Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A Bad Rap for Romance Novels?

Twice in the past week, I’ve heard comments from two different acquaintances that have made me think. Here is the gist of the conversations.

First conversation:-

Her (with a smirk on her face): Please tell me you don’t write for Mills and Boon.
Me: No, not now, but I wouldn’t mind being published by them again.
Her (with mouth dropping open): Why? Their novels are rubbish.
Me: How long is it since you read one?
Her: I haven’t read any. I wouldn’t be seen dead reading one of that bodice-ripper kind of book.

Second conversation (on the phone conversation with someone I hadn’t seen for a couple of years):-

Her: So what have you been doing with yourself?
Me: Actually I’ve been writing novels.
Her: Really? Have you had anything published?”
Me: Yes, three novels in the past year and another one due out in November.
Her: Oh, well done. What are they about?
Me: They’re romances.
Silence, then: Oh, sorry, I never read romances. They’re so predictable, happy ever after and all that.

I’ve paraphrased these conversations, but you get the idea.

The first conversation made me realise the stereotypical image of romance novels has persisted, at least for my generation, for 30+ years. The “bodice-rippers” were the hallmark of Mills and Boon/Harlequin in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and, in my opinion, gave romance novels a bad rap. They had archetypal characters and contrived plots, usually involving a virginal heroine who was ‘rescued’ by a strong hero, and they often contained a barely disguised rape scene. On the whole, this kind of novel has gone ‘out of fashion’ (with a few notable exceptions which have recently dominated the best-seller lists!). However, a kind of stigma still remains.

The second conversation made me wonder about the word ‘predictable’. Yes, romances have, if not a ‘Happy Ever After’ ending, then at least a ‘Happy’ ending where the hero and heroine overcome the obstacles in the path to reunite. Aren’t thrillers, detective stories, and mysteries equally predictable? The ‘goodies’ will triumph, the baddies will receive their deserved punishment, and the crime or mystery will be solved. What’s the difference? Why are romance novels considered predictable, while other genres aren’t?

And why are romance novels considered by some to be the ‘lowest form of literature’? Why do people want to disassociate themselves from reading romance novels? I’ve had a few reviews which start, “I don’t usually read romances but …” as if that is somehow praiseworthy. It seems to be okay to say you read thrillers or mysteries, but not the ‘done thing’ to admit to reading romances, even though thousands (millions?) of women obviously do!

Have you come across this kind of ‘literary snobbishness’ and, if so, what’s your response?


  1. I don't understand it either. I've come across it a few times and don't have a particularly good response, although I have gotten a few of my friends who "don't read romances" to try mine. I think that anything with sex (whether it's in the book or not) has a reputation of some sort. Their loss!

  2. I agree - their loss.
    What's interesting is that while romance is probably the most vilified fiction genre, it's also the best-selling!

  3. Drives me nuts when people have this attitude. I have a (male) friend who insists on calling what I write 'porn'. It's about as far from it as it can be. This kind of narrow-mindedness makes me crazy. Arghhh.

  4. You're right, Debra, it is narrow-mindedness. Most of the people who criticise romance novels have never even read one - or else have read one of the old bodice-rippers and then base their opinion of the whole genre on those.

  5. I haven't come across this all too often so far. I do hear a lot of flack about writing for Harlequin. Like there's something wrong with writing for one of the largest sellers of romance out there. These days, I tend think, their loss. They can poke fun all they want. The book on the top of just about every best selling list right now is a romance. Albeit erotic, but it's still a romance (it has an HEA). And it's making millions. We write stories about love and hope, about people doing what we all strive to do--falling in love and finding our "better half", our "soul mate". Who doesn't want to fall in love?

  6. Ladies, I must confess. *bows head, lowers eyes* It wasn't long ago that I told people with great pride that I had never read, nor would I ever read, a romance.

    What a load of crap!

    First, I guess I was trying to forget the books I "snuck" from my mom, like WAKE OF THE RED WITCH, and many other titles I'll never remember, that titillated me as a maturing woman. And second, I think it was a way of affirming to myself that college degrees in English, etc., after all mean SOMETHING. If I ever became an author, it would be a tense piece of fiction, something destined for the NY REVIEW OF BOOKS to extol.

