Sunday, February 11, 2007

What do you think's romantic?

We're coming up for Valentine's Day, so I thought it might be a good time to think about what we mean by 'romance' and 'romantic' in general, and also on the relationship between these ideas and the modern romance genre.

According to Jackie Stacey and Lynne Pearce
Despite the fact that the late twentieth-century has offered us many new possibilities for how we may conduct our interpersonal relationships, romance itself seems indestructible. While studies like Shere Hite's [...] reveal a dramatic increase in divorce, non-monogamy, couples living together outside of marriage, and other 'non-standard' relationships (including a noticeable increase in the number of gay and lesbian relationships), the trappings of 'classic romance' (love songs, white weddings, Valentine's day and so on) remain as commercially viable as ever. (1995: 11, my emphasis)
I think we'd all acknowledge the truth of the italicised part of that statement. In the US alone,
According to the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) 2007 Valentine's Day Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey, conducted by BIGresearch for NRF, the average consumer will spend $119.67 on Valentine's Day, up from $100.89 last year. With 63.4 percent of consumers planning to celebrate the holiday, total 2007 Valentine's Day spending is expected to reach $16.90 billion. [...] Popular gifts include cards (62.8%), candy (48.4%) and flowers (36.7%). In addition, close to half of consumers (45.3%) will treat their loved one to a special evening out. (National Retail Federation, 2007)
As Pearce and Stacey noted, the increasing number of people who are 'out' and living openly in gay and lesbian relationships has not diminished the appeal of traditionally romantic gestures. In fact, in the UK where gay and lesbian civil partnerships give legal recognition to such relationships, there are now business targeting 'pink weddings' and 'one survey suggests the pink wedding industry could be worth as much as £600m by 2010' (BBC).

So romance and traditional concepts of the romantic are alive and well, though they may be given a modern twist by some. They can also have a downside:
It has been estimated that for one in ten new spouses, the anticlimax of married life is so severe it develops into what is known as postnuptial depression. This increasingly common condition can continue for months, leaving sufferers feeling disillusioned, confused and even questioning if getting married was a mistake.

