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5 Major Misconceptions About the Romance Genre

If you think romance novels are only for a certain demographic or that they're all the same, this genre's diversity and range may surprise you.
Two book pages coming together to create a heart shape with a red light through it

You've probably heard the phrase “don't judge a book by its cover.” Well, have you ever judged a book by its genre? It's not uncommon for readers to have strong opinions when it comes to romance. But even if it wasn't love at first sight, you could still fall for the genre — a lot of people already have.

According to Publisher’s Weekly, romance novels were hot in 2022, second only to general fiction in terms of the best-selling genres of adult fiction. In a Publisher's Weekly report of the 20 best-selling adult titles from January through June of 2023 — including both fiction and nonfiction — more than half were romance novels.

Kait Ballenger, a multi-published, award-winning paranormal romance author and creative writing professor at SNHU.“Romance has been the top-selling genre in the United States since the 1980s, far outperforming any other genre,” said Kait Ballenger, a multi-published, award-winning paranormal romance author.

Ballenger has been with Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) since 2020, teaching romance courses for the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing. She noted that romance is so popular, sales from the genre help to fund the publishing industry at large.

“If you enjoy any other genre of literature, you can thank the romance genre, and its readership, for helping subsidize it for you,” Ballenger said.

Though romance is one of the most popular genres, it could also be one of the most misunderstood. You might even find that some of your beliefs about romance are based on stereotypes or misinformation.

First, What’s the Definition of a Romance Novel?

Jo Stout, an award-winning and Amazon bestselling author and creative writing professor at SNHUIt might surprise you to learn that Nicholas Sparks, author of “The Notebook,” doesn’t call himself a romance writer. Instead, he said he writes love stories.

“Love stories usually end tragically or, at best, on a bittersweet note,” Sparks said on his website. “Romance novels usually have happy endings.”

Jo Stout, an award-winning and Amazon bestselling author of more than twenty romance novels who also teaches creative writing at SNHU, agreed with Sparks. “Romance is about a central love story between two or more characters which ends in a hopeful or at least emotionally uplifting way, where the characters end up in some form of committed relationship,” she said.

What are 5 Myths About the Romance Genre?

Because romance is so associated with women, Stout and Ballenger said most misconceptions about the genre are reflective of patriarchal ideals.

They pointed to these myths, in particular, as some of the most pervasive:

1Only Women Read Romance

A arrow going through a heart on a blue backgroundHistorically, Ballenger said, readers and authors of romance novels have predominantly been women, but to say that only women read romance is a disservice to the diversity of the genre today. “The romance genre also includes a rapidly growing segment of male and gender non-conforming readers and authors who shouldn't be overlooked,” she said.

LGBTQ romance sales, in particular, have been soaring in recent years, according to The New York Times, representing a more varied readership. “Romance readers and its authors are a vast and diverse group representing every race, class, gender, sexual orientation and varying abilities and disabilities,” Ballenger said.

Stout pointed to a Romance Writers of America survey from 2017 that reported 18% of 2,000 readers surveyed were men. Now, she predicts that percentage could be even higher. According to NPR, romance sales continue to grow even as sales in other book genres are declining.

“We are seeing more and more diversity on the virtual and physical bookshelves now, really showcasing that love is for all,” Stout said.

2Romance Novels are Always Erotica

A graphic with a blue background and white book iconAlthough there are plenty of romance books that keep things PG, some dismiss the genre due to an assumption that all romance books are erotica, according to Ballenger.

She and Stout agreed that erotica, itself, can also be judged unfairly. While other genres can feature scenes that are far more explicit than anything you’d read in a romance novel, Ballenger said they aren’t treated in the same way. “Somehow, it's only the romance genre that's shamed for these things,” she said.

As an author of erotic romance herself, Stout said this subgenre is primarily looked down on for portraying women with sexual agency. However, that's exactly why she was drawn to it. “I really, predominantly chose erotic romance as a pathway because I wanted to embrace female empowerment and sexuality,” said Stout.

3Romance Novels are Misogynistic

“Those who aren't familiar with the genre often have the misconception that romance readers and its writers embody problematic female stereotypes,” said Ballenger. “In truth, while the majority of romance readers and writers are, in fact, women, they represent a highly educated, voracious and diverse readership.”

