Welcome to the romance ghetto. It's pink. Very, very pink. It's rife with body parts that should never, ever be inflicted with animal metaphors, much less ferret and salmon metaphors. When you reach the welcome sign at the entrance, with its curlicued font and excessive exclamation points, you know you've reached the deepest circle of literary hell, full of unspeakable horrors and Satan gnawing on throbbing heads, rending any hope of good prose apart — not unlike this sentence. And its sole inhabitants are dim, lonely housewives; no matter how smart or accomplished you are, if you're in the ghetto, you're a dim, lonely housewife, and any protestations to the contrary are vain efforts at denying your inner dim, lonely housewife.
In short, this is the genre ghetto's genre ghetto. Even the most rabid Piers Anthony or John Ringo fan can cling to a semblance of dignity and taste by comparison when they say, "Hey, at least I don't read romance novels."
My introduction to the genre was pretty rough, because the first romance novel I read (at the tender age of ten) turned out to be Desire's Blossom by Cassie Edwards, the bad book by which I judge all other bad books.
To be fair, Desire's Blossom only confirmed my opinion that romance novels were stupid and badly-written; I couldn't understand why my sister, who was one of the smartest people I knew, loved reading those awful things. My disdain was visceral and unexamined. Part of it was probably my childhood disgust for mushy stuff, and romances meant nothing if not mushy stuff. The lurid covers didn't help. You know that embarrassment squick you felt when you saw Sarah Palin attempt to mangle her way through interviews, or when you watched Keanu play Don John in Much Ado About Nothing? Yeah, romance novel covers gave me embarrassment squick, except for a whole genre.
For the next several years, I'd sporadically pick up the occasional novel from my sister's collection, partly to see if I'd find a good one, but mostly for the detailed, if sometimes anatomically improbable, sex scenes. (My parents, bless their squeamish hearts, could barely stand to discuss menstruation with me, much less anything involving squidgy bits and the old in-out-in-out, so I resorted to self-help, as it were.) None of the other books were as bad by Desire's Blossom, but that's not saying much — if Desire's Blossom were the reading equivalent of repeated hits to your crotch with a football, the other romances ranged from paper cuts to getting your finger caught in the door. If you'd asked me, between ages 10 and 16, what I thought about romance novels, you would've gotten an earful about how badly written they were, and stupid, and frustrating as all hell because the hero and heroine did nothing but fight all the time before abruptly realizing the antagonism was actually true lurve, which, in my expert pre-pubescent opinion, was a load of crock.
Then when I was sixteen, after a few years of not reading any romance novels, I picked up Judith McNaught's Something Wonderful on a complete whim.
It was a revelation.
For the first time, I found myself fully engaged by a romance novel. I couldn't put it down. The heroine was adorable, and any urge to shake her stemmed from fond exasperation, not a desire to dislocate her brainstem. The hero was yet another aristocratic asshole, but he was also vulnerable and sweet. And the conflict was fun and compelling, despite the eye-rolling misunderstandings. (I say this with love, but almost all of McNaught's conflicts go something like this: Hero: "You're a whore and out to use me! See this circumstantial evidence here? Proof you're a whore. Also, my parents never loved me. Wah." Heroine: "I'm not a whore, I'm just a painful combination of beautiful, spunky and naïve. Also, I have horrible, manipulative relatives, and I'm willfully blind to this fact because non-clueless heroines won't come into fashion until about ten years after this book is published. Wah.")
I read that book in one glorious sleep-deprived rush, then ran back to the store and grabbed all the other McNaught novels I could find. Once I'd ploughed my way through all of them, I looked for even more romances I liked. I was no longer daunted by the crap I encountered along the way because I had learned something valuable: there was indeed such a thing as a romance novel worth reading.
So that's the story of how Something Wonderful had successfully lured me into the romance ghetto. I am now an inhabitant, not a scornful tourist. I am doomed to a fate of people who had never met me imagining me a tubby, sexually frustrated woman who never met a Franklin Mint doll she didn't like. Sentences like "Yes, there are good romances" and "No, they're not chick porn" have become a staple in my repertoire.
Here's the thing: romance is probably one of the most frustrating genres I read. Because so many of them are published every year, the total amount of pure crap pumped out is higher than it tends to be in other genres, and they tend to be more shoddily edited. My hit rate with romance novels is downright dismal — it's lower than it is with other genres, and the bad ones make me really cranky. So why the hell do I still read them, and why am I so passionate about them?
