Monday, November 2, 2009

The Scholarly Romance?

Warning: a rant is about to begin. Over the summer, USA Today put out an article about how scholars and the romance genre are related. Some were shocked; I was not among them. The feminist within wants to rant about how anything related to women doesn’t get the respect it deserves, but then I would have to admit that I have been known to hide my affiliation with writing romance.

Known prejudices aside, it shouldn’t take a newspaper article to make people realize there’s more to the romance genre than the supposed bad dialogue, predictable plots, and gratuitous sex. In fact, I would argue that many of the romance novels I’ve read are better written than many supposed literary masterpieces. Try sloughing your way through The Historian; someone really should have been there to say “nice premise, but you really need to pare the story down to its essentials and work on your pacing.” On the other hand, Jennifer Cruisie’s Faking It was a delightfully multilayered story with the interwoven theme of “faking it” played out on many, many levels. Read it and be amazed by how deftly Cruisie keeps bringing that theme around again and again.

Maybe many things feminine have been overlooked and undervalued. After all, teachers and childcare providers get paid very little considering the importance of what they do while CEOs--mostly men--get paid entirely too much for what they do. Would more men be teachers if they could support their families by doing so? And don’t get me started on how expensive daycare is in comparison to how little the employees--again predominantly women--make.

Think back to literature. Hawthorne ranted against those “damn scribbling women.” How dare they take a share of his market! Writers like Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters have finally received proper recognition for their novels, but at the time they were considered romances. Do you wonder how many other women authors fell through the cracks? It was 1955 before Emily Dickinson’s poems were published without heavy editing. I’m sure “Wild Nights” was left out of the original publication.

The fact of the matter is that women’s concerns are often taken for granted: love, family, home. Mostly men have written history books throughout the ages, and that’s why they focus on wars and rulers. It took me forever to reconcile my love of history with my disdain for the class. I didn’t care about Grant’s military strategy; I yearned for snippets of daily life. What was it like to be a mother in 1776? What kind of undergarments did women have to wear in 1844? Why did women ever start shaving in the first place? Good luck finding any of that information in a standard history book. (By the way, both undergarments and shaving were originally ploys from advertisers, a way to make money off our insecurities. Underarm shaving dates back to the early twentieth century and the first sleeveless fashions. Women really started shaving their legs in the 1940s either due to a hosiery shortage, to a desire to be like Betty Grable, or more likely a combination of the two.)

Romance novels embrace women’s interests, and that is the simple reason they are popular not just among working class women but also *shock* among highly educated women. As women have become more liberated, romance novels have addressed a broader spectrum of interests and have branched into a plethora of genres, including the more literary women’s fiction. I, for one, am going to work harder not to shift my eyes when I tell someone I write romance novels as well as literary fiction. Maybe I’ll even get wild and crazy and call an embargo on shaving. (Or maybe not since I do want a roommate for M&M next year.)

But for now I’ll step down from my soapbox with a hearty thanks you’ve stayed with me thus far. Ladies, it’s your turn. Go ahead and sound off with a feminist moment or share one of your favorite romance novels that you think is a perfect example of why romance novels go beyond the stereotype. Instead of burning bras, let’s all go read a book.

Oh, and if you haven’t read the original USA Today article that inspired this little tirade. You can find it at


Sandy Elzie said...


Well done! Your rants are better written and more interesting than some novels on the market today.

I enjoyed the part about when women started shaving their pits...advertising....and you can bet it was a man who thought that one up. (although I guess secretly I thank him since I can't stand the sight of underarm hair on women)

I have to admit that I know of 5 men who voluntarily read my romance book and my husband has read several books from my Nora, one Bond and the BAD books. (guess he's in touch with his feminine side...or just enjoys good writing).

Thanks for starting my day off with a smile. Now, off to NaNo Land.


Cinthia Hamer said...

Thanks, Sally for a very thought-provoking post. My thoughts have echoed yours for decades...probably since I first sat through at history class and wondered why the book skipped from WWII to the "cold war" without anything in between.

What happened to all the women who kept the home fires burning after the men returned from war? And all those women who built the airplanes? When they were told they weren't needed anymore, did they just meekly return home and put their aprons on?

I get teased quite a bit by my co-workers about my "trashy novels"...most of the time I take it with good humor, but occasionally, I'll get my knickers in a twist and tell them not to judge my writing until they read it for themselves. And as for the trashy part...there's a whole book of the bible that's dedicated to sex! Does that make it "trashy"??? That usually shuts them up.

But, I do believe that the romance industry would do well to ditch the "clinch" covers as well as the naked man covers. It might garner us a bit more respect if the uneducated masses didn't suspect the woman across the aisle on the airplane was reading porn. KWIM?

Christine said...

Great Post! I get the "trashy story" comments as well. I now say, it's got plot and it makes money. Period. There is a reason the publishing industry loves us ;)

I love writing these stories because they are very complex and they force me to write tight.

