In literature there is a bias against Romance. There is a pervasive belief amongst readers that a novel, where the driving plot device is a romantic relationship, cannot be considered Literature and is therefore unworthy of critique. Women call books with a busty corseted Queen their “guilty pleasure,” waving their hand in the air as if swatting away an inconsequential fly. Librarians are quick to assure a reader that, “there’s a romantic element but it’s also got some depth.” It is my opinion that this is largely due to bias against the Feminine in American culture a la The Patriarchy. Romance is Feminine and therefore shall not be valued. If a novel is going to be considered Literature and taken seriously, it needs to be packaged in a more Masculine way – the Romantic must be neutered.
I’m not out here saying that all Harlequin Romances should be treated like literary fiction and critiqued by legions of readers for the insight, entertainment, or enlightenment that they provide. I’m avoiding the conversations: What Even Is ART Anyway? And: What do We Critique and Why? I’m suggesting that we – readers and women – stop boxing ourselves and others out of “romance” as a literary genre because we’re ashamed, embarrassed, or have written it off as merely a guilty pleasure.
Typically, when a reader thinks of Romance they’re considering only mass-market-paperback versions of muscly tartan-clad hotties scaling castle walls to rescue damsels in destress. There are dozens of sub-genres of this particular type of Romance, but nearly every novel for adults ever written contains some basic element of romance. Be it sex, a romantic relationship, or a feeling or excitement and mystery associated with love. It’s there because, at the heart of it, love and sex are integral parts of being human.
If this is the case, if love and sex are so intertwined with the human experience, why do we go to such lengths to avoid using the word ‘romance’ to describe novels we’ve found profound? If a novel has been found worthy of thousands of bookclubs and critical commentary, why do we avoid talking about it as a romantic book at all costs and instead use terms like “coming-of-age narrative” or “painfully beautiful?” A book can center almost entirely on sex and romantic love and still be a painfully beautiful coming-of-age narrative, like, for example, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens.
With 1.5 million copies sold and a place on the New York Times #1 Bestseller list for 20 weeks, Where the Crawdads Sing is one of the most popular, critically acclaimed, novels of the last year. Every book club has read it, every woman aged 20 to 70 has it on hold at the library. It was described to me by the internet and readers alike as, “an atmospheric literary fiction with a mystery element.” While this is certainly the case —Owens’ writing is evocatively descriptive and rosy in its nostalgia — the entire rising action of the novel centers around two sexual and romantic relationships. The protagonist’s struggle to overcome the abandonment of her family is central to the story, certainly. Nevertheless, it is through the lens of these two sexual relationships with men that the major conflict is resolved. In fact, the majority of the book centers on Kya and her romantic relationships. To me, that makes Where the Crawdads Sing a romance more than anything else.
Why, then, was I surprised to find that the central plot was a romance when I’d heard so much about the book? It seems that we the readers, predominately women, are scared to admit that we like romance! We’re taught that it’s trashy or should only be read when you’re on vacation and when you’re not going to take it seriously anyway. It’s okay that Where the Crawdads Sing was predominately a book about romantic love. You can say that and it can also be well-written novel with depth.
Together, let’s start reading what we love because we enjoy it, without pretense. There is no guilty pleasure in reading, only pleasure.