Romance novels: where is the love?

Who hasn’t read a romance novel in their life? At one point, maybe even during high school years, we’ve read a romance novel in one form or another. So why are romance novels still getting that arched eyebrow?

Kat Mayo, creator of Book Thingo – a site for romance novel enthusiasts, is a big fan of this genre. Here she answers some of Her Collective’s questions about the world of romance novels.

Why build a website for romance novels? What inspired you?

Romance novels are rarely reviewed in mainstream media, so when I discovered romance book blogs in the early 2000s, they were often the only sources of information on romance books and authors. I started Book Thingo because I became frustrated at the lack of local information on things like book release dates.

The pioneers of romance book blogging, at least for me, were: Dear Author; Smart Bitches, Trash Books; and Karen Knows Best. The women who run these blogs aren’t afraid to speak their minds, and I’d like to think Book Thingo follows in that tradition.

Why do you think there are still heaps of romance novel readers despite the reaction towards it?

I think romance books have always been very popular with women despite being seen as inferior by other readers and by mainstream literary critics. Romance readers enjoy fiction where there’s a very tight focus on the romantic relationship, and where there’s a guarantee that the ending will be happy.

Academic and blogger Jodi McAlister wrote an essay arguing that romance is a genre that promises joy to its readers. I think joy is a very compelling reason to read books!

Do you think the genre has evolved over the years? How?

Definitely. I just read a chapter of a thesis written by literary historian Jodi McAlister, which looks at the changes in Mills & Boon romances from the 1970s until now. Even within this narrow subset of what we call category romance — the shorter form of romance novel that Mills & Boon excels at — there have been huge changes in the gender politics that play out in the plots, but also the morality associated with romantic love.

For example, in the older Mills and Boons, it wasn’t unusual to read stories where the heroine had sex outside of marriage, lured into wickedness by a villainous man. Now, it’s almost unheard of to find adultery in mainstream romance novels, and in fact it’s very unusual to have a story where the hero or heroine sleep with someone else (even if they weren’t together yet at the time).

Older romances also tended to be a lot more forgiving of forced seduction and non-consensual sex. These days, readers are a lot less accepting of such plots (though they still do exist). And of course, romance novels are a lot more explicit now. Many also cross over into other genre — for example, paranormal romance and romantic suspense.

What do you think about the Fifty Shades of Grey genre? Is it romance? How would you classify it?

It really depends on what kind of conversation I’m having. Strictly speaking, I don’t think it belongs in mainstream romance genre. First of all, the first book doesn’t have a happy ending. The happy ending takes place over three books, and for most romance genre readers, that’s two books too many! But for readers who don’t read romance, it’s usually easier to call it a romance. Personally, I’d call it a romantic series. I think it shares some common elements with romance, but it doesn’t really fit a strict definition of the genre.

Last year, the Sydney Writers’ Festival didn’t include the romance genre in their sessions, what is your opinion about that?

I think it was an appalling oversight, and it wasn’t just romance — a number of other genres were overlooked. As a government-funded arts festival, I think SWF has an obligation to represent the diversity of Australian literary culture, and to exclude romance is to ignore our rich history of Australian authorship in the genre. Some of my co-bloggers and I actually organised a (very low-key) postcard campaign to raise awareness at the lack of romance. We’re hopeful that we’ll see a bit more genre representation in this year’s festival.

What is the greatest misconception about the genre?

That there is a formula. There is no formula. There are conventions — the story must focus on a central couple (or relationship — some romances might feature ménages) and end happily. People like to call this a formula, but it’s no more formulaic than, say, crime fiction starting with a mystery and ending with the mystery solved. There is great diversity within the parameters of the romance genre.

Which book is your favourite romance book of all time and why?

This is an impossible question! Shadowheart by Laura Kinsale. It’s dark, disquieting and super angsty. But ask me again and I’ll probably give you a different answer.

For you dear readers, what is your favourite romance novel?

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  • A very interesting interview, Kat and Kristyn. One of my favourite romance novels is Devils Bride by Stephanie Laurens. It’s a regency romance with a mystery to solve, a strong cast of characters and has a sensual romance. But then I’m a hopeless romantic.

  • Erin, I read Devil’s Bride only a few years ago, and I can see why it’s in so many keeper shelves. Are you still reading the Cynster books? It’s a very large family!

  • Nora Roberts (aka; J.D.Robb) is my fave author… She started in Mills & Boon, but I have never read a Mills & Boon book!.. But I did find one at the local book shed a few weeks ago I have sitting on my bookcase now to read.

  • Miss Cinders, I’m not a huge Nora fun, but I enjoyed her Chesapeake Bay saga. That might be an easier transition from JD Robb than her Mills and Boon. I enjoyed the few JD Robb books I read, but there are too many books for me to ever catch up!

    Annabel, you’re thinking of classics that I don’t really think of as romance. Wuthering Heights wouldn’t be considered as being within the romance genre now, but it does seem to come up a lot as a favourite with people who don’t read romance genre fiction.

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