STOP. WAIT. I can already hear you. Do you know how? Because I worked in a bookstore. I worked with amazing, kindhearted, open-minded booklovers with myriad interests. As a cohort, we had at least every conceivable bookish interest represented. Almost. For although we didn’t mock genres or readers, there was certainly one section that none of us could seem to speak to from much personal reading experience–and if any of my coworkers were romance fans, they kept quiet about it. And I think this is, in part, because even if there isn’t derision and mocking, there is a sort of unfortunate shame attached to the romance genre in the bookish world. This ideology is so persistent, I’m even a little nervous about posting this entry at all.
A BRIEF RANT TO RID YOU OF YOUR IMPLICIT SEXIST NOTIONS:
If you are the type of reader who finds yourself agreeing with Jonathan Franzen about the state of literary culture a lot (which, to each their own, I suppose), I will probably not change your mind with this post. But if you are someone who doesn’t mind the occasional popcorn-y page-turner in the form of science fiction, fantasy, mystery, thriller, children’s literature, etc., then I have something very important to tell you. *Leans in, whispers* The only difference with romance is that it’s traditionally liked by mostly women, which means society has deemed it unworthy of our time and attention. *Leans back out*
And before you think I’m scolding you, let me assure you that the reason I feel this needs to be stated is that I didn’t realize it, either. Frequent readers of this blog will know that I have been actively trying to emerge from a literary-snobbishness that eschewed most genre fiction (started, as it were, when a high school teacher gave me a Franzen novel). And don’t get me wrong: I still love literary fiction that forces me to confront hard truths (books that many might call depressing). I still love slim experimental novels that barely fit into any genre at all, much less conform to narrative conventions. I still laugh at jokes written by Victorian authors (this is a preview of a future blog post, but you guys, George Eliot is freaking hilarious). These tastes don’t have to be mutually separate from–for lack of a better definition–occasionally reading something with a happy ending. But I was skeptical, I really was. Of all the genres I’ve sampled, slowly and with joy, romance was the very last. I honestly didn’t know what I could find there. But while working at the bookstore, I was always nervous that someone would ask me for a recommendation from that section and I would have nothing to offer them.
That’s part of why I consumed book recommendation podcasts like Book Riot’s GET BOOKED, where host Amanda Nelson talked frequently about her entrance into the romance genre. Like me, she had been skeptical. But also like me, she had spent periods of her life (not to suddenly get too personal and be a downer, but) deeply sad. The years after graduating college have had some really hard moments, both on a personal level and, of course, globally, politically, socially. It hasn’t always been easy to find joy. So when I finally got a kindle, I thought, okay. I searched for the author most recommended by the Book Riot crew for romance newbies, and with the last couple of bucks in my Amazon gift card, I downloaded the first book in Sarah MacLean’s The Rule of Scoundrels series. And when I was finished, I downloaded the next one. I didn’t read them exclusively, but I always kept the next one on hand for when I needed a moment away from the world. Just a moment, just in bursts, but it was enough to stay a part of things. It was enough to be able to come back to other books–to other parts of life–and face what was there.
It’s a bit of a shame that I feel the need to offer this, but if you want credentials, here are some. Sarah MacLean is a graduate of Smith College and Harvard. As I was reading the first novel, I kept track of words that had appeared in my GRE vocab review flash cards, and I lost count. I’m sure that there are poorly written books in the romance genre, as in every genre, but Sarah MacLean’s books were not poorly written at all. I admit, I went into the genre with lowered expectations for the quality of prose I would encounter, and I felt a little sheepish and ashamed by the quality of prose in front of me, how much better it was than I was expecting. If you haven’t tried romance because you don’t think you could handle the clichéd, hackneyed writing, I can assuage you of that concern in this series at least. I can also assuage you of another concern I had, which was that these stories would rely on outdated gender stereotypes. MacLean’s heroines are not blank slates for the reader to step into, nor are they carbon-copy princesses to be adored. They are funny and smart; they have ambitions and desires completely unrelated to men. They just also fall in love.
Does all of that mean these books were gritty and realistic? Of course not. They were light and fun. Characters bantered much too witty for real life. Public declarations of love were much more lavish than would be fair to expect from any real person. Things seemed like they were going to go badly for everyone we liked, but then they suddenly went perfectly for everyone we liked instead (in fact, the “happily ever after” ending is such a staple of the romance genre that it is shorthanded as HEA in discussion, and to many readers, a novel doesn’t count as a true “romance novel” if it doesn’t include said HEA–a point that might sound familiar to you if you’re a fan of the CW drama Jane the Virgin). And yes, there were scenes for which the oft-blurbed word “steamy” would definitely apply. Like, good lord.
And, maybe the above isn’t your thing. That’s cool. I didn’t think it was my thing either (turns out, when done well, it is). But I really liked these books. I can definitely see reading more Sarah MacLean in the future, as well as perhaps some of the writers she recommends, when my anxiety is becoming debilitating. And that’s just it: as paradoxical as it sounds, escapist fiction has been keeping me moored to the real world in these past months, enabling me to make phone calls and donations and stay present and vigilant. I’m not recommending anyone bury their heads in the sand, but if you need a reprieve in order to get back out there and do good work, and would like for that reprieve to include a sweet and smart happily-ever-after, I offer you Sarah MacLean. Don’t be ashamed of girl stuff.