When I started this series, I was working toward a consideration of why certain types Romance novels and authors are so popular right now, especially when they have generated so much controversy and even divisiveness among readers. I started with the assertion that Romance, because it covers the territory of love, marriage, family, and relationships more generally, is very much a genre concerned with how power between individuals — and between individuals and society – is defined, granted, taken, exchanged, balanced, and otherwise negotiated in a way that is ultimately resolved into significant, even lifelong, mutual love and happiness.
Because Romance is a genre that in part grew out of sentimental fiction (inclusive of the so-called sensational novels), which itself grew out of captivity narratives (among other genres, including amatory fiction), the genre’s literary ancestry is rich and diverse, but also pretty consistent in its engagement with certain tropes, character types, literary devices, and archetypes that flow through more than 300 years of immensely popular texts populated, voiced, and/or written by women.
One of these devices – that of captivity – is especially robust in its persistence, and as I traced (in a much more simplified and superficial way than the topic deserves) the history of what are commonly referred to as North American Indian Captivity Narratives, I wanted to show how the device has adapted to different genres while still raising some of the same issues around how women (particularly women from Western societies) are both insiders and outsiders to the social power structure. Characteristics such as race, class, education, family history, and other forms of social capital will shift the insider-outsider balance, but the dynamic itself is always central to these narratives.
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One of the main differences between the original Indian captivity narratives and Romance’s adaptation, is that the heroine of yore was supposed to be “redeemed” to her original home, unchanged but not unchallenged by her experience. Indeed, she was supposed to be stronger and steadier in her religious and cultural convictions, as well as more “pure” in her spiritual mission. What often happened, however, is that the time she spent among people different from herself created a temporary bridge between her culture and theirs, such that the reader could vicariously experience the immersion of the heroine in this different cultural space.
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But one important similarity I see is the way in which the Romance genre often treats courtship like journey into a new and different territory, one that requires a stripping away of certain layers to the heroine and hero (in straight Romance, at least; I think m/m requires its own conversation), and a reformation, in a way, of the individuals as they become a couple. In those books where the power between the hero and heroine is represented as most equitable, the change may be less drastic. In those books where either the power appears to be most inequitable, change may be more drastic, and depending on how the power is configured, its negotiation will require different changes from each partner.
The lack of a power imbalance between hero and heroine does not necessarily mean there will be no conflict in the relationship. In some cases, if you have a two alphas, for example, you may have more conflict between the protagonists, precisely because there is more power on both sides to negotiate.
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Historically speaking, books that bring their protagonists into the greatest conflict and extremity are often seen as close to or even exceeding the genre’s boundaries – take the derisively named category of “bodice rippers,” for example. However, my position is precisely the opposite: that these books are at the very heart of the work the genre is doing vis a vis investigating how two people who often come from very different backgrounds and positions of social power can form a happy, well-balanced romantic unit. That these books take these dynamics to an extreme does not make them any less core Romance to me – in fact, I think that these are the books that are most overtly, explicitly, and intensely performing the social, gender, and sexual power negotiations that the genre continues to replay.
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[H]ave readers become too fluent in genre? One thing that seems to be a real strength among Romance readers is the ease with which we can become adept at knowing the kind of books we like and translate genre shorthand when an author doesn’t necessarily spell it out. But with this kind of fluency can also come the laziness of thinking we know what a book is going to give us – positive or negative – before reading it. We take shortcuts as readers, not necessarily giving a new book a chance because it has too familiar elements. We may no longer read as closely or as carefully, failing to interrogate things that wouldn’t really sit right if we really thought about them, refusing to be challenged by the possibility of a different perspective or interpretation. So have we started to shortchange ourselves and the genre by relying too heavily on reader fluency?