After seeing Laura Clawson‘s article about romance novels on Daily Kos, “Romance Reader, Unashamed” (and seeing the most awesome comment thread ever in terms of knowledge and enthusiasm) I had to get all nosy and beg Ms. Clawson for an interview. Behold!
So what made you write this article about romance, sexual politics, discrimination and misogynist myths about romance?
Laura: I think that when the second Twilight movie came out I’d seen a resurgence of discussion of those books, with a lot of glancing comparisons to romance of the kind we’re all familiar with. There wasn’t one big moment where I said “I have to write about this,” but as I saw all these little slams I got progressively annoyed and it started marinating in my head to write something. It might almost be worse that people don’t feel like they have to go into detail about what’s wrong with romance, that the word alone can be used to discredit.
On Sundays at Daily Kos we step away from the news cycle a little bit for longer pieces that can broaden the ways we usually approach politics. Among other things it’s our place for more personal pieces, for trying to draw connections that might take more elaboration and a different type of discussion. I’m always on the lookout for good topics for that, I’ve been encouraged to write more about culture there, and this was a natural fit.
It was also pretty easy to write because this is a topic I’ve thought so much about. In fact, my senior honors thesis at Wesleyan was about romance and sci-fi, and how academics tended to treat sci-fi as literature and romances as a cultural phenomenon to be explained. You know, there were actual academic journals of articles about sci-fi, and people writing about how they used it in teaching political science courses, and meanwhile the books about romances were basically wondering why do women read this crap, oh, maybe it’s an escape valve from their miserable lives, etc. Whereas to me, the books just didn’t seem that different.
I continued writing about romances in grad school. We had to write a quantitative research paper and my initial idea was that I was going to look at the shelf space bookstores give to different genres, because I’ve mostly lived in college towns where there are these wonderful independent bookstores with knowledgeable staff and interesting books…and no romance section. So I wanted to take aim that that, but luckily my teachers convinced me that driving around New Jersey with a tape measure comparing the shelf footage given to romances vs. mysteries and so on was probably a recipe for disaster, and instead I brought in my interest in religion and did a comparison of gender roles in Christian and secular series romance. The upshot is that this is one of those topics where it doesn’t take much to set me to talking or writing kind of indefinitely.
What romances are your absolute favorites, the ones that shall not leave your house without a tracking device?
Laura: I have a core of a couple dozen books that I just reread and reread. They include a lot of Mary Jo Putney—most recently I’ve reread The Bargain and The China Bride. Jude Deveraux was probably my first big favorite, and of hers I particularly love Sweet Liar and A Knight in Shining Armor. Amanda Quick, Reckless and Ravished in particular. I reread Kathleen Gilles Seidel’s Summer’s End practically every time there’s a lot of figure skating on tv.
Susan Elizabeth Phillips, This Heart of Mine in particular. Joan Wolf, The Pretenders and The Gamble. Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me and Fast Women—I actually started cooking chicken marsala regularly after reading Bet Me. Two that aren’t genre romance but that fit my view that we need to try to pull down some of the walls between the genre and “literary” fiction are Elinor Lipman’s The Inn at Lake Devine and The Way Men Act.
I’m probably forgetting a lot, because I do so much rereading—I can’t really bring a book I’m reading for the first time to bed with me or I’ll never go to sleep, so I pretty much always have something going that I’ve read multiple times. That’s why this list is heavily books several years old, because I don’t yet know what are going to be the more recent ones that stick with me through this process.
Which was the first, or earliest that you remember reading? (I have a theory that most of us romance readers can recall our first romance that we read.)
Laura: Ah, I was afraid you’d ask that. I mean, I read a lot of Victoria Holt in junior high, and in grade school I’d read those Sunfire teen romances—the ones titled with a woman’s name and on the cover she’d be standing in the foreground with the two men she had to choose from in the background. I think Susannah was the first of those I read, but Amanda and Joanna were my favorites.
That said, I stopped reading anything much resembling romance at a certain point in my teens, and I do remember the book that was kind of my conversion moment as a college student. I just wish it had been something else—it was The Nightingale Legacy, by Catherine Coulter, and I no longer read her books for a number of reasons. I do kind of want to dig that one up and reread it, though, out of nostalgia if nothing else.
Thank you, Laura, for taking the time to answer my nosy questions! I love that her reading list of favorite romances makes me nod my head and shimmy.
Am I alone in wanting to read her senior thesis?
Also: did you guys know that the cover for each Sunfire book was a spoiler? I think I may have mentioned this before: whichever guy the heroine is pictured with is the one she does NOT end up with. So match the description, check out the mini clinch going on in the background, and behold: Not The Hero. Once I figured that out, massive bummer.