Romance Novels: What do women want?

Even though I don’t read romances anymore, I’ve always wanted to do an academic research on the gendered experience of reading romance novels but never had the opportunity. This semester in my Readers & Readership course at the University of Toronto I was FINALLY given the excuse to start researching! The following notes on the book I’ve shared focuses on Harlequin romance novels. I know there’s a difference between Harlequin and the “single-titled” romance novels (i.e. novels by Julia Quinn, Teresa Medeiros, Julia London, Mary Balogh,etc.,), buuuuut the romance genre is the romance genre at the end of the day (edit: the notes below are actually based on what seems to be an outdated theory — since the book was published in 1982! Just realized. Nevertheless, it’s interesting how the genre has shifted over time).  As I go deeper into the research,  I’ll continue to share my findings with you guys.

Loving with a Vengence: Mass-Produced fantasies for women
by Tania Modleski

 Rejecting the theory that mass art imposes “false needs” on its consumers and creates “false anxieties”, Modleski argues that these mass-produced feminine narratives are popular in part because they successfuly speak to desires which are all too real in today’s woman but which our culture has found no adequate way of satisfying…

  • In 1793, Susanna Rowson, a writer of the “sentimental novel” remarked I wonder that the novel readers are not tired of reading one story so many times, with only the variation of its being told different ways.” While Rowson’s observation could, with even more justice today, be applied to most popular novels, which are, of course, deeply conventional, it pertains most forcibly to Harlequin Romances, for the company which produces them requires its writers to follow a strict set of rules and even  dictates the point of view from which the narrative must be told. The peculiar result is that the reader who reads the story already knows the story, at least in all its essentials. It will show that this situation both reflects and contribbutes to a mild “hystical” state — using this term in its strict psychoanalytic sense…[A] kind of duality exists….at the very core of romances, particularly in the relation between an “informed” reader and a necessarily innocent heroine (32)
  • The element of fantasy in romance lies less in the character traits of the hero than in the interpretation readers are led to make of his behavior. For the reader, acquainted with the formula and hence in possession of what Wolfang Iser calls “advance retrospection,” is always able to interpret the hero’s actions as the result of his increasingly intense love for the heroine… (40)Male brutality [i.e. moody, cynical, scornful, and bullying] comes to be seen as a manifestation not of contempt, but of love.. (41)
  • Romantic literature performs a crucial function in assuring us that although some men may actually enjoy inflicting pain on women, there are also “bullies” whose meanness is nothing more than the overflow of their love or the measure of their resistance to our extraordinary charms (43)
  • Since in real life women are not often able to reinterpret male hostility in such a satisfactory way, the novels much somehow provide and outlet of female resentment (43)….A great deal of our satisfaction in reading these novels comes, I am convinced, from the elements of a revenge fantasy, from our conviction that the woman is bringing the man to his knees and that all the while he is being so hateful, he is internally grovelling, grovelling, grovelling…. In most of the novels, the hero finally becomes aware of the heroine’s “infinite preciousness” after she has run away, disappeared, fallen into a raging river, or otherwise shown by the threat of her annihilation of how important her life really is…. (45)

  • Romance novel’s “disappearing act”: On the one hand, as readers we identity with the heroine’s anger and frustration. On the other hand, due to our adherence to the rules of the formula and our desire for a happy ending, a part of us wants the man to see the heroine as a pert, adorable creature rather than as a true rebel. Our conflicting emotions as readers would seem to point up a dilemma: the heroine’s expression of resentment, which is the result of and only potential remedy for her belittlement, is felt to be the very means by which she encourages her own belittlement. This can only lead to self-hatred and to more anger against the man for putting her in such an impossible situation. But our awareness of these feeling is prevented because we are prepared for the termination of the process in its logical extension: the fulfillment of the fantasy of ultimate revenge through utter self-destruction (47).
  • An understanding of Harlequin Romance should lead one less to condemn the novels than the conditions which have made them necessary. Even though the novels can be said to intensify female tensions and conflicts, on balance the contradition in women’s lives are more responsible for the existence of Harlequins than Harlequins are for the contradictions…. (57)
  • The reader of romances, contrary to the arguments of many popular literature critics, is engaged in an intensely active psychological process. The energy of women now use to belittle and defeat themselves can be rechanelled into efforts to grow and to explore ways of affirming and asserting the self. Moreover, the very fact that the novels must go to such extremenes to neutralize women’s anger and to make masculine hostility bearable testifies to the depths of women’s discontent (58).

