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The Romance Genre and the Risks of Writing About Vulnerability

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New York Times Bestseller author Brene Brown is a research professor who has written (and spoken) much on the power of shame and vulnerability.

While her books and talks target leaders, educators and those wanting to change their personal lives, romance writers and readers may be struck by how well her theories about vulnerability explain why the romance genre is at once so popular (supporting a multi-million dollar publishing industry) and has so much dismissiveness directed at it. (If you doubt that the dismissive attitude exists, read Kat Mayo’s article on the ABC News website.)

So, why so many fans and so many haters of romance novels?

Brown’s research suggests that some of it comes down to vulnerability.

The term vulnerability is used here as meaning ‘being open to being hurt’—the experience of uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.

Two of Brown’s key points in her talks and writing on vulnerability are that connection is what gives our lives purpose and meaning, and that vulnerability is essential for connection.

These are not some cute ideas that came to her while gazing into a soy latteccino, but her conclusion after thousands of interviews with men and women during a dozen years spent researching vulnerability and shame.

Now, Brown’s points about vulnerability and connection may not be news for many romance writers and avid readers who spend a lot of their time with plots designed to create vulnerability in hero and heroine so that a connection can be forged. However, this writer was a little bit blown away because while a big reader, I’ve also spent my whole life vigorously rejecting vulnerability and was only forced to examine what I secretly call ‘this icky feeling stuff’ because I want to write better characters and fiction.

Personally, I’m going to stick with my personal life strategy of ‘keep everyone at a safe distance and one eye on the exit’ but I want something better for my characters. (In case you’re wondering, yes, it is difficult to write a scene showing a character’s vulnerable side when you, the writer, would not show your vulnerable side in a pink puffy fit.) I can, however, take comfort in the fact that my one concession to vulnerability is the very act of being a writer. For some reason I’m not prepared to be vulnerable one-on-one but am happy to expose myself to the potential ridicule and rejection of anyone who chooses to read what I publish. And let’s face it, anyone who does anything and shares it publicly these days is risking thousands of people voicing their opinion of it—no matter how unsolicited, inexpert and inarticulate that opinion may be. 

But getting back to Brene Brown’s research, her work made me realize what it is that keeps me writing and reading romance novels, even when most of the world decries them as stupid. It’s that theme (constant in much of romance writing) that vulnerability is courage. When do the hero and heroine triumph by achieving true connection? When they’re able to put aside their masks and armor and allow others to see their true selves, flaws and all. When they expose their feelings. When they take a risk on love. In other words, when they allow themselves to be vulnerable. While my logical mind can’t accept this, the emotional reader part of my brain craves more.

However, it’s pretty clear that western mainstream culture disdains vulnerability and views it as weakness. Strength, control, perfection and certainty are valued and there’s very little tolerance for uncertainty, failure or risk. Being emotional or imperfect is equated with failure and weaknesses. Instead, people are encouraged (or shamed into) seeking perfection in all areas of life, from flawless looks, to perfect grades and parenting, and ever-upwardly-mobile career paths. Men, in particular, are punished for showing vulnerability, though both sexes can expect to be told to harden up (or HTFU) at some point in their lives. Media and online critiques of those who are ‘soft’ and complain can be savage. 

As a consequence, we all learn to armor ourselves against vulnerability. We wear masks of indifference, we hide our true selves and wants, we conform, we pretend we’re bulletproof, we control and micro-manage, we sneer at vulnerability in others. We even pretend we don’t want things so that we never have to expose ourselves to the risk of vulnerability involved in getting them (or not getting them). The vulnerability that we can’t eradicate becomes so intolerable to us that we numb it with food, legal and illegal drugs, medication, shopping, partying and a million other distractions. 

And yet vulnerability is unavoidable in life. The only thing we can control is our reaction to vulnerability. Do we face it courageously in order to seek connection, or do we avoid it? 

And that’s where romance novels come in. What do romance writers write about? All the things that make people feel most vulnerable. Falling in love, having children, initiating sex, asking someone out, being turned down, asking for help, admitting our weaknesses and fears (to ourselves and others), proposing marriage, introducing partners to family and friends, difficult family conversations. In other words, we’re often writing about vulnerability and emotion, and writing in praise of them—those very qualities viewed as ‘weakness’ by mainstream culture and utterly despised by certain sectors of it. 

Even worse (from an anti-vulnerability stance) most romance novels stress that letting oneself be vulnerable is courageous. The willingness to love someone else when they may be taken from you is a common theme in many romance novels, as is the willingness to invest in a relationship that may not work out, or the willingness to risk exposing feelings when the other may reject them, or the willingness to let another see one’s imperfect self.

And what is the natural response of an anti-vulnerability culture towards a genre that has vulnerability at its very core? 

Repulsion. Fear. Rejection. Because those taught that vulnerability is weakness must reject vulnerability in order to be reassured that they are strong. Shaming those who write and read the genre by criticizing it is also an attempt to control them, to either silence their voices or guilt them into reading and writing more ‘worthy’ genres. It is, then, a policing of the enjoyment that others derive from reading about vulnerability and its reward—connection.

 However, romance readers and authors are a proudly stubborn lot, and will continue to be attracted to romance novels for the very same reason others fear and reject it—for the opportunity to explore the courageous aspects of vulnerability and its centrality in forming connection with others. And the opportunity to explore connection itself, the very thing that gives our lives purpose and meaning.