Too Much Romance?

I recently stumbled on a review by an Amazon reader citing there was too much romance in the book she’d just read.


Can there be too much romance in a romance novel?

A recent article in Entertainment Weekly discussed the evolution of the romance genre.  “Not Your Mama’s Covers,” the headline reads.  And apparently not your mother’s romance stories either.  Today’s storylines are like a million hot tamales on your tongue compared with the mild medical romances my mother-in-law read. But isn’t openness about women and their sexuality a good thing?

The statistics and comparisons among fiction as cited by ET are startling:  In the top ten fiction genres Romance comes in at #2, surpassed only by Thrillers.  Since I write romantic thrillers, this stat excited me.  In fact, I thought I was the clever gal who’d made up the sub-genre romantic thriller when one of my critique partners, avidly and widely read, claimed, “There’s no such genre!”  Anyway, I’m claiming authorship of the term, although I now see the sub-genre widely used in the romance world.

couple in snow

By contrast, Literary Fiction comes in at #4, behind “general fiction.”  Does this mean that sophisticated reading material is less popular than “dumbed-down” romance stories, as some critics claim?  Are romance readers simply less perceptive, less clever and more tolerant of weak writing than other readers?

I certainly don’t think so.  Romance readers consume at least one book a week while the typical American reads five books a year; the average romance reader is female (84%), college-educated, and ages 35-54, according to ET’s article.

I’ve long argued that one of the reasons romance fiction has been universally denigrated over the past several centuries is that the subject is attached to matters that women are traditionally aligned with – home and hearth, family and feelings, romance and relationships – while literature aimed at male audiences focuses on themes such as war and conquest, murder and mayhem, and politics and leadership.  I don’t know if fascination with those tropes arise from that pesky Y-chromosome men carry (the “broken” one Bandita Suzanne alluded to a few days ago), or if they’re tied to traditional past and present male-female societal roles and expectations.

couple in bedWhen I was teaching, our English Department funded a conference for one of our popular male teachers; the subject was “Jane Austen.”  I was incredibly eager to hear the teacher’s comments about the writer whom I consider literature’s first romance writer.  His response?  “If I never read another word of Jane Austen, it’ll be too much!”

I tried to analyze why this very smart and clever male teacher disparaged Austen while quotes and posters featuring Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, and F. Scott Fitzgerald hung on every classroom wall.  I concluded that the details of women’s lives and concerns are just not interesting to most men.  Those are the very issues that Austen’s works constantly explore – the roles and restrictions surrounding women in her time.  In fact, Austen’s books, with gentle satire, most often reveal the unequal roles of women in her society.Jane Austen

And savvy women readers know that it’s not just about the sex in romance stories, as critics have suggested since E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey was released.  It’s about relationships, and more importantly, the emotional and psychological journeys women make.  It’s about the healing and/or destructive effects that love or “near-love” have in women’s lives.

It’s about why, if women were in charge of the world, there would at last be peace in the Middle East.

What do you think?  Can there be too much romance in a romance novel?  Are romance readers finally being accepted in their attraction to the genre or do we still have to hide our “smutty” covers from the crowds?  Are romance readers being acknowledged as the clever and sophisticated writers they are?  Share your thought about the evolution of the romance genre!

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  • Helen says:

    Is he coming to visit me ?

    Have Fun

  • Jane says:

    Hello Jo,
    I read that article in EW. I don’t think there can be too much romance in a romance novel. I have read romance novels where the romance was lacking and made for a disappointing read. I have no idea if and when romance will ever get the respect it deserves, it’s always getting mocked.

    • Jo Robertson says:

      It’s really a shame, Jane. Why do you think it is that romance novels, although they’ve come a lot way, still aren’t as respected as other genres?

  • Helen says:

    What an interesting post for me romance is all I read although I do read across all of the genres in the romance world and love them and never too much romance in a romance story 🙂 and I would like to think that we romance readers are thought of as smart and savy as are the romance authors there is way to much horror in the world we need out HEA to turn off to all of that and although I read mainly e books I have never and will never hide the covers of my romance novels I am a very proud romance reader

    ARRA does a survey every year and here are the results if you would like to have a look at what Australians think of romance

    Have Fun

    • Jo Robertson says:

      I know you’re an avid romance reader across all sub-genres, Helen. I’m so glad you’re proud of what you read. I know many readers hide their covers when in public, though, and I wonder if different kinds of covers might be more “acceptable”? Still, the covers clearly give a clue as to the genre, so maybe not.

    • Jo Robertson says:

      Very interesting stats in the Australian survey, Helen. Thanks for sharing.

      I see that ebook readership has gradually grown over the last several year.

