An Academic Paradox

Here’s some facts

  • women read more books than men.
  • women read across genres

And yet, whenever academics get going about how women, when they read romance, are unable to separate the subject of their reading from the reality of their lives, they conveniently forget the incredibly high likelihood that these same women are reading other genres. As soon as as woman reads a romance, she is reconstructing her real life with the fantasy of the romance. Her husband isn’t a stinker after all because romance allows her to reconstitute him with the fantasy of the hero. I guess when I read a Fantasy, I am reconstituting my (nonexistent) husband as a magic elf. Or a mage who will solve all my problems with housework that doesn’t get done by itself. And when I read a political thriller, I reconstitute the hero as an assassin who takes care of all those pesky people I don’t like In Real Life. Jesus, I wish that worked.

But guys, they get to read a Thriller and enjoy the story. If they read a mystery, they’re not psychologically infantile enough to transfer the story elements to their lives and relationships, right? Huh.

For crying out loud.

A bit of intellectual rigor suggests the blazingly obvious conclusion that first you must establish the role of story in our lives. Is it really the case that fiction readers reconstitute the fiction they read and thereby transform elements of their real lives? If that’s the case, would not that transformation be highly individual? Is there a link between one’s choice of fiction and one’s psychological make up? But wait! Oh my God. Women read across genre! We are so fucked up that we can’t even figure out what’s wrong with us and read the right books to get us all fixed up. Do women really read romance after romance because their husbands are jerks and they require the fantasy of the romance hero to tolerate the horror of their daily emotional lives? But wait! Oh my God! Not all women are married or in a relationship. Ack! [Hand waving. DO NOT LOOK THAT DIRECTION!]

People are social creatures. We form relationships all the time. People who grow up without the ability to form relationships end up damaged and disfunctional. Fiction is about our relationships, some of which are intimate and sexual. Exactly why are stories about sexually intimate relationships not about the excitement and satisfaction of such a relationship but about a woman’s inability to separate fact from fantasy?


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10 Responses to “An Academic Paradox”

  1. Kwana says:

    Good post Carolyn. I’m not sure of the answer to your question. All I can come up with is the fear of the critic (mostly men) stepping up to the plate emotionally and intellectually in real life so it’s easier to just put down the story and the reader.

  2. Ann says:

    I have a stereotype of my own when I read this sort of literary criticism (which is really reader criticism): does this guy who can’t change a tire or sew on a button think he can tell me how to expand my universe or recognize beauty? Really? Hmph.

  3. I happy to report that the new generation of romance critics isn’t quite as clueless as that. At least most of us aren’t. But then, most of us love reading romance (some of us even *write* romance 😉 ), which kind of helps when trying to understand a genre. In other words, it is a truth (almost) universally acknowledged that “Romance Readers Make Better Scholars” (and now please head over to the Cafe Press store of IASPR and buy the tee-shirt: ). 🙂

    • Carolyn Jewel says:

      Yes, Sandy, very true. I am a member of IASPR — it’s probably about time to renew, come to think of it. And yes, in order to understand a genre, one needs to read both widely and deeply. I SHOULD go buy the shirt! Next paycheck!

  4. I AM happy. AM. Duh.

  5. Robin says:

    What’s frustrating is that those scholars who have not treated the genre in a demeaning way aren’t generally known to Romance readers, so “academics” becomes this universal phrase synonymous with clueless Romance hating.

    Someday, when I have more than a few extra minutes, I’ll make a list of some really good, respectful academic work on Romance and other forms of fiction written by and for women (besides the fantastic folks at TMT and elsewhere we all know). As someone who works on popular fictions of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, I was reading some really good academic work on fiction by and for women long before I was reading genre Romance. So it’s there, it’s just not as notorious as that of Radway and her ilk.

  6. the word cad stuck out when I thought of this academic….

  7. Susan says:

    Oh, how I have enjoyed your posts these last few days! You’re touching on issues dear to me, and I am in full agreement with your points.

    In this vein of women in literature and female writers, here’s a recent article on Writer’s Digest that REALLY TICKED ME OFF!!!

    The blatant stereotype of #5 makes my blood boil. I don’t even believe this is true. I have worked in a female dominated environment for years, and we all swear like sailors.

    I think, though, what really angered me, was the way #5 was directed at writers as if all writers are men.


  8. cjewel says:

    Yes, you’re very right. I have high hopes that organizations like IASPR will raise the profile of academics working in the discipline. I’d love to see your list.

    Angela and Susan: Heh. Thanks! Checking out that link now.

  9. Ann says:

    Robin, on the pop fiction front, have you ever read Diana of the Crossroads by George Meredith? (not apropos of anything except that I like it ;).

    And oi, Susan, that link! I also don’t like description for description’s sake, if we’re going to get into it.