they do alter the standard narrative, character, and thematic stresses, how are those changes made and how are they incorporated into the romantic fictional framework?" (13). In order to answer such questions, Betz first needs to define the "straight counterpart" against which she can set lesbian romance. The definition she provides, unfortunately, is more than a little dated.

It seemed to this reader that Betz relied heavily on previous critical work about heterosexual romance, rather than her own reading of the primary literature, to construct a vision of what a "straight" romance is and does. Tania Modelski's Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women (1982), Janice Radway's Reading the Romance (1984), and especially Jayne Ann Krentz's edited collection, Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance (1992) serve as her major sources of information on and analysis of straight romance. But as more recent scholarship on genre romance (such as the essays in Sarah Frantz and Eric Seelinger's 2012 New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction) points out, the construction of "romance" in this earlier scholarship is both limited and limiting. Unfortunately, Betz takes this monolithic construction of heterosexual romance—alpha male dominating a submissive woman—as her starting point, a model that was an oversimplification of the romance field when it was first put forth in the 1980s and 90's, and does not even come close to recognizing or capturing the diversity of the field at the opening of the 21st century.

Take this example, from Betz's discussion of the "language of love" in straight vs. lesbian romance:

In straight romances the control of the progression of the relationship generally belongs to the hero, and while the heroine does have the right of refusal, that position is quickly overturned as he uses words and actions to court her affection. His responses, whether gesture or verbal, provide the foundation for the heroine's desires and the impetus for her behavior. Even in the most contemporary romances the heroine still relinquishes final autonomy to him. (74)

While the outcome in lesbian romance stories remains the same, with the creation of the new entity, the couple, the balance of power is reconfigured. One partner in the relationship may be offered a dominant position, but generally she does not accept it; Diana, in Curious Wine, says, "You make love with the person, not to them, when it's equal"(159).... This establishment of shared control in defining the relationship may arise from so many of the characters leaving previous situations, lesbian or heterosexual, where they were not treated as equals. (75)

If a critic limits straight romance to romances with alpha heroes and submissive heroines, is it at all surprising to find that lesbian romances tend to provide a far different, far more progressive narrative than do heterosexual ones? If Betz had compared lesbian works to straight romances published concurrently, rather than general descriptions of the genre, might her conclusions have been different?

Time for an updated version?
Although reading Betz's book gave me some great suggestions for lesbian romances I might want to read in the future, in the end, it told me less about the nature of lesbian romance than it did about the current state of the scholarship on heterosexual romance. When will we see another book-length reader-response study like Radway's, one that draws on multiple groups of readers, readers of different classes, races, and sexual orientations? When will we see a single-authored work on the field as a whole, one that builds on the work of Pamela Regis in A Natural History of the Romance Novel (2003), or argues in favor of a different paradigm than the one Regis presents? When will we see a collection of essays on the appeal of the romance, such as Krentz's Dangerous Men, Adventurous Women, but written by authors who grew up taking feminism for granted rather than seeing feminism as the enemy? (I'm almost tempted to take on this last one myself—any authors out there interested in contributing?)

Until such works are published, scholars from other fields who wish to make connections with, or comparisons to, the genre romance will, regrettably, be led astray by once groundbreaking, but now sadly dated, genre romance scholarship.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Pet Peeve Reconsidered: Falguni Kothari's IT'S YOUR MOVE, WORDFREAK!

Women, Aryan reflected philosophically, were from Venus. a man wasn't meant to understand them.

My father got everything, including us, two children who needed their mother and who my father could not possibly care for because that's not what fathers do. It's not their job.

The rest of their dinner passed in quick-witted banter and some suggestive talk—mostly on his part. Boys will be boys, after all.

In one of the earliest posts I wrote for RNFF, I ranted about the prevalence of "It's a guy thing" and other gender-universalizing statements in romance novels. I labeled that post with the title "Pet Peeve," indicating my frustration with the limitations of such gendered ways of labeling thoughts, feelings, and behavior in the romance genre.

I went back and re-read the post today, trying to make sense of my reactions to a novel I read this week, one in which many such gender-normative statements are both thought and uttered by the romance's protagonists, especially by its heroine. But despite these annoyingly gendered universalizing statements, I found myself liking this book, even charmed by it at times. Was I just allowing the pleasures of the book to blind me to the sexism it contained? Or was something else going on here beyond attempts to police gender?

The question becomes even more fraught when I consider that the book—Falguni Kothari's It's Your Move, Wordfreak!—is set largely in a country (India) far different from my own, and written by an author who was born and raised in that country (though she now lives in the United States). And it was published by a company in India, suggesting that Indian, rather than American, readers are its primary intended audience. How do my own cultural assumptions about what constitutes feminism play into my reading of this book? How do they differ from those held by women in/from India? I don't have any definitive answers to such questions, only an awareness that they exist, and might influence (for good and for bad) the analysis that follows.

