(Need to import image of trilogy to WP)

This week a Twitter discussion broke out as to whether romance, as a genre, is inherently feminist. The discussion was prompted by a review in which avid romance reader and blogger Kate Cuthbert took a respected romance author to task for not even considering her options when faced with an unplanned pregnancy.

On Twitter, Kate asked, “[W]hat obligations, if any, do romance novelists have to women’s rights & feminism?” Aussie romance and erotica author, Keziah Hill, answered, “None, in the same way no novelist has an obligation to any social movement. However, novelists have to be prepared for readers to vote with their feet if idiots re social concerns.” Hill followed this up with the statement that there is “nothing inherently feminist about romance”.

The view that romance is inherently feminist is propounded by supporters of the genre; they regard the fact that romance is the one genre overwhelmingly written “for women, by women” as “proof” of its feminism. Yet, as Hill and others point out, the genre consistently fails to engage with issues of vital importance to many women, including, according to Hill, such issues as “Reproductive rights, the consequences of heterosexual hegemony” and the “power struggle with men over childcare and housework”. Tweeter and blogger Kat (aka @BookThingo) remarked that the latter problem is often overcome in romance narrratives by having a hero rich enough to afford a housekeeper. Kat’s comment was no doubt intended to be facetious, but what she says is right: wealth does equate with freedom from drudgery for many romance heroines, and love “earns” this freedom. That’s the thing about romance: it’s fantasy; it’s aspirational, rather than realistic. If it’s going to be taken seriously, it has to be on other terms. But what other terms?

In what sense, if any, can it be considered “feminist”?

This question needs to be asked of romance precisely because the genre is so popular and written largely for woman and by women. It needs to be asked because the diversity of women’s writing is often elided by its detractors, with few distinctions being made among different genres such as “romance”, “chick lit” and “women’s fiction”, let alone more serious or ambitious writing by women. Writing by women is regarded (and often dismissed) as lightweight, domestic, focused on relationships, courtship, marriage and children. In addition, romance is particularly derided for supporting outdated and stereotypical gender roles. But as Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches Trashy Books blog was quick to point out in the Twitter conversation with Keziah Hill, examples can be found of romance writing which both support and subvert the hegemony [of patriarchy]. Romance now has many subgenres and reflects many different values. So why is it still so easily dismissed?

Caught up in this debate is the question of “popularity” versus “literary merit”. One persistent assumption has been that romance is cheap and nasty, mass-produced and lacking in literary merit, as well as likely to propound pernicious reactionary values. Its popularity among women readers and writers is not deemed sufficient for it to merit serious attention. As Helen of AlltheNewsthatMatters blog asked rhetorically recently of pornography, “How do we judge the worthiness of a particular form of popular culture? Is the entertainment legitimate just because consumers are buying?”

Fans of the genre are likely to counter this view with the claim that there are many examples of fine writing within the bounds of the genre, merit reflected in the awards regularly given out by associations such as Romance Writers of Australia and the Australian Romance Readers Association. So is there something else about romance that irks people?

Recently on the AWW blog, feminist publisher Susan Hawthorne discussed books “that make you think” and asked, “What else is writing about?” For many champions of romance, this question is key. For these readers and writers, romance is about the body, about emotions, about the visceral response of women’s lived experience of love, lust and longing for connection. This is the aspect of romance which is dismissed.

But, if they’re right, why? In what way are visceral depictions of women’s bodies and emotions anathema to literary merit?

Today’s guest blogger, award-winning fantasy author Louise Cusack, doesn’t offer answers, but her post does draw our attention to the questions.

Louise Cusack writes: “In defence of books written by women for women”

The first time I heard Nicholas Sparks (The Notebook, Nights in Rodanthe) described as a ‘romance genre writer’ I couldn’t help a quiver of “Damn right he is!” I’d been sick of hearing about male authors writing love stories while female authors were said to have written romances, the inference being clear: love stories were important and life altering and powerful, while romances were more often described as frivolous and clichéd.

