Blogging, Romance, Genre, “Art” and Feminism? Armchair BEA Days 2 & 3

Armchair BEA 3

Design Credit: Nina of Nina Reads

I’m still so new at this game, I can’t really say much about how I’ve developed as a blogger.  The blog is still in its infancy, and I find myself every day wishing I had an extra hour or two to spend working on future posts, reading other blogs, and researching best practices.  ArmchairBEA is pushing me to post more this week than I would normally be able to, although this kind of navel-gazing post is not the same as a review post or commentary on a bookish theme.  It’s less than 2 months since I drafted my About Me and Why Badass Romance posts, and then I just spent eleventy-two hours doing the long Liebster post last week, so it’s feeling like ENOUGH about me and not enough about books right now!

For this reason I’m going to segue right to Day 2’s bookish topic, which is genre (what draws you to a genre?), and Day 3’s related focus which is literary (artistic?) fiction.  The literary fiction prompt asks: Which works of art have changed your life?  Be creative and make a list outlining books featuring specific subjects (i.e., animals, recommended prize-winners, outstanding authors, etc.). Hmmm. What is it with this “art” label?? Is genre fiction a lower order of cultural production?

Feb 2013 iPhone 020books4

As a result of the Liebster chain letter last week, I met a fellow blogger who, like me, has an academic background, has read classics, literary theory, and criticism, and now – at mid-life – prefers to read… you guessed it: (badass) romance.  Miss Bates is quite loquacious on this topic! Her new blog is a must-read, if you haven’t already checked it out.

We’ve been chatting back and forth in comments, and it’s helping me re-formulate some of my rather inchoate thoughts about why I don’t like a literary hierarchy that sets genre fiction (romance along with others, like fantasy, science fiction, mystery, etc – not to mention sub-genres) in opposition to literary fiction, thereby declaring that genre fiction is not Art. I realize no one is saying that genre fiction doesn’t have meaning or merit, but let’s face it, there is still a literary hierarchy and the main reason romance gets taken seriously at all may be its badass sales figures. But the main reason I don’t read much “highbrow” fiction anymore is that I started to feel unhappy and uncomfortable with books that felt chore-like — at times opaque, depressing, and/or pretentious. Life is too short to read books that feel like work.  I am not saying, however, that I don’t want to be challenged by what I read — to read books that spark me to think deeply and broadly about my values and assumptions and priorities. I’m just saying that I want to have this experience as a reader with books I actually enjoy reading, and at this point in my life as a reader I’m looking for happy endings.

While I recognize the importance of individual preferences in terms of genre, and the reality that there are going to be groupings of readers who read and blog mainly around literary fiction vs. any particular genre fiction, what’s important to me is enjoying what I read, and applying the same kind of critical thinking and analysis in formulating my response — whether it’s a romance novel or a Booker Prize nominee.  As a serious reader, I don’t want to have to prove I’m serious in spite of reading and reviewing romance.  I was delighted yesterday to read Book Riot’s Stop Apologizing for What You Like to Read, via new Armchair BEA blog friend Cheap Thrills.

But on the other hand, I don’t think the romance reading and blogging community should be without a robust critical discourse, nor should we shy away from thoughtful exchange of ideas about what’s political and or problematic in the books we also enjoy and celebrate. This week Emma Barry has posted a provocative set of questions about politics in romance, and there are some wonderful comments.  Also this week, at Radish Reviews, Natalie’s challenging post about reader shame and extreme romance, along with the incredible discussion it’s generating, has really got me thinking.

Although I’m new to blogging, I’ve been participating in online fan forums about books off and on for almost a decade. I’ve always been somewhat frustrated by the strong negative response from such communities when a critical view of a challenging theme or book is put forth. Frequently, critical discourse is suppressed with “if you don’t really like this, why are you reading it?” Or, “how can you like this and call yourself a thinking person?” Of course I am thinking about polarization around the proliferation of erotic romance and erotica in the wake of 50 Shades. I’m also thinking back to a fan community where a post that critiqued a problematic aspect of a beloved book was frequently perceived as an attack. But this kind of suppression is side-stepping.

Why can’t we trust that we’re mainly going to read what we like and enjoy, and that it’s OK to enjoy reading something and yet still be deeply thoughtful and even troubled by it? And to express these “troubles” in the form of thoughtful interrogation of our own reading, in concert with the cross-blog discourse of reviews and commentary? Is it OK to be a romance blogger and say “negative” things about the genre?  My response is a hearty yes. But are romance readers especially sensitive to criticism of the books we enjoy, because there is always this problematic intersection of gender, identity, feminism, and the masculine hero archetypes which embody patriarchy?

