Sassy responses to the snark against romance novels
It is a truth universally acknowledged that romance novels are naught but misleading fantasies that delude innocent young ladies, pornography for the feminine sex, and rescue fantasies for idle women, all of which end in marriages that snuff out the feisty, independent heroine.
Or so we are encouraged to believe.
We readers know instinctively these stories are GREAT and that none of the above statements are true. But have you ever wondered where these stereotypes come from and why they persist? Have you ever wanted to utter a devastatingly witty and smart retort whenever someone questions your preference for “trashy bodice rippers”?
The answer lies in British history and literature in the 18th and 19th centuries and my research lead me to the following answer: today’s scorn of romance is an inherited attitude from a time when reading by the working class, and particularly of romance novels, was considered very, very dangerous.
During an era when revolution was in the air (American, French, Industrial) and society was experiencing a massive change (hello, middle class!) anything that threatened the status quo had to be squashed. Romance novels, which featured daring, confident and powerful heroines who lived happily-ever-after, were exactly the sort of incendiary reading material that suggested to readers that they too could be agents of change in their own life and society at large. Of course, this had to be stopped.
The British government tried to extinguish this scourge of novel reading with taxes making reading material and reading light prohibitively expensive. When those methods failed, an attitude of scorn and shame was adopted to drive this revolutionary literature underground by making women embarrassed to read them, or ashamed to talk about them if they did.
But no longer! Behold, the secret history and smart strategies to outsmart the snark!
The Snark: Marriage destroys the Independent heroine
The Secret History: When feminists (and others) dismiss romance novels it’s often because they end in marriage, which is perceived to “destroy the independent, questing woman depicted in the rest of the story” as McDaniel College Professor Pamela Regis writes in her must-read book The Natural History Of The Romance Novel.
But it’s a particular kind of marriage which graces the end of each romance novel: The love match. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was the crazy new thing kids were doing those days. It also—scandalously—represented a woman’s choice.
Regis explains: “For centuries, in many cultures, marriages were “dynastic”–formed to solidify political alliances (among the high-born) or to provide a couple with enough resources to establish a new family. They were political agreements and business deals, that might also involve love, but that did not necessarily have to. ”Companionate” marriages–ones made for love–are now so entrenched in our culture that I have to teach students that things were not always this way. “
What’s so scandalous about the love match? It’s a celebration of a woman’s choice. For the first time in history, women were able to have a say in their life-long companion. Regis echoes this in her book: “The heroine’s choice is key. Choosing a partner is one of the most essential expressions of personal freedom. It’s part of the joy of reading romance.”
I know we’re all thinking all those heroines who disguised themselves as a boy, escaped in the dead of the night, stowed herself away on a ship, all to escape some wretched arranged marriage to an awful brute. She didn’t do all that to marry some other Nodcock, now did she? No. She saved her feisty, independent self for a man who loved her for those exact qualities (however much they may vex him).
The Sassy Response: Respect a woman’s freedom to choose
Some readers may disagree with a heroine’s decision to rush down that dark alley or to keep that shocking secret, but at the end of the day it’s her story to live. So let’s respect a woman’s intelligence to choose a mate who will support rather demean, love rather than control, and generally like her feistiness and make her happy. Should she choose to marry or not, for love or for another reason, respect that decision as well. Oh, and let’s remind the Snobs and Snarkers to respect our choice of reading material, too!
This was originally published in The Romance Writers of America trade publication. Come back next week for more sassy responses to the snark (We’re looking at you, “Mommy Porn”)
Maya is the author of smart and sassy historical romance novels.