Composing a response to an article that both dismisses an entire genre and denigrates the readers of it with thoughtless bloating is no small feat. If you're just joining us, Mr. Alan Elsner checked out a sampling of romance novels from his local library, chosen with the subtle discernment of buckshot in a windstorm. He elected to read them, one suspects, after being asked one too many times as to whether his novel "Romance Language" was, in fact, a romance. The selection of books he read were so abhorrent, he wrote up a summary of the entire romance genre, accusing it of "sucking all the oxygen out of the room," leaving none for books such as his that feature a "real love story involving real people grappling with real dilemmas." Elsner determined that romance is devoid of any value while he simultaneously elevated his own status among women on the internet with the following statement:
I have nothing against such escapist fiction in principle. And I guess that women have as much right to enjoy pornography packaged to their liking as men. But I simply don't find these books romantic.
In response, I refer to that book he holds in such high regard, "Pride and Prejudice", by Jane Austen:
"You have insulted me in every possible method. You can now have nothing farther to say."
A shabby, patched-up survey of books with no curation involved, let alone curiosity, does not an expert make. I invoke Smart Bitch Law #1: Thou shalt not diss the reading material of another person merely to elevate one's own. By doing so, thou art passing the buck, and verily thou art being a douchebag.
As I pointed out on my own site, to judge romance on the basis of a casual and apparently limited sample is as ludicrous as dismissing HuffPo's entire book section based on the one article. And the truth is, I'm a squeeing fangirl of many of HuffPo's writers, particularly Joanne Rendell who covers romance and women's reading with sharpened panache.
But putting aside the sexist dismissal of women and comparisons to pornography, there is one matter that needs additional clarity: that which Mr. Elsner read most likely wasn't romance.
Books that rest the conflict of the relationship upon sexual congress are not romance, though they are often marketed as such. It is frustrating for readers that books which bear as much resemblance to a romance as I do to Fabio are labeled and sold as romance novels because these books are not what discerning readers of popular romance prefer. But romance novels sell and these mislabeled books are swept along in the profitable tide.
Romance is not ruffly pornography dressed in appealing fashion and dropped into well-worn time periods so that the plebeian readership can get its collective thrills at concupiscent descriptions. Romance, to put it bluntly, is not just sex. If it were, I wouldn't read it. Moreover, there wouldn't be online communities like mine, comprised of smart romance readers who are devoted to the genre.
What is most frustrating for all of us is that there are many readers like Mr. Elsner, who see romance wherever a handful of books are sold and find themselves curious. There are better ways to evaluate a genre than to read a few books chosen without advice or direction, proclaim it all trash, and move on. I know of very few PhDs who acquired their degrees through this method. That's a lazy way to evaluate anything, a method that speaks more of the desire for validation on the part of the reader than of that reader's intellectual curiosity.
Yet romance is judged time and again based on limited, ridiculous criteria such as these, and that judgment is taken seriously. Meanwhile those of us with experience and enthusiastic understanding of the genre are forced to defend it, even as we ourselves are searching through a relentless release of books that are not all romances but are labeled as such in the hopes that our voracious reading will lead to a sale, even under false pretenses. It is impossible to read it all, just as it is impossible for it all to be of excellent, flawless quality.
It is possible, however, to ask for advice and recommendations. So, in the spirit of the happy ending for which romance is rightfully famous, I offer the following reading list and invite anyone who has dismissed the romance genre to rethink any hastily-drawn and inaccurate conclusions. These are some of the best romances written, and I and many of the readers of my site recommend them to you:
"Lord of Scoundrels" by Loretta Chase
"Bet Me" by Jennifer Crusie
"Bitten" by Kelley Armstrong
"Cry Wolf" by Patricia Briggs
"Smooth Talking Stranger" by Lisa Kleypas
"Sea Swept" by Nora Roberts
"The Sharing Knife" by Lois McMaster Bujold