A friend of mine recently sent me an article entitled Why Bestselling Romance Author Colleen Hoover Is Receiving Backlash. In it, the author writes:
I know what some people might be thinking: It’s fiction, it’s not meant to be real or unproblematic; it caters to fantasies.
But the problem with that is that fiction, especially fiction read by younger audiences, can have a large effect on how people perceive topics like consent and healthy relationships. While Hoover is not a YA novelist, she has cultivated a base that is largely made up of young people through BookTok.
Besides all of that, I have a degree in creative writing, and as such have spoken with other romance novelists who have insisted that consent is a very important part of romance. These books are meant to be fantasies to a certain extent, but if they are going to depict abusive behavior, it should not be in a way that doesn’t address how abusive and unhealthy it is. Otherwise, you risk creating unhealthy love interests like Edward Cullen or Christian Steele.*
I read this and thought a world of no. This, I’m sure, is why my friend sent it.
For starters, at what age do we stop curating children’s/young people’s reading? Colleen Hoover is wildly popular–like Stephenie Meyer–with Gen Z, typically defined as being 11 to 26. At what age do we trust the next generations to assess art on their own terms? For me, those in their late teens and later can read what they choose. Of all the things I’m worried about for the next generation, exposure to the likes of Bastien Toussaint or Alex Markov is not on my list. I simply don’t believe that the bazillions of young people who read Twilight came away with dangerous ideas about love.
I’m also leery of who decides what a healthy relationship looks like. I used to feel a truly awful relationship was like obscenity: To quote Justice Stewart, “I know it when I see it.” But now, when so many things can be called abusive—marriage writ large, teasing, chivalry, and more–and when we do not have any clear agreement as a culture about what our lives should look like, I’m unwilling to say romance novels with certain tropes or behaviors are bad for us. In relationships, as in most things, YMMV.
Thinking about this made me wonder if there were any romances I’d say we should, as a culture, work to get out of the hands of readers. I just hate read Sea of Ruin–it’s full of torture, rape, and violence–and while I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to a 16 year old, I also wouldn’t yank it out of her hands. The bodice rippers I grew up don’t hold up as good books, in general, but I can’t really think of any I’d want pulled from the library.
I do deplore the many of the themes in super dark romance–to this day I wish I’d never started reading Pennies. I still get queasy when I think about parts of it–and it’s possible I’d have kept such prose away from my kids. But Twilight or 50 Shades of Grey? Those, I’m happy for young people to read if they so choose.
What do you think? Are romance novels with problematic leads/tropes dangerous, especially to young people? Are their romances you think should be kept out of their hands? Am I utterly off-base here? Inquiring minds want to know….
*Who is Christian Steele?
Impenitent social media enthusiast. Relational trend spotter. Enjoys both carpe diem and the fish of the day.
As a former librarian, I’ve been inundated with news stories over the last year or so (from an RSS list server for librarians I’ve subscribed to for more than a decade) about all the book (and curriculum) bans – and targeting of librarians and library systems – happening across the U.S. I have to say the comments on this post give me hope that readers in general are paying attention. I’m so glad! Thank you all.
Ok, I just read Alex Hall’s review of Sea of Ruin and I am laughing out loud! I too may have to read this book based on that review (and not admit it to anyone!)
Did you like it more than I did?
I’m late to this discussion and agree with a lot you have already said.
Just one more thing that strikes me:
Why is it, that in the opinion of the article’s author we need to ban certain romance novels – primarily read by females I suppose – so these poor dumb girls don’t get the wrong idea. But we do not need to ban thrillers, dark crime novels, military adventures, spy novels … because no one (probably should be read as: no super intelligent male reader) would ever be stupid enough to think he should take the content at face value and model his life after these books.
This whole article is so annoying, I might have been better off not reading it at all.
P.S. No, I don’t think only girls read romance and only boys read spy novels and yes there is a lot more diversity out there anyways. But for the sake of the argument …
Very good point! I read thrillers and love cop/detective TV series. Even SWAT with big men wearing lots of hardware and very tightly clinging tops, very big guns and huge boy toy cars, planes, copters, etc. But would I ever even consider getting a gun or killing someone; of course not! So if I read 50SoG (which I laughed at all the way through) will I need a Red Room of Rage? No, I won’t. I agree with you, Katja, I wish I hadn’t read such a stupid article either; it was just so pointless and irritating.
