It is an untruth universally acknowledged that a woman in possession of a romance novel must be in want of A) wits, B) a social life, or C) both.
I read romance, and frankly don’t care what other people think that says about me. In fact, I think the bias itself says some pretty interesting things. There’s a lot to unpack in the pervasive and persistent stereotype that surrounds the romance section of any given bookstore. I see that stereotype emerging from three directions: lack of knowledge of the genre and its readers; envy; and the belief that romances are badly written. But it could be argued that it stems from one source.
First, some background. A study released by the ABA in 2002 exploded a number of myths about romance readers. For one thing, they were well-educated. Compared to the national average, romance readers were vastly more likely to have finished some form of post-secondary study. They also expressed a substantially higher than average sense of of job satisfaction. Possibly as a corollary, they also indicated comfort with their earning power. And — this one was a bit of a surprise — they had solid romantic relationships. Something like eighty percent self-identified as happy in their marriages/long-term partnerships. So much for the bored and lonely housewife desperately seeking something to fill her empty days.
There are other more accessible, and more startling, statistics that pertain to romance novels: sales numbers. Romance readers buy more books, more often, than any other group. That certainly shows up on the bottom line — across all formats, romance novels account for more than 35% of fiction sales. When considering only mass-market paperbacks, the number jumps to 54% of books. To put it another way, when it comes to paperbacks, romances sell more than all other genres and subjects combined. Such obvious success makes romance an easy target; there’s no point in scorning something off the radar. Sales of that magnitude mean that midlist romance novelists can make a living, unsupported by arts council grants, even. That kind of thing always draws envy of the bitterest kind.
As for being badly written… well, yeah, sometimes that’s true. Some romances are poorly written indeed. So are some mysteries, some biographies, many business books, and most undergraduate poetry. Theodore Sturgeon said that ninety percent of everything is crap — romance is no exception. Why should it be?
The lack of awareness, the jealousy, the scorn: these are only symptoms of a deeper disease. Truth is, romances are primarily written by, and for, women. Even today, that automatically relegates them to second-tier status. Detractors claim that romance novels foster unrealistic expectations in readers that can interfere in real-life relationships. Er, pardon? Most of the western world read Harry Potter, and did anyone claim it made readers believe magic was real? (Okay, the lunatic fringe tried, but they could find witchcraft in breakfast cereal, and were rightfully ignored by the wider world) But apparently romance readers — who are, don’t forget, well-educated and by-and-large happily involved — can’t tell fiction from reality. It’s the same old story: women can’t be trusted to know what they want.
As a bookseller, I respect the enormous sales of romance novels. They’ve kept many a publisher in the black. As a reader, I simply enjoy them. Good stories, well told are always a pleasure. And I’m not alone in my appreciation. Let’s face it: if you recognized the mangled quote that opened this essay, you’ve read a romance, too.
Chris Szego reads romance. Along with poetry, mystery, sf, non-fiction of all kinds, cereal boxes (but not horror, because she’s kind of a chicken).