Indeed, it seems it is so. The competition seemed like an unwinnable proposition (Near Eastern languages tended to carry the day) but also a lovely opportunity to organize my books and take stock of where I am after eight years of feverish romance reading (plus who knows how many years of romantic sci-fi/fantasy). Much to my chagrin, it seems that I made a better argument for romance novels than I thought possible!
What follows is my essay, entitled “A Library of Love: Challenging the social order one couple (or threesome?) at a time.” The bibliography turned out to be 20 pages long, so I will not reproduce it here.
My love affair with the romance started young and was pursued, as all good love affairs are, on the sly. My mother owned a few romance novels that were scattered haphazardly among her expansive collection of women’s fiction. When I was in middle school, I would get up before dawn to feed and take out the dog. Instead of returning to bed, I would stay up and sneak pages out of these thrilling books by the light of the sunrise. When I turned sixteen, my driver’s license meant clandestine trips to the library and local used bookstores to feed my romance addiction. Looking back, I cannot fathom exactly why I kept my love of romance novels so secret, but my behavior was likely a product of Catholic guilt (I was scandalized in spite of myself!) and a nagging fear that people would not take me seriously if they knew the “trash” that I read.
My early collection was driven by current releases and in-print books that caught my eye, along with battered copies bought for quarters at library book sales. I tended toward European Historicals, and my collection continues to display my early interest in this sub-genre and its shorter companion, the Regency. As I discovered authors that I particularly liked, I would go on treasure hunts, working through backlists that were often hard to obtain, as Regencies had very short print runs.
When I came to the university, I found that many of my classmates and friends in the dorm were closet romance readers. Soon people were knocking on my door, literally at all hours of the night, looking for a new read. It is around this time that I began to think of my romance novels in terms of a library. I wanted a collection that was broad enough to appeal to the varying interests of everyone who read my books but was also deep enough to satisfy my own interest in particular authors, sub-genres, and topics. Every book I purchased was part of a larger scheme, a quest to build a library that conveyed the possibilities of the very best that romance has to offer.
A short gig as a reviewer for a popular romance community website further focused my desire to own the very best of the genre. Often academic critiques of the genre are written after the author picks up some Harlequins at random, finds them unsatisfactory, and then generalizes his or her conclusions to the entirety of the genre. However, my time spent as a reviewer confirmed that romance, like any other genre, has its dregs and its gold. My collection is an attempt to sift the gold from the rest and present it to friends and interested acquaintances as a functional library.
Recently my collection has been moving in new directions. University of Chicago’s life of the mind infects everything it touches, and my romance collection is no exception. I follow academia’s take on the romance novel through the blog Teach Me Tonight, where several leading scholars of the genre post regularly on their work. I have begun purchasing academic works of criticism of the romance novel and ethnographies of romance reading communities. I am also pursuing my own interests within the genre. My work with Resources for Sexual Violence Prevention here on campus has interested me in how romance communities are struggling with questions of sexuality and violence within the framework of the courtship plot. I collect romances that take up themes of sexual violence, either by explicitly challenging paradigms of male power in the intimate realm or by uncritically incorporating partner violence into the courtship. I also seek out romances that challenge heteronormativity or that struggle with incorporating ambiguous sexualities into the courtship plot. These books are windows into how communities of women are struggling with questions of identity and power under the cover of pink typeface and floral covers.
In addition, I am especially fond of cross-genre works and books of genre fiction that reference the romance. I am always delighted when I find a covert romance hiding in another section of the bookstore, and reading these romances with a curious and critical eye yields fascinating stories. Some are written in defiance of male dominated genres, while others are open and exuberant tributes to the romance. In either case, I see no reason to limit my collection to books that are marketed as romances and instead rely on the definition laid out by Pamela Regis in A Natural History of the Romance Novel. I also include sci-fi, mysteries, and fantasy whose romance is relegated to the role of sub-plot if these books somehow comment upon courtship in interesting ways.
All of my romances can be read with the grain for unadulterated pleasure or against the grain for more subversive or ambiguous portrayals of gender roles, partner violence, inequality, and sexual identity. Either way, I stand by these books as interesting in their own right and worthy of scrutiny, commentary, and debate. In the end, I firmly believe in the principle of pleasure as a justification for reading and as an inherent value in a literary work.
Pamela Regis argues that the form of the romance serves to initiate a change in a corrupt or broken social order through the integration and reformation embodied in a successful betrothal. In even the most traditional and patriarchy-friendly of romances, the heroine has won through her own agency some improvement in her personal life and social milieu. More daring romances show a world made better through the courtship plot, where the protagonists struggle with and in some way overcome misogyny, homophobia, socioeconomic inequalities, or other social ills and the violence these systems perpetuate. The romance seeks to change the world, one couple (or in one memorable case, one threesome) at a time.