In Defense of a Genre

I ran smack up against the romance-novel prejudice today at one of my volunteering gigs. The manager and book sorter were trying to decide whether and where to shelve a bunch of Danielle Steel/Catherine Cookson type books that they had gotten. I didn’t actually see the books, since I was on the computer at the time, but those were two of the names that they mentioned in their discussion. The books appeared to be “single title” books, the kind that are often about 500 pages long or so, densely plotted. They may not be to everyone’s taste, but they’re not trash. And yet the manager and book sorter at the shop were trying to decide where to put them so that people could find them, but so that they wouldn’t be obvious. Because they don’t want anyone to think that they sell “that kind of book.”

Those were their words. “That kind of book.”

What kind of book exactly? Best-selling books? Danielle Steel (and again, let me clarify that I don’t know specifically that they were actually Danielle Steel books, just that they were Danielle Steel – like books) was on the Publisher’s Weekly best-seller list throughout the 80s and 90s. There were years when she had no less than three books on the best-seller list. Books they don’t like? Nobody’s going to like every book, or every type of book. If you limit what you sell in your store to books that you like, you’re going to run out of books and run out of customers. Books that are badly written? We sell Dan Brown and Patricia Cornwell, both of whom have (to my eye) absolutely abhorrent writing styles. (I say this as someone who has read at least four of both those authors’ books.)

I’m willing to be proven wrong, but I’m pretty sure that by “that kind of book” they meant romance.

Because who would possibly want to read romance novels? Who would want to read books that usually have a female lead (and often a strong female lead), that portray relationships both platonic and romantic, that present fairly universal questions about character and human interaction and love? No, we’d much rather read something that preys on our fears both personal and global, that glorifies violence, that is usually racist (against whatever ethnicity is currently “the enemy”) and sexist. Or, even better, the agony memoirs of people – usually children – that have gone through horrific ordeals of abuse and neglect, so that we can feel appropriately guilty about the state of the world, slightly smug that our lives aren’t like that, and satisfied that we’re part of the solution simply by participating in the publicity of the problem.

Note: My problem is not with the authors or victims of the “Tragic Lives” genre. My problem is with the people who read them for the reasons that I’ve given above, which then lead to things like James Frey’s “memoir” because hard-life memoirs are what sell.

But, yeah, who would want to read romance? Who would want to believe that, even for a little while, happy endings are possible? Who would want to identify with someone whose life isn’t quite perfect, who doesn’t have their ideal job or their ideal house, or whatever, but still gets the guy (or girl) anyway? Who would want to fantasize about being a princess, historical or modern, dripping with jewels and dancing at balls, who finds the one man who doesn’t care about her money?

Yes, they’re escapist. They’re fiction. A lot of fiction is meant to be escapist. Yes, a lot of them are not very good. The same can be said about a lot of different genres, and yet those are still on the shelves, while romance is hidden away, shoved to one side or tucked on a lower shelf so that the “good” books take center stage.

Oh, and when it comes to the “sex” argument, I have read more explicit sex scenes in crime novels and “literary” fiction than I have in most romance novels.  In fact, I was starting to wonder if a requirement for “literary fiction” was to include at least one graphic sex scene. Sometimes a scene that only included one person.  (Ew.) (Sorry, Dad. Sorry, Mom. You probably didn’t need to know that.)

Romance novels are a valid genre, and a valid choice for readers. Just like any genre – crime, fantasy, science fiction, etc. – is a valid choice for readers.  To limit that choice simply because of your personal preference is unprofessional at the very least.

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