Romance as unifier

Film still, Sarah Wendell interview, Popular Romance Project
"Sarah Wendell interview" (still), Popular Romance Project, 2012.

Romance occupies a very unbalanced space, spinning between highs and lows depending on which coverage you’re reading. It’s lowbrow; it’s profitable! It’s pornographic pap; it’s inherently feminist and subversive! It’s bad—no, it’s good! It reminds me of an unbalanced washing machine, thumping along until things settle to smoothness for awhile.

I’ve been reading romance since the very early 90s, when what I read was more often horrifying than good, and featured themes I thought were more often frighteningly oppressive than feminist. I’ve read a lot of romances, and written or co-written two books about them, one a critical examination of the genre’s history and familiar tropes, and the other a celebratory answer to all that overwhelmingly negative and at times pointless criticism the genre, and its readers, receives. I write daily, sometimes multiple times in an afternoon, about the never-ending discoveries readers find in the genre, and how it changes yet remains constant in its attention to courtship and happiness.

Romances are never just one thing, and neither are romance readers. I laud and defend the genre, and I snarl audibly when I read a book that disappoints me. I’ve met and corresponded with so many romance readers from different places and backgrounds, and sometimes, the only thing we have in common is one book we both liked. On everything else, we might disagree vehemently.

But because of that one book we loved, we probably have about six hours of conversation at least, because the different ways in which each reader interacts and responds to a romance novel leaves room for more recommendations, more discussion, more connection.

We are so different, so often fractious and at times fractured, yet unified behind the genre, behind a single book we adore, behind an author we cannot stop re-reading, and behind the common emotional experiences we shared while reading the same book miles apart in geography, and maybe oceans apart in our world views.

We are so different, yet sometimes, we’re experiencing the same response to a book. It is comforting sometimes to know someone feels the same way you do in a moment. Empathy is a powerful thing, and that’s one of the subtexts and subversive powers of romance that I love: the chance that a reader I know nothing about, have never met and maybe never seen, had the same emotional reaction and response I did to a scene, a line of dialogue, a book’s final paragraph. We connect because of an emotional response to a book that is itself about emotions.

I joke about “good book noise,” which is the cross between exhalation and exclamation that readers make when someone mentions a book we’ve loved, or when someone finishes a book that leaves them breathless and replete, but that noise is a real thing. You’ll hear it at a convention of 2000 romance readers or in a conversation between two of us. We unite within that reader experience.

So I’m chair-bouncing curious about the end result of The Popular Romance Project, ever since I met with Laurie Kahn years ago over coffee on a rainy Sunday in New Jersey and learned about her idea. It is no small feat to try to portray the scope of the genre, and the women who read and write it, and the variety of our responses to it. We aren’t just one thing, one type of reader, one type of novel (I mean, have you SEEN the romance on sale lately?). A project that attempts to look at all of us, our commonalities and our differences, can only be an amazing thing. I cannot wait. I hope I make good documentary noise.

Sarah Wendell

Sarah Wendell is co-founder of Smart Bitches Trashy Books, LLC and To Be Read, LLC. She is also the author of Everything I Know About Love I Learned from Romance Novels Find out more about Sarah Wendell.

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