A few years ago, I was invited to a writing conference at Mount Holyoke College. There were romance writers there—me, Judith Arnold, and Linda Cardillo. The other writers were mostly poets and memoirists, and there were a few well-known novelists. The keynote speaker was Andre Dubus III. In his address, he described the typical romance reader as “some woman reading a schlocky romance novel while simultaneously watching soap operas and eating.”
During the q&a period, Judith (a friend of mine) asked Dubus about his knowledge of romance books. He admitted he’d never read one. Most people who criticize romance haven’t, she countered. Dubus said he was put off by “those cheesy covers with Fabio” and went on to apologize—and change the subject.
Judith was valiant that day. I’ve been valiant, too, during more conversations and interviews than I can count. But here’s the thing: I’m tired of defending romance. I’m tired of giving a good-natured, tolerant you-should-try-it answer for the thousandth time. I’m tired of the media using the words bodice ripper and mommy porn. I’m tired of explaining that, yes, I too have read the great works of literature, and that, yes, I continue to read them today. I’m tired of being told I have the talent to write a “real” book.
Instead of defending romance books to those who’ve never read one, I’d like to say this instead: grow up. The categorical dismissal of the most-read genre in the world reveals ignorance, not intellectual superiority. This is a billion-dollar industry, and it’s not built on vapidity and cliché. It exists and thrives because romance authors offer readers an emotional experience that mirrors an elemental desire in life: to find a constant and loving companion; to become our best selves; to forgive our mistakes of the past and learn from them.
Romance encompasses fantasy, suspense, comedy, history, mystery, coming-of-age, and crime. The only difference between romance and just about any other kind of fiction is the promise of an emotionally satisfying ending. I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t think readers are lazy or stupid because they want to feel uplifted at the end of a book.
There are some very poorly written romances out there, it’s true, just as there are lackluster mysteries, self-indulgent literary works, and rambling memoirs. But most romance novels depict women and men who believe in their strength and convictions, who are willing to learn from their mistakes, and who take on issues and conflicts that stand in the way of a better life. Heroines are not rescued by a hero; instead, they save themselves. A typical female protagonist is not incomplete until marriage. Her journey is not about getting to the altar—it’s about growing as a person so that she can create a full life for herself, and yes, find happiness with a decent, kind partner who deserves her and whom she deserves.
To those who, like Dubus, would dismiss an entire genre without ever cracking a cover, I say, hang out with us romance writers. You might be surprised. Our community is filled with brilliant women (and a few men)—professors, doctors, lawyers, people with stellar educations and experiences. Some of the most successful writers balance a day job with family and a writing career on top of that. Our books are real, filled with the entire range of human emotions. They speak of the strongest and most universal yearning there is—to belong. To be accepted. To be loved.
Writing about these subjects tends to make romance writers happy, optimistic people. We’re a very tight-knit group, by and large. We’re—dare I say it?—fun. Some in the business are extremely prolific, but we don’t churn out books. We work as hard as any writer in any genre, and we write of the vagaries and hopes of the human heart, of faith and tenacity, independence, strength, and forgiveness. The best romance novels depict characters that are flawed and complex, characters who struggle to create the life they want and who succeed in doing so.
There’s nothing simplistic or formulaic or schlocky about that. Our books have happy endings, yes. Our books affirm faith in humanity and preach the goodness and courage of the ordinary heart. We make our readers laugh, we make them cry, and we affirm our belief in the enduring, uplifting power of love. I fail to see the problem here.
To view with contempt the entire romance genre—and the hundreds of millions of people who read these books—is simply ignorant and narrow-minded. So if you’re one of those who’s never read a romance novel, pick one up. Yes, there’s kissing. You can handle it. You might even like it.
Kristan Higgins is a bestselling author whose 14 novels have been translated into more than 20 languages and are sold worldwide. Her latest book, If You Only Knew, is coming out Aug. 25, 2015, from Mira.