Why Popular Romance is Un-American (Allegedly)

By Laura Vivanco on

In 1983, writing about the "drug store novel" (what we'd now think of as modern gothic romances), Beth Timson concluded that:

while they are written and sold largely in America (though not entirely, of course), their roots are firmly in the traditional British novel; they do not have the characteristics that critics like Marius Bewley in The Eccentric Design or Richard Chase in The American Novel and Its Traditions or Leslie Fiedler in Love and Death in the American Novel have so carefully pinned down as "American." (89)

This is because

The heroine [...] does not create a new world of her own building but sets out to rediscover her past. During the period in which she lives at the ancestral mansion, she looks over the possibilities of action and finds that she must make a choice between the appearance of goodness in the attractive potential usurper of the estate and the reality of goodness in the outwardly surly heir. Sometimes there is an initial wavering, because she thinks that she distrusts inherited wealth and position. In the end, however, she becomes one of the preservers of the estate - rejecting the usurper and the other young woman who is her psychological alter ego, clearing up family mysteries, and marrying the heir. To find a mainstream novel with this structure of reconciliation, we must look away from American fiction to the British novel, since the pattern of inheriting a house rather than building it is obviously more dominant there. And indeed, a close resemblance is very easy to find. Jane Austen's splendid Mansfield Park has a structure practically identical to that I have outlined for the drug store novel. (91)

In fact,

one can say that what [Austen] does and what the drug store novel is doing are the same thing: showing a pattern of the former outcast integrated into a restabilized family structure. No significant American novel that I can think of does that; no significant British novel that I can think of does not do it. To express the idea in the terms of critic Richard Chase, the classic American novel concerns itself with the Fall of man and his expulsion from Eden, while the British novel writes of man's redemption. Presumably the romance novelists have sensed this deep distinction, because they choose to set most of their novels in England. (92)

To conclude:

ultimately all the data would lead to several conclusions about the drug store novel and mainstream fiction. First, in the British novel the structure of reconciliation has been a dominant one and one used successfully by both significant male and female authors, while in the American novel the structure of reconciliation has been perverted and forced underground. Reconciliation with the stable past and the family has been turned into a vaguely erotic union with the father or his representative. The classic American novel is male-dominated and concerns rejection, independence, and isolation; while the popular romance is female-dominated and concerns re-integration of past and present. [...] the Feminine, in its deepest mythic sense of union and community, has found its voice in American fiction only outside the mainstream. (94-95)

It's interesting to see here how particular assumptions and ways of interpreting "all the data" are shaping outcomes. Certainly if you only choose particular novels (by men) as the basis for determining what constitutes "the American novel" it's not surprising that you can end up concluding that "the American novel" is "male-dominated". It's worth noting that "significant" would appear to exclude popular fiction. So, by definition, romance novels written by US women are both un-American and insignificant perversions of a foreign tradition. Hmm. Well, it's another way of discrediting women's writing, I suppose, particularly where it intersects with popular culture.


Timson, Beth S., 1983. ‘The Drug Store Novel: Popular Romantic Fiction and the Mainstream Tradition’, Studies in Popular Culture, 6: 88-96.

The Circular Justification of Heroic Violence

By Laura Vivanco on

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)


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.


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

Romance Novels and Attitudes towards Coal and Oil

By Laura Vivanco on

The stories that we tell reflect our culture and, whether consciously or not, encode our opinions, thoughts and beliefs. (Grubert and Algee-Hewitt 1)

Emily Grubert and Mark Algee-Hewitt's short article "Villainous or valiant? Depictions of oil and coal in American fiction and nonfiction narratives"

draws on a corpus of 60 narratives, both fictional and nonfictional, published between 2002 and 2016 by US authors. We [...] posit that American narratives often depict oil as new and exciting, with associated dangers seen as tragic but thrilling. Appalachian coal, by contrast, is portrayed nostalgically, depicted as a nearly familial presence that has betrayed its communities and no longer represents security and prosperity.

I was very happy to see that they mentioned having included romances in that corpus of texts. After all, romance novels make up a very significant proprortion of all popular fiction published.

My memories of reading about oil and coal in romances are a bit vague, but I'd agree with them about coal being associated with communities in financial difficulties. I also remember reading some romances in which oil exploration/exploitation is considered risky but potentially very lucrative.

I've tried to pick out the romances in their corpus and I think they're as follows, though it's possible I've missed a few:

  • Avrile, Parker (2016) - Oil - The Runaway Millions: A Male/male Contemporary Romance Novel
  • Camp, Deborah (2012) - Oil - Vein of Gold
  • Lyn, Tommie (2013) - OIl - The Sands of Santa Rosa
  • Thomas, Marin (2008) - Coal - A Coal Miner's Wife

That may not seem like very many, but there were only 30 works of fiction analysed in total. In the article, specific mention is made of two of them:

Parker Avrile opens The Runaway Millions with the dramatic bankruptcy of an extremely wealthy man as a drop in oil price forces him into default:

‘How can you pop up out of nowhere and take everything just because the price of oil dipped below fifty dollars a barrel for a few days? We all know it's going back up.’...

‘We’re stealing nothing. You gambled, and you lost.’

