Monday, January 18, 2021

I Have a Lot to Say About Romance Novels

Buckle up, kids. It's going to be a long post, and I'm going to use the word "sex" a bunch of times, so prepare yourselves. I think that, despite how small this blog's audience is, your views on the topic of Romance novels are quite varied, and I want you to know that I respect that. 

I grew up thinking a certain type of way about Romance novels, and now I'd like to, more or less, defend the genre to anyone who thinks like my younger self. That is, holds a strongly negative opinion not based on reality, but on a mishmash of assumptions, misconceptions, and poorly vetted thoughts from other people. 

If your view of Romance novels is based on actual facts and research and experience, my intention is not to change your mind. At all. If your view is decidedly negative, and you'd rather skip this post, I'm not offended. But if you'd like to read and chat with me at the other end, I'd really love that. 

Okay, I'm just going to tackle the things I used to believe about Romance novels one by one. 

1. Romance novels are basically pornography. 

The interesting thing about this teaching, that I heard over and over again from Christian sources, is that it's not about the questionable covers or the sex. Here's the argument: pornography presents male and female bodies, as well as sexual acts, in unattainably perfect ways. The models work full-time to keep their bodies looking perfect and all the angles, lighting, scripting, and airbrushing lift them to a plane that no mere mortal can reach. Pornography is unfair to both you and your partner because it gives you standards and expectations that you and you partner will never be able to hit, and you will always be disappointed. 

The sermons and Christian Living books I imbibed argued that Romance novels were functionally the same: that they set unattainably perfect standards for men, women, and relationships such that neither you nor your partner would ever be able to compete, and that those standards and expectations would destroy your relationships and marriages in the same way that pornography does. 

There's a lot to unpack there. First of all, I think the above is AN argument against pornography but not a complete one. Second of all, this isn't a post about the evils of pornography, and I don't want it to be. Third, no. I don't think Romance novels set unrealistic expectations for relationships. Yes, many Romance novels have really awkward covers and yes, many contain explicit sex scenes, but that is, I think, a separate issue. 

Now I'm not here to promise you that every Romance novel by every author forever presents sufficiently flawed characters and sufficiently flawed relationships, but most do. I have not found, at any point in the past couple years, that Romance novels have given me unfair expectations for my marriage or created any discontentment with Jon and our life together, at all. 

2. Romance novels have sex in them. 

Yes, they usually do. Not all. But most. Different authors write different content, and sometimes the cover will give you an indication of that content and sometimes it won't. The genre is a spectrum, and wherever your line is, there is a solid selection of books that won't cross it. As a starting point assume that if the people on the cover are in a state of undress, the characters are not going to just kiss.

And by now you might be thinking: I'll just stay on the safe side and read Christian Romance novels. I don't recommend it. Nothing I'm going to say in this entire post applies to my experience with Christian Romance novels. If you like Christian Romance novels, I'd love to hear from you about how wrong I am, but in my opinion, they do, unlike the rest of the genre, set unrealistic and unattainable expectations for men, women, and relationships, and they don't do well on any of the other points I'm about to discuss either. They just don't have sex. Great. If you want to read a couple really old posts by my sister demolishing the Christian Romance subgenre, here's the first and here's the second

But you Can find books outside of Christian Romance that don't go farther than kissing. You can also find books that always fade to black before a sex scene or just heavily imply without giving any details (the way most PG-13 movies of any genre do). You can find books where the characters get married first (usually Historical Romance or, oddly enough, the Mafia Romance subsubgenre). You can find books that give a few details, and you can find books that give a lot of details. You can also find books that veer into Fifty Shades of Grey (light BDSM) territory and beyond, but I don't. That's where my line is, surprise surprise. 

While I don't feel the need to defend my personal boundaries to the general public, I do want to offer my reasoning for the curious. This is going to be a little extra personal, so if you don't feel comfortable, I'll mark the section so it'll be easy to skip. 

*** As a homeschooled, Christian young lady, I received a very, very basic sex education. Basically: "The thing goes there, it'll hurt the first time, have fun!" So for me, detailed sex scenes in Romance novels have been super informative and helpful both scientifically and emotionally (making me more confident and less insecure). Much better than googling, watching a porno, or trying to yank detailed advice out of a Christian friend or family member. In my opinion, At Least once you're married, you're allowed to think about sex, and hear about sex, consider it in the context of a story, and research ways to get better at it. As far as the marital status of the characters in the book, I don't think it really matters. If you're married, you can't be tempted to have premarital sex anymore. If you're tempted to have sex, you can go have sex, and your husband will probably not complain. Your wife might think it's funny that you're reading Romance novels, but with the skills you'd be learning, I don't think she'd complain either. 
*** It's safe now. 

Wherever your line is, be it a moral or a personal preference one, stick to your guns. Don't let me talk you out of it. I'm planning a Squeaky Clean Romance Novels recommendation list for next week that'll be right up your alley. Mooooving on. 

3. Romance novels are poorly written. Untalented female authors who couldn't make it in other genres write Romance novels for empty-headed female audiences who don't know the difference. 

This is a surprisingly common opinion. I've been reading the genre for two years now, and I've found the ratio of good to bad authors to be about the same as any other genre. There are simply not enough truly great authors in the world to meet demand, and "just good", mediocre, and actually bad authors pick up the slack. I encourage you to not judge any genre by one book, even a highly-rated one. People's tastes are different and every genre has quite a lot of variety within it. 

