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In defense of romance: Proving the stereotypes wrong

Hottest thing ever or hottest thing ever?: Old people banging. Jinjin Sun/YH

Hottest thing ever or hottest thing ever?: Old people banging. Jinjin Sun/YH

Hottest thing ever or hottest thing ever?: Old people banging. Jinjin Sun/YH

Hottest thing ever or hottest thing ever?: Old people banging. Jinjin Sun/YH

Katherine Orazem investigates why romance novels do not get the respect (and love) they deserve.

This Sunday, The New York Times reviewed 15 books, including two mysteries, a book of poems, and a biography of Little Richard. One feature discussed Tim Dorsey’s popular crime stories, another a graphic novel of the young-adult series Twilight; there was even a list of 11 recommended recently-released paperbacks. But nowhere in the book section did the paper of record cover a romance novel—except on the bestseller list.

There, 10 of the 20 most-purchased paperback books this week were romances, and if anything, that’s an off-week for the genre. According to the Romance Writers of America (RWA), romance fiction has the largest market share of any genre at 13.5 percent. Romance fiction sales in 2008 totaled 1.37 billion dollars, a sales figure down only five million dollars from the previous year (while overall book sales took a 539 million dive over the same period).

Here at Yale, this spring’s residential college seminar “Reading the Historical Romance,,” taught by romance authors and Yale alumni Andrea DaRif, SY ’73, and Lauren Willig, BR ’99, received over 70 applications for its 15 spots. By almost any quantitative measure, romance novels are by far the most popular books in America. They’re also written and read almost exclusively by women. Perhaps that’s why a cursory glance at the book section of most media outlets would hardly show that they exist.

Though their existence might be denied or overlooked, it would be difficult to ignore their powerful effect on the libido, male and female alike. A 2006 study by conducted by Huei-Hsia Wu at Boise State University found that college students who read romance novels reported a greater sex drive and required more orgasms to achieve sexual satisfaction than non-readers.

Why are romances met with such resounding silence by the mainstream press? According to Willig, who wrote her first novel, Pink Carnation, during her first-year at Harvard Law School, it’s simple: “Literary writers get pissed off because we sell more than they do.” But many critiques of the books go far beyond professional snubbing of a more-successful medium. After all, the most popular forms of other kinds of entertainment, like music and film, get plenty of coverage, even if that coverage is negative. The reviews for the latest platinum record or summer blockbuster may be scathing, but you’ll see them on the front page of every arts section. Only romance novels, despite their overwhelming popularity, are almost completely ignored—an exclusion that seems to deny them entry into the world of art at all.

Part of the reason for this cultural silent treatment may arise from a misunderstanding of what, exactly, constitutes a romance novel. Dr. Pamela Regis, author of the landmark 2003 study A Natural History of the Romance Novel, defines the genre as “prose fiction that tells the story of the courtship and betrothal of one or more protagonists.” The RWA uses an even broader definition of romance, including books that have “a central love story” and “an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending.” However, that doesn’t necessarily mean the genre is all sunshine and light; as professor DaRif put it, “Romance by its definition has a happy or satisfying ending. But that doesn’t mean that the books don’t dwell on the doubts, the conflicts and the darker sides of emotional relationships.” Her co-professor Willig added, “The happy ending becomes very different in different novels. Sometimes it’s sort of an equivocal happiness—not perfect, just the happiest possible ending for these two people. And that can be equally satisfying.”

The genre, thus defined, has a long and rather illustrious history. The modern romance novel is generally considered to begin with Kathleen Woodiwiss’ The Flame and the Flower, published in 1972. That book, about a London orphan girl and a ship’s captain, was the first single-title romance to be published as an original paperback.

The next decade saw the industry boom with the addition of category romances, or shorter books published in a series. The ’80s also brought racier storylines, including Silhouette Desire series, beginning in 1981, introduced some of the first category romances to feature actual sex.

