Thursday, September 21, 2006

Metaromance (4) - Romance Readers

Nicola Marsh’s Contract to Marry, is another metaromance, since the heroine’s best friend, Liv, is a romance reader and through her the novel ‘systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality’ (Wikipedia entry on metafiction). A discussion about romance novels sets the scene for the meeting between hero and heroine and every so often references to the genre provide a point of reference for reflections on their relationship.

Liv has to face the usual negative comments that romance readers have come to expect if they read their favourite novels in public:
She [Fleur, the heroine] scanned the growing lunch crowd and spotted her friend at a corner table, nose buried in the latest romance novel as usual.
Taking care not to decapitate anyone on the way to their table, Fleur slid into a vacant seat and stacked her load against a nearby wall. ‘Let me guess. The tall, dark and handsome hero is about to rip off the heroine’s bodice and thrust his -’
‘No! Romance novels aren’t bodice-rippers. They’re contemporary fiction. How many times have I told you that?’ Liv stared at Fleur over her rimless spectacles, a faint blush staining her cheeks.
Fleur grinned. ‘All those books seem the same to me. Lots of hot action, with the main protagonist being men with broad, naked chests and big-’
‘OK, you’ve made your point.’ Liv snapped the book shut and held up her hand to silence her. (2005: 6)
The author soon gets her revenge on Fleur, by making her the heroine of a romance and giving her her very own Darcy (though in his case it’s his first name rather than his surname):
suddenly, just like that, Fleur experienced that strange, fluttery feeling that Liv’s romance novels raved about, that once-in-a-lifetime gut-churning, toe-curling reaction that signalled the one. She gazed at the stranger (2005: 9)
It’s playful way of challenging some of the stereotypes about romance, while simultaneously acknowledging that some of them may be correct: as Liv’s blush indicates, many romances do indeed feature ‘ Lots of hot action’ and heroes with ‘broad, naked chests and big-’. In fact, in Contract to Marry itself Fleur will be depicted ‘admiring his toned torso [...] her hands skimming the broad, muscular expanse’ (2005: 126).

Another of the stereotypes about the genre, and one which Marsh seems to be attempting to refute, is that it’s unrealistic in its portrayal of happy outcomes for relationships. As Crusie observes:
Yes, there's still tragedy and suffering in the world, but not unbroken tragedy and suffering, and in fact, most of us are surrounded by good stuff. Specifically, people fall in love, get married, and stand by each other every day, and roughly half of them stay that way. For the first time in a century, the commitment and happy ending of the romance plot is every bit as realistic as the Modernist plot. Unfortunately the perception is that they're just not artistic.
The plot of Contract to Marry depicts a cynical heroine, one who states that she’s ‘not a heroine in one of your novels’ (2005: 91) and who refers to romances as that those ‘corny novels’ (2005: 134). Nonetheless she falls in love and comes to believe in romance. When Liv temporarily becomes disillusioned with the genre, saying ‘I’ve given up on romance. It’s nothing like the books say it is’ (2005: 170), it’s Fleur who tries to reassure her and restore Liv’s faith in romance.

Marsh isn't alone in depicting romance-reading characters and using them to counter some of the prejudices about the genre. Another romance novel which mentions a romance reader, but this time only in passing, is Karen Templeton’s Swept Away. Here Carly, the 14-year old daughter of the hero of says that:
“Mama and I had ‘the talk’ when I was like ten or something. And I’ve been reading romance novels for years. Not that I believe it really happens like that or anything. But I definitely get the general idea.” (2006: 122).
There may not be very many romance readers of that age, but they do exist. According to the Romance Writers of America’s statistics, 1% of readers are aged 13 or younger, and 6% are between the ages of 14-17. Carly's reading hasn't entirely prepared her for adult, sexual relationships, but the romances certainly aren't depicted as having harmed her in any way. Karen Templeton also presents us with a heroine who's been raped, and Carly faces a similar (though different) situation. The result in no way reinforces the 'forced seduction' scenario that can sometimes be found in romances. Instead there's a very clear '"no" means no' message in this romance.

Anyone else come across examples of romance-readers in romance? Do they reinforce, or challenge the stereotypes that exist about both romance and romance readers?