Part of it's because when they're good — or when I find one that I enjoy; these two sets don't always intersect — they're incredible. They're smart, they're moving, they're subversive, and they speak to the deepest bonding urges we have. Humans are social beasties, and romance novels, more than any other genre, explore the human experience of building intimate connections with each other.
There's also no other genre I can think of in which female protagonists are so consistently victorious, and so consistently happy by the end. I'm not saying that this in and of itself makes romance novels good, but it's certainly part of what makes them attractive, and it definitely sets them apart from any other genre out there.
And romance novels are where a lot of interesting, tangled issues about societal expectations and gender norms and heteronormativity and sex roles are not just elements of the story, they're centerpieces to the conflict. Romances are the subduction zones of literature: you get all these titanic forces pushing against each other, and nothing much seems to be happening, but they're actually creating new landscapes as all these conflicts ram into each other, and they occasionally produce volcanoes that spew all the molten material that's normally hidden underneath the surface. For example: if you pick up a contemporary romance from the late seventies through the eighties, you'll find that the protagonists are usually angry as hell. The hero is dark and brooding and angry, because the heroine is not falling in line with his demands. The woman is slim and feisty and angry, because she's a feminist, dammit, and shouldn't be so captivated by the hero's hard-nosed, arrogant ways. These embodiments of cultural clashes are interesting even if the books aren't particularly good, and it's much more productive to approach them seriously, with respect and love for the genre, rather than from a dismissive, patronizing viewpoint.
The same things about what makes romance novels so good and such rich fodder for analysis is also what makes it the genre ghetto's genre ghetto. The happy ending, for example. Happy isn't sexy, happy isn't "realistic" (oh, to have the time and space to unpack what "realism" means in the context of fiction), and happy certainly isn't literary. Bleakness is where it's at, baby — or at the very least, bittersweetness. Because we have to be real, man.
Add to all that the stigma of effeminacy, and the constant undervaluation — and devaluation — of that which is culturally associated with the feminine, and you have the makings of a very convenient whipping boy. Romances are all about emotional vulnerability. Romances are about finding love. Romances, in short, are mushy, and romances are girly. Most guys would rather be caught reading porn than romance novels. Bustin' a nut: totally acceptable. Bustin' a romance: what are you, some kind of girl?
What gets to me is how pervasive the genre shame is, and how strong the assumption that if you read romance, you have to be one dumb broad. The most common reaction I get from people who find out I read and critique romance novels is a long stare, during which I can see them revising my IQ down by about 50 points or so, then a remark along the lines of "But you seem way too smart" or "What do you see in that emotional porn?" And I'm far from alone. I recently received an e-mail from a romance reader that's a decent representative of the experience of a lot other women:
"There is something so stigmatic about the romance genre...and until I accidentally stumbled across your site, I refused to read these books unless I was alone in the house with the doors locked. Preferably in some sort of dark closet, and by candlelight, because a flashlight is really too risky. Someone might SEE. For years, I could think of nothing more humiliating than being a woman with a $75,000 education who got caught reading a book cleverly titled "The Throbbing Pirate", for which the cover art is just a close up of an improbably bulging codpiece.
"Your website is hilarious and relevant and liberating. And best of all, it's proof that I am NOT somehow defective, that my intellectual accomplishments aren't accidents because I like what one of my friends calls 'emotional pornography'."
I'm trying to tease apart all the pieces in this big, tangled feedback loop of disdain and shame, and I'm having a hard time, even though I used to be on the other side. I used to think you'd have to be a moron to read and enjoy romance novels. I used to be the one who wanted to say to my sister "But you seem way too smart for these books." And god knows I still feel embarrassment squick for a lot of the covers. What the disdain comes down to, I think, is the appeal of having a cultural pariah, and romance novels provide a convenient shorthand for all sorts of things we find distasteful about popular fiction in general and women-centered popular fiction in particular — cheap sentimentality, puerile plots, inelegant prose, inauthentic characters. Once you accept that the entire genre is terrible, it's not that big a leap to go from "this genre is stupid" to "only stupid people like this genre."
You know what? Fuck that. My name is Candy Tan. I'm a Smart Bitch who loves trashy books, and I refuse to feel embarrassed about what I read and enjoy. If somebody makes a sweeping assumption about my intelligence based solely on one of the genres I read, I don't think I'm the one having problems with the S-M-R-T.