The Hierarchy of Literary Seriousness
On Maya Rodale's Dangerous Books for Girls and reading romance
I was as serious about being a writer as I could be as an undergraduate, which was, to say the least, not serious enough. In any case, between parties, I managed a journalism major and a minor in creative writing. To fulfill my minor requirement, I had to submit a selection of short stories (my chosen genre) and meet a handful of times with an advisor in the English department. Even though I wasn’t a very serious person, I remember wanting my advisor—her name was Ethel Morgan Smith—to take me seriously, both because she was obviously smart and impressive, and because she was my advisor. And serious or not, I’ve always been the kind of person who likes praise from teachers. She did once tell me, “You’re a good writer, but…” in one of our meetings, though I’m sure I failed to impress her. But that’s not really why I’ve been thinking about her lately. I’ve been remembering her (quite fondly) because in one of our meetings to discuss my work she asked me: Who is your favorite writer? And even though much of college is a blur, I still remember the moments in which I formulated my response.
Being a serious writer, of course, means being a serious reader. I should specify that this was the early aughts, and accessing books was pretty different then. I couldn’t search for “smart” books online or order any book I wanted on Amazon. I read what I could get my hands on, but for the most part, my exposure was limited and I had yet to develop much taste. I don’t remember my advisor ever communicating to me any sort of hierarchy of literary seriousness. But even though I’d recently read Message From Nam on a family vacation and absolutely loved it, I somehow knew I wasn’t supposed to say Danielle Steele. Instead I said Hemingway, a safe answer when talking to an English teacher. In fairness for my young fool self, I had also recently read and loved him. It wasn’t a dishonest answer, but it wasn’t exactly an honest one either. And I know it was crafted to impress my teacher. But now, twenty-plus years later, looking back on what I said there, I mostly want to know why.
Why did I feel like I shouldn’t say Danielle Steele, even as a clueless undergrad who knew so little about any particular author? Why did I think, or perhaps buy into the idea, that reading some books meant serious people like my English professor wouldn’t take me seriously?
In the years since, I’ve been a bookseller, worked at a publishing company, edited books as a freelancer, studied writing in graduate school, and participated in several different book clubs. I’ve talked to a lot of people about books, and I could supply real-life anecdotes for days (not even including the internet) of people discounting romance novels as trashy or indulgent or silly or something to be embarrassed about reading. I kind-of know why (the covers, the mass production, and sex!), but have never really understood the reasons behind romance’s ill repute.
I found some answers in Maya Rodale’s recently re-released book, Dangerous Books for Girls; The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained. The author is best known for her light, fun historical romances, which, as romances do, feature women protagonists navigating societal expectations and finding true love. The stories end with happily ever afters. And they are the kinds of books that, Rodale asserts even among avid romance readers, are often considered a guilty pleasure that people don’t talk about with most others.
Rodale, who started researching the history and reputation of romance novels for a master’s thesis, argues that people dismiss and belittle the genre because we live in a patriarchal society, and romance novels are written, largely, by women for women. She presents her case by looking at the big picture of publishing, culture, and tradition, and she uses results from a reader survey she conducted to illustrate the stigma associated with reading romance novels. And she definitely lays out the whole problem.
Women—the weaker sex, as the men say—have historically not been taken seriously. We couldn’t own property or choose who we married or vote. And even now that we can do all that, our books don’t get as many reviews or win as much clout. I read Jonathan Lethem in a college contemporary literature class because his mystery and science fiction novels “transcended genre.” But around the same time, Curtis Sittenfeld and Meg Banks were writing about love and being reduced to “chick lit.” This is starting to change because now even the New York Times Book Review has a romance reviewer on staff. And although I wouldn’t be surprised, no one so far has tried calling Sally Rooney’s books chick lit. (I could argue that she has transcended the romance genre the way Lethem did science fiction, but I’m not so sure genre is something that can even really be transcended.) And Rodale offers several examples of snarky critics taking cheap shots at the romance genre.
Novels have historically proliferated ideas that make some people nervous. The American and French Revolutions were fueled by widespread reading. People had more time on their hands because of industrialization and modernization, and books could be mass produced. Novels in particular, widely read by women, were seen as dangerous because they could fill the readers’ heads with ideas about love and adventure and happy endings. “Stories of personal transformation and social change presented a powerful image of how the social norm could be altered for greater happiness,” writes Rodale. For men in power, women (or any subjugated group) with ideas made things more complicated. As a result of this power, novels have been reduced to a frivolous reading pursuit.
In addition to the patriarchy, the pulp paperback format and clinch covers make romance novels appear cheap and trashy. They often feature sex on the page in colorful language, so they are dismissed as smut. The books are sold in grocery stores and often not even stocked in independent bookstores, despite the fact that romance readers are voracious. Critics will argue that the books are formulaic, but all stories usually are.
Men aren’t the only ones dismissing us; women are often critical of romance novels too. Because they traditionally end in marriage, romance novels can be viewed as pandering to the patriarchy or values that don’t truly suit women. But even if you’re the kind of woman who believes marriage is a trap (it is—run!), the underlying message of good romance novels is inherently feminist. Marriage used to be about consolidating and maintaining wealth, status, and power. Love or the woman’s feelings weren’t important. When a protagonist in a romance novel falls in love and chooses to marry that person, love is elevated above status or dowry size, which then elevates the personal lives of women. This is what makes these books so dangerous. In a society where marriage and tradition help keep people in line, romance novels raise questions about who gets to marry who, what kinds of love are acceptable, and what is the fantasy. And therefore, romance novels are capable of making a statement.
Rodale ultimately argues that all this misalignment and misunderstanding of the romance genre is actually its superpower. And I agree. Without the serious critics watching or caring, women have been free to write what they want. Romance as a genre has innovated faster, embracing new formats like ebooks and experimentation in the stories’ contents. All kinds of love and all kinds of protagonists can be found in the romance section. The readership is voracious and hungry. Even the most serious people must acknowledge the size of the industry, which makes billions of dollars every year. And women are making a living writing these books, both through traditional publishers and by publishing independently. Although it sucks to be dismissed as frivolous, romance writers and readers don’t really need anyone’s approval.
Rodale quotes Eloisa James, a romance novelist and academic, on Jane Austen’s real legacy: “What she did with Pride and Prejudice was start something that allowed hundreds of thousands of women after her to make a living, to run families, to make more than their husbands, to not have a husband. She provided a road for all these women to become entrepreneurs in their own right.”
I’m more confident and, if not smarter, then at least better read than I was at twenty. And I would love the chance to go back and revise my answer to my English professor’s question. She was way too cool to judge, I’m sure of it. But maybe I’m too old to care what other people think, or old enough to know better. A few weeks back, I saw a tweet about going to AWP (the annual conference for serious writers) with two books—the one you want to read and the one you want everyone to see you reading. As silly as that sounds, I know the feeling. I’ve never been to AWP, but I’ve been to many writers conferences over the years. In my experience, no matter what you read or write, people will judge you for it. I’ve got a list of anecdotes on that too. But if I ever make it to the serious book con, I think I’m only taking one book; and because reading is my favorite power move, I’m going to pick one that has a half-dressed person in an intimate embrace on the cover.
Read whatever you want, friends. (Though I highly recommend all Rodale’s books, especially Dangerous Books for Girls!) And if you still feel self-conscious about the covers, or aren’t in the mood for a power move, reading ebooks is also awesome.
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love this essay ❤️