Why Romance Matters
In 2019 was honored to deliver the keynote speech at the Wisconsin Romance Writers conference and New Jersey Romance Writers Conference. This is that speech. Many, many thanks to Paula Scardamalia for the impromptu recording, which starts a few minutes into the speech. Have a listen. Or the transcription is below.
This morning I’m going to talk about why romance novels matter. I’m going to talk about history, feminism and sex. But first I’ll start with a story about a creepy guy at a dinner party.
I was recently a dinner party and having polite conversation with the husband of the hostess. He asked what I do, and I replied that I write romance novels. Being a romance author means almost always having the best, most interesting job at any party. Usually I find people have genuinely positive and enthusiastic reactions and they ask a ton of really great questions. But at this party I happened to be talking to That Guy.
The one whose eyes light up as he says “the sex books?”
The one with the follow up question about my research of said sex books.
It’s rare that I actually encounter That Guy. And in this instance I was caught off guard and speechless even though I literally wrote an entire book that’s a rebuttal to guys like him and comments like that. (It’s called Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels, Explained. Buy your copy today!).
But forget that guy and all the other people like him.
Today I want to talk instead to the person inside of all of us who has to face those questions about our work, our stories, ourselves. Who are made to feel ashamed or secretive about stories that otherwise bring them joy.
I want to talk to the girl inside of all of us who doesn’t have a devastating retort at the ready and maybe wouldn’t dare say it if she did. And I want to explain why we feel these things and why we should be proud of being part of that damned mob of scribbling women.
Sorry not sorry if you thought this was just going to be about hot dukes.
Honestly, I used to be That Guy. I only started reading romance novels because my mom made me do it. I was in college, pursuing an English degree with a focus on women in fiction both as writers and characters. And my mother, who had recently started reading romance novels, insisted that I, a smarty-pants English major, ought to read those trashy books. I laughed. I was too busy reading Ulysses and Proust and other pretentious books. Nevertheless, she persisted. She pointed out that I could not legitimately receive a degree in women and fiction without studying the most popular and profitable books by women, for women, about women. Fine, I huffed. Send me a syllabus. She did. You can check it on my blog. I started with Jane Austen and by the time I got to Kathleen Woodiwiss I was hooked and once I met the Bridgertons it was true love and happily ever after.
Look at me now. Mama Rodale certainly gets the last laugh.
Yet I couldn’t help but wonder…how did I know to laugh at her when she told me about romance novels? How did I know that they were dumb books for dumb women even though I’d never read one, hadn’t grown up around them, and presumably didn’t know anyone who read them?
The question intrigued me. I studied it in college. In fact, my master’s thesis became the foundation for my book, Dangerous Books for Girls.
So I’ve spent a lot of time of researching and thinking about why That Guy says snarky stuff about romance—if it’s even talked about at all—and why many of us are made to feel ashamed or just shy about our romance reading—and why we shouldn’t.
The reason, in a nutshell, is this: we are writing stories about women who triumph in a world that doesn’t want women to triumph.
But let’s start at the beginning.
Let’s start as all good stories must with ONCE UPON A TIME in a land faraway or more precisely 18th century in England. At which point we find a young lady writing in the drawing room. We can call her Jane or Fanny or Charlotte or Maria. She wrote stories about heroines named Elizabeth, Belinda, or Emma or Evelina. There were many lady authors and they were writing what we can identify as the first romance novels. You know, little cheaply made love stories by women, for women, about women that ended happily.
They did this in a world that relentlessly declared that women’s lives didn’t really matter beyond how they could serve other people. They existed only in the supporting role of one’s daughter, wife or mother. Their professional ambitions could be servant or wife. They could not own property, have custody over their children, or vote. They had virtually no say in how their real life story played out.
Of course there were exceptions. Women did break out and do cool stuff—because that’s what women do. But when they did, their lives and contributions were minimized in the history books because it didn’t fit with a narrative of boys always being the hero. And, you know, they didn’t want the rest of us to get Ideas.
When Jane, or Fanny or Charlotte or Maria sat down in the drawing room—stealing precious moments from household matters—they experimented with that newly invented literary form: the novel. Because it was new, it wasn’t “respectable” or “cool” yet and so they let girls play around with it.
