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A Fine Romance

Everything I Know About Love I Learned from Romance Novels

By Sarah Wendell
Sourcebooks, 2011

Few people realize how much courage it takes for a woman to open a romance novel in an airplane. She knows what everyone around her will think about both her and her choice of reading material. When it comes to romance novels, society has always felt free to sit in judgment not only on the literature but on the reader herself.

-Jayne Ann Krentz

Krentz, a New York Times bestselling romance author, wrote those words twenty years ago, but anyone who doubts that they are still apt need only consider a May 2011 article at KSL.com, a Mormon news website, that reported conservative psychologist and author Juli Slattery’s claim that “For many women, these novels really do promote dissatisfaction with their real relationships.” In a similar vein, Susan Quilliam, a self-described, but uncredentialed “psychologist” asserts that “The values of romantic fiction…sometimes run totally counter to those which [women’s health practitioners] espouse.” Quilliam adds, “above all, we teach that sex may be wonderful and relationships loving, but neither are ever perfect and that idealising them is the short way to heartbreak.” While these sources might seem obscure (and, indeed, my own investigation of Quilliam uncovered no psychology degree, and no actual patients), their claims were picked up and reported on widely and uncritically by major media outlets, a common pattern when it comes to “news” about romance novels and their readers.

If conservatives worry that romance novels create unrealistic expectations and inappropriate sexual desire in their mostly female readership, perhaps some support for the genre can be found among their left wing rivals, the feminists? Alas, no. A 2007 Guardian article on the occasion of the one hundredth anniversary of UK romance publisher Mills&Boon, feminist writer Julie Bindel’s depiction of romance fiction as “misogynistic hate speech” that “depict[s] female submission to dominant heroes,” is typical. Bindel’s view is just the latest iteration of a consistent feminist antipathy towards romance novels as “dope for dupes,” expressions of patriarchal ideology. I doubt there is another literary genre so routinely judged by its purported effects on readers—except perhaps children’s literature, the significance of which I hardly need to spell out.

Romance readers have developed a battery of responses to such charges over the years, the most common one being that they can tell the difference between fantasy and reality. This is supposed to answer both the conservative worry that women may gain unrealistic (and unfair) expectations of male partners, and the feminist charge that occasional fantasy refuge in a fictional hero’s strong arms will lead women to devalue their own real life independence. Sarah Wendell, who runs the popular romance website Smart Bitches Trashy Books, deploys this tactic in her new book Everything I Know About Love I Learned from Romance Novels when she complains in the introduction that, in contrast to romance readers, “You don’t see adult gamers being accused of an inability to discern when one is a real human driving a real car and when one is a yellow dinosaur driving a Mario Kart.” But her major strategy throughout the text is to concede that romance readers do learn from romance novels, while denying that what they learn is false or harmful.

Smart Bitches Trashy Books (tagline: “all of the romance, none of the bullshit”), was founded in 2005 by romance readers Wendell and Candy Tan, who felt the prevailing kind of “milquetoast” romance reviews at more established sites weren’t as honest or as fun as they could be. Their website, “full of bitchery, snark, and honest reviews of why a book just sucked the big wang” served as a hipper alternative, capturing the zeitgeist of the era of do it yourself, independent blogger-reviewers. SBTB’s hallmark was the self-referential genre-savviness of Generation Y sprinkled with a liberal dose of the kind of tough love (aka “snark”) only a true devotee of a genre can master.

SBTB was catapulted into the ranks of influential book blogs in 2008 when it exposed the plagiarism habit of bestselling, longtime romance writer Cassie Edwards, a story picked up by the AP and major news outlets (Edwards was dropped by her publisher and her career never recovered). Tan and Wendell scored a book contract and published Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches Guide to Romance Novels in 2009, written in the same irreverent style as their blog, with sections on “The heroine’s irresistible Magic Hoo Hoo and the Hero’s untamable Wang of Mighty Lovin’” and “Man titty, camel toe, flowers, long hair, animals, and the O-face.”

