Finding Feminism with Fabio: How Romance Novels are Unlikely Testaments to Female Power

Romance novels are more than cringey sex and shirtless men in kilts. Alie Benge discovers the power of the female as she becomes the genre's latest convert.

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Romance novels are more than cringey sex and Fabio in a kilt. Alie Benge discovers the power of the female as she becomes the genre's latest convert.

My MA classmates and I met in a Newtown barn, our first post-hand-in reunion. I was about to start the third full rewrite of my book-length thesis after reconceptualising it again. I needed money, and a job that wasn’t creatively draining. The kind of work that can exist happily alongside a creative life is generally low-paid and menial, and the options on Seek were depressing. Susanne, a member of our group, knew someone who knew someone who wrote for Mills and Boon and earned $10,000 per book. So I thought, why not? My brief research showed that the most successful romances were about Vikings or Scottish Highlanders, so I jumped on Kindle, bought A Devil in Tartan and What a Lass Wants, and then set about plotting a romp in the woods between a Scottish heiress and a Viking jarl. I figured I could smash out four books a year, get my student loans paid off in a year and a half, and write literary fiction in between. Mills and Boon receive 1000 submissions a month, so I’d have to wait 14 weeks to hear back, but I felt confident. It will come as no surprise to seasoned romance readers that my proposal was rejected. It didn’t surprise me either, because in the three months it took for the rejection to come through I’d realised the full breadth of my ignorance. I’d befriended serious romance readers, become obsessed with the books they recommended, and discovered the churning feminine power of romance novels.

My hoamahi Aleisha is famous for reading 300 books a year. Her descriptions of the books she’d read showed me that romance is an umbrella covering many various types of stories. Under that umbrella are historical romance, modern romance, paranormal, regency, military, medical, shifter, Amish, erotic, queer, disability, non-neurotypical, and more. Some have no sex at all; others give you the full blow-by-blow, for lack of a better phrase.

Aleisha lent me a trilogy by Sarah J. Maas. It was a romance set in a fantasy world, and the titles were so convoluted I still can’t remember them. The covers showed a headless woman with tattoos snaking over her body. It was a perfect starting point for this old snob. I went in sceptical, and by the final book in the trilogy I was audibly weeping, and becoming hypoglycemic because there was no point at which it was possible to stop reading and make food. When I finished, it was all I could do to shovel cheese into my mouth. I spent the rest of the day feeling like my life was impossibly boring because I hadn’t saved the land from a dastardly enemy. Normally when a book has such an impact I’ll harass my friends until they also read it, but I was embarrassed about this one. I read it in the privacy of my own home. When I did mention it I quickly threw in names of other authors I’d been reading, Ferrante, Carson, Moshfegh, so people wouldn’t think I was actually a romance reader. This was an intellectual project, I told them.

While we’re out here decrying the lack of representation in fiction, our bookshops are too embarrassed to overtly label a genre that’s screeds ahead of the literary world when it comes to diversity

Around the same time that Mills and Boon were writing me a very nice ‘no thanks’, Stuff published an article by Vicki Anderson called “Kiss and tell: running with the romance crowd”. Kiwi romance queen Nalini Singh had offered two scholarships to the Romance Writers of New Zealand Annual Conference. In Anderson’s article she admitted taking one of the $1500 scholarships despite knowing nothing about romance writing and simply wanting a child-free holiday. Anderson mingled by the pool, took writing advice, accepted feedback on an exercise, and then proceeded to write an article ridiculing the women who had been so generous to her, under the guise of saying “romance isn’t so bad”. The article was trashed from one end of the internet to the other, including international corners. Romance Writers of New Zealand called for Stuff and Anderson to apologise, which they eventually did. In addition to being exploitative and patronising, the article implied that all romance writers are writing soft porn. It failed to recognise that romance is such a wide-ranging genre that it can’t be collapsed down to such reductive stereotypes. No single novel, or even brand of novels like Mills and Boon, can hope to represent anything more than its own small corner. 

Anderson isn’t the first to write a think piece that sets out to say “give romance a chance” but ends up patronising the genre and its readers. These pieces go for easy jokes, which are rarely achieved without shitting on something that people love. They take cheap shots at outdated stereotypes or singular aspects of romance novels. This attitude is too often extended by the literary community to all genre fiction. Steve Braunias published an article on Newsroom titled “Full and frank commentary on 2019 Whitcoulls Top 100”. The commentary consisted of two words: “Good grief.” 

