Romancing Reality: The Power of Romance Fiction to Reinforce and Re-Vision the Real

It has become popular, even necessary, to note that, whatever the pros and cons of romance fiction may be, it is undeniable that the fiction deals in fantasy.

I’d like to deny that, please.

The world that romance fiction has shown me is more real than anything most of the literary canon ever offered me. Most of my academic reading convinced me that fiction reflected male worlds told by male authorities. But once I read romance, I found that even the most abysmal examples of the genre took place in my world, a world of relationships, details, and victories that balanced my defeats. Better than that, the best of the genre often directly contradicted patriarchal common wisdom by re-visioning the male assumptions I’d grown up reading, telling me that my perceptions were valid after all.

Romance fiction was reality fiction.

Let me digress.

In 1991, I had a master’s degree in feminist criticism and professional writing, earned while I was a single mother teaching high school full time during the day and holding a teaching assistantship at night. I had segued immediately into a Ph.D. program because I was woman-hear-me-roar, and we didn’t brake for sleeplessness, poverty, sexual harassment, or impossible physical standards set by the magazines who assured us on their covers that they were on our side. Most of the time I was well aware that I was not measuring up to the reality that wore me down, but all of the time I was too tired to care. I had to read Madame Bovary , I had to read Anna Karenina , I had to read “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” I had to read Faulkner and Fitzgerald and Lawrence. I had to see Hester Prynne as the great American heroine who triumphs by remaining celibate for the rest of her endless life.

In the midst of this misery, I began the research for a dissertation on women’s narrative strategies. In order to study the most female writing possible, I bought a couple dozen examples of the varied lines of romance fiction, holding my nose as I did so; it was trash, but anything for my dissertation. I read the stuff for a month. In the beginning, I kept careful notes on plot and character dynamics, structure and syntax. A lot of what I read was bad, some of it so abysmal I gave up and skimmed for note-taking purposes only. Some of it was pretty good, and I’d have to stop and go back to make notes because I’d get caught up in the story. And some of it was wonderful, so wonderful I didn’t care about the notes. For the first time, I was reading fiction about women who had sex and then didn’t eat arsenic or throw themselves under trains or swim out to the embrace of the sea, women who won on their own terms (and those terms were pretty varied) and still got the guy in the end without having to apologize or explain that they were still emancipated even though they were forming permanent pair bonds, women who moved through a world of frustration and detail and small pleasures and large friendships, a world I had authority in. By the end of the month, I’d skimmed or read almost a hundred romance novels and two life-changing things happened to me: I felt more powerful, more optimistic, and more in control of my life than ever before, and I decided I wanted to write romance fiction. Anything that did that much good for me, was something that I, as a feminist, wanted to do for other women.

Now it’s 1997, and I’m a successful romance writer and academic, writing a different dissertation. This one is on the power of humor in women’s popular fiction, especially the power of humor to reinforce the reality of women’s lives, a reality I haven’t seen reflected anywhere in the depth and breadth that I’ve seen in romance fiction. Many critics would refute this, arguing that romance fiction distorts reality, reinforcing patriarchal constructs in its all too gullible readers, but these critics almost universally argue from flawed premises, premises that I once bought into, thereby denying myself access to some of the most empowering reflections of my own experiences available to me.

