Like all art, romance novels imitate life to a certain degree. They hold a mirror up to society, reflecting norms and stereotypes back to us. In the 70s, romance often featured aggressive heroes and naïve or inexperienced heroines. Nowadays, romance novels tend to be more equal in terms of gender roles, but they still reflect the trends and values that come and go in modern society. One of the most noticeable trends in romance over the past ten years has been the explosion of specific, niche subgenres (think motorcycle club romance) and increasing diversity.
Lynn Neal, an assistant professor of religion who researches Christian romance novels, explained in a recent interview that romance fiction also provides information about how women interact with society. As far back as the 1500s, women were cautioned against reading romance novels for fear that they would cause insanity or lead a woman into sexual temptation.
So if romance novels were thought to cause such harm, why were they so popular? What rational woman would expose herself to such risk?
The answer might be obvious to anyone who regularly reads romance – there’s a relationship between how we live our lives, and how we wish we lived them. Themes or tropes in romance novels echo real life struggles, provide an outlet for escape, and explore changes we want to see in society. Maybe this explains why we love secret baby and accidental pregnancy plots, fish out of water heroines, and ugly duckling twists of fate.
Most of us don’t end up Pregnant By The Rival CEO, but we might have to consider the consequences of an unplanned pregnancy. And while we might not be quite so out of place as the royal Ildiko in Grace Draven’s fantasy romance, Radiance, everyone has felt like an outsider at one point or another. Whether you prefer the sweeping, love-against-all-odds drama of The Time Traveler’s Wife or a cozy romantic comedy àla Jana DeLeon’s hilarious Trouble in Mudbug, romance has something for everyone.
When we’re going through a difficult time, the guarantee of a ‘happy ever after’ ending can be what helps us through it. Author Ashlyn Chase reports in this blog post that fans sometimes email her to say “Your sense of humor got me through a difficult time” or “I know I can count on your books for an uplifting ending. I need that right now”. And in her own life, she has experienced the power of romance fiction to guide readers through tragedy—when both of her parents became terminally ill at the same time, a nurse loaned her a romance novel so she could take time for herself. In fact, she began writing as a way to ‘pay it forward’, in hopes that others could benefit from romance as much as she had.
In “Romance Novels, The Last Great Bastion Of Underground Writing”, Maria Bustillos elaborates on this theme, identifying romance as a “soothing, gentle balm…to the insecure and frightened part of our nature. These are books with the set purpose of providing healing and reassurance to the reader”. (This article is excellent for a number of reasons, not least among them the description of one commenter’s grandfather, who read nothing but church newsletters and books about eighties careerwomens’ love lives).
Romance is sometimes pooh-poohed by those who prefer literary fiction, but romance does just as good a job (or better) as any other genre in advocating for marginalized groups. Sure, there are romance novels that reinforce stereotypes or create controversy, but there are many more that deny patriarchy, racism, and classism—that tell us:
"We all deserve love, that we all deserve to be valued and to have our voices heard, that we’re entitled to pursue sexual pleasure if and as we like. That we all deserve to be the centre of the story, to define what our story should be. That everyone can hope for a happy ending.”
As The Mary Sue points out, groups like @WOCinRomance promote romance by people of color, and in queer romance, people can be accepted for who they are, not who society wants them to be.
Some of us find it helpful to count our blessings or turn to a higher power when we’re in need. For those readers, inspirational romance might be the tool we use to help us cope. And if you think all inspirationals are about Amish heroines or even Christianity, think again. Craving Flight by Tamsen Parker is a powerful erotic inspirational (yes, they do exist) about an Orthodox Jewish woman who struggles to reconcile her need for bondage with her traditional lifestyle.
Romance fiction doesn’t have to be a solitary pastime, either. Calling on friends when you’re feeling down is one of the best ways to gain perspective and feel connected. If you’re not up to leaving the house or chatting about the things that stress you out, you can always find a reader’s forum on Goodreads to chat about books or join a romance group on Facebook. And there are always like-minded romance fans waiting to chat in the comments at Heroes & Heartbreakers!
If you somehow aren’t convinced that romance novels—or books in general—can help you through tough times, check out this Buzzfeed list of 51 books that changed readers’ lives. The contributors’ stories are truly inspiring, from tales of how books helped them cope with loss and mental illness to career problems and relationship trouble. Thanks to this list, I’ve added Waiting To Exhale to my TBR pileand been reminded of how much I love the classic YA adventure/romance, Ella Enchanted. Excuse me while I head off to the library!
Image via shutterstock
Nicola R. White, blogger