By Marcie Zajdeman
Image from Have Your Cake and Read it Too.

If we take him at his word, people once told Paul McCartney “that the world had had enough of silly love songs.” But his own observations suggested to the contrary; he “looked around [and he saw] it wasn’t so.” I think you know the rest.

What about romance novels? Has the world had enough of these? Is this genre of literature out-dated and irrelevant; or, at best, retro and ironic – like playing Twister while drunk or bowling while buzzed? (But enough about my life.) Is the educated, sophisticated 2010’s career-woman drawn to these books in the same way that the housewife of the 1950’s purportedly was? The stats might surprise you.

According to Harlequin, 53 per cent of readers of romance literature have at least some college education and 45 per cent work full time. The average reader is likely to be married or cohabitating. Although the vast majority of readers are women, just fewer than 10 per cent are men. The market for romance novels is impervious to economic recessions and, by the 2000’s, romance was the most popular genre of modern literature

Lila DiPasqua’s debut collection, Awakened by a Kiss (Penguin Group/Berkley) is romance literature that incorporates two subgenres: erotic romance (sometimes called romantica) which blends romance and erotica, and historical. It is marketed as “steamy retellings of classic fairytales Sleeping Beauty, Puss in Boots, and Little Red Riding Hood.” And steamy it is: Who knew that childhood fairytales could have such charged subtexts?

Recasting fairytales as “fiery tales” is a clever concept. The author provides a “Historical Tidbit” at the beginning of the collection, grounding her collection in 17th century France during the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV. Indeed, the monarch is a character in all three stories, which illustrate, as the “Tidbit” informs, that his “glittering court was as salacious as it was elegant.” Charles Perrault, who wrote Sleeping Beauty, Puss in Boots, and Little Red Riding Hood (as well as Cinderella and other classic tales), lived in 17th century France during Louis XIV’s reign; and, as DiPasqua interprets as a lead-in to her “loosely based” retellings, wrote these stories during “this most wicked time.”

With $1.37 billion in North American sales of romance fiction in 2008 (Industry Statistics), Awakened by a Kiss will no doubt have a huge audience. So 2010’s women (and some men) are reading these novels, but why?

Perhaps it is because childhood constructs like “happily ever after” die hard. Seeking, finding, and giving full expression, erotic and otherwise, to romantic love is universal and timeless – like a classic Chanel flap bag. No matter how urbane or worldly women become, we won’t, or can’t, or shouldn’t be cynical when it comes to love.

This is the driver for reading these books, not the escape and fantasy needed as a reprieve from boredom and repression. Moreover, I am not certain that the 1950’s woman was more romantically and erotically frustrated and confined than her modern counterpart. The picture of June Cleaver vacuuming in her pearls suggests, on its face, a provincial life measured “in coffee spoons” as T.S. Eliot cautioned

against. But novels like Awakened by a Kiss show us that there is often more to childhood paradigms than meet the eye. I think our grandmothers were hipper and racier than it appeared, just more coy and cryptic about it. (Was it really the disciplining of their son that June was referring to when she said, repeatedly, “Ward, you were a little hard on the Beaver last night”?)

So is Awakened by a Kiss, and the genre of literature it represents, an anachronism? In the words of Paul McCartney, the patron saint of the sentimental, “I say it isn’t so. What’s wrong with that? I’d like to know.”


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