Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

Romance Novels, The Last Great Bastion Of Underground Writing

Romance fiction is widely reckoned to be a very low form of literature. Maybe the lowest, if we're not counting the writing at Groupon, or on Splenda packets. Romance fiction: probably the worst! An addictive, absurd, unintellectual literature, literature for nonreaders, literature for stupid people—literature for women! Books Just For Her!

Low or not, romance is by far the most popular and lucrative genre in American publishing, with over $1.35 billion in revenues estimated in 2010. That is a little less than twice the size of the mystery genre, almost exactly twice that of science fiction/fantasy, and nearly three times the size of the market for classic/literary fiction, according to Simba Information data published at the Romance Writers of America website.

It would be crazy to fail to pay close attention when that many people are devoted to something.

So, what is in all these hundreds of millions of books? What is their strange allure? As it happens I am in a position to say, because I read and love romance fiction. It's one of the genre things I collect sporadically; I have a particular fetish for Mills & Boon and Harlequin romances of the period between the late 1930s and 1980, what I think of as their Golden Age. During this time, the two houses produced an immense and vastly entertaining body of writing with a unique function and value in American life. Or Anglophone life, to be more exact, since Mills & Boon was founded in London (Whitcomb Street, W.1.) in 1908. Harlequin, which came much later, is a Canadian firm.

Romance novels are feminist documents. They're written almost exclusively by women, for women, and are concerned with women: their relations in family, love and marriage, their place in society and the world, and their dreams for the future. Romances of the Golden Age are rife with the sociopolitical limitations of their period, it must be said. They're exclusively hetero, and exclusively white, for example. Even so, they can be strangely sublime.

Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex (1949) "[Woman] is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute — she is the Other."

In romance fiction this formula is reversed, as scholar and former Mills & Boon editor jay Dixon (who spells her name with a lower-case "j") observes in her book The Romantic Fiction of Mills & Boon 1909-1995. Woman is the Subject, man the Other. (This is a marvelous book, by the bye, far and away the best one on the subject; thorough, scholarly, fun and beautifully reasoned.)

For all the scoffing from various quarters at the fairy-tale messages they contain, romances largely deal with practical, everyday matters; they're more like field guides for resolving the real-life difficulties women face. As those difficulties have changed over time, the romance novel has adjusted accordingly. The problems of balancing a career with running a household, looking after children, negotiating a romantic impasse: these kinds of things are dealt with directly. Rarely do "serious" writers on women's issues stoop so low as to address such homely questions, agonizing though they remain to women even now. How do we express generosity, love and patience without becoming a doormat? Yes I want to have a career, but I still like jewelry and pretty dresses! How can this incredible man like me even a little bit, when I have all these flaws? What kind of person does one need to be in order to really deserve someone's love? These questions have never stopped being asked, no matter how emancipated we may become.

Every Mills & Boon romance is guided by the light of a single principle; the philosophical pole star that emerged with the birth of the novel in our language from 1740-65, in the works of Richardson, Fielding, Fanny Burney et al. In The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon, Dixon writes: "The underlying philosophy of the novels of Mills & Boon is that love is omnipotent—it is the point of life. It is the solution to all problems, and it is peculiarly feminine. Men have to be taught how to love; women are born with the innate ability to love."

Whether or not this is actually true, I don't know, so I can't tell you. But can there be any doubt that this single conviction has fueled the efforts of a vast proportion of novelists, male or female, ever since the invention of novelists?

Dixon makes a persuasive case that the romance heroine draws her man into the domestic sphere, the realm of women, of home, in order to resolve their differences and establish sex with love as the central principle in their lives. Actually, both lovers must alter their earlier prejudices to create a working alliance where sexualized love can flourish, cf. the grandmamma of all romance novels, Pride and Prejudice.

Men must be transformed by love and enter into the woman's realm in order to emerge as fully-realized human beings: this is the core message of romance fiction, Dixon argues. We need one another; embrace this idea, and everything will magically work out.

The part about it all working out provides the fairy-tale gloss of these stories. For we all know that even with all the understanding in the world, and all the best intentions, it might not. Still, however foolish it may seem to the modern, knowing, cynical reader, many find it very pleasant to withdraw into a fantasy place where everything comes right in the end. "The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily," as in Wilde's fizzy, bitter joke: "That is what Fiction means."

In any case, whatever her merits, Simone de Beauvoir will be no help to you at all when your boyfriend has been unkind to you, but a romance novel might well help. (Considering the unbelievable perfidies of her own boyfriend, Jean-Paul Sartre, one may hope that Simone de B. resorted to Mills & Boon now and then, when the need arose. Or Françoise Sagan, at the very least.)


Romance literature is underground writing, almost never reviewed or discussed in the newspapers or literary rags, or at a dinner party. One is supposed to be embarrassed to have a taste for it.

There are distinct advantages in this poor-cousin status. Here is a literature entirely without pretense; its authors are guileless, since they needn't conform to any external ideal of literary performance. They are in no way trying to win a Booker Prize. Consequently they are entirely at liberty to explore their own questions within the few confines of their genre.

So there's no sniffy condescension or po-mo posturing in a romance novel; they're the least stuck-up books in the world. Everybody knows that they are written and read just for kicks, and that gives the author an enviable freedom within which she may permit her imagination to run riot. And does it ever. These writers have no authorial brakes at all, and their irrepressibility is enchanting all by itself. What other kind of author is free to name her hero Sin Watermount or Don Julio Valdares, Tarquin Roscuro or Duc Breul de Polain et Bouvais? There is generally a wild, far-flung and exotic locale: Queensland, the Western Cape of South Africa, the Scottish Highlands. There are impossible situations, natural disasters, a whole pantheon of dei ex machinis, drama galore.

