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Five myths about romance fiction

This article was originally posted on The Conversation. It was written by Deakin University’s Dr Jodi McAlister and the City University of New York’s Jayashree Kamble

Romance fiction has a reputation problem. In its long history, it has been regularly characterised as “trashy”: a sort of sentimental junk food for the brain.

At worst, romance novels have been imagined as actively harmful to their readers (usually assumed to be women): giving them unrealistic expectations about relationships and/or reconciling them to patriarchy.

But what actually is romance fiction?

Valentine’s Day tends to provoke a yearly wave of media coverage about romance. This phenomenon has intensified with the emergence of BookTok (the bookish side of TikTok), where romance fiction features heavily – as well as with the popularity of Bridgerton, adapted from Julia Quinn’s series of historical romance novels.

These articles regularly perpetuate a set of myths about romance fiction. Frequently, too, they feature romance fiction reading lists without any actual romance novels on them – often rooted in outdated and outmoded understandings of the genre (which, like all genres, is deeply fluid and has changed and adapted enormously over time)

Some of these myths are small and a bit silly: Fabio, for instance, is often invoked, despite the fact he stopped modelling for romance covers in 1993.

Some myths, though, are larger and more pervasive. So, in honour of Valentine’s Day, as president (Jayashree) and vice president (Jodi) of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance, we have taken it upon ourselves to debunk five of the most common myths about romance fiction.

1. Romance novels are all the same

One of the most frequently iterated ideas about romance is that it is formulaic – if you’ve read one romance, you’ve read them all, because they’re essentially all identical.

Like all popular genres, certain expectations are encoded in romance novels. Just as we expect a crime novel to feature a crime and a resolution (we find out whodunnit), we expect a romance novel to feature a romance and a resolution (we see the protagonists in a committed romantic relationship).

In other words, one of the core expectations of romance is its endpoint: the happy ending. However, how the protagonists get to this happy ending varies wildly.

This is intensified by the fact romance is an umbrella genre, encompassing an enormous amount of subgenres. The story worlds in which romance plots take place are incredibly varied, as are the characters who inhabit them.

To illustrate this through example: A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske, The Matchmaker by Saman Shad and Flesh by Kylie Scott are all romance novels by Australian authors. However, it’s obviously incorrect to claim they’re all the same: even if they do all have happy endings.

The first is a fantasy romance between two men set in a magical version of Edwardian England. The second is a contemporary romance between a matchmaker and her accidental client set in Sydney’s Pakistani community. And the third is a Queensland-set post-zombie-apocalypse romance starring a throuple.

2. Romance readers read indiscriminately

In Beyond Heaving Bosoms, Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan (founders of the popular romance review website Smart Bitches, Trashy Books) write:

‘everyone has a very firm idea of what the average romance reader is like. We bet you already know her. She’s rather dim and kind of tubby – undereducated and undersexed – and she displays a distressing affinity for mom jeans and sweaters covered in puffy paint and appliquéd kittens.’

Just like all romance novels are assumed to be the same, so are all romance readers. The phrase “bored housewife” has been the token descriptor for a long time, though the emergence of BookTok – which is dominated by younger women, often teenagers – has arguably shifted the stereotypical needle somewhat.

Inherent in both stereotypes, though – the bored housewife and the hyperemotive BookTok girlie – is the idea that they are consuming books uncritically. This also lies at the heart of romance’s bad reputation: the idea that readers are passively imbibing but not actively engaging with what they read. If all romances are the same, then for the reader, any romance will do, right?

However, even just dipping a toe into romance book culture will reveal that neither books, readers, nor readers’ opinions on books are identical. There is a wide and varied community of romance readers offering active critical responses to books on many different platforms – from BookTok to Goodreads to review sites like Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.

As Kim Wilkins and Beth Driscoll note, romance is an “innovative and uncontrollable” genre, and this is one of the key reasons why: “The dynamism of romance fiction is intimately linked with its engaged readers”.

