This story originally appeared in the Lily.
In college during summer and holiday breaks, I worked in a mall bookstore. Our most popular promotion was a summer one: buy two books, get one free. Romance readers loved it. One afternoon, an older woman filled up a milk crate with books, and told me as she paid that it was “favorite day of the year.”
Our stockroom guy, who liked parachute pants, muttered “loser” when she left.
I wasn’t surprised. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone said it to me today, nearly 20 years later. Romance novels have been labeled as bad, stupid, insipid and for “losers” since long before parachute pants existed.
Despite romance novels making up 23 percent of the U.S. fiction market in 2016, according to NPD Books and Consumers, the genre is still pushed aside as either mommy porn or the default reading of lonely cat laden spinsters who can only find a man in the fantasy land these books provide.
Romance gets trashed, says Sarah Wendell, co-founder and mastermind of Smart Bitches Trashy Books, and author of three books, because “it traffics in emotion and empathy and personal connection and values happiness.”
It’s also a business run by women, and selling to women. The Nielsen Romance Buyer Survey has consistently tracked women as making up more than 80 percent of romance novel buyers.
Wendell cites a quote from Nora Roberts, whose books have sold more than 500 million copies worldwide, and has called romance the “hat trick of easy targets: emotions, relationships and sex.”
I started reading romance as a teenager. One grandmother gave me her Nora Roberts books; the other gave me Maeve Binchy books.
Readers have options as wide as the Internet, from pregnancy romances to Amish romances (which are very popular with Christians who aren’t Amish) to shape shifter romances to male/male romances written for heterosexual women, to BSDM books that make “Fifty Shades of Grey” look tame.
Traditional romance publishing, like the rest of publishing, isn’t as diverse as the general population (only 7.8 percent of books published by romance publishers in 2016 were written by people of color, according to a study conducted by the Ripped Bodice, a California romance bookstore), but romance writers were also among the “earliest to figure out how to make self publishing work, and form small group publishing enterprises to publish their stories,” Wendell says.
Popular coverage doesn’t often embrace that side of romance novels, though, and still leans heavily into stereotypes of “bodice rippers,” which often included rape, even though that style of romance was thrown out in 1970s.
“You just come back to ‘it’s s–t fiction because women read it,’ and the people who condemn it very seldom read it themselves,” says John Market, author of “Publishing Romance: The History of an Industry 1940 to Present.”
When The New York Times Book Review dedicated its cover to romance novels in September, for example, they gave the assignment to Robert Gotlieb, an 87-year-old white man. The results are about what you’d expect.
But this month, the Times launched a romance column. Still, I don’t expect it to be the norm.
As long as women are treated as though their greatest value is still determined as what our bodies can provide for men – as controlled by men – books written for and by us will be treated like dirt too.
“If those attitudes are there about the woman’s place as a sexual object, then we’ve got a long way to go,” says Market. “Since the books are about women’s sexuality and focuses on the sexual aspect and emotions revolving around love, it tends to be put down as fluff.”