Valentine’s Day is, at its best, an excuse to do what you want. Go on a fancy date, spend all night having sex, buy a bunch of sale chocolate to eat alone in the bath. And though it’s hardly the only time of year to celebrate romance novels (I personally find romance better for lazy summer days), it’s our excuse for it, so here we are.
I don’t want to spend too much time on romance’s bad reputation, which is born of misogyny, snobbishness, bias against small paperbacks, misogyny, and a lack of appreciation for delightfully cheesy book covers. But if you’re thinking, Bad reputation is right, and fairly earned!, then please just keep reading. Because if that’s what you think, odds are you haven’t read any romance, at least not recently, and February 14 is my excuse to tell you how much you’re missing out on, and why you might consider a change of heart.
Sad and challenging books have their place in the world, but there is plenty of room on your bookshelves. Romance is written to be enjoyed. Romance is a genre overwhelmingly written by and for women, where women’s desires, experiences, and rich inner lives are given value, center stage. It is fun, smart, savvy, increasingly inclusive, and a guaranteed good time. (And I wrote you a guide of five books to get started with right here!)
To clarify: I’m not talking about love stories here, or romantic books. I’m not talking about erotica, either. I’m talking about the genre of romance, which you may associate with Fabio’s bared chest or Fifty Shades of Grey. It includes those. But it also includes worlds and worlds more. If you give it a chance, you might — sorry, it’s Valentine’s Day! — fall in love.
Most romance readers grew up reading romance. They grabbed a paperback off of mom’s shelf, or squirreled one away to a quiet corner of a library, and thus a lifelong habit was formed. The fact that for many readers this happens when they were 12 or 14 probably makes you think it was about the sex. It probably was, in part. Reading about sex when you’re a teenager is pretty exciting.
But beyond that, think about what you were reading when you were 14. An approximated, reconstructed ninth-grade syllabus: Catcher in the Rye, An Separate Peace, The Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, Romeo and Juliet. Boys, boys, boys, boys, a dead girl. Maybe you read outside of school, too. When I was 15 I read the entire Dune series. (No one had warned me, as I warn everyone, to stop after book three.) What I was missing out on, and maybe you were, too, was books about women and girls.
After growing up on Madeleine L’Engle or Louisa May Alcott and graduating into a high-school canon so dominated by men, imagine the relief and delight to read about women. And to read about such adult things — not adult as in sex, but adult concerns, like love and courtship and family strife. To see in those pages possible paths forward, worlds and happy endings to imagine yourself into.
That’s not a thing we stop needing when we grow up. But it can take deliberate effort to diversify our reading lists beyond straight white men. You might not be missing women from your shelves today. You might have, like many people I know, devoted yourself to reading more or only women (and authors of color), especially in the last few years. If we aren’t acquiring editors at a publishing house, we work to change this with our book-buying dollars and with our eyes.
Women have been historically excluded from the canon, and that carries on through to publishing today. Women’s voices and stories — as authors and characters — have been systematically devalued in literature. We see how a man’s thinly veiled autobiographical musings are hailed as revolutionary, but a woman’s are dismissed. How male authors write women who only serve their male characters’ journeys and are lauded for the bare minimum beyond that. How sex, in literary fiction, is rarely actually fun, and if it is then someone must pay the price.
Romance is full of women’s voices and women’s stories. There are male and nonbinary authors, too (and not all romances pair a man and a woman), but romance authorship may be the arena least dominated by straight men in the entire world. “But wait,” you, my straw man, might say. “Romance reduces women’s lives to love stories. That’s not empowering; that’s practically telling them to get back in the kitchen!” Straw man, I promise you, romance makes no such reductions. These books show women finding love, sure, but even the thinnest hypothetical opponent that I’ve conjured up to make my point wouldn’t object to that being a part of a person’s life, right? And while women in romance are falling in love, they’re also coming more fully into themselves, discovering strength and independence, or vulnerability and honesty, or the bravery to stand up to their parents or fight a war or be proud of who they are. And, almost more important than these women falling in love, is them being fallen in love with. For being strong, independent, vulnerable, honest, brave, smart, funny, and stubborn. Those are stories about women that I think are extremely worth reading.
