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Myths of Romance

This article was written for the Victorian Writers’ Centre magazine, WriteOn, and has been reprinted in several other literary journals. It was for writers, most with literary aspirations, and with limited understanding of, or experience with the romance genre.


The Article

There’s a real cultural cringe in Australia when it comes to talking romance books and romance writers. I know. I used to have it. It’s amazing, really, how everyone knows so much about romance books when so few people will admit to having read a romance.

I started out writing romance because I’d been told by other writer friends you could make a fortune from it — easy money. The rumour was $25, 000 for 50,000 words. 50 cents a word. With a debt and a leaking roof, that appealed.

I read a few old Mills and Boons. Hah! Dead easy, I thought.

Wrong. My first effort was rejected. Too much background, too many minor characters, not enough emotion. And the worst insult of all — “not up to publishable standard”.

How dare they! I was obviously too good a writer for them. After all, I was writing a literary novel and only writing romance for the money. But I accepted the challenge.

Too much background — OK, ditched my elegantly detailed background and settings. Killed off the minor characters. “Not enough emotion” — I was sure I knew what that meant — more sex please. After all, everyone knows what that’s what romance is really about.

I had four more rejections. Each new manuscript I sent was more and more lurid, with less background, fewer characters and more sex.

So why didn’t I sell? I was stupid. I wasn’t listening to the publishers. I wasn’t learning about my targeted genre; I had in fact, a good deal of scorn for it. I was operating on the powerful urban myths so prevalent about romance writing.

The more I was rejected, the more determined I became. I started reading more widely. To my amazement, I found some romance books I liked — really liked. I found romance writers I admired. I found characters I cared about, stories which stayed in my head long after I’d finished them.

Softening of the brain? No, opening of the mind. Then I discovered HM&B also published historical romance. I’d been raised on Georgette Heyer, Rosemary Sutcliff, the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen. Surely I could write historical romance. So I tried. M&B bought it. And then I read a Jennifer Crusie contemporary romance (ANYONE BUT YOU) and realised HM&B was also publishing stuff which was feminist and funny — and I was off and running on a contemporary comedy, which I also sold.

So let’s examine some of the myths about romance writing.

Myth #1: The famous Mills and Boon Formula

There’s no such thing. Harlequin Mills and Boon (HM&B) writers who have been writing for 40 – 50 years. There is not and never has been “a formula”. Nor are they computer generated plots or any nonsense like that. Believe me, most authors would find it much harder to write a book based on someone else’s plot than to make up their own story. We are story-tellers, and that’s why we write for a living.

So how did this myth arise? M&B were one of the first publishers to use publishers guidelines. Nowadays, most publishers do it and writers take it in stride — it makes sense to find out what a publisher wants before sending off a manuscript. But when M&B first did it, writers were shocked, and when they read the descriptions of each line (or category), they cried “formula” and “shame”.

Apply a little logic to The Formula: HM&B publishes more than 50 new titles each month. They’ve been doing that for more than 50 years. If there was a kiss on page 28 or a sex scene in chapter 5 of every book, do you think readers would keep buying, month after month, year after year? Would romance continue to account for nearly 50% of all paperback sales in the USA? Of course not.

So why the guidelines? HM&B publishes a huge variety of stories — all with a relationship between a man and a woman at the heart of them, but all very different. You can find pure romance ( sexy or not), crime romance, medical romance, romantic suspense, romantic comedy, historical romance, chick lit and many more varieties of romantic fiction. Each variety, or line, has a different “flavour”, length, market etc. and aspiring authors need to know where their story might fit in, so they know where to send their manuscripts — London, New York or Toronto, which all publish different lines. Hence the guidelines.

Myth #2: They’re all the same

Romance is genre fiction and like other genres, has its conventions. Yes, romances must have a happy ending. Does this make it boring and predictable? Not in the hands of a skilled writer.

We read crime novels, knowing the murderer will be discovered in the end. Sometimes we even know who the murderer is. Does this make the novel boring and predictable? No. Otherwise the books would not keep selling.

Romance is about how two people overcome obstacles to make a relationship work. In murder mysteries a detective overcomes difficulties to unveil a murderer. In both genres, the focus is on the journey — not the end result. Crime novels are whodunnits, romances are how-happened-it.

They are the same in that each story has a relationship between a man and a woman at its heart, and a satisfying ending , but it’s like chocolate — we all know what chocolate tastes like, but there are also many different kinds of chocolate and many ways to present and eat it. And people return time and time again to their favourite.

Myth #3 — They’re soft porn for women

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard critics of romance read out salacious passages from a sexy M&B. I dare say I could pick out passages from almost any novel and mock it out of context. Cheap laughs.

