Let’s Talk Romance Novels…

on December 18, 2013 55 Replies

As a romance writer, I have received many criticisms and judgments on the type of books I prefer to write. I’ve been teased about the bodice ripper covers, about virgins trembling before bare chested pirates, and about contributing to the depression women feel during their search for Mr. Right because I tended to give them “false” expectations of men and set them up for failure.
Mostly, I hold my temper, smile, and say something witty or charming or intellectual. I defend my genre with pride and grace, and refuse to fall into the trap of becoming angry or bitter or argumentative with a person who has no intention of listening to my side.

Until I read a little article today in the IB Times about my life’s work.

http://www.ibtimes.com/damsels-distress-why-do-so-many-contemporary-women-read-old-fashioned-romance-novels-1512548

Seems the writer has pondered why on earth the American contemporary woman of today would read romance novels. He analyzes the culture, wonders if we are truly unhappy with our lot and long to go back to the days when men were old fashioned yet controlling, and we didn’t have as many decisions or choices to make. He equated readers of the genre to gobbling a “hot dog” rather than cuisine. And ended his article by gently nudging readers toward the classics if they must lower their standards to read such a genre. RWA statistics are included in the piece to clearly show the huge popularity and profit in the romance industry, but the writer is completely puzzled and admits he thought the sales number were “much lower.” The writer has obviously never read a romance novel, not even to be observant and fair in his research for the article.

Yeah. I’m pissed off.

But, let’s be honest. Spewing negative comments back doesn’t help anyone. It also doesn’t lift the genre to the elegance and grace it deserves. So, I will try to intellectually rebut this article by using an analysis and research of why women today read romance novels.

First, I have a Master’s Degree in English Literature. I have read all of the “classics” in the genre. Some I enjoy and love, some I did not. But for argument’s sake, let’s agree I am widely read in the field of English literature and do not have a biased account of only reading current contemporary romance novels.
Second, I will approach this as a reader of romance, not a writer, since this is what the article targets. Here’s a quote:

“Is this a rejection of modern feminism? An expression of distaste of the hippie culture which essentially destroyed all traditional forms or behavior in the western world? Do women long for days of old when men were masculine gentlemen and women were feminine and protected as precious treasures and regarded as possessions?
Perhaps most women (even the ones who get lost in romance novels) do not want to go all the way back – but it is obvious, they are unhappy with how the world has turned out in the contemporary era.”

Let’s dissect this comment. Do women read romance because we are unhappy with the world today?

Sometimes. Sometimes not.

Like any reading material, whether it be literary, science fiction, horror, etc, reading is a form of escape. We go to a book because we trust the writer to bring us into an imaginary world where the current world slips away. When we enjoy Dickens or Bronte or Nora Roberts, we are seeking to get out of our present circumstances. Does this mean we are consistently unhappy with where we are? No. I’m a pretty happy and content person who enjoys reading romance for a variety of reasons I’ll get to in a moment. But to assume women wish to change their circumstances, and are reading a romance novel to achieve this goal is a bit…unrealistic.”

Let’s go deeper.

In the form of entertainment, besides being taken away from the moment, we want to gain something from the experience. At the end of ANY book, we want to feel and experience certain emotions, whether it be sadness, tears, rage, frustration, happiness, etc. Sometimes a book makes us think about circumstances days after reading, staying with us in the dark of night until we ponder certain scenes or questions or emotions the novel brought up.

Another quote:
“hyper-romantic, contrived and extremely unrealistic tales of handsome, manly heroes falling in love with virginal women, enduring a series of adventures, then inexorably ending in a happy resolution.
These ‘romance’ stories are to literature what hot dogs are to cuisine — quickly made, tasty, filling, temporarily satisfying, but with no nutritional value whatsoever. Yet, the genre remains enormously popular.”

Romance novels are based on happily ever after. So, when readers picks up the book, they trust the ending will be happy. Now, whether you want to experience a good ugly cry, or fear, or joy, a book does its job by giving you those feelings. Just because readers enjoy the rush of happiness for having a story work out doesn’t mean they UNrealistically believe life will be the same. But if those few hours of time spent on a romance novel installs a sense of peace, or hope, or happiness that lingers into the day—is that like eating a hot dog rather than consuming a gourmet meal?