    Yeah, right.

    The other day I caught my husband snickering something about "Fangs for the Mammary." He's still paying for that one. Even though I don't write paranormal romance, that little comment stung.

    Now I am very proud to say I write Romance, with a capital R. You're so right, Paula, that the "expected" HEA ending is no different than the formulaic ending of every mystery novel (the culpit is caught and brought to justice).

    It's up to all of us to prove the critics wrong. But first we have to win them over. Unfortunately, books like 50 SHADES are still giving romance a bad name.

    Sorry to suck all the air out of the room, Guess I feel strongly about this subject. Good blog, Paula! XErin

  7. There are romance novels that are less than up to par, and there are others that are outstanding. Just like in any other genre. There's this general idea floating about among "literati" that for a novel to be praiseworthy, it must be tragic (they call it "realistic"), as if that's the only part of life worth holding to. Well, I'd rather paste a smile on my face (a real one) and celebrate life - with it's flaws and little tragedies, yes, but ultimately, joy trumps misery any time, in my book. No wonder so many people are stressed these days! Of course, they WILL read a romance if it's all the rage...well... because it's fashionable, right? And then they write blogs dissing the whole genre because one book is representative of the lot, in their minds...

  8. Great comment, Joanne! The trouble is that many people think romance novels are 'unrealistic' with their HEA endings. So nobody in real life has a HEA ending?? I don't mean the 'riding off into the sunset' scenario, but the discovery of a soul-mate, and the growth of a relationship that will become a life-long love.

  9. Well said, Erin! I agree that the 50 Shades books are giving romance a bad name. I've not read any of them, but have heard enough to know that they're really the modern version of the bodice-rippers.

  10. You're so right, Natalie! I agree that some romances are badly written - and that includes the current ones which are all the rage! Which, of course, 'proves' to all the romance-sneerers that all romance novels are rubbish - Grrrrr!!!

  11. I get this a lot. I have a PhD in science. When I say I write romance, I usually get 'oh, I thought you'd write something more serious than that'. There seems to be an assumption that all romance novels are: Bodice rippers, written by idiots and easy to write.

    None of these are true (okay, maybe the first two are true some of the time, but rarely). It really winds me up. I've tried writing 'serious' fiction. It wasn't much fun.

    How come rom coms don't get this kind of grief. Or maybe they do...

  12. Rhoda, I've had this kind of comment too. I was a historian by profession, so people 'expect' me to write historical novels, whereas I write contemporary. And I so agree with you that people think romances are easy to write. Why don't they think mysteries and thrillers are easy to write? We write about emotions which are probably the most difficult thing to convey.

  13. How disappointing. Modern fiction, be it "women's fiction" or "romance" or "chick-lit" gets a far worse rap than it deserves. There are so many incredible women writers out there in any of these genres. I myself write fiction that could probably fall under any of these categories. I agree that the 50 Shades thing kind of ruined it again, but it's frustrating that when women write it, it can be called crap, but when Nicholas Sparks delivers up yet another formulaic gem that is practically the same "type" of writing, he's a genius.

  14. That's a whole different aspect, Nuala, so thanks for raising it. An example of the gender divide? And maybe the reason why Joanne Rowling decided to call herself J.K? And I happen to know about a couple of men who write romances, but under a woman's pen-name! Hmm, definitely a thought to ponder!

  15. The "in" bookstore in my town doesn't stock romances (though they will special order them).

    I think the problem is the owner doesn't know romance books, and therefore is unsure how to order wisely. Also she feels romances are available at the grocery store and book stands, so there would be nothing special in stocking them.

  16. Wow, Ana - maybe you should tell her that romances are the best-selling fiction! You could always recommend mine to her LOL!

  17. Great post, Paula and great comments.

    I haven't heard this too much but a little. Most of my friends are thrilled that I write romances. I agree about Nicholas Sparks getting more respect than women authors writing romance.

  18. Maybe it's more prevalent in the UK, especially among older people who remember how Mills and Boon novels were scoffed at by many people in the 80's.