Ditto to this. There is a very patronizing attitude towards romance readers that other genre readers don’t seem to receive. I’ve been enjoying the dark mysteries that came into popularity with Gone Girl, itself a book about two very twisted people. Rarely see any discussion of the danger these books, which depict the darkest side of humanity, represent to society. But a romance novel about two people falling in love? Clearly, those weak minded readers need censors to look out for them.
Agreed. One of my favourite authors, C.S. Poe, posted this to FB and Twitter today, which makes that point very well:
You know… I’m a full-time author. I’ve been in the industry for eight years. My books have won awards.
I write car chases and gunfights and murder and explosions and magic and a lot of sarcasm. I also stick romance into all of that—because Everett Larkin is a detective who deserves to be loved, because Sebastian Snow is an annoying sleuth who deserves a happily ever after, because Gillian Hamilton is a federal agent who deserves a supportive partner.
But including that romance automatically brings tired and pedestrian judgment, smugness, and attitude. The notion that I’m incapable of writing a good book because my main characters kiss, is priceless. The attitude of: romance authors don’t deserve a seat at the table with literally everyone else, is a choice.
Anyway. I was going to be attending an LGBT event in the city this weekend, but I will now be bowing out, as nearly all the romance authors were removed from their original table assignments and put into a glorified closet (insert joke here) unconnected to the main event halls.
And my career is no one’s afterthought.
That’s appalling and discriminatory. Also, did no one do a simple online search and check the popularity of these books?
I suspect not – because whoever did this wouldn’t have wanted their prejudices about romance novels to be contradicted.
I’m appalled! I don’t think it’s going to far to say romance readers are propping up the industry, yet we are dismissed as brainless idiots with no class or taste. GAH! I’m so sorry Ms. Poe is dealing with that, but I’m even more sorry in a way for the people deprived of meeting her.
Romance readers ARE propping up the industry and we have been for many years. I think we may have been overtaken slightly by the vogues for domestic/psychological thrillers that has emerged since Gone Girl and others of its ilk, but we’re voracious readers and our £££ has been keeping publishers going for ages. And yet we’re still the subject of behind-the-hands sniggering.
I view thrillers and mysteries and westerns and space exploration as books with HEAs, essentially. Maybe not for the minor characters upon whom violence is perpetrated. And even when the MC is extremely violent. But the warrior or cop or SEAL or sleuth “gets the job done” and in his or her own way, delivers an HEA or HFN moment.
Men would probably be horrified to think they want an HEA as much as women – they can dress it up in car chases and gunfire and explosions. But happy endings are still just that.
Modeling healthy relationship skills in real life for young people- in romantic relationships, friendships, and coworkers, etc- is a much more effective way to help them recognize good relationships than trying to keep books with unhealthy realtionships out of their hands. No amount of shielding them from reading about unhealthy relationships will help if they are learning poor skills at the adults’ knee.
Model healthy relationships and young people will probably know what they are and how to have them by the time they are adults. The biggest predictors for poor relationship skills is past trauma that affects self-worth and/or destroys boundaries. I don’t think a few poorly written books are going to do that.
Plus, let’s face it, we all look for tintillation and adventure as teens, and the vast majority will outgrow those things.
P.S. when my teens read Twilight I was much more concernd about the insipid (in my opinion) writing than the content. Our talk consisted of critiquing the writing. I don’t think I ever mentioned the relationship.
LOL! Twilight was popular when my son was in middle school and beginning to negotiate more romantic relationships. I gave him the book because (the book being popular with girls) 1) it would give him something about which to talk to the girls at school, and 2) I thought Edward Cullen’s restraint towards Bella – not giving in to his every impulse – might be a good role model for my son as he began his own journey through puberty. I did make the point that hanging out in a girl’s bedroom was highly problematic. But I could have cared less about the quality of the prose. ;-)
And if memory serves, he objected at first to the book mightily. I think I had to bribe him to read the first 50 pages. But once started, he finished it in record time and somewhat sheepishly asked if the sequel was available. ;-)
It’s a family thing. We used a literature based curriculum for our homeschool. They attended writing conferences and workshops. There are published authors on both sides of the family. Several of my kids write fiction, one hopes to publish. Talking about the quality of writing is sort of a family hobby. :-) I just never let them dissect my writing!
