Lidija Haas, columnist for the UK Times, takes a stab at interpreting the question of why romance hasn’t achieved a measure of respectability commesurate with its genre fiction counterparts like science fiction or mystery.
The genres that have made the leap — John le Carre’s spy thrillers, J. G. Ballard’s science fiction, Raymond Chandler’s detective stories — have the same sweaty, mass-market paperback past as romantic novels: churned out swiftly and regularly, repeating their familiar structures with the details changed for novelty’s sake, they have all been sneered at by the literary establishment, and devoured in great quantities by loyal addicts and bored train travellers. One thing holding popular romance back may be that it is aimed so explicitly at women.
Haas refers to it as “Love Lit” which I kind of like. Sometimes you have to rebrand things in order to make a perception change. For example, I’ve heard that chick lit is not a term to be uttered within the walls of the publishing house. It’s women’s lit with a lighter flair or young women’s lit.
They are reclaimed for seriousness; seriousness is arguably the better for it. Yet one staple of genre fiction, the sentimental, soft-focus romance novel, remains apparently beyond rescue — it is too embarrassing, too silly, too feminine to be salvageable. The comic becomes the graphic novel, science fiction becomes dystopia, thrillers become political satires, but the love story can be nothing but itself.
But Haas also believes that the romance novel has strayed from its once powerful origins. “[T]he English novel once carefully examined the feelings of young women who sought and eventually found refuge in the form of wealthy husbands. As women made social and political gains, that narrative could no longer be written in the same way, yet no new account of female experience really replaced it.” And that focusing on romantic love and relationships over everything else is a dangerous unambitious kind of myopia.
Her criticisms are valid because she displays an understanding for what makes the romance novel. “In their purest form, they are wholly instrumental, manipulating the reader’s emotions and providing reliable effects, without encouraging different interpretations.” However, she fails to note that the other genre fictions are also grounded in very reliable outcomes. Further, she decides that the genre is somewhat defined by the five books that she has chosen to review for the article, as if it is the only genre with stereotypes and conventions. I find that genre fiction is stereotypes and conventions whether it be mystery, science fiction, or romance. The question for me is whether the book can make you forget that is filled with stereotypes and well worn tropes and because even as a lover of romance novels, the overt sentimentality of some stories make me nauseous.
But Haas is challenging authors of the love lit to be more courageous in their writing and I can’t help but applaud that. Thanks to my tipster. It was a great article.