Say the words ‘romance novel’ and everyone thinks ‘dog-eared paperback hidden under a mattress’. But it’s not all heaving bosoms and throbbing manhoods. Loved and loathed in equal measure, romantic fiction is big business, despite the bad press.


Why romantic fiction is both loved and loathed

When Diana Gabaldon’s agent suggested she categorise her first Outlander book as a romance novel, she balked at the idea. As a scientist, she preferred to think of her work as sci-fi, with a bit of adventure, romance and historical fiction woven in. Her agent, however, knew that a sci-fi bestseller would sell 50000 copies at best; a romance, on the other hand, could reach the half-a-million mark.

In the end they compromise­d: she agreed to publish it as romance, but if it became ‘visible’ (that is, made it onto the New York Times bestseller list), they would rebrand it as ‘general fiction’.

Today the Outlander series has sold more than 25 million copies worldwide, and is the subject of a very popular TV show. And, judging by Wikipedia’s descriptio­n of Outlander as a ‘historical multigenre novel’, Diana got her way.

But why the reluctance to call it romance? To be fair, she wrote the series in the ’90s, so the bodice rippers of the ’70s and ’80s were probably still top of mind. (You know the type: a flaxenhair­ed peasant girl swooning in the arms of a muscular

Italian count who doesn’t own a shirt.) Those are still around – Mills & Boon is thriving, after more than a hundred years. But they aren’t the only ones cashing in on the under-the-radar popularity of romance fiction. Consider Nora Roberts, the third author to sell more than 1 million books on Kindle. According to her website (which, by the looks of it, has not been updated in a while so you know the numbers must be even higher now), Nora has written 195 New York Times bestseller­s,

‘The literary bunch look down on us like we’re not real writers. We haven’t written real novels. That’s such crap.’

including 37 written under her pen name JD Robb. As of 2009 (I told you these stats were old) Nora had more than 400 million copies of her books in print worldwide and, by the last estimation, 27 of her books were sold every minute.

So why isn’t Nora Roberts mentioned in the same breath as John Grisham, Margaret Atwood and Stephen King (who, incidental­ly, is a fan)? Nora says it’s because she writes ‘the big R’ – romance – the most scorned of all literary genres, unless ‘a guy writes one and they call it something else, and it’s reviewed and made into a movie’ she says. Think The Fault in Our Stars, or One Day.

Bestsellin­g author Jennifer Weiner said it best in her interview with The Huffington Post. ‘I think it’s a very old, deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it’s literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it’s romance or a beach book – in short, it’s something unworthy of a serious critic’s attention… Nick Hornby, Jonathan Tropper, Carl Hiaasen, David Nicholls... all these guys write what I’d call commercial books, even beach books, books about relationsh­ips and romance and families. All of them would be considered chicklit writers if they were girls.’


Lanseria-based romcom author Jo Watson doesn’t mind the label ‘chick lit’. ‘It’s quite descriptiv­e; I write lit for chicks,’ she says. ‘But in general we call it romcom now.’ Jo had been writing for TV when she heard about a writing contest online platform Wattpad was running. She decided to give it a go, wrote a book in three weeks and won. ‘After that, everything just snowballed with agents and publishers and publishing deals.’ Today, more than 400000 of her books have been sold and her first book, Burning Moon, has had more than 7 million reads on Wattpad.

So does she think romance gets a raw deal? ‘One hundred f**king percent!’ she says. ‘Especially in SA. There’s a snobbishne­ss around it; the literary bunch look down on us like we’re not real writers. We haven’t written real novels. That’s such crap.’

‘There’s definitely a stigma,’ says Cape Town-based indie author Dani René. She’s self-published 40 books on Amazon to date, and made the USA Today bestseller list in June, July, and August last year. ‘People ask me, “What do you do?” and I say, “I write.” Then they ask, “What do you write?” When I say “romance”, you either get the cringe-face or just a [loaded] “oh”. People have even asked me, “Why don’t you write proper books?” I think Fifty Shades has made it more acceptable to read romance, but there is still this need to hide the cover of a book.’

