I'm so sick of reading lazy articles in the British press about romance fiction and romance readers.... And yesterday I read another one in The Economist titled Erotic and Romantic Fiction: Book-publishing's naughty secret. Here is my heartfelt (and ever so slightly ranty) reply. Be warned, though, it's long... And well, ranty.
Why romance fiction isn’t a naughty secret to anyone but the British media
Once again, a survey shows that romance is one of the most read, and most profitable genres in the fiction market today, but when The Economist decides to publish an article on the results of the survey, it uses the opportunity to wheel out many of those hoary old clichés about readers of the genre. What is it about romance fiction that brings out the same lazy arguments in so many British journalists?
Firstly, let's consider the headline: Erotic and Romantic Fiction: Book-publishing’s naughty secret
What exactly is the naughty secret here? That romance is hugely successful and widely read particularly among women? Is this really still a secret, given that romance has been one of the biggest selling genres in fiction for many years, long before the publication of a certain book which we shall mention later. And what’s naughty about this secret? That grown women read books about relationships that have actual sex in them? Seriously? What is so surprising or shocking about having adult sexual content in books which are primarily about adult relationships? Or maybe the naughty secret is that most people embarking on a relationship have sex? Now, there’s a shocker.
Let me digress here to explain for the uninitiated the significance of scenes of intimacy (whatever the heat level) in romance novels. They are essentially action scenes within the context of the story of that relationship and as such they are important. If that is hard to understand or makes you titter uncontrollably, let’s use a little analogy: when Jack Reacher walks into a bar and ends up bashing some guy over the head, there is always a purpose to his actions. Maybe we’re going to discover something new about Reacher, about the other characters in the scene, or something important about the case he is investigating (if he bashes that head hard enough). Yet, even though there may be violent action, or even, perish the thought, sex in a Reacher novel, it doesn’t make Lee Child’s excellent writing lose validity. And yet, because a lot of romance novels include scenes of a sexual nature while exploring a couple’s relationship, this is often used as an excuse to ridicule the reader, the writer, the characters, the genre or often all of the above, regardless of the quality of the writing.
Moving swiftly on, next let’s consider the decision to use vintage Mills and Boon covers to illustrate this article… The Jellybooks survey being quoted doesn’t appear to be about Mills and Boon, even though the company gets the obligatory name check near the end of the article. So now I have to ask, would an editor think it appropriate to illustrate an article about any other genre of fiction using covers from over half a century ago? Probably not, so what is the hidden agenda here? Could it be that using lurid Mills and Boon covers with unintentional double entendres in the titles is a great way to illustrate the perceived wisdom that this genre is melodramatic, regressive and perennially out of date? Something that couldn’t actually be further from the truth if you’re a regular romance reader like I am... But, oh well.
After giving us a rundown of the facts – that romance is one of the biggest selling genres in the US according to Romance Writers of America, has sold a staggering 38.9m physical books in the UK alone from 2010-2015 and is in the forefront of the indie publishing revolution – the article then comes to this staggering conclusion:
[The romance publishing industry] was one of the first to capitalize on the anonymity of ebooks…
Okay, stop right there. I read romance, some of it erotic romance, primarily on an ereader. I have a lot of friends who do the same… Here are the reasons why, so listen up.
• Digital books are cheaper (usually a lot cheaper).
• You can get them instantly, and (as the Jellybooks survey points out) romance readers and women generally tend to read faster and more frequently than men so they get through a lot of books.
• As romance is at the forefront of the self publishing and independent publishing revolution (something also mentioned in this article), a lot of romance stories are only available in digital format.
• Digital books also take up a lot less space and, given that I’m reading a lot of them and housing in London is becoming increasingly expensive… Well, you do the math.
Just to be clear, I do not read on an ereader because I’m ashamed of what I read and I crave anonymity. My reading choices are not a ‘guilty pleasure’ or a ‘naughty secret’. So here’s an alternative suggestion: is it at all possible that the romance publishing industry’s success with ebooks might actually be because the digital revolution has provided a more efficient way to get a wider variety of books to eager buyers, and the people who read romance are early adopters?
The FSOG defence finishes with this comment: The public attitude has rarely been anything other than scathing.
Are we talking about FSOG here? I suppose we’ll just assume that doesn’t include the 125million members of the public who bought the books and the even greater number who read them then?
But wait, the next paragraph makes it clear we’re not talking about just FSOG anymore, we’ve leapfrogged right to the public’s scathing attitude to the whole genre.
The hostility towards romance, we are then told, is apparently mostly due to old-fashioned sexism because romance is read primarily by women. I’d like to suggest that this sort of sexism isn’t actually that old fashioned, in fact it’s bang up to date because the article then goes on to make some interesting assumptions about the title ‘mommy porn’. Hmm, was that phrase really coined as a result of the fact that 41% of romance is read by women between the ages of 30-54, because I can assure you they’re not all reading erotic romance, and what about the other 59%? Perhaps it has more to do with the media’s obsession with constantly expecting romance readers of a certain age to justify what they enjoy reading for pleasure, unlike readers of say, crime thrillers, for example. Given that 84% of romance readers are women, is this yet more evidence of that not-so-old-fashioned sexist double standard?
Next up, we are neatly led into that other old chestnut that appears in so many articles about romance fiction: the ‘some feminists’ hate it argument.
