Monday, February 10, 2020

The "Misconception" of Romance Novels by @SatinRussell #RomanceGems


Ah, February. It seems like every time this month rolls around, there are think-pieces written about the romance genre. Some of them are thoughtful, such as this piece highlighting Helen Hoang, author of The Kiss Quotient.

Others…not so much. (And why must they always reference Fabio? Fabio was 1987, for crying out loud! We don’t all run around and refer to The Facts of Life or Growing Pains when we talk about sitcoms. But, I digress…)

I was recently asked by a reporter what I thought the “misconceptions” of the romance genre were. He was highlighting a romance author panel that I’ll be speaking at on February 13th at the Salisbury Public Library. If you’re in the area, you can find the event here: Romance Author Panel

Honestly, when he asked me, I didn't know how to respond. Not because I couldn’t think of any misconceptions, but because there were so many things I wanted to say and I knew he was not prepared. Really, he was looking for a convenient soundbite.

You see, the "misconception" of romance is a topic I could probably talk about for hours. In fact, I have given whole presentations on the subject. I'm not the only one. There are countless books and articles discussing this. (One that I would highly recommend is "Dangerous Books for Girls" by Maya Rodale.)

First, it's important to consider how the romance genre has been referred to throughout history. Bodice rippers. Trashy novels. Fluff. Guilty pleasure. Formulaic (on a good day, if the person is trying to sound academic and not just biased.) Trite, vapid, mommy porn...
the list goes on, right?

Why have these stories historically been discounted as "not real literature?" I think it's predominantly because this genre is female-based. Meaning, it puts the female experience at the center of the story.

Historically, this genre was women writing stories for women...about women. And those women tended to be aspirational. Protagonists are strong, pursuing their life goals and dreams, and not settling - be it in their careers, relationships, or sexual pleasure and satisfaction.

That last one tends to be a particular sticking point for much of society. Throughout the ages, women who own their own sexuality and pleasure have been painted as harlots and sluts. In the past, our roles were relegated to pristine virgin, wife, mother OR the cautionary tale of a spinster, fallen woman, forbidden fruit.

The idea that a woman can have her own agency, or that she could inhabit a space in between these two polarities - for example, a woman who is both a mother and also a sexual being who pursues her own pleasure - is not a narrative our society tends to be comfortable with.

And yet, that is where most women reside. Which is why we see romance as one of - if not THE – best-selling genres in publishing. Obviously, there are people who are reading these books!

As our society has evolved, so too have our stories. This is due in large part to the advent of self-publishing. Back before Amazon reinvented the industry with the Kindle, the only way to get stories to readers was through traditional publishing. There were a few main publishing houses; Hachette, Harper Collins, MacMillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster, to name a few.

Another romance author event for anyone local.
In essence, there were a limited amount of people who were the gatekeepers to our society's narratives. And while most of the editors were women, the people who had the money and made the decisions were predominantly men. So, if your story didn't fit their world-view, if it was considered morally corrupt or not proper enough, or if they couldn't see themselves in the characters (thereby making it unmarketable) then they weren't going to publish it.

You can see some of those biases represented in older romance novels. That's WHY the tropes of damsels-in-distress, strong stoic heroes, and "bodice rippers" really came about. Only the romances that stuck within well-understood gender norms were making it through the gauntlet.

Now with the advent of self-publishing, that has started to change. Don't get me wrong. Marginalized voices, POC and LGBTQ+ authors and characters are still massively under-represented. If you question that, simply look at everything that has been happening in RWA Nationals this last month and a half.

However, things are beginning to open up and Romancelandia has been in an ongoing conversation about the concept of who deserves love. In a word: everybody.

This can be seen in the sheer number of sub-genres that romance has to offer. Yes, there are the tried and true categories of contemporary romance and historical romance. There is also a spectrum in the genre from "Clean" (meaning no sex) Christian and Amish romances to "Sweet" (meaning limited or closed-door sex) to BDSM erotica (the door is WAY open. Heck, sometimes there isn't a door!) There are also combinations of genres, such as paranormal romance, romantic suspense, even science fiction romance.

This diversification within the genre is the trend romance should be taking because there are an infinite number of ways people meet, connect, and fall in love. Our world is full of romance stories. They walk hand-in-hand down the street. They sit in restaurants over glasses of wine. They struggle to figure out who's going to pick up the kids from school.

Every day, people with different histories, baggage and expectations find a way to be better together. I think those are stories worth telling.

I’d love to hear what you think! Do you believe there are “misconceptions” about the romance genre? Have you experienced them first-hand? If so, what are they?


Looking for the perfect Valentine's Day read? Check out our Valentine's Book Fair!

Also, don't forget our Romance Gems monthly contest. You can find the details on our Monthly Giveaway Page.

30 comments:

  1. There are definite misconceptions and I have encountered them. The one I get the most is that romance novels don't depict real life. Which is sad that they think that. They depict nothing BUT real life. I do try to change minds, but I don't think I've ever been successful.

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    1. I've tried to change minds, too. So far, it's been a mixed bag with few successes. But what is a romance author if not ever hopeful!

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  2. There are definite misconceptions, and I'm afraid they will continue forever. Even in growth, we tend to shoot ourselves in our collective foot by putting each other on the defensive. A thoughtful post.

