Why The Romance Genre Is Interesting, Relevant and Important – even if you think it’s bad

Posted April 9, 2014 by

I’m sure all of you have read fellow Moonlight blogger Gabby’s fabulous open letter to the Sydney Writers’ Festival about their lack of inclusion of romance. If you haven’t, go do that now, because it’s awesome. I’ll wait.

Gabby does a great job of looking at just why the romance genre is so important to the publishing world, especially in Australia. The genre sells a ludicrous amount of books, we have a million billion awesome romance authors in Australia, publishers like Momentum have done great stuff to bring romance into the digital age (in which romance is lightyears ahead of pretty much any other genre, I might add), and Australian romance writers are responsible for major genre phenomena like rural romance. When I read her letter, I basically flailed my arms and said, “yes, that! all of that!”. Gabby is ON IT, yo.

What I’d like to add comes from my perspective as a scholar, someone who studies and teaches romance in a university setting. The academy has traditionally been resistant to romance in the same way that literary festivals have been resistant. Just because something is popular and widely read doesn’t mean it’s worth studying or talking about, amirite? We have greater, more intellectual things to be discussing, because we are Highbrow Clever People™. Stop thinking about those silly little books and join me in this conversation about Derrida. You’ll be bored to tears, but you’ll sound smart.

But you know what? The academy is catching up, because scholars have realised that romance actually is important and worthy of discussion. And if something as slow-moving as the academy can do it, so can writers’ festivals.

When romance is excluded from literary festivals, I think the first question we romance-y types ask ourselves is, “why? why is it excluded?”. And the answer to that, I think, is that people haven’t really thought about why it should included in the first place. Romance has a long history of being swept under the rug – something I’ve written about before.

I’m tutoring a course on popular fiction at the moment. One of the first questions we asked the students was “why study popular fiction?”. I think we can pose a similar question here – “why talk about romance fiction?”. (The obvious answer is “why not?”, but sadly I’m not allowed to get away with that in an academic setting.) So here are three reasons why romance is actually super important to study and to talk about, and why literary festivals should include it – for reasons other than the fact it is by far the most popular genre in the world.

1)      Romance is female dominated.

I know there are some scholars out there at the moment who are questioning the “by women, for women” claim we always hear about romance, but there is no getting away from the fact that romance is a genre predominantly written by women, read by women, and that speaks to women’s concerns.

The fact that romance is for women is one of the big reasons it gets such a bad rap. You often hear, “oh, but it’s so formulaic!” offered as one of the reasons that romance is OMG BAD, but you know what? So is crime fiction. And yet crime fiction is allowed – is culturally permitted – to be Good Literature in a way that romance is not. Man Booker Prize winners can write crime and no one bats an eyelid – John Banville, for example, writes crime fiction under the name Benjamin Black. But if, say, Hilary Mantel had written a romance novel? Can you imagine what the reaction would have been?

Hell, let’s even insert JK Rowling into this argument. When it was revealed she wrote a crime novel? No one cared. Imagine if she’d written historical romance. The shit would have hit the fan.

An Goris, a romance scholar from Belgium, has a fascinating exercise she does when she talks about romance and authorship. She puts up a picture of JK Rowling, and asks everyone in the room who it is. Everyone usually knows. Then she puts up a picture of Stephen King. Same question, same result. Then she puts up a picture of Nora Roberts. Crickets. If that comparison of three major authors with similarly scary-high sales figures doesn’t tell you about the cultural marginalisation of romance even within popular fiction, I don’t know what will (something which is interesting and should be discussed in and of itself).

It’s really, really hard to believe that the cultural sneer towards romance is not a result of the fact that it is traditionally read by women. It’s very similar to the cultural sneer we see around another one of my favourite genres: the soap opera. Think of the cultural stereotypes around romance readers and soap operas – stereotypes which, unsurprisingly, overlap. Bored housewives, right? We think of the figure that some disdainful publishers have in the past called “Gladys Stringbag” and that Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan call “Mavis”: “rather dim and kind of tubby – undereducated and undersexed – and she displays a distressing affinity for mom jeans and sweaters covered in puffy paint and appliquéd kittens” (Wendell and Tan, 2009, 5).