I'll have to read the J Crusie book--when I get time to read ;)

Respect your work, your genre--stand tall!

Cyrano said...

I always, always, always enjoy your posts, but todays is my favorite!
I started reading romance when I was thirteen years old, thanks to my mother, and for a very long time I ended up hiding those scantily clad covers from others as I inhaled the plots, characterization, prose, and yes, the sex.
About six years ago I started writing them myself and whenever someone asked what I did for a living I would say, I'm a housewife. I'd omit, romance writer. A few years ago, after joining GRW and RWA I got the courage to say I write romance, but I'd always blush, or make excuses for it.
After reading your post and the article you introduced us to I plan on saying, "I write romance novels," loud and proud.
We should be proud of working in this genre. Writing is FRIGGIN HARD!!!! And there's not many people who have the stuff to pen a story that can boast 50% of book sales.
We are the few, the fearless and the feminine who are fortunate enough to have this fantastic gift. And we should shout our love for the genre from the rooftops.
Loved the post Sally! Loved it!
Have a productive day,

Maxine Davis said...

This was a very good rant! I agree so much. Tamara, you said it all so well, too.

I was a secretary for a few years. I enjoyed it, but got my dander up when the reports I worked on so hard got presented to 'the men' by 'the men.'

I'm laughing at them all now. Retired from education and doing what I want - writing!

I was a 'closet writer' for years because I was not published. Still not, but now (after GRW) I tell people I write and love it. It is surprising how almost everyone gushes, "Oh, I've always wanted to write a book!"

Debbie Kaufman said...

Hey Sally: I must admit that there are still a few covers I don't openly display. I find it easier to choose my public reading carefully. But, that's not because the other books are shameful or wrong. It's more that I KNOW how other people judge us. And it gets old, fast.

Susan May said...

This was great stuff! I couldn't agree more. I don't get the people with their noses in the air believeing that romance is dirt on the road compared to lit. I guess everyone needs to have something to feel superior about. I hope mine is that my checkbook is fatter than theirs from selling more books.

Linsey Lanier said...

What a wonderful post, Sally. It got my dander up. :)

In my books, my heroines defy the feminine sterotype by taking on male-dominated roles, such as construction worker, PI and police detective. (A little more about that on Thursday... stay tuned. :) )

It's amazing how people dismiss romance as "trashy" without ever reading one book. Cinthia, love the reminder of the book in the Bible.

Hooray for female authors! Hooray for the romance genre! Hooray for future fat checkbooks!


Anna Steffl said...

This is a fascinating topic.

Genre writing, across the board from science fiction and mystery to romance, isn't highly respected. There are some good reasons for that. Reader expectations tend to limit the scope, style and content of such works.

On the other hand, a great deal can be accomplished within the limitations of the genres. Writers can push at its limits. I think that is really happening now with romance with the explosion of different voices, lengths, styles and sub-genres.

Personally, I don't like the majority of the covers on romance novels (or fantasy books, either). Some are classy and attractive, others are just cheesy. They go a long way to perpetuate the misconceptions about what the books are about. But...these covers must work for more women than those who dislike them. Otherwise publishers wouldn't stay with the format. Hey, I like eye candy just as much as anyone else, but I like it a bit more private. The covers can be like those car calendars with the bikini girls sprawled over the Firebirds and Camaros. Women see those in a repair shop and feel kind of gross. I imagine men see the covers of romance novels and feel a bit gross in the same way -- if this is what women want, how am I going to compete? The logical next step is to denigrate the writing in these books. Are we that surprised that men don't jump up and down to celebrate romance novels?

Ana Aragón said...

My favorite rant so far!

I am proud of what I write and what I read. Much of the history I've learned has been between the covers of historical novels. Frankly, I have a very difficult time plowing through most history books, but I love history.

I will agree with Anna S, though. I absolutely have hated every single one of my book covers, and I don't think any one of them has sold my book to the readers who would enjoy reading it. Hunky guys on front covers don't do it for me. I enjoy reading erotic romance, but you wouldn't catch me reading one with the the half-naked guy on the cover.


Tami Brothers said...

I agree with everyone, Sally. Great post!

I do get irritated with people when they talk down about romance novels or when someone tells me they don't read those kind of books. I really get irritated when they look down upon me for reading them. Especially when you read the following stats.

"Romance Fiction Is:
$1.375 billion in sales each year

The largest share of the consumer-book market

More than a quarter of all books sold are romance

....and are read by 51 million people each year." (Stat information taken from RWA Website)

It makes you wonder where all these people are hiding their "stash."

Nicki Salcedo said...

Ranting is my favorite. I brought all of my romance novels with me to [insert gasp] Stanford. And I picked my best friend because she had read all the same Julie Garwood books that I did.

Didn't care about pretentious people then, don't care about them now! Feminism is the idea that we respect the range of interests that woman have. Working. Raising kids. Literature. Romance.

You might want to check out the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance :) Smart women (and men) interested in the study of romance!

Thanks so much, Sally. Wonderful post.