I can’t conclude this post without mentioning the discourse around feminism and romance which was (re)launched with vigor back in March (B.B.R. – Before Badass Romance), by way of an article in the Atlantic, and a series of wonderful author and blogger posts such as this one by Cecilia Grant, from which I will offer a favorite quote:

But “romance that might appeal to feminists” and “romance that actually is feminist” aren’t quite the same thing.

I also found this post at Bad Necklace extremely challenging and provocative, in a good-kind-of-uncomfortable way.

So, badass romance readers – what do you think? Is it possible to enjoy reading a book, and to equally enjoy a respectful critique that challenges our enjoyment? Are we stuck reading romance through the lens of feminism? Are such “-ism” lenses limiting or liberating?

Finally, as an aside, I must add that I am on pins and needles waiting to get my hands on a copy of Cecilia Grant’s forthcoming new release, A Woman Entangled! A Gentleman Undone is among my top 5 favorite books of 2012 (or top 5 reads of 2013 so far.)

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19 thoughts on “Blogging, Romance, Genre, “Art” and Feminism? Armchair BEA Days 2 & 3

  1. elisecyr says:

    I’m no stranger to critical theory either. When we develop different critical lenses it can be difficult to “turn them off” when we’re engaging with media recreationally. I wonder how much of our angst about romance is a result of nostalgia. I started reading in my early teens, and enjoyed them largely uncritically. Now that I’m older, been exposed to theory, it can be difficult to justify reading some of the problematic romances–that’s where the nostalgia comes in and softens my critical reaction, I think.

    • pamela1740 says:

      I like your nostalgia theory a lot. It works for me, since I also began reading romance in middle school. I also think your comment speaks to the difference between fan forums and review blogs. In the case of a fan forum, people are there for fun and intellectual recreation. With a book review site, the expectation is that there will be criticism and debate. But I think the thing that’s hard to tease out is how blogging fits — the line between recreation and criticism is less sharply defined than it used to be, when book reviews were largely written by academics for print media like the weekend book review sections. And still further blurring things now is the fact that academic literary criticism and scholarship is also in the mix and readily available online. What makes things fun for me is the chance to sample from all of these various literary buffets, but there are many blogs that focus on one “cuisine” or another.

  2. Emma says:

    I would define literary fiction much more narrowly than most people. To me, the only books that deserve the label are formally experimental. Ulysses, yes, The Kite Runner, no. Tender Buttons, yes, Pride and Prejudice, no. And I mean this in a purely descriptive and not at all evaluative way. Next to literary fiction, I think there’s a vast “middle-brow novel” category — non-genre fiction with artistic pretense (again, descriptive) that isn’t truly experimental. Within that category (and also within literary or genre fiction), there are books that are successful and original (or “good”), lots of meh books (i.e., derivative, generic, etc.), and a few truly bad ones. The ratio of wheat to chaff doesn’t seem to change to me whether we’re talking about histories of the Second World War or genre romances or literary novels. And most importantly, there’s no moral value associated with preferring books from one column or the other. Literacy is not a country club designed to keep the wrong sort out.

    What’s non-negotiable, to me, is being smart about what one reads. I don’t think readers of romance are “stuck” with feminism, but I think it’s one tool in the box. For me, Marxism, New Historicism, and neo-colonialism are some of the other things in the box. Analysis doesn’t take away from the pleasure of reading (or writing), it enhances it.

    • pamela1740 says:

      Thanks for articulating this distinction. I agree that a lot of what we talk about as literary fiction fits your apt description of middlebrow –

      “non-genre fiction with artistic pretension”

      – and that the quality spectrum is a separate evaluation. I do think it’s very hard to talk about these distinctions in a completely neutral, non-judgmental way. Great point about refraining from assigning moral value. I would add that it’s important to me to refrain from assigning, I don’t know, maybe *cultural* value, as well. I come from a family of book snobs, and that may be why I focus on this question of the imputed “worth” of one reading experience over another! 🙂

  3. Emma’s right, there should be no moral value assigned to what you read. But people do it anyways. Very often, a post starts with neutral intentions about discussing romances, and then the comments devolve from there.
    I can’t remember the exact comment, but on Robin’s latest post on Dear Author, one commenter implied that well educated women could handle 50 Shades, but not less educated women. (I won’t even touch the stuff that happened after.) And that comment pissed me off. It’s just so…Victorian.
    I don’t think the commenter meant to be inflammatory, but taken with all the other chatter about how romances are bad for women, that they give us the “wrong ideas”, it touched a nerve.
    I think that there is plenty of space to critically discuss romance, while still enjoying it, and we might just have to accept that the direction the discussion takes from there will not always be as neutral we’d like.

