Last week, Romance Writers of America asked the Internet at large: Why do you read romance?
"Because so many of its characters,
authors and readers represent
what's best about humanity."
It got me thinking about my own journey into reading and writing romance. I used to avoid the shelves in the bookstore with their covers full of half-naked men and swooning women. I'd bought into the stereotype that there was something shameful about those shelves and those who bought the books from them.
But the thing was, I liked books that had a subplot which focused on the characters' relationships. But those were speculative fiction stories, not romance, at least in my head. However, the endings were not satisfying. The couples didn't last. One of them would die (usually the woman, although I did notice a trend where if the woman was too strong to succumb to a relationship, the man would die between her deciding to take a chance and actually trying), or the couple spent the book separated due to a kidnapping (again, usually the woman), or they would break up for what always seemed like easily overcome-able reasons.
"I read romance because no other genre
so consistently centers women as the
protagonists of their own stories."
I'd had a number of friends tell me that I needed to give romance a proper try. That it wasn't an overblown caricatures and parodies, or the Hallmark story of the week that we saw on TV. That the books were smart, full of great adventures, sharp wit and interesting characters.
Eventually, I tried it. I was out of town and went into a bookstore. I took a deep breath and headed for the shelves marked Romance, still feeling somehow that I was doing something wrong. I scanned the shelves and picked out two books that involved magic and post-apocalyptic societies, figuring they would be the easiest to get started with.
I tried the first one on the plane home and read it all before we landed. I didn't even blush at the sex scenes, despite being shoulder to shoulder with actual strangers. I enjoyed it and ordered the rest of the series as soon as I got home.
"I read romance to discover the diverse voices
of strong women creating fierce heroines and
intriguing heroes who live HEA."
I became an avid romance reader. The romance section no longer intimidated me and now I find myself mildly insulted when there isn't a separate section in a bookstore or library. I realized that the stories I'd been writing for years were romances, that this was the genre I'd been at home in all along, without ever realizing it.
Real life doesn't come with guarantees. But it does come with hope. Romances take that hope and build on it. If things are going badly, it's to set the hero or heroine on a path to greater happiness than they could have ever had on their previous one. And not just happiness with each other, but happiness in their work and in all of their dreams. Suddenly, the things that we don't quite dare dream about become real possibilities.
"I read romance because the stories are so
well written and they are about women
succeeding at life.
Whatever that life happens to be."
Shamers will attack that hope, calling it unrealistic and escapism. But in order to improve anything, we first need to be able to dream that it can be different. Escapism is the start of all meaningful change. Whether it's a divorced woman dreaming of finding love and trust again or a former CEO trying to make a ranch work or a former therapist making sense of a post-apocalyptic world, it's all about not accepting where you are and dreaming of where you could be.
Romance is also an opportunity to create new narratives. In the 70's and 80's, the sex in romance novels can only be charitably described as "coerced" because it wasn't socially acceptable for a woman to want to have sex. The heroines were virgins who were despoiled by the heroes, who didn't take no for an answer. But the novels changed that expectation. They began to show women who enjoyed sex, who didn't need to be coerced into participating. Romance novels began to incorporate regular condom use into the sex scenes, giving women a script for insisting on the use of condoms in real life. Heroines stopped quitting their jobs to be with a man. They demanded equality.
I have a number of friends who write LGBTQ romances, and the progress there is similar. The books insisted on pushing back against the spectre of AIDS, prejudice and social disapproval. They told stories of acceptance, of finding families to replace the ones who rejected them. And those stories started to inspire real life.
So I'm proud to write paranormal romance and urban fantasy. I'm proud to represent both speculative fiction and romance. Because there's always room for more hope and dreams.
"It makes me happy. Plain and simple." @bylisahahn