Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Tuesday Talk Time - The Reality of Being a Romance Reader

Today's Talk Time is all about romance and reality, as Pink Heart Society Editor, Ali Williams, looks at the pros and cons of realism in category romance...

I write this, fresh from a discussion about category romance and (warning) I am still pretty het up.

Ever since I started writing about perceptions of romance, reviewing Mills & Boon books, and even having the audacity to brand myself as an unashamed romance reader, people have tried to book-shame me.

Book-shaming, for those of you not in the know, is the practice of telling someone that the books that they enjoy are not just trash, but are indeed harmful.

I've had people tell me that my expectations of relationships and love must be unrealistic because I read romances; that as a feminist I'm letting down women by reading romance; that I'm clearly unintelligent.

None of the above are true.

So today, I'm here to talk about the reality of romance, and to challenge assertions that reading romance is unhealthy.

1 - "You must have unrealistic expectations of love"

This is what I call the "In Real Life Quandry".  If I were an avid fantasy reader (which btw, hells yeah!) or a voracious devourer of crime fiction, I wouldn't get any questions about my attempts at magic in the real world, or my sociopathic tendencies.

However, I have been told on numerous occasions that my determined, "all in"  attitude towards love and relationships is immature and clearly stems from my reading habits.

The last Mills & Boon book I read was Carrying the Sheikh's Baby.  Now, I have no intention of getting pregnant any time soon (for one, the fiance and I couldn't afford it and for another I'm way too fond of my sleep atm) and I'm also not particularly taken by the idea of being ordered around by a man in flowing robes.  My man wears jeans or - if we're having a lazy day - tracksuit bottoms.  Not a headdress in sight.

Neither would I put up with him ordering me around in my day to day life; I'm far too stubborn and self-sufficient to put up with that nonsense.

But that doesn't mean that I can't enjoy a book about a heroine who does - just as I can enjoy Trainspotting as a film, without harbouring a secret desire to shoot up.

2 - "You're not a proper feminist."

I've had full-blown arguments with people over feminism, diversity and intersectionality.  I'm incredibly passionate about women's desire and need to choose their own path for themselves - whether that's a high-flying career or marriage and babies.

So why does reading romance nullify my ability to be a feminist?

Here's a clue: it doesn't.

For one thing, it's incredibly empowering to be a part of a community that is dominated by strong successful women - whether they're published authors, editors or marketing specialists.  And that's not to say that we don't appreciate the men who work with us either.  But these are (often) women writing for a target audience of (predominantly) women.

And that's flipping awesome.

So yeah, I'd argue that reading romance is a feminist act in itself.  Plus, I'll be damned if I'll let anyone tell me what I can and can't read.

3 - "You're intelligent, why do you read that rubbish?"

Why?  Because they reveal a hell of a lot about popular culture and societal expectations.  Because they're funny and heartwarming.  Because they echo the very best of humankind.

And I'm not the only one.

IASPR is the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance and counts Pamela Regis, Laura Vivanco and Eric Selinger amongst its members.  It even has its own academic journal.  There's a hell of a lot to be said for the academic study of category romance.

Plus we can't all continually read Ulysses - we'd have a permanent headache.  There's something to be said for the comfort of a Happy Ever After.

What do you think the reality of being a romance reader is?  Share your own personal experiences of a belittled genre!

Ali Williams grew up in Croydon and spent her teenage years in a convent girls' school. She then fled to university where she discovered champagne cocktails, a capella singing and erotica.

These days she blogs about perceptions of romance, chick lit and women in society and spends an extraordinary amount of time coercing male friends to pose with her favourite Mills & Boon books to the bemusement of the Twittersphere.

Genre reporter for chick lit and erotica at For Books' Sake and guest blogger for Mills & Boon, she defies you to slam romance novels within her hearing!


  1. I read comics. A lot. Does Batgirl or Batman give me unrealistic expectations of what it's like to be non super-powered human being? Because really, what they do is impossible. Bruce Wayne wasn't bit by a Spider, He's not from Krypton nor does he have a Green Lantern ring. He has no super powers at all. So how in the world does he do half of what he does? Fantasy. All these genres have a huge element of fantasy in it, it's not meant to be a real life manual. (This is why I don't like it when books introduce infidelity and other real life problems in to genre romance because I think it takes you out of the zone if you will. The Batman doesn't kill the Joker and the Hero doesn't cheat. but that is off topic, I know!).

    1. I LOVE comics. And I agree with you completely - you don't get told that your reading habits are unhealthy. Grrrr...

      I think that's interesting - I like a dash of realism with my category romance, but I think you're right; a lot of the time 50,000 words isn't enough to fully engage with some topics in-depth. On the other hand, I do sometimes find that because it's so compact, issues can be dealt with sensitively.

      On another, unrelated note...are you watching Gotham? Cos I want to squee so much about the fact that they got Renee Montoya. So. Damn. Right. :D

    2. I just don't think category romances is the place for heavy things like infidelity. It's hard to wrap it up in a nice shiny happy ever after bow at the end. That isn't to say these aren't important issues to explore! Yes, I'm watching Gotham. I like it but I have some issues with it, like how they're portraying Selena, I think they need to tone down the sensuality of a young teen girl and make her movements more athletic in nature. I *love* that they brought in Renee. I'm looking forward to when Jim and Renee realize they're on the same side (with the added tension they both love Barbara). Last night was good. (I'm not a fan of Alfred and I think they could have cast young Bruce better)

  2. Fab post, I especially liked the point you made about other genre readers not being accused of living out the fantasy, since I'm an avid crime reader and have no ambition whatsoever to commit the perfect murder.

