Last week, romance fans faced yet another condescending pontification about the evils of Fifty Shades of Grey in particular and romance novels in general, this time in the august pages of The New Republic, written by a seemingly misogynistic author by the name of William Giraldi.
Much Internet ink has been wasted on this screed in various places (though I do love Alyssa Rosenberg’s rebuttal in the Washington Post) and a part of me hesitates to give credence to Mr. Giraldi’s voice by addressing it here. I believe my 2012 NPR essay In Defense of Romance addresses many of the basic points as to why romance is important to women, and I was pleased to see that NPR included that essay in their Book News email last week as an antidote to Giraldi’s toxic opinion.
But here’s the thing...
Why are women continually put in the position of having to defend their reading choices, no matter what they are? It is very rare for me to be in any social group where I am not one of the best read persons there. I’ve never read Adam Bede or Clarissa, but I’ve read Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary and The Mill on the Floss, and as beautifully rendered as those books might be, they don’t include many positive messages for modern women.
I agree that Fifty Shades of Grey is not a terribly well-written novel but there is no question that it hit a chord with millions of readers. (Read the Kirkus review here.) And to be honest, I am never quite sure which bothers me more: men who’ve never read a romance novel in their lives (like, we can assume, Mr. Giraldi) yet dismiss romance novels out of hand because of how poorly written FSoG is, as if that book—or any individual book—is completely representative of the genre; or women, who’ve never read a romance novel in their lives, who in fact look down their noses at the genre, and yet loved FSoG—as if most of the elements they truly responded to in that book weren’t the romantic arcs—but won’t sully their literary purity by picking up A Romance Novel.
There are hundreds of great reasons to like romance novels, and one of the best is that in romance novels, women characters have agency. (I would argue that even Ana in FSoG has agency, but that’s another essay.) In fact, this is one of my biggest pet peeves about so many “literary” novels being published today, as well as many of the classics that deal with women characters in any meaningful way: characters often flounder in their ineptitude, or the women have to suffer and often die to either prove their purity or to atone for their sins.
Jeez, there are plenty of things to judge in this world, both serious and fluffy. I grew up in Texas, lived for 20 years in Washington, D.C., and now reside in Wisconsin, so I can tell you that as much as I might love or hate football, there is plenty of inane, incomprehensible and occasionally violent behavior that revolves around the sport, and Redskins fans, Cowboys fans and Packers fansoften leave me shaking my head at their rhetoric and antics, or just how seriously they take the game. However, no one has ever written an article that claims that anyone who enjoys football is part of “an infirm, ineffectual tribe still stuck in some sort of larval stage.”
At least not as far as I know of, and not in The New Republic.
(And yes. Mr. Giraldi did indeed say that about romance readers.)
Or the International Business Times. I love this one. While not quite as scathingly condescending as Mr. Giraldi, Mr. Palash Ghosh chides the modern woman for devouring “ ‘romance’ stories [that] are to literature what hot dogs are to cuisine -- quickly made, tasty, filling, temporarily satisfying, but with no nutritional value whatsoever. Yet, the genre remains enormously popular.”
He goes on basically to say that reading romance novels repudiates 40 years of women’s progress.
(Oh, and after he was pilloried by tons of romance readers, he offered this “apology”—yet again proving that he completely missed the point of most of the comments, not to mention the romance genre itself or its huge popularity.)
So, Mr. Giraldi and Mr. Ghosh, if you truly want to understand why women love romance novels, you might actually choose to READ A FEW. I am happy to give you some suggestions; in fact, I do, in the NPR piece—that are considered to represent the best of the genre.
You might also want to consider that you both seem to think that women who read romance novels, ONLY read romance novels, which is insulting and inaccurate.
So beyond the numbers you cite, here are some helpful facts for you:
* Any romance writer knows that, unlike in literary fiction, which can sometimes babble on and on about horrific problems that no one seems in any way inclined to fix, romance heroes and heroines are expected to CHANGE. (Mr. Ghosh, you especially should take note of this.)
* Any romance reader understands that women characters in romance novels are overall the most empowered, engaged and vested female characters in modern literature, and they show the most intention toward actually bettering their lives, rather than wallowing in their problems.
* While there aren’t any statistics for this, most women I know who read romance novels also read modern literary fiction and the classics; in my personal circle of romance-reading friends, I am more likely to find women who’ve read literary best-sellers than in my broader circle of acquaintances.
* For myself, I can only take so much Little Bee, The Bluest Eye or, for that matter, Anna Karenina. These books are beautiful and amazing and So. Hard. To. Read. They are emotionally draining and make me heartsore. I don’t think I should have to apologize to you or to anyone for also choosing to read books that make me feel uplifted and optimistic. My God, I have friends whose kids have leukemia, and my mom’s best friend has cancer. Real life is hard enough—do you have to make me feel guilty for wanting to read something that takes me away for a little while? Especially when, sometimes, these books you deem ridiculous actually offer some lovely truths as to how to live gracefully, courageously and authentically.
* I am proud to advocate for romance novels through my writing. I know people who have overcome depression with these books, or have survived harrowing experiences with these powerful, affirming novels on their bedside tables. You should be ashamed of yourselves for writing so despicably about books you know nothing about, and the women who read them.
* And to the editors of The New Republic and the International Business Times, you should be terribly ashamed of yourselves for letting these men write about a subject for which they exhibit a deep misunderstanding and a clear disrespect.
I am happy to write for Kirkus, which has recently shown some esteem for the genre, both in their reviews and their feature representation. I like to think the fact that romance represents nearly 17% of all commercial book sales means that women are the biggest readers in our society, and that they like romance. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Boys aren’t the ones drawing hearts and arrows on their notebooks. So, Condescending, Intellectual Men—rather than being intimidated or somehow insulted by women’s interest in these books, why not actually learn something about their appeal, and try to understand their attraction? Rather than denigrating millions of women for enjoying romance novels, why not put these in the Venus category of things you don’t embrace, but have enough respect for women to not berate us for liking something you don’t get? And if you decide you simply must belittle us, at least learn a little bit more about the subject than Mr. Giraldi and Mr. Ghosh did.
Want to read some great essays by romance writers about why romance matters and how these books have affected their readers for the better? Visit www.ReadARomanceMonth.com. To start with, try these books by Kristan Higgins, Jill Shalvis, Molly O’Keefe, Lisa Kleypas, Julia Quinn, Tessa Dare, Lucy March, Jayne Ann Krentz, Susan Mallery, and Courtney Milan. Then go back and read the rest of them. If you love romance, I bet you’ll be glad you did.
Photo courtesy of Susan Elizabeth Phillips, credit to Graphics by Sharlene.