On the role romance novels play

I’ve been thinking a lot about the role romance novels play for its readers and authors ever since reading Teresa Medeiros’ inspiring and heart-wrenching post about why she writes romance novels. If you’ve been buried underneath some sort of Internet rock and haven’t read it yet, go have a look-see. That piece does more to allay doubts about the power of popular fiction to make a substantial, beautiful difference in people’s lives than anything I’ve read in recent memory.

A few things Medeiros wrote caught my eye, however, and started my brain spinning in all sorts of loops. Forgive me if this is somewhat incoherent; it’s still a thought-in-progress in many ways, and I’m hoping to have a conversation with you guys about it.

This is the first bit of the post that really snagged at my brain:

. . . “What the romance novel is really all about is the archetypal human struggle of integrating the masculine and feminine aspects of our psyches.”

My first reaction, which was really strong and immediate, was “Hell no it’s not.” Then I had to stop and ponder a) why my reaction was so strong, and b) whether I had any reasoned basis for that disagreement, rather than just a strong personal squick over the idea of masculine and feminine aspects to psyches, much less the idea that they need integration (more on that below). I agree that romance novels, more explicitly than many other genres, grapple with gender roles, gender identity and cultural expectations of gender. I don’t know that I’m convinced that they’re about integrating both aspects of our psyches. Some romances make an attempt, and a few succeed, but the vast majority of romances seem more comfortable enforcing gender norms as they are within the author’s cultural context. If romance novels truly were about integrating masculine and feminine aspects of our psyches, I’d expect them to be, I don’t know, more queer than they are—and they by and large aren’t. They’re incredibly heterosexual and heteronormative, and most gender stereotypes are adhered to quite faithfully; if there’s any kind of integration to be seen, it’s in the portrayal of the emotional growth and increased emotional vulnerability in heroes, and I think that can be largely explained by the fact these books portray female fantasies, and most women-who-like-men want their fantasy men to be dangerous yet nurturing and protective. And even then, the nurturing tends to occur in ways that are acceptable within the bounds of masculinity—and I’m talking about masculinity as defined by female fantasy, not necessarily masculinity defined by male fantasy. So, in romance novels, acceptable, masculine behavior for heroes that’s normally associated with the feminine include nursing a heroine through an illness, or confessing his emotional vulnerability, or being gentle and loving with animals and children. Other types of feminine behavior or traits outside the masculine, heteronormative norm are either seen as:

1. Transgressive and therefore villainized (homosexuality, bisexuality and general gender queerness used to be one of the most reliable earmarks, though that has changed somewhat in recent years. There are cross-dressing heroes and heroines, which is potentially queering, but they do it out of necessity and for purposes of disguise; there are not, to my knowledge, heroes or heroines who are true transvestites; anyone transgendered for a hero/heroine is still pretty much right out);

2. Signs of effeminacy, emasculation or mental illness and often portrayed comedically (slim physiques; preoccupation with fashion; dislike of violence or physical confrontation); or

3. Emasculating and therefore not portrayed very often at all (heroes who give up their successful careers to be with the heroine; stay-at-home dads). One big exception: if the hero’s job is one that substantially endangers his life, such as being an assassin, it’s perfectly acceptable for him to give up the job for love of the heroine, but then there’s usually the understanding that his super-secret Swiss bank account is every bit as turgid as his Staff of Pleasure and Wonderment. Or if the job is dangerous but either socially acceptable or not outside the law (he’s a Bow Street Runner, for example), he switches to a desk job, and it’s usually a sign of promotion.

These are generalizations—and not only that, they’re based on the sample of romance novels that I’ve read and can remember; I’m sure exceptions can be found to the rules. Nonetheless, these seem to be the patterns I’ve noticed in romance novels. More than the integration, I notice the gender separations in romance novels along fairly traditional masculine and feminine lines; I have yet to run across a genderqueer protagonist, for example, nor do I expect to any time soon. But gender presentation is tremendously important in romance novels, because gender presentation is culturally important. For example, Lynn Viehl has, in the past, ladled vitriol and contempt on “sheroes” (which I responded to with an entry entitled “In Defense of Girly Men”), and she is far from alone; I’ve seen similar expressions of contempt on blogs and forums for as long as I’ve been a part of the on-line romance community.

And to give you another idea of how important traditional gender presentation is: this year, the RWA National Conference featured not one, but two workshops on how to accurately portray men and women. One, called “He Said, She said: Doing the Other Sex and Doing Them Well” focused on “how to write the opposite sex, how to write them real, and how to leave readers wanting more”; the other was entitled “Body Language: Writing Compelling Characters of Both Sexes,” and it “examines the real differences between men and women and how writers can ensure their characters are true to their gender.” (Credit to Rose Fox for pointing out the fact that there were two workshops exploring gender differences—presumably among heterosexual specimens.)

