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Guest blogger: Rhyll Biest

30 July 2017

Why romance novels polarise readers

New York Times bestselling author Brene Brown is a research professor who has written (and spoken) much about the power of shame and vulnerability, and I was struck by how her theories about vulnerability might explain why the romance genre is at once hugely popular (supporting a multi-million-dollar publishing industry) while also regularly being vilified.

During a dozen years spent researching vulnerability and shame, Brown concluded that connection is what gives our lives purpose and meaning, and that vulnerability (being open to being hurt—the experience of uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure) is essential for connection.

However, much of 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. People are encouraged to (or shamed into) seeking perfection in all areas of life—looks, career, study, and even relationships. Media and online critics revile those who fail to measure up.

As a consequence, most of us learn to armour 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). Whatever vulnerability we fail to 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?

Romance novels reward (in the end) the hero and heroine for taking the courageous approach by facing the things that make them feel most vulnerable. In doing so the authors of romance novels argue that vulnerability is courageous. When do the hero and heroine triumph? When they’re able to connect by putting aside their masks and armour and allowing 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.

But what is the 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 romance readers (and writers) is an attempt to control them, to either silence their voices or guilt them into pursuing more ‘worthy’ genres. Essentially it is 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 for the opportunity to explore connection itself, the very thing that gives our lives purpose and meaning.

What are your thoughts? Leave a comment to win a free ecopy of my latest release, the rural romance Shelter, which features an RSPCA inspector heroine. (The giveaway is now closed. Congratulations to Shelley.)

Rhyll Biest is an Australian writer of romance published with Harlequin Australia and Escape. She loves and penguins, puppies and pufflings.

You can find Rhyll here: Website | Blog | Facebook | Twitter


Kat Daily is excited to trade her Sydney airport quarantine uniform for an RSPCA inspector’s uniform and a job in the rural town of Walgarra. A fresh start in a new place, where she can make a real difference in the lives of the animals that she loves.

But Walgarra doesn’t offer a peaceful, bucolic existence. Like many small towns, the distance from urban settings—and urban law enforcement—has allowed a criminal element to set in. Kat may only be looking after animals, but that doesn’t mean she will be immune to people with sinister agendas.

The previous RSCPCA inspector was murdered, and Officer Luka Belovuk is determined to keep the new inspector from the same fate. He may have very broad shoulders, but carrying the safety of the law-abiding community just trying to live their lives has weighed him down, and one more death might be more than he can take.

Not all small towns are quaint and quiet, but they all have one thing in common: a community of people willing to protect their population with everything they have.


  1. 31 July 2017 6:55 pm

    Great article, Rhyll. Thanks for bringing academic romance research to the conversation. Working as a librarian I have many female patrons discount their own taste in romance novels as silly or frivolous. I always say to them if more people read more romance (and weren’t shamed for it) we’d probably have a lot more understanding in the world.

    • 10 August 2017 4:50 pm

      Thanks, Tara, I’m glad to hear there’s librarians like you around!

  2. shelleyrussellnolan permalink
    31 July 2017 11:12 am

    Your post makes a lot of sense, especially the part about people pretending not to need or want something so as not to expose their vulnerability.

  3. lynette williams permalink
    31 July 2017 11:05 am

    very interesting article also the blurb——-LynW

  4. 30 July 2017 11:13 pm

    I don’t know Rhyll – you are too smart for me. But Shelter is currently sitting in the Number 1 spot on my Best Books of 2017, so go you!

  5. 30 July 2017 11:33 am

    Very astute article Rhyll. I had never thought about vulnerability being at the heart of romance but you’re right, love at it’s core is about allowing yourself to be vulnerable with another person. The romance as you say, showcases this brilliantly. Thanks for highlighting yet another strength of the genre.

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