Bodice rippers, feminist literature, or just good yarns? (Part 1 of 3)

Story tellers tend to start from one of three main story elements: a character, a setting or situation, or something that went wrong. (How to Plot 101: don’t ask yourself what happened next; ask yourself what went wrong.)

For each of the following pictures, pick a main character, decide the setting, and tell yourself what went wrong. I’ve written below the picture what genre the story should be.

Now remember those main characters, and in a minute you’ll find out why.

What genre is best?

Genre is an interesting thing. It’s a sorting device that allows booksellers and librarians to shelve books into groups, to make it easy for readers to find the kinds of story they like, but in the minds of readers, and perhaps especially critics, it is sometimes scene as saying something about quality.

And no genre attracts more name-calling than the romance genre: trashy books, mummy-porn, bodice rippers, chick-lit. The headline to this blog post is the title of my talk at Featherston Booktown yesterday, and I heard from a number of people beforehand that they believed precisely the opposite. They had not themselves read romance, but they knew it to be poor writing, formulaic, and anti-feminist.

I have read romance. Lots of romance, and particularly historical romance, which is the sub-genre I write in. And I’ve read all sorts of other fiction too. And in every genre—not excluding mainstream and literary fiction—I’ve found books that are well written and researched, and books that are so poorly done I can’t finish them. I’ve also found those gems that stay with me; great books that change or deepen my view about something, so that I return and read them again, revisiting and finding deeper layers in the book and in myself.

There is no best genre. And there’s no worst genre, either.

So why does romance get so much flak?

Let’s define terms. A romance novel has two characteristics. If it doesn’t fit both, it may be an excellent book, but it isn’t a romance. (And remember, genre is just about how to shelve the book.)

  1. the story is about the growing emotional attachment between two people
  2. the story ends with the hope that the two people have a happy future together.

Romantic stories that qualify for the first but not the second include: Titanic, Romeo and Juliet, The Marriage of Mergotta, Gone with the Wind. Not romances.

And I’m using the term feminism to mean the belief that women have the right to the same social, economic, educational and other opportunities as men, and should be as free as men to make choices about those opportunities. By that definition, I’m a feminist. And so, I am about to argue, are romance novels as a genre.

Dangerous books for girls

So why, for more than 200 years, has the romance novel been derided by the establishment? I’ve organised my response under six headings taken from Maya Rodale’s book Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained. Her headings, my thoughts—but I highly recommend the book. Her overview of the past 200 years, her survey results, and her thoughts about what it all means make fascinating reading.

So why were and are romance novels Dangerous Books for Girls?

  1. Because women
  2. Because the love match
  3. Because escape
  4. Because the author-ity
  5. Because female orgasms
  6. Because HEA

Let’s talk about what each of those mean.

#1 Because women

A few minutes ago, I got you to pick main characters for four different stories. How many women did you pick? When I did this exercise during my talk, male characters outnumbered female characters eight to three. I used the same painting several times for different genres, and I included the romance genre as one of the options. Twice. So two of those three women were main characters in a romance. (The other was a spy.) In the other genres, males outnumbered females eight to one.

This is pretty typical. Women had 30% of speaking roles (and 12% of lead roles) in recent movies. Books about women don’t tend to win literary awards, either. In her study of the last fifteen years results for six major book length fiction awards, Nicole Griffiths found that only one, the Newbury Medal, consistently had books about girls or women (girls, in this case, the Newbury being for children’s books). Of the other five—so seventy-five prizes in total (Pulitzer Prize, Man Booker Prize, National Book Award, National Book Critics’ Circle Award, and Hugo Award), only eight prizes were awarded to books with a woman or girl as the major protagonist. And, by the way, all of those were written by women.

Romances are written by women (about 80% of writers are women), for women (around 90% of readers), about women. Women are central or at least co-equal in almost every plot. They’re not a plot device. Even when the heroine is Too Dumb To Live, the plot still hinges on her choices. Even if the hero is a creep calling out for a restraining order, the plot still hinges on the heroine’s choices.

The book isn’t over till the heroine gets what she wants.


Continue on to part 2


4 thoughts on “Bodice rippers, feminist literature, or just good yarns? (Part 1 of 3)

  1. Hello Jude. It was great to read your article and I look forward to reading the next two parts. I count myself as a feminist too and have just completed my first historical romance. My theme has been to explore issues around work and economic survival in late eighteenth century London.

    From a political point of view women at this time were raising their heads for the first time, writing and demanding equality especially in education and the development of the professional classes (although women were excluded from them) meant that choice of wife as a partner and helpmate was more important than ever for an ambitious man.

    I think historical novels and romances are a great canvas to explore and discuss the issues of equality and the respective ambitions of men and women. I have taken the stance of life as a joint enterprise in my novel which some more generous commentators say Rousseau advocated. I disagree; I think Rousseau was a man of his time and saw women as inferior in every way but I thought it was an interesting idea to explore.

  2. re the science fiction, the mecha is obviously driven by someone whose ability to interface with the machine to help with heavy work, is boosted by the super milk. I should have specified that. even so, without spare parts it’s overheating

  3. My choices:
    the woman on the science fiction pic is head scientist of a colony which lost most of its technology when the colony ship crashed. She is working on building up the herds so that at least the colony survives, and developing supermilk to boost them

    Spy thriller: the storyteller is a member of the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel and he is lying low in disguise after stealing the plans for the semaphore to take back to Britain. He’s not where he should be because he was wounded

    the woman feeding the baby has brought into town her husband [with the scythe], who has been blinded by being staked out in the sun by outlaws stealing their stock. She hopes to find work as housekeeper and labourer with some stock owner. Her husband will die tragically protecting the household and after helping to fight off the same rustlers who took everything from them. she will marry the rancher.

    the couple waiting to get married are devastated to learn from the newcomer that the vicar has just been murdered. The lady at the window has seen a man she knows and despite the efforts of the Peelers, she manages to solve the murder and show how this was a deep seated plot on the part of the bride’s cousin to keep her money in the family

Love hearing from you