I don’t think so.

The author doesn’t really delve into the skill of the books, and assumes the contemporary romance are all based on controlling alpha heroes and virginal heroines. The author needed to explore the genre for better understanding of the argument. For example, the current contemporary romance novels popular today, from Jill Shalvis, Susan Elisabeth Phillips, Kristen Higgins, Susan Mallery, Bella Andre, and many, many more that don’t have space to be mentioned here, combine a rich sense of reality within the framework of a happy ending. These characters’ journeys do not hold an easy path. There are deeper, realistic issues tackled that include some extremely dark elements such as abuse, rape, divorce, disabilities, death, and the general everyday disappointments that slowly erode our hope and positive outlook in life. Amidst these issues the hero and heroine grapple and struggle with their own individual demons that emerge from their pasts.

Everyone has issues. Everyone has barriers to love. Everyone experiences depression and grief and heartache. All these emotions are within the pages of contemporary romance novels, and they are not solved easily, but the ending does give the reader hope for a future. Hope that problems can be overcome with hard work and love. Hope that there can be a happy beginning of a new life together.

Is this contrived? Is this not a full, culinary, seven course, gourmet meal to indulge in?

Romance novels are not quickly made. I write them. I know. Months of research, and care, and writing hours upon hours perfecting craft and dialogue and plot are behind the scenes. Because they are so popular, our readers are even more aware of what is good and what is not. My readers are the first to jump on me if I use language or research incorrectly. They are the smartest, most savvy group of people in the world, from all walks of life.

To dismiss an entire genre and casually interpret reading romance novels as an attempt to escape our unhappiness with current society is just…wrong. On many levels.

Finally, the theme of this article should be a cliched warning of appearances. The woman on the train who looked beautifully composed, nicely dressed, and highly successful could have been a mirage. Or maybe not. Who is he to judge a person by his or her outside appearance, making assumptions by what she is reading on her Ipad?

Perhaps, the morale of the story is not to judge a book by its cover. I certainly don’t.

I would welcome a more intellectual debate once the author has read many top sellers in the genre.
Until then, I will get back to my writing. I’m currently researching domestic and sexual abuse, the Baseball Hall of Fame, and surgery for my newest novel.

And I’m not having a hot dog for lunch.

55 thoughts on “Let’s Talk Romance Novels…”

  1. Bob Mayer says:

    Yeah yeah. Women and romance novels. Psshhww.

    I like hot dogs. No condiments.

    1. Jennifer says:

      Shaking my head and laughing my ass off. You are too much!!

    2. *rolls eyes*

      Next time I see you at convention…remind me to buy you a hot dog!

      1. Jennifer says:

        God I love your sense of humor Catherine! Hot dogs it is!!!

  2. Nancy says:

    The author’s assumptions are exactly as shallow as he claims romance books to be! There’s a reason the romance books are fiction. Fiction books let us dream, hope, cry, laugh, and imagine. Thank God you get that!

  3. Sue Hargreaves says:

    Well said! Unless you actually read the stories you miss the humor, one liners, and much more that goes into them. I work in a job that frequently has a sad ending so I only read books and watch movies with happy endings. A full course meal is always presented 😉

  4. Karen L says:

    When I first read his article this morning, the first thing I thought was how rude it was for him to be stalking her to see what she was reading. And, if it would have been the New York Times, would he have had to get a closer look to see if she was reading a political, business, or society article?

    I can assume that he could be a wonderful character in any number of romance novels, perhaps not the hero, but some misguided male that comes across the perfect female that tries to teach him some manners and the meaning of life. Then our heroine could decide he wasn’t really worthy enough of her effort and could leave him to find someone else.

    It makes me wonder if he is married. If so, his wife may want to let him borrow her Kindle and read some of her books. He could use the research…

  5. Rhonda says:

    You rock! Well done! I wonder what he reads. Maybe he was venting bc his spouse spends more time swooning over a romance book than him. LOL Or maybe the hotdogs boiled over while she was reading! Ha!

  6. Heather Long says:

    Well said. The argument could be applied to anything we as a people enjoy that is purely for ‘entertainment’ whether it’s sports, movies, music, or eek gasp going for a walk. Romance is escapism, sure, but it’s also a window to another life, another set of choices, another set of possibilities…for me, I’ve always equated reading (and writing) as a gateway to endless wonder.

    Period.

  7. Martha Lawton says:

    It is a good thing he writes for the organization he does…. They probably haven’t read any of his articles for content. Obviously he is a pompous arrogant man who judges most people as inferior to him. You would think he would understand the statistics he quoted as meaning he is all wrong. It is sad for him that he is so out of touch with real women. HEA makes the day to day grind when I am tired or displeased or worried easier to handle…

  8. Luxie Ryder says:

    Great article. Loved your response. This reminds me of the time I had an argument with a Daily Mail reader (DM is a narrow minded British newspaper for those who are fortunate enough not to have heard of it). One of the women commenting told me that she thinks men are buying our books for their wives as a way of getting them to ‘dip their toe in the porn pool’! I told her if she believes that, then she no longer recognises the world she is living in.

    1. Luxie Ryder says:

      I should clarify, she said this because I told her our sales disproved her point about how women did not want to read ‘that kind of thing’. She claimed that it was mostly men buying them, not women.

  9. Abbi Wilder says:

    Excellent post, Jen. When I read, I look not only for the experience but I like to learn something. And, IMHO, romance can’t be defined by a book but by the individual(s). Not everyone is the same.

    Abbi 🙂

  10. Marti says:

    Jennifer,
    The person who wrote this article I.obviously on crack and you just can’t cure stupid! The sales alone should tell the idiot that we, the readers, love what you, the writer, can do. It’s discouraging to think people can be so ignorant and have the power to write an article full of b.s. Cheers to you and your talent and the joy your work brings so many of us. I for one, greatly appreciate you and so many others on my book shelf. Marti P

  11. Marti says:

    Jennifer,
    The person who wrote this article is obviously on crack and you just can’t cure stupid! The sales alone should tell the idiot that we, the readers, love what you, the writer, can do. It’s discouraging to think people can be so ignorant and have the power to write an article full of b.s. Cheers to you and your talent and the joy your work brings so many of us. I for one, greatly appreciate you and so many others on my book shelf. Marti P

  12. Nickie Adler says:

    Ok I am also fuming. First of all I am very happy with the woman that I am. I love to read this genre because I find it empowers me! It makes me feel sexy and appealing! Those who write comments like that, in my view, are unhappy, miserable individuals who are unfulfilled in life.

  13. Paulette says:

    Keep writing. Take me out of the norm and drudgery through the excellence of your books. Thank you.

  14. Ann Mayburn says:

    Will you have my babies? Or can I have yours? I love you so much. 😉

    1. Jennifer says:

      I miss you Ann!!!! Love you back!

  15. Oh, Jen…

    To say I’m with you on this one isn’t enough, but it will have to do. Back in the day when romance novels were bodice rippers with Cinderella characters I might actually ‘hear’ some of what this person was saying. That simply isn’t the case any longer. In fact…my critique partner is first to point out anytime one of my characters is becoming ‘Disney-like’.

  16. Jane Housley says:

    Very well said – and I totally agree with you. Book genre snobbery is annoying and also annoys me no end.

    Jane

  17. Mary G says:

    I love the points you made Jennifer. I wonder what this person would make of gay romance novels which are very popular. Not a damsel in sight, just good stories! I don’t remember the last time I read a weak female main character. And in the best books, they save each other!

  18. Great post Jen! I specifically avoided the article you mention because I didn’t want to get upset. Like you, I’m a professional woman with a Master of Science Degree. I am a strong woman who would not react well to a man trying to dominate me or control me. And yet I enjoy the escapism of all kinds of romance novels. I love a good story and a happily ever after. I’ve worked as a nurse for years and I know happily ever afters are not a given in real life. But I read to get away from real life for a few hours. I read for enjoyment, pure and simple.

  19. Jamallah bergman says:

    Why was it that when I read that article that I wanted to snatch a knot up in this person who wrote this article?

    I mean for real!

    *shakes my head* I’ve never read so much crap by someone who doesn’t know a thing about writing a novel and what it takes to much less writing a article about the subject of Romance.

