Let’s Take Romance Novels Seriously!
Valentine’s Day is upon is, which means a number of things. Shops will try to sell you overpriced flowers and chocolates as the only acceptable token of your love. The gender binary will once again be reinforced by capitalism as it dictates that all us fizzy girls just want to be lavished with gifts by beleaguered men or we’ll never speak to them again. The proud singletons will face further questions over why they want to die alone, and some sick fellows will pretend it’s acceptable to listen to James Blunt in public.
One less discussed tradition of the season is the annual focus the literary community suddenly gives to romance novels. The billion-dollar-a-year juggernaut of publishing, one that helped to revolutionize self-publishing as a legitimate force and normalized e-books, will receive the sliver of attention the mainstream book world deigns it worthy of. If you’re lucky, you might actually get an article or two that treats the genre with some respect, but mostly we all expect the same mixture of derision and concern-trolling. They’ll be written by people who don’t read romance and whose knowledge of the genre doesn’t extend beyond Fifty Shades of Grey. They’ll ‘ask questions’ about whether reading these books is feminist or not, and comments will be made about how the quality of thousands of books can be generalized as ‘bad’. If you’re a romance lover like me, you’re already familiar with this routine.
I was stunned to see the New York Times publish a piece in their Book Review that, shock horror, reviewed some romance novels with genuine interest and not a hint of condescension. This felt new and long overdue from one of the true forces of international literature. Yet the gaps still remained in their literary arsenal. For an issue supposedly devoted to sex, they didn’t dedicate any time to erotica, the subgenre of romance that may be even further maligned than its sibling. There was also the awareness that this would probably remain a one-off. It’s Valentine’s Day, after all, so why think about fluffy love any other time of the year? Author Jennifer Weiner has been on this crusade for longer than I have, drawing attention to how little attention romance and so-called ‘women’s fiction’ get in the upper pantheons of critical legitimacy. That we got one good article was a miracle, but it’s still just one piece. I’m already dreading the rest of the month’s additions to the conversation, which I doubt will take the same positive tone.
Culturally, we kind of hate women. We certainly hate the pop culture and themes the gender flocks to in droves and deny them a seat at the table of criticism and media studies. Soap operas remain the bottom rung of the TV ladder, fashion is dismissed as an expensive distraction, celebrity gossip gets the shaft even when it’s proven to have serious power, and romance novels are the perpetual punching bag of publishing. You don’t have to actually read one to get 2000 words in a newspaper declaring them all to be garbage. Even Hillary Clinton used the genre as shorthand for something bad. To be a woman with opinions on pop culture is to be on the constant defence of the things you love (a task that becomes all the harder if you’re a not white, cis or middle-class). Loving romance is merely the most obvious example of this, but it highlights the startling lack of respect women-dominated fields and ideas command.
One of the most common misconceptions I hear about romance is that it’s an unchallenging genre, both to read and write. Those who dismiss it tend to ignore how genuinely difficult it is to craft an engrossing, believable and three-dimensional relationship in fiction. The same goes for writing sex. Some of the best writers in the world can’t do sex scenes well: Look at Bad Sex in Fiction nominees like Tom Wolffe and John Updike. More importantly, romance treats sex seriously enough to centre the literary experience on pleasure. These are stories, mostly by and for women, that treat female pleasure and happiness with utter earnestness. Our emotions aren’t denied or dismissed, nor are they treated as secondary to the pursuits of men.
Romance encompasses a vast array of ideas, genres, themes and relationships. if you want something more sci-fi focused, there’s a ton to choose from; if you want Regency stories or Victorian dramas or full-on historical porn, there’s thousands to read; those who prefer contemporary stories can go wild; there are exceptional works with LGBTQ+ romances too. That barely scratches the surface of what romance can offer. No matter my mood or what I’m craving at any particular moment, I know that I’ll be able to find a book that fits my needs.
Oft-undiscussed is the radical power of the romance genre. The field is expanding and its ambitions growing by the year. It’s still a wildly white and straight field but it’s diversifying in the most wonderful ways. Authors like Piper Huguley, Alyssa Cole and Beverly Jenkins write beautiful, detailed and unique historical romances that explicitly centre their narratives on black women. History defaults to white maleness for its heroics, and our pop culture too frequently treats stories of black women as unnecessary or excuses for endless brutality. What romance authors like Jenkins and company do is recontextualize those narratives and offer stories that have been given to other whiter demographics for decades. There are so many gaps in our storytelling history, and it’s romance that’s helping to fill them in.
A cry to take romance seriously isn’t just a plea for women’s interests to be treated fairly: It’s a reminder that the most popular elements of pop culture as so frequently denied the attention and analysis they deserve. TV critics seldom want to write about NCIS or The Big Bang Theory; Few film scholars bring their gaze to focus on the Transformers series; We’re still treating video games like a passing fad; And romance is the black sheep of books it’s okay to mock without ever reading. If it appeals to the widest audiences possible, it is assumed there is nothing of merit to discuss. If for no other reason than to offer a true understanding of our cultural landscape, we should take romance novels seriously. Or maybe, just maybe, we can embrace the feminine and give our dues to the hard work and accomplishments of decades of literary output. Women’s passions are worth something, after all.
(Header image from Flickr)