Love For Sale

It’s Romance Editor Chris Szego on the cultural gutter!


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.

victorian.jpgThere 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.

Bugger that.

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).

Categories: First

16 replies »

  1. I don’t know any educated woman who is into romance novels.
    Maybe it’s different in your country, but over here we consider them of the same general quality as self-help books (and often aimed at the same target). I consider myself a detractor and I have none of the objections you mention, except thinking this sort of novels is garbage.
    You won’t be making an apology of self-help books next, right? I’m sure they have enormous sales too πŸ˜‰
    PS: sorry if I seem mean; it’s not personal, but I haven’t agreed with anything you’ve said in your last two articles…


  2. Hey Android,
    You’re going to have to do better than that if you’re trying to convince anyone, especially on this site, of your point of view. I have lots of interests that would fall under the same sort of generalized societal disapproval, but I am still interested in them, as are other people. What keeps me coming back? What keeps readers coming back to romance novels?
    I’m certainly not arguing something along the lines of “all works from the gutter are good,” since I share some of your assertions about, say, self-help books. But it seems more interesting to me to argue on a case by case basis rather than dismissing an entire genre, particularly from the angle of the previously mentioned Theodore Sturgeon quote.


  3. Hey Android,
    If you haven’t agreed with anything Chris has written then maybe you should consider whether or not it is something personal with you.
    Also, if I were an educated woman and I met someone with your prejudices, I probably wouldn’t tell you if I liked romance novels (or anything else that wasn’t “cool”) because frankly, who needs that kind of crap?
    * * *
    Hi Chris,
    I appreciate your writing articles about books and genres I don’t normally read. And I appreciate that you do it with intelligence, candor and wit.
    I hope you continue to bring new bits of culture out of the gutter for those of us who don’t always have the time and energy to go fishing for themselves.


  4. one thing i’ve regretted not writing in my gutter take is that as a girl (and i mean this agewise), i already dealt with disdain for things i liked or loved. in a way, that experience made any dismissal or condescension toward comics easy to ignore because frankly it’s nothing in comparison to the disdain people feel towards traditionally girly stuff like horses, danceable music, romance novels and the color pink. basically, once you’ve dealt with the bullshit around just being female, who gives a shit what people think of what you read.
    so chris, i haven’t had a chance before to write you about how excited i am that you are here writing about romance. it’s not your job to write things that commenters agree with so they don’t have to challenge themselves or their ideas about what deserves to be in the gutter. it’s your job to write honestly and bravely and i think you’re doing great.


  5. Hi Chris,
    I love that you are writing! One of the things that I’ve found engaging at this site is that it challenges the fan-boy assumption that there really is an easily identified pile of trash that deserves distain and that whatever they enjoy is unfairly religated to it. This attitude does not disrupt the dichotomy of high brow/low brow, but instead just flips it: “My Crisis on Infinite Earths comic isn’t trash, but your Merchant-Ivory film is!” This is especially funny given how many comics and exploitation films embrace melodramatic narratives and romantic conventions.
    I think your Sturgeon quote says it all. Quality is not consistent with genre, but instead cuts across and through reductionist categories.
    Keep up the good work of exploding tiny minds.


  6. Android – you’re not alone in your opinion. That’s part of the reason I’m writing here. And by the way, what country are you from?
    Everyone else: thanks for being so welcoming!


  7. Oh, I fully agree with the Sturgeon quote.
    I added the postscript to make it clear I’m not trying to be aggressive. Also, I think most people should admit to some degree of prejudice. No, I haven’t read many of them; yes, I’ve flicked through some; no, you can’t really judge a novel that way; yes, the genre is generally deemed as trash; no, that doesn’t mean it’s really trash; yes, in this case there are hints pointing at that direction (poor style, archaic ideals of what a woman should want or need, poor cover art — those ripped off shirts, for crying out loud! — etc.)
    But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit some other genres I like can also be guilty of that.
    Mr. Dave: you got it all wrong. I’m not sure if you expect readers here to agree with the content of each article. If that was the case, this would get boring pretty fast. When I read something I disagree with, I feel compelled to reply. It should be clear by now I enjoy reading the Gutter!
    Chris S: thanks for taking my comment in good humor. I’m from Argentina, Buenos Aires (English isn’t my first language), and as James S. knows, I’m a SF fan. And yes, I’m aware SF is full of garbage too πŸ™‚


