Is there too much romance and not enough reality in romance novels? Are they too unbelievable, too cheery, too formulaic? Too icky and sickly sweet? All dessert and no meal?
Those are questions I struggle with sometimes, both as a reader and a writer of lesbian romance novels. And those have certainly been some of the knocks against romance novels over the decades, with many of them (often unfairly, I would argue) having been classed as second rate fiction.
I love a good romance novel, especially ones with well-developed, interesting characters (a must for me). The older I get, the more I appreciate good, well written romance novels. Not because they make me feel like I’m 25 again (they do!) but because they appeal to the hopeful, loving, generous and youthful part of our souls – the part that tells us anything is possible, including a little magic, and that it’s never too late. Romance novels appeal to our emotions and our sensitivity. And if we’re fortunate, they take us on a journey of not only love, but of some kind of self-discovery that entertains us at the same time.
While romance novels burn a pleasure trail through my heart, my intellect wants to be challenged and engaged too. And this is the part where I sometimes question whether (for me, at least) there can sometimes too much romance in romance novels – and not enough meat. By that, I mean I want to read about more than just girl meets girl and falls in love. Or girl hates girl or is indifferent to girl at first, then grows to love her. Or girl loves girl right away, but something happens to get in the way of their union. I want to know the characters deeply, and I want them to jump off those pages with real problems, real faults, real fears, real joys. I don’t just want them to flit off to some exotic locale and fall in love. Okay, I do, but can they at least go to an exotic locale while recovering from the pain of divorce or someone’s death? Or from PTSD? Or while they’re trying to save the world? And then they can fall in love!
Romance novels rely heavily on certain plot formulas to make them work. These are tried and true because they instantly create tension and conflict, and of course, a happy resolution ensues on the journey of the two characters falling in love. But what I like as a reader and what I like to do as a writer of romance novels is to have something meaty, something substantial, going on as well that shows what the characters are really made of, and which makes me vicariously see/feel how someone else might live. So while my characters are falling in love, they’re also growing and changing as people while solving their own issues or those of the world around them. In other words, they’re doing important stuff while they’re falling in love.
In the last decade or so, I’ve noticed a trend of contemporary romance novels becoming grittier and tackling thornier psycho-social issues than they once did. Perhaps we can credit this injection of reality to the War on Terror that began in the early 2000’s, or the economic meltdown of the last half-dozen years. In any case, romance novels of today aren’t your granny’s Harlequins of the past. And that’s a good thing.
I have to admit that when I wrote my romance novel “Last Salute” (Bella Books, November 2013), I was a little worried about how it would be received, since I’d set it upon the grim canvas of death, grief and war. There’s a romance in there of course, but not until the two main characters come to terms with the untimely death of a soldier they both loved. It was a very emotional story to write, and I’m happy and relieved that the readers (bless your hearts!) seem to get what I was trying to do with the book.
If you haven’t read a romance novel in awhile, I urge you to try one because I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. If you’re a writer and you’ve avoided writing romances because the genre seems too confining or too Pollyanna for your tastes, I recommend you try writing one, or at least consider it. There are few boundaries anymore. Romance novels really can take you anywhere you want to go!
Tracey Richardson is the author of seven romance novels with Bella Books, two of which (“No Rules of Engagement” and “Last Salute”) are Lambda Literary Awards finalists.