Why Do Romance Novels Get Such A Bad Rap?

Romance novels are not the problem; badly written women characters are. And commerialisation of the genre is the other problem.

I am obsessed with romance novels and going by statistics, so are millions of other readers.  For all its popularity, it is not easy to admire this genre comfortably in a public setting or on social media, thanks to the ‘trashy’ reputation that people associate romance novels with.

Hardcore readers of this genre soon realize that admitting openly to one’s love for reading romance invites judgment, snobbery, and contempt. After all, romance novels are “usually written for women by other women, on sentiment-laden topics” like love and marriage. They “don’t offer motivation like self-help books, intellectual invigoration like non-fiction, or bragging rights of reading award-winning fiction.”

They are dismissed as ‘fluff’ or derided as “giving young women unrealistic expectations.”

My experience about romance novels has been no different

At a team lunch five years ago, my boss asked me what my favourite genre of books was. As a famed bibliophile (I have over 3000 books on my Goodreads, I have run Broke Bibliophiles for seven years and done two seasons of the India Booked Podcast).

I usually go with “I read all genres” when asked this, but at that moment I blurted “I enjoy reading romance novels the most” out instead. Seven pairs of eyes swivelled to me in surprise, amusement, and judgment. They could not reconcile the dissonance between my perceived sensible demeanour with the perception of ‘frivolity’ that romance novels connotate.

At my book club, where bibliophiles and thankfully not middle management meet, we discuss Murakami, Amitav Ghosh, self-help books, epic fantasy novels, or the occasional poetry or biography. If a hapless newbie were to bring an occasional romance novel for a book exchange publicly, with or without a bare-chested man holding a blonde in a tight embrace on the cover, they are swiftly judged.

This ridicule exists not just among niche communities and in private spheres but also publicly. Author and politician Stacy Abrams was mocked by Stephen Colbert on his show, with the audience joining in on the ridicule, where Stephen read out sex scenes from her novel in an interview that was supposed to be on her political career otherwise.

This attitude about romance novels persists across reviewers, publishers, and writers

Most Many non-romance ‘average readers’ find traditional romance novels “ploddingly predictable”, like this amusing review I found, to which the author herself replied that the gentleman should steer clear of this genre if he doesn’t enjoy it.

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Publishers too treat romances as a commodity, paperbacks to be churned out for masses like a cashier handing out burgers at a drive-in. For all the ‘light-reads’ they churn out that sell ebooks, audiobooks, and paperbacks – they transfer promotional budgets to ‘tough reading’ that will bring in awards.

Nora Roberts, the first author to be inducted into the Romance Writers of America Hall of Fame, has over 200 novels under her belt. She has only been reviewed by the New York Times only twice in her career.

Famous authors have belittled the romance genre for centuries. Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote The Scarlet Letter declared once that romance writers are a damned mob of scribbling women and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash.”

George Eliot described women’s writing as “frothy, prosy, pious, and pedantic.” even though she was a woman herself, she wrote more about social issues.

What is a Romance novel?

So, what is a romance novel then and why is Sparks right when he says he is not a romance novelist? 

Romance Writers of America, a non-profit association dedicated to the interests of career-focused romance writers most current definition of the romance genre is “a central love story with an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.

But, the Bridgerton books by Julia Quninnunlike a novel by Sparks, is a romance. Even when characters are from different worlds financially ( worker Sophie versus Lord Benedict) or have challenges arising due to social circumstances to bridge (Penelope is fat and Colin the hot, eligible bachelor has more socially appropriate options) – the conflict arises due to their emotions in the book and is subsequently resolved through their emotional development, that blooms because of the romance.

Take Pride and Prejudice -– Darcy and Elizabeth have a meet-cute (or meet-hate), financial gaps, and circumstances that arise throwing them in each other’s paths. However, at the core of the story, Darcy develops an emotional attachment to Elizabeth and, in loving her, redeems himself in our eyes and hers, mutually assisted by his romantic feelings for her.

Both Bridgerton and Pride and Prejudice end on ambiguous ‘HEAs’ or ‘Happily Ever Afters’ that are brought on by the romance between the protagonist pairs, and closes only the narrative arcs of the characters realizing their love.

Compare that to Nicholas Sparks’ novels, where characters almost always have a tragic end to showcase the grand melodrama of sacrifice involved in love.

Romance novels by definition offer an emotionally sweeping experience

What romance novels do then is offer an emotionally sweeping experience – set anywhere, from an office to the middle of a war, during a ‘Season’ in London, or at a snowed-in holiday cabin.

This is where our characters exist.  and there exists a roadblock that prevents them from being together, till it doesn’t. It could be the promotion they both wanted but later decide their love trumps the job or it could be bubbling sexual tension that they can only safely relieve after they have an emotionally vulnerable conversation when on an espionage mission.

This is not to say, that romance novels do not perpetuate evils like lack of informed consent, (common in the love-hate sub-genre where boundaries are overstepped easily) or unrealistic expectations (how many men with aquiline noses and half-grins exist?), if taken too literally.

It’s escapism. A tub of popcorn for the mind while living briefly in a cocoon of fantasy.

After all video games offer similar comforts – aspirations for a world that cannot exist, but you can briefly mentally associate with. Reading fiction, even if it is romance, has positive second-order effects like helping you write better, developing empathy, and developing an insane awareness of trivia (I once trumped someone in an open quiz in Calcutta on a tie-breaker during my college days, based on my obsessive reading of romance novels set in Britain).

