Should romance novels reflect realities or indulge fantasies? Well, it’s a bit of a trick question. Romances can certainly both reflect reality and indulge fantasy. How it does those things, and for whom it does those things are the more interesting questions to investigate.
I try my best not to be self-important or high-minded about my reading habits. Romances entertain readers because we enjoy tracing the arc of a relationship and getting deep into characters’ emotions, motivations, and actions. And some of us like reading about sex. Romance isn’t necessarily the first place to turn for moral instruction. That said, pop culture is powerful and worth taking seriously for how it reflects larger culture. What romance presents as realities and fantasies reveals some truths about our collective values and desires.
Reading Romances That Reflect Reality is Powerful
Romance is frequently held up as a genre of hope, and hope percolates through romances that reflect reality in an especially profound way. People overcoming hardships and fighting for love can inspire us. These stories can remind us of the best of humanity in ways large and small.
For many romance readers, myself included, reading about a character with whom you share similarities in finding love can be really heartening in a world that can make you feel unlovable for a million reasons. I think reading a YA romance with a fat protagonist like Dumplin’ as a teen would have had a great impact on me. I relish romances that pair messy characters struggling with mental health with a person who is steadfast and unwavering in their support.
Given how multifaceted people are, you never know when you might find a sliver of reality in a romance. One of my favorite romances from last year was For the Love of April French. As a cis woman myself, April’s life as a trans woman is substantially different from mine. But the author, Penny Aimes, imbued April with coping mechanisms for the hardships in her life that worked for a time but ultimately ended up harmful. And I felt that so hard. I needed to read about April turning her ship around.
My greatest hope is for any reader to easily find characters who mirror them in some way who find love, have sex if they want it, and face a bright future. I want books for everyone written with attention and care. Romance is growing more diverse, largely thanks to indie and self-publishing, but there’s always room for more.
Escapism is Also Important
With guaranteed happy endings and tried-and-true tropes, romances appeal to people who need comfort and distraction. If reading about some lady going into space and boning an alien helps someone get through a rough patch, who could begrudge them that pleasure? Heck, there’s nothing wrong with reading about people boning monsters simply for fun. It might seem like escapist romances and realistic romances are at odds, but I believe in abundance. There’s room for everything if we make room for it.
But there is a strange fact that much of what creates the fantasy in a romance novel creates problems in real life. Billionaires, aristocracy, mafia men, celebrities. They appeal because they’re exaggerated versions of assured protection from financial stress, from physical harm, from powerlessness. To indulge these fantasies is also to studiously ignore whoever the love interests stepped on during their rise to the top. And that’s where things get tricky.
Trust Readers To Distinguish Reality From Fantasy
People who wring their hands about romance are often infantilizing readers. Liking to read about a particular relationship dynamic does not translate to wanting to experience that dynamic in life. Part of the fun of reading romance is riding the rollercoaster of emotions, and the biggest thrills can come when the stakes are raised, when the situations are extreme, and when everything is exaggerated.
Even if I trust in readers to distinguish fantasy and reality, I still struggle with the fantasies that dominate the romance landscape. Billionaires shouldn’t exist! The wealth of the aristocracy in historical romance was ill-gotten, not admirable! I honestly don’t always know how to square my enjoyment for romances with problematic elements with my desire for a more just world. The best I can offer is honesty. If asked about books I like, I can freely acknowledge the shortcomings along with the merits. I can try to let these contradictions exist.
Pop Culture Has Influence
Even if we brush off romances with problematic elements as fantasies, It’s naive to think the media we consume has no bearing on our worldviews. I should think nearly everyone has had their eyes opened to plights that exist in the real world thanks to their depiction in fictional media. And conversely, we have stereotypes handed to us through repeated depictions in culture. Think of sassy Black lady sidekicks, queer and queer-coded villains, and highly sexualized Latine characters, to name a few. These stereotypes affect how real people are treated.
Ultimately we have to see how things fit into the larger picture. Am I blaming everyone who’s ever read a billionaire romance for the disastrous results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election? Certainly not; there’s a complex web of problems in play. But we can’t pretend that what gets romanticized in fiction doesn’t have any bearing on reality. Readers can choose to engage with that thorny idea, or they can read with blinders on. Or worse.
Some Fantasies Don’t Deserve to Be Indulged
I wish my saying this had some influence, but sadly, we just keep seeing certain kinds of books in publishing news. “Romances” between enslavers and the enslaved in the American South. Pairings of Nazi soldiers and concentration camp prisoners. Honestly, people who want to read or write these kinds of books need to take a long look in the mirror, get some therapy, do some journaling, I don’t know what. These two examples are, for me, very bright lines I don’t think should be crossed, but there are certainly some more I can think of. These topics aren’t out of bounds for books in general, but there’s something about pulling them under the romance umbrella that’s simply gross.
Yet I can’t stop arguing with myself. I sympathize with the viewpoint that books are relatively safe places to explore dark and taboo ideas. It’s part of why I love Flowers in the Attic. What one person finds offensive another can find genuinely cathartic. So I recognize it’s hard to draw lines. Embracing thoughtfulness, nuance, and honesty goes a long way, as does resisting the urge to defend one’s tastes against criticism. Our fantasies are simply not sacred or beyond critique.
Looking at the Big Picture
It’s not hard to come across people who are uncritical about what they read. “I just read what appeals to me,” they’ll say, “and I don’t pay any attention to the gender/nationality/race/sexuality/etc of the author.” People might espouse this view as egalitarian. In reality, they are making faulty assumptions about what books come across their desk, so to speak. Given biases in publishing and bookselling both, the influence of marketing, the vagaries of social media, and more, what books you stumble upon are not a representative sample of the breadth available to readers. Letting yourself go with the flow means you never push back against any of the systems reinforcing the status quo.
Similar forces are at play when it comes to reading romance. If a reader thinks that what they find attractive isn’t affected by outside forces, I would like to acquaint them with the concept of beauty standards. Even if a reader in their ignorance thinks it’s impossible to find, for example, a fat man hot, can they not trust an author to convincingly convey a character’s desires? What a boring way to read, insisting authors cater to narrow tastes.
Plus, there’s a feedback loop in play. Romance authors and publishers are catering to a market. If the market is dictating a narrow view of who gets happy endings, the small imaginations get reinforced. It keeps everyone in a tiny box, when there’s such a big, beautiful world out there.
Embrace Complexity; Read Thoughtfully
So what is a romance reader to do? Read the change you wish to see in the world, or write it, if you’re so inclined. Be honest about the problems you see in books. Celebrate the books that do it right loudly. Romance can be resistant to insightful critique. There’s a lingering perceived need to combat the outdated stereotypes of romance and romance readers. But if romance really is the literature of hope, if we want it to be as great as we know it can be, critiquing in good faith will only make it better.