More recently, Tan has departed for greener pastures (i.e. law school) and Wendell has become a self-described “Man Titty Media Pundit,” who now writes a regular column for Kirkus Reviews, hosts a monthly virtual book club co-sponsored by online bookseller All Romance/Omnilit, and co-runs an author consulting business, Simple Progress, whose clients include some of the biggest names in the industry. These changes are reflected in the tone of the two books. Where Beyond Heaving Bosoms was suffused with a knowing, hip air, and a sense of ironic, if affectionate distance from its subject matter, Everything I Know is an earnest endeavor, dedicated to the genre boosterism for which Wendell, writing “straight from the heart,” is now best known.

The premise of Everything I Know is clear from its title: romance novels offer life lessons, especially about love and relationships. The critics who assume romance novels feature gorgeous, perfect people “meeting cute” and slipping effortlessly into a happily ever after are wrong: romance novels tell the stories of flawed people who struggle and face the same challenges as any average reader. Reading romance novels has a positive impact on readers’ lives, teaching them about everything from effective communication and mutual respect to being happy with themselves and enjoying sex. And to the extent that romance novels do contain fantasy sex, perfect love, and the kind of triumphant overcoming of impossible odds that makes for a compelling narrative, romance readers, aware that it’s fantasy, can still be inspired, comforted, or moved in ways that make them better, wiser people. Everything I Know takes the romance genre and its readers seriously, insisting that the genre’s central concerns—especially romantic love, sex, and relationships—are vital human interests that are often unfairly trivialized owing to their association with femininity. Wendell’s claims are substantiated by an abundance of reader testimony, author interviews, and some industry-sponsored research. While Wendell undoubtedly chose the responses that best supported her own hypothesis, Everything I Know offers romance readers a unique platform for sharing the impact these novels have had on their lives.

The publisher refers to Everything I Know as a “gift book”, and it is small in size (5 by 7 inches) and length (240 pages, but only if you count the 10 pages of hearts, X’s and O’s inexplicably appended at the end). Making it even shorter is the formatting and numerous pull quotes in large font, magazine style. Despite its brevity, however, Everything I Know was a struggle to complete. Snippets from various novels appear without commentary, and the readers quoted tend to refer not to specific books but to the genre as a whole, as in “reading romance taught me…” The book is disorganized and often feels both disjointed and repetitive. Variants of the word “happiness” appear about 150 times in Everything I Know, for instance—understandable, perhaps, in a book celebrating a genre that promises a “Happy Ever After,” but they tend to cover the same superficial ground regardless of what chapter they’re in: “Everyone deserves a happy-ever-after. Everyone deserves a happy, healthy relationship”; “In the romance genre, there exists the validation of the belief and the desire for a happy ending, and the idea of a perfect someone who will create happiness in tandem.”

These structural problems are exacerbated by confusion about the book’s intended audience. Wendell sometimes writes as if it is romance genre skeptics, as when she cautions readers in the beginning that they will “have to rethink any prejudices about the romance genre,” or when she defines basic genre terms like “rake.” However, I doubt skeptics will be won over by the opinions of romance fans, writers, and industry reps, especially when Wendell’s claims reach far beyond her data or arguments, as in “inside these stories is everything you need to have a happy loving relationship,” or “most romance readers are happy already.” At other times, Wendell writes as if chatting companionably with fellow romance fans who already share her view of the genre’s salutary effects: “romances teach readers that we should know ourselves, and value ourselves, in order to find happiness.” And at still other times, the target audience seems to be romance readers who need a bit of ego-boosting—“you, you holding this book in your hands (hi there!), you’re awesome, and because you read romance, you’re smarter than the average savvy person”—or self-help: “the trick to being the heroine of your own story is being happy with who you are. Confidence and accomplishment are hot damn sexy.” Because Everything I Know tries to be simultaneously a genre defense, a celebration, a self-help guide, and a relationship manual, its tone careens from stern to snarky to melodramatic.

