Kecia Ali's "Human in Death: Morality and Mortality in J. D. Robb's Novels"

By Laura Vivanco on

There is a moment in J. D. Robb's Celebrity in Death in which, Kecia Ali observes, Robb seems to "address the place of fiction - her own work - in the world" (152) through the words of an actor who states that:

"I'm good at my work. I'm damn good at it and I feel strongly what I do is important [...] without art, stories, and the people who bring those stories to life, the world would be a sadder, smaller place." (46)

Robb's work may make the world a happier place by entertaining her readers, but perhaps she also expands their world by touching on a range of quite serious topics.

Kecia Ali's Human in Death: Morality and Mortality in J. D. Robb's Novels argues that the novels in Robb's In Death series

explore vital questions about human flourishing.  

Through close readings of more than fifty novels and novellas published over two decades, Ali analyzes the ethical world of Robb’s New York circa 2060. Robb compellingly depicts egalitarian relationships, satisfying work, friendships built on trust, and an array of models of femininity and family. At the same time, the series’ imagined future replicates some of the least admirable aspects of contemporary society. Sexual violence, police brutality, structural poverty and racism, and government surveillance persist in Robb’s fictional universe, raising urgent moral challenges. So do ordinary ethical quandaries around trust, intimacy, and interdependence in marriage, family, and friendship.  

Ali celebrates the series’ ethical successes, while questioning its critical moral omissions. She probes the limits of Robb’s imagined world and tests its possibilities for fostering identity, meaning, and mattering of human relationships across social difference. Ali capitalizes on Robb’s futuristic fiction to reveal how careful and critical reading is an ethical act.

For example, although Robb's protagonist, Eve Dallas, "frequently uses violence in appropriate and measured ways to stop criminals or protect herself, colleagues, or civilians," Ali highlights the need to read carefully and critically given that at other times Dallas

abuses her power, or threatens to. Readers - like Dallas' colleagues - become complicit in these casual brutalities. Readers identify with Dallas and root for her. She has suffered traumatic violence herself and commands what P.D. James terms "reader identification and loyalty." [...] Reader loyalty means that when she hurts people, especially but not only when they hurt her first, readers tend to be on her side.

This is the case even when she is in the wrong. (89)

In such circumstances, the novels may prompt the reader to adopt positions which Ali regards as unethical. However, Ali looks more favourably (albeit still with a critical lens) at other aspects of the novels, such as Dallas's rejection of "the claim that some people simply deserve better lives than others" (96).

Death, too, is portrayed as egalitarian:

In December 2060, Dallas' detectives hang a sign over the squad's break-room door, joining a jumble of holiday decorations [...]:


Erected as a joke, the sign strikes Dallas' fancy. She decrees that it will remain after the sad Christmas tree and other seasonal debris are gone. It expresses a core truth: death equalizes [...] Not only is death universal, so is vulnerability. (95)

Naturally (given my academic background) this reminds me of medieval and early modern depictions of death.

In the illustrations and texts of the Dance of Death, individuals from both lay and clergy, of high to low estate, of a variety of creeds (at least in the Spanish version), young and old, male and female, are forced to join the dance.

Death and the Duchess: Holbein d. J.; Danse Macabre. XXXVI. The DuchessDeath and the Duchess: Holbein d. J.; Danse Macabre. XXXVI. The Duchess

The illustration above, by Hans Holbein, dates from the first half of the sixteenth century and depicts two skeletal representatives of Death arriving to take a Duchess from her bed. Other illustrations in the series show the moment at which Death approaches individuals from different social classes. The modern novels of the In Death series use words, rather than images, to portray variations in social class and how they affect the contexts of individuals' deaths:

the form of difference to which the series attends most clearly is class. Juxtapositions between rich and poor victims pepper the series. Its first installment juxtaposes the deaths of a wealthy woman from a prominent family working as a licensed companion and an older LC struggling to get by. Another opens by contrasting two murders: in his lavish home, a rich man's "death had come to him on the luxurious sheets of his massive, silk-canopied bed." A poor young woman's death the night before had occurred "on the stained mattress tossed on the floor of a junkie's flop." The surroundings diverge, but the end result is the same: hence the protecting and serving that the squad sign proclaims. (95-96)

That "squad sign" with its warning that "YOU COULD GET DEAD" also recalls for me the warning issued by three corpses (who are, however, a little more emphatic about the issue), in the tale of The Three Living and the Three Dead: they tend to state some variation of "What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be" (as at Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini).

