At the Back Fence Issue #318

September 29, 2008

From the Desk of Jane Granville:

“Sex Books”

About two years ago, when I was starting my senior year in high school, I sat down for one of the many “what-are-you-doing-about-college” talks around the dining room table with my parents. My mom asked if I had started thinking about essay topics. “You know those are one of the most important parts of your application,” she said. “You can write; if you put effort into it, yours can really stand out.”

“Well, I already started one,” I said, with a bit of trepidation, thinking of the half-formed document on my computer.

“Good,” my dad said. “What is it about?”

I paused. “Romance novels.”

My parents shared a glance, and then looked at me. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?” my mom asked. She was clearly skeptical, and for good reason. I would be applying to several highly competitive schools. I would be competing for admission against students who are fluent in three languages, spend their summers feeding orphan babies in Africa, have coded the DNA of sea monkeys, and, in their free time, work on mathematical proofs. And I wanted to tell admissions counselors that I enjoyed reading the Weekly World News of the literary world.

I was undeterred. “Yes, I think it’s a good idea,” I replied. “I can make it work.”

“Okay,” my dad replied. “We’ll see.”

So, with that half-hearted endorsement, I wrote. After several awkward editing sessions with my dad (“This sentence, about the ‘handsome and virile hero,’ doesn’t quite work…”), approval from friends and English teachers, and much skepticism, I sent it out with my transcripts, SAT and AP scores, letters of recommendation, and all of the other assorted things colleges demanded from their applicants. And I waited anxiously, like all of my classmates, for acceptance letters.

When they came, it was clear my romance novel essay did not doom my future in higher education, as I was accepted by the majority of the schools to which I had applied. One dean of admissions even said, in a personal acceptance letter, that my essay was the best part of my application.

When I started classes last year at American University, one of the most difficult decisions I made packing was choosing which books I would bring. I limited myself to two shoe boxes full, about 10 books. This did not last long, however. Between the books I received to review for AAR and 10-cent used books from library sales, my collection soon took over an entire dresser drawer, probably about 50 or 60 books. Not a large collection for most people (I have at least ten times that many books in my room at home), but college students don’t always buy the required textbooks, much less books for their own reading. Most of my friends only brought two or three of their favorite books from home. And here I was, with my drawer of books.

My roommate teased me about my “sex books,” and occasionally would just shake her head in disbelief when she saw me pull out the drawer, with rows and rows of brightly-colored spines, as I searched for a new book to read. One day, while hanging out with my new friend Katie in the dorm lounge, we were talking about our life goals. Mine included one of the following: becoming Ambassador to a foreign country, opening a bakery, and/or becoming the next Nora Roberts. My favorite was the last one. I expounded on this a bit, until she asked, “Wait, do you actually read books by her? Like, romance books?”

“Um, yes. Have you not seen my drawer full of romance novels?” I asked. She followed me down the hall to my room, where we then sat on the floor in front of my dresser, and I pulled out the drawer.

“Oh… my…God…Jane,” she said, laughing. “Oh my God.” She sat there for about five minutes, just staring in disbelief at my drawer of books and laughing, telling me over and over again that she couldn’t believe it. She then felt the need to announce my obsession to whoever we knew on the floor who was in the hallway at the time, stopping even our towel-clad friend on the way to the shower to exclaim excitedly, “Guess what, guess what! Did you know Jane reads romance novels?!”

I challenged Katie to read one herself, promising that if she read one, she would like it. We sat down together again in front of my drawer, and I tried to find one that she would like. We settled on Lisa Kleypas’ Dreaming of You, with the classic hero Derek Craven. She took it, and read it over the next few days. The next time I saw her, she told me she was surprised, that it was actually pretty good. The day after that, when we met up for dinner, she was slightly bleary-eyed. “I stayed up until 2 am reading it,” she said. “I couldn’t put it down!” When she finally finished, she gave it back to me, with gratitude and a positive review.