This men from Mars, women from Venus outlook is just plain weird to me, because people are people. When I read my favorite authors, I don’t think “Wow, she certainly created a convincing masculine male in this one.” I think “She created a convincing character, with believable motivations, strengths and weaknesses.” Cultural expectations within the fictional world inform the behavior and gender presentation of hero and heroine, and if they openly transgress these boundaries, I expect to read about at least a little bit of fallout. But the cultural expectations of the author at the time she writes the book are what matter most (and I’m not only talking about culture-at-large and society-at-large, but about the microculture of romance novels and the romance community in particular, too). The hero and heroine won’t violate the author’s cultural expectations—and it doesn’t even necessarily matter whether the author subscribes to those expectations herself. If the author’s cultural expectations dictate that women deserving of a happy ending must be sexually pure, then the heroines are going to be virgins; if they’re not virgins, then they’re punished with either miserable or unfulfilling sex lives, or they’re not virgins because they’ve been sexually abused, and true fulfillment and happiness can be bestowed only by the hero’s magic wang. If the author’s cultural expectations dictate that women want to be mothers, or that abortion is in no case acceptable, then you’ll have heroines who have babies under the most improbable circumstances, or who think of abortion with disgust, and you’ll see women who do have abortions villainized. (Seriously, it’s even more heinous than having a good manicure and being vain. Women who have abortions in romance novels are Instant Evil, the way homosexuality used to be Instant Evil.)

Ultimately, I’m not sure that there’s a masculine or feminine aspect to our psyches. I’m not sure I subscribe to the ideas that psyches can be gendered in any kind of essentialist way. Gender and gender presentation (as distinct from biological sex, usually connoted with the terms “male” and “female” vs. “masculine” and “feminine”) aren’t just highly dependent on culture and cultural trappings, but on the individual, and where his or her particular gender boundaries are—and those boundaries can be fluid, changing with age and circumstance.

Another bit that Medeiros wrote sparked a train of rumination:

Probably the most subversive thing we dare to do is to make the woman the hero of her own story.  And to realize exactly how subversive that is, I want each of you to honestly ask yourselves if the marvelous J.K. Rowling would have been such an international success if her first book had been titled, HARRIET POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE.

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. Try all these other delicious variations: if Harry Potter were black, if Harry’s name had been Cheng Wei, or if he’d been gay.

One of the most powerful aspects of romance novels is the fact that they feature women who get to win. And it doesn’t matter if I agree with the terms of the heroine’s victory—I may think that her win was unrealistic, or unhealthy, or pyrrhic at best, or even a dead loss. What matters most is that the heroine triumphs, and that she ultimately gets what she wants. This doesn’t mean that I’ll stop critiquing the terms of that victory, and what those victories in aggregate say about readers and authors and society in general, but no other genre allows the women to win as consistently as romance novels do—and this is a valuable thing in and of itself.

This bit here sparked a train of thought so loopy and tangled, I’m still not sure I’m done unraveling the mess:

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?

When I think of romance novels, I don’t think of heroines standing up to the heroes, because it seems to me that when the heroine is pit against the hero, she will lose nine times out of ten if it’s related to anything involving careers, competency or ass-kicking. The message used to be much more stark in older romance novels, where the hero often talked about “taming” the heroine but not “changing” her; nowadays, the heroine’s power is undermined in more subtle ways. How many legions of heroines in contemporary romances make protestations that their career is their number one priority, that they are the best at their job, only to have the author show her to be incompetent over and over again, or to have her crumble like wet cake once the hero shows up? How many chic urban heroines discover that Twue Happiness lies in a small-town life with lots of babies and a white picket fence? Heroines tend to more consistently garner the emotional and moral victories, but most of the time, the heroes are the ones who win, and I can understand that—losing is strongly associated with emasculation. Heroines only get stand up to heroes in certain ways, and those acceptable modes of resistance have everything to do with our societal expectations of masculinity and femininity.

Romance novels, in my opinion, perform two major functions:

1. They’re about building stability and family—usually a fairly heternomative 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.

2. They 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. I mean, if you thought comic books had problems with women in refrigerators….

There is a major difference here, of course: the heroines in romance novels aren’t used as disposable devices in and of themselves; however, their trauma certainly serves to move the plot along. (Are they indisposable devices, then? Hmmm!) (Also: I’ve long thought that readers and authors are simultaneously sadistic and masochistic when reading about these traumas; however, I still haven’t sorted this one out coherently yet, and I’ll hopefully address it in another piece.) In any case, women in real life are still disproportionately the targets of sexual violence and domestic abuse, and romance 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.

I don’t really have a good way to wrap up all these messy thoughts—and as you can see, they’re pretty damn messy, with lots of gaps and skips and loops that turn in on themselves. I do want to ask all of you some questions, though: what purposes do you think romance novels serve? Do you see our psyches as gendered? Does it even matter? Do you think romance novels, more than other genres, attempt to bridge this gap?


Random Musings

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Kim says:

    Thank you, Sarah, for bringing Teresa’s article to my attention.  I follow Teresa, but do not read SquawkRadio on a regular basis.  Her fellow Squawker, Eloisa James, gave a similar inspiring speech at RWA last week about emotions, love, and the struggle for romance to find acceptance.  We could rehash the Ivy League educations of Eloisa, Julia Quinn, (and others as I learned at RWA).  We could point to authors who are “rocket scientists” such as Stephanie Laurens.  Instead, let’s just stop defending romance and celebrate it!  I recently lunched with a NYT’s bestseller and discussed the constant criticism of romance. Her response, “Nobody becomes stupid from reading.”  So I keep reading Teresa, Eloisa, Julia, and other fabulous authors who take me away from the mundane (laundry) to the heartbreaking (war).

    Fort Meade, MD

  2. 2
    Kim says:

    Oh, @#%^.  My apologies to Candy.  Thank you, Candy, for a wonder blog!


