As someone who has been reading romance novels virtually non-stop for two years, I have a lot of feelings on the subject. As a successful writer in the genre, Maya Rodale has feelings and actual research on the subject. I purchased her thesis, Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained, because I wanted to understand why this mass market genre is so consistently derided not only by readers, but also seemingly by the book industry as well. Many people read these books and publishers make a lot of money. Obviously, manifestly, clearly, profit does not equal quality, but why doesn’t it at least equal some respect for the readership? What is with the titles? What is with the “clinch covers”?
Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained is largely a historical overview, and, I think, a good one, providing context for the origins, specifics, and reputation of these books. A historical perspective seems a good place to start. If American attitudes are still frequently puritanical, why shouldn’t attitudes towards certain kinds of novels be understood through the prism of an earlier century as well? While reading, I kept waiting for an answering “CLANG!” in my brain to help me understand why reading romance is regarded with greater stigma than other genre fiction, including science fiction, spy novels, and murder mysteries. I was seeking vindication. These are the kinds of reactions I get when I people what I like to read:
“It’s pornography for repressed women.” It’s 2014. If I wanted pornography, I could find pornography.
“I wouldn’t think you were the type.” I don’t even know what this means. Is it that I have so carefully crafted the illusion of intelligence? I don’t seem pathetic? That is the general implication with statements such as these.
“They’re sexist.” No. Historical romance puts a bonnet on current social mores and uses the setting to create narrative distance and reinforce the elements of escapism. There are cultural limitations placed on the women, but these are obstacles not virtues.
“They’re full of sexual assault .” 35 years ago? Guilty as charged. I think it’s because nice women weren’t supposed to like sex, so their body had to be in another’s control for them to do so. They had to surrender before they could have fun. It was disgusting. I’m not defending it, just trying to understand it. Given the ongoing prevalence of “slut-shaming” and victim blaming some things really haven’t changed that much.
“They’re unrealistic.” I got this one a lot when I was younger. I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between fiction and reality. The books set up unreasonable expectations. This would be comparable to a spy novel reader finding an attaché case and being surprised when it didn’t contain top secret government documents.
“They’re all the same.” I would have said “consistent”, but that’s the point. Murder mysteries and spy novels are the same way. It’s genre fiction and the best authors play with the tropes.
“They’re disposable.” This is true. Disposability is built into the genre as it is into all mass market fiction. If it is really good, a romance novel is described as “keeper”, like all those other books people buy, read, and keep.
“The writing is terrible.” Pedestrian might be more accurate, but the same can be said for all books published and, as with “real” books, if you do your research, you can find great authors. As John LeCarre is to the spy novel, so Courtney Milan is to historical romance.
“You should write one.” I get this constantly from my husband because what the world needs is another badly written novel. Notwithstanding that if I write a romance, I can dismiss all of my reading as “research” and be cleansed by creativity… until people realise that I have written a romance novel and I’ve just moved over from the bottom of the reader pile to the bottom of the writer pile. Then, instead of suggesting I read “a real book”, they can suggest I write “a real book”.
[embarrassed silence] and [my own mortification] This is the most common reaction. People are so embarrassed for me. How could I admit to such a thing in public? But I’m embarrassed for me, too. I told a co-worker what I’ve been reading and felt such shame, you would think I’d confessed to being a heroin addict. I’m dismissive, abashed and self-deprecating. I try to own my ignominy. These are my choices, I have a right to them, but shouldn’t I be reading a “real book”?
Women like me, and Rodale explains that the majority of romance readers are indeed women like me, love our e-readers because they obscure our choices. I like romance novels, I am disappointed in myself for liking them, I try to refuse to be embarrassed by discussing them, which in turn chagrins me and usually those around me, as well. BUT WHY?
We live in a culture in which what has been seen as the province of men is regarded as the norm or baseline. Works of art and entertainment that focus on what is outside that standard is therefore considered sub-standard or alternative. Rodale writes that romances were originally subversive in their empowerment of women. Heroines made choices for their own happiness ignoring the rules they were told to live by. I believe romance is mocked now for two separate reasons and the first is artistic: The books follow a clear and infinitely repeatable pattern based on standard tropes, and are meant to be consumed and discarded. These books are held to a different standard and not necessarily one based on artistic merit. They are intellectually vulgar. From that perspective, I can understand the judgement, despite the disrespect it shows to the many genuinely talented writers in the genre, and in other genres for that matter. The second reason for the sneering is that romances dwell in the world of emotions and relationships, the traditional women’s realm. Because they are written by and for women, we have been told that this makes the stories and their writers of less value. Wanting to spend time with characters and their emotions is silly and apparently pathetic. We should devote our entertainment to realistic things, or to different unrealistic things such as murder and espionage. Never mind that the message for women in romance is always one of strength and the right to pursue a fulfilling life. If the heroine has been victimized or relegated to the sidelines by her family or circumstance, she moves into the light. She liberates herself. She is an equal. She always wins. She triumphs. I don’t know that non-romance readers are aware that this is the central tenet of all romance, but it is. And with that, everything comes full circle to Rodale’s thesis that the empowerment of female characters is to be viewed as naive or frivolous, and that the demeaned reputation of romance is based on negative attitudes towards women.