  • Marsh, Nicola, 2005.Contract to Marry (Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon Limited).
  • Templeton, Karen, 2006. Swept Away (Richmond, Surrey: Silhouette Books).


  1. Laura,
    you've picked up perfectly how I used Liv as a foil for Fleur's cynicism.
    And how I turned the happily-every-after she didn't believe in nicely back onto her!

  2. Thanks Nicola. It's very reassuring to know that I was on the right track. I have the feeling that while some imagery and sub-texts in romance novels are accidental products of the author's subconscious, there are quite a lot of romance authors who're deliberately playing with contrasts, genre expectations etc in ways which wouldn't be expected by people who denigrate the genre. I don't think they appreciate how much thought and craft goes into writing a good romance. Some people may say that Mills & Boon romances

    require a minimal amount of interpretive work on the part of the reader: they have all the predictability of myth-retelling, spiced with a dash of novelistic suspense

    but I don't agree. While readers aren't obliged to do 'interpretive work', it's quite possible to do it if one wants to, and clearly my interpretations are not just the product of my fevered academic imagination. If people look closely at romance novels they can find the unpredictability, the things which make the novel unique, even if it is going to end in a HEA.

  3. In Susan Elizabeth's Phillips' novel Ain't She Sweet? the hero is a literary writer who takes the heroine, Sugar Beth, to task for reading so much romance. Sugar Beth's reply is one of the most effective defenses of the romance genre I've ever read:

    "You try spending six months sitting at somebody's bedside waiting for them to die and then tell me that the happy-ending love story isn't one of God's greatest gifts."

  4. Does that tie in with the way that romance isn't just about happy endings? There are so many romances that deal with family problems, bad childhoods, bereavement etc. But because there's the happy ending and the focus on love, romances deal with these issues in a way which helps the reader feel that there is hope. And then there are the romances which don't deal with these issues and can therefore take someone's mind off their problems completely.

  5. In NZ author Susan Napier's 1998 Sexy Presents, Honeymoon Baby, the heroine is a closet writer of 'sinfully successful' sexy romances.
    When the hero arrives to stay, the heroine stuffs all her romance novels into the dirty linen basket (g).
    The hero turns out to be the editor/publisher of her novels.
    If memory serves me right, they get to re-enact some of her more inspired scenes...

  6. That sounds quite funny, Judith. Not exactly a confident unembarrassed, in-your-face, endorsement of the genre on the part of the heroine, but understandable given some of the preconceptions that some people have about the genre. And how appropriate to choose to hide them in the dirty linen basket. Wonder if she had anything skeletal hidden in her closet? ;-)

  7. When the hero finds the stash of books, he does indeed ask,
    “‘Why keep them in with your dirty laundry? Is that supposed to be an ironic commentary on their contents?’
    The heroine reflects, Thank goodness he didn’t realise that the books _were_ her dirty laundry!”
    Susan Napier’s heroine may be reluctant at first to own up to her writing, but it’s shown to be a central part of the way she masters (mistresses?) life – giving her an outlet for her creativity and sexuality, helping her nurse her invalid mother through depression, providing start-up capital for a business venture and so on.
    Her hunky hero is revealed as an advocate of erotic women’s fiction, and the heroine’s grey- haired mum and aunty show willing to read her books, despite the heroine’s preconceptions.
    So all in all I guess it’s an endorsement :-)

  8. It sounds like a very strong endorsement from the author, but not, initially at least, from the heroine. It does sound like it would be a fun read. And it's interesting that it not only challenges preconceptions about the genre (which the heroine has internalised, because she's worried about what other people might think of her books) but also (a) challenges the idea that men can't appreciate romance novels/women's fiction and (b) challenges some of the ageist attitudes which surface when people talk and think about sexuality. There are plenty of times when people say things like 'These aren't your grandmother's romance novels. Love stories are getting a sexy new makeover' (CBS4Boston). Although they may just be thinking about the history of the genre, and which novels were available in the past, I think it also perpetuates particular ideas about grandmothers which are wrong. There are plenty of romance authors who are grandmothers, and I'm sure there are plenty of older readers of the sexier romances, just as there must be plenty of younger readers who prefer less sexy ones.