These women wrote novels. And in these novels they had the audacity to suggest that a woman—who should be seen and not heard, who was not considered a full person in eyes of law—could be interesting for the length of a whole novel and strong enough to carry the plot all by herself! They suggested that she might go on the hero’s journey, petticoats and all—and that she might be even be victorious.
When these intrepid heroines went out, and had adventures, they very often got married. But here’s the important part: When they got married, they made the choice to marry for love.
These lady novelists were not only inventing a new literary form—over tea, between chores—they were also championing the new and scandalous idea of marriage for love. While people always fell in love, for most of human history marriage was a transaction. It was something you did for wealth or protection or networking. According to Stephanie Coontz, an expert on the history of marriage, as the government began to take on more responsibilities for it’s citizens in the 18th and 19th centuries, marriage for love or what is officially known as the “the companionate marriage” became logistically feasible. Think about it: when the government provides an army and infrastructure, you don’t need to marry the guy who has his own. Big government FTW!
The love match also became popular in part because of all these novels that celebrated young women holding out for true love. At the time, choosing to marry for love was the first big choice—perhaps the only choice—a woman got to make about the circumstances of her life.
And who better demonstrates all this than Elizabeth Bennett herself?
It was only a matter of time before we turn to Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy of the ten thousand a year and the REJECTION that changed the world. We all know the set up: Elizabeth must marry money or risk impoverishing her entire family forever. And lo, she has snared the affections of the wealthiest hottie around. He wants her—reluctantly—and delivers one of the worst, most insulting proposals ever. And she’s like nah, I’m better than that bro.
With this rejection, Elizabeth is refusing to sacrifice her own happiness for the sake of her family (something a lot of women struggle with). Elizabeth unapologetically believes that she deserves love and respect. She makes the risky, selfish, audacious choice to risk her future and family’s future security for that.
And then they all lived happily ever after.
So this rejection—and the subsequent happy ever after when Darcy comes to his senses—changes everything. It champions love over money and social mobility over knowing your place. It suggests that ten thousand a year is not enough and that a girl like Elizabeth, simply by being herself is enough.
This is the template for all the romance novels that have followed.
Stories like these that explored a woman’s self-discovery and choice in marriage partner—so often derided as silly novels by lady novelists—became incredibly popular. And Some People got their unmentionables in a twist about this scourge of novel reading—they literally called it a scourge of novel reading.
They worried that these novels would give women unrealistic expectations for their futures and that it would ruin the minds, morals and reproductive organs of the nation’s mothers.
They decried it as idealistic, unrealistic fluff.
But if it’s just silly, unrealistic fluff what’s the problem?
The problem is that the love match marriage is the gateway drug to women’s rights. If you think about it—and people did—getting married for love raises some really tricky questions that maybe unweaves the entire fabric of society.
For example: if love is the basis for marriage, what happens when the love goes away? Dare one say divorce? And how will a divorced woman support herself? Dare we whisper the word work? But women didn’t do wage work. Except that they often did, in terrible circumstances. But if she did work, did she not deserve an education as well? And once a woman was independent, educated and earning her own way, she would probably wants to own property, have some rights, equal pay and get to vote, right? She might not even want a husband and then how will the men eat? And just like that the entire framework of society, based on a careful distinction between women and men, home and the great world was no longer black and white but 50 shades of grey. The architecture of society crumbles. Is this happy ever after?
Some people saw this coming. They were right.
The love match. Dangerous stuff, that.
And novels that make it seem alluring and seductive and something that you, too, should try at home? Those are dangerous books.
Some of you may be thinking: But it’s just a romance! You are wondering where are the dukes? I thought there would be dukes?
Here’s the other reason people were concerned: Outside the drawing room, other revolutions were taking place. Uprisings in France and America had British Authorities concerned. Our precious dukes and their friends were worried about the spread of revolutionary ideas about equality. Naturally they tried to stop it.
