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Guest Post: Some Thoughts on Jonathan A. Allan's Men, Masculinities and Popular Romance



As Jonathan Allan states, the motivation underlying this book is, "at bottom, a hope to push scholars of men and masculinities to consider the romance novel as a potential area of inquiry" (9). At under 150 pages, it is a relatively short introduction to the popular romance genre, aimed primarily at these scholars, and Allan repeatedly acknowledges its introductory/limited nature and expresses a wish that it will be seen as "a beginning to a much larger discussion" (90).


I've already posted a bit about Allan's comments in his introduction advocating viewing romance as pornography, so I'll just start with Chapter 1. Since I'm not a scholar of men and masculinities, I'm not in the target audience for the book, I'm a lot more likely to zoom in on things I find relevant to scholarship on popular romance novels.


Chapter 1, "Studying the Popular Romance Novel"


In terms of romance scholarship, Allan seems to be setting himself in opposition to Pamela Regis (albeit not the elements of her work which draw on Northrop Frye), and aligning himself with Janice Radway, Tania Modleski, Ann Barr Snitow (comparison to all three of whom he "might take [...] as a compliment" (18)), Jan Cohn, Jayashree Kamblé and Catherine Roach. Allan sets out "to think about method" (16) and begins by critiquing Pamela Regis's "What Do Critics Owe the Romance?" (2011). Allan's key critique is of Regis's critique of earlier scholars' citations (or lack of them) of primary sources. He admits that he is "perhaps sensitive to this argument because I have also been a recipient of this criticism" (18) (in a post by Jackie Horne). He then offers


“some thoughts on how to study the popular romance novel. This chapter should not be read as definitive but rather as exploratory and as a critique of the now common critique that one has not read enough, not read widely enough, or, for instance, that one only studies 'contemporary' romances (as Men, Masculinities, and Popular Romance does). Indeed, I am arguing against the idea that 'size matters,' wherein the critic wields the size of their corpus like a phallic object. (19)”


Drawing on Northrop Frye, Allan argues that what is important is to focus on archetypes:


“In Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, what connects one text to another is the part(s) of the text that are repeated, or what he calls 'archetypes.' [...] The scholar who pays attention to archetypes [...] focuses on the parts of the text that are repeated and repeating. This does not negate the new and innovative ways an archetype might be used, but it does insist upon the repetition of those archetypes, which are, then, essential to the genre. (21)”


Allan acknowledges that other methods could be employed to study romance (he mentions Eric Selinger's close reading technique). He also recognizes that there are limitations to his approach:


“I am assuming that the hero's masculinity does something for readers. What that 'something' is, however, is the work of another project led by another scholar. I am making claims about the genre and about the novels that I study, not about the readers [...] Future work, however, should attend to the matter of readers and authors. (24)”


Chapter 2 - Desiring Hegemonic Masculinity


In romance one can find "the very type of masculinity that theorists of masculinity have questioned, critiqued, and worked to reform over the past three decades - namely, hegemonic masculinity" (27). As such, the question "is the romance novel feminist or anti-feminist? [which] in many ways has motivated so much criticism of the popular romance novel [...] is a seductive question to ponder" even while Allan "resist[s] the simplicity of the binary form" (27). Instead, Allan asks "Why is traditional or stereotypical masculinity desirable in romance?" (28) and urges scholars of masculinity to look at romance because "Romance novels, it seems to me, offer an ideal place through which to think about 'hegemonic masculinity' and particularly the question of desire" (28). He also wonders if "scholars of men and masculinities have failed to study the popular romance [...] because it would require us to engage with feminine culture" (32) but also observes that


“Popular romance novels embrace the very thing that critical scholars are trying to undo - namely, hegemonic masculinity. What might it mean for critical studies of men and masculinities that these texts, authored by women for women, so often conform to the definitions of masculinity that are so often critically analyzed and critiqued by those in the field? As scholars of men and masculinity continually point out the failures of hegemonic and ideal masculinities, how do we then respond to their reification in these novels? These are all big questions, which Men, Masculinities, and Popular Romance sets out to think about, and hopefully answer. (32)”


My impression, having finished the book, is that Allan is very good at asking questions but I'm not at all sure he provides detailed answers to all the questions. He seems to be more likely to suggest possible avenues for future research which might confirm his theories/initial findings (e.g. in the final quote in this section, see below).


