For as long as romance novels have been making millionaires and society darlings out of their authors, so too have they fostered a constant and societally ingrained sense of disdain and criticism.
There are many angles from which one might strike at the romance novel, but the most widely touted criticism is that they create an unrealistic expectation for women that can ruin their romantic and sexual relationships.
In 2011, two different academics from two different parts of the world came to the same conclusion: romance novels did affect women’s perceptions of their relationships.
Psychologist Deepti Makhija told the Times of India that “Romance novels affect the way you perceive relationships as there is no logical reasoning behind them. Women expect that ‘He should love me, no matter what. The relationship must be perfect.’ It’s not functional or pragmatic.”
Across the pond, British relationship psychologist Susan Quilliam, writing in the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care, said that romance novels “offer an idealised version of romance, which can make some women feel bad about themselves because their relationships aren’t perfect” adding that few romance novels include mentions of condoms or other safe sex practices.
Makhija and Quilliam are both experts in their field. They have valid points, and their criticism is certainly sound.
However I’ll be upfront with you: I’m not sure what romance books they’ve been reading, but they’re certainly not the majority of romance fiction I’ve read.
The idea that these romance novels present an unattainable perfect man that damages realistic expectations of potential partners is a valid one. At least, it would be, were women not continuously, and with vigor held to various unattainable standards by their prospective male partners.
When I think of the unattainably high standards that are a danger to society, I’m rather more inclined to think of the dangerous impacts of the fashion and media industries on young girls, not to mention the acclaim given to books like Lolita, where the author fantasies about a thirteen year old, or Game of Thrones, where another thirteen-year-old girl is described as “enjoying” the sex she has with her much older adult husband.
It would, of course, be grossly cynical of me to suggest that the lingering disdain for romance novels, a genre created by, and for women, and with women’s enjoyment in mind, would, in part, come from a deep-rooted disregard for anything associated with feminine sensibilities.
Fortunately, I don’t have to – Isabel Wolff has done it for me.
Writing for the Guardian in 2004, the author said that romantic fiction, more than any other genre “has suffered from stereotyping of the most unflattering kind. It is all too often seen as vulgar and second rate – at its best, escapist and opiate; at its worst, downright risible” and that, unlike other literary genres, romance fiction is judged by its worst examples, rather than its best.
If your eye for critical thinking and concern that the tropes of a certain genre will impact the readership is applied only to romance fiction, maybe ask yourself what you’re really fighting against. If men can continue to walk into a supermarket and buy Sports Illustrated and Zoo magazines, then I’ll continue reading my romance novels
And as a final note; the winners of the Bad Sex Awards 2018 had one very interesting thing in common: they were all male authors