Reading Through The Eyes Of Others

Most of the books I’ve posted about here are non-fiction. They include histories, intellectual histories, semi-philosophical texts, and a few polemics. I read lots of other stuff too, often just to clear my head from abstractions and theories. I’ve read a lot of murder mysteries, sci-fi (not so much fantasy), serious novels (think Pynchon), old novels, thrillers (not so much lately, real life is scary enough), as well as science, historical fiction, religion, and more.

I never bothered with romance novels, though. I read a couple of Janet Evanovich novels I found in a beach rental: they were delightful reading in the hot sun. I read one or two Outlander novels by Diana Gabaldon I found in another rental, which were fun light reading. That’s about it. Several years ago my excellent daughter gave me a copy of Courtney Milan’s The Suffragette Scandal. I enjoyed it immensely. It’s an imagined history set in 1877 England, the sixth in a series called The Brothers Sinister. So I bought the series and became a Courtney Milan fan.

Milan writes both historical novels set in 19th C. England, and contemporary novels. She writes lots of interesting characters, including those of different ethnic backgrounds and gender identities. Some books have interesting plots, others are more focused on relationships.

Well, turns out Milan is actually Heidi Bond, a graduate of U. Mich. law school. She clerked for Alex Kozinsky who resigned in disgrace. Here’s one reason why. She went on to clerk for Sandra Day O’Connor. I learned all this because the Michigan Law Review asked her to do a book review. She chose one of my favorite novels, Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen. Her review is titled Pride And Predators, and it’s great.

I sent a link to the Bond/Milan review to Rayne, a real Janeite, and of course she’d already seen it. I explained that I’d read a bunch of romance novels, which I found more or less randomly, through Goodreads, best-sellers lists, and NetGalley, among other sources. I really didn’t like most of them. They rely on improbable plots, like billionaires marrying single moms who work at Denny’s; there are whole series based on single working women marrying billionaires. Characters have stomach flutters and goose pimples when they meet, and these continue until they get together for sex; it’s like the only thing on their minds is sex. The men are all buff hardbodies (google “hard-planed chest”); I didn’t see a single one that looked like someone you’d see on any beach. There is a lot of discussion of clothes.

The single most irritating thing is the paragraphs of discussion about what’s in the heads of characters, even in scenes based on dialog. The character says something, and the next paragraphs are discussions of that something. Then the other character says something, followed by more discussion. None of this advances the plot. Sometimes we get new information about the character, but most of it tells us nothing new. There’s a lot of repetition, as if we can’t remember what we read earlier. There is an excellent example of this in this post by writer and editor K. J. Charles. (H/T Kate).

It’s distracting and mildly unpleasant to me. I’m good with the omniscient narrator who occasionally explains what’s happening with characters. We see that in Pride And Prejudice, where the narrator becomes another character, in that case, one I’d like to know. But in the romance novels I read, it was a real problem. I found myself skipping ahead to the next line of dialog, ignoring the commentary.

As Charles says in the blog post, it’s just bad writing. So why are these novels so popular? Romance is the largest selling genre of books. They’re everywhere from drug stores to grocery stores to real bookstores, to airport stores, and of course the online book sellers. Amazon has a list of Romance best-sellers, about which I express no opinion. People are paying for them and they must offer something.

Rayne gave me some advice.

1. She suggested I read Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema by Laura Mulvey, which is one of the early articles addressing the male gaze. The idea is that movie-goers, men and women, watch movies through the psychological formations that they bring with them. Watching movies generates two kinds of pleasure:

The first, scopophilic, arises from pleasure in using another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight. The second, developed through narcissism and the constitution of the ego, come from identification with the image seen.

Because we live in a patriarchal society, looking is divided into two kinds: active/looking (male) and passive/looked-at (female). Movies privilege the male gaze. They seem to be designed to fulfill the scopohilic pleasure of the male on the screen and the male watcher in looking at others on the screen, especially women; and identification by the male spectator with the male on the screen who acts toward the more or less passive woman. The analysis is grounded in Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis.