One of those premises is that reading half a dozen romances constitutes a large enough sample to justify condemning a genre that is so huge that hundreds of new books are published every year because all of those books are just alike. One critic, for example, read seven romances and announced that “Like Prince Charming, the [hero] of mass-produced romance ends up awakening–and thereby regulating–the heroine’s dormant sense of self” (Nyquist 160). While that may have been true in the seven titles she studied, it’s not true of my fiction or that of the writers I read. Certainly the heroine in the romances I enjoy comes to a greater sense of self through the arc of the story, but she does so through both actions and relationships, while the hero follows his own character arc at the same time, maturing in the same way. Another critic, after reading eight romances, felt safe in saying that “Category romances define a text of fixed length, usually 187 pages” [category romances run from fifty thousand words to eighty-five thousand], and “the hero is always older, taller, and richer than the heroine” [italics hers] (Dubino 103). Later she states that “the hero is usually dominant and forceful, the heroine yielding and submissive” (108). I can give examples of any number of romance novels where this is just not true, in fact of whole lines where this isn’t true, but this critic didn’t study those because eight novels seemed to her to be a fair representation of the genre. This academic sloppiness is the product of a mindset that refused to see romance novels not only as a valuable genre but also as a varied one. One of the faculty members at the school where I teach told me, after I’d told her that I wrote romances, that she had assigned specific authors in the genre course she was teaching for all genres except romance because “those books are all alike,” evidently expecting me to agree that I was a hack. While no one could expect a critic to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the field, one can expect an intelligent analyst to bring the same fairness and academic scrupulousness to the study of romance that she does to the study of any other literary genre. Kate McCafferty’s study of romances featuring Native American heroes in captivity plots is an excellent example of fine, fair romance criticism. McCafferty choose a sampling of these narratives from one publisher (thereby making her study even more valid since any neophyte in the field of romance study knows that romances differ from publisher to publisher) and stated that she intended to refer to these books as “the Savage Series” since all of the books had “Savage” in the title. She then consistently did so, always noting that the books she was discussing were the Series books, or were “mass-market captivity books” (48). If all academics were this responsible in their criticism of this genre, we might have a fairer discussion of how much romance fiction in its multiplicity reflects myriad realities instead of the scornful blanket condemnation of the genre as mindless patriarchal fantasy, a condemnation that too many critics indulge in.

The second faulty premise is that the only reality worth writing about is the politically correct version of what a woman should want. Jeanne Dubino, for example, says that “Romances help to condition women for subservience by reproducing, structurally, the real relations between men and women” (116). Evidently in Ms. Dubino’s view of reality, heterosexual relationships lead inevitably to subservience; in my view of reality, they don’t. Neither one of us has the right to insist that our views are the only reality, yet many feminist critics have joined Dubino in arguing just that. Tania Modleski indulges in the same bias when she concludes that “romances provide women with a common fantasy structure to ensure their continued psychic investment in their oppression” (43). In other words, romance readers are just too damn dumb to see that in reality they’re being co-opted by patriarchy when they read. Similarly, Janice Radway has argued that the romance readers in her study were not demanding enough because they read for story instead of for language, ignoring the fact that outside of academe, most people read for story. Radway notes that her readers believed that “success in writing . . . is a function of the uniqueness of the characters and events intended by the most familiar of linguistic signs.” That familiarity (which includes the use of mostly Anglo-Saxon language, the language of everyday living, rather than the Latinate language of academe) appears limiting to Radway, but it’s what makes the fiction resonate as real with the readers.   She indicts her study subjects for not inhabiting her reality, even while she’s studying them because they don’t inhabit her reality. Dubino makes an even more troubling assertion when she argues that “Not finding what they want in ‘real’ life, millions of women turn to romances in a vicarious attempt to compensate for the lack of attention and validation they get in their own lives” (107). Setting aside the fact that Dubino has evidently missed the well-known and often quoted statistical studies on romance readers that show they are on the average happier and make love more often than non-romance readers, what is particularly troubling about this statement is the qualifying quotation marks that Dubino puts around the word “real,” as if to say that the view of reality these women are basing their needs on is somehow invalid. If these women don’t know what their “real” lives are, then who does? Certainly not Dubino, who lumps “millions” of them into the same assumptive category. Only when critics like the ones cited above and others like them can move past the idea that the construct they feel should be reality is not only superior to that of ordinary women but actually is reality, will we have fair romance criticism, such as that written by Suzanne Juhasz and Kate McCafferty.

