Defeating the Critics: What We Can Do About the Anti-Romance Bias

Romance is a form of literature beloved by readers and loathed by literary critics. This didn’t used to bother me; I just accepted the given that all romance fiction was hackwork. It wasn’t until I started to study the genre that I realized how intellectually dishonest this was. No decent critic would ever say, “All literary fiction is good,” or “All stories about war are bad,” and yet the bias against romance was almost universal. Yes, a lot of the writing in romance fiction is abysmal, but so is a lot of the writing in mystery, SF, and literary fiction, and only the romance gets condemned as an entire genre.

But I also knew that any time anything is condemned wholeheartedly, it’s because it challenges the deeply held beliefs of those attacking it. When I looked closer at romance fiction, I saw that it contested the beliefs of a lot of powerful groups. In fact, romance fiction has something in it to irritate anyone with rigid ideas of how life and literature should work and–most important–how women should act. It was then I realized why I loved romance fiction: it was not only entertaining and empowering, it seriously annoyed a lot of stuffed shirts.

For example, romance fiction challenges the traditional patriarchal beliefs by saying that women are equal to men and that they should be as sexually knowledgeable as men, and then compounds that sin by showing that love is a powerful force that should be taken seriously.

First, romance fiction says that women are primary not supporting characters, equal to men in power, intelligence, and ability.

Romance fiction was critically doomed the minute its writers said, “We’re going to make our central characters female, and they’re going to win” because our society still buys heavily into the female=secondary bias. Sociologists have long recognized a phenomenon called “feminization,” which means that anything that becomes associated solely with women falls in general esteem. Movies that deal with women’s concerns are dismissed as “chick flicks,” professions such as nursing and public school teaching have long been underpaid, and child care is shamefully under-funded. Clearly women and women’s concerns have their approved places and the center of the story is not one of them. But romance fiction insists that women be front and center, demonstrating over and over again that women can solve their own problems. Reading that kind of narrative empowers women and therefore attacks the basic assumption of patriarchy.

The result: romance fiction is called “unrealistic.”

Second, romance fiction often says that sex is vitally important to women.

Cornelia Otis Skinner said that woman’s virtue is man’s greatest invention. Women shouldn’t experience a lot of sexual encounters, conventional wisdom ran, because that would soil them, and it’s not in their nature anyway. Men who had a lot of sex and enjoyed it were studs; women who did the same were unnatural sluts. In truth, it was rarely the sex patriarchy objected to–men have usually been intrigued not threatened by lesbianism–it was the sexual knowledge gained from other men: God forbid a woman should know more about sex than a man. Romance fiction not only says women want that knowledge and have a right to it, it often gives it to them explicitly on the page, telling them it’s not wrong to want a full sexual life and showing them how to get one.

The result: romance fiction is called “soft porn.”

Third, romance fiction says that love is powerful and important.

Love used to be a respectable thing to write about. Look at the great literature from the medieval period: Love was right up there with Honor and Valor as one of the Great Subjects. Then it became feminized and the whole subject went to hell. Why? My theory is that the fall of Love coincided with rise of Science and Reason. Men have long sought to conquer their world, and with the huge strides in scientific explanation in the eighteenth century, they got to feeling pretty good about themselves as Masters of the Universe. An educated man could explain everything–except why he mortgaged the family castle to get that necklace so he could seduce that woman who was driving him literally crazy. The best and worst thing about love is that it makes fools of us all, and that’s terrifying to anybody who needs the illusion of omnipotence. Romance fiction exalts this power, shows how it brings us all low and then raises us when we surrender to it. It’s the antithesis to the Enlightenment, a refutation of reason.

Result: romance fiction is called “silly fluff.”

But if romance challenges patriarchy, why is it so reviled by radical feminists? Because it challenges deeply held beliefs there, too. Good old romance: it’s an equal opportunity debunker.

First, romance fiction says that women like traditionally female things.

Romances tell the uncomfortable truth that many women like shopping, home decorating, and babies. I’m a passionate feminist, and I remember very well the fight in the seventies to overturn the assumption that the only things women were about were shopping, decorating, and babies, so I understand why books that emphasize these things scare some feminists. But while it’s true that these aren’t the only things women are about, it’s also true that they’re what a lot of us are about some of the time, and that we like reading about them. So romance dwells on them and makes them important, telling the truth even though it’s politically incorrect.

Result: Romance fiction is called “antifeminist.”

