Romance is Not a Four Letter Word
This is Part 1 of a series on the defense of romance novels.
As evidenced by this blog, I love reading. I read many books and I don’t care to discriminate which genre I read. I enjoy thrillers and mysteries and horror and science fiction and fantasy and literature and classics and poetry. But above all, romance novels hold a special place in my heart. I have been reading them since I was a kid. My grandmother introduced me to Janet Oak, Grace Livingston Hill, and Emilie Loring in late elementary school and I’ve been hooked ever since.
A few days ago, I saw a thread on twitter asking readers how they knew when they were romance readers. [LINK HERE]
Calling all romance fans! How would you complete this sentence?
You know you’re a romance reader when…
— goodreads (@goodreads) January 16, 2018
Most of the answers answered were variations of the following:
- when you always read on your kindle rather than a physical book
- when people judge you for what your reading
- when you don’t read in public but at home
- when you can’t even have a thread talking about romance books without someone jumping in to talk about how terrible they are
- when you don’t volunteer to people what you read or who your favorite authors are
- when your books hidden away
As a reader, this sentiment makes me sad. I have also experienced exactly what these readers have expressed. Here are a few personal anecdotes regarding reading romance:
- I was told once that romance was for lonely women who wanted their boyfriends to pay more attention to them.
- I stopped carrying my books on public transport after being on the receiving end of one too many lecherous grins and comments about how much I must need sex.
- I have frequently referred to romance novels as shameful or trashy around others to avoid people thinking less of me as a reader or intellectual. There was no reason for me to be ashamed of reading them or to shame others for doing so.
- I can’t tell you how many times, someone has read a romance novel at my recommendation and told me, “Wow, that was actually really good. I was surprised.” Of course it was good! This is what I do — I read and recommend books to my friends and family. I’m not going to recommend garbage.
As a writer, this sentiment makes me mad. It also reminded me of an incredibly problematic New York Times article (link is here) from this previous fall that highlighted so many of the terrible biases against romance. While the article was insipid and poorly executed, the most egregious error was letting someone who doesn’t read romance write a roundup post about romance. Unfortunately, this is common. When people talk about romance, it’s either shamefully or derisively. Here are some of the highlights of the article that was a thinly veiled mockery of an entire genre under the guise of convincing people to read romance:
“I remember being struck some years ago by [Nora Roberts’] common sense about what women want, need and deserve.”
“And [the romance genre’s] effect? Harmless, I would imagine. Why shouldn’t women dream? After all, guys have their James Bonds as role models.”
“Oh, yes — Zoe and Carver are African-Americans, though except for some scattered references to racial matters, you’d never know it. (Well, you would from the cover.)”
“The hundreds of romance novels … just published or due to appear in the next few months essentially fall into two categories. There are the Regency romances … And there are the contemporary young-woman-finding-her-way stories…”
“The only new element in the genre these post-Heyer days is the relentless application of highly specific sex scenes.”
I don’t think I need to elaborate about what was wrong with those quotes.
As evidenced above, romance is commonly assumed to be “mommy porn”, “bodice rippers”, or books about women who are addicted to shopping. While those types of books do exist, the genre is so much more. According to the RWA (Romance Writers of America), two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending. I don’t remember where I read this, but someone said once that “romance is the genre of hope”. Think about that. There is something so comforting and lovely knowing that despite the pitfalls and hiccups within a story, you can trust that everything will work out just fine in the end. Each new book brings hope and anticipation and that’s something I think we could all use.
Romance isn’t just a piddly cash-cow of publishers. The romance industry is huge. Here are some statistics on the romance genre from the RWA website:
- The estimated annual total sales value of romance in 2013 alone were $1.08 billion
- The romance novel share of the U.S. fiction market was 34%.
Does that look insignificant to you? A third of published fiction books are romance novels and yet it is continuously derided as inferior to the rest of published fiction. It is a wildly successful genre and yet neither readers nor writers are taken seriously when they are involved in romance. There is this inherent bias that says the entire genre is poorly written and of no literary value.
And to that I say, up yours.
A common negative narrative about romance novels is that they set up the reader for disappointment with real life relationships. I disagree. To begin, a good romance novel has fully developed characters. They have problems. They have dreams. They have personalities and quirks. These characters have to learn to like themselves as well another person, just like what we do every day of our lives.
Here’s a great quote from bestselling romance husband-and-wife duo, Ilona Andrews, from their blog:
“Pure romance succeeds on the strength of character conflict alone. No other genre makes such demands on characterization.”
