Friday, July 28, 2006

Why Do We Read Romance Novels?

There's a thread at All About Romance on this topic, and so far there's been quite a range of responses. Despite the fact that some readers like the comfort that comes from the happy endings, and the reassurance that despite all the horrors that take place in the world, love and happy endings are possible, not all readers seemed to care about the happy ending. Some even said they disliked the extremely 'sweet' endings to some romances, in which everything is resolved in what they see as an artificial and overly tidy way. Some readers just enjoy the way in which the genre asserts that relationships are vitally important, and they like reading about relationships and how they develop. And some enjoy the twists and turns of the story as the couple must overcome the various obstacles which stand in the way of the development of the relationship. This latter answer is the one given by a character in Amanda Quick’s Wait Until Midnight.

Adam, the hero, asks a reader of the ‘sensation novels’ written by the heroine
“Doesn’t the fact that you already know the identity of the villain and that he will meet with an unpleasant fate take all of the surprise and astonishment out of the story? What is the purpose of reading a novel if one knows the ending before one turns the first page?”
Harold regarded him with acute bewilderment. Then Adam saw the light of comprehension strike.
“I take it you are not a great reader of novels, sir,” Harold said, sympathy as thick as cream in every word.
“No.” Adam sat back in his chair and gripped the arms. “I do not count novel reading among my vices.”
“Allow me to explain, if I may. Of course one knows that in a sensation novel, the villain will pay for his villainy, just as one knows that the hero and heroine will be rewarded for their good hearts and noble actions. Those things are givens, as it were. They are not the point of the business.”
“Indeed? Well, what in blazes is the point?”
“Why, it is seeing how the characters arrive at their various fates that compels our attention.” [...] “It is the series of startling incidents in the various chapters that entertains and amazes, all the twists and turns and emotional sensations. That is why one reads a novel, sir. Not to discover how it ends, but to enjoy the strange and exotic scenery along the way.” (2004: 108-109)
That's not why I read romance. I'm one of those readers who still takes sneak peeks at the endings. Yes, I know I'm reading a romance, and yes, I know it'll all end happily, but I still double-check sometimes. I really do need the happy ending. Why? Because, as the RWA suggests, these endings are ones which are 'Emotionally Satisfying' to me. I read romance because I like happy stories, and I can't think of any emotion that's made me happier than feeling requited love. I'm an unashamed romantic, and in the world of romances, I read about other people finding that same happiness.

So why do you read romance? Or, if you're not a romance reader, is there something about the happy endings and the focus on relationships which you find off-putting?

Quick, Amanda, 2004. Wait Until Midnight (London: Piatkus Books Ltd).


  1. Thanks for directing us to that thread, Laura. Wow, it is a really interesting question when I stop to think about it. I used to believe in the back of my mind what I suspected everyone thought of me: that I was just a lazy reader with no more ambition than to pick up a 200-page romance and stay up half the night reading it. And maybe I still think so (after all, that copy of "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell" is still sitting there silently judging me for 'pausing' after 150 pages, or so), since I know I'm not going to attempt "Finnegan's Wake" unless I'm the last survivor of the Apocalypse and it's the last novel left unread in the deserted library.

    Romances are just so reader-friendly, and I enjoy them so much. It's like eating a whole bag of Pepperidge Farm cookies without the calories. For me, it is definitely the escape. I open a book and in two pages I am there (if well-written), not here where life can be, frankly, dreary. Novels other than romances can do that, too, of course. I was reading the "Master and Commander" series by Patrick O'Brian last year, and while not romances, they have a romantic quality about them (Dr. Maturin's perpetual pining for his Diana). I took my own short voyage on a sailing ship recently, and it was nice but I just couldn't get the feeling I had while reading those novels.

    It's the feeling of stepping into a story, meeting the characters and thinking, "Okay, I have to know what happens next. I have to know how it ends." J.K. Rowling has been quite genius in her Harry Potter novels. Even if they don't end quite happily, how can we not read the next book? How can we not know how it ends? And I know I am not alone in this because several people in the university department where I work are reading Harry Potter and wondering the same thing. (Harry Potter is fine to talk about among academics because people won't think you're reading it for the sex.)

