Caught in a Bad Romance

“We are all fools in love.”

                                                                 —Jane Austen

   As I was riding the bus the other day, a couple of women sitting next to me were comparing their e-readers and commenting on the convenience, portability, and so on. However, the best thing about an e-reader, they both agreed, was that they could read their romance novels in public, and nobody would know.

That started me wondering – what’s so bad about romance novels? Why is it that reading romance novels is seen as something to hide? Is it the cover art? Is it the writing style? The subject matter? Why judge romance novels, and those that read them, so harshly? Considering the huge market share that romance novels command, shouldn’t their readers demand more respect, if only because there are so many of them?

According to the article The Social Significance of the Romance Novel, this style of novel has been around for centuries, with the first ones appearing during the English Renaissance. Perhaps because the earliest romance novels were written by men, they started out as morality tales, in which errant females were punished for their faults.  Despite the strongly anti-female bias in the stories, the primary reading audience was women. Criticism and ridicule of  both the books and those who read them began soon after. So there’s a longstanding tradition of not taking the romantic fiction genre seriously. Despite the negative publicity, women embraced this writing style eagerly, and a new genre was born.

As time went on, the romance novel developed into the form as we know it today – essentially, two people meet, feel a powerful connection to one another, surmount a series of obstacles to their relationship, and end up falling in love.

Pamela by Samuel Richardson is considered to be among the first of the romantic novels written in the English language.

Jane Austen took those essentials and gave them a depth and resonance that still speaks to us today.

East Lynne by Mrs. Henry Wood has gone from a piece of light reading to a literary classic.

Georgette Heyer’s Regency novels are widely credited as being the first historical romances.

And of course, there’s no way to write about romance fiction without at least mentioning Harlequin, the publishing empire started in the 1930s whose name is synonymous with romantic fiction in all its forms.

With all of that rich history and influence on their side, readers of romantic fiction shouldn’t feel that they have to hide what they read; in fact, they should show off their book covers with pride. Readers of romantic fiction are carrying on a fine tradition–and you never know, today’s Harlequin could be tomorrow’s literary classic.

If you like facts about fiction, take a look at  A Natural History of the Romance Novel by Pamela Regis to gain some great insights into the evolution of the romance novel, and how it reflects the changes in society. A feminist view of romantic novels is explored by Janice Radway in Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature. The author’s conclusions go far beyond the generic stereotypes, and provide an understanding of not only the books themselves, but also to the audience that reads and enjoys them.

Things have come a long way in the romance world since the first pairs of eyes met and the first hearts beat a little faster. Romance readers have their choice of almost any possible plot, from a chaste kiss to the sky’s the limit: historical settings, mythical beings, drama, comedy,  supernatural creatures, outer space, tragedy, time travel, inspirational writing, domestic settings, or any combination you can dream of. And really, isn’t that what romance is all about – daring to dream? There’s nothing bad about that.


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