How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love the Romance Novel

This week, Manhattan will be descended upon by over 2000 romance writers. Quirky ones with glasses, sexy ones in perilously high heels, academic ones also attending the Third Annual International Conference on Popular Romance Studies. Most are members of Romance Writers of America (RWA), the organization that represents the interests and goals of the nation’s romantic novelists. We meet annually in different cities around the U.S., last year Orlando, next year Los Angeles, but something about this RWA, in the middle of New York City, calls to my mind the 1913 Armory Show.

The Modern Art Exhibition that brought Matisse, Duchamp, and Picasso to American eyes for the first time still resonates. What is “real” art? Who decides? Like those three disruptive pioneers, I feel a giddy sense of percolating change. Among romance writers, there is a healthy skepticism aimed at those who see themselves as “real” writers. I got my smack down at last year’s RWA conference when I thought I’d impress a fellow romance writer with the news that I used to work at The New Yorker. She replied, “Ooooh! Look at you all fancy!”

How are the mighty fallen!

About three years ago, a well-read friend handed me a small paper bag—it wasn’t brown, but still—that contained a couple of her favorite romance novels. I thought, What the hell is she giving me these for? I read Nabokov and Lionel Shriver, Hitchens and Amis. Both Amises. Jhumpa Lahiri was my intern. I majored in British Literature at a respected university. Austen, the Brontes, Vita Sackville-West: These were my people.

In the bag were Whitney, My Love by Judith McNaught and The Duke and I by Julia Quinn. Quinn went to Harvard, I rationalized. At the time, I thought her books were representative of a minor sub-genre of a larger foolish genre: historical romance novels, a subset of the romance novel category. I finished both in a matter of days, and headed to the library—after all, who would pay money for these books?—to get another dose of guaranteed pleasures, so unlike real life, so undemanding. I then devoured every historical novel by Judith McNaught, and pursued Julia Quinn with the same ardor. Unfortunately my local library does not have a lot of Julia Quinn. But it turns out that Quinn is shelved next to Quick.

The mother lode.

I started reading one Amanda Quick every night. Quick has written over a hundred romance novels under three different names, one for each sub-genre: historical, contemporary, and futuristic paranormal. Her historical books have titles like Ravished, Desire, and Mischief. This went on first for weeks and then months. I was immersed. I started reading “real” books about 19th-century England, such as the fabulous biography Lady John Russell, and a lengthy tome about Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston. I became re-acquainted with entailments and royal forms of address, fichus and squabs. Arguing with my snippy inner snob, I convinced myself that I was simply reading Jane Austen with sex.

I would never want to read a contemporary romance, I thought. Historically accurate romps? OK. Some tawdry approximation of reality? Not OK. I was an intellectual.

I had unwittingly joined the likes of Philippa Gregory who propounded a similar line of literary elitism in her introduction to the 2004 edition of Anya Seton’sKatherine. Here Gregory (she of the incest, bondage, and more gratuitous sex than most) posited that romance fiction, as opposed to her brand of more elevated historical fiction, “has no authentic interest in different times and cultures.” Gregory went on to malign the romantic tropes and stereotypes, “cardboard characters come ready-made; they are not forged by their particular experiences, their history, or their society, and nothing interrupts them as they work their way through the story toward a happy ending.” She declared that, “A good historical novel is always conscious of our shared humanity.” (The implication being that romance novels are not.) That’s when I started underlining. And laughing. What is more representative of shared humanity than a story that relies on the most basic and potent of human currencies: sexuality?

Eventually I ran out of Amanda Quick’s historical novels and, like an addict who runs out of quality cocaine and settles for speed, I delved into one of her contemporary novels, penned under her real name, Jayne Ann Krentz. Turns out happy endings in imaginary cliff-top inns outside of Seattle are just as emotionally satisfying as those involving viscounts and Napoleonic privateers.

As the library ran out of McNaught, Quinn, Quick, and Krentz, I started reading—and buying—books by the writers who had blurbed the books I had already read. Friends of friends, as it were. People like Eloisa James, Teresa Medeiros, Christina Dodd, and Lisa Kleypas; ex-pat Brits like Miranda Neville and Janet Mullany; sexy feminists like Pam Rosenthal, Carrie Lofty, and Zoe Archer.

