Heroines: Creating Identity in Romance
What makes a heroine in romance, a genre invested in exploring how can women be happy in culture? Is the genre a place where heroines create integrated identities that reject binaries of what society tells them to be? Dr. Jayashree Kamble discusses her latest book on romance scholarship, Creating Identity: The Popular Romance Heroine's Journey to Selfhood and Self-Presentation. Shelf Love listeners can use “UShelfLove” to get 35% off the book at Indiana University Press, from now until November 2, 2023.
What makes a heroine in romance, a genre invested in exploring how can women be happy in culture? Is the genre a place where heroines create integrated identities that reject binaries of what society tells them to be? Dr. Jayashree Kamble discusses her latest book on romance scholarship, Creating Identity: The Popular Romance Heroine's Journey to Selfhood and Self-Presentation. Shelf Love listeners can use “UShelfLove” to get 35% off the book at Indiana University Press, from now until November 2, 2023.
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Guest: Dr. Jayashree Kamble
Creating Identity: The Popular Romance Heroine's Journey to Selfhood and Self-Presentation
Shelf Love Discount code: use “UShelflove” for 35% between September 15, 2023 and November 2, 2023.
Jayashree on Humanities Commons: https://hcommons.org/members/kamble/
Jayashree’s upcoming New York City book launch events:
- 9/24/23 - https://www.therippedbodicela.com/brooklyn-events
- 9/22/23 - https://aaari.info/23-09-22kamble/
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 joined by Dr. Jayashree Kamble to discuss her new book, Creating Identity: The Popular Romance Heroine's Journey to Selfhood and Self Presentation.
Thank you so much for being here. Can you tell everybody a little bit about yourself? Both the things that may be more essential and maybe the things that you have self determined or created?
Jayashree Kamblé: Hi, Andrea, and hello to all the listeners. Thank you, Andrea, for having me on again. Talking about your own creative work even for academics is a bit of an awkward proposition. So it's always nice to be in dialogue with someone who is familiar with the text. So thanks for the opportunity.
I am a professor of English at LaGuardia Community College in the City University of New York. And I suppose a lot of my training determines some of that identity. I've always been an English literature lover. I love all kinds of storytelling, but I focused on English literature while growing up in India. So my bachelor's degree, my master's degree, both in India are in English literature. And I had a big sort of classical English literature training especially if you grow up in a former British colony. So you study the romantics, you study Shakespeare, you study the big 19th century novels, etcetera.
And when I went to grad school in Minnesota for my PhD I started to get the realization that there were other things that I could also study under the umbrella of English literature. And it was partly influenced by my training at that point in cultural studies. Coming out of the Birmingham school in the UK and the idea that popular literature could be studied in the same way as anything else that has more of a established status in the academy kind of seeped in and that's what determined my path?
And so I do see myself very much as a romance scholar, especially a scholar of romance in the written form in the popular novel form though I've studied romance narratives in other media particularly in Indian cinema, Hindi language cinema from India.
And I think the trajectory of my career was determined by multiple identities coming together when one of my professors gave me the advice to do my dissertation on the things that I would read, even if I didn't have to read them. And that has led my path to romance, both professionally and personally, so that's a little bit of background.
Andrea Martucci: Cool. And the reason that, we started off by talking about identity, not just because, of course, the first question when anybody starts listening to a podcast is like, who are we dealing with here? Who is this person? But also because [00:03:00] that is a core question that is central to your new book, which is out from Indiana University Press and for Shelf Love listeners, we have a very special discount code for you that is active from September 15th, 2023 to, I believe, November 1st, 2023.
So if you're listening to this in that period, use the code. I'm just going to do the ad right here. Use the code, the letter "UShelflove", all one word, on Indiana University's Press, and you can get 35 percent off. I think that brings it down to 20 bucks for the soft cover.
Definitely grab your copy ASAP, and through the course of this conversation, we're going to talk a lot more about why you're going to want to do that.
Jayashree Kamblé: Thank you for that. Thank you for the plug. Always appreciate it.
Andrea Martucci: You have been on the podcast before. I think we first talked, it was about two years ago
Jayashree Kamblé: that sounds about right.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah, and it was when the Routledge Research Companion to Popular Romance Fiction came out. You were a co editor along with Eric Murphy Sellinger and Hsu-Ming Teo.
But over the course of those two years, we've actually had many more reasons to talk and get together.
Jayashree Kamblé: This is true. Yeah, for full disclosure for everybody, Andrea and I also wear different hats, which is that we are both of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance. I'm currently serving as president. I took over from former president Eric Murphy Selinger and Andrea took over duties as secretary of the organization.
So thanks to that, we meet very often online and talk about the organizational aspects of the scholarly side of romance.
Andrea Martucci: Fascinating topics, like how we manage our Google drive, how we pay the bills. It's super fun.
Jayashree Kamblé: do we How do we pay people?
Andrea Martucci: How do we pay people? Topic of conversation. Capitalism. It's everywhere.
Commerce. And so also related to IASPR. So this summer we were both in Birmingham, UK, home of the Birmingham school,
Jayashree Kamblé: That's right.
Andrea Martucci: the IASPR 2023 conference.
And I wanted to talk about this. This thing that happened one night, we were sitting at dinner, at this big raucous dinner with all of these romance scholars, and I was doing the podcasting thing asking people their favorite romance scholarship, and sitting across the table from us was Jo Kluger, who is a PhD student and she starts talking about how her favorite romance text that has influenced her was Making Meaning in Popular Romance Fiction by Dr. Jayashree Kamble, and you're sitting right next to me.
Jo Kluger: And when I found your book, I was like, finally.
Andrea Martucci: We already started now. Okay, now you start over. Who are you?
Jo Kluger: I'm Jo Kluger. I'm a PhD student, and my whole thing is working about the concepts of hero and heroine in [00:06:00] romance novels and in romance scholarship, and that was what my master's project was about. And finding Making Meaning in Popular Romance blew the whole thing wide open for me and finally gave me the door I was looking for and the approach I was looking for and put me on the trajectory where I am now because I got my PhD position based on my master's thesis.
