Skip to content

Why Do Romance Novelists Get All the Blame?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

It’s hard to get through a week when there isn’t another blog post, another article, from Christians and from the general market, comparing romance novels—yes, even Christian romance novels—to p*rnography for women and blaming them for ruining young women by creating false expectations of what love/marriage is or will be like.

But why are we romance novelists taking all the blame when there are almost daily stories like this one, an interview with actress Olivia Wilde, being published containing statements like this (emphasis mine):

“ ‘We’re crazy to do this, but we’re doing it because we’re in love and it makes us happy. The only reason to divorce is if one of us isn’t happy. Life is too short.’ After really trying to make the relationship evolve in the way our lives had, I realized it wasn’t a natural evolution. When the relationship becomes about working to make it work, it’s lost that beauty and that optimistic bohemian sense that brought us together. I don’t think love should be work. My parents have been married for 35 years. They said, ‘You have to work at it. That’s what it takes.’ But we tried, and it wasn’t making us happy.”

And then there’s this blog post, from last week’s HuffPost, which delves into the phenomenon of “runaway brides” and links it to the pressure put on young women by all of the “reality” shows built around the multi-billion dollar wedding industry (and I’ll admit, I personally am addicted to Say Yes to the Dress in all its incarnations) in which we read:

Mandy, 25, of Craig, Colorado, who broke off her engagement in April, said one of the reasons she originally said yes to a man she knew was wrong for her was that she saw how many of her friends were married and having kids. She was eager to settle down herself. “Part of me really just wanted to get married,” she said.

And pop culture’s celebration of the wedding as the ultimate milestone in a woman’s life has arguably reached an all-time crescendo. Current and upcoming wedding-centric reality television shows include “Say Yes To The Dress,” “My Fair Wedding,” “Four Weddings,” “Rich Bride Poor Bride,” “Bridezillas,” “The Real Wedding Crashers” and “I Do Over.” Wedding-themed movies have had impressive showings at the box office over the last decade, and there are numerous national and regional bridal magazines in circulation and countless wedding websites and blogs.

Once a woman has begun planning a wedding, changing her mind becomes even more difficult. There’s often a sense of shame attached to calling off a wedding and a feeling that things are too far along to back out.

But isn’t “the church” also to blame for young people’s false expectations of marriage and relationships? All the family and/or marriage conferences. All the sermons extolling the blessings of marriage. All the veneered, fairy-tale weddings. All the focus on family and how getting married and having kids is the “right” way to live. All of the sweeping under the rug of the less pleasant aspects of relationships. All the bright, shining faces in Sunday school because no one would dare actually do anything other than pretend everything is perfect with their little family unit and disturb everyone else’s peace. (Please don’t shoot me, I’m generalizing here—I know not everyone in the church or all churches are like this.)

I started reading both YA and mainstream adult romance novels when I was twelve years old. While the YA romances made me feel all gooey and gushy inside, the adult romances actually helped me in a way that their authors may not have intended. You see, while I grew up in a church-going family with parents who are both Christians, they aren’t the “perfect” example of a “Christian couple” that we hear talked about in church. They fought (they still do). And if they were fighting on the way to church, once we got there, all anyone saw was a happy family—as that veneer went up as soon as we got there. As a child, I was certain my family was the only one like this. But then when I started reading romance novels (general-market) and I read about couples arguing, raging at each other—while still falling in love/staying in love with each other—and I started to realize that my parents’ behavior at home was more normal than what I saw at church. And reading those romance novels helped me let go of the fear that there was something terribly wrong with my parents’ relationship (they’ll be celebrating 46 years in December). For me, romance novels gave me a much more realistic view of what a genuine relationship is like from the inside (not just that outside veneer) than anything I ever learned at church.

Yet as a still-single adult (and at my age, too!), whenever a “church person” finds out that I’ve never been married, the pressure starts: Don’t you want to be married? So-and-so has an unmarried son/nephew/godson/grandson/ employee/yardboy—we should hook you up! We’ll do whatever it takes to get you married, settled down, and happy. I’m sure once you find the right man, God will be able to start using you. Well, obviously, you haven’t been praying hard enough/don’t have enough faith/there’s something God still needs to teach you—and then He’ll bring you your husband. Your standards are too high—what does a little bad personal hygiene matter/I’m sure he’ll find a job soon.

