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What Do Jane Austen and Contemporary Romance Novels Really Have in Common?

I was inspired by Jody Hedlund’s Valentine’s Day post Why Romances Are a Valid and Important Form of Literature. Before I proceed, let me assure you that I agree with Jody’s conclusion. With one caveat. She writes:

Even though nowadays romance novels are widely accepted and liked, there are still  people who turn up their noses at the thought of reading a romance (or writing one).

Some view such novels as “fluffy” or “trashy” or “titillating.” They may believe that romance novels only serve to fill our minds with unhealthy expectations of relationships. …Instead, why not fill our minds with realistic, wholesome literature? Or deeper, enriching stories that feed the mind and soul?

Such romance novel opponents overlook the fact some of the best classics are the most sigh-worthy romances (Jane Austin fans raise your hands!). But apparently being an “old” book makes the romance more acceptable.

The question I found myself asking while I read Jody’s post was, Why is such a question even necessary? Why is there a need to even ask whether romance is “a valid and important form of literature”?

I think this is where me and some of my romance writing friends disagree.

I mean, aren’t some of the charges against contemporary romance valid? (Hang on to your handbag and let me finish!) Isn’t a significant sector of the fare “‘fluffy’ or ‘trashy’ or ‘titillating'”? Isn’t there a considerable distance between Jane Austen and much contemporary romance?

And why shouldn’t there be? Times change, so why not our stories?

I met a guy not long ago who worked for Disney. He learned I was a writer and we struck up a fun conversation. When he learned I wrote horror and supernatural, the conversation got even more interesting. He said that horror was all the rage in Japan. Not ghost horror or psychological horror, but splatter stuff. Anyway, he had some Hollywood friends who capitalized on this by producing low-budget splatter flicks and selling them overseas. The turn-around was quick and the profit was significant. A good script and competent acting weren’t important.  Blood and guts were. Impaling, disemboweling, and decapitation. This is what they called “horror.”

Which is exactly why I’m reluctant to mention that I write horror.

  • There’s a stereotype about what horror is.
  • That stereotype is partly based on truth.
  • But it only represents a small segment of the horror industry.

One thing I learned about reading horror is that there’s some staggeringly literate, beautifully written, elegantly creepy books out there. Splatter and slasher flicks are so far removed from what much horror is, it’s almost laughable.

Which, I think, is the same thing going on in the romance industry.

There is a significant difference between Gone With the Wind and Pride and Prejudice, and the typical dime-store romance novel. This seems obvious. It’s not a matter of bookish pretension, nor is it a judgement against the genre. The romance genre exists along a spectrum — just like every other genre — from Historical Romance to Women’s Fiction to Chick-Lit to Erotica.

Point is: The stereotype of contemporary romance novels as “fluffy or trashy or titillating” has a basis in fact. Just like the stereotype of horror novels as “splatter or gore or gorno” has a basis in fact.

I’m not sure why we have such a hard time admitting that.

I have a female writer friend who writes Urban Fantasy. She often laments how large sectors of the genre have become notoriously seamy. Not only has Paranormal Romance become one of the hottest selling genres, it has drifted into… erotica. Forget the claws and fangs and winged appendages. Now vampires sparkle and have P90 X abs. Someone hijacked my monsters!


Anyway, my friend  mentioned how one reviewer surprisingly noted the absence of erotica in her novel. This was, um, noteworthy. As if erotica is now expected in Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance.

Likewise, contemporary romance — particularly some of its more seamy sides — have become cliches for the entire genre.

Which is why Historical Romance seems like a far distant relative to its contemporary counterparts.

So while I totally agree with Jody that romances are a valid and important form of literature, the Pride and Prejudices of the world are as far removed from dime-store romances as The Haunting of Hill House is from Hostel.

Erotica has done to Romance what Splatter has done to Horror… made it difficult for a writer to avoid being stereotyped.

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{ 30 comments… add one }
  • Johne Cook February 15, 2012, 7:45 AM

    In a weird sort of way, the bastardization of genres is a plus for a smart writer with a distinctive voice. The more the genre drifts away, the more a writer with a distinctive voice can stand out among the increasingly skewing din. Think of what Brandon Sanderson did for epic fantasy. He’s smart, principled, and a writing machine.

    Or Pat Rothfuss. When he released Name of the Wind, he tells the story about how he’d go to Cons and they’d talk about how Kvothe was a MarySue character. He pushed back in defense of competent people of exceptional ability (and exceptional trials). (You can watch him talk about that and much more in a rambling, fascinating nearly two hour podcast ‘hangout’ on YouTube.)