Andrea Martucci: And now we have a live reaction from Jayashree Kamble.
Jayashree Kamble: We're like climbing while we're, what is it? What's the phrase?
Andrea Martucci: We're building the plane while we're flying?
Jayashree Kamble: Sure.
Andrea Martucci: Is that what you were saying?
Jayashree Kamble: No, but I like that one too.
Andrea Martucci: And there was just this amazing exchange where she is just speaking to you, basically, about how she has been able to use this text in her own work.
Jayashree Kamblé: It's a beautiful moment, right? Because that's essentially what any kind of scholarly writer wants, which is to like, let the next generation or the next person who's stepping in into the field have some kind of railing that they could use to then climb and go off and do their own research and figure out their own ideas and, theories.
And so the the double helix model for me is. I hope a productive one and it certainly seemed it was productive for some folks and just a quick recap of that. I was essentially arguing that w hen we say romance novel, those two words actually yoke together two traditions of literary storytelling. And one of them, the romance side of things the telling of particular kinds of love narratives when it gets yoked in the last few hundred years to the novel, which is relatively recent form, it produces a genre that allows some kind of stability to constantly be there in the form while our ideas of what makes something lovable or lovely or romantic or worthy of speaking in a narrative about companionate relationships keeps changing.
And so we have this like marvelous flexibility that the novel form gives us.
And so both those strands are inherent to the DNA of the genre, and it's a vital idea to me, and I hope as our anecdote shows that it is proving useful to others, but it's vital to me because it really, in my head, puts out a truth that romantic readers often know or sense and is not maybe often recognized by the naive reader or the person who does not know the genre as well, which is that the form is constantly changing and that it's... Very dynamic.
And years ago, I did a very small piece for the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, in which I said that romance novels or the genre, it changes dramatically, but not traumatically every few years. So it actually has this like real core that allows certain amounts of stability [00:09:00] and reassurance to constantly be present.
But it doesn't mean that it never changes, that it's actually changing its ideas of what is romantic all the time. So that's the little double helix idea.
And I thought, what can I do in the new book to sort of give people something similar, some kind of analogy that would be useful. And so in the introduction to this book, I drew what is a very crude little diagram. And sent it to the press and they were like, whose copyright is this? And I said, Oh, it's mine. I'm the one who drew it.
But in this one, I'm using the idea of how wide and diverse the genre is, how many sub genres exist within it and how things change over time, right? The last 35 years the span that I'm looking at in this book.
And I've tried to visualize that in the form like a solar system. And so I've talked about there being a core romance story and then the other books that I've chosen. So I have a couple of examples of that Susan Napier's Love in the Valley, which is a Harlequin, Mills and Boon novel from 84. That comes closest to the core idea of the marriage plot. And then I have all these other novels that I've included, the nine other novels that are in the book, so there's 10 in total, that sort of step away from that core, but they're still like planets rotating around that core idea.
So if the double helix was useful to some people in the past, I'm hopeful that this one will be helpful for people, especially as they try to grapple with the notion of how closely is this a classic romance novel. Can I make the argument that this is a romance novel? What makes something a romance novel, even though it changes and does other things? So there you go.
Andrea Martucci: I was planning to ask you about this because I I do really like this way of thinking about it, and you were talking earlier about how the changes are dramatic, but not traumatic?
Jayashree Kamblé: Yeah, that's right.
Andrea Martucci: So if you think about a book that came out at the, I'm gonna call it the modern romance era. Post Flame and the Flower, what would you call it?
Jayashree Kamblé: Post The Flame and The Flower? It is the rise of mass market commercial romance novels
Andrea Martucci: Right,
oh, the American push the big American push, yes, we talked about this
Yes, okay, so since the rise of the American mass market popular romance fiction boom. Post Flame and the Flower 1972. I think readers today, this was on a recent episode of Shelf Love, we were talking about the Flame in the Flower, and some of the things in that book seem antithetical to a modern romance reader's idea of what is necessary for it to be romantic, and,
Jayashree Kamblé: hmm.
Andrea Martucci: And so, on the one hand, the definition has changed dramatically in terms of readers expectations, yet on the other hand, I think there's maybe a tendency to think, wow, what was going on with readers in 1972? Were they a completely different species of person?
But when I read [00:12:00] older romance novels, I think particularly, I've been looking at a lot of the Candlelight Ecstasies, particularly ones that were definitely or likely acquired by Vivian Stephens, and and I'm like, some of them aren't that great, and some of them are really good and doing the exact same things that we're expecting to see in romance novels today .
Jayashree Kamblé: Yeah. Yeah. There's definitely, again, there is a reader expectation, and that certainly shifts from decade to decade, and it shifts alongside the larger culture's shifts and expectations about other things as well, both in real life and in cultural production. So that, I think, certainly changes from time to time. And the romance novel, as far as the writing of it goes, will change in alignment with that, though it doesn't completely map onto what a "contemporary reader" may want, because a contemporary reader spans so many different generations and demographics. So there are still people, I think, who are reading Betty Neals, and
Andrea Martucci: Mhm. Mhm.
Jayashree Kamblé: absolutely love that. Or folks who are reading inspirational, and at the same time you have folks reading what they're calling dark romance, which, I'm not an expert in it, but my understanding is that it's not actually all that different in its core from 1970s or even 1980s big historical romance novels and the kinds of imagery and the kind of relationship dynamics that they're setting up between the protagonists.
So yeah, the books can change and people can have very strong opinions in the reader community about whether something is a romance novel or not. And so what I'm trying to do, especially in the introduction of the book, is to establish some very simple rules. And because I'm only studying heterosexual and cis examples in this particular book, that's part of the structure that I've established when I'm making claims about the books that I'm seeing and I'm interested as the title of the book tells you, in the journey of the female identified protagonist, the heroine.