Once these faulty premises are stripped from the arguments, it becomes clear that romance fiction, while sometimes committing the patriarchy-reinforcing crimes the critics accuse it of, much more often reinforces a sense of self worth in readers while reflecting a psychologically accurate portrayal of their lives. It does this by demonstrating the idea of women as strong, active human beings; by reinforcing the validity of their preoccupations; and by putting them at the center of their own stories, empowering them by showing heroines who realistically take control of their own lives. A more detailed look at all three of these aspects shows that the power of the romance novel is sited precisely in its ability to invoke reality rather than fantasy.

Romance novels demonstrate women’s abilities and strengths by showing their heroines taking active, intelligent control of their lives.

I’m not the only romance reader who found strength in the portrayals of women in romance novels and went on to write them. Barbara Keiler, who writes as Judith Arnold, switched from a career as a playwright and an academic to that of a successful romance writer when she investigated the genre and found out that in romance fiction, as in her life, “women did. ” Keiler had been prepared to reject the romance genre for something that would “be more compatible with my feminist views,” but found that romance fiction is the best vehicle available for writing about emancipated, aggressive women. Keiler writes that “What the heroine does, not what she is, lies at the heart of the novels I write,” and every one of her books has been fiercely feminist while remaining true to everything that is important in the romance genre (Arnold 134).

Keiler is not alone. Valerie Taylor’s heroine Janet in her contemporary novel, The Mommy School , must balance the demands of her entrepreneurial business with the unexpected burden of raising her deceased sister’s three children. Janet does not wait to be rescued nor does she make cute “womanly” mistakes; she calls on professionals for help, she re-prioritizes her life through trial and error, and she achieves success through realistic compromise, not through passivity, self-abnegation or sacrifice. In Patricia Gaffney’s historical Crooked Hearts, the heroine Grace out cons the con man hero at the beginning of the novel because she’s just as smart, slippery, and fast on her feet as he is. And in Georgette Heyer’s Regency The Grand Sophy , the eponymous heroine competently stage manages the lives of those around to her to triumphant success at the end of her story, drawing on her knowledge of human nature bolstered by her overwhelming confidence in herself. These are only three of the many smart, savvy, strong women that populate many of the romances today. As Keiler said, these women all do , and they do very well.

In addition, many of today’s romance novels go beyond examining the trials of every day life. Far from ducking reality, romance novels have dealt with date rape, widowhood, loss of children, alcoholism, AIDs, birth defects, imprisonment, child abuse, breast cancer, racism, and every other major problem women face today. Jennifer Greene’s Broken Blossoms is an excellent representative of issue-oriented romance. Her heroine has lost her child because of her alcoholism. Isolated and guilt-ridden, she nevertheless struggles to recover, and the fact that she is aided (but not rescued) by a man who also offers her the mutual relationship she craves simply makes her recovery more believable. She backslides, she gets angry, she despairs, in short, she reacts in a realistic manner to her serious illness, but she does not quit, and her victory at the end is deserved because she’s struggled for it. There is no fantasy here; only a realistic depiction of one woman’s fight to recover. It’s also a great romance novel, deservedly a classic in category romance. Writers like Greene, Emilie Richards, and other issue-oriented writers are not constructing fantasies, they are reinforcing what women already know: when things get bad, women are often the ones who have the strength to endure and prevail.

The actions these heroines take are realistic, and because of that they have an empowering effect on their readers. Susan Elizabeth Phillips, one of the biggest names in romance today, experienced that empowerment after she was already successful. She writes that, as a best-selling novelist and happily married wife and mother, she sat down after a tense time in her life to relax with a stack of category novels. &She goes on to say that “I didn’t have to read for long before something magical happened. I felt better. Calmer. In control.” She writes that the novels did not offer the fantasy she thought romance novels would, “that of a wonderful man or a glamorous, fulfilling career. I already had those things .” Instead, she writes that the “fantasy” they gave her was “one of command and control over the harum scarum events of my life–a fantasy of female empowerment” (55). This is a beauty of a fantasy, especialy since it’s not fantasy at all. Phillips already had command and control, and to this day she remains one of the most empowered women I know. The romance fiction she read simple reminded her of her own capabilities, thereby reinforcing her own experience of reality.

