A Look at Popular Romance Fiction (Confessions of an English Teacher)
February 1987

“A Look at Popular Romance Fiction (Confessions of an English Teacher)” Ensign, Feb. 1987, 42

A Look at Popular Romance Fiction

(Confessions of an English Teacher)

Before I began this article, most of what I thought I knew about popular romance fiction came from hearsay. I had seen alluring advertisements in the Sunday supplements—“These are stories full of the adventure and emotion of love … full of the hidden turmoil beneath even the most innocent-seeming relationship. Desperate clinging love, emotional conflict, bold lovers, jealous relatives, and romantic imprisonment—you’ll find them all in the passionate pages of our romance novels.” From such rhetoric I had formed opinions, but what did I really know about these books and their “passionate pages”?

Rita C. Hubbard offers some interesting information about the nature and readership of romance novels. In the early 1980s, one publisher alone had an astounding 28 percent of the entire paperback market in the United States, with 200 million copies sold in 1980. These novels reach millions of women, in eighty different countries, aged fifteen to ninety, from every segment of the literate population. The typical reader, however, is a woman between forty and forty-four, from an average to slightly above-average educational and income level.1 Hubbard’s description of the romance novels she had read didn’t surprise me. She found formulaic plots, usually variations on the Cinderella story, and character stereotypes—tall, muscular hero in faded denim jeans and attractive heroine of a temporarily independent turn of mind.

Having read Hubbard, I knew it was time to face those imposing book racks at the supermarket. I picked two books at random, by different authors, and watched for a late evening or two when relaxing with easy reading would look inviting. I read through the two books, finding them racier and more explicit than I had expected.

Except for certain little idiosyncrasies, the two books are very much alike. The writers might just as well have exchanged pseudonyms. In one book, for example, the characters rarely speak in normal voices. Instead, they rasp through page after page, speaking “huskily” or “throatily.” Another favorite word is “stiltedly.” It is a rare page when the heroine does not speak “stiltedly” or “bite out” some sharp comment. In each book the rather spunky (but still dependent) woman initially encounters a handsome, rugged (but still gentle), and rather mysterious stranger. To her surprise, but not to ours, he turns out to be the very man whom she has been mercilessly criticizing, her natural and professed enemy. The reader knows, though the heroine does not, that he will soon be her lover and probably her husband.

Since the outcome of these novels is always known in advance, and since they are all alike, why are they so popular and appealing? Why do readers seem to enjoy ingesting the same story in only slightly different guises over and over again? As a teacher of literature, I cannot understand this, but as a woman and member of the human race I think I can. What does romance fiction seem to offer that real life does not?

The answer is, plenty. For a mere $2.95 we acquire instant beauty, brains, love, excitement, and wealth. Where else can we get that kind of return on a three-dollar investment? What woman would not like (at least on occasion) to be young, intelligent, beautiful, and flat-stomached? And what woman would not like to be loved by a man with penetrating eyes of gray or blue who is tall, strong, handsome, and flat-stomached? A man of affluence and influence? A man of whom she deems herself unworthy? What woman would not enjoy seeing herself in the role of Cinderella once in a while?

As I thought more about popular romance fiction, however, I began to realize that its appeal perhaps goes deeper than we might suppose. For one thing, it is comfortably predictable, and real life is not. In a romance novel, we know that the two gorgeous people who are meeting in a fated moment will feel an instant and mutual attraction for each other, we know that the relationship will be temporarily but only superficially threatened, and we know that they will eventually resolve all of their problems and marry happily. What is more, we know that they will bask in financial ease.

Wouldn’t all of us trade our microwave ovens and our instructions for dismantling a tangled vacuum cleaner if we could solve problems with as little to-do as the heroines and heroes of romance solve them? How I envy Jo and Conrad in the second novel I read. They dispense with difficulties as easily as doctors write prescriptions. For example, Jo decides in a moment of panic that she cannot marry Conrad after all. She cannot give up her professional life, and there is no job for her in Calgary, Canada, where he lives. Enter trauma. As it turns out, however, Conrad has already anticipated her concern and arranged a perfect job for her in his hometown. (Now he tells her, after she has suffered a full five minutes of anguish!)

How would it be to live in the world of the romance novel where nothing is without a ready solution, where anything can be overcome, where trauma is short-lived, where life is neither complex nor complicated? It is the script we would write for ourselves on the days when the kids put bubblegum in the blender.

Real life, as we know too well, is full of problems that have no easy solutions, complications that are difficult to sort through, people that do not behave in predictable ways, loves that are unrequited, jobs that are unsatisfying, money that runs out, deaths, losses, sorrows of immense proportions, illnesses, disabilities, and depressions. It is also full of many wonderful things, but those are best appreciated only after we have learned what it is to suffer. Real life has few sure answers; it is full of ambiguities and secret fears.

Romance fiction, on the other hand, never disappoints us, never tells us that to live is also to suffer, never tests our values or our moral and spiritual stamina. What it does is this: it allows us to live vicariously the lives of people for whom everything works out happily, invariably. No wonder it attracts us.

Unfortunately, the relief we get through escaping into romance fiction—even “Mormon” romance fiction—lasts only as long as the book lasts. Reading that kind of fiction is tantamount to treating a ruptured appendix with a mild pain killer. Unlike genuine art, or surgery, it treats only symptoms. It offers no insights into human experience that might help us deal more effectively with that experience. It does not offer us the beauty and power and pleasure of true art.

