Thursday, September 30

Beyond Heaving Bossoms - Sarah Wendell & Candy Tan

As is clear from a quick perusal of our blog, both Lynn and I enjoy romance novels, from the unquestionably Mills & Boon end through to modern variants where the strong romantic narrative is intertwined with another genre like suspense or mystery, from Regency-era froth to contemporary settings, and even the odd Old Skool ridiculousness (Carole Mortimer, anyone?). We both have Masters degrees (one of us has two) and both have our eyes on Ph.D.’s in the relatively near future. We also both enjoy popping in on Wendell and Tan’s website – there’s a link in the left hand column, if you’re interested.

Like the website, Beyond Heaving Bosoms (subtitled The Smart Bitches Guide to Romance Novels) sets out to explore the world of the romance novel or, as they title it, Romancelandia. Wendell and Tan’s starting point is that readers of romance novels are inappropriately ridiculed for their literary tastes, typecast as dowdy spinsters of a Certain Age and plumpness, desperate for a little romance in their bleak and lonely worlds. The reality is that romance novels constitute the biggest part of the publishing market, in terms of both volume and revenue. Like us, the majority of readers have a tertiary education and a comfortable income. Yes, there is something of a formula, in the same way every genre has conventions and formulas. Romance novels are ridiculed primarily, though, because they’re overwhelming written and read by women.

This is not to say that Wendell and Tan don’t take the odd jab at the genre themselves though, from ludicrous cover art to the healing powers of the hero’s untameable Mighty Wang of Mighty Lovin’ and the heroine’s Magic Hoo Hoo.

However, mixed in with the lighter moments are relatively serious discussions, including: the bewildering persistence of sex myths and tropes, from the painfully pierced and misplaced hymen (which generally moves half way up the vagina) through to the heroine incapable of enjoying sex, ever, with anyone but the hero, and the ridiculousness of the Simultaneous Orgasm (which I think is often short-hand for ‘they’re just massively compatible on every level and meant to be together forever’); several discussions about the use and frequency of rape in Old Skool romance novels (including discussion about why they were written and how they’re still defended); the impact and underlying bias of shelving non-white romance fiction in other parts of bricks-and-mortar stores; the bizarre concept that everyone critiquing in the field ought - with a full moral imperative - to Be Nice, a fact Lynn and I became aware of in the earliest days of our still wholly amateur writing; and an introduction, for newcomers, to the Smart Bitches Plagiarism Debate.

Which isn’t at all a debate, except in as much as there still seems in some corners to be some people who continue to question whether plagiarism is acceptable. In a nutshell for those newcomers – two years ago a friend of one of the authors borrowed a selection of romance novels to get a feel for the genre. As an example of bad romance writing the woman was given a copy of prolific author Cassie Edwards’ Shadow Bear. The reader, a classic student, was struck by a distinct change in tone in the midst of one scene and, inspired to look a little further, discovered through Google that Edwards had lifted slabs of writing from an article on wildlife. See here for a recap of just some of the total drama that ensued.

I predominantly enjoyed my reading of Beyond Heaving Bosoms, though I have a couple of quibbles. The first is that the audience isn’t entirely clear – there’s certainly an assumption of some degree of knowledge of the genre going in. Certainly there are discussions about the evolution and history of the romance novel, including a description of types of heroine (doormat, plain and strong, antiheroine, ingénue), and exemplars a plenty. However, I suspect that readers who aren’t familiar at all with the field will find some things a little confusing. Perhaps the target audience is the more experienced romance reader, and these aspects are there as refreshers and reminders of aspects of the genre outside the readers’ usual material.

The tone is also a little conflicted, so that serious discussion of the elements I mentioned above are nestled between a game allowing the reader to scour second hand book shops for bad covers to score (“is the heroine’s eye shadow a color you’ve never before witnessed on a human being? 4 points”) and a choose-your-own-romance (“As you sleep, you dream. Do you: see Hawkings in your dream? Turn to option 13 - page 223”), accompanied by MadLibs across an arrays of sub-genres. And I very quickly got tired of the entendre remarks: (“insert ‘more open’ joke here… insert joke about ‘insert’ here… oh, never mind” and “swelled head. No, not that head, the other one”). The activities were, I imagine, far more fun to create than I found them to read, and the former could certainly have been significantly shorter, and funnier. I did find the latter, where the choices of heroine description dictated the sub-genre (contemporary, urban, supernatural and much sexxoring,™ historic classic, historic pirate), valuable but think it could have come earlier. I also think it would have been more relevant if it had been used as an exemplar to illustrate some of the sub-genres of the field.

Perhaps that’s because I found the more academic aspects of the text interesting, for all that I was fairly familiar with the feminist aspects of writing, the demography of the readerships, and need no convincing about the worth of the genre. I found the comparison of Old Skool rape with current paranormal trend of heroines being unwillingly and non-consensually transformed really interesting and hadn’t identified it previously myself. I have to applaud their inclusion of fantasy authors, and personal favourites, Bujold and Shinn, and I did discover the latter through reader recommendations on the blog. I was also interested in Wendell and Tan’s predictions for the future of romance novels, which includes: an increasing emphasis on non-traditional romances (male/male, female/female/trios and more); the mainstreaming of anal sex and bondage; more historicals set in the Victorian age and fewer in Regency England; and a move away from vampires and werewolves to other creatures from the paranormal pantheon – they tip zombies. On their five point concluding wish list is also something I’d like to see, the demise of the alpha hero and the rise of the beta male (or, as Candy frames it, the hipster). Whatever the future of romance, there’s no question it will continue to thrive, on paper and in e-publishing. But pretty much everything I got out of Beyond Heaving Bosoms I could have read on the blog, albeit in a less condensed format, so it’s a good thing I borrowed it from my awesome library. – Alex

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