Shelf Love

The Problematic is Calling From Inside the House

Short Description

"Somebody’s Trying To Kill Me and I think it’s my husband" by Joanna Russ is a brilliant bit of 50 year old scholarship about modern gothics, but I say it applies just as well to romance novels of today.

In part one, I explore the theme of passive protagonists in adventure stories. Part 2, the personal is the problematic. In all parts: unpacking heteropatriarchy.


romance scholarship

Show Notes

"Somebody’s Trying To Kill Me and I think it’s my husband" by Joanna Russ is a brilliant bit of 50 year old scholarship about modern gothics, but I say it applies just as well to romance novels of today.

In part one, I explore the theme of passive protagonists in adventure stories. Part 2, the personal is the problematic. In all parts: unpacking heteropatriarchy.


Adventure Stories with Passive Protagonists:

The Personal is Problematic:

Shelf Love:


Andrea Martucci: [00:00:00] Hello, and welcome to Shelf Love a podcast about romance, novels, and how they reflect, explore, challenge, and shape desire. I'm your host, Andrea Martucci. And on this episode, I'm excited to share that I've started a Substack.

Now, just in case you don't know what Substack is, it is kind of a blogging platform, kind of an email newsletter thing.

Now, the reason that I started a Substack was I wanted to do more writing. And I was looking for a different platform that was not just the podcast. I love the podcast. But I think what the podcast lends itself to is conversations and interviews with people. And what I was trying to do was kind of do more of my own thinking and processing.

Maybe if you have signed up for the Shelf Love email newsletter in the past, you've already received some of these missives, but if you haven't, what I would like to share today is two of the recent posts that I wrote about an essay called Somebody Trying to Kill Me and I Think it's My Husband written by Joanna Russ.

So I am going to read what I wrote. If you just want to read it, you can go to It is completely free to read. If something pops up asking you to subscribe, it is free to subscribe. You can get updates. There is an option to pay. That is completely optional.

Anyways. I hope you enjoy this. I'm having fun. Trying out something different and I think podcasting for so long I definitely have very strong opinions about things. So it has been really exciting to have a place to kind of put some of those ideas.

I will say, it's also a challenge, I struggled with this on the podcast too, which is basically like knowing when to stop and knowing what is a bite-size topic. And I think that becomes incredibly apparent when you're writing something where, you know, if you're in a conversation with somebody, like it can just go on and on.

And I am so guilty of just being so engaged in a conversation. Like I don't want to stop. And then I sit down to edit it and I'm like, oh my God, I have to turn this into something that's like, not three hours long . As I've sat down to write some of these things I'm like, oh, I think I have way more than can fit into one essay.

This is one of those where this is a two-parter and I don't even know if this is all of my thoughts that I will ever say about this essay or article, whatever we want to call it. But It's so worth digging into. So here we go.

Here's part one, which is titled Adventure Stories with Passive Protagonists.

And the subtitle is a quote from the piece I'm going to talk about. "The love story is for women success, failure, education, and to the only adventure all in one." Originally published on March 8th, 2023. [00:03:00]

"Somebody is trying to kill me and I think it's my husband" is the brilliantly titled and brilliantly written article published by Joanna Russ in 1973. Although she's writing about the Modern Gothic genre, which was quite popular at the time and seemingly absent from the current zeitgeist, her analysis and observations are eerily and inconveniently still relevant.

I'm going to spend a few Substack dispatches unpacking this one. So hold onto your flowy peignoir and passively buckle in for an adventure. Part one context. Laying the foundation of this mysterious manse.

Part two and so on. It's a mystery, just like that room that your husband tells you not to go in and the answer to what are women allowed to do under patriarchy?

And then sometime later, something, something about the vestiges of the genre and how they're like still present in the current romance genre.

I haven't figured that part out yet, but I know it'll go somewhere. Modern Gothics middle-class ladies love them.

