This week I read an article on Daphne du Maurier in the New York Times. I was delighted because she was a favorite writer of mine as a young girl. The editor who wrote the article wrote about how important and fabulous Rebecca du Maurier is, how she was inspired by Jane Eyre and then says this “Few writers (Elena Ferrante comes to mind) have been so aware of how women excite one another’s imaginations.” What? Are you not aware of an entire freaking genre that does exactly that?
So, the New York Times gaslighted an ENTIRE genre of literature with a wave of their hands. Romance, the literature that keeps the lights on in every major publishing house. The literature that people actually read as opposed to just buy and never actually read (data mining is a harsh reality).
And then she misses the big impact which is in the story is narrated the viewpoint of the second wife who remains nameless. Are we, as women so overlooked that we are nameless? The heroine goes on a hero’s trajectory of empowerment from lacking confidence and battling insecurity to a strong woman who can walk away from all this messed up tragedy, who contemplates leaving it all but decides to stay with her flawed hero and save him. The house, Manderley, burns destroying the corruption of Maxim’s life, and it ends with the heroine caring for him, her showing him a life that is different. This is the mother fucking core of romance. This is why we read these stories. Redemption, the power of love, and the deep, twisty nature of our emotions.
Daphne du Maurier wrote interesting shit about complex, interesting and flawed women who become empowered. The character of Rebecca is the other side of the coin that our heroine rejects. Daphne du Maurier made these stories wildly successful and paved the way for hundreds of romance and woman’s fiction (still considered a separate thing because you know, sexism.)
When reading romance, you get used to people openly disparaging the genre with a kind of weird casualness that would not be acceptable in most situations. I feel like I need to scream when people rush to tell me that “they don’t read that type of books.” I like to play dumb and ask them “what books with women?” Oh, that flusters them. They will list some books they heard were important. I suspect that they just don’t read a lot.
I am tired of trying to convince people that novels about women, where women embrace their desires, that literature written by, for and about women deserves consideration. Romance is profoundly feminist in every way. Feminism is “advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes.” Romance novels are about women getting what they want – sex, love, a relationship or whatever.
I am still flummoxed when people deride Romance as a lesser topic for stories. Unless it’s old or written by men. A man’s lust is literature. A women’s lust is dirty and trivial.
I have come to the conclusion that these people are taught this attitude. Like everything. The sneer against Romance at its heart is a profoundly misogynistic and sexist attitude. And yes – women are many of these people who sneer. Literature by and for women – how can it have any value? Well, maybe if it’s about pain and tragedy – but for god’s sake a happy ending? And these are people who routinely consume the hero’s journey where the hero conquers evil in books and movies, but there the hero is a man.
Someone told me that they thought romance might be boring because the ending is predictable. Right? It’s just a cheap way of deriding the genre. Romance is defined by the happily ever after. Don’t they read mysteries where the mystery is always solved or detective novels where the criminal is brought to justice? Or coming of age novels where wisdom and perspective are found at the end of the story? Or the hero who triumphs over evil? Our human stories have a template to them which fulfill our essential needs in our imagination. Even stories that attempt an artistic new path are formed in response to these base stories – justice, love, wisdom, the hero’s journey.
The Romance genre is changing from being exclusively a women’s club. It’s younger than it used to be. Gay and MM Romance has exploded, and romance readers snap those books up. WHY? We want an awesome love story. Romance readers are already a diverse group, and the readers and authors reflect that. Pew Research did a study where they found the most likely person to read a book is a black woman who’s been to college, and I know there are lots of romance readers in that group.
I will still read the New York Times because I love reading about all books. Sometimes the closest I will get to reading some of the dense books they review is to read their reviews. It keeps me aware, plugged into all the aspects of the world.
Deep in my heart, I like that I am a member of a secret club of millions of women who read romance. We read constantly. Our secret handshake is the title of the book we just finished. We declare with a reckless abandon that we cried, that we stayed up all night, that this book had major feels. And we sigh. We recognize each other with secret smiles.