Romance Novels Are Stressing Me Out!

It’s been my mission these last few years to expand my readerly horizons and try out genres I’ve never read before, usually because I had silly notions of what they were about and the kinds of people who read them. Admitting to myself that I was holding untested theories (okay, they were stereotypes) about what kinds of people read different kinds of books was a task in itself (My name is Rebecca, and I once thought that only spinsterish cat ladies read romance), and it was only the first step. Then I actually had to read the damn things, and then read some more, in an effort to understand what different genres are really all about and what kinds of books within the genre would work well for me.

Literary fiction is my wheelhouse, and my adventures in sci-fi/fantasy and speculative fiction have been mostly successful thanks to the recent trend of literary writers playing with genre. Authors like Colson Whitehead, Justin Cronin, Margaret Atwood, Karen Russell, and Nick Harkaway made it easy for me–they write beautifully and build worlds that are similar enough to ours that I can see them as I read (which doesn’t always happen for this language-driven reader). Ditto for thrillers, thanks to Gillian Flynn, Natsuo Kirino, and Sarah Waters, among others. Pageturner stories AND skillful writing? What’s not to love about that?!

(Yes, it was something of a revelation to me when I began this project that genre fiction wasn’t *just* about the plot.)

Once I’d tested the waters of sci-fi and thrillers and found that (gasp!) I enjoyed them and knew how to talk about them (good writing is good writing), I decided to approach my final frontier: romance. I had all kinds of stereotypes about romance novels (heaving bosoms and throbbing members and damsels in distress) and less than zero actual knowledge of the genre, so I asked a friend (Sarah Wendell of the uber-awesome Smart Bitches, Trashy Books) to recommend a good starting point. And then I spent a weekend with Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie. It was fun and non-threatening, and the female lead wasn’t a virgin who magically had seven orgasms the first time she had sex (that’s a trope I can’t abide), so I chalked it up as a win. But it took THREE HUNDRED WHOLE PAGES to even get to the sex, and I am not that patient. So then Sarah recommended that I try some erotica. Mission accomplished.

Ever since that experiment, I’ve been dipping into romance and erotica (and erotic romance, which is also a thing–I’m pretty sure no genre has more subgenres than romance does), and it’s been fun. It’s been exactly what I want reading dirty books to be. Thanks to a suggestion from fellow Rioter Jenn, I fell ass over teakettle in love with Sarah MacLean’s Rules of Scoundrels series (you guys, there’s a sex scene in One Good Earl Deserves a Lover that doesn’t even have any touching, and it’s so hot the pages sizzle). On a whim, I picked up The Siren by Tiffany Reisz and found myself devouring her stories about a dominatrix-turned-erotica-writer who still visits the dungeon. I’m getting pretty good at knowing what I like and don’t like in romance books, and that makes me happy.

But here’s where I get stuck: I’m still a total noob with the genre, and I’m not nearly familiar enough with it to recognize all the conventions and tropes (and there are A LOT of conventions and tropes), much less evaluate how well a book fits them. I can say, “I liked this, and here’s why,” but I can’t really tell if a romance book is GOOD or not. Readerly enjoyment and literary quality are separate dimensions of judgment, and right now I can only use one of them (unless the book is very obviously baaaaaaad). So I’m stressed!

What if it turns out that the romance books I’ve been enjoying are considered not-so-great by romance readers who, like, actually know things? Why do I even care what other readers think about a book, as long as I’m enjoying it? (Answer: because I am, for better or worse, somewhat invested in my identity as a Discerning Reader.) It seems to me that readerly enjoyment is a primary goal of romance writing anyway….so maybe I don’t need to think about the “is this a quote-unquote good book” issue at all and just go with what I enjoy? Is this an “If you build it, they will come” (hah! come!) kind of thing, and I just have to read more dirty books before I can answer these questions for myself? And if that’s the case, how will I learn how to make good romance recommendations for other readers? Sex and sexytimes writing preferences are so personal! Perhaps this is why community has become so important for romance readers, particularly online–you’ve gotta get to know other readers and their preferences well before you can successfully recommend the right romance books for them? I have SO MANY QUESTIONS.

Help me, readers. How do you select romance and erotica? How do you evaluate it? Should I loosen up, let my mind wander, and stop worrying about what’s good versus not good?

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