Entangled: the exegetical process of a romance writer
Amy T Matthews
As a novelist, I write under two names: literary fiction under the name Amy T Matthews and historical romance fiction under the name Tess LeSue. My latest research focuses on the generic conventions of popular romance and the intersections between feminism and romance fiction. This large-scale research project will have multiple outcomes: exegetical and scholarly papers, short stories, a literary novel, and a series of historical romances. Under the name Tess LeSue, I write traditional romances that seek to conform to generic expectations, while attempting to embody a feminist ethos. I have publisher deadlines to produce a series of Historical Westerns and so will be consistently writing in this mode, while under the name Amy T Matthews I also plan produce a realist literary romance novel that will test the conventions of Romance by subjecting the Hero and Heroine to major life stresses (divorce, mental illness, death) in an attempt to produce a thoughtful and intelligent meditation on love, relationships, and gender. In this essay I will contextualise my research and then discuss the challenges of writing in two modes. Popular romance fiction is a plot-driven form, with a direct and economical style, while my literary writing has a greater concentration on language, metaphor and imagery. Developing a voice for the literary romance is a technical challenge: how to tell a ‘predictable story’ (boy meets girl) in a fresh way, how to articulate thoughts on love and romance without resorting to cliché or melodrama, and how to find a productive method to write in multiple voices and genres simultaneously. The essay concludes with a reading from an exploratory work, a love letter that seeks to develop a poetics for the literary novel.
Creative writing, exegesis, romance, popular romance studies, feminism
Entangled: the exegetical process of a romance writer
‘Therefore I would ask you to write all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject however trivial or however vast.’
This is an essay about the stresses and tensions of writing in multiple modes, not only as a creative writing academic, but also as an artist who writes in a variety genres, under different names. It is also an essay about finding a way to write about one genre, in the voice of another. Writing in multiple modes doesn’t feel like wearing multiple hats, so much as having many heads, like a Hydra. And there are days where I feel as monstrous as a Hydra, an unnatural beast, pulled in too many directions. I don’t have a single ‘expertise’. Some scholars develop a research interest (Victorian literature, the Early Modern, Romantic poetry, postcolonial theory, queer theory, representations of the emotional life of bugs in the work of Thomas Hardy, or some such) and slowly build a body of work. Many creative writing academics develop along similar lines, specialising in a practice or a topic (postmodern experimental literature, life writing, Australian contemporary literature, the genre of Science Fiction, for example). I know this is an ideal and not every scholar’s experience, but it is the model which is encouraged in the academy: to build a body of research over a career, if not in a single field, then in at least in adjoining fields. The aim is to build on a coherent body of research, over time. This isn’t necessarily a model that is a natural fit for creative practitioners, whose subject may shift from project to project, and whose ‘expertise’ may be in form (the form of the novel, or the photograph, or the performance) as well as, or instead of, the content of the work.
Novels are my chosen form, although I also write essays and articles, short stories and scripts. And to complicate things, I am not a single novelist, I am two: a literary author named Amy T Matthews and a historical romance author named Tess LeSue. My ‘expertise’ is increasingly diversified: my practice is attempting to master literary writing (experimenting with language and form) as well as attempting to master plot and the generic conventions of commercial romance. The content of each novel and the types of research I engage in is constantly shifting: I have written historical fiction about the Holocaust, postmodern fiction about Holocaust representation, feminist fiction about the mainstreaming of pornography, magic realist fiction, and historical romances set in the Wild West, colonial Australia, and during the Napoleonic Wars. As an academic, there are real world pressures to produce a steady output of peer reviewed scholarly work alongside the creative projects. The practical solution is to attempt multiple publication outcomes with each project. Therefore, I am constantly finding ways to frame my research, which can be practice-led but can also be the opposite. Sometimes I write organically, following a story until it leads me to an area I find intellectually curious; other times I start with the research questions and do the academic inquiry first.
