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Romance for Non-Romance Readers

by Jessica Zellers

*This article originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of RA News.*

All genres have a contingent of loyal fans, but the romance genre has a following that is extraordinarily dedicated: according to Romance Writers of America (RWA), 64% of fans read more than one romance per month, and romance novels comprise 13% of adult fiction sales. Historical or contemporary, spicy or chaste, romance novels appeal to a broad, devoted base of readers.

Then there's the rest of us.

Romance readers are legion, but plenty of fiction lovers steadfastly refuse to read romance novels -- and that's okay: life is too short to read books you don't like. Then again, readers who avoid a genre wholesale may be missing out on wonderful books they never suspected could even exist. I'm going to examine the common reasons that readers bypass the romance section, and then suggest some titles that can ease the transition into enjoying  the romance genre.

Top Three Reasons Why People Don't Read Romance

  1. They don't like happy endings. "Two basic elements comprise every romance novel," says the RWA, "a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending." People who don't like love stories or the traditional HEA -- the "happily ever after" -- are going to be the most difficult converts. It's like trying to suggest a Western to people who don't like western settings. But with a little bit of sneakiness, and maybe some loose interpretations of the definition of romance, there may be hope even for these Eeyores.
  2. They prefer highbrow literature. Fairly or not, romance books have a reputation for being fluffy -- and in the case of serial romances, it is rare to find the elegant prose and contemplative social commentary of the literary fiction genre. This is deliberate: serial romances are designed to be quick, easy reads. In contrast, stand-alone romance novels are lengthier and much likelier to include elements of literary fiction, such as sophisticated prose, thought-provoking themes, and multi-faceted characters.
  3. They don't like the characters of traditional romance novels.  As with any genre, romance novels frequently rely on stock protagonists, commonly a male and a female, both white and both heterosexual. The men tend to have masculine professions: lots of royalty, billionaires, cowboys, and police officers, and not so many kindergarten teachers or administrative assistants. And the women tend toward one of three categories: the struggling lonely lady in need of rescuing; the naïve young woman just waiting for a man to show her the ways of the world; and the feisty heroine who wins over the reluctant male in spite of himself. The excellent news is that more and more romance novels are dispensing with these stock characters in favor of refreshing new variations.

Romance Novels for the Reluctant Romance Reader

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
ISBN: 9780679602699
First published in 1847, this is the story of a governess who falls in love with her employer, the brooding Mr. Rochester. Halfway through the book, as they're about to exchange vows on the altar, a terrible secret destroys their chance of love. (Spoiler alert: Rochester keeps his mad wife imprisoned in his attic.) Jane Eyre is one of the most highly regarded works of the English language, so even the pickiest of literary readers will be satisfied. And this is an excellent choice for people who don't like happy love stories. The great majority of the book is gloomy and sad, with the HEA tacked on to the final few pages, almost as a technicality.  
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
ISBN: 9780380730407
After an extremely brief courtship, our unnamed narrator marries Maxim de Winter, and almost immediately the scene is set for a story of unhappily-ever-after: the previous Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca, looms over the marriage, the house, and the village. No one likes the new wife, not even her own husband. Things change after a shocking plot twist (think Gone Girl, if it were written in 1938), but the atmosphere remains gloomy and gothic throughout. By a narrow definition, Rebecca counts as a romance: by the end of the book, the protagonists are together and happy with each other, though they are decidedly not happy with their circumstances. This is another good choice for readers who value stellar literary writing.
At Her Feet by Rebekah Weatherspoon
ISBN: 9781602829480
Trying to avoid the stock characters and cliché tropes of the romance genre? At Her Feet offers something truly new and fresh, even for readers of BDSM lesbian erotica. Suzanne Kim, of Korean and Jamaican descent, enjoys a very specific type of sexual roleplaying: she wants to be the Little Girl, and she's looking for a woman to be her Mommy. At first her relationship with the Latina Pilar is merely sexual, but as the story moves along, their attraction develops into a full-fledged romance.
Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith
ISBN: 9780525426035
Boy meets girl and also meets boy in this zany combination of science fiction, horror, and romance. Stylistically reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut, this novel is marketed toward Young Adults but is entirely engaging for adult audiences. The sexually confused Austin Szerba is in love with his girlfriend Shann, but he's also in love with his best friend Robby. It's complicated, to say the least, especially when you factor in giant praying mantises. There is an HEA, if such a thing is possible during the apocalypse, and in a refreshing change from the norm, Austin finds romantic happiness with both Shann and Robby.
The Necromancer's House by Christopher Buehlman
ISBN: 9780425256657
Andrew Blankenship and Anneke Zautke are both recovering alcoholics, and they're both in mortal danger from evil magic -- not exactly a recipe for romantic success, but they've been friends for years, so it could work, right? Andrew is in love with Anneke, and Anneke would be in love with Andrew, if only she weren't a lesbian. They want so badly to be together -- they even try sleeping together -- but Anneke can't bring herself to love a man romantically. This superb urban fantasy/horror novel delivers a brilliant plot twist that manages to make an HEA possible -- maybe not certain, but definitely possible.
The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal by Thomas Harris
ISBN: 978031202282
Anyone who's seen or read the psychological thriller The Silence of the Lambs will recall the dynamic, disturbing interactions between FBI agent Clarice Starling and the imprisoned cannibal Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a genius sociopath who plumbs the depths of Starling's soul, no matter how much she tries to guard herself. Though the book is outstanding on its own, I prefer to think of it as the first of a two-part romance. In Hannibal, the sequel, the unlikeliest of bonds forms between the two antagonists, slowly building to the most unexpected and emotionally satisfying HEA I've ever had the pleasure of reading.

By no means should you coerce fiction readers into trying romance if they don't want to. Pleasure reading should be exactly that: pleasurable. But with a bit of informed guidance, some readers might be willing to dip their toes into the romance waters, and might just discover a whole new genre to enjoy.


Wanto to find more nontraditional romance stories? Try an advanced search in NoveList and mix-and-match with different combinations. Here's one to get you started: search for "romance" in genres AND "moody" in appeal factors. 

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Jessica Zellers is a Collection Development Librarian with Mid-Continent Public Library. She has a weakness for fat Russian novels, which never conclude with an HEA.