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In the world of books, romance is sometimes the subject of snobbery. Nonetheless, it’s the best selling genre worldwide. We look at why it is so popular, and why it is simultaneously the subject of scorn.

We need fantasy

The romance genre is of course a form of fantasy, and part of the appeal of fiction in general is the escape from reality. During the drudgery of everyday life, we can pick up a novel and get lost in the romantic storyline. No matter what century it’s set in or whether or not there are vampires involved, romance skillfully balances relatability and fantasy to keep its readers hooked.

This is especially important during uncertain and stressful times in the world. You get to see the characters overcome obstacles and read a satisfying ending.

Romance is the foundation of the novel form

Although novels globally can be traced back thousands of years, the English novel dates back to the 18th century. This was also when the Gothic genre was booming. Among the first major novel writers was Ann Radcliffe, who pioneered the Gothic Romance subgenre. This differed from Gothic in that Gothic Romance featured female protagonists. Radcliffe’s novels were always referred to as ‘romances’ – for example, A Sicilian Romance. The women in her novels, while striving to be with their true love, were portrayed as equal to the men. She created roles for women in literature that previously didn’t exist and this resonated with many readers.

Radcliffe was a big influence on our beloved Jane Austen – she even parodied the Gothic Romance plot in her novel Northanger Abbey. However, it is a parody written with love rather than a direct spoof. She uses the parody to highlight the coming-of-age issues in the text. She doesn’t approve of belittling the novel in general or novels that women like to read. It isn’t the novels themselves that cause Catherine to develop wild fantasies – it’s only her own immaturity. This is important because to this day, the romance novel is often dismissed as something frivolous and looked down upon as a form. Jane Austen’s works show that they’re actually written with a great deal of wit and nuance.

They reflect society

The romance genre has managed to stay relevant and outperform other genres year after year. Often, the problems that women experience in novels are what women are experiencing in the real world.

But there is an almost guaranteed happy ending, a reassurance that everything is going to be okay.

So they draw on the Realist tradition of the novel reflecting the real world, but it’s also wrapped up in fantasy and optimism.

Women are at the forefront

Women are the heroes of romance – from publishing to character to readership. This is also partly why the romance genre is the subject of a lot of snobbery. Society likes to look down on things women enjoy. Particularly since romance novels revolve around the emotions and sexuality of women, they’re easy to dismiss as ‘fluff’ or ‘trashy’. But of course, this isn’t true, and romance isn’t synonymous with bad writing.

They’re a vehicle for political commentary

“The personal is political”, we’re always told – and the plotlines of romance novels are no exception. While romance novels are often the subject of criticism when they portray more traditional romantic plotlines – think ‘damsel in distress’ – they also often are at the cutting edge of society.

A Mills & Boon historian, Jay Dixon, has commented that the books “have always argued, along with some feminists and often against prevailing ideology, for no-fault divorce.” So long before divorce was commonplace, it was being portrayed in romantic fiction. It’s actually more common for a romantic heroine to be strong and capable than the swooning damsel we’ve been conditioned to associate the genre with.

And even the swooning damsels shouldn’t be dismissed. This falls into the easy trap of dismissing more traditionally ‘feminine’ traits, such as empathy and softness. Even fiercely independent romantic women, such as Jane Eyre, have a positively influential femininity. They soften the ‘rugged’ hero and encourage him to embrace his vulnerability.