In defense of a genre: Yes. I read romance novels.

I am always amused by the raging debates about romance novels. No other genre receives such disparaging criticism as does the romance genre...and, yet, it accounts for a huge percentage of book sales and printings. I constantly hear people making fun of romances, see women sneaking glances around the aisles to make sure no one sees them pick up a new release, and read countless arguments as to why romances are bad for women and that they are written by ignorant housewives who have nothing else better to do. Well, from my experience, not many housewives qualify as ignorant. That is completely anti-feminist. And, most of them have plenty to do. That being said, romance novelists--just like romance readers--can't be stereotyped.
Guess what? I am a really smart woman. I am not a wallflower. I am not obsessed with finding Prince Charming, nor do I have a desire to get married (never have). I am college educated (um, several times over and with multiple advanced degrees). And...Yet, OH MY! I READ ROMANCE NOVELS!

Here is the thing. Lots of novels published in the past that we now view as classics would have been considered romance novels or chick lit. Wuthering Heights? Romance novel...in fact, a romance worthy of a cheesy Fabio 1990s cover. Pride and Prejudice? Romance novel. Jane Eyre? Romance novel.

I have found myself apologizing throughout much of my life for reading these books, but I stopped doing that years ago. In fact, I stopped immediately after meeting and talking with Jayne Ann Krentz. I love her. She is smart. Really smart. She edited and contributed to a book called Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, basically one of the first (if not the first) critical studies of the genre. You should read it. And, by the way, how amusing is it that the book is FINALLY considered important enough to place in a Cultural Theory series?? Geez. I bought the original...a cheap paperback that barely had enough buyers to make it worth anyone's time. You rock, Jayne!!
Then, I met Susan Elizabeth Phillips. She is also a really smart lady. In fact, nearly every romance novelist is college educated, and most of them have advanced degrees. I don't put a lot of stock in being college educated because I think you can be amazing and brilliant without it; but the point is that these women meet every visible criteria for "looking good on paper"...and yet they are bashed for what they write. And not just by men! Usually, the criticisms against romance novels come from women.

Strange, isn't it? I mean, for example, I hear more people putting down Harlequin romances than any other type of book. Stop yourself a minute. Even if you don't enjoy them, you have to give Harlequin a lot of credit. That publishing house has a long history of publishing women when no one else would--of giving women an opportunity to make money and be independent in a way that no other organization would. Did you know that Harlequin (Mills and Boon) began in the early 1900s? Oh, yeah. It is Victorian, for goodness sake. And they are still one of the biggest publishers of fiction and non-fiction by women writers in the world. If you want to know more, you should check out The Romantic Fiction of Mills and Boon, 1909-1995, another title that is now considered scholarly. (It was a dissertation and has always been scholarly, but not many paid attention.)


(Source: http://www.bellbridgebooksblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/flameflowercopy.jpg)

I can understand some of the arguments, especially those that relate to the old bodice-ripper style romances that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. Kathleen Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower, the book often cited as being the first novel in the genre as it is seen today, is full of violence against women and an alpha male hero who is a bit scary at times, but I don't even have a huge problem with these. In fact, oddly enough, hers was the first romance I ever read. I was at a very impressionable age: 16. But, you know what? I didn't go out looking for a man like Brandon. And I was certainly not a Heather.

Do some of those books go too far? Yes. Some written today go too far. Just like some movies, plays, and any other media can go too far. Interestingly, one of the most frequent arguments about romances is that they are just pages of sex scenes. Not true. I can't remember which author said it, but when asked this question, she always asks the questioner: "Did you read the book?" Sometimes he/she will say no. Sometimes yes. She would say: "Well, if you did, you would know that the book is 300 pages long. Out of those 300 pages, there are 30 pages of sex." Last time I checked, books full of constant sex scenes are called erotic fiction. This is a genre even older than the romance, depicted by pictures when a written language system hadn't been developed yet and that thrives today online in various forms. I don't enjoy erotica. But, I find it so amusing that there are countless scholarly studies on erotica. Sometimes, there isn't even a plot in erotica...it isn't exactly necessary for its purpose. And that is fine. No judgment, but it just isn't what I look for in a book. Yet, a romance novel is inferior and of the devil? Please.

I also don't buy the argument that women read these types of books and characters (which, by the way, are making a huge resurgence today after being rewritten into beta males for nearly twenty years) are preparing themselves for a life of unrealistic expectations, abuse, or manipulation. If that was the case, then we should also shelter women from all movies, television, songs, plays, books, magazines, advertisements, etc. as they have existed throughout the ages.