And there is, always, falling in love. I have often wondered whether romance novels mightn't generally serve the same purpose for women that pornography does for so many men. I do not mean as an aid to autoeroticism, though, so much as the imaginary fulfillment of a profound imperative that is never too far from your mind.

Anyway, pleasurable as all that is, romance fiction's deeper purpose is twofold. First, there is the soothing, gentle balm they apply to the insecure and frightened part of our nature. These are books with the set purpose of providing healing and reassurance to the reader.

The romance heroine, though possessed of heart, intelligence and beauty, is at the mercy of her own self-criticism most of the time. As the story begins, she is scared and isolated, poor, or abandoned, or lonely. Not infrequently, the book opens with her having just suffered some terrible loss; her husband has just died in a plane crash, or her parents or beloved guardians have died, and now she is forced to work as a paid companion to a rich and disagreeable widow, maybe, or she's just come to Australia from England to live with her grandfather, who is mean as a snake. Then she runs into an unusual and interesting man who openly demonstrates his dislike for her, or else pretty much ignores her entirely.

Difficulties will multiply. And almost always, as the tension builds, the heroine is beset with doubts about her own competence, attractiveness and worth.

That's just how I feel! the reader cries inwardly.

This goes wrong, that goes wrong. I am the worst, most worthless person, the heroine is saying to herself half the time, thereby calling forth the reader's protective, sisterly feelings. Both reader and heroine have a good cry, maybe. Then the heroine redoubles her efforts to do all the things she needs to do. Find a job, grow up and stand on her own two feet, care for a child, nurse someone she loves back to health.

Since she is convinced that she totally sucks in every way, the heroine will also be mostly oblivious to the hero's growing attraction to her. All of a sudden, though, beside himself with desire, he will pounce, just a bit; sometimes with the "punishing kiss" and sometimes with gentleness. But there will be a thrilling undercurrent of barely-restrained passion; he might "mutter a curse under his breath." Bit by bit, the difficulties are negotiated, the rival leaves town, the farm is saved. Our hero and heroine arrive at an understanding, and the end of the book finds them, almost always, in a passionate embrace.

The pleasure of moving through this ritual of set plot points will be familiar to lovers of detective fiction or spy novels. I use "ritual" advisedly because it really is quite like a religious ceremony; comforting, calming. The pleasure involved is almost wholly anticipatory, and if you don't know almost exactly what is going to happen, you can't feel the pleasure of anticipation. The literary rituals of genre fiction fulfill their purpose by pushing the buttons in your mind and heart, one by one.


The second purpose of romance novels is the exercise of imagination. This may sound paradoxical, given that there is a definite formula to these stories. But they are indeed vehicles for the imagination; each one a love rollercoaster, if you like, to tempt our fantasies. To idealize. What would a really wonderful man be like? What are the very best characteristics that men and women can have? What would the most exciting possible moment in a love affair be like; how would the tenderest lover behave?

So at the same time that these books are about real issues, they are profoundly unreal and fairy-tale-like. The same thing being true of fairy-tales: serious business in a frothy, thrilling exterior. As a reader, this part appeals to me the most: the opportunity to vamoose into a purely escapist story, which I guess also explains my love for detective novels, fantasy, and sci-fi whether hard or soft.

Dixon quotes Mills & Boon author Violet Winspear as having said in Radio Times, "I think all women like to dream about marvelous men," adding " I've never met any of them myself, I doubt if anybody has."


So what is it, exactly, that makes literature trivial? Is the point of literature to depict something more like "real life"? If the formulaic qualities and perfervid fantasy of romance novels bring them closer to superhero comics than to Dostoevsky, what does this mean, exactly? What is the difference between genre and "serious" fiction, now that Maus and The Left Hand of Darkness and The Man in the High Castle have conclusively demonstrated that deeply serious, insightful ideas may indeed come in a deceptively lightweight envelope?

The key difference between Fyodor Dostoevsky and Violet Winspear is—the beard, obviously, but in terms of literary production, the difference is that the latter is thinking more about you, the reader, whereas the former is thinking more about himself, the author. Each approach has an enormous value, potentially. To put this another way, Dostoevsky writes from deep inside himself, about his whole life, every single thing he ever saw or learned; Winspear plies her craft according to what she imagines it would please you to read, imagine or dream about, though it's nearly impossible for a novelist to avoid revealing some of his own ideas and beliefs about the world, however tangentially.

It doesn't matter whether you call this "serious" literature or not, really, though it seems to me that when millions and millions of people are involved in the same reading, it is very serious indeed.


"Can I make him happy, Contessa?" "You love him for himself… [And] I believe your mutual interest in Persian rugs will be a strong bond between you."
—Anne Weale, Now or Never (1978)

You can tell a Golden Age romance very easily by the weird beauty of its cover art and typography. They are irresistible. Oddly, the covers I prefer also contain the stories I prefer: a little old-fashioned, and crazy as hell, glittering with imagination and lunacy. They are free of the ploddingly explicit sexual detail of today's romance, or the outright depravity of earlier ones like The Sultan's Slave or The Fruit of Eden.

"Serious" or literary fiction is supposed to be that way because it's meant to be like Dostoevsky, leaving no stone unturned in the human psyche, shocking us, showing us things we'd never understood or even thought about ourselves before. There's not much room for fun in books like those.

But surely it's not necessary to point out that the rarefied world of American literary fiction is brimming with dull, predictable and zero-ly engaging books. Most "literary" novels, in fact, take not one single risk, offend no taboo, and leave every sacred cow grazing undisturbed in the placid fields of their conventionality. Which is the riskier, edgier, more involving story? The lit-fic novel du jour—some lukewarm retread of Desperate Characters, probably—or The Sheik (1919), E.M. Hull's febrile, terrifying account of the abduction, rape and eventual "taming" of a tomboy Englishwoman by handsome, cruel tough guy Sheikh Ahmed Ben Hassan? The recent reading of which made me realize that we only think we don't have taboos.

