jerseyshoreI hate Jersey Shore. I saw it just one time, when my daughter was watching the first episode and I happened to be in the room. I found the people horrifying, and the very idea that I was watching them filled me with despair. The only reason I would ever read Snooki’s book is if I was locked in a padded cell, and it was the only available reading material (in which case I’d read anything, up to and including all sixty zillion volumes of the annoying Magic Treehouse series, Cassie Edwards’ exclamation point filled backlist, and my husband’s tax accounting books). Clearly, Snooki and friends are not for me. Two of my colleagues, on the other hand, just can’t get enough of the Guidos and Guidettes. They eagerly await each new season and frequently discuss what’s happening. To them, it’s a guilty pleasure. Are they just idiots? Is MTV irresponsible for producing Jersey Shore? It’s not exactly high brow, after all. What if people start thinking they should be drunk all the time and show up late for work (because Snooki does that – or at least she did in the episode I saw)?

Those seem like silly questions, but last week’s heated discussion about rape and forced seduction made me think about how we get caught up in similar debates about romance novels all the time. Over the years I’ve seen it take many incarnations. Sometimes it’s that an author is stupid, or her writing is terrible, and anyone who reads and enjoys her books must be a moron. Sometimes something about the book is irresponsible – the way they handle a social issue or illness. The sexual behavior of the hero and heroine. Irresponsible and stupid lead to “bad,” and sometimes, to “dangerous.”

It’s hard when the discussion strikes a nerve, and when topic is sensitive, it’s easy for that to happen. Rape is a hot button issue if there ever was one. Some have survived rape or attempted rape. Others have beloved family members with those experiences. It’s personal, and out reactions to rape in literature are equally personal. Some of us just can’t go there, whether that means they can’t read about a violent sexual assault by the villain in a romantic suspense novel, or they can’t tolerate a forced seduction or rape fantasy in a romance. Sometimes every bone in your body just screams “NO”!

I see nothing wrong with avoiding plots and situations that make you miserable or take you to a dark place. I also think it’s a completely normal response to wonder why others find them attractive, interesting, or enjoyable. My imagination does, in fact, fail me when I try to understand why Lisa and Barbi like Jersey Shore when it makes me want to weep for humanity. But sometimes we take it further than that, and I find that a pretty slippery slope.  Nearly all of us at one time or another has had to defend our choice in reading material simply because we read romance novels. Plenty of people think the entire genre is dangerous either to our intellect or our morals.  We’re either slutting it up or failing to feed our rapidly atrophying housewife brains. Having been subjected to that, I think we need to think twice before making general pronouncements about the dangers of a plotline – before we take our personal “I can’ts” and make them into “no one shoulds.”

When we review books here, we usually try to be conscious that plot devices and premises aren’t really empirically “bad.” We may dislike the Big Mis or hyper-possessive paranormal lifemates.  And though we try to avoid those books that push our hot buttons, sometimes they sneak in on us. We don’t try to be completely objective; we’d only fail, and our reviews would be less interesting. We all bring our baggage (good and bad) along for the ride. And though sometimes we cross the line (we’re human too), we try to criticize the book – not the author’s fans. We try to explain why it didn’t work for us in a way that will let you know whether it works for you.

When I first started reading romance, I was young, naive, and fairly easy to shock. Really, I wish someone had been filming me the time I opened a Susan Johnson book and was so shocked that I dropped it on the floor, because I’d attach the clip here and we could all have a good laugh about it. I jumped in with both feet and became not just a romance fan but perhaps a fanatic (if the number of hours devoted to AAR over the years is any indication).  But it took me years before I felt comfortable reading erotica, let alone talking about it  – even online. Is rape fantasy or forced seduction my thing? Not really. But that’s my journey, and yours may be different. There’s room for all of us at the table, and I’d rather not make sweeping pronouncements about the suitability – or the danger – of the food that’s served.

– Blythe Barnhill