Thursday, 6 October 2016

A Romance Reader: Loud and Proud

Sarah MacLean wrote a wonderful article last week on how bashing romance novels is basically a form of slut-shaming and it inspired me to write about some of the most common complaints about romance novels and why we should completely ignore them.

Myth # 1: They push women to equate happiness with being with a man.

Romance novels always have a love story as a central aspect of their plot.  It's part of the definition of the genre.  By the logic of this myth, one could also argue that mysteries encourage murder and vigilante justice, but we rarely hear Sherlock Holmes being accused of pushing people towards a life of crime.

The urge to connect with another person (male, female, alien, whatever you're drawn to) is one of the most fundamental human drives.  Romance novels celebrate that connection and acknowledge it.  But it's not just about finding love.  The heroines in romance novels don't just find a mate, they also achieve their other dreams, be it careers, families, contests or whatever else their hearts desire.

Romance novels encourage women not to settle.  The heroine goes through a character arc, beginning with an uncomfortable situation where they are bound by expectations and their own fears.  As the story goes on, she gains the courage to go after what she wants, rather than what she's been told to expect.  That usually includes an exciting and passionate relationship with a man (or woman) that is a partnership of equals, based on attraction and respect.

So romance novels don't hang the heroine's happiness on a man.  They recognize that a satisfying relationship can be part of the overall package but it is only a part.  They are about the heroine finding happiness period, in all its varied forms.

Myth # 2: They are poorly written and formulaic.

Romance novels make up 5 to 7 % of print book sales and 45 % of ebook sales.  (Source,

That's a lot of books and the quality of them can vary significantly.  There are poorly written romances, just as there are poorly written books in all genres.  But the majority are well done, with some reaching incredible levels of excellence.

The charge of being formulaic is back-handed way of attacking the quality of the writing.  All stories are essentially formulaic.  They need to follow a certain structure or else the reader doesn't find them satisfying.  The pattern applies across every successful story from Shakespeare to Tolkien to Star Wars.  The structure is like the foundation of a house.  Without it, it doesn't matter how grand or beautiful the plans are, it will all collapse under its own weight.

This myth can be countered by pointing to authors like Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Kristan Higgans, Roxanne St. Claire, Sherilyn Kenyon and dozens, if not hundreds, of others.  Attacking the genre as a whole based on its weakest examples is a sloppy argument.

Myth # 3: They're just thinly disguised porn for bored housewives.

There are two parts to be debunked for this myth.  The first is was covered in Sarah MacLean's article.  Sex is a part of romantic relationships and romance novels include satisfying sex, even if the novel itself uses the "fade to black" technique rather than showing it.  There is a huge range of detail, ranging from explicit erotica which explores various fetishes to sweet romance, which only shares the first kiss and leaves everything else behind closed doors.  The only universal is that the heroine's pleasure and wishes are given priority.

The second part to this myth is the assumption that wives and mothers (and by extension all women) should not be interested in sex.  That we should not desire multiple orgasms and a caring partner.  As New York Times journalist, Natalie Angier, explains, the argument that women can have a satisfying sex life without orgasm holds as much weight as the argument that some homeless people like living outdoors.  Dismissing women's pleasure was supposed to have become obsolete in the sixties and doesn't really deserve any further serious consideration.

Women don't deserve to be shamed for their sexuality or their sexual desires.  Instead we should be proud to claim them.

Myth # 4: They encourage a hetero-normative approach to relationships.

For those unfamiliar with the term, basically this myth boils down to the concept of embracing diversity.  The one-man, one-woman approach to relationships ignores bisexuality, homosexuality, menage and polyamory.  I will acknowledge that there is still plenty of room to increase the level of diversity in romance, but I would also challenge its critics to find another genre with more representation of all cultures and desires.

Romance has always encouraged diverse and minority voices.  The sheer volume of books out there allows all kinds of niche markets to be successful.  The success of 50 Shades of Grey allowed women to voice their interest in BDSM (though I'd recommend Opal Carew instead).  Menage fiction allows women to explore the fantasy of being with multiple lovers.  There's a sizable collection of LGBTQ romance.  Almost any variation of human sexuality is represented.

Myth # 5: They present an unrealistic version of relationships and romantic love.

This one is perhaps the hardest myth to debunk.  Passionate, lasting romance which is based on mutual respect is rarer than it should be.  But should we give up that dream?  Should we stop encouraging women to reach for that star, to believe that they can have all that they desire without having to compromise or settle?

Too often, women are encouraged to compromise.  As an example, despite my deep and abiding love for Hugh Jackman, I can't stand the movie Kate and Leopold due to its ending.  I hate that the heroine chooses to abandon a career that she clearly enjoyed and was talented at to travel back to a time when she would be considered a second-class citizen, to be with the man she loved.  I would have liked it much better if he had found a way to make his way in modern times, supporting her and giving her the peace and her support to pursue her dreams.  The latter is the kind of story that one finds in romance novels.

One can argue that the stories are unrealistic but I'd say that the flaw lies more in reality than in the stories.  The more stories there are about women whose partners support them rather than the other way around, the more women will be willing to try it in real life and find out how it can work.

So don't hide your love of romance.  Put it front and center and take pride in enjoying stories that encourage us to have all our dreams.

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