The Unkind Treatment of the Romance Genre

In David Gerrold's The World of Star Trek, he presents one of the best definitions of romance novels every made. Speaking of female fans' reactions to Leonard Nimoy's Spock, he writes, "The pointed ears and arched eyebrows suggested great strength and masculinity with a healthy hint of controlled evil. But Spock's conscious suppression of emotion, as well as his unavailability as a sexual object, made him (in the words of one of these young ladies), 'A safe rape. You could love him without risking your virginity" (Gerrold's emphasis). Gerrold continues, "Each of these [women] believed that she was the one who could warm up Mr. Spock. If she could be given half a chance, she could get through to him."

This is romance fiction at its most basic. The male is inevitably strong, dangerous, but--through a hard, disillusioning life--has learned to control his base instincts . . . until he meets the one woman who overwhelms him sensually and intellectually, restoring him to a socially-acceptable, constructive life.

In my novella Mr. B Speaks!, the Committee for Literary Fairness is appalled by the possibility that Pamela might be construed as this type a romance novel. When a romance genre expert shows up, the committee take exception:
“I review romance novels,” said Deborah.
Gary [Professor Just-Call-Me-Gary] and Dr. Matchel looked pained, but the judge set down a folder and said, “Really? Would you call this novel a romance?”
“Sort of,” Deborah said. “It’s really more a polemic about education and servants and stuff. But it has a lot of the same material you’d find in a romance novel.”
“Such as?”
Dr. Matchel objected: “A discussion of romance novels is hardly appropriate.”
“We are looking for established literary customs,” the judge said briskly. “What are the romantic components in Pamela, Miss Walsh?”
“There’s a heroine, first of all, and she’s good—you know, virtuous. And there’s a hero, and he’s a rake. And he pursues her and sometimes gets her into bed, but he always backs off when she says no, and then they reconcile, and then they marry.”
Dr. Matchel cried, “These romance novels have done more to undermine women’s rights than any other type of literature.”
“Oh, that’s old-school,” Deborah said. “Like people who think women should only have supported Hillary in 2008.”
The judge said, “Do other eighteenth-century novels share these components?”
“No!” Dr. Matchel said, but Leslie Quinn said, “Yes. Novels for the middle-class. Broadsheets. The romantic romance isn’t new. Everyone likes a juicy story.”
The judge glanced at Mr. B who looked rather shell-shocked. The judge couldn’t blame him. Mr. B was being depicted as either a lecher or a champion. Personally, the judge thought both roles would prove uncomfortable.
Dr. Matchel and Gary's shock and discomfort is something I have encountered in academic settings. The specific shock is aimed at the low character of romances; the general shock is over the low character of genre writing (see Eugene's lastest post for some thoughts on high versus low literature). It's okay to read stuff like romances for fun, but it's not okay to talk about it (though if you must, be sure to call it "erotica").

I think this discomfort misses the point (as so many academic reactions do). There are badly written romances. There are also well-written ones. But any piece of literature that people actually care about is going to grapple with human emotions. And this is exactly what romances do. The characteristics/reactions that Gerrold listed aren't silly or wrong-headed or simply the product of undeveloped minds. I might not care for them when they show up in Twilight, but I recognize their power, their force, in male/female relationships: their reality. As Mr. B ponders at one point during the trial:
Simply not having sex was unthinkable. He could hardly handle sleeping alone. And Pamela was an eager participant in the marriage bed whatever his detractors might think.
They were an odd people, these twenty-first-century inhabitants—far more obsessed with sex than most libertines, but strangely repressive and easily shocked. Only this idealistic young girl [Deborah, the romance reviewer], who reminded him of his oldest daughter, seemed to take him at face value.
Although the true problem could be that romance novels just aren't angsty enough!
Gary rolled his eyes. “And, of course, romance novels always have perfect weddings.”
“Of course.”
“The whole novel is nothing but trite and shallow pandering,” Gary declaimed. “What about death, disease, poverty, slavery, racism—all the terrible issues of the eighteenth century? Hmm? I mean women couldn’t even vote! But no, we’re fixated on watching an inconsequential couple tie the knot.”
The judge glanced towards the characters’ table. Mr. B was still smiling faintly. He hadn’t flinched at being called “inconsequential.” Presumably, people of the eighteenth century were less obsessed with getting their “day in court” than people of the twenty-first.
The judge reminded himself not to chuckle at his own pun.
“People hid their heads in the sand,” Gary was still declaiming. “Just like they do today.”
Deborah said, “That sounds like the end of a lecture,” and Gary reddened.
She was probably right, but the judge didn’t want audience members giving the CLF any (more) reason to complain.
He said pacifically, “Different novels cover different topics.”
Leslie Quinn agreed, “People in the eighteenth century still had to work, love, have children, get along. Those topics never go away.”
Dr. Matchel said, “But romance novels don’t deal with real domestic problems. They end with the wedding, giving readers the false impression that married life will be eternally happy. Escapist literature!”
“This novel doesn’t end with the wedding,” Lonquist said.
Mr. Shorter muttered, “What’s wrong with escapism?”
Deborah added, “Dark and depressing isn’t automatically profound.”
“Let’s hear about the wedding,” the judge said.
Like Deborah (hey, she is my character), I don't think there is a pscyho-literary (acceptably literary explanation) for romance novels: Some scholars think the hero actually represents the dark side of the female psyche—the whole thing is sort of Jungian . . . Yes, I know. I think it’s farfetched too. But the point is, the heroine is never completely at odds with the hero.” Rather, I think romance novels are delving into id stuff--stuff that's messy and uncertain and earthy. It's what Barthes called jouissance, delight in the bodily elements. Of course, Barthes had to put a label on it and make it sound literary when any woman over the age of 12 could just tell you that it's about the male/female relationship, both the cerebral and carnal sides as well as the gentle and less gentle sides: the fear that both sexes have towards each other and the possible delight.

And it's not going to go away.

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