Surely you’ve heard the snark. The titters over the lurid covers. The pollyanna insistence on a happy ending. Bodice rippers. Lowbrow, genre, not-literary. Porn for women. Harlequin used to be accused of selling books like bars of soap.
Romance novels get a bad rap.
And it’s totally ridiculous. Let me tell you why.
Myth One: Feminists don’t read romance novels.
A feminist is a person who supports social, economic, personal, and political rights for women. Romance novels are written for women, by women. They feature a woman choosing her life partner. The woman chooses to find romantic and (usually) sexual fulfillment on her own terms, whatever unique terms those might be. The woman chooses—that’s not even true of all countries in the world yet and certainly was not historically the case. Of all genres, romance novels feature empowered women blazing their own path to their own happily ever after.
Myth Two: Romance novels are not literature.
I think what the person who says this is just being pretentious. They want their reading choices to say, “I’m so smart! I only read real literature.” What does that even mean?
Romance novels are a genre, with conventions and tropes that are expected by the readers of the genre, just like mystery, science fiction, horror and all other genres. On the other side of these commercial genres, literary fiction stands in contrast. What is literary fiction? Whatever doesn’t fit into the defined genres. There is a sense that literary fiction is somehow worthier and more noble because it’s usually a slog to read with a sad ending. And historically (though this has changed in recent times) it was written by men.
Oh, and also, just as an aside, romance readers don’t only read romance. Most romance readers are voracious readers who read across a broad spectrum. So, if I want to read my Nora Roberts today and my Margaret Atwood tomorrow and my Shakespeare on Friday, I will, thank you very much, with no one’s approval of my reading choices required.
Myth Three: Romance novels are trashy.
Why are they trashy? Because they contain sex scenes? But no, that can’t be all of it. Mystery novels, horror novels, science fiction, and even “literary” fiction often contain sex scenes. Romance novels are trashy because they depict women enjoying sex. Quell horror! We can’t have that!
Also, not all romances contain sex and those that do range from soft-focus love scenes to explicit sex. But why does our society frown on women enjoying sex? And why is that acceptable? Shouldn’t good, consensual sex be part of a loving, respectful, romantic relationship? This also ties into the tired “romance novels give women unreasonable expectations” chestnut. So, if a romance novel teaches readers to expect respect, love, and really hot sex and most partners can’t provide that, the problem is not with the romance novel, is it?
Myth Four: Romance novels are all the same or formulaic.
Okay. In the sense that all cars are the same, all computers are the same, all hamburgers are the same, it is true that all romance novels are the “same.” According to Romance Writers of America, the defining characteristics of a romance novel are that it feature a central love story and an optimistic ending. It’s usually a couple, though that couple can be heterosexual or homosexual. Some books feature more than two partners. And the optimistic, emotionally satisfying ending usually does mean that the couple commits to a relationship for the foreseeable future—the so-called happily ever after.
Within those confines, there are too many sub-genres of romance to list. The main three are contemporary, historical, and paranormal. Beyond that, there are Young Adult (YA) and New Adult (NA). There are contemporaries set in small towns, in cities, in far flung locales. There are historicals for every time period from antiquity to World War II. Paranormal can encompass elements such as ghosts or magic to fully realized worlds containing every mythical creature ever imagined. There are also romances set on future starships or on alien worlds. And that’s not even to speak of favorite tropes such as arranged marriages, friends to lovers, second chance at love… the permutations are literally endless.
In the last few months alone, I’ve read romances set in New York City, one set in contemporary India, a Georgian take on fairy tales, and one set in ancient Rome.
But they’re all just the same, carbon copies of each other. Just like all mysteries are the same—I mean the killer is caught at the end, right? Or all sitcoms are the same because I mistake Big Bang Theory for The Office every time. **eyeroll**
I’ve been reading romance for over thirty years and I just published my sixth romance novel. I love discovering each couple’s path to happily-ever-after. I’m a proud feminist. I am a well-educated woman, with a graduate degree. Before I became a writer, I enjoyed great success in my chosen legal career. I’m happily married and the mother of a son.
And I’m proud to say not only do I read romances but I write them too.