While romance often depicts some fairly absurd and impractical love stories, keep in mind that any relationship can be the thing of stories. We, the readers, can have hope that ours can be like the ones we read about. Think about what happens when a new couple is introduced to someone else. One of the first questions asked of the couple is how they met. As humans, we love these stories and want to hear about the successes of relationships. A romance novel is simply that meet-cute dinner party story you tell, but in more detail and fictional.
Even if the situations or stories aren’t real or believable, there’s something important about escapism. You don’t hear people telling Stephen King’s readers that there aren’t actually killer clown in sewers out to get their children, or readers chiding Dan Brown that there aren’t symbolic and religious conspiracies hidden in famous artwork. Of course, not everyone wants their books to be escapism. Again, that’s okay, but keep in mind that almost all fiction is a form of escapism.
Another common prejudice against the women who read and write romance is that they are lusty, uneducated, middle-aged women who are unhappy with their lives. Where did this mindset that romance authors and readers alike are stupid, unintelligent, or desperate even come from?
Here are just a few bestselling romance authors:
- Grace Burrows trained and worked as a lawyer before becoming an author.
- Jennifer Cruise holds two masters degrees and is ABD for her doctorate.
- DianaGabaldon has three separate degrees in science: Zoology, Marine Biology, and a Ph.D. in Quantitative Behavioral Ecology, as well as an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters
- Eloisa James is a tenured professor of English Literature at Fordham University.
- Lisa Kleypas holds a degree from the prestigious Wellesey University.
- Sarah Maclean holds an undergraduate degree from Smith College and a graduate degree from Harvard.
- Courtney Milan has a graduate degree in theoretical physical chemistry from Berkeley and graduated summa cum laude from the University of Michigan Law School.
- Julia Quinn attended Harvard University and was accepted to Yale Medical School.
- Penny Reid is a part-time romance author and full-time biotech researcher.
- Sherry Thomas has been on the NYT bestseller list multiple times as well as winning the RITA award twice all while writing books in English, which by the way, is not her native tongue.
Do these women sound uneducated and stupid to you?
Let’s return to the idea is that all romance novels are “mommy-porn” or just an excuse for gratuitous descriptions of sex. First of all, we need to stop using such shameful terms. We also need to stop pretending that women who like sex or want sex are trashy. Sex is a natural part of a romantic relationship and it’s perfectly reasonable to be inside of a book that depicts romantic relationships. Sex within other genres isn’t considered “dirty”, yet consensual sex between two partners in a romance novel is filth and trash.
Further, many romance novels do not even discuss sex. There are tons of great chaste or “clean” novels and authors out there. Some books politely skirt around the issue or “fade to black” and some emphasize chastity. Many of these books are considered “inspirational” or religious in tone, while others are found in plenty of cross-genre books such as westerns, historical, contemporary, rom-com, thrillers, etc.
Sex, passion, love exist in every single genre, yet only romance novels are castigated as cheap and tawdry. How many action movies have you seen where the side plot is the hot guy getting the hot girl? I’ll wait while you count up all of them. Romance novels are not inferior to spy novels or thrillers. I’ll say it once more, Elizabeth Bennet, Bridget Jones, Lucy Hutton, and Claire Randall are not inferior to James Bond, Temperance Brennan, Jack Reacher, Mitch Rapp or Jack Ryan.
The point is that romance is just as important of a genre than any other. There’s no reason for such an pervasive bias against a third of published fiction. Of course there are going to be some books that deserve criticism, but that’s no reason to dismiss an entire genre. There isn’t the same prejudice against the entirety of fantasy or of thrillers and yet they are also riddled with, dare I say it, bad books.
Are some romance books problematic? Yes, absolutely!
Are some terrible? Of course!
Are still others poorly written? Oh, my goodness, yes!
And even if they aren’t problematic, terrible or poorly written, no one book or genre will resonate with everyone and that’s okay. Think about Charles Dickens. He is a literary classic and has been read both voluntarily and involuntarily by millions, and yet no two people have the same opinion on his work. Many people love him, others despise him, and many others are indifferent.
How many other fiction genres have essays upon essays defending the writers and readers against derision by critics?
It’s okay to not like romance, just like it’s okay to not enjoy westerns or white chocolate or horror films. It is not okay delegitimize an entire genre just because you don’t read it. It is not okay to display contempt for something you don’t understand. Systemically dismissing an entire genre, especially if you’ve never read it, doesn’t show that you’re more well-read or intelligent than me. It demonstrates your ignorance of the subject.
Don’t dismiss an entire genre because some parts are bad; you’ll miss out on some books that are truly excellent.