In last week’s Die Zeit, arguably the most highly respected weekly paper in Germany, there was a review of Schwerelos, the latest chick lit novel by bestselling author Ildiko von Kuerthy. That in itself was amazing enough, as Die Zeit hardly ever reviews chick lit. The reviewer, Ursula Maerz, didn’t like the book, considering it an example of same old, same old. What immediately struck my attention about the review was the way she spoke about popular literature, in this case romance. She begins the review stating that even popular literature has got an artistic side to it. In the course of the review, she emphasizes twice that readers of popular literature are not entirely stupid (meaning that they will spot the weaknesses in Schwerelos).
The fact that it needs to be said (twice) that readers of romance are not entirely stupid pretty much sums up the status of said literature in Germany. We Germans tend to divide books very strictly into “serious” literature and popular literature, and the only genre in which entertaining books are described as having some artistic value is children’s lit. Several popular genres have attained some respectability – SF, thrillers, most recently fantasy, but romance is still considered entirely beyond the pale. Especially if you are an college graduate, admitting you read romance is a coming-out of sorts, and will give rise to raised eyebrows, incredulous looks and whispers. A common response is: “I would never have thought it of you!”
The general disdain with which romances are regarded here is partly dependent on the way they are marketed. German mainstream bookstores mostly stock chick lit and historical novels, with some contemporaries thrown in. Any historical romances tend to be stocked next to erotic novels for women. German writers mostly restrict themselves to chick lit, historical novels and whodunnits with a strong romance plot – subgenres considered at least a bit respectable. A wide range of romances are translated from English, but not all make it into proper paperback editions and thus into bookstores.
Series romance in Germany-and that is how many romance books are published here- exist entirely independent from bookstores. They are sold with magazines at the newsagent’s, they are only available for a limited period of time, and you can’t acquire them through normal bookstores, including Amazon.de. In addition, their format differs from all common paperback formats, which means they are instantly recognizable not only for the pulpy quality of their paper, but also for their size. No hiding what you’re reading on the bus, not even if you bend the title page. These editions are the true successors of the old dime novel.
Romance titles that are printed in such editions, and scorned accordingly by the establishment, include many Harlequin and Silhouette titles, with a number of older Signet and Zebra Regencies thrown in. Last I looked at the newsagent’s, I saw a translation of Carla Kelly’s Beau Crusoe – a book highly respected here at AAR. Some other titles I saw really amazed me, though. There was Julia Quinn’s On the Way to the Wedding, next to Lisa Kleypas’ Devil in Winter and Anne Gracie’s The Perfect Waltz – all books that are considered mainstream romances in the USA. Some of them even got tasteful covers. If, as a German, you want to read any of these novels in translation, you must face the dismissive glances of your fellow customers at the newsagent’s and buy a dime novel. Interestingly, a mainstream publishing house published the earlier Bridgerton novels, so continuing with reading the series may only be possible with some embarrassment. Small wonder so many German romance readers haunt Amazon for the English editions.
If you live outside the US, how are romances marketed in your country? Do you feel that some kind of social ostracism is incurred by the buying and reading of romances in your native language? Does this influence your reading habits? What standing do romances have in your country in general?