A Defense of Romance Novels

To say that I love the romance genre is understated.

I have been reading various romance novels since I was about ten or so, sneaking them off the shelves my mother had in the basement, and paging through them one by one.

My first? Kathleeen E Woodiwiss’ So Worthy my Love.

In it, our heroine is mistaken for her cousin, herself who is in love with a man who has been banned from England (this being the time of Queen Elizabeth, spies, murder and treason plots), by that man’s henchman, in order to spirit away his intended bride to Germany, in order to sidestep the Queen and get the girl. So when our girl, Elise, turns out to be the kidnapee and not her cousin (Arabella), our hero Maxim is beyond annoyed. And though they fight, they argue, they console each other as only two people far from home could, and happen into a series of dangerous confrontations with the Hanseatic League, they eventually fall in love, get married and plan on returning to a still precarious England.

It had everything – a feisty heroine, a broody hero, a far flung castle, good friends, conflict and big sea ships. It also had sex, which for my ten year  old mind was like Whoa!.

All in all, I must have read it a good ten times that winter, savoruing each phrase, honing my abilities to spot friend and foe with small tells like the quirk of an eyebrow at a specific time, or the placing of a hand on a shoulder just so. It was a fun read, but also chocked full of history – an interesting kind of history, too – not stuck in England, but moving to other areas of Europe at the same time as the Elizabethans were fighting over which martyrs to burn at the pyre. I had never heard of this Hanseatic League (at this point in my life, I have already taken a course on them – fascinating time), never really read a book that was placed outside of the UK/North America, with exception to Ancient Egypt or Rome (In English, anyway – the Portuguese books I read as a kid were placed in Portugal, Brasil, India…). The heady descriptions of dresses, the cold winter air, the landscape – both of mountains and bodies – was all enough to make me suddenly starving for more.

So I started picking off the books, one by one, off the shelves.

Julie Garwood’s Highland Lairds. Rosemary Rogers and her Ginny & Steve books. Johanna Lindsey’s Mallory family.

Books called Promise of the Rose, All the Sweet Tomorrows, and A Man for Amanda.

Covers with incarnations of Fabio in different states of undress with his strong arms around our feisty heroine. Sometimes he was blonde, other times a brunette and I am pretty sure I remember a red headed version from somewhere too.

I read about pirates with their own island fortresses, ladies being sent to the colonies because of a mistaken identity, aliens falling for humans, and highlanders waging war on (parts of) England.

Never mind the stories about little towns with all sorts of quirks – including psychics, bad ass brotherhoods, international art thieves and were-animal gypsy families in Washington.

So much swoon!

Oh Fabio – twenty years of staring at you on the cover of romance novels, and then you have me in your arms! Siiiigh.

Each book was an adventure and – more than anything I’d ever read (The Babysitter’s Club and Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret the exceptions) it contained women as the predominant characters. More than predominant – these were stories of women, running out to go and find their own life – whether that be in London ballrrooms, the wild west, or some Italian villa. The Woman’s story was what was important here – the man was more of a prize, a part of her story – something she gets in the end – but not the reason for the story.

What a novel (ha ha) idea.

That a woman can be the source of the story.

At this point in my life, I have become jaded with book critics and people around me, who look at the cover of my romance novel (currently, The Ashford Affair by Lauren Willig) ad snort at me, demanding why I would read such filth/fluff/female porn when I have three university degrees amongst other things that seem to qualify me as “above” this sort of smut. I used to glare at them, tell them how wrong they were, but at some point in my life, I realized they stopped listening – the very act of reading a romance novel had dimmed my point of view for them, and now, any argument for reading it didn’t seem to matter. So I started just shrugging and walking away. And, dear readers, I think that was a mistake.

Recently, there was an article in some newspaper called The New Republic (something I won’t be reading if the rest of it is anything like this article) by some so-called journalist who fashions himself (yep, a man ladies and gentleman – hold your breaths, a man has something to say about romance novels!) some sort of educated commenter of romance novels. Suffice it to say, I am not linking to his article, guys. I refuse to give him “hits” for something that is essentially rehashing all the hate of the patriarchal society (including a healthy dose of paternalism) towards a genre that is beloved by (mostly) women. However, I thought I would quote a little from it.

