A lot of news nowadays is not exactly uplifting.
Government shutdowns. A polar vortex around the country. A state governor’s past racist acts coming back to haunt him. A TV star being attacked by men spouting off racist and homophobic slurs.
And as informed as we may try to be, with all of this going on around the country (as well as other things around the world), it’s difficult not to feel a bit depressed about the state of things.
Sometimes we just need a break from it all.
So, with this in mind — as well as the fact that Valentine’s Day is just around the corner — I decided to go for something a little bit lighter for this week’s column: Romance.
Specifically, romance novels.
For me, one of the ways I “get away from it all” is through some good old-fashioned escapism — namely, books. And one of my favorite genres is romance.
I can already see some of you out there rolling your eyes and scoffing. But before you dismiss the genre as trash or fluff, hear me out.
Despite its reputation, romance is a very popular genre and does fairly well in terms of sales.
At Brick & Mortar Books in Redmond Town Center, the romance section sells just as well as any other section, according to bookseller Casey Blair. And when you take into account that it’s the store’s newest section, only having been around since the end of February 2018, that’s pretty impressive.
Blair, who is the romance buyer for the store and leads the store’s romance book club (of which I am a member), said the genre’s reputation is not in line with how progressive it is now. While there has historically been a lot of white biases within the genre — both systemically on the publishing side, as well as in terms of content — things are changing. Publishing companies are starting to get the memo that people want to read books not just about white people, Blair said.
As I like to put it, people of color fall in love too.
Blair said at Brick & Mortar, they want to make sure people of color are represented in what they carry because representation is hugely important. They want to be as reflective of the community’s demographics as possible. This is their way of doing their part to demonstrate to publishers that there is a market for diverse stories, Blair added, noting that “The Kiss Quotient” by Helen Hoang is one of their bestselling books. It’s a romance featuring a woman who is on the autism spectrum and a man who is half Swedish, half Vietnamese.
Blair also tries to find romances featuring LGBTQ stories but said it can be difficult as there are not as many that are traditionally published. And as a small store, they can’t always get independently or self-published books.
One of the reasons romances may be looked down on in literary world may be the fact that they’re stories centered on two people falling in love. They don’t always have any sort of deep, meaningful theme or message.
But so what?
What’s wrong with a happily ever after (or HEA, as they’re sometimes referred to)?
There is more than enough negative stuff going on in this world, so why disparage something positive?
Andrea Turnbull, a fellow romance book club member, read her first romance about 20 years ago and said she has stuck with them because she has stuck with reading in general. The 39-year-old Redmond resident said she tries to read a variety of books in general, but romance books are usually reliable as light, fun reading.
“More that by definition, they have to have a happy ending, so they are fun and light and you don’t have to worry about your favorite character getting killed off,” Turnbull said. “Sort of like comfort food in book form, though for me, that usually applies more specifically to my favorite books that I reread multiple times.”
While she can’t think of a specific instance in which she’s been given a hard time for reading romance, she does feel like there’s a general disdain for the genre.
“Like it’s somewhere between a celebrity gossip magazine and a ‘real’ book,” Turnbull said. “The word ‘trashy’ gets used a lot. I think that it’s not fair to judge the entire genre based on the worst examples. Sure, there are terrible, even trashy, romance novels out there, but there are poorly written books in any genre.”
The fact that there’s sex and a happy ending does not preclude a compelling story, well-developed characters, interesting issues for discussion or any other mark of a “good book,” she said, but it might make some of these things more palatable to the casual reader.
In the current era of #MeToo, the push to close the gender pay gap and female empowerment, it should be noted that romances are stories that center on female happiness.
Blair said while there are plenty of books that may have a romantic element to them, romances are defined by their HEA ending. What matters most in these stories are a woman’s desires and agency and what she wants.
I can say personally that having read romances since college, I have learned a lot about how to be strong, how I should be treated in a relationship (romantic and otherwise), how to be comfortable with who I am and more. I’ve learned this from reading about characters (both female and male) who have dealt with and struggled with any number of issues. But they find ways to bounce back and come back stronger.
And before you go rolling your eyes again at a person learning from fictional characters, how is this different from someone learning lessons from superheroes and superheroines? Or from a character in a serious piece of literature?
In the end, they’re all fake.
So next time you think about scoffing at the thought of romance novels, stop and try not to judge a book by its genre.
Windows and Mirrors is a bimonthly column focused on telling the stories of people whose voices are not often heard. If you have something you want to say, contact editor Samantha Pak at spak@sound publishing.com.