  3. 3
    Esther says:

    Hi Candy and everyone,

    I must confess to not being a huge reader of romances, though I’ve had the usual experience: read some of my mother’s as adolescent, discovered they were an excellent way to relax while trying to survive grad school. But I definitely struggle with them, as “women’s novels,” as objects of ridicule, and objects of sexual acculturation. Gosh, I learned or thought I learned all about sex whilst reading Silver Angel at 13.

    I’m fairly new to this splendiferous website and am not sure if you’ve already discussed Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance, but I do find her study, albeit dated, to be incredibly useful in mapping out the needs of women readers in our culture. It seems that the key function of romance novels is to provide safe play for women at risk—whether it’s economic, sexual—or even romantic—risk. So the rape fantasy is comprehensible, even crucial, in a world where rape is so frequently used in movies as signifiers of masculinity or devices of getting the plot rolling, rather than acts of personal violation. How many male versions of fantasy—spy novels, detective mysteries, etc—use a beautiful young woman, raped and (always brutally) murdered to launch the hero’s own victory? This is so pervasive that it’s almost a truth: Women’s tragedies are merely opportunities for men. Romances are coping mechanisms that provide a narrow safety net for women trapped in an unfriendly/male world all the while, as you rightly point out, reinforcing, perhaps stimulating what might be dying, traditional gender roles. (Oops, now that I’ve written this, I realize that you’ve said this in #2. Sorry for the redundancy.)

    Medeiros is absolutely correct when she says “the most subversive thing we dare to do is to make the woman the hero of her own story.” Harriet Potter? Egad, talk about Rowling as traitor to young girls everywhere. It makes me so mad, especially with the Hermione character verging on virago. Nevertheless, to view romances instances of heroines “standing up to them” is nothing short of deluded. If the heroine ever stands up to the hero, it’s usually a matter of her “stamping her small foot” or “beating her little fists against his burly chest” as he laughs at her. This is absurd. Her only victory is, like her efforts, a slender one: She achieves greater personal freedom only within the confines of marriage to this one man. Speaking for myself, I prefer the honesty of “he dominates her; she agrees” rather than some pathetic attempt by the author to appease a more politically correct readership. Why delude the reader too?

    Perhaps the most compelling and heartbreaking of Madeiro’s argument is that romances afford us some hope. Hope that one day your husband will be nice to you; one day somebody out there will understand you truly. For women in problematic relationships, this hope can act as a lifeboat.

    Thank you for this amazing website! It’s so important that we women maintain a dialogue about what we read and what we need!

  4. 4
    Lisa says:

    A disagreements, with you, Candy.

    How many chic, urban heroines discover that Twue Happiness lies in a small-town life with lots of babies and a white picket fence?

    What’s wrong with small-town life?  It’s right for some people and I don’t think suggesting that it is is gender-based as much as it is generation-based. Many of us, male and female, living in dissociated isolation – who can’t name the neighbors in the next apartment over, who could walk around the city for hours without seeing a familiar face – find comfort in the idea of a town where the hardware store owner was friends with your grandma and your kids can walk home from school. And the babies thing isn’t fair to pin on just the suburban heroines – it’s a happy-ending convention for most heroines.

    I agree that there can definitely be a “stop trying to make it where you don’t belong, little lady” element to women moving to small towns. But I think the plot of a romance revolves around taking a woman with emotional holes and finding ways to fill them (no innuendo intended). A hero can provide sexual companionship and romantic companionship, but a desire for a community and a place to belong can come from a small town. So for some characters, the small town move can be a way or resolving a character need.

  5. 5
    Samantha says:

    This is so pervasive that it’s almost a truth: Women’s tragedies are merely opportunities for men. Romances are coping mechanisms that provide a narrow safety net for women trapped in an unfriendly/male world all the while, as you rightly point out, reinforcing, perhaps stimulating what might be dying, traditional gender roles.

    Totally agree with you Esther and I hadn’t thought of it that way before.

    You bring up some interesting points/questions, Candy.  An example I have noticed in some stories is that there will be comments about a man’s fashion sense, implying that others may think it is so good because of a certain type of implied sexual orientation, only to have this same element reinforce his “manliness” because of course it wasn’t true!

    And if you think about Harry Potter, just look at the stir J.K. caused when she mentioned Dumbledore was gay!

  6. 6
    SarahG says:

    I’ve just returned to romance as a genre, after a few years of fantasy and assorted YA taking up most of my reading time. Whenever anyone brings up Romance-The-Genre, why we read it and what we get out of it, I am irresistibly reminded of Agatha Christie.

    No, really. Agatha did include a ‘love interest’ in ‘A Mysterious Affair at Styles’, her first Poirot novel, but not because she wanted to. She felt that romance was out of place in a detective story. But a ‘love interest’ was mandatory, and so she wedged it in off to the side somewhere.

    Love Interest is still mandatory, more or less. A Hot Babe – or, much more rarely, Hot Guy – is required for every self-respecting action flick, comedy (even most buddy movies), sci-fi, drama, fantasy, even supernatural and horror… and, of course, the chick-flicks! Books are no less prone to it than movies. Even books, movies and tv-shows aimed at children often have a sweet, nascent romance.

    To me, Romance is just Fiction with its shirt off, shucking the explosions and the lame one-liners and the faux-gritty-realism and embracing the fact that what people are really interested in is… no, not Hawt Seks. It’s nice in its place, but it’s not nearly the consuming obsession that Hollywood and romance-critics like to think it is.

