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Romance Novels, The Last Great Bastion Of Underground Writing
February 14, 2012 4:12 PM   Subscribe

Romance fiction is widely reckoned to be a very low form of literature. Maybe the lowest, if we're not counting the writing at Groupon, or on Splenda packets. Romance fiction: probably the worst! An addictive, absurd, unintellectual literature, literature for nonreaders, literature for stupid people—literature for women!
posted by latkes (100 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

 
And a happy Valentine's Day to you, shmoopy!
posted by mwhybark at 4:22 PM on February 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


One of the best pieces ever on This American Life featured Sarah Vowell at a romance writers' convention.

It's always blown me away the amount of derision and sneering romance novels receive, compared to, say, scifi or fantasy, which is often just as bad. But whenever I try to make this point, someone inevitably calls my bluff and asks me to recommend good romance novels. And I have to sheepishly concede that I don't read romance novels.
posted by lunasol at 4:26 PM on February 14, 2012 [23 favorites]


manuscripts submitted by men to Mills & Boon usually contain obvious howlers that no woman would ever write, such as having the heroine explicitly admiring herself in a mirror

This reminded me of a P.D. James novel in which a male character made some inference about a woman based on her handbag.
posted by Trurl at 4:28 PM on February 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


One of the best pieces ever on This American Life featured Sarah Vowell at a romance writers' convention.

It's always blown me away the amount of derision and sneering romance novels receive, compared to, say, scifi or fantasy, which is often just as bad. But whenever I try to make this point, someone inevitably calls my bluff and asks me to recommend good romance novels. And I have to sheepishly concede that I don't read romance novels.
I believe the best romance novel ever is Madame Bovary by Balzac. lul
posted by khappucino at 4:29 PM on February 14, 2012 [6 favorites]


I read them. Start with the enchanting, surprisingly thoughtful Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie, any time anyone asks you.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 4:32 PM on February 14, 2012 [15 favorites]


compared to, say, scifi or fantasy

I would flip this around a bit--I hear plenty of derision directed at sci fi and fantasy. In many cases it's warranted, but I think more people could offer the name of a sci fi or fantasy book they approve of than a romance novel, which as a genre are often written off entirely.
posted by Hoopo at 4:35 PM on February 14, 2012


I was quite hooked on them for a few years and had a huge collection, and I have to say they were a big comfort to me in a lonely, stressful, sad time. I don't quite get the sneering myself, considering the HOURS that most people spend watching crappy TV--surely this isn't any worse writing than that! And romance novels are so much better since they got more realistic (god, no more of the "throbbing manhood" nonsense, please). And you know exactly what you're getting--all the ones in a particular series will have the same tone, level of explicitness, etc.

I don't know about the whole feminist female-empowerment angle discussed in the article, though; many of the books are organized around a woman in love who's waiting around for the guy to accept that he loves her and quit treating her like crap (Elizabeth Lowell, I'm looking at you).
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 4:38 PM on February 14, 2012 [7 favorites]


This is a fun post! I've just blown a shameful amount of worktime on these blogs.

Favorite romance novels: Anna Karenina (written by a guy, but who was good at female characters. Also, I like Outlander even though Gabaldon has been a goober online.
posted by small_ruminant at 4:40 PM on February 14, 2012


I'd also offer things written by Courtney Milan as good romance. She tackles interesting issues, like depression, within her romances and doesn't gloss them over with 'and then love conquered it all' endings.

For less issues and more sex, try Leslie Kelly or Kathleen O'Reilly.

I really like Suzanne Enoch's Samantha Jellicoe series, as well. They're fun but well written with a mystery bent.

Avoid Harlequin Presents unless you like the cliches of alpha males taking women by force or trickery and women loving them anyway.
posted by jacquilynne at 4:42 PM on February 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


Romance novels are feminist documents.

Speaking as a feminist who has read my share -- uh, no.
posted by bearwife at 4:42 PM on February 14, 2012 [9 favorites]


This was quite good, thanks.
posted by Bookhouse at 4:43 PM on February 14, 2012


Maybe it's antifeminist, but I refuse to take my mother's non-stop parade of Fern Michaels books seriously. I mean, come on, the woman's name is Fern.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 4:48 PM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Groupon's copywriting is actually pretty good.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:51 PM on February 14, 2012 [6 favorites]


I used to love the old-old school ones, like the Harlequins in the period mentioned in the article, for the same reason that I used to sometimes enjoy soap operas, but I don't care for the more modern ones. Without getting into the politics or whatever therein, there's something about the overwrought, overly-metaphoric, extremely standardised romance novel that appealed to my nostalgic side. But as a genre I simply don't find it appealing. I also don't like romantic comedies. I'm sure there's a reason why, but I'm equally sure I don't care to analyse and present it. There is some absolute tripe in every genre, though.
posted by sm1tten at 4:53 PM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Romance novels are feminist documents. They're written almost exclusively by women, for women, and are concerned with women: their relations in family, love and marriage, their place in society and the world, and their dreams for the future.

Wait...what? I read a total of two romance novels and gave up because they were so infuriatingly sexist, old-fashioned, and horribly cheesy. Granted, I can see their appeal, but I always felt like I was reading someone else's fantasy, not mine.

There's good romantic/erotic literature to be found on the Internet, not so much in romance paperbacks...
posted by adso at 4:53 PM on February 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


I almost never read fiction anymore. I have enjoyed reading blogs about romance novels, though:
Smart Bitches, Trashy Books
Dear Author
Teach Me Tonight
posted by flex at 4:56 PM on February 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


I don't read a lot of romance*, but I have read some. (When you spend every summer at the same cottage with a library stocked on the basis of "what other people have left behind," you broaden your horizons considerably.) I have never read a romance novel, not even a monthly Harlequin number, that was more badly written than The DaVinci Code.

*asterisked out because I will totally read the hell out of romance novels if they put a spaceship on the cover and call them Space Opera
posted by KathrynT at 4:58 PM on February 14, 2012 [11 favorites]


once upon a time in the early 80s, me and a female friend of mine got the idea that perhaps we could be romance novelists - naturally, my first step was to do my homework and read about 50 of the things

my impression - american or canadian written harlequins - reasonably well written, somewhat stereotyped characters and situations, quite predictable

english harlequins - a little off the wall, not well written

australian and new zealander harlequins - step away from the typewriter please

barbara cartland - oh. my. god. - the most poorly written, godawful tripe it has ever been my misfortune to go through - and i read at least 5 of her books

i was also disturbed by the frequent theme of a borderline abusive man who turns out to be someone's true love who would change his ways for her - that's just anything but a feminist document

i concluded that i could never write such things sincerely and it would show too much for me to be successful at selling them

but that was 30 years ago - and the later, american written harlequins showed some real competence, so i'm not going to dismiss the idea that the genre has grown since then

but i'm not going to investigate it either - i'm afraid barbara cartland ruined it for me
posted by pyramid termite at 5:00 PM on February 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


romance novels receive, compared to, say, scifi or fantasy, which is often just as bad

Well of course they are often as bad. But what is the usual case? What's the median quality of SF vs romance?
posted by DU at 5:06 PM on February 14, 2012


I used to work on mass market paperbacks and secretly loved the then-popular sub genre of time travel romance: lots of costumy atmosphere and a spunky modern heroine (they're all spunky) made a great combination. Pirate romances are also great swashbuckling fun and many fewer sextants than your average O'Brian.
posted by libraryhead at 5:06 PM on February 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


Oh, I do have to say I've recently rediscovered that the Sunfire YA historical romance series from the '80s (I went through every one the library had when I was 12 or so!) have some well-written stories with definitely feminist ideas/plotlines. Some of them are downright silly and not historically accurate but others are quite well done, even within the parameters (16 year old protagonist, two potential love interests - who will she choose? Why, always the one who lets her be herself and follow her dreams as opposed to more traditional expectations!).
posted by flex at 5:13 PM on February 14, 2012 [6 favorites]


Oh, I do have to say I've recently rediscovered that the Sunfire YA historical romance series from the '80s (I went through every one the library had when I was 12 or so!) have some well-written stories with definitely feminist ideas/plotlines.