    At the core of every singe type of romance is a belief in love, and for me, that's the bit that matters most. It doesn't matter whether the journey towards true love is an escapist fantasy, set in the past, the present or the future, whether it's gritty reality or the HEA is first, second or third time around. I think what intimidates most (sadly, male) readers - who don't actually read romance - is that they're about the kind of deep-seated emotions that they don't want to deal with, or can't. It scares some, because it puts them on the back foot. Their instinct is to demean it, to fluff-it-down, to mock it, and to pretend that it's irrelevant, when in fact love and the search for love and the loss of love and the sustaining of love are about as fundamental to the human psyche as we can get.

    Which is a long-winded way of saying they're missing out and we're right. So there!

    1. Hi Marguerite, I totally agree with you - crime is fascinating, but it's not a How TO guide - and neither are romance novels!!

      I also think there's something in your point about these deep-set fears. Emotions can be powerful and very scary, and sometimes that's hard to take if you're reading for fun.

      There's something about the soul of romance novels that I absolutely adore. I love the fact that they echo the best part of us and that is important. It should not to be looked down upon or dismissed.

  3. Fabulous stuff! I'm very happy to say that whenever I say I read and write romance, I encounter huge interest, but no negativity. I hope that continues to be the norm for me, but should things change, you can bet I will come out with all guns blazing!

    1. Right?! I might have hit the roof and then torn the (unnamed) person's argument apart bit by bit. It drives me crazy when people are so derisive like this!! Hence the ever-so-slightly ranty post!! :P

  4. "This is what I call the "In Real Life Quandry". If I were an avid fantasy reader (which btw, hells yeah!) or a voracious devourer of crime fiction, I wouldn't get any questions about my attempts at magic in the real world, or my sociopathic tendencies. However, I have been told on numerous occasions that my determined, "all in" attitude towards love and relationships is immature and clearly stems from my reading habits."

    That's a really good point.

    "You're intelligent, why do you read that rubbish?"

    I write chick lit, so clearly I don't have two brain cells to rub together. The physics degree was obviously a fluke.

    1. No, we're clearly all sub-intelligent. My MA in Shakespeare was completed by my invisible twin. :P

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    1. LOL. I just read the comment above mine about the fluke physics degree. Truthfully, I think the genre's critics can't stand the notion that romances are primarily written by, for, and about women. I enjoyed your defense!

    2. It's a genre that's dominated by women and that's AWESOME. (Though not to cast any aspersions upon the wonderfulness of our male counterparts). It goes alongside the argument that genre fiction has very little to teach us, which I think we all know is utterly baloney.

  6. I LOVE this post:) As a teenager I grew up reading Mills and Boons. I totally devoured them and they helped me so much during the awkward stage in my life where I fantasized about meeting the right boy. I still had this idealism right into my adult life waiting for my knight in shining armour to sweep me away on his white horse:) My life might not have lived up to plots in these stories but I found my knight in shining armour and we are living our happily ever after:) I write romance stories too and it infuriates me when members in my writing group don't appreciate my stories and ridicule my writing. But I will never stop writing them, I will always follow my heart when I write because it is who I am and it is where my passion lies. Thank you for reminding me that we never have to be ashamed of our love of romance stories, especially the Mills and Boons kind:)

    1. It is infuriating when people don't even give romance - and category romance in particular - a chance. I'm aware that it's not for everyone, but that's fine. I'm not a massive fan of horror (translation - it scares me witless and I HATE reading it) and have very little time for the male bildungsroman (self-indulgent twaddle), but that's not to say that it doesn't have merit or that those who read/write them are idiots. It's just different!!

  7. Great post!! I totally agree with you that reading romances doesn't mean you're not a feminist. Surely reading a genre where female readers, writers and characters are at the heart is a good thing for feminism? I think stories that show women beating their demons (both figuratively and literally depending on your subgenre), supporting one another and finding out what they want in life is a wonderful thing. Unfortunately I think we all encounter these views, though I do my best to educate as many of these people as I can.

    1. YES.

      I'm very lucky in that most of my friends and acquaintances are all about the freedom to choose what we read and appreciate the importance of having female characters at the centre of novels, but I do come across the odd person who I feel I need to educate.

      It's my right to choose. I want everyone to have a HEA and that's my right.

      Plus anyone who tells me I'm not a feminist for reading romance, in my opinion, is a pretty shoddy feminist themselves. I'm a feminist romance superfan and damn proud!! :D

  8. Right on! What a wonderful testament to the romance genre and its empowerment of women. Intelligent women are readers. And it's a statement of true feminism to be able to read (and write!) what we want, and not have our choices dictated by others. Thank you.

    1. YES to everything you've said. :)

      "Intelligent women are readers. And it's a statement of true feminism to be able to read (and write!) what we want, and not have our choices dictated by others."

      I think this is my quote of the day. Exactly this. :)

  9. Replies
    1. Thank Liz!! I'm pretty chuffed that people like it. :)