Yet, people continue to snigger at readers of romance for seeking comfort in the pages of a book

Romance novels are also often scoffed for their lurid covers, and frequently discounted as female erotica, despite maybe only 5-10 pages of the novel committed to the sex scenes they carry. They then become tiny universes in which women have agency, get orgasms, and get love on their conditions in a form that men in the real (or male-written) world are yet to get around to.

Image Source: Google auto-correct, the barometer of our collective consciousness

Sexism may be a factor behind this disdain. because women form the bulk of readers of romance. Davis-Kahl alluded to this when he said in ‘The Case for Chick Lit in Academic Libraries’ that,Romance is an intrinsically feminine genre, which creates a problem in misogynistic societies that are attempting to police women’s bodies and minds.”

Maya Rodale’s Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels and Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance, share that apparently “intellectual purists” hate romance because romance is templated. According to them, intellect relies on being contrarian, even rebellious, and sounding distinguished while doing so. That when a literary piece follows a framework (i.e., must have a HEA, a misunderstanding, and some degree of romance) it takes the agency away from the writer’s intellect and panders it to the reader’s appetite.

Commercialization also has a role to play because hell, romance novels bring in the bucks for publishing as an industry. In 2021-22 alone, romance novels generated over $1.44 billion in revenue, making it the highest-earning genre of fiction. 2/3rd of the growth contribution in the publishing industry came from romance novels. And commercially popular art always gets pulled down – be it Taylor Swift or the latest action flick.

The perpetual myth that romance novels are written by unhappy women as an outlet to live their world of fantasy

The truth?

Most bestselling novelists in the genre are in happy marriages or relationships. Think Susan Elizabeth Philips of Chicago Stars fame – who has been married for over 25 years, or Julia Quinn, whose husband has featured in her acknowledgments more often than the phrase ‘bodice-ripper’ in a review. Closer home, Anuja Chauhan, author of The Zoya Factor, who undoubtedly writes the most refreshing women’s romantic fiction in this country, has three kids, a husband, a dog, and a house with a blue door (that I covet). Tracey Livesay, author of American Royalty and Shades of Love writes interracial romances that mirror her marriage!

If you are part of the publishing industry, most romance novels aren’t ground-breaking for you to work on. Once established, romance novels fly off the shelves with minimal effort, further reducing the role of the commercial critic or editor. Announcing a Nora Roberts release is sufficient, it doesn’t need to be on the Booker longlist.  

In fact, in the 1980’s, women just pre-ordered everything from their chosen novelists because they were sure of what to expect. In 2022, you see the same trend when enthusiasts like me will mark an entire upcoming series as to-read even if the publishing date is 2 years away.

Romance novels, especially by women, is just women writing about women’s lives

Romance novels obviously allow women to write freely about women, away from the burden of the male gaze. These novels aren’t necessarily feminist – sometimes, they pander to patriarchal structures too. Goodreads has a list of 250+ sheik romances alone!

However, irrespective of shortcomings and marriage being a recurring end-goal, these books speak to the woman who lives inside your head from a perspective that endears to a spark of emotional fulfillment and intensity that women crave. 

Janice Radway found in her research that romance assures the reader of their self-worth and the ability to affect a patriarchal world., so that by the end of the novel the female readers, often mothers, feel invigorated and ready to take on the day-to-day tasks of managing the home and family.

I concur.

I love romance novels because they are emotionally rewarding

It is only now that I realize that I have always loved romance novels not because I like the sentimentality or the eroticism, but because it is probably the only genre that is designed to be emotionally rewarding for the reader by the writer, and the character whose voice it carries.

Take for instance, in films or society –women must become deserving of men’s social protection and love. The ugly duckling becomes a swan or the wallflower has a secretly spunky side. Women in real life are told that it becomes easier to find romance, attention, and respect in the aftermath of weight loss, dermatological visits, switching to contact lenses, becoming ‘less uptight’, and so on. Yet, in a romance novel the man must become worthy of the woman’s attention. Most often, the female protagonist is an average Jane Doe, who has quite a few redeeming qualities, just not often on display.

So, Romance novels are not the problem; badly written women characters are

When men write romance, or literary heavyweights take a swing at love stories, women devolve into being shunned, branded, sacrificed, dying for a cause, jumping in front of a train, being left for another cause, and so on.

Calling romance novels ‘easy to read’ dismisses the reader’s intelligence and the writer’s effort. Calling sexually charged romance novels ‘porn’ insults the emotional relationship that readers develop with characters. Calling it ‘trash’ is the worst because you are rejecting words that examine people’s needs for love, comfort, and desire.

Since romance is so universally consistent as a genre, everyone has their universe within which they unfold the same narrative (yet again). Therefore, popular publishers like Harlequin push the same sub-genres (Christian romance, LGBTQ, time travel, gothic, steampunk, regency) over their authors so often. My favourite sub-genre for instance, is sports romance. It is also universally adaptable. Think of the hundreds of versions of Jane Austen adaptations as books alone.

So, yes, women read romance novels to escape and live in an idealized, hopeful vision of the world they would rather read. All women who read romance novels know that there are no Viscounts with six-pack abs. They also know romance novels are a safe space away from the prying, morally mansplaining gaze of men and a world that will not let them be.

Women will continue to read romance -– to escape, to entertain, to learn about love.

As a woman said in her interview with Janice Radway on why her group reads romance -– “We read books so we won’t cry.”

In a tough world, there are worse ways to seek comfort than between the pages of a paperback. Maybe it’s time we appreciate that reading for a HEA is better than not reading at all.

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About the Author

Ayushi Mona

Ayushi Mona co-leads Broke Bibliophiles Bombay Chapter, India's first offline reader driven community. She is a poet and writer who evangelizes Indian writing in English at the India Booked podcast and has also read more...

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