    My point is that when the genre is perverted or subverted, it gives a really good writer with a strong, unique voice the opportunity to better stand out among the crowd.

    • Tony February 15, 2012, 5:12 PM

      A diamond really stands out atop a pile of crap, in other words? 😉

  • Rayne K February 15, 2012, 8:03 AM

    Wow…well, I TOTALLY disagree that Jane Austin is romance. Anyone who’s read her books should know better. Austin novels are social commentary written from a woman’s perspective. In England at the time Austin was writing (late 1700s to the early 1800s) the primary purpose of social interaction for unmarried women was to find a husband. This wasn’t some superficial search for love, it was a search for a livelihood and love was often defined by the man’s social and economic standing.

    Her conflicts often revolved around love where social standing barred any chance of romance (a very rich man and a dowerless woman) , love where social standing made romance imprudent (a woman with a small dowery and a man with little to offer her) and relationships where love played no part in a decision to marry (a match based on the best social and economic decisions). In the late 18th women were dependent upon marriage for social standing and economic security. I remember one line in Sense and Sensibility (I know it was in the movie, I can’t recall if it was said specifically in the book, but it always struck me), “’You talk of feeling idle and useless. Imagine how that is compounded when one has no hope or choice of any occupation,” and then “…you will inherit your fortune. We cannot even earn ours.” I think that highlights the message in her novels, NOT the shallow boy-meets-girl message that is the centerpiece of “romance”.

    • Mike Duran February 15, 2012, 9:39 AM

      Rayne, I’ve never read Jane Austen, but her stuff is typically categorized as Historical Romance, isn’t it? Either way, I think you’re actually speaking to the point that Historicals ARE a lot different than more “shallow” contemporary fare. Thanks for commenting!

      • Jill February 15, 2012, 9:56 AM

        I thought historical romances were modern books written about past times. In that case, JA isn’t historical romance. They are only historical to us.

        • Katherine Coble February 15, 2012, 10:07 AM

          You are correct. Georgette Heyer wrote Historical Romance. Anya Seton wrote Historical Romance. Jane Austen wrote Romance. (See my comments below.)

        • Iola February 15, 2012, 3:51 PM

          Jill made exactly the point I wanted to make: Historical Romance is a recognised sub-genre within Romance, and is romance stories set in a previous era. The most popular period currently is Regency, which is when Jane Austen was writing.

          Personally, I read a lot of romance, mostly Christian romance or romantic suspense. As with all good stereotypes, some are accurate but many are not. Many of the best-known Christian novellists write romance: Jannette Oke, Michael Phillips, Francine Rivers, to name a few.

          Good Christian Romance authors manage to combine romance with a solid Christian message, mostly without shoving it down everyones throat (I do take the point about some of the novels being too preachy. I was relieved when my saintly MIL admitted to me that she skips the sermonising in Michael Phillips’ books).

    • Jill February 15, 2012, 9:53 AM

      What you say is valid and correct; however, the conclusion of every JA novel is one of romantic love overcoming these social norms and obstacles. Can you imagine P&P ending w/o Darcy and Elizabeth overcoming their obstacles? Her reading audience would have flipped. I would have dropped the book disgustedly–I mean, I knew all along they would get together and was just waiting for the moment. JA’s novels are romances with substance, and that’s really the point.

  • Jenni Noordhoek February 15, 2012, 8:33 AM

    I have a strong internal prejudice against both romance and horror because of the bad rap they’ve gotten. =P I was taught that all romance novels were simply different levels of erotica, and all horror stories were full of blood & gore — all intended for shock value and to appeal to the base desires of man, et cetera.

    And then I discovered Doctor Who, at which point I decided that horror isn’t all a bad thing. XD

    (I still hate romance novels, but have read enough Christian historical romance novels to know that they’re not full of icky stuff. And I read Mansfield Park and wondered at what point Jane Austen became known as a romance novelist because she’s not very romancey on the grand scale of things. XD)

    • Jill February 15, 2012, 10:44 AM

      Jane Austen was a pragmatist, and Mansfield Park was her most pragmatic novel. Also, I think the whole marriage to first cousin thing is gross to a lot of Americans. MP definitely has the lowest romantic barometer reading of all her books–still a romance, though, if you get right down to it.

      • Jenni Noordhoek February 15, 2012, 12:17 PM

        Weirdly enough, marriage to first cousin in older books never really bugged me. (probably because I’ve only ever met my only first cousin once very briefly — it’d be different if I was familiar with a cousin relationship)

        I’ve got to try some other Jane Austen sometime — I liked her social commentary stuff. But if I’ve got a choice, I’ll take a good (not gory) horror over a good romance any day.

