What Romance Fiction Can Accomplish
On the Passion and Pleasure of "Light" Reading
My mother has had a stroke. It has impacted her speech and her critical thinking. Simple words escape her. She knows what she wants to say but when she reaches for the word, there is a black hole in her mind.
“Bring me my books,” she tells me.
I know which books she means. My mother has been a subscriber to Harlequin Romances for over thirty years. Every month, a box of four to six series romances have arrived on her doorstep. Reading romances was her hobby, and she was devoted to the authors and their stories.
My sisters and I used to tease her about her “light” reading. Friends pushed heavier books toward her. Mother resisted; she knew what she liked. Plus, she didn’t see her time spent reading romances as wasted. She enjoyed the stories and valued the talent of the authors. Their books added balance to her life.
“Try one,” she’d tell me.
I’d smile and move on. I was too busy for light reading—until one day I took her up on her offer. Initially, I didn’t tell her I was reading a romance. I had picked the book from a rack in a pharmacy. I was battling whatever was going around the office at the time and was completely overwhelmed at work and at home. The book cover showed a knight riding away with his damsel. At that moment in time, escaping had great appeal.
The Wolf and the Dove was bold, brazen, engrossing romance. It captured my imagination. I dove into the story and returned to my life refreshed, as if I had taken a mental vacation. I read more romances and became a fan. More than a fan. The stories I read subtly reaffirmed my belief in the power of relationships and in values that were often overridden by the stress of daily life.
They were also well-written. Did I come across prose bulging with adjectives? Occasionally. However, the majority were written by smart authors who were also gifted storytellers. In time, Mother and I would discuss the merits of the authors as if we were academics hashing over Twain.
Now, I sit in a rehab center. Mother opens the box of books I’ve brought from her bookshelves. She considers the covers, deliberately chooses one—by a favorite author, I notice—and begins reading.
* * *
According to Nielsen Books and Consumer Tracker, 84% of romance readers are, unsurprisingly, female. What is surprising to non-readers is the scope of the category. There is the classic man meets woman, but the genre has expanded to man meets man or, folding in the love of paranormal tales, woman meets vampire or shape-shifter. Some of the stories delve into the erotic while in others, the characters don’t even hold hands. For the mystery reader, there is romantic suspense; for the history lover, a book from every epoch (with a heavy emphasis on Regency England); for the devout, inspirationals.
Romance heroines hold jobs. They teach, farm, practice law, work independently as private detectives, or they are involved in the arts, in dance, in theater. They are mothers, ex-wives, Marines. They take up causes and they always want something “more” from their lives—and we aren’t just talking about a partner. In today’s romance, the relationship is part of—and often, a catalyst for—a woman’s journey, not her destination.
Still, the sometimes lurid, eye-catching cover art has led to the books being disregarded as mere “bodice rippers” or, more bluntly, “trash”—usually from those who have never opened one. In this case, books are judged by their covers, as is the intellect of their readers.
I’ve never understood boundaries when it comes to reading. For example, we don’t judge the intelligence of others when discussing television. We understand that a good mind needs many sorts of stimulation. A sitcom, an epic story, or manufactured reality TV drama can be a mental break and sometimes enable us to gain a bit of insight into our own world.
Fiction in all forms does that as well, so, why do we not value reading for entertainment? Why the snobbery? We encourage children to read wherever their imaginations take them, and then kill that love of reading later in life by disdainfully categorizing it as unimportant or lightweight.
Romance readers happily buck such pomposity. There is a reason why romance claims over a billion dollars of the publishing market a year: its readership is deeply dedicated and engaged. There are innumerable blogs where readers can vent their frustrations, share their favorite titles, and air their opinions; book clubs where they can discuss what they’ve recently read and receive recommendations; conventions where they can meet favorite authors and other devotees. As the author of over thirty romance novels myself, I have experienced this firsthand.
I always knew I would write a book, but it wasn’t until I started reading romance regularly that I knew this was what I wanted to write. I write romance because I believe there is no better measure of a well-lived life than how well we love and how well we are loved in return and those are important stories to tell.
And there are so many different kinds of love to celebrate. Yes, I write about the love of two people whose steps fall into line with each other, but there is also the love of community, of ideas, of adventure, of laughter and of trust, faith, and honesty. And it is these values that tapped into my overworked spirit all those years ago when I picked up my first romance novel. It is these values that are celebrated by generations of our readers.
* * *
My mother closes the book. She appears to have read a few chapters. She holds it carefully. “It is not making sense.”
Is she unable to process it? Or is she not satisfied with the book? “Do you want to try another?” I ask.
She shakes her head, her gaze still studying the picture of the couple on the book cover. She lightly touches the author’s name. “I know it is good.” Then, she carefully sets the book on her hospital tray. “I’ll try tomorrow.”
And she will. These stories have carried her through life’s overwhelming moments. They have been companions when she has been lonely and created space when she needed a moment to herself. It comforts me to know that they will continue to do so.