Studying Romance Novels

During three decades of part-time university studies, I developed an interest in the social, industrial, and technical forces that shape the content and understanding of films. Various aspects of the subject continue to fascinate me, which explains why I still research and write about film classification systems, why I recently bought a Laserdisc player, and other eccentricities. That’s my story, and I’m sticking with it.

Although reading and writing romance novels is a pleasure, I can’t help but consider the academic film theory I learned and how it might apply. Since much of the theory in film studies originates in literature studies, this is not a stretch, but rather than re-inventing the wheel, I should look at what has already been done. Step one completed: I ordered Janice Radway’s classic work, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature.

Meanwhile, I’ve just acquired a copy of Genre: The Musical. I obtained this for an essay by Richard Dyer: “Entertainment and Utopia.” To give credit where credit is due, this essay was brought to my attention when Linda Williams used Dyer’s theoretical approaches to musicals in her work studying narrative pornographic films.

Dyer notes that entertainment pleases us by showing utopia – a simple world where people have agency and intense feelings, and there is abundance, honesty, and community.

Richard Dyer’s categories and definitions of utopian aspects in entertainment. “Entertainment and Utopia,” in Genre: The Musical, edited by Rick Altman. Routledge, London, 1981, 175-189. Originally printed in Movie #24, Spring 1977, 2-13.

Sounds good, though he also notes that entertainment typically disregards issues related to race, class, and sexuality. We’ve made little progress, except perhaps on sexuality, since he wrote that in 1977. He adds that since our entertainments take place in a capitalist society, they promote consumption and the notion that capitalism can lead us to utopia.

For people to accept utopia in a story, there needs to be a connection to the present reality – without drawing too much attention to how the present is not utopia. That might make us question capitalism. Dyer proposes three approaches for how musical films attempt to connect reality and utopia without dwelling on the gap:

  • Separated, where the musical numbers present the utopia, and the story takes place in the present. This is typically a “backstage musical,” such as 42nd Street. The musical numbers eventually take over the film. It occurs to me that this is similar to romance stories where an ordinary person meets a billionaire (typically successful in business). Their world is the utopia, seen in isolated scenes before the ordinary person crosses over to it.
  • Integrated, where the musical numbers introduce the problem or the solution to the problem, in an effort to distract, and make both the problem and the solution literally upbeat. Mamma Mia, for example, resolves finding your father through a series of ABBA songs. This is like contemporary romance and especially romantic comedy, where meet cutes and misunderstandings are key parts of the plot. Suspense, faith, or erotica are other distractions, and there’s often a subplot of achieving business success. Like musicals, the lead couple may have several ‘solos,’ the supporting cast may have some numbers, and we end with the lovers duet.
  • Dyer describes the third form as the least common: Dissolved, where the film is somehow distanced from the present day. This is often done by setting the film in a past, which, no matter how grim it seems at first, works with our sense of nostalgia to evoke a glorious utopian era. Oliver! comes to mind as a musical film example. The distance is also a distraction. This category would apply to historical romances, as well as stories involving modern royalty, the paranormal, and even Amish stories, and may be the most popular form of romance novel. Utopia, or a happy ending, is easier to achieve in a more refined, magical, or simpler time.

These categories are not necessarily exclusive. An historical romance with a wealthy duke and comic misunderstandings gives us utopia that is primarily dissolved from our present realities, with elements of separation and integration. It could be argued that not all films, or even all musicals, present utopia. However, romance novels, with happy endings by definition, do give us utopia.

I find it useful, when reading and writing romance, to be aware of the tensions between presenting relatable characters and situations and presenting a happy ending, and ways to address those tensions. I also find it useful to recognize how entertainment utopias may ignore social issues. Modern romance novels are often good at addressing issues of sexuality, but race and class are less frequently addressed. Agency (including sexual), intense feelings, abundance, honesty, and community are common to most happy ever after endings, but there’s room to add more utopian aspects. That would be good for everyone – and might help sales too!

Author: trc

Freelance writer, freelance editor, web consultant, and film studies scholar.

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