YOU Read Harlequin?! ME Too!

Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan of the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books blog defend the legitimacy of romance novels in their newly published Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels. After years of sifting through smut books in order to find the ones that are worth the $4.99 you'll pay for it, these two ladies have created a humorous guidebook for the discerning smut reader. And since romance readers tend to fly through five of these books a week, having someone else sift through the junk is like clipping coupons before going to the grocery store; it just makes good economic sense.

Mandy Van Deven: We've heard why people don't like romance novels, but what is it that attracts people to them?

Sarah Wendell: People are attracted to romance novels for a number of factors. First, the best romance novels are, frankly, outstanding. Despite the genre being dismissed by many, there are books that feature narrative prose, complex characters, and incredibly nuanced plots housed merrily on the "romance" shelf of your bookstore. Once readers figure out how good it can be, it's hard to go back. After all, what's more fun than the experience of meeting someone, being attracted, realizing they've noticed you, and negotiating all that risky terrain of courtship? In a romance novel, you experience that apprehension, that joy, and that uncertainty, with the assurance of a happy ending. Happy endings are scarce anywhere else.

My co-author, Candy Tan, also pointed out on NPR that we're culturally inculcated to reject or resist anything emotionally messy, even though we are bombarded with images that try to demand an emotional response from us as consumers. To that end, romance novels offer an optimistic venue in which to experience emotional reactions to our reading. The dog won't die at the end; they won't break up and be miserable for eternity. Happiness isn't sexy or stylish or savvy, but it is priceless.

MV: If 1 in 5 people read romance novels, why will so few admit to it? (And do those 1 in 5 include dudes?)

SW: My theory is that 5 out of 5 people read romance — the other four just didn't know they were reading one at the time. And yes, that 1 in 5 absolutely includes dudes. There are some intelligent men out there reading romance, if my email inbox is any indication.

Romance novelist and powerhouse Nora Roberts said in an interview that people don't admit to reading romance novels because they feature relationships, emotions, and sex — the "hat trick of easy targets," as she put it. She's absolutely right. If answering the question, "What music do you like?" puts fear in the heart of anyone who has an American Idol finalist song on their iPod, imagine the reaction to "What books do you read?"

MV: What would we be surprised to know about folks who read these books?

SW: We're intelligent, we're not nearly as sexually frustrated and miserable as we're made out to be, and we're all very different from one another. In fact, often the only thing two women might have in common is their shared enjoyment of romance — but that gives them plenty to talk about!

MV: Beyond Heaving Bosoms is a sort of humorous treatise in defense of romance novels. Why do these books need defending?

SW: Because it's still a logical question to ask, "Why are people ashamed of reading romances?" We wrote our book for the romance fans who adore the genre and are tired of taking crap for it. There's plenty of crap, and we decided it was long past time to celebrate.

MV: You straddle the line between a comedic and an analytical tone. Why was it important to have both?

SW: Candy and I are both English majors with a long-standing habit of over-analyzing everything. It was never enough to say about a book, "This didn't work for me." We needed to know every micro-layer of why it didn't work, and then locate that on a broader examination of similar books, possibly with dioramas made of recycled paper and Skittles. But we both also refrain from taking anything, including ourselves, too seriously. Hence the comic tone.

MV: Why should feminists read romance novels?

SW: It's a 50-plus-year-old industry comprised mostly of women writers operating their own businesses and producing a genre about women's self-actualization, pursuit of autonomy, and acquisition of sexual agency for an audience made mostly of women, who buy over $1.4 billion dollars worth of books a year. No, no, nothing feminist or even subversive about that.

MV: Fabio is easily the most recognizable name in the industry (maybe the only recognizable name for most). Who are some of the smart bitches we should know too?

SW: Whenever I am asked these questions my mind immediately goes blank, so after writing a few names, I turned to the folks on Twitter for more input. This is a dangerous question to ask romance fans. The shopping list can get monster-sized in a hurry. Behold: a list!

Nora Roberts, Lisa Kleypas, Kresley Cole, Gena Showalter, Emma Holly, Loretta Chase, Jennifer Crusie, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Sarah Mayberry, Judith McNaught, Julia Quinn, Sharon Shinn, Anne Stuart, Jude Deveraux, Lois McMaster Bujold, Julie Garwood, Meljean Brook, Elizabeth Hoyt, Nalini Singh, Marjorie Liu, Laura Kinsale … I could keep going all damn night.

MV: For those who are romance novel virgins, what cherry poppin' book do you recommend that will leave us breathless and aching for more?

