Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Is romance guilty as charged?

I don't think many people would disagree with the statement that romance authors take a lot of crap. From the unintentionally offensive chuckling of friends at dinner parties to blatant snubbing by the New York Times.

Romance authors tell women's stories (predominantly). Romance readers, predominantly women, buy a helluvalot of books. So I find myself continuously wondering, have I missed something? Did we do something to deserve this treatment? Do we truly lack legitimacy? Or is it simply because we're mostly women?

While I think there is valid argument to be made in favor of that last question (which partly explains the huffy tone of this post), there are some oft-stated objections to romance that I'd like to address here.

If you ask people what's wrong with romance, you'll hear a lot about how unrealistic it is. How idyllic these love stories are, and how they'd never happen in real life. How no man can live up to the romance hero ideal. Honestly I used to believe there was some merit to that argument. (But also? Don't care. It's FICTION, and NO ONE gets to make the rules. I don't like literary plots that meander all over the place and where the protagonist never changes, but I don't argue that they shouldn't exist.)

As I've written romance over the last decade, I've come to realize the above argument doesn't actually hold water. Sure romance novels feature raging hormones and either happy-for-now or happy-forever endings. But guess what else does?


Have you ever embarked on a romance that DIDN'T start out with racing hearts, raging hormones, beatific grins, and public displays of affection? (If the answer is yes, I'm willing to bet you got off at the first stop.) "The velcro stage," as a friend of mine always calls it, is not something romance authors made up. We all know about it. Most of us fall into it multiple times in our lifetimes. We know we're a little crazy and a lot deluded during that time, but it's one of life's most awesome rides. Those are some of the most truly "alive" moments we get on this rock.

Is it any wonder we want to go on that ride over and over? And since the majority of us end up in committed relationships, where the velcro stage cannot be sustained without a change of partner, there are only a couple of options for journeying back to that amazing place—fantasy and art.

Why are we so embarrassed about—dare I say ashamed of—this aspect of our humanity? Why is it more legitimate to go on make-believe rides to dinosaur parks—to crime scenes? other planets? the minds of psychopaths?—than it is to visit a perfectly normal, universal, and LOVELY human experience?

Authors of the classics—both male and female—got this. There are precious few truly popular English novels that don't have at least one love story at their heart. It's something we all recognize and identify with. It's not FEMALE. It's HUMAN.

Ah, Jane Eyre

Some authors choose not to focus on these aspects. The love story in one of my favorite novels—JONATHON STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL—left me wanting so much more. Jonathon adored Arabella, and yet their passion was such an understated theme in the book. Certainly this is the author's choice. But is it any more *realistic* NOT to provide some evidence of their passion than it would be to include it?

Now there are some who say that reading stories about this facet of our lives becomes tedious and repetitive. I happen to agree with that assessment, and would say the same of ANY type of fiction that is read to the exclusion of all other types. (I've been watching a lot of murder mystery series lately, and let me tell you, I've got that formula down.) I don't know a single romance reader who ONLY reads romance.

And frankly I think this is where speculative romance has an edge. What better way to spice up a love story than by including other-world settings, paranormal events, alien love interests, dragons, spaceships, elves, and dirigibles? (Not unlike taking exotic vacations, or texting your committed partner like he's some stranger you met in a bar.) I know that's why *I* write and read it.

So tell me what you think, because I'm fascinated by this topic. Why is it they still treat us like crap?


  1. "Velcro stage." Love that.

    Awesome post, Sharon. You posed some great questions. Why IS romance disrespected when it's such an important part of life for everyone and something so many people of both sexes want in their lives?

    I think Romance being relegated to "not legitimate literature" because it's primarily produced by and purchased by women is exactly what the bias is all about. Just like knitting, quilting, scrapbooking and a host of other "women's pastimes" are marginalized as frivolous and unimportant because they aren't something men generally bond over. You know, like football. Or hockey.

    It is still a male-centric world and what the average man cares about (or at least, admits to caring about) is what's considered important...even when it isn't.

  2. Thanks to your comment I noticed I accidentally set this to post early, oops! But, onward...

    I agree completely - I think the fact that men by and large don't read romance, and sometimes even feel threatened by it, plays a huge part. Even women, unfortunately. While writing this post, I looked for a good article on exactly this point (that romance is marginalized because it's by women and for women) and stumbled across a piece, written by a woman, with a list of which romances are okay and which are DANGEROUS. Erotica, as an entire category, was written off as dangerous. UH, WHAT?!??!?

    1. (But I came across this great article: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/why-cant-romance-novels-get-any-love-180954548/)

  3. I wrote a huge long comment and Blogger ATE it. Grrr!
    Anyway, to recap - while I agree with Sharon's points, I also think the perception of romance is part of the issue (the same one that seems to dog SFR as well). As a teen, my idea of romance books were my mum's bodice ripping Barbara Cartland novels, while all the Anne McCaffrey and Asimov and other SF I was reading - yes, they had relationships in them but they weren't 'romance' because they weren't labelled/marketed as such. Therefore, romance=Barbara Cartland with her swooning, faint hearted heroines and alpha males, while the SFR I was reading and loving weren't romances at all but SF. And that perception followed me right up to the point where my author mentor turned round after reading Keir and said, btw, this is a romance.
    Surprised doesn't cover it. But I realized she was right. And since that awakening, I've realized that a lot of readers don't really seem to know what category books are, like the one who, when I said I was writing SFR, asked did I mean like Twilight? The fact that SFR and PNR so often get bundled together. That some readers don't see Star Wars as SF. So maybe a lot of those trashing romance don't even understand what the label is and what it entails. Probably only a small part of it, but I see it as the same reaction when I say I write SF of 'oh, I don't read that' because the science label puts them off...

    1. Absolutely agree, Pippa. I've had people respond to me with that when I tell them what I do. "Oh, bodice-rippers, eh?" Uh, sorry, no. I read a couple *actual* bodice-rippers when I was a teen, and romance today is so far removed from that -- definitely a genre reborn. Amazing to me that so many people have no idea. I also primarily read fantasy and sci-fi growing up, and when I'd come across one that also had romance, I was fully in my happy place.

    2. Indeed, Sharon. I think the lack of the fully developed romance in a story that clearly has the potential (I'm looking at you, Science Fiction masters) is the reason I was compelled to write SFR over any other genre. Even Dragonriders of Pern (huge inspiration) skirted the romance aspects a bit, but yet so many SFR authors say reading it was one of their lightbulb moments for what they envisioned a great science fi with romance could be. So they started writing them...

  4. Looks like we're in violent agreement. As usual, it's all about reader perceptions.


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