Though Wendell is writing a “gift book,” not a work of theory or literary criticism, her specific claims deserve some scrutiny, particularly around the issue of reader engagement, which is central to her arguments on the genre’s behalf. How, for instance, do romance readers manage to glean the good stuff but not the bad? Take sex. Wendell recognizes that “part of the problem with romance novel sex is that it is so impossibly perfect, so incredibly over-the-top wonderful, that real sex can seem messy and awkward in comparison sometimes.” Given that many readers are introduced to romance novels as young teens, before they began having sex, how do they learn that gigantic, constantly erect penises and simultaneous, multiple orgasms each and every time are pure fantasy, but that mutual respect and pleasure are legitimate demands? Wendell relies on reader testimonials for her claim that romance readers learn the real lessons, but merely enjoy the fantasy, but then what do we do about readers who testify that romance has harmed them, just as critics like Quilliam and Slattery contend? To her credit, Wendell includes a few comments from readers who claim they learned what not to expect by reading romance:

I think many romance novels are a lesson in What Not to Do, because so many involve the same plotline: Eyes Meet, Love, BIG MISUNDERSTANDING, HEA. And, like anyone else, what always gets me is how avoidable the Big Misunderstanding is. All anyone ever has to say is, ‘Are you a spy?’ ‘I heard you killed your last wife,’ or ‘Did you make a bet that you could sleep with me within a month?’ I think romance novels have taught me to just be brave and throw the words out there in the first place. At least then everyone is on the same page.

But if savvy readers come to the genre ready and able to suss out what’s just fantasy, what’s worth emulating, and what not to do, then romance novels aren’t actually teaching these readers anything new. Wendell herself admits that the lessons romance teaches are “things you likely learned as a child when you were taught how to treat other people.” In that case, it would be more accurate to say that romance novels reflect or deepen moral beliefs readers already hold. This makes sense—but then it follows that if a reader holds pernicious or delusional moral beliefs (however we define those), given the sheer size of the genre, she can probably find some reinforcing of those bad moral beliefs in romance novels, too. For example, on her blog, Wendell reviewed Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy, a 1950 novel by a beloved grand dame of the genre, rereleased to great fanfare in 2009. The Grand Sophy, Wendell notes, “turned offensive to the point of horror” in its depiction of its Jewish villain, “demonstrating not only a repulsive prejudice but a use of lame stereotypical stock characters that detracted from the strengths of the novel.” There’s confirmation here, not correction, for the anti-Semitic reader.

As respectful as Wendell is of romance readers, her strategy of sweeping generalization obscures the diversity of reader engagement with the genre. She hails Jamie of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, for example, as one of the top nine romance heroes ever written. Certainly, Jamie has a devoted following, but many readers hated Outlander, stopping short at the page when Jamie beat the heroine with his belt, deriving erotic enjoyment from her pain and humiliation. My own appreciation of this novel, with its strong, sensible heroine, Clare, was tempered by that scene, as well as by a later one in which Jamie violently forces himself on Clare. Like Outlander or The Grand Sophy, I think good literature—and that includes good romance fiction—actually inspires a variety of incompatible moral responses across readers and even within one reader, rather than a readily digestible ethical lesson or a universal romantic or erotic reaction. These particular cases expose the selectivity of Wendell’s interest in readers’ responses to romance.