This brutal, vulgar and wildly popular book was later made into a film starring Rudolph Valentino, who became a superstar as the result. But no way could The Sheik ever be made into a film today. It is far too depraved. I keep thinking it must be to do with the war. That's a likeness of its author, Edith Maude Hull, at right, by the way.

Keep that visage in mind as I run you through the plot. First, the Sheik abducts our heroine and takes her back to his desert lair, where he commences to rape her every few pages. She is moderately peeved at him for raping her all the time but still finds him amazingly handsome, though "cruel," which, pretty much. She finally manages to escape, only to be abducted yet again, but this time by some other lord of the desert. So she is right in the middle of being strangled by this new abductor (she won't let him rape her) when just in time, the Sheik arrives to reclaim his property, erm, mistress, and after a ghastly struggle slowly chokes that horrible fat old black-toothed Ibraheim Omair to death right in front of her on the divan, in revenge, smiling all the while, "till the dying man's body arched and writhed in his last agony, till the blood burst from his nose and mouth, pouring over the hands that held him like a vice." Oh and the Sheik turns out to be not even an Arab, but the son of a mean Scottish earl and a Spanish princess instead. She ought to have known! He has "the famous Caryll scowl," she exclaims, smacking herself on the forehead. (Okay, she doesn't smack herself on the forehead. Also, English people can't spell.)

Anyway, believe it or not, she stays with him because now they're "in love" in her Stockholm Syndrome-induced crazytown in the desert forever.

I don't know. Usually, I just prefer my escapist fiction a little less terrifying and horrible. There can be a little bit of abduction! But not too much.


In the middle of writing this, I was overjoyed to learn, reading here, that Awl commenter mascarasnake was in possession of information regarding that rarest of aves, a grandfather who read romance fiction for pleasure:

[M]y teetotal, suit-wearing farmer Grandfather always had to hand [...] Silvermints and what we referred to as his 'dirty books". They were Mills and Boon (Harlequin in the US, I think?) and a source of complete fascination to me. Looking back it seems bizarre that the only things he read were church newsletters and books about eighties careerwomens' love lives.

Straightaway I wrote and asked her about it, and in response to my questions, which amounted to PLEASE TELL ME EVERYTHING, she kindly replied:

My grandfather was born in 1909, to a typically large Catholic family […] Most of his brothers went to America but he remained on the farm he grew up on. He married my Grandmother when he was in his thirties and she was in her twenties. They lived and worked together on a small farm in the West of Ireland, with not particularly good land, and had eight children. They grew their own food, had eggs from their own chickens and milk from their cows, but things like store-bought food and new clothes would have been a rarity even when my mother was growing up in the sixties. […]

As a child I didn't think my Grandad's choice of reading material was anything unusual, I just assumed that Mills & Boon were what all grandparents read. I'm not sure who gave them to him initially; it was most likely my Granny or one of their four daughters. The nearest village has a church, a few pubs and a small store so most of his books were bought for him by his children. My mother and I often bought a stack in a secondhand bookstore before we went to visit for the weekend in the eighties. His chair in the kitchen was in front of a window and there were always a few books stacked on the sill, waiting to be read. My mother told me that, as the plots were so similar, my grandparents developed a system to keep track of which books they'd already read by putting their initial inside the cover once they finished. They both admitted that if they didn't do this it would take a while to realize they were rereading. […]

I'm not sure that he was a particularly romantic husband; it definitely wasn't a roses and moonlight stroll kind of relationship. He was a good husband and father and I think they were happy together, but it was a different era and I don't think romance was the main objective when they married.

I wonder.

In learning about the very few men who read these books (some 9 percent, according to the RWA website, but I've never met even one, myself) it struck me how women are far more free to read anything they like than are men, just as we are so much more free than men to wear any clothes we like. Nobody is going to bother a woman about her reading, whereas American men are only just barely permitted to admit to having a taste for Jane Austen. Even then, they are liable to blame this girly transgression on a sentimental high-school teacher.

There are quite a lot of questions on Yahoo! Answers asking whether or not it's okay for a guy to read romance novels. And pretty much everyone answers Yes, read what you like, it is okay, though one pointed out that he might like to read them in private.

In our world, very little provision made for men to feel or express tenderness openly. And yet one can't help but suspect that nearly everyone has his gentle, unwarlike side. It's this, I suspect, that that those young men who are devoted to the animated TV show "My Little Pony," and who are known as Bronies, are looking for, at least in part: a place where they might not only free themselves of the imperatives of machismo, but also manifest their gentleness freely and without restraint, be playful, permit themselves to imagine freely.

When we really become equal, maybe "just for women" won't be seen as less, or weird, or lame, as it appears mascarasnake's grandfather already understood. Women visit the country of "just for men" all the time, unimpeded; we can read Tom Clancy or Patrick O'Brian and nobody bats an eyelash, because we are allowed to be curious about men's fantasies of things. We have a visa for their country, and yet they are not permitted into ours, in some sense. The world of letters being the paradise of liberty that it is, it is perfectly fine for anyone to stick to just one kind of book, or just one authorial gender, or one genre, or one color of binding, just as he likes. But if men are curious about our side of things, as I imagine many of them must be, I should think it would be interesting to them to visit, and maybe we should invite them, as I am doing now.


Among its hundreds and hundreds of writers madly scribbling all over the globe, Mills & Boon employs just one male writer, Roger Sanderson. "The broad-shouldered Yorkshireman goes weight training three times a week, mountain climbing at the weekends and enjoys a drink with friends at his rugby club in Waterloo, Merseyside," the BBC reports. He writes under his wife's name, Gill Sanderson; they have four sons. "Gill" Sanderson has written more than 80 romances. He would probably have been a soldier otherwise, he says.

