It seems you can't read an article about a romance novel without the author joking about bodice ripping and Fabio. And then, of course, there are the ones that straight-out condemn books as women's porn, with no redeemable qualities whatsoever, saying the books offer readers unrealistic fantasies about their love lives.
But could it be, that under the covers of these bestselling books, there are actually real life lessons on love, romance, and relationships from which any woman could benefit?
Author and blogger Sarah Wendall says yes. And she's written a book, "Everything I Know About Love I Learned from Romance Novels" to prove it. We sat down with Sarah to find out how novels dealing with fictional love can actually help readers bring about their own happily ever afters in their real life relationships.
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We all know the stereotype of your typical romance reader. But who is actually reading these books?
Everyone you know! I'm only half-kidding. Romances are among the most popular and most purchased form of fiction, so more people read romance than you might think. I once saw a statistic that said four out of every five paperbacks sold in the US is a romance, but my theory is that it's actually five out of five, and the fifth person didn't know they were buying a romance.
To understand who is reading romance, you have to understand that romances are not just one thing. They aren't all giant haired, fuchsia-bedazzled historicals with giant orchids and panicking swans on the covers. There is a romance for every type of fiction readers enjoy, such as suspenseful, contemporary, historical, paranormal, erotic. So there's not just one type of romance reader.
That said, we are mostly women, we are educated, intelligent and, according to the Romance Writers of America survey of the romance readership, most of us are in happy long-term relationships.
What are these educated, intelligent women getting from reading romance novels?
The secrets to being successful, liberated and happy! Again, I'm only half-kidding. As I said, statistically, many romance readers are in long-term relationships. My own research for my book revealed that we are also the friend to whom our other friends turn to for advice. The reason for that, I think, rests on the fact that romances are about courtship. I know many people think romances are all about knocking boots and getting sexy but no, they're not. Some are quite explicit and some feature the most passionate scenes of hand holding, but they are all about courtship, not sex.
And when you read courtship narratives where things go impossibly wrong but are all restored and happy by the end of the book, there's really no problem you haven't seen, and no solution you can't figure out for any circumstance. Whether a relationship is in trouble because the two people in it aren't communicating honestly, or it's in trouble because one person is being held hostage by a somewhat indignant alien, we've read and experienced that situation. There's no relationship problem we haven't seen solved and solved happily.
What can romance novels tell us about ourselves or our relationships?
Romances teach us what we like and what we don't like. This sounds simplistic or obvious, but think about it this way: romances are about intimacy, relationships, and emotions -- what Nora Roberts calls a "hat trick of easy targets." When you read about people who appeal to you emotionally or intellectually, you've identified something that you like - and you can probably identify that same trait in the people you like. Nowhere is this idea more evident than in the sexuality present in romances. There are few places where women can learn about their own sexuality safely, without judgment or rampant airbrushing. But in romances, the female experience, both emotional and physical, is front and center.
Romances are about women's lives, in all their variations, so readers see pieces of themselves reflected in the romances they read. It's easy to learn from that experience.
Can a romance novel actually help SAVE your relationship?
I think so. Relationships need care and feeding and regular maintenance: that's courtship and, conveniently, courtship is what romances are all about. A steady diet of them helps teach how courtship is something that applies to the daily routine of being in a relationship.
Romances also remind us of the amazing and magical feelings of finding someone you're attracted to, finding out that that person likes you as well, and discovering how amazing it is to fall in love. Courtship is an expression of all of those emotions: it's communicating to someone in words and in actions that they are important to you. As Theresa Medieros says in the book, "Never stop courting your spouse." Courtship doesn't end with marriage. It's the secret to a happy ever after: never stop reminding the people you love that they are loved and important to you.
Sometimes, it's easy to forget to remind people that they are important, and to treat them like they are. Romance, as I say in the book, is not about big gestures like chartering a yacht and filling it with chocolate candy (ew). Romance is in little gestures that communicate that someone's happiness is important to you, like filling your partner's car with gas, or putting soft, dry clothes by the door before your husband gets home on a rainy night. Feeling loved, and hearing that you are loved NEVER gets old!
What about people who say it's just porn for women -- and may be even harmful in the fact that it offers women unrealistic fantasies?
If someone picks up a romance novel expecting the same content as on late-night pay-per-view, they are going to be miserably disappointed. Moreover, it's not an unrealistic goal at all to be reminded that you as an individual are worthy of happiness and love just as you are, and that the people who love you exactly as you are do not expect you to change into some unattainable standard of perfection. Romances are not about two very perfect impossible people falling for each other. They are about real people with flaws and rough spots meeting the person who is perfect for them.
Plus, as Robyn Carr says, the question isn't so much what we learn from romance as what we learn NOT to want and not to accept. When we see characters get out of abusive or damaging relationships, we cheer. When we see heroes and heroines resisting manipulative or cruel people, we're encouraged. There are so many examples of what not to accept in a partner, as well as examples of what does make a happy relationship. Those are expectations that are far from harmful, I think.
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What have you personally learned from years of reading romance?
I learned to appreciate the parts of my relationship with my husband that are happy and healthy, and to spot quickly when something isn't right. We met when we were 17, and have been married for 11 years after being together for 6 before that. We've known each other half our lives, but even with that familiarity, we change as we grow older, as we've had children, as we've matured (somewhat). Those changes bring differences to our relationship and we have to be able to talk about them. The dangers of the Big Misunderstanding are on full display in romance, and I've learned to avoid it as much as possible!
What are three lessons romance novels can teach the rest of us?
1. That you must be the heroine of your own life. You are worthy of love and happiness exactly as you are, but finding your happy ever after is your responsibility. It doesn't just show up in the driveway and ring the doorbell.
2. That being able to recognize a good partner and a good friend are invaluable skills that improve with time and experience.
3. That happy endings take work, require problem solving and optimism, but are attainable for everyone.
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