Coal causes death and oil causes loss of a lifestyle. In these and other texts, both resources repeatedly create major conflict. (5)


close reading confirms that oil is often associated with gambling, where wins and losses are large, exciting, and ultimately out of an individual's control (see, for example [...] Avrile's The Runaway Millions) (8)

The other novel discussed seems to be an inspirational romantic suspense novel and:

Lyn's The Sands of Santa Rosa [...] sets up the opposition of fossil fuel corporation versus environmental nonprofit, though she inverts a common pattern by deploying a disgruntled environmentalist against an oil company to cause a major spill (ultimately, the spill is disastrous because of steps taken by the oil company, however). (6)

It is also mentioned that

stereotypes about indigenous Americans as possessing a privileged relationship to nature [...] are also relatively common (and visible in this corpus in Lyn's 2013 novel, which includes a part-indigenous protagonist who saves the day with his mystical “Sight”). (7)


Grubert, Emily and Mark Algee-Hewitt, 2017. "Villainous or valiant? Depictions of oil and coal in American fiction and nonfiction narratives." Energy Research and Social Science. [Abstract]

"Volunteers" vs. "Activists" in the Romance Community

By Laura Vivanco on

I've been thinking that some of the observations in Nina Eliasoph's Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life (1998) might be applicable to the romance-reading and romance-writing community, particularly in the US context given that Eliasoph's research was carried out there.

Eliasoph "participated in a wide range of civic groups - volunteer, recreational, and activist groups" (8). She looks at how US citizens discuss (or don't discuss) problems/politics in these groups and she found differences between the "volunteers", the "activists" and the people in the "recreational" groups [she also met some people who fell into the "cynical" category i.e. they were politically aware, critiqued the status quo vigorously but didn't follow this up by becoming activists]. It felt to me as though this might have some relevance to how some people behave in the romance community too, and it might explain some apparent friction between the "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all" people and those who want to discuss problems such as the lack of diversity in 'mainstream' romance publishing, "white-washed" covers and the segregation of African-American romances.

Empowerment through solving small problems

In the "volunteer high school parents' groups", Eliasoph found that members

ignored the political problems that they inevitably encountered in the course of their work - the race riots, caved-in classroom ceilings and flooded classroom floors at the high school, for example. By tuning into their political manners, I realized that volunteers assumed that volunteer groups exist to show that regular citizens really can make a difference, and that talking about these problems would sink the buoyant feeling of empowerment. (21)

Although their lack of political discussion may seem apolitical, Eliasoph suggests it's based on their ideas about what it's possible to achieve and what, therefore, should be focussed on in order to make citizens feel better about their communities:

Volunteers were poised to combat the specter of futility and to convince all newcomers that "You really can make a difference!" and that "Everyone has something to offer," as they often put it. They hoped to communicate that message through the very act of volunteering; and tried not to pay attention to problems that might undermine that message of hope. So, they tried hard not to care about issues that would require too much talking to solve, and tried to shrink their concerns into tasks that they could define as unpolitical, unconnected to the wider world. These citizens thought they could inspire feelings of empowerment within that small circle of concern; and they implicitly believed that helping people feel empowered was, in itself, doing something good for the community. (23)

It struck me that when, in romance, a problem is encountered, this is generally the sort of outcome depicted: the protagonists will find that the problem (a child who needs special medical treatment, an abandoned child, a teen who needs to be turned away from making bad choices) is one not too large for them to solve.

Eliasoph writes that "In trying so hard to maintain their "can-do" spirit, their optimism and hope, volunteers assumed that they had to hush any discussion of political problems" (26). There's certainly an immediate emotional pay-off to be gained from this kind of attitude but perhaps it's easier to maintain for people with a certain degree of privilege i.e. for whom the 'big problems' make less of a difference on a daily basis. That's not to say that they're people with huge amounts of power, just that they're people who

could have thought that they were powerless and been angry about that, but since they wanted to think that they live in a democracy where citizens like themselves have power to work on issues that are "close to home," they assumed that their powerlessness was their own fault. They could have tried to "save face" and blame someone else for their powerlessness, but they preferred to think it was their own fault than to think that there was something deeply wrong with the world. (75)

There will, however, be people whose circumstances are such that they can't really avoid thinking there's "something deeply wrong with the world". And therefore I wonder if there might be more openness to less neat endings in non 'mainstream' romances, depicting (and probably whose intended readership is among) people from communities which are less privileged [at least in certain important respects, because intersectionality means that someone might be privileged in some contexts/areas and not in others]. For example, in the African-American historical romance and the lesbian romance whose community scenes I examined in Pursuing Happiness, I found that in both cases the novels explicitly showed the problems to be ones which could not be shrunk into "tasks that they could define as unpolitical, unconnected to the wider world". [I don't, however, want to imply that all AA or LGBT+ romances are focused on political issues, because there are plenty which aren't.]

Show, don't tell

A common piece of advice given to authors is to "show, don't tell". The idea is that this gets the reader more involved, and I think there are therefore parallels here with the  thinking of Eliasoph's volunteer citizens:

Volunteers said that meetings were a waste of time compared with the groups' real work. Compared to the activist groups, the striking feature of volunteers was just how little time they spent in group contexts. Though volunteers attended many meetings every week, each was very to-the-point, short, and task-oriented. When I said that I was studying "community life - what gets people involved in groups and how to get more people involved," many proudly recounted a long, long list of their volunteer activities, amazing me with how many evenings a week they devoted to volunteering. None mentioned why they were involved. Their point was that activity itself was a matter-of-fact way of demonstrating commitment.

What was missing was respect for discussion itself, willingness to debate about troubling issues that might not be resolved immediately; willingness to risk discouragement. (28)

One of the features of much of romance (with the clear exception of inspirational romance, in which the issue of being "unequally yoked" does come up) is the way in which the believability of the happy future for the central relationship is often established by focusing on issues of practical compatibility (showing compatibility in the bedroom, for example) rather than by showing the protagonists discussing their political views, views on childcare, spending money etc.