  20. Maryanne says:

    Interestingly, the comment section of that ibtimes article is no longer visible online. I googled the author Palash Ghosh and found him to be a middle aged Indian dude, and what the cr@p is the ibtimes anyway? Laughably the dude has issued an addendum containing an apology!
    Sticks and stones, Mr Ghosh… I’ve been warned by the man’s chauvinistic article as to the calibre of his writing and I will make it a point to avoid giving anymore undue attention to him or his magazine.
    Jennifer, your readers love you and your work; pay no heed to those who do not appreciate what you and other romance writers are doing to make this world a better place.

  21. Aimee Carson says:

    Yo, the man’s an idiot. Nuff said.

  22. Amy Hearst says:

    I don’t know if you read the author’s addendum, but he did apologize for offending anyone.

    I find it interesting to consider all views. As a conservative (rare in the world of romance writing), I have wondered myself while some of the most ardent feminists among my colleagues are the biggest fans of Regency romance.

    It’s a mystery. But I think it has to do with how we all wish we were treated by men. All the time. A bit of a fantasy, of course.

  23. Susan M says:

    Hmmm? So if a man indulges in James Bond does that mean he secretly wants to save the world with gadgets in his shoe or wrist watch? Does he have a hero complex because he is unhappy with his 5’7 stature, lack of fitness to bench press what is expected, and failure with the ladies? Or perhaps, he just likes an action movie with sexy females and some cool guy that he knows will conquer the bad guy in the end. I guess he will hit the gym after the movie since according to the logic of the article’s writer it will leave him feeling inadequate and hating his lot in life.

    1. Joan says:

      Thank you for pointing out the one thing that kept going through my mind! Well, that and what he thinks readers are after when they read Dean Koontz and Steven King?

  24. Phuong says:

    Enjoyed your post, Jennifer! The writer of this article has got it wrong. I’m content with my life as well and just read romance novels for pure enjoyment and nothing else. I’m not looking for my real life to imitate what’s happening in these books, lol 🙂

  25. Kathryn Jane says:

    Well said Jen. I read for entertainment. I write because I have to, and my readers get a few hours of escape from the world they live in.

    I wonder how well a gourmet meal would go over at a ball game 🙂

  26. The piece we’re reacting to is so spectacularly and consistently ignorant (almost but not quite laughably so) and offensive, that I’m guessing an editor at IBT conceived it as a means of increasing site traffic. Yet more evidence of the professional bankruptcy of much of the fourth estate, and of how deeply in distress some dudes are, without even knowing it.
    I’m up to four academic degrees… so far.

  27. Christina M says:

    Bravo!!! Wonderful response Jennifer!
    It’s sad that in today’s society of”advanced” thinking and culture there are those who must consistently “label” the people around them simply because they don’t have all the facts/details and make them up in the worst possible way.
    This archaic way of thinking is one of the many reasons why there is so much prejudice in the world today. It seems to me he could benefit from some diversity training to help rid him of his stereotyping mentality. What’s that old adage?
    NEVER judge a book by its cover. You never know what you’ll find inside unless you open your mind and reach out!
    Much love and respect Jennifer! This world would be a much sadder place were you not in it sharing you gift of words with us!

  28. I’m just creeped out that he was reading over the shoulder of a stranger. Ick. Then he wrote about it…

  29. Elizabeth Dougan says:

    You go girl. I loved your article. I read romance novels as I love when characters get there HEA. There is pain along the way but that is part of live I feel empowered after reading a story when all the odds are staked against the characters. It is a credit to all the authors that we laugh, cry and get angry at the characters just like someone would with a tv show. X

  30. Laurie says:

    Perfect. Absolutely perfect.

  31. I too have read all the classics, and what I’ve come away with is this: Good writing is good writing, no matter what genre! I prefer to spend my entertainment dollars on a great book that I KNOW will have a very satisfactory resolution. I am an educated, well read professional who also reads romance novels voraciously, and writes them. Great rebuttal, Jennifer!

  32. Amanda Usen says:

    After reading the article, I searched around a bit, trying to figure out if it was a joke piece. It didn’t bring anything new to the topic, and every point was cliched, offensive, and just so WRONG. Hard to believe this person wasn’t writing it for the express purpose of getting a heated response. Oh wait – there was a new angle: “when men were masculine gentlemen and women were feminine.” I was hoping a LGBTQ reader/writer would step in and make hash of the writer’s assumptions of “masculine” and “feminine.” Almost tweeted that. But then I went back to reading a romance novel.

