Before I started writing full-time about books, I carried a pretty stereotypical disdain for romance. When all I knew were the cheesy Fabio covers and kooky plots, I couldn't imagine these novels being anything more than the literary equivalent of junk food.
Then, in my second week on the job, I was invited to a romance author luncheon. I faked my way through conversations about "my first Julie Garwood" and was delighted to discover that the authors I met were sharp, outspoken, well-read ladies. (I'm ashamed to say that I didn't expect I'd be able to talk to the women about Internet culture, body image and other non-romance topics.) Six months later, I was moderating a panel with those two of those authors, talking about fans' tendencies to scold heroines over heroes, the ideal of the happily-ever-after (including when or when not to employ it) and other intricacies of the romance genre.
In romance, I found a number of surprising connections to the genres I already love (sci-fi, fantasy and comics, namely) when it comes to inventive subgenres, passionate online followings and the relationships between authors and fans. More than that, I realized something that I think a lot of bookworms don't consider: Romance is empowering. In fact, the potential for empowerment in romance novels is there on the female writers own terms moreso than in literary or geeky genres.
Romance heroines vs. other genre heroines
Sure, in science fiction you can be a pilot or a hacker or a Jedi knight or in fantasy, the badass mother of dragons. Young adult is currently overflowing with plucky teen heroines who rise above their dystopian settings to enact change. Comic book heroines are mutants who control the weather and secret agents protecting the last surviving man.
But those sci-fi archetypes I mentioned are still archetypes, with fewer standout exceptions than their male equivalents. The mother of dragons only gets to fulfill her destiny after being sold off in marriage to a warlord. Plucky teen heroines must always be petite, and they've become such a trope that we have trouble taking them seriously anymore. Comic book heroines (perhaps the worst case) are often drawn in hideously contorted positions, and clothed in hyper-sexualized spandex getups that leave them shockingly uncovered. Or, you know, when they get killed off or re-conned per the editors' whims. All of these genre characters, no matter how iconic, are still problematic thanks to various in-story or meta constraints.
Then you have romance, where your every fantasy can be lived out -- and is.
Are you a high schooler tired of YA who wants to dream about life after college? An adult longing to relive that era of first real love, first sex and the first chance to build your chosen family? New Adult books hit all these touch points, and more. For all of your brooding twenty-something needs, turn to Courtney Cole, Jessica Sorensen, Cora Carmack and many more.
Do you thrill at the notion of being swept away by a Middle Eastern prince? I cannot tell you how many books have "sheikh" in the title (standouts by Susan Mallery and Kim Lawrence), but they will all scratch that itch.
I'm pretty sure romance commands more subgenres than any other literary genre: contemporary, Regency, paranormal, erotic horror, Scottish, Amish, NASCAR and New Adult to name just a few of the most popular. Meaning anything you can imagine -- literally anything - is out there just waiting to be read. Even with the subgenres like paranormal romance and erotic horror, these fantasies are still more straightforward than the SFF, YA or comics examples mentioned above; by virtue of being more straightforward, they're also more successfully fulfilled.
It's not as if the writers are pulling these specific fantasies from thin air: Readers can rest assured that at least one other person out there had the same specific fantasy they did, and that's OK. Whatever your fantasy is -- whether or not you can articulate it -- it's here, no judgment. (And best of all, romances almost always end with a happily-ever-after, so it's not as if there are lasting negative consequences.)
That's not to say that all of these fantasies are entirely PC. The wealth of steamy novels about normal women who entice brooding millionaires automatically assumes a class disparity and glosses over the expectation that men will take care of their ever need (often over the heroine's protests). I don't even have time to unpack everything that's problematic about the sheikh books, but thankfully the Los Angeles Review of Books has taken care of that for us.
But if that's what gets people off (in all manner of speaking), who are we to castigate them? We act as if we readers can be only cerebral, that anything less is shameful, but so much of reading comes from the gut. Having writers who can cater to our private and guilty-pleasure reading tastes is the same as having a truly good sex partner who's willing to act out your most reductive or taboo fantasies, because sometimes that's what you need.
More fantasies, fewer constraints
In romance, there's no need for complex worldbuilding or confusing rules to remember. It's just the fantasy, with only as many frills as you want. Romance writers don't have to explain or defend themselves. In fact, writers may even be less constrained than in other genres. For instance, Julia Quinn's Regency heroines are more feminist than their time period would ever reasonably allow. Compare that to SFF, which has been grappling with the "strong female character" debate for the past six months: While men in fiction can be abrasive, brilliant, vain, addicted, etc. etc. ad nauseum, women can only be strong.
Helena S. Paige's A Girl Walks Into a Bar (published in 2012), while nowhere near the first Choose Your Own Adventure book, is the first of its kind for romance. You the reader dictate how the night will end, whether it's seducing the young bartender or snapping nude photos with a photographer or exploring your attraction to other women
Paige is actually a pseudonym for authors (and friends) Paige Nick, Helen Moffett, and Sarah Lotz; they're teaming up again for the follow-up, A Girl Walks Into a Wedding. Collaborations like this are a huge part of romance: You see the same authors joining forces on anthologies or series of novellas, like Quinn, Eloisa James, and Connie Brockway in the Lady Most Likely books. As a reader, it's comforting to walk into such a supportive community.
Speaking of the various ways that books get into readers' hands, we shouldn't discount the sheer scope of romance's crossover potential. Because when I say romance, I'm also talking literary fiction, women's contemporary fiction, and yes, even chick lit.
In books like This Charming Man and The Other Side of the Story, Marian Keyes' characters flirt with prime ministers and bicker with their sisters, yet their stories are anchored by unflinchingly dark plot twists driven by addiction, abuse and depression. Jennifer Weiner wrenches us away from our impulse to root for stick-thin romantic leads with her fleshy, flawed heroines in books like Good in Bed. And before Eleanor & Park put her on the map, Rainbow Rowell was writing innovative contemporary romance like Attachments, in which the male protagonist falls in love with his heroine entirely over pre-Y2K office email. Can you sneer at all of these examples the way you would at a bodice-ripper?
Loving the raunchy read
In many ways, actually, romance has been maligned for the same reason as fanfiction: People think it's just porn. I can sympathize with romance readers who regularly get derision for their reading habits; coming from fandom, I'm used to the hierarchies people build up, as if to say, "Well, I like this thing, but it's not as bad as that!"
In this case, the hierarchy is established in some part by the repressed and in some part by the cerebral. Because what's wrong with admitting that you like a downright sexy book? Or a book that isn't loaded with plot conventions but that makes us root for 300 pages simply for two people to get together? If that's not staying power, I don't know what is.
All the dirty and/or frivolous stuff aside, we can't forget that the driving force in all romance stories is love. And even more, as one of our commenters observed in our #ReadWomen2014 piece, the belief that love is redemptive. Books don't need the bells and whistles of some multi-arc metaplot to keep our attention -- or to be considered valid. Sometimes, all we need is two people, some obstacles, and a connection that can overcome it all.
In the best cases, in those romances in which the protagonist is female and the target audience is female, there’s no judgment about women being themselves—whether they’re tired or horny or bitchy or needy or inexperienced or ambitious or whatever they happen to be—as opposed to other genres. Romance being somewhat ignored or dismissed by highbrow society has allowed it to flourish on a very personal level, where authors and readers are not trying to out-snob each other, but they're really just reaching for this emotional impact that is very powerful when achieved.
I hope I've offered up enough recommendations to pad your #ReadWomen2014 lists, but also check out the comments for more great recs!
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