Romancing the novel

Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan as Tarzan and Jane
Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan as Tarzan and Jane

When, in the early 70s, I spent a year or so as a library assistant (not ‘assistant librarian’, as I was firmly told) life seems in retrospect to have been a lot simpler. Information technology was in its infancy, microfiche was cutting edge for library users, and fiction was arranged on library shelves according to a simple fourfold system: Fiction (by author, in alphabetical order), Detective, Western … and Romance. (Teenage reading, what we might now call Young Adult, was still shelved under Children, hived off in its own ghetto and marked Juvenile. How fashions change.)

‘Fiction’ — that is, the works shelved by author surname from A to Z — is such a broad canvas: I’ve seen it referred to as mainstream (that is, ‘popular’), literary (niche, that is, not so popular), commercial (makes piles of money, usually in inverse proportion to its literary worth) and contemporary (probably published in the last year or so, certainly excluding classics like Dickens, Hardy and Austen). In truth these are categories with very fluid boundaries, often overlapping. (To my mind there are in reality only two types of fiction, fiction you like and fiction you don’t, but you can’t plan a public library based on personal preferences.) Where, then, does the Romantic Novel — the last genre we looked at in the creative writing class — sit?

That time behind the library counter introduced me to the doyennes of historical romance, Georgette Heyer and Catherine Cookson. Heyer began writing her period novels in 1921 and fifty years later these were still going strong  — over thirty of her fifty-odd novels were set in the Georgian or more particularly Regency era. She took as models the works of Jane Austen but included copious details for readers unfamiliar with the social conventions of Austen’s times. But the romance template pre-existed Austen. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela in 1740 introduced then novel twin concepts: presenting a fiction from a woman’s point of view and ensuring a happy ending, as in a fairytale. Gothick elements came to the fore in works by the Brontës, particularly Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. In the middle of the 19th century romances continued placing their action in contemporary settings, such as Gaskell’s North and South (1855), though not always with a happy ending for the female protagonist, as Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1878) testifies.

Heyer’s resumption of the historical romance genre after the anguish of the first world war may have been welcome, but she was not the first to set her stories in the past — Walter Scott of course had made a career from it in the early 19th century with his Waverley novels. In the mid-20th century Catherine Cookson too saw herself as a historical novelist: she hated being described as a romantic novelist though that was how she was generally perceived. That historical mantle has passed on to the likes of Philippa Gregory and others.

Nor is romance limited to women’s escapist fiction: many classic adventure stories have some love interest in them. For example, in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes a passage which describes how Jane’s “perfect lips had clung to his in burning kisses that had seared a deep brand into his soul — a brand which marked a new Tarzan” could be straight out of a Mills and Boon romance.

Mills and Boon began publishing in 1908; by 1931 they found a ready market and commercial success focusing on cheap romance hardbacks in plain brown wrappers. Their success can be measured by the phrase ‘a Mills and Boon romance’ having entered common parlance. In 1957 they linked up with Harlequin Enterprises to exploit the North American market, being bought by the Canadian company in 1971. Their formula of innocent heroine plus alpha male plus happy ending struck gold. Their guidelines on “how to write the perfect romance” concentrate on readers’ needs for character and conflict:

At the heart of all great romances are two strong, appealing, sympathetic and three-dimensional characters …
Emotional, character-driven conflict is the foundation of a satisfying romance. Conflict spawns tension and excitement …

They add that dialogue is “the key tool to giving life, energy and pace to your writing”. All good advice, and not all peculiar to romance writing. If that seems clear enough, the requirements of the various sub-genres are bewildering, as are the range of sub-genres themselves. Most of them are crossovers: romantic suspense, paranormal, science fiction, fantasy and time-travel. Some have a social dimension: if they’re inspirational they might also necessitate a Christian element; multicultural romance is another sub-genre, while E L James seems to have deliberately strayed into erotic romance territory. It’s all popular stuff — apparently a survey a decade ago found that 39% of fiction sold in the US was romance.

plainI now feel that when I wander into my local library that I ought to see if I can spot romance’s various sub-genres. What’s certain is that they’re unlikely to sport brown paper wrappers; if I was ever tempted to borrow one perhaps I might need to take my own brown cover.

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5 thoughts on “Romancing the novel

  1. I only see Romance sections in used bookstores. My local library shelves them with regular fiction. This means one must be familiar with a Romance author. Gosh, I haven’t seen a bodice ripper cover in years, so relax, I don’t think a brown cover or bag is required.

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