  • flchen1 says:

    Huh. Too much romance?? Never heard of such a thing. Too much schmaltz? Sure. Too much sex? Possibly. But too much romance?? Never.

    • Jo Robertson says:

      Absolutely, Llchen 1. I think that’s what many critics fail to distinguish — the difference between romance and sex or silliness. They don’t seem to appreciate the power of a story that ends positively, regardless of the troubles the characters have to go through.

  • Minna says:

    Have you read Dangerous Books For Girls
    THE BAD REPUTATION OF ROMANCE NOVELS, EXPLAINED by Maya Rodale? ( ) It was interesting to say the least.

  • Sally Schmidt says:

    No, there can never be too much romance. I, too, read across all genres and find that many mainstream books would benefit from a little more romance. It’s too bad that there is often a quick judgment that we read romance novels because we aren’t smart enough to read “real” books, and that including romance means excluding interesting characters, good plot lines and suspense. And nope, never hide my covers!

    • Jo Robertson says:

      My thoughts exactly, Sally! I’m a great fan of the later Robert B. Parker and his Spenser series. I’ve always wanted to read more about Spenser’s relationship with his doctor-love.

  • Minna says:

    Too much romance? Really? There might be too little of it, but not too much. E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey… I find it hard to call that one a romance book. When I read it I thought it was more about 2 people in serious need of professional help. It reminded me of some of the worst Harlequin books written in the 70s and 80s I’ve had the misfortune to read. But to claim that romance books are just about sex, tells me that the person who can say that hasn’t read many romance books. In the best of them, the ones that are keepers for me, for starters, you have 2 likeable, smart and sane people, who might have their problems, but who are capable of dealing with them. The hero doesn’t treat the heroine like dirt (Treating the heroine badly seems to have been the theme in those books from the 70s and 80s). There’s also adventure which might be something totally ordinary and mundane or an adventure of epic proportions. And you might even learn something new about history, culture, mythology etc. And of course there’s an actual story, with or without the sex scenes.

    But no matter how good the romance novels may be, there are those who scorn them even though they haven’t read a single one and that scorn of romance novels seem to have long roots in history. Just read Dangerous Books for Girls. It’s that scorn that still makes some people hide the covers. But if there’s a T-shirt with the text “I read romance books and I’m proud of it” I’d be happy to wear one.

    • Minna says:

      Shannon’s reminded me to add one quality of a good romance books: a decent build up of a relationship between “I have no idea who that is” or “I hate his/her guts” and ILY.

    • Jo Robertson says:

      LOL, me too, Minna. Thanks for sharing your spot-on thoughts about the evolution of the romance genre.

  • Shannon says:

    Can there be too much romance in a romance novel?

    I’ll be frank and suggest that this does happen in some romances. A couple that has been bickering to sustain tension are suddenly saying ILY (one time I counted ILY in one that I thought was awful–over 20) for the last chapter of the book is sickenly sweet. There is also the lust into love trope which I like but not love that can be a feel like a dive into saccharine. Sometimes it seems that love reforms a rake. I like those stories where he actually needs to change his drinking, sleeping around, gambling, or other vices. But it is book-specific, not the genre.

    Are romance readers finally being accepted in their attraction to the genre or do we still have to hide our “smutty” covers from the crowds?

    Not that I’ve noticed in my life. I still remember the B&N clerk who asked me knowingly, “How can you read that many of those books?” Borders became my best friend. On the bus, I do get comments, and they usually are “I like genre.” Or “I never read fiction.” I love my Kindle so I don’t have ton engage in conversations about my choices in reading. I am tempted to be angry defensive.

    Are romance readers being acknowledged as the clever and sophisticated writers they are?

    GoodReads and Blogs contributors comment intelligently on romances, praising the development of characters, the unusual use of tropes, or employment of special language. Of course they also savage characters that seem to be weak or mean or terminally stupid. I think they do a service in that they are conscious of trigger-y topics, allowing other readers to pick their level of sensuality. (Which is not to say that I don’t think some self-appointed reviewers are jerks.)

    Writers are clever and sophisticated. The Regency died because it became harder and harder to create new stories within the parameters of that genre. Today the horizon is the limit. I do get tired of male angst or unrealistic kick-butt heroines. (Example a woman who was an archeologist assistant who was introduced as extremely pale because she never left her research or saw the sun, but by 2/3rd of the book she’s swinging from drapes, climbing walls, and crawling through a sewer with snakes. And no she hadn’t been working out at the gym or doing hard labor; she’d been on a ship decode the clues to find the treasure.) But at other times that’s what I want. And there’s both kinds of stories out there.

    • Shannon says:

      Acck! more from me. It just hit me while doing dishes that there’s some reviewer on Amazon that writes there’s too much romance in lots of book reviews. If it’s not too much romance, it’s too much sex. If you want to check, you can read all of his/her reviews by some link.

