Novels by Danielle Steel are Not Romances

By Laura Vivanco on Thursday, 12 July, 2018

I recently added the following entry to the Romance Wiki bibliography

Blouin, Michael J., 2018. 
Mass-Market Fiction and the Crisis of American Liberalism, 1972–2017. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.[13] [See Chapter 3 on 'Danielle Steel and the New Home Economics' because Blouin refers to romance scholarship and describes Steel as "the undisputed master of the mass-market romance" (75). This is, however, disputed, both by many romance readers (thanks to everyone who responded to my tweets about this!) and by Steel herself, who has "insisted that her books aren't romantic fiction. 'They're not really about romance ... I really write more about the human condition,' she said. '[Romance] is an element in life but I think of romance novels as more of a category and I write about the situations we all deal with – loss and war and illness and jobs and careers, good things, bad things, crimes, whatever'." (The Guardian)

Just in case that wasn't definitive enough, here's a quote from Rita Clay Estrada and Rita Gallagher's You Can Write a Romance (1999) on the issue:

Danielle Steel-types of books aren't romances. They're known as soaps. Why? Because they're problematic - one heart-kicking dilemma after another. One life-threatening quandary after another. One tear-jerking, emotional death and divorce after another. The romance is secondary to the problems, growth and tears of the heroine. That's a soap. Danielle Steele [sic] created the written form and made it her genre. Many have followed, but few have had the success she has. (3)


Clay Estrada, Rita and Rita Gallagher. You Can Write a Romance. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 1999.

A Little Light Bedtime Reading

By Laura Vivanco on Sunday, 10 June, 2018


Research has [...] demonstrated that ‘pleasure readers’ do more bedtime reading which promotes peaceful sleep at night (Ponniah & Priya, 2014) and reduces stress and anxiety, as the pleasurable activity of reading helps secrete more serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that works synergistically with melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone, to give contentment and peaceful sleep (Buchanan, 2007). (Ponniah 116)

Admittedly there's no mention here of what happens to readers who are so engrossed they stay up late and are then exhausted in the morning when they can't sleep in, but it sounds like a great explanation/excuse for why bed-time reading should be encouraged.

So, here's a very short story by R. Joseph Ponniah about the benefits of late-night romance reading.

Once upon a time, a well-educated woman "approached the researcher asking for assistance and suggestions for improving her telephone conversation skills and language used in business contexts" (118). Her first language was Tamil, and she wanted to improve her English for use at work.

First, the researcher instructed that she watch a series of videos designed to teach business English. However, the videos were too boring, and the woman said so.

Then the researcher suggested that she read a series of novels about war, written by male authors. However, the woman said that these books were not of interest to her.

At last, the researcher thought to ask the woman about the novels she enjoyed reading in Tamil, and asked her to find similar books in English and

She collected more than 50 novels published by Mills and Boon and Harlequin and started reading them one after another without any assistance from the experimenter. In six months she completed 27 novels in [...] English [...], including Song of the wave (Anne Hampson), Scandalous (Charlotte Lamb), Temporary bride (Patricia Wilson), Kiss the moonlight (Barbara Cartland) and Married in a moment (Jessica Steele). She read at bedtime as she had more work during the day, and now she continues to read novels in [English] for pleasure. Discussion with the subject confirmed that reading such novels is a pleasurable experience and this kind of reading gave her not only the confidence to speak on the telephone but also helped her clearly communicate the intended meaning both in written and spoken language. When asked about her L2 reading experience, she said that she read for pleasure and did not feel that she was reading in a second language. [...]


She used to seek the experimenter’s assistance to draft business letters, but once she had been reading English novels for pleasure for about a month she developed the ability to draft without the support of the experimenter. She explained that she never experienced writing apprehensions after reading the novels in L2. Further, her confidence level increased when telephoning in English as she had acquired the skills required for conversation. (119)

And that is the story of how a little bed-time romance reading helped one reader gain proficiency and confidence in a second language!


Ponniah, R. Joseph. "First-Language Reading Promotes Second-Language Reading and Acquisition: Towards a Biolinguistic Approach". The Idea and Practice of Reading. Eds. R. Joseph Ponniah and Sathyaraj Venkatesan. Singapore: Springer, 2018. 113-124.

