Bad Romance: Yes, I'm a feminist who loves romance novels (+ a Seattle event on May 8th!)

April 27 2018 | Guest post by Jasmine Silvera

Hi, Homies! Ariel, here. In preparation for a Seattle event I'm hosting on May 8th 2018, let's talk about feminist romance novels. More info about the event at the end of the post… xo, Ariel

Death's Dancer by Jasmine Silvera

I was out with friends the other night and the conversation turned to books and reading. As it seems always happens when I’m around, we inevitably turned to discussing our “firsts”… first romance novels, that is. The fact that I wrote one often opens the floodgates.

Here’s how the stories often go*:

  • I took my first one from the shelves of my mother/grandmother/aunt.
  • I bought a bunch at a used book/yard sale and snuck them home in a paper bag where they lived under my bed and I read them after lights out.
  • The librarian refused to let me check one out.
  • The librarian gave me a wink when she saw one in the middle of my stack.
  • My older sister gave me one to “teach me the facts.”
  • My family didn’t talk about sex and relationships. A romance novel was the first time I’d even thought about what a relationship could be like.
  • And what I haven’t heard first hand, I’ve encountered in some variation across the readership known as Romancelandia. My version is common: while I was in my grandparents’ den ostensibly watching TV after school, I worked my way through the shelf full of Harlequins (replacing each exactly as I found them as soon as I was done).

By the time I reached junior high and had assigned hours as a volunteer in the thrift store, I knew which books to pick from the boxes of donations to pass the long hours with. That was also where I discovered Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern books, which probably tells you a lot about how I got to writing what I do now.

I write a sub-genre of romance called “romantic urban fantasy,” which finds itself somewhere between paranormal romance and regular urban fantasy (the jury is still out on where those borders begin and end). Dancer’s Flame, the second book in my Grace Bloods series will be released at the end of April. It follows lead characters Isela and Azrael (spoiler: they’re a couple) as they navigate the tricky world set up by the Happily Ever After they found in first book. With two more books planned in the series, and a spinoff in the works featuring Isela’s unusual pack of three brothers, I’ll be working in this world for a while.

In other words, I’m committed.

Contrary to popular belief, it turns out many smart, creative, thoughtful, well-educated women are reading romances

It wasn’t always that way. I, like a lot of romance readers and writers, wasn’t always proud to admit that the genre was my passion. Contrary to popular belief, it turns out many smart, creative, thoughtful, well-educated women are reading romances (and our status as houswives, or not, is beyond the point). We raise families, nurture careers, create art, and break through barriers personally and professionally without expecting to have our problems solved by a billionaire into kinky sex. We sure as hell aren’t longing to be thrown over the back of a horse and ridden away with (though if you are, I don’t judge!).

According to the Romance Writers of America, the professional association for the genre (disclosure: I’m a member), “Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.” Also known as the Happily Ever After (HEA), or Happily For Now (HFN). The association insists:

Romance novels may have any tone or style, be set in any place or time, and have varying levels of sensuality—ranging from sweet to extremely hot. These settings and distinctions of plot create specific subgenres within romance fiction.

Virginia Woolf may not have been talking about the genre when she spoke about having “a room of one’s own,” but if there is any modern genre that centers women and resists reducing female characters to sexual objects or something which desire or sex is acted on, look to romance.

Girls and young women who grew up sneaking (or being given) romance novels and being shamed when caught reading “trashy books” by lovers and friends (or total strangers) grew up in the struggle for equality in the workplace and education. Readers and writers of the genre are smart enough to recognize the fantasy many romance novels offer: from tycoons to alien overlords, there’s no doubt escapism is part of the lure. It’s hard to argue in the age of #metoo and #timesup that the temporary escape provided by good book is one way to mentally survive the challenges women face in their own lives. And isn’t it possible that a bit of fantasy on top of a core value is ok?

Is it any surprise that feminism and romance novels have begun to see eye to eye?

For Jack Reacher, the titular hero in Lee Child’s successful thriller novels, improbable adventures are grounded in righteousness. Reacher is a knight-errant on a quest to deliver justice to the vulnerable. The situations he finds himself in are extreme, but the ideal — that good must be defended at all costs — is a value worth upholding. RWA defines that "Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending" as being one in which "… the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.”

With a goal like that in a genre written (largely) by and for women, is it any surprise that feminism and romance novels have begun to see eye to eye?

To be sure, by women and for women doesn’t always equal feminist. It would be unreasonable and unrealistic to expect an entire genre to express a philosophy and social movement that doesn’t even define itself in a concrete fashion. But most novelists don’t live in a bubble of rose petals and champagne, and for many who make the leap from reading to writing romance, we take our values with us.

FWIW, I never sat down with the declaration: “I will write a feminist romance novel.” But creating a heroine tough enough to stand her ground with a 2000-year-old necromancer, would not have been possible without grounding her in a sense of her own self-worth, autonomy, and agency, values my mother instilled in my sister and I that we carry with us to this day.

The conversation about romance and its impact on culture and literature is intensely reductive.

And centering a novel on relationships offer an opportunity to explore how those relationships might look, and evolve into a more feminist ideal. Authors of novels featuring “office romance” are considering power imbalances and consulting human resources in plotting their happily ever afters.

Yet although the genre is a billion dollar industry and shows no sign of decline, the conversation about romance and its impact on culture and literature is intensely reductive.

In part two coming next week, we’ll talk how the genre is evolving from the “bodice ripper” days and why critical reviews haven’t caught up with the times.

Ooh an event in Seattle!