Three Living and Three Dead: Detail of a miniature of the Three Living and the Three Dead, from the De Lisle Psalter, England (East Anglia), c. 1308 – c. 1340, Arundel MS 83, f. 127vThree Living and Three Dead: Detail of a miniature of the Three Living and the Three Dead, from the De Lisle Psalter, England (East Anglia), c. 1308 – c. 1340, Arundel MS 83, f. 127v (see the British Library blog for more details)

The connection between these medieval/early modern works and the futuristic In Death series may seem tenuous but, as Ali observes "Robb often plays with literary analogues and antecedents [...] e.g. Witness in Death pays homage to Agatha Christie) [...] "Chaos in Death" engages The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde" (176) and, in addition, Ali points out ways in which the novels contain more than one "blast from the past" which "connects the future with the past":

Robb's retrograde jargon of "mental defectives" and "violent tendencies" suggests biological determinism [...] the panhandler licenses that beggars must display recall the poor badges of sixteenth-and seventeenth-century England. (106)

It seems not inappropriate, therefore, for an academic response to her work similarly to make connections between her novels and older works of literature and art.

It might be a little bit too fanciful, however, to think of Eve Dallas, who "seeks justice for the innocent and beloved as well as the guilty and the jerks" (114) as a handmaiden of the goddess Poena (from whose name the word "penal" is derived) and of whom Anthony Trollope wrote in Framley Parsonage that:

Poena, that just but Rhadamanthine goddess, whom moderns ordinarily call Punishment, or Nemesis when we wish to speak of her goddess-ship, very seldom fails to catch a wicked man though [...] the wicked man may possibly get a start of her. (Chapter 47)

Even so, it's intriguing how closely and explicitly entwined Dallas' role is with death and, moreover, that it has a spiritual element: "For her, being a cop is a calling. A priest compares Dallas' vocation to his own" (46) and "In a dream conversation with a murder victim who had been posing as a priest, Dallas rejects sin as out of her "jurisdiction," telling him, "Murder is my religion" (151). And it is also mentioned that Dallas was "a 'mythical figure' while [Peabody] was at the [police] academy" (48).

Poena/Poine: Atreus, king of Mycenae, sprawls mortally wounded on his throne. [...] To the right of the throne [...] P

Here "Atreus, king of Mycenae, sprawls mortally wounded on his throne. [...] To the right of the throne [is] Poine, the winged goddess of retribution" who was known as Poena by the Romans. In other words, she's on the scene of a murder to investigate and arrives quickly due to her wings; Dallas has to make do with a flying car. The image is taken from a scene depicted on a "Two-handled jar (amphora) depicting the murder of Atreus. Greek, South Italian, Late Classical Period about 340–330 B.C." Appropriately given Ali's academic affiliation, this is also from Boston, albeit the Museum of Fine Arts. "Images of artworks the Museum believes to be in the public domain are available for download" under terms of use which permit "limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use."



Ali, Kecia. Human in Death: Morality and Mortality in J. D. Robb's Novels. Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2017.

Vanity Fair

By Laura Vivanco on

Melania Trump, eating diamonds, on the cover of Vanity Fair (Mexico)Melania Trump, eating diamonds, on the cover of Vanity Fair (Mexico)



"Sometimes I think fashion magazines are run by revolutionaries just to make the aristocracy look stupid."

He suppressed a grin. From Sarah's mouth this comment was not praise. She was a staunch monarchist and a firm believer in the social hierarchy. Jack, however, had no such faith in social order; the idea of La Belle Assemblée being run by a cabal of anarchists gave him fond feelings for that periodical.

Cat Sebastian, The Soldier's Scoundrel, Avon: 2016, page 29.

Part I - Representations of Romantic Relationships and the Romance Genre in Contemporary Women's Writing (Sheffield, 11 June 2016)

By Laura Vivanco on


Yesterday I went to a one-day conference/symposium on Representations of Romantic Relationships and the Romance Genre in Contemporary Women’s Writing. There were 5 papers which focussed on romance novels, one on Fifty Shades (I think there have been debates over how to classify that, though it could be considered erotic romance), and various papers which looked at links between romance and other forms of women’s writing.

I’m going to write up my thoughts about each of the papers here but these are very much my thoughts on the papers, rather than an accurate description of each of the papers themselves. That’s mostly because it’s difficult to write fast enough to take accurate, detailed notes which won’t misrepresent the finer points of someone’s argument but also because (a) I’m not sure how much information all the participants want to have shared online about their work and (b) I’m a bit single-mindedly focussed on romance, so even when a paper is primarily about books which are not genre romances my brain will tend to zoom in on the bits of the paper which relate to romance scholarship (as opposed, for example, to scholarship on feminism, capitalism etc).

The first three papers were:

Fran Tomlin, University of Edinburgh - “True Romantic Art”: Love and the Quest in the novels of A. L. Kennedy

Elizabeth Dimmock, University of Lincoln - Fifty Shades of Grey and Late Capitalism

Veera Mäkelä, Independent Researcher (previously studying at the University of Helsinki) - Acting for Herself, by Herself: Learning, Regaining, and Employing Female Agency in Mary Balogh's Dark Angel, Lord Carew's Bride and The Famous Heroine.

In my second post I write about:

Dr. Amy Burge, University of Edinburgh - Beyond the Alpha: Sex, Masculinity and the Exotic in twenty-first century Harlequin Mills & Boon romance.

