Reptile Romance – The TL:DR Edition

October 20, 2013 Opinion 10

A sinister green frog stares suggestively out from a nest of leaves and branchesIt's been a very long 48 hours in Romanceland. Between Jack The Ripper / Skirt Flipper  and That Book With The Lizard Lead my social media feeds have been hopping. On Monday night, after way too many Gorn vs Sleestak jokes  I tweeted a string of thoughts including “Plantation gave way to Savage gave way to Paranormal gives way to Alien? Rapey patriarchal societies where blood is key to futures? Mmm.” Pack a lunch, kids and cue my inbox.  My conversation with Robin Reader was so interesting I asked permission to share it. 

RR – Have you read anything by Shelly Laurenston? She writes characters of multiple races, and is very class conscious in her books. Her Pack Challenge series has werewolves, were tigers  and other supes. They are VERY erotic, highly sexual. Anyway, her books, which stretch back to the beginning of the paranormal Rom trend give me a very different view of the PNR genre than yours. Her heroines are incredibly powerful and brash. I ADORE them. You might find them interesting, because she's working in a place where she's bringing together all of these elements in ways that IMO are envelope pushing.

M – Well, very erotic & highly sexual is exactly what I'm tired of. I haven't read her but what's the sex page vs plot page? How much skimming?

 RR – You know, I don't know sex v. plot. I have always felt that the sex was doing something in her books, but what I love most is her humor.

M – While I may like it, it's not going to change my view of PNR's place in the field. The blocks are so familiar to me from decades of study It may be a refreshing take, but PNR is working a well worn lane. Some authors will overcome, some won't.

RR – See, I think you could make that worn lane argument about any genre. I'm not a PNR fan, actually, but I think it's a place where a lot of social commentary can happen very easily. Also, I think it's a place where female power has been most obviously explored, from Feehan's Carpathians to some of the earlier Kresley Cole books, frex. A lot of crap, too, but IMO that's all genres.

M – Reading PNR the bones feel the same. A savage or biologically different mate who is at the mercy of his nature but struggles thru vs the heroine who embodies many idealized characteristics to ‘tame’ him. or who must herself be tamed to fit societal needs. Rape / violence / lower class crime lifestyle more acceptable in PNR than 'main' romance. To me there is a line from Black Buck to Wild Tiger.

 RR – Hmm, I actually see that more in Historical Romance. Let's go back to the plantation novel for a sec. A lot of that fantasy involves the fragile, “pure,” untouchable white “lady.” What about the PNR where you've got the female who's more powerful than the male or who is supe herself?

M- Going to 'white lady' she still had the strength. Her power was societal, but undercurrent was it was absolute. A number were also one drop. The poor 'white' girl labeled black who had to be elevated back to her proper role, away from the unworthy caste.

 RR – I see everything you're saying as more intrinsic to Historical Romance than PNR.

M – PNR has a blood line and power obsession that frequently reads the same as Plantation to me with it's tiered levels of humanity / worth.

 RR – But look at HR, with all the emphasis on bloodlines and class and who's “noble.” How many times is the simple housemaid really the lost daughter of a duke or something?

M – Obviously we disagree because I see HR as being obsessed with class reinforcement, more than innate inferiority. Othering is less intense.

RR – Oh, yeah, I disagree with that. I see it as incredibly intense in HR. I feel that a lot of HR is much less interested in actually thinking about power, despite all of the focus on class differences.

M – The class bloodline is based most often on access to economic standing and does explore determination in same, not ‘we are a different race’ Underlying assumption of HR is of shared humanity, this is not present in PNR and was not present in entire Savage Romance genre.

RR – Yeah, I don't agree there, either. I think the fact that HR is often so WHITE can make class a racial stand-in, in a way.

M – HR is concerned with white people doing white things. It's class driven. PNR and SR explicitly state racial components.

RR – But for me, that direct invocation can be more honest, depending on what the author does with it. One of my probs with “universal humanity” message is that it can erase cultural diversity and the integrity of cultural pride. I think the investigation of equality can and often is problematic in a lot of Romance, but HR and PNR, I don't see PNR as MORE problematic.

M – Which was an argument for Savage Romance. That it was more honest.

 RR – Also, I think the fated mate trope is just as powerful in HR as PNR. I hate it both places, actually.

