ClitLit – Women, Romance Fiction and Patriarchal Discourse

January 13, 2010

Karma and ‘Goodness’: Sex as a reward

I’ve spent a lot of the last week on a plane – crossing the Australian continent twice in three days, which is no mean feat, let me tell you! – and have passed the time very merrily by reading some more of Jenny Crusie’s books: Fast Women and Welcome to Temptation, to be specific. (And, being on a plane, I haven’t been writing here, as you can tell…) They were both excellent plane books – I loved Welcome to Temptation in particular. I’m definitely going to have to read more Crusie, perhaps even purely for pleasure rather than study. She’s so wonderfully… well, readable. And moreish.

Though the point I made about Tell Me Lies still stands – I’m still not entirely sure she’s ‘romance’ in the most traditional sense. I’m definitely going to have to track down some of her category stuff to see how she deals with that more restricted format – I’m yet to read a category that blows my mind, and I figure if anyone can do it, Crusie can. Welcome to Temptation was more about the town of Temptation than anything else, although Sophie and Phin’s relationship is obviously a major factor. Family is a huge thing – Sophie’s relationships with Amy and Davy, Phin’s troubled Tucker legacy and his struggle to escape from it… and then there’s the whole Rachel subplot, and who-killed-Zane – it’s so much more than your typical romance usually is, and I think why I like it so much. Without the cover, I’d probably call it chicklit, though it’s not exactly a perfect fit there either… it’s light reading, plain and simple. I don’t know if you can call it a genre, but that’s what it is.

But this genre talk wasn’t actually what I wanted to get into. I wrote about sex in romance novels figuring as some kind of moral currency a few weeks ago, particularly as regards the virgin heroine – she is allowed to experience excellent sex with the hero as a reward for her previous good behaviour, when talking within a frame of a patriarchal view of female sexual morality. This happens a lot in category romance – I think there’s probably at least one release in every line per month that features a playboy and a virgin. Revisiting what I talked about before, I basically said that this sexual reward, bestowed upon the heroine by the hero, allows her to become complete as an individual (though her completion is dependent upon him). In return, she supplants his existing sexuality (his playboyness) with her own model (domestically blissful monogamy), thus reforming him.

This emphatically does not happen in Crusie’s books – which is one reason I like them so much, I think. Crusie, in her essay, describes romance as:

“…fiction about women who had sex and then didn’t eat arsenic or throw themselves under trains or swim out to the embrace of the sea, women who won on their own terms (and those terms were pretty varied) and still got the guy in the end without having to apologize or explain that they were still emancipated even though they were forming permanent pair bonds…”

– Crusie, J., 1997, ‘Romancing Reality: The power of romance fiction to reinforce and re-envision the real’ [originally published in Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres. Number 1-2, 1997: 81-93, accessed via http://www.jennycrusie.com/for-writers/essays/romancing-reality-the-power-of-romance-fiction-to-reinforce-and-re-vision-the-real/, 21/12/2009] 

Crusie’s heroines – Sophie, Nell, Maddie – do get to win on their own terms, which I really enjoy. There’s not a sense of them as incomplete, fragile individuals – they have their own pre-existing individuality, which is complemented by that of their respective heroes. There’s no sense that they lose their selfhood or somehow become dependent on their respective menfolk when their sexual relationships begin, either. Crusie is very good at having her heroines doing things on their own terms.

But yet there is still this concept of sex as reward, which I find interesting. In Crusie, it’s not figured as a reward for sexual morality. Instead, it’s almost an idea of it being the heroine’s turn to have a good time. Bad stuff happens to some of the heroines – Nell gets left by her husband, for example, and Maddie’s husband turns out to be a) crap and b) dead. In other cases, like Sophie’s, they’ve been putting themselves second for so long that it’s really their turn to put themselves first. There’s a real sense that these women deserve something good to happen to them – and as this is romantic fiction, that good thing happens to be excellent sex. (I find it interesting that Phin and Sophie’s sexual relationship explicitly begins as a reward for past good – for Sophie especially. This is paraphrased, but Phin actually says to her ‘let me give you an orgasm you don’t have to worry about for once’.)