Val Derbyshire, University of Sheffield - "In these modern times": Reading Harlequin Mills & Boon Romantic Novels as Signs of the Times

Alicia Williams, Independent Researcher - Busting the Mills & Boon Myth: Category Romance as an Instrument for Change

In the final post I attempt to summarise papers by:

Fiona Martinez, Sheffield Hallam University - The Romance Genre & Feminism: Friends or Foes?

Lucy Sheerman, Independent Researcher - Charlotte Brontë and Contemporary Representations of Romance Fiction

Deborah Madden, University of Sheffield - Rewriting Romance in 1930s Spain and Portugal: Rebellious Heroines of Federica Montseny and Maria Lamas

Martina Vitackova, University of Pretoria - The Sexual Turn in Post-Apartheid Women's Writing in Afrikaans


Fran Tomlin, University of Edinburgh - “True Romantic Art”: Love and the Quest in the novels of A. L. Kennedy


Fran is working towards her PhD, on the topic of "A.L. Kennedy and the Quest for Happy Ever After": "Fran’s thesis focuses on the work of contemporary Scottish writer A.L.Kennedy, examining issues of gender, love and sex in her work, and how these issues relate to the notion of Romance as it appears in British Literature as a whole."

Although Kennedy does not identify herself as a romance writer, the paratext of her books does tend to mention their romantic elements and she has said "I believe in God, I believe in love - they probably make very little sense without meaning much the same thing" (Mitchell 123).

Tomlin: The blending of the passionate and the painful sets Kennedy apart from the traditional genre #CWWRomance16

— Krystina Osborne (@KrystinaOsborne) 11 June 2016

Although Kennedy's characterisations seem very realistic, Fran quoted Robert Louis Stevenson's observation that "True romantic art [...] makes a romance of all things. It reaches into the highest abstraction of the ideal; it does not refuse the most pedestrian realism" (Stevenson, qtd. in Norquay, 60). [As I discussed in For Love and Money, there's nothing preventing romance novels from being written in the low mimetic mode so "realism" doesn't disqualify a novel from being considered a romance. It should be noted, though, that when Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about romance in 1882, he wasn't thinking about the modern romance genre.]

Fran said that Kennedy's novels are structured in such a way that the reader wants there to be a happy ending but although the possibility of one exists at the close of the novels, they haven't got there. [A lack of an HEA doesn't automatically disqualify a novel from being a romance, though, given that the RWA merely require a romance to have "An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending". It would seem, though, that the endings aren't "emotionally satisfying" to Fran because an optimistic potential isn't enough for her, but that could be a matter of personal taste rather than a clear indication that the books aren't romances.]

Tomlin: Is Kennedy producing a more literary romance? How is this distinct from the traditional genre? #CWWRomance16

— Krystina Osborne (@KrystinaOsborne) 11 June 2016

Overall, the paper raised questions about the definition of a "romance novel". Amy Burge, for example, suggested one could think of romance as a strategy and/or a structure (which might fit with Fran's use of the term "quest" in the title of her paper) and I think referred to Gillian Beer's The Romance.

Elizabeth Dimmock, University of Lincoln - Fifty Shades of Grey and Late Capitalism

— Krystina Osborne (@KrystinaOsborne) 11 June 2016

Bakhtin suggested that traditionally the carnival is a one-off (though recurring) way in which the status quo can be temporarily transgressed. It's a safety valve which ultimately functions to support dominant structures and relegitimate it. In modern, neo-liberal capitalist society, the carnivalesque has been individualised and commercialised, to similar effect:

Dimmock: Commercialisation of transgression in contemporary culture prevents it from threatening power structures #CWWRomance16

— Krystina Osborne (@KrystinaOsborne) 11 June 2016

In the Fifty Shades trilogy, although the BDSM appears transgressive, the series does end with the protagonists in a fairly traditional (married, heteronormative, with children) relationship.

Fifty Shades is set in the US but the author is British and in the UK BDSM has perhaps traditionally been associated with the ruling elite. More recently there was the 2008 court case involving Max Mosley and just this year there were revelations concerning the Conservative minister John Whittingdale MP, though

According to the former editor of the Erotic Review, Rowan Pelling, Britain is "still known abroad as the 'nation of floggers'".

"A lot of it has to do with the way we have historically treated children," says Ms Pelling, "sending them away to boarding school from an early age. (BBC)

It wasn't working-class children who were sent to boarding schools. And the Marquis de Sade was an aristocrat, of course. So perhaps that would suggest that BDSM has traditionally been a carnival for the elites.

It also occurs to me that female submission is actually fairly traditional (and perhaps therefore not so very transgressive) in the romance genre. It's not always been made explicit, and certainly wouldn't have been expressed as BDSM, but dominant heroes who give heroines "punishing kisses" or more were extremely common at one time. It also fits with traditional gender roles within marriage, in which the wife was expected to love, honour and obey. One romance which made me think more about the extent to which female (but definitely not male) submission has been accepted within the genre was Jill Christian's The Tender Bond (1961). It's a vintage romance in which Martin, a man who is ultimately not chosen as the hero, quite clearly has submissive tendencies and the heroine observes that

He did not stir her to tingling excitement as Dominic did. Dominic roused in her the instinct to surrender, to give herself body and soul into the hands of a lord and master. He would dominate her, and there would always be a certain awe in her love, a desire for meek obedience. She would never, never win the upper hand with him.

