26 March 2014

Women and YA: In Defense of Romance

Recently, Kelly Jensen wrote a really fabulous essay for Book Riot called "A Censored History of Ladies in YA Fiction." In it, she makes a wonderfully compelling argument for the history of women in the genre of YA by tracing S.E. Hinton's first book through Judy Bloom and onward to some of the innovative women writing fiction for young adults. Her evidence is stark, compelling. She points out the real ways women have routinely been censored for telling the stories that concern women. As a result, in a genre were, number-wise, women should be on top, the opposite is more often true

"Even in a world where women do publish in heavier numbers than men do, they are underscored, underseen, and undervalued. Twilight is and will remain a crucial part of YA’s history — YA’s female-driven history — despite or in spite of the fact it doesn’t garner the same praises that those held up as idols within the community do. Men like John Green become symbols of YA’s forward progress and Seriousness as a category, whereas Stephenie Meyer gets to be a punchline."

What I love about Jensen's piece is that it directly challenges the notion that "genre" fiction should exist on the periphery.

But also recently, I was really kind of startled to see an exchange on Twitter that seemed to be in response to (and support of) this essay, and at the same time seemed to be repeating much of the cultural values the essay is so very carefully critiquing.

Sarah Dessen, whose work Jensen cites and who has been so important to the growth of realistic YA contemporary fiction, made some really interesting remarks on Twitter. Someone has Storified them, if you want to check them out: http://storify.com/sarahdessen/rant

Basically, Dessen talks about the experience of being in a book store and finding her books were not stocked in Teen Fiction or Realistic Fiction but in Teen Romance.

There's something about this exchange that bothers me, but let me start by saying that Sarah Dessen has every right to say that her books don't belong shelved in "Teen Romance." In fact, I'd agree with her, though not for the reasons she lists. While her books do have love stories, they do not always focus on that romantic relationship in the ways that a traditional Romance would. In terms of genre, I'd absolutely agree the shelving was off in this case.


It's the way that she subtly talks about why this shelving bothers her that bothered me. It's in the way the syntax of her sentence separates "YA Novels" and "YA Romance."

Let me be clear: I do not think Sarah Dessen was in any way consciously attempting to put down or belittle Romance as a genre. I don't think it was her intention to make Romance seem like something "less" than what she writes.


I do think that her response to this reveals a larger issue within the literary community, within the YA community, and within our readership--and it's an issue that's central to what Jensen was getting at in her BookRiot piece.

In short, Romance is still a dirty word. It is still considered "genre" and therefore not "Literary" and therefore not "serious" and therefore... the list goes on.

This is not a new thing.
This goes back to Hawthorn's "damn mob of scribbling women."
This goes back to Hemingway calling the Book of the Month Club and the Literary Guild the "Litero-Menstrual Clubs."
This all goes back...way back. And to be seen as a woman writer, specifically a Romance writer, could have very real, very devastating consequences.

Let me give you a real-life example. Take Kay Boyle. I know, you've probably never heard of her. That's okay, go ahead and Google her. You'll be glad you did. What you'll find is that Boyle was on the forefront of American Modernism back in the 1920s. Her books were ranked right up there with the aforementioned Papa Hemingway's, and she was shoulder-to-shoulder with all those swells hanging out and changing Literary History in Paris.

But then something changed. One book. One review. One step into Romance and her literary reputation was shot. Here's what happened:

Boyle, whose husband at the time was French, wrote a book called Avalanche about the French resistance during WWII. She very purposely wrote a popular book. It was not a mistake that she made romance a major plot conceit--she wanted this story (and therefore the story of all the resistance fighters) to have as large an audience as possible. She knew that Romance sells well, and she wrote this book as a "pot-boiler" quite purposefully. This book was, in short, a political stance (and not one of her first).

Edmund Wilson reviewed the book in the January 15, 1944 New Yorker. Now, you should know that Boyle herself was no stranger to the New Yorker. She basically pioneered what became known as the New Yorker short story, but Wilson was new to the magazine. This was his first review and he leveled a devastating critique. He called it

"...nothing but a piece of rubbish...simply the usual kind of thing that is turned out by women writers for the popular magazines."

and after admitting that her earlier work was at least trying to be serious, he more damningly argued

"I cannot see how a writer with a really sound sense of style could have produced this book even as a potboiler."

Wilson basically argued that if she was capable of writing this trashy women's fiction, she had never been capable of writing anything of real importance, and her reputation had, therefore, been unearned. Being equated with those other women writers, being called out for writing a romance in this very high-profile review... it quite legitimately destroyed her literary reputation. Despite Avalanche's commercial success, publishers were less interested in her work after.

This is, of course, not a singular occurrence. Being labeled as "genre" instead of straight-up "fiction" means being taken less seriously by the literary establishment and by the reading public. It always has meant this. It's perhaps no surprise that the National Book Festival has only ever invited ONE romance writer to the event... a Shakespeare professor whose parents are respected Literary writers.

In short, Romance is often treated as a dirty little secret. I cannot tell you how many people I ran across who claimed to adore Twilight but say quite matter-of-factly that they "don't read romance." Because for them, Romance is the bodice-rippers of the 70s and 80s. Romance is not Serious Fiction, and reading it marks them as a not-Serious (read: not-intelligent) Reader.

Look, I know. I get it. I went through the same thing. I never read a Romance until I was almost 30. And then, I read them compulsively, but secretly. I would use the library's self check-out kiosk so no one in my small, university town would see by bag literally brimming full of frothy, mass-market paperbacks. I told no one, except my husband (and I told him I was "researching a genre"). I was, in short, ashamed.

