Reader Shaming

Another day, another article about genre fiction, including romance, selling quite happily in digital format. And the reason?

Wait for it….

Reader embarrassment!

Kindle-owning bibliophiles are furtive beasts. Their shelves still boast classics and Booker winners. But inside that plastic case, other things lurk. Sci-fi and self-help. Even paranormal romance, where vampires seduce virgins and elves bonk trolls.

The ebook world is driven by so-called genre fiction, categories such as horror or romance. It's not future classics that push digital sales, but more downmarket fare.


Here's the thing:

I hear from many readers weekly that they do feel embarrassment about their love of romance. Sometimes they are conflicted about finding that their feelings of loving what they read are at cross-purposes with their feelings of dislike or even revulsion when they identify problematic elements within it. Others say they feel shame and embarrassment about what other people say or think about the romance genre, or better yet, the people who read it.

The people who write to me about these subjects do not ever, and I mean EVER, include a statement that they are embarrassed because they are reading books that aren't any good.

They usually go on and on about the books they did find incredible, the ones that made their brains fire up and made them stay up all night long, and how they love finding new books to enjoy.

Never once do they say they are embarrassed because the romances they read aren't any good.

It's the opposite: they know romances that are high quality narrative stories, and they can identify books that made them think and consider abstract conflicts and emotional tangles as much as any other lauded piece of fiction.

They are embarrassed and ashamed by the reputation of the genre among those people who care about what it is you're reading. They feel awkward about the packaging, the covers and the descriptions, the bare chests and the o-face heroines depicted in lurid colors.

They may not want to defend the genre to anyone, and thus hide it and keep it an intimate secret.

I personally don't feel any shame about what I read, even though I'm still asked by people whether I read “other things,” (so my brain doesn't atrophy, I am guessing). I have romance everywhere in my home, and I'll recommend a romance to anyone who asks me.

So when someone sends me an email, begging me not to publish it (which I wouldn't) but wanting to share their conflicted love and shame about the romance they read, I don't yell at them that they should stand up and defend themselves. Often they are thanking me for running this site where so many romance-reading book addicts hang out (my response: Just wait until you see how many romance communities there are online now. We're freaking everywhere.) There is often a sense of relief and comfort in finding people with whom they can talk about their romances.

Thus every time one of these articles comes out that reinforces all the negatives that romance readers face when they select the reading material they love, it makes me want to yell louder because the key fallacy is the repeated supposition that romance isn't any good and that's why people are embarrassed about it.

No one should be ashamed of what they read – and no one should be made to feel ashamed about what they read. But look, here's another article that rests an argument on exactly that kind of reader shaming. This article today does it: Ebooks sell because people are embarrassed that they love crap. Digital readers proliferate because they allow privacy. (NB: this isn't actually true because buying a digital book ties your name and credit card transaction to the title purchased, a data point that can be shared with bloody anyone).

Articles like these imply that everyone is ashamed of their reading when they read romance or any genre fiction for that matter. Terms like “boundless idiocy” and “God help us” and “reading public in private is lazy and smutty.”

I am not an idiot, I am not lazy, and neither are you. None of this is true. 

But there are many readers who do judge themselves harshly for liking romance, and these are the types of articles that make me infuriated on their behalf, which is why I don't shut up about them, and ignore them. Some readers internalize these messages, feeding their own shame with the reinforced idea that they should be embarrassed. And that is why I yell.

Julia, who reviewed Everything I Know About Love, I Learned From Romance Novels recently, said at the end of her reviewNever feel guilty for reading something. A book can mean anything to anyone. 

Romance means a lot to people who love it, even those readers who harbor shame and embarrassment for loving the genre so much. Articles like this one infuriate me because they are saying someone should feel bad for loving romance, that readers should feel ashamed that they enjoy books that this writer thinks are dross.

No. No, you should not. Read what you like, then read more of it, and go on with your badass self. 


Ranty McRant

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Colette says:

    I have family members who still can’t quite get over the fact that I read romances, and try to give me a hard time about them, but I ignore it. I’ve always felt why limit yourself to one genre? I love my kindle, but I’ll never hide my romances.