    • Heather Day Gilbert February 15, 2012, 4:06 PM

      Just thinking Dr. Who would be more sci-fi than horror…and I love myself a good old Doctor episode!

      • Jenni Noordhoek February 15, 2012, 4:31 PM

        Wellllllll, that depends which episode you’re watching. XD I like to call Doctor Who a wonderful conglomerate of science fantasy tragecomedic horror…. either that or I just scare easily.

        (Also – classic!Who is different from new!Who… especially series 6, written by Steven Moffat, which is quite definitely in the horror category.)

        • R.J. Anderson February 16, 2012, 1:12 PM

          Oh, Classic Who was horror as well, they just didn’t have the budget to pull it off convincingly. But as an eight-year-old kid watching Sarah Jane open a door in a space station only to have a GIANT WASP fall out on her, I was plenty horrified, believe me. Nightmares for weeks after that one, and don’t even get me started on “Horror of Fang Rock” (it’s even in the title!).

          And yet I loved it, and cried buckets when my Dad told me I wasn’t allowed to watch it any more because it was clearly too scary for me.

          • Jenni Noordhoek February 16, 2012, 1:19 PM

            Very true. I’ve seen plenty of Classic Who as well. I can see how it would be scary if I weren’t watching it on netflix with a really bad internet connection making already fuzzy old videos even more fuzzy. XD

            Though, for me personally, as an adult, it’s more subtle horror that scares me proper. (Like the Silence in series 6, or the Weeping Angels in series 3 and 5, or the gas mask child in series 1…)

            Oh, I need to see The Horror of Fang Rock. Thank you for your timely homework distraction! 🙂

  • Katherine Coble February 15, 2012, 10:04 AM

    Well, isn’t what you’re describing, Mike, really what all prejudice is about? Finding the worst traits of some examples and the extrapolating those traits to apply across the board. Not all women are bad drivers (I am, but I don’t drive). Not all teachers are lazy idiots taking the government’s money. Not all libertarians are “republicans who smoke pot”. But people get in their head that they need to be better than something or someone else so they misapply a negative.

    Romance–which I wrote for awhile–is a very good thing. All due respect to the commenter above but Jane Austen’s work ARE romances. Yes, they have biting social commentary, valuable insights, etc. But they are romances. When people say she wasn’t Romantic, they mean she wasn’t influenced by the Romantics of the period, i.e. Byron. But she wrote romance. Books where people fall in love after sniping at or winking furtively at each other for 90% of the text. That’s a romance.

    Some romances are just that sniping/winking and little else. Others include things like social commentary (Pride and Prejudice, Gone With The Wind); history and religion (Katherine); marijuana legalisation and illegal growers hijacking California state land (Virgin River); devastating loss and emotional rebuilding (Crossroads Cafe).

    But people think of those little Harlequin one-every-two-weeks subscription novellas with Raife and Ravenna jaunting all over the world and having sex in lurid locales when someone mentions Romance and they snub the genre as something beneath them.

    • Mike Duran February 16, 2012, 6:55 AM

      Katherine, am I mistaken to assume that the reason Harlequins have become the template stereotype for the entire Romance genre is because Harlequins actually comprise the biggest sample?

      • Katherine Coble February 17, 2012, 11:22 AM

        That’s part of it. The other part is the distribution model; Harlequins clung to the subscription book model long after other genre publishers abandoned it. In the age before ebooks if you were housebound your ways to get regular reading material were the bookmobile, the Book of the Month Club or Harlequin subscription novels. They did such a huge market saturation that Harlequin became synonomous with Romance, but also with “hack” and “books for housewives”. So you had all at once that brand owning a genre with the marketing downside of creating a negative impression of the genre itself.

        Today Harlequin brands (which include Harlequin, Harlequin Presents, Silhouette and Mira) still comprise the bulk of the romance genre.

  • Jenna St. Hilaire February 15, 2012, 10:24 AM

    Regarding Rayne’s comment, this. Austen’s novels are a lot of things, which is part of what makes them great; in my own opinion, they wouldn’t have been nearly so palatable as social commentary had they not been also successful romances.

    To be fair, of course, this is coming from someone who cannot bear the Thomas Hardy style of social commentary. 😛

    Jenni, LOL! You’re right about Mansfield Park, though I love that book to death for other reasons. Besides being probably Austen’s most criticized novel (and perhaps the most difficult to read as well), it is arguably the least satisfying of Austen’s main works, depending on how one feels about the childlike Catherine’s relationship with Henry Tilney.

