Conservatism in Romance

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katfireblade

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So...I want to start out by saying I am very pro alpha-male, spunky heroine, hot sex, and HEA. I have literally zero issues with the formulaic plot romance novels almost have to have in order to be romance novels. But, that said....

Well, have you noticed romance is really conservative, even while the rest of the world changes?

I mean...

  • It's almost exclusively the white male guy and girl, no interracial hooking up, though someone can have a splash of it to add "exoticism" to their looks
  • They and all their friends are completely heteronormative--and it's the "all their friends" part that really gets me--aside from maybe the occasional gay "flavor" background character, but those characters can't openly show affection even if hooked up
  • All relationships are monogamous and hetero often including any past ones, no experimentation allowed--this goes double for males, who don't have to be monogamous but should never have been questioning or bisexual
  • Men can have a lot of experience but women must have little or none, and if they did have any, those relationships were most often bad...and don't be friends with exes
  • Both mains are generally one brand of hot, and everyone shares similar hotess levels even when the heroine protests she isn't pretty--no hooking up people whose looks are too disparate
  • Gender roles are strictly enforced; even while women can get away with breaking the mold somewhat it's still in socially acceptable ways, while men can never do so
  • Jealousy is a positive emotion and it means you care, and not that you're an insecure git
  • The man must be rich in order to provide for the female, the female cannot be more well off than the male or the breadwinner
  • Disabilities are rare, but when they do appear it is the hero who has them, never the heroine

I could go on, but you get the gist. And I know there are some exceptions to these rules, but the point still stands that they are exceptions.

The world is changing, and many of these attitudes have changed, but sometimes it feels like most romance novels are stuck in the 1950s. I know, as a reader and lover of these books, I am dying for a change, for more updated heroes and heroines with lives and struggles in love that reflect what real people have to deal with.

And really, if I see one more "billionaire with a secret heart of gold," I might puke.

Romance has enough issues trying to create something new using a formulaic storyline, why does it also lock itself in so many other staid rules? I mean, I can pick up a romance from the 1970s and one from now and find little to no difference in any of these rules, except that the farther back you go kisses get forced, "gay" is not alluded to, and there were actually more forays into disabled (mostly blind) heroes than I see now.

And since half the modern heroes are ex-military and many have pasts where they actually saw fighting, you'd think at least one or two would be dealing with battle damage and/or PTSD. I mean, I'm just saying....

This is on my mind a lot since the romances (subplot or main) in my last few projects have broken one or most of these rules. And I do see comments and reviews from readers who are obviously as conservative as the rules above, hating books in which the main characters break those rules. But are they the main audience or the very vocal minority? What are audiences after, and are romances this way out of habit and ennui, or is this really the only thing the majority of readers will accept?

And maybe, should we be changing them anyway? I mean, there's a lot of conversation about the abusive relationship in romances, but none around some of the other old fashioned or even toxic rules they still seem to have.

What do others think about all this, especially those who run in more professional circles?
 
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Lil

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Maybe it's because many people read romance novels as an escape from a harsh and often brutal reality.
 

Chris P

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Maybe it's because many people read romance novels as an escape from a harsh and often brutal reality.

I would add to this that the formulae for romance or any genre give some readers comfort. Some people like knowing what to expect. They don't want to be challenged, and that's fine. Then there are other readers who enjoy being taken down unfamiliar roads and experiencing the unexpected. That's fine too. Shoot, some days I want exotic foreign cuisine with spices I've never heard of and other days I want a plain old bowl of Cherrio's.

As a writer, I need to make the choice which middle ground I pursue. Cherrio's with cinnamon, or doro wat going easy on the berbere sauce? What's right for what I'm trying to do? I tend to be more to the genre formula side, with some twists to tickle the storyline. But it's still a choice and I need to be aware of the tools needed and consequences of which choice I make.
 

CEtchison

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If that's your impression of the romance genre as a whole, I'd have to say I think you haven't read very widely then. Even some of the most popular romances from the Big Five publishers have interracial, LGBTQ, polyamorous, and BDSM romances. I'd hardly classify that as conservative.
 

katfireblade

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If that's your impression of the romance genre as a whole, I'd have to say I think you haven't read very widely then. Even some of the most popular romances from the Big Five publishers have interracial, LGBTQ, polyamorous, and BDSM romances. I'd hardly classify that as conservative.

I think that's unfair to say, especially since I've been reading romances since I was twelve, and I'm a voracious reader. To clarify, that's three decades of reading these books, including historical, paranormal, contemporary, fantasy, and erotica, and reading books published in every decade since the 60s. And, since I am asking these questions, I would hope it's rather self-evident that I do seek out books that break the mold.

And as I said in my original post, it's not that books that "break the rules" don't exist at all, merely that they still feel like they exist as exceptions. And even then, some of the underlying themes I was talking about above are still heavily present.

I thought it might be an interesting topic, is all, and these are questions that have been on my mind for a while.

