At the Melbourne Writers Festival this year there was a fantastic “Day of Romance” dedicated to romance writers, readers and books. I wasn’t able to go to all the sessions I wanted to because, life but I went to three, which were fascinating.
A few things struck me about the day – firstly that many attendees were super grateful there was a day dedicated to books we love but we are often shamed for reading. And secondly, a question from the audience about why they couldn’t get romance novels at their local library, which is what inspired me to write this post.
I’ve been a romance reader since I was a teen. The first book I bought was written in the 1970s and set in the French Revolution. Part of the appeal of it was that it looked and sounded dodgy. And frankly it was – consent was apparently not a thing and “passionate rape” could lead to love.
Even more so then because I clearly naive and was easily influenced, reading smutty books was frowned on – all the sex and romance could have a terrible effect on outlook and character. But I loved them as a way of escaping they were just fun, naughty and I felt rebellious choosing them.
As the genre has grown and changed over the years, the appeal of these books essentially hasn’t changed. I still feel rebellious reading them and still like them because they make me laugh.
Sometimes they aren’t meant to make me laugh but they are written with sincerity and sense of joy, they honestly just make me happy. It’s no more complicated than that. They are a fantasy where everyone lives happily ever after, the sexy times are always plentiful and no one ever needs to go to the bathroom or spills lunch on their top.
As a librarian into romance I’ve encountered much side eye because of my love of the genre. Once someone said they wouldn’t take manga recommendations from me because I read romance. As though my understanding and knowledge of one genre is clearly affected by my seemingly poor taste in reading material. While many are not so openly rude, the secret biases against these books are often discernible in collections.
At best collecting romance seems haphazard. If someone has a passion for it, you’ll get a decent collection, mostly it’ll be by coincidence rather than on purpose. Librarians like many in the general population don’t think romance novels as proper literature. Though there are other factors like profile buying, and format size that also play a role – seriously this is a thing.
It’s hard to understand why. Romance novels cover diverse topics like rape, child abuse, depression, war, relationships, consent and most of all the role of women in society – in everything from fantasy to historical contexts. If you’re into shape shifting hedgehogs or aliens you can find that too.
These stories centre the role of women; fighting against the constricts of society, their families – this is highly relatable, even if done in a way that is formulaic. And formulaic doesn’t mean poorly written – it’s as hard to write a romance novel as any other book. And I’d argue that all books are more of less formulaic anyway – so let’s get off our high horses about that.
Collection acquisition plays a role in re-enforcing these biases as well. With libraries largely outsourcing collections, there’s not enough time or resources for that personal touch. Standing orders are a necessity because there are authors you just want but these need to be reviewed every year for new authors or trends.
Profile buying is the worst and should die a thousand deaths. While convenient for saving time and money its ensuring libraries are becoming homogenous, with bland collections, not tailored to community needs. And don’t get me started on ebooks – you buy a package and leave it up to the platform to choose your collection – as though that’s going to lead to anything good.
And because there’s a perception around the quality of romance novels in publishing, this perpetrates into libraries as well, despite the fact librarians think they are somehow immune to these biases. Librarians don’t necessarily want to believe they have inherent biases but we do. As much as we try for balance the biases are real and it’s as apparent in our collections as it is in our programming, which is a much bigger issue than I can cover here.
As an example, when I was doing acquisitions I brought things that appealed to me, a middle class white woman, that I thought others might like. The problem with this is obvious, though in some cases it worked – the romance novel collection I started was a great success, the coffee table books less so.
Stuart Kells, in a recent talk as part of the Pulp Fiction exhibition at La Trobe University talked about how libraries have long ignored the collection and preservation of romance pulp fiction because it was seen as too lowbrow for collecting. While this has started to change in a historical context, it still holds true for contemporary romance novel publishing.
Librarians should know and do better than this. Romance and erotica, make billions of dollars in sales. They are super popular and efforts should be placed into curating romance collections that appeal to their community. And not just for the perceived readers – older women who want large print Mills and Boon but actual readers women between the ages of 30-54.
As an industry we are doing a disservice to our communities if we look down our noses at women who choose to read romance rather than the latest literary sensation. Just because something is literary doesn’t mean it’s good or appeals to all readers. Worse, we are contributing to the patriarchal and colonial world view that we know what’s best for women and that is improving literature.
As a public library user rather than worker now, I want to see my interests and tastes reflected in the collection. I also want to be surprised finding books by diverse authors and stories. It doesn’t matter whether romance novels are your thing or not, they appeal to a lot of people and it’s time we understood them better and showed them a little love.