Sunday, March 14, 2010

Who Says Romance is Just Fluff?

During a live Coffeetime Romance Chat last Tuesday, I was asked to post my term paper in a place where it could be read. We'd somehow strayed over onto the subject of whether or not romance novels are relevant literature and I mentioned that I'd chosen this topic for my paper. I suspect the reason I feel so passionately about this subject is that I'm sick and tired of hearing about 'trashy romance novels' or 'romantic fluff'. The general public has been looking down their nose at the romance genre since its inception. This paper is my response to this attitude. Please keep in mind that it was written for and presented to a class full of people who all claimed that they had never once picked up a romance novel. So for those of you who are more familiar with the industry--feel free to skip the nuts and bolts section where I describe the basics. Any ideas I've borrowed are credited in my Works Cited page and feel free to comment as you see fit...

The Cultural Affair of Humanity and the Romance Novel

The word romance inspires a wide variety of reactions when used in conversation. From eye rolling to blushing, expressions run the entire gamut of human emotion and can encompass any extreme. Combine the word romance with the word novel and the reactions become even more animated. And though not all who read literature in the romance genre will admit to it, statistics prove that people around the world read romance novels. But this literary genre has more value than simple entertainment. An important function of the Romance genre is to catalog the evolution of relationship concepts and human cultural trends. For what dry, clinical descriptions of historical events cannot express, is the way that people actually lived them.

            Modern romance novels typically revolve around the lives of two people, and the events which shape their relationship. Considered by many to be the unifying body of the Romance industry, Romance Writers of America has compiled a list of attributes which they consider to be the defining characteristics of a romance novel. According to their website, two key points are non negotiable. A romance novel must have a “central love story”. And the love story must have an “emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending”. In addition, the website goes on to describe two different formats acceptable for novels in the genre. The first is a “series or category” romance which is always part of a numbered or sequentially released set of books. The second is generally a longer story called a “single-title” romance (Romance Writers of America).

            Regardless of whether a reader prefers the category or single title novel, there is no doubt that many readers prefer romantic fiction. New York Times journalist Rich Motoko observed that “At a time when booksellers are struggling to lure readers, sales of romance novels are outstripping most other categories and giving some buoyancy to an otherwise sluggish market”. In fact, in the first three months of 2009, sales of romance novels rose by 2.4% while sales of other types of literature experienced a slight drop. Also surprising is that those statistics do not include retail numbers from stores like Wal-mart or Target, which often experience a large volume of book sales. The genre topped internet sales as well, with Barnes & Noble’s e-book seller, Fictionwise, reporting 50% of their sales to be romance novels (Motoko). Yet even with these encouraging economic statistics, the romance genre has always struggled for validity in the world of literature.

            If one considers the beginning of novels in general, it could be argued that all literature that dared to step outside the comfortable confines of religious text was challenged. But there have also been periods where humankind has struggled with basic literacy. Once history progressed into the eighteenth century, even servants were likely to be literate. This ability and the boredom of upper class women who had no roles outside the home, created an audience ripe for the development of novels, especially in Great Britain (Lamm, 342).

            In 1740 Samuel Richardson was asked to come up with a collection of letters which would then be published as the equivalent of a ‘how to’ manual for novice letter writers. At that time, the number of people in the lower classes who were able to read and write had risen dramatically. However, instead of compiling a group of random letters, Richardson wrote a series of fictitious letters to and from a woman he called Pamela. The result was a ground breaking novel eventually titled Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded. It is the first example of what became known as the epistolary form which later writers such as Jane Austen would emulate.

            Perhaps the most unique aspect of Richardson’s Pamela was the novel’s character driven writing. Until that time, all novels had been based upon events. Because of this new approach, Pamela later became part of collection called The English Comedie Humaine.

            Included at the beginning of a 1906 edition of Richardson’s book is an explanation of this collection: "Masterpieces of the great English novelists in which are portrayed the varying aspects of English life from the time of Addison to the present day: a series analgous to that in which Balzac depicted the manners and morals of his French contemporaries."

            This description obviously indicates that the novels belonging to the English Comedie Humaine were not intended for only entertainment purposes. Indeed it would seem that a greater purpose of these works of fiction was to perpetuate the then modern culture. And true to the expectations of that generation, the story of the servant girl Pamela is told in a way as to downplay any romantic notions and emphasize the moral conduct of the characters.

