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This story first appeared in Whole Earth Review, #78, Winter 1993. Copyright
is held by the author.

E-mail to   [email protected]  for info

Augusta Wynde is a part-time ski instructor who -discovered 
romance novels when she was snowed in at a friend's cabin in 
Vermont. She is an avid cyclist and a collector of old 
postcards and turn-of-century bric-a-brac. She spends winters 
in Aspen and summers in Mill Valley. 

In Defense of Romance Novels;
by Augusta Wynde

Three years ago I was a bright and cocky college student who 
had just gotten engaged. In this blissful state, I decided 
that writing a romance novel would be an amusing and 
lucrative project. How hard could it be? I'd read Barbara 
Cartland novels by the cartload when I was twelve, and I 
remembered them as engaging but simpleminded little formula 
pieces. I was a good writer - all my professors said so. The 
fact that I had never written so much as an adequate short 
story didnÕt slow me down for a minute; surely it would be no 
trouble to throw together four hundred pages of purple prose 
and heaving bodices. I gave myself six months.

Three years later, just as blissful but slightly less cocky, 
I am married and have just finished the third or fourth 
rewrite of that first romance novel. Along the way, I met 
several hundred romance writers, ran thousands of pages past 
my critique group, and discovered there was more to romance 
than purple prose and heaving bodices. 

The most common misperception about romance is that it's 
about sex. What it's really about is conflict between the 
hero and heroine. The conflict may be external (she's Norman, 
he's Saxon), internal (he craves security, she risks her life 
every fifty pages), or a mix of both. The hairier the 
conflict, the more satisfying the bond between the lovers 
once they finally work it out. Whether the romance is a 
"short contemporary" (250-page novels set in the present) or 
a longer historical (they can run to 400 pages or more), the 
writer's goal is to make the reader feel, "If they could go 
through that, they can survive anything."

Most romance writers pull this trick off without much formal 
training. Although many have some college education, I've 
never met a romance writer who had a degree in creative 
writing, or who had spent much time receiving the wisdom of 
literary elders at summer writing conferences. Romance 
writers place stories in True Confessions, not in "little 
magazines." Like most romance writers, I taught myself to 
write fiction with the help of critique groups, a handful of 
books on "how to write romance," and the monthly workshops or 
lectures put on by my local chapter of the RWA (Romance 
Writers of America). 

The RWA has mounted a campaign against what I had found the 
most embarrassing aspect of romance fiction: cliched, purple
or just plain leaden prose. RWA holds contests and workshops 
to train writers to use modifiers sparingly, avoid the 
passive voice, and banish the cliche. The quality of writing 
in most romances now roughly equals that of commercial 
fiction in general - which is to say it still needs work, but 
it's come a long way. Most romance authors now write at least 
as well as (and often considerably better than) Dean R. 
Koontz, Tom Clancy, or David Brin.

Despite this improvement, romance is still the smutty joke of 
the publishing industry, even when compared with other 
genres. This fact makes most romance writers a little 
defensive - there are only so many times you can hear what 
you write described as "that crap" before getting testy about 
it. Reading bad detective novels is considered mildly 
eccentric; reading romance novels is evidence of irreversible 
vapidity. The New York Times Book Review regularly reviews 
mysteries, and occasionally reviews science fiction, but 
never reviews romance; the very idea seems almost 
embarrassing in its silliness. Many people I meet are 
surprised that a "supposedly intelligent woman" could 
consider writing romance. 

There are several reasons romance is so widely and deeply 
scorned. Sexism is an important one; the fact that romance is 
read, written, and edited primarily by women makes it easier 
for people to find the genre frivolous and unintellectual. 
Romance is also denigrated for being unrealistic, formulaic, 
morally simplistic, and sexist. None of these makes much 
sense when examined carefully, because the real reason lies 
in something far more fundamental: what romance is about in 
the first place.

Romance shares its lack of realism and its moral simplicity 
with all other genres. Spy novels and westerns typically show 
far less moral ambiguity or respect for realism than romance 
does. Romances are no more formulaic than most thrillers. And 
the notion that romance is sexist, considering the 
invisibility or flatness of women characters in much genre 
fiction, is laughable.

The charge of sexism springs partly from the prevalence in 
the 1970s of lurid historical romances "bodice-rippers" 
in which a woman is raped by a hyper-dominant male, with whom 
she then falls in love. Bodice-rippers marked the point at 
which the sexual revolution hit the mainstream for women, and 
they show the usual frenzy and distortion that come after the 
lifting of long-term repression. 

