Catherine LaRoche, professor and author of MASTER OF LOVE and KNIGHT OF LOVE, shares her theory on what makes a romance novel a romance novel.


I spend a lot of time thinking about romance fiction. My mom reads the books, and I picked up the love of the genre from her. She always had a tottering pile of novels beside her bed that I’d rummage through for something to borrow.

Now, in my day job, I’m a college professor who works in gender studies and cultural studies. For several years, I’ve included romance fiction in my teaching and I’ve been researching an academic book entitled Happily Ever After: The Romance Story in Popular Culture. My students choose romances from a big box that I bring into class and write responses on them. We do cut-up exercises with the novels to create alternative storylines. We write a collaborative online romance with scenes ranging from suspense to spicy erotica. I set up a romance lending library in my office; my eight-year old son decorates a poster for borrowers to write down comments about their novels. As I draft the chapters for my academic book, I workshop them with the students to get feedback.

I’d like to do the same with you here, on some of the book’s conclusions. I propose that romance novels have eight essential elements. (I’m playing off Dr. Pamela Regis’s work in her wonderful 2003 text A Natural History of the Romance Novel.) What do you make of my list so far? Do you agree or disagree? Am I missing anything? All comments welcome!

Central claims made by the romance narrative:

  1. It’s a man’s world. Women generally have less power, fewer choices, and suffer from vulnerability and double standards. They often get stuck looking after men or being overlooked by men.
  2. Romance is a religion of love. Romance entails belief in the power of love as a positive orienting force. Love functions as religion, as that which has ultimate meaning in people’s lives.
  3. Romance involves risk. Love doesn’t always work out. Desire can be a source of personal knowledge and power but also of deception and danger. Romance fiction is the safe, imaginative play space to explore the meaning and shape of this landscape.
  4. Romance requires hard work. Baring the true self, making oneself vulnerable to another is hard. Giving up individuality for coupledom requires sacrifice.
  5. Romance facilitates healing. Partner love leads to maturity. Love heals all wounds. Love conquers all.
  6. Romance leads to great sex, especially for women. Women in romance novels are always sexually satisfied. Romance reading can connect women to their sexuality in positive ways.
  7. Romance makes you happy. The problematic version of this claim is that you need to be in a romantic relationship for full happiness. Here, romance fiction can be oppressive if it mandates coupledom for everyone.
  8. Romance levels the playing field for women. The heroine always wins. By the end, she is happy, secure, well loved, sexually satisfied, and set up for a fulfilling life. The romance story is a woman-centred fantasy about how to make this man’s world work for her.