Romance is a topic people have been writing about since the novel became...well, since it became anything at all. It is a genre that has been as dependable as it is dynamic, changing with the times while remaining a staple of bookshelves all over the globe.
People often think of romance novels as a guilty pleasure, as light reading or "fluff" books without much substance. Those of us who write, read, and adore these stories know that this is a very inaccurate reputation. Romance novels cover everything from politics to social commentary, from questions of morality to notions of what is and isn't worthy of being defined as love.
And as the renaissance of self-publishing continues unabated (I would dare to say it's just getting started), romance sits at the helm of both sales and readership on every platform. So, I'm going to get into the nitty-gritty of why romance is more than just fluff.
Here's why the genre is indispensable, and why it's time to change the way we view it both as readers and as writers.
Romance Was The First Fiction Genre (And Yes, I Mean The Very First).
The first "novel" in the sense we are used to is credited to the inimitable Murasaki Shikibu, a noblewoman of Japan's Heian-era court.
The Tale of Genji is, in essence and by definition, a romance novel. It is a cascading tale of liaisons and intrigue, of elicit sex and dark seductions. It has the elements all romance novels share, and it was written by a woman, as most books in the romance genre are.
This novel became a blueprint of sorts, with action arcs and sub-stories divided by chapters and parts. The epic tale follows the devilishly beautiful Prince Genji as he leads a turbulent life of erotic adventure, palace plotting, and occasional exile as he lifts skirts and defies conventions in a decadent and nuanced imperial court. And boy, does he start the genre off with a bang...a whole hell of a lot of them, actually.
The story outlives its star player when it follows the taboo adventures of his those who follow his lead, and in one fell swoop it birthed several romance sub-genres - including the reverse-harem story. It finishes with the titillating tale of a lovely young Ukibune, a passionate maiden (well, she starts that way, anyhow) who is courted by both Genji's grandson and one of his closest friends.
How is that for a precedent? The eleventh century may have had its conventions, including deeply held notions of female and male modesty, but The Tale of Genji was a way for one woman to challenge those ideas and bring both entertainment and consideration to her peers. It birthed a genre that not only embraced but encouraged the capacity for people - especially women and those with more feminine identities - to experience deep passion, sexually or otherwise.
Not too rough a start for the so-called fluff novel, if I do say so myself.
Romance Novels Challenge Social Norms...Especially Oppressive Ones.
If there's one thing women of all identities and backgrounds are familiar with, it's being told how we should feel, look, behave, and live our lives. From the start, the romance genre has given those norms a big ol' middle finger, and it has done so in a truly breathtaking variety of formats. The genre's subversive tendencies have held for about a thousand years - since the aforementioned first novel, The Tale of Genji, was written.
Women haven't had many ways to rebel against their own oppression, historically speaking. That didn't stop us from finding, or creating, our own methods. The not-so-humble romance story is and always has been one of those ways to rebel and question. It is a genre that is by nature subversive and defiant.
It's almost a cliche to point out that anything celebrating, engaging with, and encouraging women's sexuality has been taboo for most of human history. It still is, even in supposedly "progressive" societies across the globe.
With all their talk of throbbing manhoods and earth-shattering female orgasms, romance novels have been dismissed as "porn for women" in recent decades. I'm not even going to go into how stupid that label is for a whole lot of reasons. Mainly because that's a topic for a book, not a mere blog post.
Before this dismissive label was leveled at the category, romance was called all sorts of other supposedly unflattering things. They were referred to as libertine novels, and that was a pretty intense adjective at the time of its first use in the 1500s. Libertines were categorically sinful, the rebels who opposed religious domination in Europe at a time when Christian dogma was the only dogma those in the Western world lived by.
Libertines were defined as "morally dissolute" and unconstrained by any notions of propriety. Later on, the novels remained objects of suspicion, dismay, and dismissal by those who held social power. One of the most classic of classic authors, Jane Austen, was a romance novelist through and through - and she is still hotly debated today. Her books were labeled as "merely escapist" by some and examples of "rare and uncomfortable genius" by others.
