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nine Reader Responses to the Modern Orientalist Romance Novel Quite honestly, when I read these stories I don’t think about 911, nor religion, nor where they take place, I think about falling in love, about romance and hopefully all of this craziness going on in the world will someday resolve itself and there will be peace! I pray this happens for all because in my heart it’s all about LOVE. Marilyn sHoeMaKer, blog A t the start of this book, I raised the question of why so many readers in the early twentieth century found it romantic to readaboutawhitewomanbeingrapedintoloveandsubmission by an apparently Arab sheik. In this chapter, I consider why, in the wake of the Islamist terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, and in Britain on July 7, 2005, readers still want to escape into fantasies of white women falling in love with Arab men. What is the appeal of the sheik romance novel for contemporary readers? What are they looking for, and how do they respond to different novelists and to the issues raised in this subgenre? reader reviews, blogs, and online discussions about the sheik romance novel, carried out on specialist romance websites, provide us with some answers to these questions. There are several cached websites that contain discussions about the appeal (or lack thereof) of sheik romance novels.One of the most popular romance readers’ websites, “Smart BitchesTrashy Books,” held a forum on the sheik(h) romance in May 2007, and asked readers to explain the fascination of these novels (URL provided in bibliography). The forum is not particularly helpful in revealing the attractions of the subgenre, for most participants—themselves avid romance readers—profess in their com- « 280 » Desert Passions ments an intense, visceral dislike of the sheik novel. The most frequently voiced objection is made on the grounds of writers’ and readers’ ignorance about the Middle East, which participants argue leads to a “butchering of the culture” and the perpetuation of Orientalist stereotypes. Both Muslim and non-Muslim readers who participated in the forum raised these concerns.They, by contrast, “know too much” or are too “[well-]informed on current events and ME culture” to buy into the sheik fantasy. A range of statistics and facts, and a reference to a Human Rights Watch article on women in Baghdad, are offered up as evidence supporting their views. Men from such a culture could not possibly be “romantic.” Interestingly, non-Middle Eastern contributors’ objections to other readers’ and writers’ willful ignorance and misunderstanding of “the culture ” also tend to perpetuate Orientalist ideas of the oppressed Muslim woman. The Malaysian-born moderator of this discussion thread, Candy Tan, was quick to draw attention to the stereotypes and generalizations perpetuated by those who claimed to “know too much” about a huge region encompassing disparate peoples, languages, and cultures. Tan also pointed to parallels between the oppression of women in Middle Eastern countries, and in the United States, where domestic abuse and illegal trafficking of women and children still occur. The “Smart Bitches” discussion of Orientalism, American assumptions, Middle Eastern culture, and the problems of the sheik subgenre is one of the most insightful that I have read, and it provides a very clear picture of the different ways readers consume the romance genre, as well as showcasing their own critical voices. It does not, however, offer much clarity on why certain readers enjoy the sheik romance so much, because the few fans of the subgenre who participated in the forum merely stated their dislike for it without explaining its appeal. Two subsequent online discussions led by sheik romance writers were more promising in this regard. In November 2008, sheik romance novelist Annie West convened a discussion on the “Down Under Desirabelles” website on “The Lure of the Sheik Hero,” and a year later, in December 2009, fellow sheik novelist Liz Fielding ran a forum for the Harlequin website on “The Appeal of the Sheikh” (URLs provided in bibliography ). These discussions were more illuminating, for the participants were mainly fans of the genre, although some confessed to reading sheik romances out of author loyalty: West or Fielding were “must buy” romance authors for them, whatever the type of romance story written. The most common reason participants gave for liking the sheik romance was that the subgenre usually features an alpha male hero who is, in Fielding’s reader responses « 281 » words: “a man totally in control of his world, at one...


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