Big 5 Romance: novels by and for the petty bourgeoisie?

Today is a Friday the 13th, the day the madam of The Honest Courtesan uses as a call to awareness for sex workers’ rights. It’s my chance to state publicly that I believe all sex work, including prostitution, should be decriminalized (or legalized, as long as that is not used as a backdoor to regulate it out of existence). The sooner our society leaves off attempting to legislate morality and dictate private, consensual behaviors, the better off all of us will be. And the sooner our legislative bodies and feminist activists stop the infantilizing of adult women by suggesting that we are incapable of making a rational choice to have sex with a particular individual for any reason whatsoever, the safer and more empowered all women in this country will be.

Pretty much since I started this blog, I’ve been mentioning an observed trend in the romance genre out of New York that started somewhere between college (early aughts) and 2009, namely, the excision of almost all “unsavory” elements from historical romance. First they came for the booze. Then they came for the whores. It’s the most bizarre thing, that even as the amount and variety of sex in romance explodes, the presumed morality and interests of its readership narrows.

Why are these changes happening? Is this trend driven by readership or by the “gatekeepers” (agents and publishers) or by the creators themselves?

Before I go further into this topic, let me clarify that I don’t think genre is a static thing, even for a genre like romance that has very clear rules that haven’t changed since the early 1970s (or the 1930s, when Georgette Heyer started producing her Regency  romances…or the 1810s when Jane Austen was inadvertently inventing the genre). There are always going to be cultural values embedded in literature that reflect the perspective and anxieties of the time in which they are written, not the time in which the book is set, and this is especially true in romance, because it is by women, for women, and centered around issues that women still consider important (love, marriage, and how those fit into women’s lives). The books from the 1970s and 1980s are pretty dated now, with relationships that border on (and sometimes cross over into) abusive and heroes who would be rapists except the heroines always secretly want to have sex but can’t admit it, so instead of viewing him as a criminal and an attacker, the audience (of the time) saw the “won’t take no for an answer” hero as a tool to give the heroine what she wants without her having to accept the responsibility that comes with sexual agency. The abusive man/forcible-seduction scenarios are pretty non-existent now in non-50-Shades-knockoff romance (erotica is a different matter altogether!), although I still see a lot of seductions where the hero’s magical sexual power “overwhelms” the heroine so that she can’t resist. Modern-written historicals often verge into anachronism by using heroines who insist on not needing a man’s help for no clear narrative reason and who feel no moral or practical dilemma about having premarital sex, also for no clear reason. So what I am really interested in, and why I wanted to write about this topic, is why the particular cultural values being embedded in (imposed upon?) romance are the ones being used.

One of the people who made me see the “cleaning up” of romance most clearly was Thaddeus Russell (though his writing has nothing to do with fiction). His book A Renegade History of the United States made me view historical settings in a different context–specifically just how fractional a part of the population romance really focuses on–and also how few people even in a historical context actually shared the obsession with chastity and saving virginity for marriage that 99% of all historical romance problems revolve around.  He revised my view of politics and social reformation vis a vis how much of it was done by a very narrow interest group and a narrow part of society. I have never gravitated toward books with “reformer” heroines, even though such women existed, but after reading Russell I downright loathe that type of character. I can understand women who are willing to live within the rules of their class—despite my perspective I am very conventional in the way I live my life, especially as seen from the outside—so they don’t bother me even if they have vastly different agendas or thought processes from me as a modern woman.  But the reformers who want to ruin everyone else’s fun?  No, thanks.

However, most romances don’t feature reformers per se; the authors simply let certain behaviors (such as doing charity work, supporting one or more severely physically/psychologically damaged persons in their domestic service, abhorring male fun such as gambling, drinking, fighting, etc., and sitting in judgment of any drug use beyond alcohol or tobacco) stand in for the heroine’s personality as if there is no possible question about the legitimacy of those “virtues” or the fact that everyone in their audience would applaud them. Despite their newfangled free-love/fuck-like-men-feminism approach to sex, romances are more often than not extremely socially conservative in all other ways.

And why? Beyond, I mean, the obvious answer that publishers push what sells and pressure the authors who still work for them to conform with those codes.

I have a theory: the acquisition editors buy to their own taste, and that taste is uniformly ivory-tower elite, with the proper number of women’s studies classes on their transcript and lockstep “socially conscious” moral edicts that are based on proving how much you care. (Think that’s incompatible with social conservatism? Then why is it that public health initiatives to ban cigarettes and cut down on drunk driving are driven by Democrats? – they just pretend it’s about saving children when it’s about controlling people’s private behavior. The only difference between that kind of statism and what the Republicans peddle is that Republicans are more honest about wanting to legislate morality. And also that the Republicans are basing their moral imperatives on religion versus some nebulous idea of social conscience or you-wouldn’t-like-it-if-it-happened-to-you emotional appropriation.)

Romance may have started out with a high percentage of smut (low-brow) vs. story-driven (high-brow) novels, but now that erotica has emerged as a genre in its own right, most of what’s left in romance attempts to appeal to the readers who want more than just lust – who require a story. And that story is always the same: no matter how unconventional the characters are to begin with, their story ends with a return to convention. Romance, in fact, has only two stories, that of a man raising a woman up via marriage (up either from low birth or a moral failure), or a woman and her love bringing an immoral man back into the fold of upright society. It’s a normalizing genre that reinforces the nuclear family and the idea of monogamy and marriage.

