04 April, 2013

Master Of His Domain

Master Of His Domain by meoskop
This week I read something on Twitter that made me reconsider a number of cherished beliefs.

Wondering if romancelandia is an escape into privilege and not an escape from reality - @MerrianOW

(I'm not going to define privilege as I trust everyone to do their own reading.)

Merrian stopped me in my tracks. One of the things we frequently discuss in the genre is why certain time periods / plots / races are so popular. What she has said is so blindingly obvious that I'm surprised I haven't considered it sooner. Speaking from my own US perspective, I've often argued that the lack of Civil War based books (as opposed to Napoleonic) is tied into the genre not wanting to deal with slavery now that the plantation novel has fallen out of favor. It did not occur to me that a loss of the privilege in that read - the freedom to have characters so enslaved, to freely treat them as commodities, to have no obligation to turn them into fully developed individuals - was the reason for their demise.

In my own reading I become frustrated with appropriation or racism in the very white section of Romanceland I live in but I don't leave my self defined space very often. I may appreciate a genre novel driven solely by non-white characters but I am unlikely to emotionally connect with it. This is not true of non genre reading, where I am most likely to identify and connect with non-white leads. As well, I am always seeking out the working class historical, but in my contemporary reading affluence is the norm. I appreciate a hero or heroine struggling to balance the budget but a true portrait of life on the edge of (contemporary) poverty doesn't hold me.

Recently I knocked the very popular Jacquelin Thomas for what I saw as a pointless listing of party favors. Looking at that scene (and others from the book) in light of Merrian's comment causes me to revaluate. If I am reading for a restoration of my existing privilege or for access to a higher tier of it, the scene fails. But if I were reading from a different privilege than the ones I currently have (racially and economically) that scene takes on a different meaning. If I had read that scene from a different point in my class history I might have not been so quick to dismiss it as pointless. Yes, it was pointless to the plot, but was it truly pointless to the reading experience of the intended audience? The narrow confines of the genre market make sense if viewed not as escapes from reality, our general perception, but as reinforcements of underlying assumptions of how life should be.

Escaping into one's privilege is not inherently bad. I think it's important to consider this motivation in genre reading because I am fascinated by why we respond to texts the way that we do. In applying this to what is to me the truly bewildering rise (return?) of emotionally abusive relationships in the genre I wonder how privilege could be driving the differing reading experiences. An expectation of emotional safety is a privilege I have never experienced. I cannot assume that Christian / Edward / Tack has anyone's best interests at heart. I cannot assume that they are other than they appear to me on the page - predators. I am not reading from a position of privilege that would allow me to assume such a benign interpretation possible. I find these men conceptually terrifying and the adoration of them by seemingly sensible women inexplicable. Viewed through the lens of varied privilege, the escape these works offer changes. Are they father figures? Patriarchal constructs to be conquered through obedience? Is the strong emotional divide between the fans and the pans driven not by the books but by different expectations of reality?

Obviously my thoughts are not fully formed on this. But I believe I will be considering Merrian's words far longer than she likely intended when she composed them. I will certainly be examining my own preferences through that lens as I consider what drives my genre choices.

* Merrian's comment arose during a discussion of recent events in the blog world, specific thoughts about which I considered elsewhere.

* Editing to add some interesting links provided to me in current Twitter conversation. 
From Ars Marginal.
From the former Vacuous Minx.

1 comment:

  1. Your essay about privilege got me thinking... While that's one interpretation, I read for other reasons:

    I thought historical romance was about the fantasy of economic & social stability: finding a man who has the social & economic means to protect his children.

    And how about the fantasy of _leisure_? Imagining a life of irresponsibility... In my favorite romance novels, the main characters are pretty slothful. Nothing much happens. So restful...