‘Bodice- rippers’ and ‘chick-lit’… Why is the biggest industry in literature so frowned upon?

Devilish rogues and women in need of rescuing… As the daughter of a published historical romance author, I decided to investigate the stigma attached to the romantic fiction genre. According to therichest.com, the Romance and Erotica genre generates $1.44 billion a year- overtaking both Crime, Science Fiction and Horror. So if this genre is, so clearly, a lucrative industry, it would suggest that there are many avid readers of it? And, if this is indeed the case, why as a society are we so reluctant to admit it?

The Fifty Shades of Grey hysteria that swept the nation accurately sums up the attitudes most hold about romance fiction. Hushed whispers and page- turning in secret…. one girl in my class at school even went so far as to cover the front of her copy in paper. But where has this embarrassment of ‘guilty pleasure’ reading stemmed from? Fifty Shades is not to blame for all the negative press romance fiction receives. It has been going on for much longer than that. It is an attitude that has been held by society for years- ‘trashy’ novels were around even in the Victorian ages, and the attitude attached to the ‘penny dreadful’ or gothic novel is still very much attached to the romantic fiction genre today. But where has this attitude come from and, more importantly, is it deserved?

Firstly, whilst delving deeper into this genre, it is apparent that the term ‘Romance’ is, in fact, an umbrella term for the equivalent of a Mary Poppins’ bag full of book genres. One look on the Amazon Romance section of the Kindle Store, and you can see this for yourself. Romantic fiction is further subdivided- erotica, medical, cozy mystery, historical, paranormal… And it doesn’t stop there. There really is something for everyone, so if werewolves and vampires are your thing? Chances are someone has written a whole series on it. Although the sub-categories behind the romance genre are so vast, many associate any one book from the Romance genre as just superficial, meaningless drivel with no plot. However, as the apparently massive market of secret romance readers will know, this is certainly not the case.

So what is to blame for the sudden mania in the world of new and upcoming romance literature? With Huffington Post reporting that 21% of Americans have read an e-book in the last year, based on a study by Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, we can deduce that the rise of the Kindle is at least partially to blame on its own for the popularity of the genre. Books are now much more easily accessible, with a library available at just the click of a button. The same report also concluded that, on average, e-book readers read eight books more a year than those who do not own a device. The accessibility of books could certainly constitute as evidence for the rise in romance fiction.

E-readers have also caused another subsequent trend- the rise of the self-publisher. According to publishersweekly.com, many have taken the attitude that if E.L. James can do it, so can they, and now 31% of e-book sales on Amazon’s Kindle Store are self-published.  This new lack of dictation by the main publishers on what is produced in the book market has led to an increase in all sorts of new and niche genre books. With the arrival of e-books onto the scene, it is apparent that there is a whole new avenue available to explore new and different branches of literature. The new power of self-publishing in the book world has also meant that publishers are playing catch up, to meet this new demand for gap-in-the-market book genres. This is evident in the rapidly growing genre of Male/Male under Carina Press- a subsidiary of Harlequin (one of the biggest romance publishers in the world), where a whole market of romance books are being written specifically for male readers.

So, to the real question here: why are people so ashamed to admit their love for Romantic fiction, when so many people are reading it? Perhaps the fear of the ‘Fifty Shades’ effect: being labelled as reader of erotic fiction, is too great a cause of embarrassment for most. In reality, the erotic fiction genre is only a mere fraction of such a huge market of reading, but it is the subgenre most associated with the whole Romance market. Perhaps the dodgy front covers of the majority of these novels, where women appear to cling onto the sheet-draped, long-haired male, is enough to make people sceptical of the true literary value of these books. The genre is clouded in stigma, believed only to be a genre read only by the Bridget Jones’ of the world who pine after fictitious perfect men, when in fact this is just not the case. I think (and clearly many others agree with me), that these books are not only fabulous to read in terms of the value of the stories they provide, but also fulfil a need that everybody has for genuine human connection. If we can root for the hero and the heroine to get together in film and TV, why is it so shameful to wish the same for the characters in romance novels?