Okay, be honest with me here folks. How many of you like to read romance novels? I ask this because I heard an interesting segment on CBC radio the other morning. All about the romance novel, the genre so many of us love to laugh at, openly scorn, and then often read in secret.
shelf of several romance novels
I like a good romance although I’ve never been a fan of the Harlequin variety.

In an episode of The Current, host Anna Maria Tremonti explored the much despised and derided genre that has spawned a billion dollar, global industry by speaking to its detractors and its defenders. And all of this was triggered by the fact that the Toronto Public Library has recently announced its next Writer-In-Residence will be a romance writer.

I don’t mind a good romance myself. Not the ones with the bare-chested Fabios on the cover. Nor the historical bodice-rippers, at least not anymore. But a well written romance, emphasis on the well written, can be very satisfying.

Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet and Colin Firth as Darcy in 1995 Pride and Prejudice
My favourite romance novel, Pride and Prejudice

Not so, says William Giraldi, writer and memoirist, in his interview with Anna Maria Tremonti. Apparently reading a romance novel is, for Giraldi, an “excruciating ordeal.” Romance provides “empty entertainment,” he says, and is only popular because readers want to escape their “humdrum domesticity and colourless work lives.” He adds that romance writing is not real writing, just as “Twinkies are not real food.” Okay, that’s a bit harsh.

Mary Bly, professor of English at Fordham University and a romance writer herself, counters that the genre is too often judged by its worst examples, and criticized by those who have never read romance. Bly goes on to add that Giraldi is saying a great deal more about himself and his misogynist views than about the genre. Ha. I like that bit. You can read and listen to the whole segment yourself here if you want.

cover of novel Forever Amber cover of romance novel Bride of the MacHugh
I come from a family of readers. My grandmother was an avid reader her whole life, my mum too. Mum and I often talk about books. In our phone calls, updates on our respective doings are often only a prelude to the real conversation: what we’ve been reading. Sometimes we try to imagine what life would be like if we didn’t read, or we reminisce about favourite books. Sometimes those books are romances. Like Forever Amber, which Mum remembers reading back when it first came out in the forties. And Bride of the MacHugh. Oh my, we both adored that book back in the seventies. I remember telling my step-dad that if Mum and I were gone one morning, we might have upped sticks and headed for the Scottish highlands. Ha. I was kidding, of course.
I’d mostly gone off reading romance by the time I started teaching. But I remember the year a good friend (and fellow English teacher) and her family moved to Europe for a three year posting, and she entrusted to me her “guilty secret,” as she called her beloved Dorothy Dunnet novels. I scoffed a bit, but it was summer and I was on holidays, so one lazy July morning I began to read the first of Dunnet’s Lymond series. By the end of the first book I was hooked. Seven books and a few days later, almost at the end of the series, dissolved in tears because I thought the hero had died, I remember getting up from my chair on the lawn, and marching out to the garden where Hubby was weeding. I stood there, book in one hand sodden Kleenex in the other, and wailed that if that bleeping character was dead I was personally going to fly to Germany and strangle my friend. Oh, the drama! Hubby looked up and quipped if I didn’t finish those darned books soon, I was going to be dehydrated. Ha.
Below are some of my favourite books from my “romance” bookshelf. Well, I call them romance, but apparently that’s up for debate. In particular, I love Joanna Trollope’s A Spanish Lover, Barbara Neil’s Someone Wonderful, and of course, Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate.
a stack of romance novels
My romance shelf
It’s hard to nail down a definition of the romance genre, other than that the main plot must revolve around a building relationship and the novel must have a happily-ever-after ending. Other than that there is a wide, wide range of fiction which has elements of romance, and which deals with the lives of women, or “shares the female journey” as literary agent Scott Eagen explains. He calls this genre “Women’s Fiction.” Others call it “Romance Literature.” As I said, I don’t much care for the Harlequin type of romance, those books have a certain, recognizable style that makes me cringe a little. But I do love a well-written romance. So I think the novels I prefer are examples of romance literature, so-called. But really, what does it matter? We like what we like.
One of the comments that resonated with me from that CBC program I told you about earlier, was from Denise Drabkin of the North York library. In response to William Giraldi’s dismissal of romance novels as being excruciating to read, and having no value, she said that, on the contrary, “recreational reading should be encouraged and not dismissed or undervalued.”
And really, who can argue with that
Maybe we should all just stop looking down our noses at romance novels. Maybe you love them. Maybe you wouldn’t be caught dead reading a book with a bare-chested guy on the cover. All reading is good, surely we must all agree with that. And like Mary Bly said on CBC the other day, “There’s nothing sad or pathetic about wanting happiness and a happily ever after.”
But what do I know? I’ve always been a romantic, with my head in the clouds and my nose in a book. At least according to my mum. Ha.

