Harlequin Romances vs Literary Critics

Harlequin Romances have long been objects of scorn among the intelligentsia, especially the ones who come under the title of ‘Feminists’. The reasons for this are not difficult to fathom. The female character (dare I say protagonist?) in the novels is little more than an object of sexual desire, reduced to a plaything at the hands of some millionaire business tycoon. She is content to be a secretary, complying orders of her boss and lover (one of the ‘orders’ inevitably include demand for a night together), while the ‘boss’ does just that – boss her around. Apart from glorifying and romanticising sexual exploitation, these novels perpetrate some worst sorts of stereotypes (‘the pregnant, barefoot, in the kitchen’ types).

With such injustices doled out to the women characters in these romances, it indeed is a matter of bewilderment that women form nearly ninety five percent of their readership. What I find unfair is that instead of exploring the reasons that have been drawing readers (including the ones who have been endorsing the Showalter brand of feminism all their lives) to these ordinary, predictable even repetitive romances across generations, critics have conveniently chosen to dismiss their readers as semi literate, provincial types out to seek literary porn.

I however feel that the popularity of these novels has very little to do with the I.Q. of its readers. My belief is that their chief USP lies in their ability to provide a rare, even unique sense of comfort to the readers, the sort that one derives from eating homemade dal chawal, slipping into an old, ragged T-shirt or watching an episode of ‘Friends’ for the eighth time – impossible to explain but not difficult to discern. Isn’t this precisely the comfort one seeks after seven consecutive classes in college or an excessively nasty day with colleagues at the workplace – a sense of having almost departed from the ‘real’ world where happy endings are about as certain as U-specials?

The purpose of fantasy fiction (the likes of Georgette Heyer, Judith Mcnaught, Barbara Cartland and others) is rarely to provide a devastating critique of contemporary society. The feminist, post-feminist, post-colonial criticisms need to be saved for Jean Rhys and Margaret Mitchell. These Fantasy Romances do not pretend to give insights into the ‘unconscious’ of the ‘Other’. Nor do they need such theories to survive. In fact they present to the reader exactly what the title of the genre suggests – an unreal romantic tale, in semi-real settings (to add just a hint of reality), with a fantasy ending.

Critics can choose to apply their knowledge of Deconstruction and Cultural Materialism in Harlequin romances if they want to and prove these to be ludicrous and silly reads, but it will remain fruitless exercise. Few people read these books for their literary worth. What lures readers to these romances is the option of ‘switching off’ after a grinding day. A battered copy of ‘Kingdom of Dreams’, allows us to drift into a space where we there is no need to be politically correct or think and sound like pseudo-intellectuals. Like Riverdale High, ‘Kingdom of Dreams’, becomes a haven, an escape from the inadequacies of the ‘real world’.

Mitia Nath

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