By Evan See
Romantic fiction is one of the few genres that has been popular since antiquity, and it hasn’t changed all that much too. Romance novels have the largest mass-market appeal to readers by far, making over US$1.44 billion on average per year. Coming in second is the mystery novel, making just over half that amount with US$728 million.
If you’ve spent enough time poking around in a library or bookstore, you’ve definitely seen many of these “bodice-ripper” types, named for their typical covers featuring women in historical settings with their clothes being torn off by bare-chested, long-haired alpha males.
It’s easy to see the appeal of these steamy serials to their fans – a protagonist who always gets the man, an emotionally satisfying ending and no shortage of passionate, feel-good romance. Often written from the perspective of the woman due to a 91% female readership, these novels appeal to the universality of a love story with a perfect man and a happy ending. Maybe you hate them, or maybe you’re an avid fan. But what is it about the romance novel that creates such polarising opinions on them?
The pure, undignified hatred for the romance novel is no secret. Common criticisms that romance novels face are that they are formulaic, repetitive, or meant for “stupid readers”. Self-professed bibliophiles will often mock romance readers for not knowing “good writing”, frequently citing the immense popularity of the best-selling Fifty Shades or Twilight series, both of which have been panned by critics.
This book snobbery is fairly common when discussing “bad fiction”. Many book lovers frequently ridicule entire genres as bad, the romance novel being a prime example of this. The genre is often reduced to stereotypes of clunky writing, predictable storylines and mere “mommy porn”, a term often used to describe steamy romance novels aimed at bored middle-aged women.
Writers themselves are not immune to snobbery. Novelist Curtis Sittenfeld has claimed that “most romances are badly written”. Even Nicholas Sparks, the undisputed king of romance novels with movie adaptations, refuses to be classified as a romance novelist, preferring the term “love stories”, which he insists are “a very different genre”.
Yes, it is true that some romance novels suck, with poor editing, underdeveloped characters, or lacking inclusivity for queer and disabled characters. But there are bad examples of every genre of fiction, and as sci-fi writer Theodore Sturgeon once succinctly put in an adage now known as Sturgeon’s Law, “90% of everything is crap”.
Even so, it’s unfair to deride entire genres as worthless because of the bad apples. In response to Sittenfeld’s aforementioned claim, writer Jane Casey tweeted: “I’d say the vast majority of romance writers are exceptionally good at maintaining suspense and characterisation or NO ONE WOULD READ THEM.” Furthermore, some of the most-loved contemporary novels have been of the romantic variety, including modern classics like Outlander, The Fault in Our Stars or The Notebook. It’s also hard to deny the positivity that readers can gain from reading an uplifting, feel-good love story with a strong heroine. Besides, what’s wrong with wanting some escapism from the dreariness of life? Not everyone reads Hemingway for fun.
The woman factor
Many guys wouldn’t be caught dead with the latest Nora Roberts in their hands, making you wonder if the hate for romance novels has misogynistic roots. The term “chick-lit”, which many romances fall under, is often used pejoratively when referencing female authors who write for women.
But it’s ironic that there’s only a fine line between romantic fiction and many other genres of fiction, as romance writer Greg Herren tells the Huffington Post:
The great irony is men already read books with romance in them — they just aren’t called romance novels. If you take Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity, flip it and tell it from the woman’s point of view, it would have been published as a romantic suspense novel and would have had a completely different cover, a different marketing plan… but really, Jason Bourne meets a woman, she goes along on his big spy adventure, and they wind up together, with a happily ever after on a Caribbean beach at the end….
Looking at how often romantic fiction weaves its way into numerous other genres, one has to wonder: why is reading it such a literary sin? Other genres that feature terrible-but-popular reads rarely suffer the same criticism. Just look at Stieg Larsson’s Girl-who-did-whatever trilogy or Dan Brown’s insufferable Robert Langdon series and you’ll wonder why the mystery thriller rarely garners the same response.
The truth is that everyone who reads romance novels does so for the same reasons — they’re fun and have happy endings. Even if you don’t like them, there’s no need to stereotype or mock anyone who does. Maybe try picking one up to read yourself — you might see that the written word brings pleasure to many in more ways than one.