They tried the Stamp Tax. The British Government taxed paper, making it more expensive to buy books and pamphlets and basically have access to the printed word and the ideas it spread. They also passed the window tax, which back then was essentially a tax on free reading light. Later in the 19th century you see resistance to limiting the work day, which is limiting people’s free time to improve their minds and organize. The Powers That Be were up for anything that would keep ideas about equality and social mobility, hope and change, out of the hands of women and the poor.
When that didn’t work, they went for plan B.
Ridicule. Reduction. Exclusion.
RIDICULE. Tell me if you’ve heard this one before about your romance reading: “you don’t really believe that do you?” Whether today or the 18th century people worried about novels giving women “unrealistic expectations.” To which we reply in a huff “is it really so unrealistic to expect love, orgasms and respect?!” And the ensuing the silence tells us they want it to be.
Ridiculing the book or the cover is ridiculing the ideas inside. What they’re really mocking is the idea that a woman is worthy of love, deserving of pleasure, and capable of being the author of their own stories—and by extension, their own real lives.
The other way they get us is REDUCTION. Just smut. Trashy books. Just a beach read. Or it’s just sex.
Let me tell you about “just” sex in romance novels. The thing that really distinguishes romance novel sex from all other literary sex is that the heroine in a romance has sex and doesn’t die. Think about classic literature for a second. Juliet: has sex and dies. Madame Bovery: has sex and dies. Anna Karenina: has sex and dies. Clarissa Harlowe: has sex and dies.
I could go on.
It’s not just sex, though. The sex portrayed in romance novels is different than all the other portrayals of sex out there. For one thing, it’s consistently from a female point of view with an emphasis on the woman’s pleasure. When done well, it incorporates emotional and personal transformation. It’s not just a description of the mechanics, although that serves as a much needed education for countless young readers. What romance novel sex really shows isn’t heaving bosoms or throbbing members, it’s a woman awakening to her own pleasure and her own power.
Once the heroine—and by extension, the reader—has been awakened to her own power for love and pleasure, once she starts making choices about her life, once she starts asserting herself, we cannot just put her back in the drawing room and close the door and go back to the way things were.
So we laugh and call it Mommy Porn.
That is, if we talk about sex or romance novels in polite society at all.
The other way they get us: EXCLUSION. During their lifetimes Jane Austen’s print runs were significantly higher than, say, Wordsworth’s. And the trend of women writing hugely popular “sentimental” novels that everybody read at the time yet are shut out of the canon continues.
In fact, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter in response to what he called “that damned mob of scribbling women” whose work routinely outsold his. Yet The Scarlett Letter—a sales bomb of a novel that slut shames and socially ostracizes a woman—is required reading in high school and a novel like The Wide, Wide World by Susan Warner, which is considered America’s first bestseller, is not.
Our stories are shut out of curriculums. Shut out of higher education. Shut out of reviews. And the result is that we don’t know our own history. We don’t have beacons to look to in the same way men do. We don’t know this path has already been blazed. They grudgingly give us Jane. But what about Fanny or Maria or Charlotte? Or Louisa, Susan or Emily? Or all the George’s who were really women? We don’t know that we are among a damned mob of scribbling women, we feel like we are just one woman alone in a drawing room.
When you are made to believe you are just one woman, alone in the drawing room with your crazy, shameful thoughts, it makes it more daunting to put words on the page and to send those pages out into the world.
That is the whole point.
That’s why it is so important to have meetings like this. So we know that we are not alone. So that we can support each other.
I think we still live in a world that doesn’t value women’s lives. We don’t pay women what they’re worth. We don’t recognize the monetary value of domestic and emotional labor or the “second shift” that women do. We debate a woman’s access to health care and autonomy over her own body. And we still have not ratified the Equal Rights Amendment! Women are not considered equal in the constitution of the United States of America in 2019.
And we still live in a world that doesn’t want to hear or amplify women’s voices and stories. Consider Hollywood:
- Of the top 100 films in Hollywood in 2018, Female characters accounted for 31% of sole protagonists. It is a recent historical high.
- Females accounted for 35% of all speaking characters. And of those speaking female characters, 65% of all female characters with speaking roles were White.
- Overall, audiences were almost twice as likely to see male characters as female characters.