And I'm examining romance novels that center this person and center her search for putting together the pieces of her that have been fragmented by a culture that keeps insisting that she can only have certain aspects of economic life or cultural life or political life and so on, alongside prioritizing her romantic connection to one other protagonist, who is, again, all of these books are straight, so who is a male character. And so I'm holding to that thread..
Many other things can pull a book away from that center or not.
And so that's why I have the Eve Dallas series, which is a series that is also a speculative fiction and murder mystery series. And I have the Fever series by Karen Marie Moning, which is urban fantasy and does a lot of things with those aspects of what is possibly another subgenre.
I'm less interested in the kinds of [00:15:00] debates about this is not a romance novel because, the hero didn't ask for consent. And well, actually, at one point, that was probably fairly standard for that. And so that's not an issue that I'm as rabid about, I think,
Andrea Martucci: Yeah, and I guess one last thing around this diagram you have which you compared to like a a solar system?
Jayashree Kamblé: like a solar
Andrea Martucci: And at the center ,the nucleus, the Sun if you will is like not because everything circles around this but it's like the most dense version of of pure love story, and then the farther away you get, the gravity pulling it to that core, it's a little bit looser and so
Jayashree Kamblé: Mm hmm.
Andrea Martucci: so at the
Jayashree Kamblé: hmm.
Andrea Martucci: outside, you get Naked in Death, which still has elements of that love story, but also maybe the focus of the text is, there's a larger concentration on other things. And what I find interesting about this in the context of your book is that you're going to find examples of the exploration of the heroine's identity throughout that solar system, not more so at the center and less at the edges or more so at a sweet spot in between, right?
Jayashree Kamblé: Yes. Yes. That's absolutely right. I think the exploration of the heroine's identity happens just along maybe different axes, right? So I'm looking at issues of sexuality and looking at issues of gender, I'm looking at issues of work or paid or unpaid labor, and I'm looking at your political identity. And then right at the very end, I look at all of that together with race as a factor.
And so you'll see like different emphases on those different axes and where the heroine's identity seems most centrally a question of concern for that novel and for that author. But yes, they are all interested in similar things, but, in the Eve Dallas or the Naked in Death series, we really get a lot of attention to her identity as a worker. So her life as a cop and what she gets out of that and the pleasure she gets out of that and the way that her personal life with her partner dovetails with that. And the pleasure that creates and the identity that builds for her is very crucial in a way that is different from the character in, again, the Susan Napier in Love in the Valley where there, she is a chef and one can certainly, I would encourage people, to look at these like Identities of work in passing that come through.
So it's, that axis is not as strong. Really, the emphasis there is on the axis of how her sexuality is interpreted based on the way that people perceive her and the stereotypes about gender that they impose on her. So it's that axis and that identity, that take center stage in texts like that. So that's what I was trying to get across.
Andrea Martucci: And you mentioned this, so in Making Meaning in Popular Romance Fiction, you had a theory, the double helix theory, and one memorable example for [00:18:00] me as somebody who has leveraged this was talking about the novel traits and using adaptations as a way to think through that. I think about that all the time. Talked about it in a recent Substack post. But then you are exploring different heroes in different texts.
Just like in your latest book, something I think you do particularly well, if I may say so is using examples of texts that are more likely to be familiar to somebody reading this in 2023.
Who I will just say personally yeah, I've read older books, but I am not going to go read 19th century ur romance texts. It's not something I'm interested in, right? In that one, I know you definitely talked about some Kleypas novels. I think you talked about Linda Howard's at least one of her books.
And now, similarly, you've done that in this text. But exploring heroines.
When thinking about which texts you choose to talk about, you had something really interesting in your introduction. Talking about that you are interested in "not the rare or potentially feminist examples of an otherwise regressive genre, but about a phenomenon at its core." And then further you say, "in other words, my study is not about exceptional feminist romance heroines. It's a glimpse into how romance heroines always engage in acts of heroic self definition on multiple fronts, which the genre mirrors through its constant evolution and repudiation of its public pillorying."
Can you talk about that a little bit? Because I think that's like really a crucial thing when thinking about what text to select.
For me, anyways. From my perspective, yeah.
Jayashree Kamblé: I mean, It comes up all the time and in many ways I think "why these texts?" Has become a pretty much a commonplace, I feel like I would expect it in a dissertation defense. I see it in like peer review stuff, so whenever you're making what seems to the audience a claim about a large field, which has many examples in it, people often will want you to explain why you've picked certain things and to clarify, if you're saying whatever in those certain things applies to everything, or is it an exception, or if it's neither, or if it's in between somewhere.
And so I think I'm trying to I think in my introduction, I say that I'm doing what's called purposeful heterogeneous sampling, which is to try to find examples that do communicate a particular phenomenon that I feel is endemic in the romance genre, which is the search for a woman trying to figure out her identity that has been under attack from different constituents of our society.
And part of that journey occurs alongside a partner who comes in, a male partner again in these books that I'm studying. And this is why there's a section in the intro where I talk about like the monomyth of campbell being replaced [00:21:00] by the duo myth. And I borrowed this idea from another theorist who's also studying fantasy romance or fantasy novels with romance elements.
So this idea that essentially the male partner is in many ways, all the aspects of the female self that are necessary to be reintegrated for her to have a full self and to have a full journey including sort of representations of different aspects of society that have been withheld from her, whether it's economic power, whether it's political power and so on.
And so to me, that's the core phenomenon. But when I was going through the early sort of peer reviews of the book I got at least one of my reviewers, it's always like peer reviewer two, right? I don't know who, I don't know who they were but they were like, Oh, are you making a claim for these books being feminist and so on?
And I, that's why I very explicitly say in the introduction that readers can see now that it's not about rare, feminist exemplars in the genre. Like I'm not picking out texts thinking Oh, these are the perfect examples of feminist heroines finding their identity and like giving the finger to everything else. It's not that I actually see that pretty much constantly the romance novel in its current form right this like post 1970s American especially mass market form, is really just invested in exploring how can women be happy in this culture? How do they manage to recover the parts of themselves that keep getting snatched away and what are the particular structures that would be useful and important to them.
