A comment Dick made recently brought up the question of what's at the core of the genre. I think it it's a really important topic, so I'm giving it its own post. Dick wrote that
One of the things the HEA of the romance formula has always implied in my thinking, as evidenced by the penchant authors have for epilogues and continuing mentions of h/h's in subsequent books is that the union (marriage or whatever) of the two brings continuance far into the future through their progeny; it's almost as if the "ever after" of the HEA has to be demonstrated in order to be complete.Dick's view, that reproduction is a central element of the genre, is shared by Stephanie Laurens, who has argued that "Romance today carries the essential message that love, marriage - and by implication children and family - are valuable and desirable goals" and she even tries to correlate birth and marriage rates with rates of romance reading:
If you want women to have children, you need to ensure they view finding love and marriage as worthy goals. The US also has a marriage rate more than 50% greater than any of those other countries.Dick and Laurens' view suggests to me that some romances can and do reaffirm the status quo (or perhaps a real or imagined status quo ante, given some people's distaste for contemporary sexual mores) by literally reproducing an existing social order. I'm not saying that that's exactly what Dick and Laurens were arguing, only that it makes me think it's a possible way of viewing the genre. Romance, after all, has often been criticised for being a conservative genre. When heroes (and it usually is heroes) are redeemed by heroines and settle down to become happy husbands and fathers, this can be seen as a reimposition of the values of an existing social order which were temporarily under threat from the rake/outsider's refusal or inability to conform to social norms.
Not one so-called expert thought of romance novels - the one thing - the one and only thing - that directly and effectively reaffirms love, marriage and family as being desirable goals. Just as we forgot about the environment, we've forgotten what Entertainment, particularly Genre Fiction, and most especially romance really is.
Other analyses of the genre come up with rather different ideas about its core message. Pamela Regis, as I mentioned in my reply to Dick, has stated that
the romance novel itself is a subset of [...] comedy [...]. The writers of Greek New Comedy [...] established the pattern of comedy, which the romance novel would modify [...]. The context of comedy, its setting, is society. Comedy's "movement ... is usually ... from one kind of society to another" ([Frye] Anatomy 163). This, then, is the usual sequence that the reader encounters - an old society (which is often corrupt, decadent, weak, or superannuated), a hero, his intended, paternal opposition to his intended becoming his wife, a removal of that opposition, the hero's triumphal betrothal, and a wedding symbolizing a new, vital society. (28-29)The romance genre, by giving more importance to the heroine, does change this pattern, but Regis argues that its central myth remains the same. If the central core, or myth, of the genre is about establishing a new society, then, as AgTigress argues, although
the birth and upbringing of children can be used as a very convenient shorthand symbol of the continuing and new social order that is the culmination of a happy and lasting romance/love-affair, and is thus a useful way of indicating that the romance is crowned with successit need not be the only way in which to indicate it.
Whether romances establish a new social order, or reproduce the existing one, there will tend to be, either explicitly or implicitly, a set of values which underpin those orders. Jennifer Crusie's
feeling on this, which I have expressed loudly and often, is that the romance novel is based on the idea of an innate emotional justice in the universe, that the way the world works is that good people are rewarded and bad people are punished. The mystery genre is based on the same assumption, only there it’s a moral justice, a sense of fair play in human legal interaction: because the good guys risk and struggle, the murderers get punished and good triumphs in a safe world. So in romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice, unconditional love in an emotionally safe world.What makes the "good people" good and the "bad people" bad? In some novels it may be stated explicitly, at others there may be implicit assumptions made about a set of values which the author and the implied reader share, which will allow them to identify the "good people."1
Here's an example of the values being stated very explicitly indeed. In Mary Burchell's To Journey Together Elinor Shearn is faced with a choice between two men, Kenneth and Rudi. Rudi has come into a substantial inheritance from an unrelated elderly lady who, after a disagreement, had cut a relative, Anton, out of her will
"And left him nothing?" Elinor was a good deal shocked.Rudi then proposes marriage to Elinor, and
"Left him nothing," Rudi agreed.
"But - Rudi - it wasn't about anything vital, was it? I mean, if she had lived, she would probably have forgiven him and changed round again, wouldn't she? She seemed genuinely fond of him."
'Oh, yes, I expect so," Rudi agreed. "That's just the luck of the thing. Like staking on the wrong card."
"It's nothing of the sort!" Elinor sat up and spoke with energy. "I thought you - you liked Anton."
"Why, of course we do."
"Then why aren't you going to put things right?"
"In what way, Elinor?"
"By re-dividing the money, of course. [...]" (174)
His attraction was indescribably strong upon her. She knew she had only to turn her head and his lips would be on hers. Already she savoured the moment with a delicious thrill of anticipation. But, even while the feel of his nearness excited and fascinated her, his words blew a strange, chill breath upon her eager enthusiasm. (176)She then rejects his proposal:
"I just don't love you - or else I shouldn't be so regretfully aware of the weaknesses in you."I also have the impression that some romances really aren't that concerned about society at all. Instead, their focus is on that "delicious thrill of anticipation" (and the subsequent delicious enjoyment) which result from an "attraction [which] was indescribably strong." Deborah Lutz has suggested that there are actually two different kinds of romance which, although they are placed within the same genre, in fact have what we might call two different "myths":
He drew away from her sharply.