Yes, I remember reading the one about the plucky teenage journalist in 19th century NYC and loving it as a 12 or 13 year old. Wikipedia tells me it was called Renee.
posted by lunasol at 5:18 PM on February 14, 2012


I used to work on mass market paperbacks and secretly loved the then-popular sub genre of time travel romance

One of my favorite writing professors wrote those. Sounded so fun.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:21 PM on February 14, 2012


Jane Austen.
posted by francesca too at 5:25 PM on February 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


I would flip this around a bit--I hear plenty of derision directed at sci fi and fantasy. In many cases it's warranted, but I think more people could offer the name of a sci fi or fantasy book they approve of than a romance novel, which as a genre are often written off entirely.

Yes, I guess that's what I was trying to say. People do sneer at sci fi/fantasy, but it has a certain geek chic cachet, and it's socially acceptable in urban, educated circles to have your sci fi and fantasy books you like. That's not the case with romance novels, and I'd argue that part of that is because of what this blog post discusses - our society tends to look down on things that are seen as being "for women."
posted by lunasol at 5:26 PM on February 14, 2012 [6 favorites]


lunasol: “One of the best pieces ever on This American Life featured Sarah Vowell at a romance writers' convention.”

That was fantastic – thanks. I really enjoyed it.

(One tiny point: that part about the romance novel convention was not actually narrated by Sarah Vowell – who narrated the last part about Johnny and June Carter Cash – but by Robin Epstein, the co-founder of the More Fire! women's theater collective.)
posted by koeselitz at 5:29 PM on February 14, 2012


Some years ago a female friend of mine described to me the essential topoi of romance novel for women (are there any "for men"?)...something along these lines :

- he is an hero of some kind, hence he stands above the sheepish crowd;
- troubled because he's very sensible, but not an emotive trainwreck;
- challenged by evil , who he bravely faces, which takes a lot of his time, so the time he reserves for her is precious, hence she is more worthy;
- forceful, decisive, but not a brute;
- essentially honest and principeld, but not brutally blunt;
- doesn't hurt at all that he is both gentle and occasionally feisty in bed.
posted by elpapacito at 5:37 PM on February 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


Oh, I forgot: he always always always comes back to her.
posted by elpapacito at 5:38 PM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I like some romance -- there are a number that aren't sexist (Courtney Milan is fun, so is Tessa Dare, who had the younger cousin/sibling/something of the hero [who is clearly going to be the hero of the next book] say "Look at me. Now look at yourselves. Now look back at me. I am the man you want to be like.", Sarra Manning writes interesting ones). Good romance, like good sff, gets "upgraded" to litfic. I probably would like more, but I get more reviews from sff readers, so I don't always know who to read.
posted by jeather at 5:44 PM on February 14, 2012


(One tiny point: that part about the romance novel convention was not actually narrated by Sarah Vowell – who narrated the last part about Johnny and June Carter Cash – but by Robin Epstein, the co-founder of the More Fire! women's theater collective.)

Oops, thanks for the catch! I think I so strongly associate Sarah Vowell with that Johnny and June Carter cash piece that I just transferred her in my mind to the whole episode.
posted by lunasol at 5:45 PM on February 14, 2012


I gave up romance novels when I found better books with equally smutty sex scenes. Or nowadays, lady graphic novelists who write and draw amazing stuff like Starfighter, Chester5000XYV, or Curvy. Yowza. (all links NSFW).
posted by emjaybee at 5:46 PM on February 14, 2012 [5 favorites]


This reminded me of a P.D. James novel in which a male character made some inference about a woman based on her handbag.

Blame the hot toddies I've been drinking to tame the evil bronchitis, but I'm having trouble parsing your comment. Is it because of how the male character behaves or the author (who happens to be female) adding in an extra bit of a joke?
posted by theBigRedKittyPurrs at 5:49 PM on February 14, 2012


That's not the case with romance novels, and I'd argue that part of that is because of what this blog post discusses - our society tends to look down on things that are seen as being "for women."

Well, that might have something to do with the fact that anything marketed "for women" is usually offensive pap, as compared to things marketed "for humans." Secondly, even bad sci-fi/fantasy at least has the possibility of containing some new ideas or a neat new gizmo.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 5:50 PM on February 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


My mom, a smart and awesome lady, wrote a couple of romance novels (although she never sold one. She also wrote an erotic sci-fi novel and a couple of other things) and was active in the community for a while (overseeing contests and such). For the most part, all the writers are cool, smart women who are dedicated to their craft. And because my mom was buying a lot of romance novels as research, I read some of them because they were around. Some were good. Some weren't. They all closely followed a formula. But they were, for the most part, all very entertaining.

(Romances, from what I read, are very conservative in terms of values, despite all the sex. They are, as the article points out, for the most part, all about white women getting married.)

I really have no interest in the genre -- not really my thing -- but I find it hard to hate on it. Or even be critical of it. I don't the writing is any worse than any other "genre" (or even a lot of "mainstream") fiction. It serves its purpose and both the writers and the audience seems to enjoy it. There's some good stuff in there.
posted by darksong at 5:50 PM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Addictive, absurd, unintellectual literature, literature for nonreaders, literature for stupid people", and we're saying the closest male equivalent is sci-fi? C'mon people, Men's Adventure. Look for shelf after shelf of it in your local used-book store. There are... five hundred and twenty-three Mack Bolan: The Executioner novels alone, not even getting into Killmaster, Death Merchant, and the Penetrator.
posted by ormondsacker at 5:52 PM on February 14, 2012 [26 favorites]


Confession time, I TOTALLY dig romance novels. Cheesy in their potential glory and more pornographic, in some cases, than Literoritica.com

You've read just 5 Barbara Cartlands? Pshaw, one weird teenage summer was 200 of those things. I mean, if you are going to grok a genre, seriously, grok the sub-genre written by a woman in gold lame holding white pekingese dogs in a hella gaudy room and hey, she's the step-grandmother of Princess Diana? Ladle it on brother and sister!

Great romance novels? My friends, you can go highbrow with Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Balzac and Tolstoy.

