popular culture

A Very Apologetic Non-Apology

By Laura Vivanco on

In 1992 Frances Whitehead, at the time the Editorial Director at Mills & Boon, had an article published about popular romance, in which she traced its history back to "the Greek novels of the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD" (62). She goes on to mention Richardson and Austen, then observes that

Throughout the 19th century, romance continued to appear in all guises and those at the top of the literary tree influenced the writers below them. [...] This curious situation, with romance simultaneously occupying the high and the low ground - the literary and the lowbrow - has continued in the present century. (Some romantic passages from D H Lawrence could be said to qualify for inclusion in both categories.) But whereas romantic love is an acceptable theme for a "literary" author, it is often a source of ridicule in more popular, down-market fiction. (63)

This sounded to me like a defence of popular romance novels, so I read on eagerly, and was pleased to see Whitehead comment that "writing romance isn't like painting by numbers" (64). It began to seem as though the main distinction, in her mind, between "literary" and "genre" fiction, was that, in "genre" fiction, the reader can expect the plot to develop in particular ways, according to which genre is involved:

Having followed the fortunes of hero and heroine throughout the book, the reader demands that they are united for all time. To have them decide that they don't want to spend their lives together would be comparable to James Bond admitting defeat or Christie's Hercule Poirot failing to solve a case. Predictability, the cardinal sin in the "literary" novel, is a necessary and reassuring factor for the reader of genre fiction. (64)

I was, therefore, rather dismayed to see the following statement in the closing paragraphs of the article:

Romantic novels are entertainment, not literature, and do not need to apologize for what they are. They serve their purpose and in the process keep countless women amused and happy, off the valium and out of doctors' surgeries. This in itself is justification. (68)

Sometimes, it seems the defenders of romance are indistinguishable from its detractors.

Edited to add: a response on Twitter reminded me of something I'd read before, which makes me think that Whitehead was probably echoing her boss.

Joseph McAleer, in his Passion's Fortune: The Story of Mills & Boon, states that:

The Mills & Boon imprint, like any successful commodity in a mass market, stands for a quality product, a kind of guarantee of an easy, thrilling, and satisfying read with an obligatory happy ending. This flavourful confection, wrapped in a brightly coloured paperback cover with a dreamy scene, is to many addictive in its escapist nature. Alan Boon, the acknowledged genius behind the stylized Mills & Boon romance, admitted the restorative quality of the novels which he edited for some forty years: 'It has been said that our books could take the place of valium, so that women who take these drugs would get an equal effect from reading our novels.' (2)

It's possible that Boon was just quoting something others had said, but with which he disagreed. However, the context in which it's reported, and Whitehead's reference to valium, make me fairly sure he shared her views and, probably, shaped them.


Whitehead, Frances. "Love Makes the World Go Round (?): The Romantic Novel as a Publishing Phenomenon." Logos 3.2 (1992): 62-68. [The article has recently been reprinted elsewhere, and you can read the whole of it here.]

Legal Minds Taking a Dim View of Romance Novels

By Laura Vivanco on

Rebecca Tushnet quotes some exceedingly ignorant and condescending legal views of romance fiction, which I've put in bold. [I've also added links to the articles she cites, where I could find them available for free online.]

Critics, both legal and literary, have often assumed that romance novels are interchangeable consumables, “mass produced” in a way that other books somehow aren’t.  [...] Even fair-use friendly academics can slip into stereotype, treating romances as meaningless commodities, more like chewing gum than literature,9 “wholly lacking in scholarly or research significance.”10 Others see romances, and their readers, as not just meaningless but worthless. 11

There's even legal commentary that blithely writes off romances and fantasies as so trivial and irrelevant to real life that there is no such thing as fair use of them:

The Harry Potter series of books, for example, are works of pure fancy. These books certainly deal with issues of human nature – addressing subjects like the struggle between good and evil, self-awareness, and coming of age – but they are set in a parallel universe. They make no explicit attempt to address important social or political topics, and as such they should be free from subsequent use [for purposes of fair use analysis].

Genre fiction (horror, mystery, romance) is typically about the plot of the story or about the main character’s experience within the setting developed in the story. These works deal with human nature but generally lack social commentary. Romance novels, for example, deal with lust, romance, and human relationships. These works, however, are largely divorced from the issues and problems of the real world.12 (6-9)

9 Glynn Lunney, Copyright, Private Copying, and Discrete Public Goods, 12 Tul J. Tech. & Intell. Prop. 1, 19 (2009) (describing romance novels as examples of "read-and-toss" works whose consumers "might not care about which particular work they receive," but "may simply want another unit in a relatively homogenous stream of works").

