When I was 12, I read my mother’s copy of Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’s Shanna. A typical romance of the late 70s, it features a defiant heroine who tricks a cad bound for the gallows into marrying her and their eventual “reunion” in the Caribbean some time later. My mother was less than thrilled to discover I’d read the book—she never specified precisely why, but I suspect it had something to do with the very interesting sex scenes. I was specifically forbidden from reading any more of her romance novels—which were kept in her bedroom—and which I snuck out, to read one at a time, for years afterwards.
When I was 14, I ran out of books on a family camping trip and picked up one of the books my father had finished: the first in Charles Ingrid’s Sand Wars series. I was hooked by the action and the futuristic setting. Over the next few years I read through all the books my father read, as well as the ones I found in my school and local library. Both libraries were fairly small and my father has somewhat narrow taste in science fiction (he prefers military SF, Baen–flavored), so I read a lot of things with manly men who did manly things and the women who decorated their lives.
My teenage years were marked by openly reading speculative fiction and sneaking my romance novels for reading after hours. Due to my mother’s reaction when she discovered I’d read Shanna, romance was illicit in a way that speculative fiction simply wasn’t.
I share this because it took me a long time—too long—to be open about reading and enjoying romance. I never felt like I needed to hide my love of speculative fiction, not even when I was obsessed with the Heinlein novel where Lazarus Long travels back in time to fuck his mom.
Which book am I more ashamed of being obsessed with as a teen? To Sail Beyond the Sunset or The Valley of Horses? Why, it would be the one with the time–traveling incest and not the one about the isolated prehistoric woman and the man with the magic dick who finds her valley.
The fact of the matter is both romance and speculative fiction often have completely ridiculous, implausible, and wholly inappropriate things going on and yet only one of them is predictably portrayed as something readers should be ashamed of liking. In fact, it can be argued that speculative fiction is wholly mainstream and the days of nerds having dirt kicked in their faces because they liked books with spaceships on the covers are long, long past.
I’m going to challenge everyone out there to think about why this may be the case.
Is it because we, as a culture, don’t value stories about emotions and connection? Why not?
Is it because we don’t value works written (primarily, but absolutely not exclusively) by women for women? Why not?
Romance, for the most part, centers the stories of women. It centers their needs and wants and desires. It gives them agency and choice. It also centers the stories of people who are, so often, denied happy endings in fiction and in real life: queer people, non–binary people, trans people, people of color, disabled people, asexual people.
Romance is one of the many valid forms of human connection and can help expose the lie at the heart of white hegemony.*
Whenever I read or hear a sneering comment about romance I feel like I need to pull out my copy of How to Suppress Women’s Writing and have a come to Jesus moment with the speaker.
Do you have any idea how exhausting this is? To feel like I have to constantly defend reading that I find entertaining, pleasurable, and enriching?
Before I go any further down this road: there are many romances that are not good, that are full of the same sorts of outdated and toxic attitudes as the most regressive flavor of speculative fiction. I am not talking about those books. I am talking about the romances I read, which are emphatically not catering to people mired in a past that never was.
I recently devoured Courtney Milan’s Hold Me, which is the story of Maria and Jay, who meet for the first time at the beginning of the book and have also been flirting in each other’s general direction online for 18 months. Maria is a Latinx trans woman going to school full–time and Jay is a Thai–Chinese cis man who is a professor shooting for tenure (the possible power imbalance in their relationship is directly addressed in the text). While the set–up felt a trifle contrived, I loved the emotional journey that both Maria and Jay have to take to get to a place where they continue together, instead of separately.
I tend to feel this way about most of Milan’s books—she writes about people who are either on the margins or who are interrogating their place in the center of their societies. Her settings are diverse, with people of color and queer people in nearly all her books—including her historicals.
Over the years, I have read more than my fair share of speculative fiction novels where the female characters are ancillary or almost wholly non–existent. The most prominent example I can think of here is Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles: the female characters orbit around Kvothe and none of them seem to be people in their own right. Hilariously, Kvothe loses his virginity to a magical fairy woman named Felurian, and she chooses not to kill him because despite his inexperience, he’s amazing in the sack.
