We Don't Get No Respect

by | April 21, 2015 | General | 12 comments

By Lisabet Sarai

Reading Donna George Storey’s post about Fifty Shades last month, I had one of those “aha!” moments. Donna cited Alyssa Rosenberg’s observation that romance is one of the only areas of cultural expression that focuses on women and their lives. I suddenly understood that reading romance could be more than just an escape into impossible fantasy, easily dismissed as shallow and frivolous.

Modern romance, which has largely jettisoned the wimpy, passive heroines of its past, gives its readers (who are primarily women) the opportunity to vicariously experience female agency. The female protagonists of today’s romance tend to be feisty, competent and independent. They are firmly in charge of their own lives, and frequently are not looking for the soul mate who eventually and inevitably comes their way. It might not be too far a stretch to view them as role models.

Furthermore, in erotic romance, women bravely, sometimes brazenly, express their sexual selves. Today’s erotic romance heroines embrace their desires. Often they bed their partners long before they fall in love, and they’re just as likely to control the sexual action as the heroes. As Donna points out, even the virginal Ana is the true dominant in Fifty Shades. She defines (and redefines) the rules, which poor Christian tries to follow.

Romance is about female power—the power to make decisions about relationships, and the power to enjoy personal sexual satisfaction. No wonder it’s so popular, in a world where many women lack that sort of power.

So why doesn’t the genre get more respect? Why is it so easy and so fashionable to belittle romance—especially erotic romance? Why does Donna feel so uncomfortable writing “mushy” dialogue, blushing as if it were obscene? Sure, there’s a lot of poorly written romance out there, but that’s true of every category of fiction. Why do people feel the need to denigrate romance as “trash”, “bodice rippers”, or “mommy porn”?

Maybe because the female power is viewed as a threat.

In a male-dominated culture, it’s too dangerous to take romance seriously.

“Take romance seriously?” Some of you reading this are no doubt chuckling at the absurdity of this notion. And I suspect Remittance Girl will be sharpening her rhetorical blade, ready to assert that romance is in fact a product of male-dominated culture, an attempt to domesticate the socially-disruptive effects of lust by promulgating the myth of harmonious, monogamous, stable coupling.

Still, think about what the world would be like if women all began to act like romance heroines. Speaking out and acting on their desires. Insisting on respect and consideration from their lovers. Demanding to be taken seriously. Claiming a well-deserved, personal happy ending, without guilt or feelings of inferiority. Some men would be very threatened indeed.

“Hah. Illusions. There’s no such thing as a happy ending.”

Perhaps there’s no “ever after”. However, healthy, egalitarian, enduring, fulfilling relationships do exist, hard as that may be sometimes to be believe. And you know, based on my personal experience, it’s not just women who want that kind of relationship. Many men value independent, assertive partners. Men do not necessarily want a doormat as a companion. Or, for that matter, an innocent virgin!

The kicker is that despite the official perspective that romance is trash, readers of the genre have more economic power than any other market segment. The phenomenal success of Fifty Shades is only the latest demonstration of this fact.

This observation makes me realize that romance readers don’t really care whether the pundits view romance as unrealistic or superficial. They’re going to buy and read what they enjoy, losing themselves in stories of the women they’d like to be. It’s only authors of erotic romance, like me, who grumble about not being taken seriously by the literary establishment.

Well, you know what? I respect the romance I write. I know how difficult it is to create an original, compelling story that still adheres to the conventions of the genre. More difficult, maybe, than writing a so-called literary novel, where there are far fewer constraints.

So I’m going to stop griping and get back to writing. The only respect I really need comes from my readers.