The encyclopedic jay Dixon says that the manuscripts submitted by men to Mills & Boon usually contain obvious howlers that no woman would ever write, such as having the heroine explicitly admiring herself in a mirror. (Definitely a male author's tic in imagining what being a woman is like, I've noticed it before; they had it in that movie Switched, for example.) But she adds: "I can find nothing in Roger's romances that would alert even an experienced reader to the fact that he is a man… Roger is one of the few men who does have the knack."

"I'm happily married and I have been in love, therefore I have the basic qualification," Sanderson told the BBC, adorably. "I know what it feels like and from there everything will develop."


Among the many unexpected gifts of the e-reader, anonymity is one of the most valuable. Romance is one of the fastest-growing categories in ebooks, in a maybe-related development.

As Alison Flood wrote recently in the Guardian, "No longer are [readers] forced to conceal the covers of their latest purchases (The Sultan's Choice, say, or The Temp and the Tycoon) from fellow commuters. Instead, they can follow their heroine's romantic adventures with impunity, safely protected by the anonymity of their e-readers."

Maybe the opening of this new door can help in developing a better understanding between men and women. To be free to see how the other half lives. And beyond that, to a greater understanding of literary activity itself, which is only a matter of someone else's ideas, someone's awareness of life, made manifest for others—for anyone else at all—to experience and enjoy.

Related: The Golden Age Of Dirty Talk

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo and Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman.

58 Comments / Post A Comment

melis (#1,854)

Maria! Maria.

Bittersweet (#765)

@melis: Seconded.

Annie K. (#3,563)

@melis Oh lovely Maria! Really, Happy Valentine's Day upon us all.

Graydon Gordian (#3,206)

Ya burnt, Groupon.

laurel (#4,035)

@Graydon Gordian I felt the sting of the Splenda packet copywriter.

Only three times the market for Classic/Literary Fiction? Wow, things are better than I thought in Classic/Literary Fiction!

BadUncle (#153)

Wonderful article. And these great covers kind of remind me of an even more reviled category of now-extinct publishing. The stroke book. I wonder who the publishers of all that disposable textual porn were.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

Oh man, that would make a fun series. A dude reads a classic romance novel, a lady reads a stroke book, they compare notes.

SeanP (#4,058)

@DoctorDisaster I'm filing a patent on chose-your-own-adventure porn.

jfruh (#713)

I had this plan once to use the knowledge gathered during my abandoned attempt to become a historian to write historical romances, which stopped abruptly when I realized that the novel I was outlining (forbidden love in Northern Spain just after the Arab conquest!) kept focusing more on local politics than on, you know, romance. But I did go out and get some reference material to see how the genre worked. It all seemed particularly misogynist to me? I sort of expected feisty heroines taming dopey knights, but there was a lot of ladies' having their wills broken by brooding tough guys, along with some outright abduction and rape by half-breeds (apparently the template of the Sheik was still in use).

Also interesting were two twin subgenres of the historical romance — modern lady goes back to ye olden days, or premodern stud is brought forward to today, through science and/or magic. Most of these involve the modern lady learning how a woman SHOULD be treated, like a goddess on a pedestal (who doesn't have a job or opinions).

Anyway, are historical romances a particularly retrograde subset of the genre? Or did I just get some bad ones (my sample size wasn't huge)? Or am I too modern/dude-ish/self-consciously political by half and missing the point?

roboloki (#1,724)

@jfruh i think the answer to your question is no, it's not too early to start drinking.

wee_ramekin (#33,118)

@jfruh To answer your question, there are all different kinds of romance novels, and I personally find some (such as most Harlequin Presents novels) to be extremely misogynist, and others not.

As an avid romance novel reader, I have found that there is a sub-genre for just about every type of character or relationship you can think of. There's the "feisty female" archetype, the "virgin bride" (which tends to be featured a lot in the misogynist ones, I find), paranormal romance, romances in the Scottish Highlands, Regancy-era romances, cowboys, threesomes (though these aren't produced by the powerhouse publishers) etc.

The one area where romance novels are really lacking, though, is in romance novels for queer women. I have yet to read a romance novel about two ladies, and I'd like to!

Mr. B (#10,093)

@jfruh O.K., but if you don't follow through on writing this one I'm going to be sad.

MilesofMountains (#216,918)

@wee_ramekin Smart Bitches Trashy Books just did a post a week or two ago about queer women romance novel recommendations! I'd get you the link, but I suspect accessing a site with that name might get the attention of my work's IT department.

Janine Ballard (#217,219)

@jfruh I registered just to answer your question because historical romances (good ones) are my passion. I review them for a popular romance blog (Dear Author) and am attempting to write one myself (a lot harder than it looks!).

Anyhow, the genre is huge and I think most people who try books at random, particularly if they are older ones from the 1970s and 1980s, will find it hard to discover the good ones if they only try a few. To discover the ones that are to your taste, you have to seek word of mouth, read reviews, or ask other romance readers who share your taste for recommendations.

Here are some that I like (doesn't mean you'll like them but I'll try to stay away from any that fit your description of what you dislike).

Black Silk, Beast, or The Proposition by Judith Ivory — this author has a marvelously literary writing style and crafts complex, fascinating characters

For My Lady's Heart by Laura Kinsale — this author shares the above qualities although their books are quite different. Kinsale's books tend to be very emotional.

Wild at Heart by Patricia Gaffney (based on your description, some of her other books might not be for you but I think you might love this one, and perhaps To Love and to Cherish as well)

Mr. Impossible or Lord Perfect by Loretta Chase — This author writes humorous books

Scandal by Carolyn Jewel

A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant

The Edge of Impropriety by Pam Rosenthal

Miranda Neville's series starting with The Wild Marquis

Also, possibly Shana Abe's series starting with The Smoke Thief if you have any interest in a historical fantasy/paranormal romance

Philo Hagen (#3,619)

My mother reads romance novels incessantly. Thank you for giving me a clearer understanding of what that is about. I think I get it now. Meanwhile, you're right on target regarding the male factor – though it's true of films and television and, well, pretty much everything actually. I even know a lot of gay men who've secretly loved reading Gordon Merrick (check out his titles: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Merrick), but you won't see his name on any OKCupid favorite reading lists.

Peteykins (#1,916)

When I worked for Barnes and Noble, I had a regular customer (REALLY regular: she was outside waiting for us to open every single day) who only read romance novels, and did plenty of custom orders for them. She always ordered things with very "stately" titles: anything, for instance, with "Lord" in the title, or anything which sounded particularly regal or "classy."

She would come up to the desk with her lists and catalogs, and say, "I would like to order some books," and then list the hilarious titles ("The Lord of Windswept Manor") in a loud voice, leaving other customers rolling in the aisles, aghast.

I kind of miss her. :(

Tulletilsynet (#333)

Maria broke my heart on Valentine's Day by writing a long, brilliant post that I can never read.

SeanP (#4,058)

"There can be a little bit of abduction! But not too much."

Wait a minute. Are we still on the thing about romance novels or did we flip back to the dating advice for men thing? Because a friend wants to know if a little bit of abduction is ought be part of his dating techniques.

E (#14,552)

Brava! Maria, there's a romance author Jennifer Cruisie who got into romance novels because she was planning to read 100 men's adventure stories and 100 romance novels and then dissect the two. But she got absorbed in the romance novels. From her webpage: "The romance novels turned out to be so feminist and so absorbing, that she never got to the men’s adventure fiction and decided to try writing fiction instead…" I very much enjoy her essays on the importance of romance novels. And I also enjoy several of her books, although some of them have a rushed quality, they are quick fun sexy reads.

Virgina Woolf as always got it right: "This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. "

likethestore (#32,383)

I'm really glad to see a discussion about romance novels, though I'm kinda surprised this isn't over at The Hairpin? Anyway, I've been slightly addicted to romance for more than 10 years. It's not that I don't enjoy "intellectual" books (I did a degree in English!), but I've always been drawn to romance. I always got a lot of sneers for bringing this up in class. I don't read the Mills & Boon/Harlequin types, I prefer the big lengthy historicals that are often very well-researched and full of historical detail, and well-written to boot. I do consider them feminist writing and that's why I'm proud to say I read romance.

@likethestore, it isn't at the hairpin because it's intended for dudes to read, just as much as for ladies!

UnicornsLA (#217,073)

"might well help"?


Why was this article apparently written by English nanny from the 1930s?

I mean I know you read a lot of period romance but you might want to tone it down a little, sister.

I hereby nominate you as the Official Post-Publication Tone and Word Choice Police. This position doesn't pay, except in a warm glow that persists through to bedtime.

tootsky (#217,426)

Hey! That first book is by Margaret Way! The only Harlequin romance I ever owned – and kept – is A Lesson in Loving by Margaret Way. I still have it. I don't even know where I got it, a garage sale maybe? I went through a Harlequin phase but for some reason I loved this story and have never been able to throw it away. She had liquid topaz eyes if I remember and tousled rose-copper hair. Now I'm going to have to read it again.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@tootsky Ha! I LOVE Margaret Way. I have but three words for you: The Golden Puma.

tootsky (#217,426)

@barnhouse The Golden Puma. I just looked on Amazon – is it worth getting the hardcover import for 224.31? Or should I go for the $0.01 mass market paperback?

nickola0sa (#217,567)


Hi Maria, just loved this article. I have a vast collection of vintage romances and tend to prefer anything written before 1980. Most people would probably say I'm prudish but I find that some of the modern story lines portray men and situations that are in fact too real and rather sordid for my old fashioned tastes. When I read a Mills and Boon I don't want realism. I can get that just about anywhere but finding it in between the covers of my romances doesn't leave me with a 'Pleasant' feeling as promised by earlier M & B s. This isn't to say there aren't brilliant writers in the modern lines. Just that I'm not willing for my Prozac reading to be brought quite so up to date. Fi

Rockwell Lancer (#219,801)

I really enjoyed this article. I have never liked much romance fiction except historical novels in my youth. I could never read Harlequin or Silhouette romances. Seemed too pallid and too much the same. However, I love "The Sheik". I first read it when I was 14. I've re-read it several times and the sheer melodrama really holds up. (Lady Diana likes to say "Merciful Heavens" when she is really upset, and just like the actresses in silent films, she is described putting her hand to her forehead when distressed.) I also highly recommend "How They Loved Him" by Florence Marryat. It's available free from google books or archive.org
Also a german novel "Diana" by Emil Ludwig, a liberated woman circa 1920's.
Diana was a popular name for free spirited women in old novels. Evoking the Diana of mythology. I really enjoy the old romance novels. Modern ones, eh.

Oh gawd, "The Golden Puma," What a crazy coincidence that you should mention it. I have been obsessively rereading it for a few weeks now and living it in my mind all day during work. This book is a worm that bores into your brain. I have also realized that much of my other number one favorite romance novel, Francine Rivers' "Rebel In His Arms" was probably inspired by, if not outright stolen from, The Golden Puma.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@Michelle Blanchard@facebook !!!!!!!!!! DANG.

Ron Cruze@twitter (#219,929)

"This is a marvelous book, by the bye, far and away the best one on the subject; thorough, scholarly, fun and beautifully reasoned."

What in the hell is, "… by the bye …"? Great scholarship, for someone "reviewing" literature. Likely the same standard as Mills & Boon!

bmeyer77 (#219,924)

"Low or not, romance is by far the most popular and lucrative genre in American publishing, with over $1.35 billion in revenues estimated in 2010 … It would be crazy to fail to pay close attention when that many people are devoted to something."