There might also be reasons for a lack of discussion which are mentioned by Eliasoph in the context of her "recreational" groups made up of "private people; they believed that what really matters is what is "inside"; that the tender, flickering 'real self' can almost never be expressed in words" (86):

For private people, talk did not legitimately matter. Betsy sounded as if she felt unreasonable to want to know more about the potential boyfriend than "what she could see"; she wanted to be content with what she already knew about his most basic humanness. [...] women often noted that their boyfriends or husbands hardly ever talked, but could "go on a two-hour drive and not say a word except 'You hungry?' and 'Let's stop.'" Women's tentative remarks about their silent husbands and boyfriends were not quite complaints, though, because the women were not sure whether they were justified in complaining about the silence [...]. Women wanted to feel happy just to be in their husbands' or boyfriends' company, side by side in the truck. They did not want to want anything more, since the official belief about talk was that it is cheap. Expecting conversation was not considered legitimate. And so there was very little of it. What group conversation there was, was relentlessly unserious. (97)

There's usually a bit more talk than "You hungry?" and "Let's stop" in a romance, but then, even the "private" people talked in their most romantic moments:

Talking as an activity in itself was a special event. "Staying up till two talking" was one sure sign of love; it happened only at the moment lovers were falling in love, not after and not before. Since talk itself was such a potent sign, reports of these intimate moments focused on the fact that the new lovers talked, not on the content of the conversation. After this proud moment of intense talk, if it happened, there was little to say. (94)

For people from this background, perhaps reading a romance is akin to experiencing this moment of "falling in love" and the happy ending is welcome at the point when the lovers declare themselves because "after this proud moment of intense talk" there would be "little to say". The lack of political content in a romance would not be an issue at all because it would be expected that the book/report on "intimate moments" would focus "on the fact that the new lovers talked, not on the content of the conversation".

Politics spoils the mood

When protagonists do express their views explicitly on certain issues, readers often state that they find this "preachy" and that it spoils their enjoyment of the story. This might be because they, like the "private people" felt that

Trying to speak seriously was called "getting on a high horse"; that is, pedantically reciting facts and opinions in a monologue. People [...], women especially - who did this violated the rule of enforced joking [the "private people", when they did talk in groups, tended to joke about, often on the topic of sexuality, so perhaps a bit like some of the conversations in the romance community about male cover models]. (111)

Alternatively, when people attempt to discourage 'strident' discussions about political issues around romance publishing it may be because, as with Eliasoph's volunteers,

To talk about racism would have meant changing their political etiquette, to stop trying so hard to keep up that can-do spirit and let some frightening uncertainty in. Actively ignoring such tensions was considered a positive good, a moral act. Better would be to work on projects that illustrate how easy, effective, and enjoyable involvement is; then, they believed, everyone will get involved and race problems will dissolve in the busy harmony.

Their efforts at ignoring race were also part of their general effort to avoid snobbery; to be welcoming and encouraging meant treating everyone as an equal, not as a member of a category. When I asked on the questionnaire what race they were, many responded as Sherry did: "it doesn't matter what race you are. Anyway, it shouldn't." Having to talk about something, in fact, would be a sign that there is a problem: if things are going smoothly, regular people should not have to sit down and talk. (31, emphasis added)

I wonder if that's one reason why protagonists in 'mainstream' romances might be unlikely to discuss things: it would imply there were problems, or at least potential problems in the relationship. By contrast, in inspirationals, where the intended readers share a belief that people will always sin (i.e. things are always on the verge of not going smoothly), protagonists may be much more likely to sit down and pray.

As far as the romance community, rather than romance protagonists are concerned, it may be worth noting Eliasoph's observation that the volunteers' tactic of:

Avoiding discouragement and snobbishness [...] had costs, among which probably was the community's ability to deal with race problems. Many parents of color came to one or two meetings and then never returned. I spoke to one who had come only once; she had concluded that the Parent League was "a bunch of white people who weren't interested in race." (31)

Tone Judgments and Politeness

"Whining" and "moaning" are very subjective to define, as is "rudeness". For Eliasoph's US volunteers it seemed to be accepted that

talking about problems without immediately offering a solution is just complaining. [...] What was most taboo was speaking about problems in terms of justice - publicly minded speech that was considered wrong, but addressing the same problem in a piecemeal way was considered all right. (33-4)

In addition,

"Requesting" was okay, but holding companies accountable was not. Asking politely was okay, quietly negotiating behind-the-scenes was acceptable; but raising a matter of principle and trying to discuss it publicly was considered unseemly [...] volunteers assumed that talking would not itself produce knowledge or power. [...] Volunteers were not unconcerned or unaware or lacking in the "inner values and beliefs" that feed political concern. [...] Most volunteers were privately obsessed with political worries, but simply assumed that they could not do anything about them, and that volunteer groups were the wrong contexts for discussing them. Combating futility meant, above all, combating the feeling of futility, and especially, combating the expression of such feelings aloud in volunteer group meetings, where such feelings could be most destructive. (34-5)

The RWA: From "Volunteers" to "Activists"?

