Sunday, March 29, 2009

Biological romance

I recently read: READ ROMANCE OR PERISH: A BIOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE ON ROMANCE NOVELS (Romance Writers of America Librarians' Day Keynote Address July 29th, 2008 )

I have a few thoughts. One is that you cannot speak for a science without speaking as a scientist--that is by referencing in some way evidence collected using the scientific method. Biology in the absence of evidence devolves into "just so" stories that provide an explanation for anything you want or that flatters your in-group, but it tends to be the explanation you want not the one that is parsimonious.

The following is purely my opinion as a person who also holds a PhD in the biological (and behavioral) sciences. But I am writing purely in the manner of a blogger because there aren't any first sources identified here to uderly the claims made (so I can't check them).

The first substantial point made: "Genre Fiction is the only truly effective means we have of exercising imaginations ... And creativity is 100% dependent on imagination. You cannot figure out a better way to do something without being able to imagine that better way"

Flattering to story tellers, but egotistical much? So there is no effective exercise of imagine in making movies, plays, paintings or choreographing dance, in day-dreaming, raising children, cooking or growing a garden, in conducting scientific research, running a business or planning your own life journey? Okey dokey. It must be true if a scientist said so. If you defined genre fiction very broadly as "the ability to conceive of things that are not literally true" (e.g. lying) you might be able to convince me of that but as a self-evident assumption I ain't buying it.

"US, now the primary home of Genre Fiction, reads 10 - 100 times more Genre Fiction than any other society."

Blink. The average American reads ten or more times more genre fiction that the average Canadian, Australian, Brit etc? Sorry, I don't buy that. In terms of publishing, perhaps, but consumption?

"And the US is globally recognized as the most entrepreneurially successful, most innovative and effectively creative, society on the planet."

Did the crowd, at this point, begin chanting USA, USA, USA? America is a large, massively successful first world nation with many wonderful qualities. But I would hope this would include a sufficient dose of humility to realise other countries are pretty pleased with their own finer qualities, and with good reason.

"And what if a woman comes in, with two toddlers hanging on her skirts, worn to the bone - and wanting reassurance that all she's going through is worthwhile, is valued, is to be lauded - you'd hand her a cherry red capsule because that's what romance delivers."

Um, I guess my two bookshelves full of romance are a prescription error. Either that or someone neglected to issue me my two toddlers, husband... and skirt. In fact I haver always felt that the great majority of romance (with the some sub-genre and individual exceptions) stops well short of showing a motherhood period or even presumposing that there will be one--implying that motherhood is anything but sexy and romantic? Or it may just be that those aren't the romance I tend to buy. It is, after all, a large and diverse genre. (p.s. last time I checked Americans--and indeed most cultures--were pretty pro-motherhood in other ways?)

"While no one would question the value of either the Pill or feminism, together they posed a potent biological threat if too many women followed the strict feminist path and gave up having children altogether. Biologically, societies would be doomed."


Blink. Blink.


"7 western nations - Italy, France, Germany, Netherlands, UK, Australia and the US - chosen purely because I know what went on in those countries. Six of these countries decided to sit back and let Nature take its course ... in Italy, France, Germany, Netherlands, the UK and Australia, publishers bowed to pressure from the intellectual elites and suppressed romance."

Um. Yes, the great romance suppression. Wait. What great romance suppression? What pressure? From whom? Try as I might I cannot recall the day the office of Mills & Boon burned to the ground and all their staff fled to America disguised as German rocket scientists. And as far as disdaining the bodice ripper? It seems to me that occurs in the US as much as anywhere (as indeed, does modern feminism).

"I can explain how it was done, but the essential thing to know was that it was done. In every country bar the US, romance novels were - not banned, not eradicated, not outlawed - but their availability was deliberately held down and a massive taboo was attached to reading them. And I do mean massive. Even if women wanted romance novels, they couldn't find them, and even if they found one, they - as a group - felt inhibited from reading them.

The only country that truly left the entire biological system alone was the US."

I can explain how it was not done. But that being the null hypothesis and as such one is genuinely not required to.

"Current birthrates are: Italy 1.3 and steadily sinking. Religion doesn't work on birthrates. Germany 1.4, Netherlands 1.6, UK 1.6, Australia 1.7 ... In 2006, your birthrate reached 2.1 again, and isn't expected to fall."

