SEPTEMBER 11, 2018
This short story appears in the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. 19, Romance
STEP 1: THE MEET-CUTE
It is 1994 and I am nine years old, wet from the pool. It is twilight. My grandmother sits in the screened porch in the damp August heat of Bradenton, Florida, smoking and drinking Pepsi with ice and reading a paperback novel. The cover is disguised with a jacket made out of faded pastel floral cotton.
She is alone, but she is laughing so hard she’s actually wiping tears from beneath the foggy lenses of her glasses. I have only seen her laugh like this a few times before, after a filthy joke or a salty story from her childhood. Outside my cousins are pretending to drown each other, but she doesn’t notice. She only has eyes for this book.
“What are you reading?” I ask her.
She jumps, startled at my presence even though I had been noisily pulling pretzels from a large plastic tub with my wet, pruny fingers and grinding them into dust with my molars. She closes the book, moving it out of sight. “Oh, it’s just trash. But it’s too good.”
These words will come to haunt me, but in that moment all I feel is avarice. I want whatever is behind that faded cloth cover. When she gets up to make dinner I snatch the book, and slide it out from beneath its disguise.
A muscled, shirtless man looms over a woman in a torn teal dress in a field, surrounded by clouds. He is resting on one chiseled forearm, and her head is thrown back as she grips him in ecstasy, all in glorious, hand-painted technicolor.
It’s called Whitney, My Love, and it’s a historical romance novel, or what my older cousin calls, in conspiratorial whispers, “one of Grandma’s sex books.” We have already discovered her secret stash, shoved into the lowest shelf of her bookcase. We sometimes paw through the books, looking for snatches of words like “his thick, steely rod” and “her quivering mound.” I never imagined reading one myself.
I can still remember how it felt: the sweat mingling with the chlorine drips of my hair. The smell of pretzel salt and cigarette smoke and the musk of a cheap well-loved paperback. The feeling of wanting.
Most romances begin with a thunderclap of attraction, and mine is no different. I wanted to read that book. I needed to.
STEP 2: INSTALOVE
Romance readers sometimes complain about “instalove,” a common trope, in which the lovers in the story are so instantly besotted that there is no tension, only immediate, head-over-heels desire. These readers argue for the pleasures of a slow build, contending that such sudden ardor is impossible. It isn’t; it happened to me.
That night, I stole another historical romance from my grandmother’s bookshelf and read the whole thing in one frenzied gasp, practically choking for air. Somehow I knew in my bones what was going to happen, and yet despite that sense, my heart was still in my throat. Partly, it was the presence of sex on the page. But as a well-practiced juvenile paperback thief, I had read plenty of graphic sex in stolen Stephen King and James Michener novels. What shook me about this book was the thrill of vicarious intimacy — the agonies and pleasures of falling in love on the page. It was exciting, funny, sweet, heartbreaking, redemptive. It was also impossible to put down. It was too good.
I fell hard and fast.
I spent the next five summers of my life reading every single historical romance I could get my hands on. I didn’t go to camp. I didn’t play sports. I lived far away from my friends. I read hundreds, if not thousands, of romance novels.
STEP 3: THE IMPOSSIBLE CONFLICT
If the path to permanent happiness came as easily as the initial attraction, romance literature would not exist. The conflict in these books is animated not by the fact that the lovers should be together, but that they should not. If they were suitable, there would be no plot. They must therefore find each other as terrifying and wrong as they do compelling. Seemingly insurmountable forces must stand in the way of their love.
For me, the unsuitability of my newfound love was evident from that very first meeting: the cloth cover. The secret bookshelf. The pleasure coupled with an implicit shame, as thick and murky as the humidity.
Oh, it’s just trash. But it’s too good.
These books were clearly something I was not supposed to read, let alone like. They were something a grown woman with seven grandchildren had to read in secret.
As an adolescent, that feeling of transgression was part of the appeal. Locking the door and reading in the dark was the most delicious form of rebellion available to me at the time. But as I grew older and more self-conscious about who I was — my taste, my class, my body, my intelligence — the stigma around romance novels suddenly started to feel more real and threatening. I sensed the unsuitability of these books in the mocking tones of friends who would side-eye my paperbacks, marvel at the covers. Inevitably, they would read the sexier bits aloud.
“It’s like porn, right?”
“Isn’t this, like, really dumb, though?”
“My mom says only trashy girls read these.”
I lacked the language to disagree, and would not have dared even if I had known what to say. An outright admission that I read them as anything more than a lark or a joke would have said something about me that I did not want said.
This cooling grew into a freeze when I went to college and learned that the books I had devoured in my youth were not just thought of as trashy or distasteful but also considered problematic in ways I had not contemplated as a child. They valorized primogeniture, colonialism, white supremacy, misogyny. They at best excused — or at worst romanticized — sexual assault.
While that was not true of all of them, I could see it was certainly true of some I had read. The presence of this kind of darkness in what I had previously thought were light and airy books was both revelatory and uncomfortable for me. I sensed that this dismissal ignored the themes of female pleasure and empowerment that also ran through the books I had grown up with, but I couldn’t figure out how to talk about it. And so I said nothing. I let the love of my life slip away.
If I still felt a pang of desire every time I passed a racy cover at a bookstore, I marked it down to nostalgia.
STEP 4: SECOND CHANCES
Ten years after disavowing romance novels, I gave in and bought one. I was stressed out from work and wanted to read something happy and fun.
It was A Week to Be Wicked by Tessa Dare, and it was hilarious and sexy and it kept me up all night.
It was too good.
But this time, I was an adult woman with a bookshelf full of classics and prestige reads and years of wine-drenched book club discussions behind me. I knew who I was and was confident in my opinions and taste.