  2. 2
    Kristen says:

    Whenever I put a SBTB link on my Facebook wall I state: “As an unabashed lover of romance novels…” And then I find friends I haven’t talked to in years de-lurking to comment and agree (the last post I linked was “Virginity Cliches” and so many people got a kick out of it).

    I LOVE dispelling the notion that I have to be ashamed of reading romance novels. Feels good.

  3. 3
    malber1 says:

    I have a friend whose favorite actress is Julia Roberts. She loves those RomComs. Yet she still looks down her nose at my reading choices. It kills me!

  4. 4
    Andsuzanne says:

    You are the best advocate the Romance genre could ever have!

  5. 5
    Misty says:

    I’m a romance reader and proud to be such! Had it not been for historical romances, I don’t think I would have the love of history that I do today. That love of history has led me to wanting to teach it to others. So when you feel embarrassed about reading a romance, take a moment and think of the places it can take you!

  6. 6
    Cecilia Ryan says:

    I have a theory about people who write articles like that one. It goes that they’ve written one or more literary novels that no one ‘got’, and have therefore decided that this is entirely the fault of those horrible genre novelists and that terribly low-brow audience that doesn’t understand their ~art.

    Because insulting the audience is obviously the best way to make them like you, right? Or have I been doing it wrong?

  7. 7
    Hannah E. says:

    Thank you Sarah!  This post made me want to cheer.  While I can agree that I wish the covers of my favorite books didn’t sport naked male torsos (these aids to my imagination simply aren’t necessary), I’m never afraid to admit that I love romance novels.  So while I’d rather have a romance novel on my kindle than in paperback form if I’m going to read it at my desk at lunch break (I work in a conservative law office setting, where naked male torsos are generally frowned upon), I’m not afraid to tell anyone what I’m reading.  If people try to look down on me for my reading choices, they only display their own ignorance.

  8. 8
    Maddie Grove says:

    Horror and romance are two of my favorite genres. I feel like they get right down to the interesting things: love and death. But I also like YA and literary fiction, although I feel like it’s really hard to find good literary fiction. Not because so much of it is bad, mind you; it’s just that almost all of it is packaged really well, so it’s hard to tell what’s actually good underneath.

    Anyway, I don’t really believe in guilty pleasures, at least not the way the phrase is usually meant. You know what’s a good guilty pleasure? Getting drunk, sinking to the kitchen floor once you get home, and sing-shouting dirty folk songs at the top of your lungs.

  9. 9
    Noelle Pierce says:

    Funny, I have more “classics” on my Kindle (cos they’re free), and more romances on my bookshelf. (Though if this current trend of novellas keep up, I’ll have more romances on my Kindle, too). I read the inciting article last night and got tripped up in the description of paranormal romances you quoted. And then I cursed. A lot. I still can’t think clearly enough to write a calm, logical blog post about it, so I will just refer people here instead.

  10. 10
    kb says:

    Until I found this site I seldom mentioned to anyone that I read romance. Now I am very comfortable discussing it with people. I work in higher education so sometimes get comments or looks. Depending on the person and my mood, I am defend my choices but often I don’t bother.
    Thank you for helping me learn not to be ashamed of my reading preferences.

  11. 11

    *stands and applauds*

  12. 12
    Dana says:

    Grrrr….that makes me angry, but I know first hand that the bias still exists.  When I tell people I write they perk up and are seemingly interested in finding out all about my exciting career.  Until they hear that I write romance and then I get the, “oh”.  That’s all.  Just, “oh” and the conversation dies.  But there’s so much unsaid in that single syllable that I don’t have to ask further what they think of me. I’m automatically a no-talent, or as a male friend so blithely stated, “romance is written BY frustrated housewives FOR frustrated housewives.”

    Really?  In this day and age people can’t get over that some people like a story where the focus is on an interpersonal relationship?  What are most of the movies out there if not some sub-genre of romance?  Avatar, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, New Year’s Day…heck, I could go on and on about most classic movies being ALL romance, but you get my point.