I agree with your basic point: “bad” books are not going to destroy anyone’s life; and they should not be banned. Readers read what appeals in any given moment, and what may or may not work for one person might very well be the perfect read for someone else.
But I have to say that for kids who do not have the healthy role models in real life that you describe, books can be both refuge and thought-provoking game changers. Too many people are on public record about how books, freely available to them in their local in libraries, made all the difference to them, opening their eyes and minds to other possibilities. So, I do believe that books can be hugely influential. I just think that human nature, more often than not, gravitates ultimately to stories of hope and well-being.
I totally agree that access to books can have a great impact on kids. My point was if a young person grows up to have unhealthy relationships, it’s probably not the handful, or even wheelbarrow full, of books with questionable relationships that were the primary problem. I do think some books aren’t great, and I always preread any books my kids wanted so I could be know what was up. But I can’t remember ever not allowing them to read whatever they wanted.
Thanks for the clarification. I think we are very much on the same page ;-)
I am reading more and more attacks on libraries. People who want to control what people read are a danger, not only to our country, but also to the world.
When I need a new topic to worry about (I wear my usual topics out), I worry that electronic books will be the only available form of books in the future. Such books are so easy to alter and to delete, completely. Most historical documents we have exist only because parchment and paper made from rags endure; in contrast, our paper and ink are so fragile and transitory. I think Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” may be more true than we would like to think.
The ebook thing is very iffy and I say that as an ebook reader. The idea that one doesn’t own the books one has paid for, that the books can be altered without notice–it’s very unsettling. I have started buying actual books of the books I adore even though it’s a luxury.
That’s a really good point, and one that I confess hadn’t occurred to me. I don’t like that I’m essentially “renting” the books I pay for, but the change without notice thing hasn’t really been an issue so far. I don’t buy print books anymore; I have no place to put them, but most importantly, my eyesight isn’t what it was and ebooks are far easier to access. But I agree that being able to have only one “current” version of a book isn’t ideal.
Considering all the horrible things kids are exposed to at school, in the news, movies and tv, on the internet, in video games, on social media, and in the world in general, I find it utterly absurd that this writer is worried about these relatively harmless/mindless books. There are so many more important things to worry about and discuss with your children, such as skepticism of everything politicians, religious leaders, talking heads, and billionaires say and do, the ability to consume media critically (including dumb articles like this one,) and the importance of maintaining a strong set of values in the face of all the garbage that is out there.
And not to mention the recent studies that show children are being exposed to porn younger and younger, and if anything is giving a warped view of relationships, it’s that. I read an article recently that talked about how teenaged boys seem to think it’s normal to snog their girlfriend while having a hand around her throat, and that there’s a belief being fostered that rough sex is the thing to do.
As you say, there are so many things out there that we should be calling out rather than trying to ban books that some people feel are contentious. It’s an extention of that whole “for the sake of the children” refrain that is being peddled by the right as they decimate school libraries. Articles like this one are what get ‘the moderates’ labelled as snowflakes. A degree in creative writing clearly hasn’t imparted any sense to that author, and she clearly has no clue about the genre as a whole.
Also – why isn’t she calling out BookTok for being the thing that has perpetrated this worrying trend among younger readers? If nobody was out there shouting about these books, they’d have been left in (mostly) quiet obscurity.
And many of these books are centered on female pleasure which porn is, in the vast majority of cases, not.
I agree with everything you say, but I personally would not call out BookTok. I like that it has created huge audiences for LGBTQ+ books such as Madeline Miller’s Achilles and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, and it’s getting kids excited about reading. And I just think there are more important things to call out, such as the easy access to porn you mention. Just awful.
I don’t believe in banning any books, ever. That said, if I were to cull out those I’d deem as containing “bad/dangerous messaging” I would want to take out books that demonstrate evil by making a villain gay. I’m talking about those books where the heroine hears rumors or learns that that the villain of the story “prefers to have relations with his own sex” and is made sick about it. This is definitely a trope from the bodice ripper days and no longer acceptable in new fiction, but whenever I reread a romance “classic” from the old days, I wince when I encounter it.
