Sunday, July 03, 2022

A Changing Genre? New dissertations and links: readers, feminism, LGBTQIA+ , Black romance

Here are the new dissertations:

and thanks to Cruz-Bibb, I've found references to some older dissertations I hadn't come across before: 

The last two reach very different conclusions from each other about lesbian romance. Brown argues that lesbian romances differ significantly from f/m ones, whereas Secrease finds that they're really very similar. Both Brown and Secrease base their conclusions on small samples, and it could be argued that they're comparing the lesbian novels to at least some generalisations about heterosexual romances which have now been superseded (and may have even been a bit out of date by the time the dissertations were written) but it's interesting nonetheless that they disagree. I linked to the entries in the Romance Scholarship Database since I've included quotes there which are possibly not available in the excepts at ProQuest.


Another item I found in Cruz-Bibb's bibliography is:

In it Green mentions that

what I have experienced as "feminist changes" to the romance genre began appearing in the mid-1980s [...] In my experience, in all but the subgenre of historical romance, gender stereotypes were beginning to change. Male characters were no longer portrayed strictly as brooding, dark, and macho; heroines were given more independence and depth. There were also thematic changes: for example, writers were beginning to pay attention to contemporary social issues, such as single parenting, substance abuse, and child abuse. (14)

On the topic of changes which took place in the 1980s, Steve Ammidown tweets that:

Minger's novel was published in 1983. Steve's careful wording here reminds me that it's hard to keep track of "firsts" in the genre: since there are so many romances, and many of the earlier novels are somewhat difficult to access, their plots may not be known to current scholars. There has been some work done on earlier romances of course, and clearly some of them had plots we might find surprising. For example, jay Dixon's The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon 1909-1990s, describes a romance by Elizabeth Carfrae, from 1929, in which the married heroine conceives a child with the hero, to whom she is not married and "Her husband thinks the baby is his and raises her accordingly until his death, when the hero and heroine meet up again and marry" (139). One early romance involving abortion is described by Joseph McAleer in his Passion's Fortune: The Story of Mills & Boon:

In November 1939 a Mills & Boon novel, How Strong is Your Love? by Barbara Hedworth, made the Irish Government's list of prohibited books, on the grounds that it 'advocate[d] the unnatural prevention of conception', a provision of the 1929 Censorship of Publications Act. [....] Mills & Boon published this novel [...] over a year earlier, in August 1938. Splashy advertising for this title billed it as 'an absorbing romance' and 'a love story that will delight everybody'. Apparently not: [...] the heroine's father, a village doctor, is an abortionist. He decides to help Rose, unmarried but pregnant, by performing 'an illegal operation'. The abortion (never called such by name) is a success, but a blood clot kills Rose. To spare his family the shame and scandal, Dr Vickers shoots himself. (168)

I suspect that Steve was thinking more of novels in which abortion is "called such by name" and despite the censors' concerns, clearly this novel does not present abortion very favourably given that Rose dies, but it's interesting that the topic was at least present here: later on Mills & Boon's policy was to avoid the topic completely so as not to have their publications censored.

Still on the topic of changes in the genre, in a recent article, Ana Quiring argues that "a new subgenre of queer Regency-era romance" 

align[s] the lovers with the most marginalized in society. In consequence, these novels imagine queer love and sex as always political. Rather than repeating the Cinderella dream of marrying up, they invent a new one, no less fantastic: romantic love as a conduit to solidarity.

And by "new subgenre" Quiring doesn't mean that it's only just appearing in 2022: one of the romances described in the article dates from 2014.

Still on the topic of queer/LGBTQ+ romance, I'm a bit less sure about the historical perspective of a recent article in the Guardian, which refers to "the rise of LGBTQ+ romance fiction" and notes that readers of one of the works discussed "praised the novel for being refreshingly joyful and funny – including a happy ending, which is not that common for a book with an LGBTQ+ plot." Obviously, given the dissertations by Brown and Secrease mentioned above, LGBTQ+ romance (which, by definition, includes a happy ending) isn't actually something new but perhaps what's happening is that it's relatively recently broken through into the awareness of mainstream media?

Also apparently breaking through is Black romance.  Naomi Elias states that Bolu Babalola's "romance books—by design, not default—have become outliers in the publishing industry, since they center Black women as romantic leads" and the sub-heading of the article adds that Babalola's work "normalizes seeing Black women being loved loudly." Given that mainstream romance publishing has tended to publish too few Black authors, the word "outlier" seems fair enough but I think whoever wrote the sub-heading (and it may well not have been Elias) is overlooking the work of many other Black romance authors who've been publishing for decades.

Summing up and discussing some of the changes that have been happening in romance is this pair of podcasts:

The Agony and the Ecstasy: Race and the Future of the Love Story Part 1

The Agony and the Ecstasy: Race and the Future of the Love Story Part 2

Two of the contributors are:

  • Jayashree Kamble, Professor of English Literature at La Guardia Community College
  • Shana McDavis-Conway, Co-Director for the Center for Story-Based Strategy and Staff Reviewer for Smart Bitches, Trashy Book

I'll end, though, with something that's been present in the genre for a very long time: historically inaccurate clothing on covers. Bernadette Banner has redrawn some historical romance covers (and the cover of one work of historical fiction) to make the costumes more accurately reflect clothing in the periods and places in which they're set. The novels are: Kelly Bowen's Duke of My Heart; Beverly Jenkins's Something Like Love; Olivia Waite's The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics; Alyssa Cole's An Extraordinary Union; Gillian Bagwell's Venus in Winter; Gayle Callen's Love with a Scottish Outlaw.

She doesn't really explore the reasons why inaccurate outfits might be more appealing to readers, and I'm not sure how much that's been discussed by romance readers and scholars. Presumably the shirts that open in the wrong way are more appealing due to the amount of bare chest they reveal and I can see how some modern hairstyles might seem sexier than accurate ones but is some of this due to which stock art was available? I get the impression, though, that these were published by large publishing companies who commission photo shoots specially for their covers, so some of these choices don't make a lot of sense to me. Are publishers making assumptions which aren't warranted about what will appeal to readers? Or is the key thing just to give a general "historical" feel so that the reader can easily identify which romance subgenre the book's in?


  1. I wonder how much the "not period accurate dress" for a lot of historical romance released today stems from market expectations created in the heyday of expensive covers--when publishers actually hired models and painters--back in the late 80s/early 90s, where the standards for what was historical dress in most media were...let's say, skewed/influenced by visual media (tv/films) that went for vaguely-historical but flamboyant/eye-catching. Then, as genre romance got more racy/sexy/steamy/graphic, the covers got the naked bums/pectorals/etc. (and those long gowns with zero petticoats, so that the skirts can be pulled up to the groin and show all the leg, etc) alongside the not-accurate vaguely historic dress.

    1. That sounds very plausible. I can see how if the covers got readers used to a certain style, and publishers knew that readers used it to identify romance, then there would be an incentive for publishers to carry on with it. That way romance wouldn't get confused with historical fiction, for example.

      And I can see how there would be elements determined by trying to produce more "racy/sexy" images. That could definitely explain the inaccurate shirts, and why the women often have loose hair, bare legs and no petticoats.