Coming Out As A Romance Geek: Why I Love Reading Romance
February 12, 2020
I was 22 years old when I bought my first Nora Roberts book. I had just submitted my dissertation and decided I needed a book to celebrate. Having been on a ‘buying books to read for leisure hiatus’ for nearly a year, it was safe to say that I had a little trouble figuring out what to pick up. My flatmate Amrita selected Playing The Odds and told me to give it (and the other books in the series) a shot.
Coming from an academic background that had involved reading a lot of classic literature, literary fiction, critical essays, and so on – you know, the heavy stuff, I’d forgotten what it felt like to read just for pleasure. I’d also forgotten which genres I liked to read.
That first Nora Roberts book led to another and then another, and as I went through all of her series, I realised I’d remembered what reading for pleasure felt like. And, in the process, discovered a genre that I enjoyed.
Coming Out As A Romance Geek
Today, I identify romance as my genre of preference when it comes to reading. And I make no attempts to hide it. This, however, wasn’t the case when I first started exploring the genre. Friends and family found it difficult to understand why I’d keep picking up romances when I had a degree in literature and called myself an avid reader. ‘Shouldn’t you be reading proper books? Here, let me get you a copy of (insert name of current bestseller),’ they’d say. ‘You’re wasting your education by reading trash,’ was another favourite. Oh, and let’s not forget, ‘nobody will consider you to be a serious reader’.
These are the highlights, of course. But they chipped away at my love for romance novels, making me hide them. (Owning a Kindle definitely helped here!) I forced myself to publicly read these ‘proper books’, keeping the ones I actually wanted to read for stolen moments of me-time. Till I just didn’t see the point anymore.
The Twists And Turns Of Romance Fiction
Let’s talk about why I enjoy reading romance fiction. Is it because I’m a romantic at heart? Am I waiting for my happily-ever-after (HEA)? Am I a damsel in distress waiting for a shiny prince to come and rescue me? No, absolutely not.
I read romance because I love seeing how different authors manipulate their plots within the conventions of the genre. For a romance to be a romance, the central plot needs to be a love story, and the ending needs to be a happy one. What makes the story, in many cases, is how the characters get to their HEA. Think about the number of variations a romance author has to come up with to reach the end goal of a HEA. Think about the number of obstacles the author has to create for the characters to overcome. What will they say, how will they react? How will the characters evolve as the story progresses?
Take prolific romance writer Nora Roberts, for example. With a writing career spanning nearly four decades, she has published over 200 novels, has been a regular feature on the New York Times bestseller list, and continues to publish about four novels each year. Now, imagine each novel having the same story and characters, similar obstacles for them to deal with. How many times would her readers pick up her books, even if they were her most avid fans? Her continuing popularity is because she manages to keep the twists unique – it’s still why I keep going back to her.
Characters Of Different Shapes And Sizes
I read romance because these journeys are entertaining and engaging. They’re filled with banter or barely suppressed longing, heartbreak and humour, wonderful meet-cutes and embarrassing misunderstandings. Author-duo Christina Lauren check off all these boxes, for me, in Josh And Hazel’s Guide To Not Dating and The Unhoneymooners. The banter is hilarious, the characters realistic, their heartbreak raw and the endings sweet.
Romance fiction is full of women of different shapes and sizes (yes, it’s true), dealing with body image issues or mental health problems. They’re filled with characters who work through their problems, and deal with the everyday reality of trying to connect with another person. They’re also filled with dukes and roguish rakes, billionaires and strippers working to put food on the table to support their six siblings. And, yes, they feature sex as well.
One of my favourite romance authors is Helen Hoang. Her stories are simple, yet filled with so much heart and character development. Both of her novels, The Kiss Quotient and The Bride Test, deal with characters on the autistic spectrum and explore the concept of consent in an incredible manner. There’s also Penny Reid who, in her Knitting In The City series, deals with love of different kinds – from a regular love story (Neanderthal Meets Human) to a friends-to-lovers story (Friends Without Benefits), from an older woman-younger man story (Love Hacked) to the mature love story of a couple that’s been married for 15 years (Happily Ever Ninja). These are authors who write about a love that goes beyond your standard boy-meets-girl and they live happily ever after. They delve into the characters, their stories and backstories and create a tapestry that is rich in dialogue, heartache, with humour and love.