But why is that normalizing infused with all those other social values? The answer to that piece of illogic lies in knowing who still gets married these days – middle class women, especially upper middle class women. The same women who are curating the genre at a publishing house level. The same women who are writing and reading romance from the major publishers. Some of them are even self-publishing romances in the same vein.

Yes, some of the self-published romance is more of the pap the big publishers ladle out, but not all. To me the most exciting part of self-publishing from the perspective of both writer and reader is that authors who have a different moral compass (in any number of directions), or who prefer to examine the grim realities of historical times, or who want to attempt writing actual historical attitudes as opposed to modern ones in costumes, are now free of any interference from a publisher who just wants more of the same “mistorical” romance. The attitudes and tropes of chick-lit that bled into the romance genre following the collapse of chick-lit as its own genre are no longer infecting the entirety of the genre. Thank goodness.

Or maybe just the free market of ideas.



Filed under Digital Revolution, Ramblings, Rants and Storms, Reflections on Romance

6 responses to “Big 5 Romance: novels by and for the petty bourgeoisie?

  1. You always make me think – and now I’m curious. Is there an explosion on the indie side of romance that is not in this narrow vein? I don’t read ‘romance’ – and I’m pretty solidly middle-class and Catholic (hard to do in the modern age, but what the heck, I’m a believer – in a lot of it, not all). The romances I have read in the past (still remember things like The Foxes of Harrow – if that means anything).

    I think the sameness of the genre turned me off – as well as its common endings, and the fact that the women in them and I seemed to share zero characteristics that weren’t anatomical – but I thought that was merely the story part, not the society that supported the same version of reality.

    I shall have to revise my thinking. AFTER I get today’s writing done.

    And now you’ve made me re-examine what it is I AM writing. Thanks a lot, I think.

    • To be honest I have not really seen an explosion of indie writers going too far afield, more just going back to what the tone of historical romance was in the late 90s/early 2000s. People do seem to be writing in different time periods and/or places, and a couple writers i read are doing different classes. i think it’s coming…as much as anything i am just excited by the possibility! i know i have stories where the light and bright and sparkly modern morals will be out the window…but nothing i’ve actually written yet!

      i don’t mind knowing how a story will end, because with romance it’s the gettign there that’s the fun part. theoretically. i have found myself becoming much less patient than i used to be with characters i didn’t like, or stories i didn’t like. a lot of what’s out there is pretty thin on characterization, and pretty thin on having heroines i could relate to or admire. And then i have started to see the tropes that i used to relate to get overused and abused so much that i just roll my eyes at them. For example a “bluestocking” heroine described thusly in the back copy is now almost enough to make me put a book down – especially given how few of those heroines ever demonstrate any actual learning, it’s just a claim made about them, and also how rarely it influences how they meet/interact with/conquer the hero. it’s checkov’s smoking gun – if it’s there on the mantle you had damn well better use it. if I have a bluestocking heroine, her intellect is going to be the reason the hero falls for her, not merely a plot prop to explain why she’s unmarried or picky or has no idea she’s pretty, or a shortcut to saying she’s intelligent without having to SHOW how she’s intelligent within the constraints of a typical female role.

      I had never heard of the foxes of harrow – sounds more like the crazysauce historicals of the 1970s than the milquetoast mistoricals of now, except actually realistic in terms of story. adding to the TBR pile…

  2. I went to your post on seduction as the new rape, and found this: ‘Are we still so uptight that women can’t say “I want to have the sex with him” and make a moral calibration of whether acting on the desire is acceptable (or not) and then following through accordingly? If a woman decides she doesn’t wish to have sex with a man in a romance novel, why does she so rarely stick to that decision?’

    Figured out that is exactly what I’m writing – about those kinds of hard decisions – so I’m good there. Phew!

    Thanks for the brain-engaging prompt this morning.


    • Glad i gave you something to think about and a good gauge for it! That’s probably one of my favorite rants, and i stand by it. I just want characters who can stand by their philosophical codes. Don’t care what the code is, just that they live by it instead of tossing it out the window the second temptation is in front of them. What was it..oh, yes, Matthew Lewis’s THE MONK. Boy is raised in a monastary and wonders why his human “flock” are so frail because virtue is easy, and then he meets a woman and has no idea how to deal with actual temptation. Moral: it’s easy to be virtuous when you never meet with temptation.

  3. “I have a theory: the acquisition editors buy to their own taste, and that taste is uniformly ivory-tower elite, with the proper number of women’s studies classes on their transcript and lockstep “socially conscious” moral edicts that are based on proving how much you care.”

    I think you’re onto something with your theory.

    I’m not much into historical romance because it doesn’t jibe with my limited knowledge of history. It all seems, as you’ve pointed out, far too cleaned up.

    • Yep. There are a lot of periods I don’t like to read because of things like poor hygiene and fleas (even though those are of course never mentioned by the writers). I can understand why casts might be restricted to the same social circle as the hero/heroine, but that doesn’t excuse not even acknowledging what the rest of the world was like. And the aristocratic worlds most of the books take place in seem to float above the historical realities of creature comforts…even mansions wouldn’t be warm in the winter, not beyond a room or two, and walking along a London street would get a dress dirty. But things like that are never mentioned, either.

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