I feel like that's the story in essentially every romance, and that's not a quote unquote feminist move. That's just a desire for being integrated and whole that the romance constantly has.
And the last bit of the sentence that you read out, which every time I hear my own sentences, I'm like, why is that sentence so long? But what the secondary argument that I'm making is that this desire to reject what other people say about you, especially when people say you can be one thing or the other, right? Like you can be a good housewife or you can be a really kick ass, corporate worker. This kind of false binary or false dichotomy that women face in, in their actual lives, even today. You see heroines constantly battling and finding ways to imagine structures that don't push them into one or the other corner.
And this kind of structure and this trajectory in pretty much every plot in every romance novel, occurs either along the lines of the gender identity or the sexual identity or their political place in a community or in a country. It comes certainly for the Black heroine along all of those axes plus the issue of what a Black woman can and cannot do and what happiness she can have. And all of these are in many ways just also echoed in the genre itself as a [00:24:00] form. because the genre in many ways kind of refuses to conform to external labels of, well you're not literature therefore you are trash, or you're escapist reading, or whatever. The genre itself does not want to accept that it can be one or the other.
And so I think we can see the genre itself constantly trying to elude and circumvent this external labeling. And it's just another echo of the actual core of the text, which is women are trying to escape and re imagine in the genre how women can be whole, right? And what do they need?
Andrea Martucci: right. And so I think this brings us to a point that I feel like it's weirdly controversial which is, and I feel like you were very careful in how you wrote about this, and would love to hear more about it, but we understand, as readers of this genre, that it has traditionally been conceived of a genre written for a cis woman audience, primarily written by cis women, primarily edited and produced by cis women editors, and we understand this.
Obviously, we want to be careful not to make absolute statements.
However, as you point out in here, scholarship tends to acknowledge this understanding that like the reader is identifying with a heroine or, things like that without maybe full on examining the heroine character.
Something that I got the sense explicitly or implicitly in what you were talking about, is that maybe the theorizing around a romance heroine has been perhaps understudied in the field? And, based on perhaps just a yeah, we're just making assumptions about the state of things, maybe.
And then also I think that in at least certain pockets of the romance community, wanting to acknowledge that there is no absolute here, right?
Romance isn't just for women. The idea of a woman is more complicated than the assumption of a cis woman. There's so many complications here, and in a way, it weirdly, I think, becomes controversial to say, I'm going to write a book about heroines. . .
Jayashree Kamblé: Yeah, when I was writing, and especially because academic books take so long to come to fruition, so to speak, the voices against transphobia became far more mainstream, or at least in my understanding became much more prominent over the course of me writing this book. And so I felt it was important to, acknowledge that this book is very clearly about a particular subset, even though I think for the most part, as you've said, the history of the genre has been this, like it, this is the majority of the texts that we encounter, which is the cis heroine.
And I wanted to acknowledge that certainly [00:27:00] there are books with trans characters that are becoming more mainstream, thankfully, and there is some early scholarship that is happening on that.
But I'm interested particularly in the ways that even what is, would be considered the majority, and to some extent the privileged majority, which is the cis woman that we see in some ways reflected, or that, that culture and that existence is in conversation with what we see in the narrative representations of women in these heroines, that even that majority is constantly under fire, right?
And it, it's constantly losing ground in the real world, especially in the United States in the last few years, and that I'm interested in how such a mainstream form of popular fiction is engaging with the ways that mainstream majority of women is embattled.
So I think it is an important question and certainly there's an argument to be made that if we actually do study the margins, we will even get a better understanding of it overall, but I felt that I was more qualified to look at just the central figures that I had gathered up in my initial sort of understanding of what the book was going to be.
Because the genre has always been sometimes explicitly said to be, by women, for women, about women And much of the scholarship has also centered the female heroine in the books, right?
Like whether it's Pamela Regis's work, certainly Radway's work, right? Radway talks about the journey too, and she does the structural morphology pattern that she gets from Russian structuralism.
And so it's not that she has been invisible. But as you say, like the theorization tends to I think, need a little bit more work. And so that's where I wanted to intervene. I really wanted to come up with a definition of this main character. Because otherwise, we're like, well, duh the romance heroine is the romance heroine, right?
There's a circularity to that, like who else would it be? The superhero is the superhero, right? That's what it is.
And so I was like, well, yes, but what does that mean? And I was particularly in a very nerd fashion, right? Like interested in just like unpacking the word heroine. And its root in the concept of heroism. What is it? Are we really just using it very facilely or as a synonym for the main female character?
The main female protagonist? Is that what we mean? Or does, can we do something interesting? Can we build the theory around the notion of heroism? And because I was reading and not finding that in strict, very straight romance scholarship, I had to go to worlds like folklore and mythology and fantasy.
And Joanna Russ, who was the primary sort of second wave feminism writer to look and see where I could find more language to talk about the heroism of female characters, the female hero, and what that would [00:30:00] mean if we brought it into romance fiction. Because we're not talking about necessarily, sometimes we are, but we're not always talking about a woman who wears armor and goes off on a charter. That's not essentially what we're talking about.
So I was looking at sort of the romance heroine as somebody who conducts everyday heroism and her quest in the sense is to figure out who she is.
And I'm borrowing again from other theorists who said like a lot of times, heroines in fairy tales and folktales, they leave home because their homes are unsafe for them, which I thought was like a really profound observation, whereas in, all the sort of call to whatever in Campbell, et cetera, like they're leaving for glory. They're leaving because they have to go save somebody. Somebody asked them to do this thing.
Whereas like a lot of times romance heroines just have unsafe origin points. And so they're leaving, and they're trying to figure out how they can get rid of some of the bad stuff that they've internalized in those origin unsafe spaces.
And along the way, they meet a partner. And he allows them also to access parts of themselves and or build by butting heads with him, identities that they have otherwise been asked to shun or parts of themselves that they have not been given access to along the way.
