Thursday, September 13, 2012

A Modern Romance: the New Age of Bodice Rippers?

Mary Bly is a tenured professor of William Shakespeare at Fordham University in New York City. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Harvard University, attained a Masters in Philosophy from Oxford University, and went on to earn a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies from Yale University. She is a respected academic who follows closely along the exalted lines of her progenitors, the leader of the mythopoetic men’s movement Robert Bly and non-fiction author Carol Bly. Oh yes, and not to forget, she is also the illustrious New York Times bestselling author of historical romance fiction, such as Much Ado About You, The Ugly Duchess, and Potent Pleasures.

‘Damn you precious virgins!’ snarled the bodice-ripping rake over the sound of tearing silk.” Bly, otherwise known under her penname Eloisa James, sat in her fifth-grade choir class and learned about sex from Kathleen Woodwiss’s Flame and the Flower. She fell in love with romances then and there. Her father, less than enthused about her new enthusiasm, created a rule—for every romance she read, she had to read a classic.

Mary Bly’s story is unique. Not every romance author is a Shakespeare professor. But her story is not as singular as I thought. There are many authors of romance with advanced graduate degrees. Stranger still, there appears to be an add correlation between a juris doctor and romance author. Nalini Singh, a New York Times, USA Today, and Publisher’s Weekly bestselling author of paranormal romance, worked as a lawyer before entering the world of romance writing. Jessica Bird, a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of both historical and paranormal romance, earned her law degree from Albany Law School and worked as Chief of Staff at Beth Israel Deaconness in Boston, Massachusetts for many years before writing romance. Marjorie M. Liu, a New York Times bestselling author of paranormal romance, urban fantasy novels, and comic books, graduated from the University of Wisconsin law school where she specialized in biotech law. Monica McCarty, New York Times bestselling author of historical romance lived her first life as a graduate of Stanford Law School and as a litigator in both Minnesota and California before penning early 17th Century Scottish romances. To cap it off, New York Times bestselling author Laura Willig started her historical romance career as a second year law student at Harvard University. I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

And all in an industry where romance book sales have held steady at around 1.4 billion a year since 2008. That’s more than a tenth of all book sales in the United States, which averages at a little more than 10 billion a year. Not only do these sales seem to span to all ages in women, these romances sell wildly well in the international market as well.

With these numbers and these credentials, is the perception of romance novels as tawdry, unintelligent, bodice-rippers still an accurate reflection of reality? Even if they are smarter, do romance novels continue to merely reinforce the negative stereotypes of women? At heart, what is it that motivates women across time and space, to the glorified love story? Or is it not so much the love, but the happy ending? Which brings up the question, when did romance become synonymous with a happy ending?

What draws you to romance?


Heather said...

Interesting! I had never thought of the backgrounds of romance novel writers.

You ask "do romance novels continue to merely reinforce the negative stereotypes of women?" I think they reinforce a uni-dimensional stereotype of women. It's my impression that romance novels focus on women's sexuality. I would imagine that there is a lot of different type of women and sex portrayed in romance books and some of them are probably positive portrayals. However, I doubt they also explore women in other areas of their lives. So they are likely not unilaterally negative portrayals, but not a full and accurate portrayal.

Sarah said...

I have never read a romance novel - but I think it's unfair to simply dismiss them as unidimensional or reinforcing negative stereotypes. I like the idea that women write romance, sex, fantasy based on what they really think is hot, for women readers. Sure, the fantasies may not help us in the real world, with real relationships, but that doesn't mean they don't fulfill a real need that women have to indulge in erotic fantasy. Very interesting read!

Mo said...

Like Sarah, I’ve never read a romance novel. Well, not the paperback, “bodice-ripping” kind, anyway. I have always found it interesting, though, how widely-available and, for the most part, totally socially acceptable these books are. (At my most recent, pre-law school job, even, I frequently saw co-workers read them at their desks during lunch breaks. Those same workers, I’m sure, blew through copies of Fifty Shades of Grey last summer.) Anyway, as I said, I’ve never read one, but if they’re as sexually explicit as I imagine them to be, isn’t this, essentially pornography? And what makes it so much more socially acceptable to read a bodice-ripper than to view an X rated film? Is it the mere fact that actual people are involved in the film? Or do we think that sexually explicit novels impart some kind of intellectual benefit on the reader? What is it that is so extraordinarily worse about seeing nudity on television than reading about it in print?

tzey said...
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tzey said...

Unlike Sarah and Monica, I have read A LOT of romance novels. Like the author of the Ugly Duchess, for every book of non literary merit I read my parents made me read a classic (although they did not really know how descriptive those romance novels are). After reading this I think I am going to go and try to find The Ugly Duchess at the library. But I agree with Monica that these types of novels essentially are targeted woman's pornography. They are incredibly descriptive, and narration of sex scenes is almost always told from the woman's perspective.

I think these “bodice rippers” provide women what pornography does not: a woman's perspective of sex with a whole lot of foreplay. None of the novels I have read start with a sex scene. Usually the characters meet and fall in love first. I think they are like grown up Disney characters’. They are "feisty" women of prestige who are smart and in some way don’t fit in. Then their “Prince Charming” arrives and falls in love with them and they have sex.

My favorite is a “Kingdom of Dreams” by Judith Mcnaught, she was the first female executive at CBS. It’s about a plucky Scottish girl who gets caught up and kidnapped by a "handsome English rogue". Basically its like Beauty and the Beast.

I will say that Fifty Shades of Grey is very poorly written and I did not finish it, it was so bad.