To start things off, let me just say I’m still having trouble believing we were mentioned obliquely in the New York Times. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m tickled as can be that we were considered even remotely worthy of mention, but as I wrote to a friend earlier: “Yeah, you know you’ve TRULY arrived when the NYT dismisses you as shrill, humorless, uncultured, oversexed twats. (…) It must’ve been a slow news day or something—the complete lack of newsworthy items like, ohhhh, sex scandals involving underage congressional pages or bills that infringe on Constitutional rights being passed must’ve made the brouhaha in our little corner of teh Interwebs an especially attractive story prospect.”
Reading that beautifully condescending article, which utilized some of the most execrable, stilted sexual metaphors this side of Bertrice Small while maintaining a delicately prudish air (our blog name is “not printable in most newspapers”? What, are we now the Website that Dare Not Speak Its Name?) has finally brought a lot of thoughts that have been kicking around in the back of my brain to the fore, as has reading this snippet of a comment posted by Robin in the original post about the Greater Washington Initiative ads:
Don’t you think this is because there is still such a moral dimension to readingâ€”not just in whether or not you read, but what you actually read, as well?
I practically leaped in excitement when I read that sentence, in that “By JOVE she’s got it!” way that often accompanies a revelation that expresses a half-formed thought I’ve never been to articulate, but on thinking more about it, I’m not sure what to make of that yet, though I hope to figure it out as I discuss it with people in the comments. I do know that there’s a tendency to make assumptions about people’s intelligence based on what they’re reading, part of which is informed by class snobbery, part of which is informed by sexism, and part of which is defined by how trends in the literary canon inform what we view as high art vs. low art vs. not-at-all-even-close-to-art.
Romance novels make people intensely uncomfortable, which they express as deep disdain and/or complete dismissal. Hell, I’m still a bit squeamish about revealing my love of romance novels to new people, and I have friends who look at my bookshelves (which somebody once described as “schizoid in the very best way”) and bemoan how they don’t understand why I like romance novels when I have so many good books to read.
I think the roots of this disdain lie with our cultural discomfort with emotional and sexual intimacy. Besides the usual explanations, most of which are variations of “Oh, America is such a Puritan country,” I personally think that some it’s a reaction to the way both have been exploited by people who use it to sell everything from greeting cards to phone plans to insurance. Sneering at sentimentality makes us feel smarter; we’re not taken in by this blatant manipulation. We’re better than that, smarter than that.
But it’s not just the fact that romance novels deal specifically with squishy emotions that makes people uncomfortable. I think a big stumbling point for people lies with the happy ending. It’s unfashionable right now for our Art to be happy. The subjects can certainly yearn for happiness and attempt to seek it, but most of the time, the best we’re willing to give them is bittersweet closure. I’m certainly not qualified to say why the Aesthetic of Unhappiness has so much cachet right now, but I have a feeling a lot of it has to do with the brutalities of WWI and WWII.
However, and I’m going to get a lot of shit for this, I also can’t deny that romance novels are their own worst enemy. This genre is rife with bad, bad, bad writing. Yes yes, I know, other genres have awful books, too, Sturgeon’s Law, etc. etc. But I don’t know of any other genre in which books as all-encompassingly awful as what Cassie Edwards has published become bestsellers. I mean, I’ve read some horror and fantasy that’s almost as bad as the worst of romance, but these authors don’t become minor bestsellers with whole shelves dedicated to them at the bookstore. There’s bad, and then there’s romance novel bad, which is this whole other universe of awfulness (and bless her heart, Mrs. Giggles realized this ages ago, and dared to speak up about it).
And the most hellish thing is, when people make fun of romance novel stereotypes, I can’t even run in and say “You are completely talking out of your ass.” The truth of the matter is, it’s not that hard to pick up a romance lousy with foot-stamping heroines who shake their auburn tresses as the heroes growl menacingly at them. Perhaps it’s just as well that the author of that little piece didn’t know romance novels well enough to hit us where it really hurt, like, say, secret babies and virgin widows.
And the covers…oy, the covers. If you’ve spent any time on the site at all, y’all know what we think of the covers.
But all this is irrelevant, really. Romance novels can be (and often are) turds of the first order. The question is: can anyone make an informed judgment about somebody’s intelligence and/or moral character solely based on what they’re reading, especially something as ephemeral as a snapshot of what somebody chooses to read on the bus or the train? I don’t think so. God help me, I’ve read and enjoyed Dara Joy, but I don’t think I’m any dumber for being fond of her over-the-top prose. We read what we read for a multitude of reasons, and making that sort of judgment is reductionist to the point of retardation. The part that bothered me the most about the ad wasn’t that it was making fun of romance novels, it was the fact that it presented a false dichotomy. I don’t see the contradiction or tension between the same person reading, say, Savage Thunder and Phenomenology of Spirit. And I mean, c’mon, Plato? Plato is for pussies. A reasonably bright 11-year-old could read and grasp Plato. And yes, I’m aware of how obnoxious my one-upsmanship is, but goddamn, people who assume I’m stupid and uneducated simply because I enjoy a bodice ripper every now and then can suck it, and suck it hard. Because asswipes making snap judgments about me based solely on what I read are part of the reason why Sarah and I started this website in the first place.