The Mythology of the Bargain Romance Novel: Just Marry a Rich Guy!

I don’t get the attraction of the lonely wealthy man/ordinary girl setup, although that may be because I was raised on a steady diet of class war.

Sep 15, 2011 at 4:00pm | Leave a comment

Estimated tax payments, the scourge of every law-abiding freelancer I know, are due this week, which naturally turns one’s mind, if one is me, to fantasies of windfalls of cash. Nothing unreasonable, of course, just enough to pay off my taxes and then never work again. And perhaps buy the occasional hothouse fruit out of season. The bedtime fantasy of a winning lottery ticket or an unexpected dead relative with a legacy just for me occupies my brain briefly before I get all hot and bothered thinking about the IRS again.

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In a vain attempt to distract myself from the extremely large cheques1 in my stack of outgoing mail, I put a pot of stew2 on the stove and start looking for free sources of entertainment. Which, for me, since fall television hasn’t started yet and I don’t really want to watch "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" for the 500th time right this very minute, means cruising the free ebook listings on Amazon. These contain, as my fellow aficionados know, a wealth of content from the appalling (‘new edited edition! Have removed many tpyos!’) to the sublime (those publisher freebies they dangle at us in an attempt to get us to buy the whole series).

Here’s the thing that stands out to me, though, which is that there are two books which seem almost identical both in the top 100 free books right now, and they’ve been occupying that spot for quite a while. On the one hand, we have "Maid for the Billionaire," and on the other, "Lonely Millionaire." Now, I love me some romance. I think it’s a fantastically delicious genre and I will absolutely throw down with anyone who wants to trash romance. The ladies at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books know what’s up, when it comes to romance, folks. Seriously.

So I’m not opposed to romance, per se. But these particular books occupy a very special place in the land of romance and popular mythology, one also filled by television shows like "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?," "Secret Millionaire," and, of course, "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" for the more ambitious among us. And that is, of course, the fairy godmother of the ruling classes fantasy, the Horatio Alger legend that lives deep inside of so many of us, whispering in our ears late at night when we’re trying not to think about whether the IRS really minds if we’re three months behind on our ETPs.3

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If you just try hard enough, you, too, can achieve the American Dream.4 It’s just a bootstrap away. And, if you’re a lady, there’s an even easier path to the lap of luxury: just marry a rich guy! Rich guys are actually just like us, you see, and occasionally they want to retreat from the hustle and bustle of it all and find a nice, down to earth, girl next door type to share their immense wealth love with. You just need to get yourself in a position to be that girl, which is exactly where books of this particular ilk put you.

These particular examples of the genre really are quite similar—we’ve got two wealthy men trying to escape their lives who fall for ‘ordinary girls’ and decide they simply have to have them. Exactly as though they’re acquiring companies, they set out to get what they want, offending some delicate sensibilities along the way, naturally, but of course these ladies can’t resist these superhot men and they fall head over heels. As for the wealth, well, gosh, that’s just a bonus, just like the funds the real-life millionaires so magnanimously hand out to the teeming lower classes on offerings like Secret Millionaire, which, by the way, gets appallingly high ratings.

Romance feeds something deep within us. There’s a reason that some of the earliest fiction works, and oldest published novels, really do fall into this genre, and there’s a reason it’s such a hot seller, even as women are shamed for being romance fans and everyone likes to roll their eyes at the lurid covers in the checkstand while surreptitiously angling to read the back and see if it’s worth picking up. I personally am a sucker for Regency, particularly switched identities and/or forced marriages.

I don’t get the attraction of the lonely wealthy man/ordinary girl setup, although that may be because I was raised on a steady diet of class war.5 I grew up in what might politely called 'genteel poverty,' where my father's politics on the subject of social inequality transferred readily to me, living in an environment surrounded by the trappings of wealth and power while we drove a Volvo with no floor panels; not for nothing was I called a pinko commie in college, and the tendency doesn't appear to have abated since.

Clearly, I’m in the minority, because this, too, is one of the oldest offerings in the genre; just look at Mr. Darcy. Which means that there’s something deeply appealing about this for many readers, the idea that a rich man might be waiting just around the corner to sweep you off your feet with a lavish seduction that, bonus!, turns out to include fabulous wealth on top of the perfect life partner.

The cynical part of me, of course, points at the fact that this dovetails very neatly with the interests of the ruling classes, which naturally want to keep us complacent about the shocking inequalities in our society, the increasing absurdity when it comes to the distribution of wealth, and, of course, the fact that few millionaires and billionaires pay their taxes. And naturally, they have a huge impact on how we think and feel about wealth, how we interact with it, and the mythologies that we build up around it because they control the media and the means of communication.

That part of me shivers to think how completely, as a culture, we’ve bought this mythology, how it acts as our bread and circuses to distract us. These sometimes rapey storylines of wealth and privilege taking what it wants and twisting it into high romance are deeply disturbing, and a far cry from the genteel world of Pride and Prejudice, you know? And then I ask myself: what are readers getting out of this? Because they are definitely getting something, and that something may explain why the people haven’t taken to the streets in open revolt yet.

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1 Equivalent to approximately four months rent or two thirds of the remaining note on my car, or, I don’t even want to think about how many billable hours, okay, because it will just make me cry.
2 Beef on sale in the bargain bin! Potatoes a steal at 39 cents a pound! Carrots and onions from the garden! Celery sold by the stick (oh, thank you, Harvest, for saving me from the fate of a limp head of celery moldering in my crisper because I only needed three stalks)! The obligatory bottle of two buck chuck! Some random herbs from the pots on my porch! Feeds one of me for approximately a week, assuming I don’t get so tired of soup that I contemplate hurling it out the window.
3 My accountant assures me they don’t, as long as I don’t mind paying the late fees. Then I think about how many pots of stew I could make with what I pay my accountant. And then I remember how much money he saves me and just write the cheque already.
4 All together now! House! Picket fence! 2.5! Mutt!
5 And stew.