Creating Space for Feminism in Romance

Features, News

By Stacey Farley

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At parties when asked what I do, I smile and say ‘write romance novels’. I don’t inwardly cringe like I used to. I’m not proud to admit that I used to worry about the judgment strangers made about my career choice, but this writer wasn’t born yesterday. Romance is perceived as being the bottom rung of genre fiction ladder; even non-readers have picked up on this literary bias. Romance is often seen as having the least merit of all genre fiction. My genre of choice is seen as being ‘trashy’ fiction – meant just for women. It took me writing in this genre to really question those assumptions as I interacted with readers and took time to really sit down and examine why so many felt this way.

Unpacking the bias, I know that the ‘trashy fiction’ perception exists because romance commits two sins: fiction written by women for women, where the plot lines centre on female desire and sexuality. Often, stories with a strong romantic plot written by men are seen as serious literature by contrast. I’ve read ‘literary’ novels in the past and thought, ‘if I just slapped a male name and a different cover on my books, they’d have the same level of literary merit all the reviewers on this dust jacket seem to think this one does.’

Romance commits two sins: fiction written by women for women, where the plot lines centre on female desire and sexuality.

The recent ‘cocky-gate’ scandal, in which a romance author trademarked the term ‘cocky’ so other authors couldn’t use the word in their titles, is a good example of how romantic fiction, its readers and its authors are handled in the press, in a way that male writers and their work would never be portrayed. When I read back over the snide headlines, I can easily identify how little regard journalists had when it came to reporting on something which could have been a serious game changer for romance authors. The tone was clear: these silly women – never professional writers and authors – were fighting among themselves about the use of a word. As if their professional reputations, not to mention their very livelihoods, were little more than a joke. I have never seen male writers, their work and their professional lives spoken about in such terms.  

Sadder still for many women is the misogynistic beliefs that impact readers of the romance genre. Often readers are mocked, as female sexuality and female desire are seen as unimportant or even embarrassing. Perhaps some are threatened by the thought that these hunky book boyfriends will show up women’s flesh and blood partners. When asked if she thought romantic fiction gives women unrealistic expectations, bestselling author Nora Roberts told The Observer, ‘Because women aren’t supposed to have expectations, right? We’re pretty smart. I think we know the difference between reality and fiction. I don’t think that people read Agatha Christie, and then think: I know, I’ll go and murder someone.’ It’s important to note too that not all romantic fiction centers around heteronormative couples. There is plenty of fantastic LGBTQI romance out there too, as the 2017 Rainbow Awards demonstrated.  

We need to value a rich cultural scene where diverse writers and characters are seen with the same respect as the mainstream sees the usual suspects.

That some of the world’s bestselling romance authors receive so little mainstream media attention despite their success is telling. Over the last 30 years, an average of 27 Nora Roberts books were sold every minute. As of 2009, Roberts had 400 million books in print. This compared to Dan Brown’s 200 million books in print as of 2012. Yet Brown is a household name despite the fact he’s had markedly less success than his female colleague, and has been in the game less time.

This is a feminist issue as it deals with female autonomy on both sides. Romance authors are overwhelmingly female and are often using the income to support themselves and their families, and romance readers are overwhelmingly female. Women are being entertained in a way that obviously bruises some fragile egos.

How can feminist book lovers do something about this? We start with a conversation. Through our conversations we decide what can be done to support female authors and their work. We need to value a rich cultural scene where diverse writers and characters are seen with the same respect as the mainstream sees the usual suspects: male writers penning characters through their own lens. We need to see more awards won by the deserving work by female authors in addition to more awards like the Rainbow Awards for LGBTQI literature. We need to see more books penned by female authors on the school and university syllabus, more reviews of the work by female authors and mentions of them in the media. When writers and readers push for change, we’ll see writers of Roberts’ standing receiving the respect they deserve.

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