    What people, almost all people, are really interested in is *people*. What they feel, what they do, and how they love. And most of us like to see a happy ending. To feel that somewhere out there, everything’s going to be all right. The ideal, for me, is anything that draws me into the characters and their relationships, that has me cheering for them when they cross that emotional finish line. Be it masquerading as action, fantasy or sci-fi, or honest shirt-off Romance… that’s what I call good romance.

  7. 7
    Lori says:

    . . . “What the romance novel is really all about is the archetypal human struggle of integrating the masculine and feminine aspects of our psyches.”

    I read this differently than Candy did. The point of the quote was what to say to people when you don’t want to have a discussion justifying romance and you need to shut them up. Because of that I read it is Medeiros’ throwing out something that sounds complex and academic simply to discourage further discussion. I didn’t necessarily think she believed it.

    It’s late and I’m too tired to form a full thought, but to the extent that it is true I think it has something to do with the question of who the reader identifies with. People have suggested that readers identify with the hero as much or more than the heroine (I think that varies from reader to reader), even though romances are almost always focused on the heroines journey. It seems to me that this creates a type of duality or integration.

    After I’ve had some sleep and some caffeine I may feel terribly embarrassed for having said that. Time will tell.

  8. 8
    Pam says:

    Nice to hear from you, Candy.

    When I was a kid, I read as a kid.  Now that I am a woman, I still read as a kid only with more sex and dirty words. 

    I think we read different stuff during different phases of our lives.  I read more romances when I was younger, then shifted to science fiction and fantasy as a young wife because that’s what my spouse brought to the marriage.  Now I read a lot of mystery.  The themes that wound through my entire reading life were a love of humor and adventure, but none of my reading tastes have been monolithic.  I enjoy romantic elements in much of what I read, just as I love laughter and excitement.  I read escapist literature not to compensate for some excruciating sociological burden, but to hide out from the mundane in my life.  My gradually increasing awareness of gender inequities and feminist issues slowly eradicated my tolerance for many of the conventions of old skool romance, just as returning to college in my thirties made me excruciatingly aware of what constituted good writing and what simply sucked.  Romance, like any other genre, runs the gamut when it comes to writing quality.  Furthermore there are an incredible number of sub-genres within romance.  Isn’t it a little presumptuous to assume that readers are choosing romances for a narrow set of motives? 

    I don’t think that it’s possible to make vast generalizations about why people read romance. Hell, I don’t even think that readers even share a definition of the genre.  While many of your readers and most of what’s currently written are all about the erotic side of romance, how many of us still trot out a Georgette Heyer as their favorite romance novel of all time.
    The regular romance consumers that use the library where I work don’t seem to fit any set pattern, and I would be ashamed to catch myself making assumptions based on their reading taste.
    Actually, I’ve always seen a dichotomy between pleasure reading and “serious” literature, but I have never felt that these different types of reading were necessarily exclusive of one another.  We read romance or mystery or westerns or whatever for fun, because they give us pleasure without a huge investment of time or deep thought.  They teach us stuff too, especially if the author is a dedicated researcher.  Let’s face it, SBs like to learn stuff, so that’s a big attraction.  And what is more comforting in a complex world than a really satisfying HEA?

    To me, this is reading like a kid—a book-lusting, readaholic kid, but a kid just the same.  I know I’m not alone in this, but as a youthful book worm,  I read anything and everything but loathed book reports and totally despised the “classics” forced down my throat in high school.  I bullshat my way through more great books than I can shake a stick at, all the time reading my own light lit choices, liberally seasoned with humor and romance.  Later on, when I returned to school, I finally understood the attraction of the great book, and I became pretty damn good at literary analysis too.  I could still lay on the bullshit, but now I actually read and enjoyed the book and the game of analysis.  I still believe that there is a point where it becomes merely pompous to over-analyze something that is done primarily for personal enjoyment.  I think it is also kind of demeaning to make assumptions about romance readers.  I mean, isn’t that woefully similar to the kind of crap one gets from those who denigrate the entire genre and its readers?  I mean it’s one thing to say that romance readers are seeking upbeat stories steeped in hope and the perfect vicarious kiss, but it’s another thing entirely to postulate that they are somehow trapped in misery or risk and that romance novels are a palliative for the inadequacies of their lives.

    Oh hell, I think I started this with the simple idea that it was a mistake to over=analyze something done primarily for pleasure.  Then look what I did—my bad.

  9. 9

    Excellent post.  My one vaguely useful thought is that the notion of “integration” might work if you look, not at how the hero and heroine change to incorporate more feminine or masculine characteristics, but rather at how the HEA of the two characters is symbolic of a single psyche’s warring sides coming together.

    Now, I don’t really buy that kind of reading, because to my eye it smacks of cheap psychoanalysis.  But it might be what she meant.

    One thing that bugs me, on the topic of gender roles and confrontations between the hero and heroine, is the way in which strident bitchiness and unfunny snark have come to substitute for actual strength of character—call it pseudo-strength.  There’s a particular tone that I think has become very widespread, at least in the urban fantasy/paranormal romance end of things, that I’ve become very jaded about, because it copies its forebears but doesn’t do so well.

    (The hero of the book I’m currently drafting has for some reason volunteered himself for all kinds of feminization.  No, I’m not sure what provoked that.)

  10. 10
    Edie says:

    @Lisa on the

      How many chic, urban heroines discover that Twue Happiness lies in a small-town life with lots of babies and a white picket fence?


