Romance is the largest book genre on the planet when measured by public consumption. As in colossal-huge, as in more than 20 percent of a market where the next “big” categories languish in the 6th and 7th percentiles. Romance sells into the billions of dollars each year while its lesser brethren deal in pedestrian millions. We readers seem to love ourselves a love story.
But why? Romance is also the most saturated in terms of offerings – a quick search on Amazon yielded 1,005,777 titles, which is about the number of new books coming out each year across all genres worldwide. And let’s ask the obvious question: after you’ve read eight or nine dozen of these stories, what about them is new or fresh? Who doesn’t know-but-know the heroine’s impossible circumstances will be resolved and the main characters will at some point cozy up? Who can’t count on the HEA as a sure thing? No one, that’s who, yet we’re still riveted. How come?
Critics of the genre have put forth the same rote, dismissive evals for decades… and at this point we have to surmise their criticisms have to do with something other than the actual stories, since discerning readers still choose to read romance novels in droves. Non-discerners are present too, just as they are in all genres; romance’s contingent just looks bigger because… well, it IS bigger. The whole romance pie is bigger.
But I believe romance’s image has more to do with pedigree than its sprawling, amorphous body of work. Its base – its massive, multi-faceted base – is messy, encompassing sweet inspirational and Regency and paranormal and BDSM erotica, subject matters so disparate they probably shouldn’t qualify as a collective. The category includes more readers from more corners of the earth than Croesus had coins, meaning we romancers can’t make any intellectual or ideological claims to purity. We don’t have it. I wrote a humorous piece on this very subject a few years ago, and take a peek if you seek justification for your own reading proclivities.
Writer Jenny Trout also offered a compelling perspective in a recent Huffington Post article, one all of us writing romance should take a moment to ingest. I don’t disagree with her, and if we were having coffee, I like to think we would laugh over the absurd marketing characterizations we writers of the genre get to work under. I mean, targeting “women age 22 to 55” is kind of like hunting “wildlife” in Africa. No disrespect here, but are you looking to bag a crocodile or a gazelle, ‘cause there’s kind of a big difference…
Beyond acknowledging the context in which we write and read, however, we should probably set aside questions of literary integrity and market impact – and let’s be honest: we’re going to anyway. Seriously. These issues, while interesting, change nothing, not our stories, not our drive to write them. They don’t change the appeal of love and intimacy in our narratives; and they sure as hell don’t have any sway when it comes to convincing readers away.
My publisher participated in a Kobo event a couple of weeks ago wherein several of us talked about what draws us to romance, and my colleague Susan Vaughn contributed a spot-on response in my opinion. She said any story able to engage another human being is intellectually stimulating, suggested a good romance read draws you into thinking about all kinds of things, including humanity and your own place in it. “It makes you evaluate who you are and what you need and want. It’s like giving your brain a badly needed hug.”
She’s right. And since romance is universal no matter which yardstick you use for measuring, we really do need to put these questions of salience on the shelf. Now off I go to work on that 1,005,778th title…