In Defense of Romance Novels

Between ages of 11 and 16, I was hospitalized more often than I was home and although I did read many, many books, in the later years of my "sentence", I devoured romance novels. If you’ve ever been in the hospital, you know why: it's impossible to concentrate in such a place and what little focus I did have, I used on my school work. I remember once sharing a room with a girl whose horrified parents brought in books by Francis Bacon in the fervent hope that it would provide an antidote from the magazines and books she was borrowing from me. I'm still not sure why they thought two teenaged girls would have the remotest interest in serious literature when they could dive into torrid tales about damsels in distress and true love, complete with heaving bosoms and tall dark and handsomes. At the time, I think it served a multitude of purposes: they passed the time, were an outlet for newly rampant hormones and served as an escape from a reality that was at best incredibly boring and at times rather unpleasant.

Notice how I was defending spending a good portion of my time reading ‘trash’? Admitting to reading romance novels is almost like fessing up to having an extensive pornography collection - one feels squirmy and more than slightly ridiculous in speaking of one's filthy little secret. Except, here's the thing: I don't feel guilty. Not at all. And I will happily admit that since I got out of the hospital, I have continued reading them. Although books in other genres dominate my reading list, when I am in need of a mental vacation, I pick up some fluff.

And here's the other thing. As I've grown older, I've realized that quite a bit of my knowledge base comes from - are you ready for this? - those selfsame romance novels. For instance: as a teen, I used to read a lot of Barbara Cartland's books - in fact, she might be the author of that started my fascination with the regency period and many of the things I know about that era has been learned in 'trashy' novels – hers and others - and they have prompted me to learn more. And isn't that what books is all about - prompting learning? Does it matter where it comes from? But that's a post for another day...

In my 20s and early 30s, I moved from the innocent universe of Barbara Cartland (where the most action anyone got was a kiss in the end) to the more adventurous and highly entertaining bodice rippers and that's when I realized that there were an awful lot of good writers that not a lot of people admitted reading. Tight stories, with accurate historical detail, snappy, funny dialogue - everything you can ask for in the alternate universe between the covers of a book.

These days, they seem to be a new trend, mixing romance, the supernatural and serial drama. I'm discovering books that although they are published by e.g., Harlequin, are adventure stories, thrillers, with strong female protagonists and an ongoing relationship with Mr. Tall, Dark and Handsome, so ongoing in fact that the relationship is barely begun by the end of the first book. Usually, there are vampires or other supernatural goings-on. I wrote about Full Moon Rising awhile back, am eagerly anticipating the next Sookie Stackhouse mystery (apparently being made into an HBO series with Alan Ball – creator of Six Feet Under), as well as C.E. Murphy's third in the Walker Papers, and laugh my arse off when reading about Betsy, Queen of the vampires. These are the novel equivalent of a good popcorn movie and help me relax and recharge without asking anything of me other than I go along for the ride. And as many of them give you one hell of a ride, that's an easy thing to do.

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