Friday, 12 July 2013

Romance is still a dirty word

I'm disorganised. Fact. Which means that despite dwelling in Scotland's capital city I have consistently failed to buy a ticket to an event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Not this year.  This year I have bought not one, but two.  Both comics-related.  Geeks are well served at the book festival it seems. But Romance readers?  Forget it.

The first hint was in the categories.  There are a wide array of categories and they're not all high-brow and genre-averse.  There is Crime Fiction. Comics. Science. Religion. Biography. Feminism. I could go on. Suffice to say there are a wide array of authors, genres and categories represented.

Except for Romance.

I decided it was possible I was being unfair. After all hit erotic romance Fifty Shades of Grey is the UK's bestselling book of all time.  Maybe, I thought, romance has hit the mainstream. Maybe its wrapped up under the category "Fiction" and doesn't need a home of its own.

So I searched for "Romance" in the freebox search.

Nothing. Nada. Romance, it seems, isn't literature.

Now correct me if I'm wrong, but whilst the world is jumping on the e-book wagon it is romance and its sword-clad bed fellows fantasy and science fiction which are driving sales.  Scotland has romance authors (here's looking at YOU Aimee Duffy), just as it has comic book authors.  Why is the one represented and the other not?  Would no one be interested in seeing a panel of romance authors debate?  Or to hear how a hero is constructed?

No one?  Really?

Or would we be embarrassed? Furtively slipping into the back row with scarves pulled up around our faces?

A couple of years ago I was invited to a book swap.  It was to be all female.  A gathering of women who met up, drank wine and gossiped over books. I scanned my shelves to find something suitable.  Some Stieg Larsson maybe?  Or Sebastian Faulks?  Something.... respectable.

In the end I thought, sod it. Lift your head up high.  Take an example of what you really want to read when you come home knackered from work and pour the bath. I'm sure they'll appreciate a bit of Eloisa James or a Jo Beverley.  Who wouldn't?

Cue some nervous titters. Some shifts on the seat. No one wanted to admit that they read romance (though I knew for a fact some did).  I might as well have offered them a sexually transmitted disease.

No wonder e-books sales are soaring.  When people mutter about "bodice-rippers" and "low brow" and tuck their kindles and nooks neatly into cover where they can get stuck into the latest Harlequin without anyone being able to clock the Fabio-wannabe or tell-tale purple spine.

The covers have a lot to answer for.  Compare and contrast these two Loretta Chase covers. Which would you want to be seen reading on the bus?


Why is it that when people talk about romance they don't talk about it's enduring, centuries-long appeal?  Or it's versatility? Or the fact it holds a mirror up to society and changes with the times?  Why, when we discuss it's popularity, is it in negative terms?  What is it about our love of romance that we despise?

So here's my plea to YOU, gentle readers.  Hold your head up high.  You read one of the oldest, most versatile genres in the world.  And you're not alone in that.  Romance and erotica tipped $1 billion in sales last year. We're big business baby. Let's not be afraid of that.

And if anyone wants to hear more, I'll be available to debate with you at the Edinburgh International Book Festival next year.

Only kidding.




PS If you're struggling with owning your romance habit, check out the "Romance and Feminism: happy bedfellows?" blog post


  1. 20 years ago, before I started writing this bodice rippers, I wouldn't have been caught dead in public with one of those. Now? It's nerve-wracking to tell someone I write period, cause I'm just a shy person. But I'd read it in public. Because now I have defense. BUT... books like 50 Shades aren't helping matters any. It's been called "mommy porn." And that's all anybody talks about with regards to that book. All the sex. Never mind that the hero was once an abused child, now grown into an adult whose STILL dealing with the after effects of that childhood and the woman who stole it from him. And the woman who loved him enough to show him his own worth. Nobody talks about that part of the book. I've even seen tweets from the author focusing on that exact aspect. Which just tells me where and why romance gets a bad rap. Because we're a repressed society all reading "dirty" stuff.

    We have to remind people romance is a love story. It's Romeo and Juliet gone modern.

    See what you did? Got me on my soapbox. ;) GREAT topic.

  2. You STAY on that soapbox! We need you up there!

  3. This is really interesting as a topic. I devoured my mum's romance collection as soon as I was old enough to understand the content (in fact maybe a bit before) and have often thought I would like to take a crack at romance writing but I've also chided myself for thinking along these lines as if by doing so this would somehow make me a 'lesser' writer. Yet I actively seek out (if not romance fiction specifically) stories and books that have a love story at its heart, and also find myself disappointed at times if a novel doesn't have a romance element within its plot. Hypocritical behaviour or what? Glad to see you flying the flag not to mention rather astonished that there's no coverage of it at the Edinburgh book festival this year.

  4. @loretta glad it was interesting! You might also enjoy the not unrelated post about romance and feminism...

  5. I think this kind of taboo put me off reading romance for YEARS. I read crime and science fictions novels. A perfectly respectable kind of thing to do. And yet, all I've ever done is narrow down my selection of authors to those that add a romantic element to the stories. Eventually I slipped into reading Georgette Heyer by accident (she also wrote crime) and after that no mere side story into romance was sufficient. And its sily because there isn't and shouldn't be any shame in reading romance. I know borrow romance books from the library, the more lurid the cover the better, with my head held high, regardless of the sometimes prim looks from the assistants. Romance is about connecting with people. When you add a romantic element to a storyline you are ensuring the book deals with real people, people who you could care for, and in the case of a nmurder mystery, you care whether the hero is arrested for murder, or murdered himself. You connect with him, or her. A good example is Patricia Wentworth. She wrote lovely crime novels during the 1930s to 1950s. They are a teeny tiny bit formulaic. (To the extent I could write certain paragrahs that appear in everyone of her many books!) There are usually two cousins who are in love but it is undeclared and then one of them is accused of murder and it is up to Miss Silver (a Miss Marple in disguise) to solve the crime. The romance turns up tensions, makes the danger more real, makes me care. It's important and no one should turn their nose up at it...

    Sorry. I appear to have joined Joanne up on her soapbox...