Friday, January 2, 2015

Why study romance as literature?

In this post, I would like to speak in broad terms about why romance is worthwhile as a subject of literary study, and why now is the perfect time to be reading and discussing it.

As a genre, romance is actually very tricky to do well.

The rigidity of the genre’s conventions and its formulaic structures make romance difficult to execute. Everything has been done, and the happy ending is a foregone conclusion, so the challenge for a romance novelist is to find some way to make the same well-worn types and tropes ring fresh. But as it turns out, this can be done dazzlingly well.

It’s a fantastic time to be a reader of romance, as authors push the limits of the genre, incorporating casts and settings that were excluded (either deliberately or through oversight) even a decade ago.

The past five years in particular have given rise to a new crop of novelists whose work hinges upon moral and ethical impediments that defy easy solutions. Unlike in romances predicated upon a misunderstanding (e.g., he wrongly suspects her of infidelity, she thinks he only married her for her money), where once all is revealed all is well, these texts place a dilemma at the heart of the story. They put the couple’s interests or the beloved’s interests in opposition to another person, group, or cause that is very near to the protagonist’s heart. These novels demand sacrifice or creativity of their heroes and heroines in order to arrive at the HEA. Excellent novelists currently writing in this vein include Courtney Milan, Rose Lerner, and Cecilia Grant.

Meanwhile, the series model of romance has become increasingly prevalent and complex.  The series format constitutes the genre’s solution to a sales/marketing problem: the presence of a HEA generally precludes a sequel. Instead, books are written and published in constellations revolving around the same (often fictional) space, family, or band of friends. This paradigm has existed in romance for decades, but the relationships between installments are increasingly rich and intricate. Indeed, the elaborate structuring and sequencing of certain texts calls to mind such now-canonical projects as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Balzac’s Com├ędie Humaine, and Zola’s Rougon-Macquart family.[1]

Romance is also intersecting with other genres in unprecedented ways, creating hybrids and new literary niches, each with its own governing systems.
To take just one recent example, Sherry Thomas’s The Burning Sky and The Perilous Sea are marketed as the first two installments of a young adult trilogy, likely aimed at the same audience for series such as The Hunger Games and Divergent. However, the series combines romance, Victorian steampunk, and fantasy in nearly equal measure.
The romance genre doesn’t have a well established canon. While there are some names that are almost universally recognized for their prolific output and strong staying-power after decades in the publishing world (Nora Roberts and Mary Balogh, for instance), there is less scholarly consensus on the authors whose work has been important for the development of the genre. This is due in large part to its relative newness; some readers would trace popular romance back no further than Georgette Heyer, who began writing in the 1920s. A great many successful romance novelists are still writing and so their ultimate impact upon the genre remains to be seen.

The lack of a cemented canon has the benefit of making the genre relatively welcoming to debut authors. On the other hand, it can make the enormous corpus a daunting object of study for the uninitiated. Ask ten romance enthusiasts where to begin, and you risk getting ten lists with no overlap. Even as someone who has been reading romance avidly for nearly twenty years, I sometimes feel I am only scratching the surface; it is not uncommon for me to encounter some “best of” list and recognize just a few of the titles. Part of the purpose of this blog is to help make sense of an impossibly large corpus by pointing to work that merits a closer look.

I would be remiss if I didn’t add one more piece of the why now? puzzle. The runaway success of the Fifty Shades of Grey series has drawn major worldwide attention to romance; for better or worse, the trilogy has come to stand synechdochally for the entire “bodice ripper” genre.[2] Fifty Shades is not particularly well written even by the standards of popular fiction. And so the romance genre has borne a backlash of criticism carried out by a number of smug scholars and literary critics who judge and dismiss all of popular romance on the basis of a single series. I am thinking in particular of William Giraldi’s deeply offensive article in The New Republic in May of last year, which mocks not only Fifty Shades but its readership and contains the blood-boiling assertion that “romance novels, like racists, tend to be the same wherever you turn.” Giraldi, by his own admission, did not even finish the trilogy before rendering a verdict on the entire romance genre.

