A Romance Manifesto

[This is a reposted rant from a few years ago–LMT]

Okay, so many of you know that I end up hanging out on a lot of SF-related blogs as part of my job. It’s fun, the people are nice, and generally, I enjoy it.
Until people (often commentators, not the authors themselves), start ragging on romance novels.

There is a social hierarchy for genre fiction (at least it feels that way), much like there is a hierarchy for geeks. Romance ends up at the bottom of this hierarchy more often than not. Which means that SF readers are often quite comfortable mocking romance novels. And do so often. Even if they have never read one–or haven’t read one in the past 20 years. This bothers me.

I have been to panels at SF cons that were attempting to talk about crossover books (like paranormal romance), for instance, and it quickly devolves into “why do these romance readers need to ruin the SF for the rest of us?”.

Maybe the problem is that I haven’t been to a Romance Writers of America convention. Perhaps they rag on SF and Westerns there, and it all evens out in the universe. I don’t know.

I have posted a version of this rant on E.E. Knight’s blog, as well as on SF Novelist’s. So I just thought I’d post it once and for all. A Romance Manifesto, as it were.

Let me just state for the record that I hold a Bachelor’s degree in literature in two languages (English and French), and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. I am an (over-)educated reader. Like most readers, I have developed my own sense of taste. I love Austen and George Eliot. I’m a fan of Woolf’s essays–but not her novels. I think that Proust is *&#$@ BRILLIANT, Vita Sackville-West is underrated, and that I prefer Swift and Pope to Dryden. Marguerite Duras and Shakespeare, Victor Hugo and Hawthorne rock my world. I’ve read lots of “Great Literature.”

I’m working my way through lots of modern SF at the moment. E.E. Knight, Sarah Monette, Jack McDevitt, Pat Rothfuss, Lois McMaster Bujold have all gotten some love lately. And yes, I have read some Tolkien, Asimov, Bradbury, McCaffrey, and Eddings, among many others. I am not unfamiliar with SF in general. I rather enjoy it, even.

But damn it, I still love romance novels. I have a group of authors that I follow, and I add a new one every once in a while. They make me happy. When I want comfort, I read romance to escape. I don’t understand why that is so difficult to grasp, given that the same folks that often rag on this practice may spend an awful lot of time in Middle Earth.

I do tend to think that for most folks that are tied tightly to a genre, whatever floated your boat when you were ages 11-13 is pretty much your comfort zone. At that age, I was reading (age appropriate) historical romances. I tried The Hobbit 3 times and couldn’t get through it, but I loved A Wrinkle in Time, because apparently I identified more with Meg Murray than with Bilbo. Go figure. For me, it’s about how good the characterization is, first and foremost. And most romance novels worry far more about characterization than anything else. Not all other genres do. Dime novels, for instance, the 19th century version of comic books & adventure stories, are all about action and plot. Characters are REALLY cardboard, ’cause you’re just trying to get to the next explosion or bit of derring-do. SF often focuses on world-building. *GOOD BOOKS* in every genre work hard on characterization, world-building, AND plot.

Those of us who are diehard romance readers enjoy the escapist guarantee of a happy ending. If the couple doesn’t end up together, it’s NOT romance. Period. (It’s likely some other related genre, like chick lit, Oprah books, or, say, SF with a romantic focus). When I open a romance novel by one of my favorite writers, I know that the couple will end up together–what I’m reading for is to see HOW they get there. How they learn to communicate and negotiate a central relationship in their life. Which, for many people, is not an easy thing to do (see divorce rate, unhappy marriages/civil unions, and other versions of wedded or unwedded non-bliss).

Some of us like the smut, too. 😉 I admit it. Some romance is just porn for girls–It’s all about the costumes and the total “Mary Sue” experience. Romance novels vary greatly from subgenre to subgenre, and author to author, in how much smut is present. Christian romance readers do NOT appreciate Lori Foster, who is much higher on the smut scale. And vice versa.

The other thing to keep in mind is that the romance genre is NOTHING like what most folks think of as the bosom-heaving Harlequin stuff of the 1970s & 80s. Most romance written in the past 15-20 years is much more about the idea of bringing an Alpha Male to the point in a relationship where he can actually admit to having feelings, and act accordingly. Which of course hearkens back to the original romance novel, Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, which is all about getting two emotionally constipated people to look past their own flaws and admit their feelings for one another.

Oh, yeah. And I am a feminist. A big one. And I believe that romance is a feminist genre. It is (mostly) women writing for a (mostly) female audience, using gender-coded language that is decidedly feminine (cf. Jayne Ann Krentz’s edited scholarly volume, Dangerous Men, Adventurous Women for elaboration on this). Added to which you have the focus on FEMALE pleasure in these novels. Women come first, all the time, literally. What could be more feminist than that?

Yes, I’ve had this discussion before. MANY TIMES. I will never win. But I keep pushing anyhow, because no matter how much I enjoy the Vampire Earth series, I’m still going to keep reading my Amanda Quick and Johanna Lindsey regencies, too. *Especially* the ones with pirates, yarr….

Happy talk like a pirate day. I recommend “Gentle Rogue” by Johanna Lindsey. Good pirate love. And cross-dressing!

ETA update: Also, Who do you think you are, anonymous random person, to judge ANYONE based on what they like to read? That’s just RIDICULOUS, and GET OFF MY LAWN.

If you want to see my reading, check out my Goodreads. Romance specific list! Austenesque SFF too!

If you want to see where I find my favorite recs for new romance to read, check out Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. They praise the good stuff, and SKEWER THE BAD TO HIGH HEAVEN in most entertaining ways. 


About Lynne M. Thomas

Lynne M. Thomas is a nine time Hugo Award winning editor and podcaster. In her day job, she is Head of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
This entry was posted in puttin on my ranty pants, reading and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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