      • Jo Robertson says:

        Yeah, I was thinking the same thing, Shannon. The reviewer is not talking about romance, but sex. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a review decrying the amount of “romance” in any other genre.

    • Jo Robertson says:

      All writers and writing have some kinds of flaws, Shannon, don’t you agree? I find the same kinds of over-the-top scenarios in other genres especially action-adventure.

      Thanks for sharing!

      • Shannon says:

        I don’t do a lot of action adventure reading. But I do take in a few action/adventure/cartoon films. Yes, the end of the film chases gets more and more something. I remember the old days of the guys on the roof of a train. That’s only the start now days.

  • Susan Sey says:

    Well, if the romance is badly done, sure, I’d like less. But if the author delivers something heartfelt & real, that speaks to what’s most important to my life? Well, I call that romance & I want as much as they author can give me.

    • Jo Robertson says:

      Absolutely, Susan. There’s not much worse than badly done romance scenes; either they’re too silly and sentimental or too abrupt and unbelievable. And some sex scenes, well they should probably stay in the bedroom. And I’m not a prude at all, but speaking of badly written sex scenes LOL.

  • catslady says:

    It’s because men in the most part have been in charge. Just today in the news they have an article where Warren Buffett’s advice to women is to act like a man. Personally, I think the world would be a better place if men acted more like women!

    • Jo Robertson says:

      Spot on, Catslady. I missed that Warren Buffet quote. It seems like most men want it both ways — for women to be motherly and homey and aggressive and business-like. I rarely hear people address the issue of men being more nurturing or less aggressive.

  • Jo, I think if a book says romance on the spine. The reader should expect it to be, ya know, full of romance.

    Romance writers seem to be getting more respect, but there will always be some who denigrate the craft and the emotional layers in the story. Always. It’s their loss.

    I can’t speak to what other readers do, but I’ve never hidden my book covers. I don’t apologize for what I read. Or call it smutty. To my mind, there is nothing smutty about two people trying to build a committed, monogamous relationship, the essence of romance fiction.

    • Jo Robertson says:

      Nicely said, Nancy. And I think this particular reader was criticizing the unrealistic scenes (probably sex scenes) that caused her to label it “too much romance.”

      • Jo Robertson says:

        And I have to confess, while applauding your forthrightness, that I have, before the days of electronic readers, hidden covers that showed too much of naked anythings!

  • Jo, I think you’re right about romance being denigrated because it’s concerned with things important to women. And we all know that’s not important at all, huh? Grrrr! I actually think romance fiction is the most important story in the world – it’s about the continuation of the tribe!

    • Jo Robertson says:

      Love that notion, Anna! Continuation of the tribe, indeed!

      I think it’s also the reason school teachers in this country are paid less than many other professionals. Originally unmarried women were the largest group of teachers and paid very little. It’s a backlash of our failure to acknowledge the value of women’s contributions to society.

  • Minna says:

    I just took another look at Maya Rodale’s pages. It seems that Dangerous Books For Girls isn’t available at the moment, but a revised and expanded version will be coming soon.

  • Jo Robertson says:

    So, Dr. Big is, as I write, out buying a new car for our family. Apparently, it’s something I’m unable to do. Actually, I’m really glad Dr. Big holds this inaccurate opinion because car purchasing is right up there with 24-hour breech deliveries IMO. So I continue to let him think I’m a dumbie in that arena because I absolutely HATE walking onto a car lot.

    Hmm, I do wonder what color he’ll purchase the new car in. That’s really about all I care about. Hee hee.

  • Becke says:

    Can there be too much romance in a romance novel? As long as we have a good story/plot and well developed characters, there should be a nice romantic arc.

    Sounds as if this reviewer is uninformed. That said, anyone can be a reviewer because we all have an opinion.

    I wrote a paper on the chauvinism in Hemmingway’s work. To me, he had a rather unpleasant opinion about women. However, I did like some of his work. And that is just another opinion.

    • Jo Robertson says:

      Thank goodness, we all get to have our own opinions, Becke. I, too, have that feeling about Hemingway, but I do enjoy most of his works, even if I’m sure I wouldn’t have liked the man face to face.

  • Jeanne Adams says:

    Hi Jo! I love your posts. I’m so with you about not nearly enough romance! There are great stories out there that have romance, but to claim one has too much?? How can that be? Grins.

    I’m think we’re getting there as readers and writers both, in being taken seriously and being able to hold up our heads and proudly declaim, “We Write Romance” Grins.

  • Jo Robertson says:

    Yes, Jeanne, we’re getting there! And it’s only taken 2 centuries LOL.