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Myths About Romance Novels

Jun 9 / Jeanne De Vita
Romance novels. Who would think that two little words could be so polarizing! On the one hand, you have people who think romance novels are “trash.” The perception of romance novels as “poorly written,” “smutty,” or just plain “uninteresting,” has persisted for decades. I have a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Notre Dame. I have a college degree from a wonderful undergraduate institution (Iowa State University—go ‘Clones!). And yet I’ve chosen to work in a field that many perceive as “less than.” Why? Because the misconceptions about romance novels are exactly that—myths!
Let’s take a look at some of the most popular myths about romance novels and pull away the curtain to reveal what fans and loyal readers know is the truth.

1) Romance novels are poorly written.

Well, this is just an overly broad generalization. Within any genre, any published work, you’ll find strong writing as well as weak books. If we’re going to address the genre as a whole, let’s talk about not just opinions. (I love romance! or… I hate romance!) Let’s look at facts.

Most romance novels follow the traditional three-act structure of the novel. Many other genres have determined that the three-act structure is a powerful and compelling structure for narrative. Watch movies? They follow the three-act structure. TV shows? Same. In fact, every episode likely follows the three-act structure. And if you’re studying a series as a whole from pilot through conclusion, the arc that the entire storyline over the seasons follows… likely fits the three-act structure.
Mysteries and sci-fi and many other genres follow the three-act structure, so a well-written romance likely meets the objective standards for strong fiction structure.
Following the correct structure is one aspect of craft—but just because an author gets that right doesn’t mean you’re going to like the book. Let’s look at the subjective side of that first myth. What is a poorly written book to you?

To me, a poorly written book is one I can’t finish. I can’t get lost in the universe the author creates because the characters don’t hook me and compel me to care about their journey. What about poor editing, like typos and poorly constructed sentences? Yes, all of that will put me off a story, and even if I bought the book, I may not finish it.
Sure, you may find some self-published romance novels that got the editing wrong or that don’t quite hit the mark. Traditionally published books go out with errors (this is, after all, a human process!) as well as phrasing or descriptions that may not land with every reader. Maybe some of the biggest names in romance are selling lots of books but for some reason the book didn’t grab you. But on the whole, the romance genre is so huge, almost any reader can find a romance novel that will satisfy.
Check out this list of 100 Swoon-worthy romances. The list is from 2015, but it was compiled by NPR. Some of the biggest and best authors of romance then, nearly five years ago, are still publishing best-selling romance today. Beverly Jenkins, Courtney Milan, Tessa Dare, Julia Quinn, Sherry Thomas, Radclyfe. If you’re not reading the best that the genre has to offer, you’re not just missing out—you’re misinformed!

2) Romance novels are just “smutty.”

The truth is, the romance genre is so enormous, a reader can find anything from Amish romance, to Hallmark-levels of sweetness, to slightly sexy love stories, to full-on wild and wonky alien coupling. That’s part of the beauty of the genre. If you prefer a sweeter read, or a book that fades to black when the couple closes the bedroom door, you won’t have any problem finding something that you can enjoy. But if you’d like to experience something a little more intimate, you’ve got loads of choices. The term smutty implies gratuitous—pointless graphic content or physical descriptions simply intended for titillation. Now, I personally am a believer that a well-crafted romance uses intimacy to develop the story—not just to arouse the reader. So I’d refer back to myth #1 in part here… A well-written romance novel by definition cannot be “smutty.” At least not in the sense of pointlessly and aimlessly explicit. And if the book is, then there is likely a market for that. So if you don’t want that type of content, believe me, you can find something that fits your values, your taste, and your interests. Romance novels are NOT one size fits all for a reason!

3) Romance novels aren’t interesting.

