Don’t Call It a Bodice Ripper: Four Myths and a Truth About the Romance Genre

Avalon Griffin

Avalon Griffin

Today’s post is by our friend Sara Holifield, a freelance writer who endures frequent interruptions from two cats lounging across her keyboard. She writes romance under the pen name Avalon Griffin and can be found at www.avalongriffin.comEd.

When I tell people I write romance, I usually get one of two reactions. About half the time, it’s positive. Their eyes light up, they grab my arm and lean forward to whisper, “Oooo! Got any recommendations?” The second reaction is less ideal. It usually involves a snide chuckle or eye roll, followed by something like, “Ha ha, like the Fabio bodice rippers?” or a bad Fifty Shades of Grey joke. I used to laugh along self-consciously, but now I deadpan, “What’s so funny about it?” Because I’m tired of having my favorite genre, the one that champions women’s stories and happily-ever-afters for all, reduced to a punch line. Loyal readers have always known that romance goes beyond corsets and pirate shirts--it’s a literary tradition that celebrates women’s voices, women’s experiences, and yes…women’s pleasure.

So in an effort to shed some light on this mysterious genre that elicits both sneers and sighs, I’m here to dispute a few myths about romance, and expand on one stereotype that’s well deserved.

1. Myth: Romance is a niche market, read mostly by lonely old ladies.

Fact: Business is booming in Romancelandia, with sales in the billions each year. Romance novels sell as much as mystery, science fiction, and fantasy combined, with the average reader being a 35-39 year old female. According to a study commissioned by Romance Writers of America, males make up 18% of the readership, and 11% of readers identify as LGBTQ. Many readers prefer to consume their love stories via e-reader, which is why you don’t see a massive romance section dominating your local bookstore.

2. Myth: Romance novels rely on outdated gender roles with dubious expressions of consent.

Fact: It’s safe to say that in romance, many of the classics have not aged well. The romances of old often paired a simpering virgin with a domineering man fond of ripping bodices from heaving bosoms. But just as other types of pop culture have evolved with the times, so has romance. Today’s novels are filled with kick-ass heroines, masculine but not misogynistic heroes, and consent, consent, consent. Of course, there are always exceptions, but in general, modern romance readers are too savvy to suffer sexist tropes or outdated norms.


3. Myth: The stories are predominantly historical fiction with hunky cowboys or dashing dukes.

Fact: Just as “there’s a lid for every pot,” there’s a romance for every taste. While cowboys and dukes will probably never go out of style, the variety of main characters (aka heroes and heroines) on the market has exploded. Because preferences are so varied, romance is divided into sub-genres of:

·      Contemporary: novels set from 1950 to the present

·      Historical: novels set prior to 1950

·      Paranormal: novels involving fantasy worlds or paranormal/sci-fi elements. Usually one or more characters are a mythological being such as vampire, demon, werewolf, alien, animal-shifter, faerie, ghost, witch, etc.

·      Inspirational: novels with spiritual beliefs as an integral part of the love story

·      Romantic Suspense: romance novels with a suspense, mystery or thriller element

·      Erotic: novels with explicit sexual interactions as an integral part of the story or one character’s growth

While the majority of romance novels follow heterosexual couples, the number of LGBTQ romances continues to grow. Stories with two male heroes are referred to as M/M, while two female heroines are F/F. Their stories can be set in any of the above sub-genres.

4. Myth: Romance novels are just porn for women.

Fact: I’ve heard this gem more often than I’d care to say, and I won’t unpack everything that’s problematic about it here. But let’s start with the fact that romance novels are about relationships. Relationships usually involve sex. Gasp! However, any romance writer worth their salt knows the rule for putting sex on the page is that it has to advance the plot or character development. Random encounters just don’t cut it, especially when the intimacy has not been “earned” or the reader isn’t invested in the characters.

Just like the number of novel sub-genres, the spectrum for sexiness in romance varies widely. They range from inspirational romances with absolutely no sex or kissing on the page, such as Amish romance (yes, that’s a thing) to very explicit romances with elements like BDSM or polyamory. Romances without sex or sex behind closed doors are often referred to as “sweet romance.” Books with more overt sexuality are usually called “spicy” or “steamy.” These labels are used both by readers to make recommendations and authors to promote their books. Being a lover of steamy novels carries no shame in the romance community!

5. Myth: Romances are predictable.

 Fact: This one is actually true, but perhaps not in the way you think. Plots, characters, and conflicts vary widely, but no matter what, all romances end the same. It’s happily-ever-after (or HEA, as we say in the biz) or bust.

The HEA is what characterizes a romance novel from other types of fiction with romantic elements (looking at you here, Nicholas Sparks). Any author that claims to have written a romance without a HEA or “happy-for-now” ending has not broken a mere guideline, but THE LAW in romance. It’s the main tenant for joining Romance Writers of America--all new members must submit a manuscript that contains “a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.”

The HEA is also why, after a fifteen-year hiatus from reading romance for more “literary” pursuits, I picked it back up again. After working in a job that involved hearing horrific accounts of violence against women every day, I wanted to drown myself in stories where women won. I wanted to see characters overcome obstacles, break free from toxic patterns, and become the best versions of themselves. Not because of a relationship, but at the side of a person who loved them, warts and all.

Stories that embody male fantasies (such as Rambo, James Bond, etc.) are rarely derided for being unrealistic to the same degree as stories about the desires of women. In a world that’s increasingly bleak, romance offers a welcome respite with female empowerment at its core. It’s an industry dominated by women writing for a mostly female audience, and continues to grow more diverse and inclusive. Because in romance, love always wins.

Ready for more romance in your life? Here are a few novels I recommend:

·      Historical: An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole

·      Contemporary: Hate to Want You by Alisha Rai

·      Paranormal: Dark Needs at Night’s Edge by Kresley Cole

·      M/M: Lickety Split by Damon Suede

·      Erotic: Slow Surrender by Cecilia Tan

Documentary on the romance industry: Love Between the Covers

Interested in writing romance? Join us at Music City Romance Writers, the local chapter of Romance Writers of America.