For the third time in five years, I’ve actually been asked to either put up my book or leave a public place because people find my reading material offensive. The most recent offender? The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie (a fantastic book, by the way). Now, as romance covers go, this one really isn’t so bad - not nearly as racy as Must Have Been the Moonlight, which got me a lecture on the treadmill at my gym. These incidents sometimes make me want to break out the worst 80s clinch cover I can get my grubby paws on, but more seriously, they also make me think about the disconnect between why many of us read romance and what people think when they see us reading romance.
Whenever the “Why do you read romance novels?” question comes up, one receives a variety of answers, but there is one theme that seems to dominate. Many readers like the guaranteed happy ending and the knowledge that the characters in their story are going to turn out okay. There’s a certain sort of hope and optimism that goes into reading even the darker romances out there. Our hero and heroine may have to contend with war, unscrupulous relatives, serial killers, vampires, weresheep or what have you, but we KNOW that in the end, they get to be together and things will be resolved for them.
In addition to the happy ending, readers also talk about enjoying the interactions of the characters or the emotion of the story. However, these are not items that one hears mentioned when we get judged for reading romance. Instead of talking about emotion or optimism, one hears about “those cheesy books” or worse, the dreaded “chick porn”. I really get ticked when I hear good authors’ books derided as “chick porn”. There was definitely an element of “I can’t believe you think it would be appropriate to read porn in a family gym!” at work when I learned that reading The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie or Must Have Been the Moonlight on the treadmill was apparently not permitted.
Part of me gets more than a little angry when others judge my reading choices. Romance readers know that our books are not porn for bored housewives, and we know our books are not all alike. No one here needs convincing that the romance world has a huge variety of voices or that the books turned out each month come in very different degrees of quality. I should be free to take any of my books up on the treadmill without having to worry about the gym manager coming over to loudly decry my taste in literature and/or speculate on my suspected whoredom.
And I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t bother me that romance reading gets treated this way. I read sci-fi, fantasy and mysteries, too, but no other form of genre fiction receives the amount of general disrespect that romance does. My other genre fiction choices may get me the occasional derisive glance from hardcore literary snobs, but otherwise I’m generally either left alone or even shown approval. Julia Spencer-Fleming, Laurie King and Ruth Rendell don’t draw sneers and rude remarks in anything near the manner that my Roberta Gellis, Lisa Kleypas and Marsha Canham books do, even though all are extremely wonderful, high-caliber writers.
Still, I can’t help wondering if we bring it on ourselves at least a little bit. Even though the best romances involve intimacy on all levels, not just the physical, it is the sex scenes that we celebrate in the cover copy – not to mention some of those covers. There are some fantastically bad sci-fi covers out there, too, but romance readers still seem to tolerate a lot more in this department than others nowadays. On the one hand, I think we should all be free to openly read the books we want to read without having our choices disrespected. However, on the other hand, I can see where someone unfamiliar with the genre might have trouble keeping a straight face when presented with the sight of a bright pink cover promising tales of steamy sex with dukes who are rakes! And also spies! Kinda belies all my claims of beauty, hope and poignant emotion.
There’s no easy answer to this one. After all, any marketing department can tell you that sex sells. Still, if there were more connection between why we say we read romance and the message that the packaging itself sends, I suspect things could change. There will always be those who sneer and call us naive for wanting our happily ever after, but when good storytelling is packaged as something beautiful and unique, it helps those looking at it to see where that might be so. Or, as my mother always taught me, if we don’t respect ourselves, others won’t respect us.
And in the meantime, we’ll see if the gym throws me out again.