Actually, It’s All Good Fiction

September 21st, 2005 · 13 Comments
by Booksquare

If you hang around fiction circles long enough, you hear an amusing little fact: romance novels are nothing but female porn. This is, of course, a response to the some of these books have sex in them. Or so we thought. A couple of, uh, brilliant, analytical thinkers have used a dictionary (Webster’s, which we do no have handy) to explain the sordid truth:

Yet female pornography has for decades been an accepted pastime, sliding under the radar of the religious right and instead being promoted as an acceptable distraction from the worries of life. But what exactly is female porn? Is there a definition for this newly discovered blight on society? For the answer to this question, we need look no further than the honorable Mr. Webster and his infamous dictionary of words. How we overlooked this definition for years upon years we do not know. But we are here today to uncover the truth. To shed light in the dark. And so without further ado here it is:

    pornography – 3: the depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction

Catch that? Emotional. We contend that the job of the chick flick, romance novel, and love song is to arouse a quick, intense emotional reaction. Can you feel it? We ask you, ladies, what else arouses a stronger emotion in you than that heart-fluttering chick flick? What else gets you to dream of the perfect man and pray to God that you will get one just like him?

This makes one ask what other type of art is designed to arouse strong emotion? While our dictionary offers a different definition of pornography, we’ll accept the one above for now. As we sit here, we have a zillion different images of art that has inspired us to tears, joy, even violence (Guernica by way of example). Heck, we are easily manipulated by coffee commercials, though we don’ admit that in public.

It turns out that female porn — romance novels and their celluloid cousins, chick flicks — create an unrealistic image of men (this is also, apparently, the argument against male porn). It creates a selfish woman who expects:

Check the pulse on any leading man from the biggest chick flicks and this is the rhythm his heart beats to: undying love, pure romance, sweet words, heroic rescues, persistent pursuit, tears, laughter, protection, flowers, gifts, and devotion. He never farts or burps. He’s never grumpy or wanting to be left alone.

Don’t forget, this fantasy man also talks about his feelings. Apparently this dream is so powerful that the single woman (with cats and a tub o’ice cream, natch) will feel even more alone. We must stop the madness now. We cannot allow art to create unrealistic expectations that real life cannot manage. Darn it — we snared us a man who sometimes brings us flowers and it turns out he’s just a figment of our self-centered imagination. We will leave you to imagine how we will resolve this problem, though if anyone has suggestions for packing imaginary computers and their flotsam, please let us know. We didn’t keep the imaginary boxes.

Arousing intense emotions is what art is all about. Sometimes this is handled in an overtly manipulative manner (those weird faux-patriotic songs about the Iraq war come to mind) and sometimes the emotion is drawn forth with delicate craft (check out this title).
While we’d contend that emotion isn’t the goal of pornography — our experience is that good porn arouses other responses, but they don’t tend to be the type that touches the heart and soul — it is unclear what harm is being done here. Our only guess is that the authors of this fine work seem to believe that humans cannot separate story from reality (reality, we remind you, is the stuff you can’t make up).

Art that leaves the viewer/reader/listener/participant emotionally vacant is not art. Sure you may glimpse perfection, only to be forced to sit alone with your cats. Presumably you have cats because you like them and they give you some sort of happiness. Substitute dogs or turtles, depending on your style.

The unsubtle message here is that women shouldn’t write about, or read about, fulfilling sexual experiences. Sex bad. As always, this discussion of the prurient overlooks the impact of violence. That remains an acceptable form of art.

File Under: Square Pegs

13 responses so far ↓

  • Joan Kelly // Sep 21, 2005 at 12:30 pm

    Thanks for this post. I couldn’t agree with you more, and it’s not just because I’m a relatively single woman with cats who is easily moved.

    It aggravates me that simply by virtue of being something women in mass numbers apparently enjoy, any piece of writing, music, film, etc. is automatically dismiss-able as either junky or (!) dangerous. (Although I admit that I do harbor secret fantasies about millions of women actually becoming a real danger to the status quo, but that’s another topic.) (And it shames me that I just used the term “status quo” with a straight face in a sentence.) (But I did just wake up.)

    Anyway, I’m glad your voice is out there, pointing out and confronting crap like this. As ever, we love Booksquare.

  • Brenda Coulter // Sep 21, 2005 at 1:32 pm

    Yes, we love Booksquare. Even when she’s being unreasonable, as she is today. ;-)

    C’mon. What did you expect from a Focus on the Family magazine that excerpted material from a book written for conservative Christians by conservative Christians? The authors aren’t judging you for what you choose to read, they’re simply cautioning their homies about something they believe can prevent Christians from living rich, satisfying lives. Not all of their homies happen to agree–this one certainly doesn’t–that the road to a weak spiritual life is paved with romance novels. But those of us who don’t buy the all-romance-novels-are-sinful argument generally just shrug and agree to disagree with our Christian brothers and sisters.

