Laura's Blog

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Possibly not what you'd most expect to find in a work of fantasy, but the first chapter of Robin Hobb's Blood of Dragons (2013), "Ending a Life," depicts a moment of deep academic despair. For "Rapskal and the other keepers" insert the names from a panel of interviewers, or perhaps "the reviewers," or some other combination of academic peers who've made statements which feels career-ending:

her eyes wandered to the stacked and sorted papers and parchments that had occupied her [...]. There it was. Alise Finbok's life's work, all in one stack [...], speculations of her own, careful copies of old documents [...] she had [...] taken pride in her scholarly knowledge. [...]

All the secrets she had dreamed of discovering, all the puzzles she had longed to solve were finished now [...]. She was irrelevant. [...]

Bitterness, hurt, and resignation to the reality Rapskal had voiced formed a tight, hard knot in her throat. [...]

[...] All her research and writing waited by the fireplace. The impulse to burn it all was gone. That had been last night's pit of despair, a tarry darkness so deep that she had not even had the energy to feed the papers to the flames.

Cold daylight revealed that as a foolish vanity, the childish tantrum of 'Look what you made me do!' What had Rapskal and the other keepers done to her? Nothing except make her look at the truth of her life. Setting fire to her work would not have proved anything except that she wished to make them feel bad.

[...] Ah, that temptation lingered; make them all hurt as she did! But they wouldn't. They wouldn't understand what she had destroyed.

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Hobb, Robin. Blood of Dragons. London: HarperCollins, 2013. Ebook.

This post, for once, isn't about a work of popular romance fiction. It's about a Mercedes Lackey short story, "Ghost in the Machine" (2010), which centres around a game called "Many Worlds Online, one of the most popular multiplayer online games on the planet" (264). This game, like

World of Warcraft [...] follows a model of role-playing games that are based on a fantasy world, complete with magical powers and created mythologies. As such it is a very good example of what Possamai calls "hyper-real religion." Participation in the game, then, allows gamers to choose to engage in ritual and mythology that is deliberately created. These creations may draw from pre-modern traditions, ancient mythologies, and bygone ritual practices. (Klassen 184)

In Lackey's story a new "Dark Valley" zone has recently gone live, containing "a Boss Monster that [...] was a fairly accurate interpretation of the Native American Wendigo" (267). Her worldbuilding takes as its starting-point the lived experience of  gamers while in the magical worlds they inhabit: "In an interview study of players of World of Warcraft, Stef Aupers discovered that the majority of players he talked with named themselves atheists and specifically rejected traditional religions" (Klassen 185) but

players admit that they often experience their magical self and its magical actions as real. While immersed in play they often 'forget' that World of Warcraft is in fact a computer game, mediated by technological hardware, software, keyboard and a screen. Typical are statements like: [...] "[e]specially when you are a wizard, someone who knows how to cast spells, you really feel you have power. Like Gandalf in the movie ... The evil ones are just scared. It has impact." [...] Experience is key; over and over again they conclude: "I experience it as real." (Aupers 240-41)

Lackey takes this experience of reality to a logical, if faith/magic-imbued conclusion, by supposing that such in-game belief might lead to the creation of "something in there that you never coded" (268) but which becomes real as a result of the players' belief. The game developers have, in other words,

basically built a mythago, because you adhered so faithfully to the Native American descriptions. [...]  a 'mythago' [...]'s a term invented by Robert Holdstock to describe idealized mythic images come to life. [...] The more realistic you make games, the more people believe in them as they play them. If any of your players have untapped magical ability, the more they believe, the more of that gets invested in the reality of the game. [...]"

"Belief can be very powerful," Taylor said [...]. "Powerful enough to create things in the real world. I'm not surprised it can create something in cyberspace." (296-97)

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Aupers, Stef. "'An Infinity of Experiences.' Hyper-Real Paganism and Real Enchantment in World of Warcraft." Handbook of Hyper-Real Religions. Ed. Adam Possamai. Leiden: Brill, 2012. 225-245.

Klassen, Chris. Religion and Popular Culture: A Cultural Studies Approach. Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Lackey, Mercedes. "Ghost in the Machine." Trio of Sorcery. New York: Tor, 2010. 259-351.

