A Spirited Defense of Romance Novels

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that a woman who reads romance novels must be sad, lonely, and own a house brimming with cats.

Or, at least, that’s what the trio of teenagers in Barnes & Noble this afternoon would have me believe. Bodice rippers, they called them. Smut, they said. Housewife porn, they tittered, flipping through the pages for any utterance of the word “manhood.”

Obviously, they had to die.

Just kidding. I didn’t kill them with my sword of literary righteousness. It would have made such the mess. Blood stains do tend to ruin books, after all. Not only did I not end them, but I also didn’t launch into a lecture. It was close, but I bit my tongue and kept on browsing, with only the briefest of quelling death glares. I would like to cite my well-honed sense of tact for this, but let’s be honest. I didn’t lecture those kids, because it would do no good. There would be a new crop of giggling literary voyeurs in their place tomorrow. People love to mock romance novels.

As a longtime romance reader, I’m well-acquainted with such literary snobbery. Despite having bookshelves similarly filled with mysteries, non-fiction, and young adult books, whenever people peruse my library they comment on the romance novels.The following exchange has happened way too often…

Friend: Grace, you read trashy books? I never would have guessed!
Grace: They’re romances, they’re not trash.
Friend: But they’re all about sex! I thought only bored housewives read these.
Grace: The one you’re holding is written by a graduate of Harvard, Oxford, and Yale.
Friend: Look, it says “manhood!”
Grace: *explodes in fury*

Why is it considered socially acceptable to impugn romance novels? Despite it being the bestselling category of books, with over $1.3 billion in sales last year alone, it’s the darling of haters. No other genre has to deal with this kind of heat. Personally, I ascribe this to it being the only genre primarily written by and written for women. Classically feminine interests have always been easy to malign, after all. Alas, that’s a (long, rant-filled) discussion for another day. What I really want to talk about is the thing most haters of romance have in common: they’ve never actually read a romance novel.

Feel free to hate on a genre, if you’re well read in it. All too often, however, the people talking about how smutty romances are have never actually picked one up. From cover art and literary gossip, they make all sorts of ridiculous assumptions about the books and their readers. Since it would be impossible to force them to pick up a pink book, I’m just going to break some myths myself. How convenient that we write this blog, isn’t it? Get ready, captive audience readers, we’re talking romances today.

Myth One: Women read romances for the sex.

Oh, darlings. No. Romances are not porn. If I were reading a book solely for its erotic content, I’d be more efficient about it. In the average romance novel, there are like six total pages of sex. If the book is 400 pages, that’s 1.5% total. Y’all, I’ve read young adult books with higher percentages than that. In romance, like other genres, it’s all on a spectrum – they range from sweet romances (kisses only) to erotic romance (legit erotica), but most popular romances fall in the middle. One or two sex scenes tops, most of which I skim through. Because…surprise! That’s not why I, or most romance readers, pick up a romance.

Myth Two: Women who read romances have submission fantasies.

Ah, the bodice ripper argument. This is the reason I truly know most haters have never read a romance. Bodice rippers, books with overly-Alpha (read: chauvinistic asshat) heroes and unwilling waif heroines, haven’t been popular in over twenty years. Modern romances celebrate realistic characters. In historicals, you’re just as like to run into a pickpocket heroine as you are a countess, and neither one will be a helpless waif. Heroes also run the gamut, from sensitive Gammas to boy-next-door Betas, but the one thing you don’t find anymore are irredeemable Alphas. If a guy acts like a jerk to the heroine, he better have a good backstory about why and he better lighten up eventually. Heroines aren’t pushed around anymore. If anything, they’re the focus of most modern romance novels, something which my feminist core adores about the genre.

Myth Three: Romances are poorly written template novels.

Every romance reader has heard this before. Aren’t all romances the same? They’re formulaic, sentimental shlock that preys on women’s emotions. To this I say: No, you moron. The only thing romances have in common, one book to another, is that the hero and heroine must end up together. That’s not called a formula, that’s called a genre convention. It would be like saying all mysteries are the same, because a crime is solved. It’s just illogical.