Yes, ALL of those have been said to me, in one way or another, over the past twenty years. So I ask again . . . why do romance novelists take all the blame for young women feeling pressured into marriage or going into marriage with false expectations?

  1. Tuesday, August 9, 2011 12:27 am

    Preach it, Kaye! I’d love to stay and chat, but I’ve got a stack of books sitting here, just promising to make my husband miserable by setting my romantic expectations too high.


    You know, I WANT my daughters to set their expectations high. And, now that I think about it, I may just make a required reading list of romantic fiction for those young men who come along and want to marry them someday… because my girls deserve to be romanced right.

    It’s how we’re fearfully and wonderfully created: — to be wooed.

    Now, I’m off to read some more of that dangerous Christian romance, so catch ya later!


    • Tuesday, August 9, 2011 4:58 pm

      Maybe it’s my pragmatic nature, or my pessimistic nature, or maybe it’s because I read so many romance novels as a young woman, but once I reached my late teens/early twenties, I was dismayed at what other women my age would put up with just to “have a boyfriend”—verbal/emotional abuse, neglect, cheating, ridiculously bad behavior . . . and now that I’ve reconnected with many of them, it’s sad to see how many of them have gone through painful breakups of their marriages in the last fifteen or twenty years. And these were young women who weren’t “ruined” by reading romance novels the way I was.


  2. Tuesday, August 9, 2011 1:30 am

    I think it “sticks” (or sells, or whatever you want to call it) because we have a cultural schizophrenia.

    I haven’t thought this one all the way out, so forgive the incoherence, but I think in these “modern” days, especially with all the “true to life” stories we’ve absorbed, we are deeply aware of ALL the ways a story (life) may go. And none of us want to be hoodwinked, or naive, or the last one laughing.

    For my own part I’ve begun describing myself as a “functional pessimist.” That is, I expect the worst so I get to enjoy being wrong. (It’s just that I’m not wrong often enough. Another story, that.)

    You’ve heard the line about, “Every cynic is actually a wounded idealist”? I think that most people are either so wounded or so afraid of being wrong that anyone they see getting it right (and what’s “righter” than a guaranteed happy ending?) is instantly suspect. I’m in a happy marriage and have several other small “dreams” I’m living. I don’t feel it’s appropriate to talk about them to most people; I’m actually afraid of backlash.

    Another angle (from the Christian side) is that I’ve always felt the romance returns us to the last (only!) time we (the individual) were allowed to be completely self-focused and concerned with our own happiness/interests/choices.

    Marriage will affect the rest of your life, and we get a temporary suspension of the “think more about others than yourself” teaching that is so huge ever after.

    I know for me any time I think about myself (especially when what I want is contrary to what others say I should want, e.g. to write) I am swimming upstream. It’s exausting.

    To read romance novels can multiply that guilt: not only are we bathing in self-indulgence by reading (instead of doing something *productive*) we are also wallowing in a blatantly self-centered point in life rather than being engaged in the now. What’s not to criticize?

    All that being said, I have to respond to the hook-up attempts: assuming the guy is actually nice, it’s really a complement to you, and can be a reflection of how much the hooker (ooo, I feel a joke coming on) enjoys being married him/herself.

    Anyway, that’s what it is when my matchmaking brain starts doing the math.


    • Tuesday, August 9, 2011 5:01 pm

      I guess what annoys me rather than flatters me about the “hookers” is that they can’t see how I can be (a) happy and (b) used by God as an independent, single woman. It bothers me to think that they’d look at my life and say, “What a waste. She didn’t accomplish anything. God didn’t use her because she wasn’t married.” I know that’s probably not where they’re coming from, but that’s how it comes across to me. It makes me feel just as belittled and criticized as those people who go around saying that what I write is “emotional p*rn.” I’m trying to get better at just seeing the compliment (that they believe I’m a beautiful creation of God who deserves to be loved in every way possible), but it’s hard sometimes.


      • Tuesday, August 9, 2011 5:22 pm

        Problem is there are people who do that even when someone is married.

        I was heartbroken when two of the women I admire most in my church (instead of pretending shock or supporting me) when I told them of my intent last November to do NaNoWriMo, asked first of all if I could properly care for my children/household as well as write “so much.” (Both times I’ve done NaNo I’ve been floored at how manageable it is if one just keeps up the pace.)

