This is Part 2 of my introductory post. See here for Part 1.
Last week, I wrote about what originally brought me to read romance, and what eventually pushed me away. But, as in many of the books I’d read, I couldn’t deny my attraction, even though I considered romance novels to be scoundrels and rakes who would eventually break my heart and leave me penniless and without honor. So I bid the dukes, knights, and assorted surly outcasts adieu, resolutely put on my spinster’s cap of respectable academia, and went on with my life.
Fast forward a couple of decades, by which time I was reaching the end of my rope as a university lecturer. I’d gone in to the profession, as many do, starry-eyed with the prospect of introducing generations of students to understand and love the works of literature that had become so dear to me. Reality proved much different. Between students whose only goal was to get the highest grade possible with the least amount of effort; to the mind-numbing administrative tasks and meetings; to conferences full of self-involved (though enthusiastically well-meaning) scholars whose specializations were so narrow that only they understood the content of their presentations, I eventually began to rethink my career choice. I loved teaching, but didn’t have a particularly strong drive to publish, and never even considered placing myself on a tenure track that would surely result in my being run over by the inevitable committee train. I also realized that I really didn’t like working with people all that much (speaking with students was the exception) and that I’d be much happier working for myself.
At this low point in my career, romance novels came knocking once again. Burnt out as I was starting to feel, they provided escape and, once again, hope for a brighter future. Also, I was able to procure them more easily and discreetly. I really have two great developments to thank for my return to reading romance: the proliferation of ebooks, and the growth of online communities. I was an early adopter of PDAs: I owned some of the early Palm models, and later a Sony Clié. As crazy as it sounds when I remember it, I read dozens of novels on those tiny screens: Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series; Mary Balogh, Stephanie Laurens, and Lisa Kleypas’ historical romances; and Karen Marie Moning’s Highlander books. Computer-to-handheld synchronization wasn’t always smooth, and loading books on to the Palm/Sony could be a bit of a crapshoot, but I soldiered through and plundered the Fictionwise shelves for all the books I’d been too embarrassed to buy in person at the bookstore. Plus, I could read them anywhere without receiving odd stares or sneers. I realize that in a perfect world people should be able to read whatever they want without being judged for it, but I liked the anonymity.
By the time I’d moved halfway across the world, started a family, and gradually transitioned into a new career as a freelance proofreader and indexer, the first e-ink devices were on the market, and I received a Sony reader one Christmas. It was awesome to be able to store so many books, and have a larger selection of stores to choose from; though this e-reader lacked wireless connectivity, loading books was fast and easy. Years later, I received an iPad; though I preferred e-ink, I appreciated the ability to shop from the device. Finally, once the Sony’s batteries seemed to be faltering, I bought myself a simple Kindle model, which was much lighter and had access to the store where I bought most of my books from anyway.
During this time, I’d been reading a smattering of romance novels, with some erotica thrown in occasionally. But I still felt a bit isolated, until one day I was surfing around for book recommendations and ran into a handful of websites that were promptly bookmarked: Smart Bitches Trashy Books, Dear Author, and All About Romance were the three I returned to most often. I’ve always been more the lurking kind on internet forums, but I was thrilled to read the interactions between these readers. They were smart, opinionated, and demanding in their choice of reading. They weren’t content to skip from one love scene to the next, paying no heed to the book’s other elements (a stereotype of romance readers that I wish would disappear): rather, they picked books apart to analyze plotting and characterization, and were quick to call authors out for faulty logic or poor writing skills. This was the catalyst I needed to get me reading full steam, and more importantly to treat these books with a level of rigor similar to the one I’d used in my academic life.
Which brings us (finally!) to the point of all this. I’ve always kept reading notes (you can take a girl out of academia, but I guess you can’t take academia out of a girl); so when I decided to stop worrying and learn to love the romance bomb, I became more serious about looking under the hood and understanding how these novels work. What makes me like a novel, and what turns me off? What are the tropes of the genre, and how do they change over time? I decided to embark on a long-term project: I’d read as many romance novels as I could, and turn my reading notes into something I felt comfortable sharing. During this time, I hope to read the canonical works of this genre, but also anything that strikes my fancy. I don’t want to turn this into a chore; I want to have a serious look at these novels, but I also want to have fun and, if possible, a bit of dialogue.
So next up, a warm-up review of a recent read: The Devil in Winter, by Lisa Kleypas.