As someone who writes and reads about comics, I’ve see a lot of criticism practiced from the stance of defensive crouch. So Pamela Regis’ Natural History of the Romance Novel was, depressingly, familiar.
Regis’ position is certainly understandable. Romance novels are even more loathed than comics. As Regis says, academic discussion of romance has traditionally presented the romance genre as corporate crap and romance readers as deluded fools. There are almost never mainstream reviews or discussion of romance, even though (as Regis says) the genre is more popular than ayn other; 55.9% of mass market paperbacks were romance novels in 1999.
Regis stated goal is to confront and refute the prejudice against romance novels. The book is meant to show that “the romance novel contains serious ideas” (contra literay critics) and that it is “not about woman’s bondage” (contra feminist critics) but “about women’s freedom.”
Regis uses two main arguments here. First, she says that the happy endings of romance novels do not erase or trap the heroine, because marriage and happy endings are freeing, not constricting. Second, she argues that the romance novel has a long-standing, stable form, and that current romance novels are the direct heirs of classic, canonical works by Austen, Trollope,and Forster.
The first of these arguments is unconvincing. Regis argues that heroines in romance novels overcomes barriers to union with the hero. “Heroines are not extinguished,” she enthuses, “they are freed. Readers are not bound by the form; they rejoice because they are in love with freedom.” But if the choice is always the same choice, how is that freedom? Of course the novels present passionate monogamy as joyful. But critics like Janice Radway and Tania Modleski point out, with some justice, that monogamy and marriage, in real life are not always joyful, and that marriage as an institution is often constricting for women. They question whether the constant insistence that joy comes only with heterosexual marriage is actually liberating, or whether, instead, it might be in some ways a limiting failure of imagination. In Pamela, for example, which Regis sees as the earliest romance, is it really a happy ending when the heroine ends up marrying a rich asshole who has spent much of the novel attempting to rape her? Regis says that romance readers can tell rape in fiction from rape in real life, which I’m sure is true — but if fiction doesn’t influence real life at all, what’s all this about romance novels being freeing?
Regis’ second argument — that books like Pamela and Pride and Prejudice are romances — is much stronger, and in many ways does the work for romance that she wants it to. If Pride and Prejudice and A Room With a View are romance novels, after all, then most people would agree that romance novels can be great literature. Indeed, Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre are significantly more canonical than just about anything that mystery genre or sci-fi has to offer.
The problem is that Regis tries to prove the older works are romances by arguing that romance has a single structure, defined by eight narrative elements. Pam Rosenthal summarized these as follows:
definition of society (“always corrupt, that the romance novel will reform”); the meeting between the heroine and hero; their attraction; the barrier to that attraction; their declaration that they love each other; point of ritual death; recognition that fells the barrier; and betrothal.
The definition tself works as well as these things can be expected to (though I’ll talk a bit more about this later.) But once having established the rubric, it tends to put a straight-jacket on the rest of the discussion. Most of Regis’ book is given over to book summaries showing that the plots fit Regis’ categories. First classic works are discussed, and they fit — and then modern works are discussed, and they fit. But the fact that they fit doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re any good. Nor does Regis’ repeated assertions that Nora Roberts or Janet Dailey are masterful creators convince me that they are. On the contrary, Dailey’s books sound wretched, as do Jayne Anne Krentz’s. Perhaps they have some historical interest (Dailey was one of the first important authors to use American and Western settings) but Regis certainly doesn’t make the case for any merit beyond that.
In fact, the insistence on defining romance by eight narrative elements does the exact opposite of what Regis claims she wants to do. Rather than making romance seem serious, it makes it appear rote and formulaic. If the best you can say for someone like Dailey is that she knows the form and uses it, then why should anyone care about her? Even Austen and Forster and Bronte seem to wilt under the faint praise. They all filled in the blanks skillfully? Whoopee.
Regis’ difficulty is that she wants to defend all romance. She is fighting for the honor of romance as a genre, or as a whole. She never, once, in the entire book, admits that any single romance, anywhere, might be formulaic, or badly written. She acknowledges that the Sheik is racist only in order to dismiss it rather than (for example) to think about how the “dangerous man” fantasies in so many romance novels indebted to the Sheik might also be touched by class and racial stereotypes, or to talk about how white women’s liberation so often seems to be symbolically assured by association with non-white people.
I’m not saying all romances are evil crap. I don’t think all romances are evil crap. But many romances are crap, and it seems like you need to acknowledge that somewhere if you’re going to make the case that some romances are good. And one important way to start thinking about romances as various is, I think, to chuck the formula. Yes, many romances can be made to fit into Regis’ pattern. But then, many can’t. Wuthering Heights, Anna Karenina and Gone With the Wind are books that are very often discussed as romance novels, and which don’t fit Regis’ pattern in important respects.Regis talks about Gone With the Wind specifically, saying that readers who identify it as a romance are “misreading”; that they’re substituting in a happy ending based on their familiarity with the genre. In other words, Regis suggests that romance readers are so wedded to their narratives that their basic reading comprehension suffers. This is supposed to be a defense of romance fans how, exactly?
Why not, instead, accept that lots of romance readers see Gone With the Wind as a romance — which means, maybe, that romance novels don’t have to conform to a single formula? Similarly, Trollope’s most famous romance, between Lily Dale and Johnny Eames, didn’t end in a relationship — which was (as Trollope astutely noted) precisely why it was so famous and successful. Villette almost, almost consummates its romance, only to end in tragedy. And, for that matter, A Room With a View, which Regis sees as a romance with a happy ending, has an afterword which (as Kailyn Kent has noted) refuses and refutes the formula. Is A Room With a View not a romance if you include the afterword? Or, possibly, is there more room in romance than Regis’ formula allows?
Though Regis is reluctant to admit it, romance novels have been commodified and rationalized since the days of Forster and Trollope; the standard endings are, I think, more insisted upon. And yet, you can see leeway still. In Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me, most of the characters get married off, but at least one, Liza, remains a serial dater, too restless to settle down, and happy enough in that restlessness. Ian McEwan’s Atonement, which is certainly devastatingly romantic, gets much of its power from its commitment to, and interruption of, the romance narrative as a narrative — by both giving and withholding the happy ending. I read Atonement like three times in a couple of weeks and cried every one. If that’s not a romance novel, I don’t know what is.
This isn’t to say that only books that refuse the romance ending to some degree can be great novels. But it is to say that the possibility of resistance seems to me central to the possibility of freedom, and even to the possibility of variety. Maybe, rather than saying that romance novels bind women, or that romance novels free women, it might be better to think of romance novels as fascinated by, or concerned with, the issues of autonomy and love. Some writers may handle those themes thoughtfully, others not so much. But all romance novels don’t speak with one voice, any more than all women do.