For ten years I worked on a project about the ethics of fictionalising the Holocaust, which resulted in a series of short stories, a literary novel (End of the Night Girl, Wakefield Press, 2011), and a book-length exegesis (Navigating the Kingdom of Night, University of Adelaide Press, 2013). I still use this foundational work and I plan to write more articles in the area, but I have no interest in writing more fiction on the topic (at least at this point). This is the nature of literary novelists. We don’t tend to write variations of the same book over and over again, which commercial novelists sometimes do. Instead, we move on to the next interest, the next body of research. As a literary novelist, I moved on to writing magic realist fiction set in Adelaide, finishing a second novel in 2013, and mulling over questions of realism and representations of place in Australian fiction. The Holocaust project was very much an academic exercise, theorised from beginning to end, whereas the magic realist project is a creative one and I have not theorised it or written about it critically (yet).
During the ten-year period I worked on Holocaust representation I also started writing historical romance, partly for fun, to alleviate the heaviness of living in the shadow of the Holocaust, and partly to experiment with plot-driven writing of which I had little experience. I have written three romances to date and my first will be published with HarperCollins/Harlequin/MIRA in July 2016. As a feminist, I felt conflicted about writing Romance. As an academic, I was hooked by my own conflict. This was exactly how my interest in Holocaust representation hooked me: I felt conflicted about fictionalising the Holocaust, which led me to research the ethics of fictionalising trauma and history. Now I was feeling conflicted about writing popular romance, which led me to a new research area: Popular Romance Studies.
Popular Romance Studies is a fairly new field, one that is burgeoning in the twenty-first century. Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature (1984) and Pamela Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel (2003) are the landmark texts in a still thin field. There are a handful of other texts, such as Carol Thurston’s The Romance Revolution (1987) and Bridget Fowler’s The Alienated Reader (1991), but the area is still being mapped: there is plenty of blank territory to be explored. In past few decades scholarly writing about Romance has tended to be the domain of cultural studies and gender studies, and of theorists concerned with feminism, culture, and power. Romance novels themselves have only very recently received attention as literary texts, rather than as cultural artifacts. Most of the key scholarly works engaging with Romance have not been specific to the genre of popular romance: works such as Catherine Belsey’s Desire, Jessica Benjamin’s psychoanalytic readings of love objects, Rosalind Coward’s work on female desires, and the broader theorising of love and power done by authors such as Denis DeRougemont and Barbara Ehrenreich form the initial canon of the scholarship. In 2010 the Journal of Popular Romance Studies was founded and has encouraged publication of Popular Romance Studies research, with issues focusing on authors such as Jennifer Crusie, and on specific texts as well as issues of feminism, power and sexuality. The Romance Writers of America have an academic grant for the study of Popular Romance, which has funded research on Romance, including Catherine Roach’s work, which is resulting in the book Happily Ever After: The Romance Story in Popular Culture (University of Indiana Press, 2016). I enter this green field not as a literary studies scholar but as a creative writing scholar. While I am working on literary criticism of specific texts, my main interest is in pioneering exegetical work on my practice as a Romance writer.
There are a handful of high profile romance authors who have written critically, including Jennifer Crusie, Jayne Ann Krentz, Eloisa James and Catherine Roach. But so far these authors have focused on justifying Romance (Krentz in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women), contextualising the genre historically, or doing feminist readings of various tropes and texts (for example, Roach in ‘Getting a Good Man to Love’). There is little academic work focused on theorising the creative process and I am yet to discover any formal exegetical writing. As such, I feel there is a gap to be filled, particularly regarding research particular to the Creative Writing discipline.
Popular Romance is a genre that is frequently dismissed as trivial. Its commercial nature means its authors are often conceptualised as craftspeople rather than artists, and the form and content of romance novels are not infrequently held up to ridicule. Romance authors do engage in self-reflective writing (on blogs and in social media, in articles in mainstream print media, and in the occasional book chapter) but there is a lack of extended exegetical writing. As a heavily formulaic genre, popular romance risks being dismissed as all plot and no depth. This conception of Romance as ‘fluffy’ and empty-headed has been heightened by the clichéd image of the romance writer, which was epitomised by the late Barbara Cartland, with her feathery pink haute couture, diamonds, furs, and small yappy dogs. The fact that Cartland managed to publish a mind-boggling 723 books in her lifetime (and win the Guinness World Record for most books published in a single year: 23) only serves to strengthen the suspicion that Romance is easy to write and hard to take seriously. Cultural theorists and critics discuss the work of Romance authors, but I, for one, crave an insight into how these authors conceptualise their own work, what their processes are, and how their politics intersect with their novels. What do romance authors think about the rape fantasy? How do they conceptualise their use of it? What do they think about the use of the alpha hero, who can be abusive towards the heroine? What do they think about the Happily Ever After and heteronormativity? As a feminist, I want to know what these women (because Romance authors are primarily women) think about their feminised genre. I want to hear from them, not just from critics writing about them. I know that their novels speak for them, but I am curious to hear them reflect on their writing. Discussion of the conscious crafting of their romance fiction would reveal a depth of engagement with the genre and with issues that concern women in our culture that would be highly revelatory. It would challenge many (sexist) assumptions made about romance authors and the fiction they write. As a researcher and a reader and an author, I feel the absence of their exegetical writing. My response to that absence is to write.
