Spoiler: They Make Babies

Update on updating, and a link.

Posted in General Talk by spoilerbaby on May 23, 2011

I know it’s been a while since I last updated. I think I’m going to put myself on a weekly schedule, so that this blog remains active. I’m also planning on doing a podcast with a friend of mine about romance novels, as an experiment. Consider yourself warned!

For now, though, I just have a link: at meloukhia.net, a straight-forward and sensible defense of chicklit as a genre.


Ripping bodices at unbelievable speeds.

Posted in General Talk by firstmatejess on May 15, 2010

My god, it’s been a little while, hasn’t it?  Well, I’m going to try to make up for it in the coming month.  And one way to make up for it?  Read lots and lots of romance novels.  (My life is deliriously hard.)

I’m something of a speed-reader.  It’s not a skill I developed consciously; I didn’t take a class or read a book on the subject.  I just read quickly.  How quickly?  If I’m really clicking along, I can read up to three decent-size (200 page) novels a day, which I learned during my comprehensive exams.  Those are Serious Business Novels, though, on which I planned to take a Serious Business Exam.  What I don’t know for certain is how many romance novels I can read in one day.  Generally I don’t take exams on those, and I bet I could read a lot more of them.  I want to find  out!

The only question I have for myself is what constitutes a “day.”  And because nothing is official unless it’s been voted on by others:

If you have another suggestion for some element of this “experiment,” post it in the comments!


Posted in General Talk by firstmatejess on April 5, 2010

Reader M.W. recently sent me a little box, packed to the brim with slim Signet and Harlequin volumes.  I’d never read category romance before.  With a hand-picked selection, though, how could I resist?  I’ve been gobbling them up at a breakneck speed — I’ve read five of them since March 19th, in between reading regular mass-market romances and writing my dissertation — and absolutely loving the indulgence.

Category romances distill the appeal of the romance novel.  Instead of attempting to appeal to a broad crowd through nuanced interpersonal interactions, category romances go straight for the prize.  A category romance is likely to give you a heroine who is soundly abused by her family and friends, but who maintains a flabbergasting meekness in the face of it.  One of the romances I recently read, The Youngest Dowager, had a heroine who believed that assault was normal during sex.  Yes!  I know!  AMAZING!

Since these books are thin, I can read them even more quickly than I do regular romances.  It goes even faster, because the books rely on well-trodden tropes of historical romance.  The minute a “gypsy” shows up, I know there’s going to be some brooding, or at the very least some Gypsy Superpowers.  I can fly right over the words, secure in the knowledge that everything is as it always is.

It’s that last phrase, thought idly to myself mid-read, that made me realize just how much these books rely on stereotypes to support their narrative.  The maids are plucky and friendly and Irish, for example, because the heroine needs her hair fixed and a confidant who won’t blab to the ton.  It reminded me of the point I’ve made to my students time and again: stereotypes serve a narrative purpose in our lives.  One of the benefits of reading these romances is that it makes visible to me the stereotypes I rely on or am encouraged to rely on as a white middle-class woman.  I may not be the ideal reader of these romances, after all, but I belong to the intended group.

So, because I am categorically incapable of taking things seriously, I made bingo cards featuring the tropes of historical romances.  Before you look at my frivolous offerings, though, check out these bingo cards based on conversations about marginalized groups:

Now, without further ado, Historical Romance Bingo cards:


Comedically romantic.

Posted in General Talk by spoilerbaby on March 20, 2010

I love a certain type of romantic comedy.  Lately the rom-coms on offer from Hollywood haven’t quite rung my bell, though; they’re all about an uppity woman getting put in her place, like Sandra Bullock in The Proposal or Jennifer Aniston in the execrable-looking Bounty Hunter.

There have been a few promotional trailers out and about that look promising to me, though.  Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman star in an adaptation of a Jeffrey Eugenides short story entitled The Switch:

Hortense at Jezebel observes that this is probably going to be mediocre and predictable — especially based on the standard rom-com trailer — but at least it made me smile, which is more than the trailers of Aniston’s other rom-coms did.

And of course there’s Date Night, starring Steven Carrell and the inimitable Tina Fey:

Which I pray will be at least semi-decent.

Have you seen any promising trailers lately?  Or did I miss an amazing romantic comedy in the recent past?

Heaven forfend!

Posted in General Talk by spoilerbaby on March 16, 2010

Nicholas Sparks recently gave an interview with USA Today, putatively addressing his most recent book-to-movie transition, Last Song.  The interview begins, however, with the line, “Nicholas Sparks has no love for people who call his stories ‘romances.'”

“If you look for me, I’m in the fiction section. Romance has its own section,” he says toward the end of a long conversation. Sunshine streams in from Sunset Boulevard. He’s smiling. Hard.

“I don’t write romance novels.” His preferred terminology: “Love stories — it’s a very different genre. I would be rejected if I submitted any of my novels as romance novels.”

This would  explain why I don’t enjoy Nicholas Sparks’ “love stories.”  I always thought it was because they were treacly pap with pain-pornography, but it’s because they’re not part of my preferred genre!

Later in the interview, Sparks snottily distinguishes his work — authentically emotional drama — from melodrama.  The origin of melodrama, however, was in authentically emotional drama.  If you look at the history of sentimental fiction (see, for example, Jane Tompkins’s work, or read more here), it was dominated by women, and it was meant to provoke tears and emotional responses on the part of readers.  It was supposed to be popular.  Ideally, it was even supposed to effect political change (see the well-known example of Uncle Tom’s Cabin).  Romance is one child of domestic fiction; sentimental drama is another.  Sparks seems intent on denying any familial resemblance.

It’s a very gender-defined move.  “Sentimental” and “romance” are now associated with women, even though it wasn’t always so.  Even worse, “sentimental” and “romance” are seen as sub-par, weak, and superficial.  So instead of comparing himself to romance authors, Sparks compares his work to Greek tragedy.  It’s not only to save (manly) face, though.  It’s a smart business decision, although Sparks only alludes to it.  After all, as he says, his work would have been rejected if he had submitted it as romance.  Romance is a gated community, and publishers, booksellers, and even readers are careful to monitor its borders.

He has one weirdly interesting observation:

“(Romances) are all essentially the same story: You’ve got a woman, she’s down on her luck, she meets the handsome stranger who falls desperately in love with her, but he’s got these quirks, she must change him, and they have their conflicts, and then they end up happily ever after.”

It appears that he’s read a romance or two.  Bad ones, mind you, but apparently he’s read them.  If he hadn’t read any romances, he wouldn’t dismiss the whole genre like that.  Right?  Right!

Kudos to The Pursuit of Harpyness for the link.

— First Mate Jess

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The missing link.

Posted in General Talk, Things To Read by spoilerbaby on February 19, 2010

I’ve added a blogroll to the sidebar of S:TMB.  At the moment, it’s got most of the predictable popular sites, but I figure I’ll keep researching and adding links from time to time.  If you have a suggestion, please speak up!

I went to the library the other day and took out four romance novels, which I have been steadily plowing (heh) through since.  One of them I just sort-of-reviewed; I’m going to finish Breathing Room by Susan Elizabeth Phillips next, and then move on to a romance by Mary Jo Putney that I borrowed based on a reader recommendation.

Two more links:

  • Apparently recessions lead to a rise in romance sales.  It makes sense.  Graduate school is sort of like a recession — depressing, difficult to overcome, impoverishing — and I’ve been reading romances at a breakneck pace.
  • The Guardian has an article featuring two prominent Harlequin writers, describing the process and requirements of writing a successful short romance.

Now I should really get back to that whole “writing my dissertation” thing, huh?

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One day…

Posted in General Talk by spoilerbaby on January 13, 2010

Sometime in the future, I will write a romance novel where the hero attempts to convince the heroine to revel in her size (by dressing differently, etc.), and the heroine responds by pointing out the ways that it might affect her negatively at her workplace.  Sure, she may still undergo the makeover and learn to love herself as she is, but I will at least acknowledge that there are other pressures in her life besides True Love.

I will write a romance novel where the heroine considers herself fat, but her size is never mentioned, because I will remember that naming numbers is just distracting.  (No, Meg Cabot,* a size 12 is not fat! Thank you for writing a book about the completely obvious.)

I will write a romance novel where the heroine actually loved her Dead Husband, where she’s grieved him for a long time, and is ready to move on.  I will characterize her as kind of bummed that she’s got a new hot boytoy with a power schlong!  And I’ll make sure that she realizes that it’s not that new man is better than dead man, but that they’re profoundly different.  Also that she doesn’t want to have sex with a dead guy.

I will write a historical romance novel where the gypsy dude is NOT brooding — where he’s the equivalent of an actuary — and there is a black dude somewhere in the narrative.  Maybe the black dude will just be chilling in the background!  But somewhere!  Maybe he’ll even have a personality!  (WHOA.)  And there’ll be a gay dude who isn’t the dead gay husband.

Obviously I have a lot of writing to do.

What about you?  Are there any romance novels you find yourself needing to write?

* – Whose works, for the record, I normally like quite a bit.

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A little bit rapey.

Posted in General Talk by spoilerbaby on January 7, 2010

As the title might imply, this post discusses subjects that might be difficult or triggery for some readers.  Please read with caution, and don’t be afraid to ask questions (either in the comments or via email to spoilerbaby@gmail.com) if you’re not sure if it’s safe for you to read.  As for links, I’ve put alt-text describing each source; hover your cursor over the link to see a short description.