Alisha Menon has been playing online Scrabble for months under the moniker "Worddiva." Her fiercest competitor is a man who calls himself "Wordfreak"; their epic battles have gradually segued into online chatting, until, at novel's start, they are just on the verge of meeting face to face for the first time at a restaurant in their home city of Mumbai. The three quotes serving as epigraphs for this post all come from that initial meeting, quotes that demonstrate how both Alisha and Aryan (aka Wordfreak) hold fairly stereotypical (at least by the American norms with which I am most familiar) views about gender roles, especially the roles of men, at novel's start. Yet Alisha is a successful divorce lawyer, not a stay-at-home mother or a woman ready to drop her career at the first sign of a potential mate. And for his part, Aryan doesn't seem to care much for patriarchal gender norms, himself; not dismayed by losing more often than winning to Worddiva in their Scrabble matches; "exhilarated" by the challenge of their matches; "enchanted" by their online chats, including moments when Worddiva had "called him a fool so many times that he had lost count," Aryan has been captivated by Alisha's outspoken, determined personality long before the actual sight of her "knocked him flat out (Loc 121). His commitment to environmentally-conscious practices in his job (as an architect and civil engineer) suggest his progressivism in other areas as well.

Alisha's feminism is both very much on display (her outspokenness, her commitment to her job, her standing up to jerky men who are angry at her role in ending their marriages), yet also often serves as grounds for conveying the story's humor. For example, when, early in their relationship "Aryan stiffened slightly and signalled her in a come-hither motion," Alisha wants to "instantly obey his command.... How had one long, blunt finger unhinged her feminist pride so easily?" We laugh, though, when Aryan's gesture turns out not to be a move of seduction, but one intended for secrecy, so he can secretly ask Alisha why Vallima, a member of her house staff, is staring at him. Aryan's acceptance of Alisha's way of being, as well as of feminism in general, is also littered throughout the novel. For example, when Aryan suggests that her food be reheated because it got cold while she had to take a call from work, and she tells him, "You're very easygoing.... It's just that most men or the men I've come across are not so accommodating," Aryan just shrugs, "understanding perfectly what she was getting at. 'The world is changing,'" he tells her, then goes into a paragraph-long thought digression on said changes:

The boundaries between the sexes were fading. There was nothing like women's work or a man's job anymore. If one thought himself—or herself—capable of doing something, one went out and did it. With varying degrees of success perhaps, but people were stepping out of their gender slots. Even in India. (Loc 716)

Why, then, do such gender-based statements as the ones above keep popping up throughout the novel? Particularly those related to men? Alisha doesn't seem to take pleasure in feeling superior to poor inferior male Aryan; nor does she seem to relish difference, or take comfort from it to account for relationship problems, all theories I put forth in my earlier post as possible reasons for the presence of gender-universalizing statements in romance novels. Instead, I wonder if, in this novel at least, such statements might be a sign of both recognition of and frustration at the persistence of "gender slots" in Alisha and Aryan's culture, even in the midst of a time of great social change. The boundaries are "fading," Aryan admits, but he doesn't claim they are entirely gone, a situation the novel's mixed gender messages clearly convey.

We see signs of the mixed messages of gender in a scene mid-novel in which Aryan and some neighboring boys are building a treehouse. When Aryan invites Alisha to come up, one of the boys replies, "How can she climb up? She's a girl." Alisha thinks "He was tiny, barely coming up to her hip, a male chauvinist in the making," and quickly responds to reject his sexism: "Girls can do everything that a boy can. More in fact." "Teach them young and maybe the world would be a better place," Alisha thinks to herself.

But it turns out that when he's with the boys, Aryan isn't quite as feminist-friendly as he is with Alisha: "That's not what AB [i.e., Aryan] told us," the boy tells her. "He told us that boys were stronger, smarter and more talented." Aryan's response is meant to be humorous—"Aryan winced and shook his head at the boy. 'I should have also taught you that some things were meant to be kept secret from girls'"—but it's also telling. Aryan feels the need to code switch, to endorse traditional gender norms when he's with a group of boys, even while recognizing how his society is changing around him. Even while taking falling in love with a woman who has been in large part shaped by those very changes.

Alisha's initial response to Aryan's code switching is to fall back into her own gender-normed beliefs: "Alisha sneered. Boys would be boys" (Loc 1742). Then, she tries to joke her point across: "No wonder God has to repeatedly send down messiahs and avatars to save the world. Even She knows you men botch things up spectacularly" (Loc 1742). The boys, unfortunately, don't get the joke, "too young to understand the finer points of feminism" (Loc 1749). Finally, she tries demonstrating in their own terms, rather than explaining in hers: "How dare they think her a scaredy cat even if she was one? She could do this, she would show then. For all women all over the world, she squared her shoulders and grabbed the rope. 'Ready,' she squeaked" (Loc 1764).

