EJC Keynote speaker – Professor Imelda Whelehan

Meaningful encounters – 40 years of feminists reading romance

This was a session that was very interesting, but it was also a little disappointing for reasons I will go into at the end.

Professor Whelehan looked at how feminists have viewed romance literature – usually in a negative way – yet at the same time it formed part of their early reading.  The language used by them was often negative, dismissive, derogatory, however there was never a suggestion of an alternative to fill the place that the space romance creates for women to have freedom to create and imagine.

Lillian Robinson:  ‘on reading trash’
– it is insufficiant and ultimately misdirected to read Georgette Heyer or the Harlequin romances and simply analyze what they are trying to tell woman … A fully feminist reading of women’s books must look at women as well as at books, and try to understand how this literature actually functions in society.  As a literary person who remains frankly addicted to trashy fiction, I make to claim that this approach will reveal an underground and unexpected feminist literature.  Rather, though no less ambitiously, I think it can fell us something about the materials women use to make their lives in our society.

Germaine Greer – Romance is substandard porn, substitute for ‘real love’
2nd wave feminism were dismissive of romance writing as they deconstructed societal structures

Janet Batsleer ‘Pulp in the Pink’
said she was sold ‘a pup’ when she gave up reading romance and started reading ‘literature’
– needed something to do while she was ‘waiting for the revolution’
– romance has little to do explicitly to do with feminist politics, but it has a message to ways in which women can present a different way of imagining their life

Others in the 80s:
– romance is an acceptable way for women to view sex if they don’t read porn
– women can only view themselves sexually in relation to responding to a man
– the language used is submissive  (exploitative, penetrating glances etc)
– however no alternative is offered by the 80s feminists for those who want to read romance
– feminism is actually refered to in romance implicitly and explictly in a haphazard way throughout this period (in some texts)
– Dixon – romance and feminism might be sisters ‘under the skin’
– as feminism generalises and sends up romance, so some romance generalises and send up feminism

Why, at the strongest point of feminist in human consciousness, are more and more readers buying romance?
– perhaps we need to look at the inadequacy of the feminist response to women’s fiction, and take a better look at the works being written by and for women

Lilian Robinson looked at 3 stages – Female – Feminine – Feminist
– focused on the past, canonisation almost of 19th century writers etc, but didn’t focus on the present writers
Popular fiction is still outside academic consideration, even though popular fiction is the reason that academics started reading
– feminist writers who attempt to rescript the romance (eg Erica Jong – ‘Fear of Flying’) were received negatively and discouraged from continuing
– meanwhile M&B and other titles (eg Shirley Conran’s novel Lace) are selling like hotcakes while discussing feminism as a topic
– these novels filled a vacuum filled by feminist writers who moved into others genres
– later it becomes hard to discern between who is a feminist critic and who is a romance critic
– later genres such as chic lit are seen as more compatible with feminism (is it to do with intertextual references to Pride and Prejudice eg Bridget Jones?)

Kim Louermilk – Fictional Feminism
– the route to fantasy is having the space to imagine and escape

Feminine Mystique – Betty Friedan
Sex and the Single Girl – Helen Girly Brown
Published in the same year.  Two different forms of feminism.  Aware of each other, but never really cross over.  A way to look at female empowerment that has gone happily down two different paths.
Feminism and romance appear to misrepresent each other and are literarily incompatible.
Neofeminism doesn’t talk about / acknowledge that heterosexual love / relationships / families play an important part in women’s lives, and therefore it is not represented in feminist fiction

My take on this:  2nd wave feminism was in the 80s, where Professor Whelehan felt feminism ‘went wrong’  (I don’t disagree with that, just quoting her words).  However so many feminist writers are still stuck looking at the romance writing of the 70s and 80s – that is 30 or 40 years ago.  Romance writers are not writing that now, readers are not reading that now.  I think that romance and feminism don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

There can be room for both in the same space.  I was disappointed therefore that the same texts I studied in 1995 in literary criticsm are still being referred to in 2013.  I felt like it was a bit of a timewarp.  I threw Luce Irigaray readings across the room then because I found it so alien to and unrepresentative of my experience as a reader, and I think I would still do the same today (and at least Helene Cixous allowed my Romantics a place at her table, Shelley in particular).

Anyway would be interested in other thoughts on this discussion.  Fortunately I know there are other academic views, including the person whose session I attended next.

Your thoughts and stuff

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