"Studies in 2001 put the total [revenue of pornography in the U.S.] between $2.6 billion and $3.9 billion."

I get dibs on submitting an essay about the evolution of Brazzers network to the Awl!

The definition of porn is something formulaic which evokes feelings of pleasure, not necessarily for autoerotic purposes, just sexual/emotional stimulation. Women talk about romance novels like men talk about porn. "I have a collection of vintage editions from the '70s…"

Can man understand woman?Psychologist Freud who spend his entire life psychoanalysis of many women told last day of his life " I never understand what woman want from man".Philosopher Nietzsche wrote"If you want to go to woman go with your whip"I think it is very difficult to understand mind of woman.Real wonder is I did not read a single book written by woman on their psyche.I read second sex by Simone DA Beauvoir but that is boring unsatisfactory on the contrary she wrote excellent book on Old age.Her autobiography is also unsatisfactory.I think woman depend too much on man for every thing she has no independent identity,so she remain mystery to man and may herself

Ken Miner (#220,000)

I remember reading somewhere (prior to the internet, if that enhances credibility) that some of these romances are written by men under pseudonyms. The author seems to deny this and since she has made a study… Still, makes a nice story, what? Anyone else ever heard this?

Of course romance novels fill a niche in women's live similar to the way pornography does in men's. Just as there is highbrow pornography such as Andrew Blake, there is highbrow romance. But when you get to the low commerce stuff, pornography is extremely targeted, with it's own terminology and symbology. A guy who's interested in 2-girl-1-guy mixed-race midget porn would know exactly how to find what he wants.

And a woman who needs out of her romance a damsel in distress and a man in uniform to be her hero, and needs her sex scenes explicit, would also know exactly how to find what she wants. Both Harlequin and Silhouette have symbols on spines of their mass-produced volumes to indicate both plot and sexual content. For explicitness: "S, R, B, T" (Superromance, Romance, Blaze, and Torrid) indicate sexual content, the first having almost no sexual content and certainly no four-letter words, the last having not just multiple sex scenes but sometimes a suggestion (but just a suggestion) of kink.

For plot: A clock indicates a whirlwind romance (24 hours, or at most a weekend). Handcuffs: Damsel in distress. Badge: The hero is a sterling white knight of a policeman. A veil: A wedding at the end of the book. A pacifier: A baby at the end of the book. A pram: The heroine is an unwed mother in need of a father for her child.

It is as targeted, and as cynical, as anything found in porn.

That said, I love my Nook e-reader. No one can tell I'm reading Bertrice Small in public.

girlwonder (#222,640)

@E. Mathieu Sternberg@facebook I was hoping someone would mention Bertrice Small. So much kink!

Lucy@twitter (#220,338)

I would love to say that romance as a genre is feminist, but sadly, I don't think it is. In fact I find it increasingly misogynistic.

How many romance novels include negative female stereotypes such as the bitch who harasses the heroine, or the stupid-but-pretty one obsessed with men, usually after the heroine's love interest. Don't get me started on the best friend who's into casual sex–whether she's seen as sad or encourages the heroine to try it, it's still telling that the idea has to come from someone other than the heroine. I read way too many romance novels where any female character who isn't the heroine is cast in a negative light: she's a slut, she's got no self esteem, she's after other women's men etc. These stories might set out to empower the heroine but they're often not kind to the other women in the text (unless heroine's friend is about to get a book of her own, of course).

Romance *publishing* is feminist to a degree: women publishing books for women. But the genre itself still has a long way to go.

Capitola D. (#220,348)

Wonderful essay. Would that all who choose to write about romance novels had as much insight, humor, and respect for this aspect of literature as you display here. I'm passing this one along to all my writer friends.

One thing I think a lot of people don't quite realize is the very 'manly' writings of Louis L'Amour????? All romance novels. well, not all, but 99%. Told from the man's POV with guns blazing and fists flying but ultimately L'Amour's westerns were all Happily Ever After romances. I enjoy pointing that out to men. LOL

@Mary Connealy@facebook The very popular Dick Francis told wonderful mysteries – and nearly all of them were HEA romances as well.

Anyone looking for feminist romance novels need only find lesbian romances. While many of the tropes of the genre are alive and well, they are almost always woman-positive in the sense that the author of the article is discussing. Independence, inter-dependence, self-fulfillment, sacrifice and love all rolled up in the issues of daily life. [Disclosure: After many years of reading HQs I began writing the kind of strong, character-driven romances featuring strong women and lesbians that I wanted to read.]

Cy Parker (#220,411)

I read romance novels for years to the great disdain of my children and most of my friends. I always thought that an excellent topic for a Ph.D. dissertation would be the evolution of Romance Novels and how they reflect the changes experienced in society as a whole. Now I read more psychological thrillers than romances except for Nora Roberts.

Robert Corbett (#221,830)

This article misreads "underground" for "unregarded", and in the case of romance fiction, it is not unregarded by readers, but by mainstream literary critics. It has not been entirely ignored, however, as Janice Radway's "Reading the Romance" came out in 1991, combining formalist and sociological readings of the genre. But no publishing phenomenon that has not one, but two major suppliers can be said to be "underground"–romance fiction is a particularly above ground industry. They can be interesting in a formalist sense, because the tropes of romance are easy to spot, and their slight subversion easy to detect. Just by wandering my local public library, its clear that the form has broadened in terms of demographic and in terms of infiltration of other forms, as well as explicitness.

