In full disclosure, it’s possible I’m the least romantic person you know.
This month I’m reading a romance novel for the first time in ages. I blame book club. But I happen to know there are other members of our book club who enjoy reading the romance genre, and even if no one admits to it, romance is the best selling genre of the lot.
So I’d better formulate some proper reasons for my aversion to it. Otherwise I might be mistaken for someone who joins book clubs just to have a good rant, with a captive audience (and cake).
TEN THINGS I HATE ABOUT ROMANCE
1. Liberal splatterings of adjectives. If there’s any genre that’s soft on adjectives it’s romance. I find myself reading with an imaginary red pen in hand. Once you notice them, you can’t stop noticing. (Sorry.)
2. Adverbs, ditto, and in romance it’s okay to make use of adverbs in dialogue tags as well.
3. This often leads to sloppy dialogue. If dialogue were apt and well-chosen, adverbs in dialogue tags would be unnecessary.
4. Chiseled features. (etc.) The authors of A Billion Wicked Thoughts analyzed the text of more than ten thousand romance novels published from 1983 to 2008 to determine the most common descriptions of the hero’s physical appearance. (Scroll down to A Tall Man With A Nice Tush and you won’t be the least bit surprised.)
5. Grey/blue/brown eyes that always have to ‘match’ something, like a tie or a suit or the sky. I’m sure people don’t go around matching things up with their eyes. Not men, at least. (Not the men I know.)
6. Stock standard beauty in the leading man and lady. I can’t complain too much about the unoriginal character sketches which are most often used to introduce a protagonist in romance because the rules of the genre are only as narrow as the well-known Western Beauty Ideals. The leading man must be attractive to female readers. The female must also be fuckable, in a female news anchor kind of generic way, but like all well-socialised women living in real life Western culture, she must have something wrong with her, but nothing that would put a potential suitor off. (Kinky hair or lanky legs are okay, but facial warts and alopecia are a no-no.) Little wonder all the men are even featured, chiselled, tall and muscular. And as for the women? There is some variation in hair and eye colour. That’s about it.
7. Heteronormative, matrimonial ideals, which are fine for some people, but which are somewhat outdated. There’s still the idea that success equals moving in together with the intent of spending the rest of one’s days together, having children, til death do them part. Whenever I get to the end of a romance novel I think, “Well, that ain’t gunna last.” (I thunk it of Pride and Prejudice, so there you go. I’m stuffed.)
8. The author’s job is to keep the female and male lead apart for as long as possible. In these times of premarital sex and mobile phones, it’s harder and harder to contrive a reason why the two of them shouldn’t just get together from the off. So instead you’re fed improbable reasons for keeping the hero and heroine apart, such as: He likes her but She thinks they’re just friends, or She starts off hating Him because She thinks he’s arrogant, but then she learns the Real Him. Conflict, like any other plot device, can feel like a contrivance, and in the romance genre, that’s what it most often feels like to this reader.
9. The actual sex scenes can feel cringe-worthy or wrong, because everyone’s sexual response is different, and no one author is going to appeal to each and every reader. Nor should they even try to. My point is, it’s hard to find the exact thing that does it for you. That might mean sticking to one author. You better hope they’re prolific. The problem with sticking to one author is that genre authors tend to get a bit same-same after ten novels, plot-wise. As a side note, if you’re reading romance for the steamy sections, why not just read erotica? Romance strikes me as erotica for people who wouldn’t be seen dead reading it.
See: Modern Authors Feel ‘Commercial Obligation To Write About Sex’ from The Telegraph and Good sex in literature: why is it so hard to find? from The Guardian
10. Romance authors tend to propagate sexual ideas I don’t agree with. I don’t think it really does much for women’s sexual liberation. For instance, the woman still works hard to look good for the man, and it’s still the man who does most of the admiring. The woman still exists for the man’s pleasure. Perhaps women like romance so much because it’s the one opportunity women get to gaze at themselves in the way a man enjoys in reality. Otherwise, why would Judy Nunn write this scene from the male point of view?
“You’ve always looked beautiful in red.”
In romance we’re fed this idea that the way a woman looks to a man is the most important thing in the sex act. This is always the way in novels, but in real life, how someone looks has very little to do with sexual satisfaction. As Naomi Wolf writes in The Beauty Myth, once two people are physically close, touch and smell become more important. If this weren’t true, ugly people would’ve died out.
The instant he said it, he saw the fear and insecurity vanish.
This is a strong female lead in many ways, but her sexual response still depends on the approval of a man. You could argue that it works both ways. A woman can crush a man by laughing at him. But do you see men in romance worried about that kind of thing? Like hell you do. Men wouldn’t read about it anyway. Men don’t have their own neuroses shoved down their throats and reinforced by escapist fiction in quite the same way as women do.
And as she slowly walked towards him he was reminded of that day in the park. This was a fantasy men only dreamed of.
Notice that this is written in close(ish) third person and that the reader is in the man’s head, admiring the woman and indulging in his fantasy, not in hers. The implication is that she is aroused because he is aroused. The female protagonist’s own fantasy isn’t mentioned, and I wonder if that would even be accepted by the target audience of this particular novel. I’m sure there are romance novels in which the woman owns her own fantasy, without reliance upon the gaze of a man, but I don’t happen to have read it.
The actual sex bit is judiciously skipped (thank christ).
He’d stayed the night, and they’d made love again the following morning, an easier, gentler experience than the first time, when he’d worried that he may have hurt her.
“Nonsense,” she’d said briskly. “It’s called losing one’s virginity, and it’s meant to be painful.” Although this is what the protagonist believes, and not necessarily what the author believes, this idea is never challenged. I’m not convinced sex is ever meant to be painful, not even the first time, since true arousal has the effect of dulling pain.
- Judy Nunn, from Maralinga
Slightly related link, from someone who does like romance: Believable Romance, and the problem with love at first sight; Life Is Not A Rom-Com – Finding a partner in the real world. See also: Don’t Hide Your Harlequins, from The Passive Voice
I’m so going to play this: Thrust & Plunge: The Lusty Game You Can Play with Romance Novels from Studies In Crap.
Also, I think this article might hit the nail on the head as to why I seem to not enjoy romance, because I do feel like a traitor to my gender by not liking much of it. As noted in the article, Hate the book, not the genre. I would also like to point out that I understand there’s a difference between romance and erotica.
It’s also possible that I’ve been steeping myself too deeply in YA romance which, as explicated adeptly in this article: YA, Romance And Rape Culture, perpetuates some ideas that I hate with a passion.
Where Are All The Black Protagonists In Rom-Coms? from Jezebel
Dame Helen Mirren and Her Husband Hate That Mushy Romance Crap, also from Jezebel.
Might romance novels be feminist, actually? See: Of Course Romance Novels are Feminist—and They’re Not Just Good for Women, from Salon, and Beyond Bodice-Rippers: How Romance Novels Came to Embrace Feminism from The Atlantic.
At Writers’ Digest, an agent explains things such as ‘The Staring Test’, “The Bachelor Test” and other things which somehow make it into published books. I guess not every reader is bothered by these things.