Bad Romance?

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Lewis Kopman on BDSM, twi-hards, and why a little of what you fancy does you good

To some, the romance novel is a mysterious entity. Ignorance no doubt brought on by some form of self-importance. I won’t say it is a lack of interest, because, frankly, they describe sex, and everyone is interested in sex. ‘I as a university student am too intelligent, pure, or garner enough of my own material on my biweekly trips to the Lizard (right…) to want to read such unsophisticated pornography’, is probably implied by the responses most of our fellow students give when confronted with one of the clumsy paperbacks. I won’t argue that they are good books. Romance novels are usually poorly written, but so are most of the successful books of the 21st Century. Have you read The Hunger Games? Before you get indignant, I really loved reading them. The story is very intriguing, and the simple prose was a well needed rest from academia. I wonder how the reception of the books would have been, however, if every time Katniss and Peeta ‘kissed‘ the book had instead described a frank and detailed sex scene. My point is this- romance novels are not a far cry from all of the other made-for-money paperbacks that most of us swallow up when lying on the beach or recovering from exams. Instead of elves and recovering shopaholics, romance novels are about elves and recovering shopaholics who have sex sometimes (well maybe more than sometimes).

It is telling that the number one romantic novel of the day was originally contrived as a piece of Twilight fan fiction: Fifty Shades Of Grey is about a recent college grad who signs a contract that essentially enslaves her to a wealthy business man. Lots of BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism) and awkward dialogue follow:

“You’re very beautiful, Anastasia Steele. I can’t wait to be inside you.”
Holy Shit. His words. He’s so seductive. He takes my breath away.
“Show me how you pleasure yourself.”
What? I frown.
“Don’t be coy, Ana, show me,” he whispers.
I shake my head. “I don’t know what you mean.” My voice is hoarse. I hardly recognize it, laced with desire.

The two eventually fall in love. Some are calling it ‘Twilight for grown-ups.’ I, however, think one could just as easily call Twilight Fifty Shades of Grey for Tweens with Vampire Fetishes. It is following this line of thought that leads me to believe that the romance novel should garner no less respect than any of the ‘I’m just reading it for the good story and quick page turning’ books that we line up for all the time. Romance novels don’t even have the side effect of causing hundreds and thousands of young girls and boys to start screaming and fainting over the thought of sparkly vampires. In fact, they have a different side effect. In a piece by the Daily Mail on Fifty Shades of Grey, a woman claims that, “it totally makes you horny… I think everyone has admitted to that.” I would take that alternative any day.

Sophie Patterson discusses brooding Frenchmen and sexual freedom

With the rise of the Kindle and the ebook, there has been much speculation in the literary world about how these inventions will change our reading habits; what impact will they have on young people’s literacy? Will they democratise reading or make it less accessible? One thing that no one quite predicted was a shift in what we would read: online self-publishing makes it easier to write and read books written for niche markets. Perhaps most interestingly, we can now read what we like without being embarrassed by their covers. Online reading means you can hide your choices from the general public and simultaneously share it with fellow-enthusiasts on the Internet, changing the sociality of reading significantly.

A particular genre on the rise is the romance novel. It’s a type that spans a wide spectrum: from the soppy Mills and Boon you see at every public library (think Sold to the Sheikh! and The Brooding Frenchman’s Proposal) to the more graphic erotic books like Fifty Shades of Grey, which has recently seen massive sales and sparked debates on the literary merits of the form. It’s also full of bizarre and often hilarious sub-genres like Medical Romance (hello, Dr Ferrero’s Baby Secret) and International Seduction (stand up, The Greek Tycoon’s Pregnant Wife). Yet it is important not to liken these books to Sophie Kinsella-style chick-lit and teen fiction like Twilight and The Hunger Games, just because they’re all easy reads. Romance novels are mostly written by and for grown women and their popularity shows that they satisfy particular needs: equating them to books written for young people dismisses these needs and motivations as immature and childish.

In fact, Anthropologist Janice Radway found several specific requirements needed to constitute a romance: escapism, gradual development of a relationship, a strong or special heroine, focus on emotional life and a happy ending. Most important is a hero who grows to cherish and value the heroine with a deep understanding of her desires. Radway’s study showed that the women who valued romances so much did so because they show scenarios where an independent, feisty woman can be valued within a framework of traditional love. For them, marriage is not a trap or patriarchal prison but a triumph where they are prized and committed to. All of this may seem rather anti-feminist and backward, but it’s not: for women who value a traditional love and family lives, these novels are a way of imagining and embodying a sense of self-worth. And that’s okay. More than okay, it’s essential.

Not every woman aspires to what is in these stories. And not every woman enjoys reading them. But what could be more sexist than deriding the needs and aspirations of those who do? While most pornography caters to the desires and fantasies of men, women need outlets for these too and should not be ashamed of that. Indeed, many condemn and revile pornography, but they laugh at these books, and that’s more disturbing and more insidious.

So next time you’re reading in a crowded public place, peruse your erotica and romance on your Kindle to your heart’s content. But don’t feel that because no one can see it that you need to hide it.

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