There are days when it feels like romance is having its big moment. NPR, the New York Times, and the Washington Post unironically cover the genre on a regular basis, publishing serious romance reviews and long interviews with authors. Bim Adewunmi and Kelly Faircloth are both fierce advocates for the genre and have written in nuanced, thoughtful ways for BuzzFeed and Jezebel about why romance matters. Is this what happens when people take your genre seriously?
Maybe that’s why it’s so painful when the more regressive romance think pieces make an appearance, the kind that used to just get published around Valentine’s Day but are now a year-round phenomenon. Romance readers feel like angry victims of a giant game of whack-a-mole, popping out our heads for a thoughtful interview with Helen Hoang in The Washington Post, and then punched back down when Lit Hub claimed that romance is “flawed and silly, and repetitive.”
The bad kind of romance think pieces are written by people who only know enough about the genre to be dangerous. Misogynists and literary snobs are the easiest to ignore, but for some reason, it’s the occasional reader who recently read and—gasp—enjoyed a romance that grates on my nerves the worst. Those of us who regularly read the genre aren’t surprised that romance novels can be complex, interesting reading.
Ironically, no matter what their angle, these pieces frame romance in such predictable, reductive ways that I suspect there’s a “romance think piece idea generator” hiding somewhere on the internet. Choose a handful of the following concepts, shake, stir, and the piece almost writes itself: trash, mommy porn, bad writing, silly books for silly women, not your mother’s romance novel, Nicholas Sparks, all the books are so predictable, romance isn’t feminist, heroes manhandling women onto horses, funny euphemisms for sex, Fifty Shades of Grey, Fabio.
The more I think about it, though, the most pervasive problem is that inevitable pivot from Fabio to Fifty Shades of Grey. Fabio first muscled his way onto a romance cover in 1987 (that’s 32 years ago) and Fifty Shades was released in 2011. As far as these writers are concerned, 25 years of romance history never happened. It’s not just that these writers have a cursory knowledge of the genre’s history, it’s that they don’t even believe there is anything worth knowing in romance’s history. And that’s why outsiders who only know Fabio and Fifty Shades will never say anything interesting about romance to those of us who love it.
But these pieces keep appearing, functioning as a bulwark against the rising tide of romance acceptance. Regardless of word count or where it’s published, the bad romance think pieces all have the same message to the reader: You are smarter than romance. Anyone reading, and certainly anyone writing, those things can confidently and smugly pat themselves on the back. Romance fiction might be a billion-dollar industry, but you’re definitely better than beefcake and bad BDSM.
I can’t speak for other romance readers, but I can tell you the net impact it has on me. I feel a constant low-level hum of fury that readers are still shamed for loving romance in a time when the world can’t get enough of Game of Thrones. I hate that casual friends and acquaintances regularly take cheap shots at romance novels, always as a negative comparison to books that are seen as more worthy. I want the genre to embrace and celebrate everything about who we were and are—which means also taking a hard look at our own history.
The erasure of decades worth of romance trailblazers isn’t just coming from outsiders looking to score cheap, easy points. If nothing exists between Fabio and Fifty Shades, then the publishing industry can sell the story that a black woman writing romance in 2018 is something new and that bisexual characters in 2019 are visionary. The story becomes one of breathless self-congratulation for what’s happening now rather than a frank and critical look at how, for decades, romance ignored both the underrepresented authors writing #OwnVoices stories and the readers desperate for their books.
We need critics who want to dive into the genre’s rich, complex, and real history because if we say “Happily Ever After for everyone” then we have to mean it. Here’s the real think piece: romance is ready to face its history. We deserve people who are interested in telling that story with us.
Kirkus romance correspondent Jennifer Prokop cohosts the romance podcast Fated Mates. Follow her on Twitter @JenReadsRomance.