At this point, it’s a well-known fact that the romance genre is the biggest money-maker in the publishing game. Raking in well over a billion dollars a year, romance novels might be said to keep the book publishing world alive, to some extent.
Which is somewhat hilarious, in an ironic, makes you want to rip their heads off sort of way. Because as much as romance is the financial powerhouse of the literary world, romance novels, romance authors, romance readers, and romance publishers are all roundly dismissed. Every year around Valentine’s Day, we see spates of articles about people pondering the value of romance novels. They make bad lists about “great” romance novels that aren’t romances at all. And they discuss their failed attempts at writing a romance novel or espouse how easy it must be to churn out romance novels. After all, they’re just dreck, right?
What the heck is going on here? As I’ve discussed before, there’s a serious intersection between misogyny and capitalism at play here.
The Myth of the Sell-Out and the Real Artiste
We’ll look at the capitalistic angle here first. In the art world, anything or anyone that makes money is often considered to have “sold out.” This is not always misplaced criticism. Money tends to flow from more conservative quarters, while artists tend to be critical of the very institutions and political players that then finance them.
In turn, artists who receive money from such patrons often find themselves constrained or beholden to the hand that feeds. Their art may become less biting or less critical of certain institutions or players.
Graffiti: Crime or High Art?
An example might be Banksy. Banksy has elevated the art of graffiti, which is, at its basest level, considered a kind of vandalism—a crime. The artists who engage in graffiti are rarely compensated for what they do; they do it for the thrill. It’s a form of protest, in some ways. And it is largely unconstrained then. Graffiti artists have no one telling them what to put on the side of the building; they have no one saying you can’t say this or you must say that.
That whole set-up is one reason we don’t even know who Banksy is; at the start of his career, it’s likely he could have (or would have) been arrested for vandalizing private property.
Now, people hire Banksy to create one-of-a-kind pieces. Banksy pieces fetch high prices. Banksy works for the very corporate capitalists who enforce laws about vandalism. At a certain point, Banksy must become rather toothless in terms of messaging then. His art becomes hollow; the critique, hypocritical.
The Myth Also Allows Artists to Be Undervalued
At the same point in time, the idea of “selling out” is a myth used by corporate capitalism to justify paying anyone in the arts peanuts. If you’re selling your art for hundreds of thousands of dollars, you must have “sold out.” You’ve lost touch with your ideals. Real artists suffer. Real artists don’t get paid much at all. There’s a romanticization of the struggle and strife, of poverty, in the art world.
This may seem like artists just being jealous of those who make it, but it benefits the capitalistic patrons who support art. It increases competition for scarce resources between artists. And it makes poverty wages for art look attractive, in a sense. When that becomes unsustainable, people have to “sell out”—either by accepting big patronages that make their art toothless or they have to go back to work for The Man, giving up their dream of art.
Romance Makes Money, So It Can’t Be Art
You can see where this is going. Writing is definitely part of the art world, so that idea of the “starving artist” is engrained within the culture. We’ve all heard stories about the poor mom of three who got up at five in the morning and wrote on a broken typewriter in a closet, for years, toiling away on her novel before finally landing a book deal.
We love that kind of story because it fits the romantic ideal of the starving artist. Look at the struggle. Look at the toil. Poverty sure is swell when it comes to making art.
Now, if that same woman went on to become a bestselling romance author? We’d pooh-pooh her as not being “a real writer” or a real novelist or something. She’s writing “commercial” fiction—something designed to sell.
Therefore, she’s pre-emptively sold out, even before she makes her first book deal or sells her first copy.
Romance makes money, therefore it can’t be art is the logic here. And we can see that in many, many art circles: if something makes money, it’s not “real” art.
Romance, then, is not real or true literature, precisely because it makes money.
This myth allows publishers and all sorts of literature snobs to write romance off as being dreck. Romance is designed to sell. It’s cheap. It’s for the masses.
And, perhaps worst of all, it’s for women.
Women Can’t Make Art
In 2021, Jeanette Winterson pulled a publicity stunt by lighting some of her own books on fire. Her logic was that she didn’t like the new cover blurbs a publisher had put on the books.
She felt the cover blurbs were too cutesy. In her own words, they made her work look like “wimmin’s fiction.”
Take a moment to ponder the inherent misogyny of that statement, coming from a female author who often writes about women main characters.
She didn’t want her work to be lumped in with “wimmin’s fiction” or chicklit—trite categorizations used to write off the output of female writers. No, Winterson insisted, her work was serious. Serious business, serious art.