Romance fiction reinforces the validity of women’s preoccupations.

Some critics complain that romance fiction dwells on inessential details instead of the large realities of women’s experiences, but as discussed above, this complaint is based more on a desire for politically correct depictions of women’s lives than it is on a desire for a truly realistic depiction. These critics seem to feel that real women should be preoccupied with large issues such as government, world affairs, the space program and the industrial-military complex, and therefore should also be much too busy to notice the small real details of everyday life that seem insignificant in comparison.

For example, Janice Radway criticizes the romance novel’s preoccupation with clothing: “The clothes . . . almost never figure in the developing action. Instead the plot is momentarily, often awkwardly, delayed as the narrator accidentally notices seemingly superfluous details for the reader.” Radway goes on to point out that these details are part of “an essential shorthand that establishes that, like ordinary readers, fictional heroines are ‘naturally’ preoccupied with fashion. Romantic authors draw unconsciously on cultural conventions and stereotypes that stipulate that women can always be characterized by their universal interest in clothes.” Radway also makes the same assumption about women’s preoccupation with houses and furnishings, ending with the patronizing summation that these details may be “a celebration of the reader’s world of housewifery, shopping trips, homemade wardrobes, and reliance on magazines like Family Circle and Good Housekeeping for tips about replicating Vogue couture on a tight budget” (193-94).

Pardon me while I put aside my home-sewing and delay my shopping trip so I can slap this argument up side the head with my Family Circle. Far from undermining a sense of the reality of a woman’s life, these details actually inform it. Women are preoccupied with details like clothing and environment because most of us are mistresses of unspoken communication. Women can usually tell more about someone from looking at her or him than from listening because, as everybody as far back as Aristotle has known, character is not speech but action. And the way people present themselves and their environments is action. In particular, the details of the way people present themselves are heavy with meaning. Women (and observant men) know that God truly is in the details, and so is a lot of truth.

The use of detail takes on even more importance in writing women’s reality because through both socialization and biology, women are junkies for minutiae. Women were the gatherers when men were the hunters because women had good eyes for detail. As anthropologist Helen Fisher notes, “Women of all ages have better ‘fine’ motor coordination, manipulating tiny objects with ease.” Fisher speculates that “as ancestral women picked up more seeds and berries and more regularly picked the grass and dirt and twigs off their young, those with superior fine motor dexterity may have survived disproportionately–selecting for this trait in modern women” (196). Or to parallel this with Radway’s observation, those who paid attention to what their kids were wearing and to the decor of their environment survived and passed on their genes. Later when patriarchy became a threat, women learned to watch for subtle cues of what those more powerful were going to do next. Again, Fisher notes that “Tests show that, on average, women read emotions, context, and all sorts of peripheral non-verbal information more effectively than men” (195). Fisher suggests that women watched to see if those around them were comfortable, part of the nurturing that is also an aspect of our anthropological inheritance, but it could equally have been to see where the next spot of trouble was coming from. For a lot of women, not only God but survival was in the details, and this is realistically reflected in romance fiction.

In Patricia Gaffney’s Crooked Hearts, for example, the sharp eye of con woman Grace detects the flaw in her fellow con’s facade because she has just that eye for detail: “ His black broadcloth suit was very fine, his gray silk necktie sedate and expensive. That was all to the good, but a man’s shoes were the surest clue to the health of his finances, and in this case they gave [Grace] cause for concern [as they were run] down at the heels and cracked across the insteps . . . “(10). Grace’s sharp eyes give her an edge in a world where she desperately needs one. In more subtle ways, other romance heroines observe the details of the world around them, not only gathering important information for themselves, but also for their readers.