I apologize if it put anyone on the defensive. I can let the topic drop.
 

Jeneral

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If that's your impression of the romance genre as a whole, I'd have to say I think you haven't read very widely then. Even some of the most popular romances from the Big Five publishers have interracial, LGBTQ, polyamorous, and BDSM romances. I'd hardly classify that as conservative.

This was pretty much what I was going to say. Are you reading a lot of what's current these days? Because I'm seeing a lot that's not in that "alpha male, spunky heroine, hot sex" mold. And I'm seeing a lot of POC and LGBTQ romances these days as well. Take a look at (just off the top of my head) Alisha Rai, Alyssa Cole, Courtney Milan, Alexis Daria, Talia Hibbert, Jackie Lau, etc. The romance world is becoming a lot more diverse, and it's a wonderful thing.

Is it still white/heteronormative-leaning? Definitely, as the Ripped Bodice's report showed recently. But the more we can raise up more diverse voices, the more diverse we'll become.
 

CEtchison

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And since half the modern heroes are ex-military and many have pasts where they actually saw fighting, you'd think at least one or two would be dealing with battle damage and/or PTSD. I mean, I'm just saying....

*emphasis mine

Sweeping generalizations such as this one in your original post is exactly why I suggested you haven't read very widely because PTSD plays a huge role in all of Jessica Scott's books, in addition to many others.

In the first sentence of your post you describe your reading preference as "very pro alpha-male, spunky heroine, hot sex, and HEA." There's definitely a ton of that out there. But looking at my Nook and Kindle libraries of recently read/purchased titles, I don't have any that fit into that category aside from the Cock Tales anthology. So the issue here might be your purchases along with also-bought algorithms could be skewing your perception of the current romance market.

In addition to the authors that Jeneral listed, I have Priscilla Oliveras, Helen Hoang, Farrah Rochon, Suleikha Snyder and Heidi Cullinan, as well as Beverly Jenkins.
 

thethinker42

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Almost every one of my military characters (and I write a lot of them) have some form of PTSD. Enough that I've gotten grief for it from time to time.

But I also write mostly queer characters and quite a few poly relationships too. We're certainly out there. :)
 

amergina

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Expand your romance reading habits and you'll find a lot of "non-conservative" romance. In addition to the authors suggested above, I'd suggest: Cat Sebastian, Cole McCade, Annabeth Albert, LaQuette, Layla Reyne, and Kris Ripper.

If there's anything in particular you're looking for, I'm sure people can point you to an author who writes it.

Really, the only rule in romance is the HEA/HFN. Everything else can be played with.
 

AW Admin

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And maybe, should we be changing them anyway? I mean, there's a lot of conversation about the abusive relationship in romances, but none around some of the other old fashioned or even toxic rules they still seem to have.

What do others think about all this, especially those who run in more professional circles?

You need to read more widely; a lot more widely, even within the Romance genre, this is not an accurate assessment.
 

Hbooks

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I mean, historically, I feel like there is some truth that a fair amount of what has gotten published tends to fit into at least some of these slots. That doesn't mean there isn't diverse romance out there getting published, too, that the genre isn't changing with time, because there is, and I'm so happy every time I see "The Kiss Quotient" turn up in my GR feed--about biracial characters, and one with Asperger's. But I know from reading LJD's thread that some disappointing attitudes are out there, too.

Incidentally, the best way to bring about the change you want to see is to support the types of books that ARE currently being written that reflect the diversity you want (as in seek them out, and buy them, and review them, and talk about them with your friends.)
 
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Marian Perera

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\The man must be rich in order to provide for the female

I wrote a historical romance where the hero works as an architect. An agent suggested I make him the heir to a fortune instead.

That said, I can understand why you rarely if ever find heroes who live paycheck to paycheck. Leaving aside the fantasy and escapism, I don't want to feel that the couple have all the problems and challenges that come with poverty or debt. But there's a happy medium between that and the billionaire, and that middle ground is where I like my heroes to be.
 
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LJD

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I see your point, and romance does have its problems (see my thread here), but...I feel like you are overstating this a bit?

There are lots of wonderful diverse romance novels that do not fit your description, and I wouldn't categorize them as exceptions. For example, right now, I'm reading a book with a black heroine and black hero, and it's the heroine who's very rich, not the hero (Do Over by Delaney Diamond). The previous book I read had a rich heroine on the autism spectrum, and a biracial (Asian/white) hero with money problems. This is The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang, mentioned above. It's only been out a couple weeks and already has over 3000 ratings on Goodreads. The last ex-military hero I read had PTSD (One and Only by Jenny Holiday). Etc.

Depending on where you hang out online, you may get a very different view of romance. As someone who mostly follows POC romance authors on Twitter, most of the books I hear people discuss do not fit many of the "rules" on your list.

