Within a week, the television adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People, which explores the oeuvre of two teenage lovers, was requested on BBC iPlayer 21.8 million times, breaking all previous records. This should come as no surprise; according to the Romance Writers of America, the romantic fiction industry averages $1.08 billion per year. Linda Lee suggests romance novels ‘are the most popular of all genres of fiction… a third of all women who read, read romance novels.’ While decried as non-literary texts, in a digital era of dwindling book sales, the genre is ‘big business for the publishing industry,’ according to Farah Mohammed. Women are associated with the romance novel as both writers and readers, a type of writing dismissed as unimaginative, escapist – even ‘women’s pornography’ – the books we imagine reading under covers in the dark, or while on holiday, lying on a beach. Culturally contextualised as light reading, some figures in the literary world view the romance novel, to use Anne Eike’s simile, as ‘bubble gum for the mind,’ or as Jennifer Egan calls it, ‘very derivative, banal stuff.’
But romance novels are financially profitable for authors as well as publishers. According to Forbes, the Fifty Shades of Grey series scored E.L. James a total net worth of $95 million and made her a public figure. But not all romance novels include whips, chains, and tropes of the blushing virgin and billionaire businessman. In fact, I’m sure you could find a romance novel that would help you explore any of your sexual or romantic niches – or none of them. Not all romance novels include graphic depictions of sex acts; the term ‘romance novel’ itself is a ‘genre-lisation.’ Want to read about vampires who are in love? Faeries? Lethal assassins? Werewolves? Bikers? Football players? Paraplegics? Done. It turns out the category of romance was coined to include pretty much anything deemed of secondary literary status as long as its associated with women: its association with women writers and readers, in fact, is its point. As the genre broadens to include romance novels that no longer necessarily follow cisgender, heterosexual couples remain dominant (Andrea Wood and Jonathan Allan’s research reports a ‘proliferation’ and ‘growing demand’ for LBGTQ+ romance) it is criticised less for its acquiescence to ‘the demands of compulsory heterosexuality,’ as Wood and Allan put it, and more for its perceived ability to change attitudes towards women’s behaviour.
‘Women writers’ is a neat, alliterative aphorism to describe people who write and who identify as women. It is distinct from ‘women authors.’ Derived from the Latin word ‘auctor’ (‘augere:’ to grow or originate) ‘author’ implies an ‘originator’ as a textual authority. Authority is what is at issue here. The romance genre reveals the fault lines of power relations and of cultural authority as society changes.
According to Valerie Peterson, 84% of romance novel readers are women and 41% of them are between 30 and 54 years old. Imagine a dissatisfied housewife reading about the lives she cannot have. But this stereotype, born in 1970s America when the romance novel genre gained momentum along with the 2nd wave feminist movement, is less useful in our current context. Rita Felski philosophises that ‘Romance in its various guises undoubtedly feeds a craving to be totally loved or unconditionally admired, proffering a momentary release from the reign of the mediocre and mundane.’ If so, what it offers is exactly what it is criticised for.
The romance novel is not only the Mills and Boon hardback and the ‘rapetastic’ bodice-ripper of the ‘70s, as Sarah Wendell describes them, but is also Jane Austen’s astutely observed drawing-rooms and Charlotte Brontë’s sharp protagonists. It is in their tradition that the teenage anguish of Sally Rooney’s 20-somethings and the sex appeal of E.L James’ decadent protagonists critique as well as capture our contemporary moment. As Robin Lynne points out, ‘Romance novels are as feminist, or anti-feminist, as anything else in our society…it depends on the novel, but most of the novels we’re talking about are produced within a society that is heteronormative and patriarchal.’ Romance and women aren’t just linked because people think ‘Oh, women like that stuff.’ There genre has been about putting women in their place and this is interesting because now women can use it to be subversive.
Nora Roberts is a romance author who has a global influence on a record-breaking scale. An average of 27 Nora Roberts books are sold every minute, there are more than 400 million copies of her books in print worldwide, they have spent a total of 1,045 weeks on the New York Times bestsellers list (equivalent to 20 consecutive years of weekly bestsellers) and a combined 200 weeks (nearly 4 years) at the number one spot. If you placed Nora’s books top to bottom, they would stretch across the United States from New York to Los Angeles 18 times. What does Roberts have to say about her success? In an interview with Carole Cadwalladr in 2011 she said there is ‘more than a streak of misogyny’ in how romance is received. ‘All some people see is the big R…I’ve made my career on my own terms and that doesn’t necessarily suit the likes of the New York Times book review…They don’t see that as legitimate. But it’s just so insulting towards millions of people. Why would you apologise for what you read for pleasure? Just think of the illiteracy rate. Every book read for pleasure should be celebrated.’ Roberts wanted to write stories that were empowering: ‘I don’t want to be the secretary, I want to be the boss. I didn’t want to write the kind of story where the man treats the woman like shit for the entire book and in the last chapter he tells her, ‘I treated you like shit because I love you.’’ Roberts, who in 2011 was making roughly $60 million per year, seems quite the character: her readers’ official message board is called ADWOFF, an acronym for ‘A day without French fries.’ She has a prodigious output, writing for hours everyday, and a devoted readership. Many consider her ‘genre-defining.’ Certainly, her novels have been powerful, for her readers, for her, and for the cultural contextualisation of the romance novel itself. As award-winning author Susan Elizabeth Philips writes at the end of her novel It Had to Be You, ‘Sometimes I have this blissful dream in which romance writers run the world’.
So why is romance continually dismissed as unrealistic, a guilty pleasure that gives its readers false expectations? For E.C Miller, this seems like a way ‘to disparage, dismiss, and discount women’s stories, equality, needs, and desires’. I think it is so popular because of how it transforms reality, much like they colour-edit movies; making images, experiences, voices seem dreamlike. Felski argues this process is deeply imaginative: ‘You are sucked in, swept up, spirited away…mesmerized, hypnotised, possessed.’ Oscar Wilde once said, ‘Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.’ Wilde is right, in terms of the way these texts, while overlooked and sometimes condemned by the literary world, provide a space for women’s fantasies and sexuality to be explored, aspects of womanhood that most articulate female power. Generalisations are dangerous; gathering all women into an amorphous group not only leads to inaccuracies but also culturally perpetuates untruths. Romance is fiction written mostly by women, mostly for women and mostly faces criticism rather than critical approbation. As Linda Lee notes, crime and detective novels, which often follow similar formulaic patterns but are mainly written by men, are not judged in the same way. If a man does write a romance novel, as Nora Roberts says ‘they call it something else. And it gets reviewed and made into a movie.’