I like gothic romances and I cannot lie.
I may well be forfeiting what little credibility I’ve ever had by saying that, but it is the truth. Gothics have been part of my reading diet for as long as I can remember, much to the surprise of both my friends and myself as, let’s face it, I am not quite the target audience for such books. I guess it has to do with my passion for fiction that deals with the mysterious, for gothic romances when well done offer plenty of that.
Critics of the genre, and there are many, dismiss it as formulaic and overly sentimental. Donald E. Westlake famously summarized the standard gothic plot as « A girl gets a house » which encapsulates a large portion of the genre quite well. It’s certainly true that gothic romances more or less tell the same story over and over again but the fact is, so do detective novels. Formula is part and parcel of the whole mystery genre, and some of the most acclaimed writers in the genre also are the most formulaic – heck, that may be the very reason why they are so popular in the first place. Formula is not necessarily antithetical to art, provided that the artist is talented and inventive enough to put variations on it that are novel and interesting enough for the reader to forget that they have already read this story before.
Another frequent criticism is that the genre overuses the « damsel in distress » trope, which is problematic from a feminist angle. I don’t deny it, even though things are much more complex in reality, but one of the reasons why the device is so ubiquitous not only in gothic romances but in popular fiction as a whole is that it works. Gender stereotypes, whether you agree with them or not, mean that readers are much more likely to feel for a woman in jeopardy than a man, the latter being perceived as stronger and thus more likely to beat the odds. Also, let’s face it, the readership for gothic romances being primarily if not exclusively female, having a woman as the lead character is pretty much inevitable, though she doesn’t necessarily have to be a weakling or a dolt. Once again, it’s a matter of each writer spinning their own variation on the old theme.
As a result of the many negative preconceptions against it, the gothic romance genre has rarely been studied seriously. It is, at best, a guilty pleasure you don’t tell your friends about. And yet the genre has a long, rich and often distinguished history behind it that would deserve further exploration. Most of the few scholars that made the effort to deal with it agree that it originated with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, which provided the template for many a book in and outside the genre including the most famous of them all, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. This makes gothic romance one of the oldest forms of crime fiction, even older than the detective story. Why then is it so critically neglected? Because our modern culture values originality above everything else, and understands it as the breaking rather than the bending of the rules. Also, the genre doesn’t fit easy narratives as a female-centric genre aimed at women but not necessarily written by them – many gothic writers were actually males hiding behind female pseudonyms; hardly a story of female emancipation.
It’s a pity as a really well-done gothic (and that includes some written by men) makes for fun and compelling reading. Female crime fiction is all the rage today, and deservingly so, but no family portrait of it can be complete without that cumbersome, sometimes embarrassing but never dull cousin that is gothic romance. It’s more than time to open the doors again to the black sheep.