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.