It’s A Woman’s World, After All
I read romance for the characters and their individual quirks. The romance authors I enjoy reading write about women with relatable problems. These are women who are strong, career-driven and capable of fending for themselves. They deal with issues such as sexual harassment, domestic violence, physical and/or mental abuse, anxiety, depression, and peer pressure. These are women who believe in a sisterhood of strong female friendships, with those interactions being some of my favourites. Reid (Knitting In The City series), Staci Hart (Red Lipstick Coalition series), Jennifer Crusie (Bet Me), Susannah Nix (STEM series), Nalini Singh (Rock series), and Roberts (Bride Quartet) form the tip of the iceberg for me. The interactions of the sisterhood are conversations I can identify with. In fact, they are conversations that I have had or can see myself having with my own girl tribe.
At the core of it, romance fiction is primarily filled with women’s voices and their stories. These are books that show women finding love and falling in love, but they also show them becoming stronger individuals, discovering strength, independence, bravery, vulnerability, honesty, or the power to be proud of who they are. And, what I love the most is that they are loved for who they are – for being vulnerable, brave, smart, funny, stubborn and weird. These are stories about women I can admire and like – probably why I keep going back for more.
More Than Just Sex
A lot of people scoff at romance and label it as ‘smut’. To them, I say, give a romance novel a go. If that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll be sorely disappointed with all the pages spent on pesky little details like plot, emotions and character development.
A romance novel comes in all shades and forms. Some end with a glorious kiss, some leave it to the reader’s imagination, some imply sex, some are explicit with their descriptions and some are fumbling and just plain fun. This is primarily because the focus remains on the pleasure of the characters. After all, these are stories about love. And sex can be an important part of that. In books, just like in real life, sex is just a part of the larger story. In romance fiction, sex goes beyond the notion of inserting his ‘hardness’ into her ‘wetness’. It actually serves a purpose, i.e., it helps to advance the plot and reveals different aspects of the characters.
I’ve read all kinds of romance novels from the time I picked up the first one. From the tropey Mills & Boon books to Harlequin romances, from bodice rippers to books that I flip through because the characters are plain annoying. I’ve also read, and continue to read, my share of literary fiction, crime and, my other preferred genre, fantasy. But, romance fiction, of the kind I’ve described above, is what I keep coming back to.
They give me a good story and remind me that books don’t need to be filled with misery and death to be considered worthwhile. It is perfectly alright to love books that remind you that people can have lives filled with love, good sex and happiness. And I’m happy to continue down this path with my Kindle filled with romance novels to read.
A love for the written word has led Oishani to structure her life around reading. Books introduced her to a world filled with so many possibilities, and helped her understand the power of a well-written story. With an educational background in English Literature and Film & Television Studies, she has worked as the editor for an arts magazine in the past. She believes in the healing powers of a perfectly brewed cup of coffee and the chance to explore a new city. And, no matter where she might be, her Kindle (loaded with books) is never too far from her person.
She is the editor at The Curious Reader. Read her pieces, here.
Insightful essay, Oishani. I confess I’ve scorned romance books myself, having read only one so far — a Nora Roberts. I wanted to dislike it, but found it entertaining.
Both by taste, and because it’s what I want to write myself, it’s literary fiction, and the classics, that I’ve mostly read. But in my fiction I struggle to create a plot. Frustrated at my inability to write plot, I used to actually look down on plot down-driven novels! (The grapes are sour :-/ )
Recently, I’ve acquired an interest in popular novels. They have things to teach me. Plotting, structuring, creating well-defined characters. After all, ideas and language alone can’t drive a novel that most people would want to read.
My interest in popular, fun writing has remained largely theoretical. This essay reminds me to actually start reading some popular books, including romance.