Social change and a change in the condition of women, the requests of several waves of feminism and of many female models that have emerged over the years: if there is a literary genre that can account for all this, it’s the so-called romance literature.
Often snubbed by literary pundits and considered a lower-level literature (when not entirely overlooked) this narrative, mainly intended for women, features a heroine as lead character of a love story, who is actually a lively and alive character in the global scenario of novels.
In fact, over two billion copies of romance novels were sold throughout the world in 2019. That’s why this genre should actually be a case study, considering that “Romance and erotica” is the most profitable literary genre in the United States, accounting for over half of all pocket-size books sales. In the United Kingdom alone, in the first half of 2017, a romance novel was purchased every two seconds.
Even though the publishing business isn’t doing too well, romance novels have thrived in the digital era, even thanks to the Internet. Indeed, inexperienced romance novelists have gained popularity in dedicated forums, creating a fan base they can resort to when it comes to publishing, making the most of direct connections with readers.
The advent and golden era of romance novels is the subject of Breve storia della letteratura rosa (“Short history of romance literature”), an 80-page book written by journalist Patrizia Viola and published by Graphe.it, which swiftly entertains us by telling us about the evolution of romance novels.
The book begins with the dawn of the genre, marked by novels such as The Cat Cinderella by Giambattista Basile (1634), mentions the first modern-era romance novel, Pamela by Samuel Richardson (1740) and gives us an overview ranging from the 19th century to present day.
It narrates the birth of photo stories in the 1940s, published by Harlequin (which eventually became the world’s largest publisher of romance novels), the success of chick-lit in the nineties, with Bridget Jones and Sex and the City, and Fifty shades of grey and self-published fan fiction (that is, books written by a fan of a famous character) such as After, by Ann Todd. It also includes gossip, harsh criticisms and heinous comments.
For example, the one by Mark Twain, who, after reading Pride and Prejudice, absurdly claimed he wanted to “dig up Jane Austen’s corpse and beat her on the skull with her own shinbone”. Roughly one century later, the Wall Street Journal fiercely criticised Mills & Boon’s (renowned romance literature publishers) bodice ripper romances, caustically describing them as a publisher’s answer to the Big Mac: “they are juicy, cheap, predictable and devoured in stupefying quantities by legions of loyal fans”. Or, last but not least, intellectual author Germaine Greer, who repeatedly blasted romance novels (and the readers that make them bestsellers) because of the genre’s ability to romanticise sexual submission and the patriarchal representation of power.
But for every strict pundit, there is a fan who will point out why the former are missing the point. Jaime Green, for Vulture, wrote: “Romance is written to be enjoyed. Romance is a genre overwhelmingly written by and for women, where women’s desires, experiences, and rich inner lives are given value, centre stage”.
Somebody might want to take cue from this.