You Tell Me: Why IS Romance Reviled?

iStockphoto / GlobalStock
iStockphoto / GlobalStock

So What Is It? Chopped Liver?

Romance novels continue to be the most disdained of all genres. Often not just disdained or dismissed, but reviled with an unbridled hatred that oozes and splutters.
Why is that? Serious question.

Always among the more articulate author-contributors to Writer Unboxed, Barbara O’Neal took a brave step recently in writing The Perplexing Problem Of Romance there.

While I absolutely understand why you might not want to read a genre—I’m never going to read space operas or monster books—I do not understand the continued revilement.

A six-time winner of the Romance Writers of America’s (RWA) RITA Award for “outstanding published romance novels and novellas,” O’Neal is read in more than 10 countries. Her The Lost Recipe for Happiness from Bantam has had at least eight printings. She’s accomplished, prolific, fully professional, and worried.

Genre novels such as mysteries or science fiction are often dismissed, but they are not often reviled the way romance novels are. Why is it so much more ridiculous or ignorant to read and write romance novels than something like Game of Thrones or the latest gory offering from Patricia Cornwell?

The question is a good one.

O’Neal goes on in her essay to talk about discovering the contentment she finds in small domestic elements of life. This informs her appreciation of romance and its place in modern life. And she points out that for many people (although not for all of us)  the core factor of the form, romantic relationship, is very positive:

Love is important. Not just romantic love, of course, but romantic love can be a great and powerful blessing. Falling in love is a magical, amazing feeling that I would want everyone in the world to experience. Finding a partner—a true helpmate and lover who sees you and understands you and is willing to travel the path of life with you—is wonderful.

As a writer, O’Neal hits all the bases. There’s no gainsaying her own vision of romance as the impetus for her highly regarded work:

In romance, I found my voice…I learned that I am interested in people who have survived trauma and sorrow and moved on, and I’m curious about why that works for some people and not others. I discovered that I am in love with food and kitchens—the hearth—and how food influences and shapes our lives.

In the process of flagging these interests, she’s expanding on another feature of romance, its many varieties. The genre’s myriad sub-genres are certainly proof. As she writes, “Romances and romantic women’s fiction are not a monolithic thing. They’re enormously varied. They cover a tremendous amount of ground, in thousands of ways.”

And yet, the question remains on the table.

What Are We Talking About?

Results of studies by Bowker Research, now owned by Nielsen, indicate that between 2009 and 2012, romance represented between 14 and 17 percent of adult fiction being purchased in the United States. That’s a lot.

Numbers of books — as in “How many romance books are out there and how many are being sold?” — are pretty useless. A great deal of self-published fiction is romance. And many self-publishers don’t have ISBNs on their books (the International Standard Book Number). That means we can’t track those books. So when Bowker’s Books in Print (“in print” meaning active on the market) logged 14,400 unique romance titles in 2012 with an average price of $3.44 — what they were counting was actually a portion of the romance output not the whole thing.

From what could be tracked, however, it could be estimated that the main group of romance readers appear to be female, between 30 and 44 years in age. Some 47 percent of romance titles sold at that point were digital (ebooks). About 27 percent of the purchases were made on an impulse. An in-store display was the top awareness factor for a book. And some 14 percent of those romance readers surveyed said they were earning more than $100,000 annually.

There’s a booming business in romance, clearly. Just look at the film market, listen to pop music, turn on your television. Romance is everywhere, it’s big bucks, and with the advent of digital publishing tools, it’s probably safe to say that there’s more of it than ever.

Notice that the overwhelming majority of our “indie bestsellers” who have become such important figures in the entrepreneurial author world are writing romance. To name a few: Barbara Freethy (the highest-selling Kindle Million Club author of all, in terms of copies sold); Bella Andre; Sylvia Day; H.M. Ward; Jasinda Wilder and Jack Wilder; Tina Folsom. While self-publishing is effective in several fiction genres in particular, romance seems to be its best category of all.

Although series are popular among romance readers and writers, many who follow romance closely will tell you that they’re constantly surprised by the new names on the market. There’s a lot of this work out there. And its biggest proponents do a lot to try to raise its prestige.

“Romance fiction is smart, fresh, and diverse,” says the copy on the Romance Writers of America site. “Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.”

Hold on to the idea in that second line — that “emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.”

Whats The Problem?

The Writer Unboxed community, widely known for its serious, extensive comments community, did its best with this one, in thinking through it, mulling over with O’Neal why the genre doesn’t get more respect.

Barbara O'Neal
Barbara O’Neal

Most of the conversation lay within bookish purview. There were complaints about the “rules” of romance imposed by the RWA being much too strict. O’Neal, herself, in the comments, likened “being a member of RWA” to “trying to be a good Catholic before the new pope.”

A couple of respondents to the column wrote that they find romance simplistic, one mentioning that she sees its heroines as “defined” by the hero. Another opinion, however, was that “the formulaic approach to romances perpetuating the culture of rape is fading away” and that “my heroes and heroines are stronger together than they would ever be apart,” which is really heartening.

One wrote about finding a lot of political judgment inside the romance-writing community. There also were concerns about the quality of much romance writing overall. One respondent said that romance work tends to endorse the decades-old idea of a woman’s place being at her man’s side; O’Neal in a response indicated that much of that claptrap has been, thankfully, left behind.

