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UD's Emily Davis says the audience for romance novels is
growing because there is diversity among authors, who reach groups
of readers with diverse interests.
wisdom labels them the domain of middle-aged spinsters with too many
cats and nothing more intellectual to read.
But romance novels represent
a $1 billion industry with a fanatical following who defy generalization.
With Valentine’s Day around the corner, UDaily chatted with Emily Davis, associate professor of English as well as women and gender studies at the University of Delaware and author of Rethinking the Romance Genre: Global Intimacies in Contemporary Literary and Visual Culture.
What she had to say about the bodice-ripping fiction people love to
hate — including its surprising intersection with the political sphere —
can be summarized in the following stanza:
Roses are red/Violets are blue/Romance is deeper/Than anyone knew...
Q: First things first. What do we mean when we say “romance genre,” exactly?
Davis: This, like every
academic thing, is something people argue about. Part of the issue is
that the romance genre has evolved through history. Romance in the
Middle Ages centered mostly on quest narratives, knights going off for
holy grail-style adventures while fair ladies waited at home —
male-centered stories. And then, over the years, that kind of morphed —
you had gothic novels incorporating horror and mystery and love that
women were reading in the 18th and 19th centuries. That has turned into
the more contemporary genre we know today, where the happily-ever-after
ending is a non-negotiable requirement and the main conflict centers
around a romantic relationship, usually a very white, heteronormative
one. Although, that is changing, too. There is an exciting array of
writers working on queer romance and Black romance.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
Emily Davis is associate professor of English and of women and gender studies.
Q: There is a great deal of stigma surrounding the genre as
nothing but fluffy, low-brow, chick-lit full of schlocky plot lines. Is
this a fair assessment?
Davis: There is a great deal of stigma. And a good example of
this conversation happening recently is around [the popular new Netflix
drama] Bridgerton. The showrunner, Shonda Rhimes, talked about
how, when she first thought about doing a series based on a set of
romance novels, she was fairly contemptuous of the genre as formulaic
and cliche. That has been the rap for romance — that it is formulaic,
frivolous, disconnected from current events. Of course, some of these
knocks have been levied against other genres too, like science fiction
and fantasy. But while we have begun taking those genres more seriously
in recent years, looking into the ways they are imagining more just
futures, romance has remained the lowest of the low. That’s something
that got me interested in the first place. Here are all these women
writers reaching an enormous readership in an incredibly popular genre,
and we’re saying… that they’re all dupes? That there is no value to
these works? I thought: That’s kind of a big claim to make.
Q: So… what gives? How is it possible that we’ve written off a $1 billion industry as pure silliness?
Davis: This is an industry geared toward women and, in our
society, we attribute less importance to things that are targeted to
women. Think about the funny revelation in movie studios when the Hunger Games
series made so much money with a female lead. Women had been telling
executives for years that there was a market for women-driven adventure
plots, but sexism in the culture made it difficult even for businesses
to see what opportunities there are. Also, feminists have had an
ambivalent relationship to romance, because there is a perception that
it is inculcating conservative values onto women — namely: Your only
point in life is to settle down with a man, and the romance plot is more
important than friendship or work or other things.
Q: But it sounds like we can’t make that generalization about the contemporary genre anymore?
Davis: Right. That element is still there, but it’s not all
there is — now we’re seeing queer romances, for example. Also, these
works tap into cis and trans women’s, as well as non-binary folks’,
sexual desires and fantasies and what forms those can take — something
there is not a lot of space for in our culture. So the genre has more
subversive things going than critics lead you to believe. You know,
there are writers having a very progressive interaction with the genre,
and they recently put together a fundraiser called “Romancing the Runoff,”
where they raised money for the U.S. Senate elections in Georgia.
