Monday, December 29, 2014

What is a romance?

Whether or not you’ve read romances, you likely have a notion of them in mind. And if I dropped you into a bookstore with no signs to indicate genre or section, you could still unerringly identify the romance section by its books’ pastel color scheme, florid script, and unsubtle cover art.

Still, it’s good to define our terms.  When writing about romance novels, I mean something fairly specific, and some of the works I exclude from the genre may surprise you.

While romance scholar Pamela Regis offers an eight-component definition, it boils down to this: “The romance novel is a work of prose fiction that tells the story of the courtship and betrothal of one or more heroines.”[1] I have several reservations about Regis’s definition of the romance, as it focuses unnecessarily upon the heroine, assuming that she is the focal point of the novel, an assertion with which I fundamentally disagree. Many romances are now written at least partially from the hero’s perspective, and some lack a heroine altogether.

Moreover, the notions of courtship and betrothal, while apt for dealing with certain sub-genres, must be twisted almost out of recognition to be applied to some contemporary, futuristic, and paranormal romances. It may have once been the case that the marriage proposal was the climactic moment in a majority of romances. But even in historical romances, the order of narration may be varied, for instance when a couple begins the novel trapped unhappily in a marriage of convenience, or when they find themselves “accidentally” hitched midway through the book in response to some crisis (pregnancy, shotgun wedding, elaborate scheme gone awry). Marriage may not even be hinted at in some books, particularly paranormal romances, which often focus on a biological bond rather than a societal contract as the mechanism by which the relationship is cemented.

A definition proposed by Lisa Fletcher in her 2008 book Historical Romance Fiction comes much closer to the mark: “a fictional mode which depends on the force and familiarity of the speech act ‘I love you.’”[2] This definition anchored in notions of both discourse and performativity is perhaps overly broad but is overwhelmingly compatible with my own working definition: Romance is a work of narrative fiction teleologically oriented toward the recognition and avowal of requited love.

Let’s unpack that.

When I speak about a telos for the romance genre, I mean that it is deliberately geared toward a predetermined end-point, a moment of emotional fulfillment in which tension abates and the reader experiences satisfaction. There are two necessary conditions for this end point.

First, love must be avowed—in other words, spoken. This is where Lisa Fletcher’s emphasis on the speech act “I love you” comes in. The hero or heroine may have been in love since the beginning of the novel, but if he or she has not been able to say so to his/her beloved, then the promise of the novel has not yet been fulfilled.

The speech act can actually supersede sentiment, from a narrative point of view. It is not uncommon for the text to emphasize a protagonist’s inability to say the words ‘I love you,’ even when his (usually the hero’s) feelings are clear to all: himself, the beloved, and the reader. The heroine may remark to herself or a confidante, “He loves me; that’s obvious. He just can’t bring himself to say the words.” Until the avowal occurs, however, the narrative tension remains.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Maiden Post: Welcome to Penetrating Analysis

By way of a welcome message, I’d like to explain my vision for this blog and why I started it.

I’ve been an avid reader of romance novels since I was thirteen years old, when I began to sneak them from the stack on my mother’s bedside table. I knew she wouldn’t consider them appropriate reading material for a teenager, so I took every care with them, making sure not to crease the spine or dog-ear pages, and restoring them to the exact same place in the stack.

From my earliest exposure to the genre, romance was associated with transgression, secrecy, and a little bit of shame. Romance was something to hide.

I carried that baggage into adulthood and for many years was very selective about sharing my love of popular romance. This was particularly important once I entered a doctoral program in literature, where I saw the genre shrugged aside and mocked on the rare occasion it was mentioned at all. Colleagues were generally good-naturedly patronizing, their ideas about the genre informed by some vague notion of “bodice rippers” or, more recently, E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey. The message was clear: Serious scholars of literature don’t study romance.

