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Curtin University
Elizabeth Jolley Conference

Meaningful encounters – 40 years of feminists reading romance

By Lesley Ann Smith 21 March 2013 Research Students No Comments »

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The Elizabeth Jolley Lecture, the keynote address of the Elizabeth Jolley Conference, will be delivered by Professor Imelda Whelehan, Research Professor in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Tasmania.


In 1978, US feminist Lillian Robinson noted that she ‘encountered the male literary tradition against a background filled with trashy popular fiction by, for, and about women’.[1] At that time Robinson was virtually a lone defender of the political possibilities of analyzing the popular within feminist criticism; she understood that not only was romance writing an escape from the stultifying patriarchal logic of what constitutes literary fiction, but that it can also ‘tell us something about the materials women use to make their lives in our society’.[2]

Since the 1970s both feminism and romance fiction have become increasingly complex and diverse, and it is a brave person who will attempt a comprehensive definition of either.  Yet feminism’s relationship to romance fiction, as a female space, is assumed; and if fiction responds to the social and cultural shifts of its time, romance fiction takes feminism into account in numerous ways. This paper tracks key moments in the decades-long relationship of feminism to romance fiction. It explores the changing characteristics of feminist romance criticism and reflects on what challenges face the twenty-first century feminist critic. If Robinson is correct, and romance fiction can tell us about the materials women use to make their lives, can feminists use romance fiction to rejuvenate their analyses of the enduring, separate, public and private spaces of women’s lives?

[1] Robinson, Lillian S. (1978) Sex, Class and Culture, London: Methuen., p.202

[2] Robinson, Lillian S. (1978) Sex, Class and Culture, London: Methuen., p.205

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