Author Courtney Milan (pen name for Heidi Bond), for example, is a
lawyer who clerked for Sandra Day O’Connor. She was one of the people
who broke the story about the rampant sexual misconduct of Alex
Kozinski, an influential former judge on the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of
Appeals. So there is quite a misrepresentation about who the writers
are. And, I think, there is a patronizing dismissal of who the readers
are. We want to critique the idea that happily-ever-after can only mean
settling down with a man and producing children, and that’s valid. But
this is not the only story romance novelists are telling. So what’s
really going on? We are a society so organized around men’s sexual
pleasure and presenting images of women for a male gaze, that I believe
there is more to the dismissal of romance than just the supposed
conservatism of its plots. We are dismissing representations of women’s
Q: Is this what you mean in your book, when you talk about romance
“facilitating a range of intimacies that offer new feminist models?”
How can we explain that?
Davis: I had read this novel by Egyptian-British writer Ahdaf Soueif, The Map of Love.
It is really this powerhouse political novel about everything from
Palestine to politics in the Middle East, and it was nominated for a
Booker Prize, a very prestigious literary award. It didn’t win, and when
I read the reviews of it, they were all along the lines of: Well, it
was a really great political novel, if only it didn’t have this really
schlocky romance stuff in the middle of it. And so, to these readers,
romance was clearly seen as an interruption of politics or a distraction
from them, and I was just so fascinated by that. I kept thinking about
how a lot of the books I was reading by women as a scholar of
postcolonial literature had central-romance or fraught-relationship
plots, and larger political issues — racism, sexism, colonialism — were
being worked out in that domestic space. And so the point I made in my
book was that if you view these two things — romance and politics — as
separate and unrelated, then you miss the work these writers are doing.
Q: Can you give an example of a global political issue being worked out on the interpersonal level?
Davis: In The Map of Love example, it’s a sweeping
historical novel where a contemporary woman basically finds the diary of
this earlier woman in her family — a Victorian British woman who goes
to Egypt and falls in love with an Egyptian nationalist. That
story-within-a-story is about their attempt to try to love across
boundaries in a very well-known trope — the star-crossed lovers — that
is very much a hallmark of traditional colonial romance. But in the
contemporary story, the one about the woman who finds the diary, the
main character is an American journalist going to Egypt, falling in love
with this Palestinian guy who dies, and then moving in with his sister
in a very undefined-but-queerly-erotic setup in the middle of the
countryside with a bunch of women peasants forming this socialist
economic cooperative. So not exactly the traditional romance plot.
Q: When you mention in academic circles that you study the romance
genre, despite all there is to unpack here, do you ever face bias? The
idea that this stuff is not serious enough work for academia?
Davis: Oh, definitely. I felt as though, when I decided on
this for my dissertation topic and the research that eventually became
my first book, I had found the least popular thing taken the least
seriously. There is starting to be more research into this area now but,
yes, I had a hard time placing my book for publication.
Q: For those who have never picked up a romance novel, is there a
good starter pack for beginners, or some authors you could recommend?
Davis: I really like Alyssa Cole — she is very smart and
represents, to me, the best of what’s happening in the genre right now.
She is working on queer plots, plots with humans and cyborgs,
multiracial relationships of all kinds. She seems to be really
unconstrained by the earlier limits of the genre.There’s also Beverly
Jenkins, the queen of Black historical romance, and Katrina Jackson,
Courtney Milan, TJ Klune, Sarah Maclean, Rebekah Weatherspoon and Sarah
Q: It does seem like there is something for everyone: evangelical
Christian romance, pirate romance, viking romance, paranormal viking
Davis: This is a thing that interests me, too. Romance as an
industry does have this way of accepting readers of all stripes, and I
think there is something cool about that. So if the evangelical
Christians have their desires and want to think about them all within
the confines of marriage, that is where they go to scratch that itch.
But if you are interested in Scottish time travel? Paranormal romance?
Reverse-harem romance? Victorian and Regency gay romance with
well-dressed gentlemen falling for each other? We have a group of
writers for you, too.
Q: You mentioned the recent success of Bridgerton, and we’ve seen other popular shows adapted from romance novels in recent years — Outlander,
for example. Is it possible the stigma is slowly starting to erode and
that we will see more space for romance in TV and film going forward?
