A funny thing happened to me on my way to my Ph.D. As part of my dissertation research, I read one hundred romance novels and discovered a brave new world of feminist fiction. Well, not so new–a hundred years ago Nathaniel Hawthorne was complaining about those “d____d scribbling women” outselling him–but it was new to me and so exciting that I became a romance reader, and then a romance critic, and finally a romance writer.
I had to because I’d come out of my reading transformed, feeling more confident and much happier than during all my years of historical, canonical reading. The literary tradition I was familiar with hailed female characters like Hester Prynne as great feminist heroines. You remember Hester, a woman who, after grasping at happiness and sexual fulfillment, realizes the error of her ways and spends the last sixty years of her life celibate and serving others so that when the townspeople who have reviled her gather round her deathbed, they say, “The Scarlet A? It stands for Able.” As far as I was concerned, when the townspeople gathered around my bed, I wanted them saying, “The A? It stands for Adultery, and she was damn good at it.” I wanted the recognition that I’d lived my days fully and freely and drunk life to the lees, but it wasn’t until I read romance fiction that I found a reflection of that defiance and celebration.
That’s when I understood why romance owns 50% of mass market paperback fiction sales. Seventy percent of book buyers and eighty percent of book readers are women, and like me, those readers are tired of serving and losing and waiting and dying in their fictional worlds. The romance heroine not only acts and wins, she discovers a new sense of self, a new sense of what it means to be female as she struggles through her story, and so does the romance reader as she reads it.
As I studied romance and its roots further, I realized that the academic canon wasn’t the first form of narrative that had let me down. As a child, I’d been looking for myself in fairy tales and finding only disappointments. If I’d been a boy, I could have found great role models in stories like “Jack & the Beanstalk,” with a protagonist who climbed to the top to get what he wanted, grabbed the prize, killed the giant, and came back home a hero. Jack’s story remains a great model for little boys, telling them to be active and quest for what they want in life and they will be rewarded. But what did I have as a girl?
Well, I had Sleeping Beauty, who got everything she’d ever wanted because she looked really good unconscious. Or there was Snow White, who got everything she’d ever wanted because she looked really good unconscious. Or there was Cinderella, who should be given some credit for staying awake through her whole story, but who got everything she’d ever wanted because she had really small feet. The fairy tales I read as a child told me that boys’ stories were about doing and winning but that girls’ stories were about waiting and being won. Far from setting out on their own quests, women were the prizes in their own stories, and the less active they were–do NOT be a pushy, knife-wielding stepsister–the better their chances were of getting the castle and the crown.
So what? you say. Those are just stories for kids. Well, they’re that and a lot more. Folklorist Max Luthi says that fairy tales are “unreal but not untrue” because they deal with the greatest themes in literature and life, and much of genre fiction, grounded in myth, legend, and tale, retells those primal stories for adults. Fairy tales, Luthi says, promise the reader a just universe, and so do the genres. Mystery fiction promises a morally just universe, and speculative fiction promises an intellectually just universe, but romance fiction trumps all of these because it makes the greatest promise of all. It says that if you truly open yourself to other people, if you do the hardest thing of all which is to make yourself vulnerable and reach out for love and connection and everything that makes life as a human being worth living, you will be rewarded; it promises, in short, an emotionally just universe.
This then is what romance did for me: it rewrote the fairy tale and recast the canon so that I was at the center of the story. It told me that what I did made a difference, that the things I understood and had experience with were important, that “women’s stuff” mattered. It gave me female protagonists in stories that promised that if a woman fought for what she believed in and searched for the truth, she could strip away the old lies about her life and emerge re-born, transformed with that new sense of self that’s the prize at the end of any quest. And when the heroine emerges transformed from the romance story, so do I. So do all romance readers.
And yet this powerful genre is so derided that potential readers turn away from it without ever having opened a book because they don’t want to be caught reading “that trash.” Historically, one of the most devastating moves patriarchal culture has made has been the derision and resulting division of women’s communities. That derision is overwhelmingly present in the critical treatment of romance fiction today which almost invariably focuses on the genre as a whole rather than individual works. Imagine an intellectually honest critic saying “All literary fiction is bad” without ever having read widely in literary fiction. Yet people who have never read romance fiction routinely ridicule not only the entire genre but the women who are brave enough to admit to reading it.
That ridicule is a political act, taking our stories from us. We need to embrace our need for stories that privilege love and promise hope for that emotionally just universe, but more than that we need to take back our pride in “women’s fiction,” women’s love stories, women’s words, our pride in reading and being “d____d scribbling women.” If we can do that, we’ll not only be celebrating women’s history, we’ll be celebrating our future and ourselves, too.