10 Pamela Samuelson, Google Book Search and the Future of Books in Cyberspace, 94 Minn. L. Rev. 1308 n. 134 (2010) ("Google's license from the settlement class allows it to scan not only many books for GBS that may be wholly lacking in scholarly or research significance (e.g., say, Harlequin romance novels), but also duplicates of books already in the corpus."). But see Ann Bartow, Fair Use and the Fairer Sex: Gender, Feminism, and Copyright Law, 14 Am. U. J. Gender Soc. Pol'y & L. 551, 581 (2006) (arguing against dismissiveness toward romance novels, especially as compared to other popular genres).

11 See, e.g., M. Todd Henderson, The Nanny Corporation, 76 U. Chi. L. Rev. 1517, 1531 (2009) ("Even reading romance novels, after all, may impose costs on others, since presumably the less well-educated are a net drain on society.").

12 Michael Coblenz, Not for Entertainment Only: Fair Use and Fiction as Social Commentary, 16 UCLA Ent. L. Rev. 265, 302 (2009).

I'm not convinced that Ann Bartow is really all that much less dismissive, at least of category romances, but you can judge for yourself:

Romance novels [...] seem to benefit from apparent female authorship, regardless of the author’s actual gender. Pseudonyms appearing on romance novel covers are usually female and, generally, very Anglo and aristocratic sounding , such as Victoria Aldridge, Ellyn Bache, Elizabeth Bailey, Daphne Clair, Jacqueline Diamond, Olivia Gates, Jillian Hart, Tara Taylor Quinn, Roxanne Rustand, Carol Stephenson, Meredith Webber, and Rebecca Winters.

Some categories of romance novels have a marked tendency to offer the same basic plot lines over and over to an extent that one might expect copyright law to discourage or prevent. Yet it almost seems as though certain romance novel publishers have chosen to either risk or forgo copyright infringement suits premised upon the doctrine of substantial similarity. If it is true that West Side Story would infringe the copyright of “Romeo and Juliet” if that Shakespearian play was currently protected by a U.S. copyright and if the appropriation of a few notes from a copyrighted song without permission for sampling purposes is widely viewed as actionable, one would think that some of the more repetitive romance novels would be routinely enjoined by copyright-holding competitors. However, copyright suits do not appear to be a significant part of the ostentatiously satin and lace fabric of this sector of the romance novel publishing industry. (579-80)

It's true that she goes on to be really quite positive about some single title romances, but that positive assessment comes at the expense of Harlequin/Mills & Boons (and other category romances) and I can't help but think she's a little confused about their content, because category romances are not "bodice rippers":

There are different types of romance novels, and many romance novels are rich, complicated works of fiction, as intricate, sophisticated, and valuable as any other category of literature. These tend to be single-titled romances, lengthier works which are released individually, and not as part of a numbered series. Though often dismissed as inconsequential or frivolous, it is difficult to understand why they are more or less socially important than westerns, political thrillers, spy sagas, or books about sports figures.

There is, however, a subcategory of pulpy, formulaic romance novels, which illustrates an odd intersection between copyrights and gendered book consumption. Their intended and actual audience is overwhelmingly female. Sometimes referred to as “bodice rippers,” these books, often available through monthly subscriptions, feature stereotypical characters, repetitive plotting, and sexual contacts of borderline consensuality. They are often written under somewhat pretentious-sounding pseudonyms and graced with cover art depicting an attractive, well-dressed, heterosexual couple in some sort of romantic embrace. [...]

The successful monthly pulp romance repeatedly tells its readers the same essential story: regardless of contrary initial impressions, beneath distant and foreboding exteriors, the men who pursue them romantically are decent, caring people who are worthy of being loved by female protagonists and by the readers themselves. Both reinforcement of idealized heterosexual relationships and perceived market imperatives may drive publishers’ content decisions. Serial romance novel consumers can only buy, or refrain from buying, the books that contain the content that distributors choose to provide. Copyright law seems to do a poor job of incentivizing originality in this context, and one consequence may be that a patriarchal status quo is effectively reinforced. (581-83)


Bartow, Ann. "Fair Use and the Fairer Sex: Gender, Feminism, and Copyright Law." American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law 14.3 (2006): 551-584. Available as a pdf.

Tushnet, Rebecca. "The Romantic Author and the Romance Writer: Resisting Gendered Concepts of Creativity" (2015). Georgetown Law Faculty Publications and Other Works. Paper 1419. http://scholarship.law.georgetown.edu/facpub/1419. Available as a pdf. It is due to be published in Diversity in Intellectual Property Ed. Irene Calboli & Srividhya Ragavan. Cambridge U. P, forthcoming 2015.

Overthinking things?

By Laura Vivanco on

When I was young I was read the story of the Elephant's Child

who was full of ‘satiable curiosity, and that means he asked ever so many questions. [...] He asked questions about everything that he saw, or heard, or felt, or smelt, or touched, and all his uncles and his aunts spanked him. And still he was full of ‘satiable curiosity!