But when so much has been invested in the wedding, it's no wonder so many people experience such a comedown. (BBC)
It's possibly worth remembering that some 'romantic' settings and objects have a relatively recent history whereas others are much more traditional. Almost all are also culturally specific. Diamonds, for example, did not always have the prominence they do now:
The diamond engagement ring was one of the greatest triumphs of mass consumer marketing. The "tradition" is said to date back to 1477, when Austria's Archduke Maximillian presented his fiancée, Mary of Burgundy, with a diamond engagement ring, but diamond ownership remained very much an aristocratic frill until the discovery of the South African stones. The South African boom "democratized" diamonds to a certain extent, and by the 1920s you find "Good Manners" manuals recommending diamonds for American brides. The big marketing push did not come until the late 1930s, however, when Harry Oppenheimer of De Beers Consolidated Mines, Ltd., hired the N. W. Ayer advertising agency to boost diamond sales. Plans for the campaign were ambitious. The company arranged for movie stars to flaunt the company's jewels, and Hollywood screenwriters were approached to include "diamond themes" in movie scripts. (Proctor 2001: 390)
Epstein describes how this newly created tradition was introduced to Japanese society through highly successful marketing:
When the campaign began in 1968, less than 5 percent of Japanese women getting married received a diamond engagement ring. By 1972 the proportion had risen to 27 percent. By 1978, half of all Japanese women who were married wore a diamond on their ring finger. And, by 1981, some 6o percent of Japanese brides wore diamonds. In a mere thirteen years, the fifteen-hundred-year Japanese tradition was radically revised.
So what has this got to do with romance novels? Well, it seems to me that this 'commercially viable', 'classic' model of romance is perhaps one that non-romance readers associate with the romance genre. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary, for example, among other definitions of 'romance', states that 'romance' can mean ' a book or film dealing with love in a sentimental or idealized way'. You literally can't get much more sentimental or idealised (or fluffier or pinker) than Barbara Cartland, who 'was known as the Queen of Romance, writing 723 books with estimated worldwide sales of one billion copies in 36 languages'. Here's a sample of her writing-style:
She had not imagined a kiss could make her feel as if a streak of sunlight ran through her body, making her pulsatingly alive.
It was so rapturous, so perfect, that she thought the angels she had heard singing at Letty's wedding were all round them, and the wonder of the Marquis's lips were part of the music, the beauty, and everything she had thought was out of reach (1978 : 138)
You don't tend to find writing like that any more in modern romance novels, but the stereotypes about the genre persist. In 2006, for example, romance author 'Emily Giffin, author of best sellers such as "Something Borrowed" and "Something Blue"' was quoted saying of the genre that "It's not all lace and moonlight and heaving bosoms. That's all nice, but it's about a lot more than that'. But clearly the very fact that she mentioned the 'lace and moonlight and heaving bosoms' is an indication that she believed that this was a perception which exists about the genre, and she was right. Harlequin Mills & Boon in particular have tended to be associated with this type of 'classic' or 'traditional' view of romance. One article written in 2005 about the Bombshell line which was then being launched noted that 'Harlequin Mills & Boon [...] are famous for giving women an easy read, filled with old-fashioned romance' (my emphasis). Another article, this time from 2006 and about a workshop for would-be Mills & Boon authors begins:
In a fairy-tale castle painted pink, romance is in the air. A dark, brooding hero with a cruel smile is toying with the affections of a girl who has a tiny waist and a trembling heart. Fear and desire tussle within her as he touches her blushing cheek with the rough fingers of a huge hand. Then, breaking the spell, the clock strikes 11am and it is time to stop for tea and chocolate biscuits.
Harlequin's 2007 Romance Report has been criticised for what it doesn't do:
Does the report talk about how smart romance readers are? Or how diverse they are? Does the report highlight books, trends in reading, or new authors? Does it uplift the genre and speak to the issue of credibility? No. It panders to every godforsaken stereotype about romance readers out there. [...] The report is about statistics compiled, not of readers and what they want to see in their books or covers that are appealing or topics and so forth. Instead it is a report of what 2,256 US adults think of romance.
The Smart Bitches weren't very impressed either and declared that Harlequin were Doing More to Damage the Cause than Puffypaint Sweaters.

It seems to me, though, that Harlequin's efforts weren't entirely illogical or misdirected. Given the perception that romance (in the sense of romantic gestures and ways of behaving) involves pink cards, lace underwear, chocolates, roses, moonlight and serenades, and the fact that Harlequin Mills & Boon, and by association the whole romance genre, is still very strongly associated with this sort of romance, it made sense for Harlequin to try to highlight changes in people's perceptions of what's romantic that reflect the wide range of situations that are to be found in modern romance novels. According to Harlequin we are now seeing the rise of ' the New Romantics – men and women who are searching for a type of romance that is more accessible and realistic, a type of romance that complements their own personal style and comfort level'. Some of these people would presumably be unlikely to approach the romance genre if they thought it was all about 'classic romance'. And, according to Harlequin, there are a lot of people thinking this way: 'More than four in five men (87%) and nine in ten women (93%) agree that it [romance] can be whatever you want it to be. As the numbers suggest, everyone is looking for a type of romance that is accessible and natural to them'. I suspect that Harlequin, with its wide range of category lines catering to different tastes, doesn't want to alienate any of them, so the report doesn't insult those who still appreciate traditional romantic gestures. Instead it states that:
Flowers and chocolate are still in, considering 72% of all men and 78% of all women disagree with the statement that traditional ideas of romance such as flowers and chocolate are outdated. The new romance is whatever you want it to be, so if the old classics are your style, then by all means keep it up. Just remember, especially this Valentine’s Day, there’s an entire world out there beyond flowers and chocolate.
I wonder whether there's any correlation (either positive or negative) between people's tastes regarding real-life romance and their preferences in romance novels. Are those with a penchant for red roses and candle-lit dinners more likely to look for romance novels with the more conventionally romantic settings and characters? Or could it be that those who in real life take a cynical view of romance prefer these settings precisely because they're different? Do real-life pragmatists prefer a bit of grit and realism with their Happy-Ever-Afters or do they opt for a greater degree of escapism in their fiction? I suspect one can't make generalisations, and although it's probably fairly obvious by now that my personal preference isn't for 'classic romance', I don't in any way wish to deride the tastes of those who prefer different sorts of books or romantic gestures.

