In the comments on my last post Kimber said
I have a troublesome theory that's been nagging at me for some time I wish you would discuss on the blog. The romance blogosphere seems to accept as a home truth that romances are empowering women's fiction unfairly maligned by the patriarchal, white-male establishment.So I thought I'd oblige. It seems to me that any generalisation about a genre as big as romance is going to be problematic because there are bound to be exceptions, perhaps quite large numbers of them, to almost any claim one chooses to make. Karen Kosztolnyik, who's worked as a senior editor at Warner Books said something about the genre that I've read quite a few times before: 'this is a genre of books where the product is written by women for women'. It's true, but only up to a point. We all know that there are male authors of romance and, according to the RWA's 2005 Market Research Study, '22% of romance readers are male'.
Other claims are much more difficult to either prove or disprove. Jayne Ann Krentz, in her introduction to Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, writes that a
strong theme that emerges from the essays is that of female empowerment. Readers understand that the books celebrate female power. In the romance novel, as Phillips, Clair, and several others point out, the woman always wins. With courage, intelligence, and gentleness she brings the most dangerous creature on earth, the human male, to his knees. More than that, she forces him to acknowledge her power as a woman. (1992: 5)What is indubitably true is that the romance heroine is always given what the author thinks, and/or hopes the readers will think, is a happy ending, but readers may disagree about whether the HEAs in particular books truly represent a triumph for the heroines of those novels. All About Romance had a column about 'heroines who need to be slapped upside the head [and] heroes in need of a good kick in the you-know-where'. It seems to me that when readers classify a book as being about a doormat who marries a jerk, they aren't considering the outcome to be a 'win' for the heroine.
Jenny Crusie says that
The fairy tales I read as a child told me that boys' stories were about doing and winning but that girls' stories were about waiting and being won. Far from setting out on their own quests, women were the prizes in their own stories, and the less active they were--do NOT be a pushy, knife-wielding stepsister--the better their chances were of getting the castle and the crown.so she
rewrote the fairy tale and recast the canon so that I was at the center of the story. It told me that what I did made a difference, that the things I understood and had experience with were important, that "women's stuff" mattered. It gave me female protagonists in stories that promised that if a woman fought for what she believed in and searched for the truth, she could strip away the old lies about her life and emerge re-bornRomances can do that but I think it would be impossible to deny that some don't. Are Barbara Cartland's novels empowering re-writings of the fairy tale? Or do they tend to imply that a powerful man can only be 'tamed' by a sexually innocent, startling beautiful young woman? Cartland's heroines get their happy endings, they 'win', they show courage and certainly gentleness, but does the emphasis on the ways in which the heroine is exceptionally lovely, gentle and innocent empower other women? Or does it suggest that we will never be as deserving of a fairytale ending because we lack the qualities embodied in the heroine? And why are we offered so many heroes who are rich, rakish, distant, sexually experienced older men? Is the implication that a man who was poor or only comfortably off, of a similar age to the heroine, lacking in sexual experience and emotionally open wouldn't be worth winning? And what if we prefer not to think of the relationship between the sexes as a competition or battle to be 'won'? Why does it have to be about 'winning' anyway? Can't we have heroes and heroines who co-operate? Actually, we do, and that's acknowledged by many of the authors whose essays appear in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, even as they state their strong preference for heroes who need to be 'tamed'. So, while it's (almost) always the case that a romance has a heroine and she's rewarded at the end of the novel with requited love, the nature of the heroine, who/what she struggles with and the precise nature of her reward (is it a reformed rake and motherhood? is it a new career and a younger man?) can vary.*
Krentz also writes that the essays in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Woman explore:
A third theme, one related to empowerment, [...] that of the inherently subversive nature of the romance novel. Romance novels invert the power structure of a patriarchal society because they show women exerting enormous power over men (1992: 5)I'm not sure how subversive this really is. I wouldn't deny that romances can be subversive, but I certainly don't think that all of them are. The idea that women exert 'enormous power over men' is at the heart of Victorian chivalrous ideals and in an earlier post I discussed why I don't think that was generally 'empowering' for women, despite the fact that proponents of chivalry claimed that women exerted enormous power over men. Mary Wollstonecraft, on the other hand, was considered subversive:
"Educate women like men," says Rousseau, "and the more they resemble our sex the less power will they have over us." This is the very point I aim at. I do not wish them to have power over men; but over themselves. (from her Vindication of the Rights of Women)And she wasn't at all anti-sex or male/female relationships:
Mary worked on a final book, The Wrongs of Woman; or Maria, a kind of sequel to The Rights of Woman. In it she revealed the need of women for companionship and freedom to express their sexuality, as well as for reason and independence. The originality of the book lies in its depiction of a working class prostitute who, along with the sensitive and adulterous heroine, is allowed a voice as she tells her story of immense and continuing suffering. The novel was unfinished, for death came tragically to Mary. (Todd)Another point to bear in mind when it comes to defining 'subversiveness' in romances is that a work can only really be labelled 'subversive' when compared to other novels and/or societal norms. I'll use Crusie as an example again. She'd been reading the classics, in which there were
miserable women like the one who pursued the life she wanted, had great sex, and then ate arsenic; or the one who pursued the life she wanted, had great sex, and then threw herself under a train; or my personal fave, the one who pursued the life she wanted, had lousy sex with a masochistic dweeb, and spent the rest of her endless life atoning by doing good works in a letter sweater.In comparison with Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina or The Scarlet Letter, yes, of course the treatment of sexuality in many romances looks subversive. Juliet Flesch comments that 'In general, the moral, social and ethical stance adopted by many Australian romance writers is tolerant and progressive, most notably in relation to the rights of women, children and ethnic minorities' (2004: 295). One person's 'tolerant and progressive' can be another's 'subversive' and yet another's 'deeply conservative' because so much depends on which books or social norms you're measuring them against.
