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Romance novels

September 13, 2012

An article about literature usually helps me decide what to read or reveals more in something I have read or know I’m going to read. But some articles are fascinating even though the books they’re written about sound like they’d be hard to get through; take Anna Shcherbakova’s “Roman d’amour: parler d’amour à la russe” (gated link, pdf of TOC), or “The Romance Novel: Talking about Love, Russian-Style.”

Shcherbakova steps back and looks at broad trends in the post-Soviet romance novel, in three phases:

1. In the mid-1990s, bad translations of Harlequin novels start to appear and are bought in large numbers, though panned by critics (147).

2. In the late 1990s, the first wave of homegrown Russian romance novels emerges. (Here she cites an article by Ol’ga Vainshtein.) These have criminal subplots and derive from a kind of modern folklore called the рукописный девичий рассказ, love stories written by Soviet teenage girls in the 1950s and copied from notebook to notebook (147-48). (Here a reviewer is skeptical of folklorist S. Borisov’s decision to study them.)

3. The second wave of homegrown romance novels begins in the 2000s. Now Russian writers turn away from the criminal subplot, mastering and modifying the Harlequin formula. In place of the familiar physically idealized couples, their heroines are not especially attractive and often overweight, while the heroes are “objectively ugly” instead of merely having virile scars (150-51). The men can’t be too rich, either, which “is surely conditioned by the negative perception of very rich people in contemporary Russia,” who are automatically suspected of a criminal past (153). Often the male lead is insecure and arouses a compassionate, almost maternal love in his opposite number, whose job it is to “free him from his complexes” (154). While the Harlequin formula is to tell the story of one ultimately successful courtship, Russian romance novels first narrate the main character’s failed relationships with a couple of the wrong men (156-58).

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