Academia has become increasingly accepting of many less traditional genres, including horror, science fiction, detective novels, steam punk, and fantasy. Acceptance is not universal, of course, but conference panels on Tolkien and college courses devoted to Harry Potter attest to the gradual assimilation of these disciplines into the scholarly world. The one exception, the one genre still subject to widespread ridicule and denigration, is romance.

Yes, of course, there are classics such as Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, which are often seen as precursors to the modern romance. But what about something written in the past sixty years? Something that hasn’t been folded into the canon since before any of us were born?

In spite of institutional pressure, over the years I have been delighted to discover that a surprising number of my colleagues are (often covertly) enthusiastic readers of popular romance. As I’ve found more and more smart and sensitive readers to discuss these books with, I’ve become convinced that the genre is in need of more ample, open conversation from a literary perspective. Popular romance should be regarded not as a secret, guilty pleasure but as a legitimate subject of study and analysis.

Romance gets a lot of press, but so much of it seems fixated on the women who read it, as a putative window into female desire and sexuality. In no other genre, I think, are we quite so preoccupied by who is reading and why. Some of that focus is due to market considerations. As the largest share of the U.S. fiction book market (at 13%!) representing $1.08 billion in sales in 2013, romance is particularly sensitive to the demands of its readership.[1] At the same time, the sociological and psychological approaches to romance ask with prurient insistence: Who are these readers of popular romance? What need or lack does it fill in their lives?

That is not the approach I mean to take. Rather, I want to consider romance novels first and foremost as texts. I am interested in how series are structured, how notions of heroism have changed over the past thirty years, the way that one author uses a given trope or figure of style and how that makes her work different from another author’s.

In short, I want to treat romance novels as if they belonged to any other genre subject to textual analysis.

A couple of caveats are in order.

First, my principal area of expertise is historical romance.  Although my first romance novel was Judith McNaught’s Paradise (1991), a classic set in modern-day Chicago that I recommend widely, I have always been more interested in fiction with a period setting. Within the historical subgenre, I best know British Regency-era novels, but also read Georgians, Victorians, nineteenth-century American Westerns, and the occasional medieval Scottish romance. I do read across subgenres, including contemporary and paranormal, but not as deeply. Therefore the bulk of my posting will likely be devoted to historical romance.

Second, I may focus on books that aren’t representative of romance as a whole. My contention is not that all romance is compelling and well written. That is decidedly not the case, and I have been known to throw a book across the room for sloppy prose, especially when I know the author is capable of better. Indeed, I believe that attempts by apologists to promote the genre indiscriminately do it a real disservice. Despite the misguided notions of critics who would tar all romance with the same brush, the genre is not a monolith. I refuse to treat it as such.

 Instead, I am attuned to books that subvert the genre’s expectations, entail a particularly sophisticated structure or elaborate world-building, use language in innovative, compelling ways, and challenge my own preconceptions about what romance means and what concerns it may encompass. In this blog, I will therefore try to highlight romance at its most intriguing, its most innovative, its most disconcerting, and (perhaps) its most frustrating. In the same vein, although I will certainly write often about new releases, this blog isn’t a review site, and accordingly, many of my analyses will focus on books that have been around for years or even decades.

Finally, a quick word about the title of this blog. Of course I intend it in part as a cheeky nod to the supposed phallocentrism of the romance genre. However, I believe it also speaks to the trajectory of romance on a thematic level: in order for love to conquer all, heroines and heroes have to fight past obstacles, breach each other’s defenses, and see their way past subterfuge, misdirection, and misunderstanding. Penetration is not only physical, but also emotional. And, naturally, with my title I evoke the work I am undertaking: penetrating the veil that obscures romance novels as texts meriting literary analysis.

My mission may change as this project develops. But for now, I am writing to help people who take an interest in literature explore a genre that perversely receives relatively little love.

Please visit often and feel free to join the conversation!

[1] Per the Nielsen Books & Consumer Tracker, BISAC Romance, and BookStats, cited on the Romance Writers of America website: