Entertainment: Romance novel stereotypes—yay or nay?

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WARNING: An opinion editorial to follow

It’s an ironic coincidence that one of my posts for today is a book recommendation of a romance novel (thought it would be good rainy weekend reading material) because when I was checking my email this morning I quickly realized that there’s a little storm brewing in the romance community over a wee condescending article written by Meghan Daum for Delaware Online.

First, a disclaimer: I might be biased. I’ve been a reader of romance novels for years along with science fiction, mystery, literary fiction and non-fiction. I also have a few friends in the romance books industry: readers, reviewers, authors, agents, etc.

Daum’s article in question refers to U.S. News & World Report‘s recent story: 10 Winners in the Recession, which states that romance books’ revenue (and science fiction, fantasy and humor) continues to rise despite lower sales in other book genres.

Daum explored the reasons why she thought romance numbers are up. What is about romance novels that keeps those dollars coming? Good question. And in all fairness, some of what she says is true—although it is mostly outdated stereotypes and broad generalizations, but hey, who cares about accuracy in news?

Daum says:

“The plots, by definition, are formulaic”. TRUE. But then so are most genres. Mysteries, for example, would be a bore if the mystery goes unsolved and the bad guy gets away in the end. And some would argue that ALL novels are formulaic, but let’s give a little benefit of doubt here.

“the prose manages to be at once overwrought and underdeveloped”. TRUE. Some of it is. But couldn’t this be said for ANY genre of fiction? I don’t think romance is the only genre subject to poor writing and editing—right off the top of my head I can think of ten literary fiction novels whose prose grates like nails on a chalkboard.

“the covers, well, they’re where that famous, flaxen-haired slab of manhood named Fabio got his start” TRUE. If you’re talking 70s, 80s and early 90s covers, she’s got a point. But today’s romance covers, by and large, have evolved drastically from the days of Fabio and often you can’t tell them apart from mystery or even literary fiction. The covers that she’s referring to haven’t been around for the last decade or so. That doesn’t mean that some current romance covers aren’t hideous—the covers coming out of smaller publishing houses, particularly for erotica, are atrocious, as are the titles. This is a real source of ridicule and romance readers are the first to jump in and crank up the giggle. But these awful covers are a minority; the majority of today’s romance covers are fairly indistinguishable from other fiction genres.

Now here’s where I think Daum veers way off course—she paints a picture of the entire romance genre with the brush of serial Harlequins, which are only a minority of the market. And you know what? Some of what she says is true, but by no means should the entire genre be shoe horned into her fast food description of a romance novel. Not only is it wholly inaccurate and condescending, but it’s suppositional and promotes such a sweeping generalization that it suggests Daum hasn’t a clue what she’s talking about.

“In most of these novels, the heroine is in a position of not really being able to trust the intentions of her love (or lust) object. And although she desperately wants a happily-ever-after with a cardiologist/secretly wealthy ranch hand/oil tycoon/Ralph Fiennes, she can’t shake her fear that she’s being lied to. And yet she also can’t allow herself to believe that her spicy encounters are anything more than a house of cards that will eventually leave her destitute and alone.”—Megan Daum

To claim that most of the hundreds of romances published annually follow such limited plot lines is rather insulting to the creativity and talent of the genre. Further, today’s heroine is no insecure miss, she’s generally smart, assertive and independent and more often than not she’s kicking some serious maturity ass. Exactly where has Daum been for the past decade? Is she basing her paradigms on the diminutive book selection at Target and Walmart? or maybe from the airport bookstore? Even then, she might notice that the Top Ten Bestseller list is usually filled with romance novels with narry a bosom or Fabio look alike in sight. I would hazard a guess that Daum doesn’t realize that half the books up there are indeed romance novels.

Daum’s ignorant generalizations remind me of a couple of others that I’ve heard. I’m paraphrasing, but you get the gist:

“American food is terrible, it’s nothing but fast food.”

I can understand where this comes from, but it’s an outrageous falsehood as a bazillion fans of Food Network will tell you.

… and here’s my favorite,

“Journalists are evil and can’t be trusted.”

Again, painting the entire profession with the actions of a few (like less than 1%). It’s a sentiment that I can understand the origin of, but it’s unfair and violently destructive to an entire industry that has been the vigilant watchdog of power, particularly the abuse of it, and is currently in demise much to the detriment of the American public.

Daum’s perpetuation of outdated stereotypes thinly veiled with condescension paints a wildly distorted fun-house image of what is the strongest, highest-grossing revenue market in the book industry today. While there may be some small seeds of truth in what she says, it by no means comes close to accurately representing the entire genre, which is what she purports.

It’s shoddy journalism based upon poor research, at best. If I took Daum’s stance when reading her article, I would have to leap to the conclusion that Daum was not a professional journalist and give her some slack—she obviously doesn’t know what she’s doing.

If you’re looking for a better example of the same story angle, check out Recession Fuels Reader’s Escapist Urges by Motoko Rich of the New York Times.

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