And I do see comments and reviews from readers who are obviously as conservative as the rules above, hating books in which the main characters break those rules. But are they the main audience or the very vocal minority? What are audiences after, and are romances this way out of habit and ennui, or is this really the only thing the majority of readers will accept?

There is obviously (to me) a significant audience--I don't know about the majority, but it's significant--that want books that don't fit the rules above.

My first self-published book, which came out a month ago, has an Asian heroine who has had many more sex partners than the hero, and he's not jealous. Nobody complained about that, and some people remarked positively on it.

On the other hand, a book I had with a publisher last year, under a different pen name, was trashed by many reviewers who slut-shamed the heroine. Though other reviewers did comment positively on a heroine who had a "reputation." I think that publisher may have had a readership that tended toward conservative and traditional, and I don't think the book reached the right readers.

Romance readers are not a monolith and many different types of romances can find an audience.
 

Jan74

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I think there is a huge swath of variety in romance and I've seen lot's of ptsd in novels. I'm truly in awe of the amount of selection and the vast array of choices, as a struggling and floundering writer the thought of my novel being out there scares me a bit because there is such a huge volume of work, especially in romance.

I don't think any other genre has the same diversity as romance, but I could be wrong but I somehow doubt it. There are oodles of sub-genres in romance and maybe the top sellers fit what you describe but if you scratch a little below the surface there is diversity. I agree with others, there are times I do want to be swept off my feet and I want to enter a different time and forget reality. I see nothing wrong with that. I have a line of what I will accept and what makes me slam the book shut and move on, I've also read entire books because the writing was great but the story sure pissed me off. One of my favorite writers right now is losing me as a reader because I'm starting to see her as the spoiled white women cliche and I can't stand it. But that isn't romance so it doesn't matter.

Anyways.....I would disagree with you that there isn't diversity, again it may not be the top sellers but it's there.
 

morngnstar

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I would say maybe romance is a relatively ideologically diverse genre. You can find writers and readers from a conservative to progressive spectrum. Whereas maybe with other genres, if they have a more young, urban fanbase, they're more consistently progressive and modern. So yeah, there are some traditional and conservative romances, and there are also very progressive romances.
 

tiddlywinks

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Hmm...I read through OP's list, and though I admittedly need to expand my romance horizons again, even I had to say, "uh, that seems really narrow?" For example, I really like PNR and right off the top of my head, Nalini Singh and Patricia Briggs come to mind. And I have to say, given both are popular, best-selling authors, I wouldn't classify them as an exception?

Watching this thread with interest for further author recs (and LJD, really appreciated lurking in your prior thread on problems in romancelandia, so thank you for that one).
 

WGough

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I quit reading white-on-white, M/F romance about nine years ago. Recently, a co-worker admitted, with blushing reluctance, she reads queer romance almost exclusively. More than conservatism, we quit reading them because they became predictable. In nine years of reading at least one book a week, my TBR pile has remained overwhelming. My co-worker and I have yet to run out of titles to recommend to each other.

Queer romance writer KJ Charles has a great post on her site, http://kjcharleswriter.com/ "Do Not Mess with the Happy Ever After: defining the romance novel." It doesn't address the white, heteronormativity of the thing (though she does write POC characters) so much as the rules.

I've been where you are, and it took some digging, but I found my reading niche. Good luck with your new reading journey.
 

veinglory

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I can only think you have not been reading around much. If you seek out own voices minority and inter-racial, omega males, and pansexuality it is certain well represented in quite large numbers. Its just not necessarily on the romance shelf at Barnes and Noble, but it is on some of the other shelves and on Amazon.
 

Lil

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The thing is, you can find just about anything you want in Romance—erotica, LGBT, BDSM, whatever. It’s around, but you may have to look for it, and you’re more likely to find it in ebooks, in niche publishers, in indies.
You’re probably right about the conservatism in mainstream publishing, but I suspect that’s because there are more readers for those books than there are for LGBT or BDSM (Fifty Shades notwithstanding), etc., and publishing is a business. If they discover that there’s enough money to be made in what are now niche markets, they will move into them.
Is this a problem? After all, we are writing entertainment, not manifestos to break down the walls of the future, and most people turn for entertainment to things that are within their comfort zone.
 

FJaneH

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Amazon released it's list of best romances of the year so far yesterday, and the top spot went to a book with Asian leads-- the Kiss Quotient. Beverly Jenkins is on the list, and Alyssa Cole. And of the books written by white authors, many of them have a more 'liberal' lean to them. I'm not sure if you have your finger on the way the industry is moving, but I wouldn't call Romance a mostly conservative genre. Maybe inspirational romance, but not mainstream. Romance is an enormous genre, though, so yeah, your can only read conservative stuff, if that is what you want.
 

thethinker42

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The Big 5 publishers have definitely discovered LGBT romances. Amergina and I have both worked with Big 5 houses, as have several other queer authors we know. So it's definitely expanded beyond niche and self-publishers.
 

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