Friday, August 12, 2005

Sheikh-Lit Chick-Lit

A couple of the writers at the excellent MENA group blog 'Aqoul have posted reviews of absurd contemporary romance novels that feature very blond women and MidEastern men. In the 'Aqoul site's maiden posting, Eerie reviews Helen Fielding's 2005 spy-themed romance novel, Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination. In a more recent post, SecretDubai reviews, tongue firmly wedged in cheek, Lynne Graham's "seminal treatise on East-West relations, The Arabian Mistress," as an allegory of sexual-power relations personified between blondes and Berbers. Not on the 'Aqoul site, co-blogger Waterboy (Yin shui si yuan) reviews Lucy Gordon's The Sheikh's Reward and excerpts a bit of Romantic-Tension dialogue.

All mockery aside, I suspect that there is a statistically significant boom in such novels--one Susan Mallery began writing romance novels with "sheik" in the title in November 2001 and is up to eight in her series by now--but I can't really make the longitudinal argument I'd like to without more serious Library of Congress diving. And for that kind of research, I'll have to have an academic article in view. My hypothesis so far is that since romance novelists and readers are constantly in search of new diabolical male stereotypes, the recent media coverage of Arab masculinity has sparked an uptick in Arab-male leading roles in romance novels. And since the romance-novel writing business is so fast, I'll bet one could find one hell of a statistical correlation, if one knew how to look.

Since, at present, I don't entirely know how to look, I'll simply give a review of the Ur-Romance of Hot Arab on White action: The Sheik, a novel that, alarmingly enough, continues to influence the sexual fantasies of women everywhere. Click through for a plot-summary and some links.

[Update: Eerie, writing at 'Aqoul, has compiled some actual data from the hilarious Sheikhs-and-Desert-Love website--and she has even organized it into a chart! which shows a significant uptick of Desert Love novels around 2002...)

I'm not entirely sure how I first became aware of E.M. Hull's 1919 romance novel The Sheik. It certainly wasn't by way of the black and white Rudolph Valentino film, which remains that actor's most famous role. I've never seen that movie, although I'd like to. No, I think I caught references here and there in my more embarrassing pleasure reading: a number of the romance-y writers I read credited The Sheik and the 1820s underground classic The Lustful Turk as being the books that had seduced their young selves out of serious literature and into romance.

The novel was recently re-issued by the University of Pennsylvania imprint, Pine Street Books, which meant that when my roommate and I put in a mass-order to an academic press outfit, I was able to obtain this bodice-ripper with a discount and an excuse. Before I get into all the reasons that one should feel weird about this book, let me just say that I'm glad it's been re-issued and that the UPenn imprint was right to take this project on.

Why? Because the book establishes a standard in the romance-narrative that idealizes rape and because its denigration of its heroine goes so far beyond what we're used to seeing from our romance narratives that it reminds us to be shocked.

The heroine, Diana Mayo, is an exaggeratedly desexualized New Woman: raised by an hard, dandiacal brother, she spent her life travelling, denying softness, and laughing at her admirers. In the first third of the novel, she and her figure are repeatedly called "boyish." The lover who is to "break" this woman must be dominant indeed.

In order to justify the horse-taming analogy, the man in question is a master of horses--Arabian stallions, to be exact, for the man is an outrageously idealized Arab chieftan, one Ahmed Ben Hassan, whose tribe follows him with unquestioning loyalty and whose horses are renowned worldwide for their speed and ferocity. Such a man, with his outsized (and then, more lamely psychologized) hatred of the English, could force Miss Mayo into behaving as a civilized creature.

The plot is very standard romance genre--but remember, before the genre as such existed. Diana Mayo undertakes all whimsily a trek across the Algerian desert,* against the opposition of her brother and friends. She is kidnapped by a savage, exotic, but very manly man, who then rapes her. She is held Captive for a long time, in a culture that is Foreign to her. She begins to Understand the culture, with the assistance of secondary, intermediary characters: there is Nobility here, and, maybe, Humanity. She begins to want her rapist to Love her for herself. There are signs that the rapist might indeed be beginning to love her for herself. A person more like her arrives; while she does not love this more similar person, the more exotic person fears she might. A Misunderstanding arises: the exotic person evinces Jealousy, the similar person explains the relevant Psychological Background. Fortunately, An External Threat makes much clear: he is better than his tribal Others, and she cares enough for him to Nurse him of his wounds. A handy suicide attempt on her part, and she gets to stay in the Desert forever, huzzah!

