I was at an absurdly hip underground pop-up dinner (eleven tiny courses based around the 1968 Volkswagen bus) and seated across from a couple both of whom were cancer researchers. In the midst of a discussion about Americans’ (mis)perception of what modern medicine can cure, the man stopped to ask me what I did. I said, among other things, I was a publisher at a website that reviewed and discussed romance novels. It was as if I’d said I made hats for leprechauns, he stared at me with such disbelief. I continued to smile. He asked why I’d do such a thing. The conversation became strained –I tried to remain well-mannered as he talked about 50 Shades and the vapidity of the genre–and he finally started an argument with his wife over his choice not to eat the itty bitty handcrafted creamsicle we were given as the last course. Our conversation was apparently over.

I wish I’d had a copy of Maya Rodale’s Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained. I’d have handed it over and said, “Read this and get back to me.” (I really like this book.) I wanted to know more about the issues raised in the book so I contacted the author. Maya kindly agreed to answer my questions.

Dabney: So, you wrote this non-fiction book. Why? Did you have one too many experiences like the one I describe above?

Maya: When my mom first suggested that I read romance novels, I laughed at her. And when I finally got over myself, I started to wonder why. How did I know that these books were something to be mocked? So Dangerous Books For Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained is my answer to that question.

I actually haven’t had any truly horrid conversations about romance novels like the one you describe. In general, I’ve found that people are really, really curious about the genre. Even when they recite the tired tropes (Fabio! 50 Shades! Bodice Rippers!) it’s just because that’s all they know. I like to think I’ve opened some minds about the romance genre just by being open about my reading and writing of it. But at the same time, I think we’re all afraid of those horrid encounters. So we don’t speak up. So those tired old ideas don’t get replaced with new ones that better represent the genre today.

Dabney: You begin the book by talking about Fabio. The famous cover model’s name comes up over and over when you tell people you write romance novels. You write:

“So when the subject of romance novels— and all those knotty issues— comes up, we talk about Fabio instead of women’s orgasms or men’s feelings. We laugh about Fabio’s very fitted breeches instead of asking who is watching the children or cooking dinner while a woman reads privately for pleasure or writes a romance novel or is out at work. Simply by picking one up, she is refusing, if only for a chapter, her traditional role of caring for others, and in doing so she declares that she is important. It’s easier to talk about Fabio’s pectoral muscles than to talk about how successful women can be when they’re working and working together. It’s easier to laugh about the bodice Fabio is ripping than to have an honest discussion about women’s sexual pleasure or to even acknowledge women’s sexual desires. After all, sex isn’t polite cocktail party conversation.”

Tell me some about the knotty issues romance raises.

Maya: There are so many! There is the fact these books celebrate women in a culture that doesn’t value women. They declare that it’s totally okay for women to have desire and enjoy sexual pleasure. Romance novels also promote an alternative idea of masculinity that allows men to experience emotions without losing strength. Romance novels are feminist. They promote equality. They explore class issues, how love and money are tangled up, and what gender roles are and just how to be happy.

AND they explore all these ideas from a female point a view for an audience of women in a culture that just wants women to be seen and not heard.

Dabney: The chapter on the connection between romance writers and publishing innovation is fascinating. As far back as the eighteenth century women have been earlier adopters and creators of practices that later became the norms in mainstream publishing. Who are some examples of Lady Authors who have been hugely influential?

Maya: The names that immediately come to mind are the Big Names: Jane Austen, Kathleen Woodiwiss, E.L. James. Or there were insanely popular authors who we have completely forgotten about now, like E.D.E.N. Southworth.

But what I think is most powerful about the romance genre is its mass, for lack of a better word. It’s all those “little” or “regular” (for lack of better words) authors who innovate, perhaps out of necessity, perhaps in just small ways, and who build on the work of other Lady Authors. It’s all those voices who get to be heard. Taken all together, these authors become a force to be reckoned with and can drive large scale change in the industry.

Dabney: You have a chapter on the enduring appeal of the alpha male hero in romance where you explore the nuances behind the stereotype. One thing you don’t discuss is the role money plays in defining the alpha male. It sometimes seems every other contemporary hero is a billionaire. I attribute this to the idea money is power. Do you agree? Why are there so many uber-rich in romance?

Maya: I think rich heroes aren’t about money at all. What’s sexy about these guys isn’t their bank account, but the qualities that led them to be so successful in the first place: intelligence, ambition, a strong work ethic. Even if it’s inherited money, they often grapple with how to prove themselves, how to earn it and how to “own it” so to speak. So I don’t think it’s just about the bank account, but that serves as a shorthand way of communicating the character to readers. Yes, power is definitely a part of it.

I also think, in general, the reason we love to read about wealthy characters in our fantasy fiction is because it allows us to not think about money, which is a stressor most of us deal with every day. When our characters don’t have to worry about paying the electric bill, we (the characters and by extension the readers) can focus more deeply on emotional issues, sexual exploration, understanding identity, etc.

And it maybe over simplistic, but it’s worth saying: romance novels are escape and entertainment. We want to be whisked away to a five star hotel with a hot man and not worry about paying for it.

Dabney: In your chapter about covers you quote fellow author Courtney Milan who says “If you go back long enough, before we had such a thing as covers for books, people were still making fun of books written by women about female concerns…. “I think it doesn’t matter what the content is. I think it doesn’t matter what the covers are.” Do you agree with her? Why or why not?

