Can a Book that Turns you on Still be Great Literature? In Defense of Trashy Books

Can a Book that Turns you on Still be Great Literature? In Defense of Trashy Books

On Episode Five, Charlie and I gave our review of the best romance novel ever written: Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase. I also explain a little bit about why I have come to not only love the genre but also publicly defend it. It’s not easy for a woman who considers herself intelligent, well read, and progressive to admit that she reads romance novels. Especially when they have historically had covers like one at the top of this page. That right there is the reason ebooks were invented.

So I thought I would take a moment to address some of the criticisms levied at romance novels. But first I want to admit up front that most of the criticisms probably have a large nugget of truth to them. Therefore, my argument is not so much why these critiques are blatantly false but rather, why it is worth sifting through the mountains of quivering bosoms and throbbing members to find the literary gems. So the following are the top three complaints about this much-ridiculed genre.  But first: more man titty!

Better hope those leather pants don’t freeze.

1. Romance Novels are all the same: As I said in the podcast, there is a lot of truth to this one. But I propose that this is not primarily due to laziness on behalf of romance novelists. By definition “genre” fiction has to have certain traits in order for it to fit into said genre. Otherwise its just fiction. Lots of novels are about a couple who meets, falls in love, overcomes obstacles, and lives happily ever after. But the story has to be told in a certain way, with certain features or else it stops being a romance novel and becomes a novel-novel. In this sense it is like ballet or kabuki. There is a set of steps that you have to perform when you do ballet or else it becomes modern dance. So yeah there is a lot of similarity in romance novels and even with the vast number of sub genres and sub-sub genres: historical (from Viking to Victorian), contemporary (from cowboys to cops), paranormal (from Klingon to cthulhu).  I would argue that when a writer is able to take these prescribed steps and make something out of them that is real and human and relatable then that makes the writer more talented, not less.

Is it just me or does she look like she’s about to fart?

2. Romance novels are poorly written: The prescribed plot points combined with the popularity of romance novels does allow for some very unfortunately written novels to get published. On the other hand, this can be a bonus for the romance reader. After all when a mystery goes bad it is just boring. When a romance goes bad it can be howlingly funny. Check some of the reviews on the wonderful romance blog Smart Bitches Trashy Books to see proof of this. But, and I can’t stress this enough, there are some hugely talented people who write absolutely wonderful romance novels. A well-written romance novel can not only make you care about the characters. It can make you think about society and what it means to be human. It can challenge your beliefs about relationships, redemption, and good versus evil.  All that and occasionally you find some crazy hot sex scenes to boot. Frankly I don’t understand why more people don’t read them.

Oh yeah, that’s why.

3. Romance novels are porn for women: These are the six set of words guaranteed to drive hordes of angry fans to blast your article all over the internet. And rightfully so. It is a low blow and full of misogynistic distain for the only literary genre created by women for women. There are lots and lots of reason’s why it is a horrible analogy and most of them were made in the book I mentioned on the podcast, Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels. But the fact is that all of us, men and women, read in part to experience emotions vicariously. We read horror to be scared and mysteries to have crimes solved and justice served. It is only because of the sex negativity of our culture that reading a book that allows you to feel the emotions of love and desire is viewed as intellectually vapid, while a book that allows you to experience the emotions of hate and death is accepted into the literature section without question. Most romance defenders will down play the sex scenes. They will point to the many classic romances without any sex and tell you that it’s all about the relationships. But the sex is there for a reason. I’m not too proud to admit that when I am really into the book and the characters, a mind blowing consummation scene after chapter upon chapter of slowly building tension can leave me needing a little quiet time on my own if you know what I mean. I am sure that I am not the only one. So does the fact that a piece of literature can turn you on automatically mean it’s less worthy than ones that make you laugh or cry or want to punch someone? Why should inspiring this one emotion be singled out as being unworthy of the serious writer when inspiring any of the rest of them is considered the mark of a good author? It is obviously absurd and that is why, even though I reject the romance = porn argument, I won’t be ashamed that my choice in literature occasionally turns me on.

I could go on but I think you all get the idea. So ladies and gentleman, I encourage you to, at the very least, stop rolling your eyes at the romance section. Yes, their covers can be ridiculous, their characters can be insipid, and their prose can be downright purple. But do yourself a favor and pick up a book by Loretta Chase, Marjorie Liu, Laura Kinsale , Kresley Cole or Victoria Dahl before you pass any more judgment. And if I am preaching to the choir and you’re already a full-fledged romance junkie get yourself over to Smart Bitches Trashy Books and join in the fun.

3 Responsesto “Can a Book that Turns you on Still be Great Literature? In Defense of Trashy Books”

  1. Gintia says:

    I read book one of a romance “series” on Monday and enjoyed it, and have been listening to book two of the same series Mon-Wed of this week. It was startling – I didn’t realize it was so badly written until I had to hear the same sentiment over and over again, because the ear can’t skip over what the eye can. I started shouting at the traffic, “Yes! We’ve covered this topic! We understand that you have never let a woman be anything but a job for you before! Can we move on now please!” I think I’ll be trading my audiobook in for the print version. Or, you know, maybe I’ll take your advice and just relax and laugh at it.

    I actually like to ration my romance reading, because I don’t think it’s too healthy to be absorbed in a world where the men are so unrealistically devoted (creepy!) to their beloveds. I’m happier if my subconscious has realistic expectations of my husband.

    • Ginny says:

      That is a very good point. When I do read romances I read them much faster than other books because your eye can skim quite a bit. I would be interesting to see if I enjoy listening to some of my favorite books as much as I enjoy reading them.

  2. Julie says:

    Yes, yes and yes it can be good literature. I am still fuzzy on why romances written by men (Nicolas Sparks) are listed under fiction though…. He is totally capitalizing on the genre, while not put with the genre. Maybe because he always has to kill someone off, such a man…. No offence Charlie.


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