As author of a novel called "Romance Language", I'm often asked if I'd written a "romance novel." My instinctive answer was "no" -- but I hadn't actually read any romance fiction for many years so I went to the library and borrowed a stack. I was quite surprised at what I read, especially the graphic descriptions of sex in which little or nothing was left to the imagination. My impressions of the genre were clearly way out of date. Here are some general conclusions from my not-very-scientific survey:
1) The female protagonist is usually young, feisty and gorgeous -- although she may not realize how tremendously sexy she actually is. She's a little sad and hurting, after suffering a horrible trauma such as the tragic loss of her parents. But her inner bravery remains intact. All alone in the world, she is proudly independent but understandably distrustful of others. She longs for love but is afraid to love.
2) The male protagonist is normally older and full of self-confidence, a prototypical alpha male who doesn't take 'no' for an answer. He's hunky but haughty. For all his sexual experience, he'll soon find himself way out of his depth when this chit of a girl awakens feelings he's never known.
3) The two experience an immediate and powerful mutual attraction. But they can't immediately hook up because of some perceived barrier -- usually based on a misunderstanding.
4) Despite their initial dislike, the two overcome their hostility and are usually exchanging fluids by around page 60. This involves detailed and highly explicit descriptions of kissing, oral sex, mutual masturbation and full penetration. Both parties experience mind-blowing orgasms, described in minute detail.
5) An evil character emerges to threaten the two protagonists and their relationship, through social scheming or actual violence.
6) The hero rescues the heroine (or vice versa) and they engaged in even more mind-blowing sex, resulting in even more cataclysmic climaxes. Marriage and children soon follow and they live, we presume, happily ever after.
I have nothing against such escapist fiction in principle. And I guess that women have as much right to enjoy pornography packaged to their liking as men. But I simply don't find these books romantic. Let's compare them for a moment to "Pride and Prejudice" -- the book which appears to have inspired much of the genre. In Jane Austen's novel, the two leading characters, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, clearly share a strong physical attraction -- but it is scarcely overwhelming or determinative. The real romance takes place in their heads as they change and grow and shape themselves for each other. It is only when Elizabeth perceives Darcy's true moral character that she allows herself to love him. It is only when Darcy understands that he must win Elizabeth through his actions rather than just relying on his social rank that their relationship becomes possible.
I should note here that I don't do explicit sex in my books. That's not because I'm squeamish or repressed. Partly, it's because it's so easy to write bad sex scenes and so difficult to write good ones. In romance novels, these scenes are pretty much all alike, relying on an unfortunate mixture of strained metaphors and graphic anatomical detail. It turns out that one stiff nipple is much like another; one engorged penis pretty similar to the next. How many ways can one describe a mind-shattering orgasm? But mostly, I don't do sex because I'm more interested in love -- and love takes place in the mind where it has to fight for its existence against all the other challenges presented by life.
In the romance novels I have read, love is expressed through sex and only through sex. The fact that the hero and the heroine can provide each other with tremendous orgasms becomes proof positive of their undeniable love for one another. If the sex is that good, the love must be real. As for the historic settings for many of these books, they are usually little more than an excuse to cloth the characters in elegant period dress that can then be lovingly removed in the tender sex scenes or ripped asunder in the more violent ones.
The true disservice that the "romance" genre does is that it sucks all the oxygen out of the room. It sets up expectations and lays down rules of what "romance" should be and what great sex is like. Publishers expect writers to follow these rules. So do readers. Anyone trying to write a real love story involving real people grappling with real dilemmas is breaking the rules of the game.