I Read Romance Novels. So What?

Guaranteed conversationstopper in a group of people who like to consider themselves liberal and well educated: The words ‘I read romance novels’ or ‘I was reading a romance the other day and…’ or some combination thereof. Romance novels, you see, are simply Not Done in our circles.

Well, I’ve got news for you: I read romance novels. No ifs, ands, or buts. I read romance novels, and I like them. In fact, some of the most socially progressive fiction I’ve read in recent months has been in romance novels. I read them all. Paranormal romance, historical romance, you name it, I read it. And I enjoy it. Rather a lot, actually.

People often appear aghast when I make this statement. For some reason, it’s ok to write romance novels, especially if you do it in an ironic and hipster ways, but reading them is taboo and verboten. Like young adult literature, romance novels are highly stigmatised. People who have never picked up a romance novel in their lives seem to know a whole lot about what’s under the covers, and they will expound at length, usually without needing to be invited to do so, on the evils of romance novels if they catch wind of the fact that you read them and enjoy them.

Romance novels are trashy. They are mindless entertainment. They are popcorn novels. They are socially regressive. They feature troped and boring plots. People who read them are mindless drones incapable of independent thought. Reading romance novels is evidence of being suspect, intellectually. Why would you read Georgette Heyer when you could sit down with a nice Haruki Murakami1? All these beliefs are things I encounter all the time whenever romance comes up. Reading romance is treated like a waste of time and energy.

Well, I get to decide how I spend my time and energy, and sometimes, I like to spend it reading romance novels. Sometimes I deliberately read books that are incredibly cheesy and silly and have no real value. Why? Because I spend all day, every day, writing and reading serious things. I am steeped in so much written material, I shit 10 point Times New Roman. So, yeah, sometimes I like to have a little brain blowout with a book that doesn’t require a lot of energy and thought. Sometimes, I like to lie on my deck in the sun with a silly novel and a bowl of cherries, waving my legs in the air and chortling to myself at the ridiculousness, yelling at the characters and feigning shock and surprise about sudden plot twists.

But, you know, not all romance is completely silly and mindless. And a lot of modern fiction is. I don’t understand why a book is suddenly deemed to have no redeeming value whatsoever if it has a Harlequin imprint, but it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread with a penguin on the spine. What distinguishes these two books? It’s not necessarily quality and nature of content, it’s how people think about the content.

Let’s compare and contrast two books I read recently: David Mitchell’s highly acclaimed The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and Charlaine Harris’ Dead After Dark, a reread for me. One of these books was filled with embarrassingly rampant Chinoiserie, objectification of Japanese women, ridiculous cultural stereotypes, and mindnumbingly predictable plot lines. The other contained embedded social commentary, wry humour, and, yes, very predictable plots.

While I would argue that the quality of the writing in Mitchell’s book was better, because he has a fantastic gift with language and paints absolutely beautiful pictures on the page, in terms of actual social value? I’d put my money on Harris. And it’s Harris I will be reading again, because Mitchell’s treatment of Japan and Japanese people pissed me off so much that I can’t imagine enjoying the book all that much if I enjoy it again. No amount of flowery prose can cover up the stench that hovers over the rest of the book.

Yet, I would be praised for reading Mitchell and mocked for reading Harris in a lot of circles, thanks to snobbery about literature and the belief that some kinds of literature are better than others. We’re told that mystery novels are a cheesy waste of time, but the oldest literature in the world is based on mysteries, tangled plots and conflicting loyalties and sudden plot twists. And the literature renaissance that happened in Victorian England, revolutionising English literature, a lot of that consisted of mysteries; you may read Wilkie Collins and laugh now, but he had an impact on the literature not just of his era, but of future generations of English writers.

So, you know, you can mock people for reading romance novels and sit smug in intellectual elitism and pride that you don’t touch ‘garbage,’ but keep in mind that many highly praised authors and books are pretty trashy, if you ask me. I care about what’s between the covers, not who wrote it, not the category it’s found in at the bookstore, not the lurid cover art.

Some of the most socially progressive literature right now is in genres like young adult, romance, and science fiction. These genres, traditionally treated as small potatoes, have authors who are willing to take risks and can take them, because they are established, and because publishers are willing to take more of a gamble. I’ve read more honest, accurate, interesting, challenging, and dynamic depictions of people with disabilities in romance novels than I have in mainstream literature, for example. I’ve also read my fair share of depictions that make me want to scream, of course, it’s not that every book in this genre is perfect and romance novels are rightly known for their fare share of rapey and racist plots. But that doesn’t mean that all of these books should be painted with the same brush; it does a disservice to them, and to their readers.

Related reading: Adrienne’s ‘Help! I’m…a feminist romance reader?

  1. Both of whom, incidentally, can be found on my shelves, in case you were wondering.