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Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novelsby Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan
No, no, don't hide your romance novel. You don't have to wrap it in a quilted cover or slide it in between the pages of The New Yorker. We know you're smart. We also know you like romance novels.
Your romance novels are welcome here. Celebrated. Loved. Cuddled, even, if they're particularly good. Adorned with man titty and paraded up and down the street to acclaim, applause, and perhaps stray dollar bills. We'll occasionally poke — with savage abandon, even — at the more ludicrous aspects of the genre, but we kvetch because we love. Our point is:
This is Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels. We're not egomaniacal enough to think it's the Definitive Guide to Romance Novels, but guides written for readers by readers are few and far between. There are plenty of articles and books that dismiss the genre, and some excellent academic examinations that subject the genre to a long-overdue analysis. Us? We're here to throw a party for the genre — to celebrate its soaring successes as well as its appalling excesses, and to raise a beverage to the continued health and happiness of our favorite reading material. And yes, we're here to throw a drunken yet solidly comforting arm around your shoulders and say, "Oh, yes! We read them! We love them! Even the awful ones, them, too. And people who think we're dumb for reading them? Screw 'em! What the hell do they know? "
There are some things only a reader of romance can understand and appreciate. The bemulleted cover models. The alpha hero whom you love to read about but who'd be fodder for COPS episodes in real life. The heroines who are either so feisty they make your teeth hurt, or the embodiment of every virtue known to man, dog, and Chthonic deities. Deep tongue kissing first thing in the morning after a long night of bonkety-bonk, because romance protagonists do not ever have morning breath.
Then there are the fun parts of romance novels: the escape into a story that's happy and satisfying, but won't insult your intelligence. The spicy passages that feature...spicy passages. The characters you befriend and revisit when you're feeling down or in need of comfort reading. The stories that unabashedly depict love, relationships, and happiness.
There's nothing quite like a beautifully executed romance novel or the afterglow upon finishing an especially good one, and that's why we Smart Bitches are celebrating them.
If you were to gather romance readers into one room, that room would circle the earth seventeen times and do the hokey-pokey while it turned itself around. Most likely we'd all get seasick. But while we fought for the Dramamine, no doubt we'd notice that romance readers represent an astonishing cross section of political, social, religious, and economic groups. According to the oft-quoted statistic from Romance Writers of America (RWA), one out of every five people reads romance. This is, in mathematically correct notation, "a shitfuckton of people." A quick examination of the highlights of those statistics yields numbers with decimal points that are necessary only because that many zeroes become tiresome to type out. In 2006, romance accounted for $1.37 billion in sales, and 64.6 million Americans read at least one romance in 2005. No matter what you do to those numbers, whether you divide them or watch them do a tango, those numbers are freaking huge.
And yet, despite the millions of dollars and those millions of readers and that (quivering alabaster) mound of books sold in every language known to print, romance is easily the most well-hidden literary habit in America. Millions of dollars are spent on romance novels, yet few will admit to reading them. We Smart Bitches, we know you read romance.
In fact, we'll come right out and say five out of five readers have read romance — they just didn't know it. Think about it: just about every work of fiction has a romantic element in it. The love, sex, or attraction part might not be the primary focus, but they're almost always there. What would the Iliad be without Paris and Helen, or the Odyssey without Odysseus and Penelope? What would a story of danger and intrigue be without sexual attraction and tension? What would horror be without some damn fool woman running around so that some muscled hero could rescue her scantily clad ass? Love stories, from epic poems to schlocky bestsellers, form the backbone of our storytelling tradition.
So tie another ribbon around the What-the-Fuck tree: a staggering number of people read romance, few admit to it, and romantic elements are ubiquitous, but when that romance stands on its own two glass-slippered feet as the focus and driving element of the plot, then it's craaaap. No one who is anyone likes romance novels.
But somehow, everyone has a very firm idea of what the average romance reader is like. We bet you already know her. She's rather dim and kind of tubby — undereducated and undersexed — and she displays a distressing affinity for mom jeans and sweaters covered in puffy paint and appliquéd kittens. So even though repeated surveys conducted by independent research reveal that an astonishingly diverse and often affluent population reads romance novels, in popular depictions, we're all the same.