Every genre literature has its howlers and red headed step-children but each genre also has it's surprising and not so surprising gems. Because it is genre certain tropes apply and the reader LIKES choosing the context for those tropes whether it is a Regency drawing room or a dark, foggy London street with the clip-clop of carriage horses. Throw in some crossover action with spaceships, barbarians, space aliens, supernatural creatures and anything else near your kitchen sink results in a heady stew. It also results in cover art where people seem to be allergic to clothing, but hey we ALL use visual signifiers.

Why be so snobby? More snob time is less reading time and that is a pity.
posted by jadepearl at 5:54 PM on February 14, 2012 [14 favorites]


I cut my teeth on Georgette Heyer regency romances.

And nothing makes me happier than a bodice-ripper with pirates. God damn I love pirate romance.
posted by padraigin at 5:56 PM on February 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


Justine by the Marquis De Sade is probably the greatest romance ever told
posted by Renoroc at 6:03 PM on February 14, 2012 [6 favorites]


(Romances, from what I read, are very conservative in terms of values, despite all the sex. They are, as the article points out, for the most part, all about white women getting married.)
I'm not a big romance novel reader, but my understanding is that the romance market is pretty segregated, but it's not all about white women. It's just that white readers are probably not going to read, for instance, books in Harlequin's Kimani imprint, which is about and for black women. When the author of the blog post said that romance novels were all about white women, I think she was specifically talking about what she calls "the golden era", which ended in 1980.
posted by craichead at 6:08 PM on February 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


You've read just 5 Barbara Cartlands? Pshaw, one weird teenage summer was 200 of those things.

the horror, the horror
posted by pyramid termite at 6:14 PM on February 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh, that's probably true, craichead -- I did kind of skip over the part where those were a lot of the romance novels my mom was reading (even modern ones -- like late '90s into the early '00s), but most of those were set in the past (middle ages/etc.).

I know there was more diversity and books aimed at specific audiences, but I still came away with the impression that even a lot of the modern ones were focused on women settling down with one man. And I even saw that in the present-day ones I read.
posted by darksong at 6:18 PM on February 14, 2012


Yeah I don't know if I would support the contention that the scorn piled on romance novels is

a) necessarily any higher than a legion of equally trashy subgenres
b) based on an inherently sexist proposition

I think genre fans have a tendency to engage in this weird, 3 Yorkshireman, race-to-the-bottom thing where they're all like, "No! my subgenre is the most popularly derided!" and then another is like, "Derided, bloody luxury; if I'm seen in public with my genre, I'm whipped with the the scabrous tails mules possessing dubious oral hygience!" It all gets a bit much after a while, you know? Like, everyone's subgenre can be hated on - largely by people that don't read books at all mind, and that's okay. It also totally fails to recognise the huge success of genre-breakouts in recent years, a la Twilight, Da Vinci, Bride Stripped Bare etc.

I also think that position ignores what has been a reality about reading for several decades now, namely, that women make up the vast majority of readers - Modern publishing (though still far too dominated by male writers) is an edifice built primarily upon women readers; they have shaped publishing far more so than men. In this respect, isolating romance for censure would be somewhat redundant, when women read so much more of everything - except history and biography - than men. I feel like that take on things is a solution in search of a problem, and I think the average James Patterson etc is just as loathed as a romance, for example.

I think people generally rag on genres they don't read as much. When you're in the trenches, so to speak, it's a lot easier to winnow the wheat from the chaff. To the uninitiated, there aren't many cosigns for finding the needles and they end up with a lot of haystack (this said, I'm the first to rag on fantasy novels, my own favourite genre, so what do I know?).
posted by smoke at 6:28 PM on February 14, 2012 [11 favorites]


I still came away with the impression that even a lot of the modern ones were focused on women settling down with one man. And I even saw that in the present-day ones I read.

Isn't that like complaining about a fantasy novel having magic in it? I mean classist over idealization of social hierarchies or racial exclusion maybe, but while if you wander into the racier side of romance they start getting into niche orgies and the like, romance novels have romance central to the plot for a reason.
posted by Phalene at 6:30 PM on February 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


Personally, I've never really considered reading them because I don't find domestic drama very interesting. I'll read poorly written sci-fi because it is full of ideas and situations that to me are more interesting and original. I tend to go for fiction that describes a story that could not play out in my own life. Romance, it must be said, doesn't play a big part in my life, but I have more of a chance of falling in love (well or poorly) than I do of sabotaging a fleet of enemy airships in a zero-G artificial world constructed by hyper-intelligent AIs attempting to recreate the dynamism of natural life. So I read the second thing.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 6:32 PM on February 14, 2012


Groupon's copywriting is actually pretty good.

Well, maybe, but they're no Woot.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 6:35 PM on February 14, 2012 [6 favorites]


There's good romantic/erotic literature to be found on the Internet, not so much in romance paperbacks...

I've read slash that was close to brilliant, and love the ferment of (overwhelmingly) female creativity demonstrated by the fansites and fantasies they contain. I'll defend it any day (romance novels, not so much: they bored me, on the few occasions I tried to read them).
posted by jokeefe at 6:37 PM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


our society tends to look down on things that are seen as being "for women."

Uh-huh, the corollary being that erotic literature "for men" isn't looked down on by society at all?
posted by HiroProtagonist at 6:46 PM on February 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


Do you think, smoke? I don't really have a dog in this fight, because I don't read romance. But I do read crime fiction, and my sense is that it's way more socially acceptable to read that genre than to read romance. And I think that most people in my social circles recognize quality distinctions in sci fi and fantasy, in a way that they don't about romance. Honestly, I'm having a hard time thinking of a genre that I think is as stigmatized as romance, and I can't really come up with anything. I think that may be partly because only formulaic stories about romance get slotted in the "romance" category, though, whereas that's not as true about other genres.
posted by craichead at 6:47 PM on February 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


*asterisked out because I will totally read the hell out of romance novels if they put a spaceship on the cover and call them Space Opera

so you'll have read McCaffrey's Crystal Singer and Killashandra - and those telepathy novels, too.

and you'll definitely want to read Komarr and A Civil Campaign by Bujold - only read the early Miles books first, to fall in love with him yourself, and then enjoy watching him fall in love.
posted by jb at 6:50 PM on February 14, 2012


"It's always blown me away the amount of derision and sneering romance novels receive, compared to, say, scifi or fantasy, which is often just as bad."

Genre: It's all bad!

Which is I assume not really what was meant to be said here, but even so.

ALL genre writing receives derision and sneering, and it has to be said that much of the derision and sneering is cross-genre, i.e., science fiction writers saying "at least I don't write romance" and vice versa (or mystery writers being glad they don't write horror, or whatever). It's all generally pointless snobbery.

Genre writing in suffers reputationally because (among many other things) it's less obscure about the transactional nature of its business, which is to say that genre usually makes no bones that its job is to give you entertainment in exchange for your money (rather than, say ennoble your spirit or make a trenchant point about the human condition). However, the recognition of the transactional nature of genre does not mean individual books within the (widely defined) genres can't ennoble one's spirit and/or make points about the human condition.