According to Russ. " modern Gothics are read by middle-class women or women with middle-class aspirations" end quote, and according to Terry Carr an editor that she interviewed who worked in the genre and had presumably cracked the code of what middle-class women feel. Quote. "The basic appeal is to women who marry guys and then begin to discover that their husbands are strangers. So there's a simultaneous attraction slash repulsion love slash fear going on. Most of the quote unquote pure Gothics tend to have a handsome, magnetic suitor or husband who may or may not be a lunatic and or murderer. It remains for US women to discover they were frightened of their husbands." End quote.

Essentially Russ's analysis continues to explore this idea that the formulaic modern Gothic mirrors they're repetitive attempts by the reader to understand how the things she's been told and believes should be her foremost desire- a man -and her path for attaining happiness -marriage to him- is also a confusing and unfulfilling nightmare.

This article is an adventure with an active protagonist.

Russ's article is hard to describe it's full of delightfully, scathing and astute observations. And while it's built on a foundation of textual analysis and includes a smattering of theory, it feels somehow too energized by the author's personality to be shelved as scholarly research. And I mean that as the highest compliment, because I like reading scholarly research.

Charmingly it also includes an illustration of a woman fleeing to a Gothic tower in the original publication, which was in the Journal of Popular Culture.

It's a delight to read something that's thoughtful and provoking that deviates from the proper understanding of how arguments must be made in order to be valid, almost as if conveying the feeling of the research is just as important as the ideas.

For example, quote. "At her most [00:06:00] enterprising, a heroine may recklessly toss about pieces of information that expose her to being drowned or push off a glacier" end quote.

And, this is quoting from a text " Nick had raced through France for this, for me." And that's from a text called Gabriela. And Russ says, "the birds had better sing like mad or even a Gothic heroine might wonder whether this and me are always identical."

Why not have fun with it?

The cis het white elephant in the room.

A lot of the romance scholarship that I've read that speaks to these broad patterns in romance texts and its readers centers the analysis on middle-class cis white women who tend to identify as heterosexual or be in heterosexual relationships. Russ's essay slash article is no exception. Although the cis and the white are silent as they damningly almost always are.

That focus aligns with the target market that traditional publishing explicitly caters to, I'm pointedly using present tense here. And while there have always been readers of romance who don't match that buyer persona demographic, it's also true that many other readers will opt out explicitly because the books didn't resonate with them, because the books are not for them.

That's not to say that there's no scholarship about groups of texts or readers outside of the cis het white middle-class quote unquote target market. There's exciting romance research on readers and writers who have traditionally been marginalized in the industry. Julie Moody-Freeman's work on the Black Romance Podcast and Lucy Hargrave's work on queer romance history are two that spring to mind immediately.

And, you know, both of those scholars have been a guest on Shelf Love. So if you're looking for more information about their projects, please go look in the backlog.

That said, I think it's fair to say that a lot of romance scholarship talks about middle-class cis het white women, because it is their anxieties and cultural norms that are most often being centered and explored on the pages.

Up next unpacking passivity and being the object of men's desire. Quote, men's desire is a testimony to my personal individual worth," end quote.

So then on March 26th, I followed up with part two here. And this one's called The Personal is Problematic.

Quote, "men's desire is a testimony to my personal individual worth" end quote.

" The super male's erection becomes the criterion of the heroine's self approval." That is of course a lovely and amazing quote from Somebody Trying to Kill Me and I think it's my Husband by Joanna Russ.

So I'm picking up where I left off and the time has come for me to solve the mystery. And just like a heroine in a modern Gothic, I will stumble into this unprepared, like a child wandering into the middle of a murder investigation, wanting to know what's the point.

The center of the universe.

So modern Gothics have this mystery at its center. Right.

But who cares because we're here to talk about modern romance [00:09:00] novels. And what Russ notices is that above all these books are about a heroine who is quote, "of extraordinary interest to everyone, even though they're ill educated, ordinary characterless, and usually very hazily delineated being as one might suspect a stand-in for the reader. Their connection with the action of the novel is always passive. They are focal points for tremendous emotion and sometimes tremendous struggle simply because they exist." End quote.

