In recent years, when I’ve shared with friends and family that I write romance and young adult novels, though the response is typically very positive, I’ve gotten quite a few comments that were not.
“I’m writing a real novel,” one friend said to me, and another, “I’m enjoying this book because parts of it are a real novel, not just a romance,” and once, “anyone can string a bunch of dirty words together.”
The stigma against romance is very real, pervasive, and frankly, unfair.
Romance is a broad category, and though erotic romance has only been around for several decades, (thank you, Kathleen Woodiwiss, for being a pioneer for us!) romance in general has been around since the beginning of time. The story of love is foundational, and at the root of many classic stories some wouldn’t even consider “romance.” How did Spiderman feel about Mary Jane? Lois Lane and Superman? Hell, even Princess Leia fell for Han Solo. Let’s be honest. The story of love is not new, and it isn’t a lesser story than other artistic pursuit. It’s at the very heart.
Why, then, the stigma? In an effort to draw readership, many famous publishers pushed the “bodice ripper” paperbacks, adorned with scantily-clad women with skirts raked up above the knee, cleavage spilling out of their dresses, Fabio’s chiseled chest drawing mocking guffaws and eye rolls. Few who mock have actually seen what lays between the pages of those books, chalking it up to mere smut, trashy books that serve no real literary purpose. They have no idea that romance novels are indeed very literary, and for many reasons, deserve not only to be recognized as legitimate contributions to literary art, but worthy in their own right. Many romance writers, myself included, embrace their mission to write well-crafted escapism, and for good reason.
Years ago, I attended an RWA conference, and keynote speaker Kristan Higgins moved us all to tears, as she recounted her own journey to becoming a romance writer. I have never forgotten what she said, as she spoke of her experience giving birth to a premature baby. She spoke of waking in the middle of the night, terrified that her one-pound-baby had died while she slept, and that she’d never be able to hold him again. Hundreds of us in that audience wiped away tears as she bravely told her story. “I would reach for a romance novel to help me escape the fear,” she said, then looked out at the audience of romance writers. “Thank you.”
I write for the mother whose heart breaks because her baby is ill, her daughter left home, or her son is stationed overseas. I write to give hope to the young woman who has yet to taste the sweetness of true, dedicated, undying love from a man who would lay down his very life for her. I write for the woman who’s buried her husband, experienced heartbreaking loss, or tasted the bitter cup of unrequited love.
This past week, I had a few hard days. They were nothing terrible, or tragic, but they were hard, and there were a few times I couldn’t sleep. I was so very grateful to be able to pick up a book and escape for a little while, to retreat, give myself a little reprieve, and put my spiraling mind to rest. It was needed, and I was thankful to the author who gave me that gift, and thankful that it is my privilege as a romance writer to give that gift to others.
Recently, I met a salesman who asked me what I did for work. “I’m a writer,” I told him. When he asked me what I write, I told him I write romance.
“Ah,” he said, with a smile. “So you sell dreams.”
I like that. Seller of Dreams.
It is my firm conviction that the romance genre isn’t sub-par, less literary, or frivolous. We write novels that take readers away to a place they’ve never been, while experiencing the joy of a shared human experience.
I am not ashamed of romance, but quite proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the very people who bring such beauty to the literary world.