The Myth of the ‘Trashy Romance’

Why is bad romance writing worse than bad writing in any other genre?

 

Last week Curtis Sittenfeld, whose modern adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Eligible, comes out soon, made a blanket statement about romance novels, and the whole of the romance writing genre. She was quoted in a recent article by The Telegraph as saying, “I read a lot of romances but I reached a point where I recognised that most romances are badly written, which annoyed me.” (Read the full article here.)

Big words, from a woman who is unabashedly rewriting one of the earliest acclaimed works of romance in the canon.

Am I bitter? Perhaps. It comes from loving an oft undermined genre for as long as I’ve been a true reader, from the YA high school romance, to the seductive menage books of Maya Banks, to the scandalous regency tales of Sarah MacLean. These days, I’m usually reading or listening to at least two or three romance novels at a time, and I won’t deny that fact.

But Sittenfeld, whose comment was a little like walking into someone else’s house and immediately insulting the furnishings, is not, much to my chagrin, alone in the thought that romance novels are as a genre, badly written. 

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I will be the first to say that there is bad romance out the world. There is awful erotica, painfully shallow characterization and absurd plot twists that would make even the most stalwart enthusiast of the genre cringe a little. But it’s important to ask, is there any more bad romance writing, relative to the amount annually published, than any other genre ever written? 

Of course, there’s no way to tell. But even if that doesn’t absolve the romance genre of its bad writing/plot/characters, it should certainly hold every other genre up to the light for inspection. Why should science fiction get away with the cliched aliens, or fantasy sneak by with some seductive elf trope, when romance isn’t allowed to be what it’s so damn good at being?

Perhaps it’s obvious to put a feminist slant on this, but I think it’s necessary. Romance novels are by, for, and about women. Women make up more than 84% of romance novel readers, according to the Romance Writers of America. The plot, if one is intended for the story, is centrally focused on love, or at the very least, lust, placing a high value on the Happily Ever After or Happy For Now ending.

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They are usually from the vantage point of the female protagonist, or at the very least, more airtime is given to the heroine than the hero. There is no other genre that does that as a rule, and I think it’s more than obvious – given that in 2013 the romance novel industry pulled in $1.3 billion dollars, more than 13% of all adult fiction, that it’s the sort of story people want to read. They will keep reading it again and again.

Because these writers work really hard. They research, they write, the edit over and over. Yes, romance novelists are more prolific. They have to be to survive in the market where so many new writers are succeeding every day. But being able to produce multiple stories in a short amount of time does not directly indicate quality. Look at how many books come out under the name James Patterson every single year. What about the name David Balducci?

Romance writing can be simpler. It can be more obvious. It’s often times less work to read a romance novel, simply by virtue of the fact that you know where your characters are going to end up eventually, though half the fun is getting there. (You can make some assumptions about where I think the other half of the fun is.) But being simple and clear doesn’t automatically make is lesser than. Romance novelists live among you – Professors, teachers, editors, journalists. More than 42% of readers have a bachelor’s degree or higher. I went to college for journalism and graduated Summa Cum Laude with a double minor in writing and publishing. Being told that romance writing is bad isn’t just annoying, it’s personal.

Because I love this genre. I love this genre, and so do the sixty some million readers who consume the books each year. Romance readers are a loyal and voracious bunch, and we’re damned proud of it.

You want to insult romance writing, fine. But don’t do it in a vortex. Hold romance writers up to the same bar as every other type of writer. Don’t single out books about female agency and love and romance, written by and for other women, for being trashy, subpar or less than. Compare the good of romance to the good of every other genre. Measure the bad against a standard of writing.

Romance is growing every day. Since the advent of FanFiction.net, and the rising acceptance of female sexuality in mainstream media, it has become more acceptable to read or listen to romance books. Kindle helps for anonymity, Amazon and other like self-publishing programs help for sheer glut of market. Perhaps, over time, people will begin to recognize the romance novel for what it is, and see past the shallow exterior of cliche and regrettable 1980s bodice ripper Fabio covers. Perhaps that will happen, maybe even soon.

In the meantime, however, us small group of romance readers – consuming the second highest grossing genre of fiction after fiction itself, will have to content ourselves with the knowledge that romance novels are a fundamental element of feminism, escapism, and literature. For now, and the unforeseeable future, the joy of the well-written romance novel will simply remain the best kept public secret on the shelf.

 

For more statistics on the romance novel industry and demographic, check out the RWA.

I also suggest checking out Dangerous Books for Girls by Maya Rodale.

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