In many ways this takes me back to my discussion about 'wallpaper' historical romances. I suspect that the more wallpaper-ish a novel is, the more it can omit the details which would seem less than romantic to some readers. This goes well beyond the way that issues such as those surrounding personal hygiene are often glossed over in historical romances. In a 'wallpaper' historical the characters can behave and think in ways which will seem more 'romantic' to 21st century readers. My reading of medieval chronicles has left me with the impression that most medieval noblemen were the equivalent of modern-day politicians, and there aren't many heroes or heroines who have that profession (All About Romance has a very short list of them), which makes me wonder if it's seen as less 'romantic' or 'heroic' than many others. Juliet Flesch reports that
Market surveys [...] have found that readers do not warm to politicians, athletes or actors as heroes. According to Emma Darcy, Alison Kelly, Joan Kilby and Marion Lennox, they are seen as self-absorbed, unlikely to make the commitment required of the romance hero or heroine to human relationships in general and one relationship in particular. (2004: 227)
I wonder if historical romances tend to feature aristocratic characters at least in part because many of the items which we associate with romance (lace, silks, candles, music, chocolate, expensive jewellery) would previously have only been accessible to the aristocracy in large quantities and high quality. Ironically, the poets, authors and aristocrats of the past often associated romance with the countryside and peasants, though in an extremely 'wallpaper' form. In pastoral literature the bucolic life is presented as the antithesis of the intrigue and political manoeuvring to be found at court:
The pastoral convention is an idealized version of country life that draws on Greek, Roman, and Biblical examples. Pastoral praises the freedom and contemplative life absent of personal ambition, the power struggles of the court, and fortune's vagaries. (William E. Smith, course materials for English 214)
Here's part of the Elizabethan poet Christopher Marlowe's The Passionate Shepherd to His Love:
Come live with me and be my Love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That hills and valleys, dale and field,
And all the craggy mountains yield.

There will we sit upon the rocks
And see the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers, to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.

There will I make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroider'd all with leaves of myrtle.

A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull,
Fair linèd slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold.
(There's analysis of the poem here and here). Marie Antoinette
directed architect Richard Mique and artist Hubert Robert to conjure up a sylvan fantasy of artificial streams, grottoes and winding paths. (During nighttime galas, a Temple of Love rotunda and a glass music salon were illuminated by wood fires hidden in trenches in the ground.) In 1784, the two designers created what, from the outside, appeared to be a hamlet (the Hameau) of cracked and tumbledown cottages, which, in fact, were appointed with comfortable couches, stoves and billiard tables. (Smithsonian Magazine)
So, what do you think's romantic? And are there some settings or professions which you don't find romantic?
  • Cartland, Barbara, 1978. The Problems of Love (London: Corgi).
  • Flesch, Juliet, 2004. From Australia with Love: A History of Modern Australian Popular Romance Novels (Fremantle, Western Australia: Curtin University Press).
  • Proctor, Robert N., 2001. 'Anti-Agate: The Great Diamond Hoax and the Semiprecious Stone Scam', Configurations, 9.3: 381-412.
  • Stacey, Jackie and Lynne Pearce, 1995. 'The Heart of the Matter: Feminists Revisit Romance', in Romance Revisited, ed. Lynne Pearce & Jackie Stacey (New York: New York University Press), pp. 11-45.
P.S. For those of you who are really, really sick of 'classic romance', here's a link to the Be My Anti-Valentine site: 'The idea of the site is to provide an alternative card-sending service for all the people who think Valentine’s Day is sickly-sweet, exclusively coupley, consumerist nonsense or otherwise a bit naff' (from the FAQs). The creator of the site doesn't reject romance:
I’m not anti-love or anti-romance or anti-relationships. I’m against hollow gestures prescribed by people who are out to make money out of the holiday. [...] I’m against anyone with a vested interest telling us how and when it’s appropriate to be affectionate - say it with roses, a diamond is forever, if you REALLY loved her, you’d take her to Paris. [...] I hate the fact that flowers which are reasonably priced at any other time of the year suddenly rocket in price in February, only to plummet again afterwards.
The site may not stay up for long after 14 February, so here's a link to a blog-post giving the basic details.


