Category Archives: Read and Exceed


Let’s start with a bit of history via Wikipedia:

On the day the hostages were seized, six American diplomats evaded capture and remained in hiding at the Swedish and Canadian embassies. In 1979, the Canadian Parliament held a secret session for the first time since World War II in order to pass special legislation allowing Canadian passports to be issued to some American citizens so that they could escape. In cooperation with the Central Intelligence Agency who used the cover story of a film project, the six American diplomats boarded a flight to ZürichSwitzerland, on January 28, 1980. Their escape and rescue from Iran by Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor has come to be known as the “Canadian Caper“.The subject of the six escapees and what went into the planning and execution was also covered in the 2012 film Argo, directed by Ben Affleck.

I liked two aspects of this movie—a lot! Continue reading


Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close — But Not Close Enough

In Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, we follow a young boy’s searchings. We see his father’s (Tom Hanks’) tutelage and inspiration, which sends his son, Oskar Schell (played by Thomas Horn), on many a journey through the boroughs of New York City.  Before he dies on 9/11 in one of the towers, Thomas Schell  introduces his son to the “reconnaissance” mission of discovering the missing sixth borough.  But his death, and the six answering machine messages that he leaves prior to the tower’s collapse, detours his son to search for the lock that matches a key found in a blue vase hidden at the top of his father’s closet. Was that convoluted enough?  Through the five boroughs, Oskar visits everyone whose last name is “Black”—the single word written on the envelope containing the mysterious key.  OK, it did get more convoluted. Continue reading

The Master

The Master, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams.  The two male leads dazzled me with their full-bodied performance. Whether it was Hoffman’s face, which combined humor and sinisterness (ala Jack Nicholson) or Phoenix’s posture and gait, of which he constantly struggled to gain control of, both deserve to win best actor awards, as they did at the Venice Film Festival.

This is a movie that you must watch more than once to speak intelligently about it.  I have seen it only once.

That leaves me with questions for my second viewing: Continue reading

A/Too Dangerous Method

Directed by David Cronenberg, A Dangerous Method attempts two agendas—to show us how the genesis of Sigmund Freud’s genius (psychotherapy) inspires and alienates Carl Jung and how Jung’s affair with a patient unravels his life. Starring Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley and Viggo Mortensen, the movie adequately portrays each agenda but fails to correlate them seamlessly. That seems to be my job here. Continue reading

Son of Man

Up until the last scene, Son of Man should be called Mother of All, for Mary becomes the self-actualized driving force for all in her community.  If there is any hope for her neighbors, it is because Mary develops her self-confidence enough to inspire their hope and influence change.  Jesus, on the other hand, walks through his scenes without much emotion and deliberation.  Contrasting Jesus’ flat characterization to Mary’s fully developed portrayal; I hope to show how the film comes very close to portraying female self-actualization.

Let’s quickly review what I have determined (from Abraham Maslow’s work) to be the three criteria for self-actualizing: 1) know and accept who you are; 2) resist unhealthy, forced acculturation; and 3) contribute to a better relationship/world. Continue reading

The Skin I Live In

First, I’d like to be on record as saying that Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In is a film worth seeing.  So see it and then continue reading.  Otherwise, be prepared for major spoiler alerts

Last night, we watched the film.  This morning, on our walk, my dear husband tried to explain to me Almodóvar’s ongoing cinematic interests.  Here’s what I recall from that conversation.

Him: Almodóvar is interested in gender-bending. Continue reading

Death of a Salesman: An Attempt at a Non-judgmental Look at One Man’s Failed Self-Actualization

I saw Philip Seymour Hoffman play Willy Loman for the 2012 penultimate performance at the Barrymore Theater.  That’s why I went. Just to see him play him—without much interest in the play.  But I left in love again with Miller’s play despite years of teaching it to unresponsive students.  I’d forgotten that watching  the play overwhelms its audience viewers.

