The Greatest of These Is Love

As a published romance author, it’s occasionally my happy privilege to join discussion panels at conferences, libraries, and other venues. The talk often turns–regardless of how the panel is titled to–why does romance get so little respect?

Romance novels are half of all paperbacks sold, but the New York Times bestsellers list was recently revised to make it harder for romance to make the lists–harder for all genre fiction, but especially romance. If those lists are not about what’s selling the best, then what are they for? Nora Roberts has hit the New York Times bestseller’s lists for a collective score of nine years–more than 400 weeks, and counting–but she’s been mentioned in their book review section twice.

The stats that paint a picture disrespect are legion, and as recently as this month, a major news network covering tiny libraries referred to romance as “trashy.” (They won’t do THAT again.)

The theory that’s usually put forth to explain denigration of romance is that it’s literature largely written by women, about women, for women, and edited by women. The problem with romance is the problem women in society face generally: Not enough respect.

Then there’s that business about THE SEX. Who can respect a genre that’s sold strictly on the basis of THE SEX?

Except, to me, those theories don’t jive with all the data. At the end of a romance novel, the hero has often been transformed by love every bit as much as the heroine, if not more. She gets what she wants, but he gets what he wants too, and both of them have changed goals as the book has progressed. And as for the sex…

I’ve read thrillers that have more sex than my romances, and more graphic sex. I’ve read mysteries that have more sex than ANY inspirational romance. I’ve read lit fic that seems to add gratuitous sex every fifty pages. I’ve read women’s fiction that has longer sex scenes than anything I’ve written. Only romance, though, is stereotyped on the basis of its erotic content. Why is this?

Only romance consistently presents sex in the context of a loving relationship. Only romance puts that loving relationship right on the cover. Only romance insists that both hero and heroine find the courage and take the risks required to earn a lovingly ever after.

Only romance–every romance novel ever published, including the increasing number not written by women or about women (yay, diversity!)–is built on the premise that love conquers all… and can potentially conquer anybody. If you base your self worth on other forms of power–beauty, charm, money, physical strength, legal structures, academic knowledge–then the very premise of a romance novel can feel threatening.

That theory, to me, explains more of the data than simply citing a societal disrespect for women. Love is scary to many of us. My rebuttal to that: Try living in a world without love. Now that is a terrifying prospect.

Do you think romance deserves more respect? Why, and is there any merit in trying to change that perception? To one commenter, I’ll send a copy an audiobook of The Heir.

 

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39 comments on “The Greatest of These Is Love

  1. 1
    Miranda says:

    Romance novels definitely deserve more respect, both in the literary world and in the everyday world. By everyday world, I mean that a romance reader should not be made to feel shame for reading a novel in public (as I have). A reader should be able to freely discuss his or her favorite books without someone rolling their eyes and saying, “Oh….a romance novel. That does not really count.”

    Yes, it does! I have thoroughly enjoyed reading historical romance novels for years and have learned so much from them. And not just history Romance novels should not be a dirty little secret. The desire for a HEA is one that almost all people enjoy. Why should it continue to be a hidden and very unappreciated genre if it gives the reader what the reader wants?

    Reading is reading and any reading is good reading. I wish more people would see that. My children see me reading books and, in turn, have become voracious readers themselves. Thank goodness that my mother read her “trashy romance novels” out in the open when I was a kid. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have become the person I am today. A person who loves to read.

    • 1.1

      I was a reader before I came across romance novels, but the reading habit would have withered during the working full time and going to school five nights week/working full time and single parenting years… but for romance.
      It has been my constant comfort, and my guess is, the people who put it down have never read a good one.

  2. 2
    Teenie Marie says:

    Romance novels transport me. They take me away from my daily life into another time and place(I always go with the historical, though I do like your contemporary)so I am able to have a vacation for my mind. I need it; my lovely/crazy family–my family of birth and the one I’ve created–and my not always fun*fun*fun career of being a choral conductor are not conducive to calm, cool and collected! I read *serious* literature during the summer, perhaps reading a Jane Austen novel again in rotation or some Dickens but during the fall, winter and spring, I am yours.

    I think many men do the same thing, at least the ones in my life, when they binge watch sports (name a sport–THEY WATCH IT!). It takes them away from their oblations for a time because whatever THEY do is stressful.