WHEN

Tuesday, May 8, 2018 from 6 PM – 9 PM

WHERE

The Lab at Ada's Technical Books
425 15th Ave E, Seattle, Washington 98112

WHAT WE'LL BE TALKING ABOUT

Offbeat Bride author Ariel Meadow Stallings hosts a discussion with local writer Jasmine Silvera about the rise of the feminist romance novel and Jasmine's new book, Dancer's Flame. The authors will explore ways the genre's centering of relationships and female pleasure is evolving, judgments about the genre (does enjoying romance make you a "bad feminist"?), and how the "diversity problem" in publishing determines who gets a happy ever after.

More info on Facebook, or skip straight to the part where you get tickets because these Offbeat Ada's events always sell out:

  1. SO FREAKING EXCITED for this event… some of y'all may remember that years ago I wrote about my hunt for polysexual romantic fiction ( http://offbeathome.com/sexy-books ) and talking to Jasmine has been super educational for me … the stigmatization of the romance genre is fascinating.

    Hoping to see some of y'all there! These Offbeat Ada's events are super intimate and more like a roundtable than a reading… I learn so much from the open discussions that happen.

    3 agree
  2. I'm a relatively outspoken advocate of two pilloried genres: romance and young adult literature. I read the former, write the latter, and have (finally) accepted that neither inclination is shameful.

    My mom discovered my first romance novel–given to me by a cousin–and threw a major fit. I was 12 or 13, and I guess she thought I was too young to "read porn." Which… I don't know. Maybe I was? I hadn't sought it out, but I was definitely hiding it. I also wasn't trying to find some barely-pubescent boy to reenact various scenes with me. So. The overreaction led to me hiding my mostly-tame and always-safe sex life from my mother into my twenties.

    The thing about reading romance novels during puberty is that I actually learned stuff from it. Yes, I learned what exactly my clitoris was for and that my partners should pay attention to it. Yes, I learned the how and why of oral sex from a reasonably reliable source (ie: not my friends). Yes, I learned that if I didn't have an orgasm, the sex probably wasn't very good, and that my partner should care about that. Yes, I learned about lube (thank god). But also: my vocabulary is EPIC. I learned about history, particularly women's political and social history, which we certainly weren't covering in school. Once I discovered LGBT romance, I learned about that too.

    And you know what? The books are even better now.

    So hell yeah, I'm an advocate. If I find the really good stuff, I want people to know about it. Books that are hot and funny and well-written, and full of smart women and men falling in love despite terrible odds? Awesome. Wish I was in Seattle to join the discussion. I'll show you my recommendations, if you show me yours.

    8 agree
    • I'm sorry, I'm totally stuck on this line: "Yes, I learned that if I didn't have an orgasm, the sex probably wasn't very good, and that my partner should care about that."

      You don't really believe that, do you? The part about how sex isn't very good if you don't have an orgasm? I've had phenomenal sex that did not end in orgasm – "it's the journey, not the destination" and all that. (And I have plenty of orgasms, but that's not what makes it good.) And saying that plays into women feeling badly about themselves or like something is wrong if they DON'T.

      Certainly a partner should care about if you're having a good time or not… but if ALL they care about is "orgasm"… well. Something's off.

      3 agree
      • We can agree to disagree about the message here. I have certainly had wonderfully romantic, affectionate, even passionate sexual experiences that didn't end in orgasm. It's not a necessity to climax, particularly if you don't want to. HOWEVER, I also know from experience with sex therapy that women tend to "excuse the orgasm" because we think of the male partner's orgasm as the natural endgoal of sex. Lesbians report much higher rates of orgasm during sex. I don't mean to imply that orgasm is the goal EVERY time, but it should be an expected part of sex for most people. If you routinely aren't orgasming during sex, and you want you be, that's a problem. A big one. That's why sex therapy exists. Your partner should be able to help you achieve that.

        7 agree
  3. This reminds me of the Vaginal Fantasy Book Club (sadly, ended this month), which was started by Felicia Day to de-stigmatize the romance genre. I love that feminist romance novels are a thing!

    2 agree
  4. I wish I could attend your event!!! I have volumes to say about this (starting with: Why is the biggest area of publishing sneered at and stigmatised? Sexism!) but if I start I might not be able to stop. I'll have to see if I can find your books! 🙂

    1 agrees
    • Yeah, that's definitely the short, absolutely correct answer and I know the feeling: that was how one guest blog post turned into three 🙂

  5. Please pop my "trashy" book cherry with some glorious suggestions! I've always wanted to delve into the world but never knew what to start with or who to ask. I'll admit the super steamy, thrown over the back of a horse era sounds actually pretty appealing.
    And humour? Funny books!? Yes please!!

    • I'm no expert on the genre, but since you asked…

      My favorite Regency romance series is KJ Charles's A Society of Gentlemen trilogy. If you're willing to tolerate some scifi in your horseback riding I also loved No Proper Lady by Isabel Cooper. Courtney Milan is probably one of the most prominent feminist historical romance authors, but if you want super steamy and don't mind contemporary settings Alisha Rai is my go-to.

      Edit: How could I forget Alyssa Cole? Another favorite.

      2 agree
    • Hi Amber, for the trifecta (humor and historical and steamy) try Tessa Dare (the first book in the Castles Ever After series offers a lovely send up to fandom and as easter egg, every one of her books include an often humorous 'ripped bodice' scene) or Courtney Milan (The Brothers Sinister) or anything by Sarah MacLean. If you want humor in a more contemporary setting, try The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory or The Hating Game by Sally Thorne. Beverly Jenkins knows her way around a cowboy in the American west.

      1 agrees
  6. I wish I could make this event – it sounds amazing! And I really enjoyed Death's Dancer and am looking forward to the next installment!

    1 agrees

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