To this end, my several writer-selves have found themselves joining forces for the first time, researching aspects of the same topic: Amy T Matthews is working on a series of short stories (attempting to find a ‘literary’ poetics for writing about love and romance) and a literary romance novel (in which I want to embody some of the feminist criticism of popular romance); Tess LeSue is working on her commercial historical romance novels; and Dr Amy Matthews is working on a series of articles (literary criticism of Australian romance novels; and exegetical articles about feminism and Romance). These versions of myself are all writing in response to the same core questions: how have feminist critics theorised popular romance? And where is my romance writing situated in the context of feminisms and popular romance critiques? I am curious to attempt a ‘literary’ romance, that is, a novel that challenges the content, conventions and ideologies of Romance while still providing a satisfying ‘romantic’ experience.
In this essay I want to explore my first steps towards this end. I have done some initial writing, trying to find a way into a ‘literary’ interpretation of Romance: a language, a voice, possible characters and scenarios. First, I have been wrestling with definitions of Romance and of defining for myself a working understanding of the line between ‘literary romance’ and ‘generic romance’, a line, I acknowledge, that is subjective and one I expect no one but myself to adopt; it is a formal strategy to scaffold my own practice.
Romance Writers of America defines a Romance as a story that has:
An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending – Romance novels end in a way that makes the reader feel good. Romance novels are based on the idea of an innate emotional justice – the notion that good people in the world are rewarded and evil people are punished. In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love. (Fuchs, 2004: 128).
The Happily Ever After ending is a hallmark of romance novels; without the HEA the story is a love story, not a Romance. This is perhaps the strongest generic marker, as many ‘literary’ works deal with love (Romeo and Juliet, Wuthering Heights, Anna Karenina, Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, AS Byatt’s Possession, and so on) but Romances are love stories with happy endings. ‘What readers love about the happily ever after,’ Jonathan Allen claims, ‘is that it promises a tomorrow’ (2013). Roach contends that the HEA ‘highlights the core fantasy work of the romance narrative: everything will be all right; it will all work out; whatever pain and betrayal and disappointment and loneliness haunts you will end; you will be loved by a most worthy partner despite your flaws: absolutely, devotedly, without fail, never-endingly’ (2010). Partly it is this inherent optimism and sweetness (some would say ‘sappiness’) that has kept romance novels from being treated as serious literature.
The critical and feminist responses to Romance have been mixed, running the gamut from aligning romance novels with pornography, to labeling it a tool of oppression (a way of training women to accept the roles of wife and mother in a patriarchal system), to thinking of it as an opiate for the masses, an addiction, a distracting sop for women too dumb to know better, to seeing it as an encoded response to the tensions and frustrations caused by living in a patriarchal culture. Romance has also been challenged as a heteronormative construction, with critics such as Allen contending that ‘the male/male romance novel – the kind which, like the male/female romance, requires a happily every after – is also complicit in this normative project’ (2010), leaving heteronormative assumptions uncontested and even adopting them as the ideal. There has been a rise in erotica and romantica (erotica with a romantic core: not just about sex but about the emotional life and commitment of the lovers) in recent years, featuring homosexual couples, alternative sexualities, threesomes and polyamoury, but on the whole these variations are kept to the discrete genres of erotica/romantica and not incorporated into the existing genre of Romance. This may change as social norms change, but for now Romance is still a largely heterosexual genre, studied as ‘women’s fiction’, a fantasy space mostly (not entirely) for women, written mostly (not entirely) by women. It is, Catherine Roach believes, ‘a rich cultural site that yields much insight into critical issues of gender and sexuality’ (2010).
