About two weeks ago, a friend visited me from out of town. She’s the kind of friend (read: the best kind) who insists on  finding a new bookstore to explore every time she visits, so through her I have discovered several gems sprinkled around the DFW area. This visit was no exception.

Enter: Lucky Dog Books. Which is to say, we did. No joke, there was nary a square of bookless space. I was equal parts excited and overwhelmed by the options laid out before me. And then I found The Harlequin Room.

Organized on shelves by the various color-coded sub-genres, a veritable sea of romance novels stretched out before us. Dare, Desire, Heartwarming, Suspense. There was American, which is essentially just “Someone’s Wearing a Cowboy Hat.” And there was Medical, which could otherwise be called “Someone is a Doctor.” There was Love Inspired Romance, which always leaves room for the Holy Spirit. And there was Superromance, which might sound more interesting than it is: “Romance plus a bigger story!” is how Harlequin describes it. This just means that plot is at least as important as the sex.

When I was studying in England (read: this is the part where I reassure you that I’m sophisticated) I took a class on sex, gender, and media. There were very few readings in the class; instead we watched a lot of movies, including Sex and the City Two (Electric Boogaloo) and discussed our experiences of gender in popular culture (there was a woman from Sweden in my class, which was lifechanging to me in several ways, but that’s a different story for a different time). The professor kept saying things like, “It’s such a Harlequin trope,” or “This is the kind of thing that you’d see all over Harlequin.” As a good, conservative, Christian girl, I had no idea what she was talking about. It wasn’t until one of the other students in the class started referring to Harlequin as “porn for women” that I filled in the blanks.

So, two weeks ago, as I sat on my couch with a bag of pretzels and Janice Kay Johnson’s This Good Man, I unraveled about eight years’ worth of personal mystery. The tropes came hard and fast in these books: he’s dark, mysterious, and has a seventy-six percent chance of being a cop. She’s lithe, hard working, and has an eighty-five percent chance of hating cops. The Superromances are a slow build to the bedroom, but the Intrigues and the Suspenses are hot and heavy from the first gunshot wound (read: the third paragraph).

My friend is a master speed reader, so she finished her three books in the time it took me to finish one. As she reached the end, she would scoff and read aloud, “‘I think we should date’” or “‘Will you date me?’” followed closely by the answer of “‘I think we should get married,’” or, creatively, “‘No, but I will marry you.’” The ones I read had less awkward denouement, but they invariably ended with two people much farther along in a relationship than any reasonable people would be after the—maximum—two weeks they had been together.

During one Calvin Writer’s Retreat (read: I again reassure you that I am, in fact, college educated) we had a discussion about B-literature, specifically mainstream and popular reads that grabbed the layperson’s attention and didn’t require a class discussion to fully appreciate. Most of the professors in the group agreed that they didn’t see the point in teaching a class on B-literature. And reading these Harlequin novels, which in the future will probably be written by the cousin of the Facebook algorithm, I have to say I agree. There is nothing challenging about these books (unless, of course, you’re not white, cis-genered, or straight, in which case the challenge comes in trying to relate to the characters) and very little changes from one title to another.

But like the professors and other students on that retreat, I don’t think intellectual exegesis is the sole marker of worthy literature. And unlike the students in my Sex and the City class, I wouldn’t say that Harlequin novels can be summarized as “porn for women.”  (I mean, for one thing, that’s sort of a troubling concept: is other porn not for women? Is the insulting word there supposed to be “porn” or “women”? But again, different story, different time.)

Take, for instance, Janice Kay Johnson’s This Good Man. It’s a truly wild book, where a police captain and adoption social worker (of all people… like, seriously, how do I find these things?) who are both alumni of the foster care system, fall madly in love, despite their brokenness and inability to trust, all while saving an unlicensed group home for teens from a psychotic birthfather who keeps just lighting shit on fire. At the end of the book, Reid (yep, that’s his name) asks Anna to marry him as he’s being wheeled away on a gurney, having been shot by either a SWAT guy or the aforementioned birthfather—no one will ever know which. Oh, and Captain Reid’s long lost teenaged brother comes to live with them, giving Reid the first real family he’s ever had.

Reading a novel like that is like going to an amusement park. The inhumanly fast pace and the climbs and falls that your little body can get literally no where else push adrenaline through your veins, give you sensations that life outside the park might never give you. You can see the tracks, you’re wearing a seatbelt, and you had to drive two hours out of town to get here: you are well aware that this is not “real” life.

Amusement parks aren’t for everyone, but no responsible person leaves one saying, “I can’t tell anyone that I came here; I’m so embarrassed.” Neither do they say, “That should be a required experience for all people between the ages of fourteen and eighteen; let’s explicate it together afterwards.” After the last time I went to an amusement park, I was just tired and poorer, but happy, and maybe a little dizzy.

Similarly, after finishing This Good Man, I took a nap, returned it to Lucky Dog for a $3 credit, and went through the rest of my day with a heart warmed by the silly idea that two deeply troubled people could find happiness, and pretty good sex, in each other. That they could just coast for the rest of their years on those two weeks of trauma bonding. That after so many things had gone wrong for so long, every single thing could turn around completely and go so stupidly right.

No one gets relentlessly shamed for enjoying the latest summer blockbuster. People don’t hide their copies of White Christmas when they have company over. And Lucky Dog Books showed me that, porn or not, romance novels are worth every penny, and reading three in one weekend isn’t any more a sign of social deviance than would be spending that weekend playing a video game where I hit things with an axe and pull zombies apart with my bare hands. I’ve derided this genre for too long. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    I reject completely the concept of a guilty pleasure. We don’t have to apologize for getting joy out of something, be it a lighthearted novel with a Happily Ever After or double chocolate chip cookies. Shame is dumb and it sucks.

    Reply
  2. Avatar

    So… I can definitely help you catch up!! 🙂
    I read soo many on my Kindle, but this year I have read a lot less because I’m publicly posting on good reads, challenging myself to read 150 books this year– so trashy cover romances aren’t going on the public profile.
    I hear your concern about the lack of inclusivity, and I’ve found YA romance books to be a lot better about that.
    I’ve also found a podcaster who is helpful in justifying this practice of mine, and she wonders if the genre is dismissed so often because it’s written for women by women. Her new podcast starts soon: https://www.hotandbotheredrompod.com/the-podcast

    Reply
  3. Avatar

    Love this post, Mary Margaret! Recommended reading if you want to ponder this further: Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance.

    Reply

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