University of Pennsylvania Press, $5.99, ISBN 0-06-108463-8
Popular Culture, 1992
The poor romance genre. It has been called everything from outright trash to “opiate for middle-class women”, the latter a very uninteresting term coined by some uninteresting feminists. People sneer at romance readers and call the readers all sorts of names. They also feel free to make judgements on the readers’ intelligence.
That’s what the introduction of Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, by Jayne Ann Krentz, tells me. Hence, she carefully lists down the objectives of this series of essays on the romance genre: to let the writers tell of their love of writing romance and the enjoyment the readers experience from their books, to discuss the aspects that make the novels so popular, and to prove that romance is a legitimate genre worthy of respect.
I can’t believe this book has been languishing in the subterranean depths of my unread mountain of books until now, for this one is a pretty enjoyable read. There’s a thrill to seeing the romance genre dissected in an intelligent manner without any over-emotional rhetorics. The authors just write what they feel: they love their job, and their readers love the books.
Personally, I have never actually encountered much snobbery from the reader community. Those who sneered are those who don’t read most of the time and buy books according to the list of Booker Prize winners published in the newspaper. Their opinions I don’t give a rat’s backside about.
Which is why I’m quite surprised by Ms Krentz’s passionate defense of the genre in her introduction. Most of us may say, “Let the critics burn!” but to many, or at least the authors in this book, there is still a craving for recognition as a legitimate author whose work has as much literary value as, say, a Stephen King novel at least. Romance commands the biggest share of the money pie, according to Cathie Linz’s essay (she gets the easiest job, she just presents the statistics in Setting the Stage: Facts and Figures), so it must make authors like Jayne Ann Krentz, Elizabeth Lowell, and other romance powerhouses burn to see them holding even less clout in terms of respect compared to John Grisham who writes wooden, sometimes rubbishy lawyer novels devoid of depths and characterization.
This craving for respect by authors also features prominently in every essay in this collection. Jayne Ann Krentz has two more essays, one in collaboration with Linda Barlow that defends the language of the romance (stop complaining about penetrating eyes and rosette lips – they are actually codes!) and another where she defends the politically incorrect aspects of the romance novel.
Readers are not stupid bon-bon addicts high on calories and Fabio, authors like Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Daphne Clair, Doreen Owens Malek, Suzanne Simmons Guntrum, and Diana Palmer declare. They are people who find such novels a form of escape from everything routine (“opiate for the masses”?). Kathleen Giles Seidel has a passionate and sincere thirty-page essay where she relates the joy she gives her readers and the joy they give her in return when they write to tell her how much her books provided them escape, emotions, and entertainment.
Finally, Laura Kinsale and Linda Barlow try to figure out who readers – and authors root for: the hero or heroine? They are actually two of the very few that don’t try to justify the genre’s supposed weaknesses and strengths to the public, presenting theories and facts without declaring every other sentence, “Lawyers/doctors/professionals read our books too!” Anne Stuart and Elizabeth Lowell defends the mean, dark dangerous heroes, while Mary Jo Putney explains how unpleasant aspects like dyslexia and incest can be explored in romances too.
Women do things in romance, Judith Arnold says – women aren’t objects. Then Brittany Young contradicts her by praising virginity in the heroine, and Krentz says that virginity is a “symbol” for trust. So much for heroines not being objects.
As one could probably guess from my glib tone, this book isn’t exactly perfect home run with me. I love Laura Kinsale’s article on the androgynous hero – she has a point (to me at least), sometimes readers do identify with the hero. Linda Barlow presents a nice counterpoint saying that sometimes authors identify with their hero too. Articles by Daphne Clair and Susan Elizabeth Phillips are perfect for funny, anecdotal evidences that romance readers find in their romances a sense of empowerment. In romance, women are strong, and they tame the beasts in their alpha males. Women’s on top, they rule!
But it is also frustrating to read Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women because this book came out in 1992, at a time when the genre is still dealing with the specters of rapist heroes and submissive heroines. Hence I guess the sometimes defensive tone of the book can’t be helped. But it also presents an ideal situation where an author is free to try out new plots, tackle themes relevant to society (rape, incest, handicap, etc), all the while creating fresh and unique stories of love. A part of me can’t help comparing the fresh-eyed optimism and determination of these authors to what they are writing today: formulaic, trite, safe stories. It’s like watching fresh-faced young men joining the army, full of patriotism and idealistic dreams, only to lose it all in Vietnam. All those promises and reassurances, where’s the goods? It’s quite disappointing really.
In the end, I have mixed feelings about this one. On one hand it is exhilarating to read about the genre discussed intelligently. There’s no pretentious pontificating. Romance is read because it is entertaining, and no, it doesn’t cure cancer. So what if happy endings are unrealistic, it says – fiction is all about escape, giving the readers a means to experience emotions vicariously as well as a form of catharsis. These reasonings are well articulated – to the point of overkill at times. If the skeptics still sneer, well, they’d have to face the fact that nobody pretty much cares about what they think. We are romance readers and we are secure in our intelligence, and please, pass over the happily-ever-after please.
But obviously these authors care. They also, at the same time, emphasize the fact that readers want virginity, alpha males, and happily ever afters. While they love writing, they also want the snobs to understand that it’s all part of a big picture. This can backfire: the justifications here can be extrapolated into an excuse to produce dull, trite, by-the-formula stuff. After all, it’s all a Formula with hymen and testosterone as the key ingredients – and formula’s good. Twist a little of this argument, and we can also use the formula as an excuse for slipshod books. After all, the Formula is romance, is it?
I can’t help but to wonder how this book will turn out if romance readers contributed to a project like this.