“But a romance novel isn’t exactly ‘ Infinite Jest.’ though some bodice-rippers are dirtier than others, there is a formula — at some point, the wealthy heiress or the lady-in-waiting hooks up with the horse wrangler or the errant knight, and jeans come off or, well, bodices get ripped.” —Justin Wm. Moyer, The Washington Post
If you’ve heard the term “bodice-ripper” lately, ten to one it’s because some clueless journalist is writing a story about romance novels. This week, the stories have been about Laura Harner and her plagiarism of Becky McGraw and Opal Carew. The story has gone somewhat viral in the news media, showing up not only at The Washington Post, but at The Guardian, Jezebel, and the Daily Mail. Despite the seriousness of the allegations, commenters on several of the sites appear to agree with Moyer’s blanket assessment of all romance novels.
Detractors come up with the same tired excuses to hate the genre time and again. It’s criticized for being formulaic; in his Washington Post article, Moyer goes on to accuse romance novels of having a “fill in the blanks quality”. This is particularly rich coming from a journalist who largely copied and pasted his entire story from The Guardian. If Moyer had bothered to contact McGraw, or any other romance author or reader, before writing his article (as Allison Flood, author of the Guardian article did), he may have found someone willing to clear up his misconceptions and help him save face. Of course, that would have required actually communicating with silly people who are clearly below him.
Echoing Moyer’s asinine position, some commenters on the Guardian article felt that Harner’s plagiarism was a non-issue, since the formulaic qualities of these novels rendered them all exactly alike.
Let’s examine this allegation, shall we? Why don’t we compare The Liar, by Nora Roberts, in which a widow learns that her late husband was a con-man and falls for a small-town contractor, all while raising her three-year-old daughter and living in the dangerous shadow of her husband’s lies, with Virgin River, by Robyn Carr, in which a widowed nurse moves to a small mountain town, where she rescues an abandoned baby and falls in love with a former Marine. “Wow,” you might be saying. “Those books both have widows! They both have children! They both have small towns! How can you possibly tell them apart?”
Well, one is a romantic suspense with danger and murder, and the other is a feel-good romance about learning to love again. Sure, they have things in common, but so do many high fantasy books. You can find plenty of superficial similarities between Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga and Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series (an all-powerful dark villain, an ancient horn, shadowy black wraiths), but does that mean they’re the same story? Does it mean either series is less worthy of praise, or that one doesn’t have value? What if we throw fan boy favorite A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R. R. Martin, into the mix? After all, that series also has a chosen one named after a dragon, so it’s practically indistinguishable from The Wheel of Time, and therefore not any good.
To say that all romance is the same because they all share genre conventions is like saying all sports are the same because at the end of the game, someone’s going to win. Yes, in a romance novel there will always be a character who meets another character and falls in love, but that’s hardly a “fill-in the blank” template. One of the characters can be anyone; a reporter. A cowboy. A vampire. The other could easily be a fairy, or a detective, or a billionaire. And the obstacles to true love are not going to be the same for a sheik and a hotelier as they would be for a werewolf and a DEA agent. Setting, too, influences the plot as much as the characters; a Regency heiress simply can’t have the same life experience, motivations, and dreams as a space explorer in the year 2309, unless we’re talking in the extreme abstract.
In the mainstream press, romance novels are a joke. Despite raking in $1.08 billion in 2013, the industry is still derided as worthless. Maybe it’s because 84% of all romance readers are women, and romance writers are mostly women, as well.
No, wait. There is no “maybe”. That’s exactly why.
If misogyny didn’t come into play, why aren’t people like Moyer roundly mocking Nicholas Sparks for his formulaic novels? If future civilizations unearthed Nicholas Sparks’s catalog, they would likely believe that the entire Earth was made up solely of North Carolina. The same with the frequent New England settings of the novels of Stephen King, who has also written numerous stories in which something spooky happens to a white male writer.
To take a broader look, how many men have written novels in which unlikely groups of heroes from vastly different personal backgrounds band together to win the day? And what about superheroes? Men and women with various powers and themed outfits, all bearing the burden of a super villain arch nemesis and the dangers of their own hubris. It’s a largely male-dominated genre, defended to the death by a largely male-dominated audience who are just as passionate in pointing out the differences between their favorite heroes as romance readers are in pointing out the abundant variances in their genre. Yet, only the former has reached a place of pop-culture relevance that earns it respect. Even if that respect is given somewhat grudgingly to comics, romance readers and authors can only expect to find derision and snide hostility from people who refuse to read the books, but who are all too willing to offer their uneducated, unsolicited opinions.
All romance novels are not the same. All romance readers are not the same. A quick perusal of the romance category on Amazon could prove that in three clicks. But if detractors educated themselves, how can they make their snide, wholly unfounded remarks? How can they display their superior taste, if they can’t put millions of women down?
If a journalist were writing an article about heart surgery, we would assume that they would consult an actual cardiac surgeon. Simply editorializing on the subject and calling it reporting would never fly. So why do we accept that writers who display open distaste for the romance genre, and who clearly have no working knowledge of it, have the authority to report on it? Unless a journalist is willing to reach out to authors and readers of romance, or at least research the genre before denouncing it entirely, then they — and we — would be better off if they didn’t write about it at all.