Politics and the Romance Novel

Go ahead and get a cup of tea, this might go on for a while.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the literary marketplace as a fiction writer and literary scholar, pondering questions like, does the buying and selling of art for money detract from aesthetics? What pressures does the marketplace put on writers? What types of fiction (in terms of form and content) will perform well on the market? Are literary gatekeepers (e.g., editors, publishers, marketing people, critics, agents, etc.) correct in their assessments about marketability? And so on.

One of the determinations and often-repeated truisms is that readers don’t like political books. (ETA: it’s two years since I wrote this, but this post at AAR is an excellent example of someone complaining about authors “adding” politics to romance novels.) Many believe readers won’t read about politics and, more broadly, they don’t like books that directly address inequities, social justice, organizations and belief structures (e.g., churches, capitalism), and so on.

This idea may be related to the stagnation in historical romantic fiction that’s been widely explored in the past month (see for example this recent post at Dear Author). A novel about upper-class white people in the Regency period tends to be seen as apolitical and thus preferable to a novel about upper-class white people in Africa in the early 20th century (which reeks of colonialism), for example.

I’d like to offer a response to the truism arguing for a different, more expansive, notion of the political. I’m invested in this question because the books I’ve written outside the mainstream vis-a-vis the political, but also because I think it’s pertinent to how we see the genre.

First, I’d define “political” as expressing an attitude about social relationships involving power. If power is the medium through and in which all people operate, then all human culture is political. Now, I realize this may seem too broad. If everything is political, then isn’t the term meaningless?

Maybe. But I’d rather discuss the political dimension to all cultural productions than to act like some are political and others aren’t — a phenomenon that I call “some politics get noticed, others don’t,” in which pro-status quo works are seen as neutral and reactionary or revolutionary texts set off alarm bells.

What does this mean for romance? A film like The American President is obviously political. It’s about Democrats and Republicans for crying out loud. People in the movie argue about public policy solutions, media strategies, and poll numbers. But the most significant level on which it’s political is what the film says about the ability of a powerful man to have a sexual relationship with a (less powerful) woman. What would that look that? How would it be negotiated? What sort of hope for equality could they have when the power imbalance is so stark? Etc.

Thus I feel like even the most innocuous-seeming romances tend to be deeply political in that they do cultural work on relationships. At their best, romance novels are deeply imaginative within the confines of the genre at exploring the qualities an ideal partner might possess, how different couples might address common problems, and under what circumstances, and how, one should change for a partner.

And that “stuff” is all highly political. So let’s stop pretending it’s not.

Next, there’s a lot of good scholarship on the 18th century novel, the moment when long-form fiction written in English became a dominant literary genre. This scholarship often considers literary history co-mingled with the economic history of the period. In other words, at the moment when a sizable middle class was emerging in Great Britain and the United States, the novel was becoming an acceptable and widely read genre. Since novels are so often about representing the subjectivity of a small group of (or only one in some cases) character(s), there does seem to be a relationship between middle-classness and the novel form.

And because the middle class has traditionally been moderate — by which I mean supportive of mild social change at a moderate pace — there is a tendency for novels, particularly commercial ones, to also be politically moderate. Which is why much of the scholarship on romance (notably Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance) argues that the form is usually fairly conservative. While women are allowed to be sexual in a (seemingly) subversive way in romance, the energy is funneled into marriage plots that make sexuality safe.

Now there is such a thing as the social novel and these tend to be progressive advocates for change. Writers like Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Steinbeck, Richard Wright, and so on all wrote such texts. But these are almost the exceptions that prove the rule. The very fact that we’d discuss the social novel (setting it up as a “different” category) indicates that it’s not normative.

So, what’s my point?

I think it’s difficult to write or market an obviously political book in a literary culture that denies the political dimension of most texts. If we’re pretending that a run-of-the-mill Regency or small-town contemporary is without statement about power or politics, it’s going to be very difficult for a novel that addresses inequity — across race, class, sexual orientation, nation of origin, etc. — to make it.

At the end of the day, I’d wish we talk about power and politics in every novel in more complicated ways, thus  opening the market to the voices that are currently excluded.

17 thoughts on “Politics and the Romance Novel

  1. Yes! When I blogged about the state of historical romance, I stated that the Regency’s preeminence in historical romance is because Jane Austen adaptations and Georgette Heyer novels have shaped it into “a soothing ‘fairy tale’ period of history.”.