Romance told women that it was natural to want, to desire, and to do so in direct opposition to the norms that attempted to hold their wants and desires in check. These norms are presented as chains which are made to be broken in most of the genre. In fact, that's generally what makes a love story romantic.
Nowadays, more and more of the genre is challenging notions of how love can be expressed and experienced.
Whether it's via non-binary protagonists or polyamorous happy-endings (in more ways than one), romance novels continue to say "f*** you" to norms of all sorts. That's a pretty awesome legacy, don't you think?
Romance Is Integral To Most Epic Stories.
Enduring stories nearly always have elements of romance woven through them. We see romance in great tales of all veins, whether it's the orientalist tales told in One-Thousand and One Nights, the adventures of King Arthur and his court (and his wayward wife who was, er, lanced quite a lot), or the quest of the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis to restore her brother-husband back to virile life (through very interesting means, I might add).
Shakespeare's plays were not shy of romance, either. Most of the stories he created feature a romantic theme, as do many of the enduring Greek stories dating back to the time of the Athenian city-state. The Bible is full of romance, from the intrepidity of Bathsheba to the fierce devotion of Jacob to his Rachel.
We see romance in the feats of Orpheus as he goes willingly into the world of death to free his beloved, and we see romance in the incredible Hindu story-scripture of The Ramayana - the legend of a love so powerful it saved the world.
Romance novels are a celebration of one of the oldest and most enduring themes in storytelling, period. They are as diverse as people are, and they are examinations of the many ways love defies odds and makes the impossible possible. To shame the romance genre is to shame storytelling as an art - which, if you care enough about stories to shame them in the first place, is pretty nonsensical.
In short, romance can be as serious or as lighthearted as life itself. To call the genre "escapist" as an insult is to level that same disdain at every story ever written! If we don't read stories to escape, to break the boundaries of our minds and lives, then what on earth are we doing it for?
And with romance so central to the human storytelling instinct, perhaps it's time we do a complete one-eighty when it comes to how we talk about and treat the romance genre. One has to wonder how many literary masterpieces have been passed over because they sport the romance label, and how many brilliant and insightful stories have been ignored due to their perceived lack of merit as genre romance novels.
Love stories are the beating heart of the human experience, and if that doesn't make them worthy of respect, I don't know what will. And, hey - the sex scenes are a part of that, right? Right.
In Conclusion...Romance Isn't A Genre, It's THE Genre. And It's A Hidden Gem In Plain Sight.
Romance as a genre is so tied up in our many cultures and conceptions of the world, it's hard to get away from it. We may not label all love stories as romance, but by definition that is exactly what they are.
The romance novels we have seen throughout history have been as varied as the times, people, and places that birthed them. They've run the gamut from toe-curling to modest, from uplifting to deeply tragic, encompassing every imaginable human experience there is. And perhaps that is exactly why people have been so dismissive of the genre and all of its iterations.
To look at a genre that is so powerful and yet so accessible is to admit that all peoples, regardless of how you view them, share this thing we call love. It is to see the shared humanity contained in love stories and in romance, and there have always been plenty of people who don't want to open their eyes to that reality.
Romance is something tied into the DNA of our species - historically, it has been the one thing that countless power structures have sought to control and constrain. People will go to war for love or even just the hope of it. They'll renounce every norm and every convention for it, and they'll chase taboos for even the merest taste of what romance is. So yes, romance is pretty damn powerful - and that's certainly not going to change. The romantic fiction genre is simply an expression of that fact.
So, my romance writers and readers of the world, hold your heads up high. Wax poetic about those puckered breasts and stolen glances, those trembling thighs and rippling biceps! You are taking part in an art as old as the Paleolithic paintings on cave walls, and you ought to be darn proud of it.
If you have a favorite romance series or author, share them with us! And for more great insight on the genre and its many expressions, check out the website of the Romance Writers of America association. Until next time, my beloved flock!