I’ve known since I was six years old that I wanted to be a published author, but in my teenage years I was incredibly vague about the kinds of books I wrote. In retrospect it’s so obvious that my first novel, written when I was fifteen, is a romance, but at the time I murmured comments about writing stories about “real people” with “real problems” and “real life situations”. I’m not sure if I was already aware of a stigma attached to romance novels, and if I was, I don’t know where I picked up on it as I’d never even glanced at the “Romance” rack in the library, always heading straight for the ambiguously named “General Fiction” section. In spite of this, every one of the novels or stories I wrote in my teen years contained a fairly large romantic element.
Although I’d read plenty of novels that contained love stories of some kind—everything from The Princess Diaries to Little Women—it took me a long time to admit that my preferred genre was romance. As my teenage years progressed and I became more aware that I was definitely both a reader and writer of romance novels, I tried even harder to hide this from people. I don’t remember any of my teachers or family making over comments against romance novels, but something must have filtered down to me as I remember making disparaging comments about friends who read “girly books” or claimed Jane Austen was their favourite author. I don’t think I’m ever going to be a die-hard Janeite, but I have developed a bit of a reputation for being an expert on “girly books”. And I’m slowly learning to embrace this identity.
My husband doesn’t read romance novels—besides the ones I write—and I can probably count on one hand the number of books we’ve both read and enjoyed. Off the top of my head, 1984, Eugene Onegin, The Monk and Heart of Darkness are the few books we share similar opinions on. Our taste in books is so different that nearly all of the books I wanted to donate to charity after finishing my degree were the ones he wanted me to keep so he could read. I won’t be getting rid of Gulliver’s Travels any time soon, apparently. Very rarely do we recommend each other a book to read, but he understands why I love the romance genre so much. Simon often asks me about the book I’m reading and we’ll share stories back and forth about why we’re loving or hating our current read.
We do enjoy the same TV shows, and this has allowed me to demonstrate how satisfying a successful romance or love story can be, without forcing him to read a couple of Harlequins. Whether it’s Castle and Beckett from Castle, or Stanley and Mimi in Jericho or Victor and Sierra in Dollhouse, we’re generally both cheering when the hero and heroine finally get together, or shouting at the screen when they miss their chance due to some silly misunderstanding. But that final, satisfying moment when they finally admit their feelings for each other is always worth the wait, and it makes the journey all the more enjoyable.
I’ve heard people say that romance novels are unrealistic because the relationships always work out, and there’s always a happy ending. That escaping into a world where love always prevails is dangerous, because that’s not how it truly is in real life. Honestly? I need escapism. Maybe not all the time, but there are days when I don’t want to read or watch something that won’t end happily. Happy endings don’t always exist in real life, but that’s why we need them in fiction—to give us hope. The constant reminder that love can prevail gives us the push we need to continue being optimistic in our daily lives, and to make it past the hard times.
It’s okay to need to read a book with a happy ending. During the winter months I generally don’t read anything but happy books, as my Seasonal Affective Disorder does not make it terribly easy to read novels where everyone loses their loved ones and the hero is killed on the last page. The month before I got married, I remember borrowing an audiobook from the library and eventually setting it aside because I was feeling discouraged that everyone in the book was in an unhappy marriage. I did eventually finish the book, but at the time I decided I’d be more positive in the stressful weeks before our wedding if I wasn’t listening to stories of miserable relationships.
For me, reading romance novels is not a guilty pleasure. They help me stay positive during tough times, and they’ve made for some of the most satisfying books I’ve encountered over the past couple of years. If I can write the kind of love story that has the reader cheering (silently or out loud) when the hero and heroine finally get together and keeps a smile on their face after they’ve closed the book, I’ll be equally satisfied.