But some put romance’s real roots much earlier. For example, Regis’ work on the literary history of romance has traced the precursors of the genre back to Samuel Richardson’s 1740 epistolary novel Pamela, as well as works by heavyweights like Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and E. M. Forster. Such proto-romances stretch back for centuries into the annals of great literature. “The love story with a happy ending is a very, very old type,” said Dr. Laura Vivanco, writer for romance-scholarship blog Teach Me Tonight.

Despite this history—and the fact that several books possibly classified as romance are already included in the traditional literary canon—from their earliest days romance novels have drawn criticism. Willig, whose own novels earned her a nomination for the Quill Award in 2006, noted the widespread tendency “to dismiss romance novels as very thin productions.” But much of this criticism lumps romances together without considering the nuances and varieties of the category. As Vivanco said, “It’s a huge genre and if someone picks up a romance at random, it’s not likely that they’ll find one of the very best.”

Similarly, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, bestselling author of Nobody’s Baby But Mine and member of the RWA Hall of Fame, said, “Wholesale criticism of any literary genre strikes me as idiotic. Some books are awful, some mediocre, and some great regardless of genre.” Even bad romance novels often have some merits that poor examples of traditional fiction lack; Phillips notes that romance is almost never plagued by “the dried-out prose and nihilistic attitude that dominates so much bad literary fiction.”

Romance novels may be more fast-paced and optimistic than traditional fiction, but are they equally deserving of being called art? To answer that question, Yale professors Willig and DaRif mentioned the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the world’s largest museum of decorative art and design. DaRif recalled an exhibit with an extremely ornate key, whose quotidian use did not diminish its value as an art object. Both women drew a connection between beautiful but useful objects and romance novels.

“I think romance novels are artisanal—they’re objects that are functional yet beautiful. To me, the best art evokes a visceral reaction as well as a detached one. If art requires special training to appreciate it, there’s probably something wrong with it,” Willig said.

“Art is a creative endeavor that elicits an emotion, so yes, romance novels are art. Art makes you think; it makes you react,” DaRif agreed. “That reaction can be disturbing and challenging, or it can be joyous and uplifting…something doesn’t have to be deep and dark to be real art.”

This conception of romance novels as real books deserving of serious analysis has become increasingly common in academic circles. Willig cites Regis’ Natural History as a turning point in the scholarly approach to the genre: “Before that book, romances were treated as cultural artifacts rather than literary texts.” Regis herself said she is “interested in understanding the literary history of this genre. Critics skipped this step when the modern criticism of the romance genre began in the ’80s.” This new school of romance scholarship wants to take the genre as seriously as any other branch of literature: Vivanvo, who is planning a close literary analysis of Harlequin Mills& Boon romances, said she “approach[es] romances in the same way that I’d approach any other work of fiction.”

These academics are not alone. Though clearly still in its infancy—Willig described how excited her students have been to work in a field still without “official pronouncements” on meaning and quality—the study of romance-as-literature is a burgeoning field. The International Association for the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR), founded in 2007, held its first conference last year in Brisbane and featured papers on Japanese romance manga, Chinese romance websites, and the novels of Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen. Some of those essays may be published when the IASPR releases its first journal this month.

However, attacks on romance novels do not only spring from literary critics concerned for the future of the novel as an art form; there are also the indignant accusations, often levied by women themselves, that romances are anti-feminist. This view of romance as enforcing oppressive attitudes can be traced to the beginning of feminist literary criticism in the ’60s. One of the first to articulate this argument was Germaine Greer, author of the bestselling feminist treatise The Female Eunuch. In that book, Greer claimed that women who read the genre were “cherishing the chains of their bondage.”

