Friday, 20 April 2012

Romantic Fiction: It's All Over, Casanova


Romance novels make a lot of money. Even the bad ones. The demand is very high. Around 50% of all fiction books sold in North America are romances. In Britain the number is around 20%.

What’s more most of these books are written by women and read by women.

So what is it about this genre that makes it so successful, and what can the boys do to emulate that success?


Stories about love have existed since forever (source: Wikipedia). Ancient myths and folk tales often tell the story of stupid things done in the name of love. But the romance novel the way we see it is a fairly modern, British creation.

Starting in the 18th century, and really taking off in the 19th, they put women in the central role and were about her getting what she wanted. Usually with a  happy ending.

At that time women were still subject to the decisions of their families when it came to getting married. While I’m sure they were given some say in who to spend the rest of their lives with, it came down to practical matters. Nineteen year old girls don’t know what’s best for them, and should let their parents find an appropriate match. And more to the point, prevent an inappropriate one.

So romantic novels were a reaction to that, and support for the notion that a woman can make her own decisions. Radical stuff.

Cut to modern day, and romance novels have not changed all that much. Which is kind of odd. Women no longer have to surrender themselves to arranged marriages (internet dating sites are voluntary, you know that, right?), yet the struggle to find the right man continues.

Women aren’t quite so helpless, and men aren’t quite so domineering, but the general dynamic in these stories (you can’t resist the inevitable) has stayed more or less the same: There is some obstacle to love, and the man has to prove himself.

The woman will be attracted to the man almost immediately. She may resist, she may even get angry about it and act like she hates him, but that spark will be there between them.

In the better novels there will be a reason for the attraction. In Pride and Prejudice, the model for a lot of fictional romances, the reasons Elizabeth falls for Darcy are shown clearly. His behaviour and actions helping others win her over, and the acceptance of her own mistakes in presuming things about him that weren’t true help her to see him in a more favourable light.

In bad novels, the attraction isn’t explained. But they sell just as well as the good books. Women just get it. If you say she saw him and couldn’t stop herself staring, even though she didn’t know why (and I’ve read examples far vaguer than that), there are plenty of women readers who will go, Yep, nailed it.

It’s such a massive advantage to have the reader already agreeing with you before you’ve finished the sentence, I don’t think any male genre fiction has that.

The other weird thing about romance stories is that you know how it’s going to end. Obviously there will be hiccups along the way, but who are we kidding, really? The man and the woman are going to end up together. Which tends to take out the tension, unless you really work at it. Or bring in tension from another storyline.

Again, most readers don’t care. They want the expected resolution. They demand it.

Clearly there is something in women that feeds off whatever it is romance novel gives them. I can’t think of  anything men value so much they’d want to see it stated over and over again.

Frankly the only thing men can do to sell large volumes of books is to start write romance novels. It could create a whole new sub-genre (Chuck-lit?). If you can’t beat them, join them.
Let me know your views on romance fiction, or romance storylines in other types of fiction.

If you found this post mildly arousing, please give it a retweet. Cheers.

24 comments:

Cynthia said...

Like any genre, romance can gel with me if I find myself caring about the story and the characters. I tend to appreciate a story more where romance is one component of the main plot but not necessarily the only component.

Life Unordinary said...

romance whisks you away to another world, that's why. I gives one hope.

McKenzie McCann said...

If it isn't broke, don't fix it. I think that's why it hasn't changed. People still buy them in droves not matter what.

Patricia Lynne said...

I enjoy the occasional romance. It's nice to get lost in a fantasy love story, but at times, the predictable story gets boring.

Rachelle Ayala said...

It's because women want to fall in love over and over and over again. The easiest way to get a person to believe something is to tell her what she wants to believe. She's attractive, irresistible, only she can subdue and conquer the man no one else can, and he will put up with her antics and bad behavior and grovel at her feet, cook her breakfast and whisk her away on either a Learjet, a fast horse, or jet boat to a fantasy happily ever after.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Added a female character to my last book for a little love interest, but that's as far as I go. (And she was one heck of a fiesty, in-command woman as well.)

angelaquarles.com said...

They actually have changed in the last 20 years... in the 70s and 80s they used to be pretty rape-y with forced seductions, etc., now the man has to earn the heroine. But you're right, the genre is actually pretty radical-- very feminist in a way. The woman is the one with the power and even still today we don't always feel that, so that might be why it endures in popularity.

I'd say guys do have some of that short-hand genre stuff-- look at the spy thrillers-- hero walks in, with a Mach 678 thingamabob and starts shooting, do you need to know why?

And yep, on the HEA, we know it's there, but for some reason we can suspend the disbelief and really worry. It's the "HOW" we don't know. It's what makes me mad when folks say how easy it is to write romance-- sure, crappy romance, but to write a convincing romance? Where you're able to make the reader worry they won't get together despite the guaranteed HEA? That takes talent. Plus writing convincing emotion is HARD. So easy to fly into schmalzy land...

BTW, there are guys who write romance under female names :)

I just wrote a post Wednesday about my struggles with writing romance and how I don't like the ones based mainly on emotion...

Kyra Lennon said...

Just wanted to back up every word Angelaquarles said - I couldn't have put it better myself! ;)

mooderino said...

@Cynthia-that's fair enough.I'm not saying I don't see the appeal of it, but I do wonder about the lack of variety.

@Life-all stories do that, that;s their purpose.

@McKenzie-if it isn't broke you can still improve it.

@Patricia-the boredom doesn't seem to put people off though, they'll just try a different one.

@Rachelle-which is kind of suggesting pretend love is as good as the real thing.

@Alex-I have a feeling I know exactly which movie star she looks like.

