Think-pieces on the supposed dangers, problems and faults of romance novels are published with such regularity that you could almost set your watch to them. With Valentine’s Day round the corner, there seems to be a sudden increase in the number of them, with the occasion marking the one time of the year non-genre focused literary publications can discuss the category with little to no research and pass it off as seasonal.
Another one came to the romance community’s attention today, and the response was as you’d imagine, mostly because the post itself fell into all the tired and familiar holes we’re dishearteningly used to. Each point feels as though it has been ticked off a bingo card to meet some kind of lazy assumption quota. As such, I often feel little to no desire to refute such generalisations – why should I bring my A game when they didn’t? However, it’s important to challenge these assumptions when confronted with them, especially since they’re so rooted in misogyny. So with that, here are a few of the many traps you’ll see in pieces written by people who don’t exactly read romance, and the best ways to respond.
“Aren’t they sexist?”
You’d be surprised – or not surprised at all – by how often I’ve heard this question from men. The true gatekeepers of feminism! It’s the sloppy generalisation of an entire genre that really grinds my gears. It’s both laughable and irritating, not to mention somewhat impossible. Such claims are usually made by people who have never actually read romance novels (or they skimmed 50 Shades of Grey in Waterstones once and consider themselves experts). Some science-fiction books are abhorrently sexist, yet I never see any sweeping criticisms that the entire genre is toxic for women. Asking if an entire genre is sexist is really the wrong question. There should be more focus on misogyny present in certain elements, and that definitely exists. Of course, the problem here is that anti-romance articles seem to work on the assumption that said discussions were never happening in the community, which is patently false. Such analyses were being brought to the table for many years and have yielded real progression for all involved. Just because you didn’t see the discussions, that doesn’t mean they weren’t happening.
“You’re a feminist. Why do you read this crap?”
You know that whole thing about liking what I like? Yeah, that.
First of all, being a feminist doesn’t mean you can only like things that meet the definition of feminist. For one thing, that definition doesn’t exist since feminism is ever evolving and means different things for different women. I’ve talked before about the pointlessness of reducing complex works to the question of ‘is it feminist’, devoid of historical and cultural context. It’s a question that gets us nowhere. The work comes from liking the things you like and interrogating them from various perspectives, feminism included. There are many romances I like that have elements that don’t gel for other readers. That’s fine. As I said above, the discussions on such issues are already taking place.
Second, I have a hard time reconciling a billion dollar a year industry run almost exclusively by women for women that caters to the oft-ridiculed and marginalised desires of women with this notion that it’s incompatible with wanting liberation from the patriarchy. Are there not enough men in charge of the field for you to see it as a positive force for women?
“It’s not serious literature though, right?”
Not every book has to be a Pulitzer contender. Which is just as well given the narrowness of the awards field in literature and the kind of stories that are deemed worthy of celebration and the label of ‘important’.
Then again, why shouldn’t romance be seen as serious literature? Writing good genre fiction is immensely difficult, and writing a realistic developing relationship between two people is equally tough. There are many ‘great’ authors of doorstopper critics favourites that struggled on this front, and stumbled when it came to writing sex (Tom Wolfe, I’m looking at you). Stories and themes mostly prized by women are too often ridiculed or reduced to frivolous in nature, and therefore are seen as lesser in terms of artistic merit. Jennifer Weiner talked about Goldfinching – the act of dismissing a critical favourite once its popularity among women grows – and nowhere is that more prevalent than romance. Shudder to think of women enjoying reading, eh? We take our genre very seriously. Besides, a massive chunk of what we refer to as ‘geeky culture’ isn’t necessarily serious in nature. Why is that not the focus of your ire?
“Romance novels are just full of rape.”
This one is particularly difficult territory. In the 1980s, ‘forced seduction’ was a common theme in the genre, and one that had many fans. Dubious consent is a big thing for a lot of women, and romance is the way they can safely explore that kink. So much has been written and said about these books, their ultimate impact on the genre and wider influence, and honestly, this is one part I feel less qualified to discuss. I’ll pass this one to some wonderful authors.
What I will say is that the conflation between this small but noticeable presence in the genre and the entire genre itself is reductive, unhelpful and usually made with little to no cited sources. It erases decades of beautiful work and countless great romances with healthy, happy pairings, many of which go beyond the assumed default of cishet white people. So many women and stories are rubbed out of the picture when you work from the assertion that everything is just permeated with rape. If you’re unsure of where to start, ask any romance author or reader and they’ll be happy to recommend something to suit your tastes.
“It’s all just wish fulfilment.”
Because there’s nothing worse than a woman’s fantasy, right?
I admit, I’ve mocked a few books in my time that have been clear wish fulfilment, although often those books were just bad on other merits too. The idea of writing a story that fits your dreams isn’t bad, nor is it an instant recipe for artistic failure. Who among us hasn’t thought a bit about being a Jedi or going to Hogwarts or having a happy ever after with that one crush you have from your favourite TV show? All too often our wishes aren’t fulfilled, so it’s no wonder we try and rectify that ourselves.
Wish fulfilment in romance is a different kettle of fish for many authors, particularly those who don’t come from a cishet white middle class background. As much as the genre is progressing, it’s still painfully slow on issues of diversity and representation, and a look at the best-seller chart covers reveals a lot of white men and women embracing. For authors of colour, there’s a real desire to see themselves and others like them in the genre they so love, and if the market won’t provide for them then they will. Overall, we all benefit from this kind of wish fulfilment because it improves the genre and our community to have more stories from all walks of life.
“You know that’s not real life, right?”
If you can answer this with something more eloquent than an eye-roll, I salute you.
Shockingly, most of us are able to differentiate between reality and a book we read. This sneering is often accompanied by cries of “Those books will give you unrealistic expectations”. Apparently having standards of any kind is too much for some. Reading about regency romances or vampires and demons doesn’t mean we’re going to run out and recreate such things (go ahead if you want to, though, because that’s amazing). Escapism can be fun. And when it comes to those darker elements like rape, we’re not instantly going to be corrupted by reading a book about it. Cause and effect doesn’t work like that.
“Ah, so you mean mummy porn?”
What’s scarier than a woman with sexual agency? A woman with sexual agency who also breeds! Heaven forefend. There’s a sad and outdated assumption that women stop having desire beyond a certain age, or once they’ve married and entered the traditional confines of a relationship. Expressing anything beyond an urge for the missionary with your husband is tantamount to public disgrace. The hysteria surrounding reporting of Twi-moms and 50 Shades fans was rooted in this misogyny, and seen as open season for mockery in a way that men don’t seem to get. The typical stereotype of a male fan or geek is one of a virgin. Neither is particularly good, but every nerd gets the hot girl story out there builds to a successful climax where the guy gets sex as a reward. Women are seldom seen in such terms of sex being an act of victory. If a woman enjoying sex bothers you so much, that really says more about you than them.
“They’re all the same.”
Romance encapsulates a myriad of genres, spanning centuries of time settings and featuring a limitless variety of characters across race, gender, sexuality, class, geography, and so on. If you wanted to do nothing but read paranormal romance, you could do so and never run out of books to read. If you wanted to try something set during the Civil War, or contemporaries with political settings, they’re all out there for you to try. Formula is often confused with derivativeness. Just because a story is guaranteed a happy ending, that doesn’t mean they’ll all take the same route.
“Something something bodice rippers Fabio.”
You know, I’ve never actually read a historical romance where a bodice has been ripped. Never read a Fabio cover either. It’s just another lazy way for the ill-informed to reduce something they know nothing about to easily definable terms. Besides, those silly bodice ripper books with the mullet-headed beefcakes? They made a shit-load of money.