The Consolation of Genre: On Reading Romance Novels
By Cailey HallAugust 27, 2018
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ALL ROMANCE READERS will, at some point, be forced to defend their favorite genre. It’s inevitable, as anything too fun or too pleasurable always requires an explanation. I’ll start with mine: I was in the fifth year of my English PhD, and I had just turned in my dissertation prospectus to my committee. I wanted a break from work, but graduate student guilt required something that still felt vaguely productive. Since my field is British Romanticism, I decided to “investigate” whether Regency-set romance novels accurately represent the Regency period, and, on the recommendation of friends, I began reading Loretta Chase’s now-classic Lord of Scoundrels (1995). Although I started reading romances because they were, in some sense, a part of my academic work, I couldn’t fool myself for long. Immediately, I was hooked, and my reading went way beyond my initial academic interests. In the few years since that first taste, I have consumed at least 200 romance novels — a tally that still leaves me a relative novice compared to many veteran romance readers. I start here because it feels almost inevitable that what follows will be at least part apologia, but this is the last of my defenses. Instead, I want to spend some time thinking about what counts as a romance novel, and why the genre — in all its permutations — matters.
Histories of the modern romance novel often begin in 1972 with Kathleen Woodiwiss’s best-selling The Flame and the Flower, which cemented the genre’s association with the “bodice-ripper” and the attendant representations of consent, which range from dubious to nonexistent. While I don’t want to discount the joys of a consensually ripped bodice, I would argue that the romance novel has a far longer and more complicated history. The Romance Writers of America (RWA), a nonprofit association, offers the expansive yet accurate definition that “two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.” Even if you’ve never experienced the romance rite of passage — sneaking racy novels from an older, female family member’s bookshelf — you have almost certainly read a book that falls into the capacious category of romance.
As a capital-“R” Romanticist, I feel obligated to point out that the word “romance” itself has a long and complicated history. Originally, the label of “romance” referred to a work written in a Romance language rather than in Latin. The OED explains that “since vernacular texts were usually narratives and often featured the adventures of heroes of chivalry, the terms romanz, romans, etc. came to denote such works in particular,” and, over time, “romance” came to be connected with fantasy, wonder, and the imagination more broadly. It was only during the Victorian period that “romance” earned its now-familiar association with love and passion.
If we keep both the historical meaning of “romance” and the RWA’s definition in mind, the history of the romance novel might begin as early as the first century CE, with Chariton of Aphrodisias’s prose romance, Chaereas and Callirhoe, the earliest surviving ancient Greek novel. We can see the different ways romance evolved through the centuries: consider the happily ending tales in Boccaccio’s Decameron from the 14th century; the epic prose romances of Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo from the 15th and Madeleine de Scudéry from the 17th centuries, and Thomas Lodge’s pastoral romance Rosalynde from 1590. Shakespeare’s comedies also deserve honorable mention, as well as the late 17th- and early 18th-century amatory novels by Aphra Behn, Eliza Haywood, and Delarivier Manley, although many of those do end unhappily.
Starting in the mid-18th century, the romance novel’s lineage becomes easier to trace. Scholars often identify the true start of the modern English-language romance novel as Samuel Richardson’s 1740 Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded, although it would probably feel like a problematic romance to most contemporary readers. The story is narrated by Pamela Andrews, a modest servant girl actively resisting the sexual advances of her employer, Mr. B. Pamela eventually gets what passed for a happy ending at the time: a reformed rake as a husband and elevation to the gentry. Pamela was an early best seller, a novel that spawned merchandise, what we might now call fan fiction (in the form of numerous sequels and rewritings) and fan letters, as well as unauthorized theatrical and operatic adaptations. Nancy Armstrong, author of Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel, has famously argued that in England, “the modern individual was first and foremost a woman,” due in large part to the kind of domestic fiction that Richardson helped pioneer. Later 18th- and early 19th-century novels by Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, Ann Radcliffe, and Jane Austen featured women as their main protagonists in love stories ending in marriage. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre also serves as an obvious foundational text, especially for romances of the brooding variety. We might also consider the Gothic and sentimental romances of the Minerva Press (1790s–1820s), the silver fork novels of the 1820s–1840s, and the yellowback novels of the later 19th century, to name just a few more examples of the genre’s predecessors. In the 20th century, the wildly popular Georgian and Regency romance novels written by Georgette Heyer between the 1920s and 1970s — which seem as much indebted to the more aristocratic courtship tales written by Burney and Edgeworth as they do to Austen — also helped shape the genre. Other contributions would be made by E. M. Hull’s deeply problematic The Sheik (1919) and Mary Stewart’s romantic mysteries (1950s–1980s), as well as the romantic fiction that British publishing company Mills & Boon started putting out in the 1930s.