Yes, lots of romances are very sexy. Lots aren’t. But whether or not there is or isn’t sex, the focus of a romance is not the sex but the relationship. The books are romances — it’s the story, not the sex.

In any case, how many of us would say that sex played no part in our relationships? If sex belongs anywhere, it’s in a romance. But there is no requirement on any romance author to write sex scenes — the genre is broad enough to cater to all preferences.

There is a growing international market for erotica and some writers are building successful careers in this area. Romance is a large umbrella.

But some of Australia’s — and Mills and Boon’s — most beloved and most popular romance authors have no sex scenes in their stories at all, and their books fly off the shelves. It’s not all about sex.

Myth #4: They’re full of cardboard characters, clichés and bad writing

Some are; the good ones aren’t. But you have to go back to the purpose of romance fiction — entertainment. Romance, like TV and movies and thrillers and crime novels and science fiction and fantasy, is entertainment fiction. Not literary fiction.

Yes, some writers use archetypal characters and stories which are variations on a theme. That’s common in entertainment. Movie-goers have clear expectations of a James Bond movie; if Bond and the baddie both went off for counselling to discuss the reasons for their violent behaviour, it might be fascinating, but movie-goers would demand their money back. In the same way, many romance readers want a repeat of the experience, the next variation on that author’s beloved theme – her “core story.” It’s fun, light-hearted, escapist entertainment with wide popular appeal. And it’s feel-good.

Not all romance writers use archetypes; many create unique, unforgettable characters. They write stories which stay with us and haunt our imagination, and readers keep them and reread them over and over — such books are known as “keepers”.

In every genre, there are novels that are clichéd and poorly written, and some books that are wonderfully written with unforgettable characters and prose that sings. Romance is no different. It’s a huge genre, with an enormous range and variety. Don’t judge a whole genre by a few books.

Myth #5: Romance books are junk fiction that have no value to the world.

The concept of “value” is a debatable one. Value to whom and for what purpose?

To quote Robertson Davies, “It is dangerous to condemn stories as junk which satisfy the deep hunger of millions of people. These books are not literary art, but a great deal of what is acclaimed as literary art in our time offers no comfort or fulfillment to anybody.” [from For Your Eyes Alone; the Letters of Robertson Davies, edited by Judith Skelton Grant, Viking Press.]

Take this letter, for instance, that I received from a reader overseas. Her name has been removed.

Dear Anne,

I have just finished your novella The Virtuous Widow and I had to write to say how much I loved it. I don’t usually read historical romances, but I got a collection called Regency Brides with another collection and decided to keep it.

I have a lot of time to read now. Up until May 10th this year I was a 24 hour carer for my dad but he died on that day. Just last week I was told that I have a degenerative spinal disease (my spine is crumbling) and I will be in a wheelchair in the future. My husband is disabled and we have 2 sons aged 5 and 8. Because they need me, I usually tend to my own pain control at night time when I do most of my reading. I really couldn’t put your book down until I had finished it. It took my mind off everything that has happened, and took me back to Ellie and Amy’s home.

I intend to look for some other books of yours at my local library as this story really whetted my appetite. Up until I started this, I hadn’t been able to settle to read, but this story got me going again

Thank you.

Most romance writers I know have received letters like this: touching, heartfelt letters from readers, thanking them for helping them get through the tough times; people who have sat beside hospital or hospice beds through the night, people managing pain, facing unremitting pressure in their lives, and turning to a little escapist, feel-good fiction to help them cope.

No value to the world? I think not.

Myth #6: Romance writers are a bunch of housewives, knocking off books in their spare time

So often romance writers are portrayed as a bunch of housewives, yet most Australian romance writers, published regularly in paperback or hardback fiction, earn their living by their writing.

Before they became professional writers, most Australian romance writers had other careers. Here’s a list of jobs we’ve held: biochemist, midwife, chartered accountant, cook, editor, farmer, lawyer, librarian, marine biologist, physiotherapist, sales manager, scientist, secretary, university statistics lecturer, teacher – the list goes on.

They didn’t quit working — they changed career.

It’s ludicrous to call professional writers who work from home “housewives.” Yes, some of us do housework, and some are mothers with small children at home, but you don’t call a doctor combining motherhood and medicine a housewife. A freelance journalist doesn’t call him/herself a housewife. A lawyer on maternity leave is still a lawyer, an architect with a home office isn’t called a housewife or a househusband.

We are not housewives. We are professional writers of commercial fiction.

Myth #7: Romance is for dumb or pathetic women

Yeah, and crime novels are for repressed murderers and violent types with with a taste for necrophilia. And science fiction is for sad geeks who dress badly and have no grip on reality. And thrillers are for people who live dull, restricted lives. And people who read Literature are pretentious snobs.

