From the quirky meet-cute to the classic happily ever after, I am a huge sucker for romance books. Now, I know what you’re probably thinking. Romance books aren’t “real” books. They’re “trashy,” and chick-lit for girls and women to read alone at home, and later to hide away under the bed when guests come over. But I’m here to say that the time for shaming those who read romance is over. With over $1.08 billion in sales, the romance industry is a lucrative business. But more important than revenue, is the fact that romance novels offer women—and men—a variety of perspectives and insight into individuals that many often take for granted or overlook in their dismissal of the genre. Just last weekend, I visited The Ripped Bodice, the only exclusively romance bookstore in the United States, where I interviewed sisters-and-owners Leah and Bea Koch on their insight regarding the stigma surrounding romance.
With the call for greater representation of women and diversity in the media, romance novels are actually an incredible medium to discover complex and strong characters. What I love about romance novels is the character development of its protagonists. Contrary to what most may believe about the heroines in romance novels, these women aren’t damsels-in-distress. In fact, they’re independent, talented, and intelligent individuals who just happen to find love along the way. And isn’t that what makes up any good, well-developed character? Sure, you’ll find the nerdy girl falling for a player, or a commoner falling for a prince, but Bea says there’s so much more beyond that.
“I think characters are so complex in romance, and there’s all these kinds of tropes people are working with, and playing with. There’re all these kind of recognizable characters and people making them fresh,” she said. “That’s so unique and wonderful to have both that familiarity with the characters, and also this new discovery each time you read a new one.”
And writing complex characters in romance novels is even more difficult, especially in contemporary romance where readers are invested in the characters more so than the action often seen in science fiction and paranormal romances.
“You’re essentially writing a novel’s length character study. To do it well is hard, and I think people wildly misjudge romance all the time,” Leah said. “It’s a real challenge to draw a character complex enough that you’re not going to alienate the reader from rooting for them.”
So many of these characters in romance books are ones women can relate to, or even aspire to be. Authors Christina Lauren’s characters in the Beautiful Bastard and Wild Seasons series are scientists and comic book authors. Furthermore, romance novels advance women of all backgrounds, such as author Mariana Zapata’s Latina heroines in Kulti and The Wall of Winnipeg and Me. These authors aren’t afraid to tackle issues women face everyday, such as sexism in all its forms in the workplace or even dysfunctional families that only strengthen the heroines’ resolve. The depth found in these women are so much greater, and much more prevalent in the romance genre than can be seen in the movies in Hollywood as a whole.
Not only does romance address issues women face, but also topics that everyone isn’t always so sure how to approach. Sex education, in particular, is an awkward conversation for most individuals—especially for younger individuals. Romance novels, unlike school settings, provide—in a way—a less sterile and more familiar environment where individuals are more likely to encounter these sorts of issues.
“It’s about reading actual conversations. So much of sex ed, and the conversations surrounding, ‘What is affirmative consent?’ is all theoretical,” Leah said. “For young people, they’re wondering, ‘Exactly how do I go about having that conversation where it’s not going to be awkward, and how on Earth do I bring up this topic? So that’s what I really think romance brings to the table. It can almost give you a script.”
And perhaps the best part about today’s romance literature is its focus on women’s sexuality. Even in today’s pop culture, much of it continues to focus on men’s sexuality, or dismisses the importance of women’s pleasure. Romance novels remind its readers that women’s sexuality is just as important.
“There is this feeling that romance gives women unrealistic expectations from relationships, where actually, what they show is women in equal partnerships with partners who respect them and their sexuality,” Bea said. “We’re very keen on allowing women to express their sexuality in whatever way they want. It might be in reading a clean romance. It might be in reading a BDSM romance, but that’s up to every man and woman to make that decision for themselves, and what kind of literature they’re going to interact with.”
And for those who argue women’s pleasure is a recent development, Bea argues it’s something that’s been around for much longer than most individuals care to acknowledge. She said authors such as Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters tackled women’s concerns regarding marriage, such as who they’re going to marry and when.
“I think the reason Brontë and Austen are so continually returned to and so beloved is that they do show this internalized women’s struggle,” she said. “Those questions were so central to a woman’s character in that time period, and [they] do such a beautiful job of showing the internal difficulties women went through. But then they don’t show the sex scenes.” At that, both sisters laugh. “That’s the difference,” Bea adds.
Eliminating the stigma surrounding romance books is a tough battle, and one I find myself still struggling to determine how to win. In opening an exclusively romance bookstore, Leah and Bea hope to show individuals that romance is worthy of having an entire bookstore dedicated to the genre.
“We have plenty of customers who are not romance readers. They don’t consider themselves as such,” Bea said. “But because we’re the bookstore that they come to, they’re starting their romance discovery. We really try to get the right books into the right hand, so we’re not pushing anything on anyone. This is really about the reader coming to the genre in [his/her] own way. So even though we’re huge proponents of romance, some people don’t like it, and we have other things we hope we can kind of show that are romance-adjacent.”
After visiting the Ripped Bodice, I finally realized that loving romance books is nothing to apologize for. In fact, it’s something to celebrate. It’s time to celebrate authors writing empowering female characters, complex storylines, and individuals we would all love to be friends with. And yes, romance novels are defined as having emotionally satisfying endings. For you cynics saying that’s not how the real world works, Leah said it best.
“The world is so shitty that there’s something great knowing that things are going to work out.”
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