Sensitive Nerves and Romance Novels

by | February 20, 2015 |

The things that cause an individual or a society discomfort and anxiety often provoke ridicule, scorn, and/or disregard. Romance novels provoke all three responses. They touch sensitive nerves.

Note: I have addressed the ridicule in On the Term ‘Bodice Ripper,’ the scorn in Five Myths About Romance Novels, and the disregard in On Silence and Singularity and the Romance Novel.

We are dealing with human psychology here in both its simplicity and complexity. We do not ridicule and scorn things we like. We don’t ignore things we deem important. Or do we?

The question remains to be asked: Why do romance novels provoke discomfort and anxiety? These are stories about falling in love, and everyone wants to fall in love, right? These are stories about human pair bonding, which is a good thing overall for individuals and society, no? So, what is it about these stories that cause negative responses that are pretty nearly knee-jerk and pervasive?

I can think of four reasons why romance novels hit sensitive nerves:

1) Romances are mostly written by women and for women. Sexism operates many places, including corporate America and politics.

In 2014 Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, launched a Ban Bossy campaign. She writes on the campaign’s homepage that “when a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a ‘leader.’ Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded ‘bossy.’”

In 2012 The Women’s Media Center released a guide for describing politicians in gender-neutral terms.

The Center noted that female candidates and politicians often get assigned negative labels such as ‘nagging’, ‘cold’, ‘shrill’, or ‘opinionated’, while men receive positive labels such as ‘determined, ‘commanding’, ‘knowledgeable,’ or ‘passionate.’ Female candidates and politicians often have to field questions about clothing and children, topics men do not.


So, yes, sexism is afoot in the negative valuation of romance novels, but it can’t be the whole story since so many celebrated novelists are women, beginning with Toni Morrison.

2) Romance novelist Maya Rodale in her book Dangerous Books for Girls and in her presentation at “Unsuitable #1”, a Duke University symposium held in October 2014, suggests another reason for the widespread condemnation of romance novels over the past several hundred years.

She notes that love is unpredictable. She argues that when it enters the picture as a legitimate basis for marriage, established order can be upset.

In Regency and Victorian England the social system was threatened when people chose to marry outside their class. In more recent times, sexual norms used to be/are still threatened when two people from the same sex fall in love. Talk about sensitive nerves! Rodale makes an excellent point.

3) As I noted in Five Myths, romance novels, over the past forty years, have taken firm control of female sexuality.

The movie version of Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods reminded me that the story of The Big Bad Wolf is about controlling Little Red Riding Hood’s appetite, and in the movie she has a big one.

Many romance heroines happily stray off the path with the wolf of their choosing, thus violating a very old cultural norm. Anxiety ensues. Ridicule follows.

4) Romance novels have evolved over the centuries. The reasons they were disparaged 200 years ago are different from the reasons they are disparaged today.

However, the terms of their disparagement as silly, easily dismissible stories remain the same. So does their popularity, which means these narratives are serving some purpose. I cannot say for sure what purpose romances served their readers 200 years ago. Today I’m sure that their purpose is, at least in part, to provide the experience of connection.

What do we fear most? Isolation, loss, alienation, hopelessness, despair, despondency. What do we crave most? Love, warmth, belonging, satisfaction, safety, stability. Every song ever written is devoted to one of these emotions, but songs are not the designated lightning rods for the cultural anxieties surrounding these emotions. Romance novels are – apparently.

It is difficult to acknowledge the value of a genre devoted entirely to confronting what we fear most and providing what we want most. Acknowledging the worth of the romance is tantamount to owning up to our deepest fears and our deepest wants touching on our most sensitive nerves. Anxiety-inducing, indeed.

Note: In the Wall Street Journal January 9, 2015, a front page article reports on the rise of professional cuddlers, who might charge $1/minute to spoon. Their customers say that cuddling lessens anxiety and increases a sense of well-being.

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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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