It is a truth pretty universally acknowledged that romance novels have a bad reputation. They’re still, decades after Fabio, derided as bodice rippers, mommy porn and trashy novels. Sometimes some mainstream publication will pay them a backhanded compliment and refer to them as beach reads, as if they are the cotton candy of publishing: something you indulge in when on vacation but would never think of consuming on a regular basis. The message is clearly that romance novels are, at best, fluffy and frivolous, unserious stories, literarily on par with magazines in the supermarket checkout lane.
And yet, my path to becoming a romance reader, and then a romance author, led through the wrought-iron gates of Harvard Yard.
I am the least likely romance author you will ever meet. I did not grow up reading it; my mother did not read it, so I had no opportunity to steal her books, as many romance fans have begun. Also, I did not like to write — not poems or term papers or stories, and especially not anything long. No, I meant to be a scientist; an astronaut! I made up jingles about calculus equations and won medals in physics. I took flying lessons and went to Space Camp, for real. And then off I went to Harvard, where I found… romance.
First, in real life. He was cute and funny and he taught my freshman math class. Naturally, I did not say one word to him during the class, but after it was over, we talked. He was a grad student and he swept me off my feet by asking if I wanted to work my problem sets with him. I practically swooned into his arms.
[This was an important step. Not only did I discover how very real and realistic happily-ever-after can be, my husband was the one who told me, years later, that I should quit my job and make a go of being an author.]
Secondly, one of my college roommates was a romance reader. She was an English major who could read Middlemarch for three solid weeks and then write 20 pages of insightful analysis in one night. I assume she was practicing some kind of dark magic, to be able to do this. Once that was done, though, she would go to the local bookstore and hit the bargain books table, where all the paperbacks were a dollar.
“How do you know which ones to get?” I asked her, as she stacked up a dozen or so.
“Easy,” she replied. “Choose the ones with the best dress on the cover.”
Reader, they were ALL historical romances. Good ones! Some I didn’t like and some I loved, but they were all far more fun to read than Middlemarch or anything by Dostoyevsky. We could have had our own little romance book club, right there on the Charles River among the ghosts of T.S. Eliot and Ralph Waldo Emerson and Gertrude Stein.
It took me several more years, two children, a job writing insurance administration software (really not as sexy as it sounds), and a cross-country move to admit that I wanted to try to write one of those books. Even though I was not a writer at all. The most I would admit was that I might be going crazy, stuck in an unfamiliar new hometown with two toddlers.
But when I finally did sit down to try it, of course it was a historical romance that I wrote. When I finished it, I worked my alumni network to ask advice from an author who’d lived in my House at Harvard. Then again when I needed a quote for the cover of my first book. And again, and again, throughout my career, because romance, for all its bad rap, has plenty of Harvard-alumni authors.
I won’t go off by pointing out how these ‘cotton candy’ books are a billion dollar industry — almost one third of all fiction sold in the U.S. Nor will I point out how feminist romance novels are, written predominantly by female authors, celebrating female empowerment and equality. I won’t even bring up the perception that romance readers are frumpy housewives eating bon-bons on the couch and reading romance because they have no personal romantic life to speak of… which, of course, is a giant insult to men as well, that they are so boring and unsexy their wives would rather read than sleep with them. Other people have covered that.
No, today I just want to point out that writing a novel — any novel — is hard work. Writing one that people want to read in one sitting is even harder; “the easiest reading is damned hard writing,” as Nathaniel Hawthorne put it. Then there’s the research required to make a story leap off the page in appropriate detail and color. I once awed — or possibly frightened — a group of lawyers with my detailed knowledge of how property entail worked and why it was devised. Same for the people at the dog park who wondered why Meghan Markle couldn’t be called Princess Meghan (belated apologies to both groups, that was way more than you wanted to know).
And writing the book is only half the job of being an author, which requires multiple skillsets from marketing to copywriting, in a market that changes yearly, if not monthly.
At cocktail parties, when I tell people what I do, the number one response is generally along the lines of “I wish I could write a book.” You know what? There’s nothing stopping them. They’re smart, educated people, lawyers and professors and scientists. Why haven’t they written books? Probably for the same reason I haven’t become a fighter pilot — it’s not easy, despite what you may see on TV or movies.
Writers should be judged by the books they produce, obviously and it’s not necessary to have a college degree at all, let alone an Ivy League one, to be a fantastic writer. But it should surprise no one that plenty of romance authors do. There are PhDs and JDs and MDs writing romance, as well as military veterans and librarians and teachers and stay-at-home-mothers (which may be the hardest job on this list).
So stop with the superior little smiles about ‘books for chicks.’ The description you’re really looking for is, ‘highly profitable, addictively readable works of feminist literature written by intelligent, and often very well educated, businesswomen.’