Well, I beg to differ there. I read a lot of romance, and not just those I’m paid to edit for work. Part of the reason why I love this genre so much is because “professional development” is so much fun! Here’s a short list of romance novels that I adored, couldn’t put down, and the reasons why. If you think romance isn’t “interesting,” see if any of these books pique your interest even a little…
  • 99 Percent Mine by Sally Thorne, published 2019 by William Morrow

This sophomore effort by Sally Thorne followed her wildly successful debut novel, The Hating Game. I’m one of the few people who read 99 Percent Mine before The Hating Game. I moderated a book club event and we studied 99 Percent Mine. The book club readers had a lot to chew on from a craft perspective. The book is written in single point of view, first person, so we’re limited to the perspective of the main character, Darcy. Darcy has some really serious problems: an inherited home she’s about to lose to a renovation and sale; a greedy brother who wants to milk the house for every penny it’s worth; and “the one who got away” is the man charged with completing the renovations. She has a serious heart condition and normally would run from anything even remotely resembling emotionally charged, but—she’s lost her passport, her cell phone is at the bottom of a bar toilet, and the only place she has to live is under the same roof with the one who got away… who by the way, is presently engaged to be married to someone else. If the premise and the trope after trope contained in the book don’t strike your fancy, maybe the writing will? This line guts me nearly every time I read it: “I can never decide if Tom’s hair is the color of caramel fudge or chocolate. Either way, yum. The texture is like a romance novel that’s fallen into the bath, then dried: vaguely sexual crinkle waves with the occasional curled edge and dog-ear.”
I mean… how can you NOT be interested?

  • Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston published 2019 by St. Martin’s

Casey McQuiston’s debut novel is nothing short of ambitious. What do you get when the son of the female President of the United States falls in love with the Prince of Wales? A wildly entertaining fake relationship turns real romance that spans two countries and which employs every swoon-worthy technique in the book. Literally. While the book has political themes that may feel heavy-handed to some, I felt the politics were a really well-developed backdrop for the angst and uncertainty of two young men at crossroads in their emotional and civic lives. And the writing…the humor! Alex Claremont-Diaz is brash and hilarious, intelligent and driven while the Prince is…just that. Stately, reserved (until he’s not), and with the fantastic dreamboat quality that ultimately Alex—and I—couldn’t resist. Another couple of lines that I cannot resist:
June inhales deeply and makes an enormous fart noise with her mouth, shattering the serious mood, and Alex is so grateful for it that he melts onto the floor in a fit of hysterical laughter.
“Ugh! Men!” she groans. “No emotional vocabulary. …You should try saying some of that stuff to him.”
“Stop trying to Jane Austen my life!” he yells back.

  • An Unconditional Freedom by Alyssa Cole published 2019, Kensington Books

This book… If the lighter fare above doesn’t align with your interests, consider the story of a free man born in Massachusetts, who studied law and was pursuing big dreams until he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. He leaves behind a woman he loves…and maybe the greater part of his true self. He is rescued, but Daniel Cumberland finds that freedom changes his dream. Once an idealist, he now has a single purpose—revenge. He becomes a spy for a covert organization. The layers of secrets and intrigue in this book run deep, and I don’t want to spoil it. Suffice it to say, Daniel meets his match in Janeta, the daughter of a plantation owner who married one of his female slaves. Janeta’s home life before she meets Daniel is complex enough—the politics of what happens in her own household would nearly be enough to sustain the book! But with her family is in trouble and her heart on the line, she agrees to infiltrate the group of spies with a sinister purpose—to betray them. The war she is fighting is not just personal war, and these partners may be better-matched than either can imagine. A line from this book that comes early in the narrative, during the brilliantly-told scene where Daniel is with his brothers-in-arms and yet nonetheless is utterly, completely isolated.
“War was a lonely thing he’d (Daniel) discovered. Survival was, too.”

If you’d like to study the craft of writing a romance and learn to appreciate the genre in a more complex way, I’d love to see you at Romance Writing Academy’s book club or at one of one our online courses. If you’ve never read romance, or think the myths above are true, I’d love to hear what you think after you read the books in this post. I think you’ll find the myths are nothing more than that and that the genre—whether you think so today or not—has something for everyone!