Firstly, yes, this issue warrants more than one part!
I love romance novels. It’s not the easiest thing to admit because the genre has such an ugly stigma attached to it. Romance novel aficionados are supposed to live alone and own too many cats and collect Precious Memories figurines. Or, worse, people think that fans of the genre have no love life of their own and are living vicariously through the amply chested heroines that populate these novels. More learned opponents even go so far as to claim that romance novels are overly simplistic, poorly written and, yes, anti-feminist.
All of this couldn’t be more wrong. These ideas are all products of a society that likes to privilege what they see as “high” culture–literary novels, foreign films, classical music over lowly romance novels, horror movies and country music. There is the implication that if you like the one, you are smart and if you are a fan of the other, then you are stupid. It’s condescending and insulting. Just like with any other genre of entertainment, fans of romance are varied and complex.
As far as living vicariously through the characters–what is wrong with that? Most art forms all have an element of escapism, from the loftiest, most esoteric ballet to NASCAR.
Critics of the genre like to point out that its unrealistic to always have a happy ending, and that element of Romance novels is simplistic. The blog Smart Bitches Trashy Books beautifully addresses this issue by responding to a comment made by Middlesex and Virgin Suicides author Jeffrey Euginides.
As far as the quality of the writing, again, like in any other literary genre, there are well written romance novels and poorly written ones and the more you read them, the more this becomes apparent. I mention Loretta Chase’s novel Lord of Scoundrels , generally considered to be one of the best romance novels ever written. Her characters are rich and empathetic and her sense of plotting and setting are exquisite.
And Chase is not the exception. Nora Roberts, arguably the goddess-on-high of romance novelists, won the 2007 Quill Book of the Year award. Not just romance book of the year, capital-”B” Book of the year.
Romance great Jenny Crusie has a remarkable essay responding to all the critical harshness on the genre. She makes a point to why it is that people, most of whom haven’t even read a romance novel, want to dismiss it offhandedly:
“When I looked closer at romance fiction, I saw that it contested the beliefs of a lot of powerful groups. In fact, romance fiction has something in it to irritate anyone with rigid ideas of how life and literature should work and–most important–how women should act.”
So romance, the genre that is supposed to reinforce passivity in women, is actually subverting these stereotypes in asserting that women can enjoy sex as much, if not more so than a man. Crusie’s a badass.
Coming in Part Two: Are romance novels anti-feminist?