Romance novels dominate as the biggest selling genre in the UK and US. There is no question that they are hugely popular. I love reading romances. They leave me feeling deeply satisfied and happy. Hillary Clinton also confesses that she enjoys reading them ‘‘for pleasure’’ (KTR 2010). According to RWA (Romance Writers of America), a professional organization made up of 10,000 writers, the annual total sales value was $1.08 billion in 2013. This means the fiction genre taking up the largest chunk of the US consumer market at 13%.
However, these books are surrounded by a culture of shame. They are dismissed and mocked as trashy, smutty, and women’s porn. Hannah Burnett, from the University of Georgia, acknowledges this ‘shame of the heroine as being an object of desire and [her own] real shame of reading a book about desire’ (2013, 141). We writers and also readers put ourselves down. That’s why one of my favourite authors, Meg Cabot, started off with a penname, and why I have opted for one too. I remember my optician telling me that her daughter was an author. Excited on her behalf, I asked her what kind of novels her daughter writes. She replied, ‘‘Oh, just those romance, chick-lit type of books’’, as if this fact was a low-point. But why exactly do we feel, or are made to feel, ashamed when taking pleasure in romance?
I believe, and so does Professor Linda J. Lee, of the University of Philadelphia, that the reason is ‘simply because it is women’s fiction’ (2008, 52). If this is the case, then the problem goes quite deep. Romances are written by women, for women. RWA confirms that 84% of women are romance book buyers in the US in 2014. (Nielsen Romance Buyer Survey). Yet, romances are excluded from serious literary publications like The London/ New York Review of Books. There has also been very little academic research on this genre. Trust me I know, after having scanned my university database before my library card expired.
Noah Berlatsky writes a compelling article in Salon.com about the disturbing connection between genre and gender: ‘Romance is seen as unserious and frivolous because women are seen as unserious and frivolous’ (Feb 2014). He argues that this particular attitude is linked to the attitude that prevents certain high-brow venues publishing and reviewing more women writers.
So are we ashamed to be openly feminine?
All romances share a formulaic plot parallel to fairy-tales: two characters meet, there is tension, they ultimately embrace sometimes in the form of a love-scene, and there is conflict which resolves itself with a happy ending involving marriage and children. There are many subgenres, such as regency (my favourite), historical, paranormal, western and contemporary, but all centre on the notion of love. Reading about fairy-tale endings might imply that women are naïve, unintelligent and weak to want things like marriage. But I know that reality and books are separate entities. I read romance because it is a great stress-reliever and the predictable endings offer a feeling of stability.
The term ‘romance’ usually conjures up a traditional ‘bodice-ripping’ book covers with a muscular hunk and a swooning woman whose clothes are falling apart. Many readers are put off and embarrassed by these images because they suggest shallow, dominant-submissive relationships and even rape fantasies. These concepts came to represent the entire genre and also justified the scornful attitude towards them. I remember my friend referring to romances as ‘‘those gross ones that fill half the library and are taken out by old women’’.
Professor Rita Hubbarb claims that many of the older romance novels from the 1950s did lean this way. Using the example of Sweet Waters by Rosalind Brett, published by Harlequin in 1955, she sums up the heroine as constantly virginal with low-esteem, while the hero as always successful and domineering (2009, 117). Thankfully, attitudes are changing. From the 1980s, female characters are liberated and depicted equal to men. I read about women who are smart, strong-minded and respected by their suitors, for example in Educating Caroline by Patricia Cabot and Come Back to Me by Mila Gray.
However, this post-Fifty Shades era is a mixed one. Its phenomenal success has brought the attention of ‘paper-back’ fiction to non-romance publishers and encouraged a flood of female writers, like Sylvia Day and her Crossfire Series, published by prestigious Penguin. But it has also cemented stereotypes and shoe-horned the category of romance as erotica. Now many people think that all romances include bondage.
What also nags is why novels like Pride and Prejudice, which follow the romance plot, are considered ‘greats’ and not Three Weeks with Lady X by Eloisa James? Is it the sex? There is plenty of sex in many critically acclaimed novels, for example The Possibility of an Island by Michel Houellebecq, one of the books on my MA course list. Or is it more the sexual satisfaction from the heroine’s point of view that receives some sniggers? When women admit to reading romance, they are also implying that they are in touch with their sexuality.
Is it also the low calibre of writing? Many romances are written in simple and clumsy styles, usually the eBooks going for less than a £/$1 on Kindle. But you get both the good and bad mash-up in all genres. I recently read a book nominated for the Man Booker prize which I thought was awful.
Is it also the fact that classics have been around too long to be questioned? This precisely is the mind-set that people have about literature and gender that is both stubborn and damaging. Women readers do not want to be seen as silly, indulging in overtly sexual and submissive fantasies that make them look frustrated, lonely, or a ‘spinster’. But do you see the irony? If you enjoy romances and hide it then you are repressing a part of yourself and that is being submissive in itself.
Berlatsky, Noah. (2014) ‘‘Highbrow media’s sexist blind spot: Romance novels’’, Feb 25. Accessed April 17, 2015. www.salon.com
Burnett, Hannah. E. (2013) ‘‘Shame game: Romance novels and feminist shame, a mad lib for collective feeling’’, in Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, 23:1, pp. 140-144.
Hubbarb, Rita. C. (2009) ‘‘Relationship styles in popular romance novels, 1950 to 1983’’ in, Communication Quarterly, 33:2, pp. 113-125.
KTR. 2010. “Townterview Hosted by KTR,” 2 December. Accessed April 17, 2015. www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2010/12/152294.htm
Lee, Linda. J. (2008) ‘‘Guilty Pleasures: Reading Novels as Reworked Fairy Tales’’, in Marvels & Tales, Volume 22, Number 1, 2008, pp. 52-66.
Romance Writers of America (RWA). (2015) “Romance Writers of America website.” Accessed April 17, 2015. www.rwa.org