Today we are talking about the contradictory oddity that is the Romance genre. I don’t use those words unintentionally. Romance novels are a billion dollar industry. More than half of the paperbacks sold in the U.S. are Romance. It more than doubles just about any other genre in terms of popularity and monetary earnings and yet…
And yet, Romance continues to be snubbed in many circles, both in and out of the literary world.
Why do we still consider Romance novels as ‘guilty pleasures’ when the narrative is continually changing?
Welcome to another Writer Wednesday. Let’s dig in.
When you look at the numbers, it tells a pretty wild story. In 2016, Romance novels consisted of 23% of the fiction market. Last year it was up to 32%. That is staggering when you considered the heft of genres in play. Roughly 84% of buyers are women between the ages of 30 and 54. This doesn’t even count NA and YA romance. One out of every two mass market paperbacks sold is Romance.
On the publishing side, there are numerous publishers and imprints devoted to the genre alone, with notable publishers like Entangled and Harlequin staying true to a Romantic slant across multiple imprints.
However Romance novels and authors are somewhat locked out of the bastion of literary canon that is more forgiving of other genres. They’ve been looked down on in literary circles and shunted out of critical acclaim for decades.
An Ingrained Image
There is a stereotype that follows romance authors/ readers of bathrobes and bon bons. This long standing dismissive narrative ignores the cultural impact of the Romance genre and what its purpose is as a literary exploration of the complex and dynamic emotions surrounding one of the most intimate human experiences.
One of the defining goal posts of the Romance genre is the ‘Happily Ever After’ or ‘Happy For Now’ ending. This element is seen as fantastical, but provides a satisfactory conclusion and release to a text that is usually dominated by strife and drama. Within the text itself, romance authors often deconstruct and reconstruct elements of romantic entanglements. They can offer pure fantasy in the form of the perfect man, an examination itself in what women desire. They can mine through problematic issues that many real life relationships come up against. Are the solutions and resolutions realistic? Mostly, no, they are idealized. Romance, at its core, is as much fantasy as Fantasy. It is an exploration of what could be, what is possible, and what we hope for our inner head space. The settings and characters might not be as fantastical in contemporary as they are in other sub-genres of Romance, but the core imaginative elements are still in play.
Academia is starting to recognize that and mine the Romance genre with the same gusto used to examine tropes in Mystery and Speculative Fiction. Considering the central audience of Romance, there is something uniquely female to the genre and what it is at its core.
"Women write and read romance heroes to examine, subvert, discuss, revel in, and reject patriarchal constructions of masculinity,” ―Sarah Frantz Lyons
Romance novels do have a cultural impact. Love is an emotion everyone can relate to. Love is a varied, diverse spectrum of human experience and Romance novels delve into issues of self expression, acceptance of others, and provide a reflection to relationships. They provide vicarious escape, inspiration, entertainment, and they give emotional sustenance. If literature is meant to evoke thought and emotion, Romance is right there.
Trouble Within The Community
Romance novels bring the big bucks, and while their legacy is just starting to truly be recognized, there are also some internal issues within the community that came to a head just this year.
As a genre, Romance has been struggling with issues of inclusiveness for several decades. This is not because Authors aren’t out there creating diverse books, but because of the internal gate keeping in the genre itself. On the indie scene, diverse books were thriving, but few if any were being recognized. The very public implosion of the Romance Writers of America in late 2019 into early 2020 was the culmination of a long standing issue boiling beneath the surface.
While the RWA carved out a cultural niche and created a community that embraced and celebrated the genre, it constantly failed to embrace the full breadth of the community. The awards tended to be white leaning, and nominations of BIPOC authors and novels were noticeably far too rare (roughly 0.5% rare). Authors within the organization made steps to change this from within, but events kept happening that led to the eventual boil over that led to a number of the board members resigning and the disbandment of the RITA’s, the RWA’s annual award.
The ripple effects of that fallout are still being felt, but many authors are hopeful the organization can learn and grow from this into something that is once again culturally relevant, and truly inclusive.
Romance into the Future
The genre has come a long way, and this is without getting into its history (oh, you bet your bonnet we will touch on that later). The past few years have seen the genre not only grow as a market, but grow as a community, stripping bare the problematic practices of the RWA, the emergence of more and more BIPOC authors on the scene, and making waves in the literary community in positive ways. The Powerhouse of Romance is here to stay, and it’s just getting started.