If I’m entirely honest, I really didn’t want to be shelved in the Romance section. I was adamant that my books could cross over — and should. In fact, I still maintain that it’s a stronger contender in the category of women’s fiction.
But that’s hardly the only reason I objected to the categorization.
Gender disparity and wider societal perceptions
Part of my annoyance is in being a writer who has written a book that contains a love story — specifically a female writer with a plot containing a love story. It seems like being shelved in Romance is just par for the course while male writers who write the same thing find their books over in Literature and General Fiction. It seemed like I would have little choice in where I was shelved, even though I wrote the book and not everyone in the decision-making process had read it.
But the other part of my annoyance comes from how romance is viewed as an overall genre — the smirks that come with saying that I’ve written a romance series. Being shelved with Romance seemed like a loss of credibility. But who’s making those rules, and why should we, as writers, care about them?
I’m not proud of that thought, but it’s one that’s developed over the years as an avid reader. Even as a reader, there would be judgment leveled at me for reading a romance versus a classic or another genre of literature.
No one smirked if I was deep into a mystery, but when my interests turned to a love story, there was nearly automatic derision. I internalized that attitude, and it came creeping out when my own series was being published.
There’s an idea that Romance isn’t Literature. But the definition of literature is written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit. Why do we think that love stories don’t have lasting merit?
Every story is a love story
I was listening to a talk years ago, whose provenance I cannot now recall, where a therapist who had done extensive work with refugees from war-torn countries spoke about how, for the most part, everyone wanted to process their relationships, not the trauma they endured on coming into the camps. Their focus wasn’t on the larger issue of homelessness or leaving behind their country. The focus was on love and relationships.
These stories resonate with us all. In fact, if you try, you’d be hard-pressed to find a book, movie, or television show that doesn’t have some love interest contained in its plot. In fact, most series thrive on dragging out the two protagonists’ longing for one another for season after season, ratcheting up the tension until the “will they or won’t they” question defines the show. You likely thought of one or more shows where that’s happened.
We don’t categorize our cop shows or law shows or other dramas as being romances, but aren’t they? Sure, there are other plots, but oftentimes, we stay around for the relationships, not the solving of cases or the next big reveal of some mystery. We invest in the characters and their love stories. Why, then, don’t we do the same with romance novels?
So, I stopped being irritated that I was being shelved as a romance and started being irritated instead that the industry doesn’t look fondly toward one of their top-selling genres, that the literary world is often dismissive, and that we’ve somehow placed writing and reading romance novels as something to smirk about.
The evolution of the genre
Romance novels have evolved as society has evolved, giving us strong partnerships that factor in both equality and consent. The old trope of the female virgin and world-weary promiscuous male lead has fallen away to give us stronger narratives to meet the changing appetites of a new wave of readers who insist upon complexity and strength from their reading material. The stories are every bit as strong as any other genre and are as worthy of recognition and respect.
My book sits proudly among the romances in many stores, and it might even be shelved in women’s fiction somewhere else, or chick lit — another category that I take issue with for its sexist and somewhat condescending tone.
I’m not going to apologize for crafting four stories with strong, quirky characters in a beautiful setting, even though they do contain love stories. I’m not going to apologize at all. I’m just going to go on to work on my next.
Romance isn’t a lesser genre, and it took me too long to realize it. It seems I had to write a few, completely unintentionally, to realize that the problem isn’t the genre but its outdated and inaccurate reputation.
I always enjoyed a strong love story, and I easily discarded the ones with old-fashioned tropes with weak-minded women playing the damsel in distress to the strong male lead. I never could invest in them, and so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I couldn’t write one that way either.
What was more surprising was the arc of my love story with the genre — from dismissing it myself to realizing its value. I’m happy to have my work shelved beside other writers who are putting out the kind of strong, character-driven narratives with their heartfelt and satisfying love stories that are demanding that the industry sit up and take notice.
It’s not a competition
Romance isn’t trying to compete for space on bookshelves. It doesn’t really need to compete at all. It’s always been self-contained in its way, understanding its own power even in the face of derision.
Romance readers have always known the value of a strong love story. We’re not cowed by industry or wider societal perceptions. We’ll keep reading what we love and investing in the authors who give us the stories we enjoy. Let them smirk because we know exactly what they’re missing.
Because writing isn't a competition, and there’s plenty of room on the bookshelves for all of us, no matter what genre we write. And if there’s not enough room?
Maybe we need a bigger bookshelf.