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Escapist fluff. Feel good entertainment. A guilty pleasure. These terms have been used to describe romance novels by the genre’s critics and supporters alike. After all, what’s wrong with some light entertainment? Fluff? Reading for pure pleasure?

Well, nothing, of course. And yet those terms seem a bit perjorative, don’t they? After all, fluff is still fluff, lacking substance. A guilty pleasure means you shouldn’t actually be enjoying it; there’s something wrong about your enjoyment.

So what IS wrong with reading and writing romance? Is it fluff? Should we feel guilty to read and write about love? Are we reading romance just to entertain ourselves, or also to improve and inform ourselves, and if so, how does romance writing achieve those ends?

Consider the following quotations:

For one human being to love another that is perhaps the most difficult of our tasks; the ultimate, the last test and proof; the work for which all other work is but preparation.
      ~ Rainer Maria Rilke

What greater thing is there for two human souls that to feel that they are joined... to strengthen each other... to be at one with each other in silent unspeakable memories.
      ~ George Eliot

There is more hunger for love and appreciation in this world than for bread.
      ~ Mother Teresa

 The most powerful symptom of love is a tenderness which becomes at times almost insupportable.
      ~ Victor Hugo
There is no instinct like that of the heart.
      ~ Lord Byron

   We are all born for love...
it is the principle existence and it's only end.
      ~ Disraeli

   To fear love is to fear life,
and those who fear life are already three parts dead.
      ~ Bertrand Russell, Earl Russell

The authors of those quotations--and believers in those sentiments--are far from the world of escapist fluff. A prime minister, a philosopher, a nun. two poets, two esteemed novelists of the Western Canon... all of them espousing the utter necessity, power, and importance of love.

And while no one, not even romance writing’s greatest detractors, are likely to scoff at love, they certainly would scoff at the kind of happily-ever-afters guaranteed in every romance novel. And why? Why should we feel guilty about reading a story about a man and woman who overcome many obstacles--emotional, physical, geographical, personal--to discover not just mere happiness but satisfaction, meaning, and joy in a loving relationship with another person? Howis this, the story of loving another person--our life’s ultimate work, according to Rilke--fluff?

Most novels contain some element of romance. If you consider the above quotations, how could they not? Romance--love--is a built-in need for every human being. A book without it in any form would be hard going for the reader, not to mention irrelevant to most of society.

Yet books that focus primarily on the romance between two characters are dismissed virtually by everyone outside of the romance industry. I could go into some of the more political reasons why this is the case, but I won’t, because those people probably aren’t reading this.

So how do we deal with the branding of our genre? Of ourselves as writers?

I’ll be the first to admit that many romance novels are badly written. A lot of fiction is badly written; there is simply too much out there for this not to be the case. Yet criticising a novel for its poor writing is very different than dismissing a novel for its genre.

I urge the sceptics to take another look at romance. Romance novels today deal with issues and conflicts that are contemporary, relevant, and important. They offer solutions, hope, and understanding for women--and men--who might not otherwise pick up a book.

I also urge romance writers to not dismiss their own work as fluff, or simple entertainment, or a guilty pleasure. There is no doubt that our romance novels should entertain--absolutely. Entertainment is (arguably) the objective of any fiction. Yet let’s not forget that while we entertain, we can also offer so much more for the reader looking for hope in an increasingly confused and despairing world.

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January 2008