The Romance Question

[I wrote this a while ago, and I’ve been going back and forth on whether or not to post it. The post itself perfectly explains why I’ve been uncertain about sharing it, but ultimately it speaks a lot of my honest opinions and I’m trying to learn to just be myself. What I’m currently working on doesn’t directly confront this issue, but it is an issue that I think will continue to be a part of my writing life. So here it is…]

It’s taken me a long time to be able to say: “I like romance.” In stories, I mean. My personal life is a whole other discussion that belongs in a therapist’s office, so we won’t go there. But as for my reading preferences, it has become clearer and clearer to me over the years that I like romance.

And yet I still feel a lot of embarrassment and shame about it. I’ve gotten better about admitting that I read romance novels (paranormal and Regency/historical), but I do it with a laugh and a joke about how silly they are—and they are, I know they are. From the titles to the covers to the questionable gender representations and problematic elements, romance novels are silly things. And yet… I like them. Certainly better than the “classics” and “literary” novels I had to read in college; I would read romance novels on the weekends in between chapters of Frankenstein. I know that those classics (and their contemporary “literary” counterparts) are objectively better books, yet put me in a room with one of them and a romance novel, and I’ll pick the romance novel every time.

So why the shame?

Romance is one of the most popular and bestselling genres out there; Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey are arguably the two (second) biggest literary phenomena of the last decade (Harry Potter being the first). But… look at how they were treated by the media and online fandom. Now, I’ll be the first to agree that criticisms of writing quality and feminist issues are deserved, but there are plenty of other bestsellers out there that aren’t any better, and you just don’t hear nearly as much hate as you do with these two series. “Worse than Twilight” is one of the lowest insults you can apply to a book. “Fifty Shades of…” is a punch line. I’m not really a big fan of Fifty Shades, though I have read the trilogy, and even though I enjoyed Twilight I can definitely acknowledge its flaws (more now in retrospect, as I have learned and grown, than when I first read them)—but the hate, the mockery, the shaming that these series, and by extension their fans, receive is not really fair.

The funny thing is that in order to reach the level of phenomena that these series achieved, a large number of people had to love these books. Now, at a certain point, people started reading the books just to see what the hype was about, and that’s when the backlash got rolling because people who wouldn’t have wanted to read books like this otherwise were forced to pay attention to them and, understandably, didn’t like them. But what about all the people who built the foundation of the phenomenon? Who read them in such droves that mainstream media plucked these books out of the overwhelming crowd of books out there and gave them extra attention? These are not a few cult fans geeking out over their underrated favorite; these are hordes of readers loving these books and spreading them around to everyone they know. But all you hear online (at least in the fandom circles I see) and in the mainstream (movies, TV shows, late night and SNL) is the backlash. Why is the backlash mainstream, and the considerably large fandom shamed—especially in this era of nerd domination?

I don’t want to make a simple, reductive argument, so I’ll acknowledge that maybe these series are just that bad—but I think that’s ignoring the fact that such a large group of people became fans of them in the first place. Dismissing it as “mob mentality” or the “ignorant masses” is insulting to a vast number of people, and ends up obscuring a necessary conversation of how we evaluate creative works as “good” and “bad.” I can think of plenty of other fandom phenomena that have their share of dodgy writing and questionable themes, but even when that’s pointed out it’s always balanced by positivity and fandom. It remains “cool” to like them.

But admitting you’re a fan of Twilight (even being sure to add that you acknowledge its flaws and enjoy it with a grain of salt) can be fandom suicide. We’ve come a long way in the mainstream culture for accepting and even embracing geeks, nerds, and fandom—look at the evolution of Comic-Con (whether you approve of that or not), or the box office dominance of movies derived from comic books and sci-fi/fantasy properties. Being a passionate fan is no longer something to hide in the back of your closet; I display my TARDIS proudly on a shelf and on T-shirts, and I’ll tell anyone who asks how I’m dying to go back to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and how I’m thinking of moving there. But admit that I own all the Twilight books (and yes, even the DVDs, which I know is much worse, believe me, I know)? I can’t even do it without turning bright red. A woman at work held up The Host by Stephenie Meyer and said, “That woman shouldn’t be allowed to write more books”; I couldn’t admit that The Host is one of my all-time favorites (and that I’m waiting desperately for a sequel!), so I nodded and laughed and buried myself in shame.

So what does all of this have to do with writing? Okay, so I like something a lot of people think sucks; grow a thicker skin and get over it. And ultimately the only way to deal with this is to do just that. But what I’ve been working on realizing is that if I like to read romance, I’d probably like to write it (I prefer mainstream romance to romance novels, for various reasons, but that’s not really the point). Yet every time I try to develop a romance story, or even just a story with romantic elements, I hear the voices of a thousand bloggers, reviewers, and authors I admire sneering “worse than Twilight.” And I just… can’t.

Writing is more personal than reading, more revealing of your true self. Admitting to reading questionable romance is embarrassing, but admitting to writing it is a whole other level. And to be a successful writer you have to be able to promote your work with a confident smile, not a red-faced squirm.

And it’s not just the all-out backlash against Twilight. Many online reviews of new books on the market criticize the love interest plots, or the telegraphing of who the love interest is, or “insta-love,” or the need to even have a love interest at all. They say the marketing should have warned them there would be romance, so they could have avoided it.

Now, everyone is more than entitled to like and dislike whatever they want, and I’m often annoyed with a love triangle plot. But the dismissive, hateful tone of the criticism, the tone that says, “Not only do I not like romance, but anyone who does is a stupid squealing girl who should get out of fandom and stay out” (or is anti-feminist; I want to see female heroines without love interests for all the feminist reasons, hell yes, but I also happen to like romance—and often the cheesier the better—so…) … How am I supposed to absorb that? How am I supposed to put myself out there by writing something that I know will receive the same—or worse—criticism? Bravery and self-confidence, I suppose, but those are two things I’ve never had. Everyone from my immediate circle to the online fandoms I follow to throwaway lines in movies I watch are constantly belittling me without even knowing it, as casually as if it’s a universal, obvious, correct opinion.

So what do you do? Avoid romance altogether? Sneak it in with small, acceptable doses? Go all-out and gird your loins and give up the dreams of fandom’s acceptance?

I don’t know. And I may never post this, partly because I’m still embarrassed to admit what I like, and partly because it’s coming off a bit whiny and unhelpful. Not to mention that a lot of the problematic issues that critics present about some romance stories, such as sexism and weak heroines and abusive behavior, are all things we as a society really should be critical of and have a discussion about—but can we do that without shaming those who have internalized sexism and actually sort of like that stuff (in a detached, aware, would-never-actually-want-it-in-real-life kind of way)?

It’s true that if you travel in certain circles, romance is embraced, celebrated, desired. That both Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey had legit fandoms before the backlash swallowed them—and that both authors are certainly not hurting for money. And that there are other non-romantic properties that get their fair share of hate (Transformers?) and everyone just deals with it and keeps raking in the dough.

And what do I expect? To get everyone to stop saying mean things, to suppress their opinion? No, I would never want to do that. I just can’t help feeling like the fandom community, which is so vocally against any form of bullying, is kind of bullying romance fans. And whether they realize it or not, whether they care or not, they are impacting people who are feeling ashamed and silenced as a result. Fandom has come out of the closet, and is being embraced by the mainstream in exciting new ways, with love and enthusiasm and less and less judgment.

I guess I just hope romance can have that someday too.


About J. Sevick

Just write.
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1 Response to The Romance Question

  1. Pingback: When You Like Problematic Things: As a Consumer | J. Sevick

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