    Women’s need for escapism is not respected, since society believes they have nothing to escape from. And the sex scenes; well, *nice girls* shouldn’t like that, should they?

    • 2.1

      You raise interesting points, Lillian. I’m not sure ANYBODY’s need to escape is taken seriously in our work, work, work culture. We’re encouraged to go the gym, but the whole concept of leisure, downtown, and fun just doesn’t have a place in our social dialogues. Increasingly, we’re supposed to be available to our employers, friends, and family 24-7, and I don’t think that’s healthy.
      Reading for pleasure? THAT is healthy.

  3. 3
    Gail Nichols says:

    Yes, I think romance deserves more respect. From what I gather it is one of the biggest selling genres in the publishing business. I love to sit down with a good romance and I have no problem recommending romance books to people I meet in public. (Especially when employees in book stores add book sellers in other places run from the genre like crazy.) I say loud & proud I am a romance reader and I love it. I also say more respect is needed a deserved for the genre of romance.

    • 3.1

      One of the librarians I recently met made this point: Romance readers tend to know exactly what they want, and they go find it for themselves. They tend not to be the customers asking for a lot of help, so it’s easy to underestimate how many are in the store or library.

      She’d been very surprised to learn that some of her long-time regulars were romance readers. They would ask her about lit fic or women’s, but when it came to romance, they didn’t need any help.

  4. 4
    Kathalina says:

    I absolutely believe that there is a lack of respect for the genre and its truly sad. There is a stigma for owning what many people call smut literature and many times I have been told its not real writing or its trashy literature. What many fail to aknowledge is that authors put countless hours into research to write these books to keep them historically accurate. Some even find brilliant ways to put a slight twist by bringing more of a story to historical people. Though fiction tracing back so closely to true historical events is both enlightening and educational for us history nerds.I have actually gotten my husband to read a romance novel or two for his opinion on the writing style. He even said the sex in most of the books wasnt like trashy porn and the novel stood alone without it. Its sad because the romance sections in many bookstores have dwindled to nothing yet they sell so many.

    • 4.1

      I’ve wondered if the issue isn’t simply success envy. If science fiction was the top genre, would it be denigrated as “overpriced comic books?” If YA became the top seller would it be, “Children’s books for grown ups?” The thing about romance that puzzles me is the degree to which it’s equated with sex, and what to do about that.
      Why is romance the only major genre that’s identified widely by its erotic content, when that content is often much tamer than what we read in other genres?

  5. 5
    Julie says:

    I’ve read most of my life, in all different genres. It takes me to places I didn’t know I wanted to go. I like to fall in love with the hero, early on. I absolutely love a HEA. I love the covers and never have I been embrassed to read one anywhere. In fact I’ve had quite a few ladies ask me where I’ve got them. Keep on writing them, there will always be a market. We all love to see how the H/H get there.

  6. 6
    Mary T says:

    No, they certainly don’t get the respect they deserve. I don’t know if the general public knows how profitable those books are. But the publishing world knows and they ought to be on their knees thanking (and celebrating) you.

    In my younger days my reading consisted of mostly classics and best sellers. I didn’t discover romance until my mid thirties when I was going through a serious depression. I didn’t want to waste my time on anything that didn’t have a good ending. Discovered a book by Kathleen Woodiwiess. Loved it. Found myself wondering if there were any more books like that out there. Found a whole section in the bookstore devoted to romance and didn’t look back (smile).

    When I retired, and had more time for reading, I renewed by romance with the library and headed straight for the section I loved the best. Except for biographies and an occasional mystery it’s all romance for me.

    • 6.1

      I’ve always read romance, and that happily ever after has to be there for me. There’s enough misery in real life, thank you very much. I also like how complicated a good romance is–two character arcs (three if the villain sees some action), a strong external drama, a romantic arc, good writing, forward pacing… Other subgenres just feel sleepy to me by comparison.