SW: If you like contemporary books (i.e. set in the present): Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie. If you're open to historical books: Lord of Scoundrels/ by Loretta Chase. If you're curious about paranormal romance: Bitten by Kelley Armstrong or Kresley Cole's "Immortals After Dark" series.

Check out Sarah reading from the book here:

 

 

 

Cross-posted with Flavorwire.

 

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Comments

13 comments have been made. Post a comment.

It's not smut!

Here's what my friend Kate, a smart gal who proudly reads and writes romance, has to say:
http://whatkatesreading.blogspot.com/2009/05/marching-forwardsort-of.html

Jaymee Jacoby
Development Director, Bitch Media

to smut or not to smut

'Smut' is a colloquial term for pornography that doesn't implicitly have the negative connotation of which Kate speaks. Sarah herself uses this term. I see romance novels as a form of written pornography, and given that I don't find porn users particularly deficient, I therefore don't negatively judge people who use smut.

I concede that others who do have negative feelings about pornography, or negative feelings about those who use it, may then put their own negative judgement into this term, but such is the multiplicitous nature of language. I also recognize that Kate doesn't agree with me that romance novels are a type of porn.

Agree to disagree, I suppose. :)

Agree to disagree indeed!

Hold tight - I'm not making a judgement on porn, I have no problem with it and I don't think I'm casting negative connotations on it by maintaining that romance novels aren't porn (which is something that I and most other romance readers will agree upon). There are other sites with better writers who have hashed that out before so I'm not going to get into that this morning, but I wanted to clarify my position here - not that porn is bad, but that romance novels aren't porn.

Other than that, I enjoyed your interview. Particularly the "why should feminists read romance novels?" question.

thanks lady...

for the clarification. i agree that there's no need to rehash arguments about whether romance novels are porn or not. do you mind leaving a comment with links for folks who may be interested in exploring that debate further? that'd be lovely!

Analysis of the differences between romances, erotica, and porn

I'm not Kate, but I can provide some links for anyone "interested in exploring that debate further" because we've written a number of posts on the topic at Teach Me Tonight (where we discuss the romance genre from an academic perspective).

A guest-poster contributed "Classifying Works Containing Sexual Content," I've written "Romance Novels: Pornography or Literature?" and my colleague Dr Sarah S. G. Frantz wrote "Erotica vs. Porn."

Laura beat me to it...

Hi Mandy! Laura beat me to the punch...I was going to link the great article on porn and erotica from Teach Me Tonight - I am on the lookout for more. Cheers.

When you say "romances are a

When you say "romances are a type of porn," are you referring to sexual content (which not all romance have) or are you claiming that romances serve the same general function for readers as porn?

Sarah, I am so proud of you!

In response to this interview, I think it is absolutely wonderful that Sarah is expressing romance in a positive and enlightening way. So many people are bogged down by a stigma, one that probably started 30 years ago when romances were dubbed "boddice rippers". As a voracious reader of the romance genre, I can easily say that many romances written today have a much more modern and independent heroine. And like Sarah points out, many people may not even be aware that they are reading a "romance". There is absolutely nothing a person needs to be ashamed about when reading a romance novel. I think that as more women (and men) come out of the closet, so to speak, it will help diminish the stigma attached to romance. Of course, some of the covers with half naked men or women aren't going to help much!

Smut as in derogatory?

Smut is often used to refer to questionable content, in my mind. Yet romance novels don't usually feature sexual content that is demeaning to either sex, so calling them smut doesn't really carry with me.

Smut as in derogatory?

Smut has no real value for me either, i'd rather sit down and read a nice romantic novel

'Smut' is a colloquial term

'Smut' is a colloquial term for pornography that doesn't implicitly have the negative connotation of which Kate speaks. Sarah herself uses this term.

Boy, did you miss the point. Sarah only used the term in that post you referenced because the so-called publisher (which Sarah had little good to say about) used the term in their announcement. It was mockery and disgust, not endorsement of the term. If you'll read her post today, you'll see how she *actually* feels about the term and your use of it in relation to romance.

http://www.smartbitchestrashybooks.com/index.php/weblog/comments/bitches...

Frankly speaking, I don't

Frankly speaking, I don't resemble to the person who reads novels and people don't actually believe me at first=) I'm not saying precisely whether I love Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan or not, but I really know that there are a huge amount of people who appreciate their style of writing. And it's evident that they do know their general audience and the feelings it want them to disclose. If love is considered to be the universal language then Candy and Sarah are definitely the cupids =)

romance novels without sex

Yeah now they like romance novels without sex, or any real physical contact. This lack of sex is of course do to some super magical thing embodied in the form of an ageless man with wonderul lessons to teach the world. No not jesus a vampire.