Contrast this with romance where unless it’s a m/m romance there will be a heroine and she will speak a lot. In romance, we provide something that is, unfortunately, still rare and revolutionary: female characters who speak on the page and who are not accessories to the plot but are the plot. And people are so hungry and thirsty for these stories, even if we don’t want to recognize it! Romance has been dominating the bestseller lists and supporting the publishing industry since the 1970’s but only in the past year has the New York Times begun to somewhat seriously review them.
So lady authors and women’s stories face Ridicule. Reduction. Exclusion. This sends the message that a story in which a woman has a starring, speaking role is silly, ridiculous, unrealistic trash. And that the women who read these books are deluding themselves and the women who write these books should go back to the drawing room, or better yet back to the kitchen.
And all this goes double or triple for people of color or the LGBTQ community or those who are differently abled, all of whom suffer from ridicule, reduction or exclusion even from within the romance community.
We do this every time we say a romance featuring POC that doesn’t fit demeaning stereotypes is unrealistic and imply it shouldn’t be told. We do this every time we claim it wasn’t historically accurate for gay people to marry and so their love stories can’t be romance novels. We do this when we don’t review these books, nominate them for RITA awards, include these authors in anthologies or writing groups and when we shelve them elsewhere in the store if they’re included at all. We do this every time someone says they can’t connect with a character of color or different sexual orientation. But then we gleefully read about sexy vampires and a million young hot dukes with all their teeth.
White ladies of Romancelandia, we need to do better. We don’t like when our work is ridiculed or excluded, dismissed as silly and unrealistic. Let’s not do that to our fellow authors.
Romance has historically been powerful because it gave people who didn’t usually get to triumph in a real life a happy ever after. Romance provided an opportunity for a woman to see herself in a starring role and developed as a complex and nuanced character, or for her to experience JOY. This is so deeply important especially when that portrayal isn’t provided by other sources. Ahem, Literary Fiction. Ahem, Hollywood. Ahem, the news.
We need to make sure POC and those identifying as LGBTQ have the opportunity to publish stories that show themselves on the page, experiencing joy. All readers should have the opportunity to see themselves in a story getting a happy ever after.
So here we are. A damned mob of scribbling women. Holding our pens and trying to write our stories of love and joy in spite of ridicule and laundry and day jobs and a million messages telling us our stories are silly or at best are ignored by critics and the world at large.
Those belittling messages can leave us speechless at parties or paralyze our ability to get words on the page, or pages out into the world. The ridicule makes us fear the laughter and so fear putting our stories—our selves—out there. The silence makes us think we’re alone.
We get up in the morning and write that story anyway. It takes a lot of guts and confidence to commit that time and energy to something that the whole world is telling you is stupid trash. So we are really freaking brave. And/Or we also know better than everyone else 😉
We are the heiresses to Jane, Maria, Susan, Fanny and Louisa and all the other female authors who wrote novels about women triumphing in a world didn’t want women to get that message. We are the ones who steal moments between dishes and day jobs to write stories that show women that they matter, that they can do more. We are the ones who shut the drawing room door to laughter and put our hearts on the page anyway in order to bring inspiration and joy to our readers.
We write stories that change the way real, everyday people understand themselves in the world and live their lives.
We reliably bring people joy. That’s no small thing.
As you might imagine, I read a lot of romance. Often it’s “for work” because I write it and review it. But I recently had one of those really hard weeks where my stress was off the charts. I was so stressed that I didn’t even want a glass of rosé. I needed a romance novel. Not only that, I needed the fluffiest, loveliest Regency I could find. Yes, there was a duke in it. So I sank into a hot bath, got lost in the story and for a few hours my anxiety was at bay.
This reminded me of the other true purpose of romance: comfort and joy. Did reading a romance solve my problems? No, but it took the edge off. It let me recharge. It gave me some breathing room. It helped me feel that I, like the intrepid heroine in the story, could meet any challenge and maybe even be triumphant. I felt hope.
That is no small thing to provide.
So we of Romancelandia, this damned mob of scribbling women, aren’t just changing the way people view themselves and their lives, we are also giving them the strength to make it real.
The ideas in this speech are from my book, Dangerous Books For Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels, Explained. Order links below.
PS: Book me to speak with your group! Email firstname.lastname@example.org.