Radway’s other criticism that the use of detail doesn’t move the text may be the most unkindest cut of all because it’s male criticism. Studies of male and female storytelling have shown that men will naturally tell stories in linear sequence, spurning detail to get to the goal of the story, the climax, but women left to their own rhetorical devices will speak in patterns of detail, recreating the sensory story rather than the linear story. For them, the story is the details. Folklorist Karen Baldwin’s study of women’s story-telling found that when a family gathered to tell a story, it became collaborative: “a narrative balance is struck between descriptive detail and dialogued action by the . . . telling of the women and the men.” Baldwin goes on to observe that “men are less concerned with accuracy of details of texture, aroma, social relationship, color, and chronology,” but that these things form the very fabric of women’s storytelling. She also notes that men’s stories have a stated beginning and end, but that women’s narratives have a different structure because there is usually “no ‘point’ in women’s telling” (155). This means that when Radway says that the details don’t move the story, she’s essentially criticizing the romance writer because she’s not telling the story like a man, but is instead telling the story like a woman, replicating women’s perceptions of reality.

Another frivolous preoccupation romance novelists are indicted for is emphasizing marriage. And it’s true, romance does indeed insist on privileging relationships in women’s lives, emphasizing that privilege even more by usually (although not always) insisting on the ritual of marriage. But the idea that marriage is intrinsically peripheral is based more in feminist wishful thinking than it is in most women’s experience of reality. When Tania Modleski says, “Feminist criticism has, of course, rejected the ideology–purveyed in romances. . .–that holds marital commitments to be women’s chief goal and greatest desire”, she is not only sucking feminist-critic me into a rejection I’m not sure I want any part of, she’s also basing her rejection on two mistaken assumptions (47).

The first is that romance fiction promotes marriage of any kind to be all women’s greatest desire. In fact, romance fiction is full of women who do not marry, women who have married and left the institution, and women who postpone marriage in the face of greater desires. Marriage at any cost was never an aspect of romance fiction in any of its forms including the earliest and most conservative category fiction. What is privileged at all costs is love, and any feminist critic who sneers at that should be ashamed of her cynical self. The fact that love is often coded at the end of romance fiction as marriage is not a patriarchal construct but a recognition of an agreement as ancient as human civilization, a ritual in which two people announce their mutual commitment to each other before their community. The key words here are “mutual commitment” and “community,” two things that have kept the species going for the good of women and men alike. Romance fiction does not make the mistake of assuming all marriage is good, nor does is assume that all marriage is bad. It says that strong committed relationships formalized in the rituals of the group are something that most women desire.

This brings us to the second invalid assumption which is that in reality women do not and should not hold relationships as their chief goals.   But women, God bless us every one, have a multitude of life goals, and one of the ones at the top for many of us is relationships, and the top relationship–the one most of us dream about and groan about and laugh about and cry about–is romantic, the life partner relationship.   Somehow this has become something to be ashamed of, and admitting that a successful, stable, mutual, life-long relationship with a loving partner is “a chief goal and greatest desire” has become tantamount to suggesting that perhaps women shouldn’t have the vote after all.    It’s all right to admit that a chief goal is making partner or getting tenure, but saying flat out, “I want somebody beside me to laugh with and cry with and take comfort in for the rest of my life” means you have to turn in your “I Believe Anita Hill” button.   This is wrong. E.M. Forster was on to something when he said, “Only connect,” and he didn’t say “Only connect once you’ve established your autonomy and signed a pre-nup.”

This is underscored by a Stone Center study at Wellesley college which determined that, unlike men who must separate from others to determine selfhood, women come to their sense of self through relationships. This study concluded that “for women, it is not the quality of ‘productive initiative,’ nor the quality of a separate ‘I’ apart from others that is central to the sense of self, [but] a sense of an ‘I’ that includes an inner perception of the self as part of an emotional process with attention to . . . a mutuality of relationship exchange.” The Stone Center’s description of women’s need for relationships exactly mirrors the reaction that women readers have reported after reading romance: “Women come to experience a sense of aliveness, of empowerment, and of zest in a context of ongoing mutual relationships.”   The study makes clear what romance readers have already recognized, politically incorrect though it is: “Indeed, what women live for, what keeps them alive, are the opportunities to experience themselves in [mutual relationships]” (Kaplan 259). Or as critic Suzanne Juhasz put it in her own study of romance fiction, “The marriage ending is less co-optation, as some would have it, with success contingent upon submission of self to that patriarchal institution marriage than it is reward for self-realization, for a maturation that derives from relationships rather than separation” (239).