It's interesting to see the Romance Writers of America's recent posts which suggest that they're moving from a "volunteer" frame of mind to one more akin to that of the "activists". In particular, a post from 4 April 2016 about a historical issue shows that the current board are interested in making explicit their political stance and aren't backing away from conflict in the way that the board did at the time of the event in question:

At the November 2015 Board of Directors meeting, one of the issues discussed was an RWA survey conducted in 2005. Though this occurred eleven years ago, the ill effects of that survey still linger for many members. The survey was included in the Romance Writers Report and asked RWA members to vote on whether romance should be redefined as being between one man and one woman. The survey responses were never acted upon, and RWA’s definition of romance was not changed.

The survey, however, sparked a discussion that compelled our LGBT+ members to justify their existence to others and to participate in debates about their humanity and their capacity to love. This incident was a low point from which RWA’s reputation has never recovered. The organization later reaffirmed RWA’s commitment to making sure that “any definition of romance should be broad and inclusive.” This statement, however, did not make it clear that, in issuing the survey, RWA failed its members, its genre and its mission. We want to make that clear now.

We apologize for letting our members down and for failing to treat all our members with the respect they deserve.

RWA is committed to creating an inclusive, respectful environment where all career-focused romance writers can advance their professional interests, regardless of the happily ever afters they create and celebrate. (RWA)

This comes after their 17 March 2016 release in which they stated that:

In fulfilling its mission to advocate for romance authors, Romance Writers of America would like to update the membership about an ongoing matter of concern.

During the Spotlight on Pocket at the 2015 RWA Conference, an attendee asked Executive Editor Lauren McKenna, “Are you working at all on diversifying your author list?” When McKenna requested clarification, the attendee observed that it seemed most of Pocket’s authors were white. [...]

Pocket’s Spotlight statement was insulting and unacceptable. The response was insufficient. RWA continues to press Pocket for a clear statement on its acquisition policies. RWA is committed to ensuring that all industry professionals participating in our programs embrace and comply with our Code of Ethics. (RWA)

In turn, that follows a post from 5 February 2016 in which the RWA board outlined practical measures they were going to take to improve the experiences of members from a variety of minority groups and also made the more general political statement that:

Unfortunately, the romance industry has a long way to go. At the Pocket spotlight at last year's conference, attendees were told that books written by or featuring African Americans would be referred to another imprint. At several publishing houses, black authors who have submitted books with white characters have had those books slotted into "African American" lines, and African American authors have also had their romances shelved in the "African American" section, even if the characters are not African American. Both practices diminish potential markets for books based on the author’s race.

Discrimination impedes the functioning of the romance market and sends the message to the world that romance is behind the times. Readers of romance should see that romance stories speak to a wide spectrum of experiences and concerns. All romance authors should see RWA as the place to build their careers. (RWA)


Eliasoph, Nina. Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Words Will Never Hurt Me?

By Laura Vivanco on

Stephanie Burley, writing about popular romance fiction, asked her readers

to make a theoretical leap of faith based on two premises. The first is that the language of whiteness and blackness, light and dark, constructs the way readers imagine the fictional bodies populating these texts. The second is that this representational spectrum is indeed connected to our everday experience of actual bodies and the racial schemas that condition our understandings of those bodies. This color imagery invokes traditional racial taxonomies and their ideological investments in the erotic possibilities of light and dark skin. (326)

If that sounds fanciful, perhaps the reader would like to consider Lakoff and Johnson's research, in which they argue that although

metaphor is typically viewed as characteristic of language alone, a matter of words rather than thought or action. [...] We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature. [...] Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. (Lakoff and Johnson 3)

So, I was doubly perturbed to learn about "Dark Romance":

Forced seductions popped up fairly often in the historical romance novels published in the 1980s, wherein a lecherous duke or stable boy driven mad with wild lust would overpower a heroine and ignore her (ambivalent) protestations. Unadulterated rape fantasy, all but absent from romance paperbacks through the ‘90s, eventually came back to life through discreet self-publishing and has continued to gain momentum through online sales.

Currently, the taboo genre is thriving online under the banner of Dark Romance, which takes the rape fantasy even further by removing consent and kink. Books like Prisoner and Consequences are straightforward depictions of men taking women hostage and raping them; eventually falling in love with them, and then living happily ever after with their former victim. (Vargas-Cooper)

First of all, I'm finding it difficult to see how this really fits the definition of a romance novel in anything other than a technical sense. It seems to me much more like erotica with a tacked on happy ending. After all, the RWA definition of romance involves:

A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.

An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.

That's not:

A Central Rape Story which centres around one individual forcing themselves sexually on another, who struggles to escape. The writer can include as many violations as he/she wants as long as the rape is ultimately legitimated by the victim's emotional capitulation.

An Emotionally Implausible Ending (unless you factor in Stockholm Syndrome): In a romance, the rapist who risks their victim's mental and physical wellbeing is rewarded with unconditional love.

And yes, perhaps the combination of the two was common in large numbers of romance novels in the past but I wouldn't have liked to read about it in the days of the "bodice-ripper" and I don't want to read about it now.

To get back to where I started, though, I'm also troubled that this is being called "Dark Romance" because I can't help thinking that in the past an association between darkness and rape led to the creation of

the figure of the "black beast rapist." In response to the mere rumor of such an outrage against a white woman, white men formed lynch mobs. They killed hundreds of Black men during the 1890s. (Martin 141)

The association, and the killing continued:

Make any list of anti-black terrorism in the United States, and you’ll also have a list of attacks justified by the specter of black rape. The Tulsa race riot of 1921—when white Oklahomans burned and bombed a prosperous black section of the city—began after a black teenager was accused of attacking, and perhaps raping, a white girl in an elevator. The Rosewood massacre of 1923, in Florida, was also sparked by an accusation of rape. And most famously, 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered after allegedly making sexual advances on a local white woman. (Bouie)

And on 17 June 2015

A white supremacist gunman told his black victims "you rape our women and you’re taking over our country" as he massacred nine people inside a historic African-American church in the southern city of Charleston. (Sanchez and Foster)

Words matter. They shape how people think, often in a subconscious way. Instead of falling back on euphemistic language which has the consequence of reinforcing damaging associations between darkness, violence and rape, why not just call a romance with a central rape story a "rape romance"? And while we're on the topic, can someone come up with alternatives to "dark secrets" "blackhearted", accident "blackspots", "black marks" and the phrase which suggests it's a good thing to be "not as black as one is painted"?


