The Decline of Romance

My mother introduced me to Barbara Cartland, Georgette Heyer, and Harlequin in the late 1970s, just as I was going into high school. After a childhood spent reading books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and Walter Farley as well as Greek, Roman, and Nordic mythology, I devoured this modern literature and grew disenchanted. I incorporated science fiction and fantasy into my personal library, gladly diving into stories in which female protagonists didn’t wait to be rescued and could hold their own. As the only daughter with three brothers in a conservative family, the idea that a girl could take control of her own destiny and win influenced my budding feminism. I was liberated, damn it.

That childhood fascination with fairy tales and mythology never waned, so I continued to read romance. Occasionally, I came across a kickass heroine whom I could admire, but by my sophomore year in high school I had the romance formula down pat: 1) boy meets girl and insults her, 2) girl hates boy, 3) boy manhandles girl, thereby 4) causing girl to love boy. Of course, the stories at that time ended with male and female protagonists either marrying or at least engaged to be married. However, I despised those doormat heroines for their lack of backbone. Perhaps because I grew up with brothers, I loathed that depiction of the ever-submissive woman. I knew I would not tolerate such treatment, especially from some arrogant jerk who goes through women like a pregnant woman chowing down jelly beans for a glucose test.

In the mid and late 1980s, romantic literature adapted to new expectations for women. We could bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan, or so claimed a certain commercial for women’s cologne. We could have it all because we’d come a long way, baby. Women in romance novels graduated from impoverished nannies and secretaries to college-educated professionals. We finally saw women as business owners, doctors, and lawyers. (I have yet to see a female protagonist as a plumber or carpenter.) Yet, the genre fully delivered on the expectation that a ring on the finger meant abandonment of the profession — or at least a demotion to part-time.

In the 1990s we began to realize that we really couldn’t do or have it all. That understanding hit home in the new millennia, but the pattern had been set and the dual-income household became necessary to maintain a modest standard of living. After the first decade in the new century, authors and, perhaps, readers began to long for the good old days — which weren’t necessarily so good — when men and women had clearly defined roles in society. Although we were loath to relinquish the advances we made, women in the GenX and Millennial generations looked with fond remembrance upon our childhoods when our mothers stayed at home. We wanted that option for ourselves without sacrificing economic, corporate, or political gain.

Whether that had any influence on the last decade of romantic literature is anyone’s guess, but I think that the young romance novelists of today yearn for that allegedly idyllic time when women were women, men were men, and the sheep were scared. E. L. James’ blockbuster series beginning with the now trite Fifty Shades of Grey brought fringe desires into the mainstream. Romance authors jumped onto that lucrative bandwagon, going even darker with their stories. In short, women turned two-faced and hypocritical.

We wrote and relished stories centered upon abduction and rape fantasies in which wealthy, arrogant, powerful, and handsome men take captive hapless and helpless women and, of course, use them with all tender loving care with which one treats toilet paper. It became acceptable to strike women in the bedroom, to hurt and humiliate them, because they found it arousing. Stockholm syndrome, anyone? No woman of my acquaintance would ever welcome such degrading treatment.

Any man reading much of today’s romance could be forgiven for thinking that women want to be manhandled and treated with contempt. The alpha male stereotype confers an attitude of womanizing arrogance, lechery, and disregard. Our heroes too often show little care for women in general, except for the one spineless heroine who cannot help but succumb to her hormones and submit to his blandishments. That hypocrisy showed in the #MeToo movement and the so-called Year of the Woman.

The backslide and hypocrisy continue. Our so-called heroines exhibit foolish, thoughtless behavior so frequently that such a character earned its own adjectival acronym: TSTL (too stupid to live). We want our daughters to adhere to high standards of self-respect and dignity, yet we write promiscuous heroines who go from one night stand to one night stand, demonstrating an appalling lack of concern for consequences (e.g., sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy) and a willingness to accept treatment like the aforementioned toilet paper. Readers have learned to accept the HFN (happy for now) ending, which really isn’t an ending at all. For all of our insistence that women can take care of themselves, too many of today’s romantic heroines rely on their heroes to extract them from the consequences self-inflicted idiocy and reward those heroes with jumps to conclusions and contrived misunderstandings. Between hero and heroine, we have a consistent failure to communicate.

How can we demand to be treated as intelligent, capable equals to men if we persist in filling our minds with fantasies of submission and lack of consequences?

Oddly enough, one trend that remains constant throughout the last four decades of romance literature is the expectation that a woman will leave her home and, more often than not, her career to cleave unto her hero in the holy bonds of matrimony. In one of my own books, Russian Gold, the hero leaves his profession as a mafia enforcer behind. Let’s just say that particular reversal of expectation did not go over well with some readers.

Another overwhelmingly popular constant trend in romance, the Cinderella theme, pits the powerless, indigent heroine against the wealthy, powerful hero. Seldom do we see a woman who made her own fortune making a match with a man of modest means. In romance, we cater to the stereotypes we despise and perpetuate the fantasy. Readers don’t like realistic consequences, as I discovered with my short novel Triple Burn.

