Art is often times a reflection of changing social and political mores, and sometimes, it even challenges those mores. Do you find that in romance books at all?
Sarah: Absolutely! Consider the recent web-storm about Claiming the Courtesan and rape/forced-seduction romances! So romance is definitely a reflection of the past thirty years of the women's movement. As for challenging those mores, I think it's probably more of a chicken-and-egg thing–"which came first and which is “merely–? a response? And can the response also push more change? I think the rise of paranormals reflects and/or challenges things in society that haven't been figured out yet (although we'd love for someone to speculate on it for our book!). I think the rise of e-books as erotica is a fascinating combination and needs to be examined and theorized more. I think these are all cause and effect of changes in our society.
Eric: I'm with you, Sarah: that's a constant topic in my course, in fact. We start with E. M. Hull's The Sheik (1919), which you can certainly read in light of the women's suffrage and first-wave feminist movements, as a reaction to World War 1, and even (as I've seen recent critics do) in terms of English ideas of race and empire. The Flame and the Flower is great for that approach as well: an incredibly interesting book when you read it next to other work from the same cultural moment. Remember, it's published within about a year of Fear of Flying, The Total Woman (remember that?), and Nancy Friday's first collection of women's fantasies, My Secret Garden, squarely in the midst of another feminist movement and the conservative reaction to it, among women as well as men. When it comes to challenging mores, though, I think the most interesting things I've seen about romance come from India, where several scholars have been tracing the influence of reading romance novels on dating and marriage patterns of readers.
Please share with us your theory on why romances are so widely read by such a broad demographic.
Sarah: Wow. I don't really have a single theory, I don't think. But I think it comes back to the need for an optimistic world view, rather than a pessimistic one. I think that some of us are finally pulling away from the pessimism of Modernism. And for all we know, romances are the harbinger of a new “movement,–? a new -ism that will sweep the world. I think the desire for a happy ending is mostly universal and that women (and men) who find satisfaction in the representation of an emotionally just universe (to steal Jenny Crusie's term) come to romance one way or another. And I don't think it'll ever go out of style, however much it might change in ways that we can't predict now.
Eric: I've got a theory: it could be bunnies. (Sorry, I'm a Buffy nut; I've waited years to say that!) Oh, goodness, I don't know. The oldest prose narratives we have in the West are love stories: erotika pathemata, tales of the sufferings of desire, with young lovers who fall in love, then get separated by all sorts of unlikely circumstances (angry parents, pirates, loss of memory–"think Skye O'Malley in togas). The thing that needs a theory is why anyone dislikes it. Or why anyone reads, say, political memoirs. Or why so many people like NASCAR. It's a bunch of cars driving in a circle, over and over again. This I'm supposed to watch? No offense to anyone who does, and the day may come when I love it. (I'm getting to like bluegrass music–"can NASCAR be far behind?) But romance seems to me to be appealing on so many levels that I'm more puzzled by the phenomenon of academics hunting for a theory to explain it than I am by that popularity!