The particular anxieties that hover around the romance novel — a genre largely written by and for women — also have a much longer history than we might expect. Debates about the effects of cultural consumption can be traced back at least as far as Plato’s warning about the dangers of Homer. The birth of print culture however, only intensified these concerns. Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605) arguably inaugurated the modern concern about the threats posed by bad readers, famously portraying a man who cannot distinguish between the ideals of fiction and the harsh reality of life in a fallen world. The Quixote is a complicated literary figure with a long and varied history that I cannot help but oversimplify. However, in 18th- and early 19th-century English literature, we start to encounter a specifically female Quixote (mostly obviously in Charlotte Lennox’s 1752 novel, The Female Quixote, but also in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 play, The Rivals, and Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, to give the most notable examples) whose view of the world in general, and romantic love in particular, has been skewed by her reading habits.
In her least complicated form, the female Quixote embodies the cliché of the thoughtless, gullible reader that many people still apply to romance readers today. This figure came to life in mid-to-late 18th-century England, as literacy was on the rise among women. At the same time, the publishing industry was expanding rapidly in all directions, and particularly in the number of sentimental and Gothic novels being published. Unsurprisingly, the popularity of so-called “low” genres was seen as cause for concern, especially by classically educated middle- and upper-class writers eager to establish literary and moral hierarchies. In his 1800 “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth famously criticized this body of literature as “frantic novels, sickly and stupid German Tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse.” Lambasting the popularity of sensationalized novels — written largely by and for women — Samuel Taylor Coleridge described them as “most powerful stimulants,” which “can never be required except by the torpor of an unawakened, or the languor of an exhausted, appetite.” Coleridge feminized these bad appetites with the terms “torpor” and “languor,” invoking a then-common stereotype of the indolent female, and implying that these readers are not capable of the active, knowing “willing suspension of disbelief” that he theorizes elsewhere.
Women writers leveled similar attacks on the female readership. Mary Wollstonecraft criticized languid, novel-reading women in her feminist treatise, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). In it, she laments the reading habits of women, highlighting the seductive dangers of sentimental and sensational fiction written by “stupid novelists, who, knowing little of human nature, work up stale tales, and describe meretricious scenes, all retailed in a sentimental jargon, which equally tend to corrupt the taste, and draw the heart aside from its daily duties.” George Eliot, in a now-notorious 1856 essay, “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” echoed Wollstonecraft, anticipating the dim view of romance novels that would be taken up by second-wave feminist scholars in the 1970s and 1980s. The romance novel has long been embattled on all sides, held up by men as proof of women’s fundamental frivolity and by feminist standard-bearers as one of the things shackling women to the patriarchy. What almost none of these critics have done is actually read many romance novels.
In her foundational scholarly work on romance novels, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (1984), Janice Radway argues that romance novels allow women, especially wives and mothers, to take time for themselves, and to restore their “depleted sense of self.” However, according to Radway, these novels also do “nothing to alter a woman’s social situation […] in fact, this activity may very well obviate the need or desire to demand satisfaction in the real world because it can be so successfully met in fantasy.” Tania Modleski’s 1982 study, Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women, includes a particularly scathing chapter on Harlequin-published romance novels; in her new introduction to the 1991 revised edition, Modleski somewhat grudgingly acknowledges that “[a]n understanding of Harlequin Romances should lead one less to condemn the novels than the conditions which have made them necessary.” As later scholars like Pamela Regis have pointed out, these early and influential academic books tend to extrapolate broad conclusions about the “romance genre” from a very small sample size of books.
Mary Bly, a professor of Early Modern English literature at Fordham who writes historical romances under the pen name Eloisa James, is one of the most articulate critics on the romance genre today. In her essay “On Popular Romance, J. R. Ward, and the Limits of Genre Study,” she argues that most romance scholarship continues to rely on “essentialized versions of both gender and genre,” which assume that “‘the patriarchy’ is […] a monolithic and inexorable opponent, dictating women’s lives through reading practices.” Bly offers one of the most thoughtful recent considerations of romance novels, one that resists making generalizing statements about the genre or its politics. She insists that “no single novel represents the whole of the romance genre” and that “[r]eading romance may well be a rebellious act, but equally well it may not be.” For Bly, “the wide focus on genre that ignores creative anomaly stems from the perception that romance novels are ‘mass produced,’ so that like automobiles, it doesn’t really matter which factory (or author) produces the texts.” Bly’s solution to correcting this misperception is to focus on close readings of specific works by specific authors.
