I was sitting with my friends over dinner one night, and we were comparing the books that we grew up reading. We're all college educated and have comfortable confidence in our IQs. Names were bandied back and forth before one friend, looking into the distance, admitting that her favorite thing to read had always been romance books.
There was a pause, and you could tell that she was waiting to find out whether or not she'd be shunned forever. The table erupted in laughter - not because of judgment but because we all felt the same. One by one we all admitted we'd been reading romance books for about as long as we could read, and we loved them.
My Introduction to Romance Books
For me, it all started with Point Romance. As a slightly nerdy kid, I didn't get into Point Horror or enjoy being scared. So my aunt suggested I might like a romance book, and introduced me to Point Romance. These were romance books for teens, and they all followed a pretty similar storyline.
I was hooked. There was something about them that spoke to what I wanted to read and what I wanted to understand about the world. I've always been a romantic at heart so why wouldn't I love romance books?
They're a lot like comfort food for the soul. I also really appreciated the fact that a lot of the romance books were from the point of view of the teenage girl or woman. That wasn't true of a lot of the other books that I read, and so in reading romance books, I could easily put myself as part of the story.
When it came to romance books for teens, there was also a huge array. Stories like the Sweet Valley High series, while not conventionally '"romance books", dealt with a lot of the same plot devices and ideas.
I also really loved Judy Blume. Forever was one of those books that really opened my eyes to the realities of sex, and how complicated it can be to have relationships. As a teenage girl, there aren't always a lot of people (other than other teenage girls!) that you can talk to about these things.
The Romance Books of Jilly Cooper
And then you had the older romance books. My friends at the table all went around and talked about the first books they remember NOT for the teen market. At boarding school, they were passed around in hushed voices or smuggled out from the family home after Easter and Christmas breaks. This was how we learned about boys, and how we learned about the feelings we didn't have names for.
One friend and I had both discovered relative's copies of Jilly Cooper. To call Riders a romance book is slightly unfair because there's a startling lack of romance in it. That being said, there's a kind of innocence to the way it's written, in that a world of porn-on-demand seems to be almost quaint. Even today, Cooper is recognized as the grande dame of romance books, thanks to her 30-year career of defining the genre.
Another friend agreed. She'd found her mother's stash of soft-core Mills and Boon novels, and dedicated herself to reading all of them, to see if she could understand what the fuss was about. Today, she speaks much more fondly of the books then she ever has about any relationship she's been in!
As children of the 90's, we grew up with jokes about romance books, but it seems like we just sort of kept on reading them and loving them, and not talking about them. As we compared names and authors that we read or remembered, trading to see if someone could pin a name to the plot, it seemed that a table full of us knew every single one.
And of course, who can forget Allison Janney's tremendous role as the romance book writing head-teacher in Ten Things I Hate About You. The fact that that romance movie could go toe-to-toe with Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew really is a sign of just how narrow the divide between genres really is!
The Pull of the Romance Book Genre
Like a rom-com, a well-written romance book is a total joy. From a genre that is famously self-regulating, romance writers live and move among their own world. Maybe that's why the mainstream doesn't care for them so much. But they're often subversive, rude, politically interesting, and involve more intrigue and interest than any Netflix documentary!
What I've found about the genre of romance books is that the structure - the formula by which a book must sit in order to count as a romance novel - is also a way that they choose to be racy or a bit different. Just like rom-coms were the first movies to have gay characters, or deal with other "taboo" subjects, they got away with it by fitting the genre.
That's exactly what romance books have done.
For starters, having women be the ones the stories are centered on gives an agency to the women in the stories in a way that few other literary models do. The openness and honesty about sex and attraction is a healthy way to acknowledge the hold that these subjects have over us, and also to exorcise the demons of them.
More than anything else, the thing that I love about romance books, and why they're my not-guilty-guilty pleasure, is because they're fun. They create a world and space where it's totally okay to have feelings - you can fall in love with characters, and truly forget about the world around you while you're living in a world somebody else has created for you.
That's what I love about reading, and why it will always be one of my favorite past times. Only thanks to the advent of the Kindle and the iPad, I might tell you I'm reading something serious but the chances are that I'm reading a romance book!