Now, how about you dear readers? Do you love a good romance? Or are you of the wouldn’t touch them with a ten foot pole variety? Do tell. We won’t judge you either way.


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48 thoughts on “Romancing the Readers”

  1. When I was much younger – yes. Now – no. Any book that has phrases like the following: woman-like, a light went on under her skin, the heavy mass of her hair, or any chat about manhoods…too many hours spent reading this in my 20s. My local library holds contrary view.

  2. Another no here , though I remember finishing Forever Amber & throwing it across the room when I was a girl . So no I don’t read flowery romances where a woman’s whole aim in life is to get her man & live happily ever after . End of story . But I do sometimes enjoy well written modern fiction about tangled relationships . Relationships are a major part of our lives after all & can be fascinating when handled cleverly by an author . I’m currently reading an Anne Tyler , her books are full of meaningful relationships but I wouldn’t call them romantic fiction . Nothing twee going on . Hope I’m explaining myself properly here .
    Wendy from York

    1. I love Anne Tyler too. I wonder if British critics would classify Tyler's work as "Aga sagas." Remember that appellation for novels about family life? I think Joanna Trollope was put in that category years ago. It's used dismissively lots of the time, but I quite like "Aga sagas."

    2. I think the Aga saga was disparaged by many as it involved a certain class of people & their middle class problems , usually in a certain part of the country . It’s what put me off them but I’m speaking without having read any ! Anne Tyler seems to move between very different characters & ways of life & in more depth . Perhaps I’m not being fair ?

  3. Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series has made me a fan of that particular romance between Jamie and Claire. Time travel, Scottish history and romance! What's not to love?

    1. Gosh… I feel guilty. I still haven't read Diana Gabaldon. I have one of her books given to me by a student who was a huge fan.

  4. Hi Sue
    In my "younger days" ;), yes I enjoyed a good romance book. They were an easy escape. Simple blot. I loved the first few books of Diana Gabaldon. Now a cozy mystery book is my choice now. I receive books from Book Hub. Some are free, some are very inexpensive. I used to spend hours at the library, now, not so much. Perhaps it timing or cycles we go thru!

    1. We do indeed go in cycles. Some of the very literary books I loved a few years ago leave me cold now. I'm cycling back to cosy mysteries, especially in my ipod. I love to hear the actor who played Hastings in the Poirot series read the Poirot books.

    2. I loved the Poirot series! No one can replace David Suchet. I will look into the audio books with High Fraser reading. Thanks for the tip!

  5. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen and The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton are two of my all time favorite books and I'd say that they fall under the "romantic" genre. I'd never heard of Dorothy Dunnet until this post, but now I'm intrigued. I may order the first one and see. Your book posts are my absolute favorites, and I've discovered some new authors (for my husband as well) through your posts. Thank you!

    1. I love Edith Wharton too. I can't attest the merit of Dorothy Dunnet books now… I read them twenty-five years ago. They were a couple of cuts above the Harlequin ones though.

  6. I have nothing against "recreational reading" and I like it,but,in my case, those books are mysteries and they have to be written very well
    As a very young girl,in "lighter" book categories, I've started with "westerns",than followed romances,or ,especially, history romances (like Dumas father and son….etc) -but even than, books had to have some "added value",different countries,different times,different way of life….
    I'm a little confused now,with Austin,Brönte,N.Mitford… there is some kind of romance (there is a romance in Tolstoi's War and Peace as well),but those books are more than that and I love them
    I like what Wendy said-I like to read about relations,too (but after good mysteries!)
    Pure romance is not enough any more (ha,ha-people change with time)
    I've read Past Imperfect and Elegance-now I really don't know how to answer your question? Do I read romances? Even A Little life was also about love (and how painful one)
    I've finished watching Poldark series-there were romantic love,politics,war,revolution,(even a bodice-rippers) and I liked them (didn't read the books)
    I love your book posts so much!