As a reader of Wendell’s own book, I found that my perspective, particularly as a feminist, often generated reactions different from what clearly Wendell intended. For example, I was dismayed, not uplifted, by the situation of a reader who said, “I just need thirty minutes after work of reading Harlequin books and all the stress of the day is gone. All it takes is thirty minutes and then I’m ready to cook dinner.” Perhaps someone should be asking about the second shift here? Wendell’s tendency to equate masculine and feminine gender-based oppression—“Both genders are told regularly they aren’t thin, bulky, hairless, hairy, svelte, muscular, or perfect enough”—doesn’t explain why physical attractiveness is such a vital concern for so many romance heroines, and so few heroes. How about the invisibility of GLBTQ heroes and heroines in the mainstream of the genre? There’s a growing audience for gay male romance (mostly straight women, a situation that raises its own set of difficult questions)—even Harlequin’s digital-first imprint, Carina, publishes it. Yet same-sex romances are mentioned only once in Everything I Know: in a note in the chapter on heroes (“We Know More Than a Few Good Men”), Wendell says, basically, that the fact that almost all of her genre examples and her reader testimonials are heterosexual isn’t meant to imply that gay romances and readers don’t exist. Since the genre is overwhelming white (African American romance is typically considered a distinct subgenre, and is often shelved with other “black books” in bookstores) it would have been interesting to hear explicitly from non-white readers about how they negotiate these texts. In “We Know Good Sex,” Wendell insists that romances are liberating for women because they celebrate female desire, and she’s right, but this reader is sorry that the strict parameters of feminine desire as constructed in the romance genre (namely, that the best sex is committed, monogamous, heterosexual sex, between two white people in love) go unacknowledged.

I obviously have my own pet criticisms of the genre, yet I read it frequently and with great pleasure. That’s because romance novels, in my view, are no better or worse on these issues than any other literary genre. A danger in uncritically wedding aesthetic to moral value is dramatically shrinking the pool of canonical, or even acceptable, books, something even the author of a “gift book” might be more worried about than Wendell seems to be, given that romance’s critics have been trying to shame its subject matter out of existence for a very long time. As bestselling romance author Lauren Willig puts it, in an interview with the Yale Herald about her undergraduate course on romance novels:

romance, unlike other genres, is expected to ‘have some sort of social value or serve as a model for how readers should live—as if any book could really teach someone how to reorganize their life. After all, we trust people to read Stephen King without littering the world with bodies.

It’s time to stop evaluating romance novels in terms of their putative effects on (women) readers, and to pay more attention to their literary merit and ability to provide pure pleasure. By placing the value of romance novels in their non-literary effects, as Everything I Know does, Wendell unwittingly capitulates to the age-old requirement that women must only read “improving” literature, and that romance books themselves are most properly evaluated not as novels, but as instruments of moral uplift. We should not ask more—or less—of romance than we ask of any other fiction.

Nothing makes clearer the way Wendell’s practical goal in Everything I Know is at odds with taking romance seriously as a literary genre than her attitude towards romances of the 1970 and 1980s. In her efforts to portray the genre in its current incarnation as positively as possible, Wendell demonizes older romance novels, writing that “sex depictions in romance novels have changed drastically, and the rapetastic romances are things of the past, thank heaven and all available orgasms.”

But as Jane Litte of the popular romance blog Dear Author recently wrote,

Romances were not one monolithic genre where every book written was in lock step with its sister publication.  Books that predate the current release list aren’t automatically filled with rape and oppression.

Most readers agree that rape was more common in romances of the 1980s than today. How did their contemporary readers navigate this morally fraught territory? One contributor’s account of her own critical reading suggests Wendell may be too quick to rejoice that we’ve left bodice rippers in the past:

Oddly enough, the rape-y, obsessive, I-hate-you-because-I-love-you, he-loves-me-so-it’s-okay romances that were popular (or at least crowded the shelves at the library and the used bookstore) when I was growing up showed me how wrong that sort of behavior is.

Given the book’s premise that romance novels teach life lessons, might we need a return of what Wendell calls the “rapetastic assclown hero”?

