Monday, February 14, 2011

A Cynic's Defense of Romance Novels

I am not a romantic.

Even at sixteen, when a girl is supposed to be all starry-eyed and love-drunk, I was more of the cynic/realist of my relationships.  On our first date, my then-boyfriend and I went to a park with a gazebo.  "Stars are cool," he remarked.  "That was really corny!" I chirped.  He kissed me anyway.

I'm not sure why I'm this way.  My parents may argue a lot, but they've been happily wed for over thirty years, so it's not like I came of age among marital discord and strife.  Maybe it links to why I've cursed like a sailor since I was twelve: in a baggy shirt without eyeliner I look like a virginal milkmaid.  In a tight shirt with eyeliner, I look like a virginal milkmaid trying to be slutty.  What can I say?  I've always been about contrasts.

So it was the weirdest damn thing when last year, I found myself getting into romance novels.

Like the most hush-hush of sex acts, it started out innocently enough: my friend Bryn Donovan sent  me an advance copy of her novel An Experienced Mistress so I could review it for the blog.  After a stressful workday, I sat down at Borders--my punk rocker crush in plain sight--and perused the PDF.  At first, the Catholic schoolgirl in me blushed and giggled.

Then, the Catholic schoolgirl in me realized just what it was I was reading--a story of an interesting woman who had a lot of steamy, well-written sex--and got very, very turned on.

Shit!  I realized.  I think I like romance novels!

It didn't stop there.  Two days later I found myself, as I usually do, in Barnes & Noble on my lunch break.  Except this time I was visiting a different section.  I timidly poked my head into where it said "Romance"--with the side-eye I was giving to make sure no one I knew saw and judged me, I may as well have been buying crack.  Instead of a familiar face, however, I saw a tall, attractive woman, also in work clothes, perusing titles.  We smiled at each other conspiratorially.

I bought Lessons in French by Laura Kinsale.  You never forget your first time.

That was almost a year ago, and since then, thanks to Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, my local library, and a generous friend who gave me a whole tote bag full of her old paperbacks, I'm an official convert.

Let's address the arguments right away.  Yes, some romance novels are crap.  Terribly written tripe with rapey heroes, stupid heroines, and an HEA (Happily Ever After) I wouldn't believe in a million years.  You know what most romance novels are, though?  Well-written.  With flawed but funny heroes, smart and interesting heroines, and a HEA I see coming (because it's romance and you have to have the HEA) but can totally believe.  Let's just say that Jennifer Crusie, Laura Kinsale, Eloisa James, Lauren Dane, and the Godmother of them all, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, kick Dan Brown's vanilla-prosed, conspiracy-spouting ASS.

Because you know where else there's bad writing?  In memoir.  In sci-fi.  In crime, both true and fiction.  In New York Times-bestsellers.  If I have to read about yet another repressed housewife whiiiiining about her husband's affair, I may blow up a suburb my friends don't inhabit.  And yet none of these genres get the hate that romance does.

Do men like romance heroes exist in real life?  Some may argue no.  Some of my happily-married and -coupled friends may beg to differ.  But does it matter?  A big part of romance is escapism.  Fantasy.  But readers can still learn from this.  I'm not saying any of us should hold out for the perfect man, but we shouldn't settle, either.  And really, most romance heroes aren't perfect (really, I have no patience for the ones who are).  Just like the heroines, though, they learn.

Wanna know why I think romance gets a bad rap?  Fair warning: I'm about to step up on a feminist soapbox, but if you read me regularly that shouldn't be much of a shock.  Romance is a genre largely written by women, for women.  Never mind that it's basically keeping the publishing industry afloat: it's for GIRLS, ewwwwww!  Because women can't possibly know what they want, physically, emotionally, and sexually.  Because there's no way writing and editing a romance novel isn't damn difficult.  Because (and this is a literary argument as old as time), the female experience can't be universal.

*Unpro steps off soapbox*

Look, if romance ain't your bag, it's cool.  I'm not trying to make anyone read a romance, though I certainly won't stop you.  But don't make the mistake that Jezebel's Morning Gloria did a week ago, when she denigrated all romance as rape-promoting garbage, using one or two blogs as expert sources.  It's like anything else: don't trash it if you don't know what you're talking about.  (Thanks to Jezebel's Sadie Stein for her excellent rebuttal.)

I admit, I used to trash romance too.  Because it was easy.  Easier to giggle at Fabio (who's supposed to be pretty cool in real life) and lump a literary phenomenon into a National Enquirer-esque category of fluff.  Easier to judge a book by its (sometimes admittedly silly) cover.

A year later, it's Friday night and I'm heading to Borders, thinking "I could really use some Jennifer Crusie right now."

Without any shame whatsoever.


  1. Go you :D That picture at the top is actually phenomenal, I am both amazed and laughing out loud. Their admittedly silly covers are the best.

    You make a good point, there's bad writing in all genres - don't get me started on awkwardly and hastily written memoirs.

  2. Here's a romance novel tip for you. Go to used book stores. For whatever reason, women who read romance novels are WAY more likely to sell/donate their books to used book stores than any other person. You can get lots of books on the cheap.

    I've never read a lot of romance, a couple of beach reads here and there. But Judy Blume's Summer Sisters is one of my all-time favorite books. That might be as close to romancey as I've ever been.

    Listen, I read children's sci-fi and fantasy. I'm in no position to judge others for what they read. If reading romance makes you happy - good for you!

  3. hungryandfrozen: isn't that picture hilarious? I Googled "romance novel Fabio" and that's what I found! Good point about memoirs--damn, some of them are terrible. Ghostwriters exist for a reason.

    Nikki: thanks for the tip! There are a couple of great used bookstores in my neighborhood. I think romance readers sell/donate more books partly because they pile up so quickly in one's collection. They're cheap AND fast reads, so before you know it (ahem), you've accumulated a LOT. And this is coming from someone who's only been reading romance for a year and who does a lot of borrowing. I still have a ton.

    I didn't think you'd judge me. :) It seems like YA and genre fiction readers are less judgmental because THEY get a lot of judgment too (before Twilight and Harry Potter, I used to hide my YA books).

    And I loved Summer Sisters. I remember it came out the week before my high school graduation, and I bought it right away.

  4. I dig romance. Two of my all-time favorite books are Paradise and Perfect by Judith McNaught. And my NaNoWriMo project this year was out and out romance -- I'm revising it now and it IS just as difficult as anything else I've ever written.

    My hilarious friend (who is ADDICTED to romance novels) and her husband have a blog called Uncle Walter's Bad Romance, with sections featuring really bad quotes and really bad covers. In fact, when I opened up this entry, I thought I had clicked on their blog instead because it's right above yours on my blog roll. You should check it out -- it's pretty funny.

  5. I think you will enjoy the following post at my blog, in which I make reference to your above blog post at the end.

    Cheers, Arnie Perlstein
    Weston, Florida

  6. "Your post about romance novels echoes what so many women around the world are feeling. There is a stigma about these books that is in some cases warranted but that doesn't mean that readers should be mocked. Just because you read romance novels doesn't mean you are a perv or that you don't know what good literature is. Sometimes people just need a break from the sometimes laborious task of reading 'serious' literature."

    1. I totally agree. But come to think of it, the opposition to our romance book reading is only minimal. The important thing is we love this past time, no matter what they say. They better find something else to do with their lives than check what we are reading.

  7. Lessons in French by Laura Kinsale is adventurous, daring, comical while heart wrenching as brought about by the cruelty of human nature.