She’s not wrong. Fifty Shades of Grey may have broken records worldwide in terms of sales, but some argue that it would never have happened had it not been for the anonymity of Kindle. Since you don’t have to tote the book around, you can read whatever you want, right? And with critics summarily dismissing the publishing phenomenon as ‘mummy porn’, can you blame them?

Jo is pretty fed up with the whole argument. ‘Why are we still discussing the legitimacy of one of the most popular moneymakin­g genres in the entire world at this point in time? It seems ridiculous.

‘Romance writers are making money. We’re doing well. We’re selling hundreds and hundreds of thousands of books, but the perception of a “real writer” is that they have to be struggling and suffering for their craft. People look down on things that are commercial.’


So what is it about romance writing that people object to?

Some argue that it gives women unrealisti­c expectatio­ns. ‘I think we know the difference between reality and fiction,’ scoffs Nora Roberts. ‘I don’t think people read Agatha Christie, then think: I know, I’ll go and murder someone.’

Another oft-touted criticism is that romance is anti-feminist. Feminist icon Germaine Greer considered it a patriarcha­l form of deception that encouraged women to cherish ‘the chains of their bondage’. (*Insert gratuitous

Fifty Shades bondage joke here*)

‘The whole romance novel industry is about women being grabbed and thrown on a horse and ridden off into the distance.’ When Hillary Clinton said this back in 2017, Maya Rodale, author of Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained, wrote an entire op-ed for The Huffington Post in response.

‘I’m guessing you might have been too busy to read a bunch of romance novels and chart their progressio­n from those 1970s bodice rippers to the progressiv­e, feminist friendly love stories they are today,’ she wrote.

As a genre mainly written by women, about women and for women, it is uniquely feminist, says Maya. ‘This is perhaps the only space where women’s voices predominan­tly shape the narrative about themselves in the world.

‘Romance novels relentless­ly declare that a woman is worth it. She is the plot; the plot does not happen to her. When a woman reads or writes these stories, she is declaring that a woman’s journey, experience­s and point of view are interestin­g, relevant and important.’

Victoria Dahl, who writes both historical and contempora­ry romance, says that her characters are ‘always, always feminists. Not in the declarativ­e sense, but in the living-that-life-every-day sense’. Romance writer Sarah MacLean calls her novels feminist because ‘the heroine is the hero of the story and she is taking action’. And according to Olivia Waite, who writes erotic, historical, and paranormal romance, the sex scenes are also very telling. Contempora­ry romance ‘routinely foreground­s women’s sexual desire’, she says.


These days, romance writers are all about writing strong heroines – a far cry from the helpless damsels in the bodice rippers of the ’80s.

‘He was often a Greek tycoon; she was often orphaned and raised by an aunt,’ jokes Nora. ‘She’s on her way to a new job... rushing through [the airport] with her battered suitcase. She runs into this man and the suitcase falls open, revealing a pitiful wardrobe – it’s all neat and well mended but sad. And he calls her a clumsy fool and helps her stuff her clothes back in the suitcase and storms off. The next day she goes into the offices of the richest man in the free world and who should be there but the man she ran into in the airport?’

This kind of writing, says Nora, is old hat. Her female characters are much more feisty, and their relationsh­ips not as problemati­c.

‘I didn’t want to write the kind of story where the man treats the woman like sh*t for the entire book and in the last chapter he tells her, “I treated you like sh*t because I love you.” That won’t do for me, or for a lot of other writers. I started to write the kind of stories that I wanted to read.’

Dani René agrees. ‘I love my strong females,’ she says. She also likes to incorporat­e less glamorous, true-to-life elements into her plotlines. ‘For instance, in one of my stories, the female character has run away from her abusive ex. I like showing that it doesn’t matter what you’ve been through

– you can be strong and you can save yourself. You don’t need him to save you. You can pick up the sword and kill the dragon yourself.’

When they show vulnerabil­ity, it is not a sign of weakness, but a way of getting the hero to open up. ‘When they’re with him, they are soft because they want him to soften, and realise that he can also be loved,’ explains Dani.

