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