Feminist and Women Studies’ Association Conference location:Newcastle date:30 June – 1 July 2007
Many studies of the romance genre written from a feminist perspective, including Radway's classic study Reading the Romance (1984), have described the genre as one which is conservative and does little or nothing to challenge patriarchal social structures. My analysis of a corpus of handbooks for writing romance novels suggests that the genre is neither static nor formulaic and that the concomitant passive conceptualisation of the romance author is incorrect. While these handbooks confirm the existence of strong generic narrative frames, they also emphasize the crucial importance of high culture values such as novelty, creativity, idiosyncrasy and originality. Much emphasis is placed on the concept of an author’s personal voice, i.e. the combination of all the elements which make her writing unique.
These complex strategies undermine the traditionally passive conception of the romance author. Writing good romance novels requires the ability to be creative, original and idiosyncratic within the genre's narrative constraints. In short, the handbooks claim these texts need to be simultaneously universally recognizable (as romance novels) and distinctively individual (as written by a specific author). I argue that because the idiosyncratic and original dimension of a romance novel is buried in its universal framework, the creatively active role of its authors is generally not recognized, although, as my analysis indicates, it is crucially important.
This active role of the authors contributes to the dynamics of the genre, which is essentially adaptive and innovative in nature, incorporating general social transformations. An analysis of a corpus of contemporary romances suggests changing elements include the characterisation of the protagonists, their interaction, the latent value system, etc. This generic plasticity not only contradicts the traditional static image of the genre, but might also indicate that the romance genre is no longer as affirmative of patriarchal social structures as previously suggested.