So the point of this post isn’t to convince you that you, a die-hard fan of Ursula K. Le Guin (and aren’t we all, here), should immediately run to the bookstore and pick up the latest Nora Roberts. Rather, I hope to convince you that romance is an interesting, vibrant, important genre; and to tell you a few reasons why I—and a lot of others—love it.
So here are three quick reasons why you should care about Romance.
Because in Romance Fiction, “Women Do”
Here’s what women in romance novels do do: they make decisions, they have friends, they bring down serial killers, they go shopping, they vanquish untold evil, they enjoy sex (a lot), they start businesses, they act like assholes, they fight back, and they fall in love. Sometimes they even menstruate. They grow, and change, and so does the hero.
The phrase “women do” is stolen from a wonderful piece by romance author Jennifer Crusie, who herself is quoting from Barbara Keiler. Crusie, who was working towards a PhD in feminist criticism and nineteenth-century British and American literature when she came across romance novels (in the course of research for her dissertation), recounts her first month reading romance:
For the first time, I was reading fiction about women who had sex and then didn’t eat arsenic or throw themselves under trains or swim out to the embrace of the sea, women who won on their own terms (and those terms were pretty varied) and still got the guy in the end without having to apologize or explain that they were still emancipated even though they were forming permanent pair bonds, women who moved through a world of frustration and detail and small pleasures and large friendships, a world I had authority in.
Because Romance Fiction is the Most Read Genre in the Country—By a Huge (Throbbing, Rock-Hard) Margin
That’s a good enough reason to care about romance fiction right there. You don’t need to like it, or read it, to understand that if over twenty percent of the country is reading at least one romance novel a year, it’s important. (Maybe someday we’ll talk about why academia hasn’t figured this out yet—scholarship on popular romantic fiction is both woefully lacking and institutionally marginalized.)
So who’s doing all this reading? Are there really 75 million sex-starved cat ladies in the United States?* The romantic fiction readership is extremely diverse. It crosses income levels, races, genders (almost ten percent of readers are male), and geographic regions. Primarily, what they are is loyal: 41 percent have been romance readers for at least twenty years.
Because in Romance Fiction, Constraints Create Creativity
First, the constraints of the romance plot mean that the vast majority of the text can be spent on characterization—and when so much of book is spent on the two lead characters, you get to know them. They’re fleshed out. Another benefit is that there is frequently room for extremely well-realized supporting characters—and indeed, sometimes those characters are as loved as the main ones (and are quite frequently developed as main characters in later books).
Second (and these are not meant to be exhaustive points—merely some ideas that I’ve been thinking about lately), there’s something wonderful about a story being told over and over again, with untold variations. Wildly creative works can spring up from such repeated retellings: the new characters, the new emotions, the new stories that are interwoven. Holding the basic story steady allows an infinite variety of new reactions, since the same experiment can be run for as many different characters, under as many different conditions, as the community of romance authors can imagine. And that’s pretty cool.
Also, they’re really fun to read.
Jenny Crusie, “Romancing Reality: The Power of Romance Fiction to Reinforce and Re-Vision the Real”;
Maria Bustillos, “Romance Novels, the Last Great Bastion of Underground Writing”;
Alyssa Rosenberg, “Men, stop lecturing women about reading romance novels”; and
Rachel Kramer Bussel, “Eloisa James on Feminism, Sexuality, and Why Romance Novels Are More Than Worthy of Respect.”
And just in case you want to check one out, here are (again, a very) few of my favorite romance novels, in no particular order:
Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Ain’t She Sweet?
Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Honey Moon
Eloisa James, Three Weeks with Lady X
Courtney Milan, The Heiress Effect
Rachel Gibson, See Jane Score
Sarah MacLean, Nine Rules to Break When Romancing A Rake
Nora Roberts, Vision in White
Georgette Heyer, The Grand Sophy
Elizabeth Hoyt, Wicked Intentions
Jennifer Crusie, Bet Me
* Answer: Maybe. Cats are pretty great.