Politics and the Popular Novel

By Laura Vivanco on Sunday, 18 August, 2013

Some months ago Emma Barry, "a [romance] novelist and full-time mama and graduate student" wrote a post about "Politics and the Romance Novel" in which she commented that

One of the determinations and often-repeated truisms is that readers don’t like political books. It is believed readers won’t read about politics and, more broadly, they don’t like books that directly address inequities, social justice, organizations and belief structures (e.g., churches, capitalism), and so on.

Given the title of the post, I'm assuming she was referring specifically to readers of romance novels.

I have the impression that other popular genres, such as science fiction/speculative fiction and fantasy, quite often address these issues directly. Admittedly I've been reading pretty much exclusively within the romance genre since it became the focus of my research but I do occasionally venture outside and I don't think it can be a fluke that the two novels shelved as "fantasy" which I read this week "directly address inequities, social justice, organizations and belief structures (e.g., churches, capitalism), and so on": Mazarkis Williams, author of The Emperor's Knife creates a world in which there are a variety of different social structures, cultures and religious beliefs and the plot of Lois McMaster Bujold's The Hallowed Hunt turns on the importance of souls and some of the gods of the Quintarian religion make an appearance. In both novels there are discussions about politics and the responsibilities of rulers. My favourite bit of overt political commentary, though, comes from Mercedes Lackey's The Lark and the Wren, a fantasy novel I read a while ago. Here's a secondary character, Tonno, explaining why paying taxes is a responsible and necessary thing to do:

"Constables, dung-sweepers, the folk who repair and maintain the wells and the aqueducts, and a hundred more jobs you'd never think of and likely wouldn't see. Rat-catchers and street-tenders, gate-keepers and judges, gaolers and the men who make certain food sold in the marketplace is what it's said to be. [...] That's what a government is all about, Rune," he said, more as if he was pleading with her than as if he was trying to win an argument. "Taking care of all the things that come up when a great many people live together. And yes, most of those things each of us could do for himself, taking care of his own protection, and his family's, and minding the immediate area around his home and shop - but that would take a great deal of time, and while the expenses would be less, they would come in lumps, and in the way of things, at the worst possible time." (113)

Rune "could see his point" (113) but she evidently isn't wholly reconciled to the idea of paying taxes because when the subject appears again later in the novel it's due to her suggesting to Wren that living a life on the open road might be advantageous because of

"The damned tithe and tax. If they can't catch you, they can't collect it. And if you leave before they catch you -"

"Point taken," he admitted. "Though, I'll warn you, I do pay tax; I've been paying both our shares. If you want decent government, you have to be prepared to pay for it." [...]

"Point taken," she said, quietly. "Tonno - felt the same way as you, and lectured me about it often enough. [...]" (218)

One may agree or disagree with the political, religious etc stances taken by characters in these novels but I find it very refreshing to see them expressed openly, in much the same way that, in Lackey's novel, "musicians wore [...] ribbon knots on their sleeves" (103) so that their occupation is readily apparent. It's something I don't often see in romance, although it could be argued that all romances are political if, as Pamela Regis has argued, one of the "eight essential elements of the romance novel" (30) is

Society Defined

Near the beginning of the novel, the society that the heroine and hero will confront in their courtship is defined for the reader. This society is in some way flawed; it may be incomplete, superannuated, or corrupt. It always oppresses the heroine and hero. [...] The scene or scenes defining the socieyt establishes the status quo which the heroine and hero must confront in their attempt to court and marry and which, by their union, they symbolically remake. (31)

However, the politics inherent in defining a society and then remaking it would seem to be well masked in most romances. Perhaps this is because, as Merrian Weymouth once mused on Twitter, "romancelandia is an escape into privilege" (qtd by Meoskop). Privilege has been described as "an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was 'meant' to remain oblivious" (McIntosh). By definition, then, making overt the politics underlying romances would tend to work against an escape into privilege.

While I can understand the appeal of escaping into privilege, I find myself alienated by the implicit politics of a lot of romance novels and I can't help but agree with Emma Barry's conclusion:

If we’re pretending that a run-of-the-mill Regency or small-town contemporary is without statement about power or politics, it’s going to be very difficult for a novel that addresses inequity — across race, class, sexual orientation, nation of origin, etc. — to make it.

At the end of the day, I’d wish we talk about power and politics in every novel in more complicated ways, thus opening the market to the voices that are currently excluded.


Barry, Emma. "Politics and the Romance Novel." 28 May 2013.

Lackey, Mercedes. The Lark and the Wren. 1992. The Free Bards. Riverdale, NY: Baen, 1997. 1-298.

McIntosh, Peggy. "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack."

Meoskop. "Master of His Domain." It's My Genre. 4 April 2013.

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

I've been pondering another post by Meoskop, on asexuality and reading romance, and Liz McCausland's response that

the emphasis on “hotness” in the genre too often leads to thin depictions of what love is all about. It feels like a lot of writers are rushing ahead to the “good parts,” like lust has come to stand in for love. I know this isn’t exactly a new observation. “We” are so pleased about our frankness about sex and female desire and how it’s OK to explore fantasies and be turned on, it’s like we’ve lost sight of everything else that goes into romantic love. Blah.

This reminded me that sexuality is one area in which romance is most often explicitly political, inasmuch as it repeatedly affirms the right to sexual satisfaction. Or, as Jennifer Crusie put it

My sex scenes–and my romance novels–are about determined women who go after what they need and get it, which is why I think they’re a feminist act. Naomi Wolf once said that men called women who liked sex “sluts,” but that was okay because “we need sluts for the revolution.” That’s what I’m doing, that’s my mission in life, I’m writing sluts for the revolution. I’m very proud.

For her part, Sarah Wendell claims that "reading about women and men experiencing sexual honesty along with their sexual agency is a very powerful (and subversive) thing" (116). I can see what they mean, and sexual and reproductive rights, and particularly LGBTQIA rights are indeed live political issues. That said, when the vast majority of romances are about white, able-bodied, cis-sexual, heterosexual, monogamous couples who, if they have an unexpected or "secret" baby don't even consider the option of abortion, the overall message may begin to seem rather less subversive. And having read Huxley's Brave New World, in which "Lenina doesn't see why she shouldn't have sex with anyone she likes whenever the occasion offers, as to do so is merely polite behaviour and not to do so is selfish" (Atwood) I can't help but think that sex is not, of itself, liberating. Indeed, it could be constraining if it becomes almost compulsory.

So, even if the sex in romance is political, I can't help but wonder if, to paraphrase Liz,

“We” are so pleased about our frankness about sex and female desire and how it’s OK to explore fantasies and be turned on, it’s like we’ve lost sight of everything else that goes into politics.


Atwood, Margaret. "Everybody is Happy Now." The Observer. 17 Nov. 2007.

Crusie, Jennifer. "Glee and Sympathy."

Meoskop. "Reading Asexually." Love in the Margins. 17 Aug. 2013.

Wendell, Sarah. Everything I Know ABout Love I Learned from Romance Novels. Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks, 2011.