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Rethinking romance novels

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$1 billion genre diversifying with love still at the center

shelf of books arranged in heart shape

​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.

Conventional 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.

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Emily Davis

​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 sexual pleasure.

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 Waters.

Q: It does seem like there is something for everyone: evangelical Christian romance, pirate romance, viking romance, paranormal viking romance…

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.

UD grads writing romance

Blue Hens are among those penning HEAs — that’s romance speak for happily ever afters. Below are some alumni to watch. Or, better yet, read:

Julie Johnson (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.

Maureen Johnson (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.)

Erin Ventura (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 professional life.

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

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Just in time for Valentine's Day, Associate Prof. Emily Davis discusses romance fiction, a genre that has grown and diversified in recent years, expanding far beyond the "frivolous and formulaic" stereotype.
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