Why Popular Romance is Un-American (Allegedly)

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 1 June, 2019

In 1983, writing about the "drug store novel" (what we'd now think of as modern gothic romances), Beth Timson concluded that:

while they are written and sold largely in America (though not entirely, of course), their roots are firmly in the traditional British novel; they do not have the characteristics that critics like Marius Bewley in The Eccentric Design or Richard Chase in The American Novel and Its Traditions or Leslie Fiedler in Love and Death in the American Novel have so carefully pinned down as "American." (89)

This is because

The heroine [...] does not create a new world of her own building but sets out to rediscover her past. During the period in which she lives at the ancestral mansion, she looks over the possibilities of action and finds that she must make a choice between the appearance of goodness in the attractive potential usurper of the estate and the reality of goodness in the outwardly surly heir. Sometimes there is an initial wavering, because she thinks that she distrusts inherited wealth and position. In the end, however, she becomes one of the preservers of the estate - rejecting the usurper and the other young woman who is her psychological alter ego, clearing up family mysteries, and marrying the heir. To find a mainstream novel with this structure of reconciliation, we must look away from American fiction to the British novel, since the pattern of inheriting a house rather than building it is obviously more dominant there. And indeed, a close resemblance is very easy to find. Jane Austen's splendid Mansfield Park has a structure practically identical to that I have outlined for the drug store novel. (91)

In fact,

one can say that what [Austen] does and what the drug store novel is doing are the same thing: showing a pattern of the former outcast integrated into a restabilized family structure. No significant American novel that I can think of does that; no significant British novel that I can think of does not do it. To express the idea in the terms of critic Richard Chase, the classic American novel concerns itself with the Fall of man and his expulsion from Eden, while the British novel writes of man's redemption. Presumably the romance novelists have sensed this deep distinction, because they choose to set most of their novels in England. (92)

To conclude:

ultimately all the data would lead to several conclusions about the drug store novel and mainstream fiction. First, in the British novel the structure of reconciliation has been a dominant one and one used successfully by both significant male and female authors, while in the American novel the structure of reconciliation has been perverted and forced underground. Reconciliation with the stable past and the family has been turned into a vaguely erotic union with the father or his representative. The classic American novel is male-dominated and concerns rejection, independence, and isolation; while the popular romance is female-dominated and concerns re-integration of past and present. [...] the Feminine, in its deepest mythic sense of union and community, has found its voice in American fiction only outside the mainstream. (94-95)

It's interesting to see here how particular assumptions and ways of interpreting "all the data" are shaping outcomes. Certainly if you only choose particular novels (by men) as the basis for determining what constitutes "the American novel" it's not surprising that you can end up concluding that "the American novel" is "male-dominated". It's worth noting that "significant" would appear to exclude popular fiction. So, by definition, romance novels written by US women are both un-American and insignificant perversions of a foreign tradition. Hmm. Well, it's another way of discrediting women's writing, I suppose, particularly where it intersects with popular culture.

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Timson, Beth S., 1983. ‘The Drug Store Novel: Popular Romantic Fiction and the Mainstream Tradition’, Studies in Popular Culture, 6: 88-96.

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