The two romances that I read were almost totally devoid of art. By the time I finished them I would have traded my ski poles for one fresh image. There was nothing in them I could savor, or wish to return to, or think about. I left them essentially unchanged, uninspired, unmoved, unenriched. I never leave true art that way. What makes the difference? What was lacking in the romance fiction? As I suggested earlier, the popular romance novel is written according to an established formula, based on research into what its readers want to read; it is not written according to life. It has no interest in truth or in values that endure. And it is essentially without moral content. Art, by contrast, always has moral content.

There are other differences between good fiction and the popular romance. For one thing, good fiction usually concerns itself with the creation of character. It deals with people whom we come to know and understand—sometimes even better than we know ourselves. The popular books I read, however, simply create two sets of mannequins. Hair and eye color could be interchanged as easily as clothes and environment. The characters have no real personality, no lives as individuals. The descriptions of them are canned and superficial.

For example, the hero in the first book I read appears on the scene in a “thick sheepskin jacket, his shoulders broad and powerful, as was his chest, his legs long and lean in the fitted denims of faded blue.” He also has “piercingly deep blue eyes,” a “long straight nose, firm but sensual mouth, and strong square jaw.” Furthermore, he exudes “power and assurance,” his teeth are “very white” against his dark beard, his voice is “deep and attractive, as smooth as honey,” and his face is “deeply tanned.” The heroine discovers on her first meeting with this masculine wonder that “there was strength in the lean fingers that clasped about her upperarm, a strength she felt sure was tempered so as not to bruise her more delicate flesh.” He is, of course, “well over six feet in height, moving with natural grace for such a big man.”2 (She, I suppose, moves as well as she can, considering the delicate condition of her flesh.)

The hero of the second novel is a blond version of the hero in the first, moustached instead of bearded, but otherwise indistinguishable from him, by either looks or manner. He has “grey eyes that were wide-set; a firm, straight nose” and a “dark-gold moustache that lay above a well-formed mouth.” His skin has a “bronzed sheen,” and the firelight shows his face to have “hard planes” and his lower lip “a sensuous shadow.” He is also “direct, forceful and unafraid to speak” his mind. Further, he is blessed with wide shoulders, “a flat abdomen,” and “narrow hips.”3 The heroine, we are told repeatedly, looks like a fashion model, her beauty strategically hiding her intelligence.

In good fiction, a physical description is more than an account of someone’s “looks”; it is a revelation of character. The mass-produced, thoroughly conventional descriptions of popular romance characters could be applied to any nameless figure in a magazine advertisement. By contrast, the characters of an artist like Flannery O’Connor leap to life off the page the first time she describes them. This is how she begins a story called “Good Country People”:

“Besides the neutral expression that she wore when she was alone, Mrs. Freeman had two others, forward and reverse, that she used for all her human dealings. Her forward expression was steady and driving like the advance of a heavy truck. Her eyes never swerved to left or right but turned as the story turned as if they followed a yellow line down the center of it. She seldom used the other expression because it was not often necessary for her to retract a statement, but when she did, her face came to a complete stop, there was an almost imperceptible movement of her black eyes, during which they seemed to be receding, and then the observer would see that Mrs. Freeman, though she might stand there as real as several grain sacks thrown on top of each other, was no longer there in spirit.”4

Mrs. Freeman comes immediately to life as an individual, a human being whom we can love for her foibles and foolishness as well as for her more endearing traits. We feel we know something about her nature, which is more important in this story than her looks. She is not a prepackaged character. O’Connor has cleverly used the advance of a truck as a figure of speech to describe Mrs. Freeman’s facial expressions in conversation. Then O’Connor concludes her introduction of Mrs. Freeman by comparing her physical being, once her mind has abandoned it, to a pile of grain sacks. A wonderful touch!

Which person are we more interested in, more likely to come to care for and about—a character in a popular romance or an O’Connor character? The problem is, people like Mrs. Freeman might not always behave in predictable ways—and they might not be the least bit glamorous. They are like the man down the block, or your aunt in Georgia. They are human beings, not clichés.

I think the thing that struck me most pointedly about the romance fiction that I read was its bad writing. The language and style were downright dull and monotonous. By contrast, the very language of the O’Connor passage captures our interest. It is fresh and vital. O’Connor’s wry and sometimes hardnosed humor marks her particular style, while a writer like Anne Tyler, also highly gifted, is given to gentle bemusement. I could add numerous examples from others, especially from my favorites, Willa Cather and Eudora Welty, to demonstrate the point even further. These women write well. And they write like themselves. That is the secret: they write like themselves, and they have a remarkable gift.

I have deliberately named a few twentieth-century women writers as alternatives to popular romance writers because most writers of popular romance fiction are contemporary women. If Greek drama and modern poetry seem a bit difficult for pleasure reading after a long day with the kids or at the office, one might try Willa Cather or Anne Tyler. They are not “easy,” but neither are they heavy or obscure. And they reward effort tenfold. Turning to them and their art, we gain access to both the agonies and the spiritual possibilities of life. Through them we make contact with what O’Connor called “the mystery.” Through them we encounter not mannequins, but art.


  1. “The Changing-Unchanging Heroines and Heroes of Harlequin Romances 1950–1979,” in The Hero in Transition, ed. Ray B. Browne and Marshall W. Fishwick, Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1983.

  2. Carole Mortimer, Untamed, New York: Harlequin Books, 1985, pp. 7–11.

  3. Claire Harrison, An Independent Woman, New York: Harlequin Books, 1985, pp. 9–10, 44, 56.

  4. Three By Flannery O‘Connor, New York: Signet, 1955, p. 243.

  • Marilyn Arnold, a professor of English and dean of graduate studies at BYU, teaches Relief Society in the Salem (Utah) Fifth Ward.

Photo by Steve Bunderson