“If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?”
Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
The broader context of Austen’s authorial intrusion is the following:
“I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding – joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust.”
The novel in Austen’s day was not considered serious art but rather a form of mere entertainment. Today certain novels are considered serious works of art. The question is, what kind of novel would the heroine of an Austen novel have been likely to read, one which would have been considered, as Austen put it, insipid? The answer is obvious: the heroine would have been reading a romance.
Still today the romance is the go-to genre for all kinds of writers to dump on. There’s Margaret Atwood’s 1976 Lady Oracle. It chronicles the tale of a young and hapless woman who writes for Columbine Books, which is only a slightly disguised name for Harlequin. Atwood’s novel is received as serious art. The ones her heroine writes are the equivalent of stuff sold by the yard.
There’s also Fay Weldon’s 1983 Life and Loves of a She-Devil. This is the story of Ruth, an ugly housewife whose loveless husband only truly loves his mistress, a wealthy romance novelist. Ruth gets her revenge on her husband and his lover. Weldon’s book is considered feminist and funny.
The trope of the romance novelist as some kind of comic heroine or villainess is an old one, and the trope of the romance novel as serving as the genre other writers can push off from is equally old – as Austen’s comment attests.
A few days ago I did a King & Maxwell binge of Season One (2013). It features the private investigative team of King, a man, and Maxwell, a woman. They are a charming pair, and occasional whiffs of sexual tension circulate around them. In the episode entitled “Loved Ones” the resident genius-geek is about to explain to King and Maxwell the trajectory analysis he did on a body that had been thrown from a roof. King intervenes by reciting, “The arctangent angle of a fall is the ratio of vertical to horizontal velocities.” Totally surprised the genius-geek says, “That’s right.” Maxwell quips, “Guess you’ve been reading more than romance novels.” King replies, “Sometimes.”
It is an odd exchange, because under no circumstance would Maxwell – or anyone in the viewing audience – imagine that King reads romance novels. In other words it’s a throwaway line where romance novels are the easy targets as examples of things stupid people read.
Now we come to romance writers themselves. I just finished what is billed as a dark erotic romance, which currently has a high Amazon ranking. The heroine is a librarian, and the hero is a guy with a very dark secret. The heroine first sees the hero in the library just as she is pushing a cart of romance novels to reshelve. The dialogue on page three of this novel includes the lines:
“Since when do you read romance novels, anyway?” [the heroine] asked.
“Ugh, never,” [the friend] said, tossing the book back onto the cart. “Such boring protagonists. The same old plot. Romantic heroes doing romantic gestures. Maybe you should read one, though.”
“Ha – says the heroine [to herself] – there was nothing in those bosom-heaving books I found sexy.”
Stop right there. Bosom-heaving books? What books? See my blog post On The Term Bodice Ripper.
There are enough gratuitous slams in romance novels – which are, as Austen would say, the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding – that it’s hard to run them all down. They’re versions of the old single girl’s joke: John and I had a love-hate relationship. We both loved him and hated me.
Given the self-hatred among (some) romance writers and the romance-genre-hatred easily assumed by other writers, here’s my update on Jane Austen’s point of etiquette:
Hey, fellow writers, I’ve got a tip for you: the whole romance-novel-as-stupid-person’s-object-of-reading-material is completely played out. Has been for 200 years. Find something fresh and original to use as a put-down. As a romance writer, I don’t denigrate what you write. In fact, I’m likely to celebrate it. So I expect reciprocal professional courtesy from you. Thanks, guys.
This post was written by Julie Andresen