  7. 7
    Shera Melson says:

    There are many fine authors of romance literature but there are also plenty of hack writers just in it for a buck. The marketplace is full of all kinds of romances and that’s a good thing. Some of it is fine, even inspiring writing but some of it is repetitive copycat schlock. Each genre of romance has its own rules and that limits in some ways what is possible in terms of character and plot, so I understand that some repetition is unavoidable. What I look for is an author that has a good “voice” and understanding of her genre. I’ve had to kiss a few frogs to find the prince(sses) that are worth reading.
    I am a Kindle app reader and part of that is not having to sit there with one of those lurid covers in pink and purple hues that are what publishers think (probably correctly) is what women want. I should not be embarrassed to be reading this kind of literature but I also do not want to feel like I am being judged for my reading tastes. I don’t want to have to defend whatever I am reading to other folks on the plane or family members even. Leave me alone! I am reading! I don’t have time for your judgemental opinion of my reading choices! I think publishers shoot themselves in the foot with some of the ridiculous choices of cover art. I’m tired of man boobs!
    So I guess I’m saying that there are great authors of literature aimed at women who deserve our respect, but there are a lot who don’t. People in the publishing industry need to respect their women readers. There’s a ton of self-publishing going on and that’s a good thing too, but some of it’s not worth the cyberspace it takes up. I know that the marketplace will take care of the hack writers in the long run. I know it would be tough to make a living writing in romance because it’s not taken seriously. As long as women are not respected as much as men, respect for women writers is not going to be there. This is nothing new of course. When Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick, sales were slow. He was outsold by women’s literature at the time. But we know about Moby Dick and not much about all those women writers’ work. I wonder about what will still be around a century from now.

    • 7.1

      Theodore Sturgeon, a very successful sci-fi writer and critic, would agree with you. There’s a lot of bad writing getting published. Sturgeon’s law is: “Ninety percent of everything is crap.”

      I hope we’re well below the 90 percent mark in romance!

      And as for the covers… what I was told by an editor who’s been around since day one is that those clinch covers (think Fabio) were what publishers found they had to use to get the notice of the male retail book buyers at major book store chains in the 1980s. Now, those covers are a shorthand signal to the readers: Histrom! Rom Com! Rom Sus!

      Yeah, well, so what? Romance readers are some of the smartest people I’ve met. If the covers became less graphic, the readers would probably pick up on that in nothing flat.

  8. 8

    I think you have hit upon the truth, Grace. Love is a powerful force – intangible and inexplicable in so many ways. Those who do not know love or worse, are afraid of love, can do nothing but try to diminish it or ridicule it. Love has the power to override prejudice, hatred, racism, sexism, and pretty much every negative force in the universe. Unfortunately, love doesn’t always sell newspapers or magazines or views on the internet. Think of what a wonderful world it would be if it did.

    The power of romance novels is the power of hope. Hope. Another frightening force for those who only know brute power, wealth, and despair as the weapons with which to rule the world. Hope and love bring people together. They show us our differences aren’t all that different and our similarities are what make us human, part of the same earthly family.

    Love makes those who don’t understand it very uncomfortable. Romance novels show readers it is okay to love, it is okay to take control of our lives, our hearts, and yes, bodies. People who are comfortable in their own skins, in their hearts, and in their souls are a difficult bunch to intimidate. Try telling those people to hate someone because of the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, their religion, their gender. It’s tough because those who really know love and know its power look for reasons to love, not reasons to hate.

    One of my favorite quotes ever is by Thomas a Kempis. I have it framed over my desk.

    Love feels no burden,
    thinks nothing of trouble,
    attempts what is above its strength,
    pleads no excuse of impossibility,
    for it thinks all things lawful for itself,
    and all things possible.

    • 8.1

      Louisa, yes… Hope. The last of the spirits to leave Pandora’s box and sew chaos across the land. The other side of that coin is personal empowerment. You figure out what you need to be happy and have meaning in your life, and you go after it. You don’t sit on your tuffet and wait for Prince or Princess Charming to bring it to you.

      This is not always possible, but it’s nice to believe it should always be possible.

  9. 9
    Susan Gorman says:

    YES!

    THe romance genre deserves more respect. I am tired of people turning up their noses when they discover that I read romance novels. A good novel draws you into the storyline and the characters. The reader is able to forget their everyday worries and concerns and become invested in the hero and heroine of the novel.

    Romance novels are well written, discuss social issues and the characters are conceded. There are similarities to ones own life….maybe the setting or the clothing maybe different. A reader can relate to a novel where there is a HEA.

    With all of the politics, anger, terrorism and danger, why wouldn’t you want to read a romance novel? Love trumps anger any day of the week.

