BONUS FEATURE

PERCEPTIONS OF ROMANCE

By Sela Carsen


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 lost.

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 cover.

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 it.

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 cultural schisms.

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 features emotion.”

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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