Here are the new dissertations:
- Farooqui, Javaria (2022). Reading historical popular romance in 21st-century Pakistan. PhD thesis, University of Tasmania. [Abstract here.]
- Søndberg Spaabæk, Anne Sofie (2022). The “Infernal” Value of the Gothic: A Reading of Gothicness and Romanceness in Cassandra Clare’s The Infernal Devices. Masters, Aalborg University.
- Cruz-Bibb, Rosanna
Patriarchy, Feminism, and The Space Between: The Production and Consumption of Feminism in Romance Novels. PhD thesis,
University of Georgia. [This is open access.]
and thanks to Cruz-Bibb, I've found references to some older dissertations I hadn't come across before:
- Ganapathy, Subha
Who Is Afraid of Romance Novels?: Women Readers, Patriarchy and Popular Culture.
Mother Teresa Women’s University. [Details here.]
- Brown, Eleanor M.
Romance Novel of One's Own: The Nature and "Failure" of the Lesbian Romance Sub-Genre.
Master of Arts,
West Chester University. [Link is to the Romance Scholarship Database]
- Secrease, Cassandra L (2000). A comparative analysis of lesbian romance novels and heterosexual romance novel themes. Master of Arts, Central Missouri State University. [Link is to the Romance Scholarship Database]
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they're comparing the lesbian novels to at least some generalisations about heterosexual romances which have now been superseded (and may have even been a bit out of date by the time the dissertations were written) but it's interesting nonetheless that they disagree.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:
- Green, Marie. (2006)."Fantasy, fiction, and feminism: A study of feminists reading romance. Master’s thesis, University of Saskatchewan. http://hdl.handle.net/10388/etd-08092012-113658
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:
The first mainstream contemporary romance to include condoms that I know of is Elda Minger’s Untamed Heart. The first contemporary to discuss abortion that I’ve seen was Sandra Brown’s A Treasure Worth Seeking. The acquiring editor for both? Vivian Stephens. https://t.co/7pjFZyukPU— Steve Ammidown (@stegan) June 26, 2022
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)
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.
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.
July 1994 saw two landmark debuts in romance- the publication of Night Song by @authorMsBev, and the launch of Kensington’s Arabesque line with titles by Frances Ray and Sandra Kitt. 1/ pic.twitter.com/T8junhhdwj— Steve Ammidown (@stegan) July 1, 2022
Summing up and discussing some of the changes that have been happening in romance is this pair of podcasts:
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.