Romance Books – a humanist ideal.

Last week, I ended up defending my genre once again. I am used to this. It is par for the course when you love reading and writing in such a derided genre. Normally I would have written something pithy, or even just shrugged and thought – poor saps, they don’t get it – and move on. But this was different because the swipe came from women in a group who are supposed to be supporting other women writers.

Not that it was the first time I have come across women poking fun at or knocking what I and so many others love, but what took my breath away this time and made me angry enough to sit down and reason out a response, was the fact that they didn’t see the impact of what they were doing. One of them even purported to love romance and read it and was only having a bit of fun expressing a silly sense of humour. And maybe she was. I don’t personally know her and she could truly love romance. But for me, there is no reason why a woman would ever bag the romance genre unless it was because they just didn’t understand the impact of what they were doing, even if they thought they were being funny. It tells me they can’t possibly understand that they were buying into the patriarchal-led societal strictures that have always made women feel guilty for wanting sex, to enjoy it, to take ownership of our bodies and stand up for what we want. They didn’t see that love should be what we aspire to, not make fun of. They missed the fact what romance novels are truly about, that the idea of love, of happy ever after, is only part of the story, that they are truly about women expressing themselves, learning to be comfortable in their skins, to own their sexuality and go after what they want, to be the centre of their own story and manifestly change their own lives and others for the better through embracing themselves and their ability to love. That is not something that should ever be looked down on, made fun of, ridiculed and thought of as less worthy than other literary pursuits, but should in fact be lauded and embraced.

I can only assume that they missed these crucial points because of outdated ideas of the romance genre and ill-informed, uneducated prejudices based solely on what they’d heard from others who must know, or read in the media (articles, by the way, that are often written by men who we all know never have a jaundiced stance and always do full research to give an unbiased view of a genre they have never even tried to read!) or heard on a panel at a writing festival where some writing guru decided to take a swing at a genre he/she undoubtedly never even read let alone tried to take the time to appreciate for what it truly represents, not what the patriarchal ideal would want people to think it represents. They can’t have read romance recently. And for the woman who said she did read it, that said she loved it and was just being funny, she couldn’t have understood the impact of making fun of a genre written primarily for women by women.

It have to admit that is particularly shocking to me that in this age of the ‘Me Too’ movement, where women are standing up for themselves in a way that’s never occurred before, not because of feminist ideals, but just pure human decency and a desire to be treated truly equally and not have our sexuality used against us, that women were bagging a genre that, for years, has addressed issues of inequality, of sexual freedom, of standing up for yourself, of welcoming diversity and tackling ugly issues like rape and domestic violence and yes, workplace harassment.

Now, I have to stop here and state that women are not the only ones who read or write romance. There are men who write in the genre and I do not mean to be dismissive of them at all. In Romance Writers of Australia we are proud to count quite a few male romance writers among our members, all who are learning to own the genre they write in and be proud of what they are a part of and I am proud to count some of them my friends. It is also true that there are males who read romance – my father in law is one of them. He is always asking me to pass on my contemporary romance books and he is not the only male who loves to read romance. In fact, the NPD Romance Book Buyer 2017 survey found in the US that the romance reader is made up of 82% female readers and 18% male readers for those of you who like facts and figures and to show you I am not making things up.

So, yes, there are men who write and read romance, but I will repeat:

Romance is a genre written primarily for women by women.

So it is especially shocking to me when women, women who claim to be for other women, who claim to be feminists, would bag the romance genre because when it comes down to it, the reason why the romance genre is so disregarded is because it is primarily written by women for women. I know there are many out there who would shout down this opinion, who would tell me I am being an hysterical female banging a feminist drum or that I am not a feminist at all because to hero the idea of a happy ever after (HEA) is against the idea of feminism. But is it? The idea of love, of equality in work, in life, in relationships, isn’t that what feminism is about? But more to the point, I don’t think it is just a feminist province. I think it is a human province. Because the kind of love I like to read and write about is one of equality. I rather think of myself and those of us who love romance (both men and women) as humanists who are striving for the humanist ideal, the one where love of self and love of others, where acceptance and diversity are not buzz words but reality. Why is that something to make fun of?

