The morals of romance novels

I’ve already confessed to my weakness for chick lit, and expanded upon my disgust with the recent imports from Britain, which assure incompetent, drink-sodden women that the best looking guy in the room will see through the miasma of failure that hangs about them and sweep them off in a BMW.  Thinking about those rather debauched books got me thinking about modern American romance novels (both historicals and contemporaries) and how very different they are in tone.

The first major difference is that, at least as to the authors I read, the books are almost without exception pro-life.  In these books, the women want to have children with the book’s romantic hero.  If they get pregnant accidentally, the thought of an abortion is anathema to them.  Indeed, you can instantly distinguish the bounder from the hero in these books by the fact that the bounder urges the woman to have an abortion, while the hero is excited by the pregnancy and the thought of a child — even if the child isn’t his own.

The second major difference (again, limited to the authors I read) is that the heroines in American romances are admirable people.  They do not drink, smoke or do drugs.  They believe in ethical behavior.  They are attracted to the hero because he too is an ethical creature.  Indeed, it’s often the case that the hero’s attraction is the fact that, in an immoral world, he bucks the trend and consistently does the right thing.  To the extent these heroines have failings, something that makes them more readily identifiable with the reader, they’re friendly failings — she may be too impetutous, she may get in trouble for refusing to back down from a legitimate fight, she drinks too much coffee, her hair frizzes.

The different assumptions underlying the American and British books are huge.  British writers seem to assume that their readers are heavy into substance abuse, are working at jobs below their intelligence and ability, slack off at work (and often cheat the boss), and spend a lifetime in nightclubs.  These women are just marking time until some rich man comes to save them.  American writers assume that their readers believe that it is attractive to do the right thing, try to live physically healthy lives, expect their men to be models of rectitude (which often brings financial rewards), and view marriage and children as an appropriate conclusion to a satisfactory romance.

I think these differences matter, especially vis a vis American romances, because romances are such hugely popular books:

Romance novels are most popular in the United States and Canada, where it is the best-selling genre. In North America in 2002, sales of romance novels generated US$1.63 billion and comprised 34.6% of all popular fiction sold – by comparison, general fiction comprised 24.1% and mystery, detective and suspense fiction comprised 23.1%. Over 2000 romance novels were published, and there were 51.1 million romance novel readers.

I have to believe that American women read the books because they harmonize with their values, and there is no doubt in my mind that the same books reinforce those values in the women who read them.  Somewhere along the line, this has to matter.

What I haven’t delved into (these thoughts take time), is an idea DQ suggested I explore (or maybe he or you will explore):  that is the disconnect, not only between American romance novels and British romance novels, but the between the values in American romance novels and those coming out of Hollywood.  Hollywood values are often a whole lot closer to those in the British romance novels than they are to what American women want — which may explain why Hollywood is having an increasingly hard time attracting the American market.  Also, as I’ve already noted, those Hollywood movies that do best (something that must sorely pain the Hollywood elite) are the ones that espouse the most conservative values.

Anyway, if you’re interested, here’s a list of some of my favorite modern American romance writers, along with the one anomalous modern British romance writer.  (I distinguish modern from past writers because my favorite romance writer of all is Georgette Heyer, who was obsessively concerned with proper, moral behavior.  Ms. Heyer died in 1974).

Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Jennifer Crusie (who is not interested in children, but is interested in ethical behavior)

Julia Quinn

Carly Phillips

Dorothy Garlock (rather crude, but obsessed with good versus evil concepts, and the value of children)

Nora Roberts

Jayne Ann Krentz (who also writes as Amanda Quick and Jayne Castle)

Jude Devereux (interestingly, she has no website)

Katie Fforde (the lone Brit)

By the way, if you’re interested in moral mysteries, you could do worse than Faye Kellerman, whose detective is a convert to Orthodox Judaism.  She’s the wife of Jonathan Kellerman, who also lets a lot of morality seep into his writing.

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Comments

  1. BigEar38 says

    I recently met an interesting British woman. Just for conversation, I asked her what she thought of the movie “Match Point” in which a British tennis player marries into a wealthy family, has an affair with an American woman and, upon finding out that the American is pregnant, commits a triple murder to cover up the affair. This was one of the most uncomfortable movies I have ever seen. I was squirming in my seat. My British acquaintance had a completely different reaction to the movie. She was rooting for the murderer to get away with it! There seems to be a difference between British and American morality. It reminds me of the book and PBS series “Brideshead Revisited” where the wealthy family were so attractive and charming, yet were really cold hearted monsters. There is a great comment in the book by a wise character named Antony Blanche, about the danger of being seduced by this surface charm – “it kills art, it kills love, and I greatly fear that it has killed you.” My apologies to any and all Brits who don’t fit this stereotype.