Psychoanalytic theory is thus appropriated here as a political
weapon, demonstrating the way the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form.

It’s a fascinating essay. The idea of the male gaze is not dependent on psychoanalytic theory. It’s easy enough to deduce from a close watching of movies from years before 1975 when Mulvey wrote. Jane Fonda’s Barbarella springs to mind. A later example more focused on the pleasure of identification with the male lead, there’s Kiss Of The Dragon, starring Jet Li and Jane Fonda’s niece, Bridget Fonda.

The idea of the male gaze is easily transferred to books. I’d like to think The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi and The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt are neutral as respects gender and sexuality, because neither focuses on those matters. As respects the prose of these books, I doubt that even a careful reader would be able to assert with confidence that one was written by a man, the other by a woman. But as to choice of themes? I don’t know. Maybe Arendt is a special case of transcendent genius, and the comparison isn’t fair.

Anyway, it’s obvious that romance novels, especially the ones I don’t like, aggressively reject the male gaze. The writers don’t care what I think about literature, or how I approach their works. They aren’t trying to impress me and they don’t care if their sex scenes titillate me. That’s a really useful way to read these books. I should ask myself what it would feel like to enjoy them. What are the points that make them interesting to so many other people? What needs or desires do they fulfill? Is it voyeurism to read them?

2. As to my complaint about bad interior monologue, Rayne introduced me to the idea of free indirect speech.

Free indirect discourse can also be described as a “technique of presenting a character’s voice partly mediated by the voice of the author”, or, in the words of the French narrative theorist Gérard Genette, “the narrator takes on the speech of the character, or, if one prefers, the character speaks through the voice of the narrator, and the two instances then are merged”.

Rayne wrote:

I hear you about the use of free indirect speech in romance genre. Austen is one of the earliest to use it, and she may have done so in part because she didn’t have formal education afforded to young men of her time.

For the last hundred years writers have been encouraged (bordering on pressured) to “show, don’t tell” in fiction as well as narrative non-fiction. But many of the authors who exemplify this style of writing, from Chehkov (“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass”) and Hemingway (see his Iceberg Theory) to Chuck Palahniuk (who wanted to ban dialog tags referring to thinking). They’re nearly all men — I can’t think of a woman author who typifies this push. The emergence of modern marketing copy which sold sizzle, not the steak, also shaped this move away from indirect speech, and much of that emergent copy was written by “Mad Men.”

In other words, much of modern writing and the subsequent education which embraced it reflected “male gaze.” It’s what Carla Lonzi rejected in the late 1960s but didn’t yet have a concise theory to express her perspective. Laura Mulvey fleshed out her theory of “male gaze” in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”

What you read in romance written primarily by women authors may be an unconscious rejection of the male gaze. In some cases it’s a pointed rejection — the smut and clothes serve female gaze not served elsewhere, and the authors knowingly include it though they may call it “fan service” to do so. And the excess of free indirect speech is an embrace of what women experience, their tendency to overthink everything in a world which punishes them for failing to fit a model mold. There are a plethora of memes about women overthinking:

Women spend more time thinking about what men are thinking than men actually spend time thinking.

Perhaps women authors are ready to turn a corner, though, because they don’t need to overthink what’s finally given to them.

It’s taken since Mulvey’s essay for TV/film industry to fully embrace serving female gaze. STARZ’s Outlander series is one example as is Netflix’s Bridgerton, both of which are based on period fiction with the latter far more inclusive. So sorry, you may have to bear with more bare male ass and proportionally less heaving female bosoms in both.

Well. According to the Wikipedia entry on male gaze, there is some agreement with Rayne about Austen’s use of free indirect speech. That seems wrong to me; as I said, I see the form as the omniscient narrator, and frequently a delightful character. But we can disagree about that without disturbing the main points about gendered writing.


Here’s a good site with tons of reviews of romance novels of all types.

It’s Summer without Covid-19. Let’s enjoy all of it.

