Because you’re here at Genretastic, I’m going to assume that you’re the kind of person who considers what smart, engaged people have to say about genre fiction in all its forms.
We read about gender in sci-fi and race in fantasy because we think genre fiction has something to offer as a way to think about culture. So when I started this project, I built a list of romance authors on twitter and read pieces by and about them in other media; I added several new blogs to my regular rotation; I dug into some of my librarian-y reader’s advisory tools to learn more about how those who work with romance readers come up with read-alikes and recommendations. I also went in search of book lists, and, because romance as a genre as well as ideas about it have changed a lot over time, I looked in particular for books written about romance in this century.
One of the first non-fiction books that made its way onto my TBR list was Maya Rodale’s Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained. Initially written as an academic thesis, the published version covers a bunch of ideas about why romance novels are so thoroughly disregarded by cultural critics and academics alike. One of the early chapters brings up the ongoing feminist arguments about choice, marriage, and happily ever afters: there is an ongoing and complex question as to whether women can ever really choose to follow traditional paths in a patriarchal society. One of the points Rodale brings up, however, is that at the dawn of romance as a genre, even seeking love-match marriage was for many a progressive act. “Elevating love,” she says, “meant elevating personal considerations above considerations like wealth or status. It also meant elevating the personal lives of women.” The personal is political, writ with heart-dotted-I’s.
If the love-match marriage and happily-ever-afters carry into contemporary plots and not just historical romance is a somewhat more complicated question, it’s hard to deny that plenty of chick-lit is filled with women making somewhat radical choices that our culture would consider silly in a real person’s life: leaving jobs behind; breaking up with boring boyfriends for no major reason other than that they’re boring and we think we deserve better; dating someone parents wouldn’t approve of; staying single and talking to other women about sex. Bringing ideas of choice into a modern context, especially for writers of historical romance novels, can be tricky, but a number of today’s romance writers are actively grappling with the question in their work.
Among them is Alyssa Cole, a writer of contemporary, historical, and SFF romance novels whose latest, A Princess in Theory, was the first contemporary romance on my list for this project. It’s genuinely a stunner of a novel, and choosing is such a major theme that when the heroine’s personal choices are compromised, it becomes a major source of internal and external conflict for other characters. The trope of “domesticating” a progressive, independent woman, which goes back in fiction at least as far as Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, is subverted here not only by characters who respect and embrace the heroine’s passions and ambitions, but by a story that prioritizes those aspects of her personality far above the romance itself. When Ledi chooses the relationship, it’s very clear that it’s a true, unconstrained choice.
Although Happily Ever Afters aren’t for everybody, for many readers of romance, a well-written and thoroughly chosen HEA can be a radical outcome. For writers like Cole, whose novels include characters of racial minorities and a diverse range of sexual orientations, Happily Ever Afters Without Caveats can be particularly poignant. Representation matters, not only in the presence of diverse characters but in what happens to them. Cole’s characters aren’t living lives without challenges, but for the characters and the authors alike, choosing their ultimate happiness is a radical act.