SENSE AND SENSIBILITY
Who ever said there was anything wrong with a happy ending? Of course, in this dark political and cultural climate, it makes sense there would be a bent toward the dystopian, a new coolness in cynicism, and complete adulation of the anti-hero. This more modern take, where “people are complicated” and “things aren’t always what they seem” reflects a more sophisticated look into society’s mirror.
And as we face down some of these demons, concerning identity, social mores, and culture wars, we hear shouts of me too! that not only express sentiments between women, they also express those same sentiments between minorities, between industries, and between just about everyone else who is mad as hell and not going to take this anymore.
These emboldened and amplified voices are demanding new examinations of many dark and blindly accepted corners of our culture. However, our deep fundamental problems are often so simple, yet institutional, that they are in turn the easiest to ignore. So with the backdrop of an uneasy nation still unwilling to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, we take a look at the world of romance novels; its readership, authorship, and leadership, all of which have historically been tied to the political, social, and cultural fortunes of women in our society. What we learned is that a lot of the industry’s struggles, echoing failures of the women’s movements, are self inflicted wounds. You’ll find that even along the most brightly lit supermarket checkout aisles, there are still fifty shades of grey. (Read Mirror, Mirror)
As in all areas of publishing, digital disruption has wreaked havoc on the billion dollar romance industry, with its democratization and nascent evolution into modernity from its bodice ripping origins.
“It is a genre already in the midst of change, though not necessarily for the first time. While authors and industry professionals are grappling with questions of representation and diversity, they must also navigate the world of self publishing, modern communication and the unstable nature of small presses, social media, and e-books," says author and novelist Ruby Scalera.
"For some, that means a total rebuild with inclusive writing and mainstream representation at the heart of the question, as the industry faces its own struggles from within.”
But nothing is new about the literary second class status the romance novel has been relegated to throughout history. Of course it makes sense. They are fantasy novels written for women, mostly by women, that often feature intelligent and funny female protagonists who find some definition of a prince charming and then… you know the rest.
Are they somehow lesser because the readership is (even if subconsciously) accepted as somehow lesser? It does seem that way, as these books continually dominate N.Y. Times Best Seller Lists while hardly ever getting reviewed. And as the stories, as well as the authors, slowly become more diverse, it only shines a light on more societal hypocrisy and women's second class status in general.
But change is coming. As society shifts and the political climate becomes less steady, a new generation of writers, readers and industry leaders are taking the helm and sailing towards new horizons. As romance bookstore specialist Lea Koch put it in the piece, “I don’t want to read books about women that are written by people who don’t believe that women are people.”
So what about that happy ending? The speed and frequency at which avid readers devour romance novels bring to mind other kinds of thrill seeking, with the rush and thrills of many a roller coaster, the colors and sensations, like a ride we go on again and again. Strap yourself in and hold on tight. There will be twists and turns, gorgeous views, slow uphill climbs, butterflies in your stomach, crazy fear and a whole lot of falling.
But would you really go on a ride if you weren’t quite sure it wouldn’t end in disaster? Sometimes the thrill is knowing exactly how it will all turn out. The dreamy ending is the icing on the cake. That itself is the escape. So yeah, romance novels? Nope. No one reads them, they’re silly, unrealistic, waste of time fantasies for sad, lonely housewives. At least that’s what everyone says while secretly DVR-ing Outlander and binge watching yet another Jane Austen series remake.
Images from the 2017 Women's March by Annie Morton, Debra Scherer, Andre Wagner
Speaking of time traveling period escapist fantasy TV shows, one lesser known take on this phenomena is Lost in Austen. The BBC show is about a modern-day Londoner, Amanda, who is an obsessive Jane Austen fan. Amanda is extremely bored with her life, and uses Jane Austen novels to escape into the lives of the characters in order to avoid her own mundanity. Romance novels transport her into another world. Except in her case, in a strange twist of fate, and a bit à la Narnia, Amanda literally goes into another world, that of Pride and Prejudice.
Amanda loved Pride and Prejudice for the romance, however, she quickly discovers the vice-like grip of patriarchal convention and the absolute power of economics in 18th-century England. Her feminist reading of Austen is quickly made absurd by the realities of quotidian life. Hilarity ensues when the characters of Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley both start pursuing her, possibly changing the course of the story, and of course, she can't let that happen. By retreating into the world of her favorite romance novel, Amanda learns about herself and what she really wants out of life. She starts actually living instead of just going through the motions.
Because this is a TV show, and extremely fictional, Amanda is able to retreat physically from her unhappy life in the world of Pride and Prejudice. Talk about taking things to the next level with romance novel fantasies. Lucky girl. And as for the rest of us? Well, we’ll just have to keep reading, because as Jane Austen wrote, “A lady’s imagination is very rapid.”