Novel Readings

Confessions of a (Former) Non-Romance Reader; or, Everything I Know About Romance Novels I Learned on Twitter

Life is short, I’m busy, my TBR list is long and endlessly proliferating — so why would I waste my time on books that are shallow, badly written, and pander to silly, juvenile fantasies of finding Mr. Right? They’re so formulaic as to be essentially interchangeable and so numerous they are clearly also disposable. And their covers are so embarrassingly lurid!

Yes, I admit, these are things I have always (casually, without much reflection) thought about romance novels. Though I am not particularly interested in several other kinds of “genre” fiction (science fiction or fantasy, for instance), I have never dismissed these categories as, well, categorically beyond the pale, the way I have romance novels. I figured there were good or bad, trivial and significant, examples of science fiction and fantasy, and over the years I’ve tried some samples, but there is so much else to read that is more to my taste that I never felt motivated, much less obligated, to pursue them. Still, I always knew that was about me, not them. I’m not a voracious reader of mystery fiction either, but I know my way around the field and need  no persuasion to agree with Raymond Chandler’s famous proclamation that “an art which is capable of [The Maltese Falcon] is not ‘by hypothesis’ incapable of anything”–indeed, I’m on record making my best case for the arbitrariness of the genre fiction / literary fiction distinction in general and the literary potential of the police procedural in particular.

But romance? Not only have I always assumed that there’s nothing in it for me, but I’ve assumed too that there’s not much in it for anybody. Chick-lit is bad enough. I have hung out with lots of readers my entire life, and nobody I know reads romance novels! Enough said!

Well, maybe not.

I’m not about to make a big pronouncement in defense of romance novels. I’m hardly qualified to, having read approximately five from cover to cover. But I will say that I have recently been through a process of re-education about them that has been very interesting to me as a reader and a thinker, and also, not incidentally, rather revealing to me personally. If I were going to pronounce on anything at this point, it would be on the value of keeping an open mind, and on the value of Twitter and blogging for enabling unexpected conversations. It has been frequently remarked that the internet makes it too easy for us to seek out and corral knowledge that suits our existing ideas and preferences, ignoring or filtering out disagreement and contradiction. That’s true. You can friend and follow and subscribe to and like as select a group as you choose, eventually operating in a self-perpetuating bubble of the like-minded. But the internet in general, and social media in particular, can also bring you into contact with a much wider range of people and ideas than you ordinarily would, and even if you make those contacts initially because of some common interest, that one point of intersection may be the beginning of a more dynamic relationship in which both similarities and differences are important and valuable.

I have found this to be especially true of Twitter, perhaps because of the very large and constantly shifting network of connections every tweeter is part of. Through the mechanisms of linking and retweeting, for instance, I see not only the tweets directly from those I follow (a wide assortment of academics, journalists, critics, writers, quilters, publicists, bloggers…) but RTs from those they follow, which are sometimes themselves RTs from those they follow. Looking to see where a tweet or link originated, I often find myself following someone new, either on Twitter or through my Google Reader subscription. Connections proliferate! It’s overwhelming at times, not because of the triviality often ascribed to Twitter by those who haven’t used it or haven’t found a way to use it that serves their interests–but because far too much of interest and substance goes by than I can ever realistically hold on to.

Anyway, back to romance novels. Through the various intricacies of Twitter relationships, I have ended up with some wonderful “tweeps” who, among other things, are happy un-closeted romance readers. (One thing I’m now  aware of is that many romance readers are, in fact, in the closet about this particular reading taste–hence, as often reported, their rapid and enthusiastic embrace of e-reading.) My Twitter friends write and talk about romance novels in ways that made me first realize and then reflect on my careless assumptions about both the books and their readers. My curiosity piqued, I started peering at the romance titles available electronically from my public library–and though by and large what I saw of them seemed to confirm my prejudices (tawdry covers! cheesy-sounding plot lines with 2-dimensional characters!), I kept in mind and puzzled over the satisfaction books of this kind gave these strong, intelligent women who know perfectly well the challenges and rewards of other kinds of reading.

On Twitter, in the meantime, my tweeps joked, good-naturedly, about actually persuading me to read a romance novel someday, and they batted around titles they thought might be my “conversion” novel–so finally I took the bait and borrowed Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels, apparently known to some as one of the best romance novels of all time, from the library. Well, that was a setback. I thought the novel was ridiculous! In fact, it was so much like what I had always snidely imagined romance novels to be that I wondered if it was a parody! Egad. Then I tried Georgette Heyer’s Sylvester–not a genre “romance,” exactly, but in the romance tradition. That wasn’t much more successful.

