Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Romance Novel

No, I’ve never read one. I tried one once, but it got bogged down in quivering flesh, rippling muscles, ad nauseam and never turned into an actual story. An article by Lizzie Jacobs, “Before 50 Shades,” however, made me curious enough to look into it a little more. Jacobs was reviewing Julie Moggan’s documentary, Guilty Pleasures, a film about romance novels and the people who love them.

An illustration from Pamela

I was surprised to learn that the genre was identified before the Victorian era. One of the earliest was Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, by Samuel Richardson. Published in 1740, it was the first novel based on a courtship, and told from the heroine’s point of view.

Jane Austen was truly one of the masters. Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813, is widely considered to be the best romance novel ever written.

Then we have the Brontë sisters. Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, published in 1847, included elements of both gothic and Elizabethan drama. How respectable is that?

Now things are more complicated. I counted no less than 16 categories on Harlequin’s site, each one rigidly defined. Want a happy ending? Pick up an American Romance. Like it hot? Select from the Blaze section. In the mood for a classy historical? Go for a Regency. It’s said that the discerning fan can name the category merely by the stance of the man on the cover. Really?

Categories aside, the industry has strict overall rules. Jacobs says of Guilty Pleasures, “We learn that redheaded heroes and men sporting back hair are a no-no.” She also invites us to “ditch your literary prejudices to understand why a romance novel is sold every 4 seconds – more often than the average person blinks.”

 Jacobs credits romance readers with being “far more concerned with understanding love than simply finding it.”

 So…still not a fan of bodice-rippers, but as a marketplace phenom it’s won my respect.

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