The Girl and the Romance Novel, Part One

By MAWP student Brittany Petersen

copyright stewf @ flickr (

As we finish up the chocolates, watch the balloons deflate and lay Valentine’s Day 2011 to bed, it seems appropriate to turn back to the source from which we as English students and authors get our romantic fix the other 364 days of the year: romance literature.

Wait—you do read romance novels, right?

The romance genre is an easy target for criticism (we’ll get to that), and yet it’s one of the most profitable of the fiction categories: In 2008, out of more than 47,000 fiction books published in the U.S., about 7,000 were romance novels, which generated $1.37 billion in sales—a solid eighth of the market. A quarter of the American population—more than 74 million people (90% women) – read at least one romance novel that year. And of those, almost 30 million (mostly married women in their 30s and 40s) are regular romance readers.

As writers, it would behoove us to recognize the incredible potential of a career in romance literature. And yet many of us (myself included) scoff at friends who gush about the latest Nora Roberts tear-jerker. It’s the text equivalent of a chick flick, and with more than 200 titles to her name over a span of 30 years, it doesn’t seem a stretch to question the quality of the composition. Heck, Roberts published five books in 2010 and the same in 2009; my own struggles with crafting fifty pages (or even five) of quality prose over the course of a month lead me to believe there’s no way she can write something consistently worthwhile in an average of 10.4 weeks. It’s just not possible. Or if it is, then it’s definitely not fair.

Not to mention the covers. If you believe in God, then you must believe that He created Fabio specifically to be represented on the covers of romance novels, tearing dresses off buxom women. Americans read aspirationally—that is, we tote around Tolstoy and Joyce in the spirit of being (and appearing) well-versed in the classic cannon. We judge books by their covers and people by their book covers. Probably the number one reason I never picked up a romance novel is that I didn’t want to sit on the el reading this. A romance cover says trashy, simplistic, possibly pornographic, and always with a happy ending. What would people think?

I took my chick lit preconceptions to a man eager to dispel the stereotypes: Professor Eric Selinger, who teaches poetry and popular literature (including romance) in the Department of English at DePaul.

The problem, Selinger says, is that the bulk of any given genre—including romance—is crap. “Everything else gets judged by its best representative,” Selinger said. “Romance gets judged by its worst.” Romance literature has become an embodiment, a projection, of everything we don’t like about literature: sentimentality, cheesiness, false optimism, false piety.

“It’s the scapegoated other,” Selinger said. “By ritually expelling it, you demonstrate that you are in fact a person of some intelligence and political savvy.” In other words, we regularly saddle an entire genre with the short-comings of a few of its members. Not every detective novel is a work of art, but we don’t denigrate the entire mystery section as a result.

But there’s something else to it: Women. Romance literature is aimed at women, and for that we punish it. Selinger pointed out that at the turn of the last century, literary modernism drew more women readers in, and those readers wanted what any woman wants: to be wooed. Sentimental love stories became big business, and backlash followed closely behind. Eventually the feminism movement gave more context to the complaints: “Chick lit” is a pseudonym for romance novels, but we as intelligent, independent women are interested in more than that. We therefore boycott that which we see as representing a simplistic depiction of the gender. Couple that with ill-conceived notions that every book is chock full of laughably written sex scenes and now we can fully write off an entire section at the bookstore. (Though I bet Borders will have some good sales coming up.)

Of course, none of that is uniformly true, and it falls to our general misunderstanding about the content of the lumped-together “romance” genre. The most common type, “popular romance,” is a broad umbrella category that covers dozens if not hundreds of subgenres and publication modes – for example, series published by Harlequin that are marketed by line (ex. stories set in the world of NASCAR), or single-title books that are marketed individually or by author. They range from chaste (Christian romance publishers like Bethany House) to sexually explicit, and cover the gamut from historical trysts set in the Old West to those set in Outer Space. All of that, that’s what we’re talking about when we talk about “popular romance” and those novels with Fabio’s lustful eyes beckoning you from the paperback cover.

A subgenre of popular romance is indeed erotic; sexual scenes are described and no little detail goes unmentioned. (But we all know size doesn’t matter.) But erotic romance still has a plot, and the sexual scenes operate to advance that plotline. This in contrast to straight-up erotica, which when you get right down to it is all about the nookie. But it’s classy nookie, i.e. not hardcore pornography, which exists across another adjacent but equally fuzzy line.

Continue reading about romance literature in Brittany’s next post: “The Girl and the Romance Novel, Part Two.”


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