Identity

'Disney For Adults': How Trashy Romance Novels Conquered the World

From the Harlequin Romance novels to "50 Shades of Grey," guilty pleasure books are panned as trashy, cliché-ridden, and anti-feminist. So why are they still so successful?
May 8, 2016, 2:00pm
Illustration by Goldmund Lukic via Stocksy

This post was originally published on Broadly Germany.

When I was in middle school, we covered something in German class called 'trivial literature.' My teacher was not merciful in her judgement of the literary value of this trash, which primarily comprised of stories about a beautiful young lady meeting a handsome young (or not so young) man and then hopelessly falling for him. On the way, the lucky couple cycle through a bunch of sexist clichés, with the fair and innocent maiden ultimately saved by the noble knight—and the reader left sighing with satisfaction in the end. Even back then it was hard to believe that people spend money on this junk. But they do. Billions of euros each year.

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In Germany, pulp novels aren't books; they're more like soft-cover booklets and are sold next to newspapers at kiosks. One publisher, Cora Verlag, sells one of these things every four seconds in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland—and that's on top of their subscriptions. They publish about 800 novels a year, printing a total of 12 million copies, which makes Cora Verlag, known for hospital romance and erotic literature, the undisputed market leader in Europe. In the United States, meanwhile, the revenue from romance novels in 2012 was over a billion dollars.

'Trivial literature,' pulp books, romance—this all often falls under the chick lit umbrella genre. Susanne Hochreiter from the Institute for German Studies stated in an interview with Der Standard that differentiating supposed shallow literature from "real books" is completely dismissive. In publishing, the prevailing cliché is of the masculine genius producing serious literature. In bookstores, novels by men are organized by their contents; chick lit is organized by its potential buyers. Nobody would ever ask to be directed to the male literature section. That notwithstanding, "chick lit" is a lucrative genre.

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Take Anna Basener, for example, who financed her getting a degree in cultural sciences in Hildesheim, Germany by writing these kinds of romance novels. She was 23 when she published her frirst prince and princess novel. "I thought it was interesting that a lot of people wrinkles their noses. Now if someone says something's naive or silly, then I take an extra look. The other students were fine with them; it was their academic parents who turned up their noses." By now, she only writes audio dramas and is looking forward to her first "real" novel being published next year. But she doesn't have a problem talking about her former job—she even wrote a how-to book on how to write these novels.

According to Basener, the typical romance author is in her late 40s and usually works in the humanities in academia. They're usually pretty pragmatic and cool-headed, and are rarely people who look like "a romance novel granny, in the style of Barbara Cartland." American author Harper Kincaid, who is in her mid-40s and has two Master's degrees (one in gender studies and another in clinical social work), fits this description. She's a self-professed feminist who writes about women who long for submission.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Kincaid acknowledges that these romance stories follow a kind of formula, which you have to figure out at first and then use for each following book. But this doesn't mean that it's all just a simple, brainless endeavor. She refers me to the site, Romance Writers of America, to get an idea of the popular formula. But she can't told me that her publishers advised she could not comment on it personally for intellectual property reasons.

In its press materials, publishers Cora Verlag state: "These novels speak primarily to a female audience. They're about the feelings between two people of different sexes and their narrative follows a set pattern. What's really important is that the story ends well. Thus means that both of the main characters' love for each other has to be fulfilled and in the end, after all the trials and tribulations, there has to be a happy end."

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Basener, who is open to talking about her writing process, adds: "All the rules stated there provide a really nice and safe framework and all the decisions can then be made within this framework."

Sex and violence have their limits, she says. Punches can roll if his honor is bruised or if the hero sees his mother get hurt, but nothing "too crass, not too bloody." Sexuality is best expressed through passionate kissing; sex scenes themselves don't need to be too detailed in their descriptions. If you're looking for a non-heteronormative storyline, you're in the wrong place. These are classic man-and-woman relationships; if you're lucky, a gay person could get involved in a side plot. Maybe. And forget about any mentions of religion or politics, too.

Even if romance novels seem pretty set in their ways, Harper Kincaid believes that they can help women deal with their sexuality, beyond what the male-dominated mainstream defines as "sexy." She told me she can't remember a single story that involved a woman giving up her career for a man, and she sees strong female heroes as a norm—even if they're submissive in the bedroom.

Photos via Goodreads

A woman might be interested in being on equal footing with their partner, "but some women want something very different in the bedroom," Kincaid says. "They may want the alpha dog who pulls their hair, bends them over and talks dirty to them. Maybe she's also into abnormal or uncommon things, like starting something with their stepbrother or their pastor. Then she reads a romance novel and lives out her fantasy. Some women just need something new and a romance novel is really much more healthy than an affair."

Her novels aren't about the politically correct social norms; they're about taboos. And let's face it: it's not like social niceties have ever triumphed over humanity's desire to get down and dirty.

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Kincaid's books are known for turning up the heat; they are more explicit about sex, so they also attract a younger audience. Basener says that "sexy romance" was more of a thing in Germany in the 80s and 90s. But the success of 50 Shades of Grey has given new life to the genre—especially in the e-book market. As German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel puts it: "There are opportunities dominating the digital kiosk. The flimsy little booklets are positioned beside supposed high-quality material and get downloaded vigorously. Nobody knows what you're reading, wink wink. The digital portion of the entire revenue from the trashy novel giant, Bastei Lübbe, increased by 30 percent in 2015. In America, 39 percent of all romance novels are sold digitally. Classic paperbacks are only 23 percent."

Both Basener and Kincaid agree that girls and women are the main consumers of this kind of literature. In Germany, the skew towards a female audience is even greater. According to Cora Verlag, their audience in 98 percent women, most of whom are over 60 and, in Basener's words, "this sounds horrible, but they're limited in education." But she also emphasizes that in every survey, there's always the 35-year-old doctor who loves these kinds of books.

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A whole genre dominated by female authors and readers, in which narratives deal primarily with emotions? That's enough to prompt many people to start making fun of it, Kincaid says. She has a clear reaction to this: "What a pile of shit. There are a few men in this genre and everyone makes such a fuss about them being able to represent an emotional standpoint. Eye roll. I see the genre more as Disney or Pixar for adults. You're going to be entertained, you'll see something that's different and, in most cases, you'll be left with a happy end, in every sense of the phrase."

Nevertheless, shame and stigma continue to play an important role in the consumption of these books. "One of my friend's grandmother reads romance novels, and whenever she finishes reading a page, she rips it out and throws it away. This substitutes for a bookmark," Basener says. There are hierarchies in literature, and chick lit is at the very bottom. "Obviously it's produced on an assembly line. The publisher has a tight production cycle, and the editor has so little time that they can't turn shit into gold in a single day. This sometimes leads to awkward formulations. And it's always the same more or less. You can't deny that." In her opinion, romance is seen as literature at its functional: read, passed on, never really cherished.

But when it comes to why people still love these novels, both Anna Baseness and Harper Kincaid repeatedly circle back to the idea of escapism. They refer to mundaneness that some women feel in their everyday lives, plagued by the hassles of family, jobs and, relationships. Why do we have to judge people who need an escape? "Men aren't scorned for watching Die Hard," Basener says. "People need to distinguish themselves from one another. Maybe it's not society, it's me. I'm smart and she's dumb for reading that stuff."

My German teacher from back then must be retired by now. Maybe I should send her a Harper Kincaid book. Or this article. Who knows? Maybe she's more relaxed about trashy books and will find herself in an airport, next to a bookshelf stacked with Anna Basener's latest, and look at it with fresh eyes. After all, millions of women can't be wrong.