"In all honesty, the dichotomy inherent in the conflicting nobility and morality of the duke is quite a fascinating subject to analyze."
Here she is: meet Mavis. She's not only a romance reader, she's the romance reader, the image everyone pictures when they discuss the romance novels those bored housewives love so much. Funny thing about Mavis, and you, and us, and everyone else who read romance: our love of romance novels is probably all that we have in common, but because of this shared interest, we're transformed from women of all walks of life to storm troopers: not very bright, evidence of the triumph of the Evil Empires of Bad Taste and Degraded Literature, and impossible to tell apart from one another.
Maybe you're already familiar with the genre. Maybe your budget is earmarked for romance novels, then rent, then food. Maybe your bookcases look like ours, and there are paperback romance novels wedged two deep on each shelf. Or maybe you're curious why romance is so popular, and why the otherwise-intelligent women in your life enjoy this cultural blight. Or perhaps you know us from our site, and you're just wondering how many times we're going to say expletives like "fuck" or "shit" or "holy cuntmonkeys" in this book.
Maybe you're just curious why women proclaiming themselves to be "Smart Bitches" would spend time, effort, and adoration on a genre that everyone else dismisses as tawdry, smutty, and lame. Sit down. We will explain — or at the very least provide a profanity-filled précis.
When people ask us why we started Smart Bitches, we usually have a hot pink list of reasons we trot out. The Internet was riddled with romance Web sites whose grading curve wasn't curvy enough for our tastes, and we figured we could help change that. Or: we wanted the freedom to provide honest, noholds-barred commentary on all aspects of romance novels. Or: we wanted a public venue in which we could use the words "cuntmonkey" and "dichotomy" in the same discussion as "man titty" and "Fabio," and make all the fart jokes we possibly could whenever we came across titles like Savage Thunder or Brave the Wild Wind.
But ultimately, it boiled down to this fact: the two of us, we're neither fish nor fowl nor meat — which would make us either TVP or tofu, but we digress. See, there tend to be two big camps in the discourse surrounding romance novels:
Camp Number One consists of those Who Just Don't Get It. They've either never read a romance novel before, or they picked one up, discovered it was awful, experienced permanent retinal scarring from the terrible cover, and wrote the entire genre off — and the readers, too. The people in this camp are fond of accusing romance readers of being intellectually lazy, or hopelessly addicted to emotional porn. When the people in this camp find out they have friends — friends whose tastes they trust, even — who read and enjoy romance novels, their reaction is usually incredulousness, followed up by some variant of this backhanded compliment: "But you're so smart!" they cry out. "How can you possibly read that tripe? "
Unfortunately, it often feels as if Those Who Just Don't Get It outnumber the ones who do. Those Who Just Don't Get It are the readers and critics who object strenuously to the idea of romance novels being reviewed in the New York Times Book Review. They're the ones who, feeling defensive after having their media habits thoroughly scrutinized, say, "Well, at least I don't read romance novels." They're the people who don't know nearly as much as they think they do; they often end up making ludicrous flubs, such as mistaking Harlequin romances for erotica. But then, it's difficult to properly criticize a genre when one hasn't read extensively in it, and let's face it: romance novels, with their titty-licious covers, overwrought cover copy, and genre constraints are an easier piñata to smack around than most. But because most of the people in this camp don't know the genre, most of them don't suspect that the best is on par with the best books in any genre, and that the worst books are even more vile than they could've imagined.
Camp Number Two is the cheerleader camp. Almost everything is at least four stars, or throbbing hearts, or fluffy kittens, or calling birds (partridge in a pear tree not included). Their attitude seems to boil down to: "Romance is awesome, and if you don't have a nice word to say then you should just shut up. Bless your heart." One of the signature arguments of this camp involves a contradiction that, to be honest, drives us a little bugfuck. On one hand, they would've made Rodney Dangerfield proud with the way they growl about how romance novels get no respect, no respect at all. On the other hand, when reviewers point out some romance novels are about as substantial as a house built entirely of meringue and dandelion down, or attempt to figure out what the fuck is up with the excess of abusive alpha "heroes" in the genre, these people are often the same ones who claim that romance novels are escapist fun, and somehow exempt from rigorous literary examination.