But reading for pleasure and affirmation is one thing, and art is another. The contrast between the romance writer writing for a reader versus Doestoevsky writing for himself is meant to be provoking, suggesting feminist collectivity and masculine self-pleasure, but is it true? What the romance writer affirms is the contract called "Romance Fiction" which the reader has assented by buying one. The contract is negotiated by the community of writers and readers, but it is understood before a word is written or a chapter read. It is also mediated by the publishers, most vividly in the outlines that are provided to would be romance writers. By contrast, the contract that Doestoevsky enters, but also a contemporary like Jennifer Egan enters, is negotiated from the start. There is a framework, and certain assumptions come into play given what genre a work seems appealing to, but the most important part of the contract is that the book will surprise the reader, not affirm what they already know. Doestoevsky is an odd writer to pick, anyway, as he is relatively social and even provocatively moral. A true underground writer is someone like Celine or Beckett who dismisses, sometimes with contempt, previous contracts with the reader. That's exactly what a romance writer does not do. The anecdote about the male writer who gets how to writer as a "female" points out the rigidity of the form.

Romance, then, is a product, not too different from potato chips. Potato chips certainly have their place, and probably every one eaten bears a distant resemblance to a pomme frite, as all romances have a bit of Austen in their DNA. But they are most certainly a mass produced twentieth century product, whose value is nothing if not exchanged. Whole Alexandrian libraries of them could be torched and no one would miss them. A work of art continues to be read long after its sell by date, and I sense the writer is acknowledging this fact by mentioning the long dead (and white) Doestoevsky.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@Robert Corbett wow! interesting. (Maria here.) Okay, first, when I say "underground" I mean exactly "not discussed by mainstream literary critics," so I don't really understand this distinction you're making. Then, yes, there has been increasing notice taken of the romance genre by a few hardy souls laboring in an academy desperate to (a) develop some relevance to the actual world out there and (b) locate some grist for the dissertational mill that has not yet been ground into sub-atomic particles. There is an International Association for the Study of Romance that is much less superior/distanced in its approach than Radway was, kind of mirroring the relative haut-en-bas approaches of Susan Sontag and Norman Mailer to the objects of popular culture, that slowly slowly became fit subjects for serious discourse. I am not seeing however that any of these academics has made the faintest splash in the broader media, written a book that has grabbed the attention of more conventional scholars of English the way, say, Sexual Personae did all those moons ago.

I will quarrel with you all day long over this idea: "reading for pleasure and affirmation is one thing, and art is another." No. There is not "art" that is above "reading for pleasure and affirmation." Also, no way was I suggesting "feminist collectivity against masculine self-pleasure" even the teensiest bit, here. I mentioned Dostoevsky because I am crazy about him, mainly, and also because I was kidding around and chose the most distant writer from Violet Winspear I could imagine. Both literary approaches, I clearly state, have their value. To love one does not disqualify a reader from loving the other. The latter part of your second paragraph, I agree with; indeed it is the point I am making myself.

I guess you have your own ideas about what constitutes "underground," there, okay.

If male writers have difficulty writing pov female, or vice versa, surely that is not to do with the rigidity of a particular literary form! It's just very difficult to pull off, no matter what the form.

I kind of agree about the potato chips, and disagree entirely with the idea that nobody would miss romances if they all went up in flames (that's just what I started out with; they would be missed I guess approximately three times more than literary novels would be,) and I can't see how you would know what will and will not be read in the future? Genre fiction of past centuries (dime novels, penny dreadfuls, etc.) certainly interests us, and the more popular it was the more it interests us. If we want to know what things were like, if we have any sense, it will interest us. Which doesn't mean we can't also read Joyce or Beckett.

barnhouse (#1,326)

p.s. thanks very much for the thoughtprovoking post!

Babar (#222,187)

After delightfully discussing romance fiction, Maria Bustillos, suddenly launches into some silliness about men not reading this particular genre because they would be embarrassed to be seen to be doing so, and because they would be reluctant to show their “unwarlike side.”
The real reason for men not reading romance fiction is that men are just not interested in it. The great gender divide starts very early. By their mid-twenties, most men who read – and there are not that many of them – abandon fiction and turn to reading history, politics, and biography. My impression is that, with the exception of a small minority of reading men, men lose the ability to suspend disbelief, and it is this loss that renders them largely uninterested in women’s fiction. Ask any bookseller, and he or she will tell you that eighty per cent of novels are bought by women.
Similarly, my impression is that not that many women read biographies or history unless these deal with women. Does that mean women are afraid to show their “warlike side?” No. It simply seems that the interests of the two sexes do not overlap entirely. There seem to be subjects of intense interest to reading men (and I keep emphasising “reading men,” as many men just don’t read books) are not particularly interesting to women, while subjects that are of intense interest to women, don’t excite men. Why not celebrate the differences between the sexes, and the wide variations of interests within the sexes instead of trying to force everyone into the same mold? Heck, some men enjoy knitting, while some women enjoy hunting.

Robert Corbett (#221,830)

@barnhouse: Thanks, Maria. Obviously, your post was thought provoking and engaging, otherwise I would not have written a much too long comment. I'll try not to do that again, and my spirit here, as there, is simply to engage, not to dismiss, which I fear is implicit in the comment about the library and art. I am far from think "de haut en bas" is the appropriate tone with respect to popular work considered critically. A critic should strive to see a work in the terms it sets for itself, which is simply the admonition that Coleridge gave us when he said "Read an author as if they know what they are doing unless and until you determine otherwise." However …

As a fan of punk rock in all its incarnations up to and including the present, I think that I have a much larger backing for my assertion that "underground" is simply the wrong way to characterize the books written as avidly commercial as romance, via Harlequin and the other publisher who I am completely unfamiliar with. "Underground" to me is what is conveyed by "Notes from the Underground" or Paul Weller saying, "The people get what the people/But I don't want what society wants/I'm going underground." Simply put, it is work that does not seek to be popular, and plug into a rich, well defined conversation. It probably does have an audience, and in some cases that audience expands. Romance simply put does from the start. To say something is "underground" because the latest is not written about by an academic critic or Michiko Kakutani, but is extremely popular publically is just odd to me.

