Crushing the romance stigma once and for all
Romance novel sales tally in the billions of dollars every year. (That's right: billions. With a "b".) And still, literary critics and other various bookish snobs continue to malign the genre, loudly and with great disdain. Why is that? If you ask these folks, they'll tell you romance novels are nothing but badly written trash.
So, y'all have read a bunch of romance novels before forming that opinion, I assume?
Oh, no, they'll say, noses tipped heavenward. They don't read romance (with all the contempt in the world placed on the word "romance").
Huh. Now I'm confused.
Why would people be so openly hostile to a genre they've never read? I think I can tell you why.
The romance stigma and genre misconceptions are so deeply ingrained in us as a society that we have trouble overlooking them, even with glaring examples to the contrary. Heck, even bestselling romance authors like Nicholas Sparks hesitate to admit they write romance. Mr. Sparks insists that he writes “love stories”. On his website, Sparks lays out the difference between “love stories” and romance as follows:
“It’s equivalent to the difference between a "legal thriller" and a "techno-thriller." In that instance, both novels include many of the same elements: suspense, good and bad forces pitted against each other, scenes that build to a major plot point, etc. But aside from the obvious, those novels are in different sub-genres and the sub-genres have different requirements. For instance, legal thrillers generally have a court room scene on center stage, techno-thrillers use the world or a city as their setting. Legal thrillers explore the nuances of law, techno-thrillers explore the nuances of scientific or military conflict.
The same situation applies with romance novels and love stories. Though both have romantic elements, the sub-genres have different requirements. Love stories must use universal characters and settings. Romance novels are not bound by this requirement and characters can be rich, famous, or people who lived centuries ago, and the settings can be exotic. Love stories can differ in theme, romance novels have a general theme—‘the taming of a man.’ And finally, romance novels usually have happy endings while love stories are not bound by this requirement. Love stories usually end tragically or, at best, on a bittersweet note.”
I’m sorry, no disrespect intended, but if you’ve written a story in which the romantic relationship between two characters is the focus, you’ve written a romance novel, Mr. Sparks. The rest is just splitting hairs and can probably be construed as you protesting a bit too much. Throwing in a depressing ending doesn’t completely excuse you from the genre. Sorry.
So, let’s take a look at the most common romance complaints and see if there’s actually anything to them:
Romance novels are badly written
I don’t know if y’all picked up on the implied “all” in that sentence, but I sure did. I don’t know of any genre outside of romance where people feel comfortable saying “all” of it is badly written. Are there some stinkers in the bunch? Absolutely. But I’ve also read plenty of stinkers in the sci fi, horror and mystery genres. I suppose my response to critics who say romance novels are badly written would be: have you read all romance novels? No? Well…there you go.
And further...if they’re so badly written, why are they selling so well?
Romance novels are formulaic
I suppose this might depend on how broadly you define “formula”. For example:
1 person + 1 person = love and happiness
Is that how a formula is defined? Because if that’s the definition, it could be argued that romance novels are formulaic. It is a somewhat unspoken “rule” that romance novels end with a HEA (happily ever after). But in my opinion, there’s A LOT that can happen in the middle of that particular formula, and there’s about a gazillion ways that particular equation can be worked out. I’ve read romance novels about everyday people with typical problems, and I’ve read romance novels about vampires and witches and angels. All the lovely variations in which the “formula” can be worked out and twisted about sure can make for some entertaining reading.
Romance novels are predictable
Again with the implied “all”. Sigh.
I’m pretty hard to surprise. I knew that Darth Vadar was Luke’s father well before Luke did. I knew that one of the dead people Haley Joel Osment was seeing was Bruce Willis way before Bruce Willis knew. I knew what was going on at The Red Wedding well before Talisa took that knife to the gut. But I can honestly say that more than a few romance authors have managed to throw me for a loop with their plot gymnastics. (I’m looking at you, J.A. Redmerski!)
So, are there some predictable romances out there? Sure. Can it be argued that the HEA is predictable? Absolutely. But to those still arguing this point, I have to ask: is your enjoyment of a book dependent on your inability to predict the story’s ultimate direction? Even if you know where the story will end up, can you not just enjoy the ebb and flow of the story, the writer’s word choices, the snap of the dialog and crackling chemistry between characters? If not...well, that’s kind of sad! Why bother reading at all if that’s the case?
There’s no plot; it’s all just about sex
This is another one of those all-inclusive statements that should just be ignored. Are there some romance novels that are all about sex? Sure. And there are plenty of others that are intricately plotted (author Tarryn Fisher comes immediately to mind here) and meticulously researched. Beyond that, there’s even an entire subcategory of sweet and clean romances (even some Amish romances) that don’t contain any sex at all. Lesson to be learned here: As a rule, “all” and “never” statements are crap.
