This post contains sexual language.
Many people harbor misconceptions about the romance genre. I used to myself, which is why I didn’t read romance for the longest time. As a writer, I often encounter the following wrongheaded ideas…
1. Romance novels use hilarious euphemisms for genitalia.
This hasn’t been true for decades. There may be exceptions I don’t know about, but if you start a romance written in this century hoping to read about manroots or throbbing members, chances are, you’ll be sadly disappointed.
I think “cock” may be the most common way to refer to a cock. Almost everybody likes cock. Romance novels will sometimes use words like “pussy,” but readers have strong and wildly varying opinions about terms for female genitalia. That’s why writers often take a roundabout approach: his hand reached between her legs, he pushed one finger inside her, etc.
The myth about romance novels employing funny euphemisms has lasted so long because of our culture’s discomfort with female sexual pleasure, which I will get to in just a minute!
2. They are anti-feminist.
This impression might also come from very old examples of the genre, or from the popularity of a few contemporary stories featuring aimless heroines. I think most romance authors, agents, and editors are feminists, and this comes through in the stories.
Heroines have their own lives and their own goals. Of course, there’s nothing wrong or anti-feminist with any person wanting to find a romantic partner. Most humans do. However, romance heroines are more likely to be pursuing goals like “track down my sister’s killer” or “start my own B&B” than “find a man.” Romance tends to happen when they weren’t expecting it, which is the way it usually works in real life, too.
Sex is consensual. In the old bodice rippers, this wasn’t always the case. I think a generation ago, a lot of women readers felt guilty about sexual desires, and force in a sex scene overcame that: it wasn’t the character’s fault she was having sex! She was still a good girl, just like the reader!
Some readers in the past probably also had a taste for BDSM, but without much knowledge about how it can play out in a healthy relationship. Anyway, heroines in today’s romances are enthusiastic partners in sex, and not infrequently the initiators of it.
The romance genre’s focus on female sexuality is inherently feminist. We see male lust and gratification in almost every TV show, movie, commercial, and music video, but female desire and pleasure make us uncomfortable. That’s one of the reasons people are so quick to deride the romance genre, and why the genre is so necessary.
Of course, stories with female protagonists in general are a much-needed anecdote to most TV shows and movies, even ones that garner critical acclaim, in which women play secondary roles or simply provide sexy backdrops for the story.
3. The heroine and hero are always impossibly good-looking supermodel types.
This is only half right. The heroes are usually gorgeous, although there are notable exceptions (Elizabeth Hoyt’s excellent debut novel, The Raven Prince, is one good example.)
The heroines are a mixed bag. Some are conventionally lovely. Some are chubby—the body type that in other media would make them not the romantic lead but the funny best friend. Other leading ladies just didn’t win the genetics lottery, in one way or another. It doesn’t matter. Once the hero has fallen for our heroine, she is, as far as he’s concerned, the most beautiful woman in the world.
I do have some misgivings about all the perfect-looking dudes. Unrealistic expectations about looks hurt men, too. At the same time, it’s hard to get too upset about it when the rest of our entertainment is skewed in the exact opposite direction.
As an author, I’m not given to writing long paragraphs about a guy’s chiseled abs or muscled chest. I’m not saying other writers shouldn’t do it—it’s just not me. My heroes are attractive, no question, but I focus more on their words and actions than their looks. To me, this is what makes a guy really hot, anyway.
4. Romance novels don’t have a real plot.
You’re thinking of literary novels. Just kidding, sort of.
I’ve heard people say that historical romance, for instance, is long descriptions of dresses and houses punctuated with sex scenes. Nope. Romance, like other genre fiction (mystery, thriller, scifi, fantasy), and like most TV shows and mainstream movies, tends to be driven by plot.
In romance novels, characters have goals, encounter significant impediments to achieving them (sometimes, the love interest is the impediment), and either meet them, or realize it was actually kind of a stupid goal. The reader comes to the book expecting a plot that twists and turns but ultimately makes sense, and most romance novels deliver.
If you’ve ever read a novel with beautiful sentences and insights that you struggled to finish nonetheless, it was probably because not enough stuff was actually happening. I suspect that many literary writers just aren’t that good at plotting. (Of course, some are great at it–Donna Tartt and Ann Patchett, for instance.) It’s not an emphasis in MFA programs, where “plot-driven novels” are held in some disdain, even though exciting stories are intrinsic to every culture, and even though plotting a long story is difficult and requires study and practice.
Alternately, I’ve read some romance and other genre fiction novels where the prose itself was…not very good, but I couldn’t put them down because the plot was so compelling.
5. Romance novels are read by lonely women who never married and have a lot of cats.
First of all, lots of single people are not lonely, and some married people are. Moving on.
Romance readers are mostly women—78%, to be exact—so that part, at least, is correct. About half of all romance readers in the U.S. are married, the same percentage as all women in the U.S. who are married, so romance readers don’t skew one way or the other.
It’s very hard to make generalizations about romance readers in America. In terms of age, education, and geographic location, they are all over the board.
My source here is RWA statistics about romance readers, gathered by mathematician Olivia Hall and the market research group Carolina Research. They provide no data on cat ownership, but pets are delightful and everyone should adopt at least two from their local shelter.
6.? Romance novels are written by people with fantastic sex lives.
Obviously I’m not going to talk about my own fantastic sex life, because it is private, and I don’t know much about other writers’ sex lives. I’m just going to say that this might be an inaccurate generalization. I met a young woman once who started publishing very popular and effective erotica while she was still a virgin. Assuming romance writers have awesome sex lives is kind of like assuming Robert Ludlum is a skilled assassin because he wrote the Bourne novels. Like, maybe he is, but you don’t know for sure.
If there are other myths that I’ve left out, or other stereotypes about the genre that you suspect might actually be true, I’d love to discuss them! Thanks for stopping by!