A few years ago, if you had asked me, I would have never admitted to reading romance novels to just anyone. It was a kind of special knowledge I kept to myself for the most part, though it wouldn't have been very hard to figure out. I used to look for the clues in other people that I knew were written upon my own person: That person who knows just a little too much or a little too well the geography or importance of geography of Victorian London...Anyone who is not British who can tell you exactly what "White's" is or why Gretna Green is so very importantly situated...Someone who reads their book with the cover buried in their lap despite the distance of the book to the actual eyes.
We're all a bunch of closeted and cloistered folk. I speak in generalities, but it is, as Ms. Austen put it, universally acknowledged by most of us.
There are, of course, a few more socially acceptable romance authors that people can admit to reading--the kind of author you'd find in target. Diana Gabaldon, Nora Roberts, and, of course, Stephanie Meyer (though she sure gets her share of flack) are a few. These you can get away with reading in public because they're the sort of Dan Browns and Tom Clancys of their genre. Gabaldon of course writes giant tomes of books with serious looking covers and lots of history, so she generally gets a pass for the "respectability" of her work.
So what changed?
Well, for starters, I met my best friend in Grad school and we read the clues I was talking about. We began to think and question...how could two highly educated women love reading the same kinds of books that the majority of the rest of the world dismissed as dangerous and trashy?
A very smart and important woman in my life told me when I most needed to hear it (during the romance reading guilt-ridden teenage years) that there is nothing wrong with reading romance novels as long as you read them smartly. It took me years to understand what she was saying. She wasn't really saying "Don't read these books unless you know it's all a sham and a lie!" She was saying read these books the way you'd read any other--with an eye for their humanity and artistry.
A common misconception among those who don't read romance novels is that they are fully of smutty tripe with no real value at all. In reality, the complete opposite is true. Romance novel writers fill their pages with intelligent research on everything from european history to politics to farming methods and plant biology. Many romance novel writers are educated women with a vast array of degrees to include Masters degrees in Literature, Philosophy, Public Administration, History, and Health Care. These women have to be educated because their readers are. Romance novel readers are infamous for calling authors on their inaccuracies or anachronisms. They will write in by the droves to argue about emotional consistency of characters and the plausibility of questionable plot devices. Simply, a romance novel must speak to its readers by being an educated product that offers something more than sex and some pretty truisms.
Sure, there are a lot of those novels, too. But you'll find they are cheap, plentiful, and easily discarded in the donation piles to Goodwill. You'll also find that a romance novel reader will make fun of those books just as much as a non-romance novel reader. She'll sometimes read them, too, but that's because a romance novel reader is voracious for more to read and the writers often can't keep up with the demand.
About the same time I was guilt-ridden for reading romance novels as a teen, a wave of the anti-video game movement was happening post-Columbine. People were scared about how to protect their children, themselves, and their friends. Who should be blamed? A lot of people blamed video games. They blamed the violence of the video games and the availability. The questionable morality of violent games caused a great movement against them. Here's the problem: at the same time I was reading Johanna Lindsey novels, I and lot of other well-adjusted kids were playing Halo and fragging our gaming partners for fun (or at least I was, giggling the angrier my cousin became when I blew her up in the jeep because I was bored with driving around). Did these video games make me dangerous and violent? Not really. I have to leave the room if Wife Swap comes on because their fighting bothers me too much.
So the question circles back to this: do romance novels ruin girls? I have to say no, they don't. They are, of course, potentially dangerous, but so is a bathtub if you're not careful (no seriously, I almost killed myself slipping in a tub one time--very traumatic). The truth is, if anything, a romance novel in the hands of an educated, not shamed reader can be the opposite of dangerous. By large, readers of romance novels are more likely to identify with heroines who respect themselves. They will look for partners who will do the same, recognizing their own value and the value of intimacy. They are more likely to do well in school (do you have any idea how many SAT words are in most romance novels) and to go to college because they want to and not because they think they should. In general, studies have shown that reading ANYTHING improves a child's facility with language and critical thinking. I have to tell you, the people I knew who read in high school versus the people who didn't...well, let's just say the ones who read are sitting pretty at the moment (or as pretty as they can).
Think of it this way--Mary Poppins said "a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down." How do you want to talk to your kids about their emerging sexuality, respecting their bodies and minds, and the importance of sexual intimacy over sexual exploration? Might I suggest a Lynsay Sands or perhaps a Julie Garwood?
-April (Originally Posted on June 16, 2012)