Make no mistake though.  There’s more to the play than staging and performances. The script affords its readers great lines—and lessons—especially about the failure to self-actualize. Here are some gems that illumine Maslow’s 3 criteria for self-actualization.

1. Know yourself and accept who you are…

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The Taming of the Shrew: More than words could say…

If you read Katherine’s and Petruchio’s ping-pong banter about the sun and the moon, you’ll likely read her as puzzlingly submissive, given her spunky characterization at home.  But then when you see The Folger Theater’s production and witness how the director and actress interpret that scene, you begin to wonder.  It’s that age-old question: how do people with limited power subvert their oppressors?  More specifically, how do women self-actualize amidst patriarchal constraints?

For Kate, the answer is an uncomfortable one—through submission—or at least the illusion of submitting as the sun, moon, and eclipse repartee builds into the outlandishly “submissive” final speech about doing your duty to your husband. (See below.) Continue reading

The Ice Age

Drabble, Margaret. The Ice Age. Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1977.

In The Ice AgeMargaret Drabble switches to a male self-actalization story. When we first meet Anthony Keating, he seems relatively lucky compared to his acquaintances. After all, Keating has survived possible fraud charges and London bombings. Additionally, he is happily accompanied by his lover Alison in his newly acquired country home, despite his loss of fortune. Others around him are not so lucky. Len Winocbank is incarcerated for shading dealings, Kitty’s husband has been killed and Kitty has been maimed in a random London bombing, and Alison’s daughter Jane has been imprisoned in some hostile (toward Britain) country for causing a fatal accident. Anthony suffers for his friends and for himself. In Job-like fashion, he sees God as a tester of faith, who needn’t have bothered. Continue reading

Fifth Chinese Daughter, Part 2

Let’s continue our study of Fifth Chinese Daughter by considering how her work affects this female’s self-actualization. From early childhood through her post-college years, Jade works hard, saves fervently, and develops self-pride in her financial independence. More than cultivating a firm work ethic, Jade finds outlets for her creativity and establishes independent of the Chinese American restrictions for females. Continue reading

Thinking, Fast and Slow

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011

I heard about Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner in Economic Science for his work in psychology, on NPR a few weeks ago. It’s an easy book to follow—depth-wise—but a bit overwhelming—breath-wise. Meaning…I understood most of it but had to take many breaks to process what I understood. Consequently, I’m going to highlight some particularly interesting tidbits (or maybe the ones I understood the best) and encourage you to read the entire work. Continue reading

Ain’t Nothin’ Like the Real Thing: Reality vs. Romance in Margaret Drabble’s The Realms of Gold

Drabble, Margaret. The Realms of Gold. New York: Popular Library, 1975.

Margaret Drabble’s novel The Realms of Gold raises the most frustrating questions for my self-actualization study: Can we self-actualize while participating in a long-standing, physical, loving partnership. But is that the same as participating in a romance with all of its fantasy, flirtations, and frivolity? Think Carrie Bradshaw in Sex in the City. Or must we choose between falling in love and self-actualizing?

Let me briefly review what I consider to be the three characteristics of self-actualizers as gleaned from my reading of Abraham Maslow:

1. self-knowledge and self-acceptance;

2. rebellion against unhealthy acculturation; and

3. committing to something/one beyond one’s self.

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Fifth Chinese Daughter

Written in the third person, Fifth Chinese Daughter reveals the self-actualizations of both the younger Jade character and older Jade Snow Wong narrator. I’d like to consider how education—formal and informal—plays a big role in Jade’s self-actualizations, specifically her self-acceptance and resistance to forced acculturation.