Second, romance fiction says that sometimes women like to be overpowered sexually.

Politically incorrect though it may be, the rape fantasy not only exists, it’s popular. And unless a heck of a lot of women are participating in their own degradation (not impossible given the Fifties), there’s something important and valuable that women are getting from it. An examination of rape fantasies shows that for the most part, the fantasy isn’t rape at all, it’s non-responsibility; that is, somebody who looks remarkably like Harrison Ford sweeps away the heroine’s (and the reader’s) good-girl objections with the sheer force of his animal nature to give her the best sex of all time, and she’s not responsible because she said no. Most people–male and female–would kill for this fantasy; it’s a universal, the longing for a great time without consequences. Does this weaken the important “if she says no it was rape” guideline? Only for those who confuse reality and fantasy, and the vast majority of readers can tell the difference.

Not all feminists reject the rape fantasy, either; Susie Bright has argued that the politically correct sexuality demanded in the past is repressive and has proposed a “Do Me Feminism” based on the theory that if a woman likes it, it’s good regardless of political thought, an idea that seems obvious given the lack of excitement generated by the term “politically correct sex.” Romance fiction has been “Do Me Feminist” for decades.

Result: Romance fiction is called “fiction that promotes abusive relationships.”

Third, romance fiction says that women need love and relationships.

Studies have shown that men need to separate from their communities in order to achieve their full identities, and theorists in the feminist movement embraced this for women to refute the idea that they were more than mothers and wives. Well, women are more than mothers and wives, but a study at Wellesley showed that many if not most women do achieve their sense of identity through their relationships with others. Romance fiction has always known that and therefore always focused on and privileged the relationships the heroine had not only with the hero but with her friends, family, and children. Yes, she had a clear identity of her own, but she discovers it through her interactions with others.

Result: Romance fiction “stereotypes women as dependent on others.”

But it’s not just patriarchy and radical feminists who object to romance fiction. The genre also challenges the twentieth century literary establishment.

Romance fiction usually has a happy ending.

As anyone with a lit degree knows, the last time any author got away with a critically acclaimed happy ending was the nineteenth century. By the early twentieth century, Modernism–the school of thought that declared life was real, life was earnest, life was hopeless and so was literature–had taken over literary fiction completely. There was reason for this: the first half of this century saw a world war that obliterated an entire generation of European men and destroyed faith in government and the church, an economic depression that destroyed belief in the American Dream, another world war with a holocaust and the atomic bombing that destroyed any pretense to a brotherhood of man, and a Cold War with duck-and-roll drills that destroyed any certainty that there would be a future. Listen, those writers had reason to think that loss, betrayal, and unhappy endings were realistic.

But we’re now in a period of unparalleled peace and prosperity. Yes, there’s still tragedy and suffering in the world, but not unbroken tragedy and suffering, and in fact, most of us are surrounded by good stuff. Specifically, people fall in love, get married, and stand by each other every day, and roughly half of them stay that way. For the first time in a century, the commitment and happy ending of the romance plot is every bit as realistic as the Modernist plot. Unfortunately the perception is that they’re just not artistic. This bias isn’t limited to fiction; look at the proportion of comedies to tragedies in the list of Oscar winners. Modernism has convinced us that suffering and losing is more valuable than suffering and winning. Romance fiction says that this isn’t necessarily so and constructs positive, uplifting narratives to demonstrate that.

Result: Romance fiction is “trash,” the opiate of the female masses.

So what do we do about this? How can we win in the face of this unfairness?

Well, we can calmly point out the intellectual dishonesty of those who criticize the entire genre instead of individual books. We can argue that romance fiction is maligned because it’s so threatening to rigid political and academic structures. And we can show that it’s actually one of the more honest forms of fiction being written about women today.

But the truth is, that’s all probably a waste of time because the critics don’t matter, the readers do; we don’t write to please establishments, we write to reach women. And by writing good books, we counteract decades of pessimism with narratives of realistic optimism, we break through knee-jerk limitations on women imposed by both the political right and the political left, and we refute the sterile elitism of current literary criticism. We entertain, we enlighten, we empower, and in the end we influence far more people than any of our critics ever will. As much fun as it might be to bring the critics to their knees, we really don’t need to. In every way that matters, we’ve already won.

Written by Jennifer Crusie, this essay was originally published in Romance Writer’s Report. Vol. 18 Number 6. June 1998: 38-39, 44.