Saturday, November 26, 2011

Romance, Readers, Affect

During my lecture at McDaniel, I returned to Susan Quilliam’s polemic and asked about the place of romance in therapy, therapy in romance. As a literary theorist, there are aspects of Quilliam’s work that I want to agree with, namely that romance – like any literary text – has an affective power. We are moved to laughter, to tears, to joy, to sadness, to pleasure by the texts we read. Dina Georgis, though not writing about romance novels, writes: "By awakening us to loss, literature incites our weeping" ("Hearing the better Story" 171). But, to recognise this affective power and possibility is to also recognise that Quilliam asserts, romances teach readers to have sex without condoms. Where Quilliam and I depart is about the role romance can and does have in the lives of readers and writers.
We are reminded often enough about the dangers of romance fiction. Jean Lush and Pam Vredevelt’s Women and Stress: Practical Ways to Manage Tension provides a telling example:
When I was writing my first book, Emotional Phases of a Woman's Life, I decided to investigate the reading material women were buying. I called bookstores and secondhand shops that handled thousands of paperbacks. One morning, in a used-book store, I witnessed a woman bringing in a huge sack of romantic novels to exchange for dozens more. I asked her why she read so many of these books, and she said, "I love romance. It's my escape from a humdrum life, I guess." [...]
Why is there such a colossal market for romantic paperbacks? Some would say this is one positive way women can stimulate their love life. However, many romance novel readers admit to being addicted to these books. They express a desire to break the habit because it robs them of time for other healthy involvements.
I think these books serve as a substitute for reality for some women who do not feel romantically fulfilled, but I question the benefits of getting lost in fiction. If anything, this habit may stir up unrealistic expectations and make them feel less satisfied with life as it is. (81)
I am willing to recognize, as I did in my lecture, that there are probably "extreme readers" for whom the romance novel is genuinely an addiction, but these readers are "extreme." As for "escap[ing] from a humdrum life," I'd imagine that many of us read fiction to "escape" our daily lives. Orhan Pamuk opens The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist with these words:
Novels are second lives. Like the dreams that the French poet Gérard de Nerval speaks of, novels reveal the colors and complexities of our lives and are full of people, faces, and objects we feel we recognize. Just as in dreams, when we read novels we are sometimes so powerfully struck by the extraordinary nature of the things we encounter that we forget where we are and envision ourselves in the midst of the imaginary events and people we are witnessing. At such times, we feel that the fictional world we encounter and enjoy is more real that the real world itself. (3)
Of course this could become a problem, a problem that leads Don Quixote to fight windmills in search of Dulcinea, a problem that leads Madame Bovary to be lost in romantic fantasy. But is this genuinely the "norm" and if it is the "norm" is it so extreme that it requires an intervention? For Donna Patrow, this is a reason for concern:
her inclination toward soap opera addiction will undoubtedly compromise her mental purity. [...] With that type of lifestyle, she's inclined to attract the wrong sort of friends - friends who drag her down rather than challenge her to grow mentally and spiritually. Maybe her soap opera buddies will introduce her to racy romance novels, and she'll become addicted to those, as well (see 2 Cor. 12:20; 2 Thess. 3:11). This can lead to a type of emotional adultery that is extremely destructive to your love life. (105-106)
Romance fiction, like soap operas, may very well be dangerous but this presumes that all readers of romance fiction will become "addicted" to a point where the addiction is debilitating and interferes with daily life to such a degree that some radical change is needed. Such a perspective is, to my mind, the most dystopian reading of romantic fiction (at least on the critic’s part). Surely, there is a way in which the critic can imagine a more utopian outcome for romantic fiction.
In my paper, I argued that indeed romantic fiction could serve more utopian ends. The argument that I am interested in is about what romantic fiction can teach its readers. If romantic fiction is powerful enough to teach readers not to use condoms, it surely too must be endowed with a similar power to teach readers about what an ideal relation might look like. I am not arguing that all relations will be ideal and everything will work out perfectly, indeed, I don't think many romance novels advocate this either. Pamela Regis’s eight components of a romance novel don't begin with perfection and then outline another seven perfect steps. The romance novel includes: conflict, points of ritual death, barriers. What romance does differently than lived romances is that it guarantees a happily ever after, but that happily ever after is only possible because the relation is itself a journey in which the reader and the heroine encounter barriers to the relationship, conflicts intrinsic to the relationship (which often enough reflect very real conflicts that can translate to the reader’s own life), and points of ritual death. The point of romance fiction, I argued, is less the happily ever after (though we demand this) and more the journey towards the happily ever after.


