By Ashley Sage & Corinne Wallace
How do we define romance novels as their own genre? According to the Romance Writers of America (RWA) website, a novel must contain 2 things to qualify as a romance novel:
“A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.
An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.”
According to these definitions, it is simply love and the growth of a central relationship that must be the focus of a novel. This leaves the genre fairly open-ended as far as what is allowed to happen, who the characters can be, and what they are allowed to do, which may go against popular notions of romance novels as “mass produced” or “all the same”. [AS]
Romance fiction is unique in that the public perception it receives often overshadows the true inner workings of the genre. One of the many reasons for this public image is that romance is most often categorized as a women’s genre, and with this categorization comes a host of implications for the quality, readership, and history of romance fiction. In order to understand these implications, it is first necessary to explore the gender dynamics that shape them. Why is there such a large gender imbalance in the authorship and readership of romance fiction? How does this impact the perception of romance novels? This paper explores these questions to understand how these realities have impacted the larger patterns of romance culture.
Romance fiction quickly became an outlet for female authors and their stories, and this relationship between the genre and gender has shaped much of the industry as it stands today. Beginning with a historical look at the beginnings of the romance novel and female authorship and publication, this paper examines the ways in which the gender imbalance that formed within the romance industry impacts publication, readership, and themes of the romance genre.
While the rise of self-publishing and use of pen names make it difficult to asses the number of female and male authors in the romance fiction industry, the genre is historically written by female authors. Beginning with Harlequin’s release of medical romances the model of romance publishing came to include female authors who generated a following of readers (Radway). Of the authors listed on the Romance Writers of America website, the overwhelming majority possess female pen names. Furthermore, the RWA Honor Roll which “recognizes current RWA members whose books, excluding multiauthor anthologies and multiauthor boxed sets, have appeared on one of the following best-seller lists: New York Times® top 25, Publishers Weekly® top 10, orUSA Today® top 50”, includes 212 names. Of these honored authors, 204 have traditionally female names, seven use their first and middle initials, and one has a traditionally male name (RWA). Not only are there a larger number of female authors, but the names that dominate the industry are female as well. This results the popular perception of the romance genre as a female industry, both in terms of writer and readers.
Although statistics support the claim the romance is largely read by female readers, it is more difficult to determine whether or not this reality is the result of female authors or other factors. The Romance Writers of America list their reader demographics as women being 84% of the romance buying public, with men making up the remaining 16% (RWA). According to the same site, the author of a novel is second most popular reason for purchasing a new romance novel, bested only by the story itself (RWA).
This legion of romance readers is the direct result of a publishing strategy implemented in the early days of romance fictions. It is the 1960s that spurred a huge growth for the romance industry, but the roots of the genre reach to the paperback mysteries and newspaper serials of the 1920s (Radway). While novels had been published with themes focusing on the love and intimacy between two characters, the market for such literature increased drastically with the rise of publishing groups created for the specific purpose of selling books within the genre. Publishers capitalized on the available resource of available female reader by emphasizing a genre with a large appeal. “First, female readers constitute more than half of the book-reading public. More money is to be made, it seems, by capturing a sizable portion of that large audience than by trying to reach nearly all of a smaller one. At the same time, women are remarkably available as a book-buying public in the sense that their social duties and habits make them accessible to publishers on a regular basis” (Radway).
Authors were then hired to write these stories, and the expectations of the type of story being written led to a large number of female authors. Soon the romance industry was an established genre with its own set of themes, tropes, and ideals. “Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending” (RWA).
However, this also allows romance fiction to be minimized in its importance and literary merit, often due to this status as a female-oriented product. As the romance industry makes up 13.4% of annual book sales in the Unites States, it seems counterintuitive that many cast aside the genre (RWA). As a powerhouse industry, the publishers of romance novels must remain in tune with current trends to diversify their offerings while maintaining a core audience of readers with specific expectations for the product. “Just as contemporary romance publishing is guided by this entrepreneurial vision of the book as an endlessly replicable commodity…”(Radway). The main categories of contemporary and historical romance have remained constant as the industry grows, but have also taken on new facets in light of recent trends (Ramsdell). The advent of self-publishing has created a new demand for trendy romance fictions, particularly in the supernatural and new adult genres (Baker). The loyalty created between authors and their followers often help readers transgress these genre boundaries. The reader’s trust in the style of the author, and their ability to convey a character is one a top reasons for their choice of book (RWA).
Although readers of romance report that 84% of their population is reading more or the same amount of romance novels than one-year prior, romance fictions and its readers often face disrespect regarding the level of literature represented in the genre (RWA). Parallel to the heroines in the books that they enjoy, romance readers are held accountable for this enjoyment, and must endure society’s ruling that romance fiction isn’t up to par with true literature (Kamble). The real question in this predicament is how much of this stigma has to do with the formulaic nature and romance fiction, and how much has to do with the fact that most of the works in this genre are the products of women.