  33. Annette says:

    Well said! Thank you!

  34. Jeannie Moon says:

    Bravo! A magnificent response.

    Thank you for so eloquently defending our genre.

    1. Jennifer says:

      I’m so humbled to find such beautiful comments here and a sisterhood of people who love romance and see it’s trueness. Thanks to everyone who took the time to comment!

  35. Nikki Weston says:

    Wonderful article Jennifer, thank you so much!

    I have endured too many false assumptions about Romance right to my face and, I’m sure, many more behind my back. If only these folks realised that well over 50% of all fiction book sales fall into the category Romance… and that a careful analysis of reader demographic shows a majority of highly educated and intelligent women. Let me add my tuppence worth: so too are the writers.

    Bravo Jennifer, keep on rocking.

    Best – Nikki.

  36. Christine says:

    Reading a romance novel is an escape. So are TV and movies should we stop watching them? People should not judge other people, it is as simple as that. I have been reading romance novels since I am 16 and will continue to enjoy them for a long time to come!

  37. Graylin Fox says:

    I started reading romance as a teenager. I learned lessons about trust, betrayal, passion, and life I couldn’t have gotten living in East Bumblef@@k Alabama.

    It enforces my belief in imperfect love, the kind with warts.

    Graylin

  38. Jean Joachim says:

    I agree with your statements, but think there’s a tad too much analysis on both sides. Men and women read for escape to be transported to a different place and time. Nothing wrong with that. The news is enough to drive anyone to escape 24/7. But let’s be totally clear, men escape, too — into science fiction, does that mean they want to become aliens? To westerns (huge success of Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey), does that mean they want to be a sheriff and have a gun fight? To thrillers and mysteries, does that mean they want to become serial killers? I think not.
    There’s nothing wrong with escape. Each chooses his or her own path to avoid some of the stress of our society. Less analysis and more tolerance of people’s choices is what’s needed here. Does anyone really care that I chose to escape into romance novels? I doubt it. And I don’t care what others choose to read either. Reading is good for the soul. Can’t we simply leave it at that?

  39. CD Reiss says:

    Wait a minute.
    Just wait a cotton-picking minute.

    Why haven’t we deconstructed mysteries and thrillers, where the embittered (male, alpha) hero embarks to destroy evil, rescue the damsel in distress and bring order and right to the world?

    Oh, right.

    We’re only really interested in managing the expectation of women with regard to their sexual lives.

    1. Jennifer says:

      Yes. Just, yes!

      1. Tiffany says:

        Exactly!!!!

  40. Cindy Friedman says:

    Please continue to write the books you do, I so look forward to reading them. I love books about romance, sex, love and happy endings.

  41. Tiffany says:

    Bravo!! Well said. His argument was baseless. I am completely happy and don’t read romance to fill gaps in my life.

  42. Connie Terpstra Dowell says:

    All you ladies, I could not have said it better. Happily ever afters. Our reward for everything that may not be quite so perfect. And oh, how I LOVE them~!!!!!!!!!!

  43. Nicola says:

    As a long-time fan and hopefully one day published writer of romance, fantasy, and science fiction (including paranormal romance), I’m way too familiar with genre-based critiques. I went into a funk a few months back when an old lecturer of mine posted on facebook about how he was glad none of his students this year had written any fantasy/sci-fi pieces for his class. I like the guy, and he did go on to explain that he meant they were using the genre tropes as props – they didn’t know how to construct a good story or develop a character yet and used the setting to drive the story instead of the people in it. But it really, really bugged me that he used my favorite genres as catch-alls for ‘bad writing’, particularly since that is what I had written in his class.

    Bad writing is bad writing regardless of genre, and good writing is good writing regardless of genre. Wish you’d mentioned Sylvia Day in your list of romance authors btw 🙂 She’s my current favorite. One very smart lady. I’d love to set her on this guy, that’d be entertaining.

  44. Kanae says:

    Well said. I happen to enjoy romance books and am quite happy with my husband who is not a billionaire.

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