Romance novels are all full of idealised relationships, which give women an unrealistic idea of sex and get them into trouble. That’s the impression of many people who love to knock the very idea of the romance novel, and much as I’d love to leap in to defend the genre I write in, I have spent some time this week thinking about both sides of the argument.
I followed a comment thread on Facebook, which had been stimulated by an article in the Sunday Observer by Catherine Bennett (10th July). Her article was responding to an article by Susan Quilliam in the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care. The gist of the whole debate was about Romance novels making women sexually irresponsible.
I agreed with most of the Facebook comments about women needing to take personal responsibility, and that policing romantic fiction to make sure the safe sex message gets across would be ridiculous. But putting aside the idea that women reading endless idealised love stories would emulate their heroines and fail to use a condom, another idea struck me when following the debate.
Romantic novels sell. They are hugely popular and account for a massive share of the book market, and yet they are constantly attacked as being a lower form of literature. It’s no wonder romance authors leap to defend their genre when attacked, but criticism can often offer an opportunity to improve, and this week’s debate is offering just that.
Like any good writer I read widely in the genre I am working in, but find far more books to hate than to love. The problem I have with many is that I just don’t believe what I’m reading could actually happen. For me to get a thrill I need to believe the possibility that what’s happening in the book could happen to me. Safe sex is something we all have to think about, and although we’d all like to give into our passions, there comes a moment in every relationship when the condom discussion has to be done. Many romantic novels do tend to gloss over this awkward moment, but putting aside the responsibility argument, what about the literary argument. Isn’t it more interesting to read about the complexities of starting a sexual relationship than to have the bedroom door closed in our faces? And taking two possible heroes: the one who ruthlessly takes what he wants, or the man who cares enough to buy and use a packet of condoms, I know which one would make my heart race.
I have worked with young women trying to teach them about safe sex, and although it is wrong to say that they were never influenced by romantic books or films, it is too simplistic to say that sticking a condom on our romantic heroes would eliminate STDs and unplanned pregnancies in an instant. But making our books more realistic could make them more readable.
The times have changed. Women have changed. Contemporary romantic fiction needs to constantly evolve to reflect the reality of sexual relationships, and in doing so it may satisfy our readers in ways we never thought possible!
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bitter-Roots/dp/B004RPWJEE My contemporary romance novel in which I have tried to adhere to my argument above.