    But a lot of the time the heroines character has been built in such a way, that I struggle to believe her being happy with the limited options in small towns. And the fact that she generally with little ado, gives up a career that she has busted a gut for to sit at home and pop out babies.. It DRIVES ME CRAZY!
    It just appears too often for me, and often just not fitting the character IMO. But I have many problematic issues with the romance heroine, which is why I often have to take breaks from reading romance novels and there are some categories I just can’t touch.

    I am also with Lori on Medeiros’ usage of the “archetypal” thingy.. I read it as something to spit out to stop them ragging and avoid a debate?

    spamword: move37 it is probably going to be 37 years before I can move back to my small country hometown. :(

  11. 11
    Edie says:

    PS As usual I got sidetracked..
    I did want to reply to this in Candy’s post:

    This men from Mars, women from Venus outlook is just plain weird to me,

    But isn’t that realistically what 95% of the romances are based on??

    And there was something else.. but the brain is on a melt down from work.. and it is now gone. sigh

  12. 12
    Candy says:

    Lisa: I’m not objecting to the small-town fantasy, but I find its pervasiveness, especially in the face of heroines who protest long and loud about the importance of fulfillment outside of romance, tiring. Just as we build narratives around small towns and abstract them to the point that when we set a romance in a small town, the reader kind of automatically fills in the details and expectations, we do exactly the same with cities. Cities have come to stand for disconnection, coldness, loneliness, but my experience of cities has been very much the opposite—Portland is full of amazing, supportive communities, and when I visit friends in San Francisco and Seattle, they introduce me to their amazing, supportive communities. From what I’ve heard, Los Angeles tends to be a lot closer to what we associate stereotypically with cities, but not every city is Los Angeles.

    In short, it’d be pretty nifty to read more frequently about heroines who feel stifled and alienated in a small town finding freedom and community in a large city. Variety being spice of life, etc.

    Lori: in terms of integrating the masculine/feminine aspects of the psyche by allowing female readers to identify with heroes while immersed in a story that’s about a woman’s journey, I think that this can also be fulfilled via literary fiction, women’s fiction and any other number of genres. In short, it’s not really a romance thang, but a function of how an author chooses to structure the story. I also disagree that romance novels are mostly about a woman’s journey; I think older romance novels definitely focus more on the woman’s perspective—most of them tend to be coming-of-age stories—but one of the earmarks of newer romance novels tend to be the fact that the hero’s journey is increasingly important.

    Which actually would be a decently good integrationist argument, actually. Hmm. Must think about this more.

    Pam: what you said here has me a bit puzzled:

    Isn’t it a little presumptuous to assume that readers are choosing romances for a narrow set of motives? . . . I mean it’s one thing to say that romance readers are seeking upbeat stories steeped in hope and the perfect vicarious kiss, but it’s another thing entirely to postulate that they are somehow trapped in misery or risk and that romance novels are a palliative for the inadequacies of their lives.

    Are you addressing that at me, or to one of the commenters, or Teresa Medeiros? I’m getting the impression that you’re addressing this at my post, so I’m re-reading what I wrote (and catching some glorious typos), and I’m not entirely sure where you’re getting this impression. Could you point to where I’m saying that I’m postulating that romance readers need to read romance as a palliative for their inadequate lives? Because I’m not entirely sure that I talked about reader motivations for picking up a romance; mostly I talked about the roles romance novels, as a genre, play in the larger cultural context. And for the record: seeking stability is a good thing. More variety in terms of what constitutes “stability” would be nice, but that hasn’t deterred me from reading romance novels so far. Exorcising demons: also a good thing.

    Also: I love analysis. Love. It. Even over-analysis. Especially of popular fiction in general and romance fiction in particular, because it IS considered the stuff that people read “just for pleasure,” and I think figuring out what triggers our collective pleasure centers is eminently worthy of poking at and taking apart. If it means I’m pompous, then hell, I proudly own my pompousness.


    And now, to move on from addressing specific comments: Something that I didn’t make adequately clear in my post: if you read all the examples of how romance novels have changed lives for the better that Medeiros brings up in her post, and the example of her father sticking with her mother when her bipolar disorder became especially bad, it was all about offering hope—and I think the basis of that hope is the stability the characters find at the end of romance novels. Medeiros was offering the more extreme ends of the spectrum, of course—most of us read to relax, to escape, and because we need to read and engage our brains in order to remain sane. But it’s much harder to sneer at cancer victims and post-surgical patients than it is at tired students, or stay-at-home moms who need a break, or professional women who want to unwind after a hard day.

  13. 13

    Wonderful and thought-provoking blog as always, Sarah!

    It probably lost something in the translation because I usually give it in an oral speech but I did want to clarify that the “romance novels being about the integration of masculine and feminine aspects of our psyches” was given for purely tongue-in-cheek purposes as something to say to a romance critic to shut them down because they seem to enjoy ridiculous psycho-babble. HOWEVER, I totally enjoyed your analysis of that very theory! You took it to places I’ve never seen explored before.

  14. 14

    Oh! And one more thing your blog made me think about was that when we write, we’re not just the heroine, we’re the hero as well. People often ask me if my heroines are “me” but the truth is that the heroes also represent another facet of my personality. Just something else to think about!

