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14 Aug 2021
There is a genre out there for everyone, and, as mentioned on the blog before, the popularity of certain genres is somewhat cyclical. Thrillers are all the rage now but prior to that it was teen/young adult, and prior to that we saw the techno thriller and horror selling like gang busters. There have, however, been other genres that have comfortably sat at the side and remained a constant throughout these periods of specific popularity, that retain an audience despite never having shared the limelight themselves.
In what we hope to be the first in a series of pieces looking specifically at genre types, this blog aims to look at the ever popular but long derided romance novel.
Ahhh romance, chick lit, sagas, Mills and Boon, however you want to refer to them, the romance novel has been around as long as there has been pen to paper, be it through Jane Austen or Marian Keyes, and has remained a bankable genre, even today. Like any other genre, it has been blended with others to create some of the most sold works ever written. Just look at Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey.
But while popularity remains, it’s fair to say that romance has been heavily derided in its time. Outside of recognised classics, it’s a genre that is the subject of constant ridicule, with a stigma that it can never seem to shake off. Why is that?
Humans have a number of primal instincts inherit in our nature that have inadvertently shaped the fiction we love. Novels and films of suspense – be it thrillers or horror – play into the fear of the unknown and our general day to day anxieties. To experience these emotions in a safe space, be it in the cinema or on the couch with a cup of coffee, delivers a rush that many find exhilarating.
Our other most primal instinct, and arguably the most natural, is that of desire, be it through companionship or straight up lust. It seems odd to compare romance with thrillers, however they both bang the same drum, by tapping into primal urges within us.
That’s not to say romance novels are all about sex. Of course, there is a precedence for this: E. L. James has, with Fifty Shades of Grey, shown that being explicit can be incredibly lucrative, however this is only the most recent example, with the likes of Jilly Cooper and the entire Mills and Boon back catalogue, of which there are literally thousands of titles, cashing in on the most based desires.
But, as anyone who has been in literally any form of relationship before, be it casual or long term, can testify, romance is much more nuanced than just the physical side. It’s one of the main reasons why the works of Austen and Bronte are so lauded, as their depictions of modern romance – modern for their time – fit the mould of the archetypal love story, but explicitly told from the female perspective. While the stories usually ended happily, the characters were well rounded enough to not just be the virginal damsel looking for the perfect man. The women were flawed and the men were rarely perfect.
It feels a shame that such nuance rarely shows in the genre by today’s standards, but that’s not to say authors haven’t tried. While much of her subsequent output failed to reach the same heights, Cecilia Ahern’s P. S. I Love You dealt with the stages of grief quite brilliantly while unashamedly delivering the sentimentality expected from the genre. The reason it works is that it feels earned.
That’s not to say the likes of Marian Keyes and Giovanna Fletcher should be dismissed. To use the comparison of the thriller, for every great work, there may be ten of a lesser quality, those that fail to reach the same heights of the very best, but still entertain the core audience non-the-less. It’s easy to dismiss modern chick lit as being samey, yet one could argue the same with thrillers, or adventure stories, or any other genre for that matter.
So, the appeal of romance? Ultimately, like any other form of fiction, it offers the most unashamed escapism for hopeless romantics, in the same way horror presents boundaries to push and science fiction inspires wonder. Call it a guilty pleasure, if you will, but what is so guilty about indulging in something you like?