She sat in the lunch room engrossed in her book, a tattered Mills & Boon. A small, breathy ‘mmm’ escaped her slightly parted lips; she licked those lips, closed her eyes and sighed in pleasure, before our giggles reminded her she was not alone.
‘What?’ she said, defiance failing to hide her flushed cheeks. ‘I love these books. So what?’
We – a trio of journalists – teased her for about her choice in books, but the sales rep remained out, loud and proud about her love of the romance genre. And while some of us were forced to admit we’d read (and enjoyed) the occasional romance novel here and again, I suspect we believed our reading tastes were far superior. We knew the difference between trash and treasure when it came to reading and writing, we agreed later, in the comfort of the editorial department. Cultural cringe in action.
It’s partly the cultural cringe in Australia that drives many women to act like coy virgins when it comes to admitting a love of reading or writing romance novels. But there’s another thing at play here. It’s called guilt. Not just the guilt of taking time out. The guilt that comes from liking things others label trash. And we women are drowning in it.
“What’s your guilty pleasure?” we ask each other.
“Um, I like reading romance….” Face reddens and voice trails off.
And cultural cringe says: “Romance novels? Ugh. We actually read real books at our book club. Written by real writers”.
It may not be said out loud, but cultural cringe is felt as much as heard.
Let me add that romance novels are not the only victim of this.
Woman adopts slightly embarrassed tone: “Dance Moms (insert favourite TV reality show, magazine, movie here) is my guilty pleasure”. And you get the look: “I’m sorry. I can no longer be your friend. Because Dance Moms.”
So, to justify the things we like doing, to avoid the heavy judgment of cultural cringe and the false guilt that follows from admitting a preference for activities other than “high art” or literature, we fall back on the phrase: “guilty pleasure”.
I say it. The Dance Moms example? Me.
I’ve also judged romance readers and writers based on the myths award-winning author Anne Gracie unpacks in her article Myths of Romance. She only started writing romance because she thought it was “easy money”. Several rejections, including a killer one that said her work was “not up to publishable standard”, soon busted that myth.
It wasn’t until I started writing fiction, and was challenged to write a short romance (which ended up getting published), that I gave myself a much-needed kick up the bum. Suddenly I was asking the same questions my fellow romance writers have been putting out there for so long. Why are writers judged harshly for writing romance? And why do so many romance readers describe the books they love as a “guilty pleasure”?
Whether you’re a fan of the genre or not, romance spells treasure for publishing houses. Romance Writers of Australia shares a number of interesting statistics on its website. Did you know that a Mills & Boon book is sold in the UK every three seconds? Or that in the United States “romance was the top performing category on the New York Times, USA Today, and Publishers Weekly best-seller lists” according to the Business of Consumer Book Publishing 2009? And how about this one: a readership survey conducted by the Romance Writers of America indicated that 42 per cent of romance readers held a bachelor’s degree or higher.
For those who love the genre, this treasure is multi-faceted: there’s escapism, there’s emotional fulfilment, there’s action, suspense, sex, real-life issues, inspiration, intrigue and so much more.
Don’t let anyone tell you that romance is just soft porn written by bored housewives with too much time on their hands and read by equally bored housewives. Generalisations like that are ignorant at best and put downs at worst.
When romance author Shona Husk told me there should be a cease fire on the phrase “guilty pleasure”, I cheered her on. She was spot on.
“Can we all just stop using the phrase guilty pleasure when it comes to women doing something that they enjoy?” she said. “When was the last time you heard a man say ‘watching footy and drinking beer all weekend is such a guilty pleasure of mine’? It’s such a gender-specific phrase.”
She’s right. Men do not say that. They don’t have guilty pleasures. Sure, they might feel the guilt at times (and they might not), but they rarely make excuses for enjoying something. They just do. Case in point: one of my male Facebook friends makes no excuses for loving romance novels—no, he’s not gay and even if he was, would it matter?
Why can’t we women just stand up for the things we find pleasurable, sans guilt?
We already have to deal with the guilt of putting our needs before someone else’s, but why do we have to feel guilty about liking things like romance novels or reality TV? Or whatever else it is?
Why can’t we enjoy happy-ever-afters in romance novels or movies without snide reminders that it’s not reality? Why can’t we take a break from the groundhog day that is most peoples’ reality and experience guilt-free pleasure in escapism? Why do we have to think all the time?
Why can’t we be bold and say: “Shut up and let me like what I like”?
It comes down to acceptance. Acceptance that we’re not all the same, that we’re not all going to like the same books, movies, music, food and so on. Acceptance that even if someone is a professor of physics, they still might get a kick out of reading and writing romance.
And acceptance that as women, we are entitled to enjoy things without feeling guilty, whether it’s for taking time for ourselves, or because it’s not as intellectual as others expect.