If you want an example of this, look no further than the moniker applied to Fifty Shades of Grey: “mummy porn”.

This sneer isn’t really at the genre. It’s a sneer at the reader – the female reader. It’s deep, ingrained structural sexism. And that is something we need to unpick, unpack, and discuss.

2)      Romance is sincere.

We live in an age that loves its irony. I am no exception to this. The amount of things I ironically love… hell, look no further than the piece I wrote last week about Vampire Academy. (Though I would like it pointed out that I have come all the way back around from ironic love to genuine love. Much like with Jedward.)

As I wrote in that post about Jedward, our culture is terrified of sincerity. Being honest about liking something or wanting something is hard, and we have a tendency to make fun of people who do genuinely express these emotions – especially women. Look no further than the way fangirls are treated. Look no further than the way romance readers are treated.

I’ve already mentioned the way Fifty Shades is called “mummy porn”. In the point above, I talked about the “mummy” aspect of that – now let’s talk about the “porn”. Pornography is, at its heart, about wanting, about desire – not unlike romance. While I’ve argued in the past that there is substantially less overlap between romance and porn than people often think, this is one place where the two genres do intersect. There’s no prevarication in either genre: they are honest in what they are about, the feelings they encode.

Porn is about lust, but romance is about love. And culturally, that’s worse. Lust can be written off as animal and thus rational – and, more importantly, masculine. Love? Genuine emotional sentiment? That’s not only encoded feminine, but it is scarily, terrifyingly sincere.

When I explain contemporary culture’s view of love to people, I usually describe the modern individual as an armoured knight. The sincere self is safe inside this armour – safe, that is, until someone finds the chink. Saying “I love you” to someone, that most sincere of expressions, is like exposing that chink, handing the other person a sword, and trusting them not to stab you – dangerous, in a culture where so often when we see the chink, we stab. (Think of the treatment of Twilight fans here: “I love Twilight,” they say, and culture basically goes, “AHAHAHAHAHA LOL” and stabs them.)

In romance, that moment of exposure is repeated over and over again – to the extent where scholar Lisa Fletcher can argue that “’I love you’ is the narrative and ontological turning-point of heterosexual romance fictions” (Fletcher, 2008, 1). And that is FASCINATING. I can’t think of another genre that so persistently pokes at one of our cultural sore spots. There is so much that that moment, that genre function, can tell us about our society – if only we would TALK ABOUT IT.

3)      Romance privileges pleasure.

I’m not just talking about the sexual pleasure of the heroine here, though romance is exceptional for the way that it privileges female pleasure and that is something we should absolutely be talking about way more than we do.

No, I’m talking about the pleasure of the reader here. I doubt that there is another genre so concerned with the emotional journey not just of the characters, but of the reader. Put simply, romance wants to be pleasurable – and the way it does this is incredibly intriguing and more complex than it might seem on the surface.

Laura Kinsale has a fascinating essay called ‘The Androgynous Reader’ where she argues that romance readers don’t necessarily identify with the heroine – they can identify with the hero too. She writes:

“I think that, as she identifies with the a hero, a woman can become what she takes joy in, can realise the maleness within herself, can experience the sensation of living inside a body suffused with masculine power and grace (adjectives very commonly applied to heroes, including my own), can explore anger and ruthlessness and passion and pride and honour and gentleness and vulnerability: yes, ma’am, all those old romantic clichés. In short, she can be a man” (Kinsale in Krentz, 1992, 37).

This is something I find so, so interesting. Kinsale argues that the reader can not only identify with the heroine and take pleasure in being admired by a handsome man, but also identify with said man and experience all those feelings typically coded masculine. She notes that, “literature as represented by the romance genre expresses integration, not fractionalisation, of self” (40). That emotional function performed by romance is downright REMARKABLE, if you ask me.

(And we can back this up with some solid history, too. If we look at the evolution of Mills & Boon’s editorial policy, it’s especially clear. In the 1950s, they introduced this thing called Lubbock’s Law, which dictated that the books should only be told from the heroine’s perspective. But that didn’t work out so well, because readers demanded to know what the hero was thinking – and as anyone who reads category romance today knows, the hero’s viewpoint gets pretty much equal page time as the heroine’s. Fascinating. FASCINATING.)