  15. 15

    Well, fiddle! I meant Candy too!!!  Thank you CANDY for such a wonderful blog ;)

  16. 16

    Okay, I’ve had my coffee so I had one more thought and then I’ll go away and let you discuss amongst yourselves. I just wrote the perfect example of the heroine standing up to the hero in my new book. She is essentially at this point his captive (sorry, but I make no apologies for adoring captive fantasies—not a big fan of censoring ANY woman’s fantasies) and all of his men are afraid to ask him just exactly how his mother came to haunt a local wood.

    However, when his men fall silent, she steps into the fray to ask him (resulting in spit-takes and appalled silence from his men). Now why does she do something that might be construed as so foolish?

    Because even though she knows he has both ultimate physical and emotional power over her in that moment, she also knows at some subconscious, core level of her being yet to be explored that THIS MAN WILL NOT INTENTIONALLY HURT HER. And that gives her the courage to stand up to him when everyone else around him is cowering. He can’t help but respect her for it, which adds another level to his growing feelings for her. He basically tells her, “If my men were this bold, we’d have bested the Bad Guy a long time ago.”

  17. 17
    AQ says:

    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.

    But are women in romance novels really the protagonists?

    On a percentage basis of the entire genre, my impression of current romance novels is that the heroes are primarily the protagonists while the heroines are the primary point of view character (or narrator) and that if the hero has a point of view that it’s been heavily filtered through a feminine narrator to fulfill the female fantasy aspect Candy mentioned above.

    The hero has generally has the major emotional character arc, the hero has the goals while the heroine tends to be reaction mode, the hero still is the one to primarily confront/defeat the villains (not always still talking percentage impression here). The heroine are generally victimized/traumaitized (romance tropes: fated mates, captive, blackmail/revenge, secret baby, etc.) Yes, the heroines survive and score moral victories but again these victories seem to be the result of reaction rather than action on the heroine’s part or through action by the hero. Hence my perception that the hero is generally the protagonist and not the heroine.

    Leaving my comment here because my mind is whirling and I’m still pondering the full extent of Candy’s post and I haven’t read the rest of the comments yet.

  18. 18
    MichelleR says:

    Great article.

    Lisa took many of the words out of my mouth (fingers) for the small town heroine. I relate to her, because I did leave the big city to move to a place I’d only experienced through vacations—it was/is my grandmother’s hometown and she would bring me here to visit her family. I don’t think of myself as lacking ambition, so much as longing for connection. My husband mentioned moving here before I did, because it was a secret dream, so maybe he’s the one who couldn’t cut it. :)

    I can read about someone leaving a small town to go to the big city, but I secretly think she’s making a Big Mistake. (Kidding, sorta.)

  19. 19
    Esther says:

    Pam, I think your argument of reading for the sake of childlike pleasure (to paraphrase terribly) is important and something we need reminding over and over. I reread all my childhood favorites, and gosh darn it, when I read Jane Austen for the first time I gobbled it up with childlike “what-happens-next”? hunger too.

    Sorry, Candy, I think Pam was responding to my remarks about why readers read romance when she says: “it’s another thing entirely to postulate that they are somehow trapped in misery or risk and that romance novels are a palliative for the inadequacies of their lives.” Speaking from personal experience, I didn’t start rereading romances till I got married. I was suddenly interested in other possible romances when my own seemed fixed. So I may have been thrusting my own reasons for reading romances onto a larger population.

    That being said, when it comes to romances, of which there are inordinate amounts being published monthly, many of whose fans pre-order, the success seems unwarranted. Firstly, much of the writing is lousy. Some is divine, but one has to wade through much purple prose to get to it. Secondly, the stories are so repetitive in the most minute ways. Candy’s already enumerated some of those frustrations, and there are so many more. How many more pirate captains can a girl read about? (Apparently many.) How many identity-changing plastic surgeries? Rakish, masculine, dark heroes? Gods, give me a sensitive, slender man any day!

    (The ultimate “repetition” of girl meets guy, they overcome some obstacle, girl gets guy, is the one I believe that we read romances for with childlike or not so childlike pleasure.
    And men have their myths too—like in those spy and detective novels that fill their own needs—so I’m certainly not suggesting women are special here.)

    This is all a long way of saying that childlike pleasure is not enough an explanation for why so many women read romances, so many shoddily written romances, so many identical romances. Why can’t a sociological phenomenon or “excruciating sociological burden” be true? We easily look back at Victorians and say, they loved Gothic romances because their own lives were so sexually repressed—only they could have birthed and popularized a sexual monster like Dracula. We may claim to read romances for pleasure or escape from “the mundane,” but culture is porous. Our decisions are not entirely conscious; the Victorians certainly didn’t say, “We are so repressed we must read about vampires to alleviate sexual guilt.” We read what’s there; we read to respond or succumb to the mores around us. Reasons for pleasure or escapism are never merely arbitrary.

    Sorry if I sound strident. I just find the argument of “simply escape” to be a catchall blanket that covers rich possibilities for learning. It may make us uncomfortable to consider ourselves as part of a sociological phenomenon, but why? We shouldn’t be frightened or resentful or anything of examining ourselves and our motives.

  20. 20
    Lori says:

    On the small town thing in romance—I think Candy was pretty clear about not having a problem with it in & of itself. The problem is how common it is in the genre and the fact that it’s often presented as the HEA for a character for whom it makes no sense. I have the same issue because I strongly believe that the HEA needs to fit the character rather than being some one-size-fits-all stereotype.