    What?  You can watch it and it’s ok, but you can’t read it?  Please.  Anyone who bags on a person for what they read is at best an effete snob and at worse a Fahrenheit 451 book burner deep down.  Reading is what keeps us alive and vital.  If romance is your genre of choice then I’m with you…get on with your bad self and read it, opinion be damned!

  13. 13
    shadowmaat says:

    I don’t read a lot of “pure” romances (whatever that means), but I do read lots of scifi and fantasy that contains romantic elements and I’ve never been ashamed of it. Usually I’m PROUD to be reading it because I feel like it represents me/my interests. I don’t use my Kindle to “hide” what I’m reading, I use it because sometimes- such as when I’m traveling- it’s a lot easier to have one skinny e-reader than the 3-4 paperbacks I’d otherwise need to get through a trip. Most of the books I have on there? I also have in book form. And I’ve- *gasp!* -read those books IN PUBLIC!

    The misconception some people have- and try to enforce on others- that romance/genre books are inferior and shameful is just as tacky and outdated as the concept of girls liking comics/scifi. The prejudice is getting a bit tedious and really needs to stop. When are people going to grow up?

  14. 14
    Yulie29 says:

    I think anyone who tries to seriously argue that all genre fiction is trashy and unworthy either misunderstands what genre fiction is, or is a very dull and unpleasant person whom I wouldn’t want to meet. Or both. Limiting people’s choices, even if it’s only by suggesting that some have more merit than others, is really not appealing.

    I used to be ashamed of my reading choices, and went through several years of reading mostly literary fiction. I didn’t enjoy most of it, I wasn’t reading much, and had very few keepers. Eventually I was saved from this sad state when I found a Nora book on a shelf at work and a Crusie in the library discards. Note that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with literary fiction as a category/genre – it’s just that I generally prefer other things, and I would rather read for pleasure than for the admiration of others. E-reading allows me, and others, to read more. How is that not a good thing? I am glad that e-reading has made it easier to access books from my favorite authors and subgenres, as well as to take risks on things I am less familiar with.

    I read some of the reader comments, and it seemed that quite a few people took issue with her criticism of science fiction, but did not appear to have any problem with her dismissal of other genres and the people who read them. One even argued that it’s wrong to compare quality books (SF) to trash like M&B, or something to that effect.

  15. 15

    I love you. :) NO SHAME!

  16. 16
    kwn2196 says:

    I HATED that article. And it wasn’t just romance she was knocking; she basically sneered at anything not “classic.” What a total snob!  Here is the comment I posted on the Guardian site, which begins with a quote from the article:
    “There is a literary snobbishness at play here, clearly.”

    There certainly is. It seems to me that the point of this article is for you to look down your nose at people who read for entertainment, and to some extent, on people who read digital books. Genre refers to elements of plot and setting, not to the quality of the writing. Ursula LeGuin writes fantasy and science fiction. That does not make her a bad writer. …

    The positive side of the transition to digital books is that they make reading convenient. I don’t see any reason to sneer at people for what they read. I am happy they are still reading when movies, TV, and gaming provide so many other opportunities for recreation.
    I swear the first time I saw this article it was posted under Technology and not Books. Anyone else see that?

  17. 17
    Noelle Pierce says:

    I still swear it was historical romances that allowed me to pass World History in high school. Much more interesting than rote memorization of battles, dates, and monarch names.

  18. 18
    Jenyfer says:

    Clearly written by someone who doesn’t understand the genre and is a bit behind on the whole argument anyway. This is *so* two/three/five years ago…

    You know what I say? WHATEVER. Read what you like and stay out of my bookshelves, real and virtual.

  19. 19

    Oh for fuck’s sake, I have plenty of both science fiction and romance on my Nook, and I am not ashamed of it. I went digital because carrying the Nook around is way, way easier than carrying a bigger book, and because I just don’t have enough shelf space in my house for all the books I want to read. NOT, repeat, NOT because I’m embarrased by my reading choices!

    I would like to give mad props to this site, though, for making me way more comfortable with my reading romances. Thank you, Bitchery! <3

  20. 20
    Teresa says:

    I read science fiction and fantasy more than pure romance, sure, but I wouldn’t say I’m ashamed of what I read on my e-reader.