Jo says there’s a trend towards writing more flawed characters; heroes and heroines are becoming more diverse; and everyone is very conscious of the after-effects of the #MeToo movement.

‘We have to be mindful, especially with the sex scenes; you have to make sure you show consent. The old bodice ripping vibes – the guy walks in and tosses her on the bed – that’s not going to cut it. The world has changed.’


Romantic fiction also isn’t restricted to your stock-standard boy-meets-girl stories any longer. One burgeoning new subgenre is the so-called ‘bonnet ripper’ – romances set in Amish communitie­s. ‘I feel like that’s almost going back to the Mills & Boon historical romances, with your dukes and duchesses, and the Fabio-type dude on the cover,’ says Dani. ‘Those are still there; they also sell really well.’ She’s not exaggerati­ng. The three most popular writers of Amish romance have sold more than 30 million books between them.

Then there’s the jockstrap ripper (boy meets boy), paranormal romance (girl meets vampire/ werewolf/shifter/alien), seasoned romance (also called ‘second chance romance’, this features characters in their forties, fifties and sixties), romantic suspense… the list goes on. ‘Another one that’s really big right now is reverse harem,’ says Dani. ‘You have one girl, and four to five guys who want her. Dark romances have also been blowing up. The girl gets kidnapped but then falls in love with her kidnapper, that sort of thing – grittier storylines.’

Her readers, says Dani, gravitate towards the darker stuff. And they’re voracious, reading up to three or four books a day. ‘They will read a book in a couple of hours. The amount of books that get published a year is obviously massive, but these readers are still devouring books non-stop. And you can have thousands of books on your Kindle.’


According to the Romance Writers of America (RWA) – and their local counterpar­t Romance Writers Organisati­on of South Africa (ROSA) – romance writing has strict criteria. Number one: it has to centre on a love story. That’s an obvious one. Number two is a bit more controvers­ial: it has to have a happy ending.

‘The one massive rule if you want to call your book a romance is that it has to have a Happily Ever After (HEA) or an HFN, which is Happy for Now,’ says Dani.

As a self-published author, she has a direct line to her readers, and they let her know, in no uncertain terms, if they’re unhappy with her characters’ fates. ‘For them, reading romance is escape; they want to forget about real-life problems.’

Despite that, she likes to break the rules. ‘I think any story about love is a romance, happy ending or not. Even though I was upset at the end of Me Before You, she still learned how to love, and so did he.’

Romance writing gets a lot of flack for rule number two, says Nora. ‘But all genres have expectatio­ns and require narrative resolution. But romance is disparaged because it’s happy.

If it was important, it would be tragic. Which is bullsh*t! Look at Much Ado About Nothing

– everybody is happy!’

Jo is a fan of the Happy for Now type of ending – one that gives you the sense that it’s not forever, but that the romance affected the couple deeply. ‘It’s not perfect, but it changed them for the better. And that’s just as important as the dream of ever after.’


Jo Watson finds the notion of romance as a guilty pleasure patronisin­g. ‘Read whatever you want! Do you know who Chuck Tingle is? He writes gay dinosaur erotica. I don’t know why we should be judged for reading certain things.’

In SA, publishers (and bookshops) tend to favour the heavier reads, she says. ‘It’s always about politics and the ANC, or some trauma – autobiogra­phies about having a bad childhood. Why can’t I write something that’s light and fluffy for light and fluffy’s sake?

‘Look, I’m not going to win a Pulitzer Prize. I’m not Donna Tartt. But my novels serve a completely different purpose. The world can be a pretty sh*tty place and I think something that’s escapist, that’s fun and that’s light can be just as important. My agent says we can thank Trump for the rise of romcom. People are looking for something lighter.’

‘Why would you apologise for what you read for pleasure?’ asks Nora. ‘Just think of the illiteracy rate. Every book read for pleasure should be celebrated. And novels that celebrate love, commitment, relationsh­ips, making relationsh­ips work – why isn’t that something to be respected?’

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 ??  ?? Romcom writer Jo Watson
Romcom writer Jo Watson
 ??  ?? Indie author Dani René
Indie author Dani René

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