Photo: Felicity Heaton

OK, look. Romance novels are an easy target. With their titillating, come-hither covers and their emphasis on love and sex, their appeal to millions of women, their — wait a second.

Backtrack.

Millions of women read romance novels, a genre largely written by women. And romance novels are commonly dismissed, even condemned. Is there a connection between those two facts?

The latest, and perhaps the most unintentionally humorous of these slams comes from Kimberly Sayers-Giles, a Latter-day Saints “life coach,” in an article she wrote for KSL, the Salt Lake City NBC affiliate. She claims that romance novels are as addictive as pornography and that they make the women who read them become irrationally dissatisfied with their own marriages. The solution, apparently, is to wean yourself of this terrible, destructive habit. Why, it’s worse for you than high fructose corn syrup!

In a nutshell, her argument appears to be that women who read romances can’t distinguish between reality — their day-to-day intimate relationships — and a fictional man who loves a fictional woman. They therefore reject their flesh and blood partners because those partners don’t match up to the imaginary versions.

Are all these women, all these readers — who include in their ranks some very intelligent doctors, lawyers, and professors, and at least one rocket scientist — that easily fooled? That delusional?

Do their (largely male) counterparts who play World of Warcraft reject their mundane lives because they can’t pick up a magic sword and gallivant across a fantasy landscape, but instead have to commute to a cubicle job? Do they quit those jobs?

Do people who love superhero movies walk out into the daylight massively discontented because they can’t summon storms, brandish adamantium claws, save the metropolis? Do they go home and try to build Iron Man-style armor?

Of course not. They, too, can tell the difference. Fiction is usually larger than life, particularly genre fiction. Actions and emotions are heightened. That’s what makes them such glorious escapes.

But there’s another element worth mentioning when it comes to romances, one that’s often overlooked, but that Sarah Wendell (co-author of Beyond Heaving Bosoms and high profile romance blogger) has even written a new book to highlight, and it’s this:

Because romance novels at their core are all about relationships and largely aim for a happy ending, they necessarily reflect their authors’ takes on what it takes to build a healthy relationship. How two people learn to communicate, how to treat each other with respect and appreciation, how they can help each other heal from old wounds. They don’t generally begin from a healthy place, but the characters grow and learn through the story.

In so doing, they can illuminate that process for their readers, much like women might do in person, sharing stories while sitting around an office break room, or hanging out at the local playground with their toddlers. Shared experience, giving the reader a few new tools to bring to her own relationship. What’s wrong with that? (Unless you don’t believe that a woman should challenge her spouse to bring more to the relationship emotionally? Hmm…)

Relationships, emotional connections, these are foundational to our lives. To dismiss (or condemn) an entire genre because it focuses on the subject smacks of Victorianism, dismissing the “women’s sphere.” Sexist? I think so, yes.

Incidentally, romance, like any other genre (including literary!), has its share of clunkers and unfortunate genre cliches, but also a surprising richness of high quality fiction. Beautifully written or delightfully fun depictions of a place, a time, a relationship.

Take Flowers from the Storm, by Laura Kinsale, about a reckless rake in Regency England who also happens to be a brilliant mathematician — until he’s struck down by a massive stroke. He ends up in the sanitarium, nursed back to health by the only woman who believes he hasn’t lost his mind, just his ability to speak, and who happens to be a devout Quaker. Or Bet Me, by Jennifer Crusie, which is a playful contemporary romantic comedy with two jaded people falling in love despite themselves, while everyone around them offers up a different take on love, from fairy tale romance to subconscious cues that help us choose an appropriate mate to, would you believe, chaos theory. And we get to see each theory play out in the relationship.

Romance novels, like life, are what you make of them. Don’t judge a book by its cover.

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  • Tamar Bihari June 23, 2011 at 9:23 pm

    Stephanie, not to worry. That’s another easy misconception. It’s true that some women read several novels every week, but from what I’ve observed, even the most avid romance readers are much like the rest of society. Some have dull marriages, some are single, and some have wonderful, healthy relationships. Maybe they just want to spend a few hours enjoying a world with heightened emotions in which nobody bickers about whose turn it is to walk the dogs or who got up last time to rock the baby back to sleep. Wanting a little escapism from time to time doesn’t mean reality is necessarily problematic, just that it’s, well, reality.

    Roz, yes, some books are very very bad indeed. Laughably so. But others are layered and well observed, with strong, sharp writing, as strong as you’ll find in any genre. (I’m a pretty omnivorous reader, so I’ve sampled a lot of genres.) I’m not saying your boss chooses well, but then I sometimes wonder what people see in some popular but awful TV shows or certain blockbuster movies, so there’s that. (Also, just so you know, bodice ripper is an outmoded term; bodices rarely get ripped these days.)

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  • Stephanie Casher June 23, 2011 at 7:52 pm

    Considering 99% of romance novels are women–and women seem to devour these novels–I sometimes wonder if that’s a barometer of dull relationships and lack of “fire” and passion in these womens’ lives. I hope not.

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  • Roz Warren June 23, 2011 at 7:30 am

    I’m all for a book that explores relationships and promises a happy ending. The only problem with romance novels is that so often the writing really sucks. But plenty of really smart, accomplished women love them. My boss reads bodice-rippers and she’s one of the smartest people I know.

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