    • pamela1740 says:

      Great point about what happens in the lifespan of a carefully crafted thoughtful post with “neutral intentions” — that it can come to signify something judgmental depending on the nature of the discussion that gets generated. I agree there is much more space to talk critically about romance than there used to be. A lot depends on where you’re having the conversation, and the voices being heard.

  4. thanks for sharing. as long as you read, and get to talk about that book with others, online or in “real life”, i think it’s smart and constructive, with any genre, romance included!

  5. ablightedone says:

    This post is so interesting! You make some great points. I enjoy romance novels, but I don’t always like how women are treated in them. I can still look at them critically and see problematic issues in them. I definitely agree with that quote and like it. I think that, despite being

    I’m going to bookmark this post to look at later and check out some of the other links. Great discussion, thanks for sharing!

    • pamela1740 says:

      You are getting right to the heart of what is so interesting — and challenging — about reading romance. Many thanks for visiting and happy reading!

  6. Miss Bates says:

    Miss Bates would like to add one humble comment, though she cannot match how thoughtful & interesting & erudite this discussion is. Miss Bates would venture to say that the cause behind the at-best-indulgent-at-worst-sneering general attitude to the romance genre has to do with the mode in which literature is written post Great War (whoa, that is one awful sentence … sorry). That mode would be ironic, something the romance novel cannot be. It may use irony as a device, yes; Loretta Chase does, I think. The romance novel is comedic, not in the sense of ha ha, but rather like Christianity, or Marxism, or feminism, it assumes that the ending will be beautiful. (And those three didn’t quite bring us the Golden Age, did they?) Does our anxiety, even privileged & comfortable as most of us are who can afford iThings to blog with, see an ending that is catastrophic & our turning to romance as an escape? I don’t know, my thinking on this is more uncertain than ever & Miss Bates cannot speak, loquacious as she is, with any authority here. When in doubt, Miss Bates has a tendency to quote far wiser & more interesting people than she, so to borrow from the beloved Oscar Wilde, “I may be in the [literary] gutter, but I’m looking at the stars”?

  7. […] Blogging, Romance, Genre, “Art” and Feminism? Armchair BEA Days 2 & 3 I love the parts  about trusting ourselves as reader and engaging in thoughtful interrogation. […]

  8. Nicola O. says:

    I actually am pretty much entirely unacquainted with formal critique. I don’t have anything to prove about how smart I am, so getting embroiled in the “rightness” or “problematicness” (I made that up) of a given book or indeed the whole genre is something that doesn’t interest me.

    You want me to PROVE that this book is not problematic, or that I am entitled to like it? Yawn. Sorry. I have better things to do, like go read another one. You want to assume something about my intelligence by my lack of rebuttal. Eh. SOMEONE ON THE INTERNET IS WRONG, SOUND THE ALERT.

  9. Nicola O. says:

    Er, I am not trying to imply that anyone that engages in formal critique is only in it because they think they’re smarter than the rest of us.

    If you ENJOY that kind of interaction and discussion, HAVE AT IT. Just don’t assume that I am defensive or just not that bright if I’m not interested in it.

    • pamela1740 says:

      I agree – there is a huge problem when readers make any assumptions about the intelligence or “seriousness” of other readers, based on which discussions they care to engage with. I think this is part of what I was trying to get at — I don’t feel like I have to prove that romance is worthwhile, but it does still bug me that literary types may make assumptions about me based on their view of the genre. And as I mentioned, I may be sensitive on this point due to my history with book snobbery in the family! 😉

  10. […] Badass Romance’s Blogging, Romance, Genre, “Art” and Feminism? The Atlantic’s Beyond Bodice-Rippers: How Romance Novels Came to Embrace Feminism Ceilia Grant’s Some (Further) Thoughts on Feminism and Romance Jezebel’s Can a Romance Novel Be Feminist? […]

  11. […] got me thinking about the issue of reader shame again.  I talked about this in a different context last month. Is there more/different stigma attached to reading romance for women who are single? We may be […]

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