I just found a sign taped to my back.
It says “Kick me. I read romance.”
Last year in Texas, a man running against the incumbent state comptroller
decided to use as one of his attack platforms the fact that she had
published a romance novel fifteen years ago. It was from a now defunct
line of fairly sweet contemporary romance. He called it porn. He
The literary snobbery – and sheer idiocy – that romance
readers and writers endure often comes from people who haven’t
read one since Barbara Cartland had her natural hair color. God rest
her soul, she'll never know the damage she did.
Thirty years ago, bodice-ripping historicals frequently portrayed
older men who missed their calling as dungeon masters and nubile
young women only too grateful to accept the crumbs of abuse that
were tossed their way. Even the contemporary romances of the day
were often poorly disguised submission fantasies – doctor/nurse,
boss/secretary, dusty cowboy/dimwitted city girl.
Modern romance authors flinch at the checkered past of the industry,
but still reap the fall-out of every thinly disguised rape scene,
every "tumescent love shaft," every tousle-haired clinch
Yet no matter how things have changed, romance readers and writers
are still stereotyped as bored housewives, so dissatisfied with their
lives that they have to manufacture happy endings. Or worse yet,
just one step above the sixth-grade dropout.
Playing on this false stereotype, the Greater Washington Initiative
recently launched a print ad pasted on various Metro lines portraying
two men side by side, both reading books. The man on the right held
a copy of Plato’s Republic and his tag line read: Greater Washington
subway reading. The one on the left was engrossed in Abandon, a romance
novel by Kaitlyn O’Connor, complete with steamy cover. The
tag line there read: Average subway reading.
The small print at the bottom asserts that 45% of Greater Washington
DC residents possess a bachelor’s degree or higher.
According to a 2005 market research survey sponsored by Romance Writers
of America, 42% of romance readers have a bachelor’s degree
or higher. Given a standard 3% deviation for statistical analysis,
that makes romance readers at least as intelligent as DC residents.
Oh wait. I thought I was supposed to be talking about how smart romance
readers are. Ba-dum-bump. At least we have a sense of humor about
But the numbers don’t lie. Romance has almost 55% of the market
share of all paperbacks sold in the US. Nearly 40% of all fiction
sold is romance.
With such huge sales, how is it that romance is still the redheaded
stepchild of genre literature?
Romance writer Tina Bendoni gave a list of reasons why she stayed
away from romance for nearly twenty years.
A - Got tired of the woman being helpless.
B - Got tired of the woman being rescued by the man.
C - Got disgusted with the normalization of rape under the guise
of “forced seduction.”
D - Got tired of the flowery language.
E - Got tired of women being presented as unrealistic.
F - They depressed me cause I knew the storylines were often stupid/unrealistic/impossible.
Can you blame her? And yet, she came back. Drawn by the quirky style
of Sherrilyn Kenyon’s paranormal romance, Fantasy Lover, Tina
found that romance had indeed changed since the bodice rippers of
the 70s and 80s. Well-drawn characters, fully developed plots, and
strong writing are essential to romance novels.
Even now, it’s possible to pick up a current story written
in the old tradition. One line of Harlequins is dedicated to the
far-flung fantasy – the sheikh and the virgin, the mogul and
the mistress, the CEO and the secretary. Highly emotional reads,
they sell in large numbers because there’s a section of the
market that loves them. Romance has room for all of it, the same
way that crime fiction encompasses both Patricia Cornwell fans and
cat cozy lovers.
Thankfully, it’s not all Greek billionaire secret baby-daddies.
Romance readers read across sub-genres as wide as all literature.
From women’s fiction, which often features romance as only
a sub-plot, to the ubiquitous Regency, there are stories that could
fit in any section of any bookstore. You can choose from sci-fi romance,
romantic suspense, chick-lit, inspirational, fantasy and contemporary
settings. Paranormal romance covers every base from time-travel to
demons, angels, ghosts and gargoyles. Shape-shifters have become
the new vampire in paranormal stories, in the same quixotic way that
fashionable skirt lengths vary week by week.
What really drives sales, though? Emotion. No matter the genre, great
writing isn’t simply a laundry list of plot twists. Our favorite
stories stay with us because of how they make us feel. Because we’re
able to get inside the character’s head and feel what’s
happening right along with them. Because, to some degree, the basic
human need for love and experience of love crosses gender lines and
The stomach lifting, rollercoaster feeling when you realize you’re
really, truly in love with someone is the same for a rough-hewn PI
as it is for a kindergarten teacher. The same hope, the same vulnerability.
And the fear of having your heart ripped out of your chest and stomped
on is emotionally the same whether you write horror or romance.
So why is romance so vilified in literature?
Lindsay Hayes, who wrote a master’s thesis on feminism and
romance novels, had this to say about the disparagement from society: “I
spent my entire graduate career studying romance fiction and its
readers. One of the theories about why romance is so maligned is
that it is inherently feminine. The feminine has long been devalued
in our society. Feminine attributes such as emotion were part of
the reason women weren't given the vote and were kept out of occupations
such as public office; romance fiction is a celebration of and often
In an informal survey, one person commented on the idea that “real
literature” never has a Happily Ever After and the fact that
romance is based on that premise – that true love exists, that
people really can find lasting joy – is somehow “unrealistic.”
That’s so depressing.
What I find unrealistic is the paradigm that true love doesn’t
exist. That people are inherently miserable and, if linked, will
only be more miserable together. Certainly, the idea that once two
people say “I do” their whole lives will be littered
with nothing but pink, fluffy bunnies is absurd, yet a bleak existential
outlook doesn’t strike me as the logical middle ground.
So before you sneer your way past the romance section of the bookstore
next time, wander around a bit. See if any of the sub-genres appeal
to you. Maybe come armed with some recommendations. But try something
new. Change is good. We know. We’ve changed for the better.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sela Carsen was born in Houston, Texas, but as the daughter of an
oil company engineer and then an Air Force wife, she’s lived
all over the world. She has a bachelor’s degree in French and
another in Communication. She has worked as a tutor, a reporter, a
magazine writer, and at an advertising agency. While they were stationed
in England, she began to write romances. Now, she makes her home in
the Midwest with her husband, two children, and one Boxer. To learn
more about her and what she writes, visit
her website at http://www.selacarsen.com.
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2007 SPINETINGLER Magazine - All rights reserved