Romance Novel Myths #1: Romance novels are stupid.
Upfront: yes, some romance novels are stupid. So are some mystery novels, science fiction novels, slice-of-life novels, TV shows, magazine articles, op-ed pieces, political speeches – the list here is endless. No genre has a corner on stupidity.
Let’s pause for a moment to define stupidity. I’ll call it a phenomenological state in which one is not aware of oneself in relationship to others and the world. When the term is applied to something created, such as a narrative, a news report, or a political opinion, stupidity might refer to: i) blindness one either cannot or does not want to overcome; ii) dishonesty, again willful or otherwise; and/or iii) a fear one is working out of and trying to appeal to in others. An artistic creation, a news report, or a political opinion is stupid when it has no idea why it exists, is not interested in a sincere examination of whatever it purports to examine, and fears taking risks and saying something new.
In other words, I do not define stupidity in terms of an emotion-intellectual continuum. I do not believe that the farther you are down the emotional side of the continuum, the stupider you are, or that the farther you are toward the intellect side of the continuum, the smarter you are. In fact, I don’t believe in the continuum at all. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, among others, has shown that emotions support normal cognitive functioning. We humans need our emotions to make good choices in our lives.
Here is what is true about the romance: it is a narrative of human pair bonding. It focuses on the establishment of a primary love relationship. It is necessarily about emotions. It foregrounds emotions in a way that a mystery does not, although a mystery does involve emotions, including the one(s) that lead to the original crime. However, in a mystery, an examination of emotion is not the main event; the solving of the mystery is.
So, yes, romances explore emotions. This topic does not, in and of itself, make them stupid.
The four following myths are unpacked versions of the first one.
Romance Novel Myths #2: Romance novels are formulaic.
Romances are routinely criticized for their predictable happy end. By that logic, we should call mystery novels formulaic for predictably solving the mystery. We should also criticize Renaissance paintings for – predictably! – depicting a Madonna and Child. I mean, what, those guys in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries couldn’t come up with any new ideas for subjects? Ah, wait. It wasn’t what they were painting. It was how they were painting it: they developed one-point perspective, envisioned chiaroscuro, created new brush techniques, and experimented with new kinds of oils.
A love relationship is an institutionalized Something to write about, just as a Madonna and Child is an institutionalized Something to paint about. It’s up to the writers to bring new optics to the topics they have chosen to write about. Some do bring it. Some don’t.
Romance Novel Myths #3: Romance novels are soft-core porn.
However, when it comes to sex, in the 1970s heroines still said No when they meant Yes. No longer. These days No is No and, yes, women like sex. Credit the genre over the last 40 years for exploring and taking command of woman’s sexuality. A century ago Freud posed the question: What does a woman want? and provided no answer. There is now an entire genre that has, ahem, nailed it.
Here’s a new question: should the man who poses the question get more respect than all the women who answer it?
Romance Novel Myths #4: Romance novels are read by uneducated women.
There’s at least one overeducated romance reader among us, namely me. Seriously, it’s not about intelligence or education. It’s a reading taste, not a litmus for how well you’ll do on an SAT or LSAT.
Romance Novel Myths #5: Romance novels are written by no-talent hacks.
For me, the romance novel is an art form, as worthy an art form as any other out there. I’ve long had a vision for what I’m doing, and I always try to bring that vision to the page with integrity. I do want to be evaluated by what I contribute to my art form. I do not want to be dismissed by a blanket condemnation of it.
What further needs to be said? Do we really need to wonder why a genre written and read mostly by women is continually denigrated and pushed into the zone of the unworthy? It would be great to have some kind of recognition in my lifetime for what I and my fellow romance writers do, but that might not be in the cards. I’ve always taken the long view and comfort in the old joke:
Question: What’s the difference between pop culture and high art?
Answer: 150 years.
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Book One: Tied Up
Book Two: Captured
Book Three: Knocked Out
This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen