I spend a good bit of time talking about the romance genre and how misunderstood it is. The books themselves are dismissed as meaningless, possibly pornographic fluffysmut of the lowest quality. (Pardon while I defend it again: NO, NOT TRUE.) The writers are denigrated as hacks who write according to a prescribed formula and produce books that are "all the same" in quality and content. (Again. NO.) And the readers are portrayed as unimaginative, unintelligent, frustrated, sexless dowds who get their thrills from pink-wrapped soft-core porno novels while ensconced on a threadbare sofa surrounded by way too many cats. (Only one part of that sentence applies to me: I do have a lot of pets, including two dogs, three cats and a tank full of fish. What can I say? I have a food chain.)

Read the last Smart Bitches, Trashy Books

The combined trifecta of tools used to dismiss romance can bring me pretty quickly to HULKSMASH levels of anger, particularly because so much of it is often snidely wrapped in the most sexist of language. But the problem I have is describing some of the reasons why romances are important to readers, because the language readers and I use to talk about the books we love can easily be twisted into the insults above. What the hell, I'll try anyway.

There are many statistics I could whip out and show off as to the length and strength of the romance readership: the dollars we spend, the number of books we read and the demographic target audiences we occupy. But the real value of romance novels for those of us who adore them comes from the connection we have with our books, particularly those books we truly love.

Continue reading >


 

Reading is an intimate, emotional and intensely cognitive exercise—you are building a world in your head, imagining people, giving them voices and appearances, and then understanding and empathizing with their feelings, their emotions and their story. The reader is a participant in the imaginative process of reading a book—and this is true for any type of reading, really, particularly fiction.

In addition to constructing the world and the characters within it, the reader is also engaged in imagining the inner turmoil of each character's mind and heart. With romances, the protagonists' thoughts and emotions are an integral part of the story—and, to quote Nora Roberts, romance novels are about emotions, relationships and sex. All of these things are terribly intimate (and, as Roberts continued, a "hat trick of easy targets" for mock and derision). 

Because romances are about emotions, relationships and sexuality, they connect with the reader on those three very intimate levels. Emotional displays are rarely seemly in public, but romances offer a safe place in which to explore feelings both unfamiliar and familiar. Relationships are difficult and challenging and they often hurt, but again, romances focus on the strengths and weaknesses of courtship and commitment and allow the reader to do the same. Sex, particularly for women, is an impossibly complicated issue: men's sexuality is pretty much available for public consumption, while female sexuality, particularly in the media, is often a hot mess of confusion. Women's sexuality, arousal and satisfaction are rarely portrayed realistically. Hell, women rarely see un-airbrushed imperfect images of other women in popular media, much less honest and frank depictions of sexual interaction.

But in romances, the woman's experience, in every possible permutation, is a major part of the focus of the novel. Romances are valuable because they allow exploration of female experience, which also makes them hard to describe and defend to those who are hell-bent on dismissing and mocking them. A single romance can connect with a reader's heart, mind and body, providing emotional recognition, provoking thoughtful debate, and inciting tears and excitement. That is why romance readers are so defensive of our genre—or, at least, I am. The books I love are important to me on a personal level, and the relationship I have with my favorite novels is an intimate one.

Which books are your very personal favorites, the ones that touched you most deeply, the ones you still think about?

Sarah Wendell is the co-creator, editor and mastermind of the popular romance blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.