by Natalie Zutter)
Before I started writing full-time about books, I carried a pretty stereotypical disdain for romance. When all I knew were the cheesy Fabio covers and kooky plots, I couldn't imagine these novels being anything more than the literary equivalent of junk food.
Then, in my second week on the job, I was invited to a romance author luncheon. I faked my way through conversations about "my first Julie Garwood" and was delighted to discover that the authors I met were sharp, outspoken, well-read ladies. (I'm ashamed to say that I didn't expect I'd be able to talk to the women about Internet culture, body image, and other non-romance topics.) Six months later, I was moderating a panel with those two of those authors, talking about fans' tendencies to scold heroines over heroes, the ideal of the happily-ever-after (including when or when not to employ it), and other intricacies of the romance genre.
In romance, I found a number of surprising connections to the genres I already love (sci-fi, fantasy, and comics, namely) when it comes to inventive subgenres, passionate online followings, and the relationships between authors and fans. More than that, I realized something that I think a lot of bookworms don't consider: Romance is empowering. In fact, the potential for empowerment in romance novels is there on the female writers’ own terms moreso than in literary or geeky genres.
Romance heroines vs. other genre heroines
Sure, in science fiction you can be a pilot or a hacker or a Jedi knight—in fantasy, the badass mother of dragons. Young adult is currently overflowing with plucky teen heroines who rise above their dystopian settings to enact change. Comic book heroines are mutants who control the weather and secret agents protecting the last surviving man.
But those sci-fi archetypes I mentioned? Are still archetypes, with fewer standout exceptions than their male equivalents. The mother of dragons only gets to fulfill her destiny after being sold off in marriage to a warlord. Plucky teen heroines must always be petite, and they've become such a trope that we have trouble taking them seriously anymore. Comic book heroines (perhaps the worst case) are often drawn in hideously contorted positions, and clothed in hyper-sexualized spandex getups that leave them shockingly uncovered. Or, you know, when they get killed off or retconned per the editors' whims. All of these genre characters, no matter how iconic, are still problematic thanks to various in-story or meta constraints.
Then you have romance, where your every fantasy can be lived out—and is:
Are you a high schooler tired of YA, who wants to dream about life after college; or an adult longing to relive that era of first real love, first sex, and the first chance to build your chosen family? New Adult books hit all these touchpoints, and more. For all of your brooding twentysomething needs, turn to Courtney Cole, Jessica Sorensen, Cora Carmack, and many more.
Want lairds and clans and kilts? Scottish romance is the world for you. Start with Garwood and Diana Gabaldon, then explore the rolling hills with Maya Banks and Jennifer Ashley.
Do you want to learn more about bondage and rough sex? You can explore kink and BDSM through erotica novels from authors like Sylvia Day, Tara Sue Me, Tiffany Reisz, and Logan Belle.
Do you thrill at the notion of being swept away by a Middle Eastern prince? I cannot tell you how many books have "sheikh" in the title (standouts by Susan Mallery and Kim Lawrence), but they will all scratch that itch.
Do you dig the notion of having a hot one-night stand, getting pregnant, and the man coming back into your life for the good of your child? I kid you not, that's an entire subgenre.
I'm pretty sure romance commands more subgenres than any other literary genre: contemporary, Regency, paranormal, erotic horror, Scottish, Amish, NASCAR, New Adult, to name just a few of the most popular. Meaning anything you can imagine—literally anything—is out there just waiting to be read. Even with the subgenres like paranormal romance and erotic horror, these fantasies are still more straightforward than the SFF, YA, or comics examples mentioned above; by virtue of being more straightforward, they're also more successfully fulfilled.