Since I've started the blog, I have thought of writing on this topic several times. I have heard a great number of romance readers share how they discovered romance, or how they rediscovered it. Every time I hear the stories, I reflect on my own reading past. The most recent one I've read is by Megan Mulry. Megan writes at length about the intellectual shame attached to reading genre literature and romances in particular. If you haven't read her post yet, go and read. I'll wait. It's that good.
I don't know why romance novels are so particularly despised. Perhaps because they primarily are connected to women's concerns. Perhaps because happiness is so suspect among the intelligentsia. Perhaps because of a puritanical disdain for all things sexual.
I was very young when I first started reading romance novels. I wasn't a very early reader, but once I could read on my own, I read incessantly. By fifth grade I had read everything in our local library's children's section. Then I discovered Barbara Cartland. I loved everything about those novels. They were short enough that I could read a couple on a summer's afternoon, but filled with people in a past so distant and foreign to me. From there, I moved on to other category romances and then the bodice rippers of that era. I devoured them all. Straight on into Judith Krantz.
It drove my father crazy. That wasn't why I chose to read romances, but I think in the end it was at least some of the reason why I stopped reading them. He didn't disapprove of romance in particular. He didn't really read any popular literature, except for a few notable exceptions (John Lecarre being the one he loved most). He was the son of immigrants, the first in his family to graduate from college. Our house was filled with books when I was growing up. I once counted them when we were taking them all off the shelves of the book cases that lined the walls. I stopped after two thousand. People who don't love books always think that it must have been awful growing up in such a stuffy house. It didn't feel that way at all. Books surrounded our family and were a place to escape. They were loved and discussed, but revered. My father was still miffed about a copy of a Cheever novel that I crayoned as a toddler.
When my friends and I were caught reading an especially filthy Harold Robbins book, in disgust my father gave me a copy of Pride and Prejudice. Of course I loved it. I then went on to read all of Austen. There were others after her. It wasn't a hard end to it. I slid into the world of 'adult' books. I read some science fiction for a bit longer, but even then there was Lewis and Wells to entice me away. Perhaps it was because of my father's books, but I didn't usually dislike the books we were required to read. With very few exceptions, I loved them all. The Red Badge of Courage. The Raisin in the Sun. Whitman. Shakespeare. Orwell. I left the books of my youth behind to embrace a more formidable intellectual life. There are so many books that I opened thinking I would have to endure them only to fall in love with them. Most of them were sitting there on the shelves I walked past every day. Then in college there were still more books, some I'd never even heard of before, waiting for me to fall in love with them.
I don't love those books any less today than I did then. I still have many of them on my shelves. But they are sitting there next to some much more modern writers. Those other books have covers that are bright and cheery. And inside those covers is a sweet and open embrace of happiness and love.
And, yes, sex, too.