In honor of Valentine’s Day, I am reposting this blog post from last year about what romance novels have taught me about love. Enjoy!
In 1972 the Equal Rights Amendment was big news. In 1972 the first issue of Gloria Steinem’s Ms. magazines appeared. The next year Roe v. Wade made abortion legal in the United States. And in 1972 the publishing sensation of The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen Woodiwiss brought the marketing category romance novel into existence.
For forty-plus years discussions of the changing role of women in the home, in the workplace, and in politics have dominated the domestic agenda. They have involved issues such as equal pay, reproductive rights, sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and what constitutes a family.
Romance writers have grappled with many of these same issues interlaced with explorations of women’s sexuality and the nature of consent. Love relationships do not happen in a vacuum, and romance writers have always engaged with social issues. A recent trend involves heroes who fought in Afghanistan or Iraq and who are living with battle scars, both visible and invisible.
I’ve been writing romance novels for more than twenty years. My twenty-fifth will be out this spring. Here’s what I’ve learned about love:
Love is necessary. When I began, I thought writing romance was fun but also perhaps frivolous. I still think it’s fun, but I no longer think creating for a reader the vicarious experience of falling in love is frivolous. I admit to having early on internalized the stigma surrounding romance novels, but I have long since exorcised it.
What do we fear most? Rejection, isolation, alienation, despair, loss. What do we want most? Acceptance, belonging, warmth, satisfaction, connection. Our smart phones give us connection, but they can’t give us the kind we most want: loving touch.
It’s anxiety-inducing to acknowledge our deepest fears and deepest desires. But I’ve learned to do it. Love is not a frivolity. It’s a necessity.
Love is generous. When we fall in love, we put ourselves at risk for what we fear most (see above). No doubt about it. Once we take the risk, we greatly improve our chances of finding love when we begin to listen generously, that is, while not “under the influence” of thinking of all I have to do today, of how hungry I am, of wondering whether the person I’m talking to likes me, and so forth.
The characters in a romance novel – or any novel – who most deserve their Happy Ever After are the ones who listen without judgment and without an agenda. When you practice generous listening, love in all its flavors finds you.
Love is equal opportunity. In 1972 romance novels featured white heterosexual couples with normative body types. Today stories feature all skin colors, all body types, and all sexual orientations. Of note: romance writers have long been gay friendly. We know that love is unpredictable.
These days I’m into Big Beautiful Women shape-shifter romances, where curvy women are comfortable with their bodies. Yes! These stories also often read as allegories of multicultural societies, with werewolves and werebears and humans getting over their prejudices to get along.
If love is a risk, so is writing about it. One aspect of romance novels has not changed in the past forty years, and that is the negative valuation of them.
The risk in writing a romance novel – and admitting it! – is to court dismissal, ridicule, and sometimes outright scorn from literary critics, journalists, and those in the general public who have received the message that romance novels are corny, cheesy, formulaic, bad literature, etc. etc.
For me the romance is an art form, as valid as any other. I think of my work in relationship to the French Impressionist, Paul Cézanne, who created a series of paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire. As I look at his series, I see him making a slow turn around his mountain, painting it from this angle in this light and then from that angle in that light. My Mont Sainte-Victoire is the love relationship. I want to paint it in its many colors: love at first sight, battle of the sexes, friendship warming to love, opposites attracts, and the arranged marriage where the couple has to learn to love. The variations are endless.
The next time you meet a romance writer please think “Impressionist painter” and acknowledge (if only to yourself) your deep need for love.