"Mind candy" critics declare, adamant about the intellect-eroding properties of romance novels which account for half of all mass-market paperback sales. The phenomenal sales seem only to intensify the attacks of those who object to the simplistic plots and flat characters of the novels. Some see these attacks as a chauvinistic refusal to take seriously this popular literature, written and edited largely by women for a mostly female audience. But many of the genre's sternest critics are other women who condemn romance novels as dangerously passive texts that encourage readers to find in the fictional world consolation for the fulfillment that a patriarchal culture denies them.
The very term "romance novel" is used pejoratively, and the image of romance readers as bored and boring housewives who live vicariously through the fantastic experiences of incredible characters persists even in the face of evidence that refutes the stereotype. Janice Radway's Reading the Romance suggests that women's reasons for reading romance are complex. But even a defender like Radway appears ambivalent about the romance genre. Her limited sample reinforces the idea that romance readers are mostly housewives who lead limited lives, and in her introduction to the 1991 edition of her study, Radway makes clear that she sees romance readers as distinctly "other" women from whom she and her peers are separated "by class, occupation, and race."
Romance novels have always been frowned upon by champions of high culture who value fiction for its originality and see formulaic romance novels as sentimental trash. More than a century ago, Marianne Evans called them "silly novels by lady novelists," distinguishing between this species of sub-literature and her own, more serious fiction, published under the pseudonym George Eliot. Across the Atlantic, Nathaniel Hawthorne complained bitterly of "that damned lot of scribbling women" whose novels outsold his own work. Despite the contempt with which denizens of "real literature" view the novels, the romance formula can claim roots deep in Western literary tradition. Mikhail Bakhtin's description of classical Greek romances (a male and female of marriageable age experience a mutual, passionate attraction, encounter obstacles that threaten their union, overcome the obstacles and consummate their love within marriage) could as easily describe the latest romance to roll off Harlequin's presses.
Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice has been called the greatest romantic novel of English literature. It, along with Austen's other novels, is entrenched in the literary canon, yet readers of romance novels claim Austen as one of their own. Pride and Prejudice was the only pre-twentieth-century work that online fans included in a 1998 list of the top 100 romance novels. While Austen would no doubt be shocked by the frank sexuality of many twentieth-century romantic heroines, she would recognize the sensible, independent women and the arrogant males they humble as descendants of Elizabeth and Darcy. The characters of Emily and Charlotte Brontë also serve as inspiration for romance writers: Heathcliff, the dark and dangerous spirit who serves as hero and villain of the monumental Wuthering Heights ; Jane Eyre, the plain heroine who wins with courage and integrity; and Rochester, the maimed hero who learns that true love conquers all are stock characters in romance novels.
While the romance novel can claim legitimate kinship with works that have earned established places in the Western literary canon, the most direct precursor of popular romance novels is the "domestic novel" of the nineteenth century. Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World (1851) defined the term "bestseller," and Maria Cummins' The Lamplighter (1854) was nearly as popular. These novels focused on the trials of a young heroine, often an orphan, who struggled to survive and cherished her independence, but who ultimately married and surrendered her autonomy. These "scribbling women" recognized that most women could find economic security only within marriage. Yet if marriage offered the young heroine salvation from economic deprivation, her love offered the hero salvation from an emotionally and spiritually barren life. In Augusta Jane Evans' St. Elmo (1867), beloved by generations of readers, the beautiful, virtuous Edna Earl capitulates to St. Elmo Murray, the Byronic hero complete with "piercing eyes" and "savage sneer," only after his reformation from hardened cynic to tender lover and Christian minister.
Writers like the prolific Grace Livingston Hill continued this pattern of mutual redemption into the twentieth century. During a career that spanned five decades, Hill produced more than 100 novels, all a retelling of the same story. White Orchids is typical: Jeffrey Wainwright, son of a millionaire, falls captive to Camilla Chrystie's beauty and virtue, and discovers in her Christian faith all that is lacking in his own empty life. By the 1920s, however, Hill's strict religious tales were the exception. Women's magazines were enjoying enormous success; periodicals with a circulation of 128,621,000 per issue were flooding U.S. households. Three of the top five consistently brought romance stories with predictable characters and plot and the requisite happy ending. Ladies' Home Journal, Woman's Home Companion, and Pictorial Review published serialized novels by Kathleen Norris, Faith Baldwin, and other romance novelists. These pre-World War II romances, still formulaic in many ways, had a new heroine, the "New Woman," eager for career success and unwilling to surrender her right to self-expression. These new novels extended the range of romance to reflect the wider experiences available to women in the twentieth century. Meanwhile, Georgette Heyer, only 19 when she wrote her first novel The Black Moth, was proving herself a worthy successor to Jane Austen and founding a sub-genre of the romance novel, the regency. Heyer's heroines in The Grand Sophy (1950) and Frederica (1965) are managing females who put Austen's Emma to shame, and Leonie, the French urchin of These Old Shades (1926), prefers masculine clothing and manages her own escape from abductors.
