Nicola here. Today I’m talking about the sort of words that people use to describe romance and romantic fiction. In four days, I step down as Chair of the UK Romantic Novelists Association. It’s been an interesting couple of years, sometimes challenging, always busy, but incredibly rewarding to be a part of an organisation that is so involved with the business of romantic fiction. I love the RNA and I love the fact that organisations like it exist to support, celebrate and promote the romance genre. Together with readers, bloggers, writers and all fans of the genre we make up a very loyal band. We’re lucky; we have discovered the joy that reading romantic fiction can bring.
One of the issues of which I have become hyper-aware over the last couple of years is that of the
language that is used by critics to describe romantic fiction. I’ve always been aware of romantic fiction’s literary reputation – at the very start of my writing career a friend told me how she covered my books in brown paper bags because they were a guilty pleasure. (At least she was eco-friendly about it!) This is hardly a new phenomenon. My grandmother used to hide her genre fiction at the back of her wardrobe. The RNA itself was formed 60 years ago next year to try to tackle the prejudice that there was in the press towards romantic fiction.
Why then is this such a difficult prejudice to shift, and does it matter? Well, for a start it matters to me when I see the reading choices of millions of people publicly scorned. It’s disrespectful and rude. It’s also ill-informed but I’ll come on to that. In one sense I don’t care; as a veteran author of romantic fiction I have a hide almost as thick as a rhino and I’ll read and write what I want, thanks. But I didn’t always feel like that, and not everyone can be so hardy. Criticism can get to anyone at times. I try to embrace the idea that if people dismiss romantic fiction that’s their loss and I don’t need their good opinion of my reading choices anyway.
This is where we come on to the ill-informed part, because as we all know, romantic fiction can be as inspiring and emotionally true as any classic. Romantic fiction holds up a mirror to relationships and to human nature. It can be profound, or joyous or a happy escape, or all of those. It is nuanced, varied, and broad in scope. Not everyone recognises this though.
We’re now approaching the summer and the ubiquitous “What to read on your holidays” lists with which the newspapers and magazines fill their pages. In the UK at least, and probably in a number of other countries, romantic fiction features very rarely in the review pages of the main papers. When it does, it’s usually either written by a man – and referred to as a “love story” rather than a romance – or it is by someone so super-famous that it’s newsworthy. On the subject of summer beach reads, a leading article in The Times of London last week stated the following:
“For some it must be a novel that is both immersive and low-stakes, nothing too heavy, nothing too cerebral… The publishing industry floods the shelves with frothy modern fairy tales with titles such as “The Long Third Date or August in Arles… (I was seriously disappointed BTW to find that these books didn’t actually exist – I thought they both sounded intriguing. I've included a photo of Arles.)
They continued: “The popularity of this sort of fluttery summer read goes back a long way. “I really believe, wrote American pastor T De Witt Talmage in 1876 that there is more pestiferous trash read among the intelligent classes in July and August than in all the other ten months of the year.” Of course this last quote was the Times quoting someone else, someone historical, so that makes the criticism okay, doesn’t it?
They conclude: “Others reject the idea that a good summer book must be a drinkable flibbertigibbet. (Sorry, what?) “To each his own, then. Whether one prefers a sober historical tome or a fizzy romance, summer reading is one of the joys of the season. Grab a deckchair, hope for sunshine, and tuck in.” In other words: “We’re denigrating your reading choices through our use of language but hey, enjoy!”
Yes, the language. The deliberate use of certain words to judge and disparage is fascinating. Frothy and fizzy are the sort of words we often see associated with romantic fiction to imply frivolousness and shallowness. Fluttery is a curious choice. “Be still my beating heart!” I’m surprised that fluffy wasn’t mentioned as well. Then we have “flibbertigibbet” which Webster’s dictionary defines as “a silly flighty person.” Yes, they are all “F” words.
I’m not even going to go near Mr De Witt Talmage’s comments but I will ask since when were romance books low-stakes? I would say that the depiction of love in all its many forms is one of the most high-stakes subjects that a book can tackle.
Incidentally, the only word I find remotely interesting when applied to romantic fiction is “cheesy”. We all know what that means in this context but where on earth did it come from? Being a nerd, I looked it up and was fascinated to find that it’s nothing to do with cheese. It derives from the Urdu word “chiz” meaning “a thing.” The British in India picked this up in the early 19th century and used it to mean something big, fine and showy – “the big chiz.”
Earlier on I asked why the literary prejudice against romantic fiction is such a difficult thing to shift, and does it matter? In my opinion the first part is to do with value judgments of the sort of fiction that is “worthy” and a dismissal of happy and uplifting books as in some way “lesser.” There is definitely a gender element to it as well, not to mention the hypocrisy of newspapers who welcome income from lonely hearts advertising on one page and then diss romantic fiction on the next.
Does it matter? As Chair of the RNA I would say it does because it’s ill-informed and it’s disrespectful to both authors and readers. As a writer and a reader, though… No, it doesn’t matter, in my opinion. The romance community is a strong and loyal entity and we know what we like and we know how great these books are. We don't need approval.
Thank you to The Times newspaper – we will indeed enjoy our summer reading, whatever we choose. Thank you to everyone reading this for indulging my rant and for being huge advocates for romantic fiction. Amongst the words I’d choose to describe the genre are emotional, thought-provoking and uplifting. What words would you use to describe your favourite romantic fiction?