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For many of the women who write in the romance genre, the most distinctive feature of their professional lives is feeling belittled

No respect?

Authors of romance novels are big sellers, but still deal with an age-old stigma

By Alice Robb on July 20, 2015

Though romance novels have helped keep the publishing industry afloat through years of instability, their authors have struggled to gain recognition or even acceptance. In a new paper in the journal Gender & Society, a pair of sociologists — Jennifer Lois at Western Washington University and Joanna Gregson at Pacific Lutheran University — explore the stigma experienced by the mostly female readers and writers of romance novels, and how they deal with it.

Lois and Gregson spent five years immersed in the world of romance, attending local and national conventions of romance writers and author readings, joining listservs and conducting interviews with romance writers, editors, agents, and publicists. Between the two of them, they read more than 300 romance novels, and even tried their hand at writing some themselves. The project was borne of their own fascination with the genre — sparked by Lois’s discovery that there was an adult version of Twilight.

As scholars of gender, they found themselves wondering about the gender dynamics of romance fiction and the woman-centric subculture surrounding it. According to data compiled by the Romance Writers of America (RWA), a non-profit dedicated to supporting romance, consumers of romance are mostly women (84 percent) and middle-aged (the most frequent customers are between 30 and 54). And they’re devoted: 64 percent report reading romance more than once a month, and over 30 percent say they’ve been hooked for at least 20 years.

Gregson describes the community of romance writers — comprising “upwards of 90 percent” women — as “very supportive, very friendly, very optimistic.” Some of the writers they met were full-time professionals, while others found time to write while pursuing careers as lawyers, chemists and doctors.

“This community of authors is all about being egalitarian and inclusive,” Gregson said in a phone interview. “You see New York Times bestselling authors teaching brand-new authors how to write a query letter, how to get an agent.” Their group emails and listservs are peppered with “all kinds of smiley face emoticons.”

Yet for many of these women, “the most distinctive feature of their professional lives,” Gregson writes, is feeling “belittled.”

Writers of the genre “are aware that romance is looked down upon, and that it’s something they are expected to feel ashamed of,” said Maya Rodale, a prolific romance novelist and author of Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained. “One question I frequently get is, do you do this under your real name?” Readers, too, often feel embarrassed; they hide their books in different covers or download them on Kindles. More than other genres, romance has benefited from the rise of e-readers.

The uninitiated might assume this stigma stems from the genre’s supposed literary inferiority. The most successful romance writers churn out multiple books per year (preeminent romance writer Nora Roberts, 64, has written over 200), and the genre adheres to clearly defined conventions. A romance novel, according to the RWA, must center on a love story and include “an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.” In this world, “The lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.”

But romance writers bristle at the suggestion that the formula precludes creativity. “I get these comments like, ‘Does your publisher give you an outline and you just fill in the blanks?” said Rodale.

Gregson and Lois have another explanation for the genre’s reputation. “Nora Roberts said it most articulately,” Gregson said. “The genre is written by women, for women, about women — and that’s where the stigma comes from.”

Readers and writers of hastily produced, equally formulaic mystery novels and thrillers don’t experience the same stigma, they point out. Yet “Romance authors are presumed to be highly sexual beings who write autobiographical stories or stories about their own fantasies,” said Gregson. Romance writers say they’re often asked intrusive questions about their own sex lives and their “research methods.”

“Nobody assumes that men who write mystery do research by killing people. You would never ask a Sci Fi writer if they build robots, if they go to outer space. Women are assumed to write only what they know.”

Gregson and Lois happened to be about halfway through their project when the romance community found itself in an international spotlight, thanks to the runaway success of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, which has sold more than 100 million copies and inspired one of the highest-grossing movies of 2015.

“At first, most of the authors we interact with distanced themselves from it,” Gregson said. “It was fan fiction and they weren’t sure it fit within the romance genre.”

“But as the book became more popular, most people saw it as a positive. People discovered this book and wanted more.”