        Call me weak if you must, but I’d really like to be trusted and loved-on even when I’m doing more than “traditional” stuff. Something that is primarily my identity/skills, unrelated to my marital status.

        And I’ll stick with my “Cultural schizophrenia” theory. If people try to make everything apply to everyone, they’re going to end up at least a little nuts.


  3. Kelly permalink
    Tuesday, August 9, 2011 8:31 am

    I think it’s striking that anyone goes after romance novels to make a point about women. There is so much pressure on girls and women to look a certain way, to the point that if they don’t look like a supermodel, they don’t have value. If someone believes they don’t have value, it’s easy to get sucked into a bad relationship. And our culture, even in the church, does not do anything to promote healthy marriages and families. In secular society, it’s all about you and if your needs are getting met. In the church, it’s all about the man and the subservient role of the woman. There are underlying issues there that people generally don’t want to deal with. The idea that romance novels, especially Christian ones, are the ruination of young women is a joke.

    It’s interesting – p*rnography can destroy a person, a marriage, an entire family. A well written romance novel can inspire. And my experience is that a lot of young women aren’t taught, by people, what qualities to look for in men, and make bad choices. They often don’t have good real-life examples to imitate. We should take a closer look at what we teach and show young people about marriage and family. There aren’t a lot of healthy marriages and healthy families out there to be good examples.


    • Tuesday, August 9, 2011 5:04 pm

      Your first point—about looking a certain way—is one of the reasons why I’ve tried to focus on nontraditional romance heroines: whether it’s their larger-than-supermodel sizes or their ages or their chosen paths in life. Not only is it my way of keeping my own hope alive that there is someone out there who can love a forty-year-old, plus-size romance author/editor, but it’s also my way of giving hope to younger women that they don’t have to “settle” for the first guy who comes along and shows a little bit of interest . . . that it’s okay to wait until they’re older to find someone who will show unconditional love and be her true soulmate.


  4. Tuesday, August 9, 2011 11:01 am

    Interesting discussion. I was talking to my best friend’s father-in-law the other day. He and his wife just celebrated 50 years together. The subject was another active couple in the church that had split up. The husband comes to Sunday School, then leaves. The wife sings in the choir. Nobody really knows what happened. But it bothered us, so we talked about it. We both agreed that in marriage, as in any relationship, there are ups and downs. Yes, sometimes it’s work. Sometimes it’s not. What it IS, is a commitment. And what does that have to do with romance novels?

    There was a time when I was dissatisfied with my marriage. I wasn’t leaving or anything, but I felt like I was stuck in a rut that had no way out. I was in school, starting my “real” job (as opposed to the job of being wife, mother, all-around volunteer at church), and had virtually stopped reading fiction.


    Once I started reading again, going back to what I loved (which, of course, was ROMANCE), I honestly realized what I was missing. I was simply missing that closeness, that feeling that someone loves ME enough to put up with MY idiocy. I had to come to the conclusion that it’s NOT all about me, but about US, and about our family. My kids are disgusted at the parents of friends who divorce over things that they’ve HEARD us fight about. And our Bible Study class (young marrieds and singles) seem to take solace when we tell things on one another that COULD be a big deal – but aren’t.

    So, I guess Romance Novels (and I mostly read Christian Romance) have put me in my place just when I needed it.

    Actually, it’s not the novels, but the One that inspired them. It’s God.


    • Tuesday, August 9, 2011 2:11 pm

      As for putting on an “act” before going into church, if there’s been dissension before we go ANYWHERE, it’s the same, whether it be church,the mall, a family gathering, etc. We just don’t spread the dirty laundry outside the confines of the family. Well, that, and I’m pretty transparent, anyway . . . 😀


    • Tuesday, August 9, 2011 5:06 pm

      That’s why that quote from the actress bothered me so much. “I don’t think love should be work”??????? Really? So sad to see someone like this influencing the younger generation.


  5. Charmaine Gossett permalink
    Tuesday, August 9, 2011 11:44 am

    Prayer and knowing God’s world is the best guide, But novels can be helpful in showing how life works out when wrong choices are made. Some do put unrealiStic expectations in the reader’s mind, but a person is responsible for his/her own decisions, not shift the blame on romance novels, the media, society norms, etc.
    I had unreallistic expectations of an ideal husband, based on movies when I started dating, but I thank God that He opened my eyes before I married the wrong man.