Literary Criticism: Emotion and Not-so-Objective Criteria

By Laura Vivanco on Tuesday, 29 May, 2018

Following up on my last post, which defended happy emotions as not being any less profound than sad ones, here's a quote from a new book by Catherine Butler which discusses the implications of "most literary criticism [...] rhetorical[ly] positioning [...] the critic as an objective observer and analyser" (54):

one method of marginalising affect in criticism is to exclude from serious critical consideration genres seen as designed to elicit strong (or “crude”, or “manipulative”) affective reactions: popular romances and horror stories are obvious examples. When Aristotle kickstarted Western literary criticism more than two millennia ago, he did so in part by analysing tragedy’s affective power over the emotional state of its audience; but one might contend that the mode of affective engagement elicited by Oedipus Rex and Fifty Shades of Grey are sufficiently distinct to warrant a degree of critical triage. However, such arguments, especially when applied to whole genres rather than to cherry-picked texts, tend to be sustained by question-begging assumptions about what kinds of emotional experience are worthwhile, complex, profound, life-enhancing and so on. Approaches of this type are both arbitrary (excess is more critically “respectable” in Gothic texts than in modern horror, for example) and orientated so as to privilege the tastes of certain groups of readers (men over women, educated over uneducated, adults over children). (46-47, emphasis added)


Butler, Catherine. Literary Studies Deconstructed: A Polemic. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

Validation for Happy Books

By Laura Vivanco on Thursday, 24 May, 2018

In an essay on "Literature and Happiness" D. J. Moores defends works of literature which are basically happy in nature and their arguments seem relevant to assessments of popular romance fiction, with its guarantee of happy endings and preference for uplifting emotions:

Jonathan Haidt, an influential social psychologist, has demonstrated the complexity of elevation, [...] an emotion that Haidt “discovered” after reading Thomas Jefferson’s account of being uplifted by particular narratives in which a character behaves in admirably moral ways, cannot be dismissed as so much apolitical fluff that distracts us from real sociopolitical evils. It is equally complex, if not more so, as are the Aristotelian fear and pity that culminate in the tragic response. To my knowledge, no compelling arguments exist that prove negative emotions are any more complex than positive ones. The converse, in fact, may be true: recent research indicates that negative emotions might be neurologically and psychologically simpler, as they are implicated in instinctual survival mechanisms by prompting immediate action—fear makes us run, disgust makes us spit, anger makes us fight, etc.—whereas positive emotions exert beneficial downstream effects that prove too complicated to measure in the moments when they occur. Barbara Fredrickson, a pioneering research psychologist at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has discovered that positive emotions are not epiphenomena or mere effects of some other cause but causal agents that serve a valuable purpose by undoing the effects of negative emotions: relieving stress; improving health; strengthening the immune system; providing a sense of meaning and purpose; and broadening and building psychological resources for the future.


According to Haidt, the emotion of elevation is characterized by all of Fredrickson’s downstream effects, and it also prompts us to behave in more altruistic ways, reorienting us away from self-focused concerns to altruistic ones, opening those who experience it to a whole family of other-directed emotions, such as gratitude, love, and empathy. At the least, then, inspiring narratives relying upon elevation for their aesthetic effects rival, in affective complexity, the fear, pity, and catharsis implied in the Aristotelian understanding of the tragic response. (263-64, emphasis added)


Moores, D. J., "Literature and Happiness." Philosophy and Literature 42.1 (2018): 260-77.

A Depiction of Academic Despair

By Laura Vivanco on Sunday, 13 May, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Fake it till you make it

By Laura Vivanco on Sunday, 8 April, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The Circular Justification of Heroic Violence

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 7 April, 2018

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.

Speaking with Authority on Love: Romance Authors

By Laura Vivanco on Tuesday, 27 March, 2018

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

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

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

Posting Elsewhere

By Laura Vivanco on Friday, 12 January, 2018

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

Part 1: (defining the genre)

Part 2: (variations + different subgenres)

More on the Dangers of Novels

By Laura Vivanco on Thursday, 4 January, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart,
’Tis woman’s whole existence; man may range

The court, camp, church, the vessel, and the mart;
  Sword, gown, gain, glory, offer in exchange
Pride, fame, ambition, to fill up his heart,
  And few there are whom these cannot estrange;
Men have all these resources, we but one,
To love again, and be again undone.


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

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