That poor little elephant suffers a lot as a result of his curiosity. He's not just spanked: he gets his nose irrevocably stretched by a crocodile. He learns, though, that the growth is a positive development and the story ultimately condemns the family who do the spanking.

I much prefer this story about curiosity and its rewards to the idea that curiosity kills cats or that bad things emerge when Pandora's Box is opened. So in the past when people have mentioned the possibility that the academic study of popular romance could involve overthinking  things, I was just puzzled. Isn't thinking about things always a good thing?

Recently, though, I've seen a couple of things which have got me rethinking the idea of overthinking.

for every person who is interested in interrogating and contextualizing her own choices in reading material, I feel certain there are more people who just want to read what they want without over-thinking it or being questioned in any way. I guess I am trying in a clumsy roundabout way to figure out if there are ways in which academic or “wonky”  incursions into the online romance community are perceived as a negative development and, if so, where, and for whom?
a college writing instructor, [...] offered a course that asks students to examine everyday arguments: that is, to use rhetorical and critical theory to construct academic essays about the arguments that we daily encounter in the news, in popular culture, and online. (1)
When I taught this course in the winter of 2011, I encountered a problem. For their third formal essay of the semester, students wrote a critical analysis of a television show of their choice; not surprisingly, most students picked programs that they regularly watched and enjoyed. This was by far students’ favorite assignment, and in fact these essays were the strongest and most sophisticated of the semester. One by one, however, students turned in written drafts that eviscerated the shows they spoke so animatedly and lovingly about in class. The student who had seen every syndicated episode of Friends scrutinized the show’s lack of socioeconomic and racial diversity. The student who routinely watched The Bachelor each week with her friends interrogated its portrayal of romantic love and marriage. And on the day when the final draft was due, Maria – who wrote a beautiful analysis of how the show Entourage perpetuates hegemonic masculinity – asked me, “Does this mean I can’t watch Entourage anymore?” (1-2)
If Maria’s Entourage essay gave the show a critical viewing, how was she watching it before? Was she viewing it uncritically? If so, how does this characterization of her viewing practices position Maria’s expertise about the show in the classroom? What knowledges, practices, or subjectivities actually comprise Maria’s expertise, and how do they compare to academic ways of thinking? Is there another way to understand Maria’s pleasure from watching Entourage besides saying it is uncritical? What kind of affect is pleasure, and where does it fit in the writing classroom? What happens when texts that students use primarily for purposes of pleasure and entertainment are brought into the classroom for critical analysis? What happens to students in such situations? And finally, how should I respond to Maria’s question? (2)
romance readers take part in shaping how textual conventions are understood, what texts mean beyond their narrative function, and how they circulate. Moreover, some women use popular romance fiction to maintain intimate connections to friends and family members, reflect on and transform their personal lives, and demonstrate collective and civic engagement online. These experiences may remain invisible in classrooms that focus primarily on the role of popular culture texts in reproducing hegemonic ideologies. (15)
critical literacy pedagogies can actually disempower students when such pedagogies invite popular culture texts into the writing classroom but position such texts primarily as ideological artifacts that require critical, academic “tools” to excavate their hidden meanings. (13)
In a post celebrating her blog's first anniversary, Pamela of Badass Romance said that
They're questions which also preoccupied Stephanie Moody who, as
Like Pamela, Stephanie began to ask herself questions about questioning and critiquing:
What, in other words, if academics are not the curious little elephant but are some of the older animals in the story? I've never really taught any students, which makes it hard for me to see myself in this role, but could we be the pompous yet helpful Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake who asks the elephant "questions, in the Socratic mode of instruction" (Meyer)? Perhaps we're the Kolokolo bird, with its mournful cry of "‘Go to the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees, and find out," sending the elephant off on a possibly instructive but also dangerous and painful quest? Or are we the crocodile, forcefully pulling the elephant's nose while trying to turn him into fodder for our careers?

Maybe I'm overthinking things and should just sit back and enjoy some pictures instead?

Pretty, aren't they? But I'm still asking questions. And in case you're wondering, Stephanie Moody concludes that
and so
I'm not sure that academics who are also romance readers "position such texts primarily as ideological artifacts" but I can see how we might come across as doing that. In which case, we might seem to be taking an authoritative position which disempowers other romance readers.

On the other hand, the online romance community isn't being forced into a college composition classroom, and those of us who are both academics and romance readers are still romance readers, so should being an academic (or simply being a reader who takes a more academic/"wonky" perspective) disbar someone from taking "part in shaping how textual conventions are understood, what texts mean beyond their narrative function, and how they circulate"?

Meyer, Rosalind, 1984. "But is it Art? An Appreciation of Just So Stories." Kipling Journal 58 (232). 10-33. Qtd. in Lewis, Linda. "The Elephant's Child." Kipling Society, 30 July 2005.

Moody, Stephanie Lee, 2013. "Affecting Genre: Women's Participation with Popular Romance Fiction." Ph.D thesis. University of Michigan.

Popular Fiction Does Things Differently, Not Worse

By Laura Vivanco on

Here's a description of some of the differences between literary and popular fiction which takes on the critics of popular culture. It does, of course, involve some generalisations but I think the broad points outlined are worth thinking about. The first

relates to character development. The critic maintains that in popular fiction, characters are flat and uni-dimensional as to their behaviour and motives. The hero or the heroine are basically looking for unconditional love that leads to long-term commitment. What the critics insisted on is total realism which requires that characters are portrayed psychoanalytically as complex and multi-dimensional. Not only this but characters have to relate to the entire social network, interact with others and not merely embark on a personal journey.

What the critics failed to understand is that this level of complexity is not in the nature of the genre. Popular fiction intends to deal with a close circuit of personal and emotional experience which is ultimately individualistic. Because the experience according to the genre is so personal, the writer deliberately ignores the social network, background and the general environment. As a result, time and place become of secondary importance, hence the ambiguity of locations, town, etc.

Popular fiction is intended to serve a message which may not be any less profound than any realistic or historical or political novel one cares to name. But to get there the genre has its own conventional character vehicles: stereotypes such as the lonely girl whose father has just died. [...]

Regarding events, what the critics would like to see is an event development not for its own sake (one thing leads to another) but as a vehicle to uncover the suffering of the characters, and the forces which surround and move them, hence the flashbacks, reverse chronology, etc. The aim of fictional events is to produce a change in the reader regarding the real world. Popular fiction approaches events differently: there is a temporal build-up: a beginning, middle and end. This sequence, however, is meant to be logical; coincidence plays a part, but to focus on personal emotions and to keep the reader constantly interested in them and not be distracted by a thought or a reason. In short, the reader has to be rather passive, not in the sense of having no opinion or of accepting to be led but in the sense of accepting the narrator's word for it and trusting the narrative as such: this is how the reader is made to leave his or her real world behind. (159-60)


Al-Bataineh, Afaf Badr, 1998. 
"The modern Arabic novel: a literary and linguistic analysis of the genre of popular fiction, with special reference to translation from English." Ph.D., Heriot-Watt.

Telling Stories About Ourselves

By Laura Vivanco on

Here's another statement about why it's important to study the stories we read:

One of the most significant developments in narrative studies has been the recognition that humans are “storied selves” (Eakin, 1999, p. 99) living in a “story-shaped world” (Sarbin, 1993, p. 63). In this view, we make meaning of our own lives and others' through narrative; we tell stories to make sense of experience and understand the world around us. We are, in the phrase coined by Fisher (1984), Homo narrans.

[...] For literary critics the centrality of narrative comes as no surprise, but work remains to be done theorizing the complex relationships between fictional stories, which are ubiquitous in human culture, and the myriad stories we tell about ourselves and our world. How do the form and content of fictional narratives shape the stories individuals perceive and construct about their own lives? How does the emplotment of events in the lives of fictional characters influence readers' understanding of the possible and permissible plotlines in their own lives? (Harrison 112)

Harrison adds that

Psychologist Jerome Bruner (2004) [...] acknowledged the powerful role of culture in shaping life stories, which “reflect the prevailing theories about ‘possible lives’ that are part of one's culture.” To “construct their own life narratives,” individuals within a culture can draw upon its “stock of canonical life narratives” (Bruner, 2004, p. 694) and combine and recombine elements of cultural narratives in order to construct their own. Thus, individuals do not merely become their own autobiographical stories; they become “variants of the culture's canonical forms” (Bruner, 2004, p. 694). Conversely, a culture can be understood through the array of life stories its members can tell. Together, contemporary and historical life stories and the cultural narratives that shape them help us understand a culture's values, possibilities, and preoccupations. (112-13)

Her article focuses on stories featuring "the marriage plot" so it's of particular interest to those of us who study, read and/or write popular romance fiction. It's also currently available in full for free.


Harrison, Mary Catherine. "Reading the Marriage Plot." Journal of Family Theory & Review 6.1 (2014): 112-131.

Unpacking Popular Romance

By Laura Vivanco on

We've finally moved into our new home and, much as there are still quite a lot of boxes to unpack, there are quite a lot of long-neglected emails in my inbox. One of them pointed me to Sigrid Cordell's "Loving in Plain Sight: Amish Romance Novels as Evangelical Gothic." I'm hoping it'll inspire me to get back down to work again after my long break because, in her introduction, she gives some reasons why it's worth studying romance novels:

To some extent, romance fiction reflects what a culture fantasizes about and fears. [...] At the same time, romance is also a genre that reflects the ways in which a culture is changing, or, at least, the ways in which the possibilities for fantasy are changing. Just as Harlequin romances in the late 1990s began featuring romances with men who were willing to stay home and help take care of the children in an historical moment when men were taking on increasing roles in the household (such as in Donna Alward’s Little Cowgirl on His Doorstep and Ray Morgan’s A Father for Her Sons), and the wars of the first decade of the twentieth century spawned a boom in military romances (such as Dee Henderson’s Uncommon Heroes series), romances reflect in the aggregate how a culture is changing and adapting to that change. (3-4)


Cordell, Sigrid. 2013. “Loving in Plain Sight: Amish Romance Novels as Evangelical Gothic.” Journal of Amish and Plain Anabaptist Studies 1.2: 1-16.

