Nationalism and Romance

This is a quasi-follow-up to this post–at least the part about the American literary canon. I’ve been thinking about my books’ American-ness and wanted to put that into a historical context. But I’m going to start with a digression about publishing history.

It has always been difficult to make a living as a writer. Prior to the nineteenth-century, it was all but impossible with the notable exception of Shakespeare and a handful of others who managed to obtain patrons. But these guys proved the rule: most writers were wealthy folks, almost exclusively men, who pursued writing as a hobby. They didn’t need to make money and for the most part, they didn’t.

Books themselves were expensive until new printing processes and paper manufacturing developments lowered the price in the late 19th century. The circulation figures for 17th and 18th century texts are generally small. Additionally, difficulty transporting goods meant that book markets were largely regional. But even for a given local printer, it didn’t make sense to invest a lot of money to obtain a manuscript.

Let’s consider Jane Austen’s career. She sold the copyright for her first manuscript–which later became Northanger Abbey–for a mere 10 pounds. She published Sense and Sensibility by paying for its publication herself, eventually netting about 140 pounds when the first edition sold out. She sold the copyright for Pride and Prejudice for 110 pounds. Flush from this success, she sold the copyright for three novels–Emma, Mansfield Park, and Sense and Sensibility–for a combined 450 pounds.

And that’s it: the entire amount she made over her career. Now, 700 pounds is not an amount to sneeze at in the Regency Period. Her professional career was only five years long between the publication of her first novel and her death–Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously. And Austen wasn’t a bestseller, though her novels were fashionable and circulated with an elite crowd including the Prince Regent. But my point is that while she did fairly well at selling and circulating her work during her lifetime, she did not get rich and without the support of her family, she wouldn’t have had the education, ability, or seed money to write and publish. (For more information, Claire Tomalin’s biography of Austen summarizes her publishing history nicely.)

Publishers weren’t investing money in Austen or anyone else because the legal structures at the time, combined with the high price of books and the difficulty in moving them, meant that content wasn’t all that valuable. The lack of international copyright laws and the shoddy enforcement of domestic copyright meant that there was no legal barrier to a printer taking a popular book, setting the text, and reprinting it.

In an American context, writers were competing with imported European fiction, which could be published without paying a cent to the author. Meredith McGill’s wonderful book American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting discusses how and why this changed. The short version is that some critics and publications began attacking the magazines and newspapers that primarily published reprinted European fiction, making reprinted fiction an issue of nationalism. Didn’t a great nation deserve great literature? And if that were the case–and if European fiction carried a monarchist stench anyway, wink wink–shouldn’t American publishers invest in a proper, democratic American literature?

They did and the rest is (literary) history.

That’s enough wind-up. Now for the pitch!

One of the things that’s interesting to me looking at the romance genre today is how these undercurrents of nationalism play out. The historical romance market is largely dominated by European-set books and most of these are set in the UK or Western Europe. But the contemporary market is dominated by American-set books–to the point where non-Americans routinely write US settings. I grew up in Montana and the popularity of Montana as a setting for romance has always tickled me. Fiona Lowe–who is Australian–is currently writing a series set in the Treasure State after writing a charming series set in rural Wisconsin. New Zealand writer Nalini Singh’s psy/changeling series takes place in an alternate world that is still basically centered around California.

To be clear, I’m not saying these writers shouldn’t write American settings–obviously lots of Americans write European settings and of course the reverse is fine. People should write whatever they want and set it wherever they want. But I do wonder about the popularity of certain settings. I suspect that two comparable books, one set in the rural American south and one set in rural Vietnam, will face different paths to publication, different marketing, and different reader responses.

My question is this: how American is an American-set contemporary romance? Is the 19th century project of literary nationalism shaping contemporary romance at all?

I’m currently editing the third book in my contemporary series about political staffers. It’s set on the presidential campaign trail and the heroine/hero have lots of arguments about the nature of government. As I’ve been working on it, I’ve been wondering if it could be exported. Would the book work set during an election in Britain? What about Iran? On some level, I’m sure it could. Someone who knows more about those places could probably take the same basic story and change the details. But are there any parts that wouldn’t translate? Is there anything constitutively American there?

In other words, does it just happen to take place in the United States or is it essentially American?

When Graham’s Magazine attacked Harper’s Weekly for not supporting American writers when it relied on reprinted fiction, the strong implication was that European fiction was different politically, that it was incommensurate with American values somehow. Obviously that’s silly, but I wonder why the American setting in contemporary romance remains so popular. Is it just what readers are used to and therefore expect? When a non-American writes an American setting, how do they capture this quality–whatever it is?