    The article didn’t offend me, so I can’t fathom how it would offend anyone else. You appear to be attempting to whip up outrage over something that was written specifically for Christians who are seeking advice from other Christians on how to live deeper, more satisfying spiritual lives. If you see this kind of conversation as some kind of threat to the romance reading/writing community, I can only wonder why you don’t appear to be equally worried about the impact on the pork industry when Orthodox Jews teach their children and converts that eating pig meat is a sin. Isn’t it outrageous, the way those narrow-minded, judgmental folks discourage others from buying hams at Christmastime? ;-)

  • HelenKay // Sep 21, 2005 at 1:34 pm

    I was too steamed to comment in an intelligent manner when I read the original. Happy you picked up the torch. Well said, as always.

  • kat // Sep 21, 2005 at 6:44 pm

    The scary thing is, a few years ago I’d have halfway agreed with them – on the “unrealistic image of men” bit, anyway. Luckily I have started reading Cruisie since then.

    At the time I was going through college and watching the antics with my peers with increasing horror. A lot of the girls had no idea how to communicate with guys except on a sexual basis; they’d never had a boy friend, only boy friends. And then they wondered why all their relationships went up in smoke. Others… well, fake is as fake does. They got the guys they deserved. Still others, the sad ones, attached themselves to Bad Boys with the idea that love would make him change his ways.

    At the time I concluded that it was too many romantic comedies at work. These days, I suspect it’s just ordinary human selfishness, and the unwillingness to recognize that the peg that fits into the hole you’ve labeled Mate may be more than the sum of your desires.

    Except the Bad Boy Reform fetish. That, I totally blame romance for. ;)

  • Booksquare // Sep 21, 2005 at 9:03 pm

    Brenda — I didn’t know the provenance of the article (until now — which should teach me to blog without sufficient coffee). In fact, I read it as two authors trying to drum up business for their book. And when they took an overly broad view of pornography without solid support for their position, it bothered me. This isn’t about Christianity (at least from my perspective). This is about the suggestion that idealized scenarios in art disconnect people from reality. The end result is that readers will walk away with the misguided belief that romance novels and chick flicks are pornographic, when that isn’t the truth. In the great world of search engines, we now have achieved some balance.

    And building on the authors’ definition, all art is guilty of creating an idealized (or whatever the opposite of idealizing is) world. It remains unclear to me (and I read this article several times) what the danger of interacting with art that charges your emotions might be. Emotions are such a powerful aspect of the human experience and if, as these authors are suggesting (and yes, of course I get the nuances of persusasive writing), intense emotional reactions are destroying our ability to face reality, it doesn’t make sense.

    Joan’s comment about women’s art being dismissed as, in this case, dangerous hits a big point. Because this tarred all romance and chick flicks as undermining womens’ ability to look at relationships realistically. I do worry about the impact this has on romance because it perpetuates a misconception and continues an age-old tradition of treating the work of women as something to be discounted. I’m sure pork farmers, when they face misconceptions about their work, also work to correct information that is factually incorrect. Though, unlike dispelling the idea that romance is pornography, proving or disproving that pork is sinful is tougher. I mean, who do you verify this with .

    Kat — I think the bad boy fetish is as old as human nature, or at least as old as the Robin Hood fantasy. I think you’re right about the hole called Mate. It takes a long time to understand what makes a marriage (or any relationship) work.

  • Joan Kelly // Sep 22, 2005 at 1:43 am

    With all due respect to Booksquare’s friend, Ms. Coulter, I don’t think it’s fair to say that Booksquare was attempting to whip up outrage – I think it’s fair to say she succeeded. [insert winking smiley face here]

  • Kate // Sep 22, 2005 at 4:33 am

    Well, it’s good we have a government ready to step in to protect us from ourselves. . . .

  • J.B. Lee // Sep 22, 2005 at 5:44 am

    Whoa, now! The beauty of our language is that it is never static, but always open to interpretation. The word “porn” may have a clear-cut connotation in the dictionary, but in real life it reflects the image it conjures up–specifically, that of violent, degrading, unnatural acts that arouse harmful emotions. As for romance novels–good God, people! The Greeks had a word for it: catharsis! Such intensely emotional works allow us to explore situations and emotions we might not otherwise experience. It is literally a “purging of the emotions,” an emotional orgasm that allows us to return to our everyday lives refreshed and contented. IT’S PRETEND! Psychologists will tell you we never outgrowour need to pretend–it allows us to escape, like a virtual vacation, and then come home ready to resume our lives. Let’s not put any more into it than that. And let’s enjoy it.