This criticism of romance fiction as a frivolous and illegitimate form of literature is not new, rather, it is a continuation of the stigma that has always been attached to popular fiction. As an early 19th century issue of The Guardian, or Youth’s Religious Instructor notes, “Novels are not the picture of real life, although they are usually designed to be such. ‘They paint beauty in colours more charming than nature, and describe happiness that never existed.’ The consequence is, that young people, who have formed their ideas of the world from novels, sigh after that which the world can never afford” (American Periodicals). This very argument, while outdated, is often applied directly to female readers of romance fiction, who are accused of enjoying the genre due to their tendency to confuse the world of their books with the functions of the real world. This is partially due to the preexisting idea that romance is not literature, but rather “smut”(Kamble). When combined with the societal assumption that women must believe the contents of romance fiction can one day come true, this argument is often accepted as an explanation for the popularity of romance fiction. This argument’s structure is similar to that of the above quote as it take issue not solely with female enjoyment, but rather with the cause of this enjoyment being as unattainable feelings. This clearly casts moral judgement on the source of the feelings, and thereby renders it illegitimate and potentially harmful.
This ignorance is reinforced by the stigma attached to romance fiction, which often gives readers a sense of shame regarding their book choice (Burnett). This sense of shame is particularly relevant when discussing the role of gender within the romance industry, as the authorship of female characters and the reading of such characters both acknowledges female desire and creates a means to express and enjoy this desire.
In Shame Game: Romance Novels and Feminist Shame, Burnett claims that this sharing begins with the shame readers and writers of the genre experience. “Sharing the shame we feel about reading these books builds up a sense of commonality, a sense of community. In the world of romance novels, shame establishes itself as a connection among readers and writers; it is the identifier of a kindred spirit” (Burnett). Here she identifies the shame as stemming from the stigma attached to romance, specifically as a result of the portrayal of female sexuality. Burnett then outlines how this sense of shame can be used to connect the women who read romance by bonding them through a common feeling, thereby finding empowerment through this shame.
While reviews and recommendations have always been an important part of romance culture, the technology available through blogs, publishing websites, and automated recommendation software has drastically changes the frequency and efficiency with which romance reader can now communicate. Readers of romance can instantly begins dialogues with one another and share their thoughts within online communities specifically formed around romance fiction. As evidenced by the large number of these blogs, which include such examples as Smart Bitches, Trashy books, and Angieville, romance readers are interested in sharing their review, discussions, and fiction. Of Blog Rank’s top 50 romance blogs, the vast majority offer visitors the ability to comment and share their thoughts with the bloggers. [CW]
Knowing what we know about the readership and strong online communities in the romance industry, let’s take a look at the possible causes for the gender imbalance in the authorship of romance fiction.
Women have generally been excluded from the realm of authorship in other genres, historically. This makes for an interesting dichotomy when you look at romance fiction. Romance emerged as the first genre that is primarily written by women, and targeted mostly toward a female readership. Female readers of romance are very dedicated to the genre, because romance novels relate to the fantasies of women specifically, and allow for a deep connection to the main characters, because they are written from a feminine perspective. Because of this, the strongly developed community of females surrounding the romance industry is highly inclined to exclude men. Simply put, female readers do not trust a male author to write a woman’s voice accurately or appropriately.
In A Natural History of the Romance Novel, Pamela Regis discusses the fact that women are taught in school to read the experiences of a male protagonist as representative of humankind in general, therefore including women within that representation. Men, on the other hand, are not taught to read the experiences of a female protagonist as representative of their own experience, and when it does happen that a male writes a female protagonist accurately, it’s remarkable.
There are however, and have been since the beginnings of genre romance, men that prove the notion of men’s incapability to write a woman’s perspective untrue. The way these men get away with this is by writing under the radar. There is a multitude of men writing under female pen names in genre romance, and many of them are quite popular. Unfortunately, their reception into the world of romance is under these pseudonyms, mostly due to attitudes within the romance community, and they are not proving their capabilities as male writers to the greater romance community, as they continue to write under these pen names to sell books.
Tom Huff is a great example, as he has written under several female names and has seen a lot of success with his novels. However the one novel he attempted to sell under his own name did not see much success. An internet search could not even come up with a picture of the cover of this title.
We can also look to the couple of Frank and Wendy Brennan who wrote for many years, very successfully, for Harlequin under the pen name Emma Darcy for some insight to the attitudes men face as writers of romance fiction. After Frank’s death in 1995, after they successfully published 45 novels as a team, Wendy continued to write for Harlequin. A quick look at the Harlequin bio for Emma Darcy shows us that Harlequin has swept the existence of Frank under the rug completely. Harlequin’s bio for “Emma Darcy” has one picture of Wendy attributing all of their novels as being written by “her” and the bio only describes what is presumably Wendy Brennan’s life. No mention of any partnership. The bio briefly mentions that “Emma Darcy” is married with children–this is the closest Frank has to a shout out, even though 45 of Emma Darcy’s 90 novels were also written by him.
The bio here: http://www.harlequin.com/author.html?authorid=49
If you want to read more about male authors of romance fiction, these blogs are a great resource!
Think you now know romance authors? Take this quiz to see if you can identify male and female authors based on an excerpt from their novel!
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