New Series: Hopeless Reimantic
Hello. My name is Rei, and I read romance novels.
I’ve been weirdly obsessed with romance novels for about the past two years. I read my first one a lot longer ago than that – I abducted and read, over a period of about three weeks, a romance with a name I can’t remember about a Japanese lady falling in love with an American man just after World War II during my breaks in volunteering at a nursing home – but I didn’t really think all that much about them for a while afterwards. Then I stumbled upon Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and started following it because, damn, those ladies are hilarious, and from there started following Dear Author as well, who focus on snark a little less (although they can also be pretty funny) but who are nevertheless thoughtful and insightful in their reviews. For a long time, I was an avid follower of the romance industry without ever actually having picked up more than two romances.
And then I got a Kindle for Christmas.
You guys, for the reluctant obsessive, ebook readers are poison in super-convenient button-clicky packaging. Thanks to its extreme user-friendliness and the large number of freebooks available on the Amazon website (in case anybody is worried that I’m being paid for advertising, the wireless keeps breaking and sometimes the thing refuses to charge) I have something like one hundred romance novels on my Kindle now – a conservative estimate, not taking into account non-category romances and books debatably qualified for the title. I can’t stop reading them, and I can’t stop talking about them; I am fascinated by romance novels, in spite of the fact that more often than not picking one up guarantees that I will spend half the book with my jaw clenched to the point of pain. It’s a guilty pleasure, if by “pleasure” you mean “bafflement-inducing” and “guilty” you mean “thing that I am liable to be judged for”.
So what brings me to all the jaw-clenching? Well, I’ve been a reader ever since I was a kid – I’ve tried pretty much every genre of fiction, from fantasy to crime to sci-fi to sci-fi fantasy crime – and category romance is, without question, the most formulaic genre I have ever come across. It’s baffling. I mean, every genre has its stock characters and tropes, but while there are things that crop up a lot in, say, fantasy, as far as I can see the only thing really required to write a fantasy novel is the strong enough conviction that what you’re writing is fantasy. Write a category romance, and your story is pretty much plotted out for you. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at the submission guidelines for Mills and Boon Modern Romance (the UK version of Harlequin Presents):
Readers are whisked away to exclusive jet-set locations…When the hero strides into the story he’s a powerful, ruthless man who knows exactly what – and who – he wants and he isn’t used to taking no for an answer! Yet he has depth and integrity, and he will do anything to make the heroine his. Though she may be shy and vulnerable, she’s also plucky and determined to challenge his arrogant pursuit.
Modern Romance explores emotional themes that are universal. These should be played out as part of highly-charged conflicts that are underpinned by blistering sexual anticipation and released as passionate lovemaking…
Got that? So, your story has to be somewhere “exclusive and jet-set” (what does “jet-set” actually mean in this context? I sort of expect the entire thing to be set in the Business Class lounge at Stansted) and your hero needs to be a Romance Novel Hero, you know, hot and alpha and, well, willing to be kind of creepy if he thinks it’ll help. (Bonus points if he’s so manly that his manliness bursts out of the cover – for reference, please see the pictured-below edition of The Very Virile Viking, one of the most beautifully alliteratively-titled works of romance that I have ever come across.) And your heroine needs to challenge him but also be vulnerable to him. And they need to clash and eventually express that clash through a lot of hot sex.
Yes, there are a lot of variations you can play out on that theme – which I suspect is why publishers like Mills and Boon are a long way away from getting stale – but ultimately this frame is pretty limiting, and it makes it easier to see why romance novels are stereotyped as all the same. And this moulding of the romance novel storyline doesn’t stop with the publishing guidelines; the romance novel review websites I follow do downgrade books that fail to deliver on agreed-upon “romance trademarks”, although in fairness the only one that seems to need strict adherence is that of the HEA (that’s Happily Ever After, to those of you who use their time much more wisely than I do). Even that strikes me as strange, because while I can understand it as a trend – if, as common theory purports, romance novels are wish fulfilment fantasies, why wouldn’t they have a happy ending? – I can’t wrap my head around it as the thing which makes a romance novel romantic. More on that later.
Which brings me, finally, to this: Why do I think it useful to subject romance novels to feminist analysis? Aren’t they just, as a friend of mine once put it, “granny porn”? Is there any mileage in analysing such an outdated form of trashy entertainment from a feminist perspective?
I obviously think so, or I wouldn’t be writing this. And here’s why: most romance novel writers are women, writing for a female audience. I’ve read some (very good) romance novels written by men geared towards women, but only a very few, and they tend to focus on gay male couplings – in other words, not part of the main body of mainstream romance publishing. (LGBT people in romance novels is a whole ‘nother article.) More troubling is that most of the flaws and foibles of romance tropes that persist even today – virginal women, marriage and babies or nothing, and the time-honoured classic of “forced seduction” – are overwhelmingly shrugged off as “it’s just wish fulfilment”.
As a lifelong avid reader, I’m no stranger to escaping into a good book. And I have no doubt that there are people out there who don’t really want a relationship in which the man takes charge, sweeps the lady off her feet, and loves her with a love that’s never been loved before until her resolve melts into baby-making funtimes, but can still get into a traditional romance plotline just for kicks. But is this still (or has it ever been) so overpoweringly The Female Fantasy that it’s the go-to, the default, the only world a romance fan wants to escape into? Why are these elements so built into “women’s” fiction? And what, in the end, does that tell us about the cultural narrative that has been built around us?
Those are the questions I want to answer; they’re the main thing going around in my head every time I pick up a new romance, and they are what keeps me reading whenever I finish one that has made me want to drill a hole through my skull. (Which isn’t all of them! Some are quite good. Maybe someday I’ll tell you about them.)
To get us started, though, over the next few weeks I’ll be doing a rundown of what I think are the five most central tropes or stock characters in romance novels. It’s going to be difficult to whittle the list down that far, but I’ll power through it. Honest. I don’t really need this university education.
Over the course of the series, I’ll look at the trope itself, where, when and how it shows up in different genres, and how I think it’s been adapted for the modern romance novel, because if there’s another thing that seems to be true of romance? It’s that they never throw anything away. I…am no one to judge on that, as anybody who’s seen my living space will be able to attest, but there’s an impressive level of trope-hoarding that goes on around here, and I’m going to show you why. I’ll also be probing a bit into what that means for romance storylines as a whole.
So stay tuned for Instalment One, which is going to be the aforementioned Virginal Heroine! Are you excited? I’m excited.
See you then!
- Rei (not to be confused with Rai, who writes our Gamer Diary!) is a small but strident university student who is from London but primarily based in Cambridgeshire, except for when she lives in Japan. She is reluctantly obsessed with romance novels, and is starting to think that it is they who are addicted to her; she also likes general reading, general writing, martial arts and acting in pantomimes. In her spare time, she tries to come up with things to do in her spare time. She is often spotted hanging around the tea-and-coffee-making facilities, looking impatient. And we are very pleased and proud to welcome her to Team BadRep!