I remember finding a novel, Jane Feather's Beloved Enemy, next to peppermint foot lotion on my mother's bedroom windowsill: the story of an amateur healer who assisted injured soldiers of all sides during the English Civil War, despite her fierce Royalist convictions, before falling in love with the opposing Roundhead colonel who captures her. That's a lot. A lot of what? A lot of kindling for mainstream criticisms of romance novels as a genre and and as entertainment. It appears to be a fantasy of female helplessness, written by a woman under an implausible pseudonym for an audience of other women. Its historical portrayal limelights heterosexual white people in a world consisting only of other heterosexual white people, while its heroine appears to be defined by a safely feminine interest and a position of moral superiority — medical care for all. And though my summary didn't state it, it's a book that contains explicit sex, again written by women for an audience of women.
The criticisms typically take these works to be a fantasy for their readers and impugn that fantasy as silly, immoral, unfeminist. A fantasy of white herosexual women wholly in the moral right in sanitized historical contexts, who have highly enthusiastic sex under dubious conditions of consent — and yet this is written by women for women. What do we make of women selling other women fantasies like this? There's further criticisms based on more explicit features of these texts, but let me set those aside for the moment.
Remember, please, that I found this next to foot lotion. Like that lotion, novels like these can be a balm, not necessarily for the most beautiful parts of ourselves, or the parts we feel the world would like to see. They certainly have been for me. If I say that they are restoring something to me, then I have to say what I lack and what they are giving me in its place. My hope is to do just that, specifically for the Iron Seas novels by Meljean Brook that I have reread beyond actual count. The tricky part is that I'd like to do this while acknowledging that some of these criticisms land on some romance novels. Much of the dismissal of the genre is because these are books presumably used by women to get off, and womens' sexuality has often been circumscribed from outside. It ought to look exactly one way, have exactly the right objects, be visible in exactly the contexts where it is wanted and not in others. That's bullshit.
But I do think we can be critical of the art we engage with, and that sometimes, the thing you think is restoring you is really trapping you in a cycle. And though these books mean a lot to me, their meaning isn't just what they give me as a passive recipient; what they mean is also what I bring to the table as a reader, critic, and public feelings exhibitionist.
This is a site about something I really love. Specifically, it's a type of fan site called a shrine, which means that it's a collection of essays with no intended audience except a kind of hopeful public existence. My hope is that you will read these and perhaps read the novels — better still, you will read them and write back that I was right in some ways but not all, that I was totally fucking wrong, that you will make something of your own about something that you love but nonetheless feel that love has to be contextualized.
Because this isn't just about romance novels, as embarrassing as that might be.
This is about steampunk romance novels.
A lot of contemporary fantasy fails to satisfy me because it does not have the creamy center of genuine emotional experience. Most contemporary realism fails to satisfy me because it lacks a crunchy exterior of awesome...
The best books serve two masters: they show us what life could be like if everything was different, and they make us recognize ourselves with a start. They make us say: yes, that’s what it’s like.
To strike that balance, you must be like unto a World of Warcraft heroine: wear sparkly, leathery, fantastical armor that nevertheless shows all your secret parts.
Have I Ever Told You About My Love/Hate Relationship With Confessional Poetry?