I started “ironically” reading romance novels because I was too broke to buy Christmas presents. That may sound illogical, but hear me out. It started my freshman year of college when, approaching the holidays, another broke friend suggested we skim through romance novels and highlight “the good parts” (sex) and give these books as gifts to our friends, regardless of their holiday or book genre preferences. We kept our project secret by sitting in the dorm showers while we read aloud and highlighted. Our presents were very successful, and well within our budget.
Several years later, in graduate school, I was once again too broke to buy presents. So I went to Goodwill, scored some juicy-looking paperbacks, and broke out my highlighter. I skimmed, highlighted the sexy bits, and also started inking in snarky comments here and there. Think of it as MST3000’ing a book. The difference this time was that the recipients of these books were librarians—and most librarians love to read things in new ways. They requested more of the same. Soon, they started bringing me romance novels to “annotate,” and I was more than happy to do so.
Then, one of my friends said, “This novel had an entire chapter about racing cats. How did you not annotate that?”
. . . Honestly, I had skipped that part. But now I realized that I was missing a lot of good stuff, and decided to read more thoroughly. And once I started actually reading these novels, my sense of irony began to evaporate. As I devoted more time to the project, I started becoming genuinely involved with the characters and stories—you know, the way a normal person, and certainly a normal librarian, reads a book. My involvement became so intense that I put my highlighter down and dog-earred pages to annotate later, all so that I could read uninterrupted.
I think there are a lot of misconceptions about contemporary romance novels. It’s true that some of the so-called “bodice-rippers” (particularly those written in the 1980’s) follow aggressive men and wilting women, and rape scenes that turn into romance. I’d rather not read those—I’d rather never read, skim, or even annotate those (you do you, though). But most of the contemporary romance novels I’ve read feature incredibly strong and strong-willed heroines, and romances whose sexual content contains no “blurred lines.” And I’m pretty down with snarky arguments morphing into consensual sex scenes.
I won’t lie. Some of the romance novels I’ve read have been painful reading experiences—but this is true with any genre. You think I’ve never read a literary fiction novel, or a mystery novel, or a fantasy novel, whose language felt like a cheese grater to the brain? I have. I’m guessing you have, too. Like when an author writes half the novel in the past perfect tense and seems to believe that every sentence needs eighteen prepositional phrases—yeah, that’s not a pleasant user experience, and I annotate hard in those situations.
So why are romance novels the most frequently snubbed genre? It’s more than the accusation of formulaic plot structure. Most genres that actually sell copies (i.e. anything other than literary fiction or poetry) tend to work with a handful of formulas. So the obvious difference for romance novels is that they’re about love and sex. Something about this topic sends certain people diving into literary slut-shaming—you’re reading about sex? Marianne Kirby wrote a great article about this here, and there are many online communities devoted to the topic; one of the most prominent being the aptly named “Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.” In the real world, we’re moving toward a place where slut-shaming is being called out more and more for what it is. And if we can stop shaming people for the sex they’re having, why are we shaming them for the sex they’re reading about?
In an interview with Publisher’s Weekly, librarian/literary guru Nancy Pearl said, “My definition of a good book is simple: a good book is one that I enjoy, just as a good book for you is one that you enjoy.” (Related: Nancy Pearl is a genius.)
Having said all that, no matter how much I non-ironically enjoy a romance novel, I still annotate them now and then. When a character in a historical romance novel set in the 1850’s slips on a banana peel, I fact-check and write in the margins that bananas were not introduced into North America until the 1870’s. This is not because I’m a jerk (necessarily), but because I’m a librarian and I love research. When an author forgets about the existence of pronouns and begins every sentence with the hero’s first name, you can expect some caps-locked rage in the margins. This is not because I’m a jerk either (necessarily), but because I’m a writer, and I love thinking about sentence structure (and if you want to annotate this article, I will be incredibly flattered). Obviously, I highlight sex scenes—particularly the insane plethora of euphemisms used to describe genitals (“manhood,” “member,” “hardness”; not to mention “nub,” “bud,” and every floral analogy ever). I block out portions of text and rewrite sentences so that instead of reading “her floor was wet,” well, you can imagine. But this hobby has morphed from a flippant way to afford presents into a labor of love.
But even the most well-written, fab-character’ed romance novel can use some highlighted sex scenes and text blocks edited into unintentional dirtiness. Because sometimes, a little snarkiness can lead to true lit-love.