Other forms of genre fiction, like the detective novel or the space opera, have achieved mainstream respect, but the reputation of the romance novel and its writers languishes. Romance novels are rarely reviewed in major news outlets; their authors are infrequently profiled. Why is a genre best known for happy endings and a disproportionate number of mutual orgasms so denigrated? Selinger rattled off the stereotypes that dog romance like this: “It’s fluffy. It’s sentimental, it’s trivial. It’s it deals with emotions and not ideas. It doesn’t stand up to close reading. It doesn’t challenge you.”
That’s not entirely untrue, especially as applies to the likes of Harlequin. But plenty of airport thrillers and sword-and-sorcery books don’t offer much readerly challenge either. The real problem, many scholars who champion romance argue, is that romance remains a genre mostly written and read by women. “Often things that are cherished by people who identify as women are treated as not quite intellectual, not quite able to withstand the scrutiny as the works that are enjoyed by men,” said Jayashree Kamble, a professor of English at LaGuardia Community College.
LaQuette supported this. “It teaches women to demand equal treatment, to demand orgasms,” she said. “It creates the expectation that men should have emotions and show those emotions and have compassion for the people around them. In a patriarchal society, those things are not necessarily celebrated.”
Then again, feminists have lodged some of the harshest criticisms of romance, arguing that it presents men as aggressive and women as submissive, that it valorizes marriage as a culminating achievement, that it celebrates straight, white, able-bodied couples above others. In recent years, romance has rethought some of its conventions (particularly scenes of rape and dubious consent) and has become a more inclusive field — both in terms of who writes romances and which characters those writers depict. Still, accusations of racism, in the handling of its annual awards and its treatment of writers of color, roiled the R.W.A. earlier this year, leading to a change in leadership.
But like it or not, romance novels sell, just not to film or television. “Hollywood would rather do the 48th “Pride and Prejudice,” Julia Quinn, the author of the Bridgerton novels, said. (“Don’t get me wrong,” she added. “I’m here for those.”) Canonized as classics, novels by Austen and the Brontë sisters have a cultural cachet and unimpeachable literary value that drugstore romance lacks. No one has ever shot Fabio for a “Persuasion” cover.