Lt. Col. Karalyne Lowery, of Air War College, Air University, United States Air Force, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, considers the militarized romance shapeshifter to be a problematic figure. She observes that

Many twenty-first-century shape-shifter series focus on the US military (or paramilitary organizations like the police) to afford their shape-shifting characters an outlet for authorized violence (197)

and

Even urban fantasy and paranormal romance series without explicit ties to military groups have some sort of militaristic formation – shape- shifters fall under an alpha, usually a male, and operate in a quasi-military manner. (209)

For Lowery,

The issue in modern shape-shifter genres is that [...] authorized violence is directly linked to the American propensity to view all military members as heroic, and, therefore, violence under a militaristic guise is assumed to be a valid response no matter how excessive it might be. This is a dangerous habit to assume as the documents purposed to keep the military in check are flexible and open to interpretation. [...] The violence that the characters perpetrate decides their place on the monster spectrum, and authorized violence, when connected to a militaristic organization – be it ancient knights or modern soldiers – turns characters from monsters to heroes, regardless of the genre.

This is a problematic and dangerous trend. When applied to some of the most disastrous wars in history – military actions that provide numerous instances of human monstrosity – the aggressors can easily justify their actions under the justum bellum conventions and the other documents that Americans assume control military members. As a military officer, I often discuss my concerns about the trend of assigning heroism to military members by fiat. The fact that this trend is now applied to shape-shifters and other supernatural characters, historically considered monsters, as an antidote to this monstrosity has dangerous implications in the real world. How does the public, which is trained to see military members acting under official orders as being heroic – no matter the intensity of the violence, no matter what kind of supernatural monster, and no matter if the violence is fictional – realistically evaluate and participate in authorizing violence? (210-11, emphasis added)

Given that US police forces are also armed, are increasingly militarised, and, as mentioned, Lowery has noted that paranormal heroes may be members of "paramilitary organizations like the police," these concerns about the legitimisation of excessive force could presumably be considered to have implications for attitudes towards police violence too.

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Lowery, Karalyne. "The Militarized Shapeshifter: Authorized Violence and Military Connections as an Antidote to Monstrosity." University of Toronto Quarterly 87.1 (2018): 196-213.

hooks-all-about-loveA snippet from bell hooks' All About Love: New Visions (2000):

My work as a cultural critic offered me a constant opportunity to pay close attention to everything the mass media, particularly movies and magazines, tell us about love. Mostly they tell us that everyone wants love but that we remain totally confused about the practice of love in everyday life. In popular culture love is always the stuff of fantasy. Maybe this is why men have done most of the theorizing about love. Fantasy has primarily been their domain, both in the sphere of cultural production and in everyday life. Male fantasy is seen as something that can create reality, whereas female fantasy is regarded as pure escape. Hence, the romance novel remains the only domain in which women speak of love with any degree of authority. However, when men appropriate the romance genre their work is far more rewarded than is the writing of women. A book like The Bridges of Madison County is the supreme example. Had a woman penned this sentimental, shallow story of love (which did, though, have its moments) it is unlikely it would ever have become such a major mainstream success, crossing all boundaries of genre. (xxiii, emphasis added)

The 2001 Harper Perennial edition of hooks' book has "National Bestseller" on the title, so perhaps hooks has herself become a woman speaking of love with a degree of authority? I'm not sure exactly what she means by "male fantasy" here, or how it "is seen as something that can create reality" but I thought I'd share her thoughts about romance novels.

love

If you'd like to read a brief introduction to popular romance fiction, I've got a couple of posts up at the University of Birmingham's Popular Literature blog:

Part 1: https://blog.bham.ac.uk/poplit/an-introduction-to-popular-romance-1-by-laura-vivanco/ (defining the genre)

Part 2: https://blog.bham.ac.uk/poplit/an-introduction-to-popular-romance-2-by-laura-vivanco/ (variations + different subgenres)

I've been doing a tiny bit more background research into the history of the romance novel and ended up reading Hannah More's Coelebs in Search of a Wife (1808). In it, one of the exemplary characters:

lamented that novels, with a very few admirable exceptions, had done infinite mischief, by so completely establishing the omnipotence of love, that the young reader was almost systematically taught an unresisting submission to a feeling, because the feeling was commonly represented as irresistible. (137)

It should perhaps come as no surprise, therefore, that, according to Jane Nardin, shortly thereafter, "By the time Austen’s novels were published, More had stopped reading fiction."

