Since I emerged as a writer of historical romances (did I happen to mention I’ve finished my first draft? Brief pause for bouncing.), I’ve had the sideways looks, the claims about trash reading and porn for women, and the ‘but you’re too intelligent for that’ comment.
And so I’ve been alert to articles that put the other side of the story. Maria Bustillos’ Romance Novels, The Last Great Bastion of Underground Writing was written in early 2012, but I only found it today, so I thought I’d share. She starts by repeating the regularly expressed view:
Romance fiction: probably the worst! An addictive, absurd, unintellectual literature, literature for nonreaders, literature for stupid people—literature for women! Books Just For Her!
Then she spits it out. Not so, she says. Romance novels are feminist novels. Romance novels, unlike most other fiction (and particularly literary fiction), reverse the usual formula, making Woman the subject, and Man the other.
She goes on to talk about the function of romance fiction, and then challenges us to think about the difference between literary and romance fiction:
So what is it, exactly, that makes literature trivial? Is the point of literature to depict something more like “real life”? If the formulaic qualities and perfervid fantasy of romance novels bring them closer to superhero comics than to Dostoevsky, what does this mean, exactly? What is the difference between genre and “serious” fiction, now that Maus and The Left Hand of Darkness and The Man in the High Castle have conclusively demonstrated that deeply serious, insightful ideas may indeed come in a deceptively lightweight envelope?
The key difference between Fyodor Dostoevsky and Violet Winspear is—the beard, obviously, but in terms of literary production, the difference is that the latter is thinking more about you, the reader, whereas the former is thinking more about himself, the author. Each approach has an enormous value, potentially. To put this another way, Dostoevsky writes from deep inside himself, about his whole life, every single thing he ever saw or learned; Winspear plies her craft according to what she imagines it would please you to read, imagine or dream about, though it’s nearly impossible for a novelist to avoid revealing some of his own ideas and beliefs about the world, however tangentially.
It doesn’t matter whether you call this “serious” literature or not, really, though it seems to me that when millions and millions of people are involved in the same reading, it is very serious indeed.
Bustillos claims that the romance writer’s ghetto saves her from having to conform to the literary conventions, and frees her to tell stories that literary novels wouldn’t attempt. And she talks about the small number of readers who are men, suggesting:
When we really become equal, maybe “just for women” won’t be seen as less, or weird, or lame, as it appears mascarasnake’s grandfather already understood. Women visit the country of “just for men” all the time, unimpeded; we can read Tom Clancy or Patrick O’Brian and nobody bats an eyelash, because we are allowed to be curious about men’s fantasies of things. We have a visa for their country, and yet they are not permitted into ours, in some sense. The world of letters being the paradise of liberty that it is, it is perfectly fine for anyone to stick to just one kind of book, or just one authorial gender, or one genre, or one color of binding, just as he likes. But if men are curious about our side of things, as I imagine many of them must be, I should think it would be interesting to them to visit, and maybe we should invite them, as I am doing now.
Those are just a few quotes from a long article.
So what do you reckon, my friends? Are romance novels feminist?