Busting the Myths and Misconceptions Around Fiction’s Most Valuable Genre
The romance genre is not new. Since the age of Austen and Bronte, romance has reigned, from the quiet, brown paper bag covers, to the shelves of the grocery store, from the bodice rippers of questionable consent to the feminist manifestos of today, this genre has gone through evolutions and changes that represent the times, the politics and women’s place in the world. Through that long and lasting journey, romance has cultivated a reputation.
For the diehard enthusiast, it is a positive one – a love for books that represent female stories, friendships, and love. For the uneducated, myths abound, about the role of romance, and how it impacts our world.
I’d like to set a few of those straight.
Romance is not:
All the Same
Even a cursory glance at the genre will dispel this myth. For one, the wide breadth of subgenres is overwhelming for even the lifelong enthusiast. There are Highlanders, Vikings, and lords – to name just a few traditional subgenres. Then we delve into the billionaires, doctors, detectives, and SEALs. There are more genres than we know what to do with – evolving and growing every day as writers find more access to an audience with indie presses and self-publishing.
But forget the subgenres. Even if that wasn’t the case – even if the only trope in the whole, massive word of romance was simple – boy meets girl, the stories still wouldn’t be the same. They account for every love story in the whole human history. They are made of loss and grief and joy and relief and every sticky emotion we deal with as people. Sure, they all end the same way – so do Shakespeare comedies. If you try and argue that romance is all the same then I will believe you have read literally one romance novel in your entire life.
Okay, my issue with this goes way past the romance genre. The idea that we need a qualifier for erotic content enjoyed by women is totally insane. Say it with me now – women like sex. The reason we hide this sexuality is based on thousands of years of conditioning surrounding it. Eve, Madonna and the Whore, the whole nine.
Women in today’s world are constantly shamed for their sexuality – for remaining a virgin, for dressing in a way society deems inappropriate, for blaming the victim, rather than the perpetrator in instances of sexual assault and harassment. We will be forever defending this sexuality.
To take a genre where women feel comfortable exploring their totally natural interest and desires and to qualify it with the altogether rude term mommy porn undermines a book genre that has done more for women than most politicians in office today. First of all, it ridicules. Secondly, women of all ages, family dynamics, and interests read romance, thirdly, what does the reader’s state of having or not having children have to do with anything. To add the term mommy, you are seeking the value of a woman as she contributes to the domestic sphere in the traditional, heteronormative way.
Or, ya know, we could just call them readers.
To piggyback off my last point – romance isn’t porn, just like it’s not directed solely towards readers who happen to be mothers. I could delve into a feminist expose on the difference between porn and romance, but the main takeaway is that porn is intended for the male gaze.
There is a rise of feminist porn out there, and we appreciate the strides they have made for the industry as a whole. But, the natural order of things is that porn is for men – it devalues the female stars, places them in situations where consent is questionable and, naturally, pays them far less than their male counterparts.
Romance, on the flip side, is all about the female experience. You’ll notice an awful lot of multiple orgasm nights, and a hell of a lot of oral. That’s because it’s not porn and it’s not for the male gaze. There is a pervasive argument that women like to use their imagination and that’s why they like romance over porn, but I disagree. On a person to person level, sure – different strokes. But women could absolutely like porn – they’re just not supposed to. Like most media, laws and social constructs, porn is not intended for women. Romance is. That’s why society doesn’t like it.
Just About Sex
Psh. First of all – there’s nothing wrong with sex, so let’s just start at that baseline and move on. The impossibly broad spectrum of the romance genre means you can find books with the sole focus of sex – though good writers will still bring characterization and plot into even the shortest erotic tale – but you can also find books where the crux is a kiss on the cheek or intertwined hands.
Romance, at its base, is a safe place for readers to feel comfortable exploring what they want – in a partner and in a sexual experience. If that falls on this side of a BDSM orgy, then get your kicks. If you prefer the sweet or YA romance tales that close the door, no one is judging. If you want to have your BDSM orgy behind closed doors, we will be disappointed because we can’t read it, but it’s all about what you as the reader wants.