To take a reverse example, I really love Laura Florand’s books. In the first two entries in her Chocolate series, the heroines have a desire to belong in Paris. Cade Corey, the heroine in The Chocolate Thief, is an American longing for a way to democratize all the things she loves about artisan chocolate making, and falling in love with a French chocolatier along the way. Magalie Chaudron in The Chocolate Kiss has a divided French-American national identity that makes her fear losing the tiny space she’s carved out for herself on Ile Saint Louis and provides her resistance to the pastry chef hero. This conflict repeats through many of Ms. Florand’s other books.

So the politics of Florand’s books–the heroine who wants to make a place, sometimes a political one, and the hero who legitimizes her–seems to speak to the flip side of the literary national conversation: if a place must be made for American literature, the implication is that American literature isn’t as good, that European literature has set the standard that American writers must revise or explode. The insistence on American literary nationalism seems to come from a sense of inferiority, not strength.

I don’t have some nice, neat way to tie all of this up. But on the eve of the Fourth of July, I wanted to see if anyone has any insight to the relationship between literary national and contemporary romance.

13 thoughts on “Nationalism and Romance

  1. I’m currently working on a book about US romance (i.e. romance written by people from the US) and I do think there are some themes and attitudes which are more prevalent in books written by Americans than in books by non-Americans. It’s very difficult to prove that, though, since I’m (a) not carrying out comparisons with novels by authors from other countries and (b) I’m only doing close-readings of a small number of romances not getting data from large quantities of novels.

    1. It sounds like a great project. You have to start with the qualitative scholarship on a few novels, obviously, but once we have more scholarship on romance than we have now, someone will be able to do an quantitative analysis and make some claims about thematic patterns. I’m glad someone is doing the work!

      I hope you’re going to write about Laura Jean Libbey. I think she’s incredibly important in American popular culture studies (though also not read enough); her factory girl romances both say interesting things about work, gender, and industrialization but also seem to anticipate something like romantic suspense. The chapter on her in Michael Denning’s Mechanic Accents is pretty good, but she needs to be brought into conversation with romance too.

      1. I’m only looking at modern popular romances and this is the list of novels I started out with. I’ve been tweaking things a bit since, so I’ve added some and others will be mentioned in passing.

        Pamela Regis is writing a history of US romance so maybe she’ll take a look at Libbey.

        Another person who’s been doing some work on national differences is Jack Elliot. He’s been processing lots of data, using a computer, so his approach is very different from mine. I’m not sure when he’ll be finished but I’m looking forward to reading more about his results.

  2. Your list is fantastic! I cannot wait to read your book. Libbey doesn’t fit in that group at all, but I do hope Regis reads her.

    And Elliot’s project looks amazing. I have some friends who definitely fell hard in graduate school for the quantitative approaches to literature. I’m such a cultural studies person that I can’t say it’s something I could do, but I’ve read some very insightful language analyses in this vein.

    I just love the Internet. I put together some random thoughts on the relationship between professionalization of authorship, nationalism and romance and then here is all this cool scholarship. Yay!

    1. Your previous comments/posts about romance being political have been very encouraging, by the way. They made me feel more certain I wasn’t imagining things when I saw politics in romance: I’ve currently titled one chapter “The personal is political” because in it I’m looking at how, in at least one romance, the hero and heroine’s family home can be read as a symbol of the nation. That chapter’s stalled a bit, but I’m currently working on one about community where, again, aspects of the characters’ personal relationships suggested to me that they could be read as a microcosm of the (ideal) state.

      1. This makes me so happy! (And I know all about chapters being stalled. The final chapter of my dissertation may be open on my desktop, staring at me, daring me to finish editing it. I mean, it’s possible.)

        Have you read Shelley Streeby’s American Sensations? There’s a brilliant chapter in it considering popular novels about the US-Mexico War, arguing that they use romances between white American soldiers and Mexican women as a metaphor for the American imperial project, love writes over violence and all that.

        I suspect we could draw a line between novels like ones Streeby describes, mid-19th century domestic fiction, and Libbey (and other early 20th century writers like Grace Livingston Hill), to proper, fully articulated genre romance. All of these texts seem to use the central couple to do cultural work on gender ideals. We talked before about someone who argued that romance is a recuperative vision of love in the face of gendered violence, discrimination, etc. I’ve thought about it since and I find that argument very convincing. So well done, scholar whose name escapes me!

  3. Their name’s escaping me too, unfortunately, and I hadn’t heard of Streeby. However, what you say about ” romances between white American soldiers and Mexican women as a metaphor for the American imperial project, love writes over violence and all that” reminds me of Pocahontas, and also of La Malinche.

    The secondary text staring up at me, pleadingly, from beside my laptop says hello to the chapter that might be staring at you.

    1. I dug it up. It was Catharine Roach in this article who argues that genre romance “engag[es] readers in a reparation fantasy of healing in regards to male-female relations” (Abstract). She’s speaking about potential overlaps between Christianity and genre romance–which I totally buy–but I think it’s true even setting aside the religion.

