From The Awl:
Romance fiction is widely reckoned to be a very low form of literature. Maybe the lowest, if we’re not counting the writing at Groupon, or on Splenda packets. Romance fiction: probably the worst! An addictive, absurd, unintellectual literature, literature for nonreaders, literature for stupid people—literature for women! Books Just For Her!
. . . .
Romance novels are feminist documents. They’re written almost exclusively by women, for women, and are concerned with women: their relations in family, love and marriage, their place in society and the world, and their dreams for the future. Romances of the Golden Age are rife with the sociopolitical limitations of their period, it must be said. They’re exclusively hetero, and exclusively white, for example. Even so, they can be strangely sublime.
Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex (1949) “[Woman] is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute — she is the Other.”
In romance fiction this formula is reversed, as scholar and former Mills & Boon editor jay Dixon (who spells her name with a lower-case “j”) observes in her book The Romantic Fiction of Mills & Boon 1909-1995. Woman is the Subject, man the Other.
. . . .
For all the scoffing from various quarters at the fairy-tale messages they contain, romances largely deal with practical, everyday matters; they’re more like field guides for resolving the real-life difficulties women face. As those difficulties have changed over time, the romance novel has adjusted accordingly. The problems of balancing a career with running a household, looking after children, negotiating a romantic impasse: these kinds of things are dealt with directly. Rarely do “serious” writers on women’s issues stoop so low as to address such homely questions, agonizing though they remain to women even now. How do we express generosity, love and patience without becoming a doormat? Yes I want to have a career, but I still like jewelry and pretty dresses! How can this incredible man like me even a little bit, when I have all these flaws? What kind of person does one need to be in order to really deserve someone’s love? These questions have never stopped being asked, no matter how emancipated we may become.
. . . .
Romance literature is underground writing, almost never reviewed or discussed in the newspapers or literary rags, or at a dinner party. One is supposed to be embarrassed to have a taste for it.
There are distinct advantages in this poor-cousin status. Here is a literature entirely without pretense; its authors are guileless, since they needn’t conform to any external ideal of literary performance. They are in no way trying to win a Booker Prize. Consequently they are entirely at liberty to explore their own questions within the few confines of their genre.
So there’s no sniffy condescension or po-mo posturing in a romance novel; they’re the least stuck-up books in the world. Everybody knows that they are written and read just for kicks, and that gives the author an enviable freedom within which she may permit her imagination to run riot. And does it ever. These writers have no authorial brakes at all, and their irrepressibility is enchanting all by itself. What other kind of author is free to name her hero Sin Watermount or Don Julio Valdares, Tarquin Roscuro or Duc Breul de Polain et Bouvais? There is generally a wild, far-flung and exotic locale: Queensland, the Western Cape of South Africa, the Scottish Highlands. There are impossible situations, natural disasters, a whole pantheon of dei ex machinis, drama galore.
. . . .
The second purpose of romance novels is the exercise of imagination. This may sound paradoxical, given that there is a definite formula to these stories. But they are indeed vehicles for the imagination; each one a love rollercoaster, if you like, to tempt our fantasies. To idealize. What would a really wonderful man be like? What are the very best characteristics that men and women can have? What would the most exciting possible moment in a love affair be like; how would the tenderest lover behave?
So at the same time that these books are about real issues, they are profoundly unreal and fairy-tale-like. The same thing being true of fairy-tales: serious business in a frothy, thrilling exterior. As a reader, this part appeals to me the most: the opportunity to vamoose into a purely escapist story, which I guess also explains my love for detective novels, fantasy, and sci-fi whether hard or soft.
Dixon quotes Mills & Boon author Violet Winspear as having said in Radio Times, “I think all women like to dream about marvelous men,” adding ” I’ve never met any of them myself, I doubt if anybody has.”
. . . .
The key difference between Fyodor Dostoevsky and Violet Winspear is—the beard, obviously, but in terms of literary production, the difference is that the latter is thinking more about you, the reader, whereas the former is thinking more about himself, the author. Each approach has an enormous value, potentially. To put this another way, Dostoevsky writes from deep inside himself, about his whole life, every single thing he ever saw or learned; Winspear plies her craft according to what she imagines it would please you to read, imagine or dream about, though it’s nearly impossible for a novelist to avoid revealing some of his own ideas and beliefs about the world, however tangentially.
It doesn’t matter whether you call this “serious” literature or not, really, though it seems to me that when millions and millions of people are involved in the same reading, it is very serious indeed.
Link to the rest at The Awl
UPDATE: Per a tip from Anthea in the comments, the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance. They have a peer-reviewed academic journal.