Heyer, Baldwin, and dozens of others continued to write what by the end of the twentieth century would be labeled "gentle romances" to distinguish their novels from the sexually explicit romances of the post-1960s. In Great Britain, Mills and Boon, a name synonymous with the romance novel, was publishing books that were little more than modernizations of the nineteenth-century sentimental novels: an 18-year-old heroine saved from genteel poverty by an older, incredibly wealthy hero who raises her to the heights of luxury as she brings him to his knees in an acknowledgment of love's power. In 1949, Harlequin Enterprises, a Canadian company, began publishing Mills and Boon reprints for a North American audience. The venture was so successful that in 1957 Harlequin suspended publication of other category fiction to focus exclusively on Mills and Boon romances. About the same time, another sub-genre of romance was also experiencing a revival. Phyllis Whitney's Thunder Heights and Victoria Holt's Mistress of Mellyn, both published in 1960, sold over a million copies, and by the end of the 1970s, gothic romances (35 titles monthly) were outselling every other form of category fiction. But an unsolicited manuscript was about to change the romance scene to an unprecedented degree.
In 1972, Avon published The Flame and the Flower, a slush pile find by then unknown Kathleen Woodiwiss. This historical romance, more than twice the length of the average gothic, featured conventional elements of popular romance—mature hero; young, virginal heroine; orphan in peril; forced marriage—but it also introduced explicit sex as part of the formula. Woodiwiss doubtless owed part of her success to timing; greater openness about female sexuality characterized the larger culture of the 1970s. However, Woodiwiss and those who followed her were able to incorporate this new openness within the conventional frame of a monogamous relationship that culminated in marriage. A generation of romance readers and writers date their love affair with the genre from their reading of a Woodiwiss novel.
But the "bodice rippers" had their detractors too. Vehement in their criticism were the feminists who deplored the rape scenes standard in the Woodiwiss-influenced historical romance novels. Some saw such scenes as fodder for those who claimed women wanted to be raped. Others saw the scenes as reflecting a culture in which violence against women was commonplace. But readers, as Radway found, drew a sharp distinction between the hero's passion for the irresistible heroine that led to "forcible persuasion" and "true rape" which brutally dehumanized a woman. More than a decade after Radway's study, Karen Mitchell found that readers glossed over the rape scenes, in effect rewriting the scenes. Romance writers themselves argue that readers are capable of distinguishing between fiction and reality and that these attacks are mere prejudice against romance novels. Jayne Ann Krentz, a Romance Writers of America Lifetime Achievement Award winner and an outspoken defender of the genre, points out that female predators who seduce passive males have long been a feature of male detective fiction with no public outcry. Daphne Clair, an award-winning New Zealand writer, adds that no critic has accused consumers of thrillers and Westerns of being masochists because protagonists in these categories are routinely beaten, tortured, and shot. The controversy was never resolved, but rape scenarios became rarer by the early the 1980s, and the damsel with the ripped bodice, although still around, was replaced by the bare-chested, fantastically muscled hero as the cover model. Eventually, the age of Fabio (the best known of the cover boys) also ended, and the clinches retreated to inside covers.
While detractors and defenders were debating the violence in the new historical romances, readers just kept buying the books, and they were buying not only historical romances. Harlequin Enterprises merged with Mills and Boon in 1971 and began marketing contemporary romances in new outlets. Suddenly romance was everywhere. Women could buy romance novels in supermarkets, variety stores, airports, and drugstores. Harlequin was promoting books like soap powder, and the approach was working. By the end of the decade, Harlequin sales had increased 800 percent, and the company was distributing 168 million copies of its titles in 98 countries. By the end of the century, one in six mass paperbacks sold in North America was published by Harlequin.
Other publishing companies, eager to duplicate Harlequin's success, rushed into romance publishing. Dell, Fawcett, Warner, and Bantam introduced their own romance lines, but Harlequin's stiffest competition came from Simon and Schuster's Silhouette romances. Sexier romances were outselling the traditional, and series with provocative names like Candlelight Ecstasy, Harlequin Temptation, and Silhouette Desire appeared. Harlequin author Anne Mather shattered one barrier in series romance when the heroine of a 1980 novel engaged in premarital sex, but later romance novels were influenced by the explicit sexuality of the historical romances. Promiscuity was unacceptable, and the relationships were love affairs that led to marriage, but graphic descriptions of love scenes became common in the "sensual romances."
By 1984, "the romance wars" were over. A year later Harlequin purchased Silhouette, and only Bantam's Loveswept line, which promoted author over product, challenged Harlequin's absolute rule over series romance fiction. Romance novels had also become subjects of interest for mainstream publications as diverse as Time, Forbes, and Psychology Today. Scholars too were examining this phenomenally popular category fiction, but most significant were the changes in the novels themselves, changes that accelerated in the next decade. The 18-year-old virgin did not disappear as heroine, but she became a rare species. In her place was an older heroine, often sexually experienced, who had meaningful work, women friends, and a sense of humor. The romantic hero was still handsome, and usually wealthy, but he was now sensitive, expressive, and supportive of a woman's autonomy; and the story line had become socially relevant. While the love story was still primary and the happy ending still sacrosanct, single parents, alcoholism, infertility, divorce, even homelessness were woven into plots.