Lisabet Sarai

Sex and writing. I think I've always been fascinated by both. Freud was right. I definitely remember feelings that I now recognize as sexual, long before I reached puberty. I was horny before I knew what that meant. My teens and twenties I spent in a hormone-induced haze, perpetually "in love" with someone (sometimes more than one someone). I still recall the moment of enlightenment, in high school, when I realized that I could say "yes" to sexual exploration, even though society told me to say no. Despite being a shy egghead with world-class myopia who thought she was fat, I had managed to accumulate a pretty wide range of sexual experience by the time I got married. And I'm happy to report that, thanks to my husband's open mind and naughty imagination, my sexual adventures didn't end at that point! Meanwhile, I was born writing. Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, though according to family apocrypha, I was talking at six months. Certainly, I started writing as soon as I learned how to form the letters. I penned my first poem when I was seven. While I was in elementary school I wrote more poetry, stories, at least two plays (one about the Beatles and one about the Goldwater-Johnson presidential contest, believe it or not), and a survival manual for Martians (really). I continued to write my way through high school, college, and grad school, mostly angst-ridden poems about love and desire, although I also remember working on a ghost story/romance novel (wish I could find that now). I've written song lyrics, meeting minutes, marketing copy, software manuals, research reports, a cookbook, a self-help book, and a five hundred page dissertation. For years, I wrote erotic stories and kinky fantasies for myself and for lovers' entertainment. I never considered trying to publish my work until I picked up a copy of Portia da Costa's Black Lace classic Gemini Heat while sojourning in Istanbul. My first reaction was "Wow!". It was possibly the most arousing thing I'd ever read, intelligent, articulate, diverse and wonderfully transgressive. My second reaction was, "I'll bet I could write a book like that." I wrote the first three chapters of Raw Silk and submitted a proposal to Black Lace, almost on a lark. I was astonished when they accepted it. The book was published in April 1999, and all at once, I was an official erotic author. A lot has changed since my Black Lace days. But I still get a thrill from writing erotica. It's a never-ending challenge, trying to capture the emotional complexities of a sexual encounter. I'm far less interested in what happens to my characters' bodies than in what goes on in their heads.


  1. Donna

    Fabulous post, Lisabet, and very heartening. There is definitely more to romance and mommy porn hating than a cool analysis of literary merit. Alyssa Rosenberg's comment really helped me see both why "high" literary fiction seldom does it for me anymore (and especially why Franzen and Eugenides just don't speak to me) and why women deserve their "fantasies" of importance the same way male readers need those lone-man-saves-the-world adventure thrillers.

    I would argue that literary novels have plenty of constraints. The writing has to be exquisitely self-conscious to show how smart and gifted the writer is. The protagonists have to be full of self-doubt and in need of family therapy. Sex must be troubling and punished in some way, never, ever a joyful, life-enhancing act. I could go on. Just don't try to write a literary characters someone would actually want to be.

    Love your ending here–a very happy one. I will be reminding myself, whenever I'm feeling doubt, that my respect for my work, my readers and women's stories is the heart of good writing and true satisfaction in story-telling. As Jane Eyre said, "I care," and that changes everything.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Actually, I think you're stereotyping "literary novels". I recently read "Flight Behavior" by Barbara Kingsolver, which I would definitely put in that class (though maybe you wouldn't). Marvelously evocative prose, flawed but delightful characters, and a masterful mirroring of universal issues within person ones. She made it look so easy … but then so does Mozart.

  2. Sessha Batto

    I can't read or write romance, or even erotic romance, because I find the stereotypes and tropes embarrassing. I can't relate, I don't want to. It isn't a question I of literary merit, it is a matter of finding it demeaning to the parties involved.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      How recently have you read a (good) erotic romance? A lot of the stereotypes have been shattered. I think you might be a victim of mistaken impressions (or perhaps of having read poorly written romance).

      I'm not saying you have to like romance. Much of it drives me nuts. But not all. Try, for example, Now You See Me by Pamela Todd. Breaks the stereotypes right and left.

      And in what way do you see romance as "demeaning to the parties involved"?

  3. Spencer Dryden


    Articulate, insightful with just the right amount of venom. Very well stated.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Thanks, Spencer!

      Your romances are a good example of what I am talking about. Your women are definitely not shrinking violets! And your heroes love it.

  4. Francis Dashwood

    I agree with all of your points–to the limited extent that I can, since I don't read much romance. Well, any romance.

    But I think there's something else going on here. I think people look down their nose at all genre fiction because it's escapist and meant to entertain. And the other genres in turn give romance and erotica a hard time because, "Hey, I might be a space opera writer–but at least I don't stoop to writing ROMANCE (in a snooty accent imitating a literary writer's criticisms of space opera)." Maybe.

