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?