A similar contemporary condemnation of romance has been offered by Julie Bindel, co-founder of the British advocacy group Justice For Women. Writing for The Guardian in 2007, Bindel accused romance fiction of promoting “the sexual submission of women to men,” claiming that the books “are full of patriarchal propaganda.” Most of us are familiar with the stereotypical mode of romance-novel sexuality—boy meets girl, boy savages girl, girl likes it and asks for more. Even the books’ evocative nickname, “bodice-rippers,” seems to point to a certain amount of male sexual aggression and female acquiescence. Are romance novels, as Andrea Dworkin, feminist activist most noted for her opposition to pornography, wrote in 1995, just “rape embellished with meaningful looks”? Are the books, despite their popularity, bad for women?

Others disagree. “Romances have heroines with real jobs (more than secretaries!) and personal goals (separate from their boyfriends!) and they not only have sex, but they have orgasms! My feeling has long been that romance novels brought the sexual revolution to real American women,” as the Editorial Director for Penguin US, Claire Zion, BR ’81, who has worked in romance publishing for 30 years, put it.“Housewives in Ohio didn’t hear about feminist debates in Ivy League institutions…and they didn’t pay attention to what Betty Friedan was doing. But they read Silhouette Desires.”

Romance novels may also offer far more positive portrayals of women than is generally thought. “People who criticize romances for being misogynistic often haven’t really read them, or are referring to certain ‘Old Skool romances,’ an appellation used by the romance blog Smart Bitches Trashy Books for certain ’80s romances with what they call ‘Brutal Rapey Heroes’ from 30 years ago, which did have the stereotypical overbearing heroes and ingénue heroines. But even those romances had some really subversive messages,” Willig said.

Phillips, whose female protagonists include brilliant physicist Dr. Jane Darlington and former first lady Cornelia Case, says that for her, romances are “a fantasy of female empowerment.” The introduction to A Natural History of Romance makes a similar argument: Regis writes, “The genre is not about women’s bondage, as the literary critics would have it. The romance novel is, to the contrary, about women’s freedom. The genre is popular because it conveys the pain, uplift, and joy that freedom brings.”

Others rebut feminist critiques of romance novels by saying that such criticism is, at best, beside the point. Even if you believe that the books perpetuate harmful stereotypes, romance is hardly be the only genre to systematically denigrate women. “In many genres—horror or spy fiction, for example,” said Willig, “Women are treated horribly by men, whereas in romance novels at least the women are the heroines.” The pervasive nature of sexism in media means that to expect romance novels to be paragons of gender equality is to hold them to a much higher standard than any other form of popular entertainment.

Furthermore, despite the fact that this sort of indictment of the genre was first raised by feminist critics, there are ways in which the critique itself can be seen as sexist. After all, doesn’t the argument that romances inculcate women with “patriarchal propaganda” deny women the ability to judge the books for themselves?

Many of the first gothic romances were decried because men saw them as sensationalist women’s fluff. That reaction is one of the reasons Willig and DaRif chose Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen’s 1803 parody of gothic fiction, as the first book on their syllabus. The book is the author’s parody of “people’s concerns that such books would adversely affect impressionable young ladies,” DaRif said.

“Austen poked fun at the critics of the time, who were dismissive of popular novels, by basically saying, ‘You’re right, these books only deal with the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the liveliest expressions of wit and humor, and the polished nuances of language. Oh, how trite.’” Are the charges today hurled against romance really any different? Are those who criticize the sexism in romance novels simply treating modern female readers like Victorian ladies to be protected from corruptive influence?

According to Willig, romance, unlike other genres, is expected to “have some sort of social value or serve as a model for how readers should live—as if any book could really teach someone how to reorganize their life. After all, we trust people to read Stephen King without littering the world with bodies.” DaRif added, “But somehow it’s as if women can’t be trusted not to get fooled into thinking they’re fairytale princesses.”

Ultimately, the charge that romance teaches women outdated sexual models falls flat because women must be allowed to choose for themselves which models to follow. As Louise Allen, a historical romance novelist, put it in her response to Bindel’s critique, “Among the freedoms I insist upon as a woman is the right to my own fantasies.”