We went back and forth and gradually clarified that historical romance was not the right direction for me (I don’t much like generic historical fiction either, after all): I should try “contemporary” romance. This development was very educational for me. For some reason I hadn’t thought of romance as a genre that (like mystery fiction) comes in well-defined subgenres among which readers make informed choices. Because I didn’t really know how else to search the library’s online catalogue for samples, for instance, the romances I’d scanned were all Harlequin titles, of the ‘Billionaire’s Virgin Bride’ type, while the ones being recommended to me were “historicals” (including one about the Crystal Palace that I haven’t been able to find so far–I expect I’ll hate it, but I’m curious to see it anyway! Victorians and hot sex, always a good combination, right?). They seemed more alike than different, and not in good ways. (I realize some of this is the effect of marketing, not content.) If I’d been taking the whole genre more seriously from the start, of course, it would not have come as such a revelation to me that it is not one more or less silly thing but simply a form that (again, like msytery fiction) can contain multitudes. At this point one of my Twitter tutors suggested I look up Jennifer Crusie, and so I read Anyone But You next–and quite enjoyed it! And now I’ve also read Getting Rid of Bradley and am about half way through What the Lady Wants, and they’ve been amusing and entertaining as well.

Thinking about why I liked Anyone But You (not loved, mind you, but liked–to the tune of 2 stars on Goodreads), I realized that it is really a prose version of a romantic comedy, a movie genre I enjoy.  I actually have a collection of favorite romantic comedies I own on DVD, including Moonstruck (the best!), When Harry Met Sally, Notting Hill, You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle. These are not high art films–but then, almost none of the films I watch are! I don’t reject these films for being “only” what they are. I appreciate how well I think they do what they set out to do, which is tell a romantic story about people I can be brought to care about, with humour and a touch of grace. They indulge happily-ever-after fantasies, yes, but with just enough realism to be engaging and just enough tongue-in-cheek self-consciousness about their own love stories (sometimes, with overt meta-commentary on it, as with the invocation of Pride and Prejudice in You’ve Got Mail or of An Affair to Remember in Sleepless in Seattle) to give a little tartness to their sweetness. As mystery novelists work within but manipulate conventions, these films follow formulas but succeed insofar as they tweak them to make them new. There’s comfort in knowing how things will turn out (again, as in mystery novels, with the reassurance of order restored). They are feel-good movies. What’s wrong with a feel-good book? Anyone But You is exactly that. In fact, it would make a nice little rom com. I can totally see Meg Ryan in it! It even has the quirky secondary characters. If it’s perfectly OK with me to enjoy Sleepless in Seattle even though I know it is not a great, profound, or innovative film–just a charming one–then why shouldn’t there be a place for charming, light-hearted romance in my reading life?

Yet something still strikes me as particularly slight or insubstantial about my small sample of romance novels, and I’ll keep on thinking about this as I read more. I’ve been thinking, for instance, that one of the reasons it’s easier to take mystery novels seriously is that they trade in “important” things like law, justice, and, of course, death. Romance novels seem more trivial because they are “just” about falling in love. But then, the same is true of many literary novels, and falling in love–not to mention deciding to marry someone–can reflect as many complex and important aspects of character and society as crime. The romance novels I’ve read so far don’t really do this–but just as there’s no reason in principle why detective fiction can’t be as literary as The Maltese Falcon or the Martin Beck books, there’s no reason in principle why romance novels can’t be great literature too. In fact, many novels we already acknowledge as great literature follow that same basic plot. Is there a continuum, then, from (say) Jane Austen or George Eliot to Jennifer Crusie? Maybe, though the differences in both style and substance seem conspicuous and significant!

As for the personal revelations hinted at above, all I’ll say is that thinking through my assumptions about and reactions to romance novels has involved thinking about my own experience of and thoughts about romance, love, and marriage. Few of us (happily) have personal experience of murder, but most of us (happily or not) have been through our own experiences of relationships. It’s a commonplace in fiction that we get ideas about life from books. We also bring our life to our reading, and the things we find unrealistic, sentimental, naive, or foolish are as potentially revealing as the things we find admirable, desirable, dreamy, or delightful. Detection is something we are distanced from, and its various literary forms also typically emphasize and reward detachment. Romance, on the other hand, is a very intimate genre–and I don’t mean just the sex scenes!

My education is ongoing. I’m sure there will be some follow-up discussion on Twitter and elsewhere.

And yes, if you were wondering, I am ‘X.’