Thoughts On: Romance Novels

“Thoughts On” is a monthly feature on thewasofshall where I give my (often rambling) thoughts on a topic relevant to reading, literature, or the book business. To see previous (and future) topics, click here. To participate, scroll all the way down.

Romance novels are just one genre among many – making romantic or sexual relationships the primary plot, motivator, or “problem” – but they’re almost universally scorned and used as the butt of jokes. Some arguments include the fact that they lack depth or plot development (really?), they’re “woman’s fiction” and thus sub-par (really?!), or they’re dirty (#ugh #stop). I’m not going to give space to these arguments, nor am I going to refute them, because, to me, “romance novels” are just another genre – a genre I read more a couple years ago but something which I also read now. Is it with the same frequency that I read science fiction or fantasy? Maybe not. Literary or general fiction? No. But they’re still there, popping up on my tbr list every couple of months.

And, like any other genre, romance novels span the spectrum of well-written to pulpy trash, chaste to borderline erotica, and plot-driven to plot-less. I don’t think that romance novels should be looked down on or scorned because they are romance novels: they should be criticized if the plot makes no sense, if they characters are half-formed, or if the author needed a good editor before he or she published – exactly like every other novel or genre out there. But, like I mentioned above, romance novels are a tough sell. They’re almost always put out as either paperbacks or mass-market (no nice hard covers for these babies). They have rather ridiculous cover illustrations advertising their main characters (and those characters’ relationship). The font is most likely scripted (or maybe even “girly” [wtf does that even mean???]). Being embarrassed about reading a romance novel is a hard bias to shake, mostly because people see that cover and just assume so much shit without either reading the book for which they’re making fun or even a romance novel in general (any romance novel).

And I think that’s totally unfair.

I spent the summer after I graduated college almost exclusively reading romance novels (basically anything Rachel Gibson or Deirdre Martin had published up to that point). I had a lot of free time on my hands, and it was nice to immerse myself in quick-reads that were vaguely connected. (I also realized that I really liked romance novels featuring hockey players.) As the summer ended and I ran out of books to read, I moved on. A couple of years later, I went back to these two authors after realizing that they had each published more books, but I couldn’t get into any kind of groove after my absence. I’d already figured out each novel’s plot – girl and guy meet (or re-meet), get together, have terrific sex, have a fight, break-up, get back together – before even getting past the first couple of chapters. It wasn’t that the books had changed; rather, I’d changed.

And maybe that’s the point – I had gorged myself on a genre and then couldn’t ingest any more (like my absolute love for peanut butter and banana sandwiches – which I still, to this day, cannot eat because I ate them everyday for about four months four years ago). Maybe what binds each “romance” novel together under this single genre-umbrella is simply it’s structure – just like all “science-fiction” novels include some sort of magic in the universe that’s explained by STEM fields while “fantasy” implies that magic is inherent or unexplainable. Pride and Prejudice is a romance novel but so are all these books GoodReads users have tagged romance. I think, in the end, we readers have to stop thinking that “romance” really means anything other than an expectation that the story will be predominately about romantic love. Ignore the sneers you get on public transit and indulge in your love of romance. Because, really, you’d have to be pretty cold to not at least enjoy a novel’s two protagonists getting together.

P.S. Jessica Tripler wrote a fantastic op-ed piece for Book Riot about her love of romance novels – “When Your Favorite People Hate Your Favorite Books” – and other Book Riot contributors have written some great articles for romance newbies: “A Romance Novel Virgin’s Guide to (Reading About) Getting It On” and “10 Essential Reads for Romance Newbies.” Book Riot’s #ReadHarder challenge also includes the category “A book that you would consider a guilty pleasure” – which, in my case, was a romance novel – but then they also add “read, and then realize that good entertainment is nothing to feel guilty over.” Well said.

Have your own thoughts on romance novels? Share them! Post them to your blog, link back to this post, and then comment letting me know!

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