Bouie, Jamelle. "The Deadly History of 'They're Raping Our Women'." Slate. 18 June 2015.

Burley, Stephanie. “Shadows & Silhouettes: The Racial Politics of Category Romance”. Paradoxa 5.13–14 (2000): 324–43.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. 1980. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2003.

Martin, Joel W. “‘My Grandmother Was a Cherokee Princess’: Representations of Indians in Southern History”. Dressing in Feathers: The Construction of the Indian in American Popular Culture. Ed. S. Elizabeth Bird. Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 1998. 129–47.

Romance Writers of America. "About The Romance Genre."

Sanchez, Raf and Peter Foster. "'You rape our women and are taking over our country,' Charleston church gunman told black victims." The Telegraph. 18 June 2015.

Vargas-Cooper, Natasha. "My Hot, Consensual Introduction to the Rape Fantasy Romance Novel." Jezebel. 19 May 2015.

Romance and the Politics of Health Care

By Laura Vivanco on

According to Joseph McAleer,

After the Second World War, the NHS [National Health Service] inspired a new kind of popular novel that was [...] supportive and sympathetic to the emerging health care system. [...] the new 'Doctor-Nurse' novels first published by Mills & Boon in the 1950s [...] reinforced a positive view of the NHS among middle- and working-class readers. [...] the almost fanatical endorsement of the medical profession is striking. The message sent, and met with approval by adoring readers, was this: nurses are heroic and selfless; doctors are larger than life; the delivery system works; and hospitals are places of romance as well as healing. The NHS could not have asked for a better endorsement. (174)

By contrast, here's a short passage from a US-set romance from 1994, whose hero is a recreational therapist:

"Private insurance companies aren't willing to spend money entertaining people, as they call it." Matt's lips curled derisively. "They'll cover physical therapy costs, but most baulk at recreational therapy."

"I find that hard to believe."

"It's true, though. If medical insurance companies subsidized places like mine, there'd be hundreds of them across the country. Unfortunately, there aren't, and only the well-off can afford the few that do exist. I try to take on as many needy cases as I can, but that's not a huge lot," he admitted. "I have to pay my therapists' salaries and feed the animals, and I can't do that without charging."

"What a shame!"

"It certainly is. The United States is one of the wealthiest nations in the world, but we have no comprehensive national health plan. It's a crime that people have to pay so dearly for medical treatment. To make matters worse, the more medical problems you have, the less likely you'll find an insurance company willing to underwrite you. [...] I'm involved with a group that's been lobbying Congress for a national health care system. So far there's been a lot of talk about legislation, but not much else." (Duquette, 29-30)

I haven't yet seen any comparison between medical romances from the US, UK, Australia, etc but I think one could be very interesting given how different their medical systems are. The descriptions of some of US author Adeline McElfresh's medical romances, for example, are intriguing: in Doctor for Blue Hollow (1971)

The rundown clinic at Blue Hollow was a far cry from big, modern Bayley Memorial Hospital where Ann Tyler once worked. But for the lovely young surgeon, this tiny Kentucky mining town seemed a perfect refuge from the memory of a handsome doctor who betrayed her love.

Waiting for Ann was the challenge of protecting the health of the miners and their families, even though this meant battling the owners over safety in the mines.

It sounds as though the novel deals with inequalities in healthcare provision and also with the ways in which the interests of big business can conflict with the health needs of their workers and their communities. Another of her novels, New Nurse at Dorn Memorial, features a heroine, Celeste Weller, who

had never walked away from a challenge, and her new career at Dorm Memorial Hospital would prove to be the greatest challenge yet. Not only was she the first nurse to break the racial barrier at conservative Dorn, but through the bigotry of one of its influential patients, she was transferred from the Surgery Department, her first love. From there she was thrust into the hectic schedule of double shifts in Emergency and the clinic purposely designed to force her to resign.

Celeste knew a bigger city might give her a better opportunity for acceptance on her own merit, but she was determined that her small hometown would have to make room for her. And she had allies on the staff. But more than that, Celeste was the best nurse Dorn had ever had.

As far as I can recall, the medical staff in the UK-set romances I've met have been pretty much exclusively white, which doesn't seem very accurate given that

Once the NHS was up and running in 1948, demand for health service labour increased rapidly, not only for basic care but also for new techniques and technologies such as radiology and blood labs. At a time of overall labour shortages in the British economy, health service workers from abroad were vital, with recruits from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent especially prominent. [...]

The overall scale of recruitment from abroad is striking. By 1960, between 30 and 40 per cent of all junior doctors in the NHS were from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. “The Health Service would have collapsed” said eminent doctor Lord Cohen of Birkenhead, if it had not been for this “enormous influx”. [...]