Informally, at home, Jade’s early “education” is mostly painful, starting with the annual arrival of the rice barrel, which provides not only their main food staple, but also Father’s yearly switch supply. Capital punishment abounds in the Wong household. Bad enough. Worse, no explanations accompany the whippings. So little children are left to wonder what they did wrong. Understandably, Brother dreads the barrel’s arrival but, like his siblings, suffers without complaint. It seems that Father’s capital punishment guarantees filial piety. However, our older narrator ends the chapter “Learning to be a Chinese Housewife” with Jade as a little child, avoiding eating rice (twice a day) to forestall the next barrel’s arrival. Recounting such self-deprivation, Jade Snow Wong signifies on her father’s abuse and builds the case for Jade’s later detachment from her father’s iron will. (See Henry Louis Gates’ Jr.’s The Signifying Monkey.) Continue reading


From the onset, DeparturesWinner of the Best Foreign Film Oscar, directed by Yôjiro Takita and released in 2008, couples defeat—the protagonist loses his orchestra job—with humor—a live octopus, a botched video modeling attempt, and an embarrassing bath house encounter. Our protagonist, Daigo Kobayashi comes of age in many areas of his life: with his wife, profession, father, childhood neighbors, co-workers, fatherhood, and others’ deaths.

In four important ways, Takita’s film significantly departs from the coming-of-age cycle that Arnold Van Gennep describes: separation from home; transition (mentor, tasks and trials, failures, temptations, etc.); and acculturation back into an adult society. Continue reading

Jack Goes Boating

Jack Goes Boatingdirected by Phillip Seymour Hoffman and starring him, Amy Ryan, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and John Ortiz, is a charmingly disturbing movie, which investigates how to sustain a friendship between seriously flawed friends. Featuring platonic and non-traditional romantic relationships, the two friendships survive the chaos of secrets, disillusionment, and self-destruction.

Jack and Clyde are limo drivers with bigger dreams. Jack longs to work in public transportation and Clyde attends night school. Such are their hopes and strategies. What’s more important is that they don’t simply complain, they try so damn hard to improve how they see themselves. Without heroism but rather, plain grit, they endure closed doors, mockery, and personal limitations while Clyde’s marriage finally falls apart and Jack’s anti-romance slowly matures. Clyde teaches Jack to swim and connects him with a pastry chef who teaches Jack to cook. Jack follows Clyde’s and the chef’s directions in and out of the water, most importantly, learning to visualize success—one stroke and chop at a time. If you’ve ever learned to master a basic skill late in life, you’ll better understand his struggle to surmount shame and succeed. Continue reading

A Moveable Feast

Hemingway, Ernest. 1964. A Moveable Feast. New York: Charles Scrbner's Sons, 1967.

At the end of A Moveable FeastHemingway writes, “All things truly wicked start from an innocence. So you live day by day and enjoy what you have and do not worry. You lie and hate it and it destroys you and everyday is more dangerous, but you live day to day as in a war.” 208

He wars over his infidelity, his pained love of his wife, and his recollections of a Paris that will never be the same for him because he will never be so “very poor and very happy.”

From innocence comes wickedness. Do we know that when being innocent? Do we know that so little room lies between charm and connivance? Between childhood and adolescence? Between startle and terror?

So it’s not like Aristotle’s Golden Mean in The Nichomachean Ethic. It’s not that evil is excess, innocence is absence, and goodness is the mean. It’s not even that evil polarizes innocence. It’s that, Garden-of-Eden-wise, evil begins as innocence.

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At Mrs. Lippincote’s: Elizabeth Taylor begins her journey of female self-actualization.

Taylor, Elizabeth. 1945. At Mrs Lippincote’s. London: Virago Press, 1988.

Reed & Exceed has finished reading the twelve novels of Elizabeth Taylor, a 20th century British writer. R&E has decided to reread each through the lens of female self-actualization. That lens esteems another’s life vis-à-vis three of Abraham Maslow’s criteria: 1. self-reflection and self-acceptance; 2. resistance to forced and debilitating cultural assimilation; and 3. care for and cultivation of the world.

Let’s start at the very beginning…

A discussion of female self-actualization in Elizabeth Taylor’s first novel begins with a brief catalogue of the interesting female characters, leaving to last the protagonist and a discussion of her possible and potential self-actualization.

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Freedom: A Novel

Franzen, Jonathan. "Freedom: A Novel." New York: Picador, 2010.

