The genre of romantic fiction has been around since ancient Greece, yet the works of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters are often credited with its emergence as a popular form of writing. Long considered a genre that is only for women, romance is often critically ignored and ridiculed due to this fact. A study completed in 2010 even found that most people who buy romance novels are embarrassed about it.
Putting my feminist sensibilities aside to unpack this source of embarrassment, I think it is valuable to look at the elements the all-time great romance novels have in common and compare these to the books that have been on bestseller lists in recent years.
Goodreads have a list naming their top ten romance novels of all time, collated using Amazon’s bestseller list (from both a people’s and a critic’s view) and Goodreads own rating system. Take a look at the list below:
Not a single novel listed in the top ten was written in the twenty-first century, with half being written prior to 1940. Throughout history, the number of books being printed has consistently risen over time.
With the arrival of the internet, as discussed in my previous post, people are writing more than ever before, thus creating more books. It stands to reason that if more books are being written today than ever before then there should be more variety in the books listed in the ‘greats’. So why aren’t there any Romance greats written in this century, at least according to the most popular book rating website?
There are plenty of objective and subjective ways to identify what makes a Romance good, or at the very least successful, but for the sake of being succinct, let’s look at key elements the novels in the top ten list have in common.
Looking to Pride and Prejudice as the number one placeholder, we would assume the great romances feature a headstrong heroine with good morals and no pension towards marrying for anything other than the deepest love. A case could be made for this concerning the characters of Jane Eyre and Claire Randall, though Scarlett O’Hara or Marianne Dashwood are less inclined towards fitting this description.
The nature of the romances within the works themselves seems like the obvious drawcard in those seeking out the genre. Elizabeth and Darcy, above all, have a mutual respect. It seems a stretch to compare any of the other couples in the top ten for having a similar kind of respect, but this element does seem present at least in the relationships of Allie and Noah and Claire and Sam.
And it’s not just the romance genre that have top books being written before the 21st century. Lists that feature the top crime novels of all time also show a trend in favouring books of centuries past, which would suggest that people either favour older stories or see them as more credible purely because of age. Yet, novels in the fantasy and historical genres show trends that accept newer novels into their all-time lists.
So has it got something to do with readership?
While Millennials are out-reading older generations, they also have access to more reading material than ever. This could explain the trend in upholding older books in genres that have countless modern additions. With more material to read, stories begin to bleed together through repetitious elements and older stories stand out in being either the trend-setter or because of their distinctive non-modern settings.
Or perhaps it has to do something with the embarrassment factor that is associated with romance fans. Romance fiction is well known as being the punching bag of the current literary world, but was it always this way?
Another possibility is the how technology functions as a narrative decide within novels. The way we communicate is drastically different now compared with even five years ago, let alone in the 204 years since Pride and Prejudice was published. In Austen’s world, characters had to write letters or travel hours by hansom cab in order to communicate. This functioned as an effective narrative device, creating drama through Elizabeth reading Darcy’s letter explaining himself months after she crudely rejected his proposal. It was then months later again when she was able to see him in person and begin to rectify her mistake.
If we take a look at the Top Ten Romances Novels of 2016 as voted in the Goodreads Choice Awards, eight out of the ten novels are written in a modern setting. All eight feature plot points that revolve around the character’s being able to communicate instantly.
Perhaps an argument could be made that modern technology has changed the way authors write contemporary novels, and this has an adverse effect on the development of plot and character relationships. The writing may not be to blame; our instantly gratified world is.
No matter what the reason is for the romance genre to be the literary world’s punching bag, it does not stand to reason that it is the romantic element itself. Many great novels deal with the concepts of love and romance, from Anna Karenina to Wuthering Heights to the more recent Atonement. Though in these, providing happiness to a couple is not the novel’s purpose.
Perhaps romance works best when it isn’t classified as romance at all.
What do you think? Does romance rely upon existing within more credible genres to be deemed worthy? Leave me a comment!
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