History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

01 September 2010

Another Take on Pride and Prejudice: Queer Theory in Brussels

I posted last time about the fun we had on our trip to Brussels and Amsterdam, not to speak of our misadventures getting there and getting up in the morning of the day I was supposed to deliver my paper (called "The Queer Theory of Eve Sedgwick at the Edges of the Popular Romance Genre") at the second International Conference on Popular Romance in Brussels.

While as to why I spent countless hours preparing this presentation -- well, sometimes I find myself so fascinated to be writing in the popular romance genre (such a huge market! so little respect from the outside world! such amazing women writing! about what's so incredibly important!) that I have to take a big bite of literary theory, season it for romance, and chew on it for a while. But if I don't commit to having something to share with a roomful of people (particularly in an attractive conference venue), it's a lot less likely I'll take that first bite.

So Brussels sounded like a great opportunity to think hard about something I've been wanting to understand better for a while now: the hot new trend of male/male or male/male/female romance -- written by women for women.

I'm hardly saying this is a majority taste in the genre. But -- hyper-hetero clinch covers notwithstanding -- it is remarkable to contemplate the speed (not to speak of the general humaneness) with which popular romance fiction has come to include same-sex love as a viable and sympathetic theme (and see also Romance Writers of America's "genre overview": the main plot centers around two individuals falling in love...).

My aim in this paper, however, wasn't self-congratulation. Of course the romance genre is smarter than the conventional wisdom would have it (well, it could hardly be dumber than it's generally thought to be, could it?) I took on this project because I wanted to understand more specificall
y how this new development of male/male love works in individual texts, and most particularly in Ann Herendeen's recent tour de force, Pride/Prejudice.

Yes, that's Pride Slash Prejudice: as in Slash Fiction, longtime home for a cult of fans (largely female) writing fantasy narratives that pair up their
favorite pop-culture characters in plots that won't be made into major motion pictures any time soon.

The most popular early Slash Fiction sub-genre portrayed Star Trek heroes Kirk and Spock in hunky, explicit, extra-terrestrial sexual couplings. They got the slash from the one in Kirk/Spock. But when I read Pride/Prejudice, it seemed to me that Herendeen had gone where no one had before (and at warp speed) -- addressing what's always been the vexing question of what Mr. Darcy ever saw in Mr. Bingley, by putting a famous truth universally acknowledged into Darcy's mouth, between kisses (
and more) exchanged in Mr. Bingley's bed.

I think it works -- never, of course, as a replacement for the original, but as smart, sly commentary on the beloved and compelling world Jane Austen built (and that along the way made today's popular romance novel possible).

But what is this world that Pride/Prejudice is seeing anew?

To answer t
his question, I need to introduce an area of literary criticism brought to us by another smart woman whose work I'd long been wanting to understand -- the late Professor Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, one of the originators of what's now called Queer Theory. Which body of thought does not say (as some sloppy readers think it must) that every heterosexual love story has a queer attraction hiding, as it were, beneath the sheets. But which does probe the question of what Sedgwick, in her first statement of Queer Theory, Between Men, called "male homosociality," that vast continent of "male friendship, mentorship, entitlement, rivalry, and hetero- and homosexuality [...] in an intimate and shifting relation to class..."

The boundaries of these loci of interaction are slippery and highly dependent upon context (as when a pat on the butt is legit on the football field and lethal just about anywhere else). The lonely, anx
ious business of male-dominated society, Queer Theory asserts, is the every-man-for-himself struggle for dominance over this world of shifting context and meaning (can you say tortured hero?). Which struggle is facilitated by competition for money, status, and position in the form of rivalry for women who are necessary for male position and its continuance (and who, through history, have by and large been treated as little more than objects and tokens in this struggle).

Men might or might not be sexually attractive to each other -- sometimes they might not even know if they are, having sacrificed whatever coherent self-understanding they might have had to the struggle for dominance (and self-dominance as well). Queer theory, then is often a matter of untangling the fascinating incoherencies in literary texts about men (Sedgwick is terrific on Billy Budd and Gothic novels).

Of course not all literary texts were written by men, nor are they solely about men. But it's certainly true that men and their fortunes have a certain primacy in very many stories (and particularly in novels, which take as their subject the real world); if this weren't true we wouldn't need the term "women's fiction," to differentiate if from the other stuff which is most usually just called "fiction."

While as for men and their fortunes, since, as is "universally acknowledged [...] a single man in possession of good fortune must be in want of a wife" -- particularly in Georgian landed society, where power, position (and every attribute of upper-class male selfhood) depended upon the perpetuity of family ownership, what of those wives or potential wives? Does the author -- does the reader -- view them merely as objects and tokens?

