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).