Like in any genre, there are good romances and bad romances. They’re not all one or the other. However, like in other genres, there are brilliantly written books that just happen to be romance novels. Even my mother, who isn’t a romance reader, will pick up the latest Susan Elizabeth Phillips…because they’re wonderful, well-written books, no matter what genre they fall into.

Myth Four: Women who read and write romances are just bored housewives.

Oh, holy bejeezus. Let’s just stop this nonsense right there, shall we? From just my sampling of friends who read romance novels there are: two lawyers, one of whom graduated first in her class from a top law school, three doctors, and five women with “executive” in their job titles. Sure, some housewives read them too…because some readers are housewives, not because they’re all women’s weak little brains can handle. Have you met housewives lately? Did they seem dumb or bored to you? Because some of the smartest, busiest women I know are stay-at-home moms.

Beyond that, I defy you to find a group of better educated writers than romance authors. As a writer, albeit in a different genre, I annually attend Romance Writers of America’s national conference. Each year, I meet doctors, lawyers, and college professors writing in the genre. Eloisa James, one of my personal favorites, is the chair of Fordham University’s English Department. Julia Quinn, one of romance’s most beloved modern writers, was accepted to Yale School of Medicine, when her first book sold. Excellent credentials for anyone’s intellect, I would say.

So, why do we read romance novels? Just like other genres, it’s hard to pigeonhole readers, but I think it all comes back to characters.  Romance is the only genre whose conventions favor character over plot. Mysteries must have an investigator, but chiefly they need a crime to unfold. Science Fiction needs a hero, but even more it needs world-building and large scale plotting.  Romances are, at their core, about two people falling in love. Ergo, the people are the most important part. They must be three-dimensional, well-written characters to truly make us feel the emotion of their journey. Like in every genre, there are books that don’t succeed, but the great ones do so brilliantly.

If you’ve dismissed romances, I challenge you to read a few. You might become a lifelong fan or, perhaps, you’ll just bust a few more myths. Either way, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what you find. Don’t worry, you don’t have to own cats to enjoy the books. I’m more of a dog person anyway.

- Grace

Awesome romance-centric sites:
Smart Bitches, Trashy Books
Dear Author
All About Romance
International Association for the Study of Popular Romance

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47 thoughts on “A Spirited Defense of Romance Novels

  1. Very well written Grace, but the true question is not why but how do you choose to read these books? Electronic or paperback? I’m inclined to say paperback since you were at B&N. Personally, I’m a Kindle on my iPhone type of person.

    I would be curious to see what the majority of your readers prefer….

    • Oh, good question! I was an early adopter of the Kindle – I have both a traditional one and a Kindle Fire – but it really hasn’t taken print books out of my life. I prefer non-fiction in print form, so that I can flip back and forth at whim, but fiction as e-books. The only time I’ll buy fiction in print now, is when a friend’s book releases, since e-books don’t show up in some bestseller lists’ sales statistics yet. I would love to know what form everyone else prefers!

  2. As a college student, I have very little time to read for fun, but when I do have the opportunity, I go for a romance novel almost every time.

    I think romance novels are a fun escape from the literature/textbooks/ethnographies that I am forced to read for homework. And who can’t relate to the characters in a romance novel? We’ve all experienced, to some degree or other, misunderstandings/arguments between lovers, heartbreak, loneliness, etc., because, as you say, romance novels are about the people.

    • Jane, that’s one of my favorite reasons for reading romance novels too – after reading heavy medical tomes all day, it’s nice to read something their polar opposite. And you’re exactly right. Love and relationships are universal, so it’s easy to get sucked in to the characters’ lives. Thanks for the great comment!

  3. I have always been an avid reader, but became insanely addicted to romance novels after college (and after starting a standard 9-5 exhusting job) and have not looked back! They are fun and easy to read…a perfect way to kick back at the end of the day. My fiance jokingly calls them “girl smut” but thinks it is cute that I read them. My favorite series: Nora Roberts’ The Bride Quartet Series. I recommend it.