Of course she -- and we -- do not. And it's part of Jane Austen's genius that the opening words of Pride and Prejudice, though syntactically "about" that "single man,"are quite evidently about the wife he is in want of and how such potential wives must feel to occupy such a contingent position. Tracy recently pointed to the wonderful immediacy of this opening, and I couldn't agree more. Or as I put it in my talk:
...if we smile when we read the words in Austen, I’d suggest that we aren’t merely smiling at Mrs. Bennet’s crude, déclassé overreaching. We’re smiling in rueful recognition of an unstated dynamic in the structure of these sentences and the structure of their society: that even if the man in question constitutes the subject of the assertion, the counter-truth of every ironic syllable in that opening is that the author is always and already engaging her reader with the irrepressible subjectivity of female characters who simply refuse to be relegated to contingency.
In the centuries since Austen, the romance novel (and sometimes the literary novel as well) hinged upon a simple, but incendiary, paradox: that a man occupies a primacy of position in the public world, but the power of the female subjectivity cannot be denied.

Until the 20th century, perhaps -- when in romance this changed again. when male power began to be understood as a fraught and painful thing -- with, I think, the tortured heroes of the 70s to the 90s. My own untested theory is that this occurred in a parallel development to Second Wave Feminism. We started seeing tortured lonely hero subjectivities in deep third person (Dr. Sarah Frantz of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance has often written and spoken on this, and I was delighted that she and I were on the same panel in Belgium).

But unlike the big intellects behind Queer Theory, the creative minds writing popular romance did more than let a bunch of fictional heroes stew in their own juicy macho agonies (or, as Eve Sedgwick had it, their texts' "productive incoherence.") Romance fiction isn't incoherent. It's hardworking, pragmatic, empathic -- it sees a problem and it tries to solve it in the interest of a happy ending. AND it draws upon a wonderful camaraderie between authors, readers. and sometimes characters. Committed to pleasure, it wants to share, rather than compete.

So if Ann Herendeen saw the possibility of a love affair between Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley, not only did she share the pleasure she took in this fantasy with her readers, but with Lizzy Bennet as well, who -- during her stay at Netherfield when Jane had a headcold -- (in Ann's version) gets a glimpse of other doings through a door to Mr. Bingley's bedroom that won't stay shut. Lizzy is fascinated; she's aroused; and (in a section of the book that follows Austen's happy ending) sees no reason why her husband still can't have the pleasures she's enjoyed witnessing (especially during what bids well to be a long series of pregnancies for Mrs. Darcy and her sister Mrs. Bingley as well). (Sorry for spoiler: read it anyway, for the wit, intelligence, and marvelous writing.)

The idea that male heroes shouldn't have to be lonely -- that their relationships with other men can be more than competition for power and for women -- and that this freedom can be facilitated by the very women who love these heroes (authors, heroines, and even readers) seems to me to be new, fascinating, wonderfully subversive.

And -- outside of the pages of Queer Theory -- the place you're most likely to find it these days is at certain margins of the romance world. Of course it's in the male/male and male/male/female erotic e-books, but you can find it in more mainstream, best-selling venues as well. Because the male/male relationships don't have to be homoerotic (I stand by Sedgwick's term "homosocial," and I take her at her word that it can mean a wide continuum of relationships). Male romance heroes tend to come in big bunches these days, and not only to facilitate the sequels beloved by readers. Think of J.R. Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood, bound in fealty to the female principle of the Scribe Virgin. Think even of the power wielded by Julia Quinn's Viscountess Bridgerton...

And do also think of the ways I've doubtless oversimplified these things. Tell me what you think...

...though I have to admit (as an amateur literary critic) to being all theoried out for a while and ready to turn my attention to fiction writing again.

And yes (you read it here), that's a commitment.

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Blogger Erastes said...

Gay romance - and gay historical romance has been going from strength to strength since MAURICE (and even beyond) - but 7-10 years ago, no-one was publishing it. It's now found all over the place, and NOT in ebooks alone, (nor is it solely erotic, because why would it be?) Running Press and Mills and Boon are now dipping their toes into the water as well as Harper Collins. Every day another publisher steps into gay romance, which is great.

P&P gay fanfic has been around for decades, too, and there are a good many gay P&P published novels.

here's a list of all the gay historicals I have been able to track down on my review site Speak its name - the only place on the planet that reviews gay historicals.


11:21 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks for the link, Erastes.

12:39 PM  
Blogger Jane said...

Thank you for this thoughtful post. I am a gay woman who also devours hetero romances. I can't wait for the day when I can read more female/female regencies.