Maya: I completely agree with Courtney on this. Romance had a bad reputation hundreds of years before Fabio happened, before books even had covers. Seriously—they were sold in plain paper or cardboard wrapping and if you were rich, you had it bound in leather. But these books were still scorned because they were novels and because they were by women and women read them.

We like to think it’s the covers that give the genre the bad rap, rather than the content. And we like to think that if the covers changed—if Fabio would just put his shirt on, if that girl would just get a dress that fit and if that stallion in the background would just calm the fuck down—then the genre would finally get some respect.

But I think it’s the other way around—I think the covers have a bad reputation because they happen to be on books by women, about women, for women. Those old pulp fiction covers are just as over the top, but in a “cool” way. Are science fiction covers any less ridiculous?

Dabney: Women seem to be slowly–very slowly–making gains in film. In a recent New York Times article, columnist Frank Bruni wonders if as women achieve more equality in the amount of screen time that equality is “the opportunity to be as profane, inane, lewd, bloodied and bloodying as men are.” In your chapter on heroines, you explore how romance allows women to be, well, real women. Can you think of any film heroines–other than Clare in Outlander–who could have come from a well-written romance novel?

Maya: Confession: I don’t see a lot of movies so I don’t think I can name many names here (but I hope other people can so I can go see those movies). But I have noticed the trend of film heroines getting to be as “profane, inane, lewd, bloodied and bloodying as men.” But what I really see, with the female leads in movies like Bridesmaids, Hunger Games, Gone Girl, or Wild, is that the heroine can be heroic even if she doesn’t have to have her shit together. She doesn’t have to be cute, perky, perfect, or “deserving” of good things. It’s like she’s the anti Meg Ryan Rom Com character who wore sweater sets and had her 401(K) figured out. So, this new heroine can be profane and inane and insane whatever. She can be…unlikeable.

We have a bunch of those heroines in romance, to be sure. But I think we still have some work to do with accepting “unlikeable” heroines who make choices we would never make or do things we disagree with. Megan Mulry wrote an amazing blog about this. I suspect that as we see these types of heroines be so successful, we’ll see more of them.

Dabney: And then there’s shame, something you believe romance readers routinely feel. Shame is a powerful word and yet it seems apt. Why hasn’t the success of the romance industry translated into pride on the part of readers? Is it because of how others make them feel? Because of the messages women have internalized about love and sex? Both? Something else entirely?

Maya: Of the romance readers I surveyed, 50% feel they should keep their romance reading a secret and 36% are only “out” with certain people. Just the other day, a woman I would have never guessed was a romance reader said she was ashamed to let people know she read them. And my younger sister said people scoff when they find out her sister writes romance novels. No wonder so many readers don’t talk about it—it opens them up to so much criticism and judgment. It’s easier to just stay quiet.

But there’s the rub: I think mocking romance novels is really about mocking the ideas they promote about women’s agency, empowerment, and pleasure (among other things). And I think making readers feel ashamed of reading these books keeps them quiet and scares off would-be readers. It’s another way of trying to silence women and the idea that they deserve love, respect and happiness.

So what to do? Try to be one of the 57% of readers love the genre and don’t care who knows it. Be out and proud, engage in conversation and change the perceptions.

(PS: survey data is available at www.dangerousbooksforgirls.com/surveys)

Dabney: What was one of the most interesting things you learned while you were researching this book?

Maya: One fact that comes to mind is from the book The Reading Nation in The Romantic Period by William St Clair: in the 18th and 19th centuries, as many as a third of all novels were “by a lady.” A third! To me this just highlights the long history of women writing for women. It may be derided or critically ignored, but still we write and publish the stories we want to read, no matter the circumstances. I love that.

Dabney: What has the response been?

Maya: The response has been awesome. What has surprised me most is that I’ve received a bunch of speaking requests because of this book (Check out my events! Join me!)—and they’re not all from romance groups either. In fact, they’re mostly not from romance groups. This tells me that people are really curious about romance novels and interested in having this conversation. This is a good thing.

Dabney: Lastly, what are you writing now and did the work you did on this book influence your current prose?

Maya: I’m working on a new series for Avon about an American family that unexpectedly inherits a dukedom in Regency England. Romance and hilarity ensues. Naturally. (More details are available on my website).

Since writing Dangerous Books For Girls, I’ve become hyper aware of how I write my heroines. The women and stories I’m writing now aren’t overtly feminist—they’re not campaigning for the vote or going to work in Regency England, for example—but I’m trying to explore the quiet, every day feminism of a woman learning discovering their own strength, value, desire and getting to be loved for it. I want to explore and share the idea that every woman and “the everywoman” character deserve to live a happy, satisfying life.

Dabney: Thanks for chatting with me, Maya. Romance readers, Dangerous Books for Girls is a gift. Check it out!

Maya Rodale began reading romance novels in college at her mother’s insistence. She is now the bestselling and award winning author of numerous smart and sassy romance novels. A champion of the genre and its readers, she is also the author of the non-fiction book Dangerous Books For Girls: The Bad Reputation Of Romance Novels, Explained and a co-founder of Lady Jane’s Salon, a national reading series devoted to romantic fiction. Maya lives in New York City with her darling dog and a rogue of her own. Her most recent romance novel is What a Wallflower Wants

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