The romance audience was changing as well. By the 1990s romance readers were largely college-educated women who worked full-time outside the home. These readers saw themselves as mature women who could support themselves, think independently, and contribute to their communities. Though some critics continued to sneer at romance novels, others, including some feminist scholars, had broadened their ideas about women's experience. Those who had predicted the demise of romance novels had been proved wrong. Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, a collection of essays written by romance writers about their craft, became the fastest-selling title in the history of the University of Pennsylvania Press. The idea these essays challenged most firmly was the stereotype of the passive heroine.
Judith Arnold, one of the contributors, described the romance heroines of the 1990s: they " do "; they "take steps, hold opinions, and move forward into the world." Any random sampling of romance novels published after 1990 will support Arnold's contention. "Murphy Brown meets June Cleaver" proclaims the cover of a Harlequin Love & Laughter title. Heroines include teachers, lawyers, doctors, corporate executives, small business owners, architects, computer geniuses, builders, psychologists, artists, and country music singers who are also mothers, friends, lovers, soccer coaches, mentors, foster parents, church organists, and volunteers. The romance heroine has not surrendered her place in the domestic world; she has merely added triumph in the public world. She can rescue herself and sometimes the hero as well. It is not a question of the heroine usurping the hero's role, but of her proving the interdependence of their relationship.
The hero may have mixed emotions about this new balance of power but he learns to accept it. Typical is the response of Kenny Traveler, hero of Susan Elizabeth Phillips' humorous Lady Be Good, who responds to the news that his genius wife has expunged his badboy high school records by thinking of "his own public defender. It was embarrassing … but wonderful too." Romantic heroes have always been skillful lovers and conquerors in the public realm, but modern heroes must prove their prowess outside the boardroom and the bedroom. They cook, clean, and change diapers, and this new image seems to hold true across sub-genres. The heroes of historical romances and regencies may do kitchen duty infrequently, but even they regularly show themselves competent caretakers and loving fathers.
Romance novels have always been about relationships, but the relationships in 1990s romances extended beyond the primary relationship of one woman and one man to offer the dream of family. Sheryl Woods's The Unclaimed Baby (Silhouette, 1999) concludes with the "family gathered to celebrate the day's happy news" of an adoption and a pregnancy. The heroine exults "Cord would have the family he'd always dreamed of." Romance novelists also defined "family" in unconventional ways that reflected new configurations in real life. Barbara Freethy's single-title contemporary The Sweetest Thing (Avon, 1999) ends with Alex telling Faith, who has no family, that she will be not only his lover, partner, and best friend but also granddaughter to his idiosyncratic grandfather and mother to Jessie, a teenage girl who may or may not be his daughter.
Nora Roberts, arguably the most successful romance novelist of the late twentieth century, has made a career of novels that place characters within extended families. Roberts has written more than 128 novels since 1981, but her most popular works are the linked tales of the O'Hurleys, the Stanislaskis, the Concannons, the Quinns, and the MacGregors. In her bestselling The Perfect Stranger, Roberts describes the heroine Cybil Campbell: "Her mother was a successful, internationally respected artist; her father, the reclusive genius behind the long-running 'Macintosh' comic strip. Together they had given her and her siblings a love of art, a sense of the ridiculous, and a solid foundation." Roberts evokes a world where generations are connected by loving ties. To this she adds the traditional world of the romance novel: a world where a woman can be strong, independent, and articulate without being labeled unfeminine, where problems like glass ceilings, sexual harassment, single motherhood, and uncommunicative males are always happily resolved, where a woman can share passion, intimacy, and blissful monogamy with a powerful and attractive man who fulfills her intellectually, emotionally, and sexually. Small wonder that millions of women are willing to pay their share of the $1 billion romance novels earn annually in order to enjoy the fantasy.
The enduring success of romance novels can be attributed to a paradox. Romance novels remain true to their ancient formula, but they are constantly evolving. More than 20 years ago John Cawelti speculated that the women's movement would render the "moral fantasy" of the popular romance obsolete. But the romance novel has reshaped itself and thrived. At the end of the twentieth century, the lines between popular romance and general women's fiction have blurred. Romance novelists regularly publish in hardcover, are reviewed in mainstream publications, and appear on bestseller lists of the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and USA Today. The Romance Writers of America, an organization that includes 8,200 romance writers and other industry professionals, lists on its Honor Roll 47 romance novelists who have made the bestseller lists. Nineteen publishing houses produce romance novels, and the once white-bread industry now publishes lines targeting African-American and Latino-American readers. Romance novels may be historical or contemporary, long or short, inspirational, gentle, or sexy. In cyberspace, publishers, romance writers, and industry-related groups offer author biographies, book summaries, chat rooms, and e-mail newsletters. Fan-generated sites offer independent reviews, reading lists, spirited discussion, and the sense of community that researchers have found central to the experience of romance readers. Forty-five million women in North America alone regularly read romance novels, and experts predict a 22-percent increase in readers by 2010.
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