Which is to say one my find good books and good writing anywhere, including in romance or science fiction or westerns or [insert genre here]. Conversely, there are perfectly horrid books that are not put into genre bins. Genre is not destiny when it comes to quality.

All that said, romance gets more crap than other genres because a) sexism in all its delightful forms, b) some of the most successful romance publishers have been historically and unapologetically commerce-oriented, churning out formula-bound books on a prodigious schedule that has more to do with quantity than quality. It's ironic that romance of all genres has been the one to grasp and embrace capitalism, which if memory serves generally considered to be a "masculine" pursuit. This suggests part of the sexism here is predicated the romance genre beating everyone else at the game.
posted by jscalzi at 6:54 PM on February 14, 2012 [10 favorites]


Do you think, smoke?

Well, I'm not saying it authoritatively, or anything - and I have absolutely no numbers or anything; I really did mean that I didn't know.

However, if I ask most genre fans in my circles about the popular reception of their genre - whatever it is - they're usually pretty down on it. And in many of my circles a romance novel is really seen by Joe or Jane Public as no better or worse than whatever fantasy I happen to be reading, or crappy crime novel, or whatever.

I dunno; I think it's just a tendency for people to stick up for their underdogs - and their underdogs' underdog status.

I do feel that there are lots of targets for the stigma of romance, above and beyond sexism. Maybe if you were making the case for the critical reception of Anne Tyler or someone compared to the jizz-in-pants around Jonathon Franzen and other male writers in the Family Drama genre who often aren't a hell of a lot different in my opinion, then you might have something. But by the same token, Tyler's a Pulitzer Prize winner, so under-appreciated is a bit of a stretch there; I'm demonstrating my own bias by insisting she's an underdog, haha.
posted by smoke at 7:19 PM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


C'mon people, Men's Adventure. Look for shelf after shelf of it in your local used-book store. There are... five hundred and twenty-three Mack Bolan: The Executioner novels alone, not even getting into Killmaster, Death Merchant, and the Penetrator.

This this this. And also all those Western series - Longarm, The Gunsmith, The Trailsman and Slocum, e.g., all have over 300, and in some cases 400, books in their series, some of which are notable for the inclusion of lots more smut than others and all of which are written under house pseudonyms. The analogy with women's romance is fairly easy.

Not that there's anything wrong with reading them. Just that these books are the better comparison, not "scifi."
posted by mediareport at 7:20 PM on February 14, 2012 [6 favorites]


padraigin, have you ever read Laura London's "Windflower"? It's a bit hard to find, but it's hard to find a bunch of more lovable pirates. The writing is overwrought in a very delightful way.

Jennifer Crusie is definitely my first pick for a contemporary romance recommendation as well. For historical romance, I'd go with Connie Brockway's "As You Desire".

The FPP article focuses on romance books from 1930-80s, and thus coming to the conclusion that 'And almost always, as the tension builds, the heroine is beset with doubts about her own competence, attractiveness and worth.' I'd say that 1980-90s was a good time for the genre, with less cringe-worthy sexual politics in general.
posted by of strange foe at 7:21 PM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I cut my teeth on Georgette Heyer regency romances.

Georgette Heyer novels make me exceptionally gleeful. And the fact that they're obviously well-researched makes me love them all the more.
posted by clavier at 7:22 PM on February 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


And, of course, there are the usual standout examples of the genre that can hold their own with any so-called "litfic."
posted by mediareport at 7:22 PM on February 14, 2012


When I started reading them in the 90s I could only read the historic ones because it was popular for the (mainstream imprint) modern heroines to require rescuing, and that drove me crazy. I'd be like, "GET A JOB AND STOP WAITING FOR A MAN TO FIX YOUR LIFE." But in the historic ones, the same character doing the same things is like a feisty feminist sticking it to a patriarchal power structure! (I've noticed the modern ones are a lot more realistic with much stronger heroines these days, but I still like the historicals best.)

Anyway, historical romance novels are typically so closely researched that my education on Welsh history via romance novels totally saved my butt in college when I forgot to study for a particular test AND impressed my professor in class with my knowledge of Welsh kings and invasions and dynastic disputes. He wanted to know how I got into reading so much about medieval Welsh history, and I was pretty clear he didn't want to know the actual answer.

We used to pass boxes of them around the women's dorm in college. I have such affection for them. :)

I recall liking Betina Krahn enough to browse for her books at the bookstore; I recall thinking they were reasonably well-written and didn't have clunkers that threw me out of the narrative, but that was 15 years ago, I might not be remembering very well. But there are SO many romance sub-genres, you gotta find the one you like.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:32 PM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


It also may be worth noting that there is plenty of erotic/romantic content in other genres. I would posit that any "romance" novel that rises far enough (either in quality or in popularity) above the expectations of the genre simply get reclassified as something else.

All of a sudden it's a Historical Drama novel, or a Fantasy novel, or simply a modern Drama or Comedy rather than a Romance.
posted by chimaera at 7:41 PM on February 14, 2012 [8 favorites]


a) sexism in all its delightful forms, b) some of the most successful romance publishers have been historically and unapologetically commerce-oriented, churning out formula-bound books on a prodigious schedule that has more to do with quantity than quality.

This is basically what I wanted to say. There can be (and have been) good romance novels, and I am just as capable of getting interested in them as any other story focused on a particular relationship between two characters, but OMG, the romance industry is really, really focused on Churning Them Out. My wife worked at a bookstore, and every month the hardcore romance readers would turn out to buy the newest crop of ten or twelve books from their preferred imprint. The plots and characters were always the same - when she was investigating the idea of writing some for extra income, my wife discovered that some romance houses had actual formulas you had to follow, with the First Kiss happening within X page range and etc. - but the names and scenarios had been jumbled up Mad Libs style, so this month it was a time-traveling Scottish pirate and next month it's a world-traveling British oil magnate and so on.

I don't know how much of the scorn romance novels get is because of sexism, but I do know that the endless treadmill of repetitive poorly-written schtuff doesn't help make the genre seem more respectable. Lord knows there are badly written, formulaic books in every genre, but romance novels are the only ones I know of that take it to quite this degree. Possibly those cruddy "men's adventure" books do likewise; I've never investigated them.
posted by Scattercat at 7:41 PM on February 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


The thing about genre fiction is that whenever it garners critical acclaim it winds up in the regular fiction or literature section. No matter how slavishly it adheres to the tropes. If it has bondage or anal sex, it winds up in erotica, but to be fair the authors who have kinks don't seem to stick to the tropes much.
posted by BrotherCaine at 7:46 PM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Georgette Heyer novels make me exceptionally gleeful. And the fact that they're obviously well-researched makes me love them all the more.

I made the mistake of looking up a bit more on Heyer, and she sounds like a right bastard/toff cliche in real life - I try not to let it influence my joy of the books. It's amazing that someone who regards even her most unpleasant characters with a kind of exasperated affection, that in real life she rarely extended so much sympathy.
posted by smoke at 7:54 PM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


So what do people think of sci-fi/romance crossed genre work? I'm specifically thinking of Rachel Caine's Weather Warden series, Sharon Shinn's Archangel series & I might as well mention most of Heinlein's later books just because I'm a trouble maker.
posted by scalefree at 7:57 PM on February 14, 2012


so you'll have read McCaffrey's Crystal Singer and Killashandra - and those telepathy novels, too.

and you'll definitely want to read Komarr and A Civil Campaign by Bujold - only read the early Miles books first, to fall in love with him yourself, and then enjoy watching him fall in love.