13 replies
  1. Rayne says:

    Thanks for posting this, Ed. A couple more links related to our discussion:

    Hemingway’s “iceberg theory”:

    Palahaniuk’s essay discouraging think/thought tags:

    I need to hunt down something better in the way of a profile on art critic and feminist Carla Lonzi. She’s a challenge because she came to believe art had become the domain of men and everything which arose from the world of art used definitions which originated from that same male domain. She fought against definition actively, making it difficult to explain her anarchic-separatist approach to creativity. I’m sympathetic to her because she was trying to frame her philosophy through language and culture which had erased women so much that comparative language was lacking as well as origin stories for art into prehistory where women may have been progenitors of art (ex. analysis of Chauvet cave paintings revealed 3/4 of the work was that of women

    • Ed Walker says:

      Your comment on Lonzi made me think of two paintings of Judith killing Holofernes. Compare Artemesia Gentileschi’s painting:,_Naples)#/media/File:Artemisia_Gentileschi_-_Judith_Beheading_Holofernes_-_WGA8563.jpg
      with this by Caravaggio:

      That dainty thing in the Caravaggio painting seems weak and nervous, using her tiny razor at arm’s length as if to distance herself from her own violence.

      I’ve seen the Gentileschi; it came through Chicago several years ago. It’s brutal. You can see the blood spurting as Judith hacks at Holofernes’ neck, putting her whole weight into the slashing. The assisting maid is up to the same level of violence. Both are fully invested in the action.

          • Rayne says:

            The portraitist Velazquez must have been very fond of de Pareja. Wish there was more known about de Pareja’s background. His portrait reminds me of some of my Asian-Pacific Islander family members of mixed race — one cousin in particular has hair which is like de Pareja’s, not curly nor frizzy, not straight like most AAPI. We believe that branch of the family has Portuguese ancestry because of the number of Portuguese sailors who traveled the Pacific. Portuguese-Middle Eastern or North African would make a lot of sense. I can understand your interest entirely.

              • Rayne says:

                But that hits upon one of the points in our discussion of gaze — who sees and creates from what they’ve seen, who is the object seen. He’s handsome but is he handsome because Velazquez found him so? Is he handsome because Velazquez created to an archetype of beauty, employing the Golden Ratio to enhance the object on which he gazed? Is he handsome because we’re conditioned to find him so, or our wetware is programmed to agree to his beauty? Was his attractiveness enhanced by the experience of being the focus of Velazquez’ attention, especially given de Pareja’s social status?

                Handsome is so more more than handsome does.

      • Ginevra diBenci says:

        Gentileschi draws the eye to Judith’s remarkably determined face, whereas Caravaggio forces you to focus on Holofernes’ anguish and suffering–at the point of the sword lies the point of the story. Gentileschi’s story is about a woman getting it done.

  2. John Paul Jones says:

    I think Palahaniuk is just plain wrong. The example he gives takes longer to make the point and is just harder to grok. It also has the weird effect of producing writing that has to be approached as a sort of screenplay, the character does this, then she does that, then she does the other. If we’re talking adverbial tags (“he said angrily” etc etc), he has a point: the dialogue itself should show some of the anger; using the adverb is kind of lazy. But wiping out all references to mental states deprives the reader of valuable information and reduces the narrative to a kind of action-soup; in that case, why write at all? Just make the movie.

    I think one of the major changes from Victorian to later writing is the shift from omniscient narrators to (not sure of the exact term here) third person major, that is, where the writer uses the grammatical third person but the focalization stays with one character at a time. I don’t have any good theories about how or why this happened, but you see it happening somewhat with the early modernists, and then by mid-century, many writers are using it. I think it is a preferred mode for many because it can give you the intimacy of first person without unduly restricting the writer in terms of doing other things with the narration.

    Super-interesting post, and responses thus far (self excepted). Thanks for posting. Oh, and Janice Radaway long ago wrote a very interesting book, Reading the Romance which is a structural analysis AND a sociological deep dive into the topic, including reader surveys and interviews. Many readers in the book said they valued romances because sitting down with one to read represented “time just for myself” apart from the fulfilling of mere duties to husbands and children.

