Friday, August 1, 2014

Nine Essential Elements of Romantic Fiction

Today we welcome, Catherine LaRoche who writes about her research into romantic fiction.

I spend a lot of time thinking about romance fiction.  My mom reads the books, and I picked up the love of the genre from her when I was a teenager.  She always had a tottering pile of novels beside her bed that I’d rummage through for something to borrow.  Now I write historical romances and, in my day job, I’m a college professor of gender studies and cultural studies.  For the past several years, I’ve included romance fiction in my teaching while I’ve been writing an academic book entitled Happily Ever After: The Romance Story in Popular Culture (forthcoming in mid-2015 from Indiana University Press).

My students choose romances from a big box that I bring into class and write responses on them.  We do cut-up exercises with the novels to create alternative storylines.  We write a collaborative online romance with scenes ranging from suspense to spicy erotica.  I’ve set up a romance lending library in my office; my eight-year old son decorated a poster for borrowers to write down comments about the novels they check out.  As I draft my academic book, I workshop chapters with the students in order to get feedback.

I’d like to invite similar feedback from readers here, on some of the book’s conclusions.  I propose that romance novels have nine essential elements.  (I’m playing off Dr. Pamela Regis’s work in her wonderful 2003 text A Natural History of the Romance Novel.)  What do you make of my list so far?  Do you agree or disagree?  Am I missing anything?  All comments welcome!

The nine central claims made by the romance narrative:

1.                  It is hard to be alone.  We are social animals.  Most people need and want love, of some kind.  Amid all the possibilities for love as philia (friendship) and agape (spiritual or selfless love), the culture often holds up eros or romantic partner love as an apex of all that love can be and do.
2.                  It is a man’s world.  Women generally have less power, fewer choices, and suffer from vulnerability and double standards.  They often get stuck looking after men or being overlooked by men.
3.                  Romance is a religion of love.  Romance entails belief in the power of love as a positive orienting force.  Love functions as religion, as that which has ultimate meaning in people’s lives.
4.                  Romance involves risk.  Love doesn’t always work out.  Desire can be a source of personal knowledge and power but also of deception and danger.  Romance fiction is the safe, imaginative play space to explore the meaning and shape of this landscape.
5.                  Romance requires hard work.  Baring the true self, making oneself vulnerable to another is hard.  Giving up individuality for coupledom requires sacrifice.
6.                  Romance facilitates healing.  Partner love leads to maturity.  Love heals all wounds.  Love conquers all.
7.                  Romance leads to great sex, especially for women.  Women in romance novels are always sexually satisfied.  Romance reading can connect women to their sexuality in positive ways.
8.                  Romance makes you happy.  The problematic version of this claim is that you need to be in a romantic relationship for full happiness.  Here, romance fiction can be oppressive if it mandates coupledom for everyone.
9.                  Romance levels the playing field for women.  The heroine always wins.  By the end, she is happy, secure, well loved, sexually satisfied, and set up for a fulfilling life.  The romance story is a woman-centred fantasy about how to make this man’s world work for her.
Catherine LaRoche is the romance pen name of Catherine Roach, who is a professor of cultural studies and gender studies at the University of Alabama.  Catherine won the Romance Writers of America Academic Research Grant in 2009.  This essay is from her forthcoming (2015) academic book HAPPILY EVER FTER: THE ROMANCE STORY IN POPULAR CULTURE.  A lifelong reader of romance novels, she combines fiction writing of historical romance with academic writing about the romance genre for the best of both worlds.  Her latest Victorian romance ebook KNIGHT OF LOVE was released in June 2014 by Simon & Schuster.  See more at:

Click here for a video interview of Catherine by the Popular Romance Project:

Thank you, Catherine.

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Rosemary Gemmell said...

Thanks for all your championing of romance, Catherine! A good list - I think I'd also add that romance fiction allows some women to escape their own problems and situations for a while (or perhaps you've addressed that already!) I read a touching open letter some years ago from a woman whose husband was in the forces - they were moved around a lot and reading romance kept her sane and happy in her changing situation.

Christina Courtenay said...

I think that's a great list, Catherine! And your studies sound fascinating - I look forward to reading your book on this when it's published!