So I think that's how I try to theorize concept of heroism, that search for identity and the willingness to go to bat for oneself and say you're saying I can't be this or that, but actually I can be both.
And here's what that structure should look like. So that's hopefully, I think something that will be useful for others. It's been useful for me to look at the romance heroine in that way.
Andrea Martucci: Well, you were talking about, the literal word heroine which is a derivative.
My very own name, Andrea, is a derivative of the name Andrew. Andrew means manly. Andrea means womanly. And, and you think about that and it's okay, cool, I'm, it's a derivative, right?
It's deriving from something else. And I really like how you, you broke that apart and said, okay are we just calling this because, in talking about books, we've come up with this concept of a hero as the person who's active. And then we just derivatively said, sure, heroine, right? Big H, little H,
Jayashree Kamblé: little h, oh, my God. That drives me insane. I have no idea who started that, and I have no idea why it's accepted so universally. The first time I understood what those two Hs represented, I think the top of my head blew off. I was like, wait, what? That's what that means? Why?
Andrea Martucci: And not even heroine, big H. Slash lowercase h hero.
Jayashree Kamblé: No. Yeah, so I think there was like something about that default and also something about that binary, hero, heroine.
I was like, no, let's extract that and see if there's another way to think about heroism as it functions in romance novels. And again, not as some kind of what would be recognizably, even if sort of old school [00:33:00] feminist, right.
I'm like, that's not what I'm looking for. I'm looking to see what is the sort of compelling desire that keeps cropping up in these texts? And what is the sort of plot that keeps helping people work through that desire, which is the desire to get all your own broken parts together?
Andrea Martucci: And you were talking about this in the book about instead of always looking at relationships in heterosexual romance novels through the lens of the relationship between the hero and the heroine, thinking about identity as a relationship between the heroine and the heroine bringing together ,repairing, removing the consonance of the different aspects of their identity.
So can you talk more about that aspect of this book? And maybe you could use an example of something you talk about.
Jayashree Kamblé: Yeah. So that was also one of those sort of almost aha moments that one has is one is like sitting with these things for a long time where I thought, well, yes, they are straight romance. And certainly we all assume and know. And I think it's true that we read for that pairing, right? Like we read to see what that meet cute is like, or the angry cute is like, or how do they end up and what's the betrothal and, how do they have sex and which slot goes into what tab, whatever. So I think that's certainly an important thing.
But I think what gets oftentimes forgotten or unseen in the prominence of that particular pairing is the heroine's relationship with herself. And a lot of the times, I think if you look at passages, especially, I think this was true of the older Harlequin, Mills, and Boon novels, you had a lot of, unlimited third person, and a lot of the stuff was inside the heroine's head.
And sometimes people criticize that because they were like Oh, she's everything is about like her love and whatever she's feeling and her does she like him? Does she hate him? etc
And I feel like those moments. But also others actually. And this is to borrow a little bit from Eric Selinger too, is like to sit at that moment and think what else is it doing, right?
We're talking about all the things we think are wrong with this passage or this structure, but there must be, there's something happening that maybe we can try to unpack. Often those sorts of passages are a good place for us to rest and be like, what is... the relationship of this character to themselves? What is it that they are experiencing about their own journeys or about their own sort of pieces that they can't quite reconcile yet.
And the sexuality piece has often been a crucial one, especially to older novels where the heroines are not, they're not fully able to conceptualize their own desires. In terms of their sexual activity, their sexual schemas don't quite match what their bodies are telling them, and they don't know how to interpret that.
Or it could be ideas of which community you can belong to and which community you are not allowed to belong to. Or it could be, questions of which class you're allowed access to based on what kind of labor you do and what kind of access to money you have or don't have. And then again, in the intersections chapter, if [00:36:00] you're a Black woman, how all of those things alongside whether you have a right to full selfhood in the United States, very quite literally right, like the three fifths rule to being a full human, if you're black.
So all of those bits, I think are what, heroines are often grappling with even outside of though sometimes along with their relationship to the hero. So again, in the gender chapter, I'm really looking at how like heroines grapple internally with how they should present themselves and how other people are going to interpret that and whether they want to stand their ground and say, No, I'm still going to present this way whether you think this is the way a woman should present or not, or a competent woman should present or not. Or whether at some points they're like, Oh my God, I've been fighting for this gender presentation because I thought it would actually please X, Y, and Z, and I actually don't want that. I'm actually going to change it.
So they're all constantly sort of realigning their own vision. of who they are and so their past self and their present self and their future self is always in dialogue and that's why the book is called "Journeys" so we can see that arc happening in the course of the plot.
So my Eve Dallas in the JD Robb books, she actually gets so much space to be able to do that because it's a massive series. And I've made this argument that part of the changes we're seeing in romance as a genre is that we're noticing that one book sometimes is not enough for the heroine to have figured out herself, and that's why we're seeing the development of series, and that's why we're seeing the murder mystery series, the speculative fiction that J. D. Robb is, or we're seeing the urban fantasy or whatever.
So you can see Eve Dallas her gender presentation at the beginning, and her class identity at the beginning is starting to morph as time goes on, so she's not locked into what she thought she should be or could be at the first book that we see, now, at I don't know what it is now, book 57 or 58 they're vastly different. Even the aesthetics of her space that I described are quite vastly different and her class identity after marrying the richest man in, in the solar system has given her access to different things.
So that bit you can criticize in terms of what are we doing by like holding up billionaires? But at the same time, I'm like interested also in what does this mean if a woman wants this? And how does that actually show us what she's doing in terms of understanding her own class identity?
Andrea Martucci: You brought up Joanna Russ, and I don't know if I had read the work you were referencing specifically, however I am familiar with Joanna Russ's Somebody's Trying to Kill Me and I Think It's My Husband, and I got the sense there was like maybe similar tendrils of an argument in there, and something I think about a lot with some of the points Joanna Russ was making, which granted was in the early 70s. And you have to remember what was being written at that time. And you can't take her arguments and project it onto the things published in 2023.