  10. 10

    The sheer bulk of Romance and the amount of revenue it generates may be significant, but I’m not sure that makes it worthy of respect. After all, McDonald’s generates more revenue than any 5-star restaurant. That doesn’t mean it’s putting out a better product.

    As for the content, the happy ending, this should not in itself bring the disrespect down on us. Mystery stories also end up with a happy ending in that the mystery is solved. Hundreds of books on the classic shelves, and not just Jane Austen, have a happy ending. However, we shouldn’t be too surprised. Tragedy always gets more respect than comedy. Even with Shakespeare, Hamlet gets more respect than As You Like It.

    As a general rule, Romance does not deal with controversial issues. Nor, as a general rule, does it grapple with profound questions of right and wrong, good and evil. (I know there are exceptions. I said “as a general rule.”) Romance focuses on the love story and ends on an upbeat. That means that evil is defeated, without the ambiguity that often cloaks it in the real world. Romance novels do not generally make the reader uncomfortable.

    Nor does the way Romance is marketed encourage respect. The Fabio-style clinch covers may be out of fashion, but so many of the covers look alike (one month all historicals have long purple dresses, the next month they’re all red) and they tend to have cute titles with pop culture references, that it’s hard to see why anyone would take them seriously.

    Since Romance is pubished almost exclusively in ebooks or mass market format—I can think off-hand of maybe five authors whose books frequently come out in hardcover—they are inexpensive. Many, many ebooks are either free or $0.99. I know the theoretical value of this marketing strategy, but if we don’t think our work is worth much, why should anyone else?

    We are writing entertainment. Reading Romance is an alternative to watching a TV sitcom, and they don’t get a whole lot of respect either. Attention and chatter, maybe, but there are a whole lot fewer sitcoms than there are Romance novels.

    Does Romance get less respect than other genres? Maybe, though I don’t see a whole lot of attention being paid to most sci-fi or fantasy outside of fans of those genres.

    Does Romance get less respect because it is mostly women who read and write it? Maybe, but I’m not sure blaming sexism is useful.

    From whom do we want respect, and why do we think we need it?

    • 10.1

      Lots of good thoughts in that comment, Lillian, especially with respect to money and how it affects our perception of quality. On Kobo and iBooks, authors are warned that cheap goods often do worse than higher priced items. This is regardless of how many great reviews, awards, or cool cover options you have. Readers react to the price.

      On Amazon, the opposite is true. I suspect Amazon influences the visibility of products priced where Amazon wants products priced. For example, ebooks priced over $9.99 earn royalties at HALF the rate lower priced books do.

      Lots to think about there… not all of it cheerful for authors.

  11. 11
    Kym Collar says:

    I agree that romance doesn’t get the same respect as literary books, or even novels in other genres. But I also think that there can be a measure of sub-genre close-mindedness. One of my sisters always said she wouldn’t read anything with motors. Not only would she never read outside of historical romance, she’d actually kinda curl her lip when offered a contemporary. I’ve spoken to people who won’t even listen to me when I want to talk about paranormal or sci-fi romance. I think, not only does professional criticism need to step into the world of romance fiction, romance readers need to step out of their comfort zones by reading in different sub-genres.

    • 11.1

      What you said. The same people who tell me they are always looking for new keeper authors won’t pick up a JR Ward no matter how many times I swoon over her male/male dialogue. I tend to read for solid writing and strong craft, regardless of setting, and that means I’ll pick up anything… as long as it’s well written.

  12. 12
    Cassie p says:

    Hi Grace. I went to the source. My husband. I would say he is a typical male reader. Wilbur Smith,John Grisham, and Lee Child etc. He said it’s marketing. I’ve never really thought about this aspect before. You go into a book store and there are sections, right? Romance, women’s fiction etc. Plus he’s not going to pick up a book with a shirtless guy on it either. Obviously, we women would but not your typical guy. He said if the story was interesting and the characters good he doesn’t give a rats about whether it has sex in it. He said he’d go on the blurb and front page to decide if he wanted to read it. But I digress. While a journo might write “trashy books” to describe our genre I think it goes back again to marketing. They were called penny dreadfuls, bodice rippers and soft porn. While these names are still associated with our genre there will always be a certain amount of disrespect.

