People generally know I read a lot. It isn’t hard to guess. I have an MA in Literature, I carry a book or a kindle around with me everywhere I go, and my bookshelves at home are filled to the brim! So it’s not surprising that I often get asked, “So, what do you like to read?” As a person who has studied literature, I used to have a pretty easy, standard, and somewhat snotty answer: “classic literature.” And it is still largely true. I enjoy Willa Cather, Albert Camus, Valdimir Nobokov, and of course, Jane Austen. In general, I can speak intelligently about most literature, with the exception of current fiction. I love Love LOVE Haruki Murakami, but otherwise I’ve been behind on reading the new stuff. But the fact of the matter is this answer largely obscured my real answer: I read romance novels.
I’m not sure what other people think when they think of romance novels. Certainly I’ve always been embarrassed by the cover pictures on romance novels. I had never been so excited when I realized I could read romance novels on my kindle and no longer had to walk around with books with half naked men and women locked in painfully intimate embraces on their covers.
But, for people who don’t normally read romance novels, what do they think a romance novel is? Do they think it is largely about the happily ever after? Or do they think of raunchy sex scenes and superficial characters? Of course these characteristics are not mutually exclusive, but I have always felt like I need to excuse my obsession with romance novels. If people think it’s the first, then I have this vision that they think I am a sad, lonely woman who is painfully naïve (this isn’t true, especially since my undergraduate thesis was on the genocides in Rwanda and Sudan). If it’s the later, then I think they think I am a woman with a terrible sex life caught in a loveless and/or boring marriage (this also isn’t true, and if I bothered to post a picture of my husband you’d see he is quite the sexy beast, not to mention an all around nice guy).
So, in spending too much time thinking about what other people think about my reading habits, I do the opposite of what most people do when they are embarrassed. Now that I have finished my MA, I no longer feel the need to tell people I read classic lit. I think that’s obvious. Instead I tell people I read trashy romance novels followed by a self-conscious laugh. Why I need to put the adverb in there I don’t know. Except that I think I want to make it clear that I don’t read the stuff where every heroine is 22 and a virgin. Sure, I used to read those novels when I was 16. But I’ve since realized that most of us don’t fall in love when we are 22. Or, if we do, it is usually our first love and we go on to have another one (or two or three). And the majority of those second and third loves involve intimacy. So, yes, there is sex in the novels I read. Sometimes there isn’t, but usually there is. And it has taken me 30 years to be okay with it, because I know that sex is part of a loving relationship.
What I feel bad about in giving this nervous, yet weirdly belligerent answer is it obscures the value I find in reading romance novels. I treat it like it’s a throw away genre and it isn’t—or at least I don’t think it is. I am reminded that it’s important to treat your spouse well. That it’s important to forgive people because no one is perfect. That life is short and we need to enjoy it to its fullest. That love is what makes life worth living and if we are lucky enough to be in love, that that doubles the worthiness of it all.
Sure, there are things I dislike about the genre. It has some weird expectations surrounding sex and normative responses of women to men. Am I suppose to feel bad that I don’t get instantly wet when some hot guy looks at me? Am I abnormal if I don’t like some guy manhandling me and telling me what to do? On the other hand, it is great to be reminded that a man who loves me should be concerned with my pleasure. And I should feel safe, comfortable, and secure enough in our relationship and my partner to share what I enjoy inside and outside the bedroom. No genre is perfect, and it’s only as good as the author makes it. Certainly I can point to more than a few works of classic literature that is misogynistic and repressed. All in all, I hope it doesn’t take me another 30 years to share my love of romance novels in a mature and measured way. And I hope one day, when I get asked that ordinary question, in response to my answer, to finally hear an, “Oh, me too! Who is your favorite romance author?”