I was inspired by Jody Hedlund’s Valentine’s Day post Why Romances Are a Valid and Important Form of Literature. Before I proceed, let me assure you that I agree with Jody’s conclusion. With one caveat. She writes:
Even though nowadays romance novels are widely accepted and liked, there are still people who turn up their noses at the thought of reading a romance (or writing one).
Some view such novels as “fluffy” or “trashy” or “titillating.” They may believe that romance novels only serve to fill our minds with unhealthy expectations of relationships. …Instead, why not fill our minds with realistic, wholesome literature? Or deeper, enriching stories that feed the mind and soul?
Such romance novel opponents overlook the fact some of the best classics are the most sigh-worthy romances (Jane Austin fans raise your hands!). But apparently being an “old” book makes the romance more acceptable.
The question I found myself asking while I read Jody’s post was, Why is such a question even necessary? Why is there a need to even ask whether romance is “a valid and important form of literature”?
I think this is where me and some of my romance writing friends disagree.
I mean, aren’t some of the charges against contemporary romance valid? (Hang on to your handbag and let me finish!) Isn’t a significant sector of the fare “‘fluffy’ or ‘trashy’ or ‘titillating'”? Isn’t there a considerable distance between Jane Austen and much contemporary romance?
And why shouldn’t there be? Times change, so why not our stories?
I met a guy not long ago who worked for Disney. He learned I was a writer and we struck up a fun conversation. When he learned I wrote horror and supernatural, the conversation got even more interesting. He said that horror was all the rage in Japan. Not ghost horror or psychological horror, but splatter stuff. Anyway, he had some Hollywood friends who capitalized on this by producing low-budget splatter flicks and selling them overseas. The turn-around was quick and the profit was significant. A good script and competent acting weren’t important. Blood and guts were. Impaling, disemboweling, and decapitation. This is what they called “horror.”
Which is exactly why I’m reluctant to mention that I write horror.
- There’s a stereotype about what horror is.
- That stereotype is partly based on truth.
- But it only represents a small segment of the horror industry.
One thing I learned about reading horror is that there’s some staggeringly literate, beautifully written, elegantly creepy books out there. Splatter and slasher flicks are so far removed from what much horror is, it’s almost laughable.
Which, I think, is the same thing going on in the romance industry.
There is a significant difference between Gone With the Wind and Pride and Prejudice, and the typical dime-store romance novel. This seems obvious. It’s not a matter of bookish pretension, nor is it a judgement against the genre. The romance genre exists along a spectrum — just like every other genre — from Historical Romance to Women’s Fiction to Chick-Lit to Erotica.
Point is: The stereotype of contemporary romance novels as “fluffy or trashy or titillating” has a basis in fact. Just like the stereotype of horror novels as “splatter or gore or gorno” has a basis in fact.
I’m not sure why we have such a hard time admitting that.
I have a female writer friend who writes Urban Fantasy. She often laments how large sectors of the genre have become notoriously seamy. Not only has Paranormal Romance become one of the hottest selling genres, it has drifted into… erotica. Forget the claws and fangs and winged appendages. Now vampires sparkle and have P90 X abs. Someone hijacked my monsters!
Anyway, my friend mentioned how one reviewer surprisingly noted the absence of erotica in her novel. This was, um, noteworthy. As if erotica is now expected in Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance.
Likewise, contemporary romance — particularly some of its more seamy sides — have become cliches for the entire genre.
Which is why Historical Romance seems like a far distant relative to its contemporary counterparts.
So while I totally agree with Jody that romances are a valid and important form of literature, the Pride and Prejudices of the world are as far removed from dime-store romances as The Haunting of Hill House is from Hostel.
Erotica has done to Romance what Splatter has done to Horror… made it difficult for a writer to avoid being stereotyped.