Plenty of women who read and/or write romance novels are fully aware of the stigma attached to the genre. Gallons of ink have been spilled in the discussion of how romance gets no respect. If you’re a new writer hopeful of making your way in the world of romance stories, you should start off knowing what you’re up against. And if you’re a jaded veteran of the romance genre, you should know that there’s a bit of light at the end of the tunnel.
Romances suffer derogatory terms such as ‘bodice rippers,’ ‘literary porn,’ and ‘trash,’ to name a few. These fictional stories have endured a lousy reputation since they first appeared in literary history. Oh dear, these stories deal with private matters. No one goes around talking about the intimate details of their emotional relationships or their sex lives—not now, and especially not in the 18th century when the first romance hit bookshelves in the story of Pamela. Nevertheless, in 1740 no less than now, the novel and its sequels were huge hits and spawned countless clones.
Multiple reasons have been put forth for the failure of romance stories to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the publishing industry and its coterie of learned critics. One might hear that romances lack literary merit, or that the stories follow a formula, or that the cover images are hopelessly sleazy. But then, much of fiction lacks literary merit, mysteries and most other genre fiction follow formulas, and what is more visually disturbing than covers depicting murder and death?
One might even argue that the noble ‘literary fiction’ features its share of formulaic content, lack of literary merit, and sordid covers.
Yet all other genres aside from romance routinely enjoy critical review, even if some reviewers eviscerate the work in question. All other genres gain public notice and appear in lists of best-selling fiction. Romance, on the other hand, rarely captures a mainstream review and appears on lists only if those lists are specifically dedicated to romances, one assumes in order to allow readers to cleanly avoid wasting their time looking at titles that are beneath their dignity.
The Romance Writers of America define romance as stories that have a central love story and an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending. If that wasn’t shameful enough to earn the scorn of the publishing industry, its authors and readers are almost universally female.
One observer remarked that “Romance is seen as unserious and frivolous because women are seen as unserious and frivolous, and romance is written largely by women, for women, about concerns traditionally seen as feminine …”
Psst! Don’t tell anyone that without the massive annual revenues generated by romance books, the publishing industry would be unable to put out those fabulous literary works.
Without sounding sexist, I’m at a loss how else to say this. The universal denigration of romance writers, readers, and the genre in general is, well, sexist.
One might argue that criticism of romance is not necessarily sexist. Indeed, feminist Germaine Greer’s 1970 tome The Female Eunuch eviscerates romance novels as exploitative reinforcement of women’s submissive role in human culture. But as some of Greer’s critics have pointed out, she herself is stereotyping women by assuming that women who write/read romance are submissive little waifs clinging to their hero Alpha males.
Okay, some may be. But for the very real percentage of women who enjoy and thrive in such a role, why denigrate their choice of reading material?
Increasingly, the liberation of women from cultural stereotypes has spawned writers and readers of romance novels who are strong independent women with careers in fields including law, medicine, and political office. Romance stories often include protagonist women with meaningful goals and intelligent life choices as well as relationships where the male and female see themselves as equal partners. How sexist is that?
One might even say that the two go hand in hand. Women reading about women grappling with the difficulties and rewards of careers and relationships, among other things tackled in romance novels, are the same women struggling for workplace equality and partnership marriages.
Most stories including literary fiction involve characters struggling with emotional conflict, love, loss, and sexual encounters just like they do in romance novels. With two differences: romances have happy endings and sex is more often described in specific detail.
This hints at the real issue many book snobs hold against romance novels. Life doesn’t have happy endings, not in the literary world. In literary fiction, people die in terrible ways and reading about these deaths and losses is supposed to inform and entertain readers. And sex? Well, let’s not hear the details, shall we? It’s titillating. It’s gross.
Yet each of us hope for happy endings and find great pleasure in hearing that our neighbor or beloved family member has survived cancer or some other brush with death. We hunger for the satisfaction of healthy sexual relationships and the pleasure we gain in orgasm. The fact that some people find these too disturbing to read about says more about their psychological and emotional problems than about any shortcomings of romance stories.
Does it take a psychologist to caution women that what they read in romance novels should not form the basis of decisions about their lives? A British psychologist says that romance novels can be a bad influence on women and lead them to make poor health and relationship decisions. “The novels give women unrealistic views about what to expect out of a relationship because they, well, romanticize love,” said Susan Quilliam, a relationship psychologist based in Cambridge.
Please. Talk about sexist.
Does this mean that novels about war cause readers to rush out and murder someone? After all, they romanticize the glory of war.
Fortunately, with self-publishing and the continuing elevation of women to positions of power and wealth have earned romance a bit higher standing, at least in some venues. Prominent institutions of higher learning have begun offering classes that discuss romance as a legitimate art form. In the January 13, 2016, issue of the Princeton Alumni newsletter, Jennifer Altman wrote about classes that focus on this genre:
Women always are center stage in romance novels, and those women are guaranteed to find a satisfying relationship by the book’s end, whether it’s with a Viking or a vampire or another woman. “Romance fiction is about hope, and about the possibility of finding a relationship in which you’re appreciated for who you really are,” [Laurie]Kahn says. And if critics find the stories unrealistic, well, that’s what they’re meant to be. “Romances are fantasies,” [Nancy] Herkness says. “We try and make them as authentic as we can, but it’s still a fantasy.”
It’s the uplifting final pages, say many, that draw readers to romance. “I need a happy ending,” [Anna] Muzzy says. “The world is a dark and grim-enough place. I don’t need to read dark stories.” No matter how difficult the complications of the plot are for the protagonist, the story always ends on an optimistic note. “You know it will be emotionally satisfying,” [Mindy] Klasky says. “There’s a comfort in knowing that, despite everything, there will be a happy ending.”
Similarly, the Yale Herald surveyed the world of romance writing in a thorough discussion of the pros and cons from an academic viewpoint. No less than the Smithsonian Magazine recently published an overview of criticism and opinion about romance and how there are winds of change in academia.
I’m a little uncomfortable with the Princeton ladies with their praise of fantasy and uplift. Nothing is more fundamental or relevant to human life than loving relationships and satisfying sex. These are the emotional nests from which our children spring and the context in which we go forth each day to wage our battles for security and meaning. It’s been an ongoing failure to recognize this primal need and stand up for its literary importance to all detractors.
As women’s fortunes rise in society, romance will continue to gain a stronger position in literary circles. Emotion and relationships have always been the realm where women reigned supreme just as war and conquest have been the arena where men ruled. Until recent decades, arguably until the arrival of self-publishing where women have been able to break past the publishing stranglehold, men controlled the industry and formed the predominant ranks of literary criticism; books about emotions and relationships failed to interest them.
So make it good, ladies. Put out stories that make us proud. Entertain us with inventive plot lines and unique characters. Enlist beta readers and work hard to be professional. The future is ours.