As a romance writer, I have received many criticisms and judgments on the type of books I prefer to write. I’ve been teased about the bodice ripper covers, about virgins trembling before bare chested pirates, and about contributing to the depression women feel during their search for Mr. Right because I tended to give them “false” expectations of men and set them up for failure.
Mostly, I hold my temper, smile, and say something witty or charming or intellectual. I defend my genre with pride and grace, and refuse to fall into the trap of becoming angry or bitter or argumentative with a person who has no intention of listening to my side.
Until I read a little article today in the IB Times about my life’s work.
Seems the writer has pondered why on earth the American contemporary woman of today would read romance novels. He analyzes the culture, wonders if we are truly unhappy with our lot and long to go back to the days when men were old fashioned yet controlling, and we didn’t have as many decisions or choices to make. He equated readers of the genre to gobbling a “hot dog” rather than cuisine. And ended his article by gently nudging readers toward the classics if they must lower their standards to read such a genre. RWA statistics are included in the piece to clearly show the huge popularity and profit in the romance industry, but the writer is completely puzzled and admits he thought the sales number were “much lower.” The writer has obviously never read a romance novel, not even to be observant and fair in his research for the article.
Yeah. I’m pissed off.
But, let’s be honest. Spewing negative comments back doesn’t help anyone. It also doesn’t lift the genre to the elegance and grace it deserves. So, I will try to intellectually rebut this article by using an analysis and research of why women today read romance novels.
First, I have a Master’s Degree in English Literature. I have read all of the “classics” in the genre. Some I enjoy and love, some I did not. But for argument’s sake, let’s agree I am widely read in the field of English literature and do not have a biased account of only reading current contemporary romance novels.
Second, I will approach this as a reader of romance, not a writer, since this is what the article targets. Here’s a quote:
“Is this a rejection of modern feminism? An expression of distaste of the hippie culture which essentially destroyed all traditional forms or behavior in the western world? Do women long for days of old when men were masculine gentlemen and women were feminine and protected as precious treasures and regarded as possessions?
Perhaps most women (even the ones who get lost in romance novels) do not want to go all the way back – but it is obvious, they are unhappy with how the world has turned out in the contemporary era.”
Let’s dissect this comment. Do women read romance because we are unhappy with the world today?
Sometimes. Sometimes not.
Like any reading material, whether it be literary, science fiction, horror, etc, reading is a form of escape. We go to a book because we trust the writer to bring us into an imaginary world where the current world slips away. When we enjoy Dickens or Bronte or Nora Roberts, we are seeking to get out of our present circumstances. Does this mean we are consistently unhappy with where we are? No. I’m a pretty happy and content person who enjoys reading romance for a variety of reasons I’ll get to in a moment. But to assume women wish to change their circumstances, and are reading a romance novel to achieve this goal is a bit…unrealistic.”
Let’s go deeper.
In the form of entertainment, besides being taken away from the moment, we want to gain something from the experience. At the end of ANY book, we want to feel and experience certain emotions, whether it be sadness, tears, rage, frustration, happiness, etc. Sometimes a book makes us think about circumstances days after reading, staying with us in the dark of night until we ponder certain scenes or questions or emotions the novel brought up.
“hyper-romantic, contrived and extremely unrealistic tales of handsome, manly heroes falling in love with virginal women, enduring a series of adventures, then inexorably ending in a happy resolution.
These ‘romance’ stories are to literature what hot dogs are to cuisine — quickly made, tasty, filling, temporarily satisfying, but with no nutritional value whatsoever. Yet, the genre remains enormously popular.”
Romance novels are based on happily ever after. So, when readers picks up the book, they trust the ending will be happy. Now, whether you want to experience a good ugly cry, or fear, or joy, a book does its job by giving you those feelings. Just because readers enjoy the rush of happiness for having a story work out doesn’t mean they UNrealistically believe life will be the same. But if those few hours of time spent on a romance novel installs a sense of peace, or hope, or happiness that lingers into the day—is that like eating a hot dog rather than consuming a gourmet meal?
I don’t think so.
The author doesn’t really delve into the skill of the books, and assumes the contemporary romance are all based on controlling alpha heroes and virginal heroines. The author needed to explore the genre for better understanding of the argument. For example, the current contemporary romance novels popular today, from Jill Shalvis, Susan Elisabeth Phillips, Kristen Higgins, Susan Mallery, Bella Andre, and many, many more that don’t have space to be mentioned here, combine a rich sense of reality within the framework of a happy ending. These characters’ journeys do not hold an easy path. There are deeper, realistic issues tackled that include some extremely dark elements such as abuse, rape, divorce, disabilities, death, and the general everyday disappointments that slowly erode our hope and positive outlook in life. Amidst these issues the hero and heroine grapple and struggle with their own individual demons that emerge from their pasts.
Everyone has issues. Everyone has barriers to love. Everyone experiences depression and grief and heartache. All these emotions are within the pages of contemporary romance novels, and they are not solved easily, but the ending does give the reader hope for a future. Hope that problems can be overcome with hard work and love. Hope that there can be a happy beginning of a new life together.
Is this contrived? Is this not a full, culinary, seven course, gourmet meal to indulge in?
Romance novels are not quickly made. I write them. I know. Months of research, and care, and writing hours upon hours perfecting craft and dialogue and plot are behind the scenes. Because they are so popular, our readers are even more aware of what is good and what is not. My readers are the first to jump on me if I use language or research incorrectly. They are the smartest, most savvy group of people in the world, from all walks of life.
To dismiss an entire genre and casually interpret reading romance novels as an attempt to escape our unhappiness with current society is just…wrong. On many levels.
Finally, the theme of this article should be a cliched warning of appearances. The woman on the train who looked beautifully composed, nicely dressed, and highly successful could have been a mirage. Or maybe not. Who is he to judge a person by his or her outside appearance, making assumptions by what she is reading on her Ipad?
Perhaps, the morale of the story is not to judge a book by its cover. I certainly don’t.
I would welcome a more intellectual debate once the author has read many top sellers in the genre.
Until then, I will get back to my writing. I’m currently researching domestic and sexual abuse, the Baseball Hall of Fame, and surgery for my newest novel.
And I’m not having a hot dog for lunch.