Where Crusie really succeeds is making you like and identify with her heroines – I think this is why I preferred Welcome to Temptation to Fast Women, because I liked Sophie more than I liked Nell. When this happens – when you are truly engaged with a heroine and want good stuff to happen to her – the romance becomes that more effective. I’m paging my way through a category at the moment where the heroine is a single mum with a disabled son, and even though I know all this bad stuff has happened to her and now she deserves something good, she’s so friggin’ irritating that I couldn’t care less if she and the hero got it on. Crusie is excellent at creating likeable, but still flawed, heroines, who get the good things they deserve.

And where she also succeeds is not making her hero a cardboard cutout ‘good thing’. She doesn’t trot out any of the old staples – Phin Tucker, the mayor of Temptation, for example, has a whole lot of issues and things of his own. He’s being slowly crushed by the weight of his own family’s legacy, when all he wants to do is play pool and hang out with his nine year old daughter Dillie. He deserves Sophie as much as Sophie deserves him, which is why this novel works so well. And their relationship is not one of co-dependency, either, which is something I really appreciated. They are strengthened by their union, inspired by one another, but they don’t become a unit. Phin and Sophie remain Phin and Sophie – they don’t become Phin-and-Sophie. They fight plenty after they get together and retain fierce senses of their own individuality. Their familial bonds are both very important to them. There’s no throwing off everything and riding off into a happily ever after with no fights ever in a land where it rains sugarplums and the roads are rainbows. They are each other’s reward, but they don’t become indistinguishable.

So… I think what we have is karma in romance. In my opinion, the reason romance fiction is so popular is not because of the sex (the ‘female porn’ concept) but because it’s a world where good things happen to good people, which is very comforting. What is really interesting, though, is the definition of ‘good’. In novels like Crusie’s, which are quality, ‘good’ is figured as ‘likeable’. In others, however, it is figured as sexual morality. The former (Crusie-style) is totally fine by me. It might not be the most highly realistic form of fiction, but hey, I doubt anyone comes to romance looking for gritty realism. The latter, however, is tied up and twisted with all kinds of patriarchal assumptions of female sexuality and double standards which can be totally sickening… even though the virgin heroine’s reform of the hero is a subversion of patriarchal ideals.

NB: Just as I was off in Perth and Brisbane last week, I’m going to be in Sydney and Melbourne next week (indulging one of other writing loves – writing about tennis) so it’s going to be a little light-on here for a while. But I’ll be back. 🙂

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4 Comments »

  1. the reason romance fiction is so popular…. because it’s a world where good things happen to good people, which is very comforting

    Perfect summation and better worded than anything I could have come up with!

    The only Crusie I’ve read to date is Bet Me. (I really should read more, calculates additions to TBR total…) Is Bet Me in your TBR pile? If not, it should be! It’s a particular favorite among readers.

    Comment by Keira — January 13, 2010 @ 2:59 am | Reply

    • Bet Me is next on my list, soon as I can track down a copy of it! I’ve heard it’s especially good.

      Comment by Jodi — January 13, 2010 @ 3:57 am | Reply

  2. So… I think what we have is karma in romance. In my opinion, the reason romance fiction is so popular is not because of the sex (the ‘female porn’ concept) but because it’s a world where good things happen to good people, which is very comforting.

    Crusie would definitely agree with you. She’s written that:

    My feeling on this, which I have expressed loudly and often, is that the romance novel is based on the idea of an innate emotional justice in the universe, that the way the world works is that good people are rewarded and bad people are punished. The mystery genre is based on the same assumption, only there it’s a moral justice, a sense of fair play in human legal interaction: because the good guys risk and struggle, the murderers get punished and good triumphs in a safe world. So in romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice, unconditional love in an emotionally safe world.

    Comment by Laura Vivanco — January 14, 2010 @ 9:39 pm | Reply

    • I had never made the connection to crime fiction that Crusie makes there – that’s really interesting! Both genres are popularly considered trashy… I wonder if this unswerving sense of moral justice (which rarely plays out in real life) has something to do with that…

      Comment by Jodi — January 15, 2010 @ 12:22 am | Reply


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