On Sunday morning, I was watching the film She Devil. Side-note, if you haven’t seen this late 1980’s gem starring Rosanne Barr and Meryl Streep, do so right now. Seriously, I’ll wait. I’ve seen this movie about a hundred times, but as I was watching that morning, I noticed something about the occupation of one character and the reading habits of another.
In the film, Rosanne Barr plays Ruth Patchett, a middle class suburban housewife and romance novel enthusiast, whose husband leaves her for another woman. That other woman turns out to be Ruth’s favorite author, Mary Fisher. Mary is everything that Ruth isn’t: wealthy, glamorous, sexy. But as we’re reminded many times, Mary writes romance novels. The film suggests that Ruth is sort of pathetic for being a romance reader, and that Mary takes herself way too seriously for her genre. Several scenes are played to establish that Mary sees herself as a creative person who takes her work seriously, and is wrong and silly to do so. If the character had been a mystery writer, or a sci-fi writer, would it have been played the same way? Probably not. But then the Ruth character probably wouldn’t read another genre in the same way she devours romance. Because she’s sad and romance novels offer her wish fulfillment that she wouldn’t get elsewhere.
Romance sells more than any other genre. Yet there is the implication that people who read it and write it are stupid and pathetic. Why? Are that many people really stupid? Or do romance novels and the people who write them get a bad rap? Can romance novels be formulaic? Absolutely. So can just about every other genre of fiction. Can they be stupid? Sure, but again, many other fiction genres have their good examples and their bad. So why the ire?
Mary Bly writes romance under the pen name Eloisa James. Bly is an English professor and Shakespeare scholar at Fordham University. She holds a Bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, a M. Phil from Oxford University, and a PhD in Renaissance Studies from Yale University. She has done a great deal of academic writing under her real name. (She’s not stupid!) When she started writing romance, she was told that she could not have a successful career in academia if it was known that she did this. Once she got tenure she “came out” as a romance writer. She identifies as a feminist, and explains that “the main thing I do as a feminist concerns sexuality: Anything you’re doing for somebody, they should damn well be doing for you. Sex is a two-way street. I get letters saying, I’ve been reading your books and I realize he shouldn’t be talking to me this way and I deserve better.” She argues that “There’s something very upsetting about a book viewed as existing only to titillate women. I’m surprised by the letters I get saying these books raise unfair expectations among women about sexuality. What you’re hearing is this deep anxiety about their personal lives.”
Tess Gerritsen is best known for mystery novels. Her Rizzoli and Isles series found success in a tv adaptation. But she started off writing romance novels. Well, technically, she started off as a medical doctor. She graduated from Stanford University with a Bachelor’s in anthropology before getting her MD from the University of California, San Francisco (she’s not stupid either!). She began writing romances while on maternity leave from medicine. She wrote eight romance novels before eventually switching over to mystery. Those books have since been reissued by her publisher. They were written as romantic suspense and they are mostly being sold as thrillers now, which has led to a lot of anger. According to her: “many mystery readers loathe a romance plot in any way, shape, or form. Some of them even admitted that if an author at any time in her career ever wrote a romance, they wouldn’t pick up her mystery novel. Their hatred borders on the irrational. They think they are too discriminating and literary for such drivel. A brush of the lips, a longing glance, and BAM! They slam the book shut. They will eagerly devour pages and pages of spattered blood and glistening entrails, but a man and a woman falling in love? Horrors!”X
A lot of the people who criticize romance as a genre don’t seem to know much about it. On her blog, Gerritsen cites a comment on a discussion forum: “Romance seems to be pretty much nothing *but* formula the identical formula of the love triangle and the woman who has to “tame” the “wild” man…. Mysteries, while they do have formulae, have a huge field of variations — serial killer procedurals, psychological thrillers told from the killer’s pov. So far as I know, Romance doesn’t have anything like that.” This is an example of prejudice being born out of sheer ignorance. Because romance novels have just as much variation as mystery novels do: historical romance, paranormal romance, contemporary romance, romantic suspense etc. Within each subgenre there are conventions, tropes, formulae, and yes, original work.
Now, I’m not saying that mystery readers are under any obligation to like romance. But to dismiss a writer because s/he once wrote romance at a different point in his/her career is absurd. All it can indicate is that at some point in his her career, this writer gave women “a form of reassurance that someone is interested in ordinary women’s inner lives and is rooting for us to resolve our conflicts about work, love and what we deserve from our relationships” X. Perhaps some people do find that threatening.
Of course that implies that only women read romance. That’s not the case. But men who read these books tend to do so in secret. It’s considered “unmanly” to have an interest in a story about a romantic relationship. Why? Well, reading about (or having) feelings is considered somehow feminine by a certain contingent. And there are a lot of myths in popular culture about romance novels and romance readers. One of those myths is that only women read it. There’s a feeling that if it’s for women it must, by definition, be lesser than other genre fiction.
All readers have preferences and that’s fine. But why judge others based on their preferences? I certainly wouldn’t want to be judged based on mine! I don’t like romance when it doesn’t feel well developed or natural. Many books of other genres tend to shove a love interest into their stories only for the sake of having one. I tend to dislike that. But if a book tells a good story, I don’t care whether it’s romance, mystery, sci-fi/fantasy or something else. I won’t go into the romance section of a bookstore first (I tend to start in general fiction and work my way through the various genres after that, unless I’m looking for something in particular.) because I often find them very formulaic (but as I’ve said, a lot of genre fiction is guilty of the same thing) But I also won’t ignore a book recommendation if the book happens to be in that genre. Nor will I ignore an author because s/he writes/once wrote romance.
I think people like to be able to classify and categorize things. It helps to makes sense of the world. Publishers do the same thing. And it can mean sales- often when they’re not sure what genre a book belongs in, they’ll stick it in romance because it means that there is more money to be made. Maybe it was intended to be written as a romance. Maybe it wasn’t. But the genre doesn’t define the writer. As readers lets all try to be more open minded and tolerant about what others enjoy!