I followed my new roommate into the used bookstore. I had a budget and a limitation. I was only allowed to buy books I had written on the TBR list in the notebook I carried in my purse, and only if they were under seven dollars.
As a student on an exchange and internship program to Ottawa, I was being frugal. I didn’t want to spend more than I had in the bank, and what was there also needed to buy my plane ticket home for Christmas. But I was trying to bond with my new roommates and one of them wanted to buy some gifts to mail to Vancouver for her friend’s birthday.
So here we were. In a used bookstore in downtown Ottawa, looking at romance novels.
It was a new experience for me.
I read my first Harlequin romance novel that evening.
And I loved it.
My roommate had a tradition. For her friend’s birthdays, she bought them the most ridiculous romance novels she could find and then she annotated them. She highlighted the dirty words, references to body parts, and commented on the sex scenes in the margins. It was her way of both making her friends laugh and making them incredibly uncomfortable.
I’d read romantic novels before this, but never a romance romance. Never one that had more than a kiss.
I grew up reading Christian novels, written by Christians, usually for Christians, and with the plot focusing on finding the sweet, kind, generous man to marry, go to church with and have babies with. Often, there was some kind of tragedy or mystery to overcome before the marriage could happen. And, someone had to hear the gospel message and choose to start attending church and living for God.
They were sweet, cozy romances, usually. I enjoyed them. I call them fluff reads now. Feel good books that are perfect for a bubble bath on a Friday night to relax and smile. There are cheesy parts, but overall, they are fun reads. Authors like Lori Wick, Francine Rivers, Tracie Peterson, Robin Jones Gunn, and Janette Oak were staples of my teen years.
And then I went into that bookstore with that roommate.
And I discovered a new guilty pleasure. Reading harlequin romance novels.
She let me read the two books she purchased before she annotated them and sent them to her friend. I devoured them in one evening. They were pure entertainment.
I’m embarrassed that I used to look down on romance novels, that I saw them as a guilty pleasure I couldn’t tell anyone about or share my enjoyment of. Sure, I read a lot of romance, but I didn’t read romance novels. Romance novels were silly and stupid, all steamy sex scenes and little to no plot. They were for lonely middle-aged women who couldn’t get a real man because they think all relationships should be like the stories they read. Romance novels were bad for women.
And then I grew up.
Romance novels are about standing up for what we want and what we enjoy.
I realized that we readers read books because we enjoy them. That whichever book helps us discover a love of reading is a good book and worth reading.
One of the reasons many of us read is to escape. We read to escape our everyday lives and experiences something different, unique, exciting. Sometimes we read fantasy or sci-fi to do that. And sometimes, we read romance. (Or romantic fantasy or romantic sci-fi, or romantic mystery or romantic thriller…really you can get a romance novel in just about every sub-genre.)
Maya Rodale wrote a fabulous piece for Bustle about why it’s totally feminist to read and write romance novels. Included in her reasons are relaxation for busy, hardworking women who take care of everyone else and enjoy reading about a woman being taken care of and treasured, and the journey of a female character coming to a deeper understanding of herself and experiencing awesome female friendship.
Romance novels are a huge industry. Romance Writers of America estimates that the sales value of romance novels in the USA in 2013 was $1.08 billion. That number doesn’t include all of the free romance novels out there, shared books and library loans. Oh, and it’s higher than fantasy and sci-fi and mystery. People, men and women, read romance novels and read a lot of them. And yet, we still hear comments about them being silly, anti-women, mommy-porn. Why?
Intelligent women are reading, and writing romance novels.
You might be surprised who is actually reading and writing romance novels. Shakespeare professors, surgeons, farmers, engineers. These women have PhDs and tons of life experience. And they write romance novels on the side. Simple because they enjoy it.
All novels deserve respect, even if you don’t like them.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again today – let’s stop looking down on any one genre of book. You might not enjoy a certain genre or even a certain title, but that doesn’t mean no one should read it or that it deserves derision. Yes, some books are poorly written or have a poorly developed plot or flat characters. If you don’t like them, don’t read them. But don’t stop others from reading them.
As someone who hopes to publish one day, I am in awe of every author who finishes a book and then successfully publishes it, either through self-publishing or through a traditional publisher. It’s an amazing feat to complete a novel. It’s an even more amazing feat to get it out there in the world for people to read.
I don’t read romance novels all the time. I find many of them too silly for my taste. But there are some that I really enjoy. I love a good mystery or a good western romance. I seem to be drawn to the cowboys and ranches of the American Midwest. They are fun, quick reads when I’m tired and just want to relax.
I don’t call them my guilty pleasure anymore. I’ve even come to realize that most stories are better when they have a touch of romance (or a lot) to them. So I smile and keep reading. We all find ourselves lonely sometimes, and a little romance between characters is often just thing to cheer us up and make us feel all warm and fuzzy inside.