Romance fiction isn't a naughty secret to anyone but the British media
Romance fiction is the most widely-read and profitable genre in today’s fiction market, yet still disparaged and dismissed by the UK media. Bestselling romance writer and director of our Writing Romance course Heidi Rice responds to The Economist’s view that romantic fiction is ‘book-publishing’s naughty secret’.
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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 the mainstream media?
As a longtime reader of romance fiction, and a published author of 24 novels, novellas and short stories (many of them for Harlequin UK aka Mills and Boon), I happen to know a lot of actual romance readers and writers, so I’d like to take this opportunity to dispute a few of the misconceptions about romance readers and the romance genre stated or alluded to in this article.
Firstly, 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?
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).
Intimate scenes are essentially action scenes within the context of the story of that relationship, and as such they are important.
But, even though there may be violent action – or even, perish the thought, sex – in a Reacher novel, it doesn’t make Lee Child’s brilliant writing lose validity as fiction.
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.
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 success of the romance publishing industry with ebooks is because the digital revolution has provided a more efficient way to get a wider variety of books to eager buyers, not because we’re ashamed.
[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:
- 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 maths.
I do not read on an e-reader 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 not because romance readers are ashamed of what they read?
Fifty Shades of Grey was published over four years ago, and in romance that’s a very long time – those of us who work in the industry and enjoy reading romance stopped talking about it years ago.
The Fifty Shades of Grey attack tactic
The phenomenal success of E L James’s trilogy is often the excuse for making broad, sweeping and generally derogatory judgments about the romance genre – and has appeared in pretty much every article about romance fiction printed in the UK since it became a runaway bestseller in 2012. Yes, the trilogy was phenomenally successful. Yes, the books were erotic romances. Yes, not many people would argue they were the best books ever written, although some people who have actually read them may, and a huge number of people obviously enjoyed reading them. After all, 125 million people bought these books and with 58% five-star reviews on Amazon.com and only 15% one-star ones, it seems most were not unhappy with their purchase.
Most importantly though, FSOG was published over four years ago, and in romance that’s a very long time; romance (contrary to the image suggested by those retro M&B covers) is a fresh, vibrant, constantly evolving genre. So perhaps journalists could please stop basing everything they know about romance on FSOG now, because those of us who work in the industry and enjoy reading romance stopped talking about it years ago…
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 125 million members of the public who bought the books and the even greater number who read them then, shall we?
Ultimately, the article in The Economist, like so many articles I have read about romance fiction before – almost always written by journalists who have no understanding of the genre’s appeal because they do not chose to read it themselves – has the whiff of articles dating right back to the ones in Victorian England that suggested women’s brains would rot if they read romance, because their sensibilities were just too delicate to withstand all that raw emotion.
Escapist, easy-to-read genre books lift the spirits by allowing the reader to break away from the stresses and strains of their own life. How can that possibly be a bad thing?
‘The median reader spends a paltry three to six days devouring a romance book.’
Now let’s consider the argument about ‘literary snobbery’ against romance which apparently has weight because romance readers read fast compared to the three weeks spent with 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 – and in the case of romance novels it often gives readers a positive outlook on life too. How can that possibly be a bad thing? But 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?
The article, not unsurprisingly, finishes with the same bankrupt assumption that it began on:
Could this supposed shame romance readers feel 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?
‘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 Los Angeles 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.
Editor’s note: this is a shortened version of Heidi Rice’s rebuttal of the The Economist’s article – you can read the full version on her blog.