One of my main platforms in supporting romance novels is that I firmly believe that these books can change lives, and this idea was one of the major reasons I started Read-A-Romance Month.
I know from personal experience that, when I’m feeling low, picking up a romance novel makes me feel better. As an author once said to me, “I can practically guarantee you that no woman reads Anna Karenina when her child is in the ICU.”
If you read my first-ever Kirkus romance post, I mentioned a friend who feels that, on the day she started reading romance novels, her life changed for the better; and, in the two years of Read-A-Romance Month, there has been post after post where authors quote letters from readers who say that their books saved their lives, or changed their lives. (In 2013, these included Jill Shalvis, Kristan Higgins, Julia Quinn, and Maggie Shayne.)
Last week, at the Library of Congress Romance Symposium, it was great to see a bunch of academics on panels standing up for the genre, and I am truly happy to see that these wonderful books are getting a little more study. Honestly it still astounds me that self-help books that tell us how to live happier, healthier lives hit the NYT bestseller lists all the time (and are probably reviewed there over and over) but tell the wrong intellectual that you read romance novels—you know? books that make women feel happier and healthier?—and you’ll be perennially placed in the Dunce Corner for the rest of your life, as far as s/he’s concerned.
I am sincerely gratified that romance novels are being looked at by academics, and as annoyed as it makes me to say so, I am glad that at least a few of them are men. Because really, don’t we all know that men studying a topic that revolves around women gives it a lot more validation than women studying the exact same topic?
I had many great conversations with a bunch of authors, readers, and academics over the two days of the event. We talked about class, education, validation, love, passion, canon. We talked about favorite authors, upcoming authors, our love of romance. We occasionally talked about transcendent moments, when a romance novel made us feel more whole or more connected. We discussed moments when we’d been dismissed for our love of the genre. We celebrated the amazing women we’ve met in this community, and the joy we get in sharing beloved books.
I’m happy my favorite books are being looked at from a more rigorous intellectual perspective, and I’m glad that academic members of some very prestigious institutions are doing the work. But as Jayne Ann Krentz said so eloquently in the previewed documentary on romance, Between the Covers: “Well, I think romance has always suffered from the fact that it’s basically, usually written by women for women. Few exceptions. It’s been known as a women’s genre, and like anything that’s devoted to women, it tends to get kind of short shrift.” (She goes on to say that most genre fiction gets little respect, and she’s right there too.)
I look forward to the day when study after study confirms some things we already know: a) maybe not every romance novel is the best written book in the universe, but a heck of a lot of them contain some truly fine writing; and b) these books are important, and fulfilling, and wonderful, in ways that other books can’t capture.
We romance fans are fully aware of the power of these books. We know that books with romance and happy endings fill a need. They represent hope, and the soul-affirming idea that love matters. It can help us, inspire us, and change us for the better.
It is nice to know, however, that some other people are paying attention, and drawing similar conclusions.
Looking for some great reads? Over at my Read-A-Romance Facebook page, I’m asking some up-and-coming authors to share some of their all-time favorites. Here are a few:
Piper Huguley (The Mayor’s Mission) recommends Indigo by Beverly Jenkins: “This master work by Jenkins shows how one formerly enslaved woman comes to love herself anew when she finds a purpose and is viewed through new eyes by Galen Vachon. Bonus: The love scenes are hot, hot, hot!”
Jennifer Bernard (The Night Belongs to Fireman) recommends Skinny Dipping by Connie Brockway: "I love a free-spirited heroine, and Mimi Olsen totally fits the bill. Slacker meets over-achiever (Joe), and it’s completely hilarious and poignant." (And, by the way, Bobbi recommends just about anything by Connie Brockway)
Sonali Dev (A Bollywood Affair) recommends The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons: "Be prepared to lose sleep over this one and to not be able to get Tatiana and Alexander out of your system long after you're done."