    • Oh, Lauren, I absolutely loved The Bride Quartet! That is such a great recommendation. I’m always amazed by how deep into research Nora Roberts goes with her books and that series is a prime example. Every character, down to their feelings about the business they ran, were so vivid and realistic. Also, reading has always been a form of entertainment, something to take as away from the exhausting real world, it’s just a matter of what form the reader prefers. Romances are such a great way to unwind! I love that your fiance is totally supportive of your reading habits!

  4. I’ve been reading romance novels since I was 13 and needed something to read. It was all my Nanna had at the house so I started with those thin, series Harlequin romances which weren’t all that great. Of course I graduated onto some of the great ones today and really enjoy romantic suspense/action. I’ve heard all the same things you have and I tell people that they can stuff it – I am a college graduate, hold a pretty serious job and don’t take myself too seriously. I need to unwind and reading these books does that for me…as does knitting. OMG, I must be a crazy “old cat lady.”

    • Becky, I was also about 13 when I started reading them, as were my sister and Kate. Can I guess that you ended up with a pretty stellar SAT score? Every girl I know who is an avid reader of romances has knocked their Verbal SAT out of the park, thanks to the slightly esoteric vocabulary they gain. That’s always my favorite ammo, when I tell people to stuff it. :D If you’re a crazy cat lady, so am I – I read romances and sew, for heaven’s sake!

  5. “Despite it being the bestselling category of books, with over $1.3 billion in sales last year alone, it’s the darling of haters.”
    I’d say, the proper wording is “BECAUSE it is the bestselling category…”. There is always a tendency to pick on the market leader. A mixture of jealousy and trying to be different from everybody else. For god’s sake, don’t admit that you like something that’s popular. It’s like saying ‘All Hollywood movies are crap because they are too mainstream to be art’.
    I am more of a fantasy/fiction gal. So thanks for making me curious, Grace, I might just pick up a romance novel once I finished my current read.

    • Excellent point, Sandra. It also helps that they far outpace the second and third categories by over half-a-million dollars. It’s a rather commanding market dominance, to be sure. If you do pick up a romance, I hope you enjoy it Sandra! There are some great fantasy romance series out there, so they may be some of the best “gateway drugs” of romance for a fantasy reader. ;)

      Also, if you have any favorite fantasy recommendations, I’d love to know them. That’s the one genre I’m not as well read in as I should be, other than the odd steampunk purchase.

      • Well, one of my favourites is definitely Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Thruth series. Plus, it probably counts as a romance, too. The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley is a classic that I love, and anything by Anne Rice is very readable as well. Come to think of it, there is loads of romance in a lot of the stuff I read already ;-)

    • Michaela, Kate and I are historical fans, as well! I love a good contemporary or romantic suspense, but historicals are my reading home. Maybe that’s just my anglophile nature coming out, however, since most are UK-set. :D

  6. Who cares what genre the book is if it’s well-written and a fantastic read? I’ve picked up books from every genre that I’ve been completely immersed in, and ones I’d wanted to use for kindling 5 minutes into the story.

    Well written, Grace. It was a fantastic read. ;)

    • Amen, pearlessence! There are good ones in every genre, just like there are wall-bangers in each as well. Why should people judge on genre at all? Thanks for the awesome comment!

  7. you’ve just made my day brighter, I’ve started writting a novel with a lot of love in it people getting together and breaking up and getting together and all that and I felt like feck there is something WRONG with me that i want to write romance, am I stupid houswife? I’m unemployed at the moment why can’t I write new “Harry Potter” but keep going back to love stories? I have 4 cats AND a dog and I picked up knitting recently, is it time to die?? and now I feel like I own the world again! and I’m going to finish first part of my book till April and I am going to publish it! (don’t know how and where but I will!!!!!!) and I’m going to be PROUD romance writer :D

  8. I don’t think women who read romance novels are only housewives. Romance novels are like female porn, romantically as satisfying as a porn video is sexually satisfying to a guy. Lots of women read them. And educated women write them as they are lonely and have trouble keeping men.

    That doesn’t mean we’re going to respect women who are essentially mentally masturbating in public.