I was president of Romance Writers of Australia for 3 years and so did my fair share of trying to educate media representatives and others about the fact that the romance industry was more than Fabio covers, bodice-rippers and Fifty Shades of Grey providing much needed sexual stimulation for repressed housewives (their words, not mine). It was tiring repeating that bodice rippers and Fabio covers were all the rage twenty-thirty years ago and no longer represent what the romance genre is about (a small percentage yes, but the genre is so much larger than that). The industry, like the world, has moved on, and romance writers and readers are always some of the first to explore new horizons, to reach for possibilities, to take up with new technology, to diversify. I tried to educate a lot about the myths of writing romance (which anyone in the industry would be able to debunk if you just took the time to chat to them) and read many articles to back up my opinions (such as multi-published award winning Australian author, Anne Gracie’s article, Myths of Romance ) and googled research papers and articles on why romance novels hold feminist relevance (just google it and so many come up for you to pick and choose from) and why people shouldn’t be dismissive (Kat Mayo’s article, Romance fiction is not your bitch is a good example of this.) Romance novels have become the subject of many university studies on modern pop culture, feminism, the duality of what women want and what they’re told and what they need.  

I’d like to unpack this in a slightly different way. A personal way, because this feels personal.

Some people have asked me in the past if I’m embarrassed to admit that I write such trash? Wouldn’t I prefer to write something of merit, something that would add to the world? I say that is precisely what I am doing. Just because romance is popular fiction does not make it trash. It has a purpose. It entertains and brings pleasure, it is uplifting because it shows the human struggle – both female and male – the need to be oneself but also to belong, it explores these themes and creates a way forward that shows positivity in friendship, in family, in love. What is trash about that? In my writing I try to embrace diversity in sexuality, in culture, in race, something romance novels have done far longer than other genres and is continuing to expand on and explore. In my novels and the novels I love reading, I explore the struggle of being a woman in today’s society where we are told we can have it all, and yet, things are still in such an uneven state that to have it all often means sacrificing self and being filled with guilt. I think these are important emotional themes to explore and that I struggle with every day. Are they not important because I wrap it all up with a HEA at the end, a HEA that is only one of the themes, only part of the journey, although an important one? Am I to think that because I come to terms with who I am as a woman in this world we find ourselves in now that I can not also wish for more, strive for more, and be happy at the end of it? Of course not. I think romance novels are even more important because of how they explore intimate, social and sexual themes and tie them up with happiness at the end.

I consider romances to be something akin to a modern day fairy tale. Fairy tales had their dark sides, the sides of social injustices and dark personal journeys they explored and taught with. Fairy tales are not derided – they are held up as a reflection of society at the time they were created, an exploration of values and themes, of justice and risk vs reward. Modern romance novels do much the same, with the only stricture being there must be a HEA or HFN (happy for now) for the main character/s at the end because the risk the characters take is always rewarded at the end. I have always loved fairy tales for their lessons as much as for the imaginary worlds and fantasy situations their characters found themselves in. I love romance novels for much the same reason. People often state that romances are fantasies and give women unrealistic expectations of what love is. That is utter rubbish and degrades the intelligence of the women who read and write the genre. Do I create a fantasy with my novels and my HEA endings – yes, of course I do. I’m not writing non-fiction and my readers are educated people who understand this is not reality, just as the people who read fairy tales realised they were not real.

However, does the fact it’s outside of reality lessen the impact of what I am trying to explore? No, of course it doesn’t, and any educated person should understand this. It is about imagination. I imagine a world where people turn into animals, I imagine a world where witches and magic are real or a social misfit can find love in a small country town. And with each imagining I am bringing my hope for love, for life, for equality and social justice into the world. Many of my characters are outliers, just as my son, who has ADHD and a sensory integration disorder is an outlier and what I write helps me to work through his issues and create positive influences for him and me to strive for. My imagination is a positive thing. My wish for love and equality and understanding for him is a positive thing. It influences my writing and my writing helps me to cope, to wish to show him and anyone else who is struggling that there is a way forward, that things can be better. And I am not the only one. Many romance writers and readers I speak to also have difficulties they face every day, either personally or in regards to a loved one, and the books they read help them to face these realities with more positivity.

