Why don’t ro­mance nov­els get the re­spect they de­serve?

The Palm Beach Post - - ACCENT - By Jen Miller Spe­cial to The Wash­ing­ton Post

In col­lege dur­ing sum­mer and hol­i­day breaks, I worked in a mall book­store. Our most pop­u­lar pro­mo­tion was a sum­mer one: buy two books, get one free. Ro­mance read­ers loved it. One af­ter­noon, an older woman filled up a milk crate with books, and told me as she paid that it was “fa­vorite day of the year.”

Our stock­room guy, who liked para­chute pants, mut­tered “loser” when she left.

I wasn’t sur­prised. I wouldn’t be sur­prised if some­one said it to me to­day, nearly 20 years later. Ro­mance nov­els have been la­beled as bad, stupid, in­sipid and for “losers” since long be­fore para­chute pants ex­isted.

De­spite ro­mance nov­els mak­ing up 23 per­cent of the U.S. fic­tion mar­ket in 2016, ac­cord­ing to NPD Books and Con­sumers, the genre is still pushed aside as ei­ther mommy porn or the de­fault read­ing of lonely cat laden spin­sters who can only find a man in the fan­tasy land these books pro­vide.

Ro­mance gets trashed, says Sarah Wen­dell, co-founder and master­mind of Smart Bitches Trashy Books, and au­thor of three books, be­cause “it traf­fics in emo­tion and em­pa­thy and per­sonal con­nec­tion and val­ues hap­pi­ness.”

It’s also a busi­ness run by women, and sell­ing to women. The Nielsen Ro­mance Buyer Sur­vey has con­sis­tently tracked women as mak­ing up more than 80 per­cent of ro­mance novel buy­ers.

Wen­dell cites a quote from Nora Roberts, whose books have sold more than 500 mil­lion copies world­wide, and has called ro­mance the “hat trick of easy tar­gets: emo­tions, re­la­tion­ships and sex.”

I started read­ing ro­mance as a teenager. One grand­mother gave me her Nora Roberts books; the other gave me Maeve Binchy books.

Read­ers have op­tions as wide as the in­ter­net, from preg­nancy ro­mances to Amish ro­mances (which are very pop­u­lar with Chris­tians who aren’t Amish) to shape shifter ro­mances to male/male ro­mances writ­ten for het­ero­sex­ual women, to BSDM books that make “Fifty Shades of Grey” look tame.

Tra­di­tional ro­mance pub­lish­ing, like the rest of pub­lish­ing, isn’t as di­verse as the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion (only 7.8 per­cent of books pub­lished by ro­mance pub­lish­ers in 2016 were writ­ten by peo­ple of color, ac­cord­ing to a study con­ducted by the Ripped Bodice, a Cal­i­for­nia ro­mance book­store), but ro­mance writ­ers were also among the “ear­li­est to fig­ure out how to make self pub­lish­ing work, and form small group pub­lish­ing en­ter­prises to pub­lish their sto­ries,” Wen­dell says.

Pop­u­lar cov­er­age doesn’t of­ten em­brace that side of ro­mance nov­els, though, and still leans heav­ily into stereo­types of “bodice rip­pers,” which of­ten in­cluded rape, even though that style of ro­mance was thrown out in 1970s.

“You just come back to ‘it’s s-t fic­tion be­cause women read it,’ and the peo­ple who con­demn it very sel­dom read it them­selves,” says John Mar­ket, au­thor of “Pub­lish­ing Ro­mance: The His­tory of an In­dus­try 1940 to Present.”

When The New York Times Book Re­view ded­i­cated its cover to ro­mance nov­els in Septem­ber, for ex­am­ple, they gave the as­sign­ment to Robert Gotlieb, an 87-year-old white man. The re­sults are about what you’d ex­pect.

But this month, the Times launched a ro­mance col­umn. Still, I don’t ex­pect it to be the norm.

As long as women are treated as though their great­est value is still de­ter­mined as what our bod­ies can pro­vide for men — as con­trolled by men — books writ­ten for and by us will be treated like dirt too.

“If those at­ti­tudes are there about the woman’s place as a sex­ual ob­ject, then we’ve got a long way to go,” says Mar­ket. “Since the books are about women’s sex­u­al­ity and fo­cuses on the sex­ual as­pect and emo­tions re­volv­ing around love, it tends to be put down as fluff.

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