    • Rayne says:

      Infuriating, isn’t he, that absolute smug confidence Palahaniuk has in his insistence that following his diktat will make one a better writer? There’s so much going on in a human mind that can’t be conveyed writing of the subject walking across the room and picking up an object or shutting a door. What actions weren’t chosen and why?

      Thanks for mentioning Radway’s text ( I need to order copy of it, can’t find mine and I’d like to re-read it while thinking about gaze. Some of what she spells out as part of romance genre conventions are in service of female gaze.

  3. John Lehman says:

    Did someone mention humorist, James Thurber?
    Not quite as dramatic and heavy as Old Testament illustrations from the Renaissance, (huge understatement), but he did have quite a take on mid-twentieth century American male/female relationships.

    Thurber credited his own sense of humor to his mother by the way,
    from Wikipedia;

    -“Thurber described his mother as a “born comedian” and “one of the finest comic talents I think I have ever known.” She was a practical joker and, on one occasion, pretended to be crippled and attended a faith healer revival, only to jump up and proclaim herself healed.”

  4. Tom says:

    The closest equivalent to romance novels with an appeal to male readers that I can think of would be Louis L’Amour’s western stories. His readers always know what to expect and are never disappointed. Detective novels might fit the bill as well, though their range is more varied.

    My youngest daughter went through a phase where she read a lot of romance novels set in 18th century England and the Regency Period. That was after she and her older sister first viewed the BBC version of “Pride and Prejudice” with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. Thumbing through my youngest’s paperback romances, I could see the stories had a lot of set decoration in terms of dukes and earls, quill pens and carriages, heaving bosoms and well-rounded bottoms, but otherwise the plots involved 21st century people posing in fancy dress costume pursuing and being pursued to satisfy their own and other characters’ lusty appetites.

    Speaking of “Pride and Prejudice”, this past winter I read Jo Baker’s 2013 novel, “Longbourn” which is “P&P” told from the viewpoint of the Bennets’ servants. For example: “Sarah carried a chamber pot down from the Bennets’ room … She went carefully, head turned aside. Just nightwater, thankfully; not the dreadful slopping thunk of solids.” I enjoyed the book very much and the story ends with a happy ending that doesn’t seem forced and which the characters well deserve.

    The closest I’ve ever come to reading a romance novel would probably be Kathleen Winsor’s 1944 book, “Forever Amber”. It was an entertaining story, though I thought it should probably have been subtitled “A Bobbysoxer at the Court of King Charles II” as that’s how the tone of the main character came across to me.

    I wouldn’t include Daphne du Maurier as a romance novelist but I’ve read and enjoyed her books with historical backgrounds and female protagonists such as “Frenchman’s Creek” and “The King’s General”, the latter of which features a heroine in a wheelchair. So far I haven’t got around to reading “Jamaica Inn”.

    And of course there’s “Rebecca”, for which I’ve thought of the plot-line for a prequel that centres around the grand costume ball that Rebecca and Maxim put on for the whole county as described retrospectively in the original novel. I imagine Maxim and Rebecca sitting in the library at Manderley one evening going over each other’s guest list. “Max,” says Rebecca. “Yes, darling, what is it?” replies Maxim. “There’s a name on your list I don’t recognize.” “And who might that be?” Maxim asks. “Bertram Wilberforce Wooster,” says Rebecca looking up with a frown. “Oh yes, Bertie!” says Maxim. “He’s an old friend of mine. We went to school together. You’ll love Bertie, he’s loads of fun.”

    The night of the masquerade ball arrives and the usual Wodehousian mayhem ensues with Jeeves locking Mrs. Danvers in the wine cellar and pinching Rebecca’s costume for Bertie to wear in order for him to escape detection by his dreaded Aunt Agatha, and Bertie making a grand staircase entrance dressed as Maxim’s 18th century ancestor, a very homely Lady Caroline de Winter. What ho! What ho!

  5. greengiant says:

    Thanks Ed especially for introducing Courtney Milan.
    Not literature. When my parents married my mother was “fired” by IBM because there were some/all jobs that married women “did not do”.

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