Monday, August 01, 2011

The Romance Genre and the American Dream

I've been doing a bit of background reading on the American Dream (if anyone has any books or articles they'd recommend, I'd be very grateful, particularly if they discuss the Dream in the context of popular culture) and came across this:
From its beginnings through the early twentieth century [...] the American success myth has been orchestrated around five basic beliefs which have served as recurring motifs: 1) American democracy allows its citizens to rise above any limitations into which they may have been born; 2) hard work brings riches and physical comforts; 3) these rewards come to those who are deserving of them (virtuous) and who 4) have the drive and ambition to attain them plus 5) a modicum of good luck. (Marsden 144)
It struck me that if you put 1), 2) and 3) together in the context of romance, you're likely to find heroines who are hardworking, virtuous and of a relatively lowly social status who "marry up," and have no difficulty fitting into the lifestyle of their vampire/prince/billionaire/sheikh. I also notice that Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy fit this pattern rather well.

The Romance Writers of America's definition of the romance genre states that "In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love." This definition had always puzzled me a little, because if the love is "unconditional" why is it only being given out on condition that the lovers "risk and struggle for each other and their relationship"? I wonder if I need to approach this definition in the context of 2), 3) and 4). Certainly Jennifer Crusie, who helped draft the definition, has written that
My 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.
So it would definitely seem that the concept of "emotional justice" is derived from belief 3), that "rewards come to those who are deserving of them (virtuous)."

Number 5) of course, is not needed by those who are "fated mates" but even then, isn't it a question of luck (or fate) as to whether one has a "fated mate"?

  • Marsden, Madonna. "The American Myth of Success: Visions and Revisions." Popular Culture: An Introductory Text. Ed. Jack Nachbar and Kevin Lause. Madison, Wisconsin: U of Wisconsin P, 1992. 134-48. [Excerpt.]


  1. This isn't on topic - it's TV culture, not the American Dream, but I thought you'd enjoy it:

    The Three Categories of Television Food Show (

    "Exotica– You’ve never heard of many of the ingredients. If you have, you probably can’t afford most of them, and lord knows where you might even find them. Only the finest kitchen tools and implements are used to prepare dishes with skill and panache, and the result is mouth watering perfection. Viewers are invited to live vicariously through the food. Yes, you want to eat it. You also want to write poetry about it. Something inside says you must paint it. You want to make love to it.

    Some people are wont to refer to this type of programming as Food Porn. I think the term’s a bad fit. Food Romance Novel might be a more accurate, albeit clumsier moniker. With an emphasis on eroticizing foreign food by casting it as an idealized version of The Other, or perfecting domestic food to a generally unattainable degree, the Exotica approach is more about romanticizing with supple caresses, whereas real pornography is about mindlessly cramming random, oversized monstrosities into various orifices."

  2. Laura, have you looked at literary analysis of the Horatio Alger stories/myth? Because that poses the same questions and looks at how it embodies the American Dream in Alger's efforts. Harold Bloom has an edited book on the Dream in literature, and John Cawelti did some work way back when on the Alger myth. If you've looked at that line of work then you probably already have the relevant references, but if not, I can provide some links.

  3. Sorry it's taken me so long to comment; I've been spending a lot of time up at the library recently.

    RfP, that made me think about the difference between being seduced by the visual appeal of a new recipe eaten while sitting down in a carefully decorated restaurant vs. turning up at a drive-through fast-food place and stuffing the meal into your mouth without any complicated preliminaries because you know exactly what you're getting.

    Sunita, I hadn't come across those. I've found a few books on how literature since the 1960s or so seems to be very disillusioned with the American Dream. The Bloom, sadly, isn't available from any of the libraries near me. I'll have to keep looking.

  4. Hi Laura - I heard Tristram Riley Smith talking about his book The Cracked Bell at the Cambridge Wordfest. He charts the cultural landscape of the USA in the opening years of the 21st Century, surveying the gap between the American Crisis and the American Dream. If I remember correctly each chapter related to a different aspect of US culture. I don't know if that would be of any help to you.

  5. Having googled romance novels and the american dream I find your post. My interest is the similarity between the romance stroytelling and the american dream ideology/narrative. What about the pursuit of happiness as stated in the Constitution that is also at the core of the romance novels and what the readers are looking for?

  6. Thanks Rachel (and profuse apologies for taking so long to reply to your comment. I spent quite a lot of last week trying to get as much work done as possible before the rest of my family came back from their holiday and put an end to my study-time, so I wasn't online as much as usual).

    The description here suggests it's quite focused on recent events: "Riley-Smith exposes the enduring fault-lines in the cultural bedrock. In doing so, he offers up a panoramic snapshot of American society, flash-lit by the thunderbolts of ‘9/11’, Hurricane Katrina, the 2008 Credit Crash and the inauguration of President Obama."

    It does look interesting, but the novel I'm working on was published in 1989, so I'm not sure how relevant much of this would be.

  7. What about the pursuit of happiness as stated in the Constitution that is also at the core of the romance novels and what the readers are looking for?

    I hadn't thought of that part of the definition of the genre as being specifically American because Mills & Boon (now part of Harlequin) was a British firm which began to specialise in love stories with happy endings long before it had any contact with the US but now that you've raised the question, it does occur to me that

    (a) in the UK we have a "Romantic Novelists' Association" and "romantic fiction" which includes all sorts of different kinds of romantic fiction, whereas the US has the Romance Writers of America which defines "romance novels" as not just "romantic" but also having the happy ending.

    (b) I don't have precise figures but in the UK romance doesn't seem to be nearly as popular as it is in the US.

    So you may well be right that in the US what "the readers are looking for" has a tendency to reflect ideas about the pursuit of happiness.

    My interest is the similarity between the romance stroytelling and the american dream ideology/narrative.

    I have a feeling that Maryan Wherry's work on romance might be of great interest to you. Unfortunately I don't think any of it's been published yet, but Jessica at Read React Review put up some notes about the paper Maryan gave to the 2010 PCA Conference. At the PCA/ACA & SW/TX PCA 2011 Conference Maryan gave a paper on "Romantic West v. Western Romance" and here's the abstract:

    Westerns, the ultimate male adventure, is generally positioned as everything a romance, the ultimate female adventure, is not. The western must contain certain cultural myths besides its regional setting. Romance writers have incorporated not only the setting but dominant western ethos. In fact, many of the romances are more "western" than the westerns.