This past July, for the first time, I read romance fiction. I liked it, and I’m out to convince you that you should too. And no, it wasn’t Fifty Shades of Grey. Definitely not.
It all began when I read Camille Jackson’s Duke Today article “outing” historian Dr. Katharine Brophy Dubois as Katharine Ashe, Duke’s own award-winning author of historical romance novels. As I read the article I mused, “Ah, Duke has a little bit of ‘anything you can do I can do better‘ here: ‘Fifty Shades may be creating a sensation, but our romance writer actually can write, and she knows her stuff.'” I remain uninterested in Fifty Shades, but the article persuaded me to try Ashe’s books. As I read them one after another, I realized I was reluctant to let anyone know. Why not? What’s wrong with reading romance fiction and liking it?
The most obvious answer derives from the general denigration of the romance genre, which Jackson identifies:
“The success of current bestseller “Fifty Shades of Grey” notwithstanding, romance fiction is generally viewed with contempt as lowbrow, poorly written, cheap, tawdry, worthy of mockery — especially among academic literary types.”
I understand that in the case of Fifty Shades Jackson’s list of usual criticisms may well hit the mark. But I wasn’t reading Fifty Shades of Grey, and the above modifiers do not describe the entire romance genre. So why the discomfort with reading good romance fiction?
The basic genre convention requires a love story with a happy ending. Take that away and it’s not romance. Perhaps to some readers, love stories with happy endings seem sentimental, naïve, or unrealistic. While such failings can occur, they’re not inevitable. Moreover, happiness and love do belong to the realm of possibility in the real world. It actually requires no more imagination or suspension of disbelief to dwell upon how love develops and flourishes than to wallow in cynicism. Plenty of classical literature likewise ends happily, so that cannot be romance fiction’s fatal flaw.
But something more insidious may have caused my discomfort. Dubois notes that romance fiction, “. . . is an industry run by women and consumed by women. What does it mean that it is stigmatized? I’d suggest it is latent misogyny in American culture.” Does romance fiction suffer social denigration because women like it? Here’s a novel idea: a thing is not automatically ridiculous because women like it, or because men do not, or because women like it more than men do. Because—and for this original thought I owe Dorothy Sayers—women are just as much human beings as men are. Women’s preferences and interests, therefore, belong equally to the definition of “human being” as those of men. To denigrate romance fiction because women like it… well, I’m speechless. I’d be hard pressed to think of a worse reason.
But there’s that other, additional uncomfortable element. Sex.
Sex! The books describe sex!
Well, yes. And?
Good girls are innocent! They aren’t supposed to think about sex, or talk about it.
. . . or so I’ve heard metaphorically stage-whispered to me over the years, which probably goes furthest to explain why it took me awhile to screw up my courage to write this post. (And I still wouldn’t say, “Go read romance novels!” full stop.) Three factors tipped the balance: First, if Katharine Dubois can admit she’s also Katharine Ashe, I can admit I enjoy what she writes. She writes emotionally satisfying love stories including candid descriptions of lovemaking without apology or embarrassment. Second, Ashe’s books are good. She writes well-plotted and paced stories with delightful total content and beautiful language; they actually sound like they arise from the linguistic imagination of the early 19th C. These books deserve a wider audience—yes, including Christian adults, which brings me to the third factor. I’ve lately become convinced that all Christians including single people who aren’t sexually active—even “good girls”—should learn to talk about sex well, which will take practice. Loving romance, accepting and enjoying one’s existence as a sexual creature, and comfort with talking about sex all belong quite compatibly to a chaste sexual ethic. Open enjoyment of Ashe’s romance books (and perhaps select others) could help create space for productive and wholesome talk about sex.
So, the books: Ashe has published six novels (in order of publication): Swept Away by a Kiss, Captured by a Rogue Lord, and In the Arms of a Marquess in the “Rogues of the Sea” trilogy, and three books of a coming five in “The Falcon Club” series: When a Scot Loves a Lady, How to be a Proper Lady, and How a Lady Weds a Rogue. All take place in Britain’s Regency period (1811-1820) with main characters from the gentry and nobility, and each of her main characters also appears in at least one other book. I did not read the books in the order of publication, and one really could begin anywhere. So far my favorite has been How to be a Proper Lady, but for the sake of understanding more of the characters better I was glad I had read Captured by a Rogue Lord first. Had I also first read When a Scot Loves a Lady, I might have enjoyed it even more. But each of the books stands alone as well as belonging to a larger narrative world. Although I think her more recent books are stronger writing and I’ve enjoyed them more, none of her books has disappointed me.
What about the characters? Commitment to verisimilitude prohibits writing a modern feminist heroine set in the Regency period. Despite this limitation, however, Ashe writes heroines as smart and courageous as her heroes, as independent as social constraints allow (sometimes bending them!), and suited with talents and interests that team up well with the noble occupation of the hero. These young women combine fundamental goodness with unusual passion, which begins to explain why they match well with Ashe’s heroes, several of whom operate as clandestine advocates of tangible justice. And of course the characters’ goodness and generosity spill into their lovemaking. The novels do not raise any individual as the one character worth emulating in every detail; all have flaws. But like a good “faerie story,” the overall effect nudges the reader toward celebrating the true, the good, and the beautiful—with a lot of wit, humor, and passionate love along the way.
This feature epitomizes the good of romance fiction: At its best, it inspires readers to love the true, the good, and the beautiful. But reading good romance—especially openly and with others—can do something more. It can create space for good talk about sex, which brings me back to the third factor above that tipped the balance toward my writing this post at all: Good talk about sex is legitimate Christian business. Christians need to re-imagine not just how to talk about sex, but who can and should talk about sex. In a word, everyone—men and women, single and married. As a good friend of mine, who happens to be married, observed recently, “Sex is a part of life whether or not you’re having it.” And all of life belongs properly to the scope of Christian theological-ethical reflection. So here’s to removing the stigma of talking about sex, and learning to do so gracefully and joyfully.