In my first graduate school course, focused on the foundational works of American studies, we read “Reading the Romance” by Janice Radway, one of the first scholarly treatments of the romance novel genre. I don’t remember much of the book, but I’ll never forget the class discussion. It oozed with classism and misogyny, even in room full of women.
The conversation went like this: Women who read romance novels are poorly educated, working class, likely stay at home mothers. They read romances to escape the emptiness and drudgery of their lives. At best, romance novels give them unrealistic expectations of love and marriage that will destroy their happiness. At worst, romance novels keep them from throwing off the shackles of the patriarchy.
I kept my mouth shut. I wasn’t going to add to the denigration of romance readers, but I sure wasn’t going to admit that I was one (of the millions of fans) myself.
I read romances for the same reason anyone reads genre fiction: they’re fun.
I’ve read romance novels since I was a preteen, starting with my mother’s collection of Harlequins and moving on to the books by the perfectly named LaVyrle Spencer. As a teenager, I didn’t know that I was supposed to be ashamed of reading romances. I read them in between classics like Henry Fielding’s “Tom Jones” and James A. Michener’s “The Source.” As my sister quipped, romance novels were my palate cleansers in between serious works of literature. By college, I lived in a world of books — majoring in English and working in a bookstore — and I knew romances should be a guilty secret. I was supposed to disdain the genre.
I earned a master’s degree writing about Toni Morrison, Leslie Marmon Silko and the poet Simon Ortiz. I love Cather, Austen and Dickens. I have earned my literary bona fides, but they don’t make me love romances any less.
I read romances for the same reason anyone reads genre fiction: they’re fun. They’ve got strong, funny, smart characters, great banter, fun plot twists, great sexual tension and great sex.
That’s not to say some criticism isn’t warranted. Yes, the covers and titles can be ridiculous. They do portray relationships in a fantastical way (even as a teen I knew it was unlikely that a charming rake would fall in love with me and give up his carousing). And sure, they all end with a happily-ever-after, just like all mysteries end with a resolution.
But there are many talented writers who are inventive, funny and prone to a wicked turn of phrase. While most books feature white, heterosexual protagonists, there are healthy markets for African-American, multicultural and gay/lesbian romances. And sites like Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and the Romance Writers of America (RWA) annual awards help sort out the best and can give new readers a place to start finding their favorites.
The most consistent and valuable feature of romances is their affirmation of female sexuality. Women embrace their desire, and male characters prioritize and validate it.
There is pleasure and satisfaction in the sexual encounters — no one in these books is faking orgasms. Women are sexy and sexual no matter their body type and on the erotic romance end of the spectrum, there is plenty of kink and sexual exploration without judgment. A common story arc is the female character’s sexual liberation: beginning as inexperienced and naïve, or ashamed, having internalized her society’s sex negativity, or bruised by damaging or unfulfilling sexual experiences — and becoming sexually positive, adventurous and satisfied.
The most consistent and valuable feature of romances is their affirmation of female sexuality.
Decades of reading romances affected the way I see my own desires: I never expected a gorgeous aristocrat to carry me away on a white horse, but I did learn that, in spite of what the culture tries to tell me, desire isn’t shameful and good sex is one’s right.
In that long-ago graduate school discussion, my fellow students were particularly critical of romances as escapism. At the time, I bristled — I didn’t use them as escape, I was quite happy with my life.
Twenty years later, though, I will happily admit they are an escape. I’ve read quite a few romances since the presidential election of 2016. They’re one of the few things that can take my mind off the news or help me turn down my anxiety about our politics enough so I can actually sleep.
I’ve reread some favorites, and I’ve branched out to new authors. Thankfully, there is an inexhaustible supply.