first published in the Brisbane Courier-Mail 6 October 2007
One of the things people in the romance novel industry have been fighting for, for many years, is recognition. Those outside the community, including, sadly, those in other areas of the publishing and book industries, have pre-conceived notions of what a romance novel is, with no real basis or understanding of the genre or its traditions and limitations.
Equally sadly, those pre-conceived notions are mostly negative and involve staunch denials of ever having read such ‘trash’.
However, sometimes, infrequently but sometimes, it’s good to fly under the radar.
This weekend marks the end of the American Library Association’s Banned Book Week. Banned Book Week (BBW) has been marked since 1982 and celebrates the freedom to choose and to express one’s opinion, even if that opinion might be unorthodox or unpopular. Further, BBW stresses the importance of ensuring that unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints are available to all who wish to read them. You can find out all about it at http://www.ala.org.
There are no romance novels on the list of the 100 most challenged books from 1990 to 2005. Cynically, I suspect that this is because a challenger would have to admit to having read a romance novel in order to challenge it. However, it may also have a lot to do with the fact that the demographic most likely to challenge books are parents, and the books they most protest are those on curricula and in their children’s libraries. Romance novels, even Jane Austen, very rarely make it into the classroom. Romance novels, at least in my teenage experience, are the books one hides under the mattress so parents don’t find them.
Interestingly, of the 7 reasons most used for challenging books, 5 represent themes that come up frequently within romance and its various sub-genres. Sexual explicitness is the obvious one, but there’s also offensive language – which goes hand in hand with sex, occult themes – which could cover the whole paranormal genre, violence – which plays a big role in romantic suspense and much of the paranormal sub-genres, and homosexuality – a burgeoning sub-genre that has attracted much attention from both in and outside the industry.
The main reason most industry professionals give for romance’s bad reputation in the literary world has its roots in misogynism. Romance is a genre written mostly by women, about women, for women. Further, it’s the only genre that is marketed exclusively towards women. The general consensus is such a genre is misunderstood and belittled by the (mainly) male publishing executives.
However, when looked at in context of BBW, another reason comes to light. Romance has been dismissed as fluff. Could it, with novels celebrating love in all its forms, even controversial ones, in fact, be subversive?