Review, Smut Reporting

In Conversation with Happily Ever After by Catherine M. Roach (2016)

I’ve decided that in order to deal with my mixed emotions about not being part of Academic Romacelandia (a combination of regret, pining, and acknowledgment that I don’t really like doing research), I’m going to try and at least read academic monographs about romance. And then write about them. 

Happily Ever After: The Romance Story in Popular Culture spoke to me as someone who is kind of between worlds. Or, rather, as someone who is familiar with both Academia and Romancelandia, even if I have imposter syndrome when dealing with both of them. (Self-analysis for another time.) Roach set out to explore romance fiction – and as part of her project, acted as a participant-observer. Not just as a fan, but also as an author. (Fun fact! Her first book, a historical romance called Master of Love, culminates with the heroine pegging the hero.) So her book is more multi-faceted than the standard academic work: she intersperses more “traditional” analysis with playful chapters where she explores her own experiences in Romancelandia. 

Her main thesis is that the romance narrative is the central defining narrative in Western culture, which I’m not sure I buy (I’ll come back to this point). I think she fails to convince me in part because of the way the book is structured. The book felt more like a collection of essays about romance than one argument that built to a climax. (Pun intended.) On the other hand, her book is richer for being less focused, as it allows her to share a more immersive take on what romance novels look like at the beginning of the 21st century. 

Let’s start with the good: I especially appreciated her emphasis on sex. Look, we called our blog The Smut Report. And part of that is the acknowledgment that sex is important to the romance genre – even, I would argue, when there’s no sex on the page. These stories are all about finding someone who loves you, and navigating sexuality is an important component of this journey. Even, or perhaps especially, if your sexuality is asexual or demisexual or only after our bond has been approved by god. Sex is still there. 

I do think that the reflective chapters were weaker than the straight academic ones, for two reasons. First, because her chapter on the RWA felt so remarkably dated. Granted, this book was published in 2016 (before the monstrous shit-show of last year), but Roach portrays the biggest fights in the RWA as about whether “erotic romance” counts as romance – and fails to acknowledge the bigger and uglier divide about LGBTQ romance (which first came to a head in 2005, so she most likely knew about it) or the marginalization of authors of color (I will generously give her a pass here, given the slowness of academic publishing). Second, I often felt that the more casual conversations weren’t bringing much to the table – I’ve had these same discussions with other romance readers. On the other hand, my husband randomly opened the book to the chapter where Roach has an imaginary conversation with her romance author alter-ego, and laughed at the sex jokes, and kept reading, so maybe it’s about reaching people where they’re at, and that people who spend a lot of time on Romance Twitter are not the audience for that chapter.

However, Roach does grapple with some interesting issues, which don’t have “answers” per se, but which do point to tensions within the genre. In particular, I want to focus in on the question of whether romance is conservative or liberationist – because it’s both. And not just because there are different “wings” of Romancelandia (see Racheline Maltese’s excellent discussion of liberationism vs. compliance), but because there is a tension in the message that Romance is all about women finding great sex and a respectful partner in a monogamous bonded pair til death do them part. Romance gives space women to play out their fantasies – about being cared for, about being respected – which perhaps can bleed into real-world women demanding care and respect from their real-world partners. But there is still a heavy emphasis on one type of true love – and by that I mean a true love that fulfills all of your emotional and physical needs.

I did promise to talk about the whole Romance Is the Main Story of Western Culture. Roach posits that the healing power of love is central to the romance story (and not just the overt morality chain romances) – and also central to Western Christianity. To put it in Christian terms: through God’s love are we redeemed. In Roach’s words:

“The love of a good woman, or good man, or God, or Son of God, has the power to heal all wounds. Love has the power to forgive all since stretching back to the stain of original sin, to resurrect a dead man, to save a lost soul, to integrate false persona and true self, to make a real man – or real woman – out of you.” 

This is a provocative and interesting argument (maybe especially because of my background in religious studies). But I really struggle with the idea of romance as the thing that heals everything, maybe because Erin and Ingrid and I are always bitching about how characters need therapy instead of love to help them deal with all of their shit. Because it’s true – in romance stories, love is often enough, and that is just hard to swallow sometimes. On the other hand – having this narrative as a fantasy where love is enough and where you don’t need to do the hard work of maintaining a marriage is perhaps the (pernicious?) escape that we need. 

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