What is the Function of Romance Novels?

March 25, 2013

"Whacha reading, honey?"
Disclaimer: Before you go any further, I want you to know that in the world of romance readers, I am a tender seedling.  I began following the genre in 2010 and didn't begin writing it with any conviction until 2012.  Please take whatever I say as the words of a toddler who can still hold only fat crayons.  You know, the big ones that don't break.

I am such a naive sprout that whenever I come across a piece of scholastic writing on the romance genre, my heart does cartwheels like a Russian gymnast during a floor routine.  In the logical part of my brain, I understand that romance is an important genre that has inspired academic scrutiny for decades.  But in the (admittedly much larger) illogical part of my brain, academic articles about romance novels inspire the same giddy relish that I usually reserve for abs like these

So I started reading the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books blog last month and this morning I came across this brainy treatise by Candy Tan on the role of romance novels.  Originally published in 2009, it was written in response to this blog post by Teresa Medeiros about writing romance novels.  Both pieces articulate points that I find fascinating.

Let's begin by tussling with Medeiros. She states,
So if any of you are ever leered at, sneered at, or otherwise degraded for writing or reading romance, simply blink and gently say (really quickly), “What the romance novel is really all about is the archetypal human struggle of integrating the masculine and feminine aspects of our psyches.” I can promise you that nothing will shut them up faster.  
 I was looking forward to Medeiros going on about this archetypal struggle thing just so that I could pull up some old files from the mental deep storage room where I store my college degrees.  But she didn't.  The intellectual pleasures of Jungian analysis aside, I agree that that line probably would effectively shut most people up. 
People often ask me why I write romance.  I write romance because the ever expanding boundaries of the genre allow me to express my own heartfelt beliefs in optimism, faith, honor, chivalry and the timeless power of love to provoke a happy ending.  In a society gutted by cynicism, we have found the courage to stand up and proclaim that hope isn’t corny, love isn’t an antiquated fantasy, and dreams can come true for women still willing to strive for them. 
 I agree with Medeiros completely here.  I love to read.  At a time when I was weak and sick and not willing to look on the bright side of anything, romance novels gave me respite from my usual "capital L" literary novels which at that moment seemed overfilled with discontent, ennui, disharmony, and plain old pessimism.  I needed something optimistic to bring me back to life: novels wherein the downtrodden become their own heroines and then get rewarded with the mind-blowing nookie they so richly deserve.
Probably the most subversive thing we dare to do is to make the woman the hero of her own story...In a romance, the heroine acts as narrator of her own story as well as driving the various plotlines that fuel that story. 
 I don't know if this is THE MOST subversive thing we dare to do.  Female protagonists who drive plots forward are nothing new.  In 1813, it was much more subversive for Jane Austen to BE the hero of her own story than to write about women who were.  These days, what would be truly subversive for a romance novelist to do?  I don't know.  Write about a short, scrawny male hero who isn't an Alpha, maybe?  Write about a woman who ultimately turns down the man of her dreams because she wants to become a nun?  I don't know.  Something like that.
Our heroines don’t just “stand by their men”, they “stand up to them.” And guess what—their men love it!  We celebrate both a woman’s softness and her strength and introduce her to a man capable of recognizing the value of both.  Is it any wonder that both she and our readers fall in love with him? 
There's a quote by Anais Nin that goes something like, "I, with a deeper instinct, choose a man who compels my strength, who makes enormous demands on me, who does not doubt my courage or my toughness, who does not believe me naive or innocent, who has the courage to treat me like a woman."

Just like Medeiros' quote above, Nin assumes gender expectations whose very framework is built upon the idea that the man is the mentor, the teacher, the one doing the demanding rather than the other way around.  He's a bully whose woman has to "stand up to him" and teach him a lesson: "Golly, that woman sure is strong.  And soft.  And purty.  And she smells nice.  But she's also smart.  God, look at her titties."  In other words, this doesn't seem like an expression of gender equality.   But what I do like is the idea that women can be both soft and strong, and that there is tandem value in these two qualities.

On to Tan.  (This is going to be strange because I'm responding to a piece written in response to Medeiros' article.  Forget Inception.  This is BLOGCEPTION.  Where are all the hot men in hot suits?')

So in response to Medeiros' comment on being subversive by making women the heroines of their own stories, Tan writes
I think she’s absolutely right in this regard, and in my opinion, it’s why romance novels are stigmatized to the extent that they are. Generally speaking, when a book’s protagonist is a woman, or somebody not strictly heterosexual, or a racial minority, all of a sudden, it’s immediately tagged as A Book About the Other. 
I don't think romance novels are stigmatized because their protagonists are female.  I think romance novels are stigmatized because of their reputation for being formulaic, for being singularly driven by love and sex, for having happy endings no matter what, and for being so freakin' popular.  I don't think about romance novels as "Books About the Other" at all.  Romance novels are available everywhere, even at the supermarket.  They're read mostly by white ladies; they're usually about white ladies.  I suppose that counts as "The Other" if you're not a white lady.  But romance is a mainstream genre.  And lastly, whether a book is well written or not is beside the point; if it falls into this mainstream genre, it's considered pablum, manufactured crap for the masses, and as such is stigmatized.

I can't think of a book example at the moment, but take the 2012 movie Zero Dark Thirty, for instance.  Its protagonist, played by Jessica Chastain, is not the person you would immediately envision as the CIA analyst who caught Osama Bin Laden.  The movie, directed by a woman, was stigmatized because of its extended scenes of detainee torture, not because its protagonist is a woman.

But here's where I think Tan gets it right.  For her, romance novels serve two functions.  First,
They’re about building stability and family—usually a fairly heternomative [sic] nuclear family, with the hero and heroine having lots of happy children and sidekicks who get their own books somewhere down the line and repeating this pattern. 
 Whatever form that stability takes, that is what we find at the end of most romance novels.  And I think that women in crisis (basically the person I was three years ago) need reassurance that this kind of stability is not only possible, it is something we as women deserve.

[Romance novels] exorcise demons. I thought about this when I saw @redrobinreader‘s Tweet about how romance was filled to the brim with violence against women. And she’s right—the violence isn’t just visited on the heroine (rape being especially popular, with physical and emotional abuse from family members and former husbands being popular as well), but on villainesses and on supporting characters, too...[R]omance novels provide vehicles for exploring some truly scary shit, with happiness and hope for healing for both hero and heroine provided by the happiness and stability they find with each other.

Violence against women is something both the SF/F and romance genres share.  (Game of Thrones, anyone?)  According to Tan, romance novels allow authors and readers to explore dark topics like rape, physical abuse, and emotional abuse with the reassuring knowledge that some measure of healing will have taken place before the end of the story.  No matter how shitty things get, the characters in these novels will find solace in that hard-won stability.

I can get behind that.  And I hope that today's romance readers can, too. 


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