    • Beat me to it. You can’t rag on men for watching porn and then say romance novels are different. Same thing, maybe worse, since men can detach porn from reality better then women.

      • Asdf, first off – when have we ever “ragged” on men for watching porn on this blog? You know…women do watch it too, right? Although, you’re right, that post is coming.

        You know why it’s coming? Because people do have a trouble detaching porn from reality. How else would you explain the new, modern expectation that women be completely hairless? Porn actresses started shaving in the 80s, for a variety of reasons, and the more our society watched porn, the more they expected all women to look and act like that. There has been study after study indicating that the more porn someone watches, the less emotional connection they feel when having sex with their real life partner. Detachment issues abound in porn-watchers.

        Also, if you consider romances porn, then all fiction has to be considered it as well. If we’re not empathizing with the characters so much that we escape our world into theirs, then the book in question fails. It’s all emotional voyeurism then, isn’t it? Saying that romances are porn more than mysteries or spy novels is ridiculous. Is it a deep-seated wish to become James Bond that has people picking up a different genre? The romance = porn argument just devolves, when presented with logic and separated from the stereotypes.

        • AWESOME answer, Grace ;) and a sound, intelligent argument. I hate that porn has driven expectations in not only the way you described, above, but also in that it degrades romance, and where quick sex is the norm, alternate forms of relationship building seem out-of-the-question. Like, taking your time, for instance?

      • You are probably looking at all that porn, because you can’t get a woman. If you dislike that generalization, maybe you can see how women feel when guys say irrational, insulting things like this?

    • Oh, darling. No. You can’t say that romances are emotional porn, because if that’s so…all books are emotional porn. What is a work of fiction, if not a chance for a reader to live in someone else’s world for a while? If a novel, of any sort, doesn’t have main characters who can serve as emotional vessels for the reader, then the author has failed. As readers, we’re supposed to feel for the characters and be wrapped up in their lives, no matter the journey they’re on.

      Saying romances are porn, because women want that happily-ever-after and are lonely, is like saying spy novels are porn, because guys want to vicariously kill things and feel emasculated in real life. Not only are they ridiculous, sweeping generalizations, but you have to carry them to their logical conclusions…where they break down. Most mystery readers would be horrified, if confronted with a corpse, but they enjoy looking for clues in fiction – is that not masturbation of their curious, adventurous impulses? Most readers of Jodi Picoult would be angst-ridden, if placed in the situations of characters, but they enjoy the deep emotions and life-questions she brings up. So, is that mental masturbation, because it’s also emotional voyeurism? The argument just devolves from there. Fiction, all kinds, is an escape…or it fails at its purpose.

    • You are an idiot, sir. Go to an RWA convention and they don’t seem lonely or manless to me. If women want to read porn, they can read porn. Romance novels are just escapist fiction, as is all fiction, by the way. I personally prefer to curl up with a Joe Lansdale, myself, but that doesn’t mean I’m violent, just like you curling up with your porno doesn’t make you a lonely pervert who can’t get women. Or maybe it does…Hmmm.

  9. This post, well written and persuasive in itself, is especially appropos today, as I just began reading ‘Gone With the Wind’ 3 days ago. I’d challenge anyone who mocks romance novels to poo-poo the quality of GWTW. And yet, at its’ core, and its’ shell, it’s just another bodice-ripping romance novel ;

    • Too right, Spectra! There are so many classes that are, at their cores, romance novels. It makes sense, since relationships and love are such important themes in all our lives. Great comment.

  10. I recently heard about a study that determined women who read romance novels have better sex lives than women who don’t. I don’t know who would do a study like that, or why, but I’m on board with it.

    • You know, I could totally see that being true. Not only would consistently reading romance deal with a lot of the worries people can have about sex, but the readers are perhaps more confident in themselves, as a result? What a great, but strange, study to run. Wow.

    • I just started writing erotic romances (mainly erotica) and I’ve found that it really has helped my sex life with my husband. Even though lots of what I write is gay erotica, lol! I think just having the fantasies flowing around in your brain lets you get aroused more easily.