I don't know if she also gave up poetry, but another of the exemplary characters states that:

Love and poetry commonly influence the two sexes in a very disproportionate degree. With men, each of them is only one passion among many. Love has various and powerful competitors in hearts divided between ambition, business, and pleasure. Poetry is only one amusement in minds, distracted by a thousand tumultuous pursuits, whereas in girls of ardent tempers, whose feelings are not curbed by restraint, and regulated by religion, love is considered as the great business of their earthly existence. It is cherished, not as ‘the cordial drop,’ but as the whole contents of the cup; the remainder is considered only as froth or dregs. (341, emphasis added)

This passage amused me, because it made me think there might possibly be one issue on which More and her contemporary, Lord Byron, would have agreed. After all, in his Don Juan a female character writes that:

Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart,
  ’Tis woman’s whole existence; man may range
The court, camp, church, the vessel, and the mart;
  Sword, gown, gain, glory, offer in exchange       
Pride, fame, ambition, to fill up his heart,
  And few there are whom these cannot estrange;
Men have all these resources, we but one,
To love again, and be again undone.

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More, Hannah. Coelebs in Search of a Wife. 1808. New York: Derby & Jackson, 1859.

Nardin, Jane. "Jane Austen, Hannah More, and the Novel of Education." Persuasions 20 (1998): 15-20.

Earlier this year the Disability and Romance Project was launched, with the aim

to start new conversations about disability in the romance community. We’ll be gathering data from romance readers, writers and other industry professionals to explore how readers respond to depictions of disability in romance, what motivates authors to write disabled characters, and if there are any barriers to publishing romance novels featuring disabled characters.

Things have, of course, changed over the decades and perhaps it's helpful to have as reference point the situation in romance writing in the 1960s, when Ann Britton and Marion Collin's guide to writing romantic fiction included disability among the "taboo" subjects:

Deformity is also unpopular. Many of the smaller publications ban it completely and the larger-circulation magazines tend to avoid it unless it appears in an exceptionally good story. Of course, there have been some very moving stories about blind girls, and girls with a slight limp who fear that love is not for them, but this kind of plot is not easy to put over sincerely. It can so easily become mawkish. If it has to be written, at least leave the reader with the hope that the girl may eventually recover, and remember that only one or two markets will even consider the story. But never a heroine with one leg. No one will buy that story. (16)

It's probably worth noting that at the time the heroine was "never 'tipsy'" (15), divorce was a "delicate subject [...] though there have been more in recent years, possibly owing to a slight American trend" (16), "Illegitimate children are out of the question" (16) and there was "a colour bar [...] .To make a mixed marriage the central situation in a story is to invite a definite rejection at the present time" (17).

The reason given for all these taboos was that in order to "appeal to as many readers as possible [...] they must respect the prejudices existing in the minds of large sections of the reading public" (17). The impression I have is that some romance authors have always challenged, or wanted to challenge, the "prejudices existing in the minds of large sections of the reading public," whether in small or large ways. In 1964, for example, Mills & Boon

asked Alex Stuart for major changes to her latest manuscript [...]. In her submission letter, Stuart realized that there might be prolems with this novel. 'Please understand that I want Mills & Boon to publish this one very much but I know your reputation for publishing "pleasant books" is of great value to you and, of course, wouldn't want to damage this' [...]. The problem concerned Stuart's insistence that the heroine's father act as a crusader in race relations in Lehar, a fictional African nation. He publishes a book demanding equal rights for black people, and targets South Africa and its apartheid laws. (McAleer 269)

Stuart, "as Vice-President of the Romantic Novelists Association, often spoke on the future of the genre" and she believed more challenging novels such as this one were "the kind which must come in the future, if the romantic novel is to hold its new, young readers and go forward, rather than backward" (169). Mills & Boon didn't publish the novel, but romances have changed with the times. Whether they've generally led the change, or largely followed in the wake of changes in the prejudices of the reading public, I'm not sure. There's certainly a long tradition of smaller publishers (e.g. of lesbian romance) catering to more niche markets, with stories that did not "respect the prejudices" of a large proportion of "mainstream" readers.