Similarly, this post may be inappropriate for young children.  If you catch your young child reading this post, close the internet window, block this website on the parental controls, unplug the modem, cancel your internet service, set fire to the computer, and put them in a very small doorless room, because once they know how to type there’s no other way of keeping them off of inappropriate websites.  At least it wasn’t Big Sausage Pizza?  (Don’t google that.)

There’s been a lot of discussion about rape in romance novels.  This is in part because, in the early decades of the genre’s popularity, there was a lot of raping going on.  Typically, the hero would swoop in, take the lady against her will, and then convince her to love him.  (Or even better: she had to convince him to love her.)  In her post on this subject, Candy at Smart Bitches, Trashy Reads terms these jerks “rapist heroes.”  As she observes:

Between 1972 and about 1988, you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a rapist hero in the face. Starting in about the mid-80s, though, the tides started turning, and by the mid-90s, rapist heroes were mostly a thing of the past, although forced seductions still popped their heads up here and there. (There are readers who maintain there’s no difference between forced seduction and rape, of course.) Despite the recent dearth of rapes in romance, some romances with rapist heroes are still considered classics of the genre, and seem to be experiencing healthy sales.

Candy goes on to detail a lot of very excellent reasons for the appeal of the rapist hero, including: the raped woman retains her moral purity while still engaging in sex; the fictional rape implies that the woman is irresistible; in fiction, the rapist can be tamed and therefore contained by the woman’s love; and that the rape event also taps into fantasies of martyrdom.  She concludes by pointing out that the rapist-hero romance novel shows a deplorable view of gender roles, excessively traditional.  If the man apologized for the rape, or showed any remorse, he would be a wimp.  Modern romance novel heroes are sometimes criticized for exactly this: they’re wimpy.

Candy’s post is an excellent one, and I encourage you to go read it.  As a reader, however, I’ve run into very little of the rapist-hero genre.  I started reading romances when I was about twelve, which meant that I was hitting the library shelves at 1992, just as rape was really going out of fashion in romance.  Thus, for me, the space between a novel being ‘politically correct’ and being based on rape is pretty clearly a huge one.  I know that romance novels are not going to be perfect; I do expect them, however, to be full of consensual sex.  This makes me a type of fairly young romance novel reader.

For me, then, the question is not whether or not I’ll read a rapist hero novel.  I won’t.  I’ll roll with a certain amount of “We shouldn’t, oh, it’s just too naughty!” from the heroine, with persistence from the hero, but I can’t roll with a hero (or a heroine!) who won’t take “no” or lack of interest for an answer.  At the very, very least, it has to be clear to me that they’re both in the mood.

This brings me to the main subject of this post (six hundred words after I started): what do you do when it starts getting a little bit rapey?  (more…)

First mate of the S.S. Baby.

Posted in General Talk by spoilerbaby on January 3, 2010

I was going to name myself “Jess 1.”  I told myself that I had earned the right to be Number One by being the one who made the blog.  “Jess,” I told myself, “You are the nerd who waited all night for the movie theater to open, just so you could get the tickets.  Go on! Be number one!”

Unfortunately, fair reader, being the nerd who waits all night for tickets does not mean that you are the one with the coolest movie-themed costume.  I’m great at overextending a metaphor, sure, but it would be misleading if I put myself ahead of my fellow Jess.  Instead, after long deliberation, I named myself First Mate Jess.  I imagine the other Jess will manage to come up with something suitably witty to name herself; for now, I will call her Captain Jess.

Captain Jess and I are great fans of romance novels.  We’re both voracious readers, and occasionally we send each other emails to alert the other Jess of a writer who’s really worth reading, or just to screech excitedly about an excellent storyline.  We’ve both said that it would be good to start a romance novel blog.  Well, consider it started.  It’s named “Spoiler: They Make Babies.”  Other spoilers: they end up liking each other, the secondary love interest is either evil or is totally interested in someone else, and they totally get hitched (if they weren’t married at the beginning of the book).  Whoa!  I totally just blew your mind!

As for your first mate, I am a graduate student in English Literature, writing my dissertation on “Being Boring at Cocktail Parties.”  (This is the focus of every graduate student writing their dissertation.)  I read romance novels for the same reasons I watch crime dramas:  I’m familiar with how the plot progresses, I know how it’s going to end, and I feel a sense of completion and satisfaction at the end.  Graduate school is skimpy on all three of these things.

At present, my favorite authors are Mary Balogh, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Jennifer Crusie, Eloisa James, and Elizabeth Hoyt.  If you have recommendations for other romance authors, please let me know!  I’m always looking for new authors; I read very quickly, and when I’ve exhausted one author’s catalog it’s always a frantic search for the next one.

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