What rubbish. Check the statistics on who reads romance. It might shock you. We get readers from all walks of life. Many readers are well educated professional women who read romance as a way to relax after a stressful job. Most romance readers are also prolific readers of a variety of fiction.

“Readers of literary fiction expect to be challenged and like to be entertained; readers of popular fiction expect to be entertained and like to be challenged. They’re often the same readers in a different mood.”

– Daphne Clair

Most people remember their first kiss, their first love, celebrate Valentine’s day or special anniversaries. And golden or silver wedding anniversaries bring smiles to even the most cynical of souls.

As romance author Elizabeth Lowell said, “Only in romance is an enduring, constructive bond – love – between a man and a woman celebrated.” [from Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women. Krentz, J.A (ed) 1992. University of Pennsylvania Press.]

There’s nothing pathetic about wanting to read books that celebrate love. There’s nothing dumb about reading books that makes you feel good at the end.

Myth #8: Romance novels give girls and women unrealistic expectations of life

What an old chestnut. In past centuries it was claimed that women should not be taught to read because they had small brains and the poor dears couldn’t cope with all the extra learning. In the Victorian era men were warned not to let their womenfolk read novels because novels brought about a spiritual and moral decline in the feeble female constitution. And caused them to neglect their housework.

Romance novels give girls and women unrealistic expectations of life?

What rubbish. Most readers, male or female, have learned to distinguish real life from the fantasy in books by the age of about 10. Do science fiction novels make people believe the aliens are coming?

Do crime novels cause people to murder? Do fantasy novels make us believe we can fly or perform magic?

But not all romance books are pure fantasy. Some of the grittier, more “real life” romances often portray people coping with the sorts of difficulties that many women cope with — illness, divorce, death, career crises, elderly parents, problems with children , and so on. No easy solutions are presented — do you think readers would stand for that? Authors who write these romances often get letters from readers who were touched by the story and felt the truth of it, who wanted to share their own experiences and who felt comforted and less isolated by reading the book.

We know the difference between fantasy and real life.

The neglect of housework? Now that’s probably true.

Myth #9: It’s money for jam -— and an instant fortune

This is a really powerful myth. Romance writers are rarely presented with a whopping lump sum, as urban myth suggests.

Most people prefer not to discuss their income with strangers, and most romance writers don’t discuss their earnings. The truth is it’s nobody’s business but our own.

But it’s not only a desire for privacy that prevents us from disclosing how much money a book earns (a very common question) — it’s that it’s an unanswerable question. Each book we write earns a different amount. It depends on the book, the market, the cover, the title, word of mouth, publicity etc. And it’s often years before we have any idea what a book has earned us.

Romance writers get royalties — a very small percentage of a book’s cover price. Our earnings depend on sales. To expect to make an instant fortune in romance is like expecting to earn like Bryce Courtney, just because you sold a book to the same publisher. Few romance writers can give up their day job straight away. Contrary to urban myth, most advances are quite small. But the books continue to earn royalties over time — like a snowball growing as it rolls.

Yes, you can make a living writing romance — if you sell to a big enough publisher and if your books do well. Like any other writer, it depends on talent, hard work, the market and luck. Australia’s top romance writers earn a good living — but they’ve all written many books over a number of years, have built up a huge following and continue to publish regularly and please their readership. It’s a business. Romance writers, like any other writers, get dumped if their books don’t sell.

I paid off that leaking roof by teaching night-classes. But I resigned from my day job five years after I was published and these days I work as a full-time writer.

Myth #10: Anyone can write a romance, it’s dead easy

It’s harder than most people think. Even Harlequin Mills and Boon, that urban myth claims is so easy to ‘crack’, receive something like 20,000 unsolicited manuscripts each year from all over the world. They contract perhaps 30 new writers. They’re just one of the publishers.

Most Australian romance writers have to send their work overseas — to publishers in New York, London and Toronto. We have to compete with the rest of the world to get published.

It’s certainly not as easy as I originally thought it was. But I’m so glad I tried. Romance writing has changed my life, and because of it I’ve made wonderful friends both in Australia and all over the world. I started out thinking it was a way to fund my “real” writing. Now I wouldn’t do anything else. I truly love writing and reading romance. Try some good romances and see if you don’t agree.

© Anne Gracie


For further reading on the anti-romance bias, try this excellent article by Jennifer Crusie – Defeating the Critics

To read a wonderfully inspirational article about why writing romance is important, read Barbara Samuel’s brilliant column called Acts of Faith. I love all Barbara’s columns — about travel, writing or life. Read the one called Snapshot or Come dance in the rain. Coming from a dry climate I can so identify with that one.

If you haven’t read romance before, here is a list of romance writers and books I think make a good starting point. It’s by no means comprehensive, and it’s my own personal taste, which might not be yours.