Allan adds that


“I do think we need to recognize that inherent to any commitment to the kinds of masculinity we are seeing in the popular romance is also a kind of institutional homophobia that lurks in the background of the romance novel and is written on the hero's body. In many ways, I agree with [Jayashree] Kamblé's contention [in Making Meaning in Popular Romance Fiction] that 'during the most visible moments in the history of the gay rights movement [...] the romance strand alters its hero to evince features of the Heterosexual Alphaman'. [...] What I am arguing, thus, is that the romance novel contains an internalized homophobia - as a genre - in which the male body must be constructed by what it is not: feminine, queer, homosexual. (36)”


He concludes that


“Hegemonic and ideal forms of masculinity are nearly a rule in the popular romance novel of the eighties and early nineties. A larger study is required to make generalizations about the genre as a whole [...] I would caution that a larger study is required to sustain many of these suppositions (the male-male romance novel, for instance, may well become a site in which masculinity is explored in innovative and diverse ways). These masculinities are part of and contribute to heteropatriarchal capitalism. [...] To critique the romance novel for its commitment to hegemonic and ideal masculinity qua white, capitalist, bourgeois, heterosexual, and so on is not to reject the genre, but rather to ask new and important questions about its continuing success. [...] It is hoped that this study will encourage other scholars to develop an interest in popular romance novels and moreover that scholars of popular romance studies will begin to take into consideration the valuable lessons found throughout critical studies of men and masculinities. (39)”


Chapter 3 - Reconsidering the Money Shot: Orgasm and Masculinity


Allan opens with a quote from a sex scene and then states that


“The orgasm is essential to the popular romance novel, much in the same way that the money shot is seemingly essential to the pornographic text. [...] The money shot, like the orgasm in romance, has a long and storied history, and it has subsequently become a hotly debated aspect within the critical response to pornography. Surprisingly, romance scholars have not spilt nearly as much ink on the orgasm as porn scholars have on the money shot. As such, this chapter works to show how the orgasm is essential to romance and moreover that it functions like the money shot in pornography. (40)”


I'm not sure why he's surprised. Explicit sex scenes only became common in romance in the later part of the twentieth century and romance novels existed long before then. Maybe it has to do with the fact that this book is focused on post-1970s romance, and there's reference to a similar time-period with respect to pornography: "For over forty years [...] the money shot has been essential to the structure and content of pornography, at least of the heterosexual mainstream varieties" (41). However, romances with no explicit sex scenes, or no sex scenes at all, continue to be published. As an Executive Editor at Harlequin wrote in July this year


“Sex doesn’t matter. There, I said it.

I better clarify something before we move forward. Ok, ok, sex matters. But if you are thinking of writing for one of Harlequin’s series lines, sex shouldn’t be the first thing on your mind. (I assume some of you just stopped reading. Bye!) The first thing on your mind should be your story. What kind of a story is it? [...] We have a big range of hot to wholesome in our series and there is truly something for everybody, whether you like graphic sex or want to shut the door on sex, or whether you do not want to address a sexual relationship at all.”


Allan is obviously aware of romances without explicit sex, since he continues by clarifying that "What is essential, at least within those novels that contain scenes of sexuality, is that the hero plays a central role in the orgasmic potential of the heroine" (43, emphasis added) because "women's orgasms are not autonomous to women in the sexual scene but rather are something for which men are responsible" (44). With regards to masculinity, "In the romance novel, sexual prowess and mastery depend upon being able to give a woman an orgasm" (44). As far as defining the romance genre goes, Allan states that


“In many ways, then, the orgasm is as essential as the 'I love you' that closes the novel, and, perhaps, we might even argue that when the orgasm happens before the declaration of love, it is because of the orgasm that love can be achieved and declared. Each and every orgasm, then, in the popular romance novel is important as a structural and formal element of the novel because it speaks to the erotic and sexual success of the couple, in addition to their romantic success. (48)”


Chapter 4 - Theorizing Male Virginity in Popular Romance Fiction


This chapter is based on "Theorising Male Virginity in Popular Romance Novels" and a forthcoming essay "'And He Absolutely Fascinated Me": Masculinity and Virginity in Sherilee Gray's Breaking Him'. Since they're both in/going to be in the open-access online Journal of Popular Romance Studies, I won't say much about this chapter. Here's a quote that's in both "Theorizing" and this chapter and which might feed back in to what Allen speculating about earlier, in Chapter 2, re masculinities scholars' reluctance to analyze romance:


“The male reader may thus confront an analytical, even diagnostic representation of masculinity at its patriarchal worst, or he may encounter an idealized representation of some “alternative masculinity” at its post‐ or anti‐ or reformed patriarchal best—or even, most unsettling of all, he may face a male figure who somehow combines or moves between these extremes. (56)”


Chapter 5 - Slashing and Queering Popular Romance Fiction


“One of the most fascinating developments in the genre of popular romance is the rise of male/male romance novels, which tell the story of two men falling in love. These novels are written, like most romances, 'for women, by women'. (69)”


“My argument for the male/male romance novel [...] is th