Friday, May 13, 2016

The Stars (and bars): race and racism in Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s Chicago Stars series

Last week I reread a book that reminded me quite forcefully that a major pitfall of the contemporary subgenre is its susceptibility to aging badly. As society’s attitudes and understanding on topics such as race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and consent evolve, a contemporary romance risks becoming outdated to its readership in the span of its author’s career.

The book I was rereading is Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s It Had To Be You (1994), the iconic opening installment of her bestselling Chicago Stars series. Phillips pioneered the sports romance subgenre with this novel about a woman who unexpectedly inherits a pro football team and must negotiate her professional and personal relationship with its macho coach. It Had To Be You won the prestigious RITA award for Best Romance of 1994. It has been reprinted multiple times, and Phillips has penned six more novels in the Stars series, with an eighth installment due out later this year.

When I first read It Had To Be You, I got caught up in its sexual politics; its workplace battle-of-the-sexes certainly reflects the period in which it was written. On this reading, however, I was struck by the novel’s pervasive touches of racism. I suspect that many of them went unnoticed by its white readership at the time (and a number of details I will mention below do indicate Phillips was writing for a white audience), but they are unmistakable today and merit some attention.

It Had To Be You does not contain the brand of racism I’m accustomed to encountering in escapist historical romances that portray the inscrutable, exciting Other—the desert sheik, the Native American warrior, the Russian aristocrat. Novels in this vein are nearly always predicated upon racial, ethnic, or cultural stereotyping and playing up differences; a savvy reader choosing such a work will be unsurprised to encounter racist language or ideas in it.[1]

Unlike escapist historicals, however, It Had To Be You is set in a recognizable ’90s Chicago. While its protagonists are wealthy and move in elite circles, they ostensibly share the reader’s reality, reference points, and anchoring in (American) history. Their fictional world is intended to approximate real-life ’90s America. Because of this mimetic quality, which is so much stronger in contemporary romance than in historicals or paranormals, it is harder to dissociate the story from real-life political concerns, harder to brush off problematic content as “just an escapist story.”

By the same token, a contemporary romance’s blind spots on an important issue may reveal something useful about real-world attitudes and shortcomings. And the more time passes after a book is published, the more those blind spots become discernible. That’s why I think it makes sense to look at It Had To Be You more than two decades after its initial publication to scrutinize its engagement with issues of race, erasure, and American heritage. Details that may have seemed normal—even progressive and inclusive—when the book first appeared now feel problematic and insensitive in 2016.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Rinse and repeat

With the release of J.R. Ward’s The Beast, the latest installment in her long-running Black Dagger Brotherhood (BDB) series, I am reminded that it was this series that first drew my attention to the erosion or destabilization of the Happily Ever After convention in popular romance.

The Beast, the sixteenth book in the series about a band of vampire warriors who protect their race from supernatural threats, is also the second centered on protagonists Rhage and Mary; both were first introduced in the BDB’s second installment, Lover Eternal.[1] At the end of that book, Rhage made a magical bargain to bring Mary back from the brink of death, thereby assuring them a long, happy future together. More than a dozen volumes later, the series has returned to these popular heroes and thrown new relationship-threatening obstacles into their path. The protagonists have gotten a second love story, a relative rarity in the popular romance genre. 

Rhage and Mary are not, in fact, the first “recycled” couple in the BDB series. Back in 2008, Ward released Father Mine, a follow-up novella about Zsadist and Bella, the heroes of Lover Awakened. Bella and Zsadist got their HEA in Lover Awakened; he overcame his fears about committing to a relationship and she revealed her pregnancy. The book concluded with an epilogue set 20 months later in which readers got a glimpse of Zsadist as a loving mate and father. Father Mine takes place during the interval between the love avowal and the epilogue. It rehashes some of the conflicts that originally impeded the formation of the couple and adds a new twist: Zsadist’s overwhelming fears about fatherhood and the toll they take on his marriage.

This “aftermath” novella acknowledges that couples encounter conflicts and strife even after the teleologically-imposed “I love you.” Love may conquer all in a romance, but that doesn’t mean that obstacles are wiped away by the avowal. 

The other BDB couple Ward revisits prominently is Wrath and Beth, who inaugurated the series in Dark Lover (2005). That novel ended with the protagonists cementing their relationship and with the hero taking up his place as leader of his race and the elite fighting force charged with protecting all vampires from evil. This opening novel laid the groundwork for Lover Eternal so that the love story baton could be passed to Mary and Rhage in the next book. But the series returns to the couple twice. The first time they feature in an elaborate subplot of Rehv and Ehlena’s book, Lover Avenged (2008). Wrath, who has always had poor vision, loses his sight entirely and must contend with what his disability will mean for his personal autonomy, his relationship with Beth, and his role as king of a warrior race. The series again returns to the couple in The King (2014) to work through related issues.

I found the subplot of Wrath’s blindness striking when Lover Avenged was first released, precisely because it seemed to undermine the romance genre’s HEA imperative. Underlying the HEA is the willing suspension of disbelief. “Happily ever after” implies a rosy future for the newly formed couple. It is a reality-defying fantasy that enables readers to imagine that after surmounting their narrative obstacles, the couple will never again deal with tragedy, disaster, or untimely death.[2] By extension, the HEA generally allows readers to assume that the protagonist will not be struck with a life-altering injury or illness shortly after the conclusion of the novel. By contrast, Wrath’s struggle with his new disability, narrated from his POV, forces the reader to contend with a substantial wrench in the HEA scenario presented in Dark Lover.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Blog, interrupted

Hi, there. It’s been a while. This is my first post to Penetrating Analysis after a nine-month hiatus.

There are two main reasons I haven’t been posting in recent months. The first is that my teaching load in 2015 was grueling enough to limit my time and energy for maintaining a blog.

The second is that last spring, I started making a concerted effort to branch out in my reading beyond my comfort zone of historicals—at the time, with the intention of blogging about a greater range of romance. I discovered a lot of authors and made inroads in sub-genres whose surfaces I had only scratched before. I read sports romances and new adult romances, steampunk and urban fantasy romances.  I read same-sex and diverse/multicultural romances across a number of new-to-me subgenres as well as in more familiar historical terrain.

Along the way, I found myself making a lot of observations and mentally composing posts about aspects of texts I found noteworthy. What stopped me was the nagging awareness of my relative unfamiliarity with these books’ contexts and generic conventions. In one instance, I was struck by a recurring turn of phrase in a book. But since it was my first book by that author and I hadn’t read widely within the subgenre, I had little basis for evaluating whether that turn of phrase was particular to the book, or the author, or whether it was commonplace within its subgenre.

In short, I didn’t think I could speak with confidence, or very usefully, based on having read just a smattering of books of a given type; I lacked requisite background knowledge. The more I read, the more I knew I needed to read. (It put me in mind of the early days of my dissertation writing process!)

So I’ve spent nine months reading and reflecting, and now I think I’m ready to blog some more. I suspect I’ll be posting approximately once a month. As before, I plan to write about the literary aspects of romance.

I look forward to resuming my part in romance-as-literature discussions and hope that you will join me!