Martin would never seek to dominate her.

Martin is eventually paired up with a woman who states that she's:

not an ordinary woman. I'll never be a little, adoring wife. [...] At my wedding there'll be no such words as 'obey.' In the old days, I could have been a queen." She smiled as if seeing a picture of herself, a cruelly satisfied expression that reminded Pamela of a fed tiger in a zoo. "I should glory in possessing and ruling Martin, and he'd glory in obeying."

Pamela shuddered. "It's horrible, like the spider and the fly."

"A lot of insects eat their husbands. I don't find that disgusting. I find it interesting. [...]"

[More details about that book can be found in this post I wrote in 2008.] In that context, a female dominant/male submissive romance would presumably have a lot more subversive potential than one like Fifty Shades.

Veera Mäkelä, Independent Researcher (previously studying at the University of Helsinki) - Acting for Herself, by Herself: Learning, Regaining, and Employing Female Agency in Mary Balogh's Dark Angel, Lord Carew's Bride and The Famous Heroine.

Veera's paper is the heroine-focussed counterpart of the paper she gave to the 2015 PCA/ACA conference:

Alpha, Beta, and the Ambiguous Omega: The Diversity of Heroes 

The heroes examined in this paper exemplify how a successful romance hero is a discussion on the pressures society puts on men and breaks reigning stereotypes. The romance genre almost demands that male protagonists show softness in order to be worthy of the heroine, which renders the stereotypical notion of the brutish Alpha antiquated. It is therefore necessary to update the vocabulary used to describe heroes and to examine the issues they represent in today’s romance writing.

Romance heroes have developed rapidly with the genre. The rapist Alpha is seen to a far lesser extent than it previously was, and the Beta hero’s soft personality is viewed as distinctly positive. However, although the surface division between Alpha and Beta types remain, any closer scrutiny reveals that the modern hero is in fact more a blend of the hard and soft traits than weighed in favour of one or the other.

This paper discusses the diversity and ambiguity this blending causes in romance heroes, using as examples the heroes of Mary Balogh’s novels Dark Angel, Lord Carew’s Bride and The Famous Heroine. The discussion takes into account the criticism of the romance hero, both past and present, and shows the change in basic terminology used to describe these male protagonists, which on close reading of Balogh’s novels proves to be useful as a basic tool regarding reader preferences and the hero’s function in the novel but inadequate in truly describing the wide range of male personalities found in the genre.

Returning to the same three (linked) novels by Mary Balogh, Veera turned her attention to their heroines.

Mäkelä: 'The Honourable Miss Jennifer Winwood' learns agency in Dark Angel #CWWRomance16

— Krystina Osborne (@KrystinaOsborne) 11 June 2016

The heroine of Dark Angel initially conforms to gender norms and attempts to please the men in her life but eventually she gains agency in her relationship with the hero.

Mäkelä: Miss Samantha Newman regains agency in Lord Carew's Bride (note the different arc of agency to Jennifer's) #CWWRomance16

— Krystina Osborne (@KrystinaOsborne) 11 June 2016

The heroine of Lord Carew's Bride has internalised oppression by men and so cannot act without reference to the man who left her disillusioned. Eventually she does succeed in throwing off her victim status and physically fights back against her oppressor.

Mäkelä: Miss Cora Downes 'takes charge' (notably sexually) in The Famous Heroine. Wishes to please society, not men #CWWRomance16

— Krystina Osborne (@KrystinaOsborne) 11 June 2016

The heroine of The Famous Heroine is of a lower social class than the other two heroines so her concern is with pleasing society rather than individual men. It seems she attempts to fill the traditional womanly roles of mother, wife and homemaker (I think Veera was referring here to the romance heroine as described in Kay Mussell's Fantasy and Reconciliation) but does so in ways which burst out of the traditional limits.

Veera's analysis raised a number of questions: to what extent does the series shows a progressive change in heroines? If it does, does this reflect changes in the genre as a whole? Is it better to want to please individual men or patriarchal society? To what extent is "society" depicted as patriarchal in these novels given the power of the patronesses of Almack's? And to what extent are romance authors like those patronesses as they decide what constitutes appropriate behaviour in a heroine?


Mitchell, Kaye. A. L. Kennedy. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. "A Gossip on Romance". R. L. Stevenson on Fiction: An Anthology of Literary and Critical Essays. Ed. Glenda Norquay. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999. 51-64.

