Romance novels: generally not the sort of thing we might discuss as a vehicle for feminist literary icons. Many are the faces I have pulled at the quality of some of the novels supposedly aimed at me. I think, however, that writing romance novels off entirely is leaving a lot outside in the cold. Romance is, after all, the most popular literary genre in all the world. More than that, it's a genre dominated by women writers and readers, and you've got to put down some of the contempt for romance to misogyny. Accusations of silliness and inconsequentiality are, of course, some of the most insidious tools in the patriarchy's toolbox. Let's share some love for the love story, shall we?
I won't lie to you—I have been known to avoid romance novels. Between the tired formulae and the promotion of white lady innocence (and non-white exotic hypersexuality) so prevalent in the genre, I had just about sworn off it. But then, readers, I developed a secret passion for Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife. It's a cool science fiction romance, from the perspectives of Henry and Clare, across their timelines. It's intricate and clever and really, well, romantic. I was made to think again: if my favorite novel is a romance, perhaps I had better take another look at the genre?
The thing is, everything that I'd found off-putting about romance novels still holds. Many of them are full of patriarchal plotting and heteronormative hardships. However, in part I think I had been put off because of gendered messages about which writing is valuable. Dramas with male characters are okay; novels focusing on the domestic and romantic realms to which women had been relegated supposedly are not. According to this logic, writing by women about women's experiences of searching out what they want from life, learning love and life and new worlds, is rubbish.
It's an attitude quite at odds with the popularity of romance novels; clearly the writers are doing something right if people keep buying and borrowing their books. I'm not one for arguing that the simple presence of women in a profession, or a woman's personal success, is a feminist win. Whether that's the case depends on precisely what is being contributed to women's (and everyone else's!) lives, and the world, and feminist ideas. And who precisely gets to do the contributing?
Danielle Steel was born in New York City in 1947, growing up in France. She finished her first novel at nineteen years of age, negotiating a tumultuous sort of life to become the eighth best selling author of all time, with sales of her 72 books numbering at over 500 million copies, and with 22 of her works having been adapted for television. She trundles out several novels a year, working on a few projects at a time. Born in Birmingham, Barbara Cartland wrote 723 books before her death at ninety-eight in 2000, an achievement which is almost past imagining. I mean, the lady wrote 23 novels in 1983 alone; how is that possible? Steel and Cartland lived very different lives, but they have some things in common besides huge success. They wrote about loss, and family crises, and provided little suggestions about how to handle these. Society asks us to isolate our emotional lives, and they acted as loving friends for many women.
The main question I have left for romance novels is, which women are being catered to here? As long as white women are primarily being represented as heroines, and as long as the objects (because we all know that feelings will resolve to focus on only one person, right?) of their affections are men of the tall, strapping and smoldering sort, lots of readers are going to find romance novels alienating. Romance novels are often a site of reassurance that oppressive dynamics are where it's at, but there is so much potential. I am dipping my toes into some Maeve Binchy and Belinda Alexandra, and this reader is not going to let the humble love story go as irredeemable without a good effort first.