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Britton, Anne and Marion Collin. Romantic Fiction: The New Writers’ Guide. London: T. V. Boardman, 1960.

McAleer, Joseph. Passion's Fortune: The Story of Mills & Boon. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.

Earlier research on Fifty Shades of Grey had

coded the behaviors in the book according to the CDC’s guidelines for interpersonal violence (IPV). They found pervasive patterns of violence and abuse within the work. This included ‘‘intimidation, stalking, humiliation, forced sex, use of alcohol to lower resistance and isolation’’.

The presence of these behaviours, combined with the massive popularity of the series,

created both confusion and worry in a generation of feminist scholars. We have asked ourselves why this book has succeeded. Is this really what women want? (van Reenen 2014 ) We have worried that the popularity of this story is evidence that the older generation of feminists has failed to inspire feminist attitudes in our daughters, younger sisters and perhaps within ourselves. [...] We have worried whether the characterization in the books reinforces heteronormative patterns of sexuality that may create harm for young readers.

However, as Case and Coventry observe in their recently published paper,

What we have not accomplished to date is to ask men and women what they think about the behaviors of the characters in the book. We make the argument that this series romanticizes abuse and that it should be investigated from this perspective. However, does this necessarily mean that American men and women, especially those that identify as feminists, are longing to engage in abusive behaviors as either the abused or the abusive.

They therefore set out to discover whether Fifty Shades describes behaviours women want in their own relationships and

the answer is ‘No and neither do men’. While the behaviors associated with Christian Grey may have been popular reading for women in the US, this fiction does not translate into acceptability of these behaviors in their real life. These behaviors are also not supported by men.

Furthermore, "both men and women appear to expect to give up relatively equal levels of control to the control that they exert."

One caveat I thought I'd better add is that the people involved in the research were not asked about whether or not they'd read Fifty Shades. However, the popularity of the series and its notoriety were such that I think (a) it might be possible to assume some of the people surveyed had read/heard about the series and (b) nonetheless this research suggests that "the behaviors associated with Christian Grey" have not become widely acceptable in real life.

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Case, Patricia and Barbara Thomas Coventry. "Fifty Shades of Feminism: An Analysis of Feminist Attitudes and 'Grey Behaviors'." Sexuality & Culture, 2017.  [Abstract here.]

In Alex Beecroft's Blue Eyed Stranger (2015) one of the heroes, Martin, is a history teacher and historical reenactor whose "mother’s a Yorkshirewoman, my father’s from the Sudan" (61). Historical accuracy matters to him and so he has thought out a matching back-story for the character he enacts: "my character is from the kingdom of Meroe in Nubia, one of whose principle [sic] exports was carnelian" (32);

A fair amount of both Saxons and Vikings travelled to Rome on pilgrimage even in the time we’re reenacting, and a fair amount of Nubians travelled from the Sudan to Rome to trade in gold, ivory, and gems. No reason why a Viking couldn’t have married a merchant’s daughter while he was out there and brought her home. (61)

Archaelogical evidence certainly suggests this is a possible scenario given that

at least some people from Africa or of African descent were living and dying in rural and urban communities in the British Isles during the 'Viking Age' (eighth to eleventh centuries). (Green)

All the same, Martin, knows "he wasn’t what the public wanted to see when they looked for Vikings" (34); in many ways, the public want what they imagine the Vikings to be rather than the more complex realities of which historians are aware.

According to María José Gómez Calderón,

In the last two decades there has been a significant increase of novels of the so-called «hot historical» variety focusing on the Viking as object of feminine erotic desire. The most famous authors of these new Viking narratives, Johanna Lindsey, Catherine Coulter, and Sandra Hill have even become «New York Times Best-Sellers.» (292)

and their outlines are well-known enough to be parodied:

In Jackie Rose’s I’m a Viking and I Protest (2004), a contemporary American man of Norse origin, Karl Gustavsen, founds an antidefamation league and sues romance writer Rose Jacobson for presenting Vikings as sexy rapists in her works [...]. To begin with, Karl denounces Rose’s unfair presentation of the Viking in her best-seller Ravished by Ragnar (significantly published by Orgazm Books). (Gómez Calderón 296)