Just the other day I started and quickly stopped reading a recently published romance novel in which the book tried to tell me that the super male drug lord kingpin instantly fell in love with the heroin because of how special she was. And he was not alone.

Every man that she encountered was desperate to make her his. And yet why? She barely existed as a unique character beyond the barest outline of a shadow on the page.

And you can chalk this up to a failure of execution, telling not showing yada yada. But even in romances that I enjoy, it's not uncommon to encounter a heroine who is the center of the universe in the books' reality, not just in her own point of view.

The most compelling romance novels I've read are the ones that make the case for why these very unique individuals are a good fit for each other. But I'll admit that that's an added delight for me and not a requirement for getting what I came for when reading a romance novel. Because I'm here to be the center of the universe. Aren't you?

It's a beautiful fantasy to have one's existence validated by others constantly. It's not healthy in real life, but it's a satisfying fantasy, especially in a world that invalidates us, even when we deserve recognition.

The problematic is personal.

Have you ever noticed how your shit is stuff and everyone else's stuff is shit. This is of course a reference to George Carlin's brilliant comedic interrogation of shit and stuff.

We love to revel in our own stuff. We find it fascinating. And when I say our own stuff, I'm talking about the things that impact us personally. And perhaps more pressingly the things that cause us the most pain. The problematics in romance novels are interesting because they're personal. This is my opinion, but also not just my opinion.

I don't think we like romance novels despite the problematics. I think we like them because of the problematics.

And as an aside, this isn't in the original piece. When I did the short-lived series on Shelf Love called my problematic favorite trope with a Jodie Slaughter, I think was the first person who did it. And, Scarlet Peckham had an episode and a few other people. And you know, the whole centerpiece of that series was supposed to be this idea. Like, do you like it because it's problematic or in spite of it.

It was interesting because I think the things [00:12:00] that resonated with people felt like they were things that they were kind of wrestling with.

The reason I didn't keep doing that series after, you know, the first four or so people. I was, I was like, I think this is just a little bit one note. Other than exploring problematic tropes, it was following a very similar pattern.

I was like, what, what am I doing here? You know? Other than just saying, this trope is problematic. It almost felt like I had answered the question and obviously given that I'm writing this here, my opinion is known now.

Why else would we read them seeking the same release over and over, if we didn't revel in what they're exploring? Strip a romance novel of all problematics and you've stripped it of all the things that are interesting to us.

If you solve all of the things that bother us off page or close the door and refuse to let us watch as an avid definitely self-interested spectator, our eyes will glaze over as quickly as they do when someone else starts explaining the minutiae of their last vacation.

Some people call this phenomenon of romance readers enjoying and seeking out the problematic as reading for the id as if what's personal is some deep seated intrinsic kernel of all of ourselves, or perhaps our species.

But I'd argue that we're reading for the ego or at the very least reading less from the perspective of like a human being who shares the same needs as all human beings. And more from a very specific intersectional identity in a very specific cultural context. Different cultures value different things, which means the problems that emerge for us personally vary by culture and how our identity is valued within that culture.

Our cultural context and our identity within it, and our experience of that matters when it comes to what is both salient and personal.

Coming back to this quote, men's desire is a testimony to my personal individual worth.

We get that cis het middle-class white women are not like the most oppressed right?

Kimberle Crenshaw introduce the term intersectionality in 1989, by the way, she has an amazing podcast that I listened to a lot during the early days of the pandemic called Intersectionality matters. I believe it's still going on. Kimberle Crenshaw described how overlapping social identities can lead to identities that are a mix of empowered and oppressed.

As I covered in part one Russ's analysis is written from the perspective of second wave white feminism in 1973. So let's proceed with that in mind. Let's also remember that even 50 years later cis het middle-class white women's problems continue to get more attention and shelf space on romance publishers' front lists.