Around 30 per cent of doctors and 40 per cent of nurses in today’s NHS were born outside the UK. Those proportions may yet rise as an ageing population limits the potential supply of British-born staff while adding to increased demand for health care. (Bowlby)

I do know that Anne Fraser's The Playboy Doctor's Surprise Proposal features a hero whose "parents are from India originally"; it's set in Australia.


Bowlby, Chris, 2011. 'How Immigration Saved a British Institution', History Extra, 28 July 2011.

Duquette, Anne Marie, 1994. The Dinosaur Lady (Don Mills, Ontario: Harlequin).

Fraser, Anne, 2010. The Playboy Doctor's Surprise Proposal (Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon).

McAleer, Joseph, 2011. ‘Love, Romance, and the National Health Service’, Classes, Cultures, & Politics: Essays on British History for Ross McKibbin, ed. Clare V. J. Griffiths, James J. Nott, & William Whyte (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 173-191.

Does Popular Romance and its Community of Readers Reflect US Values?

By Laura Vivanco on

The online romance-reading community is global, of course, but the vast majority of authors and readers online seem to be Americans. For me, as a non-American, this has at times resulted in a somewhat muted case of culture shock. I didn't watch many Disney movies as a child, so I was very surprised to learn that my parents should have taught me "Thumper's law":

The character Thumper first appears in the film Bambi, watching as Bambi is first presented as the young prince to the creatures of the forest. He remarks that Bambi is "kinda wobbly" but is reproved by his mother who makes him repeat what his father had impressed upon him that morning, "If you can't say something nice, don't say nothing at all." This moral is now known by such names as the "Thumperian principle", "Thumper's rule" or "Thumper's law". (Wikipedia)

What my mother taught me was that if you're asked for an opinion, try to make it at least two out of the following three: true, kind, necessary. Kindness is important, but it doesn't override truth and necessity. Having joined the romance community, though, I've often seen Thumper's law invoked; John A Hall and Charles Lindholm's Is America Breaking Apart? is making me wonder if it's a manifestation of

The characteristic American smiley-faced "niceness," so often commented on with various degrees of amusement or condescension by foreign visitors [...]. Of course, it is no secret that generalized niceness can mask real differences of opinion and interest. But such masking is recognized to be a necessary precaution in a universe of independent and often rivalrous coequals. As the mayor of an American town observed:

We are a deeply fragmented community. We're nice to each other so much of the time we get the idea that's all there is. But since the problems and misunderstandings remain pretty consistent year after year, I have to assume we don't actually like each other as much as we claim to. Maybe nice is what you have to be or you'd be swinging at each other all the time. (98-99)

I wonder to what extent that might be true of the online romance community.

Obviously, there are American romance readers and authors who disagree with the idea that one should always aim to "be nice." Olivia Waite, for example, recently stated that she doesn't

believe negative reactions automatically have negative effects. Because I believe the culture of positivity is often suffocating and silencing, and I have been silent longer than I’d like. If we allow ourselves only nice things to say, we shortchange ourselves, our readers, and our genre. If we don’t talk about what books let us down, we’re going to find it harder to talk about what books lift us up. Criticism is a muscle and it needs balanced exercise.

I think Waite's an American but, according to Hall and Lindholm, her approach may not be all that popular in the US where

Practical hands-on "common-sense," it is believed, is capable of overcoming almost any obstacle, while "thinking too much" leads to nothing but confusion. It is no surprise that the predominant American philosophy is pragmatism, which decisively eschews theory under the assumption that coherent and consistent premises do not really matter much for achieving serviceable results. (85)

The concept of "thinking too much" is another one I suspect I've encountered more since joining the romance community, though I do remember my mother warning me against "worrying too much" and there's the comment in Julius Caesar about men

that are fat;

Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o' nights:

Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;

He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

And then there's the broad consensus among romance writers that "Romance and women’s fiction generally is all about the character arc. The reader is looking for emotional growth in the heroine from the first page to the last" (Cohen). Again, this can't be a uniquely American preference since characters do change in lots of non-American novels. However,  Hall and Lindholm find it

striking that for Americans even the self is considered to be a kind of modular entity, capable of being reconfigured to fit into preferred life styles. [...] American faith in the power of individuals to change themselves is quite understandable as a product of the immigrant experience in combination with the Protestant ethos. Protestant sects believe that individuals can be spiritually transformed through disciplined, virtuous action in this world. (86-88)

I'm working on a book about US romances and the extent to which they reflect American beliefs, but I'm not planning to look at whether the novels demonstrate a faith in the individual's ability to change, or advocate being nice and not thinking too much. All the same, I can't help wondering if these are features of the genre and its community which reflect American values.


Cohen, Julie. "Character Arc 1: What is it?" 17 Jan. 2010.

Hall, John A. and Charles Lindholm. Is America Breaking Apart? Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1999.

Waite, Olivia. "If You Can't Say Anything Nice, Come Sit By Me." 8 Nov. 2013.

A Gun in the Hand is ...

By Laura Vivanco on

"[...] I'll die a man!...Give me my guns."

Silently she went into the house, to return with a heavy cartridge-belt and gun-filled sheath and a long rifle; these she handed to him, and as he buckled on the belt she stood before him in silent eloquence. (Grey)

In this passage from Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage it is clear that guns symbolise masculinity but, Jane Tompkins notes, "even though the gun is obviously a symbol for the penis, manhood, in this scenario, does not express itself sexually. Violence is what breaks out when men get guns" (33). Later she adds that, in Westerns, "the ultimate loss of [...] control takes place when one man puts holes in another man's body" (56). For obvious reasons, that state of affairs generally wouldn't be deemed wholly satisfactory in a romance novel.

