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).
Jennifer Crusie (who is not interested in children, but is interested in ethical behavior)
Dorothy Garlock (rather crude, but obsessed with good versus evil concepts, and the value of children)
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.