These quotes are exactly why I never should have shut up, and why I should have responded to every single eye roll and dismissive grunt:

“With their drooling enthusiasm for Fifty Shades, millions of dreamy-hearted women have chaperoned a cultural phenomenon—one that amply shows how far taste can be removed from hunger—just as millions of frail-headed men have made Tom Clancy a household name, Clancy’s bestsellers being a breed of poli-sci porn for gruff guys.”

“Dreck of this stupendous caliber has a particular advantage over literature in that one doesn’t have to read all of it to surmise, accurately and eternally, that it is all uniformly awful and awfully uniform—romance novels, like racists, tend to be the same wherever you turn.”

“It’s pointless to spend much time impugning these books as writing because they really aren’t meant to be considered as actual writing, the same way a Twinkie wasn’t meant to be considered as actual food. Books ejaculated this easily have the inverse effect of being extremely difficult to read.”

“What the commercial coup of Fifty Shades reveals about us is this: We’re an infirm, ineffectual tribe still stuck in some sort of larval stage. Do I really expect Americans to sit down with Adam Bede or Clarissa after all the professional and domestic hurly-burly of their day? Do I expect them to appreciate the sexually terroristic satires of Sade, or the erogenous verse of Sappho and Catullus, or Nicholson Baker’s comical romp Vox? Pardon me, but yes I do.”


What a load of entitled bullshit.

Like seriously.

Here’s a man who designs himself an intellectual (I mean he uses big words like “ineffectual” and “impugning” and uses allegories to racism and even mentions the Marquis de Sade in a good way. Intellectual, right?) – a man who only wants to point out how we, as a culture, ought to strive for something better than … romance novels.

… Oh for the love of all that is holy, why are the idiots still manning the boats of literary criticism? Seriously ….


Here are some good responses from people I have trusted over the years to wade into this debate: Sarah Wendell (of Beyond Heaving Bosoms and Everything I Know About Love I Learned from Romance Novels) penned a piece that also includes some great audio-visuals here; and Eloisa James, romance novel author and Oxford/Harvard/Yale grad, gave her own views over on Vulture, here; and finally, a piece by Alyssa Rosenburg about why this kind of thing (men lecturing women over romance novels, specifically) has to stop.

The crux of all of this is simply: Reading romance novels is not shameful, rather, it’s empowering.

Empowering?? You say, lips quirked into a smug version of a smirk and eyebrows raised. You can’t even imagine it, right? A book that is wholly concerned with the smutty fantasies of women – where women get everything they’ve set out to have – a fulfilling life, including the man of their hetero-normative dreams – I mean, that’s just a fantasy isn’t it? A totally smutty fantasy right up there with those 1970s pornos – you know the ones? With the weird music and strange fade-ins and outs? Those.

Read that over again and come back to me. I will give you a minute.

Okay, you’re back right? I think this is one of the biggest flabbergasted criticisms of romance novels, so I am going to get it out of the way first.

Now here’s the thing: Unlike in a porno (regardless of the decade I think), romance novels are not primarily vessels by which a reader gets off. Not the way you’re thinking anyway. Romance novels, as the title suggests, have more to do with that whole “romance” thing, rather than sex. What does that mean? It means that romance novels narrate the whole of the story – the life, the love, the heartbreak, the drama, the rationalizations and hardships and coming to terms with – all of the bits of pieces of the story that you definitely wouldn’t get in a porno (no, not even those ones with the girl who can’t “pay” for the pizza). It means that, unlike what I think most people picture when they see my book cover with the breasts all spilling forth into raven-haired Fabio’s Navajo hands, the stories don’t start with a girl in dire straits who runs around naked until she falls on the, ahem, member of the hero in question. Rather, we start off as we start off regular stories – our main character, usually two of those, is in dire straits, or ina troubling situation, or about to embark on an adventure, or a whole host of other things – before all hell breaks lose and more adventures happen or are delayed in order to weave this tangled web. Is there sex? Usually, yes, there is.

But that doesn’t make it a porno the like of which you’re thinking.

Think back, far back – how many literary novels have you read with sex? Come on now, think about it. We’ll get back to exactly the type of sex in those, but for now, just admit it – there can be lots of sex in literary novels. It’s such a basic human instinct – a basic human function, so of course, there is sex. And it’s not horrible right? It’s not even particularly smutty. It just is, because novels attempt to relay stories of the human experience.

Wait now – you tell me – You’re saying those fantasies in your romance novels show human experience!? Girl – you have to understand that those are fantasies. That stuff never happens in real life – romance novels are just low-art novels that prattle to women’s fantasies.

