It may not come as a surprise that her romance novels are imbued with a strong sense of social justice. But Abrams is hardly the only writer — or reader — to identify a radical undercurrent in this frequently derided genre. Although it has an understandable reputation for affirming patriarchal norms, romance fiction has long enabled women to rethink the world in their own terms, imagining communities dedicated to their own happiness. Romance novels are often places where women can realize their sexual desires and envision more utopian ways of being.
Abrams, accordingly, links the work of social justice to the experience of falling in love. The plots of her books frequently echo the key pillars of her campaign platform — especially health care, criminal justice reform, child care and the environment. In “Secrets and Lies,” a professional thief and an ethnobotanist thwart big pharma by returning a valuable drug to indigenous peoples in South America. “Reckless” finds a defense lawyer and a sheriff teaming up to exonerate the black owner of an orphanage from a false accusation of murder. And in “Deception,” an FBI agent and a professional poker player prevent a nature preserve from being converted into biofuels.
These aren’t exactly the sort of plotlines the genre is known for. Feminist critics like Germaine Greer, Ann Douglas and Lauren Berlant have derided romances for their bad politics, not just for their often-mediocre writing and supposed reliance on turgid formulas. That’s not entirely unwarranted: “Bodice rippers” from the 1970s, for example, almost inevitably featured eroticized rape scenes.
But then things began to change (though not everyone agreed that it was for the better). After 1980, a new set of college-educated and avowedly feminist editors, writers and readers recast the genre in a more progressive mold. These new romances typically depicted consensual sex, often featured career women and rarely revolved around the loss of the heroine’s virginity. Despite that, critics like Tania Modleski allege that these novels still hold that a woman’s fulfillment comes in her choice of a man; even romance’s staunchest defenders — such as scholar Cailey Hall or bloggers Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan — acknowledge that the books most often depict monogamous sexual relationships between white, heterosexual couples as the normative, universal manifestation of love. These debates were reignited with the release of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which Katie Roiphe interpreted as testifying to a woman’s “fantasy of being dominated or overcome by a man.”
In the early 1980s, still the heyday of the bodice ripper, literary critic Janice Radway set out to prove the haters wrong. In her classic 1984 study, “Reading the Romance,” for which she interviewed fans of the genre, she concluded that the novels’ plots often allowed women to work through feelings of oppression and unhappiness. But these books also offered an alternative to their plight, holding out “the promise of utopian bliss.”
Literary critics today continue to demonstrate that Abrams’s novels are not at all anomalous; romances, new and old, are often politically subversive. Pamela Regis posits that romances are the stories of heroines overcoming obstacles and that women read them “because they are in love with freedom.” Writing recently in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Cat Sebastian argues that romance’s insistence “on joy and love . . . is nothing less than radical,” while Hall writes that romance exhibits a commitment to “female happiness and fulfillment still lacking in most canonical works of literature.” And while romance is still overwhelmingly white and heterosexual, with only 6.2 percent of the genre’s novels in 2017 penned by writers of color, recent authors like Abrams represent an important contribution to making the genre more diverse.
We can see romance’s vision of female solidarity particularly well in Abrams’s novel “Never Tell,” which ostensibly details the pursuit of a deranged serial killer with a penchant for word games. But “Never Tell” is also the story of the protagonist, Erin, a woman of color recovering from physical and emotional abuse at the hands of a professor who exploited her naivete. In one scene, Erin and her love interest encounter Lindy, a woman with “ugly bruises [that] marred café au lait skin.” Explaining that her husband beat her after she got a job, Lindy insists, “I don’t deserve no better.” Erin responds: “No one owns you. You are nobody’s property.” This encounter echoes an earlier one in which Erin imagines herself as her abuser’s property — his “thoughts were hers; his desires all that mattered.” Abrams portrays both women of color, victims of domestic violence, as sharing a struggle and supporting one another.
By showing how Erin’s experiences extend beyond her own life, Abrams invites the reader to participate in an imagined community dedicated to self-ownership and mutual support. “We have to see the good that others see in us,” Erin tells Lindy. Abrams wants this for her readers as much as for her characters. Her fiction, which aims to make her readers identify with characters experiencing their self-worth, potentially empowers women, while also encouraging them to see the good in one another.
If Abrams’s stories of flushing faces and soft whispers initially seem dreamy-eyed and disconnected from her politics, this is largely because we treat women’s fiction as if it weren’t serious literature. Abrams doesn’t see it this way. “I revel,” she says, “in having been . . . part of a genre that is read by millions and millions of women.” She acknowledges that her political candidacy, too, is propelled by “the African American women’s community.” And yes, her novels, like most romances, end with a woman finding her man. But their representation of female solidarity still echoes the ethos of her unprecedented campaign.
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