So if a white woman wants to be the center of the universe and have her existence validated, but is also immersed in a culture that has very specific ideas about what constitutes a desirable white woman. She's [00:15:00] going to find herself in a bit of a bind. Because what is she allowed to be desired for? Except being a quote unquote, proper white woman.

I know that a few things have happened since 1973 and the age of the modern Gothic. For example, the Spice Girls had a very real impact on my formative years. And I grew up hearing Girl Power, Peace sign.

And I have an image here of this article. I think I just searched like spice girls, feminism.

And this is an opinion piece called "How the Spice Girls Created Modern Feminism." Opinion piece. "Some people think millennials are a generation defined by MSN messenger, seeing Titanic at the theater, and being the first users of social media. I think we are defined by a group of five females that changed the way we think about all women. We are the Spice Girls generation." And just to be clear, I did not read this article, but I thought it was a fascinating encapsulation of how some people think the Spice Girls impacted feminism, especially in the nineties.

Things may have changed a bit, but let's listen to how Russ describes why the modern Gothic appeals to cis het middle-class white women.

Quote, "the modern Gothic is an accurate reflection of the feminine mystique and a glamorized version of the lives many women do live. The modern Gothic as a genre is a means of enabling a conventionally feminine heroine to have adventures at all. It may also be a way that conventionally feminine readers can see their own situation dependent and limited as it is, validated, justified and glamorized up to the hilt, without turning heroines, either into active persons or into sexually adventurous persons, both of whom violate the morality of conventional femininity." end quote.

For example, the books reinforce and present a world in which, and I pulled these from a much longer list. So number eight says, "I am rewarded for being good. Aggressively sexual beautiful worldly women are wicked and are punished accordingly. Men don't really like them."

And then number 10 was "my sexual value is my personal value and is respected by all except villains and villainesses. Men's desire is a testimony to my personal individual worth. I have no character interests or achievements, but those who do come to a bad end, if female." end quote.

And then Russ translates this in kind of another list. And again, it's a much longer list. I've pulled out a few here that are particularly interesting. "Number five. Conventionally masculine men are good men, even if they treat me badly and conventionally feminine women are good women. This makes behavior very easy to judge. It also validates conventional sex roles. Number eight. Nobody respects me, except when they're sexually attracted to me or benefiting from my selflessness. Read:, treating me as a [00:18:00] convenience." End quote.

Russ talks at length about how the "good" heroines must be careful to not seem too eager to engage in sexual congress lest they be cast into the category of evil, sexually promiscuous, bad women. The lovemaking is veiled in gauzy, vague, romantic descriptions. They're doing it because they're in love, not because they have sexual desire.

In 2023, you can still find discourse about how sex scenes in romance novels have to move the plot forward. Or else they're just gratuitous and obviously that's bad. So, I don't know. Have we made progress here? I mean, like, you know, Some people obviously still think that.

Girl power. We get to want sex now, as long as it's the kind men want.

Let's say we have made some progress. Has it been in areas that liberate women or in areas that remain in service to men's desires and more generally the hetero patriarchy. There's compelling evidence that we've progressed on the matter of being able to enjoy sex in romance novels, or at least cis het women or allowed to desire having penis in vagina sex.

And I have a citation here for that, which I'll share at the end. Meleah Fekete did an excellent follow-up study on romance readers using methodology similar to Janice Radway's from 1980, and this was published in the Journal of Popular Romance Studies in 2022.

I seriously recommend you read this entire thing. It is very good. And it's free. Uh, so here is a version of the slightly edited abstract to give you a sense of what's in here. Quote.

"In this new age of gender equality, why do women continue to read romance? This research shows the most dramatic change in romance reading is in the meaning of, and desire for sexual content.

Compared to 1980 readers, the group of 2016 readers wanted to see heroines with more than a deep emotional bond with their partner. Passionate sex was a necessary part of a gratifying romantic relationship narrative." End quote. Nice right. And then I've got that, Paul Rudd, Hey, look it us who would have thought not me. 'cause it's like, oh, cool. We're doing good things here. But wait. There's more.

