Toronto writer Erika Blair (a.k.a Greg Kelly) explores the myths and realities of romance fiction in 1992.
I think the reason that women read romance, and this goes for any of the subgenres within the genre, is that women are looking for a happily ever after, we give you boy meets girl, they fall in love, and they end up one way or another happily ever after, and women want this, and I think men want this too. No, I don’t think romances create wild expectations. The wild expectations that most women have are to find the right man, to have a happy home, to possibly have a good career. The one thing I think it gives them to shoot for is that they see in the better of the books written in this genre that there can be normal relationships between men and women, and I think that’s something in this day and age to shoot for.
One understands perfectly well that the feminist revolution, that is, women in the labor force, women in the professions, is one of the great advents of the 20th century, and even the romance novel is going to reflect it to some extent. That is to say, a new set of perhaps more progressive cliches have replace an older set of more reactionary ones seems to me perhaps a slight improvement but scarcely anything to crow about. I think the interesting criticism of romance novels is not that they are a particular kind of fantasy, but that they are completely unreal. The trouble with this work is that it’s psychologically reductive, that it pedals notions of how life works out that have nothing to do with how it works out even when it works out well, there’s no notion of the tragic, there’s the disaster: he leaves her, she doesn’t get the job, whatever the formula is, there’s no notion that things are difficult, that people age, that life is complicated, that it’s full of salt as well as sugar. It seems to me that that’s what’s wrong with these books, not whether they have the correct line on women becoming partners in law firms.
One of the things that distinguishes good writing from bad writing in English is simply the good writer’s ability to be spare with the details, to know when the reader can do the work. The romance writer will never do that.
I think we have to look at this fantasy, and also look at the reading, the huge amount of romance reading that women do, as a very successful coping mechanism in very very difficult situations. In dialogue with readers I find that very often they will have periods of intense romance reading [which] may coincide with the birth of their first child, or having three children under five, or being an undergraduate, and with women the kind of pressure tends to be a pressure where they can’t justify taking time for themselves. Women have said to me they’re better than drugs and alcohol. They serve the purpose of escape.
I think if you look at these not as books but as products, or if you like as comic books, you’ll get a much better sense. No one is surprised that in Japan these things called Manga which are these mass circulation comic books, sort of softcore porn slash adventure comic books are read by millions of people. It appeals to our baser natures, and that’s what Hollywood does, and that’s what romance books do. You know, if you said unhappy people also like to eat vast quantities, they like to stuff eclairs into their mouths, I really don’t think that anyone except perhaps an eclair manufacturer would suggest that this was very good for them or was to be encouraged or had some political justification. I still maintain that they are, however consoling they may feel, they’re a kind of false consolation, and like any opiate they make you feel worse in the long run.
One of the needs that women have is a need for nurture, really. It’s something that I would say most women in this society are deprived of and really can’t expect after a fairly young age. Our society is structured in such a way that women give that out to children and to men, and really can’t have much expectation of getting that back, and the romances are full of males nurturing females. The heroes are always independent, that is, not dependent and not requiring nurture or a lot of care and attention from the woman, but are in turn paying a lot of attention to her and nurturing her. Now, once you’ve said that the hero is a mother figure, it shrieks out at you, you read him being bossy and exasperated in ways that are very much like a mother. Occasionally I’ll find myself longing for that feeling of escape. I don’t particularly resist that longing because what the romance fantasy shows when it’s analyzed in terms of an understanding of the hero as a mother figure is the depth of that need and the potential for social change when we can recognize that our nurture does come largely from women, and that we need to in fact develop our woman identification and our woman power.