In this context, I find it imperative to add my voice to the chorus of those who do know the genre well and find value in it. Romance is a dynamic and fascinating area of cultural production. It is not the same wherever you turn. And it deserves far more serious attention from those of us who study and care about literature.

To round out this post, here are some lines of inquiry into popular romance that I find particularly relevant and compelling. In many cases, their implications extend beyond the borders of romance into other areas of literary study:
  • How might scholars fruitfully pair the study of popular romance with other areas such as race and gender studies, sexuality studies, history/historical reception, disability studies, post/colonial studies, religious studies, anthropology, sociology, and comparative literature?
  • What are the limits of a hero/heroine? Are there any attributes or actions that are wholly incompatible with romance protagonist status, and how have responses to this question changed over the past thirty years?
  • How are both the series-format and trends in e-publishing destabilizing our traditional understanding of what a novel is?
  • Across various subgenres, how are systems of power and authority represented, upheld, critiqued, or subverted?
  • How does language function differently in romance as compared to other literary genres? What do close readings reveal?
  • How does the genre reflect changing attitudes toward alterity, and in particular toward sexual difference? Based on today’s texual production, who belongs in romance, and to whom does it belong?

[1] I don’t want to oversell here. All of the abovementioned examples are probably more elaborately conceived and executed than anything in the current popular romance landscape. But the comparison is by no means outrageous—romance series are oriented toward increasing complexity and are more carefully crafted than ever. I intend to devote subsequent posts to the some of the most intricately plotted series: Eloisa James’s Desperate Duchesses series, J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series, Julie Anne Long’s Pennyroyal Green series, and the novels of Juliana Gray.
[2] Some will argue against the inclusion of the series in the romance genre. That may be the subject of a future post, but as a rule, I espouse a big tent approach to romance.  


  1. Nice piece. I wrote about romance and canons a bit ago:

  2. Oh yes, I remember your article from when it came out! I *believe* it was your slideshow that directed me to Rose Lerner's Sweet Disorder (which I love).

    I'm of two minds about canonicity. As a scholar, I tend to be suspicious of its role in determining what and how we read. But as a proponent of romance, I think the genre would benefit, if not from a canon, then from some constellation of canon-like lists. Romance is such a fast moving genre that I think it would need to be open to constant revision.

    I think the other problem is that romance readers tend to read themselves into niches. There is just too much of it out there to speak with any authority about the whole genre. In academic terms, we're all specialists in a field that desperately needs some generalists.

  3. Hi, Anne, and welcome to the scholarly discussion of romance. I look forward to reading your blog with interest.

    Who do you think would benefit from the establishment of a romance canon? I think that what you would put in such a canon would depend on the audience for said canon, no? And how would issues of literary quality and popularity play out?

    Jackie Horne
    Romance Novels for Feminists

  4. Welcome to PA, Jackie! Your blog is a great favorite of mine. And I think your questions are really interesting. I'm not sure what the answer is. I'm interested in the valorization of the genre and think that as a whole its writers and readers are unfairly stigmatized (whether by the press, in academic circles, or in daily social/professional interactions). The establishment of canon-like lists could serve to bolster the status of the genre and certain writers. I also think it may help readership that is otherwise swamped with (often bad) recommendations. As a consumer of romance, I hate blowing money on a badly written book, and I'm even more annoyed when I do it based on a glowing review or plug from a reader or writer whose opinion I want to trust. Recommendations are the principal tool for readers of romance to discover new authors and books, but so many recs are uncritical or off-base, or based on the idiosyncratic preferences of a given reviewer. I think that, at the very least, any serious discussions surrounding canonicity could give potential readers another tool to work with. All that said, I'm deeply suspicious of the conservative tendencies of canons and the way in which they can be used to marginalize and exclude. Romance already has a lot of that to contend with!