A report was just released that revealed that in Washington, DC, the childhood poverty rate is higher than that of Mexico. In Washington, DC, my former home and our nation’s capital, more than 30% of children are growing up in impoverished families. Thirty percent.
This is not meant to be a political blog (though how sad is it that just stating childhood poverty rates can become a political debate?). Rather, I present this information as a reality that many of us don’t want to face: some Americans are poor. But reading romance novels – particularly contemporary ones — won’t let you in on that fact.
I’m not talking just the richest of the rich that are far too common in romance novels — the Roarkes, the movie stars, the billionaire bosses — but also the extremely healthy upper-middle-class that it seems almost everyone in romance novels belongs to. No one is living paycheck to paycheck. No one is working two jobs to make ends meet. No one has eschewed vacations in favor of paying school loans.
By “no one,” of course I do not mean absolutely no one; I mean that it is far less common to find in romance novels than it is in real life. When it does, on the rare occasion, happen, it’s more of a damsel-in-distress situation where a wealthy hero sweeps in and takes care of her, something that raises my feminist hackles. And let’s be honest about why it’s not prevalent — it’s not very fun to read about financial struggles, particularly in a time where so many of us are fighting harder than we had to a few years ago. We want to escape when we read. But if we want our characters’ lives to have some reflection of our own, then it seems authors should start presenting some more real-life challenges to the equation. It may not be much fun, but it is realistic.
This is not to say I’m advocating for a new trend of unemployed heroes and heroines on food stamps, though those are the type of people I see on a regular basis through my work. As a reader, I want a balance of realism and escapism. But one thing I cannot abide by are characters who, while not overtly wealthy, do not ever think about money. This was my chief complaint with Nora Roberts’ recent trilogy: her characters never seemed to think about finances. They were small business owners who never consulted a spreadsheet, never made cost/benefit analyses, never thought, “Can we afford this?” There are very, very few people in life don’t have to think about these things.
A few things in my life have made me more acutely aware of finances. One, I graduated from college. Two, I joined a volunteer program and pledged to live simply and in solidarity with the poor. My spending money is very limited; Starbucks is an extravagance, and my roommates and I have to seriously consider whether or not we can afford to go out to dinner. It’s a change from my college lifestyle, where I worked and was paid and went out to eat whenever I wanted, and now my friends wonder how I do it on my meager stipend. However, I am extremely lucky to have health insurance, my rent paid every month without question, and a full refrigerator. My clients, meanwhile, survive on food stamps while they try to find work, and when they do, it is still a struggle to make it.
After a day of working with unemployed ex-offenders, I am glad to have romance novels as a way to escape from the stress of my job. But pure escape isn’t what I’m looking for in a novel; I want escape in a relatable way, in a realistic way. I want characters to face the same struggles that I do on a daily basis, and to come out on top. It may be fun to read about the extremely wealthy sometimes, but not as often as I find myself doing simply because that is what is on the market. I love Julie James, Rachel Gibson, Lisa Kleypas, and Victoria Dahl, and so many other contemporary writers, but after reading Practice Makes Perfect this weekend, and reflecting on the different contemporaries I’ve read lately, I can’t think of one in which money was a scarce resource and not something to be tossed around. Yes, it’s much more romantic when a hero can get an ocean-view hotel suite for his rendezvous with the heroine, but that makes me anxious about the fiscal responsibility of such an act. Whatever the story, something’s not working when I am worrying about the characters’ bank accounts and exorbitant spending instead of focusing on the romance.
Maybe this is just me; after all, I’m pretty sure I’m the only person who gets angry reading decorating magazines because of the excessiveness of a $40 throw pillow. But whether you’re thinking about money or not, I still believe that romance land needs a bit of a reality check to become more in tune with modern society.
– Jane Granville