Romance novels can provide guidance in a number of areas. The
pastoral function of guiding consists of assisting perplexed persons to make confident choices between alternative courses of thought and action, when such choices are viewed as affecting the present and future state of the soul. (Clebsch and Jaekle 9)
The pastoral nature of guidance in romance is assured by virtue of romance’s beliefs about the nature of love: in romance any decisions regarding relationships, both personal and communal, can be considered to affect “the present and future state of the soul” inasmuch as true love is deemed to be both long-lasting and beneficial. Authors of romantic fiction generally have “an interest in, liking for and understanding of real people, and a desire to convey those insights and emotions to readers through characters” (Baker 74). According to Helene Schellenberg Barnhart, theirs is a profession which allows them to “touch other lives, expanding other minds with information you’ve carefully researched and with stimulating ideas born in your imagination. You’ll be privileged to touch the human heart, stirring it to new awareness” (249).
In order to be able to make “confident choices,” it is generally necessary to feel well informed about the various options available. There are many social issues which can be expected to affect romance readers and their communities, either directly or indirectly, and about which they may at some point have to make “choices” so, in their writing, authors have often explored “divisive issues like class, love, women’s sexuality and pleasure, rape, virginity, money, feminism, masculinity, and equality” (Rodale 12). In recent decades they have engaged with "multiple social concerns like PTSD syndrome in the US after the Iraq war, and discuss whatever issues may be affecting personal relationships in contemporary society, from single-parenthood to online dating services" (Pérez Casal). One study, based on “129 romances [...], published between 1978 and 2013” (Chelton 268) involving adoption, found that "In terms of information-seeking, adoption reunion romances do provide in the aggregate mostly the same information on adoption searching as that recounted in true memoirs and adoption search manuals" (270). Such information could assist both parents who have given a child up for adoption, and adopted children themselves, in making “confident choices between alternative courses of thought and action.”
The benefit of fictionalisation is, as one author, Daphne Clair, has stated, that
Serious matters are [...] individualized, given a personal face. One woman’s efforts to overcome the effects of rape on her love life, or one man’s battle with alcoholism for the sake of his relationship with a woman, described by a skilled and sincere writer, can illuminate, educate, comfort, and influence, even mobilize. A reader who cares about your characters will gain understanding of their problems in a wider sense. Stories influence readers. (Grant 12)
Although it is somewhat unusual for authors to elaborate precisely what type of understanding they hope their readers will gain, or the kind of comfort they wish to impart, they do sometimes do so. Talia Hibbert’s Merry Inkmas (2017), for example, concludes with an author’s note in which she states that:
Homelessness in Britain is on the rise, and certain groups are especially vulnerable. From LGBTQ+ youth to victims of domestic violence, the disadvantaged are often the first to suffer.
[...] I ask that you bear in mind the principles of love and kindness to all. Everyone is human; everyone deserves safety. No matter where you live, someone in your local community needs you—even if all you have to give is friendship.
The explanation in the first paragraph, and the pleas in the second, appear to be directed to readers who, while they may benefit from gaining a greater understanding of the issues raised here and in the novel as a whole, have not experienced them directly. However, it is clear that in assisting these readers to remember “the principles of love and kindness to all,” Hibbert may be seen to be attending to the “present and future state of the soul[s]” of these readers.
Thomas J. Roberts has argued that, in addition to providing readers with information, popular fiction parades “before us models and countermodels of the exemplary that help us to see ourselves for what we are” (128). It can be said, then, that
novels may fulfil for us some of the functions that lives of the saints performed traditionally. People used to read, and some still do read, such lives in order to understand the nature of virtues like constancy and fidelity [...] and their role in human lives, and to discern, in the way people change over time, the redemptive power of grace in those lives. (Sherry 108)
With regards specifically to romance novels it would seem more accurate to refer to the redemptive power of love rather than of grace and, given the variety of literary modes that are used, it would be wrong to assume that all romance protagonists are the equivalents of saints and therefore models of a very elevated calibre. Nonetheless, there are many who appear in some ways “superior in degree” (Frye 33) to normal human beings; such protagonists are, indeed, so frequent in the genre that Susan Ostrov Weisser has complained that in “love stories [...] the ones who are lovable and are loved (not necessarily the same) are [...] represented as a privileged class, to be imitated or at least envied” (11).
Daphne Clair has stated that
The great bulk of romantic heroines are good models for young women if they really want to use them that way: they’re gutsy, they have hard times, they survive. It’s more subtle in the older books. It had to be. [...] I suppose romances to some extent give women clues. (McAlpine 62-63)
Of course, as Clair implies, some readers may neither need or choose to “use them that way” and Clair adds the caveat that romances leave the power of interpretation in the hands of readers because they "are not ‘how to’ books"; she does not "set out to improve my readers. I think that would be a hell of a cheek" (62).
If romances guide their readers, then, it is in a collaborative manner, dependent on the readers’ discernment. Even Sam, a protagonist in Anne Tenino’s Romancelandia series who has “a habit of reading romance novel plots into everything” (81) and is convinced that “Romance novels have an often uncanny ability to predict reality” (198), acknowledges this need for readers to assess and interpret their contents because
what happens in a book is distilled reality. [...] Because it’s the written word, not a movie or anything, readers need, like, fortified reality in order to really feel the character’s journey, so the author has to amp things up. Look at all the steps that go into making something happen and then only pick out the important ones, then she has to, like, give it steroids. Make it bigger than it would be in real life. (382)
As the psychologists Stephanie C. Stern et al. have observed,
Fiction has been characterized as a form of simulated social experience that allows the reader to practice attributing motives, emotions, and other mental states to characters engaged in social interactions that are embedded in a larger, simulated social world. (450)
There are certainly examples of readers using romances to explore sensitive issues. In the 1990s, for example, the
Owners of a bookstore in South Carolina that regularly encourage[d] book swaps, parties, and discussions said that romance plots are often used by readers as a framework to discuss issues that might otherwise seem too controversial or too personal. Not surprisingly, these issues often—though not always—were directly related to expectations and negotiations of gender. (Williams and Freedman 149)
A similar, albeit fictional, situation is described in Laurie Paige’s The Cowboy Next Door (1999). Paige’s heroine, Cybil, runs "a sort of dude ranch for women who were in the process of getting a divorce" (13) and, perhaps
Surprisingly, her clients read the romance books she bought and discussed the problems of the main characters as if they were old friends. She thought the heroines' problems sometimes helped them to work through their own troubles. (104)
Perhaps these fictional clients would concur with author Helen Mittermeyer’s suggestion that,
In some ways, a writer can define truths and lies along the romantic highway. She can achieve this by cataloguing the bumps in the road and by pointing out the necessity of controlling the ride and not being a passive passenger in dealing with life. [...] Romance novels are entertainment, but no one can say there’s nothing to learn from them. (55)
Marianne K. Martin, an author of lesbian romances, similarly argues that
We need love, and we need to know where to find it, how to accept it, and how to keep it. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I like to think that by presenting life-like situations and allowing my characters to hope and letting them search and helping them to succeed that I send the message of possibility to my readers. (qtd. in Pearce 2004, 99)