    I do read romances for the sex, too, I guess I'm forced to admit, but for the funny, surprising, sometimes awkward elements of sex, and not long, drawn-out passages of foreplay, which is really overrated in fictional form, I think. : ) I admire Jennifer Crusie's novels for this, in that most of the foreplay is done with clothes still on, by talking instead of touching.

    Like some of the other posters to the thread, there are times when I get so annoyed at the current crop of romance novels that I think I'll never read another one again, but then I discover great authors like Patricia Gaffney, Loretta Chase, Judith Ivory and Jennifer Crusie that pull me back in. And I do like to find new and surprising types of romance. They don't all have to be HEA (as long as I don't know that beforehand). I really enjoyed Phillip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" series, even though it didn't end as I would have wished. It was touching at times and quite wrenching at others.

    In summation, I read romances because I want to laugh out loud, be plunged to emotional depths and feel like I've taken a mini-vacation to strange and interesting places and different points of view. That's not too lame a reason, is it?

  2. Doesn't sound like a lame reason at all to me, but then, given my reasons for reading romance, I've maybe got no credibility left at all ;-)

    Harry Potter is fine to talk about among academics because people won't think you're reading it for the sex.

    You don't work in a department where people study literature then? Because I remember reading rather a lot of sex scenes while in the French and Spanish departments, and I'm sure it's similar in English departments too.

  3. No, I work in a center for international studies, humanities studies, and various other area studies. My boss is a writer of plays, novels, poetry and such, so I'm surrounded by literature of an intellectual nature. I live in anxiety that he will accidentally open one of my Amazon packages. : ) I've heard him deconstruct "Field of Dreams" -- I'm not sure I want to hear him critique "Bet Me."

    OTOH, the director of my center is a reader of spy novels, graphic novels and loves "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer," so I think it's reasonable to believe that most people around me have popular fiction tucked in behind their works on globalization and 18th Century Colonialism.

  4. Ah, well if he loves Buffy, and he notices you reading Crusie, you could mention Jenny's essay on 'Dating Death: Love and Sex in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer'. It's on her website here. And so if he does happen to ask if you just read romance for the sex scenes, you can point out exactly how much sex there is in Buffy. And Crusie says that 'Watching Buffy is an education in how to write romance', so you might get him reading Crusie next.

  5. Sounds interesting. I'll definitely read it for myself. Maybe I'll figure out what Buffy saw in Angel. He was pretty ho-hum for a vampire. : ) I think I'll steer away from talking of sex with my superior, however. I'm not sure if he's gay, but I think he's a cel. Better safe than sorry. We discuss more innocuous topics, like why does Angel have an American accent, while Spike still has a British one?

  6. I've never seen any Buffy (for one thing I don't have a TV, and for another I'm easily scared), but if you're interested in Buffy, there's an online academic journal entirely devoted to the series. It's Slayage: The Online International Journal of Buffy Studies. There's a vast amount there, including an Encyclopedia of Buffy Studies.

  7. A couple of people touched on this in the AAR discussion but didn't quite articulate what I think is my reason for reading romance. They mentioned that the books are generally from a woman's point of view but I'd take that further. They are books in which the woman is the subject of her own story. She is not the object of someone else's.

    I read them for the women. But shy away from "woman's fiction" and literary fiction that many would argue is the same thing. Not so. When I think about why, I realize that in these other genres the woman may be the subject by the end of the novel but she spends a good part of the rest of the novel acting as an object. She is done to, not doing the doing.

    Am I making any sense here? In romance, in my view, the heroine is the star of her own life, not the supporting player in someone elses.

  8. Yes, I think I see what you mean, although I've read so little modern women's fiction/modern literary fiction that I know next to nothing about their depictions of heroines.

