It was an otherwise idyllic day. I strode along a New Jersey boardwalk with my partner and his mother, taking a break from the beach and sun that dominated our Labor Day weekend. That is, until his mother turns at me and asks “So, Gina, what are you reading these days?”
I could almost hear my partner smirk beside me as I fumbled to answer. He knew what I was reading, as it’s something I really only disclose to my partners and close friends. But I don’t lie, so I just make the situation more awkward. “I, uh, I’d rather not say.” I purse my lips together. I don’t usually blush, but it’s probably more than the sun heating up my face right now.
The truth is, I was reading one of my eleven—yes, eleven—Nora Roberts books. If you don’t know who Nora Roberts is, she is probably one of the most prolific American romance writers right now, with over 209 novels to her name. She is my go-to romance novelist, though that’s largely because I haven’t had the nerve to try out others. And that I enjoy her work so much is probably one of the few things I’m embarrassed to admit.
You see, when my grandmother gave me my first Nora Roberts trilogy probably 10 years ago, I had to keep back my sniff of disdain to keep from hurting her feelings. She was cleaning out her bookshelf and, knowing my love of books, was kindly letting me have some of her collection. Most of of it was of no interest to me—biographies, Bill O’Riley books, that sort of thing—which she knew, but she pulled out a set of three short paperbacks and handed them to me, saying “I know you like vampires. You might like these.”
Even I, at that tender young age, could sense a romance novel right away: the bright color of the cover, author’s name in large print. These, at least, didn’t have pictures of an embraced couple on them, but even so, I hid them away in my bag. I kept them on my bookshelf for years—hastily explaining to anyone who noted them that they were a gift—and never touched them. I’m not sure what even made me finally open them up, but once I did, I was sucked in, hooked. I loved the characters, the relationships between them (however unrealistic they might be), and the fact that they seemed to be loving each other against all odds. I, who didn’t believe I had a romantic bone in my body, fell in love with these books.
Eventually, it wasn’t enough, and now my collection has expanded (I am waiting for book 12 in October. Come oooon, Nora!). I have read—and, yes, enjoyed—the Twilight series. But they’re all on my Kindle, even though I am a die-hard physical book reader. My physical copies don’t leave my apartment. I don’t tell people I’m reading them—or that I ever have.
I think much of that has to do with how I, personally, have been taught to devalue the feminine* in me. But, more generally, I think people do not talk about their taste in romance (even though romance sells ridiculously well) because it is a genre aimed at women. And things that are for women—particularly when they are, at best, of average quality—are harshly scorned.
When the 50 Shades of Grey trailer came out, Zokajo on Jezebel‘s GroupThink published a great article about this phenomenon. She quotes a paper titled “…It Sucked Because It Was Written for Teenage Girls”:
In Western societies, cultural products associated with girls or women, either as the creator or the main audience, have often been positioned at or near the bottom of the cultural hierarchy (Huyssen 1986; Modleski 1986:48). Examples of this include romance novels, soap operas and ‘pop’ music. […] The associated naturalisation of the teenage girl as an uncritical, overly-emotional consumer of culture will be analysed as a form of symbolic violence that helps to reproduce power relations between men and women. The paper will demonstrate that the themes that arise in the discussion of Twilight coincide in many ways with debates within academia, feminism itself and wider society around the value and effects of popular culture, and ultimately contribute to the construction of a hierarchy of tastes that continues to denigrate feminine culture.
I think the same thing applies to women as well. After all, there is but a short step from silly teenage girl to silly, overemotional woman.
There is much to say about romance as a genre, the tropes perpetuated throughout them, and why women are so drawn to them. But let’s not forget that there are scores—perhaps much more—of literature and media that are geared towards men that have destructive tropes, that are poorly written or executed, and come nowhere near contributing toward any literary canon. Yet we do not foist the same scorn on those people. It is a completely different thing to say that one likes Dan Brown novels than it is to say one likes Stephanie Meyer’s work, and they are arguably of the same quality.
For myself, I am trying to subscribe to the “you like what you like” approach. I don’t judge what people consume in their off time, and I try to not judge myself for it as well.
So, yeah, I am logical, powerful, practical, and grounded—and I like romance novels. Come at me bro.
*I realize that femininity and masculinity are complicated topics. Please understand that I am using shorthand here so that other things may be addressed.