So this is what one scholar has to say about romance novels. I couldn’t help but smile when reading the observation about how the  threat of le heroine’s annihilation is a technique used (and a technique I’ve noticed in many romance novels…along with my own writing) to make the hero have his Ah-hah-I-Love-Her moment. Is this a technique you guys have used in writing and/or observed in this genre? What do you guys think about the revenge fantasy theory?

Romance Novel Pet Peeve: Stereotypical Psychology

Sorry for not updating for so long. School has been overwhelming. But while I should have been working my way through Charles Dicken’s BLEAK HOUSE…which is like…the size of the bible, I read a romance novel instead, and it got me thinking…

I’ve always been interested in psychology, but I’m no expert in this field—Noelle is, as she teaches this subject. But, as a demanding romance reader, it sorta bugs me to see how some romance authors simplify the psyche of a hero or heroine so much. As if the mind wasn’t so complex. Heck, if that was the case, why are there psychiatrists? They exist to help us figure out why we are who we are. I doubt that we know for certain the root of all our emotional issues—though the hero and heroines in some romance novels do.

One of the most overused psychological techniques to add drama to a story:

Come Hither….actually… Go away (a.k.a, Commitment Phobia): This is a common “malady” but, if not dealt with carefully in a novel, I feel it turns “stereotypical”. Example:  John Doe, midway through the novel after growing intimate with the heroine, begins to shun her when she says the word “I love you” because he has commitment phobia. And here his psychology follows a formula: The cause of (A) is due to (B). (A) = commitment phobia. (B) = His mother left him when he was young so he knows that the heroine is going to leave him. Hence, he is reluctant to love her back, as he doesn’t want to be hurt again.

Now, I totally understand that this psyche is possible in real life. Men (and even women) do have commitment phobia because of their childhood or due to a bad, bad experience with another woman. While I would certainly appreciate a more complicated twist to this formula (like: The cause of (A) is due to (B) with a dash of (D) and a twist of (C) and (E)…), this formulaic psychology IS emotional read of IF a complex twist is added to give depth.

 I truly, truly do not believe that our minds work in such a simple way. Yes, the result of the hero’s commitment phobia is the consequence of his mother’s adultery, or his parents’ divorce, or what not, but it is also the result of the CHOICES he has made in life.  This kind of phobia is a gradual result. Yet this progressive phobia is not always addressed.

So I’ve come to my most major pet peeve about commitment phobic men in romance novels. We are given the reason for why the hero is as he is: because of an evil mother or girlfriend or wife, etc., and without ever solving the core issue that gave rise to his phobia, the story ends. The solution, according to the novel, was that he totally forgot, or got over his phobia when the heroine nearly got killed by the villain. (Well, this can be argued)

This solution does not flatter the hero (IMO). It’s unflattering for a hero to blame someone else for who he has become. This is what I call peevish. It’s unflattering for a hero to act as if he did not have a choice but to continue being influenced by his past, because: “There are two primary choices in life: to accept conditions as they exist, or accept the responsibility for changing them” (Denis Waitley).

This who entry boils down to: I appreciate complex characterization, and not a character I can figure out too easily.

One of the authors who deal very well with romance AND psychology is Susan Elizabeth Phillips (the romance actually revolves around how the hero is able to overcome the root of his commitment phobia—the root being his mother, or his father, or his wife) and Teresa Medeiros.

Have you picked up on any over-simplified-psychological-forumlas (oooh, long word)? Do you prefer the formulas or do you think it’s overdone?

Listening to:

Writing Update: So far I’ve revised four chapters of FALL OF THE SPARROWS (original title: Be Still, My Heart). I’m absolutely loving this story and where it’s going. I wasn’t too happy with it at first, but those who have been reading my work helped me straighten the story out with some great critiques. I want to get this revision done before I send it off for my CP to read.