Author Laina Villeneuve highlighted a thought-provoking blog by NYT best-selling romance and YA author Christina Lauren: Romance Novels Are Primed To Make An Impact On Society, So Stop Calling Them “Trashy,” OK? I loudly applaud the idea that we stop denigrating our own books, and that we challenge those people who do. You may recall this blog: Let’s All Stop Shaming Women Who Read Romance.
Coming at it from the perspective of someone who left the sciences to write romance and has encountered the ubiquitous assumption that what she is doing is a step backward for her life and for society, Lauren proposes that romance novels are about to change the world, and many writers of it are deliberately embracing a brave, new landscape.
The Paradigm is Changing
She’s right about the growing change in the romance paradigm:
“The [new, independent] voices in this genre are busy telling the world what matters to women. Yes, we care about career, work-life balance, respect — obviously critically important things. But what if, the authors of these books are beginning to ask with their themes, we take those things as given and then ask for more: to be seen as sexual creatures who are in no way delicate, who come in every flavor and color, who like people, actions, or genders society tells them they ought not to? ” (Christina Lauren, Bustle, emphasis hers)
Yes, there is absolutely a new wave of writers who are eschewing the safe boundaries of WSW (white-straight-wealthy) characters and plots that revolve around WSW. But they’re just that: a new wave. That tide has been rolling for decades for writers and readers of lesbian romance.
Not that Lauren’s point isn’t valid. Having had a few years now to watch the tides, it seems to me that every new wave feels that they are breaking new ground. It is new ground in the sense that they are building on a momentum that those who came before didn’t have. Their tide may reach higher and farther because they start closer to the desired shore. Those in the waves that reached shore ahead of them, though, look back on seas that are very different than the ones they sailed, and can feel a little bit of “been there, been doing that.”
The Part of the “New” LGBTQIA That Isn’t New
Lauren enthusiastically recognizes the existence of LGBTQIA romance (even if her predictions about its future are, in my humble opinion, unrealistic). But if she’s aware that it has existed, thrived, and dared to write more explicitly about women long before 2010, it doesn’t show in her sense of the history of the genre. While other sub-genres are not quite as venerable (and TQIA in romance are virtually new), as an openly labelled genre, lesbian romance has existed for well over 30 years and in more underground subtext long before that.
I have yet to encounter any lesbian romance that did not have the radical presumption that women are people: able to choose sex and their sex partners, able to define themselves as their own kind of women.
Written almost exclusively by women for other women, it has reflected the social fabric of lives outside “normal” and made it, for those women, their new normal. In the pages of lesbian romance, women have never waited for permission to exist on their own terms.
The New Normal for Women
Describing what she feels are the values romance novels and their vast popularity bring to the table of social change, Lauren sums up:
“Romance novels may not directly influence the global political sphere in the way that, say, nonfiction can, but they can influence how people treat each other, how we define love, how we accept others who are broken in ways maybe we aren’t, who express themselves in ways we once considered deviant. These are the things that bind a society, and romance novels — books about relationships and reflection — can lead enormous groups of people into places they never thought to imagine.” (Christina Lauren, Bustle)
Yes, yes, yes! Romance genre writing does all this and has always done all this. It’s subversive, coercive, reflective. From the moment Jane Austen dared to blend the plight of women’s utter financial dependence on men and their scripted social choices as contributing elements to a love story, romance novels have told women, “What matters to you matters.” We hold up half the sky, but only one kind of novel guarantees that women will see aspects of our hearts and our lives somewhere in its pages. Newsflash from the Office of Obvious: that’s why the genre is so universally popular!
To Lauren’s blog title that says romance novels are “primed” to make an impact, I would add “yet again.” While many other social factors contribute to the inexorable march of women’s equality, the role played by popular fiction – especially romance – can’t be ignored. For example, when women in romance began to have sex without wedding bells, women all over the world, by the millions and millions, were validated about choices they had already made. Because romance heroines who were sexual succeeded in their lives in defiance of social judgment, women in real life began rejecting social stigma for being sexual and the social stigma began to diminish.
This is only one cycle of change; it began in the 1970s and continues in the new wave that Lauren is acknowledging.
For Lesbians It’s Romance or Nowhere
Unlike straight women, lesbians have often found that the validation of their choices, compromises, struggles and core identity exists nowhere but in romance novels written for them. Even when lesbian characters are in popular movies and television, real lesbians are talk show hosts and we can be married by a Supreme Court Justice (if we know one), it’s still romance novels where readers tell me they always find the message, “What matters to you matters.” Their hearts and lives are valued. Women always win.
This is also true: The lesbian romance genre skews toward wealthy and white too. What is true in the mainstream (and I agree that it wasn’t just the BDSM that made throwback romance series 50 Shades so popular), is also true about lesbian romance.
With this exception, however: the lesbian romance genre has historic ties to social justice and women’s equality movements that have always given it a more overt feminist edge. Regardless of the content of the rest of the novel, presuming that female characters are the heroes of their own lives and that it should be no other way is pretty much Feminist 101.
So How About We All Get to This Future Together?
Can lesbian romance (and those who write it) do better about diversity, that is, do better to reflect the actual lives and landscapes of its readers and the rest of the world? Yes. Always yes. The waves rise, the tide rolls to shore. Writers and readers can make this happen either slower or faster – how about faster?
Nevertheless, all genres of romance have subversive elements. One of the reasons it’s called “trashy” and dismissed by mostly male critics, is that it empowers women in all the ways that Lauren describes. Does romance also hold out impossible ideals and create unrealistic expectations for women about the world? Yes. And so do the novels of the mainstream literary canon held up all our lives. Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina give women a realistic view of the world? Realistic depictions of life for women are found in Hemingway? (Thank you Jennifer Crusie!)
Male musicians can sing the words “love is all you need” and be thought charming, uplifting, even profound. Their fans are not told to put down their radios and pick up reality.
Romance novelists tell women the same thing and are deemed, as Lauren sums up, “less culturally relevant, less interesting, and more self-indulgent.” By extension, so are our readers. So once again I say “Up with that Shit we will not Put.”
Along with all of the other ways that create change in society, a whole lot of romance novels have been preaching self-reliance, optimism, fairness, equality, pride, respect, and so much more for decades. I might even posit that these earlier decades of change have paved the way for change in the present.
These themes have seeped into the social fabric and led to where we are today, with writers like Lauren seeing only the new, possible vistas for more change. That there is a history behind them that seems somewhat ignored is my minor quibble as I cheer this new wave all the way to the shore.
Christina Lauren’s original post at Bustle (comments not enabled, but you can share):