Review/Summary (8 - Jude Elund): Women and Erotic Fiction, ed. Kristen Phillips

By Laura Vivanco on

Focusing on the representation of lesbianism in mainstream erotic fiction, the essay principally investigates the idea of experimenting with one's sexual orientation as an aspect of the cultural shift toward embracing sex practices that depart from the norm. In mainstream erotic fiction, I will suggest, female-female sexuality is primarily represented in the context of, indeed, as an element of, heterosexual, white, middle-class fantasy. [...] One particular novel, Till Human Voices Wake Us by Patti Davis, serves as a key text for analysis. A self-published novel about an upper-class American woman who falls in love with her sister-in-law after the death of her child, Till Human Voices Wake Us appears to have little claim to either "literary" or "erotic" merit and would probably be completely unknown except for the fact that Davis happens to be the daughter of Ronald Reagan. However, an analysis of this novel and its discursive context will provide some insight into the uncertain position of same-sex desire in relation to mainstream women's erotic fiction. (150)

Elund argues that in Davis's novel affluence is key to permitting the protagonists

to live a life outside of the normative. This is neo-liberal ideology at work and is a key driver to how we, as a society, understand and engage with difference: if the market allows it then it must be at least somewhat legitimate and/or permissible. [...] Sexual and gender diversity are marketable; they illustrate an apparent social consciousness while striving for an edginess that conservative hetero-culture cannot embody. Naomi Klein argues that these representations have become a strong selling point for marketers, whereby marketing has "seized upon multiculturalism and gender-bending in the same ways that it has seized upon youth culture in general - not just as a market niche but as a source of new carnivalesque imagery" [...]. This means, for example, that homosexuality and sexual fluidity become more visible and socially accepted, but only a certain sanitized version of homosexuality and/or sexual fluidity that is suitable for the mainstream market. (158)


Elund, Jude. "Permissible Transgressions: Feminized Same-Sex Practice as Middle-Class Fantasy". Women and Erotic Fiction: Critical Essays on Genres, Markets and Readers. Ed. Kristen Phillips. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland 2015. 150-66.

Strong Women

By Laura Vivanco on

I'm probably going to be moving house soon, which means I'll have to part with quite a few of my books. I'm treating this as an opportunity to take a break from my current project and concentrate on books I've been meaning to read for a while; one of them is Amanda Vickery's The Gentleman's Daughter: Women's Lives in Georgian England (there's a detailed review here). Vickery's description of their lives and beliefs suggests that women who might be considered doormats by the standards of many modern romance readers would have seen their own behaviour rather differently:

it was a commonplace that the strict performance of duty generated a degree of secret pleasure, and ladies were relentlessly tutored on how to reach and enjoy the moral high ground: 'You must also learn to be satisfied with the Consciousness of acting Right', counselled Lady Sarah Pennington, 'and look with an unconcerned Indifference on the Reception every successless Attempt to please may meet with,' while Eliza Haywood promised 'Sweet indeed are the reflections, which flow from a consciousness of having done what virtue and the duty owing to the character we bear in life, exacted from us ...' Women's own letters and diaries do suggest that many did their duty to a round of inner applause, finding a certain exaltation in it. Ladies accepted patriarchy in theory, although, strikingly, the assertion of male authority often proved much more acceptable and manageable coming from fathers than from husbands and brothers. Still, when wronged, genteel women rarely questioned the justice of the gender hierarchy; rather they bemoaned the fact that their menfolk departed so sorrily from the authoritative masculine ideal. That said, none of the women studied here expected to endure tyranny [...] and they were fully conscious of what was owing to their dignity and rank. While not above the occasional exhibition of an almost theatrical feminine inferiority when petitioning for favours, the habitual self-projection of most was of upright strength, stoical fortitude and self-command. To be mistress of oneself was paramount - genteel ladies aimed to be self-possessed in social encounters, self-controlled in the face of minor provocations, self-sufficient in the midst of ingratitude, and, above all, brave and enduring in the grip of tragedy and misfortune. Abject feminine servility was the ineradicable mark of the kitchen maid not her employer. (8)

Samuel Richardson's Pamela Andrews and Jane Austen's Fanny Price may not appeal to modern readers as much as the outspoken Elizabeth Bennet, but they are "brave and enduring in the grip of tragedy and misfortune" and, in their own ways, they show a great deal of strength. They may begin their stories rather closer to being kitchen maids than employers but by the end of the novels in which they appear these heroines have been rewarded for their fortitude and virtue with more than "a round of inner applause": they are firmly embedded in the ranks of the genteel.


Vickery, Amanda. The Gentleman's Daughter: Women's Lives in Georgian England. New Haven: Yale UP, 1998.

Black Gay Romance

By Laura Vivanco on

In “What’s Love But a Second Hand Emotion?”: Man-on-Man Passion in the Contemporary Black Gay Romance Novel," Marlon B. Ross states that

The black gay romance novel emerges in the mid-1980s both as a riffing response to the kind of pop heteronorm performed by mass mediated hip hop, as well as to the consolidated white gay rights agenda, the rising homonorm that aims to exclude black man-on-man desire while claiming that its own articulation of same-sexuality is categorical, universal, and biologically ordained. (676)

He focuses on Larry Duplechan's Eight Days a Week (1985), James Earl Hardy's B-Boy Blues (1994) and E. Lynn Harris's Invisible Life (1994).

