Posts Tagged ‘Romantic Fiction’

Fifty Shades of Romance


Reading the Romance

In 1991 the feminist scholar Janice Radway published a book that changed many perceptions about the role that reading romantic fiction played in the lives of its overwhelming female fans.  As Radway argued, in her intensive period of interviewing a large group of women readers who self-identified as compulsive consumers of Mills and Boon-style romance novels, she discovered that for these women, the pleasure these texts was not linked by and large to specific elements of plot or narrative, but rather, the act of romance reading itself – generally characterised by the readers with the single word “escape.”  Indeed several of the interviewees explained to Radway that “romance novels provide escape just as Darvon and alcohol do for other women” but while the romance readers believed that abusing such substances would be harmful to them and to their families, compulsive reading of romance was, they believed “innocuous.” Nevertheless, many of these women described their reading habits as “an addiction.”


In next week’s session of Writing Women, “50 Shades of Romance” we will be discussing Romantic fiction: its codes, conventions, pleasures, limitations and role in the lives of women writers and readers.   As the title suggests we will also be looking at an extract from Fifty Shades of Grey and thinking about the relationship between women’s growing cultural power as bestselling authors and the simultaneous normalisation of explicit and fantasy depictions of male brutality towards women (as in EL James’s repeated depiction of the “hero” Grey’s pleasure in hurting women and the publishing phenomenon of the success of such a tale). Romantic fiction has always operated within a strict set of plot boundaries, which often included the woman needing to help the man overcome some dark history that forces him to behave badly towards her until her love heals him (think of Mr Darcy’s secret shame about his sister’s attempted elopement and how that makes him nasty and suspicious until Elizabeth’s “fine eyes” bewitch him into chivalry).


But when did those codes begin to allow spanking and bondage to be part of the “hero”’s repertoire?  Moreover, why in a world in which women are killed every hour of the day by violent partners, would women buy, read or write books in which women get beaten and then forgive and/or marry the perpetrator of that beating? Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright once said, there is a special place in hell for women who fail to help other women.  Are writers like EL James creating a space for themselves there? Or is her success simply evidence of the acceptance of women as active participants in the creation and consumption of forms of sexual fantasy?    

Have a read of some of the reviews of the Mills and Boon book we will be reading this week (The Sinful Art of Revenge by Maya Blake) and see what the consumers think.