    The fact is, I bet most of you guys' writing could fly rings around some famous genre authors and most "literary" writers to boot. Plus it gets the reader off!

    tl;dr version–They're all just jealous! 😉

    • Lisabet Sarai

      I agree. And I'll also assert that the ability to tell a compelling story, to pull in readers and make them totally forget the outside world, is a rare and precious ability.

  5. Remittance Girl

    I think there may be two distinct forces working against Romance as a genre. There most definitely is, as you say, a strong social undercurrent of ridicule (which I suspect hides insecurity and discomfort) of any writing which focuses primarily on women's pleasure and erotic fantasy.

    The other is, I suspect more subtle and it is a rebellion against the idea that women can/should only revel in the sexual within the boundaries 'moral' boundaries of a love bond. i.e. sex without love is bad, wrong, immoral. It's the thing that animals and men indulge in, but women are of 'finer feeling'.

    Finally, I think there is a prejudice against romance as literature, because it hasn't been exposed to critical forces that push its prose to higher levels. For all the legitimate complaints to be leveled against literary fiction – and I agree, there are many – the expectation that language will be employed for more than just the pragmatic communication of a plot is a real one. This is by no means a criticism specifically of romance. It's legitimately leveled at all genre fiction. I love pulp writing, but I do truly revel in a work that uses language creatively, freshly, when it is brought to bear not only for telling purposes, but also poetic ones.

    What I take a little issue with in your essay is your defense of the HEA by saying that healthy, lasting, committed relationships DO exist. Yes, of course they do. But they are NOT the common course of a relationship. They are the exception, not the rule. In the same way that murder mysteries (not ubiquitously but traditionally) always represent justice as prevailing. Justice doesn't always prevail at all.

    My problem with reading romance is the inevitability of the HEA. I love fiction which features romantic entanglements and I am gratified as a reader when, on occasion, that that love bond becomes permanent.

    But I personally find the idea of picking up a book KNOWING WITHOUT A SHADOW OF A DOUBT that it will end in an HEA, before I even begin reading the first page, to be – metaphorically – futile. I feel the same way about a lot of thrillers, mysteries, horror, etc.

    As a reader, I require real emotional risk. For me, a journey into fiction needs to put me, as a reader, in peril – the risk of an ending I do not foresee. Otherwise, I find the reading to be, very literally, a chore. A slog. And this may be why, as a writer, the few times I have tried to structure out a plot before writing, I find it impossible to keep my interest alive to write the entire thing. As a reader, as a writer, I require the unknown in order for fiction to work for me.

    I have read some breathtakingly written romances. I've read romances with rich, deep, complex characters, with immense insight into the human condition. But knowing it was going to end happily robbed me of my enjoyment of the risk of not knowing.

    Having spend a good long time interviewing a lot of readers on the effects of the given of an HEA, I know that most readers love the HEA for exactly the reasons I hate it. For them, the knowledge of the eventual HEA allows them to feel safe to emotionally invest in the novel – to give themselves over completely to the emotional rollercoaster of the story. Something many of them would not feel willing to do without that guarantee.

    I understand this deeply. I empathize with it. I am just not interested, personally, in that safe relationship with a piece of fiction.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Hello, RG,

      Thank you for your carefully constructed critique. (I expected no less from you…!)

      I like your point about romance not having been pressured to provide anything more than a pedestrian use of language. Some romance authors do write very well, but that is in no sense a requirement of the readers. I know, from talking to my readers, that most of them don't care at all about style (at least not consciously) and many pay little attention to the plot. Characters are what interests them, vivid, believable and likeable characters with whom they can identify.

      And I too have problems with the predictability of romance, both as a reader and a writer. It's extremely difficult to maintain suspense when the end is a foregone conclusion. I've read a few romances that actually pulled this off (Standish by Erastes comes to mind), but that's pretty rare. The best one can hope for, usually, is an author who can make you wonder just how in the hell the characters are going to get out of their dilemma or resolve their differences.

      As for healthy, egalitarian, committed relationships – perhaps I've seen more of them than you have.

      In any case, one doesn't have to personally *like* romance to give it a bit of respect.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      BTW I am eagerly awaiting the opportunity to read your dissertation. It could in fact end up being a best seller!

  6. Word Actress

    Lisabet, Remittance Girl, I miss the way you have at it with any topic.
    This was fun to read…

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