Here’s another shock for you, a lot of romance readers and writers are also feminists, I certainly consider myself to be one. And funnily enough, feminists not unlike romance readers, don’t all think and believe the same thing. Just as not all romance readers loved FSOG, not all feminists hated it. While one feminist might criticize romance as being retrograde and/or abusive on the basis of their reading of one book, there are equally a lot of feminists who find the genre’s overwhelmingly positive, diverse and empowering characterization of female protagonists surprisingly refreshing. Oddly though, feminists that enjoy reading and writing romance are rarely if ever quoted in magazine articles about the genre. Why is that? I wonder. Has it perhaps got very little to do with the actual feminist opinion of romance – which is far too broad and diverse to be explained in a single sentence – and more to do with what the media perceives a feminist to be? Namely someone who is marginalised and judgmental and who can be easily stereotyped as being anti-romance fiction and, more importantly, anti-women reading whatever the heck they want for their own pleasure.
Ultimately, the article in The Economist, like so many articles I have read about romance fiction before it – almost always written by journalists who have no understanding of the genre’s appeal because they do not read it themselves – has the whiff of articles dating right back to ones in Victorian England which suggested women’s brains would rot if they read romance, because their sensibilities were just too delicate to withstand all that raw emotion.
To explain how offensive that argument is – quite apart from the fact that all the romance readers I know are intelligent, well-adjusted, sociable women – I’m going to return to my trusty Jack Reacher analogy. Does anyone assume that male readers of Lee Child's novels plan to go to their nearest bar and start cracking heads? So why then would anyone assume that a woman who enjoys reading Fifty Shades of Grey would want to be whipped by an emotionally scarred billionaire in real life? These are fictional characters, doing fictional things and people reading these novels whatever their gender know the difference between fantasy and reality, they get vicarious pleasure from these stories precisely because they know they are fiction. I should add to that, that as a writer I don’t want to be bound by some arbitrary code of conduct when I create my characters. My male characters, just like my female characters, are flawed because they have to be, to be human and relateable and unique. I don’t write misogynist heroes because, surprisingly, they wouldn’t be all that appealing to me or my readers, but nor do I write male characters who view life and gender politics from a female perspective, because um, they’re not women. This can sometimes make them insensitive and arrogant – but similarly my female characters don’t view their life and relationships from a male perspective so they can be equally insensitive to the male point of view.
Way back in the Seventies, rape fantasies or ‘forced seduction’ scenes abounded in a lot of historical romances. Why did those books stop being published? The simple answer is, because readers stopped buying them. Tastes changed and evolved, as they continue to change and evolve today, and what had once seemed exciting and forbidden became distasteful and appalling. Readers moved on. But here’s the thing, does anyone actually believe that the preponderance of those books at that time meant the women reading them wanted to be raped? Anymore than someone enjoying a James Bond novel in the Fifties wanted to become an assassin? No, because even way back in the Seventies, most people figured out that romance readers knew the difference between fantasy and reality. It would be nice if those who don’t read romance today could extend modern romance readers the same courtesy.
Now let’s consider the argument about ‘literary snobbery’ against romance, which apparently has more weight because ‘the median reader spends a paltry three to six days devouring a romance book.’ This rises to three weeks for literary novels. I’m not entirely sure what the argument here is supposed to be. Is it that light reading is bad? Surely people read a variety of books (even romance readers often read across genres which might explain why romance fiction has so many rich and varied subgenres) and for all sorts of reasons. Escapist easy-to-read genre books, whether they be romance, horror or crime fiction, lift the spirits by allowing the reader to break away from the stresses and strains of their own life. In the case of romance novels, it often gives readers a positive outlook on life too. How can that possibly be a bad thing?That said, surely the fact readers take less time to read a romance novel might be for a number of reasons other than that the reading is light and easy and, in the context of the literary snobbery argument, therefore has no value. Might romance novels be read quickly because their readers are more engrossed in the story? More invested in finishing it? Less bored than they are by that literary tome which has sat on the nightstand for three-to-six days while they ‘devour’ their latest romance book? Whatever the reasons, all of these arguments are ludicrously crass, because they assume that literary snobbery is not only widespread but defensible. Whatever people read and for whatever reason, their reading choices are personal and subjective, have nothing to do with anyone else and no one should be judged for those choices, or shamed for them, particularly by someone who has no idea what they find so compelling in their choice in the first place.
The article, not unsurprisingly, finishes with the same bankrupt assumption that it began on.
Although shame is perceived to be a significant factor for the romance genre’s success in ebook format, this could be changing.
The article then goes on to mention the opening of a bricks and mortar romance store in LA funded by Kickstarter. Okay, so shame is perceived as a significant factor in the success of romance in the ebook market by whom exactly? Romance readers? The people who are actually supposed to be ashamed of reading romance, or the lazy journalist who seized on this argument and all his colleagues who have been repeating it ever since? And how exactly does the opening of a store selling print books dispute that claim? Or is that just a convenient way to end the article after doing a Google search for ‘romance fiction’ and coming up with lots of recent stories about the opening of Bea and Leah Koch’s new store The Ripped Bodice?
Last but not least, I ask you this: if some romance readers – even though I’ve never met one of these romance readers and I’ve met a lot of romance readers – are actually ashamed of what they read, why might that be? Could it possibly be because whenever the genre they enjoy reading is mentioned in the media, they are almost invariably subjected to the same old romance-shaming clichés that have been recycled in one guise or another since Victorian times? Just a thought.