"However, despite shifts towards wanting to read about women with sexual desires more equal to men's depictions of gratifying intimacy continue to represent femininity characterized by emotional adroitness and masculinity characterized by stoicism." And cool.

And then I have a GIF of the Spice girls taking one step forward and one step back,

This abstract continues. "This incomplete transition to depictions of egalitarian intimacy where women and men's sexuality, but not emotionality are similar, may be at least partially explained by the importance of [00:21:00] familiarity in narratives. The norms these narratives rely on may not correspond with reader's rational and conscious values, but they remain affectively intuitive and thus allow readers to avoid the anxiety and effort that comes from rationally interrogating the rules of intimate heterosexual interaction. Romance novels provide a window into the familiar structures surrounding intimacy that readers rely on to lose themselves in narratives." End quote.

Did you make me tea?

Joe Martucci: I did, end quote.

Andrea Martucci: Thank you.

So playing with the inequality, especially around emotionality is a feature, not a bug. And while our self insert protagonists may get to wear short skirts and or not be virgins without being stoned to death by an angry mob immediately, some of the progress we've made feels like slapping a girl power bumper sticker on a car that you can barely afford because you still only make 82% of what a man makes.

Men's desire is a testimony to my personal individual worth.

That is where this one ends. And I am sure that I will pick up on this again. Basically I sit down with this essay and I have all these notes written in the margins and just every time I find something interesting.

But if you want to hear more essays and thoughts on romance like this? I won't always talk about, like older things, I'll also talk about newer things. Please check out Shelf Love Podcast dot The best thing to do, if you want to stay up to date with it is to subscribe. You can subscribe for free and Substack has a really excellent app platform where if you subscribe to multiple people's Substacks, you can get them all in one place. It's quite convenient.

Okay. So I want to pick up on a couple of the citations. So starting with the last one, the average gender pay gap. Much like all intersectional factors is not the same for white women compared to women of other races. That is the average for women.

I found this article on the Pew Research Center that also looked at women with different ages where younger workers, there's less of a gap. I'm pretty sure that like, as soon as women start having kids, they start to make less money. Yay. So anyways, that's fun. Check that out. The link is in the Substack. If you want to learn more about that.

And then I want to come back to basically what kind of sexual desire is acceptable. I found this really fascinating data point that only 18.4% of women report that intercourse alone is sufficient to orgasm. And then my editorializing here is, it seems like in male, female romance novels. Like [00:24:00] 99% of the women orgasm after intercourse alone. So, you know, I mean, it's pretty clear what's going on there. Right?

I think it's the kind of things like that that really make me question some of the sexual scripts in romance novels. There were two episodes about what we pick up about sex scripts in romance novels with Dame, Jodie Slaughter. A while ago, one of those episodes is titled Clutch your pearls and think of New England, which is one of my favorite titles ever. I feel like it's an unappreciated title.

Yeah. So that's it for this episode, I will be back soon with more interviews.

You may have noticed that I am not releasing episodes every week anymore. Um, in fact, I'm lucky if I can get like two a month out the door. It's just one of those seasons of life where I have a lot of work and travel and trying to balance that with not putting undue pressure on myself, to put an episode out, just to put an episode out.

And then of course, I'm also taking some time that I normally would be podcasting to writing these things on Substack, which, you know, again, I'm having fun with it. And I would love to hear what you think of this one and any of the other ones I've written so far. Some of them are diving into ideas I may not have talked about in that much detail. Some of them I'm kind of going back to ideas that I wanted to expand on that I've touched on before.

So, yeah, looking forward to having you along for the ride. Bye.

Thank you so much for spending time with me today. If you enjoyed today's episode, please subscribe, rate, or review on your favorite podcast app or tell a friend. Check out ShelfLovePodcast.Com for transcripts and other resources. Or you can find me @shelflovepod on Twitter or @shelflovepodcast on Instagram. Or you can always email me at Andrea at Shelf Love Podcast dot com.

That's all for today. Thanks so much. Bye.