I may not be Catholic, but I know a little something about guilt. If you don’t personally know me, let me recap: if you looked up the definition of a stereotypical “goody two-shoes” in the dictionary, you would find my high school yearbook photo. I didn’t curse, I didn’t drink, I didn’t even know where the principal’s office was. I didn’t watch R rated movies. Okay, you get the gist: I had a long list of self-imposed rules. Why bring this up? Well, today we are talking about books my friends. I always talk about books you say? Yes, yes I do, but stay with me because I really do have an important point here. I read fairly voraciously (170 books in 2017, 150 in 2018) so it tends to mean that I read a lot of very different books. Some really good books. Some really bad books. When I say bad, I mean clunky writing or super obvious plots that lack any sort of imagination at all, etc. One thing I don’t mean is Romance* books.
If you had asked me about that a decade ago? My answer would certainly be different, but as I’ve gotten older (and I’d like to think wiser) I have come to find that my tastes, opinions, and beliefs have shifted and grown as I have. Growing up, when I thought of romance books I immediately equated them with Harlequin’s white bread and butter Fabio and his scantily clad busty women. In my mind that meant off limits, smut, trash, cheap, etc. because (of course I hadn’t read one) it was just reading about sex. There wasn’t anything of value beyond that, and good girls did not read books about sex. I am here to confess my sins, and beg absolution.
By way of example, for 2019 I am at a total of 40 books read already and 18 of those are Romance books. Clearly, I have a soft spot for Romance. I make color-coded calendars for Hallmark Christmas movies, so this should have be been obvious a lot sooner, ha! This got me thinking about what took me so long to figure out what makes me happy. There has been a lot of discussions that make their way around Romancelandia (ie. romance readers/authors/industry at large) over the years about debunking the myth that Romance books = bad books.
“They’re terribly written”. “They’re just porn on a page”. “They don’t have any literary value”. “They’re all just damsels in distress who can’t take care of themselves.”
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Just, wrong.
Let me begin by being perfectly clear: Romance doesn’t mean it has sex on the page, or that it has to have sex included. A Romance just means there is a happily ever after (or in some cases at least a Happy for Now). This is aka “HEA”. If there is no HEA, IT’S NOT A ROMANCE. This is a very common misconception about the genre in general. There are a lot of times when I’m stressed or anxious that I just want to be happy so I grab a Romance because I know, no matter what, by the time it’s done someone is in love and happy and all is right with the world.
Sex scenes are not ‘dirty’ just because it’s sex. If it’s two consenting adults, who cares? There are varying degrees of personal comfort when it comes to sex scenes and that’s totally fine as far as your personal preference goes, but reading about sex doesn’t make you dirty. It doesn’t make you less. It isn’t porn just because it’s sex. The easiest example I can equate it to for a lot of people (my age and friend groups at least) Do you watch HBO? Do you watch Game of Thrones? TrueBlood? Mad Men? It’s a lot like that. One sex scene is on the screen, another’s on the page. Why is describing it different than seeing? It’s not. This is not to say that I don’t still have prudish tendencies and skim paragraphs or turn the page if I want to skip that part (NOT because I should, but because I choose to at that moment. Note the difference). We all have different levels of comfort and that’s totally okay! It doesn’t make you a better person because you skip it, it doesn’t make you voyeuristic if you don’t. If books reflect life, then you better believe all aspects should be included. Sometimes it’s just a kiss, or it’s a fade to black, or every step along the way is described. It’s really just up to you and what your comfort level is. There are handy tools to tell you how “steamy” a story is, aka how much ‘on the page’ sex or sexual references are included in a searchable format such as: https://allaboutromance.com/sensuality-rating-system/
All genres have bad writing. With millions of books available (literally) there are bound to be really bad writing that somehow finds its ways to readers. Romance is the largest genre of publishing as far as I’m aware, (and also the largest self-published genre) so there will always be stories that aren’t so great. That doesn’t detract from the other brilliant women (and men!) who write Romance books. An article from The Balance careers quoted “According to the Romance Writers of America®, the romance fiction industry is worth $1.08 billion dollars a year,* which makes it about a third larger than the inspirational book industry, and about the size of the mystery novel genre and science fiction/fantasy genre markets combined.” They’re clearly getting something right, and girl, there are a LOT of authors to choose from so there’s no excuse to keep reading a book you think is badly written. Just don’t write off the whole genre. (pun intended. you’re welcome).
One thing I’ve learned while reading Romance, is that I have definite preferences for time periods. I just can’t get into Civil War stories much. I only occasionally grab a Western romance. I generally prefer historical romances with Dukes, or contemporary stories with strong women. The most interesting thing is that a large portion of romance authors are actually attorneys. What does this matter? These women know how to do their research. Outside of the HEA, there are so many things you can learn from historical romance stories about the time periods they’re set in because a lot of romance authors do the painstaking research to be accurate for nuance, setting, cultural norms, etc. They’re not just making all of this stuff up, and you may end up learning a lot.
Last but definitely not least, Romance is FULL of strong, sassy, women who know what they want, take what they want, live their best life and have fun while they’re doing it. Yes, there are still the damsels in a tower if that’s your thing. There are also STEM grad students who don’t want to be a princess, suffragettes who go to jail, Journalists, etc. My favourite heroine is a woman who makes up her own mind and has no problem letting you know it. (I can’t imagine why that’s the case …) So, if feminism is women getting equal access to and equality in decision making (don’t @ me, this is intended to be a boiled down simplistic definition), then Romance is feminist allllllllll day long. The genre is full of characters who choose their own paths, decide what they want to do or not do with their bodies, what job they want, the respect they want to demand. If you’re looking for diversity, there are tons of amazing authors of color, LGBTQ+, etc with amazing stories ready to blow your mind.
So where to start: take baby steps if you need to (but trust me, you’re going to love it). Read on a kindle if you’re embarrassed to carry the covers around. Fabio put you off? Grab a contemporary title. Think about which trope you like: Enemies to lovers? Fake dating? Marriage of Convenience? Forced Proximity? So many to choose from and usually have an easy to find a list of titles.
A few TBR recs and others for you off the top of my head:
Sassy Historical Heroines: The Tempest by Beverly Jenkins, The Governess Affair by Courtney Milan, Wicked and the Wallflower by Sarah MacLean. The Duchess Deal by Tessa Dare, An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole
Contemporary: The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory, A Princess in Theory by Alyssa Cole, The Kiss Quotient by Helen Huang, Truth or Beard by Penny Reid, Intercepted by Alexa Martin, Roomies by Christina Lauren
Romancelandia Twitter: follow any of the authors above (their twitter feeds are gold), Alisha Rai, Sandhya Menon, really most authors on Twitter are worth a follow if you like their stuff. For example: Courtney Milan is a former Supreme Court Clerk, IP Law Prof and ice skating enthusiast so go for the books and stay for the color commentary on basically everything from politics, to law, to ice skating. Also, @TheRippedBodice is a romance only bookstore in CA run by two amazing women you’re going to want to get to know.
Podcasts: “When in Romance” hosted by Jess Pryde and Trisha Haley Brown, “Smart Podcast, Trashy Books”
Want more recs? Just ask me or anyone on Romancelandia Twitter. There’s supernatural, thriller, paranormal, YA, Sports, etc. romance stories you can dive into too! The great thing is, most romance books are in series so if you find one you like, there’s an excellent chance there are several more just like it by the same author.
Thank you for coming to my ted talk.
*Romance is capitalized in reference to the genre, not to books that just happen to have a secondary romantic element to them.