A Romance Novel Virgin’s Guide to (Reading About) Getting it On

As you may know, the major event of the past year of my reading life was that I finally succeeded in learning to love romance novels.

The only reason it took me so long to embrace this delightful genre is that I had no idea what I was doing and, therefore, repeatedly got in my own way.

But I learned from my mistakes, and now I have pearls of wisdom to share!

That’s why I’m here today: to present a humble 5-step guide to aid any of you who may be on your own quest to become a reader of romance novels.

A Romance Novel Virgin's Guide to Reading About Getting it On, with bookish Fabio in a library
Thanks to Assistant Professor Fabio for getting the ball rolling.

A brief word about terminology before we dive in: I’m using “romance novel” as a byword for “sexy books with sex in them.” There are many nuanced terms that describe books in the romance/erotica field, but I aim to generalize.

Here’s what you need to know:

1. Romance novels are just like other books.

Here’s what I mean: when I was first starting, I would choose a romance at random, read it, and then allow my perception of the genre as a whole to be colored by that one experience.

Did I “like romance novels” or not? I changed my mind with each randomly-chosen drugstore read. It would never have occurred to me to think like that about a different genre (although lord knows I have my genre prejudices).

Sexy books are just like other books: they can be in a style you don’t like, they can have characters that don’t speak to you, they can take a tone that rubs you the wrong way. You don’t have to just like or not like them because of the fact that they involve sex.

There’s also a huge variety within the genre. Disliking a book about a brawny rancher who throws his protesting lady love over his shoulder because he knows what’s good for her doesn’t mean that you won’t be over the moon to read about a lady chemist who dresses as a prostitute to conceive a baby with a muscular football player or a previously demure duchess who dresses to be a man to overcome her grief about her husband’s suicide and discovers her sensual side.

2. Find what you like and run with it.

I’m not saying you should never branch out, but when you’re first getting started, it’s easier to latch onto something that consistently works for you.

I tend to like romance novels set in Regency era England (or thereabouts) with a medium amount of smut, strong female leads, and dramatic storylines to accompany the central romance. I also think it’s delightful when the sexing characters fall in love and I have an extremely low tolerance for male aggression, excessive possessiveness, and rape-like situations.

My Fair Viking by Sandra HillI learned this through trial and error: reading a number of books and noting what I did and did not like, and asking people for recommendations of similar authors once I found an author whose approach felt like what I wanted.

If you like the idea of sexy books, then something out there is going to be exactly your cup of lascivious tea. You just need to find it. Please don’t give up hope!

This bullet point particularly goes out to anyone who read 50 Shades of Gray as their first foray into the world of sexy books and was disappointed.

3. Well-written romance novels are real.

Romance novels have a bad reputation. They’re often characterized as trashy, silly, embarrassing, or not a serious thing to read. I think the stigma mostly comes from the fact that sex makes people uncomfortable, and marginalizing the books with sex in them feels safer.

Some romance novels are poorly written, just like some books of every genre are poorly written. But if you dismiss the genre as a whole because you’re expecting sub-par writing, you’re making a huge mistake.

4. Don’t apologize.

Never Judge a Lady by her Cover - Sarah MacLeanReading romance novels can be your dirty little secret if you want it to be, but it can also be really fun to squeal about these books with other people who love them. You can only do this if you admit to reading them.

I’m still working on this one. My first big step has been writing about my romance quest here on Book Riot, especially because people like my parents and my 8th grade English teacher sometimes read my posts here.

In person is harder, although I gave an honest answer to a stranger in a hair salon the other day when she asked what was on my Kindle and she actually wrote down my recommendation (Eloisa James’ Desperate Duchesses series).

I did lie to a TV repairman who asked me the same question, but talking about sexy books with a middle-aged woman under a neighboring hair dryer is very different from doing the same with a strange man who is alone in your apartment with you.

5. Let yourself enjoy it.

You can be embarrassed to admit to a TV repairman or a hair salon stranger that you’re devouring a sexy, sexy book and it makes you feel good, but don’t be embarrassed to admit it to yourself.

Just relax and enjoy!

Eloisa James cover image - A Kiss at Midnight
Now that we’ve talked about general approach, it’s time to point you towards to some specific reads. We have some amazing introductory recs here on the Riot: I highly recommend checking out Rioter Amanda D’s Romance 101 series or Jessica’s “10 Essential Reads for Romance Newbies.

Images via, via, and via Goodreads.

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