'Picture by Hay Kranen / PD' via Wikimedia Commons.

Politics and the Popular Novel

By Laura Vivanco on

Some months ago Emma Barry, "a [romance] novelist and full-time mama and graduate student" wrote a post about "Politics and the Romance Novel" in which she commented that

One of the determinations and often-repeated truisms is that readers don’t like political books. It is believed readers won’t read about politics and, more broadly, they don’t like books that directly address inequities, social justice, organizations and belief structures (e.g., churches, capitalism), and so on.

Given the title of the post, I'm assuming she was referring specifically to readers of romance novels.

I have the impression that other popular genres, such as science fiction/speculative fiction and fantasy, quite often address these issues directly. Admittedly I've been reading pretty much exclusively within the romance genre since it became the focus of my research but I do occasionally venture outside and I don't think it can be a fluke that the two novels shelved as "fantasy" which I read this week "directly address inequities, social justice, organizations and belief structures (e.g., churches, capitalism), and so on": Mazarkis Williams, author of The Emperor's Knife creates a world in which there are a variety of different social structures, cultures and religious beliefs and the plot of Lois McMaster Bujold's The Hallowed Hunt turns on the importance of souls and some of the gods of the Quintarian religion make an appearance. In both novels there are discussions about politics and the responsibilities of rulers. My favourite bit of overt political commentary, though, comes from Mercedes Lackey's The Lark and the Wren, a fantasy novel I read a while ago. Here's a secondary character, Tonno, explaining why paying taxes is a responsible and necessary thing to do:

"Constables, dung-sweepers, the folk who repair and maintain the wells and the aqueducts, and a hundred more jobs you'd never think of and likely wouldn't see. Rat-catchers and street-tenders, gate-keepers and judges, gaolers and the men who make certain food sold in the marketplace is what it's said to be. [...] That's what a government is all about, Rune," he said, more as if he was pleading with her than as if he was trying to win an argument. "Taking care of all the things that come up when a great many people live together. And yes, most of those things each of us could do for himself, taking care of his own protection, and his family's, and minding the immediate area around his home and shop - but that would take a great deal of time, and while the expenses would be less, they would come in lumps, and in the way of things, at the worst possible time." (113)

Rune "could see his point" (113) but she evidently isn't wholly reconciled to the idea of paying taxes because when the subject appears again later in the novel it's due to her suggesting to Wren that living a life on the open road might be advantageous because of

"The damned tithe and tax. If they can't catch you, they can't collect it. And if you leave before they catch you -"

"Point taken," he admitted. "Though, I'll warn you, I do pay tax; I've been paying both our shares. If you want decent government, you have to be prepared to pay for it." [...]

"Point taken," she said, quietly. "Tonno - felt the same way as you, and lectured me about it often enough. [...]" (218)

One may agree or disagree with the political, religious etc stances taken by characters in these novels but I find it very refreshing to see them expressed openly, in much the same way that, in Lackey's novel, "musicians wore [...] ribbon knots on their sleeves" (103) so that their occupation is readily apparent. It's something I don't often see in romance, although it could be argued that all romances are political if, as Pamela Regis has argued, one of the "eight essential elements of the romance novel" (30) is

Society Defined

Near the beginning of the novel, the society that the heroine and hero will confront in their courtship is defined for the reader. This society is in some way flawed; it may be incomplete, superannuated, or corrupt. It always oppresses the heroine and hero. [...] The scene or scenes defining the socieyt establishes the status quo which the heroine and hero must confront in their attempt to court and marry and which, by their union, they symbolically remake. (31)

However, the politics inherent in defining a society and then remaking it would seem to be well masked in most romances. Perhaps this is because, as Merrian Weymouth once mused on Twitter, "romancelandia is an escape into privilege" (qtd by Meoskop). Privilege has been described as "an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was 'meant' to remain oblivious" (McIntosh). By definition, then, making overt the politics underlying romances would tend to work against an escape into privilege.

While I can understand the appeal of escaping into privilege, I find myself alienated by the implicit politics of a lot of romance novels and I can't help but agree with Emma Barry's conclusion:

If we’re pretending that a run-of-the-mill Regency or small-town contemporary is without statement about power or politics, it’s going to be very difficult for a novel that addresses inequity — across race, class, sexual orientation, nation of origin, etc. — to make it.