Agreed. As much as I loved the work of the late Edith Layton, the association of being gay with being villainous (or, at the very least, weak) was one aspect of her work that has definitely not aged well.
That was such a product of its times. It’s wrong, for sure, but it was what most thought.
There’s a great article in the NYT today about The Tale of Genji, thought to be the world’s oldest novel. In it the author writes:
Frankly, I think we should be thrilled that kids are reading anything.
The great problem with censorship is where does it stop? “Only healthy, loving relationships should be shown in books, TV, and movies.” “Nothing ‘glorifying’ violence.” “Racists should always be shown as being punished. Along with other people who transgress.” “Fantasy is dangerous; kids should only be shown realism, and preferably, not fiction which is nothing but lies.” “Only books that are Pro-American.” “No books with homosexual or transsexual characters, unless they are shown to change to ‘normal.'” “No books that attack [my] religion.” The list is endless.
Yes, books influence people. All stories do. Do I think some kids will get a warped view of sexuality–and other topics? Sure. But we should have faith in human beings’ ability to choose what they want in life.
Books force you to put yourself in another person’s shoes which is intrinsically good. It’s how we understand life and develop compassion. It doesn’t matter if it’s a vampire or an alien or someone who transgresses the norms.
Upvoted to the max. Not a fan of censorship. Adults can read whatever they want. With children, it’s up to the parents to be aware of what their young children are reading and to question or guide them in their reading choices. But once a child becomes a teenager, the parents need to step back and trust their teenager’s choices. A teenager will find a way to read any forbidden book if they are really interested, regardless of any obstacles put in their way. Policing a teenager’s reading is an exercise in futility.
Absolutely. The widespread groan that goes up in class whenever I announce it’s time for “quiet reading” has happened in every school I’ve worked in – and that’s a lot of schools, given I do supply (substitute) work. “Reading is BORing” is a frequent refrain. It’s so sad.
Well, when we started thinking that children’s reading should be instructive rather than engaging, we lost them to electronics.
And kids today – and for the past 30 years – have such an amazing variety of books to choose from. When I was 11 there were kids books and adult books and nothing in between, so I just moved from one to the other. Now, there’s a whole load of teen/YA out there… and still, there are large numbers of kids who just don’t read.
Christian Steele? I suspect the author of the article got Ana Steele and Christian Grey mixed up.
People who come up with stuff like this article make me want to throw things. I agree with what has been said here so far. Adults can read whatever the hell they like, and if a younger person wants to read them, then have a chat with them about things they may find problematic to help put them in context.
Guns are more dangerous than books.
It kinda cracks me up that she made–I think–that mistake. Like if you’re going to trash a literary character, at least know their name.
Yes exactly! Glass houses and stones come to mind.
‘Guns are more dangerous than books.’
It would be hard for me to put into words how much I love this.
Indeed. Things are pretty shitty right now in the UK, but at least I, a teacher, can walk into school in the morning and know I’ll be leaving in one piece.
With adults, I don’t care – after a certain age people are gonna read what they wanna.
With a teenager, I’d sit them down and talk about what certain elements in the book stand for and how they feel about it. But I wouldn’t prevent anyone from reading anything.
(I say this knowing 50OG is a poorly-thought out portrait of D/s, CoHo’s books are messy, and Twilight is basically Mormon church propaganda).
This is a great article about what Twilight is REALLY about. Short answer: So many things, including Mormonism.
This article brought to mind a conversation I had in college when I was getting my English degree. An argument/discussion broke out regarding the meaning and symbolism we read into books as opposed to what is actually there.The professor admitted that we often see our preconceptions/own beliefs reflected in literary work and that there’s no actual surety of what’s there unless the author states clearly that they wrote it into the text. I like Twilight, but I don’t think the story arc is deep enough to carry the weight of much that is read into it. Sometimes a story is just a story.
I so agree. I am leery of ascribing meaning to things I didn’t do or create. We see everything through our own lens.
