The Artistic Value of Romance

Recently there has been (another) spate of denigration of romance novels by the male commentariat. Honestly, I don’t click on their links or engage in argument with them. They are trolls and thou shalt not feed them. But I am aware of the articles and the ridiculous claims contained therein because I think if you’re in the romance fandom, it’s hard to ignore. It’s like the Kardashians. I’d have to wear blinders to avoid knowing who they are and what they stand for.

Then there are standard arguments against the nay-sayers, which often go something like this: 1) romance is the best-selling genre with so many billions in sales, 2) they elevate the female perspective and honor feminine desire and 3) you just can’t handle that, can you?

And while all these things are true, they also somewhat miss the point. For readers, romance isn’t a profit center or a feminist manifesto, at least not primarily. People read for lots of reasons: 1) to be enlightened and educated, 2) to be entertained or escape into a reality that is less dull than their own and/or 3) to partake of fine art. I’m here to argue that romance does all these things well despite what anyone may say to the contrary about our girly smutty books.

First, let’s talk education. Just this week on Twitter, I have taken part in discussions of proper forms of address in Regency England, how reader consent functions in a novel and Anglo-Saxon cuisine. My husband, who is an inveterate history buff, is well used to my inquiries regarding this or that English king or when firearms became accurate and readily available. And everything I know about jousting, I learned from Katie MacAlister’s Hard Day’s Knight (we’ll talk more about that next week).

What I’m saying is that romance brings me to subjects it never would have occurred to me to be interested in otherwise. I’ve never memorized the kings of England because frankly, I didn’t care. But when he’s giving my beloved heroine as a war prize, you better believe I want to know exactly who that bastard was. And it’s not just historicals that offer potential for education. Cara McKenna’s latest book Hard Time talks about life in prison beyond bad food and gang rape. It’s not a charade of life in prison or someone’s worst fear of what it might be like. It’s the everyday reality. Plus it might seem obvious, but romances teach us about ourselves and each other. Relationships are all literature is ever about anyway. Romance just makes it explicit.

Among literary critics, there also seems to be a bias against literature that is entertaining as if every book we read needs to be improving. We want to be entertained by television and movies and music, so why not books? For every Hannibal, there is a Dancing With the Stars. Tchaikovsky existed alongside (some very ribald) sea chanties. All are entertaining, but bring different pleasures to the table. The romance novels I love have snappy, entertaining dialogue. Stuff goes wrong. People get embarrassed. Or angry. Or horny. All these emotional reactions are honest, true and, yes, entertaining. We get to feel in a safe space. Much like we feel guilt and horror at Twelve Years a Slave, we get to feel self-conscious and fearful and tender and loving in a romance novel as we puzzle out the awful things we humans do to each other every day.

Finally, let’s talk about the craftsmanship involved in writing romance. Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm was not only complex in terms of plot, but she had to consider how a person affected by a stroke would think and talk and then how she could convey his getting better. That strikes me as a very difficult writing problem, one that was handled skillfully. Lisa Hendrix re-sets each book in her Immortal Brotherhood series a couple hundred years after the previous one, giving attention to minute details of technology and life during each era. Writers like Elizabeth Hoyt and Mary Balogh are masters at crafting dialogue that showcases their extraordinary wit. Hard Time explored issues of prison life that those of us who have never been incarcerated don’t think much about. Romances that are not well written do exist. My point is that there are also romances that are well written and they’re not a minority.

Romance is legitimate artistic expression by any measure I can offer. Romances provide educational opportunities, both intellectual and emotional. Entertainment in fiction is a legitimate artistic goal. Romances with beautiful language and unique construction exist. But of course, you actually have to read them in order to realize that.

One comment

  1. I loved this, and heartily agree. Resorting to the "it sells so well, maybe you don't even know how important this is" argument is easy, and accurate, but also short changing.

    It is educational, in all the ways you said. And it's also educational about empathy. I love reading a wide diversity of heroines and heroes that are, honestly, people I'd never get to know IRL because they're too rich or poor or New Yorker for us to really be comfortable around each other. It teaches me to remember how rude that woman in the DMV is, she has a story, which is comprised of mundane things and massive important interesting things.

    For me, the argument I want to see stood by more is it IS fun. It IS pleasure. Pleasure is dismissed, but should it be? Whenever the subject comes up, people talk about the year their mother was dying slowly and they could barely think between hospital visits and grief, but they read romance novels and it got them through. Accidents and illnesses and trauma and fear are unfortunately an everyday part of life, and reprieve is not something to begrudge anyone. Even without resorting to the obvious tragedies, life can really wear someone down. Long hours, anxiety, fear of the unknown and fear for the future, mundane drudgery, boring tasks–they all add up. Having time away from that is good for us, good for our minds and good for our bodies. So people should quit knocking it.

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