Books by Women about Women Can’t Be “Serious Art”
We can think what we like of Winterson and her stunt, but the misogyny embedded in the incident is astounding. Women authors rail against being lumped into categories like “chicklit” because they know it means they are automatically discounted and dismissed as “not real writers.” Their work is then considered frivolous, unimportant. It’s not real art.
Yet to be considered seriously, then, women writers have to disavow facile categorization like “women’s literature” or “chicklit” or what have you. They have to distance themselves from anything that might look “feminine” and instead, beg to be aligned with the “masculine.” They write in the vein of Hemingway and his contemporaries, hoping to be taken seriously as artists, and they have to fight back against the societal urge to push them to these more “feminine” fringes.
Because there lingers an old nugget of “wisdom”: women don’t make art. Women are muses; they inspire men to make great art. But they themselves are never the authors of great art.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the romance category, where thousands of books and writers are automatically dismissed as “dreck.” It’s frivolous fantasy, “mommy porn,” and so on and so forth. The entire category, the entire genre, is dismissed with a wave of the hand.
Why? Because it is hyper-feminine. It has been largely written by women, for women—and in recent decades, that has even been a rallying cry for people to come together around romance. People will still vigorously defend romance as being “not trash,” while others jokingly embrace the designation.
The Power of Romance
Here we come to the crux of the problem: romance, being the financial powerhouse it is, gives agency and power to many women. The category is, at present, dominated by women, although we are seeing more diversity and not every romance writer or reader is a woman. (The “by women, for women” rallying cry should be put to rest—and for good reason.)
Romance makes a lot of money, and romance readers drive the market in a lot of ways. Romance readers have enough buying power to direct publishers’ entire programs. They drive trends not just in romance but in publishing at large (see: Twilight, 50 Shades of Grey).
And the financial clout means that romance—beyond providing a fantasy escape for readers—offers women a financial escape from patriarchal control.
Well, We Can’t Have That, Now Can We?
“Women supporting women” becomes a major theme here. The reading public is largely female, and a large proportion of those readers are romance readers. That means they’re putting a good deal of their budget to buying romance books. That, in turn, supports the authors—who can “buy” their financial freedom from men. Publishing companies that specialize in romance may be largely female-run (although not always).
Romance is thus very, very scary to patriarchal power. It provides not only escapist fantasy for readers via fictional means but it also provides real-world freedom to authors.
Little wonder, then, that romance is dismissed at every turn as being nothing but dreck, mommy porn, escapist nonsense. It can’t possibly be good. It can’t possibly be artistic.
And thus the freedom that romance offers is circumvented by patriarchal power. It undermines what romance offers, instead aiming to make people feel like reading or writing romance is some non-empowering thing to do. That it’s bad. That we’re all hacks for reading it or writing it.
Thus romance books become “trashy” and reading them or liking them becomes a shameful secret. As an author, there’s no faster way to be dismissed than to say, “I’m a romance writer.” (Even mystery and sci-fi and fantasy garner a smidge more respect.)
Romancing the Romance
That’s why publishing appears not to love romance back. Of course, the industry loves how much damn money romance makes them. But despite its financial clout, romance is shat on at every turn—and that’s why. Because liking romance is tantamount to admitting some shameful secret.
That’s why the growing legions of people who admit they like romance, read romance, and write romance—no qualifiers, no excuses—are important. Others can wave their hands and dismiss the genre all they like, but it doesn’t change the fact that romance is not, in fact, simply “trashy novels” or “mommy porn.”
That’s not to say there aren’t bad books or books that don’t reinforce problematic patriarchal stereotypes. Every genre has its gems and its fool’s gold, as well as its dirt. But it’s high time for publishers—and other writers and readers—to stop dismissing romance on the grounds that it’s all trashy or bad.
It’s time for the Jeanette Wintersons of the world to stop holding their noses when they’re shuffled in with chicklit or women’s fiction—because those are serious genres, just as much as any other, with artistic merit. Distancing ourselves from them only lets The Man win yet another round. Embracing them instead forces us to ask: “so what?” So what if romance is “mommy porn”? Literary fiction is often just as pornographic, but it gets to pretend at being “high art,” for … some reason, even when it’s just as bad (or worse) than the writing in some romance novels.
And thus we come to the crux of the issue: there is no division between “high” art and “low” art. It’s a myth, made up to reinforce lines between artists, to keep them warring with each other instead of biting the hand that feeds and demanding more than scraps.