no respect week

Eloisa James on Feminism, Sexuality, and Why Romance Novels Are More Than Worthy of Respect

It’s No Respect Week at Vulture, which means we’re celebrating things we like that never seem to get any love: schlock rock, Adam Sandler cry-fests, over-the-top action sequences, and Rodney Dangerfield novelty songs. Here, we take a fresh look at the genre of literature known as bodice-rippers. 

Despite selling over a billion dollars worth of books each year, romance novels are routinely given the no-respect treatment. The latest entry in this ongoing slagging is by William Giraldi in The New Republic, who called romance “uniformly awful and awfully uniform.” That prompted a wise response piece by the Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg, who opined that romance offers “a respite from the significant hostility that a lot of literature shows women.” We called best-selling author Mary Bly, who writes under the pen name Eloisa James, a Fordham English professor and Shakespeare scholar who has degrees from Harvard, Oxford, and Yale — oh, and she’s also married to an Italian knight and is the daughter of poet Robert Bly. James spoke via Skype from Italy about the connection between feminism and romance, intellectual snobbery, and what romance readers and John Green fans have in common.

How has your romance writing been received in your academic life?
I did not come out as Eloisa James until I had tenure and I’d hit the New York Times best-seller list. People magazine wanted a picture of me to run with a review of my second book. The chair of the English department said, “You will not get tenure. You will destroy your career.” When I got tenure, I thought, If I keep this secret any longer, I’m denigrating my own readers.

At the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention, which I attended recently in New Orleans, several people told me romance was maligned and I thought, Are they exaggerating? But then this New Republic piece came out.
I get things like a student this fall who told me, “Why should I care about your grade? You write Shakespearean porn.” But overall I’d say that the amount of negative attention to romance receded a lot until Fifty Shades of Grey. That article had enormous queasiness related to women’s sexual desire, which he funneled into “This book is so badly written …” but that book is beloved worldwide. It may be badly written — I didn’t read it — but it clearly hit a chord, and I don’t think he liked that.

Is some of that bias about the escapism factor?
No. Guys are reading Game of Thrones, and there’s a lot of escapism in that. There’s something very upsetting about a book viewed as existing only to titillate women. I’m surprised by the letters I get saying these books raise unfair expectations among women about sexuality. What you’re hearing is this deep anxiety about their personal lives.

Do you find the most vitriol against romance is coming from men?
Absolutely. But I’ve had female colleagues say things like, “Oh, look, you can put down your dirtiest fantasies and make a million dollars.”

Romance is the best-selling genre, but it faces so much criticism from the mainstream—
From intellectuals. What you’re often seeing is intellectuals rather than the mainstream, because that guy is not mainstream and the journal he published in is not mainstream. The Washington Post is a lot more mainstream, and they have a romance column. But intellectuals wield an enormous amount of media space. The women buying romance don’t give a damn what is said in The New Republic. They’ve never even heard of it. They would probably think it’s communist. This guy with his nasty opinions and deep misogyny doesn’t exist for them.

Why do you think the anti-romance bias has lessened?
Because it’s leaking into the universities. Princeton University has held two conferences on popular romance; it’s taught at Duke and Yale. This is tremendously interesting culture material. As soon as you teach students that, they can think about Game of Thrones or Girls or anything on TV that way.

Is romance treated differently in Italy?
It’s much more denigrated here. It’s called romanzo rosa, “pink books.” But Italians have a very different attitude toward reading; not very many of them read at all, so if you’ve written a book in Italy, it’s a big deal.

What about New York versus the rest of the country — is there more literary snobbery?
You’d think there would be, but I haven’t encountered it. I can play the “I went to Harvard/Oxford/Yale” card. I get into interesting conversations. I was waiting to pick up my daughter and met a woman who’s a reporter at Vanity Fair. There’s always that moment of, what do I give her, the Shakespeare professor or the romance writer? So I gave her the Shakespeare professor, and she was totally into it. If I’d said to her, “I write romance,” what would her response have been? It’s not untrue, but it’s not necessarily totally honest.

How do you balance those two sides?
It can be very difficult, especially because I was raised in a highly intellectual family. My mother hated the fact that I wrote romance and always called it “that sex stuff.” I was raised that you write literature in order to change the world; Tolstoy was the model in my house.

Have you ever regretted going into romance?
No, because it’s fun to write and my readers are some of the smartest people I’ve ever known. They’ll say, you wrote that rubber was galvanized on this date, but it was four months after you portrayed it. I have a huge amount of respect for my readers, who are not versed in intellectual language but who do very much the same kind of thinking and analysis.

Do romance readers have a different relationship with the books?
No, I think the difference is possibly the relationship to the author. I read literary fiction, and if I could get anywhere near certain authors, like Neil Gaiman, whom I adore, I would probably totally fangirl all over them. But the literary structure is set up differently. I’m not going to go on Neil Gaiman’s Facebook page, because there’s a distance there, but you see this exact same relationship happening in different genres. John Green and The Fault in Our Stars is an excellent example. His relationship with his fans is tremendously passionate. My daughter’s read TFIOS five times; she considers herself a Nerdfighter.

Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Of course.

How does that play into your romances?
In Three Weeks With Lady X, my heroine renovates houses. My last heroine was a cello player; they had just got that little pin on the bottom of the cello that allows you to spin the cello, but it was this very sexist thing because you’re holding this big instrument between your legs, which was considered deeply sexual and improper. I had to strike a balance where she could never perform in public, so from a feminist point of view it had interesting implications.

But the main thing I do as a feminist concerns sexuality: Anything you’re doing for somebody, they should damn well be doing for you. Sex is a two-way street. I get letters saying, I’ve been reading your books and I realize he shouldn’t be talking to me this way and I deserve better or I’ve never had an orgasm.

Do you think more men would appreciate reading romance?
I don’t know. It’s 7 percent male readers, and a lot of those are retired and read it to their wives. I have a smaller percentage of gay male readers. But my husband is bored out of his mind by them. We were on the beach and he was supposed to be reading one; I looked over and he’s reading Don Quixote. Romance isn’t changing the view of someone who thinks my relationship with another person is the most important thing in my life. It doesn’t disrupt that. So if you don’t agree with that, it’s not going to interest you.

What would you say to someone who’s never read a romance?
Romance is something that can enter your life and leave again. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t disparage people for what they happen to be reading at a given point any more than we disparage people for musical choices. The impact of that article was these people are stupid because they’re not challenging themselves to learn about the blood trade in diamonds. I think there’s time in life to learn about the blood trade in diamonds and to learn about something else.

Novelist Eloisa James on Anti-Romance Bias