For the week around Valentine’s Day, writer Jessica Luther is writing a series of three articles about gender, race, and sexuality in romance novels. This is the first article in the series.
Romance novels are incredibly popular. Millions of people—mainly women—read them each year, generating billions of dollars in sales annually. Romance novels are the largest share of the fiction market. And the vast majority of these novels feature white, heterosexual, typically thin, not poor, educated, able-bodied protagonists.
But there is an exciting thing happening in romance these days: if you know where to look, you can find are a wide variety of novels that feature people of color, queer relationships, fat characters, and/or protagonists with blue-collar jobs.
Today is Valentine's Day, which is usually considered the most romantic of holidays, a day when our society celebrates monogamous, often heterosexual, love. It is no surprise, then, that romance novels become a topic of conversation this time of year. They are read by women, the recipients of most Valentine's Day gifts and the people our society believes are obsessed with romantic love.
It is only "news" that Spence is the mind behind Jessica Blair's novels because we assume that only women can write for women and that men would not want to.
Spence says that while writing these romance novels, "I have got to think in a female way" and "I just love doing it." Both of these statements fly in the face of our assumptions about men and the heavily gendered rendering of the romance genre.
In the Daily Mail article on Spence, the author explains why he adopted the pseudonym two decades ago: "You do not say no to publishers. I was just very glad I had found someone who wanted to print my books, and it didn't bother me at all that I'd been given a female name." Why would it bother him? "I suppose some men may suppose their masculinity had been questioned, but it has never bothered me."
Romance novels: generally not the sort of thing we might discuss as a vehicle for feminist literary icons. Many are the faces I have pulled at the quality of some of the novels supposedly aimed at me. I think, however, that writing romance novels off entirely is leaving a lot outside in the cold. Romance is, after all, the most popular literary genre in all the world. More than that, it's a genre dominated by women writers and readers, and you've got to put down some of the contempt for romance to misogyny. Accusations of silliness and inconsequentiality are, of course, some of the most insidious tools in the patriarchy's toolbox. Let's share some love for the love story, shall we?