My other point is about academic criticism. It's quite probable that the reason for lack of attention, if such there is, is because the questions raised by the 20th century genre just aren't that interesting to most people committed to 5-7 years of academic training. There is plenty of interest in relevance in academia, and perhaps that interest is obscured by some excesses of theory, but cultural studies is agnostic about aesthetic quality for most part; what it invests in is interesting configurations of the social. There is a whole industry on Frankenstein in the academy, comparable in scope to those on Blake and Joyce. I am more invested in Shelley, so I would say there are also good aesthetic reasons for it, but I would not be so naive to say that the fact that the book and its successors turns upside down some of our ordinary assumptions is part of the reason why.

One thing I will say is that Radway's book is old, and her methodology was a little crimped (but it being a dissertation might explain that). The genre of romance has not imploded, but the titles I see at my local library usually include an adjective (erotic, urban, paranormal, etc.) It certainly gotten broader and has been infected as it were with some of the weirdness that (in my meaning of the word) has been underground. As a past scholar, would be critic, I would still not worry that they are disregarded. One of the crosses of the underground, not born well by older punks, is that critics, popular and otherwise, have gotten hold of the genre, and have used it themselves. It's nostalgia and middle aged white man crankiness, but one can feel that something was lost when you finally do get attention you thought you deserved.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Golly! What a splendid comment. Thank you for explaining your concept of "underground." Where we're differing really is in what constitutes "popular," it turns out. In my view romance fiction is well outside the mainstream of literature. Is not really "popular"; or rather is "popular" in the same way Marvel Comics are, pretty much outside serious consideration.

A scholarly preoccupation with what you call "interesting configurations of the social" would be well served by broader consideration of romance fiction, and genre fiction generally. In our lifetime the academy, which as late as the 1960s refused to consider anything written after the nineteenth century as being worthy of scholarly interest, has expanded its field of acceptable interests to include dissertations on The Wire and whatnot. This process is very slow, though, and the best talent doesn't risk focusing on such stuff. So while I really like your characterization of Shelley, etc., I think there's a lot more to this broadening of scope than you suggest…

That said, I'm working against a whole different critical model than you've been, here. There's this sort of sniffiness-level that occurs in academic and popular criticism, where Art Spiegelman is within the pale, and Brian Lee O'Malley is beyond it, for instance. There's this mysterious academic laying on of hands, as it were.

p.s. I was delighted at your Paul Weller quote. Was lucky enough to see The Jam perform, when I were a lad. (And The Clash! and the Buzzcocks.)

fitness (#222,428)

Those were the days when I read Mills and Boon…

I write romance novels, usually with a fair bit of the fantastical, though I'm only a few years into it and still trying to get an agent (hard work). I don't care what anyone says, they are hard work to write. The overall point of a romance is the relationship, but you can't concentrate on that to the exclusion of everything else. There are problems to overcome, the characters exist in their worlds and communities, there could be a mystery to solve or a personal problem to overcome. In addition, all of those elements must be included while always being aware that everything has to push toward the eventual culmination of the romantic relationship. Don't even get me started on researching accents, the mythical or paranormal, or historical periods. That said, I love reading them and love writing them. I still get a bit nervous, or perhaps vaguely embarrassed would work better, when people ask me what I write, but I'm slowly getting to a point where I can say I write romance and not care if I get negative comments or looks.
On another note, several years ago I was working at a Goodwill store and an older gentleman came up to the register with a cart full of Mills & Boon and Harlequin romances. Another cashier asked if he was buying them for his wife. He grinned and said, "No, they're for me." I wanted to clap.

The pre-1980s romance output may be interesting – I wouldn't say golden – but what about what's happening now in romantic fiction, several decades on? I don't think you'll find so much heroine self-doubt or god-in-the-machine. Now, we write about 21st Century relationships and, as a relationship is at the heart of the book, much of the conflict comes from within. And is resolved by the characters themselves. Although category romance (Mills & Boon, Silhouette, etc) does focus on the relationship alone, more mainstream romantic fiction frequently covers much larger issues, along with the romance. Romantic fiction grows and develops with time, just like everything else.

Back in my 20s and 30s, I devoured romance fiction,particularly the formulaic "Harlequin/Silhouette" variety. Now that I'm in my 50s, I regret the years I wasted reading such literature. To me it's not at all femiminst. It's just mindless junk that continues the myth that some man is going to "rescue" you and you'll live happily ever after. I'm particularly disapproving of the recent category romance genres where the heroines are pregnant. I think this is misleading to young people and gives the wrong message that it's perfectly ok to put the cart before the horse because some dishy man is going to rescue the heroine and they'll live happily ever after with baby in tow. Most real life single mothers will tell you lone parenting is anything but romantic…and it's a proven fact that if a woman already has kids her chances of marriage are slimmer. Mind you I'm also not fan of so-called Chick Lit either or even feminist literature. Much of that is way too depressing as I discovered when I took a college course on British Women writers 20 years ago! Surely there's a balance for women between "Sardonic Greeks" in the category romances and the "depressed trapped housewife" who puts her head in the over ala "To Room 19" by Doris Lessing. Perhaps now because I'm over 50, I just don't have the patience for most fiction? These days, I find myself reading less and less fiction and reading more non-fiction particularly on religion and spirituality, travel and genuine history vs historical fiction. Reality is far more captivating and 'romantic' than the same old formula 'happily ever after' stuff I'm discovering. If people want to read the occasional Danielle Steele or Barbara Taylor Bradford, fine, but one shouldn't have a steady of such works exclusively. Better to expand one's horizons, I say.

Lush Acres (#245,074)

Great Post. I have not been visiting the Fernvale and Sengkang EC site recently. Took a visit again and there were some great comments on the site. Excellent post.
Keep up the good work.
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amandalowhorn (#250,976)

I am currently reading Emma Rose romance books. I am so hook on to the story because its so good.

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