Confessions of a Romance Reader

I once took an “Intro to Creative Writing” course. At the beginning of the semester, the class went around and each person shared their favorite authors. Among them were Hemingway, Tolkien, Junot Diaz, and Toni Morrison, all of whom are greats in the literary fiction world, (while Tolkien wrote fantasy, his writing has created new definitions of world‐building and character development, thus placing him in line with the other classic literary giants). When it came to my favorite, I quietly answered, “Catherine Anderson,” and a blush spread to my hairline. No one knew who she was, so I had to expound, “She’s a romance author.” Immediately, shame and embarrassment rolled over me and I needed to force myself not to look down. But I could see from everyone’s expressions that they weren’t impressed. Instead, I imagined their thoughts, She reads romance? It was clear they didn’t consider the romance genre to be up to par with literary fiction. Romance and literary fiction are two totally different genres of writing. I realize, as should all other closeted romance readers, that I shouldn’t be ashamed of reading these books. The stigma about the genre has been around for years. It has been written off as “smut” or “porn.” The many covers featuring the all‐famous Fabio certainly do nothing to disprove these accusations. To the average reader, the shirtless, hairless, muscle‐bound man with long flowing hair can’t possibly be taken seriously. Without even picking up the book and reading it, people have categorized it as either a joke or a piece of writing that isn’t as well‐developed or well‐written as a Pulitzer Prize winning classic novel. Many of the storylines also end with a happily ever after. Critics claim this, as well as the relationships depicted in the story, aren’t realistic and set readers up for false expectations in their own love life. Some assume that sex scenes make up the bulk of the story, with little‐to‐no character or plot development. With the success of Fifty Shades of Grey, this idea has only increased.

All of these conclusions seem to be made by people who either haven’t read the genre or have only read it at its worst. There are many reasons why romance is just as worthwhile and important as literary fiction. And every person who reads romance should stand up and be proud of the genre instead of embarrassed or afraid to share their opinion.

First of all, the romance genre is one of the most successful, if not the most successful, genre of publishing. According to BookStats, an industry statistics model created by the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group, the estimated total sales value of the romance genre in 2013 was $1.03 billion. In comparison, in 2009, the estimated revenue was $1.36 billion for romance and only $462 million for classic literary fiction, according to Simba Information. It’s clear that romance has been doing very well, even if the net revenues have decreased over the years. The money brought in also allows publishers to take on undiscovered or indie authors who may be writing literary fiction. Selling x million copies of a best seller brings in enough money to support the smaller authors who may not be able to sell as many copies, but whose work is just as noteworthy.

In regards to the argument that romance novels create unrealistic expectations of relationships, love, and people, this isn’t necessarily true. Nowadays, there is more content reflective of the culture. Not all romance novels end in a “happily ever after”, though this is mostly still the norm. Sometimes, one of the main characters dies at the end, leaving the readers with a message about loss and second chances. Sometimes the characters decide that it’s better for them to not be together or that it isn’t good timing. The two main protagonists also aren’t the cliché “damsel‐in‐distress” and the arrogant man come to save her. Heroines are characterized as strong, confident, sassy women of all body types. Elle Kennedy’s Killer Instinct series features a team of deadly female assassins who meet their man while on a dangerous mission. In this way, some romance novels are encouraging women to take control of their sexuality, body, and lives, and become confident in who they are.

The inclusion of LGTBIQ characters is becoming increasingly prevalent in current romance, though more representation is definitely needed. I can name three romance novels about gay or bisexual characters in monogamous or polyamorous relationships. The Understatement of the Year by Sarina Bowen. Melt into You by Roni Loren. Nothing Between Us also by Roni Loren. These novels happen to be well‐written and well‐developed. Writing stories about such characters is reflective of our current culture and what people want to read.

Characters with disabilities are also appearing more and more. Catherine Anderson’s Coulter–Harrigan series showcases characters that are blind, deaf, paraplegic, and suffer aphasia. Having these well‐rounded characters makes reading romance enjoyable. These aren’t the stock perfect protagonists with perfect bodies and no insecurities. Instead, many of the characters are relatable and honest. The romance genre is constantly evolving to fit the needs of its readers.

Of course, there will always be the typical fall in love and get married romances. These are light, fun reads. They’re heartwarming, feel‐good tales that are pleasant to read as a mental getaway.

With the Fifty Shades of Grey craze, the erotica subgenre has taken off. Fifty Shades, however, is an outlier and is simply poor writing at its best. A clear lack of research additionally discredits the book. Most erotica has a storyline with overall messages about confidence, truth, hope, love, and so on. A “good” erotic novel is just as much about the characters as a work of literary fiction. While there are sex scenes, these are used as devices to bring the characters together, have them learn something about themselves, and/or become vulnerable to one another and further propel the plot. Shayla Black, Roni Loren, and Cherise Sinclair are among many erotic romance authors who successfully do this. All of this isn’t to discredit the sex scenes. These are steamy passages that are sure to make you blush in a good way.

Despite publishers’ efforts, there will always be “bad” romance, with cheesy dialogue, clichés galore, and caricatures instead of characters. At the same time, there is “bad” writing across any genre. Romance shouldn’t be stigmatized for the well‐known outliers of poor romance or assumptions made based on the cover. Although many covers still feature a handsome, muscular figure, there are also covers with abstract images instead of people. Book jackets are mostly the result of marketing decisions. Regardless of what one might assume, books with covers of handsome men attract the eye, making it more likely for a potential reader to consider picking up the book.

Most of all, though, these stories empower readers, helping them to become more comfortable with their sexuality or prompt them to discover something new about themselves. They teach important lessons and nurture optimism for a happy ending. Some are easy reads that are perfect to destress from the pressures of the real world and others are tear‐jerkers that will take your emotions hostage. These novels hold similar weight as literary fiction and no one should be put down because of what they read, no matter what it is they’re reading. I’m proud to say, “I love romance novels.”

Illustration by Pimploy Phongsirivech