Romance Deserves Some Love
The romance genre makes up a huge market share of the total books sold annually. Industry data shows unit sales of romance novels have been increasing yearly with no signs of slowing down. So, with so many readers reaching for these titles on the shelves, how come the genre doesn’t get the love it deserves? It gets called fluffy names like “chick lit” and referred to as a “guilty pleasure.” Other monikers, depending on certain details, are “smut” and “pornographic.” But by whatever names it’s called, romance often receives the undeserving reputation of being less than other works and not true “literature.” Why?
You’ve probably seen them in the grocery store or the pharmacy. I remember how my great-aunt Peggy had stacks and stacks of them at her house: Harlequin Romance novels. These paperbacks are commonly referred to as “bodice-rippers” because of the clothing worn by women on the covers.
But romance has evolved beyond its humble origins and predictable plots. There’s now a huge variety of sub-genres with all kinds of romantic pairings and different levels of explicitness. The only constant is that the main characters get their happy ever after (HEA in romance industry lingo.)
Some people get stuck on the HEA factor. No, life doesn’t always hand out happy endings. Real life also doesn’t hand people letters from magical schools, swords pulled from stones, portals to different dimensions, the keys to a spaceship, or hordes of zombies. But fantasy, sci-fi, and horror don’t receive the same animosity romance does. Romance novelist Mariah Ankenman explains:
“People love to say it’s not realistic, but the end of the book isn’t the end of the character’s life; it’s just the end of the story provided. Romance readers love romance because it provides that happy escape, a safe place we can go and know no matter what heartache the character’s endure, they will get their happy ending. Life rarely gives us a happy ending, but if we lose hope, why are we ever here? Romance novels give that hope, that escape. People say it’s silly to believe in hope and love and I think that’s why the genre gets so much hate.”
You Read Like a Girl!
Works by and for women are often undervalued in patriarchal societies. Romance celebrates feelings of love and comfort, traditionally associated with women more than men. But love, a timeless and potent force, has resonated throughout literature for ages. It can be found in hero’s journeys, creation stories, and numerous other tales. What’s the difference there? Men headline them. Does depicting a woman’s view of love mean all other topics are excluded? Does it mean the writing is of a lesser quality?
When I posed these questions to the internet, Threads user @alicia.mb.art tells me, “I have read romance books with stunning prose, achingly raw and beautiful scenes of humanity, effervescent joy, and optimism. What is love if not the ultimate artistic expression? But nah, it must just be chick-lit! It’s almost as if the book’s enjoyment is inverse to the seriousness it must deserve.”
Mariah Ankenman shares on this topic, “I think since Romance books focus heavily on the emotions of the characters, the internal struggles keeping them apart, people associate that with weakness. Emotional growth has predominantly been seen as a feminine trait in our society and therefore silly and weak. When in reality, everyone can benefit from emotional growth.”
It’s too Spicy
Modern romance allows its female characters to have real agency over their sexual satisfaction instead of being the canvas for men to project their fantasies. That’s a good thing, right? Progressive! Equal rights in and outside of the bedroom! While valuing romantic love is pigeonholed into the world of women, if a woman expresses attraction, desire, and other sexy feelings that accompany romantic love, it’s a problem.
Mariah Ankenman graced me with some of the lovely comments she has received online related to how she includes explicit, “spicy” scenes in her books:
“You’re going to hell!”
“Your husband lets you write that?”
“Does your family know you write that filth?”
“I only read real books, not that trash.”
“That’s just porn for women.”
“It’s degenerates like you who give readers a bad name.”
J.L. Baldwin, a romance writer, editor, and avid reader, explains how the presence of sexy scenes doesn’t mean that’s all there is to the entire plot. “I feel like it’s because a lot of people think it’s just sex. It’s so much more than that. They’re beautiful love stories filled with passion, intrigue, characters who are raising families, finding new families, and so on.”
Give Romance a Chance
I’m not one to tell anyone else what to read. But if any of the assumptions listed above have kept you from hitting the Romance aisle of the bookstore, maybe reconsider. With the enormous range of pairings, romantic tropes, cross-genre works, and heat levels, something may be the perfect fit for you. Open the heart-shaped box of treats this Valentine’s season, peruse the options, and have a taste.