Your average romance novel today wouldn't dare to present such an obvious Stockholm Syndrome case. Sure, bestselling author Jayne Ann Krentz put her name on a blurb for the new edition: "This was the first real romance I ever read and it changed my life." But Krentz's heroines do not get kidnapped, raped repeatedly, terrorized, and then attempt suicide to gain their men. Not overtly, that is; the romance-genre's harder edges are usually filed off to gain the largest possible audience.

However, while trying to research novels of this type on the net, I found that readers at this site were particularly appreciative of The Sheik, criticizing it only as not depicting a truly "taken in hand" marital relationship. Poke around: it's unnerving.

Daniel Pipes review of The Sheik. The take-away quote from the review:
Well written and fun to read eight decades on for its exoticism and over-the-top romance, The Sheik both reflects and perpetuates the absurd clichés of its age about Arabs.
Pipes also pronounces himself perplexed that a UP republished the book and gives a link to a free online version.

Statistically improbable phrases, according to Amazon: "heavy scowl," "headlong gallop," "robber chief."

*Strangely, the Library of Congress classifies this novel as 1. British-Egypt-Fiction, 2. Kidnapping-Fiction, and 3. Egypt-Fiction, although the place-names firmly locate the action in Algeria.


Anonymous Anonymous:

Hah, I've been waiting for this entry!

8/12/2005 09:10:00 PM  
Blogger secretdubai:

I wish they would come here, and actually see some real sheikhs for themselves.

The nastiest element in those books is the amount of sheikhs who "aren't really 100% ay-rab" - either they are adopted, or half-European, or the family is of some (implausibly) different heritage, or they have every drop of desert educated out of themselves in the good ol' US of Westerndom.

They're books for women that like the idea of a sheikh, just so long as he's not an arab. Which is utterly perverse.

8/13/2005 07:36:00 AM  
Blogger Marilee Scott:

Secret Dubai, I totally agree with you about the perversity of the genetic romance; it's like the books are flirting with something oh-so dangerous (oh no! he's ay-rab!) but then since the kidnapper/rapist isn't really ay-rab, well, okay then: he's safe.

Actually, a fair number of exotic romance novels work that way. Even in Jane Eyre, one of the prototypical romance novels, the gentleman has to lose his house and his eyesight before the governess is allowed to marry him. There's often some degree of unmasking or emasculating involved at the resolution.

(BTW, I nearly titled this entry "Hot Arab-On-White Action," but figured it might lure unwelcome visitors....)

8/13/2005 04:33:00 PM  
Blogger hilzoy:

Oh, so it's sort of like those novels in which love crosses class boundaries, or seems to until it is revealed that the apparent pauper is the long-lost daughter of a Duke. I see.

This sort of thing is so weird.

8/14/2005 01:54:00 PM  
Blogger Marilee Scott:

Thoroughly shamed by Eerie's research skillz, I tried to force some meaning from the LOC site. I am not impressed. Either I'm wrong about the LOC's comprehensiveness, or their search engines suck. Eerie's graph and the fans' compulsiveness win.

(One of Kevin Drum's commentors points out that without a total number of romance-novels published, statistics about a subgenre are unmoored, to which I can only say: Do the research yourself, and tell us what you find!)

What I have discovered so far in the LOC site is that a couple of the most recent Sheikh-themed pulp romances are accessible only from the Rare Books/Special Reserves room. See, for example, the results on a search for the Sheikh-themed bestseller Susan Mallery, none of whose listed titles were published before 2001. Weird, that.

8/15/2005 10:04:00 PM  
Blogger Marilee Scott:

In case it's not obvious, readers of this article should know, just for the record, that ich bin keine Mitarbeiterin der renommierten Middle East News Agency.

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12/16/2005 05:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous:

WOW I am so far behind you, Marilee! I only started my sheik lit book club last week! Very interesting piece. Even if I have arrived here 6 years late.

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