I've been reading a lot of vintage romance novels.
Incidentally, you get a lot of very special looks on the Underground when you're reading a well-worn copy of Sweet Savage Love. Especially, I suspect, as a thirty-something dude.
My romance reading is pretty new, it only started around three years now. What began as curiosity blossomed into, slightly unexpectedly, a genuine passion for the books. That's a metaphor for you. They're a lot of fun, they're culturally interesting, and - I don't want to gloss over the key point here: I really enjoy them.
It is, in fact, telling that I've been enjoying my haphazard wandering through frisky duchesses so much that I'm just now tackling the genre and its history in a structured way. My recent approach has been guided, in no small way, by this article. (Also, the oddly comprehensive Wikipedia entry on Victoria Holt.)
Two rudimentary thoughts. Not about romance itself, but how it fits with other genres.
1) Romance is an old genre. One of the oldest commercial genres, I suspect. And particularly interesting, if you think that the readership demographic has never particularly changed - so you've got a fixed point from which to measure changing trends. But, like Westerns, we've got a blatantly commercial, populist genre that's gone through multiple waves of traditional/revisionist/post-revisionist Hegelian malarky. As a fantasy fan first (if not foremost), this is fascinating: discovering revisionist ('grimdark'!) Westerns was surprisingly, well... surprising. Discovering grimdark romances is well, kind of mind-blowing. But, y'all, that's what 'bodice-rippers' are!
Do we learn from the trends? That... I'm not sure. I suspect Westerns, as a genre, got crushed by changing geo/political/cultural trends. But, with romances, we can spy a somewhat eternal cycle - including 'peaks' of non-book media attention. Romantic vs 'realistic' might an interesting axis, and one that applies to fantasy as well. An oscillation between the rose-tinted 'high' romances and the gritty 'low' ones. The Gothic, for example, has come and gone over and over again (with another surge on the horizon). Can we study these tides to see where fantasy might flow next?
2) A more contemporary genre crossover: I've also collected a (disconcerting) amount of period, uh, well... period pulp erotica. It comes from an appreciation of pulps and cheesy covers, honest. But we have a lot of books like The Wife Next Door cluttering the house, making great conversation pieces. So what's interesting here? As someone that's read, say, Pajama Party and So Willing - erotica published for MEN, and also Sweet Savage Love and The Flame and the Flower - romances published for women - the latter are a) more explicit and b) far more rapey.
The latter is the launch of a thousand thesis papers (are they feminist? anti-feminist? anti-anti-feminist?!). But, god damn, when I say these books are grimdark - they are bleak. The relentless abuse of Sweet Savage Love's protagonists is, well, stomach-churning. In a way that fantasy, arguably, could never be - even as historical fiction (and of mediocre quality), there's a link to 'reality' in a romance that a secondary world never will. The contemporary porn tries to be dark, but never even approaches the same level of grim. The argument, I suppose, is that Sweet Savage Love and its ilk treats the abusive elements as exceptional (kinda), whereas the pulp porn is more casual, and therefore normalising, of the abuse. Maybe. Again, all to discuss. But given the very distinct intended audiences, I was surprised.
The former, however, is just plain shocking - the, um, quantity, quality and detail of the sex is infinitely more explicit in the 'romance' than in the 'smut'. I suppose, in a sense, this is just plain funny. Male pride means paying more for, and working harder to find, watered down versions of what women had easily and readily available. It also means that macho coding prevented men from accessing the easy prurience they desired. Like a secret club, but in plain sight.
Other bits and pieces
"This article investigates the attitudes of those working in creative jobs... our respondents’ attitudes were no more meritocratic than those of the general population." (Study out of the University of Sheffield and University of Edinburgh)
This summer, Reddit banned some of its most aggressively toxic subreddits. Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology asked a tough question: did it work? And, well. Yes. It did. (TechCrunch)
Should Amazon buy Nordstrom next? Compelling arguments that the 'Whole Foods of fashion' should be next on their radar. (Recode)
I want to write about this properly - but how playlists have changed the way we treat albums. (Guardian)
Nostalgia sells. A fascinating conversation about how childhood icons get licensed, from the chap behind the new Skeletor ads. (The Drum)
How African vinyl became a white dude's music trend. Respectful remixing? Or cultural appropriation? (Quartz)
A blog about the fonts in science fiction films. Astoundingly detailed and weirdly fascinating.