    1. I loved the Poldark books – many years ago D but the image of Demelza in my mind was so distinct & unlike theTV versions ( old & new series ) that I couldn’t watch them !

    2. I love complex character dynamics in a novel too. And well written mysteries. I'll read pretty much anything that isn't "trashy" or very pretentious. I never did read Harlequins, but some of the romances I read in my teens and early twenties, I can't abide now. Although I still have a soft spot for Erich Segal's Love Story.

  7. Pride and Prejudice is my all time favourite romantic book…the art of conversation was well practiced by individuals who entertained themselves with conversing rather than the modern 'head down looking at a cellphone screen'. Harlequin romance novels seem to be written to a set pattern and therefore they don't provoke much thought…they are not my cup of tea but that said any book that gets individuals reading is not to be sneered at. I just finished an historical novel based on the life of Queen Elizabeth I called "Legacy" by Susan Kay…while the conversations are fictional it's based on real people who lived their lives in a turbulent time and touches on the men who loved her. Reading is an escape from the everyday and I love how a book can transport a person to places and ages that can no longer be visited. Cheers, Alayne

    1. I love books that transport me as well, Alayne. Sometimes those are literary fiction… and sometimes they're not. Even lighter fare can be really well written.

  8. I am an avid reader, and I can enjoy a well written romance. Although, I'm not sure if the novels I consider romance are actually part of the genre… Two of my absolute favorites: A Woman of Substance by Barbara Taylor Bradford and Too Deep For Tears by Kathryn Lynn Davis. Also, does the Outlander series count as romance, it has elements but it is really so much more than just a love story.

    1. I chased my tail trying to find how they "experts" draw the line around what is romance and what is not. I gave up. I think most "romance literature" is way more than just the love story.

  9. My guilty secret is Georgette Heyer – for her history of the Regency World. (The customs, roles, rules, conversations, slang, clothing, etc… fascinates me). And after a long day at a NGO, her novels provide a beautiful escape to a fantasy world … very guilty here! Happy not to think too much at the end of the day. Very happy to escape the ugly side of world news.

    1. Me too, Olwyn. Especially in house where one of us is a political news junkie.. and the other isn't. Now if I need to escape I prefer gentle reading ala Barbara Pym.

  10. I am in agreement with Mr. Giraldi. As I see it, there are the great and famous love stories (gourmet dinners) written by of Austen, Garcia Marques and Tolstoy, and then there are the modern day "romances" (junk food). Maybe, your stack of books falls in-between the two. (Snacks?)

    1. I agree to some extent with his comments on the style of some romances. But I felt he was looking down his nose at readers of romance, saying they were in despair over their empty lives. That niggled a little with me. My "romances," although not strictly considered romance by anyone but me, are in the middle. Can't eat gourmet every night. To extend the food analogy, I think of my books as a healthy mid-week meal. Clean writing style…clean eating. Ha.

  11. I do like some of the classics, but as a general rule, I don't often read romances (or watch romantic movies): most of the time they're too much mush! HOWEVER ………. every now and then, under cover of darkness and wearing a disguise ………….. I will read what I like to call a "good bodice ripper", aka the Fabio novels. When I need a little sexy interlude, I turn to one of those; and yes, yes! They also can be mush and terribly unrealistic. But I said "sex" not romance! Hahahaha!