Historical novels of the nineties treat violence against 
women very differently. (Sexual violence is virtually taboo 
in the short contemporary, although it can occasionally be 
included, always offstage, in what's known as a "social 
problem" book.) We still write about a few testosterone-
addled heroes, and occasionally, especially in a novel set in 
a particularly violent period, they do rape our heroines. 
When they do so, they are typically driven by cultural and 
historical context. Invading conquerors rape; it is part of 
the job description, and such a fictional hero will usually 
find the matter distasteful but necessary. It's not 
politically correct, but it's not historically inaccurate, 
either. Whatever the plotline, rape in romance novels is not 
romantic; it is part of the seemingly irresolvable conflict.

Romances that include rape form a small fraction (my guess 
would be well under 10 percent) of the total number of 
romances now published. The "bodice-ripper" still exists, and 
a few of them are quite popular, but they are no longer 
typical. In fact, a few romances have begun to treat sexual 
violence with something like the full weight it deserves, and 
the genre has seen both heroines and heroes who have been 
victims of sexual abuse.

Romance's quest for respect has spurred a recent publicity 
campaign mounted by Romantic Times, or RT as it is usually 
called. RT is both a significant trade journal for writers 
and the most important fan magazine for romance readers. Its 
editors often take the position - to my mind a doomed and 
foolish one - that romance is "just as good" as "literary" 
fiction, and that Johanna Lindsay and Nora Roberts are the 
natural successors to Jane Austen and the Bront‘s. (I'd 
prefer to see romance considered an acceptable option for 
light reading, as is the rest of genre fiction, rather than 
as incontrovertible evidence of the reader's brainlessness.)

As might be expected from a magazine that considers Wuthering 
Heights equivalent to Sweet Savage Lies, RT suffers from a 
lack of taste. They can be, in fact, downright tacky. They 
conduct an annual "writers' conference" (actually a kind of 
carnival for writers and fans, something like a science-
fiction convention) at which authors dress like Scarlett 
O'Hara, or fleshier versions of Joan Collins. Male cover 
models smile obligingly and pose for hundreds of photos, 
often cuddling (or in a clinch with) fans and writers.

Despite RT's misinformed literary pretensions, it does have a 
certain trailer-park charm. But that pink-flamingo 
sensibility triggers an intense class bias in the very people 
RT is trying, with a strange reverse success, to reach. 
Flaunting a male cover model named Fabio as their poster boy, 
RT has given interviews not just to People but also to Forbes 
and The Wall Street Journal. Predictably enough, these 
middlebrow publications, anxious not to be seen empathizing 
with such proletarian types, sneer at romance with 
considerable vigor. These articles, rooted in disdain and 
class insecurity, don't understand what romance is about and 
can't explain why it's important.

But a single tacky PR campaign doesn't explain why romance is 
undeniably less respectable even than horror or science 
fiction, its most-disdained cousins. The chief reason lies, I 
think, at the heart of the genre. All genre fiction focuses 
on larger-than-life situations, but romance uses heightened 
emotion-al intensity, not action, to grip the reader. Quotes 
pulled out of context from romances (Forbes used: "I'm hungry 
. . . but not for food") strike the casual reader as being 
luridly overheated. And yet "I'm hungry but not for food" is 
exactly the sort of banal thing people say to one another 
while courting. Reading a romance quote out of context is 
like seeing a naked person on the subway - an awkward and 
inappropriate intimacy with a stranger. If the naked person 
has some cellulite and a few blemishes (as does most of the 
prose in genre fiction), the experience is that much more 

This intimacy and emotional intensity make romance 
fundamentally different from other genres. Romance as a rule 
pays better attention to character development than any other 
genre - you need to know a character pretty well before 
you'll accept "I'm hungry but not for food." It's true that a 
great deal of romance is sentimental in the worst sense Ñ it 
uses cheap, unfair tactics to wring emotional involvement 
from the reader. But a few writers go deeply and honestly 
enough into their characters to create a genuine spark of 
empathy. Romance is often described by readers as addictive; 
I think it's the potential for this powerful tug of empathy 
that forms the addictive core of romance.

Genre fiction is something you "get" or you don't. But 
romantic fiction plays a major and satisfying role in the 
lives of millions of working women. Before you write these 
women off as shallow consumerists or victims of Cheez Whiz 
Culture, I hope you'll remember your brainy ex-girlfriend who 
devours true crime novels, or your brother who loves 
Dostoevsky and Stephen King, or even that slightly lumpy 
naked lady on the subway.