Kimber also commented that some people claim that
the very fact romances sell like hotcakes proves they are not only a commercial force to be reckoned with but they deserve more literary respect.High sales can, I think, be taken as an indication that the genre is a popular culture phenomenon which should not be ignored. They also tell us that the books contain something which appeals to a large number of people and that they may therefore give some insight into the aspirations and tastes of a great many readers.
I've gone along with this for a while, and tried to broaden my horizons beyond historicals, thinking that perhaps there existed a bright world of top-notch romances out there. But even though I've tried hard to give them benefit of the doubt, I'm forced to the conclusion that most romances are indeed filled with cardboard characters, clichés and bad writing. The blogosphere decries the double-standard applied to fiction written by women for women, but I think we're guilty of applying a double standard ourselves. I think we just accept lower-quality writing in romances because they're "fun" to read.
This isn't to say there aren't good romance writers out there. But I have to disagree with the argument that because they're popular and profitable, romances as a genre deserve more respect. Popularity does not imply quality.
However, readers select books for a number of reasons. These may include: literary style; complex world-building; complex, realistic characterisation; intellectual stimulation; emotional impact; fast-moving plot; 'escape'; validation/reassurance. Some books work on more levels than others: while some novels may combine an exciting plot with well-drawn characters, an engaging underlying theme and complex use of imagery, others may only only succeed in a few of these areas. As Pacatrue commented: 'If a novel can be enjoyable without good characters, that simply means its found a different way to accomplish the task. I'm just wary of the notion that we forgive bad novels because we enjoy them. If we enjoy them, then they aren't bad.' It might, however, have been even more enjoyable (and a better book) had it had 'good characters' too. If one could exclude the effect of external factors such as good promotion and distribution, quirks of survival (some texts might be classics had they not been lost in the centuries since they were written) or some element which leads them to become 'set texts' in schools and universities, my intuition would be that novels which succeed in more areas (characterisation, theme, plot, style etc) are more likely to become classics, because there is more chance that some element of the novel will continue to appeal to readers even while other elements of the writing go out of fashion. Success on many levels also makes it more likely that the book will continue to appeal to the same reader when she or he re-reads the novel. Pacatrue asked 'are romance novels like cotton candy that vanishes in the blink of an eye, or are they a savory treat that you can go back to over and over?' I think some can be read and re-read but once the element of surprise is lost, a novel must depend on success in areas other than the plot twists if it is to engage the reader.
Success in characterisation, style etc is, however, a subjective matter. Catherine Sheldrick Ross and Mary K. Chelton carried out a survey of 'heavy readers' and found that
When readers reject a book as "poorly written", they often mean that the book was successfully written to achieve an effect that they personally dislike - too sexually arousing, too scary, too sentimental, too full of verbal effects, too descriptive, or too literary for them. A fan of the stripped-down Hemingway style might dislike the sensuous language of romance and declare that all romances are "poorly written." (2001: 53)I've mentioned their findings and discussed them in more detail here. The tastes of academics, and their judgements about literary merit, are also subjective. To take an example from medieval literature, cancionero poetry placed many restrictions on the poet:
This restriction is a sign of ingenuity: to operate successfully within the very narrow limits allowed by the new convention is a supreme test of a poet's skill. [...]Or, to take a more recent example which I mentioned in my comments on my last post,
The skill and the restriction are conceptual as well as metrical [...] the vocabulary is remarkably limited both in quantity and in type (nearly all of the words are abstract). This, of course, makes it very difficult for the modern reader to concentrate on even a short poem like a canción [...] It is tempting to regard these late canciones as displays of ultimately pointless ingenuity, and this may prove to be the right answer - some cultures do take disastrously wrong turnings. It is, however, also possible that modern readers have somehow missed the point. (Deyermond 1971: 198)
Dickens has always presented problems for literary criticism. For theorists whose critical presuppositions emphasise intelligence, sensitivity and an author in complete control of his work the cruder aspects of his popular art have often proved an unsurmountable obstacle. (Alan Shelston)What constitutes 'literary merit', then, seems to be at least partly a matter of taste.
- Deyermond, A. D., 1971. A Literary History of Spain: The Middle Ages (London: Ernest Benn Limited).
- Flesch, Juliet, 2004. From Australia with Love: A History of Modern Australian Popular Romance Novels (Fremantle, Western Australia: Curtin University Press).
- Krentz, Jayne Ann, 1992. 'Introduction', Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance, ed. Jayne Ann Krentz (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), pp. 1-9.
- Sheldrick Ross, Catherine & Chelton, Mary K., 2001. ‘Reader’s Advisory: Matching Mood and Material’, Library Journal (February 1): 52-55.
* To state the obvious, there are no heroines in m/m romances.