How was it possible that these authors (WOMEN) had sold millions (MILLIONS) of books and I had never heard of them? News of the stunning sales figures, material evidence of the powerful rise of the genre, has started to crop up in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal and on blogs like Sarah Wendell’s Smart Bitches Trashy Books. The story runs along the lines of a $1.3 billion market share, and 75 million readers, academic conferences in small European cities and lively feminist blogs that defend the rights of women to speak and write joyfully and explicitly about love and sex. (They speak quite eloquently to my inner snob.)

I love that talk—the analysis, the dissection of meaning, the profit margins—I am comfortable with detached academic observation. But when I crack open a new romance novel (yes, I am a spine-cracker) I have learned to dispense with academic analysis lest I forfeit the immediacy and urgency that characterizes a particularly good one.

And the good ones are all alike in this respect: I am transported. Mission accomplished. Often I cannot even remember the names of the characters two days after finishing. I rarely underline. Philippa Gregory implies that this type of fleeting joy is “suitable only for women readers who wanted entertainment without intellectual challenge.” Her point is valid on one level and utterly misleading on another. In a well-told romance, a reader is certainly entertained, but also challenged. If “intellectual challenge” is defined strictly as thinking about thoughts, then these books are not always “intellectual”. If on the other hand intellectual challenge allows for other forms of thinking such as about the motivating nature of desire, greed, lust, and power, then they are. What makes these books great and controversial is the fact that they elicit an immediate, visceral response.

And then they are over.

Which leads me to the subject of pornography. Please refer to the above-mentioned authors’ web pages and blogs for spirited discussions on the differences between romance, erotica, and porn. There is plenty of porn on the shelf, and I have read my share. But this is not it. Romance novel sex tends to be overwhelmingly metaphorical: angry sex, make-up sex, submissive sex, mistaken identity sex, consummation sex, ambitious sex, tentative sex, healing sex.

Some romance readers contend it is the compelling pace of the narrative that draws them in—sometimes a slow burn, sometimes a frantic sprint, Anna Karenina versus The Woman in White—and they say that at times they even skip right past the sex scenes. Um. I do not skip the sex scenes. For me, these books present an ideal world and, to my mind at least, an ideal world includes lots of happy ending sex.

These novels provide all the usual mortal coil stuff, but in a more palatable form. Sexy. Heroic. These are not characters, they are heroines and heroes. And they deliver. Romance novels are provocative without being provoking. While I love them both in their own way, Ian McEwan demands things of me whereas Victoria Dahl satisfies my demands. That is the intellectual challenge I suppose Ms. Gregory suggests I am shirking, but why must my multifarious tastes necessitate the denigration of the entire genre? In other arts, the esoteric and the ephemeral have happily coexisted for decades. If I express an interest in Giotto and yarn bombing, Bach and Lady Gaga, I am well-rounded. But if I read Thomas Mann and Harlequin…I must be slipping.

Contemporary romance is often dismissed as bread and circus. For many critics, its very mass appeal disqualifies it as art. Recently, after confessing that I was trying my hand at writing my own romance novels, a literary friend asked me, smiling but with a quizzical expression, “Okay…but what do you write when you write from the gut?” I must have looked as confused as I felt. Every wrung-out word is from the gut, especially when I am trying to write a scene about a really good blow job without sounding like an anatomy teacher or a pornographer. Writing sex exacerbates creative paranoia: the exposure, the choices, the inadequacy, the judgment. It is not a hall pass from “real” writing. But it is fun.

Reading and writing contemporary romance novels has become my subversive act. And a joyful one. When asked about his bicycle wheel, which may or may not have been created with artistic intent, Duchamp replied, “I enjoyed looking at it, just as I enjoy looking at the flames dancing in the fireplace.” I think readers enjoy reading romance novels in the same way, for its own sake. RWA provides cheerful statistics about the real lives of romance readers. They tend to be happy. For the intellectual, happiness appears unintelligent. Blind. Thoughtless. I disagree. I am on a quest to hit people (women, really) over the head with how much I disagree. Many smart women are trapped in a dialectical prison: intelligence must be grim or at the very least ironic. Anyone who is joyful must be living in a state of ignorance. Brainwashed. Touched. Not true. I follow the news, I weep for injustice (far more than I did a few years ago). Maybe that is the reason I avoided romance novels for so many years: it was easier to think than to feel. Too late now. I am a feeling machine, all thanks to the unexpected romance novel.