At the end of the day, I’d wish we talk about power and politics in every novel in more complicated ways, thus opening the market to the voices that are currently excluded.


Barry, Emma. "Politics and the Romance Novel." 28 May 2013.

Lackey, Mercedes. The Lark and the Wren. 1992. The Free Bards. Riverdale, NY: Baen, 1997. 1-298.

McIntosh, Peggy. "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack."

Meoskop. "Master of His Domain." It's My Genre. 4 April 2013.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2003.

Israeli Pulp

By Laura Vivanco on

I've seen very little about romance publishing in Israel other than Paul Grescoe's brief reference to Harlequins being published

under a licensing arrangement in Israel, where the company had some difficult dealings but enjoyed among the highest penetrations of any country in the world. In recent years, however, Hebrew has become one of a couple of languages that are no longer part of the Harlequin world. (173)

I was therefore pleased to see some mention of romance in Rachel Leket-Mor's about "IsraPulp: The Israeli Popular Literature Collection at Arizona State University." She describes the items in the collection as being "on the ostracized fringe" (2) and adds that

Collecting, preserving, and enabling access to these materials are the responsibility of librarians and stewards of cultural memory, as demonstrated in cultural historian Robert Darnton’s essay “The Library in the New Age” (2008):

The criteria of importance change from generation to generation, so we cannot know what will matter to our descendants. They may learn a lot from studying our Harlequin novels or computer manuals or telephone books. Literary scholars and historians today depend heavily on research in almanacs, chapbooks, and other kinds of “popular” literature, yet few of those works from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries have survived. They were printed on cheap paper, sold in flimsy covers, read to pieces, and ignored by collectors and librarians who did not consider them “literature.” (5)

Leket-Mor's article (which is freely available online) isn't just about the University's collection: it also includes a short "history of Hebrew non-canonized literature since the 1930s." She begins earlier, though, with related literature published elsewhere, and so she mentions that

In 1937, the two major Yiddish dailies in Warsaw, Haynt and Der Moment, started to publish sensational novels in booklets. The first installment was distributed with the Friday newspaper edition, and the rest of the series was sold separately, as a side business for the publishers. These novels, epitomized by the serialized Sabine and Regine, were usually titled after their female protagonists, featuring urban romance stories with a dash of erotic intricacies. By 1938, the distribution of these Damsel-in-Distress booklets outnumbered any Jewish newspaper in Warsaw (Shmeruk 1982; Cohen N. 2003b, 2008).

These serialized Yiddish novels were also exported to Erets-Israel, “boxes upon boxes of ‘Sabines’ and ‘Regines’,” by Jewish journalists who emigrated from Poland with the Fifth ‘Aliyah (1929–1939). Inspired by their popularity, similar series came out in Hebrew during the 1930s and 1940s. (9)

It was the

ha-Roman ha-Za'ir publishing house of the Farago Brothers [...] which was the steadiest enterprise in the non-canonized domain, and [...] therefore epitomized the concept of pulp fiction in colloquial Hebrew. According to the thorough study of Gavriel Rosenbaum (1999), the firm operated from 1939 to 1961, first under the name of ha-Roman ha-Za'ir [The Tiny Novel], and since 1952 as ha-Kulmos [The Quill] [...] ha-Roman ha-Za'ir and ha-Kulmos published about 700 chapbooks during their twenty-two years of continuous activity. Some of the titles were retranslated from Hungarian and republished because the publishers believed that the Hebrew register used in the first editions was too elevated. The scope of their output covered romance stories, along with crime and adventure stories spiced with romance, in urban settings. Erotic elements were moderate, and these never turned into pornography. According to Rosenbaum (1999), the Farago brothers took their publishing business seriously and insisted on well-translated, proofread, entertaining texts. (17-18)


The activity of the pulp industry subsided during the seventies and by the end of that decade was practically gone. Among the genres that were still being printed were Westerns, Patrick Kim titles, children’s titles (including comic books), romance, mystery, and pornography, which became more explicit in nature. (36)

Arizona State University's Israeli Popular Literature Collection contains "several novels published by Mizrahi" (53) from this period but it would seem that the collection's body of erotic/pornographic texts is larger than its list of romances because the former includes

almost a complete run of all published Stalags, as well as other erotic and pornographic titles, some of them represent the gay culture. Publishers include Ramdor, ha-Sifriyah ha-Ketanah, Mor, Reno, Narkis, Hermesh, Yam-Suf, ha-Te’omim, ha-Sha'ashu'a ha-Kal, Orr, ha-Roman ha-Romanti ha-Refu’i [the Medical Romance]. (53)

One interesting difference between romances published in the UK and US is that

the overwhelming majority of non-canonized texts in Hebrew literature through its different periods were written by men, even when the targeted audience was clearly women, as in the case of romance novels issued by ha-Roman ha-Za‘ir press [...]. This fact is quite surprising when considering, for example, the American subsystem of romance fiction, dominated by female authors (Radway 1991). The far-reaching consequences of this on the writing style, representation of women, and assumed readers of Israeli popular literature are demonstrated in the terminology of erotic literature: according to Ben-Ari (2006), those erotic and pornographic texts that were written by women are not essentially different than those written by men, as the former adapted the norms prevailing in this genre. This is the only study that touches on this issue. (16)


Grescoe, Paul. The Merchants of Venus: Inside Harlequin and the Empire of Romance. Vancouver: Raincoast, 1996.

