Some critics argue that romance novels teach young girls impossible ideas about love. And while I’ll admit that my nine-year-old daughter will not marry a Viking or a medieval warrior, there are other, more important messages that I hope she’ll gain from reading romances. First, that men who treat women badly are not heroes—they’re the villains. Second, although the path to love may be rocky, real love does exist, and sometimes it’s not with the person you expect. Last, my favorite books taught me to wait for the right man and to hold high standards. I’ve been married to my own romance hero for nearly fifteen years now, and he continues to surprise me by sending romantic text messages or by getting me flowers for no reason at all. I hope that one day my daughter will find her own happy ending with the perfect hero.
I’m a public librarian by training, so I’m no stranger to stereotypes. I know you’ve heard them, too. Librarians are all shy, repressed, buttoned-up. We all wear buns, cardigans, and pointy glasses, and we all live alone with our pampered cats. Our favorite word is Shush. And so on.
But the stereotypes about romance writers and readers? Nothing in my librarian days quite prepared me for those. I won’t try to list them all, but the one that frustrates me the most is the frequent assertion (from genuinely concerned individuals, I’m sure) that romance novels give readers “unrealistic ideas” about life and love.
Now I’ll be the first to admit, the romance genre has its share of—shall we say, loveable quirks. Do that many men really smell like sandalwood? Maybe not. As a writer, I enjoy exploring the playful, even absurd side of love and relationships—because my real life has more than its share of absurdity. (Don’t ask me about my husband, our first date, and a collision with a flagpole.)
(…) As for those “unrealistic” charges—we’re talking about commitment, not unicorns. The day a committed romantic relationship becomes an “unrealistic” ending is the day I permanently move to Fantasyland. (Luckily, I’m ten minutes from Anaheim. It’s just down the road.)
I found some important messages in the pages of those books. I continue to love and read romance to this day. Romance matters? Absolutely. Here’s what I’ve learned, and why I love nothing more than sinking into a romance:
People—good people—can have flaws, and that doesn’t make them bad. For someone who is a perfectionist (me!) and who mentally beats herself up if not careful (me!) it was life-changing to read about characters who weren’t perfect. Yet, I adored and rooted for them just the same. Who knew? It’s okay to not be perfect.
People can grow and learn. In fact, if a person does learn a lesson and evolve from mistakes, then they aren’t really mistakes. Characters in romances—unlike many people in real life—don’t always have to be “right.” They listen. Sure, some remain stubborn, but at least they contemplate. They find hope and work toward love.
Redemption is possible. There is always hope. I believe we can’t hear those two messages enough in today’s world. After I finish a romance, some of the challenges of the day or week are erased from my heart. Reading romance is good for the soul.
Women can have cool careers. From smoke jumpers to doctors, entrepreneurs who are passionate about their businesses, sculptors, artists, photographers, journalists, architects, and moms (and the list goes on)—these women make their own decisions and find fulfillment in many ways, including believing they will end up with the love of their life. These women don’t settle for second best in anything. Including love.
Women have the power to be happy and make their own decisions. Women can call the shots. Women can walk away and say no. Women can say yes! Women can forgive (including themselves!) and find the love they know they deserve.
When I first started writing romance I kept it a secret. I was an English teacher with a higher degree and any writing I might do was supposed to be “serious” and “literary”. I knew I would cop a lot of flack from friends and work colleagues.
But I loved writing my stories, and when my first book was published I started telling people. From then on the jokes flew thick and fast. You? Writing romance? That rubbish? What a joke! Yeah, right. Hilarious.
Beneath the “fun” and “joking”, there was a good deal of scorn for the genre I’d chosen to write in. Writing crime fiction would be far more respectable, apparently. What does it say about our society that books about murder are more highly regarded than books that celebrate love?
Of course, none of these people had read any of my books. They didn’t need to — they knew what they were like. They’d ask, “When are you going to write a real book?” or “Are you still writing those little books?” My books are about 100,000 words, so by “little” they didn’t mean length, but that the books were trivial.
I tried not to let it get to me, but sometimes it did.
A letter from a reader changed my attitude. This letter:
Dear Anne I have just finished your novella The Virtuous Widow and I had to write to say how much I loved it. I don’t usually read historical romances, but I got a collection called Regency Brides with another collection and decided to keep it. I have a lot of time to read now. Up until May 10th this year I was a 24 hour carer for my dad but he died on that day. Just last week I was told that I have a degenerative spinal disease (my spine is crumbling) and I will be in a wheelchair in the future. My husband is disabled and we have 2 sons aged 5 and 8. Because they need me, I usually tend to my own pain control at night time when I do most of my reading. I really couldn’t put your book down until I had finished it. It took my mind off everything that has happened, and took me back to Ellie and Amy’s home.
I intend to look for some other books of yours at my local library as this story really whetted my appetite. Up until I started this, I hadn’t been able to settle to read, but this story got me going again. Thank you.
It was my first piece of hard evidence that romance matters. Really matters.
When we’re struggling through hard times, or needing escape, or hope, or reassurance or simple entertainment, how fabulous that we can find it in a romance novel.
Never doubt that romance matters. It does.
It’s also fun! And that’s an unbeatable combination.
No matter who you are, no matter where you are, love can find its way into your heart, and it doesn’t discriminate. It happens to almost everyone. Pair-bonding is one of the most basic, strongest instincts we possess, and romance novels tap into that primitive part of us that wants to be reminded that we all deserve someone in our life who cares for us unconditionally.
We want to be reminded that the world can be a sucky place, but there’s beauty there too.
In romance novels, we walk avenues closed to us in real lives, heading out on a journey of both discovery and sacrifice, a love story where everything is hyperbolized, the men manlier, the women more vibrant, colors richer, the dialogue wittier, the passion stronger, the sex better.
And because this is the written word, every reader subtly changes and molds the story they read by becoming an essential part of it. It is the individual reader’s personal history that informs every scene. Your imagination provides the background noise in a ballroom, the quality of light in a predawn love scene, the timbre of the hero’s voice, the scent in a night blooming garden. A romance novel not invites only reader participation; it relies on it.
They were “just for fun,” but during one really, really hard year, they were the only thing that kept me from completely losing my ability to function as a human being. They reminded me that there were good people and normal human interaction was something to be prized—that what I was experiencing was abnormal and that it would get better.
In short, it was a sociological study, but it was one of myself, not some “other women” who read romance novels. I stopped asking, “Why do some women read romances?” and started asking, “Why do I care what the guy at the register thinks?”
Maybe he would think that I’m not that smart because I read romances…but I don’t know him, and I don’t really care what he thinks. And even if I did, buying a bunch of books I didn’t want to read was a really stupid way to prove that I was smart. Once I accepted that about myself—that I loved romance novels and that wasn’t going to change—I was 100% happier. I stopped coming up with excuses for reading the books I did, and started coming up with reasons for loving them.
I love romance novels because they are about big things and small things: about politics and life and cancer and war, and about home and hearth and making a perfect cookie, sometimes in the same book. They’re a reminder that not everything important is frontpage news—and, in fact, some of the most important things are details. They’re about the importance of building community.
And—yes—in a weird, meta way, romances taught me to be okay with reading romances. They’re about learning to be honest with yourself, and loving the person you are, not the person other people want you to be.