  19. Paula-Yessss! I can identify. Although, I can honestly say that my readers in town like romance novels. Three men buy and read my books, and one told me it wasn't his idea of a romance novel--that he liked mine because they were just "stories." I do think even today there are some who still think "bodice ripper" in terms of a romance novel, usually a man. For that reason, I don't like to read in a novel that "he ripped her clothes off." That usually makes me laugh--have you ever tried to tear a piece of clothing with your bare hands.
    When my first book came out, a few women said, oh, I want one. I told one of them,"Patty, it's a romance novel with a little sex in it." She whispered, "I love those books. I read Danielle Steele all the time." This was the 85-yr old matriarch in our church!
    Some people say they don't read them to act superior. Ugh.
    Good post!(ps--I have a tab for a page on blog right now for an article I wrote for LASR three years ago, titled, "In Defense of the Romance Novel."

  20. Celia, I so agree that some people say they don't read them out of a kind of snobbish superiority. I have one friend that certainly applies to!
    And I have an 85-year-old story too - when my cousin gave HLL to her 85-year-old mother-in-law, she warned her there was a sexy scene in Chapter 12. 'Oh good,' said the m-i-l, 'I'll read that chapter first' !!

  21. In my opinion it's only a few die-hards that exhibit such snobbish outdated attitudes to romance fiction. They're parroting the views of old literary elitists who wanted to keep authorship exclusive to a few. Romance has always been and always will be a much loved genre that gives so many people a great deal of pleasure. :)

  22. The worst snobbery I've run across has come from the other members of my critique group. I'm the only romance writers, most of the rest write darker speculative fiction (think Lovecraft and Poe). My reaction is to smile, nod, NOT ask them when their next book is coming out because that would be rude, and just keep on writing what I love. (I considered just quitting, but there are a few people who really are supportive and...well... isn't the best "revenge" living well? I don't really consider that I need to get back at anybody for being book snobs, but I think the best any of us can do is our best and if romance makes you happy, hold your head high and smile and nod at the naysayers.)

  23. Fabian - I agree about the snobbish outdated attitudes, but I don't think it's only a few diehards, unfortunately. The patronising attitudes still abound, IMHO.

    H.B. - thank you for a wonderful comment! You are so right to ignore the book snobs, and as you say, keep on reading and writing the genre we love.

  24. Fabulous point about the predictability of mysteries etc., Paula. You probably saw the article about the popularity of Kindle being due to the fact that people can read romances without being seen to. I always make the points that (1)it's the ONLY part of the publishing industry that is growing and (2) that there are a million genres of romance out there, not just the Harlequin boy meets girl formulas. So a whole lot of readers out there must know something that your "book snob" doesn't. Poor thing. M. S.

  25. M.S. - You're right about there being millions of romance readers out there. I wonder how many of them are 'closet' readers (even easier now with Kindles etc!) because they don't think it's the 'done thing' to admit to reading romances?

  26. Hi Paula, I've blogged about this very thing before! I'm sick of telling people I'm a published author, then when they ask, "Oh, what kind of books?" and I answer, "Romance", they either make a face like they just stepped in something smelly, or they say, "I don't read THAT kind of stuff!" But mention a male writer who has sex scenes and romance in his books, and they consider that "literature". Sigh. Just another example of the "If women write it for other women to read, it must be crap!" ideas that are so hard to fight because they have no basis in fact!

    Many writers have been producing excellent books that involve BDSM, but let one glorified fan-fiction thing hit the big time, and people feel free to dis an entire genre based on that book being so poorly-written. What they need to do is expand their reading choices...maybe check out some of the offerings from indie publishers, who give a chance to writers who are not famous and probably won't ever be well-known, but who write things that make you laugh, cry and look around for your sig other to drag into the next room without the kids noticing! Now THAT'S talent! ;-D

  27. Great comment, Fiona! And so very true, both about the difference between men and women writing romance and sex, and about people dissing a whole genre on the basis of one book.
    In the past, people thought all romances were 'bodice-rippers', now it's fashionable to refer to romances as 'chick-lit' which is derogatory and condescending.