What do you do when the genre you write is commonly referred to as trash? Not just by non-readers, but by the key audience demographic as well? The romance genre, dominated by a female readership whose novels most often involve sex, would have to be referred to as trash in a culture still affronted and embarrassed by any mention of feminine sexuality, right?
I grew up hearing my mother call the books she loved and read—frequently more than one a week—whose collection had a special place on her shelf, whose favorites were friendly reads she returned to for years over and over again—trash. In a break lounge with a co-worker, I asked her what she was reading on her break. She closed the book without showing me the cover and called it, “Trash.” Only on a third asking would she tell me what it was called and who it was by.
Many readers have some shame about reading romance, which is why the e-reader has been a godsend. Romance readers can now enjoy their books free of judgement without anyone having to know what they’re reading. If asked, they can lie now instead of having to call it trash to avoid the embarrassing potential of ridicule.
I’ve had numerous times where I proudly, un-apologetically pronounce I love romance novels and write them. The reactions can be encouraging, but there’s always a risk of, “You don’t mean those novels, do you?” or “You mean those quivering thigh books?”
Many in the romance genre have taken ownership of the trashy term and can frequently be heard referring to as, “oh it’s such trash,” with a delicious gleam in their eye as though the fact that it is “trash” is the best part about it. One of the most successful romance review blogs, in the ultimate ownership of the term, is called Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. It’s a very professional blog run by intelligent women who take their romance seriously, using very high standards and taste in their review process.
But to take the next step past ownership of the denigrating term, I’d like to make a case that they are in fact, not trashy at all. For romance readers and writers to be free to refer to the books they love as great books in their own right—works of intricate plotting and expertly driven tension, of detailed prose and forward thinking characters. For us to admit to ourselves and educate our broader culture, that the books we love are not trash but are in fact a statement of women’s empowerment.
Let’s dispel some of the myths:
1) Romance novels are all about sex
Romance novels are first and foremost about love and relationships, exploring the challenges characters face in their pursuit of both. Sex happens often in the books, as it does in most romantic relationships in our culture. But even the romances with lots of sex still revolve around love. And a romance novel does not have to involve sex. Many loyal readers enjoy the lovely “closed door” variety.
2) Reading and writing about sex is trashy
Sex is the means of reproduction for our species. It’s a central part of life on this planet and without it the race wouldn’t exist. To not write about sex and the joys and struggles and complications it places in people’s lives would be a disservice to the fictional representation of our culture. To explore the ways a character has sex is to discover their deepest motivations and flaws. Telling the story of a romantic relationship is made richer when its most intimate moments are revealed.
3) Romance novels are all the same
Yes, romances require a happy ending. I ask you to point to a mystery whose case is not solved at the end, or a thriller whose murderer gets away. A prescribed ending is the name of genre fiction and romance is no different.
4) Romance novels are sexist toward women
Not all romances are about women. Some are gay romances between men. But romances with female protagonists extol a women’s rite to a consensual relationship. Most of us romance writers work hard to give our female characters empowering experiences full of choice for their lovers and their sexual pleasure, a still unfortunately often radical idea in our culture.
5) Romance novels are cheesy
Perhaps. Calling something cheesy is a matter of taste. One person’s cheese is another person’s main course. But the great romance writers work hard to keep their tropes fresh, original and exciting—going as light on the cheese as they can manage. Those are the kind I prefer, the ones who separate their prose from the tired worn out themes of the past. The romance novels of twenty years ago are vastly different from the romance novels of today.
6) Romances aren’t realistic
Please. It’s fiction. Do we really read genre fiction for how realistic it is? Anyone? Apply this same judgement to mystery, sci-fi or suspense novels and… Yeah, that’s what I thought. All genre writing is about using the tools we have to create the most suspenseful exciting prose we can craft.
One of my friends, who is not a romance reader, made my year when she told me after she read my book, she’d started reading more romance novels. Like all genres of books, there are bad romance novels out there—or I like to think of it more, ones that won’t speak to you. But there are as many kinds of romance novels as there are readers. There are more than five subgenres—historical, contemporary, erotic, paranormal, inspirational—that come in all age categories and sexual orientations and have an expanding diversity of casts.
I ask, if you’ve never read one, try not to judge until you do. And if you have read a romance novel and it’s not your thing, I’m totally cool with that. I went through a three-year period where I did not like them. Just—try not to bad mouth them as an inferior genre, or mock them with friends.
I look forward to the day when the education is no longer necessary. When I can tell new friends and work colleagues without hesitation what I write and not be at risk of ridicule.
Robin Lovett writes contemporary romance in her debut novel, Racing To You. Her next series of dark romances will release the summer of 2017 through SMP Swerve. She is represented by Rachel Brooks of the L. Perkins Agency. She loves to chat on Twitter @LovettRomance and every Sunday evening you can find her chatting with other romance writers at #RWChat.