But, you were [00:39:00] talking about, yeah, maybe romance novels are... the only, or one of the only, genres that is focused on exploring women's, and maybe particularly cis women's, but women's experiences, and this exploration of identity, and yet it's still channeled through a love story, which is something you can problematize, and I think that, I think that's a lot of what Russ is getting into, is pointing out like, yeah, well, it's cool that you're having these stories and these questions, and yes, there's this larger allegory or conversation that's happening, but it happens in their home, it's tied to the home, or these these domestic struggles, like in the gothics, right?
So much of the gothic is this house, this menacing house and this potentially menacing husband. Yeah, I mean, if we're thinking about this as people who would like equality, no matter your gender, right?
There is this, I think, chafing of sometimes romance novels can seem to be addressing things where it's like uncomfortable to acknowledge that yeah, why do we still have to channel this through this kind of story? And yeah, we enjoy it. Why do we enjoy it? But we do .
Jayashree Kamblé: Yeah. I think, Russ, as I say in the introduction like she says that the love story is a separate thing. Right like women are pushed into sort of a ghetto when it comes to fiction into this love story and that's the only place they're allowed to be happy whereas male protagonists have access to other options to go on journeys and they have other stories and other kinds of wins that they can have.
And I think what I'm trying to suggest, and I think other folks, not quite her contemporaries, but other folks around the time have also noted, and that's where I get that duo myth idea from as well, is that it is to some extent unrealistic to think that we're going to just toss the love story out because we're not tossing it out in our actual life either.
So till the culture is still doing that, the story is perfectly in a sense, like valid, like it's not something that's coming out of nowhere. People keep saying it's like unrealistic, but it's the most real thing. Like it's all our laws. Everything is focused around this institution and this idea of, how one organizes one's social life as an adult person.
And so I think it is to some extent to me, unrealistic to say but why can't we? And I would also though, I don't think I say this in the book, I would also suggest that the fact that men have gotten to these other stories doesn't tell us something valuable happened in our culture. In fact, it's quite the opposite, in my opinion, that men have been allowed to separate themselves from the love story, and it has not given us a pretty decent world. So why would I want my genre to actually imitate that pattern?
Andrea Martucci: Mm-hmm.
Jayashree Kamblé: Where you're divesting people of emotional pairings, right? So to me, that's already not a thing that I feel like the genre needs to [00:42:00] aspire to. So with that in mind, as I was looking at the texts, I was looking at them and thinking, well, what is happening, I think is even though we love the love story and certainly, things like the category of romance novels the Harlequin, Mills and Boon, they still keep the story really tight, especially the long lasting imprints, like the 188 page novel really is a hit of that pairing that you can get immediately without too much of other things distracting you, right? The plot is very tight.
But that is actually not. Now, just the mainstream of the romance genre, we have so many different subgenres and we have so many different series. And I'm suggesting that the absence of those other options that Russ said are just not possible and where they're not given to women actually are there in romance, they are visible in the speculative, the sci-fi, the space opera, the paranormal, the urban fantasy, the, cozy mystery, the, 19th century lady detective.
All of these are all manifestations of romance readers. And, again, the predominantly, maybe this is women, audience to see themselves and to see characters be in love, have the traditional pairing, and do other things. So the kind of mutual exclusivity that Joanna Russ was seeing in the seventies when she's writing I think may or may not have been exactly accurate for her time, but certainly for our moment and the way the genre has developed, I think we are in fact taking the love story and we're taking the sci fi element and we're taking the sort of solve the mystery element that she said was only given to certain forms that were basically like only allowed to men.
So I think we're actually in a different place because we want more. We want the love story and we want more. And I don't necessarily think the love story is a bad thing.
That's why I think it persists.
Andrea Martucci: Well, and the love story, too, the love story is sometimes really just an allegory for relationships, period. Relationships with other people, right?
And and whether, romantically you're in a relationship with more than one other person, you still have to relate to people one on one, right?
A relationship is like literally by definition, how one person relates to another. I'm using the word in the definition.
And when you were talking about, have we benefited from these stories where male characters, maybe you want to call them heroes, are divorced entirely, not just from romance, but relationships, where yeah, not having to think about or care about the impact of the things you do on other people hasn't been great.
Jayashree Kamblé: It's not been great. It's not been great. Yeah. Yeah. So again, this is not to excuse any of the problematic constructions that we see of romantic pairings or anything like that. I'm just not all that convinced that somehow the fact that it's a love story and [00:45:00] women can only be happy in the love story means that love stories are bad.
I think love stories can be changed and they can be improved and not abandoning them is actually fairly realistic because we're trying to figure out how to live in the world with other people. And to not give up the part of ourselves that whether it's a cultural conditioning or an innate desire to have a or more than one mate, like I don't see why something that is so core to a lot of human experience needs to be separated out from other kinds of stories.
So I think romance is actually doing something very interesting in developing all of these subgenres. It's trying to figure out ways to fuse those things together so that the romance heroine can be the heroine in terms of figuring out her sex life and how she's going to manage her domestic household.
But also how does she like stand up to the boss in the office and how does she like fight for things that are going wrong in a larger political structure? How does she make an argument for saving other people on the Underground Railroad while the world says, Oh no, you're a woman. You have to stay at home. Like good women don't do that. All of those things are a thing that I think is valuable. And I think that's what the genre is trying to do in many ways, not always perfectly, but often.
Andrea Martucci: Jayashree first of all, I hope everybody picks up this book, because, we didn't get in great detail into the books that are discussed here, but basically in each chapter, like you outlined you have different... foci in each chapter, and then each one has a pairing of texts that you use.
Dreaming of You is in here of particular relevance to, again, we had three episodes on Shelf Love about Dreaming of You. I was, Jayashree, I was so excited to see things you brought up with Sara Fielding and the allegory for the romance genre or the romance author's identity because I was like, yes like I also picked up on that.
