Love's Cold Calculus

Notes on the least reputable and most profitable literary genre in American publishing: the romance novel.

"So what is the fantasy?" Doreen Owens Malek asks in the same book. "Simply this: a strong, dominant, aggressive male brought to the point of surrender by a woman." In her Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature, Janice Radway concludes that "it is tempting to suggest that romantic fiction must be an active agent in the maintenance of the ideological status quo because it ultimately reconciles women to patriarchal society and reintegrates them with its institutions."

Janis Reams Hudson, a romance novelist and current president of the Romance Writers of America, doesn't get the feminist backlash. "To me," she says, "ours is some of the most feminist literature in existence. The woman always wins, she tames the most dangerous creature on the face of the earth, the human male."

"Woman likes to believe that love can achieve anything. It is her peculiar superstition."

--Frederick Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

A friend of mine, discussing what he considers to be his girlfriend's weakness for romances, observed, "People don't always know what's missing, but they know something's missing, and they'll always finger romance." I remember many years ago sitting through a painful and interminable family encounter session at a residential treatment center in the Midwest, listening to the harsh, pitched litanies of the damaged.

"We never talk any more."

"When's the last time you kissed me?"

"You get so mean and helpless and hopeless."

"You gained so much weight."

"Where did all the good times go?"

Dim revelations are a dime a dozen in a place like that, and I remember thinking how all those sad stories essentially boiled down to little more than the failure of romance in every sense of the word, one sparkler after another burning down into darkness. I remember also walking the halls at night and seeing a group of women sitting quietly in the lounge, their legs curled up beneath them, smoking and reading romance paperbacks, the men among them staring at the television screen.

The Love and Relationships and self-help sections of bookstores are jammed with books promising answers to the age old question of how to keep love alive or, conceding hopelessness, how to cope with loneliness or failure. Everyone of us could compile long lists of friends or acquaintances who just can't seem to get "it" right, but who nonetheless keep trying. Hallmark, Hollywood, pop music, and the television industry--all the usual bastions of American sentimentality--have found massive success working the same basic theme that has long been the bedrock of the romance fiction industry. Virtually everyone is the business of making money realizes that "happily ever after" is perhaps the most nagging and tenacious dream of all.

"Even as all Mercia falls victim to Saxxe's raw, beguiling charm, the proud princess vows to resist the scoundrel who has breached the battlements of her sheltered world. But a passionate, irresistible yearning entreats Thera to surrender her heart and her kingdom to this sun bronzed warrior who would vanquish her enemies to win her steadfast love."

--Betina Krahn,

The Princess and the Barbarian (jacket copy)

Eagan-based writer Betina Krahn, the author of The New York Times bestseller The Perfect Mistress, was 30 years old, married with children, and living in Oklahoma when a friend gave her her first romance novel.

"Things were dreadful," she remembers. "I was bored out of my mind and feeling like my vocabulary was shrinking down to monosyllables. At the time I was reading Margaret Mead's Male and Female, and I kept picking it up and putting it back down, and I was just thinking 'Why am I reading this?' But I was something of a book snob, and I just felt that those were the sorts of books a college-educated person was supposed to read. A friend kept recommending this romance to me--it was Kathleen Woodiwiss's Shana, and I just thought, 'I don't read those things,' but one afternoon I was absolutely brain dead and I had managed to get my two boys to take a nap, and so I just picked up that book that had been lying around for several weeks. I started to read it, and by page 70 I was hooked."

That's a familiar story, and Krahn knows it. "Oh, absolutely," she says. "Kathleen Woodiwiss is the first romance writer a lot of people read, and she's responsible for hooking so many longtime readers. She was one of the real pioneers of the popular romance." "Kathleen Woodiwiss broke down the doors in this country," Hudson says. "Prior to her the American romance market was relatively small, and dominated by British writers. Her Flame and the Flower was the first real historical romance, and the first book that anyone can point to that had romantic, full-blown love scenes. Very intimate love scenes, with strong emotional appeal. She has a lush, rich style of writing that has been extremely influential. I still keep her books on my shelf, and I go back to them again and again."

Woodiwiss and a few of her contemporaries forever changed the face of the romance genre in the 1970s, ushering in the "Savage Surrender" years. Prior to these books of pioneering sensuality, the romance market had been relatively small and extremely conservative, and was dominated by the slim series romances that Harlequin had introduced in the United States in the 1950s. Those books, with their trademark "hardcore decency" and their ultrabaroque style, were the romance genre's version of the British invasion. Primarily "nurse novels" produced by British writers, the early Harlequins featured chaste and often naive young heroines usually in the employ of dark, brooding doctors. There wasn't even a suggestion of sexual activity, and the happy ending was always marriage.

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