Because even as I was discovering the absolute genius and talent of these writers, part of me still believed in the idea that Romance was less-than. Not serious. Not Literature.

That being seen as a Romance reader is dangerous to women who want to be taken seriously.

It took almost a year and realizing that Eloisa James was a Shakespeare professor at Fordham University before I copped to loving Romance. In short, it took a sort of symbolic permission for me to finally accept that it was okay to like love these books.

That it didn't diminish my intelligence as a person or my authority as an academic who had made her life studying literature to consider these books Literature.

So to get back to the Twitter exchange. It wasn't a big one or one that even made much of a splash, but it did get some reaction:

and my favorite:

None of these responses are overtly against Romance, well, except maybe that last one. But if we read them, the way many of us are trained to read Literature, there's something going on here. There's an instinctive need to distance oneself from the genre. From the love story (i.e., there more to it...)

Here's the thing. You don't have to like Romance. You don't have to think of your books or any book as a Romance. You don't have to think that Romance deserves equal respect. You can believe that books should just be books and we should get rid of labels.

Except... they're not... and we really can't.

When I walk into a bookstore, I know what I like, and I know what I want. Or at least I know the types of things I've liked in the past. The labels (read:genre) help me determine how to shop, what to buy, what I might like. And what I won't. Without the labels, agents can't pitch books and buyers can't find them. Imagine, for a moment, the horror of walking into a bookstore and having to dig through thousands of different, unorganized books.

I understand, though--being placed in the Romance section (especially when the books really aren't) is a problem. A big problem if the book doesn't really fulfill the expectations of that genre. (Except, romance is such a HUGE part of the market share, that it's actually probably a benefit...) I mean, nobody wants an angry or disappointed reader.


It's a bigger problem to treat Romance as though it's a bad word. However unintentional it may be, to react against ANY categorization (probably done by underpaid bookstore employees who haven't necessarily read the books) as though it somehow lessens what a book is, just replicates the same misogynistic rhetoric that wants us to believe that Romance writing...WOMEN'S writing... YA writing.... fill-in-the-blank writing is somehow less-than-literary.

And seriously... the whole idea of Literary? Totally a fiction. A historical fiction, but a fiction nonetheless.

Look, there's no doubt we need honest conversations about women in YA, about diversity in YA, about women and diversity in publishing and the market...but we can't have those conversations until and unless we understand our own misgivings and conceptions of what these genres are. And until we understand that those misgivings are part of the very system that have kept women in their place.

We can't have these conversations as long as women themselves are dismissive of a genre that has allowed women to become professional writers in a way no other genre has. And a genre that has given women access to books and made them readers in a way that no other genre has. To dismiss the genre of Romance is to dismiss women.

This is what it comes down to for me. For every writer/reader who was sympathetically horrified that Dessen's work would be so mis-categorized...how many other readers were embarrassed or made to feel less-than because of those reactions?

In short, we have to realize that Romance has, historically, been the one genre where women have been welcomed as both readers AND writers. It is the one genre that is dominated by women--on both sides of the checkout.

We shouldn't sweep that under the rug. We should celebrate that.

If we want to create real change in the way women's books and writing circulate and are recognized, we have to change ourselves first. And we really, really have to change the way that writers (and the readers we speak to) view Romance.

We can't look at books as doing "more than" what a Romance does.

We need to start saying that maybe they are doing things differently than a Romance might do them...and that difference cannot be a judgement. In the course of my training I've basically read every major American novel written since 1865 and most of the minor ones... and there ain't nothing "less than" about Romance.

If we want to create real change, I think we have to stop trying to distance ourselves from the idea of genre being a bad word and embrace genre as a legitimate Literary mode. (Capital L) If we can't change the terms (and we can't--they're market terms), we can redefine them and choose how we use them.


  1. I almost died laughing at the "I can't believe it's not butter" thing. I have to admit to having the same hang ups myself, and I know it's totally unfair on my part. My parents had a deep disapproval for anything that would have explicit sex scenes, so from a young age the romance books were simply "smut" in my mind. Then as I got older and started reading things my parents didn't want me to I was drawn to dark stories, like Stephen King. I hid him under my bed and read him with my back against the door. The romance still seemed like silly smut to me, even though I'd never done more than maybe a sneak a peak or two at the forbidden sex scenes. Then when I started working at a book store and could read any damn thing I wanted without repercussions, I continued to look down on those books because the covers so completely turned me off. They looked like trashy bodice rippers to me, and I never bothered to find out if that was true. I think I've always been a little too "judge a book by its cover" though, because there were plenty books in the sci fi/fantasy section that didn't appeal either because of an overly cheesy cover, and that was (and is) a genre I read voraciously. But at the end of the day I figured I'd never read all the books there were to read anyway, so I stuck with my two loves: literary and fantasy. I'm sure I've robbed myself of the chance to read some great books, and you are so right in saying that we should celebrate a space where women have thrived as writers and readers.

  2. Right. And it's not about having love Romance, or even about giving the genre a chance-- I mean, I don't like Mystery or Westerns or much of true Sci-Fi, but I don't think of them as lesser genres... I think it's more that when we pick up on and repeat those ideologies that say women shouldn't have desire, that women's desire and relationships are not "serious topics," that those books are so much trash... that's when it becomes a problem. To me, all books are love stories. You sit down and write 300 pages? You better damn well love the topic--so why certain love stories don't count as "enough," that's beyond me. Well, it is now... I wasn't always in that head space.