      Streeby’s dime novels are absolutely related to other fantasies about (non-white) women entering into relationships with (white) men as metaphors for manifest destiny. I’m certain that this structure exists outside of American literature. I would presume that during the period of its occupation of India, this theme occurred in British literature–and maybe Ireland as well, certainly one could read Waverley as treating Scotch history/literature this way. But it is definitely if not a uniquely American fantasy, than a persistent one.

      1. I’ve read the Roach several times: my only excuse for not recognising it is that I somehow feel that that particular bit of her argument sounds a bit similar to ones made in Dangerous Men and elsewhere. Maybe my memory’s faulty, though ;-)

        Re romance novels and the Raj, Hsu-Ming Teo’s written an article on this and she says that “If interracial love was to be contemplated, it could not be between an Indian man and an English woman, only between an English man and a high-caste Indian woman.” She does mention one novel in which

        [the British man who loves the heroine] Bryan […] dies when he […] saves Flame [the Indian heroine] from a panther attack. As he is mauled to death, he tells her to marry Ajit [the Indian (but Sandhurst-educated) man who loves the heroine]: “After all, if he has your dear body, I shall have what is far more precious – your spirit. That, I know, will always be mine.” If Philip Darby is correct in claiming that “[m]ost of the narratives of British India are intensely political and they are knowingly so,” then this love plot could be read as a metaphor for British-Indian relations during this period of growing Indian nationalism. Is it too great a leap of the imagination to see in Bryan’s death the eventual heroic sacrifice of masculine Britain for feminine India, nobly entrusting India into the hands of a western-educated Indian man who is practically white?

  4. I don’t think that seems like too great a leap at all! And that’s always been my sense: while 19th C colonial narratives often seem simple and pro-western, there are these interesting ways in which they critique the western occupiers or at least anticipate the end of western occupation–though they only see certain individuals as capable of governing, and those folks are almost always biracial. They (this subgenre of lit) is racist for sure, but with more texture than we sometimes give it credit for. (And now I’m really curious about how proto-romances in 19th C Britain represented colonial sites.)

    The same pattern is true in American lit, by the way: cross-race love stories are almost always a white man and a non-white woman, raising the possibility that men’s and women’s bodies are raced differently and women can “pass” or transcend barriers differently than men. (Also of course recognizing the threat of sexualized, non-white men’s bodies a la Gail Bederman’s Manliness and Civilization.) Though interracial romance narratives in American literature are almost always tragic, which is why I think the happy ending in genre romance is political: it imagines ways out of the narrative patterns of big-l Literature.

    Have you read The Sleeping Night by Barbara Samuel? I read it last week and I’ve been forcing it onto everyone. It’s notable because it’s a romance between a white woman and a black man in Texas between the First and Second World Wars. It’s a beautiful and interesting book that deserves more attention.

    1. I’ve read at least one other Barbara Samuel romance with an inter-racial relationship, but not that one.

      raising the possibility that men’s and women’s bodies are raced differently and women can “pass” or transcend barriers differently than men

      From what I’ve read I get the impression that the pairings are usually White man/Non-White woman because there’s an underlying sense that women are inferior anyway, so the ideological system can cope with the idea that a wife might be racially “inferior” as well as being inferior by virtue of being a woman. Also, it’s probably then assumed that the marriage will result in her being assimilated into his culture (Hsu-Ming Teo mentions a novel in which a half-Indian woman marries a White man and is then going to live with him in England, thus insulating their offspring from Indian culture) whereas the same wouldn’t be true in reverse (due to sexism and the man being the head of the household).

      However, she presumably mustn’t be too inferior or it would make the White man look stupid/weak/bad at choosing a mate. After all, he’s choosing her over White women who would generally be assumed to be better according to his culture’s ideals. So when the woman is non-White, attempts may be made to make her seem a bit less inferior by raising her class e.g. Pocahontas is often considered a Princess, and in one of the books mention in Hsu-Ming Teo’s essay, the Indian woman is from a very high caste, so that’s considered to compensate for her race.

      1. In other words, there’s a mixture of racism, sexism and class prejudice at work.

  5. I think each case probably has to be evaluated separately. The Pocahontas myth plays out very differently than, say, La Malinche for an entire host of very specific, culturally-situated reasons and in an American legal context, miscegenation between whites and Native Americans was treated differently than between whites and blacks. (There was a great piece in Slate a few weeks ago about a reenactment of Pocahontas’ marriage to John Rolfe; in the piece, the writer discusses how many of Virginia’s leading families trace their ancestors back to Pocahontas, but I’d guess they’d be less interested in touting Thomas Jefferson/Sally Hemings-style connections.) In all cases, representations of interracial relationships show the malleability of race, class, gender, and ethnic or cultural boundaries even as they reinforce them.

    Great discussion!

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