I decided not to write about the story of Freedom: A Novel because I don’t think it’s nearly as good as The Corrections. But I didn’t want to waste reading those 500ish pages.  So I thought I’d do a “talking points” style, at least that’s what one professor called it at UNCG.  All I’m saying with this blog is that there’s more self-actualizing to be found past the plot (or despite it). Franzen, as always has a few keen insights–at least for me. (Bottom line, read The Corrections.) There are some good lines.

“Looking back now, the autobiographer sees her younger self as one of those miserable adolescents so angry at her parents that she needed to join a cult where she could be nicer and friendlier and more generous and subservient than she could bring herself to be at home anymore.” (53) So the kid joined the basketball team. What mother hasn’t wondered how someone outside the home clan remarks that her adolescent daughter is so “easy going” when the fam sees only Medea lurking about? Flashback to every parent-teacher conference I attended for my adolescent children. By the time I subjected myself to my third adolescent’s conferences, I was tempted to bring a photo: “No, I’m talking about this kid.” Franzen has clarified this issue for me. Continue reading

Love, Loss, and What I Wore

Love, Loss, and What I Wore by Ilene Beckerman is an unusual book.

Ilene coordinates her autobiography with her evolving wardrobe. She refashions “Where was I when…?” to “What was I wearing when…?” Beginning in the 1940s with her Brownie uniform, Ilene narrates her tales of love and loss to include education, dating, friendships, marriages, divorce, pregnancies, babies, social events, and shopping sprees. Perhaps, her affinity toward her outfits seems trivial. But no more so than recalling an amazing bistro dinner, a beautifully decorated hotel lobby, a breathtaking landscape, or a haunting movie as a means to recall our defining moments.

So I began to wonder, what’s the overarching theme by which I review my life. Food? I remember a stew in northern Spain, a paella in Barcelona, steak frittes in Paris, escargot in Lyon, crab cakes in San Francisco, ahi tuna in O’ahu and Schweinshaxe in Germany. But these are just food memories not life memories framed through eating. Back to Ilene.

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Margaret Drabble’s first novel, A Summer Bird-Cage

Drabble, Margaret.  A Summer Bird-Cage. New York: Popular Library, 1962.
The narrator of A Summer Bird-Cage wonders “what a girl can do with herself if over-educated and lacking a sense of vocation.” 6  Margaret Drabble’s 1962 novel affords its reader several answers:

A Cooking Metaphor for Self-Actualization

While reading Cooking for Geeks, I fixated on one of those startling but ever-so-obvious statements:  “When you see recipes calling for  ‘1 cup nuts, chopped,’ measure the nuts,then chop; likewise, if the recipe calls for ‘1 cup chopped nuts,’ chop the nuts and then measure out 1 cup.”  Here’s why I have been pondering that insight for a few days.

I live life by chopping nuts and cramming as many as possible into a 1 cup (day) vessel.  Is this better or worse—more or less self-actualizing —than living by scooping up 1 cup of nuts and chopping them later?  That is, am I going to parcel out the nuts or am I going to savor each nut scooped in which case, I don’t even need to chop them after they’re measured.  Stay with me here.
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Mary and Max

Adam Elliot, Director.  Mary and Max. 1900.