6:07 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

It'll come, Jane. I'm sure of that. But it won't be any kind of mirror-image of the male/male ones out there now. Sexuality is too interesting for simple solutions.

8:52 AM  
Blogger Lenka said...

This was interesting. Thanks for (perhaps) oversimplifying it for an amateur literary critism reader.

11:07 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thank YOU, Lenka; I'm so glad you got something out of it. Simplifying is hard work, and I hope I got it reasonably right. Now it's time to get back to the other hard work of novel writing.

3:06 PM  
Anonymous Ann Herendeen said...

Pam: Many thanks for this post and for writing so kindly about my P/P. You certainly can do theory, queer and literary, much better than I can.

The only thing I'd like to add to the discussion is to reiterate that my P/P is bisexual in its story, unlike many "gay" romances and fanfics. That is, the men's love for each other is not *instead of* their love for their wives, but in *addition to.* It does not replace the love they feel for the women, but coexists with it.

What I hope to contribute to the genres of romance and slash is the concept that women can be happy in a relationship with a bisexual man, might even choose to be part of a polyamorous m/m/f relationship. Men's love or affection for each other can bring something positive to their relationships with women, perhaps a sensitivity or openness to love. I know this is such an unusual way of looking at the bisexual married man that it's hard for people *not* to understand it (or him) as "lying" and "cheating." But I think we are slowly moving in a direction of seeing many unconventional kinds of relationships as love--as romance.

To Jane: I'm surprised there are no f/f regencies. That seems very odd--and unfair. There was a book that came out at the same time as P/P called "My Cousin Jane" (I think) that I'm pretty sure had an f/f story. HarperCollins ran an ad back in April in Romantic Times that showed the two books under the headline "Jane Austen with a twist."

4:58 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks for weighing in, Ann. It's interesting -- I think you and I are getting to something similar from opposite ends: I'm saying that romance is discovering bisexuality through the effort women have been making to write about men for women. So that certainly in some romance narratives (even if they're ostensibly only "about" men), there's a bisexual component to it.

At this point I don't feel competent to speak very broadly, or about too many texts (even when I do, I hasten to call what I do "speculative" ;-}). It's mostly, tho not all, learned from my own experience, writing het romance and equal-opportunity yet also het erotica. When I write men, I write as a woman imagining men, and I think this is true for a lot of popular romance fiction -- true and having its own validity.

And I'll be talking more about this at my 2 erotic writing workshops this October.

8:54 AM  
Blogger Clare2e said...

I'm fascinated by the subject, its rising prominence in the marketplace, and am very glad to read what people theorize from all perspectives. An emerging cultural bisexuality, so to speak, isn't something I'd thought about before. Thanks!

I was at the Princeton conference on romance last year, and it was great to hear smart folks dig into thorny questions of culture, race, gender, and sexuality. I could see how romance becomes, not a mirror precisely, but still a manifestation of truths and even wishes from the time when it's written.

There's an f/f title I recall which isn't Regency, but I'll never forget stumbling upon years ago. The premise was a "new solution" to Lizzie Borden's axe murder of her parents, and how, in this author's conceit, it was spawned by a cross-country train trip through Europe (I think?) where she fell in love with a free-spirited adventuress.

I know it may seem much in the vein of the villain-must-be-gay stereotype, but I'd never read anything like it. I was originally drawn by the notorious crime and speculative solution, but I found the relationship and that Lizzie's uneasy life within her own skin kind of haunting as well.

2:28 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I could see how romance becomes, not a mirror precisely, but still a manifestation of truths and even wishes from the time when it's written

Even more than that, Clare, in a sort of commonsense way. I think that in romance women talk about a lot of things that women outside of romance talk about. I mean, why WOULDN'T that be true? We're all living in the same world with the same problems. I read literary theory because some of it (the best of it) seems to have a take on the stories we tell ourselves and each other -- inside AND outside of books.

And being a theory groupie, the questions I'm always interested in are stuff like: what kinds of solutions to the problem does the constraint of a happy ending allow? Or other formal generic constraints? And how does the genre change as the problems (or our understandings of them) change?

While on the other hand I'm not good at the didn't you just LOVE it when x,y,z happened in this or that book kind of criticism... though I sure like it when somebody says that about one of my books. :-}

7:34 PM  
Blogger Fran / Blue Gal said...

When I studied this twenty five years ago I recall that the homo-eroticism of the novel was said to be between Darcy and Wickham. Their childhood romance gone sour is what caused such enmity between them. The Darcy/Bingley seems less of a challenge for the sourpuss hero, to me.

8:50 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Quite so, Fran, and dealt with quite beautifully, in fact, in P/P. You should check it out.

7:42 AM  

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