Last week, Maili made a most interesting post about assumptions other people make about readers who are attracted to romance novels and romantic stories, and why cynics, in particular, are ill-suited to reading romance novels.
I’m still not sure how romance novels came to have all this baggage attached to them, but all I can say is that some of my least cynical friends—the ones most likely to spout “love conquers all” rubbish—wouldn’t touch romance novels with a 20-foot stick. And you don’t hear people making the same assumptions about cynics and, say, fantasy novels and comics, which are often loaded down with even more romantic (and I use this in the larger sense of the word) claptrap than romance novels are. Being a cynic doesn’t mean being unable to suspend some disbelief for fiction, and furthermore, as Rosario pointed out in the comments, not all romance are cloying and schmaltzy in the way people seem to think they are. Maili’s friend, I’m afraid to say, seems to have indulged in some lazy thinking.
Most of my friends are shocked I read and love romance novels, too. Many of them are disappointed—even mildly disgusted—that I do. It’s not because they think I’m too cynical to be a romance reader, however. They’re usually surprised because I don’t fit the kitten-sweatered, chipper, love-sunshine-and-puppies stereotype they hold in their head of what the average romance novel reader looks like and behaves. I’m young(ish). I don’t own a single item of clothing adorned with puffy paint, paste-on jewels or appliquéd baby animals (though my outfit for Santacon last year was sewn all over with tiny beheaded stuffed animals). And although I’m an idealist, I’m one with an unrepentantly evil sense of humor, and I am, at core, a pessimist and a skeptic.
But it’s not just that I don’t look or behave like the stereotype that throws my friends into a tailspin. The refrain I hear most often from my friends is that I shouldn’t be reading romance novels because I am, of all things, too smart to do so. My friend H is most guilty of doing this. “You have so many other good books to read,” she says, a look of bewilderment on her face. “And you’re one of the smartest people I know. I really don’t know why you like those books.”
Which is sort of flattering to my ego, but kind of not-so-much. I get the sense that these friends feel about that aspect of my life the same way I would if I found out a biologist friend of mine was a young earth creationist. “But…but…it makes no sense. There’s absolutely no scientific support, and you should know better.” With my friends, the fact that I read and love romance novels is not just an aesthetic judgment (“You should have better taste, dammit!”), it’s a judgment of my intellect (“You should be smarter than that, dammit!”).
I’m not sure when enjoying romance novels became equated with being stupid, but I know it’s a stereotype that’s been kicking around for a long time—I certainly subscribed to it until I started reading romances myself. Why? Is it the fact that they’re not viewed as being realistic, and that one would have to be stupid to buy into all that nonsense? (I’ve already bellowed and yelled about this issue in a previous rant, so I won’t re-hash it here.) Is it because a genre this popular could not possibly have any intellectual merit? Or is it something else entirely?
So thus far, we’ve determined that according to the non-romance reading public, cynics, smart people and people with taste shouldn’t be reading romance (and, hey, the Greater Washington Initiative agrees—at least, with the last two points). By that standard, I don’t think I should be a romance reader, because I’m somewhat cynical, somewhat smarter than average (if those tests are to be believed, anyway) and I have fabulous fucking taste (anyone who says otherwise will be soundly ignored for being wrong, wrong, wrong).
These assumptions are a big part of the rason why Sarah and I started the site and why we named it what we did, actually—to attract like-minded romance novel readers, so we’d not only have a haven where we can all gather around and talk about love stories, shriek with horror over man-titty and be unabashedly girly every once in a while, but also so we can send a huge collective middle finger to the public and their assumptions about who does and doesn’t read romance.
So: What kind of a romance reader are you? Let’s turn this into an informal and utterly unscientific survey. Tell us as much as you’re comfortable with, but some interesting bits of information would include gender, age, race, national origin, religion, occupation, education level, sexual orientation (yeah, this is a pretty private question, and like I said, totally optional for you to answer, but I want to see whether it’s overwhelmingly straight chicks who read romance, or whether bisexuals and lesbians have love for the torrid love stories, too) and why you read romance novels. I’ll go first:
I was born
a poor black child
in 1978 in Malaysia to Chinese parents who were devout Buddhists. I was a fantastically mediocre student until I started reading heavily at about age seven, at which point my grades saw huge improvements, including my math scores (I used to be dismal at math). For the longest time I classified myself as an agnostic, but recently, I realized I’m more of a weak atheist; when it comes down it, “skeptical foul-mouthed pro-choice fag-lovin’ secular humanist” is a pretty handy descriptor that covers my attitude towards most things. I have a Bachelor of Arts in English from a small, Catholic liberal arts university, and I’m in the process of applying to law school, because my current job (technical writer for a heavy manufacturing facility) isn’t jibing with my save-the-world goals. I’m married to The Tallest Man In the World (OK, not really, but he is 6’8”, which is pretty motherfucking tall), and I’m bisexual with a preference for dudes—I dig androgyny, which is why skinny, pretty men who aren’t afraid to wear skirts have a special place in my heart and my loins. I read romance novels for a whole lot of reasons, but mostly because I’m interested in narratives about love and sex, and because human drama and behavior fascinate me endlessly.