This argument may be weakened somewhat when some of the older, more traditional romances such as those by Barbara Cartland are used as examples. Patriarchy rages in these books, and women’s strengths are codified into manipulation and passive aggressive withdrawal used in active pursuit of marriage (although that pursuit is always in tandem with the pursuit of love, never for marriage as an end in itself). Were these the only romances available, I’d be in tentative agreement with the anti-marriage critics, although even these fall under Juhasz’s argument for acceptance because, as she points out, “Novels by women about female maturation . . . conclude with concerns that address the responsibility of the mature woman toward society. . . Personal agency and authenticity demand reciprocity between care for the self and for the world beyond the self” (244). But the vast majority of new romance novels, particularly those in contemporary lines, feature heroines who are independent and aggressive and who form equal relationships that foster and complement that independence. Read Nora Roberts, or Susan Elizabeth Phillips, or any of the other authors listed above, or most of the authors in the Harlequin Temptation or Bantam Loveswept lines, and it becomes clear that a blanket indictment of romance for emphasizing the “peripheral” goal of marriage is unjust. In fact, one of the strengths of romance fiction is that it reflects all of the real preoccupations discussed above at a time when reflecting that reality is so out of political favor that women readers may be hard pressed to find these aspects dealt with honestly any place else but romance fiction.

Romance fiction puts women at the center of their stories, reinforcing their instincts about the meanings of the events in their lives.

This, above all, may be why women tell stories: so we can get our reality on the page for a change. Contrary to charges by critics like Dubino who argues that “Romances bolster patriarchal ideology, continuing to reaffirm the centrality of men in women’s lives,” romance novels consistently place women at the center of their narratives, dealing with things that engage their hearts and minds as they struggle to achieve the power to protect what they value, and always, always ending with that power achieved and stability gained (109). Most stories feature a struggle between the heroine and the hero to achieve a balance of power defined by their own terms so that the commitment that takes place at the end of the book is not a surrender but a pact. The things romance heroines fight for are emotionally sound, reflecting many women’s perceptions of how the world works. The romance genre may not always support feminist values, but it always supports the female.

I dealt with this is my first novel, Manhunting. I was determined to write about an in-your-face feminist, and I did, but I gave her a problem common to women of my generation who were so (rightfully) busy establishing their autonomy in a hostile patriarchal world that they forgot to forge relationships. Waking up to her plight as her biological clock begins to tick, my heroine Kate makes a rational, well-thought out plan to find a husband. Kate moves through her narrative, acting as an independent woman at all times, only to get blindsided as so many of us have by the irrationality and inconvenience of love. When Kate chooses compromise in order to preserve a warm, mutual relationship with her lover, I did not see this is a move back to patriarchy for her and neither did my readers. Kate maintains her feminism and her autonomy while recognizing a basic human truth that women have recognized for centuries and that we are in danger of forgetting: people need relationships.

Romance fiction also puts women at the center of their own sexuality. Many modern romance writers zero in on the sexual lies women have been told, reversing patriarchal constraints and confirming what women already knew about their sexual identities but that many distrusted because it conflicted with the conventional wisdom that detailed what being a good woman was all about. If romance novels do nothing else, they should earn the respect of feminists for the way they re-vision women’s sexuality, making her a partner in her own satisfaction instead of an object.

They do this first by making it clear that, far from being helpless, asexual beings who must be seduced to respond, many women like sex. A lot. Romance novels spend pages describing women’s sexual pleasure including details that mama never told and patriarchy would be appalled at. It’s clear from my mail that my readers respond to the sexual scenes in my books, and that that response translates into reality.   One woman wrote, “I loved your book, and so did my husband, and he hasn’t read it.” By confirming what many women already knew about their own passion, romance novels set that passion free.