Read em all, loved em all. Also all the Liaden Universe novels, which are silly and predictable and just plain fun.
posted by KathrynT at 8:07 PM on February 14, 2012


Possibly those cruddy "men's adventure" books do likewise; I've never investigated them.

I don't know about the industry, but I've read a few Westerns picked at random from my stepdad's tremendously large collection. They certainly read as though they were churned out. Even the "big names" were terrible. They felt very much like that kind of formulaic romance novel - except with different themes.

Westerns don't attract as much attention as a target of derision as romance novels do, though - is that just because they're less popular?

I would posit that any "romance" novel that rises far enough (either in quality or in popularity) above the expectations of the genre simply get reclassified as something else.

You are so spot on.

This actually reminds me of Terry Goodkind, the author of some pretty derivative, mediocre fantasy works, who insisted that they weren't fantasy because they were literature. There is always a perception that if something is really good it's no longer genre fiction.

I think that sci-fi and fantasy are breaking past that a little bit, though, with a few titles like Lord of the rings being allowed status as literature as well as fantasy or sci-fi. I can't think of similar examples for romance. The things that have been brought up in this thread so far, like Austen's novels, I don't think are considered romance novels by the majority of people.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 8:18 PM on February 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


Sharon Shinn's Archangel series

These make excellent sickbed/lazy day reading. If you think about them too much they fall apart, but you know, hot angel dudes and ladies who sing like...angels. Yum.
posted by emjaybee at 8:29 PM on February 14, 2012


Westerns don't attract as much attention as a target of derision as romance novels do, though - is that just because they're less popular?

I think that would be where the general sexism of mainstream culture figures in. Westerns have guns and stuff, so they're not as dumb as books mostly about love.

Also, I'm a little saddened that I now want to read Sharon Shinn's books less. They looked interesting, and my impression was they were better than "don't think about them too much or they fall apart but hey, hot dudes."
posted by mediareport at 8:47 PM on February 14, 2012


Also, I'm a little saddened that I now want to read Sharon Shinn's books less. They looked interesting, and my impression was they were better than "don't think about them too much or they fall apart but hey, hot dudes."

I gotta disagree with emjaybee on that. There's a strong romance component but there's also a significant attempt to create a meaningful, believable world & a dynamic one at that; the stories span a number of decades (centuries even? I forget exactly) & the world changes over time. I didn't think it fell apart under scrutiny.
posted by scalefree at 9:14 PM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think that would be where the general sexism of mainstream culture figures in. Westerns have guns and stuff, so they're not as dumb as books mostly about love.

This feels like an appropriate time to link to Debra Doyle's girl cooties rant!
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:17 PM on February 14, 2012 [5 favorites]


So what do people think of sci-fi/romance crossed genre work?

I like it. Mostly because I feel that I would like romance more if the female characters were more involved in forging their own destinies and choices, and I think that stronger female protagonists are more common at the edge of the two genres. Although, urban contemporary fantasy tends to be more palatable to me than paranormal romance; with some exceptions if I gave it a little thought.
posted by BrotherCaine at 9:39 PM on February 14, 2012


I believe the best romance novel ever is Madame Bovary by Balzac. lul
And by Balzac I mean Flaubert.... (Reading too much La Comédie humaine lately)
Madame Bovary has the best ending ever
posted by khappucino at 9:41 PM on February 14, 2012


One of my favorite books is Sarah Bird's The Boyfriend School. A woman who looks down on romance novels attends a romance writer's convention and is turned. It's a great examination of the genre, the writers, and readers. And it's a fantastically good romance too!
posted by a humble nudibranch at 10:22 PM on February 14, 2012


The worldbuilding in the Archangel's books is interesting, but there's a really strong vibe of justifying physically abusive behavior in romantic relationships that really creeped me out.
posted by overglow at 10:38 PM on February 14, 2012


I read a handful or two of romance novels in high school. Most of the heroines were raped by their partners. It turned me off the genre. A friend, who went on to publish a Harlequin, said, "Oh, you must have been reading stuff from the early to mid 80s when it still wasn't okay for a woman to willingly have sex! It's just a plot device."

The same friend was heavily active in women's rights. I never could process that.

I don't know what romance novels are like today, but I worry how they may have influenced girls in the 70s and 80s (if not before), in terms of attitudes to sexual assault.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 11:12 PM on February 14, 2012


This reminds me of reading the introduction to horror short story anthologies, in which each wretched story is breathlessly compared to Kafka or Borges.
posted by thelonius at 11:37 PM on February 14, 2012


Westerns don't attract as much attention as a target of derision as romance novels do, though - is that just because they're less popular?

Because nobody under seventy reads those.

In terms of bargain basement fiction, nothing is lower here in .nl than the weekly or monthly story magazines -- do they have those in the US? They're about the size and shape of a cheap crossword puzzle magazine and are either men's adventure titles like G-Man Jerry Cotton or Perry Rhodan (world's longest running sc-fi series and I use sci-fi advisedly), or extremely formulaic romance series (love stories about honest nurses trying to win the hearts of ambitious young doctors).
posted by MartinWisse at 12:09 AM on February 15, 2012


Maybe there's two issues at work here: first, the assumption that women's fiction (written by women and/or consumed by women) is 'lesser' than men's fiction and second, the reduction of romance novels to sausage-like commodities.

Women writing about love is nothing new: most women novelists of the 18th and 19th century wrote about love, marriage and romance as a given. Jane Austen is the classic example, but there's also all three Brontes (Rochester and Heathcliff are both ur-romantic heros), Fanny Burney, or Ann Radcliffe (for over-the-top romantic adventure, read The Mysteries of Udolpho, but just skip the multiple-page landscape descriptions). Lesser-known 18th century writers like Elizabeth Inchbald or Charlotte Smith wrote about courtships, marriage and relationships. Once you get into the Victorians, even the 'high' novelists like Eliot keep the pattern -- Middlemarch is a love story, or a least a story about marriages and courtships -- and women who wrote to survive, like Allcott and the "sensation novelists" like Ellen Wood and Mary Elizabeth Braddon (Braddon is *awesome* and Lady Audley's Secret is a thundering good read: she's a lot like Wilkie Collins, if you like his stuff) wrote work that focused entirely on women's lives and family drama, including romance. There's also 'domestic fiction', but I've never read any, so can't generalize. Even a writer like Gaskell, who is famously realist, centers Cranford on courtship and marriage. Intelligent writing and plots centered on love are not mutually exclusive.

