When we defend romance reading as escapism, the critics win

When we defend romance reading as escapism, the critics win

wonton cat

Over the last couple of months it seems as if a lot of romance community members have been writing about how reading romance is a form of escape from everyday life. This isn’t new, of course; genre fiction has always been treated as primarily escapist (as opposed to educational or enlightening) , and romance reading more than most genres has been treated as pejoratively rather than neutrally escapist.

Offering pejorative definitions of the escapist qualities of romance novels is a sport of long standing. From a New York Times article back in 1991:

Romance fiction, once dismissed as escapist fiction for bored housewives, has in the last two decades grown into a major industry, with annual revenues that publishing analysts say reach hundreds of millions of dollars.

I’m not entirely sure where Stanley is headed in this article. Presumably romance novels are still escapist in a problematic way, but now they are worthy of  some grudging respect because they are so lucrative.

Sometimes writers try to see the positive side but can’t quite get there:

This whole concept of women “escaping” and becoming empowered through the act of reading romance novels sadly just reinforces gender stereotypes. Although women feel empowered by reading these books, they still aren’t questioning the status quo.

And then there’s the unvarnished, romance-readers-are-lesser-minds, approach:

Sitting around all day reading romance novels hardly qualifies as a life, and romance novels hardly qualify as books.

The more accurate advice would be, “avoid life by reading escapist trash.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with avoiding life by reading escapist trash every once in a while, but as life advice it’s pretty sad.

That particular blogger offers a two-fer, since public librarians who put romance novels on their shelves show themselves as “having no standards about books and reading.” I wouldn’t pay the person any attention as a rule, but this blog is a mainstay of the Library Journal’s website.

I think we make a mistake when we rebut the critics of the genre using the terms of the debate they’ve established, rather than forcing them to consider how pejorative their assumptions are. I absolutely read romance when I want to be cheered up. But I also read it when I’m feeling good about life. Some romance readers want to avoid stories that are too gritty, too reflective of the dark times in which they are set. Other readers come out of a story like The Bronze Horseman feeling uplifted and positive about humanity. Luckily we have really good romance novels to make both groups happy.

I’ve always pushed back against the idea that romance is escapist in a “special” way. But that’s probably because of the way I define the word. For me, romance is no more (or less) escapist than many other activities I engage in. We act as if we all know what we mean when we invoke the term, but I’m not sure we’re defining it the same way. I would define it, in this discussion, as a cognitive activity that takes my mind to a different place from its everyday life and provides different types of stimulation, comfort, and/or cognitive stretching. Using that definition, music is an escape (both listening and playing). My scholarly research can be an escape from the modern world.

When I’m in an archive, under a time constraint, I’m working my butt off but I’m most definitely not in the present, or thinking about my problems. One of the great pleasures of archival research for me is being buried in the context of a completely different world, to the extent that when I stop reading and look up from the document or the screen, I’m a bit disoriented and I have to make an effort remember where I am. I’ve had exactly the same experience when reading a really immersive novel.

I’m not saying that there aren’t distinctive aspects to reading romance that make it enjoyable in a way that’s different from other escapist activities, just that it should be treated as part of  a larger class of activities that provide common benefits. If I stop and think about why I read any type of genre fiction, it’s because I am transported to a different world. I read literary fiction for the same reason, but in commercial fiction, especially mystery and romance, there are resolutions to the end of the story, and the general structure of the story is predictable. And although it is often more open-ended, speculative fiction also has resolutions, either within stand-alone books or at the end of a series (even Wheel of Time seems to have drawn to a close in this, the year 2013).

So I disagree that reading romance for escape is somehow different than reading other kinds of fiction, or doing other activities, for a sense of escape. I do agree, however, that romance provides a particular kind of escapism, and that raises the question of whether the type of escapism we get from romance is problematic in ways that other reading for escape is not. I would argue that (1) yes, it is different; and (2) that it is not more problematic, although (3) the social construction of romance reading makes it seem more problematic.

How is it different? For me at least, I read romance because of the type of resolution I know I will have: emotionally uplifting, with characters who are set on the path to a good life with each other. I read because I want to focus on that relationship, sometimes with lots of interludes of sexytimes, sometimes without. I want to know the details of how the hero and heroine met, what attracted them to each other, how they got to know each other, how they fell in love, and how they negotiated conflicts to arrive at a stable, shared future. In other words, I want to enter a world in which the development of a romantic relationship is foregrounded in a larger story. No other genre promises me that kind of story, although I regularly run across them in books that are categorized in other genres.

To me, wanting to read this story is not inherently more fantasy-seeking, or retrograde, or whatever other pejorative term you want to apply, than reading speculative fiction set in a future world. Or reading a police procedural. Clearly, however, many non-romance-readers disagree with me.

They disagree because of what I’ve called the social construction of romance reading, which conflates reading for pleasure, reading about a fantasy world, and reading about outcomes that some people consider backward-looking. More often than not, in a mainstream romance, the woman is made whole by the love of a man, while the man is not always made whole in the same way (although he is usually improved by the HEA). For example, think of the novels in which a woman gives up her dream job because having a husband and family (which she may not have been shown to aspire to before) will make her happier. Not surprisingly, given the genre’s focus, the romance novel usually privileges romantic love over all other forms of love, and with its frequent baby epilogues, it makes romantic love the temporal precondition for maternal and familial love. A single mother in a a genre romance is by definition not a happy person. Authors are increasingly playing with and subverting these standards, but the majority of novels continue to reflect them.

Consider, by contrast, the mystery and crime genre, which is centrally about justice. A mystery doesn’t necessarily end happily, because the effects of the crime cannot be undone. But the criminal is usually found, and even if s/he is not brought to justice, those affected by the crime have some kind of closure. There are exceptions, but these number in the dozens at most, out of the millions of mysteries written.

Thus, with murder mysteries the escape is from injustice in the real world to justice in the fantasy world of the novel (and similarly with Westerns, the good guys win and the bad guys are vanquished). This is honorable and understandable to observers. With romance, however, the ending provides an escape from egalitarian or complementary responsibilities and opportunities in favor of a solution that is not universally endorsed in the real world (a woman finding ultimate fulfillment in the love of the right man). That makes it suspect to the same observers.

If we stop and think about it, this differential attitude toward escapist romantic fiction and escapist mystery fiction is kind of ridiculous. There cannot be very many people who are certain they want to live their lives without romantic love, so reading about consummated romantic love is basically reading about the realization of a universal desire. Mysteries, on the other hand, are about finding a measure of peace and closure after a horrible act. Even the coziest mystery has a depressing element to it.

I’ll end with one last comparison. Romance readers are frequently called voracious, and it’s true, we read a lot of books. But when you consider volume in terms of words read rather than books consumed, are we really that different from other devoted genre fiction readers?

Game of Thrones is about 300k words. Lonesome Dove is 365k. So I can read GOT, Lonesome Dove or six or seven Harlequin romances in about the same amount of time. I’ve read all three in single stretches. People don’t say about the first two, why did you waste your weekend reading such a long book? But they do want to know why I read seven Harlequins over a weekend. Lonesome Dove is incredibly immersive and escapist. But it’s general fiction and therefore considered to be an excellent way to spend a weekend. Seven Harlequins? One after the other? Something must be wrong with me.