Those fantasies, of course, are not the only reason so many readers are drawn to romance novels. “Romance novels celebrate the redemptive power of love…practically all literature is a variation on those universal themes, but it’s endlessly fun to see that story unfold,” DaRif said. Phillips noted that what she now most enjoys in romance “is the sense of building community that you find in the very best of our genre, whether it’s male-female bonding, women’s friendships, or building the larger social unit.”

That sense of community can be particularly strong among secret lovers of the ever-popular genre. Bea Koch, BR ’12, who owns over 200 books of romance and historical fiction, related the following story: “I was on a plane, and a woman leaned over and whispered that she loved the Jean Plaidy novel I was reading…I was excited to find someone who understood my obsession—my family mainly mocks me—and we ended up talking the whole flight.”

That kind of boundary-spanning camaraderie among fans perhaps springs from the barrage of criticism romance is forced to endure. Still, the censure aimed at the genre seems only to have strengthened its defenders’ arguments and attracted ever more readers to the cause. There seems no reason to believe that that readership won’t continue to grow; as DaRif charmingly put it in describing her own love of romance, “Who doesn’t like women in ball gowns and men in knee breeches?” Who indeed?

  • http://catherinemann.com Catherine Mann

    Interesting article! I would also like to point out Harlequin’s More Than Words program that prints romance novellas featuring charities started by “ordinary women who’ve made extraordinary contributions to their communities.” One of the primary goals of this program is to “raise awareness about worthy cuases that are of concern to women.” Awesome!! Rock on, Harlequin!

    http://www.eharlequin.com/store.html?cid=536

  • http://joannerock.com Joanne Rock

    Well done, Ms. Orazem. Cheers to Yale, Willig and DaRif for offering students the opportunity to explore romance and provide a pathway for new scholarship on a thriving genre.

  • http://www.qvarnkonst.se Ms Berit Qvarnström

    I don´t know for sure about the US, but in Europe the crime novels seem to be the only really popular literary genre since several years. The publishers don´t hardly dare to print anything else, because nothing else sells well enough.

    But then the romance novels don´t seem to have been discovered yet by european publishing companies. Only people who can read those novels in the original language have the pleasure of enjoying these books. For instance, only one of S E Phillips´ high quality novels has been translated into Swedish. I will most certainly try to convince some of the swedish publicists to read this article and rethink the issue!

  • Maria

    Great article. My favorite quote from Susan Elizabeth Phillips has to be “Phillips notes that romance is almost never plagued by “the dried-out prose and nihilistic attitude that dominates so much bad literary fiction.”” I laughed out loud because as an English major I always wondered why “good” novels were so boring and horrible. How could any of those things be real life? No one I knew lived those lives of horrible desperation.

    Thank you, Ms. Orazem for a wonderful article. Long live happily ever afters — even when they are for just right now.

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  • Darynda Jones

    This is an amazing article!!! Thank you so much, Ms. Orazem, for bringing this issue to light. Romance outsells everything else to a ridiculous degree, but still it is the red-headed step child of fiction. It just amazes me. So much of the myth and mystery surrounding romance (for those who don’t actually read it) is that it is all about s-e-x. This couldn’t be further from the truth. It is about love and commitment, human nature and social realism. Very few subjects are taboo in romance which can lead readers to a light comedy or a dark edge-of-your-seat horror fest. With a little love thrown in.

    There’s simply nothing else like it.

  • http://www.susanblexrud.com Susan Blexrud

    I am thrilled to see the ART of writing romance fiction explored in higher education. While the students at Yale become exposed to the nuances of writing and appreciating romance, I’ve signed up to conduct a workshop this summer at the University of North Carolina’s Center for Creative Retirement on “Writing Romance Fiction.” You’re never to old to learn, or in this case, to pump up the romance in your life.

  • Sara Madison

    I have only two objections to romance novels: the bad-to-mediocre prose and the predictable plots.

    Those are hard to overcome.

    Otherwise, fabulous genre. Deconstruct at will.

