Dispelling the Rumors on Romance Novels

Love and magic have a great deal in common. They enrich the soul, delight the heart. And they both take practice.

-Nora Roberts

Whether you’re a bookstore regular or not, we all know the reputation of romance novels. Notorious “beach reads” of little substance and lots of make-out sessions between helpless heroines and hunky firemen-cowboys, they are the preferred reading material of soccer moms and lonely housewives everywhere. Right?

It’s really time we moved past that stereotype.

In college, I took a class with a professor who discussed a colleague of his who decided to take a break from literary poetry and join a romance novel critique group for an “easy” project. Figuring she’d go in and wow with her writing prowess, she penned the opening chapter of an intricate plotline with a leading lady to whom romance took zero priority.

The writing group tore it to shreds.

“There’s a protocol for writing romance,” my professor said, blessedly without a shred of condescension. “It wasn’t that she wrote something bad, but she didn’t know her audience.”

I encountered a few classmates of my own in workshops who also wanted to try their hands at romance writing with similar results. On more than one occasion, I heard my female peers pitch their workshop pieces as “smart romance novels,” and yet their stories read as literary, with few of the emotional cues romance novels take. Only one of my classmates, a male one no less, successfully wrote a romantic short story that had the whole workshop gushing over the way we connected emotionally to the female protagonist. Not a single piece of feedback suggested that the story wasn’t smart.

There exists this misconception that romance novels are their own brand of commercial literature, cranked out without a drop of love going into the writing process, and that romance readers don’t have the intellectual capacity for literary works. So we end up with these workshop experiences of literary writers trying to fix a genre that isn’t—and hasn’t been—broken to begin with.

What sets apart romance novels from other genres and styles is the emotional focus. The plots may not always be the most complex, but the emotions are. Whether they’re scintillating reads not to be perused on public transit, faith-filled journeys into the love of soul mates, or contemporary adventures of fierce twenty-somethings balancing work and play, romance isn’t a single genre. Like YA, which has risen in popularity over the past decade or two, romance has a number of subgenres within it and can connect to a wide range of audiences.

The elements that connect these titles and group them together as romance novels focus on the senses and experiences. Romance novels target the emotional responses of the reader. I’ve walked away from some of these books thinking to myself, No guy would ever say that. Nobody talks like that. Doesn’t mean I wasn’t practically squealing on the subway when I read my way to a hard-earned declaration of love.

There’s an element of fantasy in romance novels that appeals to the sentimental reader. In a world where “nobody talks like that,” there exist books where, hey, they do. Where meetings, dates, and confessions of love are perfect. Not to speak for other readers of the genre, but I think everybody loves those warm-and-fuzzy moments. Give in to your weakness for Hallmark movie endings.

Today’s leading ladies aren’t the damsels in distress readers might picture when catching sight of a romance novel cover, either. Heroines span from single moms to company presidents to athletes to models to artists to scientists. Their love interests might be genre-traditional Southern Gentlemen or princes in disguise, but it’s just as common to see single dads, flirtatious coworkers, or infuriating friends-of-friends who keep showing up everywhere. 21st century romance decrees that love isn’t restricted to demure princesses in towers and the knights in shining armor who come to rescue them.

Not that I’m not opposed to a good knight-and-princess tale every once in a while, but I’m hyped to see that the romance genre is so diversified. You can find romance novels that fall into the historical/period category, paranormal, mystery, suspense, religious/spiritual, country, city, etc. Romance novels feature men and women of all different ages, races, and walks of life.

To address the last complaint I’m sure is on everyone’s mind (particularly where I’ve blogged multiple times about creating dynamic female characters), there is the question of whether romance novels are antifeminist. I’ll bring it back to the point I made in my post about “strong female characters”: if a woman wants something—whether it’s a high-ranking job in the business world or to be a stay-at-home mom—and goes for it, that’s feminism in action. There’s nothing antifeminist about forging meaningful relationships with other people.

Did I get a little rambly? Well, all you need to know is that romance novels can’t all fit into the boring beach reads box; they are diverse in their subjects, their characters and relationships, and their writing styles. I am a fan, and the owner of a number of these books. Pick one up at your local store or download the digital version if you’ve never read one for yourself before. You may find yourself pleasantly surprised!

Happy reading!

xo P

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