M –  PNR is definitely rapier. With way more fated mate & dub con. I see PNR as more problematic because it's putting a disguise on. I dislike fated mate wherever I find it, we agree.

 RR – Two different kinds of honest. Not “different races are intrinsically different.” I'm saying PNR can be a place to investigate the marginalization of certain racial groups and the social constructs employed there. Yeah, I don't agree PNR is rapier. I do think it's more sexual. That I'll agree to. But I think there's a reason authors of color are choosing to write PNR and not HR.

M – Would argue that they move to PNR because they can sell it. White readership does not put white expectation on book, in the way they do with HR. AOC write CR & PNR for market reasons. HR is a very closed world. “I'm saying PNR can be a place to investigate the marginalization of certain racial groups and the social constructs employed there.” Yes. What you say there was also true of race romance. Hence, same lane new face.

RR – Re. selling the book, I think that doesn't give enough credit to an author like Sherry Thomas. Re same lane comment, I think you're eliding so many different things that it's like taking a shot from 40K feet and pronouncing same/same. And how PNR's interest in race can be “worse” somehow than HR's erasure and substitution of race with class (and in some of the same essentialist terms) just doesn't seem fair to me. I do understand your argument, but I think it's too forgiving of the erasure, esp when so much of that class essentialism is built on the invisible labor of POC. And yet, I think both sub genres can be awful and they can be transformative, depending on how they handle their material. I don't disagree that some PNR is essentialist and awful; my disagreement is that PNR is ALL that way or INTRINSICALLY that way, or worse than other genres and subgenres in its treatment of race, culture, social constructs, equality, power, etc. I think it always has to be a book by book analysis, and then within social context (i.e. sentimentalism and “white man's guilt” in some of the “noble savage” novels) versus a series like Harris' Sookie Stackhouse, where Harris is very much investigating the nature of differences and what they mean, etc.

M – Absolutelism is always going to be flawed & concept of worst is externally applied – not part of my lineage argument. Is Julia Quinn Heyer or Victoria Holt Bronte? No, but the one exists as a changed offshoot of the other. PNR is not an offshoot of HR or CR. It bears a stronger lineage to SR with an alien skirt added. People turned away from SR for many reasons but not a lack of desire to read stories made from those parts, with those flavorings. The delivery mechanism has evolved from that desire. Which would also be supported by AOC choosing PNR because SR was WAY more popular than HR or CR among POC I grew up with. I am not giving HR some pass but I am saying these are different sub genres with different roots serving different reader expectations. Agree each book is it's own but trends still dominate sub genres. Sookie novels are very race obsessed, a blend of lite PNR & patriarchal CR.

RR – See, this is where we disagree. I would argue (strongly) that HR comes directly into line from the sentimental novel, which comes into line from the captivity narrative – directly, in fact (all Romance, therefore comes from the captivity narrative, but especially HR). So I see HR as WAY more directly connected to the savage novel than PNR. Nancy Armstrong, “Captivity and Cultural Capital in the English Novel,” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, 31, no. 3 (1998), 374. I'm pretty sure that's the article that makes the link between captivity narratives and sentimental (and sensational) fic.

M – I disagree that HR springs from captivity narratives. To argue that is to argue Austen wrote from that same well. Or that Shakespeare did. I am attributing the love and hate to RomFans in general. Specifics touched off the train of thought, but it is wider than individuals.

 RR – You might also be interested in Lori Merish's Sentimental Materialism, Cathy Davidson's Revolution and the Word, Jennifer DeVere Brodys's Impossible Purities, and Reina Lewis's Gendering Orientalism. All great books on some of these dynamics we've been debating. 

M – Do they come in graphic novel form? Because that would be outstanding.

RR – Ha, I wish. I disagree with how you position Austen. This goes back to the Richardson debate and the way Austen was co-opted by late 20th C Rom.

M – I'm not an Austenite, per se, but my comment was that straight romance exists in fiction well before US captivity narrative, prior to the reading of the article you referenced, seeing it contextualized via paper's introduction I see where you are coming from – need to read the full article.

RR – Captivity narratives in US 17thC on. First and most popular form of Am lit well into 19th cen. Amatory novelists early and enmeshed with Captivity narratives, esp Barbary Coast ones (eg with Aphra Behn).

M – I've read Aphra Behn but still maintain love stories exist as early as written words, so saying every type distills from these?

