Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Kelly Evaluates Romance as Entertainment, Catharsis, and Activism

I am very excited to introduce you to Kelly from Reading With Analysis today.  I think her title says it all, so without further ado, I leave you with her . . .

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Romance as entertainment, catharsis, and activism: 
A limited ethnography of one romance reader

I’ve been a romance reader for a long time. It started with some Harlequin Presents stories I found on my mom’s bookshelf about twenty years ago and went on from there. I find a lot to love in the genre, and it satisfies nearly all of my reading and thinking needs.

For many years, I read for escape, seeking entertainment that would distract me from my difficulties and help me achieve a more positive outlook on life (something I, as a cynical idealist, sometimes struggle to find). I read also for catharsis, seeking out stories whose drama and emotion would help me express the deeply repressed feelings that sometimes held me in a chokehold. Lately, I’ve been finding myself reading for activism, reaching for stories that include and explore social issues within the narrative setting.

It started with Courtney Milan. Obviously I don’t mean that Milan was the first romance writer to get involved in social issues, but it was through her books that I first discovered that a romance novel could be a sweeping and emotional story of passion, an exploration of human nature in both the individual and the general scope, and a discussion piece on social issues, modern and historical. Throughout her many historical romances, Milan has written about sexual abuse and the silencing of victims, the evils of protectionism, marital abuse and the historical difficulty of divorce, inequalities of class and gender, bodily autonomy, the societal double standard vis-à-vis men’s and women’s virtue, medical autonomy, the historically narrow confines of a woman’s life, women scientists and the men who claimed their work, etc.

Milan’s rather serious and deliberate voice works for me (these books are definitely not carefree and fun, although they are sometimes funny), and I have loved every single book of hers because she sets these love stories in (what seems to me to be) realistic conditions that highlight and validate the emotional punch of love’s triumph.

Milan’s impact on my reading extends beyond her own books. After I read through Milan’s body of work, I got to thinking about some other books that flirted with social issues. Tessa Dare, another historical romance author, writes in her Spindle Cove series about a group of women who have each discovered a disgust for society’s bullshit and have taken shelter in a community founded on the acceptance and empowerment of women. Spindle Cove exists as a feminine idyll until some soldiers descend on the place and wreak manly havoc.

Dare’s stories are wildly entertaining – full of humor, snappy dialogue, and emotion – and it’s easy to overlook some of the deeper currents. (But they are there nonetheless. The first Spindle Cove novel, A Night to Surrender, can be read as a treatise on feminism in which the community of women withdraws from the world to establish a female-centric society; then a group of men move in and attempt to reassert normalcy (meaning the supremacy of the male); and then both groups learn compromise and find true equality in working together and valuing each other.) With her latest release, Romancing the Duke, Dare eased back on the humor a little bit to reveal a story that touches on more than a few social issues. I’m sure you’re not surprised to hear that it’s my new favorite Tessa Dare book.

Historical romances aren’t alone in exploring social themes. Robin York’s New Adult release Deeper sets its college-age love story against the backdrop of revenge porn. Its heroine Caroline finds herself imprisoned by a chattering Greek Chorus of internet asshats and by the victim-blaming cultural message -- reinforced by her school’s administration and her own father – that she herself is to blame for allowing such an apparent douchebag to take photos of her during sex. Hey women, that message says, you are not allowed to trust anyone, ever, because some people turn out to be untrustworthy. York balances the love story and the narrative context nicely, with everything built around the theme that trust, the freedom to trust, is not a luxury but a necessity. I’m incredibly leery of the New Adult trend, but I loved how this story took what seems to be a genre requirement for NA – the heroine’s traumatic back story – and knocked it out of the park with a sharp discussion of a contemporary social issue and what it means for young people trying to find love, trying to come of age in a time when the Internet is forever and none but the victims are held accountable for such public betrayals of trust.

So here’s what I’m wondering… Is there a tradeoff in terms of the entertainment or cathartic value of a love story when set against the backdrop of deeper social issues, or does the context actually increase that value by demonstrating all the reasons why we need love? I know what the answer is for me, but I’m curious to know whether others feel the same. Join in the discussion! Have you read any books – they don’t have to be romance novels – that incorporate social issues into the story? What do you think: is there a tradeoff?

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Thank you Kelly for a very thought-provoking post!  

Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.  You can find Kelly over at Reading With Analysis and on Twitter.

10 comments :

  1. This post is fabulous. (Way to go Kel!)

    In response to your question (and I'm sure you are already aware of my answer) I find that the romance novels that dig deeper into social issues are more enjoyable for me. And as such are more entertaining.

    As we've discussed many times before, my friendship with you has taught me to read books differently. I enjoy books that make me think critically much more now. Sure there are times where your brain wants to veg out and read fluff, but I'm finding that the "fluff" just doesn't move me the way a book delving into deeper issues does. And finding books that move you? Nothing better...

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    1. Book-based friendships are simply the best (better than cookies). I find, these days, that fluffy reading annoys me. Here's the thing... when it's a book about people, the social fabric with all of its rips and frayed edges is always there. When a story ignores the state of that fabric and just focuses on how shiny it is, how many sequins there are, I get frustrated because I can clearly see the holes. And if I can see them, surely others can, too, and if we can all see the issues, why do we willfully ignore them in the name of entertainment? How entertaining is it, really?

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  2. Great post, Kelly! Lisa Kleypas also wrote about spousal abuse & consequences in Stranger In My Arms, and Rebecca Rogers Maher is a contemporary romance author who often incorporate social issues into her novels. I think it definitely turns the happy ending at the end of the novels into a bigger pay-off.

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    1. I really need to read more of Rebecca Rogers Maher's books. Every time I see a blog post of hers, I'm like YES, but I've still read only The Bridge. Have you read others? What would you recommend? (And yes to Stranger In My Arms. I loved that book.)

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    2. I read Hurricane Lily. It wasn't as good as The Bridge, but Maher did tackle a lot of social and environmental issues.

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  3. I am not much of a romance reader but to be honest with you your pointing out books that take on deeper social issues within a romance story has me wanting to pick them up! I love books that cover social issues so I think I will have to check out some of your recs! Tasha has been trying to get me to read romance for years. She should've pulled out this bag of tricks! ;)

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    1. I can never be unbiased when talking about romance fiction -- my favorite genre, the one the soothes me and reassures me, that is like the best friend in the world, sometimes -- but I'm so glad to hear you'd be willing to give it a try. The book Tasha mentioned above, Rebecca Rogers Maher's The Bridge is a really good place to start, if you can handle its somewhat unconventional subject matter. Courtney Milan's writing has been criticized as being too calculated, too deliberate to allow readers to be swept up in the story, but I find that I enjoy her serious approach. Even better, I love the way she lets her characters keep secrets, keep their dignity, until they are ready to tell the reader their story. It's marvelous stuff. I'd recommend starting with the Turner Series (starting with Unveiled). And Tessa Dare's books are just delightful. I think you could honestly pick any one of them up and find several hours of entertainment for your heart and your brain. Cheers --

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  4. I do not read a lot of romance either, but you have me very interested in reading a couple of these titles.

    Thank you so much for sharing! I really, really enjoyed reading this one!!

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    1. Thanks! I had a blast writing it, and it dovetails with some posts I've been working on for Reading with Analysis. It's always good to have a reason to think and write about the books I read. Thank you for having me! Cheers --

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