AND, by the way: The argument that women "can't handle" what they read has been used by men throughout the centuries. Now the same argument is being used by women, and I find that disgusting.

Fantasy is an outlet. Reading in the various genres provides that outlet. I love reading about an alpha male. God, I missed them in the books for so long. In fact, I stopped reading romances because I just couldn't get into reading about a man who cried and felt everything. It isn't that I scorn that in real life. I want a man sensitive to me and the world. But in my escapist reading, I am looking for that which isn't me. I am looking for extremes and the other that is represented through images and thoughts and words. It doesn't at all make me less of a feminist. Really, we are attracted to the characters in romances because they are often acting in an extremely heroic way. No, we don't see that everyday. And that is what makes it appealing. Just like reading about a Greek warrior is appealing. In our world where we rarely see someone doing anything heroic, it is nice to read about people who put everything on the line for another person. They take risks. And, we might say that the portrayal of these risks is cheesy...but, you know what? I don't see many people in real life being bold or brave enough to truly stand up for another person--even when that person is their romantic partner. And these men do. Not in an Edward Cullen, scary kind of way either. That is a complete myth. Edward Cullen is in his own category. It is personal--and,again, no judgment...read on if you love him--but I don't like him and I don't think he ever really redeems himself.

Anyway...back to the topic at hand.

Romance novels are important for so many reasons. For example,romances often draw women together into a very unique community. The moment you find a fellow romance reader, there is a connection, whether it is in the aisle of the bookstore or in casual conversation. Some of my best moments of bonding with friends have taken place during discussions of romance novels. When I was a senior in college and finally living in my own apartment, my roommate, Stephanie, and I would rush out to buy books by one of the three "J's" as I called them (Jude Deveraux, Johanna Lindsey, Julie Garwood). We read aloud the reviews from what is now called Book Club Magazine.

I have big problems with this magazine's format now. Don't get me wrong, the material is still helpful and fun to read and I buy it. Originally, however, this publication was called Romantic Times Magazine. When the named changed, I really became angry, because I see it as yet another expression of avoiding some kind of shame associated with reading romances. The magazine originally ONLY covered the romance genre, though today it includes all genres except for westerns.

Other ways publishers tried to "help" women avoid shame? They changed the covers. For example, here is a 1980s cover by popular romance novelist Johanna Lindsey:


(Source: http://johannalindsey.files.wordpress.com/2008/08/1985loveonlyoncecv-lindsey.jpg)

And here is the same book in a 1990s cover...


(Source: http://img51.imageporter.com/i/00359/gukgb48ukdc7_t.jpg)

Obviously, an attempt is made to change the cover so that the reader feels less embarrassed to buy the product. Absolutely insane.

Ladies: BE PROUD. Buy whatever the heck you want.

(And, yes. I know I am assuming an all female readership. This isn't true. Many men read romances, and I can't imagine what they go through just trying to purchase one...the lies they feel they have to tell. But, I am a woman and I am talking about a group of books written largely by women for a predominantly female audience. Get over it if you don't like it. That being said: Guys, go buy one. If you don't know what to choose, shoot me a message or read some reviews. Who knows? You might learn something interesting.)

But, covers weren't the only romance novel casualties in the later twentieth century. The novels themselves died a bit. In the 1990s, romances changed: the heroes (sometimes in great ways, but usually not) morphed into something unrecognizable and not at all attractive (you should have seen the letters and reviews for the last 15-20 years). These men became softer and expressed so much emotion and inaction that I wanted to scream...and not in a good way. Gone were the adventurers and in their place were men whining about their lives. Again, not that there isn't reason to do this in real life. I think expression of these emotions and traumas are important for men to experience...and, it is appropriate to write about them in other genres, too. But not in romance, people! Not unless something else balances out his character.

Well, just like everything thing else, the pendulum has swung back and we now have crazy alpha testosterone raging (equally disturbing, in my opinion). I see clear cut reasons for this happening, but I will not go into it here. That being said, even with the return of the alpha hero, there has been a decided shift in his portrayal that I don't always enjoy....but I see that changing a bit, too...so we will see.

In any case, I just read (and tweeted with the author about it) Vicky Dreiling's How to Seduce a Scoundrel. It is a Regency romance, but it does contain sex scenes (in other words, those of you used to old-school Regency romances will find all kinds of things in here that you aren't used to reading).