    Also, the fact that a heroine wants connection doesn’t necessarily mean she’s should be in a small town. Using myself as an example, small town life does not give me connection. It makes me feel like everyone is all up in my business, which makes me withdraw. I am much more able to be part of a community in a larger town/city where the interaction is voluntary. 

    I feel the same way about the number of romances that end with the coupe married and instantly pregnant. That’s a perfect HEA for some characters. For others it’s not, but it gets tacked on any way. That always leaves me scratching my head and wondering how in the world I’m supposed to feel about the ending.

  21. 21
    Lisa says:

    to Candy: I’m sure I’m biased by my personal experience – I lived in the greater Washington DC area and found it one of the coldest places I’ve ever been. My neighbors were either anonymous or so horrible/creepy you wished you didn’t know them. The commute was too awful to have a life outside of work. My best friend had the same experience, but with Atlanta instead of D.C.

    I’m from a small city, not from a small town, but it’s a Midwestern city that thinks like a small town (nobody’s more than three degrees from anybody else if you start asking).

    You say heroines argue for a need for fulfillment outside of romance – I think that’s what a small town (or small city) can offer. There are, believe it or not, interesting careers here – especially university careers – it’s not suicide to move here. So I definitely believe that the small-town happy ending is plausible, and it’s certainly to my taste.

    But I agree with you that many (possibly MOST) stories with heroines moving to small towns do not tell this kind of story. They pick heroines who ARE happy in the city and then say never mind, you weren’t actually happy, time to go home with the hero and discover what happiness really is. In this case, I’m sure it is gender based (all women want something cozy, not something fast-paced, even if they don’t know it) and that really sucks. But I don’t think you can assume this is always about gender – sometimes it’s about character.

    I think Jennifer Crusie’s Manhunting is a good example of a heroine who moves from the city to a small town without it being misogynist. Some of my favorite Susan Elizabeth Phillips MALE heroes (like the Bonners) are giving up the city for small town life. So it can be about the character and not the genitals :)

  22. 22
    Lisa says:

    The problem is how common it is in the genre and the fact that it’s often presented as the HEA for a character for whom it makes no sense.

    to Lori: Well, you said it better than my rambling. I need to type faster or think faster!

  23. 23
    AgTigress says:

    I have not read all the responses in detail, and there is a lot of thought-provoking analysis here, but one point seems important to me:  romance is a broad genre, so it is hardly surprising that analyses and generalisations that apply perfectly to some examples of it are flatly contradicted by others.  If we really want to indulge in detailed analysis of romance as a type, we need first to establish and define the numerous sub-types and sub-sub-types that exist.  There are sub-classifications according to culture and chronology, as well as the obvious plot-based groups.
    What does apply to all conventional romance (as it also does to some traditional forms of other fiction genres, such as the whodunnit detective tale, in which a puzzle is solved and the villain punished) is that the story comes to a satisfying and just conclusion:  you can call it the HEA, but I would prefer to put it in terms of satisfactory closure to that particular story.  This is one thing that all readers of romance enjoy.  Real life does not always work out that way, needless to say, but sometimes it does, and reading a convincing and realistic story, with characters that are well-drawn and fully realised, in which obstacles are overcome and life resumes an even tenor, is both comforting and inspiring.

  24. 24
    Lori says:

    I’m sure I’m biased by my personal experience – I lived in the greater Washington DC area and found it one of the coldest places I’ve ever been.

    And to prove that it really is all relative—I’m having a completely different experience with DC. I find it really comfortable. People actually talk to you on the street here—in a nice way, not some creep stalker thing.

    My perception is different from Lisa’s for at least 2 reasons. First, I came here from LA. ‘Nuff said. Second, the idea of living in a place where you’re never more than 3 degrees distant from everyone else give me hives.

    This is a perfect example of what we were both saying about the HEA needing to fit the character. LIsa and I don’t belong in the same book. Neither of us is wrong at all, but if we both ended up with the same HEA that would be poor writing.

  25. 25
    MariElle says:

    I didn’t read all the comments but just wanted to put my 2 cents in.
    I find that I stick with the romance authors who do dig deep into internal conflict and work it out by the end.

    I read romance in the beginning I think because I believed and hoped in love though my home was so dysfunctional and my parent’s marriage such a poor example to follow. Romances helped me believe in hope of love being real in one’s life.

    I have constant physical pain but am also a healer, if that makes sense, so the escape into the pain of others and it’s ultimate conclusion in a way that at least make sense in a happy sort of way helps me blank out my physical pain while I’m reading and writing.

    Personally I agreed with Teresa. I got a bit lost in the treatise by Candy but will read it again another day and as I get to know this world of authors better, being a novice with only one novella accepted but not published yet, maybe I’ll have more to say.

    My heroes are gentle and kind to their women- I guess because my husband is- he’s had to take over the house because I am so incapacitated- and just now he had to massage my leg to help the pain of excruciating muscle spasms go away. So I guess because that’s the kind of man I live it, it’s the kind I write about.

    Anyway, it’s an interesting topic and one I’ll be back to visit again.

  26. 26
    Tina C. says:

    what purposes do you think romance novels serve? Do you see our psyches as gendered? Does it even matter? Do you think romance novels, more than other genres, attempt to bridge this gap?

    I’m trying to finish up painting the room that my daughter is moving back into this coming Thursday and my hands are a little achy, so excuse any typos and/or missing words. 