Leket-Mor, Rachel. "IsraPulp: The Israeli Popular Literature Collection at Arizona State University," Judaica Librarianship 16.4 (2011).

Jumping Between Genres

By Laura Vivanco on

The latest issue of the Journal of Popular Culture came out a few days ago and although none of the articles were directly about romance, quite a few of them have some relevance to it. For example, Kirk Combe begins his article about the "bourgeois rake" in rom-coms by stating that

The comedic character of the rake—fundamentally, a playboy—originates in seventeenth-century aristocratic drama. There, he tends to be a notoriously appealing figure. He is a patrician roué who wields tremendous social power, and he does so effortlessly, carelessly. The rake is a hard fellow to resist, either in the sense of to forbear or to foil. He represents the alpha male of his society. For an audience, the comic entertainment is wholly conditional on watching this man obtain whatever it is he wants, which is always a pretty young woman and heaps of money (though not necessarily in that order, and sometimes heaps of pretty young women are involved as well). In short, the rake is a blueblood libertine who specializes in fashionable imbibing and swiving, and his wages for these sins are nothing less than absolute success. By the end of the play, he has bagged the rich, beautiful, and (sometimes) clever heiress, all the while behaving completely selfishly and all the while remaining the apple of everyone’s eye. The audience should hate to love him. The rake is little more than a ruthless pleasure/power-seeker using his status and privilege to increase his status and privilege. (338)

He was replaced, for a time, by the "man of sentiment [who] represents everything that the satirical and egoistic aristocratic rake is not" (343). However,

audiences still enjoyed seeing élan and something of the romantic chase. Here is born the bourgeois rake. He will mix old-fashioned wit and sex appeal with new-fashioned sentimentality. Any trace of sexual predation and sardonic acumen in him will be tempered and, in the end, tamed by true love and marriage. In the bourgeois rake, the former aristocratic roué will metamorphose into a nimble young man with a proclivity for clever free enterprise. Like his predecessor, though, he will still domineer in matters of money, gender, and mental dexterity. (344)

By the "second half of the eighteenth century [...] the middle-class ideal of a financially secure marriage of true love has supplanted entirely the cynicism and sexual laxity of earlier aristocratic comedy" (345) and the bourgeois rake can, Combe argues, still be found in many modern rom-coms. He believes that

inspecting most what we are meant to think about least is a productive exercise. Whether produced on the early modern stage or in current-day film, comedy is a genre not only presenting the jollity of love, marriage, and, by extension, sexual reproduction, but also depicting the business of social reproduction. Power is always at issue in comedy, notwithstanding its being mixed with and obscured by the pleasures and hijinks of romance. (355)

Given that Pamela Regis has described popular romance as "a subgenre of comedy" (16) and that in historical romances the rake continues to survive as "a patrician roué who wields tremendous social power, and he does so effortlessly, carelessly," albeit one who, like the "bourgeois rake" will be "tamed by true love and marriage," this article also raises questions about power in romance novels.

Srijani Ghosh draws parallels between chick lit and romance:

In her Reading the Romance (1984), an ethnographic study of female readers of romance novels, Janice Radway illustrates how women, mostly housewives, use romance reading to control their identities and pleasures within the limits of patriarchal society. She calls this “compensatory literature” (Radway 95) for the romance readers, and Colin Campbell refers to this vicarious pleasure as “a kind of emotional and imaginative decadence” (Campbell 176). The chick lit novel, the newest offshoot of the traditional romance novel and a genre aimed at young, urban, female professionals functions as a similar form of compensatory literature. The protected fictional world of the chick lit novel allows the readers to enjoy this “imaginative decadence,” and Confessions of a Shopaholic serves as a kind of necessary compensation because they know that at least their fictional alter ego might escape unscathed from any consumerist overindulgence which they would be penalized for in real life. (392)

And I'll close with a quote from Tison Pugh's article about mysteries which relates to all forms of "genre fiction":

