Friday, October 10, 2014

The Secret Shame: On Buying and Reading Romance Novels

I collect vintage historical romances. They're so dated and I love how they are completely unlike anything published today. Yes, they are cheesy as hell and politically incorrect as all get-out, but that's part of their charm. I love charming classic regency novels; I love the dark, epic sagas contained in bodice rippers penned during the 70s and 80s; I love the sensationalist fictional biographies; I love the big-hair and fast-cars glitter-trash novels from the 80s and 90s.

Basically, I love romance novels.

I didn't used to, though. I used to look down on the women who read them, because I had always been told, either directly or through stereotypes in the media, that romance novels were for women of below-average intelligence, women who were too unattractive to get a man and therefore had to resort to ill-written fantasy, women who were, basically, like nothing I wanted to be.

Oh, I was wrong. So, so wrong.

The first romance novelist I ever read was Lisa Kleypas. I was recommended her by a friend I held in high esteem. A lot of my friends, who were definitely not stupid or pathetic -- as far from it as possible, actually -- were reading romance novels and I began to wonder if there was something to the genre after all. Kleypas's smart prose and sparkling wit won me over almost immediately.

From Kleypas, I moved on to Julia Quinn, Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, and then, later, Courtney Milan. Now, I'll read almost everything once. I may not like all of what I read, and there are definitely some cringe-worthy romance novels that do the genre as a whole ill, but there are a lot of wonderful, amazing, deep romance novels that are just, well, romantic. With a capital 'R.'

A few months ago, I was shopping at a thrift store for my favorite kind of goodies and a man asked what I was looking for, and I said, "Vintage romance novels." He then proceeded to inform me that he had always thought romance novels were stupid, until he realized that some of the older ones were actually worth money to collectors. I gave him a tight smile and said, "Well, I enjoy reading them."

Creepy McJudgingyou couldn't take a hint, and proceeded to follow me around the store, bragging about some of his best finds. "I actually found a signed first edition of Gone with the Wind," he said, "I sold it for forty grand. Someone must have really messed up not to catch that, huh?"

I had stopped responding by that point, because he was starting to piss me off.

And the irony of my reaction was not lost on me. Because I used to think like that, too. A lot of people do.

Romance is a huge market. According to NPR, it's a 1.4 billion dollar industry. Other genres don't even come close in terms of netted profit. What makes it even more amazing is that romance is one of the few genres (apart from maybe YA -- although John Green has tipped the scales in that scene, and not necessarily for the better) that is dominated by women.

And yet, despite its popularity, and its ability to bring in money, the romance genre is almost constantly mocked, and so are the women who read in the genre. Does the fact that it's a genre geared almost entirely towards women have anything to do with this? I can't help but wonder if that's the case -- that a genre targeted towards women must automatically be inferior, both from an intellectual standpoint and from a standpoint of cultural significance.

Because, despite advancements made in the treatment of women, things still aren't completely equal. Women are still shamed for pursuing sex. Women are shamed for talking about sex. Women are shamed for showing interest in sex. And women are shamed for reading and writing romance novels.

Even when they're good.

Even when they consistently out-sell all other genres.


Well, that's the 1.4 billion dollar question, isn't it?

I, for one, will be happily, and unabashedly, reading my bodice-rippers in public -- not in a paper bag.

Further reading:

Romance Novels, The Last Great Bastion of Underground Writing (The Awl)

Beyond Bodice-Rippers: How Romance Novels Came to Embrace Feminism (The Atlantic)

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