Romance novels also tell readers that admirable women (heroines) not only feel passion, they can pursue it; that is, they can be sexually aggressive without seeming evil or pathetic. Many of the new contemporary romances have made it clear that once women started asking men out on dates, they could ask for other things, too, so modern heroines often take control of their sex lives, making passes and plans that delight their heroes and pay off in great orgasms. Several of my heroines (Lucy in Getting Rid of Bradley , Allie in Charlie All Night, and Maddie in Tell Me Lies , for example,) make the first sexual move in the relationship; all of my heroines and many more in other authors’ non-traditional romance make the sexual suggestion once the affair has begun. This is important because the relationships that most satisfy women (again, see the Stone Center study) are mutual relationships, yet social conditioning has told women they must be passive, waiting to be asked to do what they want to do. Romance often revises this, telling women that in a mutual relationship, both sides ask and both sides give.

Finally, many romance novels also refute the idea that women are fearful of sex and are in awe of or dominated by a man’s sexual power. Romance heroines may be appreciative of a hero’s expertise, but they never mistake it for anything more. They are also perfectly capable of pointing out to men how inflated their ideas of their own power to awe really are. Jayne Ann Krentz in her novel Perfect Partners has her heroine tell the hero that she’d walked in on her professor fiancé and found him with his pants down and a graduate student on her knees before him. Unable to go on with her story, she puts her face in her hands and her shoulders begin to shake, and the hero tries to comfort her, sure she’s overcome by her horror of the lewd situation. But when she lifts her head, she’s been laughing, and she tells the hero that he cannot imagine how stupid the damn fool looked with his pants around his ankles. With one small scene, Krentz points out that when the Emperor is half-clothed, the Empress finds him ludicrous, and she puts the power in the situation back in the woman’s hands where it belongs. Sex is not a mystery, Krentz says, nor is it a weapon, nor is it something that hems women in. It’s something that can be funny or satisfying or ecstatic, but in the end it’s a physical act, not an epiphany.

One of the reasons I write romantic comedy is that nothing in the world has the power to make people look at an idea in a new way like humor. Just as Krentz exploded the idea of male sexual power as a weapon, I’ve deliberately chosen givens from traditional culture and held them up to my heroine’s (and thus my reader’s) ridicule. In What the Lady Wants, I had my hero explain the double standard to my heroine, elaborating on the effects of testosterone that force men to explore new territory–”open the West”– and, in a related endeavor, also explore other women. When my heroine, narrowly keeping her temper, responds, “And women don’t want to open the West?” he says, “No, women want to stay home and keep the East looking nice.” This is the double standard in plain English, and readers are with the heroine completely when she looks at the hero with contempt and says, “You’re trying to make me kill you, aren’t you?” Immediately after this, she begins replicating his behavior, placing herself at the center of the double standard instead of him, by telling him to slow down because she’s seen a guy on a street corner and she feels the need to explore. The hero’s response is, “This is not an attractive side of you,” the same response most women have had to men’s enactment of the double standard, and another patriarchal standby bites the dust to the sound of female laughter (69). That this laughter is evoked by the recognition of the truth of the heroine’s words and actions places her squarely at the center of her story.

Finally, romance fiction places the woman at the center of the story by refusing to pay lip service to the post-modernist view that life is hopeless and we’re all victims. Instead, romance fiction almost universally reinforces the healthy human perception that the world is not a vicious tragic place, especially for women. This has been often cited as evidence that romance fiction does indeed dwell in a fantasy land, but showing women’s victories is not unrealistic, nor is tragedy inherently superior or more realistic than comedy. This bias stems from an idea rife in literary fiction, best voiced by Joyce Carol Oates when she said, “Uplifting endings and resolutely cheery world views are appropriate to television commercials but insulting elsewhere. It is not only wicked to pretend otherwise, it is futile” (qtd. in Di Yanni 791). Oates misses a serious point: it is as unrealistic to say that life is all tragedy as it is to say that life is all happy endings. The truth is, life is often both, and just as literary fiction usually opts for the tragic as the more dramatic and telling, so romance fiction, in choosing to show women readers the variety of possibilities in the real world of women’s lives, opts for the happy ending as more empowering. Therefore the consistently satisfying endings of romance fiction, far from being unrealistic, actually bring balance back to the perception of reality by reminding the romance reader that along with every thing else, good things happen to good people, too, especially to strong, courageous women, especially when they work for it, at the centers of their own lives and stories.