So as a reader and somebody who's thinking critically about romance, I think there's so many opportunities in reading this book to validate or get additional ways of thinking about things that, you as a reader may have sensed in the books that you're reading and, maybe you've already read these texts or you will go seek them out after reading about Jayashree's analysis.
Jayashree Kamblé: so. And I'm so glad that you were like, Oh yeah, I saw that. I saw that thing about Sara Fielding because I do think it's a very directly Lisa Kleypas sort of working out her own experiences as a romance author and how the world regards women writers of popular fiction. So that was a piece I actually started at a popular romance symposium that happened at Princeton like years and years ago. It's in the acknowledgements of my friend An Goris had set that up. And that's an, that's a piece that's very old, but very dear to my heart, and I think it still makes sense.
In fact, just recently the most recent Lorraine Heath, I think is about these like romantic, slightly scandalous books that someone is writing and the female character, obviously the one who's writing it, [00:48:00] keeps like defending popular fiction. I was like, oh, there we are. There's we can see the romance author defending popular fiction that is slightly, sexy. And so I think that's a sort of a persistent interest and I think it has larger implications, right?
I think a lot of readers will understand that this is a thing that we also enjoy, not just because we're romance readers and maybe also sometimes feel that people look down on it or something, but also in general, right? A lot of things that women do they probably feel they don't get enough credit for doing them or for how difficult they are, whether it's like housework or other things. So I think in some ways it's it's pinging us on different levels. That idea of of labor that's there, that Dreaming of You book.
But. Sort of circle back to that original question of why these books, honestly, it's also like books that I've enjoyed and loved and saw something about this concept of identity and the way that women are battling it out in here.
One of my favorite books is in there. Sherry Thomas's My Beautiful Enemy with a biracial heroine who is, Anglo Chinese and there's things that I see in there that are about political citizenship and about borders, which are super relevant, especially today. But in general, I think this notion of belonging and where does a woman belong? And do you take on your husband's quote unquote, last name? And what access do you get?
I'm an immigrant to the United States and there's all these stories that are about marriage and so on, which I always I'm a little quizzical about because again, the state is deciding that this is a valid way and it's deciding who gets access to certain things because of that. You have to prove that you're really married, right?
All of these Really fundamental questions that hurt women, I think disadvantage them in more of the ways than one. I think My Beautiful Enemy is allowing us access to that, but also Spymaster's Lady, another of my favorites from Joanna Bourne with the spy heroine and crossing of borders. And then my intersections chapter, which has Indigo, which is just the most devastating book and an amazing way to think about the Black heroine and all of those elements together. Plus Princess In Theory, because everybody should have the Nigerian prince wrote me an email says we're betrothed.
So I thought that one was fun. And the fact that the Naledi is a is an epidemiologist. I was writing the book during the pandemic and it. I really resonated as to the way that Black scientists who are female, deal with that structure, but in general, how epidemiologists were really battling disinformation during that time and the lack of resources, that, that element of work and our larger political structures and how they affect women in certain professions, I think really hit hard when I was doing that chapter.
So I hope people get some pleasure out of it. And also, as you said, get other ways to think about the romance when they look at the book.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah, and so it's clear how the threads of your previous work found its way into this book, My Beautiful Enemy, which we actually talked about the last time you were on Shelf Love, so if you want to hear an in depth conversation about more of [00:51:00] Jayshree's thoughts on My Beautiful Enemy, go check out that episode of Shelf Love.
Obviously there's tendrils of the Media Romance in here, which is you had a chapter in the Routledge Research Companion to Popular Romance Fiction that went into more detail there, and so then what are the threads that you are taking from this book and continuing to expand on in your new work?
Because it's now been like two ish years since you turned in this manuscript, so now where are you going?
Jayashree Kamblé: Yeah. Yeah. So I sent the first full draft of this book to my press through the acquisitions editor on Martin Luther King Day weekend in 2020. And then we know what happened.
And so the book lost its way for a while because everybody was scrambling and trying to do things with minimal resources, et cetera, et cetera.
So yeah, it's been in the making for a long time and the initial drafts of it did not actually have the chapter on, that's called Intersections on Black heroines. And it did have. A large closing section on escapism, because I'm very interested in theorizing escapism and just like I was interested in theorizing the heroine.
And so that escapism section I excised because both my peer reviewers said this feels awkward. Like you're clearly trying to establish something here, but it doesn't really fit the rest of the book. And so at some point I have to touch that thing again. I don't know what I'll do with it, probably an article of some kind. But essentially it's like a gathering up of all different ideas about escapism. And again, just like with the heroine, I'm trying to pin down certain things because I think people use it very loosely. And when you use things that loosely, it can mean a lot of different things to different people. And your audience really determines whether there's positive or negative connotation. And I really want to pin that down a little bit more. And so that's a piece that's coming out.
And then especially one of my peer reviewers was very insistent that I try to grapple with race and my initial thought was no That's not what the book is about like romance novels don't tell people you can be black or white You can't be both like that's not a thing So I don't think you understand the sort of dynamic that I'm trying to work out here but then I sat on it for a long time and realized that I actually could address it and I think it became a pretty strong chapter, but it then led me onto the path of trying to do more work on the history of Black and BIPOC romance in the United States, and around the time, as you mentioned, of Vivian Stephens stepping into the field.
And so since then I have a fellowship and I've been working on retrieving some of the older books. I've done research at the Popular Culture Library in Bowling Green State University, looking back through like RWA records, Romantic Times records. I just had a piece out on what I'm calling the first five Black romances that were acquired by Vivian Stephens and Veronica Mixon around 1980 to 84, I think is the last bit that I'm looking at with [00:54:00] Veronica Mixon's work.
And so that just came out in the Journal of American Culture. And I've got two more related to that research that I'm doing revisions for right now, because I got two different sets of peer reviews on two different articles back. So I'm slowly building my way through from the early eighties, decade by decade into trying to build a history of Black and BIPOC American Romance for the most part, but I'm so dipping my toes into trying to figure out what on earth was happening in the UK when it comes to BIPOC Romance.
