Jumping Between Genres

By Laura Vivanco on

The latest issue of the Journal of Popular Culture came out a few days ago and although none of the articles were directly about romance, quite a few of them have some relevance to it. For example, Kirk Combe begins his article about the "bourgeois rake" in rom-coms by stating that

The comedic character of the rake—fundamentally, a playboy—originates in seventeenth-century aristocratic drama. There, he tends to be a notoriously appealing figure. He is a patrician roué who wields tremendous social power, and he does so effortlessly, carelessly. The rake is a hard fellow to resist, either in the sense of to forbear or to foil. He represents the alpha male of his society. For an audience, the comic entertainment is wholly conditional on watching this man obtain whatever it is he wants, which is always a pretty young woman and heaps of money (though not necessarily in that order, and sometimes heaps of pretty young women are involved as well). In short, the rake is a blueblood libertine who specializes in fashionable imbibing and swiving, and his wages for these sins are nothing less than absolute success. By the end of the play, he has bagged the rich, beautiful, and (sometimes) clever heiress, all the while behaving completely selfishly and all the while remaining the apple of everyone’s eye. The audience should hate to love him. The rake is little more than a ruthless pleasure/power-seeker using his status and privilege to increase his status and privilege. (338)

He was replaced, for a time, by the "man of sentiment [who] represents everything that the satirical and egoistic aristocratic rake is not" (343). However,

audiences still enjoyed seeing élan and something of the romantic chase. Here is born the bourgeois rake. He will mix old-fashioned wit and sex appeal with new-fashioned sentimentality. Any trace of sexual predation and sardonic acumen in him will be tempered and, in the end, tamed by true love and marriage. In the bourgeois rake, the former aristocratic roué will metamorphose into a nimble young man with a proclivity for clever free enterprise. Like his predecessor, though, he will still domineer in matters of money, gender, and mental dexterity. (344)

By the "second half of the eighteenth century [...] the middle-class ideal of a financially secure marriage of true love has supplanted entirely the cynicism and sexual laxity of earlier aristocratic comedy" (345) and the bourgeois rake can, Combe argues, still be found in many modern rom-coms. He believes that

inspecting most what we are meant to think about least is a productive exercise. Whether produced on the early modern stage or in current-day film, comedy is a genre not only presenting the jollity of love, marriage, and, by extension, sexual reproduction, but also depicting the business of social reproduction. Power is always at issue in comedy, notwithstanding its being mixed with and obscured by the pleasures and hijinks of romance. (355)

Given that Pamela Regis has described popular romance as "a subgenre of comedy" (16) and that in historical romances the rake continues to survive as "a patrician roué who wields tremendous social power, and he does so effortlessly, carelessly," albeit one who, like the "bourgeois rake" will be "tamed by true love and marriage," this article also raises questions about power in romance novels.

Srijani Ghosh draws parallels between chick lit and romance:

In her Reading the Romance (1984), an ethnographic study of female readers of romance novels, Janice Radway illustrates how women, mostly housewives, use romance reading to control their identities and pleasures within the limits of patriarchal society. She calls this “compensatory literature” (Radway 95) for the romance readers, and Colin Campbell refers to this vicarious pleasure as “a kind of emotional and imaginative decadence” (Campbell 176). The chick lit novel, the newest offshoot of the traditional romance novel and a genre aimed at young, urban, female professionals functions as a similar form of compensatory literature. The protected fictional world of the chick lit novel allows the readers to enjoy this “imaginative decadence,” and Confessions of a Shopaholic serves as a kind of necessary compensation because they know that at least their fictional alter ego might escape unscathed from any consumerist overindulgence which they would be penalized for in real life. (392)

And I'll close with a quote from Tison Pugh's article about mysteries which relates to all forms of "genre fiction":

As with many binary divisions, the privileging of literature over genre fiction reflects ideological biases rather than intrinsic truths. Contrary to its purportedly inferior status to literature, genre fiction is an exuberant field encompassing a diverse array of subgenres. Joyce Saricks taxonomizes genre fiction into four primary categories, each of which includes several subheadings: adrenaline genres (adventure, romantic suspense, suspense, thrillers), emotions genres (gentle reads, horror, romance, women’s lives, and relationships), intellect genres (literary fiction, mysteries, psychological suspense, science fiction), and landscape genres (fantasy, historical fiction, westerns) (vii). Saricks’s taxonomy is useful for considering how both genre fiction and literature resist efforts of categorization, as she upends the traditional binary of high and low culture by including literary fiction as a subcategory of genre fiction. (414-15)


Combe, Kirk. "Bourgeois Rakes in Wedding Crashers: Feudal to Neo-Liberal Articulations in Modern Comedic Discourse." Journal of Popular Culture 46.2 (2013): 338–357. [Excerpt]

Ghosh, Srijani. "Res Emptito Ergo Sum: Fashion and Commodity Fetishism in Sophie Kinsella’s Confessions of a Shopaholic." Journal of Popular Culture 46.2 (2013): 378-393. [Excerpt]

Pugh, Tison. "Chaucer in Contemporary Mystery Novels: A Case Study in Genre Fiction, Low-Cultural Allusions, and the Pleasure of Derivative Forms." Journal of Popular Culture 46.2 (2013): 411–432. [Excerpt]

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2003.