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On Romance - Guest Eloisa James

November 27, 2009 | Deborah Cooke | Comments (1)

I met Mary Bly - who writes as Eloisa James - at the launch party for her first book, POTENT PLEASURES. RWA National was held in Chicago that year, it was hotter than Hades, and the talk of the conference was the three historical romances scheduled for release in hard cover. Mary's was one of them. Since then, Mary has established herself not only as a bestselling romance author, but a tireless advocate for the romance genre. She generously shares this piece with us today, which originally ran in the New York Times in February 2005.

By Mary Bly/Eloisa James

“DAMN you precious virgins!” snarled the bodice-ripping rake over the sound of tearing silk. It was fifth-grade choir practice in the spring of 1972, and I was learning about sex from a copy of Kathleen Woodiwiss’s “Flame and the Flower” that a classmate had purloined from his mom. Now that was a bodice-ripper: passionate, crazed and outrageously overwrought.

I fell in love with romances on the spot. But my father was a poet, and he would have preferred that I had fallen in love with Whitman. So he laid down the law: for every romance, I read a classic. Kathleen Woodiwiss wrote quite a few novels; I finished all of Mark Twain’s works by the time I was 13.

That divide, between literary novels and their illicit fellows, has structured my life. These days, I’m a professor of English literature ¬ and an author of historical romances. I teach Shakespeare and Renaissance culture; I place my novels 200 years later, during the period when Jane Austen was writing her comedies of manners.

My two worlds come together rarely, because they are sharply demarcated by prejudice on both sides. Academics tend to deride romance; romance readers often ignore literary fiction altogether. 

Intellectuals never seem to believe that a strong story and an interest in relationships could explain the popularity of romance. I’ve been repeatedly asked by academics whether romances are anything more than female porn, a question that to me seems linked to a fear of female sexuality, as is the dismissal of romances as “bodice-rippers.’’ In fact, I’m not sure that the term, with its implication of enjoyment taken in forced intercourse, ever was an accurate description of romances; even the silk-ripping rake of “The Flame and Flower” passed out before he damaged anything more than clothing.

There’s desire and sex in every genre. Elinor Lipman’s “Pursuit of Alice Thrift’’ is indubitably a work of literary fiction. It’s brilliantly written, wickedly funny and imbued with cruel send-ups of pretentious surgeons. It also includes a description of terrific sex between a first-year surgical intern and a fudge salesman.  Apparently that scene wasn't enough to trigger disdain; Publishers Weekly called the novel a "triumph."

So why is romance the only genre ghettoized for including sex?  Feminists in the early 1980’s such as Janice Radway maintained that romances channel women’s desire into patriarchal marriage, but these days these scholars are  issuing apologias, having discovered that many romances depict working, independent heroines. As Ms. Radway has since declared, romances actually validate female desire. Clearly, the genre’s struggle for respect is part of a larger cultural battle to define and control female sexuality.

The contempt for romance reflects a deeply unproductive divide in American culture that keeps some people from reading novels that they would enjoy and that frightens others from fiction that has the imprimatur of “literature.’’ Romance appeals to all demographics, not just to heterosexuals. The Oscar Wilde Bookshop in New York City tells me that gay romance, a genre quite apart from erotica, sells well to both male and female readers. We are all interested in talking and reading about that difficult process of living with another person.

Yet it takes guts for an intellectual to pick up a romance novel at Borders. At the same time, it takes courage for a woman or man (yes, I have male readers), who primarily reads romance to pick up books labeled “literature.” “I never read classics,” readers tell me. “I find them boring.” Yet when I put a 1594 Richard Barnfield sonnet in a book, they write me and ask where they can find more of his poems. They send me e-mail messages saying that they quite like Catullus, and too bad they didn’t read anything like him at school.

Romances feel to me like a conversation between the woman who wrote the book and myself as a reader. Women talk about desire, but they also talk about the difficulties of building a new partnership with an old friend, or negotiating the shoals of a fragile marriage. Ms. Lipman’s novel about an intern and a fudge salesman is part of that conversation; but so is, for example, Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s Ain't She Sweet?, the tale of a prodigal returning home to face her well-deserved bad reputation. Romances are sometimes stories of courtship, but also stories of marriage and consequences. Many of my own books, in fact, have been about failing marriages: they are my footnotes to that particular conversation.

So let’s quit this out-of-date mockery of the genre. Focusing solely on the sensual content of romances and deriding them as bodice-rippers leads to the assumption that America is full of women gobbling up romance novels because they’re sexually frustrated and want to be overpowered by a strong man. These days, however, a romance heroine is likely to toss her own bra, and if buttons are skittering on the floor, they’re quite possibly shirt studs.

We all long for stories with narrative drive, stories that talk about relationships, and stories that aren’t riddled with violence or death. Romances reflect no more than what most of us hope for in daily life ¬ and that includes being lucky enough to experience shared desire. I’ve a good notion that many Americans, no matter their reading preference, are hoping for a Valentine’s Day that involves a bit of flying lingerie.


Toronto Public Library's Romance Writer-In-Residence Deborah Cooke discusses writing and getting published in the romance genre.

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