Also, there is the simple fact that without imagination and fantasy, nobody would have hope for a better, brighter future. So why is my imagining of a personal soul journey that leads to a HEA less than the imaginings of someone who writes about a drunk on a train who may or may not have seen something horrible, or a girl who goes missing who is actually a psychopath? Surely it is the same, perhaps even more, because it offers hope where these novels do not.

I could sling all sorts of statistics around that show that romance genre fiction is one of the largest selling genres in the world – for instance the estimated annual total sales value of romance in 2013: $1.08 billion (source: BookStats) and the Romance novel share of the U. S. fiction market: 34% (source: Nielsen BookScan/PubTrack Digital 2015) . I will remind you again that this is primarily women writing for women who are making these sales.

I could be petty here and say that my genre quite literally props up the literary market, enabling publishing companies to be able to afford to publish their precious lesser selling award winning books, but that’s not my point because the fact my genre is such a huge seller doesn’t automatically make it better than other genres the same as being a literary award winner does not make those novels better or more worthy than mine. ‘Better’ is in the eye of the beholder. We are all different, which is the reason for so many different kinds of genres and books, and popularity alone doesn’t make something better, nor does winning accolades and awards, and neither do those things make them less.

I’m not saying that you should run out and read a genre you have no interest in. I don’t like autobiographies or cookbooks or many literary novels (although, having studied literature for many years, I have read thoroughly in the genre) and am unlikely to buy one of them to read for enjoyment. What I am saying, is stop rubbishing the romance genre because it is the norm, because it is expected, because it is ‘cool’ to do so.

And think:  When you bag the romance genre, what are you really bagging?

Is it bad writing – there’s bad writing in any genre.

Is it the misconception it is formulaic – every book must have a structure it follows, every genre its rules that the readers demand.

Is it that it’s written by desperate housewives looking to make a quick buck off the titillation of other desperate housewives – most romance writers I know have university degrees and are doctors and lawyers and teachers and business professionals and entrepreneurs (because to be a successful writer, you need a certain amount of entrepreneurship) as well as mothers and housewives. None of them have found this path easy nor made a quick buck at it, but are doing it because they have a passion and love and willingness to work hard, to learn, to educate themselves, to become informed and express positive stories out into the world and be positive role models to their children, to create a humanist ideal of equality and hope and love for all.

Is it because you think romance books create unrealistic expectations for women – women aren’t stupid and we can tell fantasy and fiction from reality and don’t give up on our relationships because it doesn’t match what we read in books. In fact, as I’ve already touched on, the books give the struggles we face a name, an identity and help us to reason through and give hope where sometimes there seems to be none.

Or is it because you think the idea of a woman enjoying a fantasy of love and sexuality is wrong, or embarrassing, or something that shouldn’t be allowed? Men are allowed their fantasies and those fantasies are not rubbished in the same way women’s fantasies are through the rubbishing of romance fiction. I don’t want men not to be allowed their fantasies, I just want to be allowed to have mine, to enjoy them, to be able to express my love into the world without fear that someone is going to tell me what I love to read and write is rubbish, is embarrassing, is unworthy.

I am proud of what I write. I am proud of what I read. Romance novels have got me through hard times, they’ve been my friends through happy times. I will continue to write and read what sings to my heart, what makes me a better mother, a better wife, a better human. I believe that a good romance novel, like all good novels, strive to better our ideals, to open our minds, to give us hope for the future.

Romance, love, hope – it should be the human ideal. The world would certainly be better for it if it was. So when you think to call romance trash, pause for a moment, perhaps educate yourself a little, and then stop and support, at least in words, those of us who are writing books by women for women to express a humanist ideal.  

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