The other weekend the Sunday New York Times Book Review had its annual summer reading issue. Now, it’s not like I need any more books to read, since I already have around 50 on my reading pile (almost all nonfiction, which is what I prefer reading these days), so I wasn’t looking for anything special, just checking things out. But then I noticed something disappointing. Disappointing, but not surprising. The issue had no “roundup” for Romance—Romantic fiction being the quintessential summer read for millions and millions of women around the world.
Other genres had their own “roundup” (I’m using quotes because that’s the term the magazine used and I think it’s ironic that it’s also the name of a horrible toxic chemical). Horror, Thrillers, and Science Fiction each had a “roundup.” But not Romance. Normally, I might shrug with defeat and perhaps roll my eyes alone in my room.
The urge to write a blog about this whole topic came and went, and I got busy and distracted.
But as the days and weeks went by and the news was filled with violence against women around the world, it just got me wondering: Could our intellectual disdain for Romance be a symptom of a bigger problem? Fear of woman’s sexuality is ancient and a well-documented, deeply rooted problem (and leads to millions of women suffering genital mutilation every year—even in America!). We live in a world that celebrates and fixates and focuses on violence and fear (in the news, at the movies, and even in the most elite intellectual literary circles) and then ridicules love and sexuality. It makes me feel like the literary world was and is, in its own intellectually oblivious way, shaming women (or humans, for that matter) for having the desire to read about love and sex and the transformative power of true romantic partnership and pleasure.
Most people I know who have never read a Romance novel before, or who have and don’t enjoy them, can’t even say the word “Romance” with a serious, non-judgmental tone of voice. “Bodice Ripper”—as outdated and irrelevant as that phrase truly is to the genre—is still most often said with disdain and mockery. Or at best, with nervous laughter. In every genre (even literary fiction and nonfiction) there are good, great, and terrible writers. There are “formulas” and expectations from readers. In this case, Romance is no different from any other genre. And the constant dismissal due to formulaic writing is both undeserved and unprofessional.
The real question is this: Why are we so uncomfortable with passion? Especially passion between two people who love each other?
When we surround ourselves with the thrill of violence and horror, we become inured to it, though it still has an impact on us. If it weren’t a thrill, people wouldn’t want to read about it or watch it. So of course, some people want to take that thrill to the next level—act it out, do something real with it. And we as a culture continue to feed that beast, celebrating the darkness of our humanity. Yet the very thing and perhaps the only thing that has the power to heal the wounds and stop the violence—love and healthy sexuality—we ridicule, mock, and submerge so that it, too, becomes dark and violent.
When it comes to women, feminism, women’s sexuality, and women’s rights, we still have a long road ahead. American women are participating in a fragile experiment that could regress at any moment (if some politicians have their way). And the clues that the universe is giving us on how to progress as a society have something to do with women’s sexuality, freedom, and love. Love and all the messy wonderful pleasure that goes with it.
What’s so terrifying about love and women’s sexuality? Now, that’s a thriller I’d love to read. Because after all these years, all our progress, all our efforts, it seems we feel that love is dangerous. Still.