He does have a valid point when protesting against the depiction of Vikings as "sexy rapists" because, as Erika Ruth Sigurdson points out,

While eighth-century writers were quick to denounce the various crimes of Viking invaders, very few of those largely monastic writers commented on rape in the invasions—to the point that even modern scholarship has considered it possible that rape was simply not a part of Viking invasions. (253)

Despite this, the

theme of Viking rape—[which treats] rape as historicizing detail and rape as evidence of Viking masculinity-—appear[s] from the earliest incarnations of romanticized Viking narratives in the early nineteenth century and onward. (Sigurdson 252-3)

In other words, rape appears as a "historicizing detail" in "nineteenth-century Viking stories" because it "formed an integral part of scene setting and the creation of historical authenticity, of creating a world that felt authentically Viking-Age" (261).  Similarly, in a collection of twelve Harlequin Mills & Boon romances reprinted in 2007 and set later in the Middle Ages,

The invented space of the Medieval Collection is one of acute sexual danger for women. [...] The threat of rape or sexual assault is an ever-present fear for medieval heroines [...]. Much of the sexual harassment in these novels originates from the hero, and although some are more explicit, most first sexual encounters are characterized by violence and male dominance. (Burge 104)

Rape in fictions set in the Middle Ages presumably felt and continues to feel authentic, even if it wasn't, because,

As Kathryn Gravdal, a leader in the field of medieval rape, explains, modern culture has developed powerful myths on the subject of rape and sexuality in the Middle Ages:

The first is the notion that women enjoyed unparalleled sexual power and freedom in the days of courtly love. The second is the converse belief that rape was commonplace in the Middle Ages because society was so barbaric that men “did not know any better.” (Gravdal 1991,152)

It is this second myth, the notion of barbaric men and rape as a commonplace[,] that is particularly prevalent in popular depictions of the Vikings. (Sigurdson 254)

Nonetheless, a propensity to rape women was presumably not considered an intrinsic, or at least a desirable, aspect of masculinity in the nineteenth century, because in most of the Viking texts produced in this period

the hero’s masculinity was defined [...] by his sexual restraint, and his ability to love a worthy woman and look for her love in return. At the same time, we have also seen a few places where violent sexuality plays a role in Viking masculine identity, particularly in the case of minor characters, or in the blurring of lines between abduction and voluntary marriage. But there are a few examples from this early period where Viking rape is treated as an unambiguously integral part of Viking masculinity. (Sigurdson 262)

As ideas about masculinity changed, however, so did the sexuality of Viking heroes and in recent decades

Vikings, with their giant battle-axes and muscular good looks, perfectly symbolize “the aggressive-passive, dominant-submissive, me-Tarzan-you-Jane nature of the relationship between the sexes in our [rape] culture” (Herman 1994, 45). With its close correlation to the broader “sex and violence,” the phrase “rape and pillage” has come to encapsulate this paradox and perfectly describe a violent, dominant form of male sexuality. (Sigurdson 250)

What I think all this demonstrates is, firstly, that historical fiction can be shaped by inaccurate ideas about the past and, secondly, that it will also tend to be shaped by contemporary ideas about gender roles and sexuality.

This pillaging of the past often enhances the enjoyment of modern readers. For example:

sexuality in the Medieval Collection is drawn from modern anxieties concerning sexual violence, but this violence is safely confined to the Middle Ages, obscuring the extent to which submission and dominance can be rooted in modernity. Furthermore, defining the medieval as a period characterized by sexual violence works oppositionally to suggest that modern sexuality is not violent. (Burge 109)

If imagined differences between past and present can bring pleasure, so too can imagined similarities. Eloisa James, for example, has argued that

we historical authors need to think more deeply about what men were like back in the era we’re writing about—and if you ask me, likely not much has changed. They were scratching themselves and boasting and carrying on generally 200 years ago.

