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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Romance novels as social commentary?

A few weeks ago I was the guest speaker in a university class studying Women in Fiction. One of the students I met would like to hear what romance writers think about the role their novels may play in critiquing society, and he has given me permission to post his questions here:

Do romance novelists/novels use the genre to make social critiques? We discussed science fiction--how it plays on the realities of "now" to make assumptions about "tomorrow." I was wondering if romance novels do the same?

Or is it more a play on the desires of the consumers at the time? Some novels in the 80's may have seemed negative in their portrayals, but those books must have sold if that was the marketing scheme at the time.

Do writers keep these issues in mind as they write, or is it pure imagination? Although even our imagination and desires are somewhat guided by our environment, surroundings, fears, and limitations, etc. Is there something more beyond the covers, or is it just entertainment?

And then there's the whole psychology of entertainment, mass media--the whole thing gets blown out of proportion. Like how kids are supposedly committing various crimes against society because of the video games they're playing and music they're listening to. I know some books get a bad reputation because of their content and influence. But if that were true, wouldn't we see a huge population of women running around after hunks because of the books they're reading? Of course not, that would be absurd.

I don't know if I can really compare the two, and I'm definitely not the expert in social psychology. And I'm leading off tangent from my original question, which was the idea that romance novels critique society. Who knows? Do you have an opinion on this matter?


At 2:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think romance novels are more of a reflection of society, rather than a critique of society. As women and men have grown and changed over the years since the women's movement began in the 60s, the romance novel has also. The women in romance novels are stronger and career-oriented. Back in the day, romance heroines were mainly nurses or governesses, or in some other type of female-dominated career. And today's heroine won't put up with the macho crap of yesterday's hero. But the romance heroine is often juggling career and family, or sometimes choosing family over career, just as today real-life women are.

I don't think we're looking for a critique of society in romance novels. Personally, I read books mostly for entertainment. If I wanted something that critiqued society, I'd read literary fiction. Although, I think literary fiction is usually the author's very narrow version of how society is. But that's another topic altogether.


At 3:28 PM, Blogger Gail Dayton said...

And yet, romance novels do critique society in some ways, because in a romance novel, the women Always Win. Always. That's what a happy ending is, right?

And too often, in society, women don't win. So, romance novels don't critique society in terms of ... well, criticism, but by showing possibilities. The Way Things Should Be.

If that's not a critique, I don't know what is.

At 4:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think as a genre, romance tends to focus more on telling a good story and the relationship between the characters than on getting across a point to the public. And that's the way it should be. It's probably why the genre is so popular.

But that doesn't mean romance novels are an issue-free zone.

For example, I believe Harlequin specifically tells authors they don't want "issue" novels. (Correct me if I'm wrong; this may be old information.) OTHOH, when an excellent Harlequin author such as Anna DeStefano explores the challenges of a character with ADHD, these books sell like hotcakes. Other issues addressed in specific Harlequin novels that come to mind are surviving breast cancer, dealing with stalkers, and handling dyslexia.

I've seen single-title romance novels that deal with issues of poverty, education, AIDS, incest, and the environment, among many other things.

Still, when an "issue" comes up, it's not the main focus of the book--it's usually integral to the plot and the growth of the relationship between the main characters. Again, I think that's how it should be.

As I think Diana pointed out, romance novels reflect (in a limited way, sometimes only as subtext) the society that creates them, and as such could lend themselves to social critiques...

Gail's point is a good one, too. It says something about society if an empowered woman finding a permanent happy ending with a committed man who honors her is the stuff of fantasy. (Forgive me, Gail, if I'm misrepresenting what you said.)

Interesting discussion!

At 5:21 PM, Anonymous Diana said...

I don't know if it's necessarily the fantasy for an empowered woman to find a happy ending with a committed man as it is showing that it's possible and attainable. Certainly that's not true for a lot of women, but it is for many others. I don't know the percentages, but aren't an awful lot of romance readers happily married women?


At 11:30 PM, Anonymous Janice said...

Why does a piece of Romance fiction have to either make social commentary *or* play to the desires and entertainment needs of its audience? The best novels do both and there are many examples in the fiction world of this. Romance fiction is no exception. Look at Suzanne Brockmann's character Jules--a gay FBI agent who is the best of the best in the field. That's a subtle social commentary. It entertains but doesn't preach. How about Jenny Crusie's books in which the heroines are not the fashion world's models of physical perfect, yet they get the love of the heroes anyway. In fact, I think romance novelists have a duty to insert something meanful into their work. (Don't think this is easy to do--if the reader suspects you've got an agenda, she'll throw the book across the room.) Good romance novels reflect the times but also emphasize timeless qualities like kindness, cooperation, and the need for society to consider all its members. Some people feels so strongly about this that they give awards for it. (Hence, Barbara Kingsolver's yearly award for socially responsible fiction.)


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