Earlier, at a party, Alisha muses, "In her experience, most people projected different personas under different circumstances. Maybe not different personas so much as different traits in their personalities dominated in different surroundings" (Loc 1392). Should sexism be thought of in this way, too? As a personality trait one can emphasize or de-emphasize, depending on the circumstances in which one finds oneself?

I thought this might be the novel's intended message, until I reached its final scenes. The story's emotional arc is not about teaching Alisha not to be so strong, to accept that love means subsuming oneself to another (i.e., a man), as I had worried it might be. Alisha does learn the necessity of compromising, but it is Aryan, not Alisha, who undergoes the biggest character growth, having to come to terms with his feelings about the death of his mother when he was a teen. As Alisha upbraids him, "You're a hypocrite, you know that? What did you tell me that day? That I have boundaries and I had set limits on our relationship, that I don't let people in? What about you?" (Loc 3181). Aryan may be a man, and he may be acting foolishly, but that does not mean that Alisha should attribute his behavior to his gender, she finally realizes: "Then she sprinted after the foolish man. Men were so silly. No, that wasn't true. Why charge the entire gender with the crime. This man was so silly" (Loc 3041).

New insights co-exist with old assumptions, though; later, when Alisha asks Aryan why he doesn't ask his father about his mother's death, and he says "I just don't want to, that's all," "she looked at him incredulously. Men were so foolish. It was becoming her mantra" (3196). And during their big reconciliation scene, when Aryan admits that he was wrong about a lot of things regarding his parents, Alisha tells him, "Men are so foolish" (Loc 3614). But the declaration is accompanied by the thought, "She wasn't one to 'there, there' someone and nor was she the type to spout nonsense such as 'life is nothing but a learning curve' even if it was" (Loc 3614). Her response isn't an explanation, but a chiding, a way to keep Aryan from taking her too much for granted. And when Alisha's friend Diya tries to use the same excuse—"You do know that you're expecting all that from a man?.... They're not exactly equipped to deal with life's vicissitudes" (Loc 3313), Alisha rejects her reasoning: "What rubbish! I've said my piece. Now it's up to him." (Loc 3313).

Gender universalizing? Or gender equity and equality? Or a messy mixture of both? The mixed messages continue throughout the novel, even through the book's final scene, a disagreement between Aryan and Alisha over whether they should sign a pre-nuptial agreement. Will Aryan use the disagreement to teach Alisha that "She's not always going to get her way," as he defensively tells his future brother-in-law on the eve of his wedding? Or will he follow Alisha's lead and compromise? The novel leaves the question tantalizingly open, the ball in Aryan's, and, perhaps the reader's, court.

Photo credits:
Scrabble feminism: Feminspire
Treehouse: Asia Travel
Woman holding "Equal?" sign: Asia Development Dialogue

Falguni Kothari,
It's Your Move, Wordfreak!
Rupa Publications, 2012

Friday, July 18, 2014

Jane Austen and Romance Readers

Both popular and scholarly works on the history of romance often point to the novels of Jane Austen as a point of origin for the romance genre. For example, Austen's name tops the list on the romancewiki page "Key Names in Romance History," while the Wikipedia entry "romance novel" names Austen "a pioneer of the genre." And in the more scholarly A Natural History of the Romance Novel, Pamela Regis uses Austen's Pride and Prejudice to illustrate the key elements of the romance novel, terming Austen's book "The Best Romance Novel Ever Written" (75). Readers who love romance, then, are often assumed to also love Jane Austen's works.

It's an assumption that I myself took for granted, until coming across more than a few romance writers who admitted (some shamefacedly, some with aplomb or even pride) that they had never read anything by Austen, or hadn't been able to finish an Austen novel that they had once started. Others claimed to love Austen, but only knew her from the many film adaptations of her works; if, inspired by their film viewing, they had gone on to check out the original from their library, many found themselves returning the volume, uninspired by prose far different than that they were used to finding in their contemporary romances.

Jane Austen, by her sister Cassandra, c 1810
 National Portrait Gallery
Do all romance readers love Jane Austen? Only those who enjoy historical romance? Or has the genre moved so far away from its roots as to make its origins not that palatable even to readers who love the genre in its 21st century forms, including the historical?

After the question of Jane Austen and contemporary romance reader preferences came up in the comments section of a recent RNFF post, one RNFF reader suggested conducting an informal poll. Great idea, I thought. So...

If you love reading genre romance, I'd welcome your responses to these two questions:

1. Have you read any books by Jane Austen? If so, did you enjoy them? Why or why not?
2. Are you primarily a historical romance reader? Or do you prefer other romance genres?

If I get enough responses to make the findings more than just anecdotal, I'll report back about them in a future post.