Read think pieces on romance literature for any length of time, and the term “escapist” will be used to describe the genre. Often, that’s used in a derogatory context, but, in those cases, it’s usually coming from the viewpoint of someone who doesn’t know a lot about romance. Those of us who know what romance novels have to offer, know that it’s actually exactly the opposite. How so? Let’s take a look.
There are as many reasons to read romance novels as there are romance novel readers, and romance is by no means the only genre to get the “escapist” tag. While it’s entirely possible that some readers do turn to mainstream or literary fiction, maybe even nonfiction, to get some respite when life gets chaotic or stressful, it’s genre fiction that often gets the scrutiny on this one. Mystery and SF/F fans know what we’re talking about here. Every genre has its conventions; mystery fans know the hero or heroine will solve the puzzle, science fiction fans get to see something that could be possible, and fantasy shows us things that are not…but what if they were?
Romance, whether set in the past, present, future, or some other realm altogether, gives us a place to go, any time, any place, to find love, either the sort we could find in everyday life (or already have) or go on an adventure that could never happen in the natural world. Is that a bad thing? Not in the slightest. Where else could we fall in love with a duke, a cowboy, a rock star, a small town police officer, an intergalactic smuggler, a Highlander, a corporate CEO, a single dad, a doctor and an artistic genius, in quick succession, all at the same time? For that matter, we could be any of the above, with or without paranormal attributes, a deep spiritual life, and/or an endless list of other variables, all within the covers of a book. Pretty sweet deal.
Since romance readers are a smart bunch, it’s highly unlikely that any significant number actually believe that reading a romance novel will make real life problems go away. Reading any flavor of fiction isn’t going to soothe a colicky baby, sort out legal red tape, fix family turmoil or smooth out finances. It isn’t going to reverse decisions others made for us, but it can give us the respite that allows us to figure out what we’re going to do next. Since we know romance has a defined endpoint, that means anything along the way is fair game, and this chance to climb inside the lovers’ skins and looking through their eyes means we get experiences that can enhance our own.
Perhaps the term, respite, is more accurate than escape. Taking a vacation doesn’t mean that one never goes back to daily work and family life, but it does mean that the time away, spent doing something we want to do, instead of have to do, makes us rested, refreshed, and actually more able to attend to business as usual when we return. That’s because of the break, not in spite of it. A book, read for pleasure, is like a mini vacation, even if taken entirely at home. Within the pages of a book, we can travel through history (and pick up some knowledge along the way) or explore the possibilities of the future, even get a better understanding of the world in which we live today.
When that book is a romance novel, we get the added bonus of the focus on one extremely important factor that is intrinsically interwoven with real life – relationships. We have the lovers, front and center, who remind us that love can overcome the greatest of obstacles, family and friends, who aren’t always going to see things the same way we do, but are there for each other in the end. We even have the villains, who show us that even the most challenging foe is nothing in the face of true love, in whatever form that takes, and, in some cases, can even inspire the villain to change their ways and become a hero or heroine in their own book. That’s pretty powerful stuff.
Romance novels can be read in short bursts, or long marathon sessions, waiting in line, or to keep us company on long, sleepless nights. In audio form, they can be our travel companions on long road trips. They can come along in purses, totes, suitcases or phones, and are there whenever we need a break, any time of day or night. Whether it’s a quick, refreshing dip, or a deep plunge into the world of a romance novel, this escapist fare equips us with powerful tools to bring into our everyday lives, making them one of the smartest breaks we can take. I can’t see anything wrong with that.
So, dear readers, I turn it now over to you. Do you see romance novels as a pause that refreshes? Do you have a go t0 author, subgenre or story/character type you turn to when you need a fictional vacation? (This reader goes straight for lushly detailed historicals, every time.) Does the type of respite you crave depend on what you need respite from on a given day? If you think the entire idea of romance as escape or respite is silly or downright wrong, we want to hear from you, too. Pull up a chair in the comment section and tell us all about it. There’s room for everybody at this table.