Tweets urging us to respect romantic fiction have been appearing daily in my Twitter feed this week. There is even a new Twitter hashtag: #RespectRomFic.
After the events set out in my last blog, the Romantic Novelists’ Association wrote an open letter to the Sunday Times. It pointed out the significance of romantic fiction to UK publishing. It also took them to task about the paper’s neglect and, indeed, apparent ignorance of the genre.
There has been considerable follow up. Best seller Milly Johnson had an article in The Bookseller. To their credit, The Bookseller reached out, as the phrase goes, and commissioned it.
The RNA sought the views of three of our members who have hit the Sunday Times best seller list: Milly Johnson, Philippa Ashley and Heidi Swain. The blog, called Love in the Time of Snobbery, went up yesterday (Saturday 18th December).
Respect Romantic Fiction in the Twittersphere and Elsewhere
A lot of support has come out carrying the hashtag #RespectRomFic.
One of the most encouraging is from Northumberland Libraries. They tweeted, “Romance is most definitely a genre, and we love it here at Prudhoe library, and just to prove it here are two wonderful displays to tempt you in to reading these fabulous novels!”
To be fair, Sunday Times Literary Editor Andrew Holgate had already retracted his strange “if you call [romantic fiction] a genre” before the RNA’s letter went out. Though many people (including me) are still gob-smacked that he could have said/thought it in the first place.
Of course, if that is his gut feeling, it explains the lack of coverage of romantic fiction in The Sunday Times literary pages. It’s blinkered, but hell, he probably feels he’s in good company, Well, what PGW would call the company of literary coves, anyway. Sigh.
On the 10th December author Philippa Ashley counted 27 romantic novels in the Amazon top 100. Too many for her to tag the authors in her Tweet. (One of them was hers, by the way.)
Journalist and author of Great TED Talks, @Tom_May offered another perspective. He tweeted: “They don’t get a lot of love from the book awards crowd. But according to Penguin, romance and sci-fi were the fast-growing categories in 2021, up 50% and 46% respectively.”
Several people mentioned the statistics coming out of NPD Bookscan, which tracks PoS units for the publishing market. They claim to capture 85% of trade books sold in the US. So note, that means no digital figures in there. They recorded unit sales for romance books topped 47 million in the 12 months ending March 2021, representing an increase of 24% over the previous year.
So there are some indicators of the size of the market. Readers respect romantic fiction. And have increased their purchases of romantic novels during the Recent Unpleasantness. Which looks likely to be with us for the foreseeable future. Worth taking a look at, maybe?
Classical Origins of Genre
What is genre? It’s a slippery word – a straight import from the French who extracted it from the Latin genus, who got it from the Greek, genos, where it meant a social group claiming common descent.
It’s basically a term of classification proposed by Plato and applied to everything from biology (Linnaeus invented his Systema Naturae, – class, genus, species – by following Platonic principles) to rhetoric.
When it came to rhetoric and drama, Aristotle picked up the baton and ran with it. Enthusiastically. He ended up with three discrete literary genres – tragedy, epic and comedy – and then proceeded to rank them.
Tragedy was about grand people with serious issues. Their actions and the consequences would make an audience reflect deeply. For Aristotle it was definitely top dog. Epic shared many of tragedy’s chracteristics but was more diffuse. For one thing, the action took place over a longer period than a tragedy. So it was less intense and therefore made a lighter impression on the audience than tragedy.
In Aristotle’s view, comedy was always about the meaner sort and was designed to give the audience no pain – and therefore an excuse to avoid thinking.
Aristophanes would surely have disagreed. His own contemporaries, including Plato, feared the satirical power of his surreal comedy.
But even so, does Aristotle’s lofty dismissal sound familiar? That Malvolio syndrome goes back a long way.
Respect Romantic Fiction Genre
And the constituents of a genre may shift. What was once essential, may become optional or even completely unacceptable over time.
The Romantic Novelists Association considers what is essential in a romantic novel every decade or so, ever since it was founded in 1960.
Back then the essentials were an engaging love story between two people of the opposite sex who were free to marry and eventually overcame inner and/or external conflict to do so. (And lady members wore hats to RNA meetings.)
These days the only essential that remains, it seems to me, is an engaging love story between two people. Even the Happy Ever After, though many readers still demand it in the books they select, can be replaced by Happy For Now.
All sorts of elements that would once have been unthinkable can now squeeze in – including terminal illness, both mental and physical; disability; problem children of either or both lovers; racial tensions; addiction; geek protagonist; even internet dating. (Though that can lead to dark places and might well turn into crime!) Stalkers are definitely out. And so are the seducer/rapist heroes of some 1970s Bodice Rippers, thank Heavens.
Even better, the lovers don’t have to be young any more, either.
I suspect that the key element, the truly essential thing, is that little word “engaging”. Readers care about the course of romantic love stories. They really want the couple to solve their problems and find fulfilment. And they always did.
Samuel Richardson wrote Pamela or Virtue Rewarded in 1740. One of the first novels in English, it was intended as a guide to good (and prudent) conduct and proved a huge success. The heroine, fifteen at the start of the story and very naive, fights off the attentions and attempted seduction of her employer, Mr B, until he eventually proposes marriage.
My tutor, an eighteenth century specialist, told me that Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, while staying in a strange town, heard the church bells ringing.
She sent her maid to find out what was happening. And the maid came back, very excited. It was wonderful news: “Virtuous Pamela is wed at last!”
Respect Romantic Fiction, it’s the 21st century
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries love and, equally, marriage for a woman were high stakes activities. If you were poor and didn’t marry you had to be incredibly resourceful (and lucky) to survive long. If you were rich, you could be married off to suit your family. You would then become effectively the possession of a man who could legally do pretty much whatever he liked with you. Few women had much choice.
Love, then, was an added and more frightening risk. Fall in love with the wrong man and, if you married him, you were in the power of someone you couldn’t trust; and if you didn’t, you were no longer marriageable and had to find your own way in the world, possibly with an illegitimate child and no support. Sunk either way.
Practising rake Byron, having been hounded by an obsessed Caroline Lamb, created an equally obsessed but more submissive lover in Don Juan’s Donna Julia. She writes to Don Juan: “Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart, ‘Tis woman’s whole existence.” Well, of course it bloody was. She carried the can if it went wrong.
But Byron’s assertion of masculine superiority in dealing with mere feelings became a mantra for people who wanted to dismiss love and love stories as minor matters. Malvolio syndrome again.
So please, let us recognise that this refusal to acknowledge the value of romantic fiction is anachronistic. Malvolio, poor soul, was a deluded snob and people laughed at him. Malvolio was wrong. Let him go.
Respect Romantic Fiction!