If you read romance, you’ve probably heard criticisms such as “formulaic”, “female opiate” and “anti-feminist”. But what you may not have heard is that even while publishers shed staff in the wake of the global financial crisis, the market vindicated you.
According to a recent Romance Writers of America’s annual round-up, romance is not only top of the heap, it’s growing. It seems 64.6 million Americans read at least one romance novel in any given year – not bad for a country where reading is supposedly way down the list after DVDs, PlayStations and the like.
And it’s not just publishers and booksellers doing well. In such a notoriously underpaid industry as writing, one major romance author contacted for this article reported routinely earning “more than $US100,000 ($115,400) a book”. But romance is still characterised (and dismissed) with a few purpose- built salvos like those above, derided everywhere from the literary media to dinner parties.
Authors seem to catch most of the brunt of such mockery. Bestselling British romance novelist Jo Beverley now lives in Canada, and she finds herself the occasional target of long-held assumptions. “It’s often unintentional,” she says. “People say they’ve heard it’s easy money or that they always have the same plot. Despite having the last laugh financially, the romance establishment seems doomed to an endless defensive position. The carefully considered points from articles, blogs and conferences are endless. Just look at popular movies, one says: whether action, horror or drama, the hero and heroine almost always end up in love. Or look at evolutionary biology, says another. Falling in love so we propagate the species is 400,000 years old, making romance nothing less than the story of humanity.
The sheer volume of output contributes to the myth that romance is all the same. With more than 50 new titles appearing from industry flagship Harlequin every month alone, surely many of them are at least similar?
“The genre has always demanded a great story with compelling characters, strong emotions with a satisfying ending,” Avon/HarperCollins author Anna Campbell says. “I doubt that will ever change. Trends come and go but the essence of what makes a good romance is eternal.”
Campbell also feels there’s an inherent sexism that many – including women – still buy into. “Some women who never read romance consider it part of a patriarchal conspiracy, but romance is a multi-billion-dollar industry, largely run by women for women. The stories are about women finding power, fulfilment and happiness.”
In the end, the biggest hurdle romance may face is simply that in a world where you can get so much more credibility writing about women enslaved in forced marriages, escapes from brutal regimes or any number of wars or injustices, happy endings just aren’t cool. Romance seems an endless chasm into which people who want to view innocent and childish dreams through unfashionably rose-coloured glasses are tossed.
Kate Cuthbert is a journalist who runs a website for romance readers and did her thesis on the genre. To her, gender is immaterial to romance’s more elemental aspect. “Romance is a literature of optimism,” she says. “Rather than focusing on the many things that can – and do – go wrong in our lives, romance instead chooses to zero in on the positive, the things worth celebrating.”
There’s also a huge gap in critical comment about romance. The reason may be simple fear that their esteemed peers will see them doing so and expel them from such circles. “Professional reputations are at stake,” says Kate Cuthbert. “(One of the many) stereotypes is that romance readers are intellectual lightweights, so to admit to reading or enjoying it is to have those labels applied to you.”
But bestselling Harlequin author Ally Blake, with 18 novels under her belt, points out the unique and enviable position romance occupies. Unlike other genres and titles, romantic fiction simply doesn’t need media support.
“Publishers can use a lot of influence and money getting books into the hands of reviewers in the hopes they might be seen, but romance – especially category romance – already has a set audience, many of whom buy several books a month if their favourite authors have books on the shelves,” Blake says.
Occasionally the literati claim a romance as one of their own, and it’s usually accompanied by comment about how it “transcends the genre” – “Which means it’s too good to be a romance,” Jo Beverley laughs, “because romances by definition are badly written idiocy.”
So where to from here for the best-selling genre? The unique pricing the romance industry infrastructure offers means romance will remain one of the better entertainment propositions for overstretched budgets. But here’s what the big, corporate-backed publishers won’t say – just because they’re in financial trouble doesn’t mean everybody is. There’s been an explosion of small presses, often operating exclusively online and catering for specialised tastes such as erotica that media conglomerates can’t afford to get into when such small print runs are involved.
Of course, disposable fiction is now coming into its own because of the Kindle, iPad and ebooks, but if Big Publishing wants to get in on the action, it’s going to have small armies of mini publishers with dedicated fans and a lot of experience delivering what they want to overcome.