(Source: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-eWDDnj8IxCc/TVT2PEVs3nI/AAAAAAAADFQ/9nJeT5bz3V0/s1600/d5.jpg)

In any case, I mention it because it is one of the most amazing romances I have read in a long time. Now, when I say that, I don't mean that everyone would love it. If you want a hero who becomes perfect, then this isn't the book for you. The hero is flawed until the end. He does a lot of things I don't like, but that is why I liked reading about him. He is realistic and fantasy-driven...all at the same time. Dreiling's novel is, in my humble opinion, the perfect mix between old-version romance and something new. Even though she is playing with a long acknowledged plot device, the story has details and characterizations that are refreshing.

AND P.S.: A big shout out to whoever had the guts to design her cover in that way. Cheers, mate.

So, pardon my outburst, but I just had to say something. If you are wondering, all of this was brought on after I read this article. Complete rubbish.

Comments

Amy said…
I totally agree with you Susie! That article is just silly. All women are not idiots. Everyone should have the right to read what they like! And as for feminism...I think feminism is about choice...I'm a stay at home wife and mom becasue I CHOOSE it, not because it's expected. Yet there are those who would look down on me because of the path I chose...to me that view is just as bad as those who say that wife and mother is all a woman can be. Having the choice is the important thing. Great post. I really enjoyed it!
Susie said…
Exactly, Amy. HOW can someone call themselves a feminist or supporter of women in general when they constantly bash one side or the other? Being a stay-at-home mom is amazing. It is wonderful, and I would be one, too, just because that is what I would love to do. It is a CHOICE! Just like you said. One is not better than the other. I really get angry when these psychologists write an article or visit a talk show and come out with all of this stuff. And, most people applaud them. And, why? Because they think that is what they should do. That cheering on one version of womanhood is the correct thing to do.

Women, and...oh my goodness...PEOPLE...are complicated! :) We can't be stuck into a box and labeled as acting one way. It is EXACTLY what the Victorians did with their campaigns about women and how women should behave. Our popular culture is doing the exact same thing, only in reverse. The outcome is the same: suffocating women to make them think only one version of themselves is acceptable.

Okay. I will stop now! I just get really worked up. :)

Thanks for commenting.

I think you are amazing and wonderful!
Amy said…
Thank you so much! The feeling is absolutely mutual.
Hanners said…
I love this post. I don't really enjoy this genre (the more modern, Harlequin-style romance novels), but I did in high school--although I did love them for all the wrong reasons--and I say we should celebrate anytime someone is actually READING. Besides, it's nice to have something a little fluffier once in awhile. My favorite guilty pleasure reading is Beverley Lewis's Amish inspirational romance, and you BET I catch slack for that! A couple of my UA friends have suggested I write romance novels for some extra income, and I am seriously considering it.
Susie said…
Hannah, I have never read those, but I have heard lots of people talk about how great they are! And, yes, I am writing, too. We should form a group. :) Have you heard of RWA? It is expensive, but you should join at some point. There are great chapter meetings in your state, too (if there are three chapters in AL, there must be some in your neck of the woods!). The people are usually great. Write on, my friend! AND YES: Just having people read is the goal. I need my fluff, too!

Love you!

PS: You are going to die when I say this, but do you know that I still haven't seen the new HP movie? I KNOW. I am holding your card until I see it. I have so much emotional baggage connected to the timing of this film, and it is like I can't make myself go see it. I want to see it...but it I keep holding back. Ugh.
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hanners said…
Oh, I understand. I waited a couple of days and then went alone. I just couldn't share the experience with anyone else. I figured you would know the card was likely to include spoilers and hold it until then.
vicky dreiling said…
Susie,

Thanks so much for the shout-out about HOW TO SEDUCE A SCOUNDREL. I came to your page looking for a Facebook link as I wanted to give my FB readers a heads up about the Desperate Romantics series & credit you for the find. I'm downloading the series from Amazon as we speak - takes forever LOL. Anyway, I enjoyed our Twitter conversation last evening about poetry & Victorian lit. See you on Twitter. Cheers!
Susie said…
Thanks, Vicky! I have recommended that book to so many people! I LOVE IT. Seriously. I especially love the fact that the hero isn't perfect and that just makes him so much more amazing than so many others that I read about. You are an amazing writer and I can't wait to read more!

I had a great time talking to you as well! I hope you enjoy "Desperate Romantics"!!!

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