    It is true overall that Austen wasn’t consistently romantic; one of the “romances” in Sense and Sensibility is almost an anti-romance. Pride & Prejudice and Persuasion are the two that probably get Austen the “sigh-worthy” label, though. As someone who does like a good love story–especially a nice subtle one where everything is beneath the surface–I must say that the latter two are exquisite.

    • Jenna St. Hilaire February 15, 2012, 12:17 PM

      Mmm. Should probably have clarified myself. “…depending on how one feels about the childlike Catherine’s relationship with Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey.

      Also, should have bolded Rayne’s name. Sorry, Rayne!

  • Kat Heckenbach February 15, 2012, 11:15 AM

    I do agree wholeheartedly that both genres have gotten a bad reputation for those very things. I always find myself telling people I write horror–quickly followed by, “Not splatter and guts, but I-see-dead-people horror.”

    I could prattle on and on about my opinions about romance, but I won’t. Suffice it to say, what Katherine said about JA’s books being “more” is not the case with much of the romance genre. And in the ones I’ve found that do have “more” I end up skipping past the romance stuff to get to the “more.” The whole boy-meets-girl thing is not my cup of tea most of the time., but if it is an integral part of a bigger and better story, that is different.

    One thing I have found is that certain romance, like the book I mentioned in your last post, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, which is dark fantasy/paranormal romance, often has beautiful language. It’s something that doesn’t always “fit” with other genres. Rachel Mark’s Winter Rose is another example. Classic boy meets girl romance at the core (which is generally not my thing) but her voice and description kept me reading to the end. Loveliness :).

    • Katherine Coble February 15, 2012, 11:33 AM

      I have this working theory that people prefer their titillation in one form or another. Everyone I meet who likes horror doesn’t care for romance and vice versa.

      I myself go in cycles. The times I want to read horror I can’t even stomach romance. The times when I’m in a mood for romance are when I just cannot handle horror. It’s why I don’t work well with Paranormal Romance/Urban Fantasy. It’s like a traffic accident where all the body parts are mixed together in a sicky way.

      • Kat Heckenbach February 15, 2012, 11:37 AM

        OK, this is where blogs need a “like” button–so I can “like” that comment, Katherine! Paranormal romance as traffic accident. Yes, it often is.

        • Kessie February 15, 2012, 1:54 PM

          I think “paranormal romance” and I think of Galaxy Quest, in the scene with the dude and the alien chick hooking up, and the comedy relief guy going, “Oohhh, that’s not right!”

  • Jason Brown February 15, 2012, 12:12 PM

    Welcome to the Disunited States of Double-Standards and Stereotypes.
    Recently, while I was looking at teh reviews for a couple good, independent Christian movies I enjoy (To Save A Life and Saving Sarah Cain), I noticed that there were several 1-star ratings. Those who didn’t complain about the movies not being based ENTIRELY on the book or being a Christian movie were by Christians who expected the movies to make mention of Christianity, make overt references to Jesus, to be light and fluffy theology… and completely throw away all the stuff that the world is (Saving Sarah Cain has a brief instance of cigarette smoking, yet people hated the movie for the couple moments of a woman wearing a cleavage-showing shirt while others hated TSAL for the language, brief sexual content, etc.). From there, I can understand what you mean, we’ve become desensitized not only by modern standards but also by our own expectations how things are supposed to go now. Secularists expect sex while Christians apparently expect gratuitous and overt mentions of Christianity, nearly everyone being saved, etc.
    With that in mind, it’s a wonder Stephen R. Lawhead and Steven James are even the Christian bestseller lists. Steven James, in his novels, barely make mention of Jesus (just a couple bare mentions in The Knight and The Bishop and a small, very brief chapel scene in The Queen). We Christians have not only desensitized ourselves from what we expect of people (effectually making ourselves more of moral thermometers shoving our beliefs down others’ throats), but also no longer know how to be effective ambassadors of Jesus and God, almost at all if you ask me.

  • Kessie February 15, 2012, 1:57 PM

    Well gee. Now I’m looking at my urban fantasy series and feeling bad about it. I guess I could market it as YA?

    • Katherine Coble February 15, 2012, 2:16 PM

      Naw. A lot of people LOVE urban fantasy. I’m sort of the cheese over here standing alone.

  • Jacob Lindaman February 16, 2012, 7:41 AM

    If you go to the movie store everything is catagorized differently. Gone With The Wind and Pride and Prejudice would be in the drama section. The gaudy love stories that make up the bulk of the romance genre should be found in the ‘adult’ section. Not b/c they are all explicitly obscence, but b/c they are the unrealistic emotional stimulus to women that ‘adult’ movies are to men.

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