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    1. We do have a tendency to put each other on the defensive, don't we? I think the concept that one person's happiness can - and probably does - look different than another person's happiness is a hard concept for some people. We all deserve love and happiness, but that's going to mean different things to different people. (And that's okay!)

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  3. If I had a dollar for every time someone stuck their nose in the air and said, "Oh, I don't read THAT." I'd be so rich!!!
    My responses is always that romance is about two people, who shouldn't be together, pushing through conflict and hurt and fighting to find a place where their love is allowed and it can grow and flourish. People working hard so love wins and they can be together. And isn't that a great thing?
    I think it is! More people should read romance!!

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    1. Oh man, we'd both be rich! I'd probably make a lot more money than I do selling books. I like your response, Kari. I always feel a little sad for people who are so totally dismissive of romance. It's almost as if they've lost all hope that true love actually exists.

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  4. I saw this on a PBS station last night. You might want to take a look. Romance novels actually started back in the 1700's. https://www.pbs.org/video/episode-1-v22w46/

    Celebrate love with Lucy Worsley as she delves into the seductive history of British romance, uncovering the social, political and cultural forces that shaped ideals of romantic love during the Georgian era, including the novels of Jane Austen.

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    1. Ooh, that sounds right up my alley, Jan! Thank you for the recommendation.

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  5. One of my early books--I think Kate Duffy offered me the contract in 2002---featured a strong, sassy, kick-ass undercover DEA agent. I was writing what I loved. Since it was for the new Brava line, I think I was at the cusp of a new era. Sex wasn't quite as taboo anymore. A lot of lines were opening that were more sensual.
    I was very lucky to write 20+ books for Kensington and to have Kate as my editor. She was very forward thinking and absolutely loved the 'new' e-readers when they came out. She said they were the wave of the future. We lost a great advocate for the romance industry when she passed.

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    1. I agree, Karen. Kate Duffy was a marvel.

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    2. She's sounds amazing. I'm glad you had such a strong proponent working in your corner, Karen!

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    3. Kate Duffy...she was a force of nature. A force for good ... what a woman...

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  6. This thought-provoking article is remarkable. Romance novels have changed a lot in the last twenty or more years. Well said, Satin!

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    1. Thanks, Caroline. I love the more inclusive direction that romance is going. One of my author friends on Twitter made the comment, "Love should be like water. It's for everyone who's thirsty."

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  7. Right on post, Satin! I, too, have had the reporters looking for 'sound bites' near Valentine's. Most of them are too lazy to figure out 'bodice ripper' and Fabio are catch phrases from a different time and place.

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    1. I know, right? It's like, the moment I hear them make those references, I automatically know what their angle is. (aka: using romance as a punchline.)

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  8. I no longer bother trying to change anyone’s mind...I’m too old and have been around for too long to fret about what other people think about what I write. If it’s so damn easy they can try.

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    1. I've gotten better about reading which people seem more open to hearing what I'm saying and which are a lost cause.

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  9. Great post, Satin. Like Bonnie, I no longer try to change anyone's mind. The subject of Romance is like a political hot potato. People have their opinions and nothing you say will change it—unless you make millions on your books then you're everyone's darling.

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    1. I have a feeling if you're making millions in any industry, people will listen to you!

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  10. I can always tell if someone reads romance from their comments. They focus on the sex scenes and give you sly looks like it's a big dirty secret. Really? Still? But there are others who love to have you talk about your books when you tell them it's a romance. I think the two will probably always be there. Life repeats itself.

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    1. Oh, yes! That's another big tip off, isn't it? Or, don't you hate when someone says, "So, are you sure this is fiction and not based on your real life?"

      I always want to answer, "Did you assume that Jack Reacher was based on real life? Or that sci-fi novel you read?" So. frustrating!

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  11. Yes, a thousand times over!!! The misconceptions and bias against are exhausting. Extremely well written post!!! xo

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  12. It's frustrating when (some) people automatically equate romance books with sex and the comments focus on the hot scenes in my books. It's a pleasure when some readers simply say they love my characters, love the book and eagerly await the next one. Sex is part of life, of romance, and how wonderful for readers today to have such a wide variety of romance books to read from the sweet to erotic. Personally, I hate the label, "clean" to describe the heat level in a book because of what it implies. Why not just stay with "sweet" as a description? I enjoyed the article very much.

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    1. I completely agree with your point about using the term, "clean." Sex is not inherently dirty! (Assuming chocolate syrup isn't involved, that is.)

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  13. YES!!! To ALL the above. Right on, Satin! And great comments, everyone!

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  14. The fact is, there is an almost “taboo” mentality to romance novels. It is ok to read them, but don’t let anyone know about it. Read them behind locked doors as if they are a XXX porn magazine, or something to be ashamed of. There is nothing wrong with romance novels. I read them and I write them! I also read many other genres. Romance novels speak to a special place deep within us and for awhile as we read Cassie’s adventure as a woman holding her own in an old west bar surrounded by outlaws, or we suffer with Julienne as she seeks to complete her Knighthood training without anyone realizing she is a woman....we don’t just read about the characters, we ARE these characters and we can let go of the stress of the office, the trials of parenthood, the snarky coworkers, we can have time to ourselves and just ENJOY.

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  15. Very well put, definitely a fine line between romance, and something else entirely.

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