One of the things we’re trying to get students to think about in the course I tutor is the way that not just the happy ending, but the romance narrative itself is pleasurable: in fact, there might be more pleasure in the interruptions to the romance story than in the ending. The question of pleasure and reading is understudied across literature broadly – and there is no better place than romance to begin studying it.

You’ll note that none of these three reasons have anything to do with the literary merit of the genre. Personally, I believe that the genre has a shit ton of literary merit, but the cultural prejudice against romance is so strong that I know my view is not exactly common in the greater scope of things.

But you know what? IT DOESN’T MATTER. Even if you think romance is the worst genre ever and every single book published is a total piece of rubbish, these three reasons I’ve given above are reasons we need to be talking about it. Romance as a genre performs interesting, unusual, unique work. It can tell us fascinating things about culture and the way we read, and it is one of the few genres that is truly centred about women.

Given this, how can we possibly justifying excluding romance from the greater discourse around writing and literature?

  • Kat

    I hadn’t considered the pleasure of the reader before. It would be interesting to do an analysis of, say, the adjectives used to describe reviews of critically acclaimed literature. I suspect most of these would be the opposite of pleasurable (challenging, tragic, bittersweet, uncomfortable, etc.). I think one of the reasons romance (and perhaps women-authored books, but that’s a different generalisation) don’t get as much attention from literary circles is because the discourse of ‘serious’ literature is inherently biased against some of the essential characteristics of romance.

    I also wonder to what extent this bias is cultural. I mean, I never realised that Mills & Boon were so looked down on until I was at uni and was questioned on my reading tastes.

  • Lisa

    Great working with you, Jodi!

    (I’m running the Popular Genres unit at the University of Tasmania – http://courses.utas.edu.au/portal/page/portal/COURSE_UNIT/UTAS_UNIT_DETAIL?P_YEAR=2014&P_UNIT_CODE=HEN311&P_CONTEXT=NEW).

    We’ve now finished our three-week module on popular romance fiction and next week move on to fantasy fiction. I like Gabby’s open letter, but I’m not sure that the issue here is that the SWF has excluded romance. Reading through the program makes me think that it would not be inaccurate to re-tag this event as the Sydney (Literary) Writers Festival. Yes, crime fiction will make an appearance, but is that really a surprise? Walk into any up-market bookstore and the only genre fiction display you’re likely to see will be for crime. The next genre we’re looking at in Popular Genres is fantasy fiction, a genre which is also missing from the SWF program. There is one panel about science fiction, but I could find no horror and nothing about the explosion of hybrid genres that are drawing on romance, detective fiction, sf, horror and fantasy in the 21st century book market (paranormal romance, urban fantasy, dystopian). What does this tell us about the organisation of the literary field in Australia? Edward James, writing in the Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature (2012) points out that “One of the most unexpected developments of the last decade has been the domination of the popular fantasy genre by Australian women (and some Australian men)” (76), so the choice not to include fantasy is a fascinating one. The more I think about this, the more I think that the issue is a broader and more deep-rooted one about competing literary values and (apparently) incompatible communities of writers and readers.

    • Patrick Lenton

      I agree with you, and the problem is that by including nods towards crime and sci fi and fantasy, it shows that SWF don’t consider themselves as the Sydney Literary Writers Festival, which makes the exclusion of romance all the more telling. Especially considering crime USED to be a big seller, but now doesn’t do so well.

      • Lisa

        I can’t see any nods towards fantasy – what am I missing?

        • Patrick Lenton

          Actually that was my mistake, I was thinking of a panel from last year.

  • Sarah Mayberry

    I think the sincerity cringe is a really interesting idea to explore. In the movies, if a story has a happy ending it’s often (derisively) called a ‘Disney movie’. I can remember watching the end of Mystic River, the scene where Tim Robbins is in the water with Sean Penn’s gun in his mouth, and Sean is convinced Tim has killed his daughter. Tim has ample, ample opportunity to explain where he was the night the girl died, but he doesn’t. He is murdered in turn. I felt so angry at that point in the movie, but at the same time I knew that if they had saved Tim, the movie would have been considered schlocky and Disney-fare. The other thing about romances, in general, I think, is that they often operate in a very moral world. People get their comeuppance, in one way or another. Villains are punished, gossips are reprimanded, the unacknowledged hero or heroine is brought into the limelight. I think that probably feeds into the pleasure factor, too. The real world is often unkind, unfair and unjust, but romances present us with a world where wrongs are righted. Which is both sincere and pleasurable, I think, if you like that kind of thing!