I knew, firmly and without hesitation, that what I had just read was not trash. It was, in fact, amazing.
It only took one. Suddenly, I was back to devouring historical romance novels.
The books I discovered as an adult were just as compulsively readable as I remembered. This time, I read them with an eye to their politics, and I fell in love in a different way. These books were not in contravention to feminism; they were in conversation with it. These were not damsel-in-distress tales that rewarded toxic masculinity with unexamined true love. Instead, I found they modeled female ambition, male vulnerability, enthusiastic consent. They centered around women who demanded pleasure and agency. Almost all of them were about female power in some sense, and many used history to criticize the present through the lens of the past. It seemed to me that these books took the agonies of living as a femme in the 21st century — rape culture, sexual harassment, diminished opportunities for pay and advancement — and blew them up to their most dystopian extreme: a legal system in which only wealthy white men had rights.
I began to reread the books I had grown up with, and realized that romance novels had not really changed; the culture had. Romance had definitely evolved, along with our changing ideas around consent, feminism, and inclusion, but they had always been working their way through the anxieties of womanhood and power. This was their magic. This was why reading them as a nine-year-old felt like discovering witchcraft. Reading them as an adult felt like hearing a collective female primal scream.
This was a literature of feminine rebellion, resistance and pleasure, sold covertly in Walmarts around the nation, their radicalism disguised by ladies in fluttering ballgowns.
STEP 5: THE “I LOVE YOU”
In every romance novel, there comes a point when one of the lovers realizes they are terminally and irreconcilably smitten, but does not yet realize they must change in order to become worthy of the object of their affection.
I wanted to write my own romance novel. I knew I wanted mine to be fierce and feminist but also hilarious and compulsively readable. The kind of book that made you weep, stay up all night, sharpen your knives. Just too good.
And so I did what one does when one writes a novel: floundered, wrote in circles, quit a hundred times, and finally found the voice and the plot and the characters. I wrote feverishly and polished relentlessly until I had a gleaming manuscript that borrowed from all of my favorite childhood tropes: a tortured duke, a marriage of convenience, a shattering secret, a stirring of hearts on a moonlit ride on a horse.
It also riffed on the feminist politics of the romance novelists I most admired as an adult, and their obsession with power dynamics. I wrote about an 18th-century woman with an intense desire for power and personal agency, who, due to legal and financial circumstances, can only fulfill her ambitions by marrying. I cast this choice as a painful concession of her autonomy rather than a “happily ever after.” I made her marriage a failure that left a gnawing, aching hole in both lovers until the heroine discovers that her husband — on the surface a wealthy, controlled, hard-hearted alpha male — is secretly submissive. I was exploring the idea that power exchange within intimacy could be palliative for an intractable power imbalance outside of it. That there are people who can understand what we want and ratify our deepest needs outside what is sanctioned by law or church or the overweening power of convention.
When I was done, I liked my book. But something about it seemed off, and it bothered me in a way I could not quite put my finger on. I assumed that it was a technical problem with the plot and that feedback from agents and editors would help locate whatever eluded me.
STEP 6: THE BLACK MOMENT
That summer curdled into autumn and the country was suddenly wracked by a reckoning. You couldn’t open your phone without seeing #MeToo. We looked back on our past jobs, dates, and relationships, and revisited what we had suffered, or perhaps been guilty of, or simply failed to notice. It felt like we were suddenly, as a society, unpacking courtship rituals, rethinking office politics, airing how much violence and coercion had been pushed aside, rationalized, and excused.
I realized then what was wrong with my romance novel. I had placed the burden on my heroine to be ferocious in a world stacked against her, but I had not placed a similar burden on my hero to use his considerable power to understand or relieve her struggle. Worse, he employed her, and their affair took place with her entire future riding on his patronage. In this context, sex scenes I had positioned as consensual now struck me as ethically dubious, if not predatory. I had always sensed this dynamic was unsettling, but I hadn’t been able to name why. Now I saw it clearly: I had written an entitled, abusive boss and excused his behavior by giving him a spanking fetish.
In romance, we call this “The Black Moment”: the point at which the factors that create both the attraction and the tension between the lovers becomes irreconcilable.
In all the years I had spent agonizing over whether romance novels were sufficiently feminist, writing one made me see that I had been asking the wrong question. The question should have been: Did I live up to my own ideals? Did I expect as much from myself as I expected of the literature I read?
STEP 7: THE GRAND GESTURE
In romance, the cataclysmic breakdown between the lovers leads to personal growth and change. To save their love, they must battle their demons, see more clearly, and become braver. Something radical must happen to prove they have fundamentally changed. Often, this takes the form of a grand gesture.
For me, that gesture was ripping up my book. I stared at the evidence of my biases and assumptions on the screen, and did something we can’t always do in real life: hit delete.
I made my heroine’s employer a woman. I made my hero aware of his unfathomable privilege as a wealthy man and a duke, and sensitive to the damage he could cause in exercising that privilege without care. I allowed my heroine to name the reasons for her rage and made my hero want to listen to her and believe her.
My hero still gets his happy ending. But now I believe he is worthy of it. By asking more of him, I also asked more of myself.
STEP 8: THE HAPPY ENDING
This is the only real rule in romance: the story has to end happily.
In the end, I wrote a more romantic book. I also fell deeper in love with the romance genre. Because it is joyous and light and sexy and thrilling, yes. But also because it provides a space where we can examine courtship rituals, power within intimacy, both the light and dark sides of romantic love — and ask ourselves what we believe to be swoon-worthy.
Someday, when I am sitting on a porch with a paperback, weeping with laughter, and my grandchild asks what I’m reading, I will say this: “It’s a romance novel about people who fall in love and become better for it. And it’s just too good.”