On my way to work, I’ve started taking note of the books people carry on the train. I’d say 90 percent are reading ‘genre’. Genre is keeping the lights on at the publishing houses, it’s paying the bills. If we want those houses to keep publishing literary fiction, which isn’t exactly profitable, we need people to keep reading genre books. For a writer to sneer at someone’s reading choices is a shot directly to the foot.

Genre fiction can be easily split down traditional gender lines and labelled as either ‘fiction’ (your spy novels, your Game of Thrones) or ‘women’s fiction’ (anything with an illustrated cover). Articles like Anderson’s set up a hierarchy of gendered art and kick romance down the ladder. The Guardian recently published an article about the appeal of Jack Reacher, praising the rhythm of the prose and the evocative descriptions. It included quotes from literary and academic figures who love the books. The article is right. The books are well written. Lee Child loves a punchy four-word sentence. But writers like Marian Keyes don’t seem to get the same credit. Both Child and Keyes are skillful genre writers. Keyes is a master of dramatic irony. She writes intelligently about mental health, addiction, feminism and reproductive rights. Rachel’s Holiday is a startlingly brilliant book about drug rehab that perfectly balances humour and heaviness, yet Keyes barely gets a serious review and has only won two major book awards. Meanwhile, David Nicholls bashed out Us, an average romantic comedy that was kind of funny, and kind of relevant, but not a shade on Keyes, and breezed onto the Man Booker longlist. In the same vein, why doesn’t Nalini Singh have a Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement? She’s been on the New York Times bestseller list over 30 times, and has been translated into more than 20 languages. She’s by far the most successful writer in New Zealand, yet she’s gone almost entirely unrecognised on a national level.

Stereotypes present romance fiction as something trapped in its infancy, when it’s actually developed at the same rate as our culture, and is keeping a much quicker step than literary fiction

Laura is the former co-founding editor of Headland. I’d heard through a mutual friend that she is also a romance reader and I was interested to hear the perspective of someone with one foot in the literary world and the other in genre. I decided we should be friends, and invited her out for coffee. Our conversation helped brush off the last cobwebs of my snobbery. 

Laura explained that she’s an eclectic reader who goes for a romance novel when she doesn’t want surprises. This was something I’d struggled with when preparing my Mills and Boon proposal. Writers of literary fiction are conditioned to veer away from anything that’s been ‘done before’. Whenever I felt my ideas veering towards a trope, I pulled away, as if jerking my hand off the stove, until I realised that this wasn’t expected of me. The way romance aims to be ‘new’ isn’t in developing unique plotlines, but in doing something interesting inside the existing ones. I needed to put my hand back on the stove. In romance, tropes are a useable tool; they’re an empty vessel that can be filled differently each time. They’re almost like a directory for specific interests. If you want an ‘enemies-to-lovers’ story between warring Scottish clans, it’s there for you. If you want ‘second chance at love’ between an heiress and a bikie, then you shall have it. There is great skill in taking a second-hand plot and making it new. Literary fiction doesn’t have the last word on what can be considered skillful writing.

Laura pointed out that bookstores in Wellington rarely have a section for romance. I checked the fiction categories in the Unity Books online store. She’s right. There’s sci-fi, crime, fantasy, but no romance. Why is this the case when romance outsells every other book category? If crime can be separated from general fiction, why not romance? I think we all know the answer. People think romance is cringey. And it’s cringey because it’s for women.

Many of the novels have no sex at all, but the ones that do depict a variety of ways to orgasm, and rarely subscribe to the idea presented in much popular media, that sexual pleasure solely comes from vaginal penetration

While we’re out here decrying the lack of representation in fiction, our bookshops are too embarrassed to overtly label a genre that’s screeds ahead of the literary world when it comes to diversity. Romance novels don’t just have diverse leads, but happy endings for those leads. How many strong women are killed off in their own stories? How many crime novels begin with the murder of sex workers, trans women, or women of colour? If you want to find out, there will be a clearly marked section in the bookshop for you to check.    

As Laura and I were leaving, she recommended Penny Reid’s Winston Brothers series. At work on Monday I asked Aleisha if she’d heard of Reid. She didn’t answer me at first, but she slowly raised her head above her computer to meet my eyes. Her deliberate and meaningful nod said it all, and I placed a hold in the library app. Each book had a waitlist of about eight to ten people. I told myself I’d only read one as research, but then the second book sounded fun, and Aleisha said the third was the best in the series. Soon I was pre-ordering the final book, marking the release date in my calendar, and wishing there was a way to contact the person ahead of me in the library queue to tell them to please hurry up. Penny Reid is a stand-out example of the kind of Keyes-esque writers I’d been discovering. They’re whip-smart (Reid was a biomedical researcher before self-publishing eclipsed the income from her day job), they’re writing about current topics (in Reid’s case, race relations, the Nigerian oil crisis, abuse), they’re prolific, talented and criminally under-recognised.