  • Brenda Coulter // Sep 22, 2005 at 9:35 am

    Well, in fact, it is about Christianity, Booksquare. The book in question (which I don’t endorse, by the way) was written specifically for conservative evangelical Christians who are seeking instruction in their faith. The short excerpt you read was posted on a webzine aimed at precisely the same audience. Essentially, you were reading mail that was not addressed to you.

    I’m afraid I just don’t get how this kind of private instruction could be offensive to outsiders. I have no interest in what Buddhists or Muslims, for instance, talk about when they get together to encourage one another in their particular spiritual beliefs and practices. I gather they have some pretty strange ideas about things like reincarnation and about women covering their faces, but those beliefs have no bearing on my life. If I came across an article on a Muslim webzine that suggested romance novels were evil, I would just yawn and click away from the site.

  • Kate // Sep 22, 2005 at 11:20 am


    Sure, I can understand that response. Muslims are a minority in your country. But if the government was in control of Muslims or even if most of the officials were paying respectful attention to that point of view, its importance to you increases. You’d be foolish to click away from any article pertaining to the majority thought of where you live–particularly if you disagree with it.

  • Booksquare // Sep 22, 2005 at 5:01 pm

    Brenda, I would accept your argument – the idea that I was reading mail addressed to me – if the mail in question had not been posted in a public space. I wanted to get back to my unfinished though on the search engine issue, and you (helpfully ) lead me into it.

    Setting aside the idea that I was guided in this direction, if someone is out there searching for the phrase “romance novels pornography”, then they are going to be lead to this conversation (blogs being very search engine friendly beings). They are also going to be lead to the article we’re discussing here. By virtue of placing the article in a public forum, the target audience is broadened. Had they (pardon the expression) preached to the choir, or limited the article to subscribers, then I would indeed be inserting myself in a private conversation. But this became a public discussion by virtue of where it was placed.

    I would prefer that those searching on the above phrase come here to read what we’re saying — because I think we’re having an interesting, healthy debate — but I know the chances are about equal. The average web surfer is not likely going to discern the provenance of the article; I didn’t notice the Focus on Family notation until you pointed it out. Somebody is going to stumble across that article and come away with an incorrect view of certain art.

    Publishing the article in a public forum makes it open to debate, just as something you post on your blog or something I post on my blog (or heck, last week’s rant about the Booklocker owner’s suggestion that bookstores stop accepting returns) is open for dissection. You and I might have a clear understanding that the article was targeted to a specific audience, but I like to think we’re exceptionally discerning people .

  • Candy // Sep 23, 2005 at 8:31 am

    Unless somebody points out to me the exact passage in the Bible that prohibits the consumption of romance novels or works of fiction that excite strong feelings, I’m going to assert that this particular article did not concentrate on the fine points of religion so much as make a series of silly, insupportable claims about the nature of women, fiction, unrealistic expectations and emotional engagement while consuming works of fiction. In fact, I’d like to see where in that particular excerpt the authors limited their arguments to Christians in general and Christian women in particular. The fact is, they didn’t–they made a series of claims about women that were clearly meant to be universal. Which, in turn, makes it fair fodder for general discussion. All sorts of women from all sorts of religions are consumers of fictional works–oftentimes the same ones. In Malaysia, my Muslim friends watched the same gawdawful Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts romantic comedies I did, oftentimes right beside me in the movie theater or at my home; on the other hand, wearing the hijab is a very specific Muslim practice, and swearing off pork and assorted dietary restrictions are similarly religion-specific.

    In short, Brenda was comparing apples with oranges.

    Now, if the article had instead talked about, say, the standards proper womanly behavior as portrayed in the Leviticus and argued that all Christian women should conform, I might not necessarily agree, but I’d do what Brenda did: yawn and click away. If the article argued that ALL women should conform, I’d sit up and take notice–but that’s a different issue, of course.

  • Brenda Coulter // Sep 23, 2005 at 2:42 pm

    Publishing the article in a public forum makes it open to debate

    Oh, absolutely. And I’m enjoying the discussion. (I’m talking to you, too, Kate.) My only point was that I was surprised by everyone’s knee-jerk emotional response to this, especially as the “all romance novels are porn” view is not held by anywhere near the majority of conservative, evangelical Christians. Nobody’s being threatened here. Not the romance industry, not Art, and not Civilization As We Know It.

    I like to think we’re exceptionally discerning people.

    Hey, I like to think that, too. ;)