“Real” writers don’t write romance
Who gets to define what a “real” writer is? Was there some kind of specially appointed task force for this that I wasn’t aware of? As it turns out, writing is an art. So, just like any other art form, opinions on what is “good” and what is “real” will tend to vary greatly. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and there are no wrong answers.
And just for the record, Jane Austen wrote romance novels. Anyone care to tell her—and her legions of rabid fans—that she wasn’t a real writer? No? Didn’t think so.
Romance novels are unrealistic
The “unrealistic” criticism usually exists in a couple of different forms:
1. The heroes and heroines are all perfect looking
It’s true that as a society, we like pretty stuff. For that reason, you will find an abundance of pretty, seemingly perfect people in romance novels (especially on the covers). But, you’ll also find plenty of people who don’t fit into a perfect Barbie-and-Ken mold. I’ve read romances about a paraplegic hero, a heroine with CP, and a heroine so unattractive the hero is uncomfortable around her until he gets to know and love her.
2. HEAs don’t happen in real life
You know who doesn’t believe in HEAs? Unhappy people. It’s true that no one is happy all the time, but to assume that no one ever gets a HEA is insane. There’s plenty of happiness out there for those who are willing to reach for it.
And on a less philosophical note, I think romance readers generally understand that “HEA” is just a phrase. No one assumes that the main couple in the story continued to live out their lives without ever having another care in the world. The HEA is just where the story ends.
Romance novels are just “bodice rippers”
This one stems from a trend in the 70s and 80s that had innocent virgins (mostly in historical novels) on book covers being accosted by burly, half-dressed dudes (often Fabio) who were pretty much forcing themselves on them. Much like clothing and hairstyles, romance novel trends have also changed quite a bit since the 70s and 80s. For anyone who believes that all romance novels are “bodice rippers”, I encourage you to change out of your velour leisure suit, shut off your 8-track player and lava lamp, and venture to your local bookstore’s romance section. You’re in for a big surprise.
Romance novels promote abusive relationships
I’ll let you in on a little secret, folks. (Come closer…wouldn’t want this one getting out to just anyone)
Women sometimes fantasize about being overpowered by a man.
It’s a pretty standard fantasy, actually. Some dude (who looks like Thor or Wolverine) overcomes all of her good-girl protests and better judgement with nothing more than the raw animal power of his overwhelming manly hotness. No consequences, no one gets hurt. Does reading about such a fantasy make women prone to asking their husband/partner/lover to abuse and overpower them on a regular basis? No more so than reading To Kill a Mockingbird makes people prone to becoming lawyers, or reading The Bourne Identity makes people prone to amnesia. Typically, readers are capable of distinguishing between fantasy and reality. Critics who spew drivel about romance novels promoting abuse against women seem to think otherwise, though.
And further, as I’ve mentioned before, I’ve read a lot of romance novels. A. Lot. The portion of those novels that featured a man overpowering a woman amounts to maybe 2% of the total. It’s hardly fair to assume that all romance novels—or even a majority of romance novels, for that matter--promote that kind of relationship.
It’s just “mommy porn”
Sorry, but it’s just not statistically possible that all of the billions of dollars’ worth of romances sold each year were read by mommies. Women and men (yes, men read romance, too) of all ages enjoy romances. This statement is just a desperate attempt by critics to shame readers into buying the types of books they think everyone should be reading. It’s like trying to convince people they should be watching PBS all the time. PBS is a great channel, but sometimes, you need a little HBO. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Anyone who tells you otherwise is just an egocentric bully trying to promote his/her own agenda.
Romance novels are silly fluff
I’m not going to argue that romance novels are doing their part to cure cancer or end world hunger. (And truthfully, neither are any novels) Some romances are about light subject matter, and others cover much deeper topics such as the grief of losing a spouse, kidnapping and child abuse, murder and even survival in a post-apocalyptic world. And those are just a few examples of the not-so-silly-fluffy topics you can find in romance novels today. There’s plenty more where those came from.
Long-story-short, it would appear that nothing is wrong with the romance genre that isn’t also a problem for any other genre, other than what ignorant critics think of it.
So, what can romance lovers do to help crush the romance stigma once and for all? Well, the first step is to admit, out loud and to anyone who asks, that you love romance novels. No more sheepishness. No more hiding your romance novels in speculative fiction dust jackets. No more refusing to let anyone see your Amazon browsing history or your Kindle’s contents. Be PROUD of what you read. The second step is to promote the books you read that help crush these myths. That’s what we’ll be doing here at Romance Rehab.
What about all of you proud romance readers out there? What other romance misconceptions piss you off? Let’s talk.