Disclaimer: While this is something I’ve thought about in some form for a while, and it finally hit a breaking point. It’s also purely an opinion piece meant to vent my frustration, and not meant to disparage anyone or the romance genre as a whole in any way.
“In some ways, portraying a healthy relationship in literature is the most revolutionary thing you can do.” Julia Quinn said this in an interview, and while I do see her as something of a problematic fave for other reasons I won’t get into here but have been discussed to death in certain sections of social media, I love her for this reason: her relationships feel realistic and something I as a feminist could believe in. I also loved the way authors like Maya Rodale unpacked the radical nature of romance novels, discussing how it always was about women and them negotiating their agency, even in the 1970s when dubious consent and full-on rape were features of the plots (for info on this contradiction, check out her book, Dangerous Books for Girls).
But between the comments I’ve seen online that such books were more “historically accurate” due to being published pre-political correctness (the only thing they’re not is respectful of cultural diversity, given the plethora of sheikh and Native American romances at worst, and the constant erasure of the actually accurate presence of minorities at best) to the contrary protests against detractors of romance calling them “unrealistic” (among other, more derogatory, terms) juxtaposed against the defense that “it’s fiction” to defend the perpetuation of troubling tropes, I honestly wonder if the romance community, one I thought was loving, welcoming, and progressive (although still flawed) is really any of those things.
I mean, writers continue to show their true colors daily. From the people who speak out about plagiarism but are silent, dismissive, or complicit in the racist actions of others in the community, it’s easy to lose faith as more and more bad actors come out. But even that just affirmed that most of the authors I read are great, even if, like JQ, they do have their blind spots. With each yearly Ripped Bodice survey of diversity in publishing, there is outrage. And most on Twitter reacted with fury at the announcement of a recent book acquisition dealing with “romance across the partisan divide.”
But why, then, have I read way more books than any previous year, and statistically romance is still my main genre, but I feel like I’ve been falling out of love with the genre, or at the very least, the community, or small sectors of it?
Part of it seems to be the weird double standards. It’s touted as “by women for women” but for the most part, they clearly mean “by cishet women for cishet women,” because, aside from the fact that there are non-binary authors and readers, f/f is underrepresented compared to m/m, with the former being called “gross” by cishet female readers who don’t mind fetishizing m/m (not to mention sexy men in general) and some not considering gay men as a legitimate audience for romance.
And that brings me to my main source of frustration. #MeToo apparently rocked the romance world when it first became a headline, with authors like Sarah MacLean, Lisa Kleypas, and many others talking about how it (and/or the election of Trunp) impacted their writing process. However, there does still appear to be a market for the more problematic elements. I’m not talking consensual BDSM, as a tweet states that there is a clear difference between accurate depictions of the lifestyle and Fifty Shades-esque inaccurate portrayals masking abuse, better suited for an episode of Law and Order: SVU. But from the rise of new subgenres like “bully romance” in the indie scene to the publication of an old shoe of a romance book like Bringing Down the Duke, that actually doesn’t add anything new to the genre like it claims to and just feels like an Old School 80s romance in a way that will appeal to new readers, predatory male-in-power behavior and all, it’s clear the community still loves a “good” misogynistic, abusive alphahole. It’s fine if the author can add some nuance to the stereotype to make him sympathetic, as Kerrigan Byrne does with her latest, How to Love a Duke in Ten Days, completely going against her typical setup of taming the often unlikable heroes by having a hero who is more less likable, while still creating a strong and emotionally compelling alpha male character who can realistically change in the space of 300-ish pasges. But when the book hinges on it all being a “fantasy” that he will reform, that’s when I check out and prefer to imagine the book ends with the “hero” dying from a fall off a cliff, and as shown in my interaction with Nicola Davidson, I am not alone in this opinion.
And them describing the“fantasy” of it also makes me laugh. Romance gets pegged as “unrealistic,” and while I understand you interact differently with romance readers than you might detractors, due to one being conceivably viewed as a safe haven, as a budding writer, I’ve heard there should be a certain element of realism or plausibility, even in fiction. Obviously, romance is somewhat unique in that it glosses over some elements, like no one ever smells bad or is missing teeth in historicals, but it seems pretty crappy to gloss over the reality of abuse with the belief that “anyone can be redeemed!”
And then, when I really started to think about these romance community disparities, especially in the aftermath of the wider #DeleteFacebook movement, I began to notice the difference between Romance Twitter and Romance Facebook. Romance Twitter is where all the activists are; that’s not to say there aren’t bad actors there, but that’s where I heard about the outrage over the partisan divide book, for example, and while publishing news is less plentiful in Romance Facebook, I did expect more outrage than I got when I shared it in a thread.And even the people who are or were on both platforms feel they can be freer with their opinions, as demonstrated by the greater advocacy on many an author’s Twitter feed, whereas they tend to be more circumspect on Facebook.
And the overall demographics of the people who use Twitter vs Facebook become more apparent when it comes to their opinions on news items and public figures. Lately, I’ve seen a ton of tweets defending Harry and Meghan in the aftermath of the release of their new documentary and war with the press. And, perhaps illustrating why their feelings are what they are, you can’t open a comments section for any Harry/Meghan article without seeing awful comments from trolls saying she should suck it up, she married into it, or otherwise showing no sympathy for her whatsoever. And why Ellen DeGeneres defended her friendship with George W. Bush, it was the Twitter users who pointed out why her “be kind to everyone” message was so privileged and ignorant.
And I’m sick of it. A lot of the problems in romance come from privilege and ignorance. Some readers and writers do go into books with problematic content and unapologetically enjoy them, and I feel nothing but respect for them, even if we disagree. But the exhausted excuses, the way it’s hampered inclusion of much else besides white alpha cishet masculine broody “heroes,” to the exclusion of everyone else? They say there’s romances for everyone, and that is still true, but it doesn’t the perpetuation of these tropes less concerning from a personal standpoint.