That's why I found Ruth Jean Dale's use of gun symbolism particularly interesting. Legend! is a Western romance, and Dale seems well aware that the gun can function as a phallic symbol. I'll begin with a scene in which Rose, the heroine, tries to confiscate the hero's gun and instead receives a lesson in sexual desire:

Glaring into his face, she reached out with her left hand and pulled his pistol from its holster. The weight of it dragged her arm down to her side but she had it, she thought triumphantly. [...]

Yanking her hard against his chest, [...] holding her by the upper arms, he brought his mouth down on hers. Stunned, she felt the pressure of his chest against her breasts and the corded muscle of his thighs against her legs, and then she forgot all those peripheral distractions before the onslaught of sensations originating at that point where his mouth joined with hers.

It was a fast, hard kiss meant to punish, and in that it failed miserably. Too surprised to resist, Rose hung suspended like a rag doll. A devastating rush of excitement shot through her from the tips of her toes to the roots of her hair and all points in between, leaving fire in its wake. This was a kiss? She'd had no idea! [...]

Boone leaned forward and slipped his pistol from Rose's numb grip. Flipping it over his hand, he settled it snugly into his holster. (84-85)

Replaying the scene in a dream, Rose transposes its location from the marshal's office to the local saloon, where the town whore plies her trade upstairs:

He stood at the foot of the stairs leading up to a second floor obscured by swirling smoke or fog - Rose couldn't be sure which. He did not move so much as a muscle, didn't lift his hand to beckon her, yet she felt his pull as strongly as if he'd dropped a loop over her shoulders and was hauling her in like a calf at roundup.

She had no choice. Or did she? His holster was empty; she held his pistol in her hand but this time it was light and warm to her touch, not heavy and cold and awkward as it had been in the marshal's office. She could do anything she wanted with it, she realized [...]. She held his fate ... and her own ... in her hands. [...]

She followed his lead willingly, anticipation surging through her as they ascended to ... what?

Rose sat bolt upright in her bed, trembling, her cotton nightgown clinging to a body damp with perspiration. Shame clogged her throat, shame at her own weakness - she'd succumbed to the man even in her sleep! But mixed with the shame was also fear, fear that she would never know what bliss might have awaited her at the top of those stairs. (90-91)

I don't think you need to be Freud to work out the symbolism of that warm pistol but if it still wasn't clear, there's a rather obvious clue in Boone's statement that "I never hired out my gun to the highest bidder. That to a man is like whorin' to a woman - the end of the line" (218).

Given Boone's reputation as a gunslinger it seems as though he may use his gun in Rose's service (literally and metaphorically), but not settle down to a permanent relationship with her.  Dale resolves the problem by having Boone relinquish his "gun belt and revolver. He has no further use for them in the new life we hope to build together" (279): only when the symbol of violent, destructive masculinity is relinquished can Boone adopt a new, sexual and reproductive, model of manhood of the kind celebrated in popular romance.


Dale, Ruth Jean. Legend! 1993. Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 1997.

Grey, Zane. Riders of the Purple Sage. Project Gutenberg Australia.

Tompkins, Jane. West of Everything: The Inner Lives of Westerns. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.


The image of the gun and gunbelt slung round someone's waist was created by theexbrit who made it available at Flickr under a creative commons licence.

American War and Peace

By Laura Vivanco on

"The good people in this world are very far from being satisfied with each other and my arms are the best peacemaker" - Samuel Colt

Colt "Peacemaker": "The good people in this world are very far from being satisfied with each other and my arms are the best peacemaker"

It has been argued that novels "are stories, narratives of culture, history, and our collective dreams of the future" (Spurgeon 4) and

From the end of the seventeenth century when early tales of Indian wars and captivity were among the first best-sellers, through the nineteenth-century fascination with bloody sagas of the western frontier and gothic thrillers about the cities, down to the violent gunfighters, private eyes, gangsters and gangbusters of twentieth-century film and television, the American public has made its legends of violence a primary article of domestic consumption, and of export. So potent and pervasive have been these American images of violence that it is through them that Americans have been imaginatively known to much of the rest of the world.

One puzzling thing is that, in spite of this penchant for imagined violence, Americans have traditionally thought of themselves as a nonviolent law-abiding people. Our rhetoric of manifest destiny in the nineteenth century taught that America was the great redeemer nation bringing peace, democracy, and the rule of law to all the world. Though much of this rhetoric is obsolescent and even seems, to some, obscene, the basic belief in America's role as a peace-bringer still retains its hold. (Cawelti 524)

Cawelti concludes that "Americans have a deep belief in the moral necessity of violence and that this belief accounts for the paradox of an ostensibly peace-loving and lawful people being so obsessed with violence" (525).

In a cultural context in which a peace-bringing nation is expected to resort to moral violence, it is perhaps not so surprising that a "pacifist" may be defined not as "a person who believes that war and violence are unjustifiable" (Oxford Dictionaries) but as someone who believes that they are justifiable in certain circumstances. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes that, "Oddly enough, the term pacifism has occasionally been used to describe a pragmatic commitment to using war to create peace" and this kind of pacifism is

known as contingent pacifism. While absolute pacifism admits no exceptions to the rejection of war and violence, contingent pacifism is usually understood as a principled rejection of a particular war. A different version of contingent pacifism can also be understood to hold that pacifism is only an obligation for a particular group of individuals and not for everyone. Contingent pacifism can also be a principled rejection of a particular military system or set of military policies. Contingent pacifists may accept the permissibility or even necessity of war in some circumstances and reject it in others, while absolute pacifists will always and everywhere reject war and violence. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosphy)

Suzanne Brockmann is a romance author who is well known for writing about heroes (and plenty of heroines too) who are trained in the use of violence and I therefore suspect that when she calls herself a "pacifist" she means that to indicate a commitment to contingent rather than absolute pacifism. She has said that

I've always been — starting from back around when, I guess I was around 11, I became a World War II history buff, and so I'm fascinated by military history. I have an incredible respect for the servicemen and women who serve our country. I knew the research was going to be fascinating, and it said in this article at the time there were something like 2,874 active duty Navy SEALs in the Navy today, and I thought, “And I'll write a book for every one of them.