Maybe this isn’t my argument to weigh into. I am a published fantasy author after all – different genre – but I started my career trying to write romance and have stayed a member of Romance Writers of Australia for two decades. I have a lot of friends there, some of whom are Harlequin Mills & Boon authors.

Thankfully the days of being slighted for writing “those silly little books” seems to be passing, which is just as well. Romance Writers of America say on their website “More than a quarter of all books sold are romance. $1.36 billion in sales each year,” so I imagine those authors are laughing all the way to the bank, and caring less what their novels are categorised as by reviewers and critics. Especially as the huge number of eReaders being purchased has created even more sales for romance publishers, with fans happily downloading novels so they don’t have to feel embarrassed about reading them on the train.

And there’s another problem. I take issue with the fact that a woman should feel embarrassed to be seen reading a romance novel when no one blinks at a man reading a western or a crime thriller. What is it about women’s fiction that makes it less in the eyes of the literati, when as a genre it sells so much more?

Let me take you back a few years. When I first started writing in the nineties I attended a “meet the authors” evening in Brisbane, hosted by the Queensland Writers Centre. One of the speakers was an International best selling Mills & Boon author from the Gold Coast who’d written over thirty novels and had print runs in the hundreds of thousands, translated into several languages. The other was a well respected Brisbane author of literary fiction whom I later found out had been given a print run of 500, many of which were still sitting in her garage. That evening had a profound impact on me. I’d grown up wanting to be a novelist, but I hadn’t given genre a thought. That night I did think. I realised I could either try for the approval of a marginal elite, which might get me into ‘the club’ and make awards and literary grants more likely. Or I could write what I was convinced a great number of readers would love, and earn a living that way. Of course there was no guarantee that I’d be good enough to get published in any form, but “commercial fiction” as my agent was later to call it, became my holy grail.

The Autumn Castle by Kim WilkinsGiants of the Frost by Kim WilkinsTo me, all books fit some genre, and Literary Fiction is just another genre beside Romance, Crime, Fantasy, Erotica and Young Adult. Further, genre doesn’t dictate quality. I’ve read some superlative fantasy (Kim WilkinsGiants of the Frost and The Autumn Castle are so achingly evocative they deserve to be Lit Fic) and I’ve also read some extremely boring literary fiction that wouldn’t have made it past the slush pile of a decent women’s fiction publishing house.

So why is there a literary cringe when women write and read stories that resonate with them emotionally? Why should the intellectual experience of a story be considered more worthy? These are all questions that deserve more considered answers than I have space for here, but as I see my fantasy romance trilogy, Shadow Through Time, digitally released this month by Pan Macmillan’s digital imprint Momentum Books, I don’t hope for the approval of critics or reviewers or government arts departments. I care about readers.

I care about the women who are going to buy my story, who will hopefully thrill to the fantasy world I’ve created, who will be frightened, and saddened, and excited and delighted, and will ultimately fall head over heels for the champion who saves the princess’s life. Because that’s what I dreamt of when I was reading Alice in Wonderland and Beauty and the Beast as a child, and I’ve never stopped wanting that emotional ride.

To those who would try and stifle or marginalise any form of women’s fiction, your days are numbered. The eRevolution is making you redundant. My readers don’t need your approval or your direction. They’re getting their reviews from other readers on Goodreads and Amazon and Shelfari. They’re deciding for themselves what’s ‘worthy’ and what’s not, and in this brave new world it’s not only publishers and agents who are wondering where they fit between reader and writer.

So while I started this blog with a dig at patronising attitudes, I’ll end it by proposing that those attitudes are far less relevant in a digital age. Storytelling appears to have come full circle, and though our campfire is now called the Internet, its effect is the same. Has the history of publishing reached a point where we simply let readers decide? Perhaps their opinions and their economic power are ultimately all that counts. What do you think?

Louise CusackLouise Cusack is an International award winning fantasy author whose best-selling Shadow through Time trilogy with Simon & Schuster Australia was selected by the Doubleday Book Club as their ‘Editors Choice’. These novels have now been released as eBooks by Momentum Books.