Lucy Hargrave | January 22, 2018
Has there ever been a more maligned genre than romance? Often romance novels are considered nothing more than a trashy beach read, something that should only be read while on holiday for light entertainment. They aren’t proper literature after all. Even avid romance readers will often refer to these books as their ‘guilty pleasures,’ thereby implying they shouldn’t be talked about, much less taken seriously. But what if we did take the romance genre seriously? If we strip away its reputation, what could be discovered about one of the most commercially successful genres in publishing history?
As a long-time romance reader, who first discovered Julia Quinn’s historical romances at my local library over ten years ago, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m biased towards romance novels. Yet just a brief look at the history of the romance genre will show that the majority of people are biased the other way. 1970s Feminists would have despaired over the ‘bodice-rippers’ being produced by women in their lifetime, and it seemed that while ‘feminists were fighting patriarchy, romance novels were propping it up.’ Yet these opposing groups might have more in common than first impressions would lead you to believe. While 1970s feminists fought for women’s rights, romance novels were teaching the women who read them that they had a right to their space and ideas. Kathleen Woodiwiss’s infamous novel The Flame and The Flower (1972) followed the fortunes of its heroine, through the ups and downs until her Happy Ever After. The heroine was the protagonist, she decided her destiny and formed the focal point of the novel. These stories told women that they didn’t have to accept what others decided for them. They could decide for themselves. Also, the very act of reading romance novels was an act of rebellion for thousands of women; it was a time that was exclusively theirs and didn’t belong to their husbands, their children, their parents, etc. They could throw off the mantles of ‘wife,’ ‘mother’ and ‘daughter’ for a few hours. Although most modern romance readers look back on the ‘bodice-ripper’ era as a problematic time in the genre’s history, it was more feminist than first appearances would suggest.
Fast forward forty years and the nature of romance novels has changed again. By the 2010s romance novels became explicitly feminist, often being written by self-identified feminists authors who took the early battlegrounds of the feminist movements as given rights for all women. Novels such as Wallbanger by Alice Clayton featured heroines who refused to give up their dreams and career ambitions for a relationship. These were heroines who enjoyed sex and expected a partner who treated them as an equal.
However, it would be wrong to claim that the genre is perfect. Like many mainstream forms of culture, it suffers from a lack of diversity, with the majority of authors, and by extension characters, fitting into the white, straight and Christian demographic. What I have found to be unique within the romance community is how vocal the readers and writers are to change this. In 2016 ‘The Ripped Bodice’, the only bookshop in the USA that is solely dedicated to romance books, compiled a report on the racial diversity of romance books. It revealed that Kensington publishing house was the most diverse with 17.5% of its romance authors being non-white. The report makes clear that this is not good enough. Similarly, the number of books featuring non-straight characters is on the increase, with gay romances being particularly popular. Although the diversity of the romance genre isn’t perfect, it is something that the community is fighting to change. The majority of readers and writers want diverse romances that celebrate love for everyone.
To dismiss the romance genre as light beach reading is to underestimate them, and undermine the people who read and write them. Romance novels might contain sex, and they may end happily, but that isn’t all they are about. As a genre, they have always focused on the female experience, and in recent decades they have tried to become more inclusive of other sexualities, genders, and races. Perhaps the very reason they have been so maligned is because they have always put the female experience ahead of the male and in doing so wrote themselves out of the traditionally male academic circles, which in many ways still refuses to acknowledge them.
Lucy is currently studying an MSc in Literature and Modernity at the University of Edinburgh, before that she completed an undergraduate degree in English Literature with History of Art at the University of Hull. Her research interests include LGBT and Queer writing and contemporary women’s fiction.
Article edited by Jule Lenzen and Patricia Ng.