  8. Hey Android,
    I guess I (we) piled on there a bit, sorry about that πŸ™‚
    This all touches on something I’ve been running into a lot lately – the whole issue of one person’s gutter being another person’s treasure, so to speak. I mean, we all make critical statements, but where do those come from? Is it always a case by case basis? Where do generalizations fit in – are they possible? Etc. I don’t want to treat other trash the way my precious trash has been treated, but then how do I go about discarding that famous 90% crap?
    I might be a little sensitive to this, because at work the various usability/design email lists that I’m on tend to argue about this all the time. The latest eruption has been about a pink Hello Kitty laptop that’s encrusted with crystals – one camp says it’s degrading to women and crude design besides, while the other says that if it matches the design needs of a particular audience then it’s perfectly fine. (Link is here and I’m probably in the what’s-the-fuss camp. Not a laptop I would buy, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it sells quite well).
    No big conclusion, just some thoughts.
    (Also, I’ve just realized that 3 examples in this thread – romance novels, Carol’s point, and now the Hello Kitty laptop – have been gender-related. No idea what that means though).


  9. Heyya,
    I’m glad we’ve all made nice, since talking to each other is part of the fun of the Gutter, but I do have to point out, Android, that if you are repeatedly needling everyone, maybe you should consider your tone. As cute as they are, emoticons do not civil discourse make. If you think that a comment may be taken as aggressive, rewrite it. That’s what everybody else does. That way you can have conversations about things that interest you instead of defensive arguments about what you meant. Your intentions don’t count. It’s your actions that do.


  10. The Smartbitches website is a lot of fun. Hey, I’m not going to deny that a huge amount of romance cover art lands on the “Agh! My eyes!” side of the scale. But their glee in skewering bad art aside, the SBs read and dissect romance with critical care.
    Mr. Android – thanks for letting me know where you’re from. I’ll try to get some stats on romance sales from Argentina.


  11. Weed: in which way am I “needling” everyone? Sorry you dislike my smileys, but they are common currency on the net.
    One lesson I’ve learnt from the internet is that generally, dissenting opinions are unwelcome (or is that a lesson about mankind?). I write a disagreeing reply, you read a personal attack — that sort of deal. So if someone writes an article and receives generally positive feedback, the one person giving negative feedback will be “piled upon”, as James said.
    What’s sad is that I share more interests than dislikes with you guys. Maybe with the exception of pink novels πŸ˜‰
    Rest assured, I like the Gutter and I’ve been enjoying your articles for some time now.


  12. Interesting link, James.
    However, I must ask: is there such a thing as bad literature? Trashy in a bad way? Ignore for a moment that you may be dismissing something that somebody else loves; is there a genre or type of book about which you are likely to say “I’m not interested in that trash”?
    I think if we’re honest, everybody who has a taste will find certain books or movies awful — not merely dislikeable, but garbage.
    And yes, of course, one person’s garbage is another person’s gold, or however the saying goes πŸ˜‰


  13. So uh, I hate to state the obvious here but – if this article is supposed to at all highlight that Romance novels are un-trash (even if they are ‘trashy’) where is the persuasive argument? There’s not much to talk about if all we can dump out are our immediate personal reactions and statistics.
    Why *do* women find Romance novels so engaging? What is it about their literary style that makes them worth reading? If this a gendered thing – is there a male equivalent in the literary world that might also warrant more respect?
    I mean, come on, if anyone is going to try convincing me that they are/are not trash, it *isn’t* going to be because:
    a) they sell well [so did The Da Vinci Code – and Dan Brown can eat monkey-ass]
    b) the people who read them are like, rully rully smart! [so am I, and I swallowed a quarter once]
    c) despite common belief, they don’t actually cause marital infidelity or genital herpes.
    I think this a darn fine topic to write on. It just needs some major fleshing-out. Keep at it!


  14. Don’t worry Chris – that stuff’s coming. This was just an introduction, the initial foray. I plan to layer in a a little more context over the next couple articles, then dig in. Lots of archetypes to deconstruct.


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