    • 12.1

      The book cover I’ve included above–Dangerous Books for Girls–goes through the whole history of why novels (in the first place) were denigrated, and the novels written by women (domestic scribblers) denigrated the most, and the novels written by women FOR women denigrated beyond all others even before there was a romance genre.

      And yet, the Prince Regent adored Jane Austen’s novels and those are certainly romantic, if not exactly romances.

    • 12.2
      Esther says:

      This article aceveihd exactly what I wanted it to achieve.

  13. 13
    Colleen Perry says:

    I amvery sad that historical romance novels are not always listed on New York Times bestsellers list, or is difficult to go there. They are so popular. What you read and my feeling are that these books are so helpful for entertainment, good mood, peace of mind. They are one of most help for me to keep me sane.I feel I would maybe not be here without them. I know that sounds dramatic, but am very serious about it. Your books are awesome, and leave me so happy, peaceful, and good reason to get up each morning. As far as sex, I love it, and in your books ad to story, always in good taste. I have written to you in past and said I am 80 and your books are one of most important part of my life. I also wish all authors would say in description of books that it contains some spice, so reader could make decision to read or not. That is reason I read them, plus my favorite authors, which you are always at top of my list. My plan in life is to read all your books. Love. Colleen

    • 13.1

      Thanks for those kind words, and I do know what you mean, about good books getting us through the hard parts. As a single, working mom, I lived for the last hour of the day, when I could read a few chapters of a Loretta Chase, Judith Ivory, Mary Balogh and others. They gave me a break, and gave me hope. Then, it was on to another day… and another few chapters. My daughter will soon be thirty. She doesn’t know how many fairy godmothers she had pulling for us.

  14. 14
    Vivian Sadow says:

    I am relatively new to the romance genre. For much of my reading life, I considered romance novels to be the literary equivalent of 1960s shampoo commercials–flowing hair (his and hers) and slow-motion collision in a field of wildflowers. Then I happened to read a Jo Beverley story in a cross-genre anthology of short stories and liked it so well that I looked her up and discovered a great storyteller. That was the beginning, leading me to other wonderful tellers of tales (including you, obviously!). This may sound skeptical, but it often seems to me that when a man writes about relationships, it is an exploration of the profundities of the human condition; when a woman does, it’s dismissed as a kitchen-table exercise.

    The NYT has long disdained most of whatever it is they view as genre literature: especially romance, but also sci-fi, fantasy, mysteries, and anything that is construed by them as not “important” or “serious” literary fiction (whatever that is).

    I think romance fiction is disrespected because it is associated with women, pure and simple. There are so many romance novels that are absolutely brilliant, and if they were not identified as being romance fiction, would be deemed review-worthy by even the stodgiest venues.

    I think the use of genre categories is a marketing tool that often does a disservice to authors and readers by encasing stories in a too-tight-fitting box that allows for easy dismissal and even rigid parameters.

    I do not know how to counteract these perceptions, frankly. Letter-writing campaigns, subscription cancellations (giving the reasons for such), protests on social media; these all come to mind. How effective these would be, I have no idea.

    Think how long it took for Jane Austen to be considered seriously enough to be added to English Lit curricula.

    • 14.1

      And before Jane got her college creds, she was chosen by the British railroad companies as pulp fiction. She’d been around long enough to be out of copyright, and her books were accessible enough that merchants and shopgirls could enjoy them. … Now she’s brilliant all the way to BBC’s bank.

      Though she did forget to include that scene without Colin Firth’s shirt. A minor oversight.

  15. 15
    Beth says:

    I’m chalking it up to sexism pure and simple. Purely because women own the genre now. After all, what is the best selling book on the planet, aka The Bible, but a love story? And it’s full of sex from the begats to the Song of Solomon. But men controlled it for millennia, so that made it theirs.

    What are the Arthurian cycle but love stories? Guinevere anyone? But Tretien de Croyes and Mallory wrote it down, so men claimed it.

    Chaucer and that smutty miller’s wife? Male.

    Shakespeare anyone? Male, with couples in love running about everywhere.

    John Donne “licensed his roving hands to go”. Cleric & male? Right. Definitely okay.

