My personal statement, when I was applying for grad school,
had some line about me having been an English major for the
books. That sounds so pretentious, now, and so idealistic and a little naïve.
But I believed it with my whole heart. I loved Books, with a capital B. All the
big important ones that made me feel all big and important because I read them,
and totally made me seem important because I was reading them. You must have a
big giant important brain if you’re reading big giant important literature,
right? That is such a true fact.

I was a pretentious English major who supposedly had a big
giant important brain into which I was stuffing Major Works of Literature,
about which I pretended to converse intelligently and sophisticatedly (read:
regurgitating lectures), but in secret, I was gorging on romance novels.
Romance novels! I was supposed to be reading Anna Karenina for class, but instead I was lying in the bathtub
with bubbles up to my chin, devouring Love’s
Secret Velvet Chains of Lusty Desire
and loving it, in my secret heart,
more than I loved Moby Dick. And I
loved Moby Dick! I was so broken.

That habit, which I picked up from the years I spent working
at a used bookstore, stuck with me all the way through college and for a bunch
of years past that. I was spending ridiculous amounts of discretionary cash on
severely overpriced paperback romances—not the Harlequin ones, but the standalone historicals, mostly. I had a shortlist of authors I loved, and I plowed my way
through their back catalogs, and then picked up their new ones every time they
came out, immediately as possible, and abandoned whatever high-falutin’
literature I was improving my big old brain with in favor of an hour with
heaving bosoms and pledged troths and ladies gasping when he kissed her…there. For a brief period, I was even
picking up the hard covers when they came out, but then I realized maybe I
needed to pay rent or eat rather than read about Viscounts and their throbbing
manhoods, and I would regularly camp out at a bookstore and read my way through
those suckers over the course of the afternoon.

I hid my habit—all the romances I collected, I kept in my
closet, in the back. I never talked about them, and I never defended them, if
they came up in conversation and were derided and laughed at. I loved my
stupid, formulaic books where true love made everything happen just the way it
was supposed to, and happy endings were 100 percent guaranteed or your
money back. I wanted kissing and love and passion and devotion and romance and
doing it a lot and happily ever after, and I don’t even think I was looking for
something I was missing in my own life—I mean, sometimes I was in a good
relationship, and sometimes it wasn’t so great, and either way, I was still
reading the things.

I think that what it boils down to is that I am a big,
sentimental, ridiculous sap who needs to be reassured that the world is
absolutely a place that makes sense, that there is goodness and love and
happiness and even when things seem terrible, they are only terrible for a
little while—so you can prove your mettle, test your strength, earn your happy
ending in style while trumpets blare and confetti explodes around you and the
feeling that everything is going to be all right, for now and for always, is so
strong that it is a conviction, a fact, an absolute certainty and a universal
truth. I like to be lied to, in other

I know, however, that I am being lied to; isn’t that what’s
important? I know about being realistic, and practical. I know about the
realities of life, and the unfairness of the universe, and that there are no
laws or rules or guidelines and the best that you can do is all you can do, and
then you have to sit back and wait and see if that the impossibly complex
machinery of coincidence and chance and your general, day-to-day
life-being-lived circumstances all work more or less in your favor and
everything turns out more or less okay. I knew I was being lied to, I should
say. I don’t read romances any more. But all those years of reading them—they
rubbed off on me, indelibly. I know about being realistic, but I also spend a
lot of time hoping.

3 Replies to “romanticism”

  1. You know, Sarah Bird, in her book “The Boyfriend School” said that romance novels are the feminine equivalent of the NFL. Men live vicariously through their teams – either reliving their own football victories or by imagining that they are on the field, charging fiercely, mowing down the opposition. Women read romance novels to live vicariously – to either relive the days when they were so violently cherished, or to try to get that feeling.

    As to being lied to, that same author said that as long as you know it’s fiction, you’re not being lied to. Men all over the world read Superman comics and don’t try catching bullets in their teeth.

    If you haven’t already read that book, I highly recommend it. It’s really funny!

  2. I read historical romances for years growing up. It was indeed a guilty pleasure. But once I went to college and became educated I gave them up. How embarrassing would it be if someone SAW me reading one! Well, I just started reading Outlander and all those old feelings came rushing back. I’m loving it and reading hours a day. I’m a little worried on the train that someone will know what I’m reading, but it is too good to stop. Hooray for guilty pleasures!

  3. Why should romance novels be a guilty pleasure? Why is it considered a bad thing to enjoy reading about love, sex, and happy endings? People don’t seem ashamed of their love of such mind improving things (sarcasm) as Halo 3, South Park, and celebrity gossip. I think romance novels are ridiculed simply because they are generally a female pleasure. Men have always made fun of us for reading them and so we’ve learned to be ashamed. They are no worse for your brain than fashion magazines but few women feel a need to hide those in the back of their closet.

    Honestly I hate when anyone feels guilty over an innocent pleasure. Why allow society to make you feel bad about something you enjoy, so long as it isn’t hurting anyone? If you like something, enjoy it and ignore what other people think. Stand proud with your romance novel held high!! :)

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