Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Guilty Pleasures: Reading Romance Novels as Reworked Fairy Tales

Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Guilty Pleasures: Reading Romance Novels as Reworked Fairy Tales

Article excerpt

Alternately dismissed as "trash," "smut," or "women's pornography," popular romance novels-and their readers-are often criticized, marginalized, and mocked. These novels, however, are the most popular of all genres of fiction. The statistics are staggering. According to the Romance Writers of America (RWA), romance fiction had $1.37 billion in sales in 2006 and held a 26.4 percent share of the consumer book market. More than 64 million Americans read at least one romance novel in 2004, and 42 percent of these readers hold at least a bachelors' degree (Romance Writers of America). Studies of romance readers suggest that a third of all women who read, read romance novels (for example, Radway; Williams; Williams and Freedman). These statistics demand we take romances seriously. This fiction genre is often dismissed simply because it is women's fiction. In fact, many of the criticisms levied against it are also true of men's formulaic fiction, such as detective novels. Romance novels have much in common with traditional fairy tales: both are highly formulaic; invoke a fantasy realm; focus on the creation or reconciliation of a romantic pair; exist in an infinite variation of texts that fall into distinct types; and are often dismissed as being "trivial." With their prototypical marriage endings, criticisms are levied against both narrative forms for their failure to challenge the system of social relations and norms from which they arise. These similarities suggest romantic fiction as a natural excursus of folkloristic inquiry into popular culture. This is not the case, however; with few exceptions (such as Williams and Freedman; Hains), folklorists and folklore journals have ignored this genre, preferring instead elite fairy-tale transformations by writers such as Angela Carter, A. S. Byatt, or Salman Rushdie.

Although scholars, authors, and publishers have noted the connection between traditional fairy tales and romance novels, the exact nature of this relationship is not well articulated. For example, in The Alienated Reader Bridget Fowler traces the history of the romance novel through fairy tales and novella, among other fictive forms. Unfortunately, she merely asserts this connection rather than articulates how they are related. This article is intended to address that lacuna, considering the romance genre in terms of its relationship to fairy tales, with particular attention to their parallel structures and the way that traditional tale types and motifs are reworked and eroticized. This represents an under-explored and under-theorized intersection of folklore and popular culture. I consider romance novels from myriad subgenres, with a particular focus on paranormal romance novels, which are more clearly fantastical and often include marvelous elements that are analogous to those found in traditional wonder tales, as well as the importance of the Beauty and the Beast tale type (ATU 425C) for popular romance.

In A Natural History of the Romance Novel, Pamela Regis defines the romance novel as "a work of prose fiction that tells the story of a courtship and betrothal of one or more heroines" (19). The popular romance novels that are the subject of this inquiry are specifically about heterosexual couples, although there are both lesbian and gay romances that explore alternative sexual pairings.1 Despite the commonly held belief that "all romance novels are the same," there is actually a great deal of variety within this broader generic category. And as with any other type of fictive genre, there are well-written and poorly written popular romance novels. The broad category of "romance" is comprised of numerous subgenres, including contemporary, historical, Regency, Western, inspirational, romantic suspense, and paranormal. Although there is certainly crossover among these categories, each subgenre includes its own set of formulas, conventions, motifs, and generic expectations.

This paranormal romance subgenre is a catchall category that includes diverse topics such as time travel, futuristic settings, magic, shape- shifters, supernatural creatures like werewolves and vampires, or other-world settings. …

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