Carol Burnside said...

Coming in late here, but I love this! I used to hide my Harlequin books all the time. Of course, I was only 11-12 years old and had to so the teacher wouldn't confiscate them. LOL! Back then my peers looked at me with envy becuz I was reading those "trashy" books.

Didn't help my grades any, but I sure enjoyed getting lost in the world of romance. Still do and proud of it. :D

Sally Kilpatrick said...

Thanks, everyone for joining the debate with such well-thought arguments!

Sandy, I think all of the Kilpatrick men have read a little Nora. And, yes, it had to be a man who thought up the idea that underarm hair is only ugly and smelly on women.

Cinthia, thanks for breaking out Song of Solomon. I'll have to remember that one.

Sally Kilpatrick said...

Christine, I like what you say about writing complex stories tight. When I was fresh out of college I thought I would whip out a romance novel really quickly and make a little extra cash. Ha! Writing a romance novel is a lot like writing a sonnet: you have to be creative while sticking within certain parameters. Compared to literature, it's a different skill set.


Sally Kilpatrick said...

Tamara--thanks for your love! Indeed, you should say you're a writer. Even I don't label myself a romance writer because that doesn't encompass everything that I do. What I've discovered, though, is that everything I write tends to involve a love story, and I don't think that means my work should be pigeon-holed as "trash."

Oh, and I have your cross, Buffy. : )

Sally Kilpatrick said...

Maxine--I hope you keep getting the last laugh on "the men!"

Debbie--you're right about book covers, but I'm seeing a trend away from the half-naked men, and I'm so glad!!

Sally Kilpatrick said...


It is a snooty thing. In my chick lit class we read a book called This is Not Chick Lit, an anthology of "literature." Then a group of chick lit writers got together to write their own anthology called This is Chick Lit. I learned a couple of things. One, literature is depressing. Two, "good" is a very subjective thing, so you're absolutely right about how people should work harder to keep their noses level! : )

Sally Kilpatrick said...

Linsey--I like that you have your heroines in nontraditional roles. I think that's just one way we reflect how life has changed for women.

Sally Kilpatrick said...


Thanks for adding another side to the story. You are absolutely right about the naked man covers. I've often wondered if they really sell better or if it's some CEO thinking they sell better than other covers.

I think one of the good things about chick lit is that it has impacted book covers positively. The RITA best new book from 2008, Dead Girls are Easy, doesn't have a man on it at all. A lot of books, notably Jennifer Cruisie's books, have cartoon covers.

As always, if we want our genre to be taken seriously we need to take some steps to revamp how it is presented. And I agree with you that genre fiction, in general, is often denigrated, but there are masters of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and western who are considered masters (Tolkien, King, etc) For some reason, romance can't get that respect.

Sally Kilpatrick said...

Ana--I think your situation is truly unique. Erotica has blossomed (pardon the pun) in the past few years, especially for women. Of course, erotica is going to have to fight a two-front war of criticism for being both romance and beyond sexy. Like romance, though, it's not as easy as insert tab A in slot B.

Good luck to you, and I enjoyed Stroke of Midnight. (And believe I'm behind on a few others.)

Sally Kilpatrick said...


Where are people hiding their "stash"? And how are the demographics changing? I would be interested to see if category romance is losing ground to single title contemporary and chick lit or if the sales of each category are helping each other. Thanks for the numbers!

Sally Kilpatrick said...


You are so right about feminism. I have a minor in women's studies, and just got done reading this article on feminism and post-feminism for my chick lit class. To sum up the article--as well as my experience as a student with older women's studies teachers--old guard feminists are disgusted with younger post-feminists because the younger women are choosing to sometimes give up careers in favor of family. Younger women resent the carping of the older generation saying that feminism should be about choices.

And I can't help wondering why women have to spend so much time arguing among themselves when we still aren't getting the same amount as men for the same type of work.

Oh, and thanks for letting us see another scholarly side to romance. Like all forms of pop culture, it deserves some serious study! : )

Sally Kilpatrick said...


You are so right about feminism. I have a minor in women's studies, and just got done reading this article on feminism and post-feminism for my chick lit class. To sum up the article--as well as my experience as a student with older women's studies teachers--old guard feminists are disgusted with younger post-feminists because the younger women are choosing to sometimes give up careers in favor of family. Younger women resent the carping of the older generation saying that feminism should be about choices.

And I can't help wondering why women have to spend so much time arguing among themselves when we still aren't getting the same amount as men for the same type of work.

Oh, and thanks for letting us see another scholarly side to romance. Like all forms of pop culture, it deserves some serious study! : )

Sally Kilpatrick said...

Carol--reminds me of the birthday card with the half-naked man that got taken up in junior high. I don't remember if it was mine or my friend's, but that was an embarassing moment. As for Harlequins, I had to read those at home, but I did read North and South at 12, and I don't think my mom would have been that enthused if she had known some of the stuff that was in that!

Here's to losing yourself in another world!