Another went right for the “shirtless men kissing beautiful women.” That’s my phrase for the imagery used to sell this material. If the actual writing and stories is so much better than the covers — as is often insisted — then those covers are next to criminal. The couple-in-a-clutch is a signal of soft-pornography, not of quality literature, genre or otherwise. You know the phrase, “one-handed read,” right?

On a wider, sociological level, there were comments about how the familiarity of romantic issues to most people might make romance writings seem “easy” and thus less valuable than other things.

“The weak revile what they fear,” one wrote. But she didn’t suggest why people who revile romance might be “weak,” nor what they “fear.”

Are You Nobody ‘Till Somebody Loves You? Really?

Only one comment I saw in response to O’Neal’s essay got directly at sexism, and this surprises me. Feminism (not at all the same thing as sexism but frequently confused) came up once or twice. But what was termed “the patriarchal mindset of society” only appeared in one comment among those I read. I’m afraid that sexism may well be one of the leading problems in the derision you hear of romance at times.

By and large, romance is written by women and read by women. In a society still struggling to get past centuries of stupid oppression of women, I’d be surprised if an unthinking “oh, that’s just for women” isn’t part of the bad rap it gets, unfairly, of course.

My best guess, however, is that the denigration of romance goes deeper and has to do with what I’d call an infatuation with infatuation. Ever heard somebody say, “I just wasn’t as much in love with him as I was with the idea of being in love?”

I’d suggest that the problem of romance as a genre is that it puts too much emphasis on romantic relationship, on being in love, as the centerpiece of life.

If you’re one of the people who finds the old song “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You” to be almost punishing, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Its final line, “So find yourself somebody to love,” can come across as less advice than ultimatum.

If you do have a terrific relationship (or more than one), then you’re very lucky. But my guess is that many folks don’t buy into ideas of someone being less than “whole” without a boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse. Especially in popular culture, we require our young people to put an unhealthy level of focus on relationship. How authentic is that?

Each census seem to show more and more people choosing to live alone. Not widows, not widowers, but people in all walks of life, of both genders, and of myriad ages, actively choosing to find an independence that doesn’t fit easily into the relationship-driven romance idiom.

The next time you meet a young person who says there’s no significant other in his or her life, notice what you’re programmed to say next: “Well why not?” Right?

Most of us just go right on with something along the lines of, “Oh, come on, good-looking thing like you?”

What if that’s not helping? Maybe there’s a mind on board interested in rejecting the idea that “love makes the world go ’round” (another Old World pop-song sentiment). We think we’re teasing our young friend, we’re just being friendly or chatty or sitcom-y. But who are we to make that young person feel that there should be such a “special person?”

Maybe romance does not belong in every life. And maybe the derision that O’Neal is right to question has something to do with a subtle understanding of that in all of us. Maybe we know, in our proverbial hearts of hearts, that such focus on this part of life is questionable.

Try it this way: Suppose that instead of romance, we had exactly as big and busy a genre called “money books.” Novels about money. Getting money. Happy endings in which boy gets money, girl gets money. Money is, in fact, a significant issue in our culture and in our personalities. But should it be the central feature and the focus of hundreds of thousands of books? Of course not. We’d revile that. Hm.

Much as such money books would do, romance writings may make readers feel that there should be such experience in their lives. Romance works as an aspirational genre. In the same way that science-fiction may make you long to stand on the bridge of a superb star ship, romance creates its own emptiness. It can make what you have in your life now look thin and unfashionable.

Romance, the genre, stands in for relationship when it’s not happening in reality. Maybe it stands in for happiness when, in fact, the marriage needs attention on what’s making it unhappy. Maybe romance stands in for good sense when it’s more fun to play the field than be loyal to someone who loves you.

It would be wrong to think that any of this is part of some intentional plan on the part of romance writers. Romance authors are hardly to blame here. O’Neal and the more talented and skilled of her associates are perfectly capable writers, some of them highly gifted. Most of them would never think to lead a person, young or old, into a feeling of inadequacy about relationships. Look at how beautifully O’Neal writes about her understanding of the importance of love.

But a lot of people do feel inadequate in relationships.We’re a culture at least as obsessed with relationship as we are with celebrity, as fixated on relationship as we are on money, as bent on getting our piece of relationship action as we are our 15 minutes of fame.

The romance genre plays into this culturally revved-up emphasis on relationship and the sense of failure it can create around sex, style, appearance, the social, social, social construct of who and what we are these days. None of this is the most respected stuff of modern life, after all. And maybe we know this, instinctively, about romance. In the same way we know that “reality” shows are not reality and that video games are addictive. Maybe we know that, in fact, romances over-emphasize relationship which, while certainly not trivial, probably isn’t the most important thing in many lives.

Even O’Neal in her excellent, searching essay, mentions her sister bringing to her “bags full” of romance books. I’ve seen this. They are often shared among friends, countless paperbacks in grocery bags or totes. Look, it’s convenient to bag them, of course, it’s how you schlep them around. But it also says something when a form of literature or film or TV or game or other entertainment is passed around by the bagful. It’s hard to see such stuff as valuable, isn’t it?

Maybe that’s because we don’t really think it is. Maybe we don’t, in our best minds and bravest hearts, believe that we’re nobody ’til somebody loves us.

Your turn. Tell me why you think the romance genre has such a bad reputation. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

Porter Anderson / @Porter_Anderson is a journalist focused on books and the industry! the industry! of publishing.

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