Bad Romance part 2: The romance genre needs better critique, not more gatekeepers

Guest post by Jasmine Silvera

Hi, Homies! 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.) And in case you missed it, part one of the Bad Romance post series is here! xo, Ariel

Dancer’s Flame by Jasmine Silvera
Dancer’s Flame by Jasmine Silvera

While sitting around one evening with a cohort of writers, after a long day of workshopping stories, I was introduced to a new game: The Viking. I can’t remember the name of the novel, but from an adolescence spent reading romance, I recognized it by the cover. Awash in pastels, a bare-chested man and barely dressed woman embraced in that unmistakable pose known as “the clench.” A romance novel. The object of the game: read aloud as long as you can until laughter forces you to quit and pass it on.

I’ll be honest, the prose was as purple as the cover, the situations outlandish, and the relationship between the heroine and her hero troubling in the depiction of consent. I laughed along with everybody else as we snickered our way though a few chapters before returning to MST3000 and cheap wine.

There’s no argument that issues of consent and coercion abound in the genre’s shady past.

And I went back to trying to write according to the line I’d drawn for myself. I wasn’t ready to take part in changing them until I confronted the troubled history of the genre and what it meant to be a feminist who enjoys romance.

Though romance novels have always centered relationships and women, there’s no argument that issues of consent and coercion abound in the genre’s shady past. Consider the conflicted relationships readers have with Kathleen Woodwiss’ The Flame
and the Flower
, a novel that is said to have started the modern “bodice ripper” romance genre.

Modern romance has evolved from the ’70s and ’80s when Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance: Pop Culture and the Patriarchy evaluated the genre and found it wanting. I started sneaking Harlequins and convinced my mom that Jude Deveraux’s A Knight in Shining Armor was a fantasy novel, along the lines of Mirror of Her Dreams and A Wizard of Earthsea, in the mid ’90s. A second generation romance reader and writer, I grew up with quirky, strong heroines that were an improvement over the wilting wallflowers.

Simon & Schuster published A Knight in Shining Armor in 1989 after the heyday of rapey male heroes and virginal heroines. Author Jude Deveraux is often lauded fas a bridge between wack-a-doo “old skool” and the new class. Still, a few years ago, I re-read Knight and found myself cringing in a few places. The interpretations are still (always) changing, as must our definitions.

Welcome to the land of the problematic fave. Critiques of problematic depiction of romance in pop culture abound. The shiny rom-coms of the ’80s and ’90s have faded. We look back with a critical eye to the way behavior of the heroes (and heroines) ranges from creepy to downright appalling. From Breakfast Club to Love Actually, the things we love don’t always hold up well to scrutiny. The owner of the Ripped Bodice (the nation’s only romance bookstore) cites being inspired in part by You’ve got Mail to open the store, only to realize later how problematic the HEA (happily ever after) of that movie is.

We look back with a critical eye to the way behavior of the heroes (and heroines) ranges from creepy to downright appalling.

Grappling with the problematic nature of the things that shape us that is responsible the evolution of romance. As we shoulder the mantle ourselves, is it no surprise that when some of us pick up the pen, we create relationships that improve on the examples we found lacking?

I think a lot about our entry point into the genre. I consider the anecdotal evidence that so much of it happens by trial and error, and “recommendations” based on the books that other people have read — when you borrow or steal them, that’s like getting a recommendation, right?

One of the ways people find books is by reading reviews. The need for analysis, and critical understanding around our media not only keeps drivel from being unchallenged, but helps bring the good to the fore.

Unlike other genres one of the main critiques of romance involves judging the readership. Concerns raised about the impact of the genre on relationships, and the effect it has on women’s expectations of their partners is a curious thing. A spy novel may be legitimate escapist adventure, but a romance novel a dangerous fantasy for unhappy women. If we’re so worried about romance novels driving women to idealize unrealistic relationships, we must be writing articles on legions of men rushing off become secret agents and protect nuclear codes from terrorist cells. Oh yeah… right. We’re not.

But what happens when your genre of choice is commonly judged for its worst rather than read in search of its best?

The popular fiction vs. literature debate questions the genre’s predictability. The expectation for a HEA/HFN is treated not like an accepted convention but as a cliché. But where would a crime novel be that starts with a murder and ends without justice served? Or a thriller in which the hero fails to stop the nuclear attack, reducing the world to rubble?

But what happens when your genre of choice is commonly judged for its worst rather than read in search of its best?

When literary media deigns to talk about the genre, it’s as though all romance novels can be voted damnable by an entry like “mommy porn” 50 Shades of Grey. A recent gem from the NYT Review of Books claiming to be a roundup of new releases in the genre, opened by quoting a novel published in 2000 and critiqued a book written by a woman of color as having characters who weren’t black enough. When Romancelandia stood up for itself en masse, the responses ranged from humorous to considered, analytical to scorching.

Romance writers, and readers, longing for the genre to be regarded for what it does well, not just its fails. This part of the story of romance that is getting a HEA. The Washington Post, Bustle, Book Riot, and NPR all run romance features and reviews that treat romance like — gasp — any other book! Olivia Waite’s “Kissing Books” at the Seattle Review of Books addresses the best of the genre. The New York Times announced the hiring of a writer for a new romance quarterly romance column. It’s a start.

Finally, who gets a happy ending? In part three coming tomorrow: how is modern romance tacking issues of diversity in the publishing industry in search of happily ever after?

Ooh an event in Seattle!


Tuesday, May 8, 2018 from 6 PM – 9 PM


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


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.

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