Still, looking past that, romance – be it inspirational or erotic, is almost exclusively about the relationship between the two or more characters who end up together. There can be an HEA – Happily Ever After – as with most traditional romance. There can also be an HFN – Happy for Now, which many erotic romance stories utilize. The point is, everyone walks away in a good mood. They are still characters undergoing an experience, not just faceless names sticking things in holes.
Just for Women
I could list a dozen reasons right now why romance is the most feminist genre on the market, but just because something is feminist doesn’t mean it’s exclusively for women. (Case in point: Feminism). Still, according to the Nielsen Reports for 2014, men made up 18% of romance novel readers – which just proves that universal love and acceptance is a story anyone can appreciate. Now, I’m not a fan of saying ‘men like it too so it must be a good genre’, but I do welcome anyone, regardless of gender identity, to loud and proud enjoy reading romance.
For Stupid Readers
Give me a break. Is romance easier to read than the last nonfic monster I just finished about the climate change crisis – you bet your ass it is. But is wanting to indulge in a happy story where everything turns out alright in the end the only criteria for being unintelligent? As a matter of course, I graduated Summa Cum Laude from the top journalism school in the country with a degree in journalism. Many of the writers I meet at conferences are doctors, journalists, professors and more. They’re graduates of Harvard, Princeton, and Oxford. And their readers know it.
In her survey for the book Dangerous Books for Girls, (side note: read this book), Maya Rodale found that intelligence ranks as the most important quality for heroines in 89% of the people surveyed, followed by a sense of humor and independence. At the very bottom of the survey, coming in at 2% and .3% respectively, was sexual inexperience and wealth.
Romance, just like any other genre, teaches the reader who wants to learn. Eloisa James integrates her expertise as a professor of Shakespeare into her books. In fact, she did it so convincingly that I went out and read Twelfth Night. In Must Love Breeches, Angela Quarles starts every chapter with a Lord Byron quote. Guess who now has a complete collection of Byron by her bed.
All this is to say, read whatever the hell you want.
Creating Unrealistic Expectations
Will we all marry a hot billionaire? Given how old most billionaires are, I’m going to say the deck is stacked. Buuut, I’m not here to talk about the trappings. Romance, at its very fundamental, coaxes women into believing that they deserve the same kind of treatment as their favorite heroines. It says, in no uncertain terms, you should be with a partner who loves you, respects you and listens to you. Your relationship should be equal and you should have open communication about the issues and challenges that arise.
Wow. Is that so damn much to ask that romance is considered unrealistic? I want a partner who respects me – my head must be in the clouds! Romance doesn’t create unrealistic expectations. Readers know that the environment surrounding their heroes is mostly a fantasy, but the ideal hero is not. The idea hero (or heroine) is what we should all expect from a partner. It’s not unrealistic, it’s pretty much giving us permission to ask for the bare minimum.
Easy to Write
I thought this, way back in the beginning. I’m sure we all did. Insert tab A into slot B, repeat. Romance writing is just an equation – you fill in the names and places. Except it’s not. As I outlined in a recent article, we know where the story is going to end up – we’ll be disappointed if it doesn’t get there – but that doesn’t make the books easy to write. In fact, because we are required to reach that HEA, we must be more cunning with our characterization, more creative with our story arcs and more interesting with our writing style. For many reasons, I believe romance is one of the most challenging genres to write properly.
Of course, there aren’t the only myths surrounding the romance genre. As a style of book written nearly exclusively by and for women, the misconceptions around romance are bountiful, and often intentional. These sort of falsehoods are the reason that people hide the covers of their books or use e-readers, the reason that readers have been told romance is shameful, inappropriate or a waste of time.
So, how do we combat these ideas?
We read romance and we read it proud. We say that we’re not going to stand for the idea of romance being a dirty secret. We’re going to give into the antiquated, sexist ideology that once required brown paper bag covers for books we love so much. Tell people you read romance, and when they make the face, be sure to tell them all the reasons why. ♥