Thursday, August 04, 2011

Why I read romance novels

This has been a topic on several blogs recently, so I thought I would chime in with my two cents.  As most of you know, I read romance novels.  Usually 2-3 out of the 8-10 books I read monthly, more if we're on vacation.  That's mixed in with literary fiction, mysteries, suspense, non-fiction, and classics, but they're in there.  I'll even say they're often the ones I enjoy the most. 

What has irritated me about the recent discussion, what makes me just roll my eyes, are the very serious, very caring men who weigh in with a great deal of gravitas that it is unhealthy for women to read romance novels since it gives them unrealistic expectations of men and harms their ability to deal with real relationships.  Really?  Really? 


shake head.

OK, seriously.  So men are going to stop looking at the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue because it gives them unrealistic expectations of what women should be like?  We're going to stop using well-endowed, scantily clad women to sell cars, cigarettes, booze, tractors, tools, lumber, boats, and hunting gear? Because if that's your objection, that we shouldn't objectify or idealize the opposite sex because it makes it difficult to deal with a real person in a real relationship, then hell, yeah, let's get after it.  Let's change that.  You guys go first.

OK.  I just had to get that out of my system because I've heard it just one or two times too often in the last couple of months.

Here are the reasons why I read romance novels.  Although first of all, I would like to say that there is a difference between an intelligently written romance novel and a run-of-the-mill one, and I'm not saying that all romance novels are worth reading--any more than I would say that all mysteries or even all "literary" fiction is worth reading.  But many of them are well worth the time.

1.  They're fun.  They remind you what it's like to be in love, and that--contrary to what the male pundits predict--actually reminds you why you fell in love with your partner, and makes you forget about how mad you are that they put all the coolers up on the top shelf in the garage where you can't reach them without a ladder.  Not that anyone would do that around here.  Of course not.

2.  You get great relationship advice.  I'm a much better partner for having read romance novels.  There are some pretty wise women out there writing about what it's like to be in a relationship with a member of the opposite sex-- and the advice goes both ways.  I know a few men who could stand to read a romance novel or two and get a clue, as we used to say in the 80s.

3.  Satisfying ending.  Reading a good romance novel is like listening to discordant music that resolves at the end.  It's fundamentally satisfying, because things work out.  It may be unrealistic, but it's not any more unrealistic than thinking that things never work out, that no one ever has a happy time period in their life.

4.  They're about the feminine side of the world.  The side that gets shunted aside and ignored in our culture as unimportant, trivial, icing on the cake.  It's not what's real, it's not what matters, the anti-romance folks will tell you.  Well, according to who?  I think you could make a case-- let's even say evolutionarily speaking-- that there's nothing that matters more.

Why do romance novels get so much guff?  I honestly can't figure it out.  The sneering condescension goes way beyond anything rational.  Remember Jonathan Franzen and his disdainful comments about "women's fiction" ten years ago?  Or how about Michael Chabon, who valiantly defends genre fiction like mysteries and science fiction in Maps and Legends, but doesn't even mention romance?   I think it has mostly to do with #4, but maybe it's the cheesy covers.  Or the steamy sex, which is de rigueur with some authors.   You could say it's the formulaic plots, but mysteries and suspense novels have formulaic plots, too, and even literary critics will admit to reading a good suspense novel on the plane. 

So which romance novels would I recommend to convince you if you're a skeptic?  I've thought about this quite a bit.  I think for intelligently written, with biting-but-funny things to say about the state of male/female relationships in our world, I'd go with Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie, or maybe Anyone But You or Agnes and the Hitman, also by Crusie.  Joanna Bourne's spy series is really good, and the most recent one, Black Hawk, was maybe the best of the lot. For just a good, funny romantic story, I might hand you Lord Perfect (Loretta Chase), whose hero reminded me so much of my spouse that I gave it to him to read, or Agnes and the Hitman, also by Crusie.  Any other suggestions? 


  1. Just another reminder of why I always liked you so much growing up. We think alike.

    I would have to say that Lord of Scoudrels is my fav Loretta Chase. Oh how I love it.