"Romance" starts to turn up in the 20s as part of cheap, mass-market fiction, which is subdivided into subgenres (westerns, mysteries, thrillers), most of which are quickly reduced to a formula. Some of these just die (do people still write westerns?) but some are wildly successful. Mysteries proliferate and spread out into multiple sub-genres, while romance gets most rigidly packaged. Mills and Boon (Harlequin) and Cartland, god curse her, are the forces that reduce love stories to a rubber-stamp sameness. Harlequin's formula for their authors is explicit about everything, from the ages of the protagonists to the timing of the first kiss, and because 'romance' has become synonymous with Harlequins or their imitators, we assume that all love stories must be formulaic, sexist and stupid. So most of them are, because they're written to be. This sucks, because it's unnecessary; popular fiction doesn't have to be badly written or formulaic.

Funnily enough, a lot of fantasy, particularly the vampire-werewolf stuff, and some mysteries are effectively love stories wearing somewhat different clothing, and this allows for character development and much more entertaining plots, while still scratching the same itch.

I stopped reading romances when I hit my mid-20's, partly because I was sick of heaving bosoms and throbbing manhoods, and partly because they just never...grew. The one exception is Heyer, who is right up there with Wodehouse for me -- the personal politics of both writers are awful and their stuff is pure fluff, but their writing is so much fun I don't care. Heyer was a godawful snob and an antisemite (one character in The Grand Sophy is a gratuitous horror that ruins what is possibly her best book) but I still keep a battered collection of hardcovers in a box in the closet and chew through them every couple of years.

And Smart Bitches Trashy Books is an excellent source for romances you will not want to throw against the wall, if you're into that kind of thing.
posted by jrochest at 12:25 AM on February 15, 2012 [15 favorites]


I just like the names in romance novels, which are fabulous. I just saw one where the hero was called Bronse Chapel, which is a name so magnificent that the universe can barely contain it.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 12:51 AM on February 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


My husband is a total Georgette Hayer addict, and I have been meaning to give her a try for ages - thanks for the nudge jrochest!

I think the key difference between romance and SF/F is that romance has yet to develop the ... for lack of a better phrase.."independently run fan culture' that SF/F has had from the beginning. In SF / F , that fan culture has produced a lot of independent publishing, blogs, chatrooms, 'semi-pro' forums, niche publicity channels, etc., and widened out the genre considerably. So you've still got more Dragonlance 'novels' than you could shake a stick at, but you've also got a huge spectrum of experimental/think-piece/mind-expanding stuff, some of which breaks through into the mainstream and some of which never does. There's a huge variety, all of it taking place against a background of very lively debate about 'the field' itself.

Romance, perhaps because its fanbase has been slower to take full advantage of the internet, has less of this culture going on. A lot of the romance activity on the internet is people talking about how to fit into rigid formulas for the lines at the big publishers. There just isn't a lot of "hey, look at this really interesting attempt to expand the genre!" or "hey, how can we get the genre moving in a more X direction?" etc. The blogs everyone is linking to look like a start in that direction - maybe in 5 years or so, there will be way more interesting stuff out there for people who are, as jrochest says "sick of heaving bosoms and throbbing manhoods". All the resources here make me pretty optimistic about that.

Oh, and anyone looking for what could be read as an interesting SF/F / Romance crossover could do way worse than NK Jemisin, whose fantasy novels have been raking in the genre awards, and have a strong "romance" component to them. She's written some really interesting commentary on the idea of 'romance' and on the 'feminisation' of epic fantasy, too.
posted by Wylla at 1:01 AM on February 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


(for over-the-top romantic adventure, read The Mysteries of Udolpho, but just skip the multiple-page landscape descriptions)

Nthed so, so hard. Damn but Ratcliffe turns her books into the reading equivalent of a J.M.W Turner.
posted by smoke at 1:02 AM on February 15, 2012


What's so odd about Radcliffe is that she has these huge landscape descriptions that go on for pages and pages...but then, when the heroine needs to take a good look at the phenomenon driving the plot, it's all too, too hideous to contemplate and she invariably faints dead away without any description at all.
posted by Wylla at 1:04 AM on February 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


I've never read any myself, but my kneejerk reaction to romance novels disappeared when I found out that an award-winning, very impressive PhD student I know who works in literary theory pays her rent by writing for Mills and Boon. I talked to her about the conventions and about how she goes about her writing, and was impressed at how much more complex it all is than I had expected. I sure as hell couldn't write one.
posted by lollusc at 2:11 AM on February 15, 2012


Personally, I've never really considered reading them because I don't find domestic drama very interesting.

The Sheik as described by Bustillos in the main link is about as far from domestic drama as you could get...
posted by rory at 2:33 AM on February 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm male -- I like Anita Brookner, Barbara Pym, and Elinor Lippman, although I'm not exactly sure they'd be called "genre" romance.
posted by JimDe at 4:21 AM on February 15, 2012


Back in the day, to show how ancient I am, I very much loved the historical romances of Anya Seton. I am not really sure if these even qualified as romance novels, as there was much more to them, decent historical detail and sometimes an element of fantasy. They usually did include a love story, but not always with a happy ending. They are well-written and interesting, with vivid detail, not just tired cliches.

I never got into the Harlequin and other romance stuff my aunt loved, and I knew a woman who wrote for Romantic Times and went to those conventions, and she was quite bizarre. In my opinion the worst of the worst currently are those by Danielle Steele. I tried to read one, couldn't do it. When I see her books at garage sales, I know there will not be anything else I want to read either.
posted by mermayd at 5:19 AM on February 15, 2012


Good romance, like good sff, gets "upgraded" to litfic.

I'd say chicklit sits in the middle of the two. That's romance with the glamorous urban settings and product namedrops of a glossy magazine. I read an absolutely horrid one over Christmas, where the heroine is desperate to find a date and goes on many many dull newspaper-personal (it was published in 1998) dates in which she appears irritating and shallow, despite apparently being well-educated and in an interesting job. Halfway through, her friend attends a pregancy class with two of the most stereotypical bulldyke lesbians I've seen in any medium, including tabloid newspapers. I had to de-fluff myself with some Richard Ford afterward. Good chick-lit, surprisingly, passes the Bechdel test several times over - Lisa Jewell, the two Bridget Jones books, Emily Carr. The bad stuff does not.

There's also the male romance - books which are like chick-lit but written by men, maybe with the idea of giving a male point of view. Mike Gayle writes a lot of these.
posted by mippy at 5:23 AM on February 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


I worked in a public library for a while and we also had a lot of books that were set in poor cities in the early 20th century, where heroines had to provide for a family and/or decide whether to wed the cruel but handsome landowner. They were phenomenally popular - Barbara Taylor Bradford, Catherine Cookson and the like. It's a weird genre that sits between literary stuff like Frank McCourt and the later 'misery memoirs' that dominated the market. (Not sure how popular misery lit is in the States, but think A Child Called It. Every single paperback int he supermarket seems to feature either a naughty cat or distressed looking moppet on the cover. There is a whole section in Waterstones devoted to them.)
posted by mippy at 5:26 AM on February 15, 2012


Someone, I can't remember who, pointed out that "chick-lit" is almost always as much about the protagonist's work life as about her romantic life. They're as much fantasies about careers as about love. The protagonist finds herself in a career situation in which she feels incompetent and out of her league, and then she slowly realizes that she can rise to the occasion, at the same time she realizes that she's worthy of the guy (and makes him realize that she's worthy of him.)
posted by craichead at 5:36 AM on February 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


I've always gotten the impression that part of the reason that romance novels are sneered at is because of their audience as much as any lack of literary merit. My personal experience: as an avid reader of sci-fi and the occasional romance novel in my teens, I was never afraid to carry a sci-fi book in public in high school. When I was in the middle of reading a romance novel, however, I would hide it at all costs. I never read mystery, thrillers or westerns, but I never would have felt like I had something to hide with them, either.

