C’mon, admit it.
You thought that title was going to lead to some sort of evaluation of a romance novel – flowery, overwrought and probably twee as hell. In fact, it’s the title of an essay collection: Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women; Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance , edited by Jayne Ann Krentz (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992).
That’s ‘appeal’, by the way, not ‘defence’. If anyone is aware that the romance genre needs no justification, it’s this group of women. Most of the contributors have other credits besides writer on their CVs: before they achieved success as romance novelists, they were teachers, journalists, lawyers, engineers. All of them are successful multi-published authors.
With a Master’s degree in Library Science, academic librarian Krentz has the academic chops to put this kind of collection together. Former academic librarian: she is now and has been for years (decades even) a NYT bestselling romance author. Her own essay on how to decode the meanings embedded in the traditional language of the romance is an interesting read. Her basic point is that commonly used phrases, the kind that get romances labeled ‘trash’ in academic communities, are not cliches, but touchstones which immediately evoke layered emotional responses. Romances, she says, are full of phrases which are as cliched – and yet evoke as much expectation – as ‘once upon a time’.
Not all of the essays are created equal, of course. A few are slight in nature, in content little better than puff pieces, though even one or two of those are well-written enough to be enjoyable. Better, and more informative, are two facts-and-figures essays: one that explores the genre’s tremenous market share; another that describes the timeline from Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1688) to the modern day romance, (or at least to the romances of 1992) demonstrating how each development was in fact a subtle subversion of the social mores of its day.
There are several essays on the nature and appeal of the heroine; interestingly, there are almost twice as many on the nature and appeal of the hero. And no, they’re not the salacious kind. One dispells traditional myths of reader identification, and makes an po-mo argument for placeholder characters. Another essay attempts to prove that the romance maps a psychological journey through a Freudian landscape – and while Freudian psychology both amuses and enrages me, it was still a well-informed piece. Several others examine different facets of the hero’s character and function. Taken all together, one is left in no doubt that the central fantasy of the modern romance novel is not that women require rescue, but that men are capable of change.
Fantasy is another element that comes up constantly, in a ‘romances-are-fantasy-and-we-know
you–won’t-insult-us-by-assuming-we-can’t-tell-the-difference’ sort of way. It usually appears as a matter-of-fact statement, but the frequent repetition makes it obvious just how often that baseless argument is levelled at readers (and writers) of romance. Fiction and reality occupy two separate planes, and no one knows that better than the people who make their livings creating the former.
Again, though, the collection is not a defence, not an attempt to convince people who don’t like the genre to change their minds. If someone doesn’t care for the underlying structure and story of a romance, no argument will ever convince her otherwise. Besides, approval is not required. Instead, the essays try to open a window, to offer insight into what makes the genre so very popular. And it is immensely popular. As a genre, romance doesn’t just overcomes rejection, dismissal, and ridicule; it smashes sales records, powers the paperback publishing business, and crosses cultural barriers in unexpected ways. As Krentz says in her introduction, “the fact that so many women persist in reading and enjoying romance novels in the face of generations of relentless hostility says something profound not only about women’s courage, but about the appeal of the books”.
Chris Szego knows that next week is banned book week in the US, and plans to spend it reading Charles Darwin and JK Rowling in sympathy.