Romance novels are the Rodney Dangerfield of books, they get no respect. Some people won't admit to reading them, others confess their sin with self-conscious guilt. Others equate the Romance novel with the end of civilization. I've often wondered why. Is it the lurid covers? Is it the formula plot? Do Romance novels lack all literary merit? Or might there be some other more insidious reason at work here? After all, Romance isn't the only writing genre in existence. What about fantasy? That's a genre with a formula. What about westerns, mysteries and thrillers?
The answer is "Some of all of the above." I'll take the elements one at a time and parse out the problem as I see it.
Well, let's think about this. Would War and Peace be dismissed as having no literary merit if the cover featured a steamy clinch? I've seen fantasy novels with women whose scantily clad bosoms threaten to bust their bodices and there are fantasy novels of sublime literary merit. So, first, it's silly to think lurid cover art equals lack of merit. On the other hand, be honest, how many times have you been browsing the bookstore and your eye naturally gravitated to a particular kind of cover, or skipped certain books because of the cover art? Appearances do matter, that's why companies have marketing departments and graphic artists. Romance novels get no respect, but it's not because of the covers, with respect to lurid cover art, it's a case of guilt by association.
Genres have formulas, whether it's Romance, mystery, suspense, horror or what-have-you. Therefore, it's silly to conclude that a "formula" means the work lacks merit. A formula doesn't mean plug in your variables and you're good to go. It means there's an expectation about the type of story you'll be reading. I expect an Elmore Leonard novel to involve solving a mystery and that Robert Jordan's next Wheel of Time novel will involve magic and the struggle of good vs. evil. Romance novels get no respect but it's not because they have a formula.
Lack of Literary Merit
Mystery novels used to have much the same sad reputation as Romances, then along came Lillian Helman, Dashiell Hamett and Raymond Chandler among many, many others. I read a lot, and I read in a lot of genres, from romance to mystery to fantasy, suspense, you name it, I've read at least some of it. I'm flat out an omnivore when it comes to reading. Thus, I can tell you that of all genres, Romance novels fill me with the greatest trepidation when it comes to risking my hard earned dollars on a writer I've never heard of. It seems to me the bar is set lower for Romance. Romances are a huge percentage of all novels sold, so maybe that's why there are more Romances that are not well-written. Maybe a mystery writer has to be better than a romance writer in order to break into publication simply because there are fewer publication slots available for other genres.
But, there are Romance novels of literary merit, and they have not received the accolades and wider acceptance due them. Take, for example, Patricia Gaffney's To Have and to Hold. This is a Romance novel that tackles complex issues. She's not the only one to craft a morally complex story or a romance that is brilliantly written. Romances get no respect, but it's not for lack of literary merit.
Something More Insidious
Ah. Now we're getting somewhere. By and large, Romances are written for women by women and historically and presently, the efforts and contributions of woman are culturally denigrated across the entire social spectrum. Professions once traditionally male often see a decline in prestige and wages when women enter the profession. If men were to read and/or admit they read, romances, the reputation of the genre would soar. Romances exist in a ghetto and a lot of readers simply never take notice of them because they're not mainstream fiction. Romances need to leave the ghetto.
What's the solution to the ghetto-ization of Romance novels? Here are my suggestions:
- Raise the bar. There's no excuse for sloppy writing or heroines that are TSTL (Too Stupid to Live). Yeah, it's hard work. But if you write romances, do it.
- How often do we see Romance novels reviewed in the NY Times Book Review or the Review section of any newspaper? If they were, perhaps they'd start to leave the ghetto for the mainstream.
- People are complex. The characters in a Romance should also be complex.