October 31st, 2017
(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: email@example.com
If I was feeling cynical I might start this post with something like “Regarding fiction, women only read about silly things, such as romance and relationships, stuff that isn’t part of anyone’s real life, whereas men like to read about practical subjects, such as how to single-handedly disarm three Islamic terrorists while one is handcuffed and blindfolded, or how to ambush an alien of the Kree-na race of inter-dimensional beings, despite the fact that they can see the future and therefore can never be ambushed?” But maybe that would be too easy.
Romance is a real and valid literary tradition with its own tropes, conventions, goals and preoccupations that addresses real complexities in people’s lives. These books can be more or less radical in execution, but just like science fiction is about more than lasers that go pow, romance is about more than wanting to marry the boss.
For all that I write constantly about the sex in romance novels—because I do think their advocacy for female pleasure is one of their most culturally significant features and most radical aspects—it is possible to write a satisfying romance novel without a single sex scene. (Lately, I’ve been working my way through older regencies by authors like Edith Layton, for instance.) That’s because the genre’s true subject, and true great concern, is feelings. Not just romantic feelings, but feelings about one’s family, one’s friends, oneself. Sometimes those feelings are blown up to immense, surreal proportions; sometimes they are rendered on a smaller, more intimate scale that looks more like traditional realism. Outsiders see formula, but readers know that every relationship has its own, unique dimensions, and making one work is often the delicate, frustrating, repetitive work of picking apart a tangled child’s necklace. Perhaps more than anywhere else in our culture, these books take seriously the matter of emotional labor, and I believe that part of their appeal is that they offer both an entertaining escape from that work and a refuge that takes that work seriously.
Part of the reason these books are so cherished is the fact that a genre dedicated to feelings, to relationships, to emotional labor could be considered to have “no stakes.”
And so, to answer the Times’ question: Who gets to write about romance? Anybody, really, and more people should, because it’s a fascinating and under-appreciated corner of the culture that’s truly a lot of fun. But, as with any other genre of literature, better somebody who starts with at least a suspicion that these books are doing something more than providing a few hours worth of silly entertainment. Come to the genre with the basic respect you’d offer any other corner of the literary world; if you wouldn’t take a particular tone with Game of Thrones or Marvel or, for that matter, Franzen, don’t take it with Tessa Dare or Nora Roberts. Seriously consider getting a woman to write about the topic.