Does Popular Romance and its Community of Readers Reflect US Values?

By Laura Vivanco on

The online romance-reading community is global, of course, but the vast majority of authors and readers online seem to be Americans. For me, as a non-American, this has at times resulted in a somewhat muted case of culture shock. I didn't watch many Disney movies as a child, so I was very surprised to learn that my parents should have taught me "Thumper's law":

The character Thumper first appears in the film Bambi, watching as Bambi is first presented as the young prince to the creatures of the forest. He remarks that Bambi is "kinda wobbly" but is reproved by his mother who makes him repeat what his father had impressed upon him that morning, "If you can't say something nice, don't say nothing at all." This moral is now known by such names as the "Thumperian principle", "Thumper's rule" or "Thumper's law". (Wikipedia)

What my mother taught me was that if you're asked for an opinion, try to make it at least two out of the following three: true, kind, necessary. Kindness is important, but it doesn't override truth and necessity. Having joined the romance community, though, I've often seen Thumper's law invoked; John A Hall and Charles Lindholm's Is America Breaking Apart? is making me wonder if it's a manifestation of

The characteristic American smiley-faced "niceness," so often commented on with various degrees of amusement or condescension by foreign visitors [...]. Of course, it is no secret that generalized niceness can mask real differences of opinion and interest. But such masking is recognized to be a necessary precaution in a universe of independent and often rivalrous coequals. As the mayor of an American town observed:

We are a deeply fragmented community. We're nice to each other so much of the time we get the idea that's all there is. But since the problems and misunderstandings remain pretty consistent year after year, I have to assume we don't actually like each other as much as we claim to. Maybe nice is what you have to be or you'd be swinging at each other all the time. (98-99)

I wonder to what extent that might be true of the online romance community.

Obviously, there are American romance readers and authors who disagree with the idea that one should always aim to "be nice." Olivia Waite, for example, recently stated that she doesn't

believe negative reactions automatically have negative effects. Because I believe the culture of positivity is often suffocating and silencing, and I have been silent longer than I’d like. If we allow ourselves only nice things to say, we shortchange ourselves, our readers, and our genre. If we don’t talk about what books let us down, we’re going to find it harder to talk about what books lift us up. Criticism is a muscle and it needs balanced exercise.

I think Waite's an American but, according to Hall and Lindholm, her approach may not be all that popular in the US where

Practical hands-on "common-sense," it is believed, is capable of overcoming almost any obstacle, while "thinking too much" leads to nothing but confusion. It is no surprise that the predominant American philosophy is pragmatism, which decisively eschews theory under the assumption that coherent and consistent premises do not really matter much for achieving serviceable results. (85)

The concept of "thinking too much" is another one I suspect I've encountered more since joining the romance community, though I do remember my mother warning me against "worrying too much" and there's the comment in Julius Caesar about men

that are fat;

Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o' nights:

Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;

He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

And then there's the broad consensus among romance writers that "Romance and women’s fiction generally is all about the character arc. The reader is looking for emotional growth in the heroine from the first page to the last" (Cohen). Again, this can't be a uniquely American preference since characters do change in lots of non-American novels. However,  Hall and Lindholm find it

striking that for Americans even the self is considered to be a kind of modular entity, capable of being reconfigured to fit into preferred life styles. [...] American faith in the power of individuals to change themselves is quite understandable as a product of the immigrant experience in combination with the Protestant ethos. Protestant sects believe that individuals can be spiritually transformed through disciplined, virtuous action in this world. (86-88)

I'm working on a book about US romances and the extent to which they reflect American beliefs, but I'm not planning to look at whether the novels demonstrate a faith in the individual's ability to change, or advocate being nice and not thinking too much. All the same, I can't help wondering if these are features of the genre and its community which reflect American values.


Cohen, Julie. "Character Arc 1: What is it?" 17 Jan. 2010.

Hall, John A. and Charles Lindholm. Is America Breaking Apart? Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1999.

Waite, Olivia. "If You Can't Say Anything Nice, Come Sit By Me." 8 Nov. 2013.

I'm not sure I'd pick Hall and Lindholm as my foundation for exploring "US values." It's a short, synthetic work that glosses over a lot of regional and temporal variation. For example, I can't tell where the mayor quoted in your excerpt is from, but that sounds like the cliched version of "Midwestern nice," which is pretty different from, for example, "California nice." And I'm not sure there is a Philadelphia or New York (or New England) "niceness" of that type. 

I'd have to read the book in full to be sure, but just looking at some excerpts and part of the conclusion made red flags go up for me. It seems to pick sides in what is a long-running debate about the character of American culture and American exceptionalism, without making it clear to the uninitiated what those sides represent.


I'm not using it as "my foundation for exploring 'US values'" in the book I'm working on. In fact, I might not end up quoting them there at all. But these quotes kind of leaped out at me while I was reading them.

As you say, there's "a lot of regional and temporal variation" and obviously I'm no more representative of the whole of the UK than a handful of romance authors/readers are of the whole of the US, but I found it intriguing that some of the behaviours/attitudes Hall and Lindholm highlight chime with my sense of how (parts of) the romance community seem to think/behave, which is why I posted this. I was hoping others might chime in to confirm, deny, clarify etc.

Waite is indeed an American. :) But I live in the Seattle region, where niceness often presents as polite disinterest or standoffishness (the Scandinavian influence, it is said). Very different than the East Coast -- my god, people will actually TALK to strangers in Boston! -- or the South, with its beautifully poisonous and sugary "bless her heart." As Sunita says, there's a great deal of regional variation. It's interesting to think about how American romance authors might both reflect and resist that: on the one hand, RWA chapters are primarily geographic groups, but on the other hand, there is also a broader cultural division between readers and published authors that might be more significant when we're talking about how niceness is deployed.

I've spotted people of the "bless her heart" variety online but polite disinterest probably doesn't translate so easily into words on a screen. Hmm, maybe all the lurkers on romance blogs come from Seattle ;-)

I've seen some readers who are aggressively "nice" and will admonish other people for not being nice enough. I'm not sure there are so many authors who'll do that, but it could be that I've mostly been reading "mean girl" blogs/sites and "nice" authors don't go there. You'll know a lot more authors than I do, and have seen them in different contexts. I do recall reading something about niceness which Joanna Gregson and Jen Lois wrote about their research into the romance writing community. They think the emphasis on niceness "arises from female gender socialization" and add that for romance writers

being nice is equated with professional behavior. Two agents on a panel at a regional conference provided examples of this in their response to the question “What do you look for in an author?”:

Agent 1: “The work comes first. Then not having a negative platform, like flaming on Goodreads, taking part in a Twitter argument, or commenting back on Amazon.”

Agent 2: “No matter what medium, professionalism at all times… Nothing can happen in mudslinging except getting dirty.”

A second aspect of being nice is being inclusive. For example, writers often reassure newcomers that they should never feel intimidated to approach “famous” authors (who are often described as “totally accessible”), and that this community is special because no one ever feels excluded. One writer expressed this on a listserv in anticipation of an upcoming regional conference:

“The conference is small enough that NO ONE ever feels left out unless it’s their choice to fly solo. You’ll be pleasantly surprised how many new friends you’ll make in just the first few hours.”

Finally, we believe the be-nice ethos in RWA can be seen in the incredible support writers find here. In fact, one of the characteristics most people offer when we ask them to describe RWA is “supportive.” Support takes the form of mentoring, of cheering, of being there for the trials and tribulations of the career. It means taking time from one’s own work to read someone else’s, offering advice to a newcomer, and doing other things that emphasize the human relationships at play.