3. Romance novels are all about sex

The reputation of romance novels as sex stories shadows the genre, stretching back to the 17th and 18th-century works written by women like Aphra Behn and Eliza Haywood (before the novel form was claimed by men for a higher purpose, naturally).

It is true that the commercial romance novel doesn’t shy away from sexy times. But is it all sex, all the time? Hardly. Sexual episodes depend on the subgenre and the decade in which a novel is written.

Check any curated romance list online and you’ll see books tagged for “spice levels”, sort of a fan-created ratings scale for the degree of sexual activity a novel contains. Some readers use terms like “clean” and “dirty” to describe the level and intensity of sex scenes.

What this means on page is that some novels use metaphors (“wave”) and references to sensations (“shivers” and “frissons”) related to a kiss. Religious romances or YA (young adult) romance lean in this direction

Others might have kissing and erotic touches (“second base”) but prefer a “closed door” approach that leaves it to the reader to imagine (or not) the rest. Some devote paragraphs to narrating foreplay and speed through third base, still others have many scenes of both, and some focus almost exclusively on sexual behavior as the primary expression of character and plot development.

On the opposite end of the sexuality spectrum, some novels explicitly identify their protagonists as not experiencing sexual desire at all. Different strokes for different folks!

4. Romance is anti-feminist / romance is feminist

Since romance novels have largely been written by and about (cis) women, and read by them, it is natural to associate them with women’s rights and roles. But while some insist that romance novels are a tool of the patriarchy and others prefer to term the genre feminist for its focus on female desires, the truth has, well, many shades of grey.

If we define feminism as the principle of equality and equal opportunity in personal, professional, legal, and political arenas, romance novels are no more wholly anti-feminist or wholly feminist than any other art form or community.

The genre’s 20th-century expansion has run parallel to the organised movement for women’s rights and for gender equality. Just like them, early phases of the genre have significant differences from present-day incarnations, and every wave takes up slightly different aspects of equality and equity when it comes to female and other minoritised genders.

There are billionaire romances where the female character can stop labouring and be taken care of – financially, sexually and emotionally.

There are urban fantasy or paranormal romances where the female protagonist wipes the floor with the baddies while a male or female companion provides aid, advice and affection.

There are Neo-Victorian romances where the female detective solves problems for a living while working out how to be happy with a long-term lover or partner.

And there are space operas where thinly disguised (and clad) Vikings are aliens that demand women lie back and enjoy themselves as a prelude to repopulating the planet.

Some authors started mentioning reproductive rights and aids to control pregnancy four decades ago and others fetishise impregnation and romanticise motherhood.

Hundreds of romance novels are published each year. To say that the entire genre is feminist or anti-feminist is the same as claiming all cinema is socialist propaganda because it’s collectively made, or that all of it is capitalist because the industry makes money.

5. Romance was nothing until TikTok

Every few years, someone declares that romance fiction has finally become part of the mainstream.

Sometimes it’s because a new author has a savvy PR team that creates the buzz. Or there’s a TV adaptation of an old romance series. Or it’s the rise of a novel to bestseller status because it gathered steam on a fan-fiction site or another app. Now it’s TikTok.

Reader, the rumours of the birth of romance are a bit behind the times. The genre is as old as a sexy vampire.

The romance-reader community has been around for a while, too, both in real life and digitally. Before there was TikTok, there was Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr and Reddit and fiction apps like Wattpad and fan-fiction hubs like Archive of Our Own (AO3). And author sites and reading community blogs and electronic bulletin boards. And newsletters and subscription boxes and fan conventions and fan mail. And before it all, there were libraries and amazing librarians, who are still here and will be if we keep funding them.

Romance novels take on new ideas and new forms every few years, always building on earlier works and networks. New authors, audiences, subgenres and platforms keep the genre vibrant, creating new ways to talk about love and sex and family.

Nothing is new and everything is new. That is the heart of romance.

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Dr Jodi McAlister
Dr Jodi McAlister

Senior Lecturer, Writing and Literature,

Faculty of Arts and Education,

Deakin University

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