A Big, Fat Sigh

June 20th, 2004 · No Comments
by Booksquare

One of the things we find most amusing in life is Harlequin bashing by those who’ve never read romance. We freely admit to a wide and varied library and even more wide and varied tastes, and we don’t discriminate against any type of reading material (except, perhaps, dubious celebrity “autobiographies”). We won’t try to change your minds about romance (just as we won’t try to change minds about mystery or science fiction or literary fiction or just about anything else), but we must take exception to SodaPop Culture’s refuting of Oprah Winfrey’s comparison of Anna Karenina to Harlequin romances…because romance (which is far broader than Harlequin), contrary to popular belief, does make powerful commentary on our society.

This comment really raised our hackles:

Some critics, after its release, had their way with Anna, demolishing it for it’s [sic] frank and fairly liberal portrayal of Russian life that certainly was not what the aristocracy wanted for the masses. No one pays attention like that to a harlequin romance. Don’t belittle the accomplishment.

We won’t compare Tolstoy to most modern literature (despite our deep and abiding preference for Dostoevsky; please note our heroic ability to resist temptation), but we must ask where SodaPop gets its evidence that people don’t pay attention to Harlequin romances on the same level. We agree that romances don’t focus on sweeping societal commentary — we believe that science fiction does a much better job of this. But romance focuses, very specifically, on the issues and pressures facing women today. Literature by and for women has largely been ignored in the canon (so much so that women’s fiction from the late eighteenth century on has been labeled “subversive” — and we see that as a high compliment). It often focuses on the domestic sphere as opposed to the political sphere. This makes sense if you consider where society has placed women for most of our history. Not only do we fight the idea that our literature is trivial, but we are fighting to be seen as players on the political stage.

Genre fiction is funny in that it opens windows to its readers in ways they never realize (something about the relative success of catching flies with honey versus vinegar comes to mind). There is something to be said for fiction that tells women it’s acceptable (and smart) to leave abusive relationships. That tells women they can control their own destinies. That they don’t have to depend on men for happiness (yes, we know…but read the genre and you’ll get it). That it’s okay not to be Barbie perfect in a society that increasingly pushes unattainable (without surgery and/or starvation) ideals.

Romance novels aren’t Anna Karenina. They don’t pretend to be. But we would, and will, argue that cultural changes are small and great. And when we look at Oprah’s comparison that way, she’s not so far off the mark.

File Under: Square Pegs