I’m not going to try to convince you that you should read books about women. I’m just going to tell you that if that’s a thing you care about, read romance.
I didn’t start reading romance when I was 14. I was too busy digging into Frank Herbert’s back catalogue, and I don’t have a time machine to remedy that now. I started reading romance when I was in my early 30s, working at a website where romance was a major focus. Well, I figured, if I’m going to be editing people writing about romance, I should know what’s going on.
I started for work, but I kept going because it was 2016. It wasn’t November yet, and of course now, looking back, however bad that summer felt, after November was worse. But soon enough it was, of course, November, and then it was 2017, and I left that job, and the world kept finding new ways to be bad. And I wasn’t going to not read books, but there was so much I couldn’t handle or just didn’t want to in my time of escape from the manic news cycles of the world. I remember reading one book and needing to DM the author to find out if anything bad happened to the delicate dog who was traipsing through the pages.
So there were two problems: bad things happening in books and the anticipation that they might.
One of the best things about romance is tied up in one of the things it’s most derided for: predictability. Romance, like any other genre, has its genre conventions. That’s what generic means. For a romance to be a romance, two criteria must be met: The central plot must be a love (or lust, or like) story, which is resolved by the book’s end, and the ending must be happy. It can be “happily ever after” or “happily for now,” but it is happy. (Rule 2.1, then, is that while the main characters may suffer, they and their closest loved ones don’t die. 2.2: neither do any pets.) This is why not every love story is a romance, and it’s why romance is the perfect genre for 2019.
There is great power in a happy ending. For women, people of color, queer people — the stories we see, in the world and in fiction, very often promise suffering and despair. Lots of that suffering is real, though some of it is baked into narrative tropes.
The best thing about romance is knowing how it will end. Or rather, knowing where it will end up — with the main characters happily together. Because what you still don’t know is how they will get there. What obstacles will they face? How will they overcome them? What will they do or say? It’s the same pleasure we get from mysteries, Marvel movies, and rewatching movies we’ve already seen. Romance, with its prescribed endings, lets you enjoy the journey without worrying about the destination.
And those journeys, I discovered once I started reading romance, are extremely good. They’re full of banter and barely suppressed longing. They’re full of beautiful dresses and people sincerely working through their shit, full of fantasy and the emotional realities of trying to connect with another person. They’re full of millionaires and dukes and strippers with hearts of gold. And, yes, sometimes they are full of sex.
People love to demean romance as “smut,” as if the only thing worse than women writing stories about women is women writing stories about women having sex. But if you’re just looking for titillation you are going to be very disappointed with all the pages spent on things like plot and character development. Some romances end with a chaste kiss. Some demurely fade to black when a couple makes their way to the bedroom. Some are euphemistic. Some are explicit. And some are fun and hot! Because here’s one thing that hasn’t really changed since we were 14: Reading about sex is fun. Or it can be, when the sex itself is fun. Literary fiction has plenty of sex, but it’s rarely about the characters’ pleasure. Literary sex tends to be sad or gross, often enough presaging a character’s tragedy, as if she’s a promiscuous teen in a horror movie. In romance, people get to have sex, and it’s good.
Let us also not forget that in 2019 it is still, somehow, politically daring to say that good sex — for pleasure, love, or connection — should be a part of a woman’s life if she wants it to be. I will never forget that in the first romance I read, the heroine had three orgasms — two, I believe, by cunnilingus — before her partner even got his dick out. As good as the sex may be, it’s not there (only) to titillate. These are stories about love, after all. And sex can be an important part of that. In books and in life, sex is part of a story. It advances plot, it reveals character.
Books don’t need to be sad or challenging to be worthwhile. Sometimes you need to replenish your stores of good feelings, to remind yourself that stories can end happily, that people can fall in love, that a guy can want to get you off three times before he takes off his own pants.