  • Maura

    Great article! And I agree with Maria – why are so many of the so called ‘great literary works’ such downers? I’m not saying there’s not a place for those types of books, and I’ve enjoyed many of them, but why isn’t there also room for those books with happy endings? And I don’t appreciate being told that if I read a romance novel, I must not have realistic expectations in life. That’s ridiculous. I read Stephen King, too, but I really don’t think I’ll ever turn into a vampire someday, or believe that my deceased cat is going to come back to life if I bury him in a sacred Indian burial ground. Women aren’t given enough credit, especially by their staunchly feminist sisters. And frankly, that bothers me more than when men don’t give us enough credit.

  • http://jesi-oconnell.blogspot.com/ Jesi O’Connell

    Excellent article by someone who clearly cared to take a closer look without being blinded by stereotypes. This might open a few more eyes.

    But I find myself wondering, Sara Madison, about which romance novels you have read? As was clearly stated in the article, every genre (including, ahem, “literary” fiction) has its good, bad, and ugly. You seem to be focused on the ugly. There is, however, plenty of excellent prose and intriguing, brilliantly-planned plots in romance writing.

    I challenge you to dig deeper into the genre before casting sweeping judgments.

    sincerely, a reformed literary fiction writer

  • http://JanisReamsHudson.com Janis Reams Hudson

    Bravo, Ms Orazem, on your Romance Fiction article. Here’s another fact to refute the “these books are bad for women” idiocy: In a Romance novel, the woman always wins. Always. Romance is perhaps the most, if not The Most, feminist liturature being published.

    I burned my bras years ago, yet I am also the proud author of more than 40 Romance novels, am happily married, and yes, by golly, I can still think for myself. I just happen to enjoy good fiction. Go figure.

    I confess, I even enjoy a good Western now and then. I don’t think the less of them if the only one the hero kisses and walks off into the sunset with is his horse.

  • Dawn Kunda

    Fabulous article, Ms Orazem. It is amazing that romance novels sell so well, yet are not honored on the cover of popular magazines or news/talk shows as respectable art. Just imagine how much more of the literary market romance would own if they were displayed like movies or music as you mentioned.
    Seriously, isn’t the world run by power, money, and sex? Mix those three items, at varying degrees, and throw in a few subplots and you have romance novels.
    The majority of the time when power, money, or sex are highlighted in the news is when they have been abused or reach an epic level of noticeability. Then, people are (in)voluntarily interested and search out more of the “story.” Hmmm…Again, it sounds like one of the many romance novel genres. The good thing about the romance novel is there is always a happy ending to the story, no matter how difficult it is for the heroine and hero to get there.
    Thank you for your attention to an incredible genre.

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  • http://EvePaludan.com Eve Paludan

    Well said. Tweeting and FB-ing this link!

  • http://www.carolineclemmons.com Caroline Clemmons

    Bravo, Ms. Orazem! I have long believed those who denigrate the romance novel have not read one, at least not recently. Janis Reams Hudson is so right–the heroine always wins. Both the heroine and hero grow emotionally and expand their life views during the novel. They overcome obstacles to achieve their goal, which offers hope to those readers involved in dificult situations. Today’s romance heroine is no wimpy miss easily manipulated by a man. She demands and receives respect, good sex, and a fulfilling life.

    Thank you for your excellent article.

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  • Victoria

    I just wanted to say that Katherine you are an amazing writer and an inspiration. Ive read a couple of the things you wrote and some literature projects you have done and its so amazing. i think that if someone as pretty and creative as you can be also extremly smart and succesful then ha i have a chance to(: im just some highschool freshman but you have honestly inspired me so much, ive wrote down your graduation speech and i hope to be able to present an speech just as good and thoughful and perfect as yours. i bet youll come out with some pieces as original and mind capturing and brilliant as Ayn Rand. i dont know really what im trying to say. but i just cant wait to see how you change the world in the future because i know you will and id also like to let you know that your a big inspiration to me

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