As Bly suggests, to say that a genre adheres to the conventions of its form is not to say that it is mechanical or unoriginal. Rather than focusing on the fact that a novel follows certain conventions, we should attend to the way it innovates within its form. I like to think of romance novels as not dissimilar from sonnets. Both are constrained by certain expectations: 14 lines of iambic pentameter and a handful of possible rhyme schemes, on the one hand, and necessary plot points — the protagonists meet, their relationship develops, problems arise and are mostly resolved — on the other. Yet despite — or perhaps because of — these constraints, it is still possible to produce new, exciting, and even brilliant work within them. At the same time, as many romance readers have noted, the generic conventions of romance also offer what I see as a kind of consolation. In contrast to most things in life, romance guarantees “an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending,” although the journey there can take many directions.
Indeed, perhaps the biggest mistake critics make when engaging with the romance novel is reducing it to a monolith. Romance is a vast and varied genre, made even more so by the rise of self-publishing. Underneath the umbrella of subgenres — including historical, contemporary, paranormal, spiritual, suspense, and erotica — are an almost infinite variety of options, ranging from Tudor time-travel to NASCAR and from interracial gay Regencies to angst-filled Oval Office polyamory, to name only a handful. Yet there remains the idea that the romance novel is an identifiable, and therefore potentially avoidable, entity: a book defined by its physical size — a roughly four-inch-by-seven-inch mass-market paperback — and its rather sensual cover, which most people still associate with Fabio despite the fact that he has not appeared on the cover of a romance novel for over 20 years. (Please do ask me about that time I met Fabio promoting his protein powder at a Whole Foods.) The situation has only been made worse by acolytes of Adorno whispering in our ear that all varieties of popular culture are vicious distractions, keeping us capitalist cogs with false consciousnesses (to simplify them just a tad).
I do not give much credence to the idea that romance novels encourage false consciousness, though, to be sure, there are real ways in which they remain problematic. They are still overwhelmingly heterosexual, cis-gendered, white, and monogamous, although there is a small but growing cohort of terrific authors helping to change that (some of my favorites include Courtney Milan, Alyssa Cole, Alisha Rai, K. J. Charles, Jasmine Guillory, Sherry Thomas, Beverly Jenkins, Cat Sebastian, and Nalini Singh, to name a few). While there is no way to systematically account for the thousands of novels published every year — or for the ways readers respond to them — I have found that almost all of the romance novels I have read achieve something that sounds mundane, but remains quite radical: they model a form of female happiness and fulfillment still lacking in most canonical works of literature. Imagining stories for women (too often, but not always, heterosexual, cis-gendered, and monogamous) that end optimistically, these novels not only depict relationships that involve negotiation and growth, but also allow female protagonists to experience a kind of personal, sexual, and professional fulfillment that does not feel like an unattainable fantasy. The authors I enjoy most (if I had to pick, I would recommend Tessa Dare, Loretta Chase, Courtney Milan, Alisha Rai, Sherry Thomas, Alyssa Cole, and Cat Sebastian) often respond in thoughtful ways to the current moment, writing sex-positive novels that model consent as sexy and frequently addressing issues relating to race, class, disability, and mental illness without coming across as didactic or judgmental. In his Notebooks on Romance, Northrop Frye identifies romance, in the broader sense of the word, as “always a despised form of writing,” but he also classes it as a kind of “revolutionary […] imaginative opposition” to any “literary establishment.” While I do not believe Frye is trying to argue here for all romance as “revolutionary” in a radical leftist sense, by situating romance as a necessary “imaginative opposition,” Frye clarifies the way that romance novels transcend the conventional.
Many romance novels actually function as more than “imaginative opposition,” providing a very real space for enjoyment and relaxation, which might be otherwise missing from readers’ lives. The best romances can do this without lulling readers into a false sense of complacency. In Beverly Jenkins’s Underground Railroad romance novel, Indigo (1996), Hester, the heroine, worries that one should not take time to have fun during such “serious times.” Galen, the hero, responds: “[I]t’s important to seek out humor and beauty whenever possible. If we don’t, we’ll all be buried beneath the weight of the misery.”
I often see romance novels making similar moves, sneaking in reminders about the important, restorative value of pleasure. By reminding readers that settling — whether in romantic relationships or in other parts of their lives — is not the only or the best solution, romance novels help readers keep engaging in the very real work of opposition.
Cailey Hall is a PhD Candidate in the English department at UCLA, where she is working on a dissertation about British Romanticism and the alimentary. Her research interests also include author afterlives, fan cultures, and the interspecies friendship between Samuel Johnson and his cat, Hodge.
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