Ross is critical of "hegemonic, homonormal modes of identification that fix gender-dissident desire in order to legitimate it on par with heterosexual love" (674) and while the novels he's chosen are definitely about romantic relationships, I'm not sure they're strictly speaking "romance novels" as defined by the Romance Writers of America, who stipulate that there should be:

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.

Larry Duplechan's novel was

aimed at the new gay white culture forming in the ghettoes of the urban North. The story of an aspiring twenty-two-year-old black gay singer who falls in love with a blond bisexual ex-football player, Duplechan’s first novel, like his succeeding ones, might be called integrationist fantasies, like the post-Civil Rights narratives of good noble blacks, usually men, single-handedly integrating white institutions. (678)

There is apparently no happy ending for the central couple because, "despite their fierce attraction to each other, their relationship fails" (Nelson 633).

Hardy and Harris's books are both the first installment in series. I have the impression that Hardy's comes closest to the pattern expected of "romances" because

Hardy clings to one signal attribute of homonormative romance, the rule that true love can be manifested only in the heteronormalizing coupling convention, as Ann duCille labels this trend in African American women’s fiction. In addition to ruffneck Pooquie’s eventual self-acceptance as a man-loving man who can take it up the ass with the best of sissy-punks, many of Littlebit’s and Pooquie’s love trials revolve around sexual fidelity not only to each other but more crucially to the ideal of monandrous commitment. (Ross 680)

The relationship begun in B-Boy Blues evidently has its ups and downs since the sixth book, A House is not a Home (2005) begins "ten years since Mitchell and Raheim became lovers, and four since they broke up" (Kirkus). It would seem to conclude with a "happy for now": "They give their relationship a second chance, but not until the last few pages of the book. Whether it'll work or not, who knows" (Grey853).

I haven't been able to find out exactly what happens to the protagonist of Harris's Invisible Life but his relationships are turbulent and over the course of the series he shares the stage with other couples.

Regardless of whether or not one thinks of these three novels as "romance" or "romantic fiction" they're an important part of the history of black and gay romance novels.


Nelson, Emmanuel S. "Duplechan, Larry." The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Multiethnic American Literature: D-H. Ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2005. 632-34.

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

Ross, Marlon B. " 'What’s Love But a Second Hand Emotion?': Man-on-Man Passion in the Contemporary Black Gay Romance Novel." Callaloo 36.3 (2013): 669-687.

Thinking Outside the Box

By Laura Vivanco on

Ria Cheyne's "research focuses on representations of disability and illness in fiction, especially popular genres such as science fiction, romance, horror and crime" and she suggests that

science fiction offers a space where alternative conceptions of ‘ability’, ‘disability’ and what constitutes a ‘normal’ human body can be explored. [...] The story might be set on another planet, in an artificial environment like a spaceship, or on an Earth where conditions are radically changed from the way they are now.  What this means is that there’s a lot more potential to depict different environmental conditions than in most other types of fiction – including those in which the ‘normal’ human body is ill-adapted. [...] Alternatively, science fiction may depict environments that are enabling for those with bodily configurations or capabilities outwith the norm.

This resonated with me because I've recently read Lois McMaster Bujold's Falling Free (1988) in which most of the characters have an extra set of arms instead of a pair of legs. This is extremely useful in the zero-gravity conditions in which they live and to which they are much better suited than two-armed and two-legged humans. It also, though, made me think about Geoffrey Trease's Mandeville series, set mostly in England during the reign of Charles I, which I read this week and in which one of the recurring characters, Pietro Zorzi, is

Barely four feet high, he was in all respects quite naturally proportioned, as was the miniature violin on which he played.

He played excellently. But the applause he won was perfunctory, as though the Duke and his household had little appreciation of music and were merely amused that so small a being could produce it at all. (123-23)

This is historical fiction rather than science fiction but even so it contrives to depict a situation in which there is an environment to which "the 'normal' human body is ill-adapted." The Duke's dwarves are housed in a special set of apartments:

"Follow me," said Zorzi. "Mind your heads."

It was not too difficult, even for Anthony. It meant stooping, and flexing at the knees, and placing one's toes with unusual care on the narrow treads of the stairs. [...] This miniature suite had been built, decorated and furnished with an exquisite attention to detail. [...] If the painters and plasterers and other craftsmen had been of normal size, they must have worked in most cramped positions, squatting like miners. (152)

In the third book of the series a situation arises which is "enabling for those with bodily configurations or capabilities outwith the norm" inasmuch as Zorzi's size enables him to carry out a particular task which is crucial to foiling a plot.