    More like I want stupid judgey people to leave me alone and let me enjoy my book. :p

    The fact that it’s easier to carry around (and is easier on my developing carpal tunnel) are good reasons too.

  21. 21

    Yes.  You have said it all, and I want to share this with everyone who asks me when I’m going to write a “real” book.  I like the books I write, I love the books I read by talented romance authors.  At the end of the day, that’s all the justification I need.

  22. 22
    Jennifer Leeland says:

    Well, it’s nothing new to me.
    I’ve heard (since I started writing)

    erotic romance=porn
    self-published=poorly edited crap

    I’m kind of used to the abuse.  LOL! 

    I thought the part about keeping her books on the bookshelf that show her cleverness was revealing.

  23. 23
    Anne_C_Clark says:

    My mother used to get such evil looks from other parents because we were seen purchasing and reading comic books. My mother’s response was -“My kids are READING! To this day all of my sisters and brother are all readers.
    I am a voracious reader of romance, ALL romance. Started with Harlequin and have moved on from there. I also love history. I work at one of the best small liberal arts colleges in the country so I get the “high brow literary works” believe me. The best thing is all the high brows I work with often ask me which romance they should read. I’m a shameless promoter of romance and proud of it.

  24. 24
    Anna says:

    Publishers say that there is little real change going on, just substitution: those who buy genre books start buying digitally instead. I’m not so sure it is wise to underestimate the boundless idiocy of the unobserved reading public.
    Yikes.  Someone needs to swat the writer of this article’s pretentious behind with a newspaper.  Preferrably a newspaper that reviews romance novels.

  25. 25
    Liz says:

    In digital “dross” may rise; however I am more concerned that in low-market journalism heavily hyphenated hyperbole and alliteration are leading the day. Who’s going to write a superficial article about that? Suggestions for article titles are now being accepted.

    On a serious note, I would have been quite interested in a well researched article about the release, or lack-thereof, of industry-wide data about ebook sales and the effect it has on publishing decisions. Is that correct, or as half-assed as the rest of the article?

  26. 26
    Ken Preston says:

    Last year I had an idea. It turned out to be a completely idiotic idea, but I’m glad I had it because it opened my eyes to something. I decided that, to make some money quickly to further my writing career, I would write some short stories for the womens’ fiction magazines. I went out and bought a stack of them, then chortled over the awful writing, and thought how easy it would be to write dross like this and get paid for it. Eventually I sat down and started writing.
    Two embarrassingly bad stories later (which I never submitted) I realised my mistake. The stories in these magazines are a lot cleverer than I had realised, and took just as much care and attention to the craft of storytelling as any other kind of story does. They just weren’t the kind of story I enjoy reading, that’s all.
    So yes, I totally agree with this post. Read what you enjoy. And don’t criticise anybody else for what they read.

  27. 27
    Brittany Westerberg says:

    My husband calls my romance novels “porn without pictures”. I don’t care. When I’m having a bad day, a simple, fun romance book can make me happier. And that’s all I care about – not whether someone else approves of what I’m reading.

  28. 28
    Noelle N says:

    I’m in a English masters program and get sneered at when I am “caught” reading a romance before class starts. That doesn’t and will never stop me from reading them and carrying them around in my purse. Hell I’ve started reading more romance novels before class just to drive the snotty English people nuts! And they are just going to love it when they find out my thesis is on the modern romance novel…ahhh victory!

  29. 29
    Squishy says:

    I don’t read romance, but I certainly don’t look down at those who do. I get similar disappointed responses when I say I write sci-fi/fantasy. Such unwarranted biases exist everywhere. If we’re quiet about it, it will never change. Cheers for this post!

  30. 30

    I suspect you’re right.  I also wonder about people who make it a point to obviously find something WRONG with everything, you know?  It makes me sad.  Romance is popular on the e-reader IT MUST BE BECAUSE PEOPLE ARE ASHAMED TO READ THE GENRE.  Naw man, maybe it means you can carry fifteen books on the bus instead of one.

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