It's odd to be in disagreement with both camps, but here we are, setting up a Bitching picnic. But the points we make aren't that revolutionary, even if they give the Know It Alls and the Love It Alls a tweak in the nose.
Point the first: Romance novels aren't all inconsequential bits of fluff.
Point the second: Many romance novels offer complex, nuanced stories.
And heads up and break out your red pen and your English degree! While it's undeniable that romance novels are great fun, they should absolutely be subject to rigorous examination. We lit nerds say so.
Moreover, and worst of all, some romances are utter fucking crap. Complete, utter shittastic fuckcakes of crap with a side order of "How in the world did I pay actual money for this? "
When we started our site, we felt like we were two of only a few on the Internet who wanted to give romance a close examination. We looked around for a community of smarter-than-average romance readers who spoke their minds as they saw fit, and weren't afraid to unleash their inner George Carlin when the occasion called for it; a community that was unabashedly geeky, and would get references that run the gamut from 1980s one-hit wonders to jokes about Leibniz and Newton without our having to explain who either person was. There were a few sites, such as All About Romance, that fit most of our criteria, but salty language was frowned on, and frankly, we wanted the freedom to say whatever the hell we wanted. We knew we were odd ducks, but we weren't that weird — we are, after all, talking about the Internet. If the sneeze fetishists and furries and Armin Meiwes, the Rotenburg Cannibal, could find people on the same wavelength online, there had to be other people out there whose interests intersect with ours. Nathaniel Hawthorne would blanch at how big those damned mobs of scribbling women have grown. Tens of millions of people read this stuff — and we're not all cretins. So we set about creating our own community.
Saying that you read romance novels is like saying you like food. Just as there's a world of difference between homemade panang curry and an Egg McMuffin, there's mind-boggling variety in the romance genre. It's huge. Huge like Fabio's pectorals crossed with Diana Gabaldon's total word count. Consider the types of books that can fall under the heading "Romance":
There's historical romance — but what kind of historical romance? A traditional Regency, in which the hero and heroine barely kiss? A novel set in the Victorian era, featuring bondage and anal sex? A story about lovers in ancient Rome? Colonial American? An American western? How about something set in Revolutionary France, or fourteenth-century Florence?
And contemporaries: is it a category romance or a single title? Is it a mystery or romantic suspense? (For the record, "romantic suspense" does not mean that the romance is in doubt and must be investigated. It does, however, mean that there is an 87.6 percent likelihood that the cover will feature two people running.) Is it a comedy? An ensemble of women that could be "women's fiction" or chick-lit? (We'd just like to note for the record that that's one of the worst terms ever to hit the genre since "bodice ripper.") A wrenching story of emotional recovery, complete with a winning, adorable rescue dog?
And then we get to the landscape of paranormals: Vampires! Werewolves! Vampire werewolves! Mummies! Psychics! The undead! The reanimated! The demonic and the celestial! The slayers, the fey, the wee folk, the fairies, trolls, and selkies. They all fall under "paranormal," which has its roots in an ancient Greek word meaning "overcrowded genre."
And then there's that scary place, the crossroads of romance, fantasy, and perhaps even science fiction, where the puffy-paint sweatshirt-clad stereotypical romance readers meet the stock sci-fi readers, complete with Spock ears and communicator pin, and they all do the hora with the fantasy readers who have d20s in their pockets and long sword replicas strapped to their backs. In fantasy or science-fiction romance, the fate of the entire fucking universe can depend on the Happily Ever After of the hero and heroine. No pressure or anything. It's a scary mixture, but it works. Why? Because romance deals with one of the most elemental blocks of human relationships. Just as any work of fiction can have a romantic element, any romance can include the elements of other popular fictional genres. The genre is huge, creative, evolving, and a multiavenue crossroads of just about every other type of fiction. And it has been ignored for far too long. Conveniently, that's why we're here.
Copyright © 2009 by Smart Bitches Trashy Books LLC
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