I’d planned to skip the fourth in the series. The heroine, Shelley, was a woman with OCD, and I didn’t want to see another representation of someone from a writer who thinks that tidiness is equivalent to obsession and compulsion. (Representations like this meant I wasn’t diagnosed until adulthood because I didn’t fit the popular understanding of OCD). In the end, I needed something to distract myself from constantly checking whether my hold on the seventh book had come in, so I circled back to the one I’d skipped. I should have known, Penny being who she is, that she would have done her research. I’m a straight, cis, Pākehā woman. I’m not exactly oppressed by a lack of representation, but I was surprised by how affecting it was to recognise so many of my own experiences and traits in a character. Shelley was not only obsessive compulsive, but standoffish, unaffectionate, touch-averse: all the things that I feel make me harder to love. And here was a character with all my fears and insecurities, who was presented as desirable, who got a happy ending.

This embarrassment about romance novels is, at its heart, an embarrassment about femininity

My initial assumptions of the entire genre were based on the romance blockbusters I’d read, like The Bronze Horseman, and Fifty Shades. Books where the heroine is waifish, young and powerless. By the final Bronze Horseman book, the hero is a straight-up rapist. It’s unfortunate that these books have come to represent the genre. They form a kind of veneer around it. People approach the veneer, don’t like what they see, and leave thinking they know what’s behind it. What’s really there are smart, feminist books that rarely contain the kink-shaming of Fifty Shades, or the power imbalances of The Bronze Horseman. Stereotypes present romance fiction as something trapped in its infancy, when it’s actually developed at the same rate as our culture, and is keeping a much quicker step than literary fiction. Fabio isn’t even on that many covers. There are books like Indigo, a Beverly Jenkins classic about the underground railroad, or the Psy/Changeling series by our girl Nalini. Or The Kiss Quotient, featuring a heroine with Asperger’s. In Romancelandia, women are making other women millionaires. Authors have the power to seize the means of production through self-publishing, taking their agency back from traditional publishers, and claiming the profits of their own work. The authors are creating work that engages with identity politics, global issues and changing social norms. 

This is art that’s made specifically for women, which isn’t to say cis men don’t read romance – many do – but only that it isn’t written with them in mind. As such, it has to be true to women’s experience. In Anne Koedt’s landmark essay, “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm”, she discusses the idea of a ‘male-defined idea of sexual normalcy’ that women maintain because we have a lack of knowledge about our own bodies, and we want to protect the male ego (1970). This is not the case in romance novels. Many of the novels have no sex at all, but the ones that do depict a variety of ways to orgasm, and rarely subscribe to the idea presented in much popular media, that sexual pleasure solely comes from vaginal penetration. In short, lovers in these novels need a working knowledge of the clitoris. A common, and patronising, criticism is that romance novels give readers unrealistic expectations, when they’re actually empowering people with a fuller and more specific knowledge of sex. As a former sex-ed teacher, I’ve often been surprised by how few of my friends know about A-spots and G-spots, and about how rare the vaginal orgasm is. As I’ve befriended romance readers and listened to romance podcasts, I’ve noticed that they’re frank and unembarrassed about sex because they’ve been immersed in art that celebrates it. Considering the lack of research on female sexual pleasure, the best way to get past the idea of ‘male-defined sexual normalcy’ is to talk about sex without embarrassment. If anyone is chill about sex, it’s romance readers.

It’s reductive to suggest, as I have, that something is spurned because its primary audience is women. It isn’t audience alone that people cringe at. It’s also that aspects of the romance novel itself are perceived as overtly feminine, in the sense of our most base, binary perceptions of masculinity and femininity. Romance novels and their characters move along a scale of masculinity and femininity, as most things do, but that isn’t recognised from the outside and romance is perceived as being pink and fluffy. This embarrassment about romance novels is, at its heart, an embarrassment about femininity. The assumption that romance novels are bad art is the assumption that anything feminine is frivolous, weak, and frothy. This kind of misogyny is reactive, rather than cognitively recognised. I can see it in myself sometimes – that shiver of internalised misogyny that I’ve not yet managed to pluck out. It’s stops me seeing clearly. It’s a shard of glass in my eye. Is it not bad enough that women’s work is disregarded, but women’s leisure is as well – the thing that provides an escape from the thankless emotional labour expected of us? Cringing at romance novels, for no reason other than their femininity, is to defer to the patriarchy, hoping for a pat on the head and a splinter of power.