And I will give you a second to come off your high horse, then smile at you and say “Well, duh, it’s about fantasies. And what the hell is wrong with that?”

But really, guys – what is wrong with female sexual fantasies ? You know, asides from the fact that mainstream society seems to think that we, as females, don’t have fantasies of a sexual nature (Seriously, I was a Hallmark or something once and saw books called “Porn for Women” that just had picture after picture of hot, buff guys doing dishes and vacuuming.”. I was slightly amused, then incensed). We tell young girls to repress their desires – that they, and they alone, are the caretakers of purity – that, indeed, you young girls have to monitor yourselves, steel yourself for those “boys who will be boys” with their uncontrollable urges and other such rapey language. We shove this crap into girls from such a young age that by the time they’re actually of an age for sex, they have no idea what it’s about or what they want.

xkcd - Porn for Women

And then, of course, we blame them for it. Just imagine this, instead: You give girls romance novels, you give them stories where women understand themselves to not only sexual beings, but also sexual beings in charge of their own stories, who work hard, and stay true to their own desires and principles, and end up rewarded in the end. We don’t give them Tess of the D’Ubervilles and Lolita and other stories that show woman and girls are sexual beings who are mere objects, mere objects that get punished for either letting into their own sexual urges or being overpowered (re. raped) by another’s. We let them in on the secret that we’ve been hiding for so long – that woman can have pleasant sexual experiences, that it’s normal for women to want to have sex, for women to be choosey about sex, for women to make their own bloody decisions about sex, and by extension, their selves, their lives, their loves and their own damn stories.

 What I am getting at is this: It is a fantasy of sorts, like all novels are. Romance novels are a retelling of human experience so that, in this genre and only in this genre, women come out on top. Think to yourself – in what type of literature do women get to be the main character? The one discovering the world? The one who gets to be a real character, fully rounded, with quirks and troubles? And more over, in what kind of literature do female characters experience sexual pleasure?

Chances are … romance novels, some types of historical novels and maybe a few sci-fi/fantasies will make that list. So, in a way, romances are fantasies – because only in romance can you get a female hero. Everywhere else, we’re relegated to sidekick, or plot development or so sidelined we’re not even in the dialogue.

So then – what’s so great about this? Well … reading romance, ladies and gents, is a revolutionary act.

Because everywhere else we are being told women can’t be this or that, and by reading romance we’re taking back the limits of how female characters are defined and we are allowing ourselves to have a female character who can be just as central as her male counterparts. “Romance novels are feminist documents. They’re written almost exclusively by women, for women, and are concerned with women: their relations in family, love and marriage, their place in society and the world, and their dreams for the future.” says Maria Bustillos in her piece on the subject (found here) – and she’s right.  As Maya Rodale put it “Many laugh at these “trashy” books without knowing why. The answer is surprising: Our cultural scorn of women’s fiction is an inherited attitude from a time when a woman’s choice and her pleasure were a threat to the status quo.”. Female sexuality is a scary thing to a lot of people – especially in such a buttoned-up culture such as ours, where the female body is hyper sexualized and women are divided into “good” and “bad” depending on how far down that rabbit hole they dare to go.

So every time you read a romance novel – every time you buy one, loan one out to a friend or just talk about one to another person – you are participating in a revolutionary act. An act that recognizes the importance of de-mystifying female sexuality and taking out the stigma attached to female sexual activity. You’re telling the female gender at large that it’s possible for a woman to have a story, to have a happy ending, and to have an adventure. And honey, you’re not alone: As many of the articles I’ve already linked to mention – the romance genre is huge, dominating the publishing industry every year. There are so many people out there reading romances – usually by their lonesomes, not advertising it much.

But me – I am like a romance junkie turned dealer – I get my friends hooked, we talk about various stories and heroes and what the whole story arc will be in the next one we read. We exchange books, buy them and hell, sometimes we even write them. And we do proudly – because hell, if you’re going to be a revolutionary – why not revolt against something so obviously crazy?

Be a revolutionary – read a romance novel!

Links to more articles for your romantic-reading pleasure:

How I learned to Stop Being a Literary Snob and Love Romance

 Jennifer Cruise has quite a few essays: Here, Here, Here and Here. Oh, and Here, Here and Here, too.

A Spirited Defense of Romance Novels

There’s No Shame in Reading Romance Novels

Are Romance Novels Porn for Women?

 Don’t Hide Your Harlequins!




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