So, when I venture into Times Square this week and see my favorite romance writers milling about the place, I will thank them. Just as Duchamp, Picasso, and Matisse encouraged viewers to question the notion of real art, these authors have encouraged me to redefine what constitutes a real book. Because, let’s face it, that kind of liberation doesn’t happen every day and I am keenly grateful (as is my husband, but that’s another story).

Slut Walk Fan Girl

I am loving all of this slut walk business. I woke up thinking about why it is so appealing and then my mind wandered to a nearly abandoned LIRR train station in 1979 that I haven’t thought about in many years (through the simple passage of time, rather than the willful non-thinking about it that defined that place in my mind for so many years before that.) I must have been eleven or twelve, the age my daughter is now, coincidentally. I had a lot of freedom at the time. For some reason my parents thought it would be a worthwhile experience for me to go to school in New York City for seventh and eighth grade, even though the rest of the family lived in Long Island.

So on Monday and Friday I would ride the LIRR with my father. Monday mornings we would wake up at 5:00 am. I despised those mornings, mornings that were still nights, cold and dark. He and I would drive, usually with little talking, listening to 1010 WINS or Imus-in-the-Morning. My dad had a parking space at the VFW parking lot. It wasn’t an assigned space, but there was an unspoken law of sorts that he must park in the exact same spot every day. By that point it was usually morning, and we would stop at “the Greek” and pick up the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and coffee. (Or he would. I would just stand there, shivering, or listening to the smack of spatula against griddle or antique cash drawer slamming cheerfully back into place in the large register.) I still love the combined smell of coffee and newsprint. Then we’d walk over to the train platform to await the arrival of the 6:10. All the men in suits and hats–many of them friends with one another in “real life”–would stand in clusters along the platform in stony silence until the train pulled around the bend and slid into the station.

For the return trip on Friday afternoons, I would take the M4 bus down Fifth Avenue. I had my tokens in that little miniature plastic bag inside my Mexican coin purse. I wore my Catholic school uniform. I tended to dawdle. I was that kid that talked to everyone and then found myself alone and late. On that particular Friday, I happened to be on time. Since my school schedule sometimes varied, there wasn’t always a set plan. If I made it to Penn Station in time to get on the 4:22, Mom would pick me up. Otherwise, I would wait at Penn Station for my father to get out of work and he and I would take a later train and drive home together.

I was going through a rebellious phase. My parents were unaware of most of it (sneaking into Studio 54 with thick black eyeliner…pretending to be Edie Sedgwick without ever having heard of her…Rocky Horror Picture show…experimenting with alcohol…), but they knew enough to be wary. I was way too young to be doing any of that, but New York in 1979 was still pretty raunchy and no one there seemed to mind. But anyway, that Friday afternoon I did make the 4:22 and even managed to have enough time to call my mom from Penn to let her know I’d be on that train. I used one of those one-minute pay phones they used to have. I was re-building my responsibility cred.

And then I fell asleep on the train. Passed out. I woke up at the end of the line with the nice conductor nudging me awake to the smell of stale cigarettes permanently embedded into orange vinyl. And I got off the train with the rest of the passengers. I was groggy. This was going to be so bad. My mom was going to be so pissed. We lived almost 30 minutes from the regular station, and probably 40 minutes from this one. No cell phones. I used the pay phone to call home. I think my brother may have answered and laughed that Mom had already called from a pay phone at the other station and she was pissed. She was already driving back home to wait for my call. So it seemed the best thing to do was just wait. If I got back on the train, my brother and I concluded, it would just lead to more confusion. So I waited. And waited.

And other passengers started getting picked up by their spouses or whomever and then there was just me and this other man waiting around the station. A lot of time passed in shuffling silence. I am not a sixth sense type of person. I walk into dangerous situations without the slightest frisson of anticipatory warning. I tend to be preoccupied.