We are all imperfect, Max and Mary remind us.  Together, Mary and Max–he, with his obesity, loneliness, and Asperger’s syndrome, and she with her dysfunctional family, self-imposed seclusion, and facial birthmark—connect with, reject, and reconnect with each other as they both learn to love themselves and forgive each other’s imperfections.  Big questions concerning eschatology, love and sex, friendship, loyalty, and sanity pervade each of their lives.  Max battles violent and self-destructive reactions to everyday situations that confuse and torment him.  The movie suggests that for the most part, he is more logical, ethical, and common sensical than the “normal” people who infuriate him.  Mary battles self-isolating and self-deprecating reactions to her own everyday situations of abuse and bullying.  For the most part, she is the grown up amidst juvenile colleagues and immature parents.  The movie comically and painfully invites us to rethink normalcy.  As pen pals through the ages and stages of her coming of age, Max and Mary both become more uniquely who they always were and learn to let go of fixing their personalities and modifying their behavior.  As the film approaches it end, Max approaches the realization that he will never become a people-person; but he can, instead, cherish Mary as his one best friend.  Mary finally realizes that she will never become Earl Grey’s Cinderella; but she can, instead, become someone’s prized friend. They are both flawed—as are all humans—but not more flawed than all humans are.  Accepting their flaws and more importantly, responsibility for their flaws, they accept themselves and each other.  Watch the movie because it seriously approaches healthy individualism (a concept sorely lacking in the U.S.), hardship, misery, and hope.  Watch it because it’s very, very funny, as well.  Although the ending is bittersweet, it is endearing and realistic.  I hope that you enjoy this thoughtful take on self-actualizing without acculturating.

Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken

Hillenbrand, Laura.  Unbroken.   New York: Random House, 2010.

Nb: Although this is a male biography, it’s a self-actualization story for anyone.

Although most of the book is violent and disturbing, I continued to read to the end–500 pages—in order to learn how Louis Zamperini could emotionally and physically survive combat, prisoner of war camps, and a clueless post-war society.  I want to know if his endurance would ever fail him.  And when it finally (and I mean, finally) did fail him—when he was no good to himself and his families—I read to discover how he found ultimate comfort.  I won’t say what that is, but I will say that it wasn’t the answer I was reading for.

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Kathryn Stockett’s The Help

Stockett, Kathryn.  The Help.  New York: Amy Einhorn Books, 2009.

The Help  affords us a plethora of hospitality lessons—mostly proscriptions, mostly obvious ones:  Treat the caretaker of your elderly and children with respect.  Treat the person who maintains the order of your house with respect. And the most obvious—don’t piss off the person cooking your food.

I’d like to examine a less obvious one: Treat the person telling you her story with respect.

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Hamlet’s Blackberry and Self-Actualization

For Christmas, my step-daughter gave me Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building Life in the Digital Age.  She explained:  “You like Hamlet, and you like technological.”  If only her choice were that simple.  I’m afraid that whether or not she knew it, I am in desperate need of William Powers’ cautions and advice–to such a degree that  my New Year’s resolution will be what I’m calling, “Gridless Sundays.”  Although I’m allowing myself television, word processing, movies, music, and phone (I’m not a barbarian, after all), I’m taking myself off the Internet grid.  No browsing on Sundays.

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Laura Hillenbrand

The other day, my son-in-law Ned was drinking his morning coffee and reading The Washington Post soon to discover that he and my daughter had lived in the house where Seabiscuit was written, which is next door to its author’s house. Let me explain. Laura Hillenbrand rented a small house in DC where she wrote the novel. Thereafter, she and her husband bought the house next door. Soon thereafter, my daughter and her husband moved into the rental.

Before I continue, I invite you to read Laura Hillenbrand’s story in The New Yorker:
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No Philosopher’s Stone in The Alchemist (by Paulo Coelho)

Coelho, Paulo. Trans. Alan R. Clarke. The Alchemist. New York: HarperOne. 1998.

With stories like The Alchemist, it’s no wonder that so few of us self-actualize. Here’s the plot:
Spain. A young man who has rejected the seminary life and now herds his sheep seeks advice from a gypsy who foretells that he will find a treasure close to the Pyramids. Promising her a portion of the treasure, the boy ponders his next move when a King appears, telling him a story about focusing on the present while still taking care of his business. That story spurs the boy on his way. He sells his sheep and journeys to Tangiers where he helps a crystal shop owner become rich. From there, our young man journeys across Africa where he encourages an alchemist, falls in love with a dessert woman, encounters the oasis wars, converses with the dessert, turns himself into the wind, arrives at the Pyramids, and returns home to discover his treasure buried by his familiar village church. There’s no place like home.
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Elizabeth Taylor, A Wreath of Roses

Taylor, Elizabeth. Introduction by Candia McWilliam. 1949. A Wreath of Roses. London: Virago Press, 1994.
Like most of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, A Wreath of Roses, deals with male-female relationships and loneliness. After a second reading, HM wonders how, according to the novel, can we distinguish between healthy and unhealthy relationships—those that help us escape our loneliness, those that help us alleviate our loneliness, and those that intensify our loneliness.

