By Isabeau Dasho
Romance is serious business. Romance novels make just over 34% of the market share in traditional trade publishing and an increasingly high share of internet sales. One third of traditional paperbacks are romance novels, and the market penetration of these books is immense. Not many books are sold in supermarkets and gas stations. Romance is unique in that way. There’s an argument to be made here that Genre Romances keep the literary lights on in publishing. That without the Romance imprints traditional publishing housing wouldn’t risk money on the next groundbreaking novel.
And while this line of capitalist thinking has its merits and should be reason enough to appreciate Romance and its place in the publishing pantheon—it doesn’t.
Romance, not unlike girl teen culture, is constantly ridiculed and belittled by society at large. There’s an idea that Romance as a genre sets female expectation too high (whatever that means) and is purely escapist. What I find fascinating about the charge of “Escapism” is that so many things fall into that category without the derogatory baggage attached to Romance. Jean Le Carre is nothing if not escapist, ditto Tolkien, Hemmingway, and Franzen. What is fiction if not escape from what we are living or inhabiting? Regardless of whether or not the walls constructed in the novel look like a suburban hellscape or an English country home the point remains to transport us, the reader, somewhere else.
Escape is the name of the game.
The fact that Romance is unapologetic, that Romance call itself what it is, should be a marker of its power not its inherent failure to be sophisticated or whatever the charge may be.
Romance deserves to be taken on its merits, researched and deconstructed according to its own rules and formulas just like any other literary work or genre. The fact that 80% of its readers are female, should only make this work more important. So few segments of our society are truly made by women for women that the phenomena of the Romance Genre deserves an even more critical lens, not less.
Romance readers are voracious, vocal, and loyal. At a time when the American Library Association put out a statistic saying that only 33% of Americans will pick up a novel after high school, we should be interrogating what it is about Romance that keeps readers, and grows itself. If we care about literature we should care about Romance. If we care about stories of growth and change we should care about Romance. If we care about eroticism and sensuality in an increasing titillated world we should care about Romance. If we care about deconstructing toxic masculinity and laying bear the limitations of patriarchal hierarchies we should care about Romance.
My interest in Romance -- the good, the bad, and the hilarious -- is that paying attention to a genre so irrevocably tied to women’s pleasure feels radical. Investigating the structure of these novels and what makes them tick, what makes these formulaic stories new and interesting in all their variation, feels like a move toward recuperation. Recovering what it is that makes escapist literature pleasurable and inviting.
Especially as it pertains to women.
I want to talk about Romance because I believe that talking about women’s pleasure is transgressive and powerful. I want to talk about Romance because making space for heroes who have visible feelings is taking a small sledge hammer to the culture of toxic masculinity. I want to talk about Romance because it’s fun to say cock and clit. I want to talk about Romance because its important and deserves to be talked about.