Looking back, other trains must have come and gone, more passengers must have funneled through the station. But in my memory, it’s just that one man and myself waiting. And then, even I was getting the danger feeling. I felt guilty about my mom. She was going to end up spending two hours in the car on a Friday afternoon because of my carelessness. She was the mother of five. This was not insignificant. But I didn’t like this man. I wanted my mother to hurry the hell up. I kept looking firmly at the empty parking lot, wishing for her car to turn into the entrance.

“Do you have the time?”

I still wonder if I recoil just a tiny bit even now when someone asks it in just that way. Of course, I turned to face the faceless man and his pants were down around his ankles. And I kind of glanced down, up, away. And I was terrified. And then my mom’s car was pulling across the uneven gravel of the parking lot and I grabbed up my little Catholic school backpack and sprinted two-at-a-time down the cement stairs and must have looked happier than I’d ever been in my life (which I probably was) and that was not at all what my mother was in the mood for.

I got into the front seat, sort of flushed and panting from the quick running and the terror, and I started to apologize for being such a pain. And my mom launched into a whole litany of very reasonable questions (Why didn’t I get on the next train back to the usual station? She had waited for me there! What was I thinking?!) I was a stupid girl. I leapt to my own heightened conclusions that, ergo, bad things happened to stupid girls. Not that my mom meant that, or would even think that. In fact, she was probably trying to drum some sense into me so that the very thing that had happened would be less likely to happen.

How could I possibly tell her? That faceless man was so disgusting, I didn’t want anything to do with him. Talking about it would mean it really happened. It would conjure him. Why talk about it…dredge it up? I wouldn’t have been able to pick him out of a line-up. I purposely never looked at his face. But I imagined in hindsight that he was probably Satan. Or someone’s dad.

But why didn’t I tell her? She was aggravated, but she wasn’t fearsome. If I had told her right then, right when I got in the car, and pointed up to the platform, and said, “That man just asked me what time it is and when I turned to face him his pants were down and he flashed me…” I think she would have slammed the car into Park, marched up the stairs to where he had been (and probably still was) standing, and slapped him hard across the face, then driven to the police station and told them there was a flasher at the train station.

But I was guilty of so many other infractions. And I really, really wanted to get as far away as possible. And then it was too late. So I tried hard not to think about it and started joking with all my other friends in their Catholic school uniforms who lived in New York City and nearly every single one of them had been flashed…molested…some with a quick, “Hey” that garnered a look into a recessed doorway on the Upper East Side. Some with more pressing. So what happened to me didn’t matter any more. This was just a thing. Something that happened to little girls…men flashed them. Just look away, one friend chided. Almost as if my desire to parse it and understand it and wonder at the motivation of some lame middle-aged guy to expose his penis to me was just a waste of everyone’s time. She didn’t want it to matter anymore either.

And so I became one of those don’t-run-in-Central-Park-in-the-middle-of-the-night rape apologists. I should not have slept through my stop. I should have been more mindful. Vigilant. Alert. I should not have stayed at the station after I arrived there. I was foolish. Bad things happen to foolish people. And I still believe this to a certain degree. I am not going to walk into a bad neighborhood at 3:30 am (now) to relieve my insomnia. Common sense. But an LIRR platform on a sunny spring afternoon? That is not a crack den. I did nothing wrong. I know that now. And I wish I had told my mom and watched her kick that guy in the crotch on my behalf. It would have been a much better resolution. A much better story.

So that is why I love these slut walks. Because that 1979 rat bastard needs to know that his jig is up. I tell my daughter that she must always tell me if anything that anyone does at the mall or down the street makes her feel guilty or threatened. But she’s a space cadet like I am. She processes things days and weeks later. She will reference a line from a movie that she watched months ago because she has just realized why it is funny. She once apologized to a friend for something she had done two years prior (don’t pity her, it was egregious, and she damn well should have been feeling guilty that whole time).

I’ve told her all about the slut walks and why I love them. I want her to know that not only will I retaliate against anyone who violates her, I want to. We all want to. It’s not “flashing.” It’s child molestation and pedophilia. It is an insidious form of terrorism. And these slut walks defy that terror. These slut walks make me want to put up my dukes and yell, “Flash me now mother fucker!”