    Clear on up until those dratted females started writing. Suddenly we have “Little” Women for one of the most powerful pieces of literature since that banned Jane Austen novel & Mrs Radcliffe’s gothic. Because everyone “knows” novel reading spoils girls’ brains & can be justification for asylum stays.

    Even Gone With the Wind is passed off as entertainment, despite being a powerful examination of the effects of war on the South, yet that snoozer Faulkner gets trotted out to bore generations since a MAN’S view of the South, however warped and misogynistic is IMPORTANT, while a woman’s is not.

    I’ll end the rant for now, but Nora Roberts and romance in general is suffering from the same misogynistic nonsense for the same reason universities and governments hold bias against women. Not enough of us running those institutions. Indie publishing scares the old boys clubs to death because they can’t control us! So they denigrate.

    Every book you publish is a death knell to the status quo. Who knew you were such a revolutionary, Grace? Vive le Burrowes! Vive Romance! Long live women’s economic freedom and the rest will follow. We’re just a pack of subversive readers. (Insert evil chortle)

    • 15.1
      Vivian Sadow says:

      Hear, hear!

    • 15.2

      Wel… um…. I can’t argue with your facts. There is such a thing as patriarchy, and it’s alive and well in publishing. Has been for a long time. BUT I still maintain that more of the data is explained by citing a fear of love than a hatred toward women. Gay romance written by men and for men is bashed, M/F romance written by men is bashed, and plenty of books with plenty of sex written by women are not bashed because the sex isn’t the scary part. Some of the greatest mystery writers of all time have been women–no bashing.

      But it’s also true that both theories can explain what’s afoot. Some people don’t cut women a fair break, other people run from the literature of love.

  16. 16
    Amy says:

    I think there is a Caroline Bingley aspect to this too. There does seem to be a subset of the sex who really like to stick it to a sister. For example: I submitted a draft of a novel I’ve been working on to the ladies in my writing group and one of them read only the first paragraph of my story and told me “realistically, the very start of your book is not interesting.” She went to a whole lot of effort to set my fragile ego aflame, and I think that when it comes to romance there are other women who are aiming to do just that to the readers and writers of the genre.

    • 16.1

      I’m sorry you had that experience with your CP. Nora Roberts has never used a crit group or crit partner and she’s doing just fine. There is jealousy and competition, and pockets of that favorite indoor sport, “Get the Author,” but they aren’t overwhelming, nor are they nearly as ridiculous as some other genres, where you can’t even join their writer’s associations until you have two novels traditionally published.

      Which helps the genre how?

  17. 17
    anne egger says:

    It drives me nuts, when people say romance novels aren’t real books. An Infamous Army by: Georgette Heyer was studied at Sandhurst. Only a Kiss by: Mary Balogh helped me explain how people operate with a girlfriend. Wild at Whiskey Creek by: Julie Anne Long helped me explain how I am supportive of my husband’s desires as an artist. Romance novels are of value, so just stop it.

    • 17.1

      What you said. Georgette read all 1200 of Wellington’s dispatches before she started on her description of Waterloo, and her rendering is still considered on of the most accurate ever done.

      “Just stop,” is a good response, or Eloisa James has put it: Go ahead, look down your nose. WE DON’T CARE.

  18. 18
    Mickey says:

    I have read voraciously since I could read. I remember my mother calling me repeatedly to dinner, or chores, or just to “go outside” while I was immersed in a book. I came to romance novels later in my reading career – but love them. In addition to being an ‘escape’ from everyday life, I’ve come to realize that they teach me! The historical romance novels I have read are some of the most well researched literature around. The happily ever after reminds me of the possibility of HEA for everyone.

    However, the lack of respect for the romance genre is everywhere. And that seems to be tied to the lack of respect for women in general.

    That lack of respect seems to be endemic these days. It is seen in all quarters of society – and seems to be increasing exponentially. Maybe it is because women are not viewed as having power, unable to influence matters or drive change. Maybe it is the opposite – women are seen as strong and powerful, and those whose self worth is wrapped up in their own perceived power feel threatened. Regardless, we shall persist!

    • 18.1

      I like your second theory: She’s persisting, and there’s push back from the old guard. My own sense is that demographics are on the side of tolerance, because as this century moves forward, we’ll no longer have any single majority group in the US. We’ll all be varying degrees of minority, and that means getting along is in everybody’s best interests.