She noted this misconception might be partially based on 20th century trends that are no longer popular. For instance, she described the violent “bodice-ripper” style romance novels of the 1980s, complete with Fabio Lanzoni on the cover.

“I think those genre histories have to be viewed within a specific time and cultural context,” said Ballenger.

She said it's unfair to base your opinion on information that's outdated by 40 years or more.

4Romance Novels are All the Same

A scroll with a heart and arrow on a blue backgroundStout and Ballenger both said some might think of romance novels as formulaic or alike because of the genre's tropes.

While it’s true that there are a number of tropes within the romance genre, the same might be said of fantasy, mystery or horror. “Other genres have just as many tried and true tropes as romance,” Ballenger said.

Stout noted that the inclusion of tropes doesn’t mean a book isn’t unique or difficult to write. “Writing a thrilling and engaging book that follows the rules but is unique enough to keep discerning romance readers coming back for more is actually exceptionally hard to do well,” she said.

Tropes aside, romance can also overlap with historical fiction and thrillers or even speculative fiction genres like dystopian, fantasy and science-fiction. The notion that all romance novels are the same also discounts the variety and possibility within these genres.

5Romance Isn’t Real Literature

There are works of literary fiction that could also be considered romance novels, and some classic romances are just classics, period — like “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen. Still, Stout said the genre is seldom taken seriously.

“In a world where men aren’t supposed to be able to feel anything other than anger, where softness and love are seen as weaknesses instead of strengths, this idea that romance isn’t serious or real or important is just kind of an extension of that societal misconception,” she said.

Despite this outside perception, she noted that romance has helped affect social change by engaging in conversations surrounding topics like race, gender equality, sexual agency and consent. “Truthfully, I don’t know what could be more serious than that,” said Stout.

Find Your Program

Books That Buck the Stereotypes

Both Ballenger and Stout challenge stereotypes of the genre in their own books. Stout also writes under the names Rachell Nichole and Joelle Nichole. She recommended the following romance authors who deal with consent, social justice issues and other important topics in their writing:

  • Priscilla Oliveras
  • Alyssa Cole
  • J.R. Ward
  • Roan Parrish
  • Talia Hibbert

Ballenger recommended a few specific romance titles you might enjoy, as well:

  • “Queen Move” by Kennedy Ryan
  • “Knockout” by Sarah McLean
  • “Real Men Knit” by Kwana Jackson
  • “Of Tides and Snow” by Darva Green
  • “A Caribbean Heiress in Paris” by Adriana Hererra

If you've never tried reading a romance novel, Stout encouraged you to try. “If you find it gives you a sense of silliness, that’s okay, too,” she said. “There is room in our lives for that kind of levity, for laughter, for hope, and most of all, for love.”

So, Why Romance?

A bow and arrow on a blue background “How many times have we seen heroines tragically die or be traumatically abused to further the plot of the cisgendered male lead?” Ballenger said. “I read romance because it gives me an escape from that, and it gives me joy in a way women and other marginalized people have been denied.”

She said that she writes romance because wants to bring that joy back to others. Similarly, Stout said she writes romance because it’s her favorite genre to read, which made it the logical choice when she started writing.

“I love romance because the world can be a big, scary, horrible place, but within the confines of a romance novel, good will always conquer evil, love will always win in the end,” Stout said. “That kind of hope is something I think we need a lot more of in this world."

If you're a reader who wants to become a writer, like Stout and Ballenger, you could earn a bachelor's in creative writing or enroll in an MFA program. Through SNHU's MFA in Creative Writing, you can write and edit a novel in one of four categories: contemporary, young adult, speculative or romance. For writers, romance can mean a large and passionate readership. But remember — no matter the genre, a good book is a good book.

Learn about SNHU's MFA in Creative Writing. Find out what courses you'll take, skills you'll learn and how to request information about the program.

Mars Girolimon '21 '23G is a staff writer at Southern New Hampshire University where they earned their bachelor's and master's, both in English and creative writing. In addition to their work in higher education, Girolimon's short fiction is published in the North American Review, So It Goes by The Kurt Vonnegut Museum & Library, X-R-A-Y and more. They're currently writing their debut novel, which was Longlisted for The First Pages Prize. Connect with them on LinkedIn.

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