In Defence of the Romance Novel

Marti Stelling

From Jilly Cooper to Colleen Hoover, it’s time to stop calling romance novels lowbrow.

Romance novels are relevant at any time of year. During December, bookshops are lined with festive romances. By Valentine’s Day, Waterstones has multiple displays dedicated to a variety of different romance sub-genres. In spring, vacation love stories fill the shelves. Once summer ascends, you can pick up a holiday romance at the airport and read about the thrilling love lives of fictional characters while you sip on a margarita in the blistering Spanish sun. Of course, you’re surrounded by other holiday makers and screaming children instead of being alone on a private island with the love of your life, but that doesn’t matter – not really. 

Romantic literature offers an escape from reality. There’s a reason why we gravitate towards “trashy” romance novels when we want to relax instead of picking up War and Peace. It’s the same as picking up a copy of Cosmo or choosing to watch a comfort show rather than something that involves concentration. This leads to the overarching question: if we enjoy these things so much, why are we so embarrassed to admit it? 

Romance novels are predominantly written by women for women, equating the genre with femininity. In an article for The Howler, Daijah DeForge compares the romance novel to the “chick-flick” genre of film, as well as female musicians such as Taylor Swift and Beyoncé who are supposedly off-limits to men. Seemingly, once a genre becomes equated to femininity, it becomes “lesser” and is delegated to a female-only space. DeForge comments on how the term “guilty pleasure” is predominantly used for women’s hobbies and not those belonging to men. Therefore, women are permitted to enjoy traditionally feminine books, films, and music – but they are expected to feel shame for it. 

Take Catherine Cookson, for example. She is in the top 20 most widely read British novelists, with sales reaching above 100 million. As one of the most prolific female novelists, she wrote over 100 titles, based on her childhood in County Durham and her work was turned into a television series, which regularly attracted audiences over 10 million. Alongside this, for 17 years, she held the title of the most borrowed author from public libraries in the UK. I’m not saying that Catherine Cookson is a defining reason to choose to love the romance novel. In fact, Cookson herself didn’t like the fact that her work was labelled as such. However, it is interesting to assess the popularity of her work alongside the fact that most readers chose to borrow her novels from the library instead of owning them. Her work was popular in a time before Kindles and eBooks, meaning that borrowing a book and returning it was the most anonymous way of consuming lowbrow texts.

This leads me to another fan favourite, Jilly Cooper. The Rutshire Chronicles is her most popular series, featuring themes of class, sexual infidelity, and domestic upheavals. Check any charity shop books section, your mum’s bookshelf, or car boot sale, and you are certain to find at least one book from this series. Her books are so popular because they are self-aware of their status as “guilty pleasure” reads. The cover art is ostentatious, featuring sexual innuendos and the running theme of show jumping. Her name is usually printed larger than the book title, demonstrating her status as a canonical romance writer with a cult following.  

Over recent years, social media has been credited with the popularity of romance writers such as Colleen Hoover. As of October 2022, Hoover had sold over 20 million books, holding six of the top ten spots on the New York Times paperback fiction best seller list. Her titles include It Ends with Us and Confess, which became popular on TikTok. This has caused perceptions of the genre to begin to shift, bringing hope for the future of the genre. Whether it’s the three for £6 section of The Works, borrowing from the library, or reading on your Kindle, the romance novel has a place on everybody’s bookshelf.

Image Credit: PIXABAY

Categories: Fiction, Literature

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