"You do love me! Only you've set some sort of ridiculously idealized standard of behaviour which you think I should live up to. You mustn't expect people to be heroes, Liebling. Take them as they are and love them with their faults as well as their virtues."
"I do," Elinor said, almost gently. "But I couldn't really love and marry a man I didn't respect."
Most men would have been angry at that point, but Rudi took the implied criticism quietly.
"You don't respect me, then? Because I can keep you in reasonable comfort without working for you?"
"No." She smiled a little. "I'm not so unreasonable as that. There are certain things which test us - and our friends, Rudi - and however much we like them and excuse them and try not to judge them, we assess our friends by the way they react to those tests." [...]
"The will was explict enough," Rudi exclaimed impatiently.
She did turn her head then and look at him, but her expression did not encourage him to kiss her.
"We are not talking the same language, Rudi," she said, in that curiously gentle tone. "You have been a good and charming friend to me [...]. But I am not the wife for you, my dear, and you are not the husband for me. We think and feel too differently ever to be one. That's all there is to it." (176-77)2
In her study of early romance genres (from 1674 to 1740), Ros Ballaster creates two categories of use here: didactic love fiction and amatory fiction. [...] Ballaster’s category of didactic love fiction—romance that has a didactic project, is future-directed, and attempts to represent a moral way of living, a “just” kind of love (depending on what constitutes the “morals” of the particular time period in question). On the opposite extreme, the dangerous lover type falls under the rubric of amatory fiction. Amatory fiction cannot be, generally speaking, recuperated morally, nor does it play out in a socially sanctioned realm. (2)The "moral way of living" that is central to fiction about either the establishing of a new society or reproducing an existing one, is of minor or no concern in "amatory fiction." What matters here is that the lovers feel intense passion for each other. Of course, there can be overlaps since didactic fiction can include sexual tension and, nowadays, explicitly sexual elements, but I still think one can detect a difference between didactic love fiction in which "good people are rewarded and bad people are punished" and amatory fiction, which celebrates sexual passion.
Another suggestion for what's at the core of the genre was made by Phil Mathews, in his recent paper to the PCA conference. He suggests that the genre celebrates not physical passion, but love, and he quoted
screenwriting theorist Phil Parker’s requirements for a love story in film, noting that Parker does not require an HEA. According to Parker, even a love story which ends with the characters apart is a romance, so long as as long as the transformative value of love is upheld. (Jessica)If the "transformative value of love" is at the core of the genre, all that really matters is the change which love causes in the characters, not the precise consequences (positive or negative) which that love has for either the characters or society. Phil Parker's requirement therefore has to be combined with a requirement for an "optimistic ending" in order for a novel to meet the RWA's criteria for being a "romance".
It seems to me that all of those descriptions of what's at the core of romance have some validity. The romance genre is, after all, a very big one, which means it probably can accommodate quite a lot of differences. Looked at structurally, in terms of core elements, it can be stated that "Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending" (RWA) but if one's looking at the cores of the novels, at their underlying ideologies, perhaps one can separate them out into at least four categories:
- Didactic love fiction which reproduces an existing society and its moral order. The transformative power of love is often shown.
- Didactic love fiction which establishes a new society with new, or at least significantly different, moral values. Again, the transformative power of love is often shown.
- Amatory fiction with an optimistic outcome for the lovers.
- Fiction in which the focus is on the transformative power of love, and any changes to, or continuation of, society, or an optimistic outcome, are incidental.
- Burchell, Mary. To Journey Together. London: Romance Book Club, n.d. Originally published by Mills & Boon in 1956.
- Crusie, Jennifer. "I Know What It Is When I Read It: Defining the Romance Genre."
- Laurens, Stephanie. "Read Romance or Perish: A Biological Perspective on Romance Novels."
- Lutz, Deborah. The Dangerous Lover: Gothic Villains, Byronism, and the Nineteenth-Century Seduction Narrative. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2006.
- Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: U. of Pennsylvania P., 2003.
1 A reader who shares an implied set of values with the author may not even notice their presence, but they can be extremely obvious to a reader who does not share them. For example, a pacifist reader may find it jarring to read about protagonists who are deemed heroic because they are willing to fight for their countries, or a socialist reader may find a billionaire tycoon's success troubling rather than merely accepting it as a marker of the hero's suitability as a mate for the heroine.
2 Elinor's reference to being "one" seems to me to recall the words of Genesis 2:24, "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh" and various other versions of this statement which exist elsewhere in the Bible, e.g. Matthew 19:3-5:
The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?Perhaps because of that, the passage reminded me of something St Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 6:14: "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?" This is often taken to refer to marriage. It also reminded me of an article written by Jill, of Feministe, about dating:
And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female,
And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh?
Even getting to the point of “this is a person worth dating in the first place” is… not easy. Any relationship requires compromise and flexibility, sure; but how and where to compromise on the feminism thing is particularly difficult because we aren’t talking about a political issue here, we’re talking about a way of seeing the world. I also watch a lot of women date men who are, to be kind, Not Great, but they want to date someone and Not Great Guy is there I guess.
The photos all came from Flickr. The first, on the stripy background, is a "Peanut Butter Bon Bon" photographed by Rox SM. The second is of "vegan chocolate with a strawberry filling" and was photographed by VeganWarrior. The third, with cherry centres, were photographed by Joana Hard. The fourth, "inside," is of a chocolate with a coconut filling and was photographed by Christaface. The photographs were made available under a variety of creative commons licenses.