  2. I love Lord of Scoundrels, too--in fact, I almost used it instead. But neither of them is my favorite of hers-- Mr. Impossible gets my vote. but I wouldn't recommend it to someone who hasn't read her other ones.

  3. You're entirely right that men see Sport's Illustrated's swimsuit issue as entirely different from Romance novels. Basically it comes down to this: men's stuff is more worthy than women's stuff. It's all over the place.

    Even if a guy writes what is basically a romance, he gets to publish it as literature and everyone oohs and aahs about how sensitive and intuitive he is. Women write about how men think and feel all the time, but no one seems to care.

    Basically, even given all the changes we've all gone thru, women are still seen as having more trivial interests than men, of being more intellectually and culturally lightweight. Thus, women's fiction is lightweight.

    Girls read books with boys and the main characters all the time and think nothing of it. It is considered "normal." But how many boys read books with female main characters, even if the book is full of sword fights and magic? Hardly any. It's considered "weird" for a boy to do that. I think that people don't even notice or pay attention to this.

    And that's what needs to change.

  4. Go, Skye! Great points. I especially agree with you about girls reading books about boys, but not the reverse. thanks for your thoughts!

  5. Great topic and great thoughts, Barb!! Love your take on my favorite kind of reading!

  6. I kept seeing this and meaning to come and read it! Well defended. What drives me nuts is when people criticize the genre and you know they've never even read it! Or they've read one crappy book from the 80s. Or picked up books in the store and funny-read the inside cover, but never actually read something suggested to them, that they might like. And it's just plain old sexism, from women too. And that's what I tell them, every time. It's about emotion, which is a Woman's Topic--you're being sexist and you don't know it. Grr!

  7. @London--Yes, I know what you mean. I even had an interaction with someone today along those lines.

    Hey, and btw, you commented a few days late on a post of mine several months ago and I didn't see it until just this week (about the 4-letter word and looking at pictures on Facebook). Thanks for your kind words here and there!

  8. A couple of other recommendations if you're new to the genre: Spymaster's Lady by Joanna Bourne and Little Ray of Sunshine by Lani Diane Rich (which is definitely not a guy book, but still a great read).

  9. You know, there is a certain bit of the logic in the above argument (the one about the men who say women shouldn't read romance novels) that has been bugging me since I posted this. Because read a certain way, my argument says that romance novels treat men the same way marketing/advertising/etc treat women. Even though I tried to make it sound like it's their argument, not mine, and I was just debunking it, it's still there in the underpinnings.

    So, am I equating romance novels with the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue? And if I state it baldly like that, I have to say.... well, yes, with some of them, I am. There is a certain aggrandizing aspect of some romance novels, where everything becomes about the guy. His ability to be everything the heroine needs, to complete her, to lead her to transcendence--physical and otherwise. He loves to talk, he's endlessly patient, he's wealthy, he's handsome and well-endowed, he's always aware of her needs and never seems to have any of his own, he's so over-the-top perfect that it's a little ludicrous. So, yeah, I can't completely deny that there's some truth to that. I think there are some romance novels that rise above that, that serve as a genuine commentary on current social and sexual mores-- even the "historical" ones are commenting on current mores. But there are probably guys who would argue that there are certain SI swimsuit photos that rise to the level of art.

    But on the other hand, one of the benefits for women of reading romance novels is to figure out what it would look like to be in a relationship where your partner respects you, listens to you, and "treats you right" (particularly if you come from a background where you were ignored or belittled or worse). And I have a hard time seeing how the converse happens with the swimsuit issue. "I deserve to have a woman that is a size 2 and has impossible physical endowments"?? what would the equivalent be?

    so. just some further thoughts.

  10. Thing is... I think the overall problem is that people generalize about the entire genre, and then judge it. There IS variety. There are great books, good books, ok ones, and some suck. And they do this without ever reading a single frakking one!

    If we use the Swimsuit thing... it's like saying that all kinds of representations of nude women are the same. Whereas some are very artistic, some take time and creative talent, some are cheap, some are salacious, and so forth. Few people look at artistic nudes and put them on the same level as Sports Illustrated. But they dismiss the entire romance genre with one sweep. It's porn for women. Or, it gives them unrealistic expectations and causes divorce.

