Romance novels offer access to live vicariously through characters who suffer but find love. But instead of sitting around feeling like victims, waiting to be rescued, they act. When I'm closing the book after reading the final pages of a thoroughly enjoyed romance novel, I have a satisfying feeling of accomplishment. I’m left with a sense of being motivated to face the real adversity in my life with courage.
Having seen hero and heroine through the twists and turns of heartbreak and courageous acts to overcome emotional and material world obstacles, I am emotionally there with them when all their efforts pay off. When they have won success through effort and not handed it by some fateful lottery ticket, their victory is sweeter for the struggle. I feel uplifted, and empowered to act in my own life as a result of borrowed bravery. That is a lot.
Perhaps the uplifting effect of romance novels can explain what happened during the GFC (The Global Financial Crisis) when the publishing industry was hit hard. Editors lost jobs due to falling sales, authors lost contracts for future planned books however the romance genre defied the trend and sales remained strong, even growing.
The general popularity of the romance genre, is not just a recent phenomenon. It could be said that the popularity of the romance novel coincided with the industrial revolution and the rise of a middle class in western society when for the first time a large portion of women came to have funds available for discretionary spending. Romance sales have remained strong right through the 20th century and into the 21st.
Ever since the early nineteenth century when Jane Austen was taking her first steps into the publishing world with what would become classics, there has been a following. But through the ages, women’s lives are very often not like the happy ending of a romance novel. So what do readers find that is relate-able in the romantic stories with happy endings?
In my own life experience, I’ve been very sad with relationships ending and suffering from illness. But loss has to be endured and even illness to a certain extent heals, adjustments can be made to adapt your life to the new normal and positives can be found. The sad, difficult times don’t last forever. In romance books this is what happens. There’s healing of hearts and hopefulness at the end of the story.
In real life the happy times return but it could be months or even years before healing can work its magic. In a romance novel it happens at the end of the book, every time. While a mature sane woman knows the romance is a fantasy and real life won’t mirror it exactly the underlying message is that enduring difficulty will eventually pass.
Sexy scenes or not?
It is impossible to talk about the romance genre without considering the physical relationship between the hero and heroine. Many genres include love scenes of varying degrees of explicitness. The genre I write contains intimate sexy scenes between hero and heroine. I find it is a natural progression for my characters to physically act out what they are feeling. In romance novels the the love scene, be it sweetly sexy to highly erotic, differs meaningfully from pornography. It must be an emotional experience, relevant to the story and move the relationship between hero and heroine forward and advance the readers knowledge of their character.
What does the reader gain?
Carol Rinkleib Ellison, PhD, a psychologist and author of Women's Sexualities has some ideas I think make good sense. She is quoted on a 2011 blog by Bodice Rippers, Femme Fatals and Fantasy, where explores the idea that through reading romance, women are able to move out of their traditional roles and into their sexual self. She says, ‘Taking part in enjoyable activities such as walking with a partner, listening to music, having a glass of wine, taking a bath, or reading a romance novel can help put women in the mood for sex. These activities can help women shift into their "sex self" from their role as mother, wife, employer, or employee.’
I conducted a survey of my female friends on when they read romance. I found timing had to do with a need to alter their mood. They claimed to read romance when had have leisure time as a way of lowering stress. Each has the pressures of modern life, responsibilities of various mixtures of the following: career; children; partner; and balancing family or personal budgets. One friend said she likes to double the de-stress dose and read romance while taking a bath. Another said that reading romance provided a leisure activity she can do when she is physically tired. A friend who shifted in with her in-laws whilst her new house was being built retreated to the bedroom with a romance where there is peace and quiet after the children have been put to bed.
During times of stress we all need a bit of feel-good and pick-me-up. The romance genre seems to have found the right mix of ingredients that provide upliftment in a way that women find accessible. Be it finding her sexual self, the optimism of the happy ever after ending, or the sheer love of the romantic ride, the sales tell the tale. The more demanding a woman’s life is, the more she reads romance.
Romance author and lifestyle blogger
My whole life is inspired by romance. I write romance novels of course but also love creating DIY's and decorating in a romantic style. I'm rejuvenating an old garden, including rescuing a couple of old rose bushes and planting new ones.