I think it could be said of Trease's depiction of Zorzi, just as much as of the science fiction novels discussed by Cheyne, that the

transformations of impairment status that characters undergo in these novels – from non-impaired to impaired, or vice versa – though the body itself has not changed, demonstrates the extent to which impairment is created by features of the physical environment.  As Rosemarie Garland-Thomson writes, “Stairs disable people who need to use wheelchairs to get around, but ramps let them go places freely” (524).  As a tool for political change, the social model of disability insists that rather than being something inherent to the individual, disability is created by barriers in society which disable a person.  The disability is created by barriers in the environment – which can include attitudinal barriers as well as architectural ones.

Trease was a politically committed author and his novels often address "barriers in society":

As a writer, he started out as a passionate young socialist determined to overthrow the sentimental romanticism of historical fiction at the time. [...] He came to believe it was wrong "to press party politics on readers too immature to argue with him", though of course his books remained permeated with his own liberal values as he wrote [...]. Trease was also innovatory in introducing girls as co-partners in his stories. (Thwaite)

Sir Jeffrey Hudson and Queen Henrietta MariaIn Zorzi's case, the barriers relate primarily to his size but Anthony is restricted by his low social class and Amoret by her gender. Indeed, in the first book in the series Amoret is only able to participate in the adventure as a result of dressing as a boy. Thinking about these differing barriers in the light of the social model of disability reminded me of Aristotle's ideas about women:

To Aristotle, women were imperfect men, the result of something wrong with the conception that created them [...]; a woman was thus "a deformity, but one which occurs in the ordinary course of nature." Aristotle was not sure exactly why imperfect men were required in the natural scheme of things, but decided that it must be because they performed a function necessary for men, [...] he saw their primary function as procreation. (Weisner 18)

That, of course, suggests that bodies which are specially adapted may still be considered inferior, which took me back to the way that the "quaddies" are seen by some of the "normal" humans in Bujold's novel. Nonetheless, in both Bujold and Trease's novels there are scenes which

foreground the ways in which disability can be created by barriers in the environment.  [...] that encounter [...] is valuable because it encourages readers and viewers to reflect upon their own understanding of disability.  I’m not assuming a straightforward influence – read this book and your prejudices will disappear!  Rather, I’m talking about the potentials these works might have in terms of encouraging reflection upon beliefs and values that otherwise might not be questioned. (Cheyne)

In Bujold's novel Leo, one of the two-armed human characters, is shown to reflect and he concludes that

Men adapted to free fall, it was the going back that crippled them.

"I am a quaddie," Leo whispered in wonder. He regarded his hands, clenched and spread his fingers. "Just a quaddie with legs." He wasn't going back. (137)

Trease may not have taken his readers out of this world in order to encourage them to reflect "upon beliefs and values" but I think he nonetheless encouraged reflection on the ways in which the great majority of people might be said to be disabled by "attitudinal barriers" even if not also by "architectural ones."


Bujold, Lois McMaster. Falling Free. Riverdale, NY: Baen, 1988.

Cheyne, Ria. "Disability in Science Fiction." DaDaFest.

Thwaite, Ann. "Obituary: Geoffrey Trease." The Independent. 30 Jan. 1998.

Trease, Geoffrey. Mandeville. London: Macmillan, 1980.

Weisner, Merry E. Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000.


The painting is Anthony Van Dyck's portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria with Sir Jeffrey Hudson. I found it at Wikimedia Commons. In an author's note Trease wrote that Sir Jeffrey Hudson was "the Queen's dwarf" (189).

Heyer's Here

By Laura Vivanco on

My article about Georgette Heyer is out now in the latest issue of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies. It's called "Georgette Heyer: The Nonesuch of Regency Romance" and it addresses a variety of issues, including Heyer's attention to historical detail, her didacticism, and her attitudes on matters relating to race and class.

I've identified a number of primary sources Heyer seems to have used in her research, including an engraving of the Dropping Well which is mentioned in The Nonesuch and the guidebook Corisande Stinchcombe's been reading in Lady of Quality. I also think I've pinned down the precise year in which The Nonesuch is set (it's the first of the two possibilities given in the "Heyer Novel Chronology").

I conclude that:

As with the Nonesuch’s gift of a “dissected map [...] all made of little pieces which fit into each other, to make a map of Europe” (190), “The impression given of ‘history’ in these novels can be summed up as an imaginative creation, a selective version of the past” (Hughes 139). The nineteenth-century dissected map, “born in the same workshops as its more formal sibling, the imperial map” (Norcia 5), offered children “narratives of power and authority which are incumbent in the business of building both nation and empire” (2). Such maps were not simply neutral depictions of the world: they were “often strategically colored or marked to catalog the resources and opportunities for imperial inscription; titles reflect the moving horizon of imperial ambitions” (10). Heyer’s historical romances are also shaped by ideologies which ensure that, despite the historical accuracy of many of their details, they will not be universally accepted as “quite unexceptionable.” Mrs Chartley cautioned Miss Trent that

Sir Waldo belongs to a certain set which is considered to be the very height of fashion. In fact, he is its leader […]. You must know, perhaps better than I do, that the manners and too often the conduct of those who are vulgarly called Top-of-the-Trees are not governed by quite the same principles which are the rule in more modest circles. (207)

Heyer is the Nonesuch of Regency romance: like Sir Waldo she led her “set,” conforming to such high standards of historical accuracy that she too can be considered a “paragon” (20). Nonetheless, neither Heyer nor Sir Waldo embodied “perfection” (20) and the manners and conduct endorsed by Heyer’s novels are not governed by quite the same principles as those which are the rule in many more modern circles. (11-12)

You can read the article on the JPRS website or download the pdf.


