In Defense of the Bodice Ripper: Confessions of a Millennial Romance Novelist
By Cara Rowe
The thirty-something professor raked a careless hand through his hair as he dispensed advice for the final creative writing project of the semester. The gesture disheveled his feathery brown locks, making him look dashing in a careless sort of way. (A fact that likely did not escape the professor as he lectured to the largely female class.)
“For this short story,” he said, “write what you like to read. If you like westerns, write a western. If you read mysteries, don’t try to write the great American novel, write a mystery.”
As the class jotted down the note, he continued, “But for the purposes of this class, no romance novels. If that’s what you like to read, great. Wait until the semester is over then write one and make a million dollars. But don’t write one for this class.”
The students offered up the appreciative laughter he was seeking. All the students, that is, but one: Me, distracted as I was by the giant, if figurative, lightbulb that had popped into existence above my head.
The thing is, I’d wanted to be an author since middle school, but had long been confounded by the question of what to write. I had never once in all my ponderings thought of writing a romance novel, yet it was a genre I’d loved since the age of fourteen, when my mother first plunked a copy of Johanna Lindsey’s Say You Love Me into my impressionable hands. So why did it take years and one lame joke to make that light bulb go on?
Although the role of basic human obtuseness can’t be counted out, I think the answer lies in the same easy dismissal applied by my English professor during that final project. In the unquestioning acceptance of stereotypes that label romance fiction as a genre of tasteless covers, formulaic plots, and bad writing. No “serious” authors produce romance novels, I believed, despite being an avid admirer of many of talented writers who did just that. Nevertheless, I resolved to give it a try. Now, several years and two books later, I’m a bigger fan than ever.
Here’s what I, a millennial and a feminist, take from romance fiction: Unquestionably, the primary purpose of the genre is to provide a pleasurable escape from reality. In general, romance novels are not intended to be didactic or especially life-changing works. But that does not mean they have nothing to teach us. Because while we probably shouldn’t hold out for a Texas oil billionaire or a medieval Scottish chieftain to sweep us up on his horse, there are certain things these beefy fictional gents have in common that any woman should regard as deal breakers. Principal among them is the way heroes in romance novels approach sex. Particularly in traditional romance (in comparison to, say, its sister genre erotica, where just about anything goes) any romance hero worthy of the name is more focused on the heroine’s pleasure than his own. Sure, he’s feeling frisky as hell, but any encounter that doesn’t leave the heroine gloriously satisfied represents a colossal failure to the typical hero. Moreover, one of the most common character arcs that heroines undergo is the transition from inexperience or negative experience with sexual intimacy to joyful confidence in her sexual power. So sure, we can laugh at genre conventions that have virgins effortlessly orgasming from the outset, but there’s more to it than that. In romance, sex between the hero and heroine is an outgrowth of not just of physical attraction, but emotional intimacy and is generally a safe, supported experience for the heroine—a far cry from a lot of what we see in other parts of popular culture. The sex-positive lesson from romance novels then, is that women should regard this kind of sexual intimacy not just as an ideal, but as an expectation.
Then there’s the industry itself. Romance novels generate more than a billion dollars per year in sales. These are sales to predominantly female readers by female authors, by way of mostly female agents and editors. Through professional associations like the Romance Writers of America, authors and other industry professionals have access to unparalleled advocacy and resources, which culminates in a sense of camaraderie and mutual support quite distinct from other areas of fiction. As a genre, romance has been at the vanguard of dramatic changes in the publishing industry, including the rise of eBooks and the popularization of small press and self-publishing. And throw away whatever image you have in your head of the typical romance novelist. Increasingly, authors are responsible not just for writing books, but for overseeing the publishing process, becoming marketing experts and being their own biggest advocates. Talk about leaning in.
It’s easy to dismiss romance novels as silly, antiquated or even un-feminist. Believe me, I’ve done it. But a deeper consideration of the genre shows that there’s a lot to admire as well. It has something for just about everyone, whether you want to linger over each lushly constructed sentence in a novel as thick as a dictionary, or whether you prefer authors who can churn books out like a Pez dispenser. So if you haven’y picked up a romance novel in a while (okay, or ever) give one a try. You might just find yourself hooked.