For my “Private Parts” column in the June/July issue of belle magazine, I interviewed Sarah Wendell, author of “Everything I Know About Love, I Learned From Romance Novels,” and co-founder of the brilliant and hilarious website smartbitchestrashybooks.com. She also co authored, with friend Candy Tan, “Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches Guide to Romance Novels.
I laughed and whooped, cackled and made ridiculous approving noises through the whole interview. Be glad you are reading and not listening.
Me: I feel guilty as a feminist when I read romance novels.
Sarah: Well, it’s a billion dollar industry built on the narrative creativity of women for women. In my opinion, that can not escape being feminist. There are some sexual tropes and emphasis on things like ubermasculinity and clueless virginity and those things still reappear and they are very much hetero sexist and can seem a little in conflict with the idea that the genre is feminist, but for every book where there is a super huge male with giant man boobs and abdominal muscles that go on for six miles and a mullet, there’s also a hero who doesn’t fit that type. And for every woman who can’t find her clitoris with a map and a flashlight, there are women who are very sexually forthright.
Me: (I bray with laughter, just like a donkey)
Sarah: Now, in the history of the genre, if you look at what is considered a romance novel right now, that began in the early ’70s with “The Flame and the Flower.” If you think about the 70’s, that was a period of great sexual ambivalence. It was not then, and to a large extent now, acceptable for a woman to openly have horny-pants.
It’s still not. If you look at the Republican efforts to curtail birth control, access to abortion and eventually our right to have an orgasm, it is still very greatly frowned upon for a woman to say “I would like to have sex with that guy because sex is great, he’s hot and let’s do this.” That’s not okay for a woman to express openly, in a lot of ways. So when the genre began in the early 70’s, there were scenes that romance readers now find quite distasteful and troublesome. There were a lot of forced seductions, a lot of moving the heroine from the keeping of a father or guardian into the keeping of a hero, and he would initiate her into sexual activity, often unwillingly. And unfortunately that’s where the genre gets a lot of its bad reputation.
That does not happen as much in romance anymore. Those romances are still important and fit into my idea that romance is a feminist genre because at that time there was so much ambivalence about female sexuality that readers frankly probably were not comfortable with a woman who said “hot damn, he’s hot, I want to chase him down a dark alley and bone him.” That wasn’t going to be expressed in the ’70’s.
And the ambivalence about female sexuality was expressed in the books of those times. And you move forward and you have a very, very wide range of sexual content in romance. You have romance that is explicit and erotic and involves two men or two women or a guy and two girls or a girl and two guys or a whole polyamorous collective of people who live together in gravity defying erotic bliss. And you also have romances that feature some really sexy hand holding, and that’s about it. There’s Amish romance, erotic romance, polyandrous, romance between people who have already been married and are trying to figure out how to care for each other.
Me: Wow. (At this point, I can think of nothing more to say, because I am marveling over this woman’s brain, and how everything that comes out of her mouth is some kind of rapid fire complete sentence, with great content.)
Sarah: Does that help, at all?
Me: Oh my God. You’re making me so happy.
Sarah: (laughs) Good. You’d be surprised about how much crap readers of romance take for the fact that they read romance. There’s a misconception about romance that they’re read by stupid women. Not true. That the women who read them are desperate and unhappy. I am very happy. I only have three cats, not eighty six. I don’t spend my days in a puppy sweatshirt and a fanny pack finding romance novels are my only source of happiness. The most pervasive misunderstanding of romance novels is that it’s all about sex. It’s about courtship. Romances are about establishing a courtship and finding a happily ever after through obstacles.
Me: So you see them almost as an evolution of feminism?
Sarah: Yes. I think you can look at the overall history of the romance novel and the motifs and the sexuality present in all of them and see that they match up with the major events in feminism. I think of romance novels as sort of a popular culture anthropology of women. If you want to see how the role and sexuality of women has changed, you have to look at the novels women are reading and writing to understand how women see themselves and each other. Any woman who is writing down the narrative of women fictional or real is committing a feminist act. If you look at the established literary canons, it’s a bunch of white guys.