Strangely enough, I write romance. I read romance. I love the genre. Given the preceding content of this essay, that makes no sense. Perhaps, I, too, long for the fantasy of a man to take care of me in the manner to which I wish to become accustomed. I, too, long for an end to financial worries, for everlasting youth and beauty, for a phenomenal love life that melts my bones. Like many, I enjoy stories that celebrate a woman’s strength and intelligence — not necessarily physical strength, but strength of will and strength of character. I enjoy a feminine victory that doesn’t diminish or require diminishing a man’s own strength and competence.

In my stories, my heroes focus on their true loves. Whether it’s a rock star who encounters an innocent avoiding the debauchery next door or a powerful fairytale king who claims his mate, these males lose none of their masculinity by catering to the needs of their women. I do mean needs, not wants. Protagonists, both male and female, must grow and adapt to the changing circumstances of their lives, just like real people. Female protagonists often find their freedom in the men who claim them. A successful relationship between any two people requires give and take on both parts, not the traditional feminine give and masculine take.

Others writing on the worthiness of romantic literature speak to the romance genre as being the only body of literature written for women primarily by women. It’s the only genre that focuses on a woman’s happiness and pleasure, even if the trappings of that focus imbue circumstances that make a reader cringe.

In the past decade, I have also noticed a distinct, cringe-inducing trend toward romance novels featuring underprivileged female protagonists, often with little education and less skill, ready to sell themselves for financial gain. I have never appreciated the heroine-as-prostitute theme. The willingness of authors to degrade their female protagonists as commodities and their male protagonists as the uncaring whoremongers who treat women as commodities disturbs me.

What we read informs our thoughts, it frames our perceptions, and it sets our expectations. For instance, the Bible contains some 11,000 different words, and Shakespeare’s collected works contain around 17,000 different words. Guess who has the bigger vocabulary? The terminology of adolescence should not comprise the extent of adult vocabulary. Regardless of the genre, what we read has the potential to expand our comprehension or limit it. It has the capability to enhance our understanding or merely cater to it. The advance in the 1980s of romantic heroines taking on professional careers brought higher education and highly regarded professions for women into the mainstream. It normalized women as intelligent, capable humans beyond hearth and home without denigrating the hearth or home. The last decade of romantic literature reverses that trend.

I continue to fight the good fight. My books do adhere to some standard tropes: after all, I want them to sell. In one book, my heroine is young, college educated, and claimed by a deposed king. Late in the story, he leaves her to rule his new kingdom while he attends to the urgent need of his world: in short, he has confidence in her ability to rule in his stead and she uses that opportunity well. In another book, my male protagonist fits the rougher image of a brutal hero: he takes what he wants with no regard to the consequences. Far from a trite, romanticized slide into Stockholm syndrome, the heroine proves her intelligence and resourcefulness by escaping and leading the hero on a merry chase. In the end — because this is a romance with a happily-ever-after ending — the hero must compromise: he negotiates his beloved’s return. In fact, she holds the winning hand.

One criticism regarding romance novel that I have no trouble supporting concerns the general lack of quality writing. Anyone in the publishing industry knows that romance outperforms every other genre, fiction and nonfiction. No doubt that makes it attractive to new writers who think to dash off a manuscript, upload it, and become the next E. L. James. In short, the majority of new books uploaded for public entertainment fits into the overall romance genre. Since embarking late into the world of e-books in 2012, I have noticed a growing cadre of poorly written novels by authors who either don’t understand or disregard the need for professional editing.

There’s never been a better time to be an author. If a traditional publisher won’t pick you up, then you have the option to self-publish at no cost. The cost of producing a book comes before publication: editing, cover design, manuscript formatting. Independent authors, often inexperienced and working on shoestring budgets, either neglect the editing and revision phase or hire substandard editors because such editors work cheaply.

Since the sheer volume of romance books overwhelms the number of titles in any other genre and since the pervasive popularity of the genre shows no sign of abating any time soon, it logically follows that most poorly produced books land within the romance category. These error-ridden books do nothing to improve the negative perception of the genre.

When traditional publishers held the keys to the gates of popular publication, they employed a degree of quality control that now relies upon the diligence and integrity of independent authors. Unfortunately, too many of those authors fail to uphold standards of professionalism.

That dereliction of duty does not remove romance from the spectrum of worthy literature. Think of the classics, of fairy tales and mythology. The greatest stories throughout history imbue strong themes of romance. Beginning with Jane Austen’s sly opening to Pride and Prejudice (“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”), the entire genre has not truly abandoned its focus upon women and women’s fulfillment. Doesn’t half the world’s population deserve consideration as sufficiently important for the dedication of one genre of literature? If so, don’t we women deserve well-written literature that inspires us to be the best we can be?

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Hen House Publishing (Holly Bargo)

Hen House Publishing (Holly Bargo)

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Karen Smith writes and edits fiction and nonfiction on a freelance basis and is a published novelist.