    Growing up I was always asked, “When are you going to get married?” After seeing the marriage problems my many aunt and uncles had I decided I wouldn’t marry a gambler, a tight-wad, a perfectionist, a drinker, a slothful man, or an immoral man.. That narrowed the field. When I was 19 I fell in love with my “Ideal”, or what the movies told me would make an ideal husband. Handsome, romantic, worldly, employed — he was 30. A man who could take care of me, one who would enable me to be a wife with a home and children. Well, as God would have it, I discovered what I was in love with was only the image I had of him. I discovered he was a liar, an idol with clay feet,. When the stars fell from my eyes, I saw his true nature and a few other traits I had willlingly overlooked before. It was hard, but I broke our engagement. It took me two year to get over him.
    I decided I was not going to give my heart away ever again, the man I married would have to earn it. I dated a few others, but it was not until I was 24 that I met the one I thought would be a good husband. We dated four years before marrying, so I had time to evaluate his personality, etc.
    We were married 50 years before he died. He was a good man, a good husband, a good father, and a loyal friend to many. He was not without faults (as we all have) but I chose to overlook them and appreciate his strong qualities. I thought having a good provider was more important to me than having a husband that would take me dancing.

    As I look back, he was not like the handsome face on the cover of the novel, but he had the inner character of the novel’s hero. Maybe what should be changed is the art work..


    • Tuesday, August 9, 2011 5:07 pm

      Oh, Charmaine! Thank you so much for sharing your story!!! Yours is one of the examples I wish more young women today would follow instead of feeling so pressured by parents/church/society/TV/popular culture to get married despite misgivings or doubts.


  6. Tuesday, August 9, 2011 12:48 pm

    It’s not about the false expectations, because you’d better go into marriage hoping and believing for a happily ever after. The problem is that we’re of a mind that we shouldn’t have to put any effort into building and sustaining the relationship, not something I think can be blamed on romance novels. After all, aren’t romances all about the effort that has to go into achieving the relationship against all odds?

    No, we’re of the disposable, remote control mindset. This marriage thing isn’t working for me today, this week, this month…so I think I’ll do away with it and try something else. That’s simplistic, but believe me, many people divorce over what is in essence a simple disagreement. No relationship is immune to the ebbs and tides of careers, financial issues, personal aspirations, parenting, health, caregiving…whatever. There are just times when you wonder whether you should have married at all. But if you give those moments more than passing thought, and don’t give equal thought to the commitment you made, you’re quickly headed down the wrong road.

    Romance novels inspire me. They remind me, when maybe real life isn’t so much fun, that romance still exists. And when real life is great, they affirm me and make me aspire to giving my all to my relationship.

    The romance haters, especially those who have not read widely in the genre, need to find something else to do.


    • Tuesday, August 9, 2011 2:05 pm



    • Tuesday, August 9, 2011 2:22 pm

      bravo! i think you thoroughly hit the mark.


    • Tuesday, August 9, 2011 5:08 pm

      And romance novels remind us that romance takes work—just like love does! (Take that, Olivia Wilde!) 😉


  7. Tuesday, August 9, 2011 2:26 pm

    Wow, that is so true! Thank you for this perspective!


  8. Karon permalink
    Tuesday, August 9, 2011 3:09 pm

    I didn’t see where either article you referenced (the two at the top) mentioned Christian novels, let alone attacked the authors. Am I missing something?


  9. Tuesday, August 9, 2011 6:52 pm

    Wow, Kaye, that was brilliant. It’s such a weird society we live in where people spend a fortune in blood, sweat, and tears planning a wedding, and not spend it on the marriage itself. So much show. So much competition. And to say romance novels are to blame? Bah.


  10. Saturday, August 13, 2011 5:02 pm

    I thought that was very interesting about romance novels assuring you of your parents’ healthy marriage. That’s one argument I’ve not heard, but it makes total sense. In today’s world, and even the world in which you were growing up, sometimes you need that kind of assurance, because it certainly doesn’t come from very many sources. And I agree, why must we blame romance novels for everything? Why not blame action movies for giving men mid-life crises that tear apart families, because middle-aged men think their life isn’t exciting enough if they aren’t dodging bombs on every corner? Seriously. I think I may write that article myself…


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: