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I am a romance writer, a feminist and someone who has spent the best part of this year writing on the topic of gender politics. Recently I wrote about the many issues faced by men, so today I’m going to give the women some attention. Namely, those who like to read romance novels and who often receive flak for it.
This article is inspired by what happened when I posted the below image to my Google+ page:Bookthingo
The image seemed to inspire an onslaught of venom from a number of male pundits (though some kind men did jump to my defence), and I wanted to share some of the points brought forward on both sides during that discussion. I also want to dispel some commonly held misconceptions, which I find tend to come from those who have read little to no romance novels and judge purely based on outdated stereotypes of the genre.
One of the most common arguments is that romance novels set up unrealistic expectations for women and are bad for relationships in general. Let me start by rebutting that. If it takes a romance novel to end your relationship, then maybe that relationship was struggling to begin with.
I say this based on my own experience, in which romance novels helped end a bad relationship. Not by setting an unrealistic standard, but by highlighting the emotional and verbal abuse I had, at the time, become numb to. For me, reading romance was one thing that pointed out the few things I wanted but was lacking. They helped define what was, relationship-wise, important for me – i.e. support and intimacy.
To say that romance novels set up an unrealistic expectation is foolish, and frankly it’s insulting.
These days, I find myself in a healthy, long-term relationship. And I, like most reasonable women, do not look to my romance novels to build an expectation of a partner who sports a six pack, a constantly raging hard-on and a seven figure bank account (not that all romance heroes have this anyway). To infer we do, is not dissimilar to assuming that anyone who likes crime dramas, harbours a secret desire to murder people.
Romance writers regularly receive thank-you letters from readers husbands who find their wives have been inspired to be more active, both physically and emotionally in their relationship. Romance can improve relationships, I’d say more than it destroys them. And if a woman is lucky enough to find herself in a happy relationship, romance novels can serve as a reminder to be appreciative of the man in her life. Romance novels generally explore gender differences (and similarities) in a way, I believe, helps both genders to understand each other better.
“Romance novels are feminist documents. They’re written almost exclusively by women, for women, and are concerned with women: their relations in family, love and marriage, their place in society and the world, and their dreams for the future.”
What many romance writers hear in their feedback from women and men, is that in a world where women often feel disenfranchised from their sexual expression, romance novels are an avenue for female sexual empowerment.
One argument I fielded during my online debate, was that romance novels are female pornography. My response to this was, so what? If romance novels really are just female pornography, why is that a bad thing? It likely does much less damage to the psyche than ‘real’ pornography, and even so, there are various forms of romance that are rather light on the sex stuff, making this argument a relatively moot point.
But what one must understand, is that not every romance or erotic novel is Fifty Shades of Grey.
Most romances feature heroines with healthy sexual appetites and heroes who are supportive of this. Porn on the other hand, often degrades women for showing an open desire for sex and often the sex depicted is abusive to the women involved. Is there good porn? Yes – but not enough. Is there bad romance novels? Yes – though a minority, it tends to get more airplay in our sexually repressive society. For many women, good romance novels give back what porn takes away, this little fact holds positives for women and the men in their lives.
And the argument of romance as porn, versus legitimate literature, bites to the core of a society that likes to belittle things that are feminine. A society where it is more insulting for a man’s interests to be seen as feminine than it is for a woman’s interests to be seen as masculine. The subject matter of emotions and love is therefore considered less valid than that of more ‘masculine’ themes of science-fiction, action or crime. In other words, violence is ok – emotions – not so much.
And then we conveniently forget that romance is the most successful book genre out there, with publishing being of the few industries where women dominate. And yet even with romance being the largest selling genre, romantic works and therefore their writers, are often excluded from literary festivals and awards. The genre is downplayed as formulaic when the same could be said of most other genres.
Not every romance hero is a billionaire playboy, with a big ‘package’, who, much to his surprise, is tamed by a virginal heroine at the end of the book. Just like not every fantasy hero is a callow youth who is fated to defeat ‘The Great Evil’, with the help of some wise old wizard.
Despite what many might think, there are romance novels where by the end, you’ll have no idea what the hero’s ‘package’ even looks like, much less having heros that are rich, and draped by a helpless virgin heroine. But many romance novels do have a large amount of work and research put into them. Particularly that of historical romance, where one can read books ranging from 1800’s England, colonial America, through to WWII Russia.
And speaking of history, though popular culture will have you believe romance as a genre is a new thing – Leo Tolstoy, William Shakespeare or Victor Hugo – all have critically acclaimed work with a romantic arch as their backdrop. Which begs the question, why are their creations more valid than modern day works? Is it because they are old? Or because many are written by men? One does wonder…
Ask most women and they’ll tell you they feel pressure to hide their romance reading. The fear is they will be seen as less intelligent, sad, or even desperate. They field unwarranted hostility that reading romance entails living vicariously and avoidance of actual love in their non-reading lives.
But to assume this is to assume anyone reading a book about a guy finding his place in the world (The Alchemist), is doing so because their own life is in shambles. It’s just not true. People will read what they love to read, let them be.
Yes, romance novels can be escapist in nature (though isn’t the act of reading fiction that anyway?). We do not berate people for reading Game of Thrones or Jack Reacher – but get caught with anything romance related, and suddenly your I.Q is downgraded and it’s assumed you’re a little on the kinky, slow or lonely side.
The fact is romance novels, and the people who write them, are a lot more progressive than given credit for. Many romance writers are highly educated and worldly. We are not the greying, sofa surfing, 80’s hair wearing, stereotype we are usually lumped with.
I personally know romance writers who in their ‘other lives’ are scientists, accountants, business owners and more. The writers group I attend has women whose ages range from those their twenties, all the way up to those their 80’s. Not one of them fits the stereotype mentioned.
And when it comes to progressiveness, romance is usually one of the first to support things such as the LGBT movement – with a large section of material now featuring LGBT plot lines. And publishers often request works with points of difference such as interracial relationships, exotic locations and quirky, imperfect characters.
Contrary to popular belief, not all writers create characters who are physically perfect. Authors such as Janet Elizabeth Henderson, whose Lingerie Wars features a heroine with massive scarring over her body (and a missing kidney), or Ellen O’Connol, whose Sing My Name has a male lead who’s missing an eye, and then there’s Lisa-Marie Rice’s Midnight Angel, which has a heroine who is blind. And don’t get me started on romantic comedies, which often include a range of awkward, imperfect, but loveable leads. Romance authors know readers want characters they identify with – characters that are human and imperfect, just like they are.
Lastly, to the romance naysayers who argue that the genre depicts women as sad and lacking control over their lives, until that is, a man comes along to save them. The irony is, we in the romance field have a term for this sort of character called ‘Too Stupid To Live’ or TSTL. Yes, for the sake of story conflict, the hero and heroine will start with some issues, which they resolve together (like couples don’t do this in real life anyway). But for the most part, good writers avoid creating weak women who can’t get their shit together.
So next time you, or someone you know, feels an urge to scoff at a romance reader, or the women (and to a lesser extent, men) who write it, think twice. For the most part, there may be more insidious biases informing your attitude.
Before I was a writer, I was a reader. Romance has done more good for me, and many others, than our culture wants to give it credit for.
Hope you enjoyed today’s post. I love reading and responding to everyone’s comments, so feel free to leave a comment of your own.
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