In college during summer and holiday breaks, I worked in a mall bookstore.
Our most popular promotion was a summer one: buy two books, get one free. Romance readers loved it. One afternoon, an older woman filled up a milk crate with books and told me as she paid that it was her “favorite day of the year.”
Our stockroom guy, who liked parachute pants, muttered “loser” when she left. I wasn’t surprised. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone said it to me today, nearly 20 years later. Romance novels have been labeled as bad, stupid, insipid, and for “losers” since long before parachute pants existed.
Unfairly, romance novels are still pushed aside as “mommy porn” or the default favorite of lonely, cat-laden spinsters.
In reality, romance novels made up 23% of the U.S. fiction market in 2016 — proof that they deserve more credit than they get.
Romance gets trashed, says Sarah Wendell, co-founder and mastermind of Smart Bitches Trashy Books, because “it traffics in emotion and empathy and personal connection and values happiness.”
It’s also a business run by women that sells to women. The Nielsen Romance Buyer Survey has consistently tracked women as making up more than 80% of romance-novel buyers. “It is mostly women in publishing houses that work in the romance genre. It’s women who are reading it. We are telling our stories to ourselves,” she says.
That said, the genre isn’t without its problems.
Ironically, romance novels are incredibly diverse in subject and not so much in substance. Subgenres abound: from pregnancy romances to Amish romances to shape shifter romances to male/male romances written for heterosexual women to BSDM books that make “Fifty Shades of Grey” look tame.
But when it comes to people, traditional romance publishing, like the rest of publishing, isn’t as diverse as the general population (only 7.8% of books published by romance publishers in 2016 were written by people of color), but romance writers were also among the “earliest to figure out how to make self publishing work and form small group publishing enterprises to publish their stories,” Wendell says. “When women of color and from other marginalized communities weren’t reaching readers through traditional publishers, they made their own careers and made their own enterprises and connected with other readers.”
Popular coverage doesn’t often embrace the more modern, diverse side of romance novels, though, and still leans heavily into the “bodice rippers” stereotype, even though that style of romance largely fell out of popularity in the 1970s. The criticism of romance fiction often doesn’t line up with the reality. “You just come back to ‘it’s s**t fiction because women read it,’ and the people who condemn it very seldom read it themselves,” says John Market, author of “Publishing Romance: The History of an Industry 1940 to Present.”
When The New York Times Book Review dedicated its cover to romance novels in September 2017, for example, they gave the assignment to Robert Gotlieb, an 87-year-old white man. The results are about what you’d expect.
But in February 2018, the Times launched a romance column — indicating that, perhaps, the genre is finally being taken seriously.
Still, I don’t expect it to be the norm. As long as women are treated as though their greatest value is still determined by what their bodies can provide for men, books written for and by women will be treated like dirt too.
“If those attitudes are there about the woman’s place as a sexual object, then we’ve got a long way to go,” Market says. “Since the books are about women’s sexuality and focuses on the sexual aspect and emotions revolving around love, it tends to be put down as fluff.”
This article was originally published by The Lily, a publication of The Washington Post, and is reprinted here with permission.