Theory number one, women won't have children unless they have access to romance books, and only American women have access to romance books. (i.e. Fabio made me do it).

Theory number two, child birth rates are related to religion, income, maternity leave provisions, over-population concerns and a great many factors including ease of access to privacy and to birth control--the "whoops" factor. (i.e. it's damn complicated and no single factor explanation is remotely plausible even where it is empirically supported.

"How did you recover so easily from 1.7 to 2.1 when no one else can even shift their rate upward?"

Perhaps it was because a good many were working very hard to do the opposite? America is one of the few countries to regularly push the need to constantly grown population and economy. Others are pursuing leveling off or even shrinking the native-born population base leading to a stable population after immigrants and refugees are counted in.

"But then came the Pill and feminism, and women heard the feminist's message - but most of them thought, well, yes, but that's not how I feel. I want love, marriage and the whole nine yards - so they reached for reaffirmation. It wasn't Kathleen Woodiwiss writing the Flame and the Flower that sparked the modern growth of romance - it was women wanting to hear the message that book contained."

(Brain jumps out ear and flops on the floor)

"The US sales of romance novels directly parallel the US improving birthrate."

(Brain gives up and stops flopping) Do I really need to fisk this. I am going to assume most of you know that correlation does not imply causality.

"Australia, the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy, facing the same threats, also did nothing, but specifically removed romance novels from the equation. These societies are facing social extinction. France replaced romance novels with government propaganda and assistance. It might survive, but by the skin of its teeth and only at great financial cost. Propaganda is never as effective as reaffirmation."

(Brain crawls out of the room, gasping)

"As the guardians of genre fiction in your communities, I hope you take back with you a strengthened belief in the social and biological importance of keeping a wide range of genre fiction, and of romance in particular, on your shelves.

Not only will it improve mental health and enhance your communities' creativity, but it will also insure that your country continues as a biologically stable nation ... It's read romance or perish."

Won't somebody please think of the children! This truly is moral panic at its purist. I am, at this point, speechless.

See also:
Research Roundup


Anonymous said...

I always hated that piece.

Mrs Giggles said...

Here's the best part: Stephanie Laurens, the writer of that "keynote address" has a BSc(Hons) in Immunology and a Ph.D in Biochemistry.

I'd think a researcher will think better of making grandiose statements with no scientific evidence to back up these statements, but I guess not!

Fiona Glass said...

Heavens. I've got no patience with these sort of sweeping generalisations that lump all women all over the planet together in one vast and sticky heap. So all women have toddlers at their skirts and take solace in romance? Um. I must have had a sex change without noticing... O.o

Your comment: "Try as I might I cannot recall the day the office of Mills & Boon burned to the ground and all their staff fled to America disguised as German rocket scientists." made me spill my coffee. :D

lynneconnolly said...

Well said, Emily. So as a feminist, I should give up reading romance novels?
If you carry on drawing logical conclusions from the piece, it gets even crazier.

Stacia said...

Without commenting on all the biological stuff, it's been my experience that genre fiction is nowhere near as big or respected in the UK as elsewhere. It may simply be the part of the country where we live, but genre--all genre, save perhaps mysteries--gets a lot less shelfspace in all the stores I've been in (save genre-specific stores like Forbidden Planet). Whereas huge amounts of shelfspace are given to "Tragic Life Stories."

Again, that's just been my experience, and that's just England, specifically the Southwest. I don't have a hard time at all believing that the US is the largest consumer of genre fiction.

Angie said...

So Much WTFery. O_O I have a hard time believing this person has a PhD in anything at all, much less one of the sciences. That's disgraceful.

I have to point out, though, that there are a lot of self-styled feminists around who harass women who choose the housewife-and-mother life, snarking such women to their faces. And a larger group who'll be polite to their faces but mock and jeer among themselves later. Been nearby, seen/heard it.

They're doing it wrong, of course, and clearly missed the whole "freedom of choice" thing that feminism is actually about, but they're definitely out there. It sounds to me like Ms. Laurens either is one of these misguided people who think they're feminists, or she's not a feminist herself but has been exposed to that type and thinks they represent the movement.


Treva Harte said...

No one TOLD me Europe was facing social extinction. I'm so out of the loop. (At least now I know what it is.)

Athena Grayson said...

PhD in WTF.