  1. Susan Elizabeth Phillips seems to have disproved the maxim that readers don't warm to athletes. My favorite Suzanne Brockmann is Heart Throb about an actor.

    I think commitment is romantic. Doing something you ordinarily wouldn't do in order to please your partner, or at least keeping your partner's preferences in your thoughts and actions. When my husband lights a fire for me on Sunday morning, even though I know he's not cold--that's romantic.

  2. But could the SEP and Brockmann examples you give be the exceptions that prove the rule? Some authors have the skill, the fanbase or both to get away with things that other authors wouldn't. Judith Ivory's got a hero who's a ratcatcher, for example (The Proposition) but I don't think that's a profession that would usually be considered romantic either.

  3. Laura,
    Valentine's day has been trying to catch on in Australia for the last 25 years. Yes, some take it seriously, but most people see it as an American cultural import. The same goes for Halloween trick-or-treating.
    I think romantic gestures are about doing something to make your lover feel good, e.g my DH gives me flowers out of the blue. I know that he saw the flowers and thought of me-I am conscious of feeling happy.
    I have mulled over the question of professions I might find romantic, but find myself over-analysing the negative aspects. Foo. I will have to leave it to the authors to convince me that a doctor, dentist, lawyer, teacher, engineer etc could be a romantic individual.
    The same goes for settings--if the writer is good I am willing to travel to any place and time they want to take me.


    Oh! Prendas femeninas inquietantes, [Photo]
    cautivadoras, sugestivas ellas,
    que al lucir en las piernas de las bellas
    valéis más que las perlas y diamantes.

    Sugerentes, preciosas, fascinantes,
    medias negras en damas y doncellas,
    espasmos de placer que dejan huella
    y sois en alto grado alucinantes.

    Ascendéis hasta el muslo muy airosas
    y el contraste que hacéis con la blancura
    de las mórbidas carnes generosas
    es belleza, erotismo y hermosura.

    …Y más arriba aun, hay otras cosas
    que tapadas o no, son gloria pura.

    ¿No es encantador? Esta es una historia triste y verdadera. Mi amigo nació y vivió solo en su cárcel .Espero que en el Más Allá la rubia del Play Boy le haga un favor.

  5. The permanent link to the place that poem originally appears is here. It's an ode to stockings.

    Incidentally, I went to the Spanish-language Harlequin website and in their online reads section they have poems by, among others, Gustavo Adolfo Becquer and Lope de Vega. I thought that was interesting, because I haven't noticed any poetry on the English-language Harlequin Mills & Boon websites. These poems are the equivalent of sonnets by Shakespeare or poems by Byron. Apart from the fact that I thought it might please Eric to see poetry made widely available like this, it also made me wonder if in Spanish-speaking countries love-poetry is more widely read, or more widely associated with romance?

  6. some take it seriously, but most people see it as an American cultural import. The same goes for Halloween trick-or-treating.

    That's interesting, Wendy. In the UK trick-or-treating (rather than the traditional guising) and the use of pumpkins (rather than the traditional turnips) are American imports, but as far as I know, St Valentine's Day has quite a long tradition behind it in the UK. Here's a description of some old Norfolk traditions.