I want to commend Maria Bustillos for her article “Romance Novels, The Last Great Baston of Underground Writing” that appeared on www.theawl.com. There is a link below to a great overview of why romance novels are so popular. As someone who cut her teeth on Harlequin and Silhouette, I understand exactly what she means.
I stopped reading them in college because there was a stigma to being seen with them, especially since I was majoring in English Literature. After college, before I got married, and after I married, I read mostly women’s fiction, such as Ann Rivers Siddons and Dorothea Benton Frank. After I had kids, when they were young, I didn’t read at all. Who had time?
Then everything changed. My husband bought me a Kindle for our tenth anniversary, and I am such a fast reader, I couldn’t keep it stocked with books. I discovered that Harlequin and Silhouette sold book bundles on the Kindle — all the books they published for the month for one tidy sum. I could still read a bundle of nine books in a week, but you couldn’t beat the reduced price. The kicker — no one could see what I was reading. Harlequin and Silhouette have since discontinued the bundling practice. Or they may bundle a story sequence, for example eight books about a single family or company. I’m still reading.
I’m not the only one. Romance readership is at an all-time high because of the e-readers. Women can give in to their guilty pleasure without anyone looking down their nose and making judgments.
The romance genre has really gotten a bad rap because some of the older books can come across as sexist, and even go as far as to be misogynous. Some publishers have also been slow to change some of their formulas to adopt to modern mores. Up until a few years ago, I think Harlequin Presents heroines still had to be virgins, no matter how old they were. Remember that when Mills and Boon was founded in 1908, women weren’t in the workforce, and if they were, it was as household staff, teachers, and nannies. Almost all office positions were held by men. It’s understandable that this filtered through into the books.
In many of the current books, the men aren’t interested in marriage at all, but rather want a no-strings-attached-affair. The heroines won’t settle for that long-term, and eventually win the hero’s heart as he realizes that he does want a family after all. Current books are much more sexually detailed than years past, but everything about our lives is more sexual than the past. The best writers find a way to deepen the relationship through the sexual detail without being obscene, and that can be difficult. For me, it’s tough to decide when to close the bedroom door and when to leave it wide open for my characters.
Yes, I read romance novels. And I write them. Now if I could just get this “hot mess” revised I’d have something.