Why is romance the poor relation of literature?

Romance writing has always had a second class reputation in the world of literature. It is frequently considered the easy option, both to read and to write. It’s also frequently assumed to be trashy or low grade fiction; the literary alternative to reality television.

Why these opinions are so widely held is something of a mystery when romance outsells every other genre. And what of novels such as Jayne Eyre (above)? Gothic, perhaps, but certainly romantic. One of the most successful authors of the modern world, Nora Roberts, has had novels in the New York Times Bestsellers list on 191 occasions, and yet only twice has that same publication reviewed her work. The chief accusation levelled at romance is that it’s “an easy read.” Personally, I’m not sure why that’s a bad thing. We all work hard these days; a bit of escapism, in whatever genre, has to be a good thing.

In the Victorian era romance was considered not only to be of poor quality, but dangerous. There was a very real fear amongst the male population that if women read romantic books they would get unrealistic expectations about what married life had in store for them. This concept of unrealistic expectations is still an accusation levelled at romantic fiction. It is an odd argument. You rarely hear people say “I don’t like science fiction or horror because it is unrealistic.’ Surely that’s the point. Fiction is often based in reality but it is, by definition, made up. It’s escapism. It’s entertainment. Something to draw us away from our day to day lives for a while. If being unrealistic in fiction was an issue then Tolkien would never have written a word.

Another problem laid at romance’s door is that it is formulaic. This is to some extent true. Romances have two people meeting, they get on, they then fall out, they overcome their issues and get on again; there is then another problem which has to be overcome prior to a happy ending. The mistake people make is thinking that writing with a formula makes it an easier task. It doesn’t. The reverse is true. Having rules to write by is very difficult; especially if you want to be original with your work. And finally, the most baffling anti-romance novel argument of all is “they always have a happy ending.” So do most crime, sci-fi, mystery, gothic, thrillers, and horror novels.

The situation is summed up nicely by Amy Paulussen, Chairperson of the Canterbury Branch of the NZ Society of Authors. “You may call them ‘easy reads’ or ‘beach books’, but I’m confused… is reading meant to be hard? Unpleasant? A chore? Am I supposed to get to the end of the book and feel relieved that it’s over and I can put the book proudly on my living room shelf and impress the neighbours?”

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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