  2. says

    Well, the Brits used to have some fortitude and guts. That started disappearing when WWII ended and they made Churchill resign. Churchill couldn’t be PM under a majority Socialist government. Churchill was after all, a champion of capitalism. And equated socialism with the woes of fascism and communism.

    In this respect, he continued his precognitive predictions.

    Europe will always suffer from an aristocracy and class conflict. I have the sneaking suspicion that class conscientiousness is quite prevalent in Europe. You know, the automatic respect and awe given to royalty and those with money. Could the paparrazi truly make so much money covering the Royal Family if there was not an intense interest in them? In America, Hollywood is our celebrities and royalty. They act like it, and they are even more rich and wealthy. With far more power than a Constitutional Monarch has, because they are not required to withdraw from political policies. However, in America, there is not this inherent belief that someone is superior because their blood goes back 5 centuries. There is not this belief of a social superiority for those with titles and money.

    Donald Trump can talk equally with Bill O’Reilly or any other articulate person, regardless of wealth. Wealth is not something that separates people in terms of social consciousness. What does separate people is inherent talent, intelligence, and education. There are high societies, but there are also Chinatowns in America’s melting pot. Self-segregation is something people are comfortable with, because they like being with peopl that are also like them and understand their life experiences.

    But all in all, money and status, is not brought up often, except when it is told as a joke.

    I remember all those stories about the ton in Britain. Those aristocrats were prevented from working at a ‘trade’, which meant that their income was limited by investments and the rent they accrued from their estates. Not very productive, but also very stable. Those without titles, mayhave invested in the West India Company and got rich speculating off of goods and trade. But the new rich were never as good as the old rich, because the old rich had “titles” and “bloodlines”.

    I remember the Tony Martin affair. The people of Britain have been reduced to people crazed in fear. They don’t know how to use their weapons, because they are told it is illegal to practice it for self-defense. So not only are they afraid they will be hurt by the thief and mugger, but they are also afraid of being prosecuted if they succede. So it’s that lovely socialist Catch 22. If you win, you can get jailed like Tony Martin, who over-reacted simply because the state had given him no choice, no help, and no human right to self-defense. If you lose, the muggers will beat the crap out of you and cave in your skull, and get like a year in jail for it.

    This is known as paralysis and freezing in military terms. Where the mind cannot decide what to do, because all avenues of action have negative consequences. Where is the discipline of the British people, that once allowed them to do what is right even in the face of adversity? Where has it disappeared to?

    Is this the price of socialism and nanny care? Is this the price o disarmament and banning of handguns? I think they are still paying the interest on their loans.

  3. Sarah says

    One of the libraries near me in Virginia gets Mills & Boon (or is it Boone?) romance novels from England. Some of the novels are more moral — with women who are strong, supportive of their families (sometimes to the point of being doormats for their siblings), and desiring of children. (And some of the novels are horrid dreck, too!)

    In my opinion, Helen Brooks (who is identified at times in the “about the author” sections as a Christian) is one of the better writers. However, a lot of the time the heroine is relatively poor and/or quite emotionally damaged and the hero is a multi-millionaire or billionaire (he may or may not be scarred physically or emotionally). Not too much like real life!

    I like some of Jessica Steele’s books — the heroines are usually virgins, by the way — but a lot of the books seem to follow a similar storyline.

  4. says

    Romance novels aren’t frivolous, Book!

    I tend to see them as a study on human nature. What motivates people into acting, what makes a wise decision as opposed to an unwise one, and what does it take to achieve one’s most heartfelt desire.

    Besides, they are one of the most egalitarian media forms around. Rich or poor, smart or not smart, old or young, it combines all the qualities and produces something good in human affairs. You don’t get that from much of anything else, except maybe military science fiction.

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  1. [...] I’m impressed.  To have the kind of demanding job the President has, and still to manage to read 104 books in a year is quite a feat.  I read more books than that, but I’ll be the first to admit both that I have a much less onerous job and that I interlard my serious books with frivolous reading that I would never boast about (although I do blog about it). [...]

  2. [...] I’m impressed. To have the kind of demanding job the President has, and still to manage to read 104 books in a year is quite a feat. I read more books than that, but I’ll be the first to admit both that I have a much less onerous job and that I interlard my serious books with frivolous reading that I would never boast about (although I do blog about it). [...]

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