When my first book came out, we were on the radio on NPR’s “All Things Considered” Weekend edition because the producer was a reader of the website, so they brought us on and the host of the show kept saying “I don’t read those books. I have never read those books. I don’t read those romance novels.”
After the show, the producer came out and told the host she thought she should read one, now, so give us some recommendations. She picked up one. Two months later I got an email saying “I don’t know if you remember me, but I was the host of NPR’s All Things Considered who had never read one of these books? You were right, I loved it. Can I please have more recommendations?”
If I can convert an NPR radio host, who are self appointed bastions of culture and high brow discussion, it shows that the genre has something to offer almost everybody.
(The book is “Bet Me” by Jennifer Crusie)
Then, Sarah and I try her game. I tell her the name of a book I like, and she gives me a romance novel that she thinks I’ll like.
Me: I really like “The Road,” by Cormac McCarthy,
Sarah: Hmmmm….I haven’t read it. What are the things you liked about it?
Me: Oh, apocalyptic, end of the world hopelessness, with a tiny thread of love and survival.
Sarah: Emotional bleakness is something you can find a lot of in romance, especially if you like tortured heroes who suffer from great emotional damage.
Me: Oh my God, my very favorite thing in the entire world!! Yes!
Sarah: Read Anna Campell. She has emotionally tortured men her novels. They all have to get over themselves in wrenching ways. Sherry Thomas also writes emotional torture. Also, Meredith Duran. She writes very smart people in historical situations.
If you like the dominance of the male hero, there’s also novels that explore BDSM sexuality. The “Natural Law” hero is detective who goes into the BDSM community. The twist is that he’s the submissive. In general, it’s very liberating to read about your own sexuality in different ways.
Me: It’s liberating to accept all facets of yourself and just enjoy it.
Sarah: And if you like the fantasy of being dominated, that is okay. And if you like being the one who is doing the dominating, that’s also okay. There’s a tendency for women to shame themselves or one another for sexuality they find unacceptable. If you aren’t hurting anybody, and everybody is consensual and legal, go on with your bad self. Whatever turns you on, fine. It’s not my business, or anybody’s, to tell you what you should do with your own horny-pants.
Also, there are not very accurate or fair portrayals of female sexuality in pop culture. Women who are portrayed sexually are airbrushed into a far distant representation of reality. And female sexuality is almost always portrayed from a male gaze. If you look at the recent super bowl commercials, how many women in bikinis could there be in a three hour sports broadcast? It had to set a record. Every now and then you get David Beckham in his underwear, but that’s about it. This is even though nearly half of the NFL fans are women. The representation of female sexuality is almost always through the male gaze, saying this is every man’s fantasy, when it’s not and almost always painted with a narrow caricature of male sexuality. But I think that women have it worse because it is okay for a dude to say ‘wow, that totally turned me on’ and it’s not okay for a woman to say that publicly in a lot of ways.
Me: No, I mean, I have sort of just barreled through my life with a sort of ‘ah, screw you I’ll be who I want and like what I want’ in sort of a rebellious way. But inside, if I tell the absolute truth, I have been judging myself, and I haven’t been honest about any of it.
Sarah: But I think every woman does this. I know I castigate myself for thinking things I feel I shouldn’t think. I think women are infiltrated with archaic, old fashioned ideas as long as they are exposed to popular culture. Sometimes romance embraces those things, and sometimes romance subverts the hell out of them. But one of the most reassuring things I’ve found about romance novels is that no matter what your sexuality is, no matter what interests you, you are not alone in that and there is probably a novel that represents a piece of you.
Me: And that is beautiful.
Sarah: These are stories where the female always wins. This is her story, she wins. When you think about literary history, when characters had sex out of wedlock, The wages of sex were always disease, death ,shame, humiliation. In a romance, you are ultimately rewarded for that sexual curiosity. And the experience of sexuality, is never the reason why the heroine is given an unhappy ending. Because there are no unhappy endings.