the unwritten assumption [on Teach Me Tonight] appears to be that the best romance novels contain “important” themes; most often about gender roles.
I chafe at the idea that every romance novel should mean something. Sometimes a good story is simply that. Sure, there must be a point to it, something my publisher calls the “take-away value.” But in general, I don’t expect every romance I read to contain Big Thoughts. In fact, I believe I prefer that they do not.
Obviously I can't speak for any other contributors to the blog, but it seems to me that one of the things that academics do is look for themes, and because we're looking for them, we find them. I don't think we're just forcing books to yield up something they don't contain (though I've seen academics do this on occasion, when they have a particular theory that they're committed to, and the text is shoe-horned into fitting the theory - rather like the Ugly Sisters' feet). All romances deal with love. And that's a Big Theme. Then there's the hero and heroine, who have a relationship. As soon as you start comparing them to other heroes and heroines, and wondering if their relationship bears any relationship to real life, or to the relationships in other romances, you begin to explore Big Themes. As soon as a reader gloms an author's backlist and starts saying things like 'I prefer author X's earlier work, she or he is beginning a process which could lead to Big Thoughts. I can't think of any story that's simply a good story. Zipes says of the fairy-tale, for example, that
any definition of this genre must begin with the premise that the individual tale was indeed a symbolic act intended to transform a specific oral folk tale (and sometimes a well-known literary tale) and designed to rearrange the motifs, characters, themes, functions and configurations in such a way that they would address the concerns of the educated and ruling classes of late feudal and early capitalist societies. (1991: 6)I wouldn't argue that all romance authors 'intend' to address Big Issues, but the issues will be there nonetheless. Romances deal with sexual mores (virgin widows anyone? disputes about erotic romances?). Does the heroine have/not have a job? Does she want/not want children? Does the hero carry a gun/fight a duel? Do they own property (and if so, how much)? If so, the story can be seen as telling us something - about women's sexuality, about working women, about family life, about the use of violence, about capitalism.
So, if academics can find Big Themes and think Big Thoughts about almost any text, surely this means that we're not making the 'assumption [...] that the best romance novels contain “important” themes; most often about gender roles'? I think, and I'm speaking for myself here, that the 'best romance' novels speak to our emotions. They also have rich characterisation and a skilled use of language. In fact, when lists of 'great literature' are drawn up, I'm sure the 'speaking to the emotions' aspect of the text plays an important factor in that selection too, whether or not this is always admitted.
I've heard it said that authors of fiction can get inspiration for story ideas from all sorts of places including objects and news items. Did the creators of those objects mean them to spark an author's imagination? I doubt it. But they do nonetheless inspire the author. Academics are similar - we read texts and are inspired, and by making comparisons with other texts, the cultural context etc, we end up discussing Big Thoughts.
We can read for fun too, though, sometimes.
Zipes, Jack, 1991. Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: The Classical Genre for Children and the Process of Civilization (New York: Routledge). First published in 1983 by Heinemann Educational Books Ltd.