I was going to write a long, self-indulgent thing here about how I read romance novels, but a few hundred words in, even I couldn’t be that interested anymore. Sarah Wendell’s most recent book did make me think about what I do as a reader of this genre, though, and some of this thinking was quite uncomfortable.
I wrote about Wendell’s book for last Sunday’s Left of Cool column. The mysterious book in question is Sarra Manning’s Nine Uses for an Ex-Boyfriend (whether it is a Romance Novel is up for debate); my fellow readers will doubtless out themselves in the comments if they feel like doing so.
A few months ago a new book by an author I like was published. For days afterwards, as we read in our separate cities, two friends and I would text and email one another constantly. Between the three of us we have multiple English degrees and two of us are professional reviewers. Our comments to each other did not reflect this; we were entirely caught up in the heroine’s bad relationship decisions and our own concern and frustration with them.
The whole experience made me think about whether we read differently when faced with certain genres. I was reminded again of this set of interactions by Sarah Wendell’s Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels.
Wendell is one of the founders of the blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, which takes an irreverent but loving look at romance novels. Wendell had previously collaborated with the blog’s co-founder, Candy Tan, on Beyond Heaving Bosoms, a guide to the genre. For all its ostensible purpose as a primer, this was clearly a book for the romance fan. Its flow charts, extended snarking at cover art featuring Fabio, and exasperated fondness for hackneyed plot devices were all addressed to an audience who know and love these books for all their ridiculousnesses.
On the surface of it, Everything I Know About Love … is more of the same sort of thing. Once again we have the irreverent tone. The alarming alpha males of some earlier romance novels are stigmatised as “rapetastic assclown heroes” and the phrase “sword o’ mighty lovin’” appears – strictly in a what-not-to-do sort of sense. But something else is going on here.
The central thesis of Wendell’s book is that readers of the romance novel learn from it valuable lessons that help them to negotiate real life romance – though, as the author hastily informs us, this does not mean that they -we- are unable to distinguish between fiction and reality. This isn’t a contradiction but there is a tension here throughout; is romance just another genre that happens to take human relationships for its focus, or is it unique in the way its readers engage emotionally with it?
Part of the problem is that it’s not very clear what these lessons are that readers are learning. Wendell herself admits that most of these valuable lessons are learned in kindergarten (fitting, since the book’s title is a nod to “all I really need to know I learned in kindergarten”). Chapters are headed with glib lessons of the type “we … know our worth”, “we know how to ask for what we want”, “we know that happily-ever-after takes work” (Wendell ruefully acknowledges where these spill over into self-help clichés. What about more specific lessons? A reader says she learned “that sex can and should be good for the female,” and I am simultaneously happy for her and saddened that this needed to be said. Another claims “I finally know what a butt plug is for.” This is great, but it’s not exactly an apologia for the genre.
Romance, arguably, does not need to be defended – though the level of kneejerk dismissal it inspires in many makes it very tempting to do so. But the book is framed as a defence; its argument is that the genre is worthwhile because it provides its readers with something useful. Yet this is ultimately a bit pointless. It’s hard to imagine that non-fans would buy this book, and certainly only fans will know the joy of arguing with Wendell’s list of the best romantic heroes. In any case, a spirited defence of a genre needs to do much better than “reading and thinking about relationships leaves people better equipped to handle relationships”. Yet as ultimately toothless as it is, Wendell’s book does have me thinking about my own strategies of reading, and my sometimes-uncomfortable relationship with the Romance. If Everything I Know About Love … needed a reason to exist, (and as with the genre itself, why should it?) this would be a good enough one for me.