The Australian writer Jean Bedford says that ‘escape into fantasy is not simplistic: it offers the reader a complex vicarious world that reaffirms belief patterns and ameliorates tensions arising between an individual’s participation in culture and that individual’s own feelings and self-perceptions’ (2001: 86). In this sense, romantic fantasies are a tool for women to mediate their own culture and their role in that culture. Catherine Roach believes that popular romance novels ‘do deep work for the (mostly) women who read them, engaging readers in a reparation fantasy of healing in regards to male-female relations’ and that the fantasies enacted in romances ‘help readers deal with a paradoxical relationship toward men within a culture still marked by patriarchy and threats of violence’ (2010). The HEA keep the fantasy space ‘safe’; they enable the tensions in relationships and marriages, the power struggles between men and women, to be enacted and experienced without the risk of permanent damage or alienation. They reassure and comfort, and celebrate women’s lives as having value. In a Romance, being a lover, a wife, and a mother matters; it is celebrated. Romances offer hope for a positive resolution to women’s struggle with patriarchy but they also recognise and valorise the traditional roles of women. This is clearly an over-simplification but it gestures towards the cultural value romances have and the cultural work they do. The HEAis a reward, albeit a fictional one.
Happy endings are something we all long for. Who doesn’t wish to live happily ever after? And who doesn’t know that in real life there are no happy endings? In reality each and every one of us will face disappointment, separation, and bereavement. Allen suggests that readers know ‘we are not able to live in the glory of the happily ever after, but instead, are stuck in the tremendously depressing “not again”’ (2013). The best possible ending, happy loving partners living into old age together, still ends in the final parting of death. Romance novels choose to end the story before this inevitability; they conclude on the highest, happiest point, in a moment when the heroine is recognised and accepted and loved for who she is, when she is not alone.
The HEA is a non-negotiable element of romance and one I want to use in my literary romance novel (it is already a staple in my historical romances). The parameters I am giving myself for the literary romance is that it must be structured around at least one romantic relationship between a man and a woman (although there may be more than one), and that it must end optimistically, with a happy ending (although not necessarily the same kind of happy ending as a traditional romance). I do not want to sidestep the inevitability of suffering. I want my characters to experience love and romance in the context of real world pressures – infidelity, mental illness, bereavement – and I want to face up to the inescapable finality of death, while still (somehow!) managing to reach that optimistic ending. This will be a point of difference between popular romance and my literary novel, and I hope it’s one I can navigate without slipping from ‘romance’ into ‘love story’.
The other major point of difference my literary novel will have with most generic romance will be the use of language. Romance is often maligned for using hackneyed language, clichés, and melodramatic expression but in actual fact the language used is highly codified and functions as a shorthand for constructing the fantasy. Linda Barlow and Jayne Ann Krentz assert that ‘romance writers are writing in a code clearly understood by readers’ (1992: 15) where ‘stock phrases and literary figures are regularly used to evoke emotion’ (1992: 21). Rather than the writing being seen as clichéd and ‘tired’, we can see the language as coded. They contend that,
Romance readers have a keyed-in response to certain words and phrases (the sardonic lift of the eyebrows, the thundering of the heart, the penetrating glance, the low murmur or sigh). Because of their past reading experiences, readers associate certain emotions – anger, fear, passion, sorrow – with such language and expect to feel the same responses each time they come upon such phrases. This experience can be quite intense, yet, at the same time, the codes that evoke the dramatic illusion also maintain it as illusion. (Barlow & Krentz, 1992: 21)
Fantasies work only through identification and projection: readers project themselves into the fantasy world, with the goal of experiencing what the heroines experience and having the full emotional affect. Romances are about emotion and emotional affect. Literature (with a capital L), on the other hand, is not primarily concerned with evoking emotion or constructing an escapist experience. Literary works are generally accepted to be a mixture of artistic experimentation or expression, intellectual inquiry, observation of, and comment upon, the human condition, philosophical thought, and original personal vision. The stress on originality and personal vision is key. The conceit is that literary works are unique, whereas popular romance is a genre that works within established generic conventions and the creativity is in how one renders the fantasy and what one does with the conventions.
As Tess LeSue, I am happy to play within those generic conventions and to create a fantasy space and evoke emotional affect. But in my literary romance I want to stretch things a little further. I want to see if I can create the fantasy and the emotional affect while also creating a literary work, one that experiments with poetics, pursues an intellectual inquiry into the relationship between feminism and romance, reflects on the human condition in relation to love and romance, and expresses an artistic vision that is unique to me.
As a literary author my first challenge (and fear) has been how to write about something so hackneyed, so cliché-ridden, so cringe-worthy, so exposing as love? Part of my challenge is not to mock, or to be ironic, but to take love and romance seriously. Romance novels are earnest about love. There’s no hiding behind irony. Ann Barr Snitow argues that, ‘While most serious women novelists treat romance with irony and cynicism, most women do not’ and that unlike ‘serious women novelists’, commercial romance novels ‘eschew irony; they take love straight’ (1979: 160). This is a necessary part of creating emotional affect, but it also reveals the vulnerability behind our ironic fronts: love is important to us as humans, and loving relationships (in their myriad forms) are a goal for most people. Roach holds that culturally we have a faith in, and a ‘reverence’ for, love: ‘Love leads to compassion, mercy, understanding, and kindness: it tempers pride, harsh judgment, and the violent outbursts of a reflexive defensiveness; it grants the inner peace and self-confidence for the lover to be a stronger, wiser person’ (2010). Taking this sentiment as my starting point, I want to find a poetics that captures this ideal, without resorting to the well-worn tropes and codes of romance.
As a starting point for the literary novel I chose to write a love letter. Love letters are intimate but also a performance, crafted to seduce or to expose the vulnerability of dearly held feelings. They are a communion between lovers. The direct address is a formal feature that allows for a certain measure of bluntness, which is actually more elegant in the case of writing about love than trying to dramatise the same material in a scene or through dialogue or thought. The craftedness of the written letter allows for a level of lyricism and poetry, making an effective form with which to experiment with a poetics of love and romance. In the novel one of the lovers will have a chronic mental illness, so I used this as the pivot for the letter. I wanted the letter to feel brutally honest, but to be poetic, to introduce a series of metaphors and images that I have been circling: the way lovers become entangled; the mysticism of love, which can be couched in both religious and scientific/biological terms; ancient love myths; and the unattainability/unknowability of the love object. The resulting letter is language-dense and philosophical, thick with imagery, and is not sustainable for a long short story, let alone a novel. But it contains ideas I hope to pursue (the conceit that the myth of the red thread is akin to string theory, for example) and the tone manages to capture a sense of optimism in the face of harsh reality. The formality of the language belongs to another era, recalling earlier centuries when people conducted love affairs through letters and notes, and when writing was a love play and a formalised rite of seduction. But the language is alien to romance novels, which, although they can be purple in patches, tend towards directness.
Through the medium of some short stories and other pieces, I plan to experiment with the balance between this kind of language-play and romance’s staple directness, until I find a voice that can be sustained through an entire novel. I want to capture the poetry without the density; and the emotional affect without the coded language of romance; but most of all, I want to find a voice unique to me, an honest way to write about love in a meaningful, affective way.
Or at least this is what one of the heads of the Hydra will be doing; another will be busy writing the next historical romance; and a third will be researching feminism and popular romance. But this beast is no longer pulling in opposite directions; instead, it is using its multiple heads to its advantage, each one expanding the research.
Love of Mine
Today you are sad. Lost in the dark woods of yourself, you are a small and hurting being in wilds that stretch as far as the eye can see. Today the smallest things not done fill you with despair. You see cracks in the walls, dust on the shelves, dirt on the windows, unpaid bills, unwashed clothes; you see all that is undone and you are undone. You look at your flesh and it revolts you. You wish you had never been. When you get like this, there is nothing to do but to climb into bed beside you. I pass warmth from my skin to yours and wait it out with you, knowing that it is the most I can do. Sometimes, I rub your back. And sometimes I talk, following my thoughts as they swim to the surface. This is something you laugh at, when you are well, my urge to say everything I think. Today I am thinking about you. You lead me to love and fate, and to the flow of all things.