RR – I think it's more about different forms and purpose. For example, Classical Comedy had romantic couple who often represented new society and who had to overcome antagonist (often older individual) who represented status quo. Marriage at end to indicate rise of new type & fertility and that has also come down into *genre* Romance, sometimes through these other forms.

(Digression into rape in PNR vs CR vs HR occurs.)

RR – When I first entered the romance community I was chastised for questioning the function of rape in genre. Told to read Nancy Friday STAT. Which I did, and I began to get a different perspective. I have very complicated thoughts about this (I have written about it too).

M – I've been in the online community under various names (one at a time) since the very late 80's. I'm versed in all the psych and such. So it's not about denying place of rape in genre per se but it IS about how it's used & why & awareness of it. Obviously in 70's – 90's prevalent and I did an early 90's stint as an erotica and m/m reviewer where rape was commonplace.

 RR – I was in midst of those who were very much on board with rape in the genre more than a decade ago, and have been criticized from other corner. IMO it's always been two-sided issue with division between. I have been re-reading In Death series lately and thinking about how much violence is in the books. I am VERY sensitive to that. Roarke and Eve are pretty pro-violence. But both anti DV. Is that consistent, do you think? I have more issues with that kind of contradiction, I think, b/c I at least see the sexual violence issues as potentially working out some societal stuff. My sense, in talking with some very thoughtful people who have read Gann, is that it's extremely complex in its use. I cannot speak to that, but I can tell you that there are books where I can see the rape issues as working out something.

M – I disagree that Roarke and Eve are pro violence. They don't initiate or seek out violence & it is not against innocents. I do not see that as a contradiction with being anti DV. I don't think rape scenes work out societal issues, so no, disagree.

RR – I have been re-reading the early books, and IMO they are. Roarke has NO PROBLEM beating the shit out of Webster, for example. I think Eve would bitch slap people if she could get away with it. I feel very, very, very strongly that rape is often extremely symbolic in Romance. That it can, perhaps, be about making something safe in reading that isn't IRL. Or that the reader experiences it *as rape fantasy* and therefore is in control and is in the power position. Reading that isn't IRL. Or that the reader experiences it *as rape fantasy* and therefore is in control and is in the power position.

M –  Roarke is a Hood Made Good narrative, as to some extent is Eve. You won't find them seeking out prey or giving unprovoked attacks on those weaker. Being anti DV is not inconsistent with the street mentality of fight first. that both characters had to learn to smooth out. I don't disagree conceptually on reading rape but when a choice point is if the heroine gets raped or if it's just kids and other women? Not the same play.  And again, am not opposed to rape in fiction wholesale. Ok to like problematic things, but also ok to reject them.

 RR – IMO vigilantism is EXTREMELY common fantasy in Rom. But not discussed much. That's sometimes difficult for me, even though I get it. Still, I think there's wide acceptance of that.

M – Yes, reading more POC written romance has forced consideration of that with characters facing drug life / prison & contrasting to white romance violence. Lots of Dirty Harrys out in white romance land. Because if a white person does it it's the right thing to do. This message carries into fiction of course and your earlier point about erasure and a world built on a slave economy applies to HR, but also strongly to CR.

 RR – Sure. One reason I am very, very wary of Romantic Suspense. IMO Romance in general functions within patriarchy, including much, if not all, f/f and m/m.

M – Ultimately standard white romance upholds white dominance & patriarchy while offering tweaks on the latter (but not former). Back to the beginning – in the same way rape fantasy has it's place in the genre, so does the Highly Sexualized Other – the non-white lead. I argue still that as it became “not ok” to read Plantation, market increased in Savage with a side of Harem then that was “not ok” Readers bring up being “shamed” so often where they are not being shamed because of “not ok” perception. (agree on patriarchy) So the same othering need was transferred to PNR. I am romancing the alien, now quite literally.

RR – I am torn about the shame thing. I do think sometimes there is judgment against readers being made, and sometimes there is oversensitivity.