So this is what the best romance fiction does: it tells the story that reflects a woman’s reality as it could be and as it often is. It tells her she is not stupid because she’s female, that she understands men better than they understand her, that she has a right to control over her own life, to children, to vocational fulfillment, to great sex, to a faithful loving partner. It doesn’t promise her she’ll get these things, but it shows her a woman like herself who struggles to attain any and all of these and wins, not because she’s beautiful or young or lucky, but because she works for them. It says that a lot of the “truths” that the different societal ideologies have foisted on her are lies and that she has the right to point and laugh when those ideologies try to limit her And it says that life is not the evening news or the latest true crime movie about crazed women or victimized women or incredibly noble, suffering women, but that reality is success after a lot of work and an appreciation of the details that get her through the day.

All of these things are true, and they fuel one of the chief reasons that women read romance: to recognize the truth and the validity of their own lives. If the novels weren’t telling the truth, they wouldn’t command half the paperback market and be read by housewives, university deans, high school students, retirees, liberals, conservatives, northerners, southerners, and every other descriptor of women possible. They couldn’t because contrary to everything some feminist critics say about romance readers, women are not stupid nor are they out of touch with reality.

And neither is the romance fiction they read.

Works Cited:
Arnold, Judith. “Women Do.” Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, ed. Jayne Ann Krentz (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1992) 133-39.

Baldwin, Karen. “‘Woof!’ A Word on Women’s Roles in Family Storytelling.” in Women’s Folklore, Women’s Culture, ed Rosan A. Jordan and Susan J. Kalcik (Philiadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1985) 149-62.

Crusie, Jennifer. What the Lady Wants. Toronto: Harlequin, 1995.

DiYanni, Robert, and Kraft Rompf, ed. The McGraw-Hill Book of Fiction. NY: McGraw, 1995.

Dubino, Jeanne. “The Cinderella Complex: Romance Fiction, Patriarchy, and Capitalism.” Journal of Popular Culture 27:3 (1993): 103-118.

Fisher, Helen. Anatomy of Love . NY: Norton, 1992.

Gaffney, Patricia. Crooked Hearts. NY: Topaz, 1994.

Juhasz, Suzanne. “Texts to Grow On: Reading Women’s Romance Fiction.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 7:2 (1988): 239-259.

Kaplan, Alexandra G. and Rona B. Klein. “Women and Suicide.” Suicide: Understanding and Responding: Harvard Med. School Perspectives , ed. Douglas Jacobs and Herbert N. Brown. (Madison, CT. : International Universities Press, Inc, 1989) 257-282.

McCaffery, Kate. “Palimpsest of Desire: The Re-Emergence of the American Captivity Narrative as Pulp Romance.” Journal of Popular Culture 27:4 (1994): 43-56.

Modleski, Tania Feminism Without Women: Culture and Criticism in a “Postfeminist” Age. NY: Routledge, 1991.

Nyquist, Mary. “Romance in the Forbidden Zone.” Reimagining Women: Representations ofWomen in Culture, ed. Shirley Neumand and Glennis Stephenson (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1993) 160-181.

Phillips, Susan Elizabeth. “The Romance and the Empowerment of Women.” Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, ed. Jayne Ann Krentz (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1992) 53-59.

Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1984.

Written by Jennifer Crusie, this essay was originally published in Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres. Number 1-2, 1997: 81-93