When you think of sneaking reading material, the material in question is generally, well, something like Playboy — pornographic, explicit and illicit. Maya Rodale, though, points to a different kind of shameful reading matter.
“They snuck them from their mom’s bedside table, grandma’s bookshelf, or their sister’s closet,” Rodale says. “They read them illicitly, vaguely aware that these stories are somehow bad or wrong or something to be embarrassed by.”
It’s not issues of Playboy she’s talking about, but rather romance novels.
Rodale has self-published a new book all about the shamefulness of romance: Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained. As the title says, Rodale’s project is to try to explain why people so thoroughly despise romance novels and see reading them as embarrassing, immoral, ridiculous or all of the above.
One reason people hide romance novels, arguably, is the same reason people might hide issues of Playboy — sex. You wouldn’t necessarily leave your copy of 50 Shades of Grey out for the kids to find. The problem with that explanation, though, is that all romance novels are seen as despicable, not just the smutty ones.
“[R]omance novels come in a variety of ‘heat’ levels, ranging from mild, hot and scorcher, or from chaste inspirationals to stuff that makes 50 Shades of Grey seem like child’s play,” Rodale explains.
William Giraldi, in an already infamous review of 50 Shades, declared “Romance novels, like racists tend to be the same wherever you turn.”
Giraldi seems as ignorant about racists as he is about romance novels. But his quip does get at one reason romance novels are stigmatized: They’re formulaic. Girl meets guy; girl falls in love with guy (and vice-versa); happily-ever-after ensues. The happy ending, in particular, as Rodale says, is a way to dismiss romance as unrealistic and foolish. But is the happy ending really so different from other pop forms?
In mysteries, the detective finds the murderer; in superhero stories, the good guy defeats the bad guy; in Hollywood rom-coms, happily-ever-after is assured. Nobody thinks you need to hide your Sherlock Holmes novels or your Groundhog Day DVD, even if both of them have happy endings and follow predictable genre conventions.
You can say that Conan Doyle and Harold Ramis create interesting and complicated art within the bounds of genre, but that’s true of Jane Austen and (I’d argue) Kathleen Gilled Seidel as well. Some genre product is going to be crap; some is good. That’s as true of romance as of superhero comics or pop songs. Why then are romance novels singled out for particular disapprobation?
Rodale’s answer is that they’re singled out because they’re particularly, historically and insistently associated with women. Ever since Hawthorne sneered at “that damned mob of scribbling women,” literature linked to women writers, women readers and women’s concerns has been seen as cheap, badly written, stupid and worthless. When the first novels were published, Rodale says, “There were genuine concerns that women would develop unrealistic expectations about their lives by reading fiction.”
Today Rodale argues, “Romantic fiction relentlessly declares that women are worthy and their interests are valid and it is worth it for them to pursue their own happiness.”
Romance novels insist that themes and issues associated with women are important. Giant monsters hitting each other in Age of Ultron, we’re told, is worthy of serious consideration; people falling in love, less so.
Is that because people falling in love is somehow objectively less realistic, less important and less valuable than giant monsters hitting each other? Or is it because our culture arbitrarily values that which is “manly,” violent and testosterone-fueled and denigrates that which is feminine, soft and emotional?
This devaluation of romance novels has many downsides for romance writers and readers. Romance novels often aren’t reviewed in mainstream publications, for example, and romance readers can face scorn for their choice of reading matter.
But, Rodale argues, there are some advantages to marginalization. The fact that romance is so hated means that writers have little to lose in terms of reputation, which can spur innovation. Romance (and adult film) were the genres that moved most enthusiastically into self-publishing on the web, for example.
The volume of romance published, the need for new writers and the importance of self-publishing mean that the practical and social barriers between readers and writers are low, fostering an unusually open and close-knit community.
The community, Rodale suggests, might be fractured, or at least changed, if romance novels were to become de-stigmatized, as, say, superhero comics have been.
“A lack of reviews,” Rodale says, “meant no one in positions of authority was watching, so lady authors were free to write whatever they wanted. A lack of prestige meant that men weren’t interested in trying their hand at romance, thus interrupting all those female voices.”
Romance is a thriving, billion-dollar industry with millions of readers. Stigma may be annoying, but given romance’s popularity, does this genre’s writers really want to change anything, even the stigma? Why mess with success?
Rodale’s book, then, is ambivalent. On the one hand, she explains why the hatred of romance is illogical, ignorant and misogynist. But, at the same time she doesn’t really make much effort to convince those who are not true believers to give the genre a try.
She does not, for example, pick out particular books she loves and explain why they are valuable, complicated and aesthetically powerful, as Pamela Regis did in her Natural History of the Romance.
Rodale treats romance novels as a group. She focuses on volume and genre, not on specific, individual heartthrobs. To love one, perhaps, would be to diminish the community as a whole; to praise, say, Judith Ivory for her individual vision would be to operate by the logic of literary fiction, in which individual visions and individual creation are more important than the broader sisterhood.
The irony of Dangerous Books for Girls is that the most dangerous thing is not the belief that one true love will save you but the rejection of the idea that it will. The hidden, shameful books are hidden and shameful because they contain so many loves and because they encourage women to refuse to choose between them.
Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is a contributing writer for The Atlantic.