My mother raised me to be a reader.
She read to me every night before bed, and at other times, too. An avid Sesame Street watcher, I was sounding out the words on the big grocery store sign when I was four. By the time I was six, she gave up reading to me, because I'd read over her shoulder and correct her when she skipped words.
I was delighted because I finally could read through the whole part where the spider dies in Charlotte's Web - my mom always cried too much to get through it.
She belonged to a ladies book group back then and later she and my stepdad joined a couples book group that still meets, nearly forty years later. My mother kept a list of great books and worked her way through them methodically.
Every Wednesday after school, we went to the library. I was allowed five books per week, which sometimes barely lasted me. When I finished the juvenile section, I headed to the adult shelves. I discovered fantasy, science fiction, literary fiction. I loved it all. Around the time I hit twelve, I started picking up the romance novels in the wire stands with the candy and magazines at the grocery store. The library, of course, did not carry them.
"Put that down," my mom would say, "those are trash novels."
Now, this is a woman who never tried to limit what I read. Sometimes she read the edgier ones, too, but never did she say something wasn't worth reading. Except for the romance novel.
But the covers, the descriptions, they called to me with their siren song of sex and passion.
I had to know.
So I bought my first romance novel, Olivia O'Neill's Indigo Nights, at the used bookstore down the street.
Lady Caroline called no man master, but her wild, rebellious spirit drove her from the staid Victorian England of her birth to the opium dens of Suez and beyond - to the lush, bejeweled pleasure-domes of decadent maharajas... through jungle mazes rife with intoxicating dangers and jasmine-scented temples of pain and ecstasy... and into the arms of dashing Captain Rowlan... more »d Steel, the only man who could match her thirst for freedom. Plunged into a world aflame with revolution, these magnificent lovers play out a tumultuous drama of unquenched passion, exotic desires and eternal, all-conquering love.
This description telegraphed the code words to my blossoming sexual self. Pain and ecstasy? Intoxicating? Thirst, aflame, unquenched passion and exotic desires?
Oh yeah. Sign me up.
The cover looks so cheesy now, but in my mind it glowed like an amethyst jewel. On the back they dance in front of the Taj Mahal, ride a rearing white stallion and she dances in a harem outfit next to a tiger. At the bottom it says Savage Sensuous Surrender.
I didn't hide it from my mother, but I didn't exactly show her either. And oh, yes, I loved the book in all its scorching, sweeping, wildly unlikely splendor. This was a book firmly of the 70s trope, where the heroine succumbs to the insistent desires of many men - from the dashing Captain Rowland Steel to various Sheikhs and Maharajas. They all wanted Caro, and most of them had her, too. And, of course, Captain Steel rescues her in the end and they go off to lead feisty, tumultuous lives. Happily Ever After.
It rung every bell in my brand new world of sexual and romantic fantasy.
Over the years, romance novels became my guilty pleasure. I never shook quite shook the idea that they were trash, that they somehow polluted my mind. They became my special junk food treat. I studied the classics through high school and college. I read widely and with eclectic fervor. But when I needed a break, a chance to rest my mind and just indulge in a lovely ride of a read, I turned to romance novels.
The disdain is still out there. Even some of my sister writers who write in some of the many genres romance now encompasses like to distance themselves from the romance tropes. They make fun of the happy ever after. They imply they're too smart to write it. And yet, the stories still carry the thrill of the savage and sensuous. Werewolves and demons bring exotic pleasures to our intrepid heroines now. We might frown now on the idea of the heroine being date-raped by every man overwhelmed by her beauty, but we've substituted mate-bonds and the irresistible hypnotic command of the vampire.
I'm not much for guilt these days. Life is short and if something gives me pleasure, I value that. And romance has come out of the closet. Websites like Smart Bitches, Trashy Books (their tagline is All of the Romance, None of the Bullshit) speak for women like me. They explore far better than I can why romance, now the biggest selling genre of all books, remains the red-headed stepchild of the reading world.
As for me? Oh yeah - sign me up.