During my lecture at McDaniel, I returned to Susan Quilliam’s polemic and asked about the place of romance in therapy, therapy in romance. As a literary theorist, there are aspects of Quilliam’s work that I want to agree with, namely that romance – like any literary text – has an affective power. We are moved to laughter, to tears, to joy, to sadness, to pleasure by the texts we read. Dina Georgis, though not writing about romance novels, writes: "By awakening us to loss, literature incites our weeping" ("Hearing the better Story" 171). But, to recognise this affective power and possibility is to also recognise that Quilliam asserts, romances teach readers to have sex without condoms. Where Quilliam and I depart is about the role romance can and does have in the lives of readers and writers.
We are reminded often enough about the dangers of romance fiction. Jean Lush and Pam Vredevelt’s Women and Stress: Practical Ways to Manage Tension provides a telling example:
When I was writing my first book, Emotional Phases of a Woman's Life, I decided to investigate the reading material women were buying. I called bookstores and secondhand shops that handled thousands of paperbacks. One morning, in a used-book store, I witnessed a woman bringing in a huge sack of romantic novels to exchange for dozens more. I asked her why she read so many of these books, and she said, "I love romance. It's my escape from a humdrum life, I guess." [...]
Why is there such a colossal market for romantic paperbacks? Some would say this is one positive way women can stimulate their love life. However, many romance novel readers admit to being addicted to these books. They express a desire to break the habit because it robs them of time for other healthy involvements.
I think these books serve as a substitute for reality for some women who do not feel romantically fulfilled, but I question the benefits of getting lost in fiction. If anything, this habit may stir up unrealistic expectations and make them feel less satisfied with life as it is. (81)
I am willing to recognize, as I did in my lecture, that there are probably "extreme readers" for whom the romance novel is genuinely an addiction, but these readers are "extreme." As for "escap[ing] from a humdrum life," I'd imagine that many of us read fiction to "escape" our daily lives. Orhan Pamuk opens The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist with these words:
Novels are second lives. Like the dreams that the French poet Gérard de Nerval speaks of, novels reveal the colors and complexities of our lives and are full of people, faces, and objects we feel we recognize. Just as in dreams, when we read novels we are sometimes so powerfully struck by the extraordinary nature of the things we encounter that we forget where we are and envision ourselves in the midst of the imaginary events and people we are witnessing. At such times, we feel that the fictional world we encounter and enjoy is more real that the real world itself. (3)
Of course this could become a problem, a problem that leads Don Quixote to fight windmills in search of Dulcinea, a problem that leads Madame Bovary to be lost in romantic fantasy. But is this genuinely the "norm" and if it is the "norm" is it so extreme that it requires an intervention? For Donna Patrow, this is a reason for concern:
her inclination toward soap opera addiction will undoubtedly compromise her mental purity. [...] With that type of lifestyle, she's inclined to attract the wrong sort of friends - friends who drag her down rather than challenge her to grow mentally and spiritually. Maybe her soap opera buddies will introduce her to racy romance novels, and she'll become addicted to those, as well (see 2 Cor. 12:20; 2 Thess. 3:11). This can lead to a type of emotional adultery that is extremely destructive to your love life. (105-106)
Romance fiction, like soap operas, may very well be dangerous but this presumes that all readers of romance fiction will become "addicted" to a point where the addiction is debilitating and interferes with daily life to such a degree that some radical change is needed. Such a perspective is, to my mind, the most dystopian reading of romantic fiction (at least on the critic’s part). Surely, there is a way in which the critic can imagine a more utopian outcome for romantic fiction.
In my paper, I argued that indeed romantic fiction could serve more utopian ends. The argument that I am interested in is about what romantic fiction can teach its readers. If romantic fiction is powerful enough to teach readers not to use condoms, it surely too must be endowed with a similar power to teach readers about what an ideal relation might look like. I am not arguing that all relations will be ideal and everything will work out perfectly, indeed, I don't think many romance novels advocate this either. Pamela Regis’s eight components of a romance novel don't begin with perfection and then outline another seven perfect steps. The romance novel includes: conflict, points of ritual death, barriers. What romance does differently than lived romances is that it guarantees a happily ever after, but that happily ever after is only possible because the relation is itself a journey in which the reader and the heroine encounter barriers to the relationship, conflicts intrinsic to the relationship (which often enough reflect very real conflicts that can translate to the reader’s own life), and points of ritual death. The point of romance fiction, I argued, is less the happily ever after (though we demand this) and more the journey towards the happily ever after.