Speaking of Romance…

Things I love that get made fun of on the Internet (and sometimes in person): Hallmark movies, scented candles that smell like leaves or flannel or fall, Taylor Swift even before Folklore, romantic comedies. Not pumpkin spice lattes, because honestly, I’m not a pumpkin spice anything kind of chick, but I like a good peppermint mocha now and again. I’ve never kept it a secret that I enjoy these oh-so basic things, but I don’t necessarily broadcast it, either. So apparently not everybody in my life knew about my love of all things love, romance, and girly until I wrote a whole blog post about my steady diet of super-cheesy slices of made-for-TV heaven. Which is why, the other day, an old friend— let’s call her Eileen.— leaned into her Zoom screen and said, “Now that I know that about you, I feel like I can tell you. I read romance novels.”

Guess what: me, too.

Romance novels really weren’t on my radar until the last year or two. Until recently, when I thought of mass-market grocery store paperbacks with raised lettering on the covers. I thought of romance, I thought of Fabio in an open shirt, wind blowing through his long, blond hair. I thought of women fainting. My interest wasn’t exactly piqued. I read Bridges of Madison County, just to see what all the fuss was about. I didn’t get it. I read Good in Bed, because everyone on Goodreads was wild about Jennifer Weiner, but couldn’t get past a glaring plot discrepancy. (How did the editors not notice two completely different relationship timelines in one book? How did the reviewers not notice? How did the readers not notice?) I earmarked all of romance writing as lazy, formulaic, and unsophisticated. Also: lady porn. Then I read The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang.

The Kiss Quotient follows the romance playbook. Yes, there’s girl-meets-boy. Yes, there’s the promise of a happy ending, and, yes, there are several pages-long sex scenes that make me too bashful to recommend the novel to anyone I know. (Mom, read at your own risk, and let’s never talk about it.) But The Kiss Quotient is also about a woman living with Aspherger’s Syndrome who believes that she’s too socially unskilled to find love in her life. She loves her job and hates any clothing without French seams. (French seams, apparently, are far less itchy.) This is a book about a lot of complex, real human emotions. . 

Things You Safe in a Fire by Katherine Center is about love, but also about a female firefighter determined to earn respect in a predominantly male industry. Evvie Drake Starts Over is as much about loss, grief, friendship, and baseball as it is about ending up with the guy. Red, White & Royal Blue is about the son of a female President of the United States falling in love with the Prince of England. It doesn’t even have a woman in it for me to resent or judge or find somehow problematic! It’s just a love story! Exclamation point! 

This week, I’m reading Beach Read by Emily Henry, and it’s so un-put-down-able I’ve found it difficult to make time for writing this post. Yes, it’s a love story. Yes, it promises a happy ending. Yes, it’s got some pretty explicit sex. And because our heroine is a romance novelist, it also includes one of the most articulate defenses of the genre I’ve ever read: 

“I know how to tell a story, Gus, and I know how to string a sentence together. If you swapped out all my Jessicas for Johns, do you know what you’d get? Fiction. Just fiction. Ready and willing to be read by anyone, but somehow by being a woman who writes about women, I’ve eliminated half the Earth’s population from my potential readers, and you know what? I don’t feel ashamed of that. I feel pissed.” 

See what I mean? So then, why did it take my own revelation about Hallmark Movies for Eileen to tell me she likes to read romance? 

It could be the perception— which I shared before I dared to look into it further— that romance novels are formulaic, lazy writing. That they’re low. (Eileen and I met in an MFA program. MFA programs, generally, are places where art is spelled with a capitol-A. Art.) But, as Henry writes, so much of what happens in romance novels— and women’s fiction in general— is just about the human experience. Why is that low? Because it promises a happy ending? 

I won’t speak for everyone else. I certainly won’t speak for Eileen, but for all of those years when I was judging romance novels as stupid and unfeminist and low, I was making some pretty sexist assumptions about what was going on behind that book’s cover. I operated from the assumption that caring about a love story and enjoying a happy ending meant there was no substance there. It was shallow. It was lame. It was girly. 

What the actual fuck. 

Talk about internalized sexism. 

Why should enjoying stories with happy endings be a sign of weakness? What’s actually so wrong with wanting a character to find love? Yes, there are those Hallmark-y romances that present a binary: love or career. Love or Unhappiness. Those stories are problematic. #NotAllStories There’s high and low, quality and… not quality in literally every genre. For every My Cousin Vinny there are a dozen legal dramas so mind-numbing we forget their titles. For every Italian Job or Oceans 11 there are a dozen other Oceans movies that don’t quite measure up. Yes: romantic comedies can give us Gigli, but it can also give us You’ve Got Mail. (I’m conflating romantic comedies and romance novels here. For the purposes I’m talking about, a story is a story, regardless of medium.) I’ve always been able to distinguish the high and low within a genre when the genre is conventionally masculine. Or, when the genre is at least un-gendered. To write off all of romance writing on the assumption that  there’s no quality there is an obvious bias against my own gender. 

All to say: I read romance novels. There are some really great ones! Little by little, I’m trying not to judge women for writing books about things they care about. Things I care about. I’m trying not to think it’s stupid to enjoy happily ever after, just because other types or stories are about something else. I’m trying. 

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