    I was thinking about Candy’s post as I painted and it occurred to me that most genre fiction—whether it is romance, science-fantasy/science-fiction, spy thrillers, what have you—reassure us that justice will prevail in the end.  The bad guy/girl will be caught and/or killed, the evil plot will be stopped, and the universe will become “as it should be”.  In the case of romance, you may not have the evil villain doing villainy thing, of course, unless you are reading romantic suspense or a paranormal.  You will, however, still see that if you behave the “right” way (and here is where you see a lot of the reinforcing of traditional roles and values), you will get your happy ending.  Granted, the “right way” can vary somewhat from book to book, author to author, and generation to generation.  However, if you see a hero that acts like a complete asshole, his behavior will be explained in a way that makes his behavior acceptable (some explanations are better than others) or he will change his asshole-y ways or both.  Typically, the heroine has punished said behavior by the end of the book by banishing him in some way (she’s stopped seeing him, won’t take his calls, is leaving him, etc.) and the hero must (and does) grovel the appropriate amount to atone because justice (and the HEA) cannot be achieved without bad behavior being punished somehow, even if it’s the hero. 

    As for the heroine, if she is a wild child who parties and runs around with “the wrong crowd”, something bad will have happened to her sometime before or at the very beginning of the book to set her back on the straight and narrow.  Once again, bad behavior cannot be rewarded and wild, possibly sexually promiscuous, party girls are, by the standards of most romances, not behaving appropriately. 

    Whatever the transgressive behavior, if it’s the hero and heroine that are committing it, they must find their way back to the right sort of behavior to get their HEA.  If it’s ancillary characters that act against the norm, they are either the ones trying to keep the couple apart or they are the wacky friends that are perennially alone.  If they are really transgressive, such as the promiscuous best girlfriend, they are frequently cannon fodder in the romantic-suspenses.  So, do the right thing (as defined by the culture) and atone for any straying from the proper behavior (marriage to make up for pre-marital sex, for instance; or raising the secret baby alone because “she should have known better than to succumb to her overwhelming desire for the strangely non-Islamic Middle Eastern prince”; or groveling—publicly, if possible—to apologize for believing that she secretly seduced his brother even though everything she ever said or did indicated that she wouldn’t do that and she never actually met the man; etc.), then you get to have your HEA and our sense of justice, consciously or unconsciously goes “ahhhhhhh” in contentment.  Anything else, of course, would not be Justice.  Besides, if “wrong” isn’t always punished then those of us who behave properly might just as well have run about doing all sorts of bad things if the bad boys and girls get to be happy in the end, too.  Those sorts of thoughts would make us anxious, not content and happy, and would make reading the books much less pleasurable. 

    At least that’s my current theory on why we read genre, any genre, fiction.  Or it could be the paint fumes.

  27. 27
    Tina C. says:

    AgTigress said:

    What does apply to all conventional romance (as it also does to some traditional forms of other fiction genres, such as the whodunnit detective tale, in which a puzzle is solved and the villain punished) is that the story comes to a satisfying and just conclusion:  you can call it the HEA, but I would prefer to put it in terms of satisfactory closure to that particular story.

    Okay, so that was a lot more concise than what I just posted, but that’s what I was trying to get at.  (And I need to type less or quicker, one or the other…)

  28. 28
    MichelleR says:

    I know that small town living isn’t for everybody, and that it doesn’t provide connection for every one—I was speaking personally. Because it does provide a source of happiness for me, I tend to relate to characters who have a similar experience.

    Anything that a character does that isn’t consistent with who they are is a flaw—move to a big city, move to a small town, eat meat after we’re hammered with the fact that the heroine is a vegetarian. I don’t think there is any dispute that a character acting out of character is going to be jarring and possibly book-ruining.

  29. 29
    Karen Hillis says:

    One thing that’s great about the romance genre is that it’s so vast a person (that would be me) can read one romance every day or so and never have to dip into the types of books Candy is commenting upon.  I primarily read historicals because I have always loved learning more about how people used to live and because I really want an escape from the ordinary of today.  If I feel the heroine is too stupid to live or doing something completely unrealistic or is too young and virginal for the hero, I stop reading the book and pick up another one, even if the offending book is by an author I generally adore.  Life’s too short to waste reading something that just doesn’t appeal to me.  So I never worry about the types of plots you are discussing because I just avoid them.  I have been a feminist forever and I’ve pretty much been an uppity broad for a long time, too.  I have the power to pick what I read and I love this blog because it does admit that not all romance novels are well written or worth reading.  But those that I read give me happy moments in a life filled with a host of other troubles and that’s all I ask of them.  If you don’t like what’s happening in some books, don’t read them but find something else that makes you happy.  If they’re still being published and purchased, it’s because they make someone happy and while I probably wouldn’t have much in common with that someone, I won’t deny them the opportunity to enjoy.  For example, I stopped reading anything from Harlequin Presents after just a couple of them because the heroes were impossibly arrogant (I like some arrogance but those guys are way too) and the heroines were impossibly passive (like I said I’m an uppity broad from waaay back and my preferred heroines at least have those tendencies) but I know they’re very popular.  The bottom line is that I’m happy to know romance can encompass all of us!

    And to Teresa Medeiros—I cried.

    My secret word is soon39—if only it were true!  Somehow while I wasn’t looking, I’m soon a much larger number that ends in 0!

  30. 30
    Jena says:

    Um, gals… your link to Teresa Medeiros’ post should say: Why she WRITES romance novels, not why she reads them.

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