Vivanco, Laura. "Georgette Heyer: The Nonesuch of Regency Romance." Journal of Popular Romance Studies 3.2 (2013).

Cross-Class Comparisons: Romantic Movies and Romance Novels

By Laura Vivanco on

If you've ever wondered why so many romance heroines are (wrongly) identified as "gold-diggers," Stephen Sharot's "Wealth and/or Love: Class and Gender in the Cross-Class Romance Films of the Great Depression" may provide the answer:

the sexually empowered woman who manipulates men, who came to be known from about 1915 as a “gold digger,” appears frequently in the films of the early 1930s. The adoption of the term “gold digger,” which had replaced “vamp” as the most prominent type of femme fatale, was part of a broader shift in popular conceptions of women who had moved away from their families and lived alone or with other women. As the term indicates, the motivation of the gold digger is material benefit, whereas the motives of the vamp are often elusive and impenetrable: the vamp may simply take pleasure from the entrapment and destruction of men. Another difference between the vamp and the gold digger is that whereas the class origins of the vamp are unknown, ambiguous, or irrelevant, those of the gold digger are almost always lower or working class. (92-93)

There seem to be a number of points of connection between the films studied by Sharot and many modern popular romances. For one thing, a very high proportion of the former end in the same manner as the latter: "the romances in most cross-class films are successful: sixty-five films (76 percent) of the 1929–39 sample and 98 films (83 percent) of the 1915–28 sample" (92). For another, they seem to be aimed at a similar demographic: "during the 1930s the studios assumed that their audience was a predominantly female one, and the female-centered cross-class romance was clearly oriented toward that audience" (91).

Both can claim Samuel Richardson's Pamela as an ancestor:

Cross-class romances in popular culture, most of which are between wealthy men and poor women, can be found in what are regarded as the first modern novels, which included what were to become the major female types from the lower class: the virtuous heroine (Pamela or Virtue Rewarded, 1740) and the amoral social climber (Moll Flanders, 1722; Shamela, 1741). Films with the theme of cross-class romance, most with virtuous heroines, have been made throughout almost the entire history of the cinema [...] but the number of such films in recent years cannot compare with the 1920s and 1930s, when, on average, at least one cross-class romance film would appear every month. From the beginnings of the feature film around 1915 until 1938, cross-class romance films were far more numerous than they would be thereafter. (89)

Furthermore, in his abstract Sharot writes that "Gender distinctions are reinforced by narratives in which the wealthy male is redeemed by the poor female so that he can perform the appropriate male gender roles. When the female is wealthy, the poor male insists on her economic dependence on him." This is a pattern which, I think, can also be found in romance novels. In more recent times there has perhaps been an even higher proportion of wealthy heroes paired with poor heroines but I have come across rich heroines in earlier decades who are paired up with either a poor hero who then becomes rich or one who insists on the heroine accepting a living standard in line with his finances. In these latter cases the hero is usually not actually poor, just not rich. Again, this is a nuance present in the films analysed by Sharot:

in a number of the cross-class romance films with rich females their relationship is not with working-class men but with middle-class men, often reporters, and in these, mainly screwball comedies, the romance is almost inevitably successful. Where the male is wealthy, the female is almost invariably from the working or lower class in occupation, such as maid, salesgirl, stenographer, or chorus girl. (92)

Substitute a secretary, housekeeper, cleaner or nanny for the "maid, salesgirl, stenographer, or chorus girl" and you could be describing a lot of modern popular romances.

Sharot's speculations about the responses of the audiences of these films may also be of interest to scholars of popular romance novels:

The common solution, in which the poor protagonist is rewarded for her or his disinterested love by a successful union with the wealthy protagonist, might be termed “escapist,” but it was probably recognized and accepted by many in the audience as conforming to the rules of what had become a familiar formula. However, this particular “escape” may have been especially pleasurable to particular audiences (urban, female, with aspirations to mobility) because it was grounded in a reality of class and gender inequality, which, given the limited opportunities for women in the labor market, made the social mobility of women dependent on marriage. [...] Audiences [...] were unlikely to feel dejected by a comparison with their own situation because they had learnt to experience the formula as an entertainment without continually comparing it with their own experience. (105)


Sharot, Stephen. "Wealth and/or Love: Class and Gender in the Cross-Class Romance Films of the Great Depression." Journal of American Studies 47.1 (2013): 89-108.


The image came from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain. It is a title frame from the trailer for Gold Diggers of 1933.

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.