  11. It’s ironic that romance novels are called trashy and nonliterary because the book that gave birth to the novel form was, basically, a romance, albeit a weird one: Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. And without romance, there would have been no Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, or Lady Chatterley’s Lover. And really, isn’t Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet a romance?

    • Yes! Yes, yes, yes. Such great points, fredmim. Love is an essential, some would say the most essential, theme in people’s lives through every age. It makes sense that we would read about it and include it in writing, since it’s part of the human experience. So…what’s wrong with reading about something essential to our lives? And when does something become a classic and no longer something looked down upon? Excellent comment.

  12. I read romance novels and I know how some people turn up their noses when they realize you’re into that genre. And yes, they think that the only legit reason we read them is because we are hopeless and romantic and will live our lives as spinsters. And so we indulge ourselves with romance novels to make up for what we lack in life. Your post about romance novel haters is spot on. I’m glad I read this one.

  13. Other points about romances aside, this:
    “No other genre has to deal with this kind of heat.”
    and this:
    “Romance is the only genre whose conventions favor character over plot.”
    are just patently untrue.

    The superhero genre, for instance, gets a lot of flak for being silly and childish when there have actually been a lot of richly complex superhero narratives (the go-to example being Watchmen). As for your second assertion, sitcoms are pretty much invariably more heavily focused on character than on plot. I would also argue that encyclopedic fiction (as far as you could consider it a genre) usually favors character over plot, though this is due more to a lack of an overarching plot than to an emphasis on character development.

  14. Hello!
    Firstly, I just discovered your blog and I have to say: awesome! Cheers for the great read!

    Secondly, I exploded into a similar fit of fury upon hearing a conversation between a group of university students, who declared that they would not be reading the required text “Mrs Dalloway”, since “it’s just a book by, for, and about bored housewives”.

    If Woolf can be spoken of thus, then I have to believe that there’s simply no pleasing some people, and if they can’t appreciate a good romance either, well that’s their loss.

    xo

  15. I sometimes read romance novels. Probably not as much as I read Sci Fi and Fantasy (though I’ve been told those aren’t ‘real literature’ too. People are so strange about books. Reading is an escape, like television – why shouldn’t it be entertaining? And just because you managed to wade through Moby Dick, doesn’t make Melville any more valid an author than Heinlein), but that’s a personal thing. And some of the best Sci Fi has some romance in it – otherwise the characters aren’t as engaging
    One of my favourite romance authors is Georgette Heyer. The most that ever happens is a deep and meaningful look in the eye, or possibly the holding of a hand, but her characters are SO vivid and amazing. Even background characters are given this amazing quick-sketch that makes them more than just pixelated blurs taking up space in the same way as a couch or bus would.

  16. I feel smarter now that I’ve read this. I also feel dumber because I had to look up the term “bodice ripper.” (I promise I will never use it, I swear!) Great stuff as usual!

  17. Pingback: Bookish News and Publishing Tidbits 22 February 2012 | Read in a Single Sitting - Book reviews and new books

  18. Lady with a master’s degree here, and I read romance novels. Not trashy. Thank you for your great defense. Just as an aside, I believe a lot of the books that are now part of the great literary canon weren’t received as great literature when they first came out. Correct me if I’m wrong.

  19. I have never had occasion to rip a bodice. If I ever do, I suspect it’ll happen after she says something snarky, and apolitically correct, and savagely articulate. I suggest this article would make a good preface to a romance novel. It kinda got me in the mood.

  20. For me, the most attractive aspect is that romance is one of the few literary genres that is about life rather than death. In almost every other genre (mystery, thriller, fantasy, western, etc.) people have to be killed to advance the plot. Even classic literature has death as the basic theme in the vast majority of cases. Not so for romance. Hurrah for life-affirming books!

  21. I adore the vintage romance covers you used! I also agree with Ashley – romance is life-affirming. Love is what drives us to seek better and to be better as human beings.

    Funnily enough I’ve found that romance snobs are not men (who often freely admitting to not understanding the genre, but who will not judge you for it), but often women who are embarassed.

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