When you think "romance novel" what's the first thing that pops into your head? Does it look something like this?
If so, you're not alone. Despite incorporating more diverse themes and characters in recent years, romance novels are still associated with bare-chested beefcakes, clinging satin frocks, and misty candlelit backdrops. Romance's melodramatic reputation causes some people to feel embarrassed by their reading habits: would you want to be seen reading a "bodice-ripper" on the bus? Yet we know that someone is reading romance: this genre is so popular that it accounts for nearly a fifth of book sales in the U.S. adult fiction market!
It hurts my librarian heart to think that entire categories of books--and their readers--are considered less worthy than others. That's why I'm here to say that, by golly, it's time to reject outdated stereotypes. Romance can be fun and surprisingly nuanced, and it deserves as much respect as the next literary genre. Not only that: if you haven't read a romance lately, you may be surprised how much has changed since your last foray.
One of the main criticisms of romance stories is that they're all sex and no, well, story. It bears mentioning, then, that intimate encounters are not actually a key element of the romance genre. According to the Romance Writers of America trade association, romance as a genre is defined by:
That's it! A romance is simply a story of people falling in love and ending up in a healthy, fulfilling partnership. Some romance novels could not stand alone without sex scenes: these books are written in such a way that the intimacy is integral to character growth or plot development. However, for every work of "steamy" fiction, there are plenty of romance stories in which sex barely, if at all, enters the equation. There are "clean" romance titles that incorporate spiritual or religious themes; those that feature relationships between young adults; and those where all of the sex takes place "behind closed doors" (that is, it is alluded to, but readers aren't walked through the act step-by-step). Sex belongs in the romance genre as a means of building tension and creating emotional intimacy between characters. When carnal relations become the entire point of the book, you've moved out of romance and into erotica territory.
It's interesting that sex is not essential for romance novels, but a happy ending is. (Books where the love story ends sadly/badly may be quite romantic but do not, by definition, belong to the romance genre.) Characters may have to navigate any number of ups and downs on their way to "happily every after," but there is something very comforting in knowing that a gratifying ending is coming. In a world where satisfaction is so rarely guaranteed, isn't it lovely to pick up a book and be certain that everything between those two covers will come to a positive conclusion? In other words, many readers gravitate to romance because they simply want the characters to end up in a good place. The steaminess is secondary.
Let's return to our mental image of a generic romance cover, from the beginning of this article. You almost certainly pictured two people on the cover, embracing...Was it a man and a woman? Were they both white, thin, young, able-bodied, and beautiful? Romance writers are a real and diverse group of people, writing for a real and diverse audience. It's taken a long time (too long), but this genre is finally coming around to reflecting the complexity and diversity of actual modern life.
Like real modern courtship, romance in novels isn't necessarily always "boy meets girl." Contemporary romance novels increasingly feature same-sex partnerships. We see characters today with all sorts of personalities, body types, interests, abilities, and racial and ethnic backgrounds. There are romance novels with neurodiverse protagonists, and characters with disabilities. A woman can be overweight and still end up with the man of her dreams. I, for one, find it refreshing to read about characters that don't all feel like they were formed with cookie-cutters! Rather than focusing on a narrow, idealized subset of the human population, contemporary romance novels are really getting better about reflecting the beautiful, multifaceted makeup of the world around us.
We've disproved that romance is all about the canoodling, as well as the idea that all characters must fit into the damsel-hero stereotypes. Romance novels include all sorts of characters, in all sorts of settings, navigating all sorts of relationships. Characters face grief, family struggles, career pressure, conflicting personality types, and all manner of relationship issues that are familiar to modern readers. Why, then, are folks still so quick to disparage romance literature as over-the-top and brainless?
I'd argue that it mostly comes down to misogyny. Romance writers, as well as readers, have been traditionally female--so devaluing romance is just one more way of devaluing women's labor. By categorizing these books as frivolous, silly, light, trashy, or fluffy (all actual terms I've heard in the library), we're saying that stories with male characters, written about male issues, are more worthwhile than stories with female characters, written about women's issues. Every time we roll our eyes at romance for being "formulaic," but ignore the familiar narrative trajectories of action and crime stories, we're saying that conflict ("male") is inherently more interesting and meaningful than relationships ("female"). When we make readers feel ashamed to consume writing that appeals to them, we're really saying that their tastes and interests don't matter--and we are likely saying that because the reader is female. Then again, there's the issue of sex: there is no denying that the characters in romance novels have relations--but so, too, do the characters in thrillers, dramas, westerns, and other fiction genres. If you're complaining about the former but not the latter, then the problem seems to be less about sex, and more about sexually empowered women. Pay attention, and you'll start to notice that most of the common arguments against romance include at least a hint of gender bias.
Contemporary romance novels reflect more inclusive characters, themes, and values than ever before. Today's romance characters move through the world with all sorts of different bodies and minds: they're not simply Anglo-Saxon damsels in distress waiting for a quick rescue-by-prince. Ending on a happy note does not make these novels shallow or unrealistic. It makes the characters strong, because they ultimately find fulfillment despite all of the obstacles that they may face. Of course, that's important because strong characters ultimately make for strong readers. Representation matters!
So let's try this one more time. Picture, in your mind's eye, a romance novel. I hope you've expanded your perspective just a little bit since reading this article. Here are some wonderful, diverse romance suggestions to start expanding your repertoire today:
-Faithe Miller Lakowicz 8/2/2022