Review: Sarah Wendell & Candy Tan — Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels. (2009) New York: Fireside.

Based on Wendell and Tan’s website that deals with all things romance fiction, this volume was a great read in those spare moments between trips to the supermarket and marking piles of papers – much like the best of the genre fiction they cover. I often had it to hand on the kitchen table and would snatch it up for a brief moment of ‘headspace time’ amid the usual domestic chaos. It was a gift from a very good friend who knows of my long-standing interest in the discourse of romance, even if I don’t qualify as an aficionado of the romance novels Wendell and Tan are expert in. I snorted and chortled my way through this volume, enjoying the ‘salty’ prose and irreverent love of romance novels. There is a serious side to their project, however, which is that while romance fiction should not be condemned merely because of its genre, nor should it be exempt from thorough and honest critical scrutiny.

I first came across the “Smart Bitches’, Trashy Books” website when I was doing some initial research into paranormal romance as a part of a project that culminated in a paper on the Twilight Saga. I loved the no-holds-barred assessment of the newest titles and the frank and refreshing commentary on the genre, which was clearly from those who loved it enough to want the best from it. Their book offers more of the same.

It was a relief to find their site after having endured the usual insulting reactions when I revealed that I really enjoyed reading the Twilight Saga and thought there was more to it than at first appeared. I got the raised eyebrows and sidelong glances, but my favourite would have to be, ‘But you’re an English teacher! How can you like that crap the girls are reading?!’ Yeah – I know it’s not Austen or the Brontës, but on Friday nights, I’m not necessarily up for that. Interestingly, it was other readers of genre fiction – not necessarily of your mainstream romance, but perhaps of fantasy, sci-fi or paranormal fiction – with whom I had the most genuinely interesting conversations about the Twilight phenomenon. These readers of other genres or at ‘cross over’ points between romance and paranormal/thriller/urban fantasy had the best insights to offer.

And this brings me to my point – genre fiction may be called that for a reason, but it is also one of domains where contemporary writing is grappling with politics around gender, sexuality, even climate change. As genre is by definition a convention, it is also the point at which social conventions are challenged, or put under pressure. When a genre changes, it signifies a social change. Romance is largely conservative, as Tan and Wendell conscientiously point out, but they also pose the idea that it is also a place where readers and writers work through contemporary dilemmas around love, sex and gender. It is also clear from their volume that romance is not a uniform genre and that there are now so many sub-genres that to characterise all romance as formulaic is at best ignorant.

For some reason, romance comes in for more reflexive and dismissive criticism than other genre fiction. Putting down other people’s pleasure in genre fiction is cited by the authors as one of those less savoury things people do who wish to raise their intellectual credibility at the expense of others. The authors admit that many titles – not to mention the lurid covers (and Wendell and Tan do mention these, at length) do no service to the genre. Yet, there is a sneaking suspicion, explored by these enterprising women, that romance is reserved for special scorn because it a female-coded genre about love, relationships and sex, rather than, say, about espionage around biological weapons. Tan and Wendell are the first to admit that many titles are just plain awful – they hilariously describe the depths of awfulness in colourful language. But romance is also given special importance precisely because it deals with topics other genres only examine incidentally, or with a different politics.

Wendell and Tan divide their chapters between humorous excursions into the more absurd territories of the contemporary romance, and more serious considerations of its evolution from “Old Skool” romance to the newer, more pluralistic field of romance writing. “Old Skool” is honestly critiqued for its ludicrously young brides and an “excess of abusive ‘alpha’ heroes” who specialise in “punishing” kisses. I remember reading these as a teenager and being put off by the prevalence of what Tan and Wendell call the “unrepentant rapist assclown” hero. Since the 1980s, however, things have diversified and Beyond Heaving Bosoms introduces novitiates to the domain of the “ass-kicking heroine” complete with ninja training and a “tramp stamp” tattoo. For those whose tastes are not urban fantasy, the corporate heroine also has a place in the current romance novel.

The social changes wrought by feminism and, perhaps more pertinently to younger readers, access to higher education and dual-income households, are in the background of changes in the mass-market romance. Contemporary readers are independent, educated, and not turned on by a man who thinks he can roughly persuade you to want him. However, the genre remains conservative and in their chapter on the increasing market share of gay romance in mainstream publishing Tan and Wendell do reveal that trade shows and conferences can still be resistant to including panels and displays on gay lines. Oddly, Wendell and Tan report on gay romance as a recent inclusion in the genre, yet publishing houses like Naiad Press have been in the business for decades. The mainstream of romance has been wedded (!) to notions of sexual opposition and a stylised heterosexuality that exaggerates sexual difference as a source of sexual role-play and attraction. I would have liked to have seen a more sustained consideration from Wendell and Tan about how a genre committed to these underlying ideas could develop to address a different kind of desire.

Nonetheless, this is a pleasurable read and one that fills a niche in a topic that seems to polarise into a flag-waving cheer squad for the romance novel, or dismissive sneers. The book’s strengths are its love, knowledge, and humour. I had many laugh-out-loud moments such as the points awarded for various stock features of a romance cover: “Does she have her mouth open? 0 points. Heroines all have their mouths open. It’s called the ‘O-face.’ Is there a rearing horse? 3 points. Do the amorous couple appear to be on fire? 3 points.” The volume finishes like “hotcakes made of gangbusters” with a “Choose your own adventure” style foray into various plotlines and an opportunity for the reader to ‘write their own romance’ in a self-consciously cheesy exercise.

The “Smart Bitches, Trashy Books” blog continues: www.smartbitchestrashybooks.com

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s