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Romance  

Cyrus Mulready

“Romance” is a term that has been variously applied to long-form verse narratives, episodic prose narratives, drama, stories from late Greek antiquity, and a popular subgenre of contemporary mass market fiction. In the 18th and 19th centuries it vied with “novel” as the standard term for the genre (before the latter won out to become part of our common vocabulary). Romance has also become a standard division of Shakespeare’s works, a dramatic genre that, beginning in the 19th century, stood alongside comedy, tragedy, and history as one of the cornerstones of the canon. Indeed, readers and scholars use “romance” so promiscuously as to suggest the near impossibility of drawing its definition with any clarity or meaning. Is the word merely an empty signifier for an incoherent concept? A vague label that is “generic” in the most unhelpful sense? Perhaps, contrarily, “romance” has power as a label because of its variability and range. On a practical level, understanding the pliant ways that readers, publishers, and writers have used this term provides insight to one of the richest (and perhaps oldest) veins of storytelling. Romance also gives us a view of how those same traditions ultimately derive from more ancient and esoteric forms. As it relates to a theory of genre, too, romance has been indispensable. Two of the most important treatments of genre theory, by Northrop Frye and Fredric Jameson, center on romance as a literary and historical practice. To study romance is therefore to study the shapes and traditions of genre itself; to theorize romance is to provide a history and conceptual framework for how genres have worked and continue to work within storytelling practices.

Article

The romance genre is geared financially to a female readership worldwide: a genre written and consumed overwhelmingly by women, and with a male readership of around 14 percent. Since the 21st century, romance novels have generated over $1.3 billion dollars in sales per annum in the United States, where one out of four books sold and one out of two mass-market books sold are romance novels. According to romance publishing behemoth Harlequin Mills & Boon, the company publishes 120 new titles each month, drawing from a stable of 200 authors within the UK and a further 1,300 worldwide. A Mills & Boon volume is sold every four seconds in more than one hundred countries, translated into twenty-six languages. But the romance genre consists of more than Harlequin Mills & Boon novels. According to industry definitions in the United States and Australia, a romance novel consists of “a central love story” and “an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending” (Romance Writers of America website). As long as these two basic requirements are met, romance novels can have any tone or style (barring a mocking or derisive one) and be set in any time (past, present, or future) or place (in the real world or in a fantasyland). They may include varying degrees of sensuality, from the modest discretion of Christian “inspirationals” to highly explicit descriptions of sexual acts in romantic erotica. They may also overlap with any other genre, such as chick lit, historical, crime, suspense, or thriller. The roots of the romance novel can be traced back to Shakespearean comedies, with the celebratory betrothal of the romantic couple forming the happy ending of such plays as Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or As You Like It. In prose fiction, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740), Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) are considered literary forebearers. The modern romance was shaped by British publishing firm Mills & Boon, which became a market leader in the genre by the 1930s with a distribution network in all British Commonwealth countries and colonies in the first half of the 20th century. During the 1950s, Mills & Boon novels began to be distributed in North America by Canadian firm Harlequin, and the two companies merged in 1971 to form the romance publishing powerhouse Harlequin Mills & Boon, which had its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s when it became the world’s largest publisher of romances, having 80 percent of the world’s market share of fiction. Over time, the genre changed its representations of gender and attitudes toward women’s work and domestic life. The 1970s and 1980s saw a gradual Americanization of the genre as New York firms muscled in on Harlequin Mills & Boon’s territory, publishing historical romances and diversifying contemporary romances to include American romantic protagonists, settings, and themes. The genre also became increasingly sexualized during this period through its depiction of sexual activity. The turn of the 21st century witnessed an increasing fragmentation of the genre as the rise of independent publishers afforded writers and readers the opportunity to explore niche markets: erotica, African American stories, paranormal romances featuring vampires, phoenixes, and werewolves, among other shapeshifting romantic protagonists, and many others.

Article

Far from being sheer proto-orientalist stereotypes of political tyranny, barbarous superstition, or sexual deviousness, literary portraits of the Ottoman and Persian empires in early modern English literature are varied, complex, and nuanced. Influenced by both classically inherited sources and contemporary travelers’ updates on diplomatic and commercial ties with eastern empires, literary works showcasing the two empires were inflected by the versatile genre of historical romance, be it in prose, poetic, or dramatic forms. The scenarios of interaction with which these works experiment range from fantasies of competing with otherness and overcoming it to assimilating and incorporating it, at a time when England was still in the process of sizing up the Islamic empires’ wealth and might from a perspective of “imperial envy” (in Gerald MacLean’s phrase) rather than from a posture of already established superiority. Topically presented as foils or alternatives to each other in the East, the Ottomans and Persians were seldom conflated for the readers or spectators, but rather demarcated along confessional and political divides entailing distinct literary and dramatic portraits. Finding their ways into the repertory history of English drama, the highly influential families of “Turk plays” and “Persian plays” also had a progeny well beyond the works officially listed by critics under those labels. Further study of performance history and editing of travel material hold the promise of research developments in these directions, bringing, in particular, English history plays into the conversation, with the Ottoman and Persian models allowing these plays’ larger articulations of the stages of history and forms of nationhood.

Article

The novels The Squatter and the Don (1885) and Who Would Have Thought It? (1872), written by María Amparo Ruiz de Burton (1832–1895), are the first novels written in English from the pen and perspective of a Mexican American woman. The author, born in Mexican Baja California, came to Northern California after the 1846–1848 Mexican American War, marrying US Army Captain Henry S. Burton. An extraordinarily talented woman, Ruiz de Burton addresses crucial issues of ethnicity, power, gender, class, and race in dialogue with a number of contemporary 19th-century discourses—political, juridical, economic, commercial, and literary—all to voice the bitter resentment of the Californios faced with despoliation and the onslaught of Anglo-American domination in the aftermath of annexation to the United States. Hers is a strong, distinctive—and notably—female voice with a critical Mexican American perspective; her novels have served to shift the benchmarks of US literature and 19th-century literary scholarship, moving it further away from an Anglo-centered, East Coast, and mostly male-centered canon. Her writings have been productive sites against which to reread both canonical and newly emerged texts. By addressing US government policies, and in that regard, racial, ethnic, and class formations, as well as foregrounding gender issues, Ruiz de Burton’s works have problematized and enriched the US literary and cultural landscape. Her rediscovered novels were republished (in 1992 and 1995, respectively) by Sánchez and Pita and have become key elements in better understanding US 19th-century literary history.