Why do we constantly shit on romance readers and writers?
Romance is in the air, but is it on your bookshelf?
As part of my MA, I took a workshop module where 10-12 of us would write something every week, share it with the class, and get feedback on how to improve. During one of those workshop lectures, a classmate whose work was being read told us she wanted us to view her work as "literature" and not chick lit or romance (even though it ticked all the boxes for a historical fiction romance story for me).
I'm not sure if it was me or another person who objected to the way she said the words 'chick lit/romance fiction.' But I could hear the disdain in her voice — along with the fear that her work might be considered "romance" and that it wouldn't stand up against everyone else's work.
And you know what, I don't blame her for what she thought. Sure, I'd have appreciated if she didn't treat or think of romance as something secretive, derogatory, or not deserving of respect. But her reaction was expected given how our society treats romance books and people who read them.
Romance doesn’t have to be a guilty pleasure
Sometime during my early teens, I discovered romance fiction. Of course, at that time, I exclusively read on Wattpad and Fanfiction dot net, but I eventually came across my first sexy, steamy romance book. I still have it to this day — it was a real eye-opener, if I say so myself.
After that, I binged a whole host of romance books. Every day on the train commute to and back from college, I finished a book or two. Romance books were a delightful escape for me, just like all the other books I read.
But for some reason, I was hesitant to tell people what I was reading. When asked, I hemmed and hawed or gave the name of another book I was reading (I read multiple books simultaneously). I didn't feel like romance stories or novels were legit — I also felt deeply ashamed to tell someone I was reading smut or sex.
Eventually, I became comfortable sharing that I loved reading romance without adding any excuses like "it's a guilty pleasure" or "I don't usually read romance." Sure, I got some raised eyebrows, and I could tell people were surprised at my openness, but I had run out of fucks to give about what people thought I should read.
What’s wrong with wanting a light or steamy read?
It got me thinking, though. When men read and write about sex, it's okay. It's more than okay; sometimes, it's even exalted as "literature." What an incredible, novel perspective of pain, loneliness, or whatever.
But the moment it's a romance book (of literally any sub-genre), it's dismissed as fluff or "for women" — and both of those descriptions are said hella derogatorily. Why, though?
To broaden our horizons, are we only supposed to read literary fiction, classics, or sci-fi fantasy novels to expand our horizons? Is the depiction of ennui and hating your spouse what determines a good book?
Once again, like comic books and graphic novels — romance books and chick lit are real books. It's more than okay to read and also enjoy them unabashedly. We don't only need to read books that 'teach' us something or are on longlists for fancy prizes. It's okay to read something fun and light, with a happy, ever after (HEA). It's good for your soul to read something light, and fluffy — HEAs give hope and are just generally so lovely, no?
If you're going to say romance books are sexist, I'd implore you to take a closer look at some of the classics we read or even some of the aforementioned literary classics (cough-Murakami-cough). Poorly written, sexist books exist in every genre, but somehow, all romance books often get lumped into the same "it's not written well, or it's misogynistic" review.
Romance is EVERYWHERE (even when it’s invisible)
Funnily enough, even though most people wouldn't cop to reading romance books, there's a massive market for them that's only growing. Heck, it grew 49% during the pandemic — more than any other genre.
According to the Romance Writers of America®, the romance fiction industry is worth $1.08 billion dollars a year,* which makes it about a third larger than the inspirational book industry, and about the size of the mystery novel genre and science fiction/fantasy genre markets combined.
My theory is that people were freer to read what they wanted when they didn't have to show their book covers on the tube or the train, no worries about prying, judge-y eyes.
So, why is it such a big deal if someone likes to read (only) romance books? Or writes (and/or self-publishes romance books?
If you guessed misogyny, you get a prize but it's constant judgement and disdain.
Romance fiction is predominantly written and read by women. 84% of romance readers are women, and they number somewhere between 29-40 million. Now, that's not a small number at all, and it doesn't even take into account global romance readers, translated works, and more.
Like teenage girls whose work and obsessions are dismissed, women who read romance aren't considered 'serious readers. From calling it soft porn to saying it sets unrealistic standards for men (LOL), the criticism against romance comes in different forms. Romance writers aren’t considered “real writers” because everyone likes to think that romance is easy to write — it’s just sex on paper or it’s just the same story told in different ways (aren’t all books, though?)
“…romance novels are those "dangerous books for girls that show women again and again that they're worth it;" where "women's voices predominantly shape the narrative about themselves in the world;" and where "real, good love doesn't ask you to lose weight, change your hair, get a different job, silence your feelings or in some way shrink yourself to fit into a box society has labelled 'desirable.'“
You want to know what I think? Romance books aren't respected enough because they're ALL about women. Why should we read about what a woman wants? Why should we care how she fulfils her wants? How she indulges in her sexual fantasies — no, that's only for men to make. Just like deciding what makes the cut for what counts as "literature" is done mainly by (rich, white) men.
Most romance books centre on women and, more importantly, their desires. In fact, they can even be empowered and enlightening. But because romance books are targeted towards women — they depict what women' want', and somehow, that's threatening. If it's not threatening, then it's not worthy of the "stamp of literary approval".
“For the most part, romance novels are written by women, about women, for women. This is perhaps the only space where women's voices predominantly shape the narrative about themselves in the world. When else does that happen? Not in Hollywood—those movies you also referenced are often written by men, directed by men, made by men.”
Of course, romance fiction, like every other genre, has its flaws, but lately, it's evolved to encompass a wide range of LGBTQIA+ friendly, diverse, and openly representative plots. Finally, queer folks can see themselves represented happily in love. This is probably what drove women to romance in the first place — for a change; they aren't being killed off, sexualized, or a one-dimensional character to help the male lead discover his purpose.
We're tired of being under the male gaze. Romance books are written with a female gaze, and that doesn't seem to sit right with the literary critics (who wouldn't be caught dead with a Mills & Boon romance). And you know what, I don't think most romance readers want any literary approval. So for me, it boils down to one thing — let me read what I want to in peace.
If I want to read the sexiest, steamiest, smuttiest book, I should be able to do it without someone recommending me a "better, more intellectual" book. Maybe I just want to read the cheesiest romance stories; maybe someone else wants to read a period romance and pine with the protagonist during the slow burn. It's all cool.
Plus, some of our favourite and most popular classics are technically romances, but that's never their first descriptor. Pride and Prejudice? Enemies to lovers. So maybe we don't wait until the writers are dead and centuries have passed to let people read romance books freely.
Here's to the folks, especially the women who read and write romance. You're doing great, and keep enjoying what makes you happy.
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ICYMI — last week I shared 22 newsletters you need to check out in 2022. Here’s the Twitter thread that I’d appreciate your retweets on.
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Things to check out this week! 💌
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That’s all for this week — thanks for reading!
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