She brings it up still, sometimes, referencing Derek Craven in a conversation or talking about my romance novels. She tends to refer to me as her “Catholic crazy romance-reading friend.” When we got tattoos together in April, she decided to mention both aspects of my life to my tattoo artist. The conversation degenerated from there, somehow coming around to discussions of bestiality and animal porn. Obviously, the man with the ink did not get it.

In the middle of my spring semester, while sitting in an airport returning from a spring break service trip to Belize, I found a few other people, who I had known casually, who read romance novels. One girl was reading Lauren Willig’s The Secret History of the Pink Carnation. When I asked her about it, two other friends of mine asked, “You read romance novels?! Us too!” I was ecstatic. For the rest of the semester, we would swap books and discuss our “literature,” earning perplexed looks from people in eavesdropping range. I was, however, used to a higher level of sensuality in my romances than they were; when I lent them The Serpent Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt, they returned it to be, both proclaiming separately, “Janie, I blushed! I think I prefer the euphemisms!”

Most of my friends, though, think of it more as a strange quirk in my personality, and dismiss it at that. One of my friends laughs whenever I bring it up, saying that she has to borrow one – “I want to read your trashiest book,” she jokes often, but has never made any effort to follow up. Some of my classmates, however, are less forgiving of the genre. In one particular literature class, one girl proclaimed definitively, “Any book that has mass appeal loses credibility.” (We were discussing Cormac McCarthy, by the way). This attitude is a pet peeve of mine, and one that certainly isn’t rare among fellow students. I go to the most politically active school in the country, according to Princeton Review. People are far more likely to be discussing Marx and reading Ayn Rand than Julia Quinn or J. R. Ward. However, in my own little way, I have been trying to defend my preferred genre, by way of homework.

In my first semester, I wrote a research paper discussing the appeal of romance novels, and the importance of the industry in book publishing as a whole. My professor was supportive and intrigued, though my peer-editing group was a bit baffled, and kept wanting me to relate romance novels to soap operas, as they said that they are both popular among middle-aged women. They also seemed confused about the books, in general. “Are you talking about those books in drug stores with half-naked Indians and pirates on the covers?” one guy asked. “Isn’t there a lot of sex in them?”

In my second semester, I wrote a memoir about my discovery and acceptance of romance novels. During workshop, my classmates praised my bravery in admitting such a thing to the class. It was as if I had written a memoir about my struggles with drug addiction or nymphomania, rather than that I liked to read romance novels. Part of my memoir involved describing the cover of my first romance novel, a lurid Connie Mason book. One of my classmates commented, “I actually went online to look this cover up after I read it. I was like, ‘Waterfalls? Horses?’ But, yep, there were waterfalls and horses.”

And, this semester, I somehow managed to convince my group for a marketing project to do our presentation and paper on the marketing tools romance novel publishers implement in order to reach customers and sell them the latest books, in comparison to other publishing genres. One girl seems actively interested, and the rest are just grateful we have something unique to work on. But whatever – I’m excited.

My slow overturning of the stereotypes among college students continues as I begin my fall semester of my second year; my roommate has begun borrowing books from my collection. She recently finished Lisa Kleypas’ Sugar Daddy and proclaimed excitedly, “I love romance novels!” She’s moved on to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, and told me she very much wants her own VILF (Vampire I’d Like to… well, you know). And I can think of countless other books, only a fraction of which I have with me, that I think she would love, and can’t wait to have her read.

Even though it’s on a very small level, I’m hoping my openness might give others the confidence to actually read what they want. Like my two friends, who strictly referred to the genre as the euphemistic “literature” in public, or another one of my acquaintances whom I saw reading a Julie Garwood book and quickly shut down when I tried to talk about it, I think most romance readers are afraid to admit it publicly… and the rest of the population thus harbors the misconceptions that have plagued the genre for decades. And so the cycle continues. Will my open admittance of my love of the genre change the stereotype? No, of course not. But hopefully, when my friends and classmates later think about romance novels, if they ever do, instead of conjuring up the frumpy middle-aged cat lady they seem to think constitute the readership, they’ll have my example to consider.

Jane Granville