As far as I can tell, even the most egregiously written sci-fi novel has a kind of credibility to it that even some of the best romance novels might not be able to achieve. I do think a lot of that has to do with who reads romance and how that's perceived. To say that they're equally derided is preposterous, in my opinion. As a female sci-fi geek of many years I can tell you that women's opinions on science fiction are still derided and women are still not considered a viable, valuable audience for sci-fi television programming.

So, reading romance novels unashamedly and proudly can be a feminist act even when the contents of the books themselves are terrible and nothing to be proud of. What I don't like is how women are socially groomed to fall in love and find relationships but then taught that we should be ashamed if we seek out romance novels and romantic movies.

From my POV, the problem is with the content more than genre. A recent skim of some Harlequins from last year showed that they're still as sexist and racist as ever. The best one of the bunch I riffled through was of the "handsome sheik" variety and while the writing was better than average, the underlying racist exoticism of constantly describing his dark, caramel skin and the contrast with his white, white eyes and white, white teeth was severely off-putting.
posted by i feel possessed at 5:48 AM on February 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


In my youth, when I became a freshly minted politiqueer in the scrum of the eighties, I spent a year reading nothing but gay books by gay writers about angsty gay lives and gay history and gay sex and gay sociology and gay gay gay gay gay to the point that the clerks knew me by name at the Lambda Rising and I spent way too much of my pizza delivery boy money shoring up the fortunes of Alyson Books.

I'd never read romance novels beyond struggling to find anything at all sexy or pornographic in them before I found a copy of The Hite Report on Male Sexuality at our church multifamily yard sale, but once I'd read all the easy stuff, the hard stuff, the Tom of Finland stuff, the 1920s German stuff, and the entire catalogue of Gay Power manifestos, I picked up a Gordon Merrick romance novel, Perfect Freedom, based on the torrid painting of manfuckery on the cover. The throbbing manhood was okay, I suppose, but even at the perfect angry young man age, the weird self-hating, rapey-but-okay-because-he-starts-enjoying-it, squoshy, sloshy, high-cheekboned stratospherically attractive layabouts at play fiction of people's sick, silly daydreams just made me feel like I'd been mainlining Amaretto and liquid smoke from the supermarket.

My adventures in the arch political pissed-off world of Kramer, Wojnarowicz, and the rest in the eighties was depressing enough, but oy vey, Gordon Merrick was a horrifying counterpoint. Romance? Really? "I begged him to stop, but he was relentless," really? Read the whole stack of 'em, because I'm tragic that way, but went back to my Hite Report, which at least had the air of reality to it.

In my adulthood, and principally in my long, long latter-day state of adult singledom, I don't understand the desire for that saccharine world of why could be, if things were all just exactly perfect. Cultivating desire just seems like a form of self-flagellation, particularly when it's so surreal and adolescent. Of course, in my country, we live in a media culture where female characters on TV, in films, and in books regularly claim to have dreamed about their perfect wedding since they were eleven, so I'm clearly not in the target demographic, even on the queer end of the spectrum.
posted by sonascope at 6:01 AM on February 15, 2012


jscalzi: "It's ironic that romance of all genres has been the one to grasp and embrace capitalism, which if memory serves generally considered to be a 'masculine' pursuit. This suggests part of the sexism here is predicated the romance genre beating everyone else at the game."

In this connection, you really ought to check out that "This American Life" episode linked above. It points out the odd fact that the romance genre seems to be much friendlier to authors than other genres, and discusses why this might be. It concludes that part of this is because there's more money to go around than in most genres; but at one point someone (a man, actually) says that, if these authors were male, they would be fighting each other tooth and nail for every contract anyway.

In other words, the piece seems to argue that it's not the moneymaking that's 'masculine;' it's the cutthroat competition, and the romance publishing industry seems to have minimized that in a unique way.
posted by koeselitz at 6:24 AM on February 15, 2012


It's always blown me away the amount of derision and sneering romance novels receive, compared to, say, scifi or fantasy, which is often just as bad.

No shortage of sneering and derision for "scifi" - or westerns for that matter. All genre types get this treatment, with the possible exception of mysteries, which seem to get a slightly favored treatment compared to other genres (I think because upper middle-class folks, and in particular those who review books, are much more likely to read mysteries than any other genre novel type).

It also strikes me that excellently written science fiction novels still get lumped in with science fiction while perhaps excellently written "romances" get treated as contemporary lit, so there's that factor as well (that is, the cream of the romance crop gets removed from the genre).
posted by aught at 7:13 AM on February 15, 2012


Two Romance novel related anecdotes:

Years ago in the 1980's I was invited to a Romance writer seminar at the Roosevelt Hotel here in NYC, given a free pass if I would attend the "tea dance" in the afternoon in the then long neglected Roosevelt Hotel ballroom.

What fascinated me about the seminar were that the writers, who gave various lectures on aspects of Romance novel writing, all seemed to take a very nuts and bolts approach to the entire process of writing, chapter layout and length, when the climaxes occur, getting published, how Romance fiction paperbacks at that time were more than 50% of the paperback market. All of a sudden, it felt like writing was not A Sacred Art which was too mysterious to examine except by professors or critics with fabulous vocabularies, as I had always been brought up to believe. The writers seemed warm and friendly, unpretentious and openly communicative with the attendees as well as with each other. They could have been discussing house renovation or plumbing, everything was that matter-of-fact.

The Romance writers, both women and men, were an amazingly nice bunch of people. It opened my eyes to the concept that novels, and many non-fiction books too, have typical layouts of one kind or another and that could be learned fairly easily.

The tea dance was really quite embarassing. I was one of the only ones who knew how to waltz (having been as a child, who was quite shy and rebellious, forced to attend Wednesday evening at Mr. Barclay's Dance Classes, which I truly loathed). It was the only occasion in my entire life in which waltzing with any human being was even a remote possibility.

But after the tea dance there was a Chippendale style male strip show, my first and only. Now that was fun, full of laughter, cheers and thoroughly titillating.

The second anecdote: Years later I discovered that an old friend in India, Asha Bhanjdeo, had taken a nom de plume and, to the amazement of all who knew this extremely shy woman, written a Romance novel, Olivia and Jai, in which my ex-husband and I were mentioned as part of two of the novel's characters. I bought the novel and was amazed how well written it was, informative and likable too.