@angela-you do need to know why a guy comes in shooting up the place, meaningless action holds no thrill. In movies it's different, the visuals can hold the attention, but corny thrillers don't sell in big numbers.

It's not that there aren't good and bad romance novels, it's that the bad ones sell just as well as the good ones. The demand it that big.

Elise Fallson said...

"Chuck-lit" so funny!

Also pheromones, the reason we fall in "love" for no apparent reason. Or is it lust? Anyway, I don't think the bare bones of a romance story will ever change because humans haven't changed, biologically speaking. Nature has designed men and women to work together to ensure the survival of the species and that may be why we want the “happy ending.” Take something as simple as “flirting.” Women all over the world, from different cultures, will use pretty much the same sequence of expressions when flirting, and men demonstrate their own sequences. There are more examples but I think humans basically are designed to follow certain rituals and it gets expressed in our storytelling. Like you said, “you can’t resist the inevitable” (or is it biological?) I guess I’m not being very romantic with my response, in fact it sounds a bit robotic…but it’s just a thought. (:
Happy Friday!

Lynda R Young said...

lol at chuck-lit!

mooderino said...

@kyra-Angela is well worth agreeing with.

@Elise-true, but most of these stories aren't based on any realistic version of the biological imperative you refer to (that's me being all robotic too).

@Lynda-it's going to make me millions!

jesstopper said...

I have heard the term "lad lit" (referring to authors like Nick Hornby, Tom Perrotta, etc). Those 2 male authors, btw, often will have some "romantic" elements in their stories - without being "romance", per se. I just think at the heart of most good stories is a love story, or a satisfying connection between two people. I prefer reading and writing about unconventional connections, so the "formulaic" romance has never been my favorite genre. Honestly, I don't know if I would have the discipline to stick to the formula! Good thought-provoking post, Mood!

mooderino said...

@jesstoper-I think having connections between people, whether romantic or not, is fine. When you suddenly eleveate on particular kind of relationship as the most important thing in the world, you better be able to back it up with more than piercing blue eyes.

Julie Daines said...

Chuck-lit is hilarious! I think women just have this instinctive need to feel loved and, yes I hate to say it out loud, protected. Women continually say things like, "I love a book with a strong female lead." But in reality, the books that sell in volume are often the ones where the heroine is average, but the hero/love interest is strong, protective, and saves her. (Exhibit A: Twilight). I don't know what that means. You tell me.

Diane Carlisle said...

I used to be an avid reader of the Harlequin Romance years ago, and I have to say that it has changed somewhat. I still enjoy the male/female dynamics of attraction, but rather than the seduction of the virginal bride (now that I'm older), I much prefer the professional woman up against the powerful tycoon, etc.

I think women are more willing to suspend disbelief where all the heroes are rich and powerful and the heroines are innocent, plain looking Janes who somehow have what it takes to land such a catch.

That's what I recall in the older romances. I've not read a more modern romance novel, but I will. I can't imagine the dynamics being any different, just the characters, places and situations. I'll take the alpha male any day. I hope the modern romances don't take that much away. Although, I did tell my husband that I have a slight crush on Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. lol

mooderino said...

@julie-Mooderino Corporation would like to make it clear that the views expressed here are those of Julie Daines and do not reflect the views of Moody Corp, an equal opportunities employer.

@Diane-problem is the alpha male may not be happy with sticking to the female fantasy playbook.

J.C. Martin said...

Great post. Have never read such an in-depth essay on the reasons behind the appeal of romantic fiction before, but it all makes sense. Not much of a romance reader myself as I find the plot way too predictable, but I do enjoy the odd feel-good chick lit with a box of chocolates after Talli Roland converted me with her awesome books!

J.C. Martin
A to Z Blogger

mooderino said...

@JC-If you're going to read chick lit, best to read Talli's books.

Fairview said...

chuck-lit? lol what would you call bodice-rippers for guys?

Mysti Parker said...

I don't think reading romance makes a woman brainless or unappreciative of literature. Romance as a genre, I'm happy to say, has expanded into a broad range of creative subgenres. I love to read and write the more non-conventional ones. As far as the predictability, I think that is only one reason people enjoy them. Real life can be yucky enough. Why not read a story with a happy ending?

mick davidson said...

I agree with Mysti; many of the most intelligent women I know are head over heels with Pride and Prejudice (and I love the BBC's adaptation of the book, but can't read the book itself!) And I'm talking serious brain power coupled with strongly held feminism convictions.

Because of this, and even more so now that I've read your article, my second novel, The Girl Who Dreamt of Water (working title Life Cycle), is a romance told mainly from the main character's POV. The story is about Sam and her soon-to-be ex-husband, Chris. Being a man, I worry that I can get the voice right, but the feedback I've had from female readers has been positive so far. Anyone wishing to read a little of it can find the first three chapters here: http://mickdavidsonpicturesword.weebly.com/uploads/4/6/4/0/4640363/life_cycle_circalit_romance_novel_comp.pdf

I love the idea of 'Chuck Lit' - if men went for it as women have for chick-lit, I'm sure it would cause revolutions in more than just the publishing industry. :)
Cheers.

mooderino said...

@Mysti-there's nothing wrong with happy endings, it's just suspect when every story has a happy ending. It suggests a formula, like in Holywood, purely for financial reasons.

@mick-intelligence has nothing to do with it. It fulfills a need in women. But it also dominates the literary landscape, particularly in America, which can lead publishers to skew the market to make more money, which offers less variety in other genres. If you only bother with the most popular genres (whatever they might be) we will all suffer in the long term.

Julio Sporer said...

Love is a universal topic that everyone can connect to. For me, this is the primary reason why romance novels never age. Yes, societies may evolve and change over time, but people will always be attracted to one another. That being said, I can say that the genre of romance will continue to transform and sell.

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