One of my favorite things about the genre is that, because it usually only takes 300-400 pages to get a couple people to a happy ending, successful Romance authors tend to be prolific. They're not taking 10 years on each of their 1,000-page incredibly complex plots with multiple main characters, cultures, and magic systems. Romance authors tend to put out a book a year, loosely arranged in "series" where a supporting character you met in one book, becomes the lead in the next. All that to say, when you find an author you love, you won't have to find another for a while. 

And as far as I know, Romance authors are Romance authors because they love the genre and like writing it, not because they failed at another genre. 

4. Romance novels are all the same. Just like Hallmark movies. 

Yes and no. Romance novels tend to follow a certain structure in the same way that all stories tend to follow a certain structure and that structure naturally narrows within a genre. It would not be very interesting if two perfect people met, had a perfect relationship, minus a misunderstanding in the third act and proceeded to live happily ever after. That's why Hallmark movies are often so insipid.

The things that make a love story worth telling are the stakes and the obstacles, and unlike some genres, there are nearly infinite possibilities for these. You have two people who are attracted to each other or at least could be. You have at least one reason on both ends why they aren't together already and why they don't get together the minute they meet (usually). Those reasons are sometimes external, sometimes internal and sometimes both. 

Those reasons are generally thorny and take nuanced work on the part of the author to work out. Villains in Romance novels can't just be slain or jailed in order to resolve the conflict. The conflict has to actually be Resolved. Often there aren't any proper villains beyond the leads themselves and their personal demons.

The general structure of the story is usually this: the characters meet, or, if they have already met, some inciting incident throws them together in a way that forces them to face existing attractions/feelings. They struggle with their feelings and their obstacles for the first act, then get together. The second act generally involves the characters believing they have surmounted their obstacles or finding a way to temporarily pretend those obstacles don't exist. Then there's the breakup at the beginning of the third act when the obstacles reassert themselves that forces the characters to realize they would rather do the tough work to actually get rid of those obstacles rather than live apart. 

There's also, almost always, a subplot of some other genre, in the same way that most other genres have subplots of Romance. You have Workplace Drama Romances, you have Sports Romances, you have Mystery Romances, you have Action Romances, and so on and so forth. What I'm saying is, there is a ton of variety. Each subplot brings its own set of stakes that either run parallel to the stakes of the love story or cut against them, which can be really interesting.  

5. Romance novels are predictable. 

Yes they are. You know how it will end and you know that it will fall apart in the third act first, and you usually know, after the first act, how and why the breakup will happen. Most of the main plot (though not the subplot) is a forgone conclusion as soon as the characters and their obstacles are introduced. I love that about this genre. Romance novels are not Thrillers. Their purpose in life is not to be unpredictable. Their purpose is to get two people together. That's why we read them. To watch thorny  problems get fixed and to know, that no matter how bleak things look, that we are guaranteed a happy ending. That's what you get with a Romance novel. If you don't want that, then fine. The genre is not for you, and we can't be friends, but you're probably not a bad person. (JUST KIDDING. I have some really close friends who just don't enjoy Romance novels from a plot perspective for this very reason, and that's okay.)

But in another sense, Romance novels are not predictable for the same reason that people are not predictable, and Romance novels are, when boiled down, books about people. Every human relationship that exists in the world and all the ways those relationships can go wrong and complicated and broken gets discussed and that can be quite unpredictable, even within the confines of a very predictable genre. 

6. Romance novels are shallow. 

No. Well, some are. Like I said before, there will never be a shortage of mediocre books in the world, but no, shallowness does not define the Romance genre. I've have read a great many books that go deep into a great many topics and themes. Characters struggle through familial conflicts and generational curses. They work through trauma and abuse. They struggle with vices and character flaws, insecurities and lies they've been believing. They work through moral and social dilemmas and philosophical questions. The only thing that really separates Romance novels from Literary novels and Historical Fiction in terms of thematic potential is that Romance novels are not depressing. The happy ending is guaranteed. That doesn't, in my opinion, make the book shallow. It makes the tough topic being dealt with more palatable and the conclusion more hopeful. 

And because I was wrong about all these things, and for many more reasons than I could list or even properly articulate here, I don't just like the Romance genre, I love it, and often, I find myself choosing it over other genres. 

Okay, I could probably keep going, but I'm going to stop here. I would really appreciate your feedback on this post, readers, because there's a lot more I could say and would be happy to say if I knew you wanted to hear it. Hit me with your comments and questions. Let me know if you want recommendations, and I'll either tailor some to you individually, or do a whole post with recommendations in the category you're wanting. 

Or conversely, I can shut up about Romance altogether if this audience is entirely uninterested. Let me know!

Love you guys. 

Thanks for reading, as always. 

Coming Soon: 10 or So Squeaky Clean Romance Novels


  1. It's weird as I get older, I'm constantly changing my opinion on things. Romance movies and novels have been part of that. I think in every genre there's good and bad, and you can't judge it all based on the bad.
    Fantastic post!
    ( Also made me feel better about learning a lot about sex from books)

  2. AW! @ everything about this comment! Thank you for your consistent positive feedback, Skye!!