Davis: I think there has been some change in the last few
years. I also think that this year, in the middle of a pandemic, people
are thinking differently about what kinds of stories they need to
sustain themselves. Romance is a genre where you know you’ll get a
happily-ever-after at the end and, right now, when we can’t plan
anything and we don’t know where the world is going, there is an appeal
to just being in that kind of story for a minute. It provides your brain
a break from the chaos and the despair and difficulty of the current
moment. Intellectuals especially have been suspicious of a need for
pleasure and formula, but I think what people are realizing with the
success of something like Bridgerton is that there is also something important to celebrating beauty and love and happiness and joy.
Q: So COVID-19 could lead to more respect for the industry?
Davis: You know, it’s been so cool for so long to be cynical,
and we need a break from it. There is something so earnest about the
romance genre and the way it believes love will work out, the way it
believes there is a better day to come. Interestingly, that is a set of
beliefs also integral to progressive politics — the belief that a better
day will triumph. In some way, people are seeing those impulses are not
so different. Think about [voting rights activist] Stacey Abrams —
people have discovered that she is a romance novelist (pen name Selena
Montgomery), and they are taking joy in her success. So romance’s
reputation as anti-feminist… I think enough people are appearing on the
scene who clearly do not match that stereotype, and it is helping the
culture shift its attitude some.
Q: What comes next?
Davis: Hopefully one thing that comes next is the possibility
for love stories on TV that are less assault- or abuse- or
torment-based. You haven’t seen much of that outside the Hallmark
channel, and even there sex usually isn’t represented. It’s still
unusual to get a representation of happy sexual relationships on
television. And, again, it does not have to be heteronormative white
people having these healthy relationships. A lot of people have been
doing work more recently on Black joy, and how exhausting it is for
Black viewers to see only movies about slavery or about suffering and
civil rights. We all need access to stories about joy and thriving, and
they can be hard to come by.
Q: So you are saying that romance novels and their adaptations
actually have potential to change the world. Or, at least, become a
vehicle for societal change?
Davis: That is the argument I’m making. The jargony, academic
way of saying it would be that there is an affective power to it — that
romance harnesses certain emotions and riles up certain emotions in us.
In the earlier scholarship, the idea was that these emotions served to
preserve the patriarchy and existing social institutions. But I think
when you read these rousing stories of love and joy and triumph and
happily-ever-after, these emotions can also be harnessed for social
change. That energy can be directed to other places, and often is. I’m
not at all surprised people have begun admitting in less self-conscious
ways they are enjoying Hallmark or shows like Bridgerton. No, these things are not entirely unproblematic, but they do give us tacit permission: It is okay to seek joy.
Blue Hens are among those penning HEAs — that’s romance speak for
happily ever afters. Below are some alumni to watch. Or, better yet,
(Bachelor of arts in psychology and mass communications, 2013): A USA
Today bestselling author of more than a dozen steamy novels, Johnson’s
oeuvre covers everything from romantic comedy to machiavellian intrigue.
Her latest, We Don’t Talk Anymore, is set for release in October.
(Bachelor of arts in English, 1995): This New York Times bestselling
author writes young adult novels that incorporate romantic themes. One
of her collaborative works, Let It Snow, has been adapted for Netflix.
(Johnson’s literary agent, fellow 1995 graduate Kate Schafer Testerman,
is also a Blue Hen.)
(Bachelor of art in political science, 2011): She fell in love with the
romance genre while on beach vacations with her family as a kid. Now,
Ventura (pen name, Erin Lynne) writes her own erotic fiction, for sale
at most major online retailers. Her latest, That One Night, follows a
workaholic whose attraction to a sexy stranger complicates her
Joy Ann Coll
(Bachelor of arts in business administration, 1991): A romance writer
since 1999, Coll is also an avid traveler whose trips to more than 40
countries inform the settings and plots of her books, which take readers
from Aruba to the Middle East.
Sharon Roat (Bachelor
of arts in communication, 1987): A public-relations professional turned
novelist, Roat writes for the teen imprint at HarperCollins. Her 2017
novel, Between the Notes, tells the story of musically gifted teen Ivy
Emerson as she navigates her family’s financial turmoil and an
unexpected romance with a mysterious boy at school. (Roat’s editor,
Karen Chaplin, is also a Blue Hen — she graduated in 1996.)
Article by Diane Stopyra; photo by Evan Krape
Published Feb. 12, 2021