    That said, I’d hesitate to say discussing power and politics will open the market to excluded voices. For many–including women–it could be subversive and empowering to not have to be political. Think about the opposing reactions between black feminists and white feminists when Michelle Obama decided to be a “SAHM” First Lady. For black women, who have always worked, who have always been the caretakers (and for the white women “stuck” at home, to boot [Betty Draper and Carla from Mad Men]), who have, politically and socially, been unable to be the stress-free homemaker and mother, a romance novel where the high-powered heroine leaves her job to marry the billionaire hero is subversive.

    I believe it was one of the Dear Author reviewers who mentioned they were taken aback by the materialism and constant mentions of the protagonists’ being educated, mannered, and well-bred in Kimani Romances. Then they realized that was aspirational for KR’s target audience. Whereas in mainstream (white) romances, readers clamor for more blue-collar and middle-class protagonists with rough edges over the perfect billionaires and Greek tycoons.

    Jeannie Lin’s comment at Cecilia Grant’s March 18 blog about feminism and romance is another instance of mistakenly viewing topics from a mainstream, Western viewpoint and believing this POV is shared by all. I’ll even throw in authors of color who don’t want to be boxed in the “author of color” paradigm, and choose to write white characters. ;) So perhaps voices aren’t absent. They may choose silence because romance reading and writing may be an escape from being “political” just by living life as part of a minority group, or they may choose silence because their POV does not fit within the argument being made by mainstream voices.

    1. This an excellent point. Normative subjects get to decide whether or not they are political whereas non-normative subjects are always already political. Thus being apolitical could be freeing.

      To put it another way, how Michelle Obama wears her hair is a political decision, but no one saw Laura Bush’s hair that way. Though Hillary Clinton’s hair — long? short? permed? — was debated. I’m certain that Obama (and to a lesser extent, Clinton) would love to be able to say, “It’s just hair!” Again, some politics, particularly those outside the mainstream, get noticed and others don’t.

      I would say, though, that texts are political whether or not their creators intend them to be so or are cognizant of the cultural work their creations are doing. Laura Bush’s hair style * was * political, whether she or commentators at the time coded it so or not. The innocuous-seeming Regency or small-town contemporary is political too. Etc.

      And I loved your post about — and believe I commented on — the politics of the Regency period and historical romance. For me, the discourse about the texts is the point.

      1. Yes, exactly (RE hair and politics).

        Miranda Neville, I believe, tweeted a while back about readers complaining about the presence of politics in her books, and there was some pushback against the do-gooder heroine and the racial/social politics in Tessa Dare’s third book. To piggyback on your convo with Genevieve, many readers like to believe they’re escaping politics, et al through certain settings and likely feel betrayed when it intrudes upon their reading–even though real life and historical sources reveal the tensions and iniquities seething beneath the surface.

        The popularity of small-town romances (and the frequent theme of city=bad/country=good) is rather interesting when mainstream fiction tends to use small-towns to reveal hypocrisy and crime! Could it be because the HEA (marriage and babies) demands we believe the h/h will be safe from danger and undue influence in the suburbs than in the Big City? Is it just mirroring the pattern of families leaving cities for outlying areas?

  2. The human mind likes to latch onto extremes. They’re easier to remember and catch our attention better than the muddled middle. This often means that the extreme voices appear to be the loudest, even if they are not the greatest in volume.

    In the case of politics (Republican/Democrat politics), you get the painting of Republicans as homophobic, fundamentalist, no-government types in the Midwest, while liberals are all anti-gun, free love hippies living in San Francisco. I’m exaggerating for effect, but that exaggeration sticks more than the reality of say, a Libertarian living next door to a lesbian couple and getting along quite well.

    I think the same effect drives some of the history in historicals. The average person, who doesn’t study a period exhaustively, has a picture of a historical period that’s shaped by what they remember from school, and what popular culture tells them about that period. For example, in the case of the Civil War, everyone in the North is a radical abolitionist, and the South is…Django Unchained. (Again, I’m exaggerating.) The reality is somewhere in between those two, and you allude to the thorniness of radical abolitionism in the North in Brave in Heart very nicely. But I haven’t studied the period as intensively as you have, and my instinctive thoughts on hearing “radical abolition” are John Brown and his crazy eyes, and Bleeding Kansas, and Harper’s Ferry, which doesn’t even begin to capture the nuances of the situation.

    As writers, this leaves us in a tough spot, capturing the nuances when people remember the extremes. At least, I’m in a tough spot at the moment. My second book has an attempted lynching in it. Yes, there were lynchings in California, even as late as 1898, and no, they were not always racially motivated. They were also used as vigilante justice. But that doesn’t jibe with the idea that most people have of lynching–they only occurred in the South, they were always racially motivated, etc. And I can’t put in a citation saying, yes, this really happened, here’s the evidence. I have to have the reader take it on faith and I’m not sure my skill level is up to it. And since I’m writing for a popular audience, I need to meet readers’ expectations, and if I take the story too far out of their expectations, I’ll lose them, even if the history supports it.

