Are Academic Opinions About Romance All Negative?

by Elaine Wethington (February 1999)

As a sociologist who has an interest in popular cultural studies, I have been conducting a long-term study of changes in the romance novel genre over time. I have been a fan of romantic historical novels since childhood, but only recently began reading paperbacks labeled “Historical Romance.” I found that most of the academic analyses of the romance novel did not match my observations about the content or quality of these books. Seeing an opportunity to say something different, I began a formal study, juggling it in tandem with my major research interest, the sociology of health and illness and a full-time teaching load. In 1997, I presented a paper at the American Sociological Association meetings about romances set in the American West.


]]> Support our sponsors As a reader who has encountered her share of horror and laughter from those who know my reading habits, I went to the ASA meetings armed to fight off a combination of criticism, ridicule, and indifference. What I encountered instead was the most positive audience reaction I have ever received for a conference presentation. For the most part, the academics were enthralled by both the idea of the study (if they were male) and the novels (if they were female).Why was the reaction so positive, when as readers we know that the romance novel still evokes derision from so many? The research I have done to answer this question for myself is worth sharing with romance readers.

Younger academics – primarily those referred to collectively as “post-modernists” have a very keen interest in popular culture, and some promote it as unrecognized art. Their views are in sharp contrast to the older academic view, which made sharp distinctions between high and “low” culture, and characterized popular culture (e.g. romance novels, TV series, fantasy fiction, Westerns) as pulp produced to seduce the masses into believing that their economic and social interests coincide, rather than conflict, with those of the rich.

Younger academics assert that cultural critics denigrate popular culture as a way to make social distinctions between the elite and non-elite. Hence comes the assumption that romance readers are very familiar with, that romance novels and other “popular pulp” are read primarily by less educated women.

Some genres of popular reading – mysteries and science fiction – seem to have undergone a process sociologists label Gentrification. Gentrification occurs when members of educated classes (and critics) begin to treat a popular reading or entertainment genre as “art.” One indicator of gentrification is regular attention in The New York Times Book Review. This publication has regular review columns on mystery, crime, and science fiction releases.

But not romance novels. Despite the best efforts of authors and academics, I don’t believe romance novels have “gentrified.” Comments from my fellow academics who have been reading my papers on Western romances point to several “sticking points” – reasons why they are uncomfortable with the notion that good romance novels can rise to the level of art. None of these points reflect my views. Taken as a whole, they are difficult to refute all at once.

Here are the four “sticking points”:

Point 1: Romances are all the same. This view is reinforced by the sympathetic academics, who try to identify commonalities across the genre of romance. Their analytic approach obscures the fact that many different types of romance novels are written, and that they appeal to varied audiences. Most studies of romance novels utilize only a handful of novels. Most importantly, they don’t compare and contrast different types of romance novels.

Point 2: Romances are produced by publishers who demand conformity to a set formula, not by authors exercising full creativity. Academics and critics who don’t read romances think categories are “romance novels.” Every academic I have talked to believes that Danielle Steel writes romance novels (I make it a point to enlighten them); only one had ever heard of Nora Roberts. Frankly, there is some truth to the belief that publishers tend to enforce conformity to a formula in many cases. (What requires more examination is whether romance novelists are under more pressure to conform to a formula than are authors in other genres.)

Point 3: Romances promote a conservative message about male-female relationships. The concern here is that romance novels encourage women, particularly young and impressionable women, toward views that reinforce gender inequality. The concern is not that readers mix up reality and fantasy. Rather it is the belief that readers are subconsciously attracted to a latent message in the books that subverts feminism.

Point 4: Romances are borderline pornography. Unless they read a lot of popular fiction, academics are unaware how much variability there is in sexual explicitness. But I understand part of their point here. Romance novels contain much more explicit sex than mainstream fiction and other fiction genres. Several sympathetic academics have mentioned how uncomfortable they are with the objectification of both male and female bodies found in these books, and not just on the covers. The portrayal of Native American heroes in Westerns is the most troublesome example.

Points 1 and 2 are easy to refute. (I think I have done so successfully in my papers on the Western romance novels.) But points 3 and 4 are difficult to deal with, because so much of the meaning read into romance novels is in the eye of the beholder, and cannot be quantified. It is useful to remember that academics are an elite too, and read meaning into popular fiction based on their own points of view. Even if they fully accept the idea that distinctions made by critics between high and popular culture reflect economic divisions between the elite and the non-elite, many academics are firmly committed to a more radical style of feminism and are against pornography. They still equate opposition to academic feminism and enjoyment of sex scenes as indicative of a lack of education. Hence, they find it difficult to accept that even the best romance novels can rise to the level of acceptable (“gentrified”) popular art, like mysteries and science fiction.

Elaine is an Associate Professor in the Department of Human Development and Sociology at Cornell University


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