Ridicule or Romance?
Despite being a genre that is widely ridiculed by literary critics and English Literature aficionados alike, the romance genre is one of the most popular genres commercially. This formulaic and “trashy” genre rakes in millions for publishers like Mills and Boon every year. So, how can something so “bad”, be so popular commercially?
At the heart of the romance genre, is the women. It is a genre written for women, by women about women, so theoretically its commercial popularity and its reputation as “trash” reading must coincide with our societal ideas about women and power. I spoke to Amy Williams who is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing here at Flinders. She is also a Romance author. Williams believes that the genres female centric nature and its representation of our relationships with men (and power) is what attracts its strong female readership. Furthermore, Williams states that “romance novels feature women as the central heroic protagonist and foreground women's domestic experiences as heroic journeys. We recognise ourselves in romance novels, in ways we don't always recognise ourselves in other forms of literature.” Love, loss, pain, betrayal, rejection… These are all key features of romance novels that women can relate to and are much easier to consume than some other areas of literature.
Coincidentally, just as the romance genre is a popular money maker because of women, its also resigned as “trashy” and disregarded because of the role of women who both produce and consume the romance genre. The women protagonists play a key part in this genre and are given a voice. A voice that is often not heard in other areas of literature. In some of the greatest pieces of literature, women literally don’t speak or have a significant part to play. Women are just Mothers or just a body to the main male characters. Whereas romance paved the way for strong women… empowered women… sexually active women… “Romance has often been ahead of the curve in terms of content - featuring career women before it was acceptable in the mainstream, as well as having heroines who were single mothers, abuse survivors, and sexually active and empowered before we saw it accepted in the mainstream culture.” Romance is best poised to represent the diversity of women who wanted to be heard. It fills a void for women that other literature largely ignores.
Despite all this, why do women love a genre that is greatly formulaic and predictable? In real life, we are very rarely granted a happy ending so it can be rather comforting to read a romance novel and know no matter what, the female protagonist will get the ending she deserves and we as consumers all want. Personally, I enjoy a light romance novel when things in my life aren’t going great, and I’m looking for something that will give me joy, even if its only for a moment. Williams sums up our love for romance novels beautifully: “While literary fiction often focusses on tragedy, or disappointment and disillusion, or the problems of society, Romance focusses on the happy moments of our lives. We all experience love and desire and have to negotiate how to have functional relationships. Romance novels do cultural work by modelling how to work towards emotionally healthy relationships. They also model things like consent, female pleasure in sexual relationships, and respect. And they show us the joy of being alive.”
So ladies, don’t hide your Mills & Boon stash in shame! We all need escapism and sometimes we just need to know there will be a happy ending.