Claire McEwen is visiting the Pink Heart Society to talk about whether romance really is escapist...
At the post office the other day, the clerk eyed the large pile of books I was mailing and asked me about my writing. When I told her that I write romance novels, she said “That’s so nice. Everyone needs an escape now and then.”
It was a sweet thing to say, but it also got me wondering. Do all romance novels really provide an escape? Do mine? Because while reading is a good escape, many romance authors, including me, are exploring very real-life issues in our books. Issues that aren’t usually associated with escapist reading.
When I think of escape I think of all the wonderful, improbable, romantic stories about sheiks and billionaires. I think of delicious historical novels full of pirates and royalty and regency rakes and Scottish lairds. I think of complex fantasy worlds or a hero and heroine on the run in a romantic thriller. And I absolutely love these kinds of escapist stories. Especially pirate heroes and reformed regency rakes!
But when I started writing romance, I’d read a bunch of these types of books and I was craving something different. I felt a bit like I do when I eat too many sweets. When I overindulge in sugar, I start craving savory food. More basic, everyday food. When I overindulged in escapist romance, I started craving stories grounded in real life and everyday events. I wanted to write stories set in a world that looked something like mine.
My first book really did come straight out of my world. It was about a woman who was mired in a bad relationship. She was pouring energy into her career to make up for all that was lacking in her life. Then she ran off and met a rancher, and while that didn’t quite happen to me, her initial sense of being stuck was similar to the way I felt at the time. That book sold to a Harlequin series that I’d only just heard of. A series called Superromance, that promises “Romance with More.”
When I read my first Superromance, I felt like I’d come home. These were my kind of books! The bread-and-butter romance I craved, with stories that followed the hero and heroine as they wrestled with all kinds of real-life issues. Stories where their love transformed them, made them stronger, helped them overcome their problems and find their place in the world.
These kinds of contemporary romance are almost the opposite of escapist. Rather than escaping reality, many authors march right up and shine a light on it, often using their stories to illuminate issues that our society is slow to confront. In my new book, Return to Marker Ranch, I explore mental health issues like PTSD, as well as environmental issues like the California drought and the fate of America’s wild horses. I know authors who are writing about domestic abuse, obsessive-compulsive disorder, sexism and much more. And by bringing these issues out into the open, they are helping to diminish the silence and social stigma around them.
And there’s something else powerful going on in these kinds of complex contemporary romances. They remind us that romance isn’t just found on fancy vacations, at glamorous parties or in mansions. Romance isn’t reserved for billionaires and vampires and heroines in ball gowns. Romance is possible right here, in ordinary lives like mine. Love can be found as we hustle through our days, shining in the cracks between work and childcare and chores. Love is for all of us and we can all be transformed by it.
My excitement about this idea has wandered out of my stories and onto my website. I have a blog called Romance All Around Us, where I try to explore ways to bring the romantic feeling we find in novels into our real lives. Whether it’s giving an old piece of furniture a new coat of paint or pondering the weeds growing in my garden, I try to think about how we can find small bits of beauty, and appreciate all that we have. Because if we can bring real life into romance novels, why can’t we bring a bit of romance into our real lives?
I still love the fantasy of escapist romance. Spending time in another world, whether it’s high society or high danger or on another planet entirely, is always very relaxing and enjoyable. But realistic romance is where my heart lies right now, and I think it’s an important part of the romance genre. Sometimes I want to escape from reality but other times I want to run towards it, and immerse myself in it, and find all that is wonderful there.
How do you feel about romance's escapist label? Join the debate in the comments!
Claire's latest book, Return to Market Ranch is out now:
This is one reunion both of them could do without
This is the chance she's been waiting for to prove she can run her family's ranch. And despite her many doubters, Lori Allen knows she's doing a good job. Until the man who once broke her heart—Wade Hoffman—runs her well dry! And it turns out he's got as much to prove as she does. After serving his country, Wade's back to rebuild his family's reputation and win his battle with PTSD.
With so much to lose, neither can afford to give in to temptation. But to succeed they must let go of old heartache and face up to bringing out each other's worst, along with the best. And what doesn't kill them…