The Current

There's underlying sexism when the romance genre is criticized, novelists say

The dismissal and judgment of romance novels seem a common trope for literary types. But romance authors argue some criticism is rife with sexism and the genre, and readers, deserve a lot more respect.

Readers of romance genre want to escape their 'colourless' lives, says critic

Romance author Sarah MacLean is also a columnist with the Washington Post, where she writes about romance novels, and their place in today's gender politics and culture. (Eric Mortensen/Avon Books)

Originally published May 14, 2018.

Ready Story Transcript

The disdain for romance writing can be, at times, misogynistic and often includes contempt for the people who read them, according to romance novelists.

Sarah MacLean, a best-selling author of romance novels, takes issue with writer and memoirist William Giraldi's "insulting" description of readers and "gendered assessment of the genre."

Giraldi says romance novels should not be considered "actual writing" and calls romance authors "clearly talentless."

"When you consider how many of these novels are bought and read, it's really a kind of obsession, and this obsession — like all obsessions — I think is born of a borderline despair," Giraldi told The Current.

The "empty entertainment" of romance novels provide a necessary escape for readers' "hum-drum domesticity and their colourless work lives, maybe from the oppressive disappointment in their spouses and their family lives," he added.

"There was so much kind of latent — maybe not so latent -— misogyny in the description of the women — mostly women, though some men — who read these books, and of the things that they can get from these books," MacLean told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. 

Mary Bly, a professor of English Literature at Fordham University, says Giraldi's remarks say "a lot about him and very little about the romance genre."

"The misogyny [is] revealed in the fact he talked about domesticity and disappointed with the husband as if those were the two things that sort of define a women's world," said Bly, who writes romance novels under the pseudonym Eloisa James.

In support of romance writing, the Toronto Public Library is currently on the hunt for romance novelists for their writer-in-residency this fall. They say the genre is undervalued and underestimated. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Bly told Tremonti romance writing tends to be judged by the worst example of what has been written whereas literature is judged by the best. She added in response to Giraldi's comment on obsession, that many of her fans read widely.

"So they may read a romance today and they're reading literature tomorrow ...  They are readers, above all."   

In the context or writing literature, MacLean argued women and marginalized women are often put on the page "to suffer and die and be martyred."

"But there are thousands of romance novels that tell the story of a woman in the world triumphing," she said, adding women "have hope and passion and partnership, and 'yes' love."

Romance novels are not just enjoyable but there's also a lesson, Bly pointed out.

"These books like a Shakespeare play … they are teaching as you read."

"What you're learning is that you have the right to this. Every woman has the right to someone who's thoughtful and not abusive and respectful."

Update Aug 31, 2018: Stefanie London is now the Toronto Public Library's writer-in-residence. She is a USA TODAY bestselling author of contemporary romances and romantic comedies.

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.

This segment was produced by The Current's Jessica Linzey and Danielle Carr.


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