    Crusie (and I know I quote her a lot, but it's because she's written so much about the romance genre) likens the heroine in a romance to the protagonist of a fairytale, who's on a quest. But, unlike most fairytales, where the protagonist is male:

    This then is what romance did for me: it 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-born, transformed with that new sense of self that's the prize at the end of any quest. And when the heroine emerges transformed from the romance story, so do I. So do all romance readers.
    Scribbling Women

    Judith Arnold says something very similar in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women:

    All good fiction is, to some extent, about character. Romance fiction places a particular emphasis on character [...]. But the standard plot of a romance novel cannot be summed up with the cliché "Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl." In the romance fiction I write, the girl does the meeting, losing, and getting. The woman does. (1992: 133-134)

    She also says that in the romances she writes

    If a heroine has had a bad love affair in the past, she is done with it before the novel begins. The tedious tribulations of the breakup are history by the time the reader meets her. Many feminist novels of the 1960s and 1970s dealt with heroines struggling to extricate themselves from unsatisfying relationships. (1992: 135)

    What Arnold's saying about the difference between a woman who at the beginning of the book is still struggling/stuck (women's fiction) and a woman who at the beginning of the book is on the point of lift-off/embarking on her quest (romance) seems to me to be very similar to what you're saying. Or have I misunderstood?

    A related issue which both Arnold and Crusie go on to address is that they think the female-centredness of romance is one of the things which has led to the genre being marginalised:

    Sociologists have long recognized a phenomenon called "feminization," which means that anything that becomes associated solely with women falls in general esteem. Movies that deal with women's concerns are dismissed as "chick flicks," professions such as nursing and public school teaching have long been underpaid, and child care is shamefully under-funded. Clearly women and women's concerns have their approved places and the center of the story is not one of them. But romance fiction insists that women be front and center, demonstrating over and over again that women can solve their own problems.
    Crusie, Defeating the Critics.

    Arnold, Judith, 1992. 'Women Do', in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, ed. Jayne Ann Krentz (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), pp. 133-139.

  9. What you've quoted from Crusie sums it up very nicely. The quest is what I am drawn to and that the quest is a woman's. It's the heroine's adventures, whether they are actual or emotional, that matter. If she decides at any point in the book that the hero is not the guy she loves, then that hero ceases to be the hero. You can't say the same about the hero's actions and that's a pretty powerful thing.

    Marginilization is not going to go away and yes it's because this is a girl thing, or a woman's thing. It happens with books and movies and it happens with jobs. Think of nurses, teachers, librarians, those professions are often stereotyped and diminished because they are still seen as being the jobs of women.

  10. But saying that romances are all about a woman's journey, a journey where she ultimately ends up at the altar -- isn't that ignoring the fact that at the end of the story, a woman needs a man's love to make her happy, fulfill her needs?

    Many romances are also told from the hero's perspective, so isn't it his story, too? In Laura Kinsale's "Prince of Midnight" isn't S.T. Maitland's journey just as compelling as the heroine's, or even more so?

    The typical romance usually follows one or more of the following arcs: For the woman, from peril to safety; from loneliness to love; or from innocence to sensuality.

    For the man: From lust to love; from dishonor to redemption; or from disillusion to trust.

    I may have overlooked a few, but although I don't think Crusie is completely wrong about this, I'm not sure I entirely agree with her. After all, Madame Bovary was the star of her own story, as was Anna Karenina. They are not romances because they went after what they wanted and bad things happened to them. Perhaps men see this as romantic.

    I think romance novels are dismissed by men because men have formed the perception (without reading them) that romances are about women who want to be rescued, who want to be romanced, and who want to be married. And I think many men are uncomfortable seeing themselves in that role. Also, they are intimidated by the hot men on the covers and by the sheer perfection of the heroes encapsulated within. And I don't think romance novels cure men of the notion that women fall for jerks who treat them badly or that women fantasize about turning that jerk into someone who will happily change nappies while gazing at her lovingly through a cloud of baby powder. Or that women, for some unfathomable reason, still yearn for cowboys.

    Men are capable of writing, and have written, very romantic novels, but frequently the woman dies in the end, or someone else dies. Think of "Cold Mountain," for goodness sake! All that time to return to the woman he loves... Well, I won't ruin it for you.

  11. Why do I read romance? I'm in love with love...that's not it. I tend to read romance because it soothes me and my overthinking brain. I also like to read the last few pages even though I know there will be a happily ever after ending, but I want to know how it happens and is the read worth my while. I associate reading romance with falling in love with books again! A romance book is a perfect escape ...crappy day be gone ...I've got a great book that evokes all my emotions.

  12. I think I respond to the hopefulness and optimism of romances. It's pure escapism and very emotionally satisfying. I often find when I'm reading a particularly enjoyable romance, that I've got a smile plastered on my face. And it's also the sex, and the buildup to the sex. The emotional component of romances makes the sex more appealing than in pornography, where the participants have no inner life or motivation.