As somebody who has an incredible respect for people who will not quit, for people who have that incredible drive and incredible motivation and incredible willpower, I really felt like it was a really good match for me as a writer. And I'm also a pacifist. And so you combine that with the idea that Navy SEALs are very often used in place of conventional warfare, it just really worked for me. (Popular Romance Project)


Romances which endorse absolute pacifism are extremely rare; it is not uncommon, however, for romances to show the toll which violence takes on soldiers, their families, and other civilians. In an essay about US romances "in which one or both protagonists are combatants in some form of military or political conflict" (153) Jayashree Kamble concludes that

In the symbolic act that is each romance text lie conflicting narratives: on the one side is a systemic conviction in America's mission to protect capitalist democracy, freedom, human rights, and so on, and on the other, the concern that this mission means using good men as cannon fodder and punishing innocents [...]. In other words, warrior romances often contain the awareness that the conflation of concepts such as patriotism toward a civilized nation and the ruthless methods used to display that patriotism is untenable. This awareness shows itself in the text as the threat of the breakdown of the sanity and moral framework of the individuals that make up the nation's army, and also in the devastation it wreaks on family and the alleged foe. The warrior romance thus contains an unmistakable trace of affirmative culture and government-inspired propaganda, such as in its endorsement of America's need to confront the shadowy enemies of abstract noble causes. But it also contains an undercurrent of doubt and despair at the seemingly endless conflict that this engenders. (162)

Perhaps it's because Nora Roberts' First Impressions (1984) isn't a "warrior romance," and because the war under discussion was an internal one which pitted American against American rather than against an external enemy that Shane, her heroine, is able to be quite explicit about a feeling which, in a "warrior romance," might remain only an "undercurrent":

Vance shot her a curious look. "War really fascinates you, doesn't it?"

Shane looked out over the field. "It's the only true obscenity. The only time killing's glorified rather than condemned. Men become statistics. I wonder if there's anything more dehumanizing." Her voice became more thoughtful. "Haven't you ever found it odd that to kill one to one is considered man's ultimate crime, but the more a man kills during war, the more he's honored? [...]" (118)


Cawelti, John G. "Myths of Violence in American Popular Culture." Critical Inquiry 1.3 (1975): 521-541.

Kamble, Jayashree. "Patriotism, Passion, and PTSD: The Critique of War in Popular Romance Fiction." New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays. Ed. Sarah S. G. Frantz and Eric Murphy Selinger. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012. 153-163.

Popular Romance Project. "Choosing SEALs." 18 December 2012.

Roberts, Nora. First Impressions. 1984. New York: Silhouette, 2008.

Spurgeon, Sara L. Exploding the Western: Myths of Empire on the Postmodern Frontier. College Station: Texas A & M UP, 2005.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. "Pacifism."


The image of the Colt "Peacemaker" came from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain.

Quick Quotes: The Pursuit of Happiness

By Laura Vivanco on

I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions. I just thought these quotes were thought-provoking when juxtaposed.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. (US Declaration of Independence, 1776)


pursuit of pleasure towards the goal of happiness became seen amongst Enlightenment writers as the behaviour dictated to man by Nature. 'Pleasure is now, and ought to be, your business,' Chesterfield told his son. The tendency to produce happiness was the only ultimate yardstick of right and wrong, good and evil.

If Nature was good, then erotic desire, far from being sinful, itself became desirable. And the sexual instincts were undoubtedly natural. Being pleasure-giving, such passions were thus to be approved. [...] These naturalistic and hedonistic assumptions - that Nature had made men to follow pleasure, that sex was pleasurable, and that it was natural to follow one's amorous urges - informed Enlightenment attitudes towards sexuality. (Parker and Hall, 19)

Although there is no consensus about the exact span of time that corresponds to the American Enlightenment, it is safe to say that it occurred during the eighteenth century among thinkers in British North America and the early United States and was inspired by the ideas of the British and French Enlightenments.  Based on the metaphor of bringing light to the Dark Age, the Age of the Enlightenment (Siècle des lumières in French and Aufklärung in German) shifted allegiances away from absolute authority, whether religious or political, to more skeptical and optimistic attitudes about human nature, religion and politics.  In the American context, thinkers such as Thomas Paine, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin invented and adopted revolutionary ideas about scientific rationality, religious toleration and experimental political organization—ideas that would have far-reaching effects on the development of the fledgling nation. (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, emphasis added)


Founding fathers (act. 1765–1836) [...] At a minimum the roster includes the seven figures identified in 1973 by Richard B. Morris, the eminent historian of the revolution: Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Jay, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, links and emphasis added)


Porter, Roy & Lesley Hall. The Facts of Life: The Creation of Sexual Knowledge in Britain, 1650-1950. New Haven: Yale UP, 1995.


The image came from Amazon. The underpants are not currently available for sale.