  1. By coincidence, I recently read an article which provides some support for your view of the utopian possibilities of romance fiction, and links them to psychology. The author of the article discusses long-term relationships with Harlequin Mills & Boon author Valerie Parv:

    With 26 years between her and her husband, Paul (‘‘not that we ever really noticed it’’), they had been together for 38 years before he died in 2008. For this woman, who has written 70 books (50 of them in the romance genre) and clocked up 29 million sales, romance is not a fantasy in real life.

    ‘‘I got so frustrated being told you couldn’t have a romantic relationship like we do in novels that I wrote a [non-fiction] book called
    I’ll Have What She’s Having. I wanted to say it can be like this, it depends on how much work you are prepared to put into it. Paul and I always used to work at our romance and people used to say, ‘Oh, you sound like newlyweds.’

    ‘‘I don’t know if they thought it was something I’d put on just to look good professionally but it was exactly how we were, privately and publicly. I am convinced the secret is that you do have to work at it.’’

    The essence of her relationship was about retaining the great appeal of their early times together. ‘‘What is a romantic relationship?’’ she asks. ‘‘There are certainly psychologists who say that it’s chemical and that it will wear off and you will settle into this boring, everyday existence. That wasn’t our experience. Perhaps because of what I do, we were more aware of it. This ‘queen of romance’ thing has to be good for something! A lot of it came down to doing the things that you do when you first get together, which is you consider each other, you care about each other, you don’t belittle each other, you don’t try to score points. They are things that sneak in.’’

    [...] Parv is wary of high drama in a relationship — interesting for a romance novelist. ‘‘The whole media focus [is] on drama — let’s face it, that’s what sells papers, magazines and online services — but that isn’t the whole of life. The quiet times are as valuable, even more so than the dramas. Drama in fiction — you can resolve it and everyone goes away happy. In real life it’s far more destructive.’’

    Her words are so sensible, it is no surprise to discover she has done a counselling diploma in recent years and might one day practise.

    Stephens, Andrew. "Enduring Love: A Work in Progress." The Sydney Morning Herald. 26 Nov. 2011.

  2. I have real issues about the idea that romance fiction is 'dangerous' in ways that escape other forms of genre fiction. Frex, crime novels, thrillers, science fiction. Science fiction is regarded as intellectually respectable because its practitioners are exploring themes that are regarded as major themes, e.g. the way that our lives are shaped by science. Oh, yes, and most of the renowned writers are men.

    I do think there are quality issues with romance - I think prolific production of romances to meet demand does affect quality. I'd say the very best romance writers are those who work hard on each and every book, taking time to explore layers, develop characters and complexities, and enrich their language. But to accuse romance novels of being dangerous to women is to demean and insult women in general and romance readers especially. Particularly since there is virtually no statistically reliable survey of the effects of romance on readers, for good or ill.

    Assertions about the dangers of romance including Susan Quilliam's seem to based on anecdote and outdated surveys with questionable statistical validity. I am not aware of any thorough, valid and viable surveys of romance readers. The closest reliable data we have is that collected by RWA, and the basis for RWA's data sets is primarily commercial, which does not necessarily provide a comprehensive picture of romance reading.

    Until there is such data, I think all assertions about the nature of romance and its effect on readers should be taken with scoops of salt and skepticism.