Written by: Rylee Thomas
I have a confession: I started reading romance novels a year ago.
I used to feel almost embarrassed revealing this, because, in the words of Mindy Kaling, saying you love a good romance is akin to “an admission of mild stupidity.” We call romance novels wish-fulfillment stories. When writing stories like these, authors weave plots that give them an outlet for their secret hopes and dreams.
So, yes. When a Hallmark movie presents its audience with a badass woman at the height of her career who saves a failing business and falls in love, it’s wish-fulfillment. When a heroine gets to move to a castle in Scotland, or kiss somebody on a beach, or experience fated-epic-once-in-a-lifetime love, it’s wish fulfillment.
Or, to phrase it differently, when good things happen to women in a movie or a book, it’s wish-fulfillment. Critics ridicule women for enjoying romance novels and movies, where good things happen to women, and tell them they should enjoy other genres, where women are often unmentioned or killed to serve as a plot device for the male lead.
Of course, novels in any genre range from poorly-written to breathtakingly gorgeous. Romances are no exception. In some, readers will encounter vapid characters. In many others, readers will encounter well-rounded female leads with motivations and ideas that authors fully explore.
Any piece of media with an audience of primarily women is a prime candidate for unexplained derision, regardless of merit. But the thing is, people find a way to criticize women for almost any literary choice they make. Women, especially teen girls, get criticized for most anything they like, whether it’s romance or literary fiction, true crime or pulp sci-fi novels.
Luckily, it’s 2021, and female authors and well-written female characters now receive positive, dynamic representation in these genres, too. That’s not to mention racial minorities and members of the LGBT+ community. Representation of marginalized groups in popular literature is expanding wonderfully. All we have to do is check out the 13th Annual Goodreads Choice Awards. Powerful explorations of womanhood take many of the top spots.
Romance novels, however, are a safe space. The virtue of the romance exists in what critics call its greatest weakness: wish-fulfillment. It’s wonderful that society has evolved to a point where it can proudly honor novels that explore the challenges women endure, but women, especially LGBT+ women and women of color, also deserve to see explorations of female joy that real life has often denied them. They deserve novels crammed full of happy endings and wishes granted— wishes like inclusion and respect, escape, hope, love. Wishes that may include castles, beaches, fireworks, and a healthy relationship.
Top-tier literary novels are must-reads. Top-tier fantasy novels are must-reads. And top-tier romance novels are must-reads, too. On Goodreads, 88,755 users voted Emily Henry’s People We Meet on Vacation the top romance novel of 2021. It tells the story of two best friends who vacation together every year and navigate the line between friendship and love. Some other recently published favorites of mine include Casey McQuiston’s One Last Stop, a sapphic time-travel story, Talia Hibbert’s Act Your Age, Eve Brown, a cute enemies-to-lovers story about two opposite personalities overcoming their differences, and Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient, a novel about a successful woman in STEM who happens to be on the spectrum. These novels give female readers positive, diverse representation on the page.
Not everybody wishes for the same thing, but nobody should be made to feel their wishes are worthy of derision. If we want to read about a slightly better version of reality, we should allow ourselves to do so without shame.