    I'm also always a bit wary about just how much influence media have over us. I think it happens, but perhaps less than we give credit for. I don't buy every product that's presented on TV, and I don't read a romance novel and then go yell at my hubby. :-)

    But. Here's where I do have a criticism, and I think it overlaps with what you're saying: I wish there was a greater variety in the main protagonists. (Again, not saying all authors do this, but just too many.)

    The men these days are all replicas of Mr Rochester--dark haired and brooding on the outside, tender and good at giving orgasms on the inside. Tortured past. (Like the hero of True Blood.) Except they forget that Rochester wasn't good looking (unlike the actors who always play him.)

    The men are ALWAYS hot. Why?! Do women readers really only want to read about hot guys?

    And the women are too often Elizabeth Bennets. Fiesty and quick witted. Especially when in an historical setting. They've ALL been raised by their widower fathers, so that they expect more freedoms bla bla bla.

    One thing I like about Heyer is there's some variety. She had some dark and brooding, some super smart, some dumb as posts, some arrogant and mean, some kind and soft spoken. Heroine's mothers aren't all dead, and many of the heroes had good childhoods. (The relatives are some of the best characters!)

    What I would say about the publisher's demands, is that they've made the genre too focused on the aspirational--the hero has to be the ideal man we fantasize about, and the heroine has to be someone we can relate to. I don't mind if Harlequin wants to make that their goal because they're the McDonalds of Romance--there's consistency so that a reader knows what to expect when they buy one. But it shouldn't be all over the single titles!

    That's why Major Pettigrew's Last Stand was my favorite romance this past couple years. Cause the hero is an old, small-minded man, and the heroine is a kindly Pakistani-British shopkeeper who helps broaden his world.

    ...Okay I'll stop ranting now. :-) Thanks BarbN!

  11. (Wow, that's really long. Sorry!)

  12. Are you kidding? don't apologize. I love this discussion. Now I wish I had made this a real post instead of just a comment, I didn't think anyone would ever find it. (You must have signed up for email followup comments?)

    Yes, that's exactly what I meant. There are some really smart, intelligent, insightful romance novels, but there's a whole mountain of them that are just about the fantasy (I would say, that are just fodder for BOB, but this is a family-friendly blog. except I just said it anyway.) And there's nothing really WRONG with that, in the same way that there's nothing wrong with dh flipping through the swimsuit issue. I've read and enjoyed some of that type. But I like the smart ones better, and there are all too few of those.

    And I agree about Heyer, too. One of my top 5 of hers is Cotillion, in which the hero ends up being not the one you'd expect. He's the whiny, immature one, compared to the antagonist's dark, brooding, rakish demeanor. Especially in the audiobook-- the narrator gets the voices just exactly right. But the hero grows into the part, and by the end, you just love him.

    In related news, Joanna Bourne's new one arrived in my mailbox today. :-) Can't wait to read it, but I have to wait because there just aren't enough hours in the day at the moment.

  13. oh, and p.s. I have Major Pettigrew but haven't read it yet. I keep hearing about it. Maybe I will even put it higher in the stack than Bourne's new one.

  14. (Ya I clicked on follow-up :-) )

    Cotillion's one of my faves too. When I went to London, the only thing I visited at the British Museum was the Elgin Marbles. "But--they've got no heads!" "Well you see Freddy they're very old." "Dash it they've got no arms either!"

    My mum loves the scenes where Freddy goes to his father for advice, and complains about the "take in" at the British museum. The father is trying not to laugh, but also sees a new side to his son!

    So Joanna Bourne is someone I should try? I've never heard of her.

  15. She (Joanna Bourne) is one of my favorites, right up there with Crusie, Loretta Chase, Lani/Lucy and Elizabeth Hoyt. But my mom-- who writes historical romance novels-- doesn't care for her. Mom says her dialogue sounds clunky, but I suspect that's because some of her characters are French, so when they speak English, they speak it oddly. They're worth a try, anyway.

  16. Thanks--I'll stick her on my amazon list.