            Followers of Richardson’s style included the aforementioned Jane Austen who wrote for many years anonymously and yet managed to support herself and one of her sisters with income from her books (Austen, foreword). Austen’s novels have not only survived but thrived throughout history. Her books have been made into mini-series for television and movies for the big screen. Entire conventions are held in her honor where people happily don period clothing and dance in the tradition of her characters Mr. Darcy and Miss Elizabeth.

            Austen’s work was much evolved from the English Comedie Humaine in that she bravely explored topics which asked sometimes uncomfortable questions about societal norms. Her heroes were not always gallant, and her heroines were not always the subordinate females valued at that time.

            In the foreword of the Barnes & Noble edition of Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility, literary critic Paul Montazzoli says: "In Sense & Sensibility, more than in any of her other novels, Austen struggles for her happy ending, and when achieved it is hardly convincing,         depending as it does on factors either too convenient or too improbable… Austen’s ending reads like a covert acknowledgement that the problem she set out to explore—the antagonism between social norms and individual personality—really has no definitive solution, or at least no happy one.(iii)"

            Austen’s move toward the exploration of human nature and interaction set writers on a path which would eventually lead to the 1972 release by Avon of a book entitled The Flame and the Flower. Considered by many to be the birth of the modern romance novel, Kathleen E Woodiwiss’ novel was the first official ‘bodice ripper’ ever placed on bookstore shelves. It included not only a torrid romance between two flawed individuals, but descriptions of physical intimacy which had previously been left to the imagination of the reader (Diamond).

            This new trend in romantic fiction garnered much attention from those both in and outside of the sphere of influence. But even so, the evolution of the modern romance story has come as far from Woodiwiss’ The Flame and the Flower as modern culture has come from the seventies’ idyllic sitcom family and polyester leisure suits. This is not to say that those things are never seen in modern culture, but they are frequently in a form which might not be readily recognizable.

            To someone not ‘in the know’, a trip down an aisle filled with romance novels might give the impression that while there seem to be a multitude of titles to choose from, they all seem alike. Canadian author Margaret Atwood discusses this perception in an essay which Editors Paul Eschholz and Alfred Rosa included in their popular textbook, Subjects/Strategies: A Writer’s Reader. Atwood points out that all fiction, like all life, has but one logical end. Death. But Atwood playfully says “so much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with.” And it is this “stretch in between” which has not only differentiated between the romance titles available on the shelf, but has created the necessity for a list of sub-genres complex enough to rival Linnaeus’ Biological Classification system.

            Over time, these sub-genres have evolved into two main categories, with similar sub-categories within each. The two main categories place titles into either the sweet, or sensual romance family, or the erotic romance family. As suggested by the name, the first family includes stories which, although they fit the criteria specified by the Romance Writers of America, do not include graphic depictions of physical intimacy. In direct contrast, any title in the erotic romance category contains graphic language and content material which pushes the boundaries of society’s comfort zone.

            Within these two main categories, titles are divided into sub-genres based upon certain elements in the story. Plots involving historical settings, creatures from urban legend like vampires or werewolves, ghosts, science fiction, action and adventure, mystery, and any other niche markets such as same sex relationships are all separated, catalogued, and labeled accordingly. The classification goes into great detail, even placing warnings on certain material which might be strongly objectionable in some markets. The system seems overwhelming and overdone when first encountered. But the purpose is very simple. All is done to make choosing an enjoyable title possible for almost any reader.

            The availability of material to suit any taste is what makes romance novels a staple on many nightstands throughout the world. But it is also what makes the romance genre such an important catalog of popular culture. For example, despite its historical setting, The Flame and the Flower was cutting edge at the time of its publication. The elements of the story reflected beliefs, interests, and even perceptions of history commonly found in 1970’s culture (Diamond). Yet a reader who picked up the same book today might find it antiquated. Instead, a modern reader would pick up a novel by Julie Garwood or Fiona Vance and read about current trends such as internet dating, workplace relationships, or even bondage. In this way, the romance genre has the ability to track trends from the current vampire fad to fashion preferences in multiple geographies.

            Reading has long been an acceptable leisure activity. Textbooks aid in classrooms. Dictionaries catalog the meanings of words and vernacular. Biographies document the lives of people who helped to shape our world. And recreational reading provides an escape when life becomes dull or stressful. Statistics suggest that the number of people reading for fun increases dramatically during times of national crisis or worldwide stress (Motoko).