Taylor’s fourth novel provides us with three female characters who experience both healthy and unhealthy relationships.
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Taylor, Elizabeth. A View of the Harbour. London: Virago, 1945

Like Elizabeth Taylor’s first two novels (discussed in earlier blogs), A View of the Harbour, proscribes romance.  However, this novel also focuses on romance’s promise of “happily ever after” with a biting examination of marriage. Both male and female characters illustrate the pitfalls of young and old romance going and already gone awry. Thankfully, her third novel also offers a prescription.

But first, one proscription: beware the womanizer pretending to be Prince Charming.

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Elizabeth Taylor’s Palladian: proscription without prescription

Taylor, Elizabeth. 1946.Palladian. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.

Spoiler alert. This discussion reveals plot details from the end of the novel.

Self-actualization thoughts after my 2nd read…

Is Elizabeth Taylor’s second novel,Palladian, a self-actualization novel? Unfortunately, no. Let me lay out how it comes close and why it fails.
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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo…a self-actualization failure

When I finish reading a highly recommended bestseller, I usually feel like the singer of Roy Orbison’s “You’re the Only One”: I don’t often understand the book’s appeal. Hence, I usually avoid bestsellers, claiming that I’m engaged in some project. And I should have done just that with all of the praise I heard about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I withstood the temptation to see what all the fuss was about until someone (a well-respected educator) absolutely raved that the novel portrays one of the most interesting and unique female protagonists that she’d ever read. I was hooked. I ordered it and began to devour it as soon as it arrived.

590 pages later…
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Elizabeth Taylor begins her female self-actualization journey

R&E has finished reading the twelve novels of Elizabeth Taylor, a 20th century British writer. R&E has decided to reread each through the lens of female self-actualization. That lens esteems another’s life vis-à-vis three of Abraham Maslow’s criteria: 1. self-reflection and self-acceptance; 2. resistance to forced and debilitating cultural assimilation; and 3. care for and cultivation of the world.

Let’s start at the very beginning…
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Sexual orientation vs. sexual awakening

More than a personal essay, this blog’s entry serves as a confession.

I recently viewed a play that eventually disturbed me. Let me start with the play…Set in Paris, this story  retrospectively narrates and dramatizes the sexual orientation of a 15-year old boy who becomes his teacher’s lover and her neighbor’s conversation partner for a weekend.
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Where did female stories go wrong?

I just watched Avatar 3D. Once again, the male master narrative rears its ugly head. Although there were moments when I thought that James Cameron might take us toward peace or eco-responsibility, he didn’t. I bring this up because we can trace the failings of most American mainstream female coming-of-age stories to the likes ofAvatar 3D, that is, to the Bildungsroman. That said, it behooves us to reclaim a bit of literary history so that Read and Exceed can demonstrate what went wrong—not only with female master narratives, but also, with male master narratives.

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Beyond the Romance: The Need for Better Female Stories

We need to tell females better stories than the romance. For what is a romance but a narrative trap to ensnare females by deception into dependence. Instead, we need to take charge and discover, tell, and promote  stories that depict female self-actualization (much more about this later). We simply cannot rely on publishing companies, movie producers, and made-for-TV movies to turn the tide and eschew the romance. For what sells is romance. Hollywood producers know that. The Lifetime channel executives know that. Pop culture song writers know that. Mass-market advertisers know that. And, certainly, major book publishers know that. In short, romance sells—itself and products. Romance, in a capitalist world, has become a lucrative commodity–well beyond its origins as the alternative to the bildungsroman.
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