When I first attempted to write this post, several months ago, I titled it “the real reason Nicholas Sparks is the worst”. I was planning to discuss the lawsuit against Nicholas Sparks that has accused him of being racist, antisemitic, and homophobic in the workplace. I then planned to use that as a lead-in to discuss how romance novels are just awful in general.
Something about that original post just never feel right. Maybe it’s because I have no way of knowing if Sparks is really guilty of what he has been accused, or maybe it’s because any time I start to attack the Romance genre I find myself haunted by the memory of Jane Austen.
I loved Jane Austen as a teenager. I read all her novels long before graduating high school and used to obsessively watch the BBC television adaptions with a few like-minded friends. Mr Darcy was one of my first literary crushes, and I only wished I could come up with the kind of witty responses that Elizabeth Bennett tossed around with ease.
There are certainly major issues I have with Romance literature, but there are also a couple reasons why writers like Jane Austen make it impossible for me to reject the genre altogether.
1. Many Early Romance Writers were Protofeminist Trailblazers
Despite the presence of Romance novels in the literary Canon, the genre is generally considered low-brow. Some authors, like Maya Rodele, argue that the stigmatization of Romantic fiction is an intentional effort to prevent literature from representing positive female autonomy.
There have always been gender politics involved in the act of writing. In Jane Austen’s era, being an authoress was a perilous undertaking: women were attacked for “having the temerity to write without having the necessary learning and taste”. It was only acceptable for a woman to accept payment for her writing if it was meant to “support aged parents, a sick husband, or destitute children.” While female writers like Ann Radcliffe made writing Romance novels a semi-acceptable hobby for women, female authors certainly weren’t considered serious writers.
Jane Austen, for example, published her books anonymously, “hiding her work and the fact that she wrote for publication“. When her books became successful, the small payment she received allowed her to help support her family in a time when it was socially impossible for a woman to be the bread-winner.
Today, women still struggle to be taken seriously as writers. Many women even continue to use pseudonyms in order to avoid alienating men. While “women make up the majority of readers for most fiction genres… the industry is wary of alienating men, who tend to favor male authors, according to several studies.”
For many female romance writers it is especially frustrating to see male writers taken more seriously than they are in a genre that was trailblazed by women like Radcliffe and Austen, and dominated by female readers. In her interview with the Telegraph, romance author Jodi Picoult expresses this frustration:
“I was so angry about these men who had co-opted a genre that women had been slaving over for years. There are some really phenomenal romance writers who get no credit, who couldn’t even get a hardback deal. And these men waltzed in and said, ‘Look what we can do. We can write about love. And we are so special.’ And that just made me crazy.”
2. Romance Fiction Created Multi-dimensional Female Characters
Jane Austen made female lives matter. She wrote about women in an era where their world was restricted to the domestic, and she made it dramatic, hilarious and all-around enjoyable. Her main characters, always female, are multifaceted individuals who go out and make their own decisions. Yes, those decisions centre around love and marriage, but it was the female protagonist who decided who she wanted to marry. Even Austen’s most timid protagonists refuse to be bullied or pushed into a relationship.
In contrast, Spark’s most famous female character wanders around pretty much agreeing to marry any guy who pushes himself on her.
When romance novels strip female characters of their own volition they use the genre that was once empowering for women to keep women submissive. This is something we see all the time in Romantic films (as the After Hours crew explains so deftly below), but it wasn’t always something that dominated Romance novels.
Romance literature has a much richer history than we give it credit for. For a long time, this was the genre that allowed women to gain a measure of legitimacy as writers. While writers like Nicholas Sparks make me dislike the Romance genre, writers like Jane Austen prevent me from dismissing it all together.
Maybe, if I’m lucky, I will have convinced you to give the Romance a second chance too.
P.S. In case you didn’t get your fill of me hating on The Notebook, I’ve included the revamped horror/thriller trailer for it below.