            But, as author Tameka Norris laments, “Critics often diss romance as fluff, and your high school English teacher probably never told you to grab the latest bodice ripper off the shelves and enjoy yourself (he or she was probably reading them in secret, though). So why read romance?  Norris goes on to list six reasons she recommends reading romance novels to anyone with a desire to relax with a good book. However, two of her reasons apply directly to the relationship between culture and the romance genre.

            Reading romance novels set in different locations and parts of the world give you the chance to learn, yes, learn, about new states and countries. You can even go back in time with a historical romance novel and learn, yep, about how people lived during other time periods”(Norris). According to Romance Writers of America, today’s romance authors take their research very seriously. Some are even known to travel to far flung locations in order to get a true picture of the facts before developing a setting for their stories. Therefore, by enjoying a well written and well researched romance novel, a reader has a chance to experience second hand a culture or an adventure that never would have otherwise been possible.

            “Romance stories and novels are a great way to take a peek into many kinds of love lives without having to ask embarrassing questions or enduring conversations you'd rather not have”(Norris). With so many topics available, including many that involve controversial lifestyle choices, a romance novel can answer those niggling questions a curious person would never dream of asking. In this way, the romance genre is helping to educate and foster acceptance of alternative lifestyles or aspects of modern culture which tend to make mainstream people uneasy. After reading a story about a gay or lesbian couple, a reader might not choose that lifestyle for their own, but they might be more willing to be open minded with those who have.

            In some ways it is the open minded design of the romance genre that engenders the most distrust. Erotic romance novels have been called pornography for women (Lengyel). And romance authors rarely feel as though they are taken seriously by mainstreamers in the publishing field (Romance Writers of America). Yet in the end it all comes down to control over the flow of information. Those who have a desire to control the media available for their own use and their children’s use will inevitably decide that they want to have a hand in controlling what those around them are exposed to as well. The argument is that much of the material in Romance novels, Erotic Romance in particular, pushes the boundaries on what conservatives feel is appropriate. However, no society can operate for long in an environment where the conservative approval is the barometer for all things moral. Just as in the political arena, publishing must be a world where all viewpoints are given equal measure. And the industry does self regulate. Publishers maintain guidelines and strict policies about what is and what is not acceptable in a plot. The guidelines are often based upon certain cultural taboos or even legal statues which apply to the publishing company because of geographical location (Romance Writers of America).

            Another common argument against the Romance genre comes from those who believe readers will become somehow disillusioned with their own real life relationships after reading about the sometimes idyllic lives of fictional characters. Char Lengyal of the Houston Sex & Relationship Examiner feels this is a bogus notion, saying “My failed relationships have not ended because of a comparison to a non-existent, perfectly coiffed member of royalty. They’ve ended because I realized my partner at the time wasn’t meant for me.”

            Most of the arguments applied so vehemently against the Romance genre of literature could be used against any type of media available today. Indeed, since the first time a writer chose to step outside the boundaries of what was then considered ‘church sanctioned’, there have been those who disapprove. Yet writers like Samuel Richardson and Jane Austen persevered and were followed by new pioneers such as Kathleen E. Woodiwiss who helped to shape the Romance novel as it is today. Each successive generation of writers and readers is faced with the same opposition. And yet they have always chosen to continue reading what they like. Motoko observed that “Romance readers are considered among the most loyal fans, sticking to a series or an author once they have grown attached to one.” But in the end, the enduring quality in the Romance genre is the author’s desire to catalog and share culture and the reader’s desire to absorb and interpret it.


Works Cited


“About the Romance Genre.” RWA. 8 Mar. 2010.  

Atwood, Margaraet. “Fiction: Happy Endings.” Subjects/Strategies: A Writer’s Reader.            Ed. Paul Eschholz & Alfred Rosa. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999. 126-131.

Austen, Jane. Sense & Sensibility. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1996.

Diamond, Leslie. “The Flame & the Flower: Detailed Review”. 8 Mar. 2010.   

Lengyel, Char. “Romance novels vs. relationships”. Houston Sex & Relationships          Examiner. 16 Jun. 2009. 8 Mar. 2010

Motoko, Rich. “Recession Fuels Readers’ Escapist Urges.” New York Times Online. 7Apr. 2009. 8 Mar. 2010.

Norris, Tameka. “6 Reasons to Read Romance.” 8 Mar. 2010.            

Richardson, Samuel. Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded. New York: The Century Co. 1906.

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