Andrea Martucci: Jayashree, thank you so much for joining Shelf Love today. Obviously, folks should go buy your book from Indiana University Press, and I'll have more information at the end of this episode. But where else should people go if they want to keep up with you and your latest work and what's going on in your scholarly world?
Jayashree Kamblé: Well, the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance, I will plug the organization, IASPR. org. You can always find us doing things there, our Twitter feed, though I don't even think it's called Twitter anymore is feeds into the websites. Main page. I don't have my own website, but I'm always at the humanities Commons website is where I like update things.
So you can Google my name and Humanities Commons and it should show up. Clear disclaimer. Do not ever pay academia. edu for anything. They tend to have people's information and I've heard from folks, including Veronica Mixon, that when they went to get, retrieve some of the stuff that they thought I had up there they were asked to pay. So please do not, that is not a legit site to get scholarly info from anybody.
Some of my written work is on the IASPR Journal, which is open access. Everybody should take a look. We have things for all sorts of folks, depending on whatever your interest is whatever level of interest you have in the genre. So the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, then jprstudies. org.
So yeah, that's where I'll be. I don't know when this episode is dropping, but this week I'll be doing a couple of events and Andrea can put that in show notes if it's going to happen sooner than those events are.
Andrea Martucci: Cool. Well, thanks again. I had so much fun talking to you about this. It's always such a pleasure to read a book and then have the person be like, so anyways, can you tell me more about this thing that I just read? Truly like such a privilege. So thank you for indulging me.
Jayashree Kamblé: Well, thank you for having me. It is such a privilege to have a total nerd like you be interested in work that most people will be like Oh, you wrote a book. Is it a novel? No. Okay. Then well, good job. So it's a real pleasure and thank you for taking the time, for reading, for being such a thoughtful reader and for all the great questions. And yeah, if folks are interested, find us on IASPR.org
Andrea Martucci: thanks so much for listening to this episode. I hope that you check Jayashree's book, Creating Identity, The Popular [00:57:00] Romance Heroine's Journey to Selfhood and Self-presentation. And as I mentioned earlier, really excited that Indiana University Press has a special discount just for Shelf love podcast listeners. So that discount is "UShelflove" that is the letter "U" Shelf Love. You can get 35% off this book between September 15th and November 2nd, 2023.
That's at Indiana University Press. The website is IUPress.org. Do yourself a favor. If you are romance, scholarship curious, or you are a critical reader of romance novels, you're going to want this book on your bookshelves.
As always all of this information is in the show notes. So you can go straight there for the link to Jayashree's book on the Indiana University Press website.
Hey, thanks for spending time with me today. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe, rate or review on your favorite podcast app or tell a friend. Check out Shelflovepodcast.com for transcripts and other resources. If you want regular written updates from Shelf Love, you can increasingly find me over at Substack.
Read occasional updates and short essays about romance at shelflovepodcast.Substack.com. Thank you to Shelf Love's $20 a month Patreon supporters: Gail, Copper Dog Books, and Frederick Smith. I have a great day. Bye!
Alyssa Cole, Amanda Allen, Amanda Cinelli, Amanda Diehl, Andrea Martucci, Andrew Piper, Angela Toscano, Arielle Zibrak, Ash Dylan, Becky, Bree Hill, Candice Ransom, Carter Sherman, Charish Reid, Christina Fattore, Copper Dog Books, Dani Lacey, Danielle Knafo, Denise Williams, Diana Filar, Dr. Margo Hendricks, EE Ottoman, Emma Barry, Eric Selinger, Erin Leafe, Esme Brett, Fangirl Jeanne, Felicia Grossman, Funmi B., Hannah Hearts Romance, Helena Greer, Hsu Ming Teo, Huike Wen, Jack Harbon, Jayashree Kamble, Jennifer Crusie, Jess, Jessica Lyn Van Slooten, Jhen, Jodi McAlister, Jodie Slaughter, Joe Martucci, John Jacobson, Julie Moody-Freeman, Karelia Stetz-Waters, Kate Clayborn, Katee Robert, Katrina Jackson, Kelly Reynolds, Kennedy Ryan, Kianna Alexander, Kini Allen, Kit Rocha, Leigh Kramer, Lucy Hargrave, Lucy Score, Lynell, Margarita Guillory, Margo Hendricks, Maria DeBlassie, Megan Erickson, Mia Sosa, Nicola Welsh Burke, Nicole Falls, Norma Perez-Hernandez, Penny Reid, Philippa Borland, Rebecca Romney, Rebekah Weatherspoon, Reformed Rakes, Renee Dahlia, Rosie Danan, Ruby Lang, Sandra Kitt, Scarlett Peckham, Sionna Fox, Sri Savita, Steve Ammidown, Suzanne Jefferies, Talia Hibbert, Tamara Lush, Tasha L. Harrison, The Swoonies, Tif Marcelo, Tina Benigno, Whoa!mance, Whoamance, antagonist april, audience reception, book discussion, book recommendations, business of books, category romance, contemporary romance, crossover podcast, fairy tales, fanfiction, fangirl jeanne, film discussion, genre discussions, historical romance, joyful hag book club, joyful problematization, joyful problematizing, original scholarship, paranormal romance, pop culture in the classroom, problematic favorite trope, quarantine romance book club, queer romance, romance in pop culture, romance myths, romance novel discussion, romance novelist representations, romance scholarship, scholarly, scifi and fantasy romance, tell me about, tv show discussion, video available, young adult
antagonist april, audience reception, book discussion, book recommendations, business of books, category romance, contemporary romance, crossover podcast, fanfiction, film discussion, genre discussions, historical romance, joyful hag book club, joyful problematizing, original scholarship, pop culture in the classroom, problematic favorite trope, quarantine romance book club, queer romance, romance in pop culture, romance myths, romance novel discussion, romance novelist representations, romance scholarship, scholarly, scifi and fantasy romance, tell me about, tv show discussion, video available, young adult