Why Does Romance Get A Bad Rap?

Social media certainly thinks so.

There’s no denying that romance novels get a bad rap. One only has to look at the questions on Quora (along with comments on other social media). to be hit over the head with that. Questions like:

  • “Can romance novels be harmful for women? If so, how?”
  • “Are romance novels bad because they cater to the female audience, and are basically eye candy for women?”
  • “Why are there so many poorly written romance novels?”
  • “What are some things you hate about romance novels?”
  • “What’s the greatest book you’ve read (no romance novels)?”

If you substitute any genre for romance and any audience for women, you see how ridiculous and full of assumptions these questions are. Consider these:

  • “Can YA novels be harmful for the younger audience? If so, how?”
  • “Are adventure novels bad because they cater to the male audience, and are basically eye candy for men?”
  • “Why are there so many poorly written spy novels?”
  • “What are some things you hate about history novels?”
  • “What’s the greatest book you’ve read (no thriller novels)?”

The literary world

Yup, within the literary world, the romance genre is considered second-rate (I was explicitly taught this view in college), but that doesn’t mean it isn’t popular. Fifty Shades of Grey showed us that a best seller and box office hit can be panned by critics. Like super hero movies that people go to see in droves, but critics hate because they aren’t artistically relevant. In spite of that. Romance novels are a billion-dollar-a-year industry that represents more than a third of the fiction market.

Readers’ favorite genres

This graph from statista.com shows leading book genres in the United States as of July 2015, by readers’ genres.

leading genres
Most profitable book genres

The following (graph 1) shows that for 2021, the most profitable book genres were number 1: Romance; number 2: Crime and Mystery; number 3: Religion and Inspirational.

profitable genres

Clearly, romance is a favorite, So why the bad rep? Why the prejudice? There seems to be this general preconception that the people who write and read romance novels (83 % are women) are less intelligent, as opposed to people who read spy novels or mystery thrillers.

A quick look at a little history.

Until the mid 1800s formal schooling was restricted to wealthy males. Women were schooled at home, if at all, and were not allowed to attend college. Women had few rights. They could not vote, did not have legal rights to their children, had few job options outside the home and couldn’t keep their own wages if they did. A woman couldn’t have a bank account or enter into contracts. Until 1848, married women couldn’t own real estate. Only single women were allowed to own real estate.It was believed that academic study was against women’s nature and that too much knowledge could affect women’s fertility.

Writing was considered unladylike

During the late 18th and early 19th century, writing, and especially the writing of fiction for money, was seen as a most unladylike activity. Unseemly parallels with prostitution arose regarding the notion of women writing novels which were then sold to anyone willing to pay.
It was no wonder that early female authors hid their gender.

Jane Austen

Jane Austen’s first published novel, Sense and Sensibility (1811), appeared with the tag ‘By a Lady’. Her next, Pride and Prejudice (1813), appeared with the line ‘By the author of “Sense and Sensibility”’. The tag ‘By a Lady’ became a common sight on title pages. This indicated not only the sex of the author but also that the book was by somebody of a certain class and thus suitable for perusal by respectable women. One of our most loved and acclaimed authors –Jane Austen– never saw her name on the title page of one of her books. In the same era, Maria Edgeworth, Ann Radcliffe, Frances Burney and Mary Shelley also published their early novels anonymously.

The solution was pseudonyms

The widespread misconception that scholarly work was the exclusive preserve of men resulted in many women publishing their work under male pseudonyms.

Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte Brontë said “the report of lady-authorship will dwarf and enfeeble our work … [W]e have many things to say the world will not tolerate from a woman’s lips.”
Ten years before the publication of Jane Eyre (1847) Charlotte Brontë sent a selection of her poems to the poet laureate Robert Southey for comment. In his letter to Charlotte of March 12 ,1837, he told her “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it even as an accomplishment and a recreation”.

Louisa May Alcott

While Louisa May Alcott’s best known work, Little Women, was published under her own name, the American writer frequently used the ambiguous nom de plume A.M. Barnard to write sensational gothic thrillers with subject matter deemed ‘unladylike’ for a late 19th century female writer.
Even before the American revolution, women often played a role in their family’s publishing endeavors, whether it was newspaper, magazine, or pamphlet publishing. They participated in all facets of the business, including writing, printing, publishing, typesetting, and engraving. However, women were not legally allowed to become publishing professionals until the late nineteenth century.
According to a 1916 career guide for girls “editors, the reporters, and the men who rewrite stories, must be able to work under the pressure in a way that is beyond the power of most women.”

Think things are better now?

In the US it wasn’t until the 1960s women gained the right to open a bank account. It wasn’t until 1974, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act passed which was supposed to prohibit credit discrimination on the basis of gender.
The first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was published in 1997. J K Rowling used initials because her publisher felt that boys would be hesitant to read a book written by a woman.

in 2016 (Rachel McCarthy James 2) investigated the coverage that the New York Times Book Review gave to male and female authors in 1916. It was then called The Review of Books. That year there were 1,392 books reviewed. 1,085 of those books were by men. 304 were by women– roughly, one out of every five books reviewed.
Today, the stats are roughly the same as100 years ago. In 2014, only one in five books reviewed by The Nation were by women. The same goes for the London Review of Books. The Times Literary Supplement. The New Republic, Harper’s did just slightly better, including one woman out of every four authors.

The good news

In spite of all this, current statistics paint a rosy picture for female authors.

  • As of 2021, 50.45% of authors within the US are women and 49.55% of authors are men
  • As of 2016, 48% of bestselling novels were written by women and 52% were written by men.
  • For the 2010’s, 85% of bestsellers within the Historical genre were written by women.

In spite of these glowing figures, we live in a culture where women’s work is not valued or given the attention it deserves. 83% of the romance books are written by women and read mostly by women (Only 7% of male readers read romance). Is it any wonder that the romance genre, written mostly by women from a woman’s perspective, that focuses on feelings and relationships, faces prejudice?

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  1. What Readers Want from Writers in 2022, January 10, 2022, ALLi’s Self-publishing Advice Center, https://selfpublishingadvice.org/
  2. Rachel McCarthy James, Women in Publishing 100 Years Ago: A Historical VIDA CountRepresentation and Gender (Im)Balance in 1916, LITERARY HUB, https://lithub.com/women-in-publishing-100-years-ago-a-historical-vida-count/,March 31, 2016
  3. Greg Buzwell, Women writers, anonymity and pseudonyms, British Library, https://www.bl.uk/womens-rights/articles/women-authors-and-anonymity

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