What We Expect from the Romance Novel…Right or Wrong?

Do you like your romance controversial or conventional? Maybe in the romance genre, controversial and conventional are not that far apart. Let me explain…


Old bracelets. Original work by André Karwath aka Aka. Image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

I finally read Fifty Shades of Grey. I’m going out on a limb here to admit the truth: I kind of liked it. (I kind of hated it too, but I’ll get to that in a minute.)

First, a confession: I resisted reading this book for a long, long time. Like many people, I was put off by the idea that the protagonist was a young, naive girl being whisked into a dirty relationship with an older, domineering man. It just sounds sexist. Ugh.

Plus, I’d pulled the book off the shelves at Walmart to look at it, and the writing was clunky. Awkward. Badly worded. In other words, not the quality of writing that I normally read. So I put Fifty Shades back on the shelf and went on my merry way…

…until all the hype about the movie thundered up the social media road. 250 days to the trailer… 100 days to the trailer… 25 days to the trailer… Beyonce’s doing a song for the movie…

I caved and read the book to see what all the fuss was about. And I sort of fell in love (lust? fantasy? longing? Pollyanna idealism?) with a book I didn’t expect to enjoy.

Let me also clarify this: I’m not a prude. I like a good sex scene. I just don’t normally like romance novels.

Here’s the thing… I expect romance novels to be unrealistic. I expect them to have all sorts of tropes. Tired tropes, to be honest. And in a lot of ways, Fifty Shades is no different. In fact, for all the hype and controversy and drama about this book, Fifty Shades is one of the most conventional romance novels I’ve ever come across.

Image from Romance of Alexander

Image from Romance of Alexander

“What?” you say. “That can’t be.”

Oh… but it is! You see, at its heart, this book really isn’t about BDSM. It’s about a good, innocent girl who wants to heal the troubled bad boy with her love. It’s a fairy tale. With a red room of pain in it, yes. But still a fairy tale.

I was shocked by how “normal” this book is. And how much it fits the tropes of the romance novel, which I don’t normally like to read because I find the genre predictable and often boring. That’s what I expect in a romance novel, sad to say. Predictability. Inevitability. Unreality. Fantasy. Pollyanna longings.

Fifty Shades had a lot of that. But that’s not what I hated. And it’s not what I liked either.

What I liked were the things that, for me anyway, were not predictable to me. First, I did not expect Christian Grey (or author EL James, honestly) to fairly address the fact that Christian is a troubled man. As he says, he’s “fifty shades of fucked up.” And he sure-the-heck is. The book doesn’t shirk from that. Which was unexpected, but wonderful, because it was the truth for that character. We’re not pretending Christian is normal. We’re admitting he’s sick.

And by extension, this also means that Ana is not the problem. It’s not the woman’s fault if she balks at what Christian wants from her. She isn’t expected to take the blame for something that is not her responsibility. And in a culture where women take a lot of the blame for the wrong things guys do, this aspect of Fifty Shades came as a relief to me.

The other thing I liked (and this is a SPOILER if you actually care about not being spoiled)…

…is that in the end, it is the woman, Ana, who walks out on Christian for her own sanity. She basically decides, “I can’t do this. I won’t put up with it. I’m worth better.” Sure, she says it like a young college-aged kid would say it. Sure, she mentions the thought that she can’t be what he needs. But she adds that he can’t be what she needs either. And that’s true also.

That was fantastic! And it totally threw me, because I was certain the man was going to be the one doing the dumping. Yes, Ana plays with debasing herself. And then she decides that this behavior isn’t how she wants to be treated. Good for Ana! It was still nice to see that in a story in part about dominance and submission, the submissive says, “Nope. I assert myself. I’m not your doormat.”

I can get in agreement with that sentiment. Self-assertion is essential to life. I hate the belief that a woman is incomplete without a man.


Le Printemps (Spring) by Pierre Auguste Cot (1873).

That’s the reason why I’m not very into the romance genre. In many movies, the woman is running around after the man. Her life is in an upheaval because of him. She can’t live without him. She’s diminished as a person because he’s not with her, rather than being a whole person going through some emotional suffering because she wants to be connected and loved.

For all its faults, Fifty Shades lets me see Ana suffering, and it also lets me see her make a solid, healthy decision based on what is best for her, even though it hurts her too. That is real life. We all live that out in some way, don’t we? I respect seeing it in writing. And that’s why I kind of have a crush on this book right now.

Of course, that doesn’t take away from the things about Fifty Shades that I don’t like. The writing is definitely not sophisticated. The characters aren’t as fully fleshed out as I think they could be. Ana is so divorced from her sexuality in the beginning of the novel that she refers to her genitalia as “down there.” And yet she’s all, “Sure, let’s try the chaining me down thing for my first-ever sexual relationship.” No one does that, do they? At least not the Anas of the world.

The editor in me says the sex scenes could be much sexier. The intellectual in me says a little search on BDSM online makes this book look like pablum. And the feminist in me says that Ana’s subconscious and her inner goddess both need a solid punch in the nose because they’re both ridiculous.

Fifty Shades of Grey is no Pulitzer Prize winner, that’s for sure. It could have been much better writing. But for a romance novel, I can’t complain about it too much. Because at least the woman decides to stand up for herself in the end.

So, here’s my question to you: What do you expect from the romance novel? Do we sometimes expect too much? Should we expect something different? How do you feel about how women (and men) are portrayed in romance fiction?


One thought on “What We Expect from the Romance Novel…Right or Wrong?

  1. Reblogged this on purple ink writers and commented:

    In preparation for Valentine’s Day, here’s a classic Fifty Shades post of mine.

    If you like this post, you’ll also want to check out a companion post on my Chipper Muse blog: https://chippermuse.wordpress.com/2014/07/28/characters-who-suffer-one-readers-confession-of-obsession/

    And this other post on Purple Ink by me… https://purpleinkwriters.wordpress.com/2014/07/29/fifty-shades-of-fired-up-can-we-have-a-discussion-that-matters/

    As you can see, I have plenty to say about Fifty Shades.

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