This sort of shit does not fly in romance and we shouldn’t let it fly in speculative fiction, either. Cecilia Grant’s A Lady Awakened has one of the best awkward–bad sex scenes in the genre (the female lead’s hands are described as flopping around like dead fish while she endures) and the amount of work that scene does to show the reader who these two people are and the narrative oomph the final sex scene in the book has—where Martha takes charge of Theo in a way that is utterly compelling—has so much to do with Grant’s authorial willingness to build the relationship from the ground up.
And Grant is not unusual in her willingness to go there—some of the most exciting stories being told in romance really dig deep into the characters’ emotional lives and explore, not only who they are, but why they are who they are, including both internal and external factors. But it’s done in a microcosm of society, in an incredibly intimate interplay between characters where their interactions with each other are as much reflections of the larger society in which they move as expressions of their feelings for each other.
Romance writers know how to move the story along and not spend 30 pages explaining a hyperspace drive that doesn’t exist. Every paragraph and every sentence has to move the reader toward the end of the story or else it doesn’t work. Their characters have to be fully realized or the basic structure of the genre simply doesn’t work—without fleshing out the characters, the reader can see the scaffold upon which it is built.
Interestingly enough, when speculative fiction writers do praise romance writers, it’s nearly always on the latter—their business savvy—and not the former—their craft.
I see romance writers subjected to questions about their personal lives—including what sorts of activities they prefer in the bedroom and wink–wink, nudge–nudge questions about “research.” I see jokes about bodice–ripping and rape. I see disrespect for these authors who are not only incredible writers but who are also savvy in the ways of marketing and reader outreach.
I have always found this incredibly confusing because if I want to read a story about human beings connecting with each other, I’m more than likely going to read a romance. In the aggregate, romance writers are so much better at integrating emotional arcs into their stories than many other writers are.
One of the tour de forces of the romance genre is Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels. First published in 1995, it is still incredibly readable and I find myself returning to it on a near–annual basis. This novel uses one of the most tired tropes in the genre: the alpha asshole hero and the woman who loves him. The arc of the book humanizes Dain by contrasting him with Jessica—she is smart and knows how to manipulate the society he eschews while still making it clear that while Dain may be a powerful man, Jessica’s got his number.
Chase interrogates Dain’s motivations and history while never making excuses for his awful behavior and general terribleness at being a human being (a theme which continues in subsequent books where Jessica and Dain appear as secondary characters—he is always an asshole). He is deeply, deeply damaged—and Jessica knows this, understands, and loves him anyhow. Jessica’s love doesn’t redeem him or make him a better person, but it is there and real nonetheless.
What makes Lord of Scoundrels such a fantastic book is that in many ways, it is a re–imagination of the romances that burst onto the scene in the 1970s and is in conversation with them as much as it is in conversation with its peers. Chase takes the very traditional romance elements of a dominant man and the woman who loves him and up–ends it in such a way that it is Dain who is subdued, not Jessica. And while Dain may be subdued, at the end of the book, he is not broken.
Romances are stories about embodiment and desire and feelings––all things that we are, in many ways, encouraged to minimize in our daily lives. Romance is about meeting people where they are with nothing more than what you already have. And often that’s not enough, and then romance is about growing up and becoming the sort of person who is worthy of another. It’s about sticking with your loved ones through good times and awful ones. It’s about showing up.
And now, more than ever, we all need to show up.
Everyone has a story. Everyone matters.
That is fucking radical.
Now go read some romance.
Recommended Romance Reading List
Barry, Emma and Gen Turner. Earth Bound.
Chase, Loretta. Lord of Scoundrels.
Chase, Loretta. Mr. Impossible.
Dare, Tessa. A Week to be Wicked.
Grant, Cecilia. A Lady Awakened.
Hall, Alexis, Glitterland.
Knox, Ruthie. Ride With Me.
Lin, Jeannie. The Jade Temptress.
McKenna, Cara. Willing Victim.
Milan, Courtney. Hold Me.
Milan, Courtney. The Countess Conspiracy.
Rai, Alisha. A Gentleman in the Streets.
Thomas, Sherry. His at Night.
Weatherspoon, Rebekah. Fit.
*Editors’ Note: It was brought to our attention that this line was originally worded in a way which dehumanized aromantic people. We apologize for this oversight and have worked with the author of the essay to make it more inclusive.
© 2017 by Natalie Luhrs