Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Why I Stopped Reading Romance Novels

In the winter of 1992, I picked up a flyer at Waldenbooks (or was it B. Dalton?) which advertised the latest romance novels. For reasons that I can’t remember – curiosity, maybe? – I bought several of the books in the flyer. I remember two of the books I bought, Trilby by Diana Palmer and Angel by Johanna Lindsey.

I read them at my (now ex-)boyfriend’s home in Walnut, CA. I was mighty pleased with what I read. The books contained what I needed during that time -- reliably happy endings (after years of Shakespeare and dour classics at UCLA) and generous heapings of sex (I will never forget the line "that part of him that was all male, threateningly male" in Trilby -- and no, "that part" was not the elbow). It was the start of a connection with romance novels that lasted more than a decade.

In the spring of 2007, as gradual as the start had been sudden, my romance with romance novels came to an end. The last romance book I read was Simply Love by Mary Balogh.

This conclusion coincided with my meeting and moving in with Two Dogs, but a happy love life was not the reason I stopped reading these books. The idea that romance readers are trying to make up for the lack of real love in their lives is tired (not to mention false) pop psychology. I read romances when I was happy in love and when I was alone.

I stopped because the books had changed…and I had changed.

I have read good romances and mediocre romances, serious romances and silly romances. I have found that the best romances are good books first – that is true for all genre fiction. Of all the romance writers I’ve read, I can name three -- Mary Balogh, Mary Jo Putney, and Justine Davis (writing mainly for the category publisher Silhouette) – who have been delightfully consistent in the high quality of their work.

As time went on, the good, serious romances became harder and harder to find (most of those were now referred to as “women’s fiction” or “contemporary fiction”). The genre became overrun with all sorts of fantastic creatures, from ghosts to werewolves to aliens and...(long pause -- I'll give you one guess)...vampires.

This paranormal invasion turned me off big time. I wanted to read stories that could take place in the world that we live in. Yet even without paranormal elements, romances spiraled further and further away from reality. They piled on the suspense, the wealth, and the testosterone – even the women started packing heat. Ludicrous titles like “His Majesty, M.D.” and “The Italian Billionaire’s Pregnant Bride” marred category romances. Harlequin even has a series of books based on NASCAR (?!?). It was time to run, mouse, run.

Yet the books themselves were only half the reason. I just got tired of the formula – man and woman meet, bicker to stave off their intense sexual attraction, end up in bed, have a Huge Disagreement, separate, realize that they were meant for each other after all and then begin their Happily Ever After with marriage and a bun in the oven. Exposure to formula time and time again eventually weakens its impact, and I went in search of the plot variety found in literary (that is, non-genre) fiction.

I have no problem with love stories. I have no problem with love stories that end with the couple happily together. But these love stories must respect my intelligence, be grounded in the real world, avoid ridiculous tacked-on conflict (often coming in the form of bickering), and contain good characters that I can care about.

I have been wisdom-hungry since the beginning of the year, and have gone in search of beloved books that I own but are now in storage (until Two Dogs and I find our real home). One of these books is It's My Pleasure by Maria and Maya Rodale (2005). It’s an exhortation for women to seek pleasure without guilt -- given the guiltload that weighs on women (both inner-and-outer-inflicted) when they don't put other people first, it’s a message that needs repeating.

Mother Maria and daughter Maya continuously point to romance novels as sources of pleasure and beacons for liberation. They point out the cliché that romance novels are “trash”, but in the midst of pointing out the critics’ broad brush they wield one of their own:

“In the publishing world, of which I was a member, [romance novels] were considered trash, drivel that was beneath the nose of anyone who had any intelligence or sophistication. If I had had any taste I would have been perfectly happy reading stories of rape, murder, incest, the meaningless and inhumanity of life…much of which is called literary fiction.” (This is Maria writing in the introduction, page xxi.)

Not all of literary fiction is that pessimistic. I have found hope and meaning, people who have been tossed downhill but stand up and keep moving forward…for to stop is to die before death itself. Hopeful literary fiction that I have read lately include The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway and Kyra by Carol Gilligan (which is also a great love story!) I can add a few more, but this post is long (and linky!) enough already.

P.S. I am a fan and regular reader of Diana Laurence, who writes what she refers to as “romance fiction”. I just received her latest work, “Soulful Sex: The Darker Side” in the mail.

I would include Diana’s books in the “high quality” romance section, but when I refer to “romance novels” in this post I mean mass-market paperbacks that are easy to find in bookstores, grocery stores, drug stores, airport newsstands, etc.

P.P.S. I went to Barnes & Noble after lunch today, looking for Romantic Times Book Club magazine (just to confirm my reasons for not reading anymore, natch). I didn't find it, but I did find this book by Maya Rodale, who has become a romance author herself:

I did something I rarely do these days: I bought a book on impulse. I will have to discover for myself if I can still get a thrill from a mass-market-size romance novel. But first I have to finish SSTDS.

To the bathtub!


  1. I think that just like with life itself, our reading habits change, evolve, grow over the years to suit who we are, what we're feeling, or seeking. We see the words, thoughts, stories differently with time. I'd started out reading mostly commercial fiction, but over the years, memoir has become a staple as well as a sampling of other nonfiction and more literary fiction.

  2. Thanks for the shout out Jennie! It's uncanny, but I too was in the more-real-life, complicated endings phase this past year when I wrote SSTDS. I'm really curious what you will think of it. My novel coming out soon isn't even a romance at all. I think it's good that our psyches go through these phases--after all, variety is the spice of life.