    Which brings us back to Regencies and small towns, both of which are extreme versions of reality. Readers have expectations of what those should be, and books that meet those expectations are usually very popular. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But like you, I’d like to see more difficult romances out there. Ones set in small towns that acknowledge that the problems with poverty and drugs that often beset those towns. I’m very excited for Susanna Fraser’s new regency, which features a black Englishman as a hero. But she often talks about how she’s not sure if her books qualify as “Regencies” since they’re not what readers expect of a Regency.

    But perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Maybe some readers only want what they’ve come to expect from Regencies and small town contemporaries. Maybe some readers only want more political books that don’t provide easy, comforting reads. Maybe some readers (like myself), want both. And that’s my rambling, muddled thoughts on the matter. :)

    1. Yup. I know exactly what you mean, both in terms of fictional politics simplifying complexity and in terms of reader expectations. (And I too have heard good things about the Fraser book on Twitter.)

      It’s sort of like European art film. When it’s Friday night and I’m sitting down to watch a movie, I can’t always handle Ladri de Biciclette or Les Quatre Cents Coups. At the same time, I’m glad to know that those films are out there because the presence of art films — which challenge narrative conventions and the faux depoliticization of life — reminds me that I can’t pretend that the rom-com or action movie I’ve put on is without formal or narrative politics. ; ) And that’s the piece that seems most important to me. It’s okay to choose a generic text, but let’s not pretend it’s less political than a text that screams, “I’m subversive!” Both texts do cultural work, it’s just some politics are easier to see than others.

      And now I’m also super-excited for your WIP. Let me know if you want me to send you some good scholarship on lynching. (Because I am precisely the sort of person who has favorite readings on the history of lynching.)

    2. This is a fascinating discussion. Genevieve, you have beautifully explained the conundrum writers face, especially in the paragraph beginning “As writers, this leaves us in a tough spot…” I struggle constantly with that balance between historical accuracy and reader expectations in my fiction. There are so many assumptions/expectations readers have about Victorian England (where I set most of my fiction) that are not true, yet I can’t just ignore those assumptions and add a million footnotes (though I do think a good author’s note helps).

      But as a reader, I know how disruptive it can be when my expectations are thwarted. I remember reading a novel set in Tudor England in which the word “cash” was used repeatedly. It completely took me out of the period and I nearly threw the book across the room until I decided I’d better investigate. It turned out that “cash” was a perfectly accurate word to use in that era. But it distracted me and took me out of the story. I think it would have been better if the author had used a word that didn’t sound so modern, even if it wasn’t strictly accurate. And at the same time I hate myself for thinking this!

  3. Evangeline, at some point I’ll write a post about what I think the politics of the small town contemporary romance are. It’s complicated for me because I grew up in one, so I see it as a deeply textured setting, one that usually omits the crime, drug/alcohol abuse, poverty, and decay that I associate with the small towns I know. I can clearly picture what a small town sheriff look like, and it’s never hot (though again, I’m limited to my experience).

    To use musical shorthand, I’d sum up the politics of the genre using this clip from Monday’s episode of The Voice, a cover of The Judds’ “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout The Good Ole Days)”:

    This song seems to sum up when I see the genre. While there are exceptions, and while also it’s not my favorite motif so I haven’t read a huge sampling, in small town contemporaries, I feel like one member of the couple always seems to be “escaping” the big city. That person (either the hero or heroine) is jaded and cynical and renews his/her sense of hope once finding love in the small town. In other words, the Doc Hollywood model.

    In a rapidly changing world (whether we’re considering the decline of American industry, the changing demographics of the nation, the changes in family structure, etc.), it’s comforting to think that true love, stability, etc. still exist when those seem to be waning.

    But I think the problem with the small town contemporary is that it expresses nostalgia for a world that never really existed — a simulacra past. The reality of the 50s — not to mention the small towns of the present — was/is a more complicated, violent, sexist, racist, and generally unpleasant than in fiction. Which is not of course surprising, but I’d like to see the political dimension of this fantasy discussed.

    And when we do so, I’d wager there’s really much more complexity than my silly reductive reading here does. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to adequately talk about a subgenre in a few hundred words. You need a few thousand to do justice to one text, let alone a grouping.

    At some point, I’ll try to do this more fairly!

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