That’s All She Wrote: Romance Novels, The Last Great Bastion Of Underground Writing
February 24, 2012
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.)