Sunday, June 26, 2011

Reader's Romance

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.


  1. Great post, Julia. I too grew up with lots of books and our house today is full of them. I get lots of comments from people about all the books on the shelves in our hallway and it always makes me slightly surprised. I always think 'but doesn't everyone have shelves of books?' Maybe not.
    Anyway, the snob factor about romance does my head in. My own personal opinion is that somehow because it's about emotion and a 'woman's' emotion at that, it's somehow less valid than something literary. And that happy endings are a cop-out. Makes me mad. Especially since love is what makes the world go round, right? :-) And what's so wrong with a little happiness? There's so much that's bad in the world that I really don't understand the negativity around books about love.

  2. I read Megan's post and agreed with it 100%, just as I agree with yours. I have a Master's in English and one in Library Science. I've read "the good stuff." You know, the Classics...The Canon. I appreciate that I'm well read, but having a love of genre fiction doesn't make anyone less intellectual.

    People should read what makes them happy.

  3. Jackie, I always felt a bit sorry for the kids whose homes didn't have any book shelves at all. Our home was packed with them all 2K of our books were stuffed into 1200sqft Manhattan apartment.

    Hi, Jeannie! The Classics are classics because they are wonderful books. I don't love all of them (Ethan Frome, I'm looking at you), but I do love many of them. I am clutching my Dinesen and my Hugo, but I still can't wait for the next Kresley Cole.

  4. Ah, as an only child I lost myself in books from an early age. Give me a book and I was happy. You're never lonely when you can lose yourself in a good book. I have read it all over the years and I too love the classics. Can't actually remember when I specifically narrowed my choices down to romance books, but who doesn't love a happy ending?

  5. Thanks for sharing that story, Julia. I'm glad your father gave you a copy of Pride and Prejudice, nudging you in our direction :-) It won't be long before you have your name on a novel of your own.

  6. Doris- The happy endings are what keeps me coming back to romance. Sometimes nothing else will do.

  7. Lacey- And when I had a home of my own, my father gave me a set of Austen's collected works that I still own. And still reread.

    And thanks for the vote of confidence!

  8. I love it all - and that's what's so wonderful about books, whatever I'm in the mood for; adventure, crime, something intellectually stimulating, something comforting, something emotional there's always the perfect book. Sometimes that book is a romance, sometimes not but aren't we lucky to have such an amazing choice?

  9. It's funny, my mother was a voracious reader, yet I read very little as I was growing up. My escapism was day dreaming. I discovered romance novels by accident at age 17 when given a free set of four M&B by the rep that re-stocked the books in the Newsagents where I worked. Bored one Sunday my mum said why don't you read one of those books. Reluctantly I did. And I haven't looked back. I'm now never without a book. Sadly, I can't read fast enough to keep up with my book buying addiction.

  10. Rose Red - Even within the romance genre, there are now so many different choices that I can find a book to suit every mood.

    Alexandra - Can anyone keep up with the book buying addiction? *eyes towering TBR pile* I sure can't.