Is The World A Better, Shinier Place In A Romance Novel?
This month in #ViveLaDifference, we ask if romance is creating a more equal world than the one we live in. Is there such a thing as a romance utopia? Here's what our authors had to say...
I’m not sure if the Romance Genre is creating a more equal world so much as mirroring the world at large that is embracing equality.
Romance novels certainly support modern thinking. To me, these stories are a snapshot or reflection of the current social condition. For example, in the 1970s in America it was considered unacceptable for a woman to want sex. In romance novels, the hero practically (and not so practically) had to force the issue of sex with the heroine, causing some people to refer to those books (years later) as contributing to a rape culture. The genre picked up the nickname, “Bodice Rippers,” as a result of those times (this era of romance novels has been documented by multiple sources). But rape was never the intention and was never supported by the authors and publishers of those stories (another term I’ve heard used is forced seduction).
In today’s world, it’s perfectly proper for a woman to desire sex. Society has changed. It’s common for the heroine to initiate sex in a romance novel. Therefore, present-day works reflect that cultural shift, validating the concept of equality in the bedroom.
Sex is one example of equality but there are countless others in the modern-day romance genre. The heroine in my October release from Harlequin Intrigue works for the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), a job that would’ve been considered a man’s not that many years ago. She’s tough and can handle herself, more qualities that reflect modern women. Female readers in today’s market want to be able to place themselves in the viewpoint of the heroine and so the heroine has to reflect her attitudes, thus the shift.
The stories I’m fortunate enough to write for Harlequin Intrigue explore real-world themes like PTSD, surviving abuse, and facing the mirror in order to stare down demons that hold heroes and heroines back from experiencing their best lives. To me, that’s where the sense of an ideal world comes into play. The term commonly used is the story’s happily ever after (HEA).
In my experience, the sense of hope readers expect from a romance novel has to do with being guaranteed a happy ending—that good will prevail—no matter the issue being explored. Readers appreciate the ideal that people hold the power to overcome any obstacle in life if they’re willing to do the hard work of healing.
Is that idealistic? Or realism? Creating a more equal world? Or contributing?
I’ll admit it: years ago, I was one of those readers who sometimes put an innocuous cover over the sexy romance I was then reading lest I get strange looks and knowing smirks from other passengers on the train or airplane. I covered up Fabio and the half-dressed woman swooning in his arms not because I was embarrassed to be reading a romance novel, but because I didn’t want to have to engage in a lengthy defense of my choice of book with someone who likely did not know anything about the genre except that all romances ended with a happily ever after.
While romance readers still expect the happy ever after ending, or at least a happy for now, almost all the other pre-conceived notions about romance novels have pretty much disappeared. So when I hear people say that romance is escapist fiction that gives women a false sense of what the real world is all about I want to drop a pile of romance novels on their swelled heads. I don’t hear anyone warning that reading science fiction gives readers an unreasonable expectation that there is life on Mars.
I’ll make another confession here. When I was a newly widowed single mom with two small children and a demanding job as a government lawyer in an agency run by small-minded men, what I reached for late at night when the kids were in bed, lunches made, laundry folded and bills paid was not the latest tome that had won the Nobel Prize for fiction.
No, I wanted a book that would send me into dreamland with visions of a world in which a strong, loyal man partnered with a wonderful woman to face life’s challenges together. I devoured the books of Danielle Steel, Judith McNaught, Bertrice Small, Jude Deveraux and Elizabeth Lowell. I escaped into worlds where life was better, where problems were not insurmountable and where tragedy could be transformed by the power of love. And I got a good night’s sleep.
We write fiction, romantic fiction. In 30,000 to 80,000 words, we create a world, main characters who meet, fall in love or lust, deal with conflict and eventually come together as a couple (or three or four). Romance authors can’t solve all the world’s problems within the confines of 300 pages, but that doesn’t mean that we should shy away from spinning a tale in which some of life’s large or even small dilemmas are resolved.
Authors have created communities beset by economic hard times and in the course of a series, revived the town by bringing in new businesses or restoring old ones. Some of those fictional solutions might very well work in economically challenged small towns throughout our country. Check out LuAnn McLane’s Cricket Creek series as a prime example.
In my own Unanswered Prayers, the heroine’s thirteen-year old son was chafing under his mother’s protectiveness and acting out against his parents’ divorce. Some of the traditional manners emulated by the conservative Western hero influenced and helped turn the boy around. Calling on male friends to provide my adolescent son with some male bonding and discussions about the “rules of guys” often helped us navigate a rough patch in our relationship.
In all my romance novels, the heroines are strong women who engage with men as equals. We know, sadly, that that is not the case yet in this country and certainly throughout the world. Women who are intelligent, creative and capable are still routinely relegated to jobs with less pay, less power and less potential for upward movement. I don’t believe that my heroines give women a false sense of hope. I think that these strong women give readers a sense of possibility. And maybe a push to take a few small steps to change their own lives.
I’ve always read to escape. Whether it’s an exciting thriller to give me an extra buzz, a romcom to make me laugh, or a book that takes me to some exotic location. But I also love to read stories that can give me hope, that inspire me - and of all the genres, romance is one of the best when you want to believe in the human spirit, overcoming problems, falling in love…
Everyday life can be hard, love can be painful, illness can strike our loved ones, or life can just be plain boring, but if I bury my nose in a good book for a few brief hours I can be somebody else, somewhere else, and forget all the bad bits. And as well as offering escape, that can leave me with a feeling that problems can be overcome, that it’s worth going after what I really want.
Location plays an important part in my books because changing who we are, grabbing what we want, is often triggered by where we are. We’ve all seen (or done!) the new haircut, the loss of weight, the makeover that people often use to symbolise a moving on, an end of something, but the biggest change of all can come with new surroundings. Stepping completely out of our comfort zone.
Summer with the Country Village Vet is set in an idyllic village called Langtry Meadows. Why? Well a lot of us do harbour dreams of escaping to the countryside, but would we dare to do it? My heroine Lucy does. At first her hand is forced, she has no choice, but then she realizes that living in the city has been her way of hiding, of avoiding her issues. Admitting that she loves this village, and the people in it, is a ‘coming home’. Is this idealistic? Is the story pure escapism and nothing more? I don’t think so. There’s a little bit of Lucy in a lot of us, we can empathize. Her journey can be ours. The children, the animals, the community all trigger emotions, all make her question whether she’s really been living the life she wants.
Yes, maybe the village is an ‘ideal’ in some senses (it’s very pretty – I’d love to live there!), but the characters are facing real issues that some readers can relate to. To one person it’s just a story, an escape from real-life for a few hours. For another it might be inspiring and ultimately life-changing. You don’t have to move to the country to make your life better - Langtry Meadows is symbolic – you just need to follow your heart. Aspire to the life you want and the person you want to be.
I love writing, and reading, romance novels – they offer escapism and hope.
Zara's latest book, Summer with the Country Village Vet, is out now. For more information about her and her writing, check out her website and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.
Do you think the romance genre is creating a utopia or do you think the books simply reflect the real world with more emphasis on hope than doom and despair? Let us know in the comments or use #RomanceUtopias to join the #PHS #ViveLaDifference discussion on Social Media.
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