Those might not seem at first glance like traits which would give readers enjoyment but, on reflection, I think perhaps they do for some readers because they allow the heroines (and through them some modern female readers) to feel a smug sense of superiority. To quote a secondary character in a non-Viking romance:

"Women get off on that, you know."
"What?"
"Men making jerks out of themselves, [...] I think it reinforces their sense of superiority. I mean, deep down they're ninety-nine and nine-tenths percent positive we're idiots. Still, they like to have it confirmed every once in a while." (Buck 34)

Or, to put it yet another way, there is an appeal

to what in the novels is presented as the eternal feminine that joins both females [i.e. the heroine and the female reader], [...] by assuming that women of all ages have to face the same kind of problems with men, that is, the eternal masculine. (Gómez Calderón 294)

Inaccurate depictions of the past may be enjoyable (although presumably not to those, like Martin, who crave accuracy) but they may, cumulatively, have serious consequences. For example, if one can create the impression of an "eternal feminine" one can ignore the ways in which gender roles have changed and are, therefore, socially constructed. Perhaps even more seriously,

Racist and white supremacist ideas about the past have lingered in our culture. They are not limited to dyed-in-the-wool racists or card-carrying members of the Klan. They can seem natural and normal. That makes them a fundamental part of institutionalized racism as it exists today, since the past forms and informs the foundations of the present. [...] We see the past the way it has been presented to us in school, in history books, and in popular culture. (Sturtevant)

As Martin says, being immersed in accurate history can feel

Funny and bizarre, unsettling and uncomfortable, sometimes even repellent. But you always returned from it with a refreshed perspective, so that just for a little while, before habit kicked back in, you could see your own world with a stranger’s eyes, and all the things that were normally invisible showed up like cancer cells tagged with radiant dye. (121)

It's not everyone's idea of enjoyment, and so perhaps not easy to incorporate into a mass-market genre. In addition, in popular romance fiction the readers do need to feel an emotional connection to the protagonists; that could be inhibited if readers feel too unsettled or repelled by the characters' beliefs and attitudes (though less so if those emotions are elicited by the characters' context). So there are certainly challenges involved in writing historically-accurate historical romance but there also romance authors who are willing to accept those challenges and make their depictions of history that bit more challenging to long-accepted norms.

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Beecroft, Alex. Blue Eyed Stranger. Hillsborough, NJ: Riptide, 2015.

Buck, Carole. Knight and Day. New York, NY: Silhouette, 1992.

Burge, Amy. “Do Knights Still Rescue Damsels in Distress?: Reimagining the Medieval in Mills & Boon Historical Romance.” The Female Figure in Contemporary Historical Fiction. Ed. Katherine Cooper and Emma Short. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 95-114.

Gómez Calderón, María José. “Romancing the Dark Ages: The Viking Hero in Sentimental Narrative.” Boletín Millares Carlo 26 (2007): 287-97. [Available in full, for free, online.]

Green, Caitlin. "A great host of captives? A note on Vikings in Morocco and Africans in early medieval Ireland & Britain." 12 September 2015.

James, Eloisa. "Making Rakes from Real Men." The Popular Romance Project. 9 April 2013. [link to the Internet Archive]

Sigurdson, Erika Ruth. "Violence and Historical Authenticity: Rape (and Pillage) in Popular Viking Fiction." Scandinavian Studies 86.3 (2014): 249-67.

Sturtevant, Paul E. "Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages: Tearing Down the 'Whites Only' Medieval World." The Public Medievalist. 7 February 2017.

 

monsters and aliens offer important insight into how different animals become enlisted in the work of legitimizing particular human genders, sexualities, and races through animal imagination. In other words, monsters and aliens are imaginary beings, but their textual bodies are composed of specific animalsbears, lizards, birds, crabs, squid, etc.that are deployed for the purposes of different fantasies of gender, sexuality, race, and species. In particular, vertebrate- and especially mammal-based monsters make it easier to confirm heterosexual, racialized fantasies about bestial dominant masculinities and fragile white femininities, whereas invertebrate-based creatures open up a whole different realm of embodied animal relations, fantasies, and desires. (Van Engen)

The article from which this quote is taken is about erotica, but I think some of its insights could also be applied to some kinds of romance.

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Dagmar Van Engen. "How to Fuck a Kraken: Cephalopod Sexualities and Nonbinary Genders in EBook Erotica." Humanimalia 9.1 (2017).

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The picture comes from the Illustrated Police News of 17 October 1896. It depicts the "alarming experience of fair bathers who are attacked by an octopus." I found it at Wikimedia Commons but more details can be found here.

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