    As to whether the hero or the heroine is the central, driving figure -- I've read plenty of romances where the author was much more interested in the hero's character and point of view. I think you can write successful romances about men since the emotional journey to love is the same. (Although I suppose you could argue that this is merely a female idea of an emotional journey superimposed onto a male character.)

    I agree that romances are dismissed because they are for "chicks." And a lot of romances are really dumb, poorly written and/or formulaic. But so are a lot of mysteries, spy novels, police procedurals, fantasy, etc. (And don't get me started on The Da Vinci Code!)

  13. i was quite as engrossed in reading romance novels before and yes i went as far as urgh.. nora roberts.. (ok i'm sinking deeper into my chair) it was all for entertainment i kept telling myself..but after getting frustrated over one soppy shit i read i realized it must be some sort of psychosis already.. so i geared myself into getting off the habit and diversion led me to reading other people's blogs and yes until now i still do that obviously until at one point "i have to read my own story" i started venturing into internet dating going from one site to another and right now i'm into so far i could say i'm enjoying and i now center my attention to myself not somebody else's fairytale.

  14. What's wrong with reading Nora Roberts' books? They're extremely popular, and she also writes as J.D. Robb. I have the impression that few people would describe her romantic suspense as 'soppy'.

    Although I'm an academic, not a medical doctor, I think I can guarantee that romance reading is extremely unlikely to be an indication of psychosis. Websurfing, however, can be addictive.

  15. So you don't think that reading--especially romances--is an addiction?

    My siblings would definitely argue the point--and maybe I would too.

    It was books like Madame Bovary that got me back on the path to romances. Somehow I just couldn't quite see why it was considered great literature. After all, here was a woman betraying her husband, her marriage vows for whatever reason. (I really can't remember why. Perhaps there was a legitimate cause.)

    I've wondered a lot about why I read and buy, which is the crucial point, books and in particular romances. Yet I can't stop myself even though I have to forego other things in order to buy them. I also know that I'd have to live to the very ripe old age of 130 or 140 just to read all the books that I have, never mind the ones that I add monthly and read from the library.

    I do remember when it started to become "obsessive", if you will. I'd been going through a long period of pain for which no doctor at the time could find any explanation. It continued like this for at least 25 years until I finally sort of cracked. I started reading only for escape from the pain and discovered then that the best books were the ones that gave me a happy ending. That's not to say that all the books had happy endings but for the most part they did. Since the pain and accompanying fatigue and muddle-headedness are continuing (e.g., yesterday for about 30 seconds I could not remember what the present tense of "He fell down" was. That's very frightening when you can't remember something like that especially if you love language and languages as much as I do and stumble over every mistake in a book. So why am I still buying more books? One thing is that I want all the books by certain authors. Why? Well just to be able to say that I have them all? Because I am a packrat? Because things are the only items that have never really hurt me? They're always there for me just as God is always there as well. And God is my most important lodestone.

    I've cetainly suffered a lot of grief because of my books. Besides writers and this type of blog, I really have nobody to discuss books with. I also have a thirst for knowledge and my "library" contains, besides novels of every kind, every subject from archaeology to theology, skipping only biology--the result of two traumas that I experienced as a child. And I'm not a fan of vampires, witches, demons, etc. unless they are funny books and don't take themselves or the subject seriously. Nor do I like gory or cruel books because of said traumas and my constantly aching body.

    Well, enough said for now. I've spent too much time here already but it was all very illuminating and I'll definitely be back.

  16. I'm glad you've enjoyed reading the blog, sras.

    Reading can't be chemically addictive in the same way as drugs, but it can be something which a person may do to excess. I'm maybe not the best person to ask about this, though, because I've been known to forget to eat if I'm engrossed by a book. There's a joke here which highlights the parallels between 'readaholism' and other sorts of addiction, and they do undeniably exist. That said, though, reading can also do people a lot of good, and most teachers and librarians would strongly encourage reading.

    From what you say, it sounds as though your books are a source of pleasure and comfort to you. But if you have so many books that you're creating financial problems for yourself, and/or you're having difficulty storing them, maybe you could use your local library more?