Moreover, rape remains a prevalent trope across romance subgenres, as in the paranormal romance Dark Magic by Christine Feehan (2000), Sara Craven’s contemporary category romances The Innocent’s Surrender (2010), Forced Bride (2007), and Wife Against Her Will (2006), historical romances such as Anna Campbell’s Claiming the Courtesan (2007), and Christina Dodd’s In Bed With the Duke (2010), and, arguably, Meljean Brook’s steampunk romance “The Iron Duke” (2010). In erotic romance, a booming subgenre, rape fantasy role play is increasingly common (Willing Victim by Cara McKenna, Beg Me by Shiloh Walker, My One by January Rowe, and Raw Desire by Kate Pearce, were all published in the past year). And I doubt we can call it a trend, but there seems to be more non-consensual sex perpetrated by the heroine in the last decade or so, as in Mary Jo Putney’s The Wild Child (2000), Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ This Heart of Mine (2002), Julia Quinn’s The Duke and I (2000), and Larissa Ione’s My Immortal Rider (2011).

Regardless of the perpetrator, sexual violence—the fear of it, the experience of it, and the physical, psychological, and social consequences of it, even, sometimes, the erotic fantasy of it—is a major thematic concern in romance, and it’s just too simplistic to claim that its development tracks popular social beliefs about sex and consent. Doing so also neglects the complexity of reader response. Many readers lament the way some romance novels use rape as a proving ground for a heroine’s toughness, or as a way to make a kick-ass heroine seem vulnerable. They also complain that victims overcome the effects of rape too quickly, and, implausibly for many readers, through sex—sometimes rape role play sex—with the hero. On the other hand, some readers appreciate that romance provides a safe space to explore rape as a role play fantasy. The genre undeniably provides multiple narratives of sexual violence from a female character’s point of view, in a way no other literary form does.

I haven’t said much about the specific lessons Wendell finds in the romance genre. This is because, as a romance reader and therefore a member of her target audience, I’m too embarrassed. Reader testimonies were actually often more nuanced and eloquent than Wendell’s attempts to jam them into tidy morals, like “the Be Polite Rule: don’t be a douchebag,” or “someone who is ‘jealous, aggressive, emotionally dependent’ and possessing the capability to do violence is not a benevolent protector,” or “women are valuable and awesome.” In Wendell’s defense, I think it’s almost impossible not to make even the best fiction sound dreadfully clichéd when it is reduced in this way to a life-lesson. And I’m sure she was kidding some of the time (at least I hope so, as when she sternly warns the reader that, “reading romances and taking them literally is definitely not the path to everlasting happiness”), but since the tone of Everything I Know is so inconsistent, it wasn’t easy to tell when. Some of the advice is offered in the voice of characters from romance novels (for example, Keely McKay, from Lorelei James’s Rough Riders series, offers sex tips, as in “darlin’, the only way to get that well-fucked feelin’ is to make it happen”). This blurring of lines raises, for me, an uncomfortable echo of the criticism that women readers don’t bother distinguishing reality from fantasy.

All this is to say how complex the relationship is between the romance genre, the larger culture, and its readers, and how little of that complexity makes its way onto the pages of Everything I Know. Of course fiction (and not just romance) helps to shape us. It can shake us up, make us cry, elicit empathy, anger, joy, and fear, pleasure us, impart knowledge, and even offer a consequence-free playground for moral judgment. But it does this by being fiction, with all that entails. What look like simplistic clichés when extracted, paraphrased in life-coach lingo, and held up for self-improvement look beautiful, intricate, and startling when they are left where they belong, in a well-written, original fictional narrative. In her enthusiasm to defend romance, Wendell ends up doing a disservice to romance readers by minimizing both the diversity they bring to the books and the diversity of the books themselves. For years, critics have claimed that romance is one book being written over and over. Wendell is the last person to agree with this, but if the genre’s value rests on its ability to teach us a set of life lessons found in most of its texts, then why bother reading more than a handful? For romance fans interested in what some of their favorite authors, like Nora Roberts and Jennifer Crusie, are thinking about when they write, and who are curious about first person testimonies form fellow fans, Everything I Know, sprinkled throughout with Wendell’s trademark humor, could well be a fun read. But both genre skeptics and romance readers seeking a nuanced account of the way romance novels and their readers interact would do better to look elsewhere.

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Jessica Miller teaches philosophy at the University of Maine and blogs at Read React Review.