Think about this: According to Romance Writers of America, in 2009, romantic fiction garnered the largest share of trade book sales, outselling mystery, science fiction/fantasy, and religion/inspirational books. In physical books sales, only general fiction sold (by less than one percent) better. Currently, romance is the fastest-growing segment of the e-book market, beating out general fiction, mystery, and science fiction. So, I have to ask, why all the derision of the genre?
You know what I’m talking about. There is a real stigma attached to reading (and writing) romance. As academician and historical romance author Eloisa James points out the genre is critically perceived as “the very bottom of the heap in low culture.” Romances are dismissed as “trash” by many—few of whom actually read romance. The bodice ripper (itself an outdated and uniformed label) is assumed to be little more than tacky chick porn. What undergirds all this scorn for the one of the most successful realms of publishing? I think it’s sexism combined with a deep cultural discomfort with expressions of female sexuality.
So today, I’d like to praise romance for the feminist, empowering, marvelous genre it is.
When was the last time you read a romance that wasn’t based on the premise that the heroine—and by extension the reader—is entitled to a caring, passionate, serious relationship? Romance novels, especially those written since the 80’s, have smart, independent, and productive heroines. The women in these books are intellectually and physically curious—they want to understand the truth of who they are and be prized for just that. The men they love, even those with macho personas, value these women as partners—both in and out of the bedroom. Romances explicate the most basic of all desires—the need for emotional and physical connection.
I know of almost no one who doesn’t want a good, long-lasting, happy relationship with a partner. Almost 75% of Americans over 18 are or have been married—and many more cohabitate. Romances not only celebrate the desire to be amorously coupled, they offer insights on how to get and stay that way. When we see the men and women in our favorite books hurt and love one other, we muse on the consequences of such actions in our own lives. When we read about the passion of entranced lovers, we become more open to physical love ourselves. (Studies show that women who read romance novels are happier with their sex lives and make love with their partners twice as often as romance-less readers.)
Romances are stories about building relationships. They aren’t permeated with death, destruction, and gratuitous violence towards women as is much of entertainment in America today. Jennifer Crusie, a feminist scholar and successful contemporary romance author, writes on her wonderful blog that romances entertain, empower and enlighten. They are about women—and men–who strive to have fulfilling lives shared with caring, committed partners. The genre offers a vision of life that is both possible and positive—happiness is attainable if one is true to oneself and to those he or she loves. What’s not to enjoy—and respect—about such books?
I’m proud to be a romance reader. And the next time someone snickers at the book in my hand (or on my Kindle), I’ll straighten my shoulders, look them in the eye, and then smile. I’m reading a great book—one that they, and so many misguided critics, are missing out on.
– Dabney Grinnan