M – Look, 50 is a crap book. It turns people's crank, and that's cool. It's also an abusive mess. It's become a shame catalyst because of it. “I am aroused by / enjoy this” meets “I don't like this” and “I dislike these things very much” & is conflated into “You are a bad person.” When I was young I thought Mr Benson was the hottest read ever. It is so VERY not ok in so many ways, but I didn't need it cosigned. There is a LOT worth examining in that book but I wouldn't try to present it as mainstream m/m everyone should ok – because it's problematic

 RR – I disliked 50 as a reader, but I think its overt examination of power dynamics is very important. Also, any book that gets women around the country to talk openly about the fact that they have sexual fantasies is doing something good IMO. For me, the effect of 50 is in many ways a positive thing. Also some downsides, but the owning of sexuality by women? Good, IMO. I think for some women, it's almost a relief to see a couple hash things out in such a melodramatic way. it's cathartic, I think. There was a lot of shaming around 50. A LOT. And it made it difficult to have any discussion of that book and its problems. The conflict between extreme fans and those who hated it with abject horror was BAD.

M – Women discussing sex = good. Women not being allowed to disown abuse dynamics without being accused of shaming? Totally not good. I am so very very stuck on a review comment “does he rape the heroine” because the depersonalization of other woman, including the child cited in the review makes me crazy. If the book is enjoyable or not, a crank turner or not, we need to be able to say WTF w/out “shame”. It may be cathartic for them, ok. Why do they take precedence? It's not easy for women who object to abuse dynamics to speak out either

 RR – How do you know it's depersonalization, though? Maybe there's another reason behind that question.

M – Maybe I'm getting a pony for Christmas. That specific woman may not feel she's depersonalizing, but again, this is a specific that illustrates broader point. Many are fine with rape, etc as long as heroine is specially exempted. I recall a discussion in the late 90's about slut heros and scenes where he treated secondary woman like disposable tissue – huge and heated.

RR – I have come to believe that the way rape triggers different readers is very personal because of the emotional investment readers make in Romance. I am not comfortable making the same judgment you are, because I can see how a reader who wants to believe in the romantic relationship could only tolerate rape in a book that doesn't get perpetrated on heroine. I can see that in a way that doesn't depersonalize the other rape, that might not even be comfortable with it or like it. B/c I think readers of Romance often connect to protags in different way. For some, there is personal identification. Could be a trigger in way that rape of another character would not be. *shrug*

M – To me that's a version of the But Not ALL Men response It may be (and likely is) very true – BUT the shame street running one way is a problem.

RR – I think the battle over 50 fractured parts of the community and it has not yet recovered. Heightened offense on both sides, IMO.

M – I believe it's deeper than 50. And I think the merging of erotic romance and romance exacerbates it. Our romantic views and our sexual ones can be wildly different. The conversations we have from those different needs are very different. People way more defensive over their desires.

And with that, it was 4 am so we tabled it overnight. I know, I know. The entire Lord of the Rings Director Cut was shorter. Look, if you only take away one piece of information let it be that I might get a pony for Christmas. How exciting would that be?

 PNR = Paranormal Romance. HR = Historical Romance. CR = Contemporary Romance. SR = Plantation to Savage Romance. DV = Domestic Violence

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Meoskop's first non-compulsory book review was in 1973. Although a hit with the 3rd grade, concerns raised by the administration necessitated an extended hiatus. Reviews resumed in 1985 but the concerns are ongoing.

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10 Responses to “Reptile Romance – The TL:DR Edition”

  1. Jessica

    Thanks for putting this up. I follow both of you on Twitter but since I am an early to bed New Englander, I always miss these great convos.

    My own take on historical romance has always been that it has the exact same middle class sensibility as contemps, and while I know “middle class” (at least as used in the US) is also racially coded, I hadn’t thought much about race in that context before, so thanks for this.

  2. Laura Vivanco

    Thanks for sharing that. On most of the issues raised, I’m more inclined to see things the way you do than the way Robin does.

    Re where romance “distills” from, Jayne Ann Krentz has argued they derive from Greek mythology, it’s extremely easy to spot fairy tales influences and the way romances often focus on the transformative power of love could be thought to have a lot to do with Christian theology. My feeling is that all those things, and many, many others, are all influences. So it’s a question of looking at particular books and subgenres and seeing which influence seems to be strongest in any particular one of them.

    I also wonder, given how big “historical romance” is as a subgenre, whether different people might focus on different parts/branches of it when talking about HR as a whole. My view of historical romance, for example, is probably shaped by the fact that I started with Heyer and moved on to Harlequin/Mills & Boon, but US single-titles are rare in the UK so I don’t know as much about them.