Asha was married to a Maharaja (King) of Orissa, named Swaroop, my ex's best friend in Calcutta. Anyway, I recommend reading her book.
posted by nickyskye at 7:15 AM on February 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


Ms. Vindaloo loves Georgette Heyer.
posted by Vindaloo at 7:30 AM on February 15, 2012


Oh dear.... dare I mention that not only do I have an original copy of 'The Sheik' in my bookcases, I also have one of 'The Son of the Sheik'? (The sequel isn't nearly as good of a guilty pleasure, for what that's worth.)

And just for the heck of it: if you have a Kindle, there's an 1828 proto-romance (yep: almost 180 years old) of the kidnap-'em-and-rape-'em-till-they-love-you variety available titled 'The Lustful Turk' by Anonymous.....
posted by easily confused at 8:43 AM on February 15, 2012


I read a few romance novels as a teenager - in fact, my mother and I bonded happily over Kathleen Woodiwiss, which seems perverse as hell now, since those books are bigtime "she said no but meant yes and so he tore her bodice off with his cutlass, oooooo heaving thighs and rolling eyes" kinda narratives. I've also read a lot of the urban fantasy / fantasy romance cross over and the more edging into fantasy ones like Sharon Shinn and Juliet Marillier and I like them, for the most part. There are some really good writers out there and then, well, there are some who are not.

I work at a used bookstore and thus naturally we have one long long wall that starts with contemporary romance, moves into gothic/romantic suspense, which in turn gives way to paranormal romance and fantasy romance and then settles down into historic romance, which eventually becomes Intimates - all the Harlequins, Silhouettes and their weird ass followers; Maitland Maternity, anyone? - that you could shake a stick at. One of the things that's interesting to me is the way the intimates have gone all single mother friendly - pretty much every book has babies on the cover and a title like Daddy For A Day or something cringe inducing like that. That was unheard of for a long time and is a big social shift that intrigues me, right along with the growth of Christian romance novels. Those are a huge, huge subgenre, featuring everything from historical romances to Harlequins' venture into Christian romance, Love Inspired. The Christian intimates are just as single mother centric as the secular ones, too but apparently less sexy. I haven't read any even though I keep thinking I should, maybe a Beverly Lewis since they fly off the shelves at a kind of alarming rate.
posted by mygothlaundry at 9:09 AM on February 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


Oh and I got called away in the middle of that comment but I wanted to add this anecdote. The other day at the bookstore a nicely dressed older lady asked me if I knew where the Catherine Coulter FBI novels were.
"Sure," I said, and took her over, "They're right here in Gothic Romance."
"Gothic Romance?!?" she said, horrified, "But they're not - romance." with a tone in her voice that meant that she, herself, would never, ever read "romance" and actually prefers to curl up only with a rip roaring Dostoevsky or Thomas Hardy now and then.
"Well," I said, "You know Catherine Coulter has been writing romances for a really long time, years and years. So we just keep all her stuff together. *"
"Oh, okay," she said, mollified, and bought three.

* This was a lie. Catherine Coulter can be found in every romance subgenre and we don't keep her all together and all her stuff is, yes, romance. I've read some of it. She's not bad. But I thought this lady's reaction, which is not atypical, was interesting. There's a strong class subtext going on in the romance / not romance wars as well as a feminist subtext and it would make an interesting study.
posted by mygothlaundry at 9:19 AM on February 15, 2012 [5 favorites]


I read a few Christian romances once, just because they happened to be nearby at a time when I didn't have anything else at hand to read, and was sort of amused to discover that they follow exactly the same format as regular romance novels except that where regular romance novels have sex scenes, the Christian romance novels have a chaste kiss followed by a crisis of faith.

Apparently yelling at God is the Christian equivalent of orgasm.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:39 AM on February 15, 2012 [5 favorites]


I think the key difference between romance and SF/F is that romance has yet to develop the ... huge spectrum of experimental/think-piece/mind-expanding stuff, some of which breaks through into the mainstream and some of which never does. There's a huge variety, all of it taking place against a background of very lively debate about 'the field' itself.

Romance, perhaps because its fanbase has been slower to take full advantage of the internet, has less of this culture going on. A lot of the romance activity on the internet is people talking about how to fit into rigid formulas for the lines at the big publishers. There just isn't a lot of "hey, look at this really interesting attempt to expand the genre!" or "hey, how can we get the genre moving in a more X direction?" etc.


I think you're exactly right, though I would actually attribute that difference to (with full disclosure that I know SF/Fantasy well, but outside of writing a few press releases for mystery-romances a while back, I don't know Romance to the same degree) Romance never having had a New Wave.

That's not to say the New Wave made inherently SF/Fantasy better (it often just made it more godawfully pretentious) -- but a big part (in fact, the primary reason, according to Michael Moorcock) of why that movement happened was explicitly to chase mainstream respectability. Romance doesn't seem to have undergone a similar shake-up (yet).
posted by Amanojaku at 11:15 AM on February 15, 2012


mediareport: Also, I'm a little saddened that I now want to read Sharon Shinn's books less. They looked interesting, and my impression was they were better than "don't think about them too much or they fall apart but hey, hot dudes."

I haven't read the Archangel books, but Sharon Shinn in general is pretty solid. I wouldn't necessarily disagree with the sickday/bathtub reading designation, but in a good way. There's usually something interesting about the worldbuilding, and the characters are engaging. I especially like her young adult novels.
posted by kittenmarlowe at 11:31 AM on February 15, 2012


The one exception is Heyer, who is right up there with Wodehouse for me -- the personal politics of both writers are awful and their stuff is pure fluff, but their writing is so much fun I don't care.

Sorry about the derail, but I couldn't let this pass -- I know nothing about Heyer but PGW pretty much had no politics. Perhaps you are thinking of his wartime broadcasts, that he was a sort of real-life Lord Haw-Haw... let me point you at Wodehouse and the War (which also has links to the texts of the broadcasts).

No arguments about Wodehouse's writing being pure fluff and so much fun!
posted by phliar at 3:51 PM on February 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Chaussette and the Pussy Cats: I worry how they may have influenced girls in the 70s and 80s (if not before), in terms of attitudes to sexual assault.

Probably no more than Gone with the Wind.

I used to be a snob about romance novels, being all too cool for that while I wallowed in sf/f. Then I ended up reading a couple and decided that they were about on par with other potentially-formulaic genre stuff, and got over my snobbishness. I don't particularly seek them out, but have read them when they're nearby, or when written by people I know.

I keep encountering people who are shocked that romance novels have absolutely taken off in the ereader/ebook marketplace, but it seems obvious to me -- stuff an entire bookcase worth of romance novels into something that looks respectable and fits in your pocket or bag? oh HELL yes.

Heck, even some regular porn novels are well written. (talking old school stroke-book porno novels, not slightly more literary erotica.) I remember reading a Lawrence Block book on writing where he talked about getting together with other writers and having a night of card games where each person took a break from the game and worked on a chapter or two of a porno book that they would then collectively sell. He also mentioned that they sometimes left each other in difficult situations, plot-wise I forget it was before or after I read that description that I actually read something that might have been one of those -- it was a published porn novel that had lots of characters named after famous detectives, and one chapter ended with a character saying "so, we're not on earth" or "you're not from earth" or something like that.
posted by rmd1023 at 5:30 PM on February 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


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