Omissions in the Field?

By Laura Vivanco on Monday, 25 November, 2019

I've only just started reading Jonathan Allan's new book, Men, Masculinity and Popular Romance so what follows isn't a discussion of his book. I'm really just using something raised in its first few pages as a starting point for thinking about how we can/should think about omissions. Allan writes that "What this book seeks to consider is whether or not pornography might be a good model through which to theorise and critique representations of gender and sexuality in the popular romance novel" (4) and observes that

Pornography has become a negative rhetorical device that has inhibited - or at least complicated - the study of popular romance and its connections to pornography.

Consider, for example, two recent anthologies on popular romance that barely mention pornography. In New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction (2012), the word 'porn' appears twice and only in a footnote that references Ann Douglas's 'Soft Porn Culture: Punishing the Liberated Woman' (1980). Likewise, in Romance Fiction and American Culture: Love as the Practice of Freedom? (2016), the word porn does appear [...]. In both volumes, 'pornography' does appear with more frequency; a total of eight times in New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction (nearly all of which are references) and fourteen times in Romance Fiction and American Culture (half of which are references). Thus, porn/pornography is largely ignored or left untouched in these volumes; it is moved to the notes or treated as the antithesis to popular romance novels. While this can hardly be read as an unquestioned truth about popular romance studies, it does speak to a general anxiety surrounding pornography and suggests that the term is certainly not 'neutral'. There are, of course, numerous other examples that could be called upon; for example, Pamela Regis' agenda-setting A Natural History of the Romance Novel only mentions pornography in passing with reference to Germaine Greer and Ann Barr Snitow. (5)

Later, he states that

what is troubling about [...] romance scholars' attempts to distance themselves from pornography, is that it does nothing to undo the pathologisation of viewers of pornography, who are almost always framed as men (as if women do not also consume porn). If romance scholars want to argue that romance novels are not pornography, then they must do the necessary work of engaging with the pathologising impulses of those who critique pornography. That is, the argument as a whole must be dismantled. (7)

What troubles me here is that an absence of discussion seems to be equated with "attempts to distance themselves from" a topic. Could it not be that there are many different approaches to take to romance, as well as many different areas on which scholars might wish to focus, and that this might well explain the absence? After all, how many romance scholars have discussed romance in the context of crime fiction? Of speculative fiction? Of sports? For that matter, given that romance novels have been compared to valium in terms of their effect on readers' mental health, how many scholars have written about this, and engaged with "the pathologising impulses of those who critique" treatments for mental health? Probably not all that many, but that doesn't necessarily mean that there's "a general anxiety" about these topics and that scholars are trying to distance themselves from them.

I can see how lack of discussion of pornography could be disappointing to someone who wants to see more people in the field engaging with this topic, but I don't see it as one which needs to be central to all romance scholarship. Does it even need to be central to all romance scholarship dealing with gender and sexuality? I don't think so, because other people may be asking different questions. For example, Amy Burge's Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance (2016) doesn't discuss pornography, but it does discuss ideas about masculinity by comparing modern and medieval romance texts and there's a strong focus on race/ethnicity as part of that.

On the other hand, there may be good reason for concern if a field omits discussion of certain important topics altogether. That's particularly true if it's a well-established field, because then the omissions may implicitly discourage future scholars from addressing the topic and can distort perceptions of the subject-matter. For example,

medieval studies as a field is slowly, haltingly, organizing itself against oppressive ideologies. New collectives of scholars have organized into communities working to transform and destabilize our notion of the Middle Ages and to whom they belong. In recent years, that movement has been led by the group Medievalists of Color, a community of deeply engaged scholars from diverse backgrounds working at all levels of the academy [...]. The scholars in this group challenge the periodization and geographical separateness of a "medieval past" with an urgency fueled by discrimination both inside and outside the academy in an era of rising white supremacy. (Perry)

Romance scholarship, though, is relatively new and there aren't very many people working in the field so omissions may well be due largely to a lack of scholars. Also, I'm not convinced that "one of the longest debates in popular romance studies: Are popular romance novels porn for women?" (Allan 4) is in fact a debate from which romance scholarship as a whole is distancing itself: Jonathan's book is itself proof of that, as is Jodi McAlister's "Breaking the Hard Limits: Romance, Pornography, and the Question of Genre in the Fifty Shades Trilogy" (2015) and Catherine M. Roach's discussion of "romance as porn" in her Happily Ever After: The Romance Story in Popular Culture (2016), in which she argues that "Romance fiction is pornography" (84), and Jonathan says he mostly agrees with her approach (7).

Do you think this is a debate from which romance scholars are attempting to distance themselves? Which areas (if any) do you think are currently being omitted from romance scholarship?

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Allan, Jonathan A. Men, Masculinities, and Popular Romance. Abingdon: Routledge, 2020.

Perry, David. "Introduction." Whose Middle Ages: Teachable Moments for an Ill-Used Past. New York: Fordham University Press, 2019.

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