As with many binary divisions, the privileging of literature over genre fiction reflects ideological biases rather than intrinsic truths. Contrary to its purportedly inferior status to literature, genre fiction is an exuberant field encompassing a diverse array of subgenres. Joyce Saricks taxonomizes genre fiction into four primary categories, each of which includes several subheadings: adrenaline genres (adventure, romantic suspense, suspense, thrillers), emotions genres (gentle reads, horror, romance, women’s lives, and relationships), intellect genres (literary fiction, mysteries, psychological suspense, science fiction), and landscape genres (fantasy, historical fiction, westerns) (vii). Saricks’s taxonomy is useful for considering how both genre fiction and literature resist efforts of categorization, as she upends the traditional binary of high and low culture by including literary fiction as a subcategory of genre fiction. (414-15)


Combe, Kirk. "Bourgeois Rakes in Wedding Crashers: Feudal to Neo-Liberal Articulations in Modern Comedic Discourse." Journal of Popular Culture 46.2 (2013): 338–357. [Excerpt]

Ghosh, Srijani. "Res Emptito Ergo Sum: Fashion and Commodity Fetishism in Sophie Kinsella’s Confessions of a Shopaholic." Journal of Popular Culture 46.2 (2013): 378-393. [Excerpt]

Pugh, Tison. "Chaucer in Contemporary Mystery Novels: A Case Study in Genre Fiction, Low-Cultural Allusions, and the Pleasure of Derivative Forms." Journal of Popular Culture 46.2 (2013): 411–432. [Excerpt]

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2003.

The Unpublished Author's Faulty Understanding of Copyright

By Laura Vivanco on

It was reported today that "an unpublished author recently brought a case against [...] Harlequin claiming that they had used her contest entry." The case was brought before the District Court for the Southern District of Texas (Houston Division) and can be summarised as follows:

In 2011, Harlequin Enterprises, LTD. published a romance novel, The Proud Wife. The protagonists are a green-eyed, red-haired beauty and a tall, dark, handsome, wealthy man. After overcoming a series of obstacles to love, the couple rediscovers their passionate romance. Kelly Rucker alleges that this Harlequin novel infringes a copyright she holds for a romance story that she titled How to Love a Billionaire. Her book also features a green-eyed, red-haired beauty and a tall, dark, and handsome wealthy man. The book also describes how the couple overcomes a series of obstacles to their love that the ends with the couple . . . the sentence need not be completed. (1)

The reason "the sentence need not be completed" is that everyone knows how a romance ends. And if a romance ends happily, that's not proof that it's plagiarising another romance novel: it's proof that they're both working within well-known generic constraints. Similarly, there are

generic elements — features, plots, characters, and elements found in many romance novels. A theme or trope that has long existed is not “expression” that the Copyright Act protects. [...] “Material or themes commonly repeated in a certain genre are not protectable by copyright,” nor are “so-called scenes à faire.” [...] Scenes à faire generally involve “incidents, characteristics or settings which are as a practical matter indispensable, or at least standard, in the treatment of a given topic, what flows naturally from these basic plot premises.” [...] These elements are not protected because they are strongly affiliated or connected with a common theme and thus not creative.(12-13)

There are lots of romance novels in which

A beautiful woman and a handsome, wealthy man fall in love, become estranged, find themselves alone together in close quarters, have a passionate reunion, rediscover their love and commitment, and begin a new life together. These are familiar plot elements in the romance genre. Many of the similarities accompanying these tropes in the works are scenes à faire. They describe similarly choreographed scenes of love, estrangement, rediscovered passion, and recommitted love. The details of these scenes are similar not because of infringement, but because they flow logically from the plot elements. (14)

And just in case that's not clear enough, the Court explains further:

The similarities between the characters in Rucker’s work and in the Harlequin work are not legally protectable. Both male protagonists are black-haired, blue-eyed, “tall, dark, and handsome” figures. They are wealthy and powerful. The men sweep the female protagonists off their feet, into a luxurious life. The women are beautiful, with red hair and green eyes. They are slender, curvaceous, and young. Their personalities are strong-willed and passionate. These descriptions suffice to make it clear that these are generic characters in romance novels. (14-15)

One would hope, though, that a good romance author would attempt some characterisation which went beyond this and that, therefore, as in this case, it would be possible to conclude that a bare outline such as the one above does not "convey the 'total concept and feel of the works.'" (17). As Michelle Styles commented: "It is how you express a trope that makes it yours just as once you live in a house and furnish it, it becomes a home. It is about letting the author's voice shine through."

The case was dismissed and the Court's full decision is available here.


Rosenthal, Lee H. "Rucker v. Harlequin Enterprises, Limited: MEMORANDUM AND OPINION entered GRANTING 7 MOTION TO DISMISS FOR FAILURE TO STATE A CLAIM." 26 February 2013.

Styles, Michelle. "Writer's Wednesday: A Troupe of Tropes." The Pink Heart Society. 27 March 2013.

The image of Justice, created by Edward Onslow Ford is in the public domain and was obtained from Wikimedia Commons.