  12. I think the genre is what was once referred to as a "bodice ripper". I tried reading romance novels of the Harlequin and Barbara Cartland's type but just couldn't get the hang of it. Up until my mid-teens, I loved adventure books, King Authur and the Round Table, the Black Arrow, all of H. Ryder Haggard books especially the Sir Quatermaine's series. Then I graduated to Victoria Holt especially her early novels, Rosemunde Pilcher in my twenties. I love the classics, Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, the Bronte Sisters… I found Laura Bradbury "My Grape Years" series on kindle, read all of them including here latest release "My Grape Paris". My best*est "Calgon take me Away" escapism is a Jack Whyte novel. Ken Follett…some but not all of his books. These are to me, the equivalents of a great bodice ripper. Amelia

    1. Back when I was in university I read anything that was lying around, at our house or at my grandmothers. Grammy had what we might call "catholic" taste. She'd try anything. And to escape the books I had to read for my courses, I wasn't picky.

  13. Susan, I've never been drawn to this genre, but your stack of books up there has me curious to try! Is there a particular title from the stack you recommend starting with? Thank you. Linda

    1. Hmmm. I've been thinking of your question. My stack is not strictly romance, but they are light reading. My absolute fav are the two Nancy Mitford novels, Love in a Cold Climate and The Progress of Love. They are both delightful.

  14. Yes, I read romance among other things. I was introduced in my early teens to Georgette Heyer by our school librarian. I still read her books occasionally when I want something light and undemanding. Next romance author of note, Mary Stewart introduced when I in my early twenties by a woman who was a consultant physician where I worked. I remember she was peeved that her husband (an Emeritus Professor of Medicine) had pinched a couple of her Mary Stewarts to read on the long plane trip to one of his innumerable international conferences. Don't think "humdrum domesticity and colourless work lives" would resonate with either of them. The most recent book I read that could be labelled romance is Two Steps Forward by Graeme Simsion and Anne Buist, which follows two people who meet while walking the Camino de Santiago.
    Bodice rippers don't appeal to me but I don't see that that gives me any of the moral or intellectual superiority that Giraldi appears to feel. It's telling that other genres such as science fiction or espionage thrillers don't attract vitriol in the way romance does.
    The essence of good writing is story telling. Whatever the form it takes.
    Related but not quite on topic, yesterday I saw the excellent French film "Aurore" about the trials and tribulations of a woman in late middle age. Romance comes into it but it's not the main focus, like most of our lives I guess!

    1. I'm with you, Lilibet. I don't see that my reading choices make me superior or inferior to anyone. That guy need to get over himself.

    2. Insular and pompous were the words that came to mind when I listened to him.

    3. I, too, enjoyed Mary Stewart, especially her early years. Would love to find that style of writing again…a mystery with smart relationships being developed. This post and the following comments have provided some new authors and titles. Thank you!
      Charlene H

  15. Definitely not a fan of the bodice ripping, heaving bosoms style of writing 🙂 I enjoy romance when it’s part of a well written book with a good storyline. Sometimes it’s nice to read something light and cheerful that transports us to other times and places. Looking at your display, I’ve read one or two Elizabeth Buchan books and years ago I worked my way through every one of Joanne Trollope “aga sagas” 🙂 but I haven’t read one in a while. I think the last one was “Dayghters in Law”

    1. I haven't read Joanna Trollope lately either. But there was a time when I couldn't wait for each of her new books to come out.

  16. Many of these titles are on my "all time favorites" list, but (perhaps snobbishly?) I think of them as being quite distinct from the Harlequin type romances, which are, in my experience, pretty dire.


  17. One of my favourite genres is chick lit (often laughed at, and criticised by the masses) because it's pure escapism – it's fun, witty and sometimes just downright hilarious! And I absolutely hate it when people say such rubbish like, "romance writing is not real writing". Honestly!!! As an author myself (I've self published 12 novels – a few of which are romance / chick lit), it's such a kick in the teeth. It's bloody hard work to write a novel and then people go and say things like that! Who on earth does he think he is anyway!!!!!! Ok rant over lol. I just think people should read whatever they fancy reading, and if that's Mills & Boon or Harlequin, then so be it. They shouldn't be scoffed at 😉
    Suzy xx

  18. I always love your book posts (and get such great recommendations)! I needed Harlequin romances to get me through a rough childhood (the promise of happily ever after was critically important). I broadened my horizons since then but definitely subscribe to the theory that all reading is good. Not sure if you've read The Wonder by Emma Donoghue but it was terrific! Great story (and I agree with the comment about how important that is!).

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