There is an old story about a red thread. In the story, before you were born the gods took care to tie a red thread around your ankle, a thread that leads to another knot, around another ankle, to a person who is your destiny. Connected by the red thread, you are lovers before you even meet, joined by this tenuous fibrous fate. According to the stories, the thread may get tangled, it may stretch, it may snag into unimaginable knots, but it can never be broken. You may be remote, removed, separated by time and distance and impossible circumstance, but nothing can sever that thread. Snug against your ankle (barely noticed, forgotten, or so tight it pinches the circulation) it vibrates, transmitting every twitch from one lover to another, even if they cannot touch. Wherever you are in your dark woods, there is a thread around your ankle, leading you back to me. While you have it, you can never be lost, because here I am, at the end of it.
But the red thread is not the only way home. According to other stories, you can never really be lost, and we can never really be separated. The story of String is a story of our smallest level of being, our micro-selves: at this level we are all immaculately tiny vibrating strings. Instead of a single red thread, there are many. Trembling strings connect us to everyone we have met or will ever meet. I feel the vibrations, all my strings shivering through time. You twitch and I feel it, across time and space. We are entangled.
This is our secret music, a shared sub-audible symphony, sometimes melodic, sometimes cacophonic. The disharmony is unsettling but far worse is silence. In the silence I get scared. I worry that you are lost to me forever. I look into your eyes and it’s like looking through a window into an empty room. There have been times when your ‘bad thoughts’ have settled in, like an ice age. I know that you might do something to stop them one day. Something permanent. I feel this would break me. But there is no breakage in the universe. That’s what I tell myself on the worst of days. There is only change. Nothing ends, all matter transforms. If you left me, you would still exist. I would still feel your vibrations. You would still be part of me. And I can’t control the length of time we have.
In the old stories, our threads passed through the fingers of the Fates, our single strands joining to make a pattern more complex, more magnificent than anything a single thread could manage. If the Universe is a tapestry (and why not?) and our lives are the threads, these are the three who determine the weft and weave, who spin our stuff and clip us when our part of the pattern is at an end: Clotho the Spinner, Lachesis the Allotter, and Atropos the Unturnable. Not even the Gods are exempt; we are all woven from the same stuff. Their threads might be brighter, more dominant, shot through a greater portion of the pattern, but they are twisted into the same febrile strands, and eventually even they are clipped, when their role is done and a new pattern emerges. Gods come and Gods go, but the tapestry continues, the weavers tireless. God and child, universe and proton; all remain, our pattern permanent in the tapestry. We are there, deeply ingrained, our existence so tightly woven with all the other threads that we cannot be teased apart without unraveling the whole.
In our time, the Age of Science, this ancient story of entanglement is reflected in the Universal Principle of Natural Order; we reach equilibrium by becoming entangled with the world around us; coffee cools as its particles entangle with the air, quantum uncertainty spreads as particles become increasingly entangled. We, my love, are entangled. And when I look at you, I see all the wonders of the universe.
You are quarks and leptons and force carriers; you are top, charm, strange and beauty. Your subatomic self is as vivid and active as the furthest flung, hottest, spiraling galaxy. Gluonic jets are sparking through you like comets; the gravitational pull of your force carriers – gluons, bosons, photons – are forming minute protonic planets; ordering you, structuring you, creating this hand, this face, this momentary flicker of thought that chases through you, causing this crushing black depression. None of it is fixed, none of it is certain; all is vibrating, shifting, in constant motion. You are a universe.
I see you and I rejoice.
And whether joined by a single red thread, or spun from the stuff of life, passing through Clotho’s eternal crabbed fingers; whether sub-atomically entangled, or vibrating with our secret sub-audible music: we are. You and I. And it is grand.
One day soon you will crawl out of the dark woods, where you are feeling small and alone and unsoothable, but for now you are out of reach. Except I am with you, tangled into the deepest fabric of your self. Me and all the universe: whales and matchsticks and violets and violins and sandhills and peridots and pomegranates and the smell of salt on the wind.
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