  • Kathryn Ledson

    Great article Jodi (and Gabby). I’m a member of a fairly newly-formed romance panel (calling ourselves The New Romantics) – we’ll be at the Williamstown Literary Festival on 1st June and the following week at the very high-brow Woodend Winter Arts Festival. We’re delighted the organisers of these events see the merit in including romance in their programs. (And we’ve been ignored by others, of course.) Thanks for writing about it!

  • Phillipa Fioretti

    I have been at two lit fests as a romance writer. In 2011 I presented a workshop at Sydney Writers Week on social media and the author. I was interviewd live on 2BL at the wharf and despite what I and my publicist expected I wasn’t asked any questions about my recently released book, only about the workshop. I managed to wing it, as I was prepared for book talk, but I sensed their cringe and reluctance to even mention the books title. I cringed myself. I couldn’t get back to my hotel room fast enough. However I had applied to present a workshop and had been selected on my merits and was thus there on some merit. I felt uncomfortable. Not unwelcome, they were all very professional, but certainly like a poor, grubby relative one simply had to have to the party.

    My second experience was at this years Adelaide Writers Week. I’d been asked to chair a sesion with Kimberley Freeman, a Women’s Fiction author. I know Kim and was honoured as I admire her enormously, however I could not work out why she was there. Or why I was asked. But I prepared myself. Kim was unable to attend and they replaced the session, only days before, with one called True Romance with me as participating chair with Victoria Purman and Fiona McIntosh. We were told it could be about anything to do with romance – that says something. So being chair I decided to impose my vision on the proceedings and declared it was to be about the importance of location in romance, from the phenomena of rural/coastal rom to my connection to Italy and Fiona’s to France.
    When I left the Green Room to walk to the stage I felt like I was walking to the guillotine. We all did. When it was announced that Kim wasn’t coming and we were talking Rom, people got up and left, muttering negatively. But, being the troupers that we are we just did what we had to do in front of about 200 people. I had friends and partner in audience who gave good feedback and afterwards a man came up to me and said he’d been surprised by just how interesting our session had been. The AWW staff had excellent feedback on our session and all my books sold out in the book tent. The stigma was felt, the ‘outsider’ status confirmed again and I went to the party that night and managed to avoid revealing my secret identity. But as Fiona McIntosh said it is very hard to get any commercial fiction published without a romantic interest thread. The podcast of our session is available on the Adelaide Fest website.

    I agree with this blog post in all areas but particularly with the association of romance with women and with feelings. Most female dominant professions are low status, low paid, most female dominated activities are ridiculed or marginalised and tellingly, the majority of words that begin as descriptors of female anatomy degenerate into use as negatively loaded terms of abuse. Feelings are associated with the female, rationality with the male and men hold the higher status in this culture. We just have to keep knocking on the door until they get tired of us and let us in to sit at the table.

  • Freddi Bateman

    Distinguishing a true romance novel from a novel that includes a love story can be difficult, because both types of books tell the story of two people falling in love against a background of other action. The difference lies in which part of the story is emphasized.

    In a romance novel, the core story is the developing relationship between a man and a woman. The other events in the story line, though important, are secondary to that relationship. If you were to take out the love story, the rest of the book would be reduced in both significance and interest to the reader to the point that it really wouldn’t be much of a story at all.

  • Patrick F-D

    I like the voice you’ve captured here.

    ALSO, Great point with: “This sneer isn’t really at the genre. It’s a sneer at the reader – the female reader. It’s deep, ingrained structural sexism. And that is something we need to unpick, unpack, and discuss.”

    I imagined a sniper, shooting giant slow moving marshmallows. Target practice, training. Honing the skills of critique. Its a bit common. And sexist. Weird.

    See you in tutorials.