Personally I am very distrustful of book banning or too much censorship in reading choices. I am 74 years old and I do not remember a time in my life that my reading was censored. I grew up in a house full of books and was free to chose both from my parents’ library and of course, the public library. Lady Chatterley’s Lover was a book in our home library and I read it with great interest as a teen.
During my years of teaching I found that Dav Pilkey’s books were great favorites with some of my students and I bought them for my classroom library. Of course it is great if a reader chooses the classics as foundational reading, but in the real world that is not going to always happen!
I am not a fan of angst filled romance. I’m old now and I want my stories to leave me feeling somewhat uplifted. I know that life can be filled with unhappy events, but I get a little fed up with books that feature one crisis after another.
I think it’s like any other activity or form of entertainment: if this specific thing is the ONLY thing a person is reading/watching/ listening to/consuming/playing, there is a potential to alter the way a person interacts with the world. (I do think long-term damage is less likely with an activity like reading romance than, say, with playing nothing but first-person-shooter video games all day long.) I wouldn’t censor what my children were reading (my parents never monitored what I read, and I returned the favor to my children), but would encourage them to expand their reading to include other genres/writers/topics. Even during the decade-plus when I was reading bodice-rippers by the bagful, I was still always intermingling reading other types of books and magazines.
Now, regarding the popularity of Colleen Hoover’s books on Book-Tok, I do have something anecdotal to share: last week I read Elizabeth O’Roark’s latest book, THE SUMMER WE FELL. I had read her previous series, The Grumpy Devils, and those books were, yes, angsty and featured some dysfunctional family dynamics, but THE SUMMER WE FELL was wall-to-wall angst, edging very close to melodrama in how truly horrible the heroine’s situation (both in the past and now) is/was and how she feels she deserves the contempt & hatred being heaped upon her. Far more than O’Roark’s previous books, THE SUMMER WE FELL reminded me of books by Hoover (or Mia Sheridan or Aly Martinez): full of emotional upheavals and circumstances that present no good options. I can’t help but assume that this stylistic pivot on O’Roark’s part was being pushed by the current primacy of Book-Tok with its emphasis on romance heroines having to suffer misery piled upon misery as a prerequisite for an HEA. I do think we’ll be seeing more of this: the suffering heroine having to endure so much physical and emotional pain to find the rainbow’s end.
That trope was referred to in an article I read as catharsis romance. It is not for me, in general.
Well as someone who loved enemies to toxic and abusive lovers hahaa as a teenager and now defends healthy relationships (more like full of love and respect I’m not a police officer either, I won’t get mad because Edward an extra strong vampire tries to protect Bella a human. ..that makes sense) If I criticize something, it’s not that… although I prefer “The Host” and I won’t criticize that the hero at the beginning of the book was not very nice to Wanda for being an alien… it also makes sense.
I think that more than taking the books out of the hands, we should take care that they do not want to read it, do I understand? romanticized toxic romances wouldn’t sell if people didn’t buy them and critically view those relationships (mega dark romance is another matter entirely but people who read it often agree that sometimes it’s more obsession than real love).
There are adolescents who confuse reality and fiction and want a Hardin in their life or something like that, I know girls who had bad experiences but that doesn’t start at 15 or 16, it’s because they consumed toxic things when they were just beginning to know what attraction was by another person… at an age of 12 to 14 or even younger (I liked a boy at 6 years old) at that age if you let yourself be influenced by what you see…or read.
In short, show children relationships full of love, altruism and respect, get involved as a parent in that you let them see and if you don’t like something, discuss it. Do you not like a Disney movie and you want your daughter to be critical? ok but don’t stop her from lovingit if she does. Then when the girl is a teenager and begins to become independent and choose for herself what to consume, she will be critical about it and you can trust that she will not just swallow everything as if it were true love.
And be aware of this…there are different tastes healthy is not synonymous with beta hero with strong heroins who always take command…it can also be a somewhat bossy hero and a sweet heroine who likes to be paid for and opened her doors, if the hero respects her, loves her and listens despite her bossy flaw, what’s the problem? if the hero and the heroine are codependent because neither has anyone else in the world on a dystopian Earth… that’s the story that’s the context let’s be logical about which story we criticize, and let women choose what they love that they consider disrespectful to themselves: pss womens ARE SMART.