  3. Meoskop

    I’m on a mobile today but wanted to add – it must be frustrating to follow conversations whee USian voices dominate, given the differences in the markets. I have traveled widely in Europe & seen the market differences. Here in the US the Mills & Boon historicals are a tiny slice of the picture & very different from single titles.

  4. Laura Vivanco

    @Meoskop: I’m feeling increasingly out of touch anyway because of the number of ebook-only romances being published. I’m not in paid employment and I don’t feel I can justify the cost of buying an e-reader and paying full price for large numbers of books. I’ve been dependent in large part on what’s in my local library system and what I could buy second-hand. My local library recently merged the romance section with general fiction and while some ebooks are very cheap, I’m not tempted to try reading even more on my laptop/desktop because it’s really not comfortable for me at all.

  5. Sunita

    Class in the UK is historically quite different from class in the US, even (especially?) in that period. “Middle class” in the UK, well into the 20thC, corresponded more to upper-middle-class in the US, and “working class” doesn’t have an exact US parallel, not least because until quite recently it comprised both economic location and social characteristics. And in the 19thC, race in the UK didn’t have a one-to-one correspondence with color; there were arguments about the superiority of the English (Anglo-Saxon) “race” over the Celtic (Welsh, Irish, and Highland Scots). These were not extreme views, either; they were part of the imperial project of subordination of non-English groups “for their own good” and created what scholars have termed a policy of internal colonialism.

    Given the lack of social-class mobility for all but a very few, class (especially the working class category) was close to an ascriptive category and generated a strong identity relationship, so it’s not surprising that it shared attributes with racial categories. For example, the emphasis on “breeding” and judgments based on facial features, e.g., low foreheads=backwardness, were in much the same vein as (invidious) race/color distinctions being made at that time. If you look at either the writings of the period or the sociology and history (at the time and restrospectively), you’ll see a lot of parallels.

    I’m sure that most of the US authors writing European historicals in the last two or three decades are not thinking about the period in this way at all, but they are using language that was specifically coded and that embraced ideas of genetic characteristics (in the 19th- and early 20th-C sense). Which is a long way of saying that historicals feature a type of “othering” that shares more characteristics with racial/ethnic “othering” than readers may realize.

  6. Robin

    @Laura Vivanco: Just to clarify, I am not saying that captivity narratives are the sole influence on Romance. I mean, captivity narratives did not spring up whole cloth, either. Mythological archetypes, Biblical narratives, etc. were very much helping to shape those narratives. I’m really looking more at the way genre Romance rolled out of Sentimental/Sensational fiction, which in turn rolled out of captivity narratives, and honestly, that’s not even work I can take credit for, because so many of those dots were painstakingly plotted by literary and cultural studies scholars by the time I got there.

    Which is not to say there isn’t plenty of room for debate; I just want to reiterate that I’m not arguing that captivity narratives are the *only* influence on the genre, nor that they arose sua sponte out of the universal ether.

  7. Laura Vivanco

    the way genre Romance rolled out of Sentimental/Sensational fiction

    We don’t yet have a history of genre romance in the US (although Pam Regis is working on it) and nor do we have one for the UK (though there are some overviews of the development of romantic fiction). I feel we can see a few of the highest points in the landscape (e.g. Richardson, Austen, Walter Scott, the Brontes, E. M. Hull, Heyer) but they don’t give us the whole picture. But I’m not a historian, so this kind of thing isn’t my forte.

  8. Ros

    I’m glad I read it all (despite having zero interest in PNR in general and lizard romance in particular) if only for this comment: “I think the merging of erotic romance and romance exacerbates it. Our romantic views and our sexual ones can be wildly different. The conversations we have from those different needs are very different. People way more defensive over their desires.”

    That crystallised something that’s been nagging at me for a while. The mainstreamization (yes, I made that up) of erotic romance has been the biggest game changer in the discussions of romance I’ve seen in the last couple of years. But actually, I think that erotic romance is very different from non-erotic romance in terms of why people are reading them and what the books are seeking to do. They aren’t just the same but with more sex. The comment’s on Sunita’s DA post on clean romances made that clear, I think. For me personally, I’m not interested in reading romances that are ever hotter and steamier and kinkier. I’m interested in reading romances for, well, the romance.