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Reader Apologia Reflux, Or the Virtues of Discriminating Reading

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A continuation of our Romance Apologia posts*. . .

Part One, in which the author argues for the rights of women to read whatever the hell we want

One of the things that gets my back up is patent dismissals of whole genres of writing:   literary fiction is pretentious and boring; Romance is trash; comic books are for kids, etc.   It especially frustrates me when these comments get made by readers who are often on the receiving end of those judgments.

I was raised and trained to love books, pure and simple, to relish reading for both its entertainment value and its educational potential.   I have spent many a season trying to coax college students who don’t share my passion into trying just one more book to see if it will light the fire that continues to fuel my own reading habit.   And just knowing that in this time of Google-researched party conversations and sound byte politics that people are still reading actual books (as shaved down in page numbers as they may be) is a comfort to a literary dinosaur like me, a person who truly believes that life is richer and more enjoyable when experienced in the company of books.

That said, I believe that people read for many different reasons, and that depending on our stage in life, we are attracted to different kinds of reading.   So while I find myself silently screaming when I see entire libraries of books dismissed wholesale as inferior reading, I am equally frustrated at the insistence that if we don’t read certain kinds of books, we’ll be inferior human beings.   Because it seems to me that is just another way of insisting that there are inferior types of reading.

And am I imagining things, or is this insistence that we should be reading certain types of books more often applied to children and to women, as if we are incomplete, somehow, if we haven’t read some magical assortment of books that will make us stronger, faster, smarter than we are now, although perhaps not too strong, fast, and smart.

The irony as I see it is that women educated in the United States, at least (my only personal frame of reference) have read a gigantic pile of Great Books over our years of schooling, and we’ve read at least as many of these Books as our male peers.   So why is it that, after 20+ years of guided reading, of summer reading lists and high school essays on Dickens and college Shakespeare classes, we’re still being told that if we don’t read certain types of books we’re missing out.   That if we limit our reading type past a certain age, to, say, primarily books written by other women, we’ll be limited women, limited human beings.   That an admittedly limited adult reading selection equals limited beingness.

As Jane said in her column last week, women are faced with “the penis and its thought process” in virtually every aspect of our personal and professional lives.   And while the penis and its thought process can be a wonderful thing, it can also be a little overwhelming, a little – dare I say it – limiting in its perspective, too.   So I understand women wanting to break away from the penis perspective, to seek concentration in one kind of reading because we already get the male perspective (yes, I realize I’m simplifying, that there are other layers here, like race, that we can talk about, but I don’t really think the critiques are being made as a way to raise women’s race consciousness).

My understanding is that women already read almost twice as much as men across every interest area and genre.   And yet we’re still barraged with questions about why we read Romance or SF/F or YA or whatever, and we’re still suspect, somehow, if we eschew certain types of fiction for other types (namely choosing female-penned books over male-written ones).   And yet we’ve likely read just as many classics as our male peers in school, and as adults we read on average twice as many books as men do.   So with those kinds of comparisons, why shouldn’t we be able to read whatever we want without being told we’re “missing out”?   Just because we may choose to limit what we read (and I never remember getting hassled when all I read was literary and classic fiction) does not mean we will be limited in ourselves.   In fact, some of this limited reading may itself be a POV corrective, a balancing of views.

Beyond that, how many of those who think we should be reading differently are as well-read, as diversely-read, as women who are working through several books as week, even if they mostly or entirely come from one genre?   Why aren’t the men who only read Dave Barry or the latest athlete’s autobiography being labeled as limited in their reading choices?   At what point can we acknowledge that reading Romance – or any genre fiction – is real reading?   That women who choose to read only one type of book aren’t lacking something they have no interest in experiencing within the context of pleasure?

I could not imagine my life without the experience of reading, and my own tastes are quite broad (I still favor a lot of lit fic and straight history, for example), but not everyone shares my reading interests.   So what.   Do I think, sometimes, that some of my Romance reading friends are missing out because they won’t try some non-Romance books I found riveting?   Sure.   But I feel the same way about my non-Romance reading friends who won’t touch any of the Romance novels I’ve tried to get them to check out.   But missing out on a great book is in the eye of the reader, and missing out on any book doesn’t mean one is missing something as a person.

Ultimately, my feeling is that until men have been as immersed in the vagina and its thought process as women have in the penis and its thought process, we cannot accuse women of being too limited in their reading choices for only liking one type of book, especially if it’s written by other women.   Once men have logged as many hours with female-authored books as women have with male-authored ones, we can talk seriously about limited reading choices and their effect on our character.   Until then, I think our critics should be asking us for book recommendations rather than telling us what we should be reading.

Part Two, in which the author suggests that society still sees what women read as a moral issue

Out of one window I can see the garden, those mysterious deepshaded arbors, the riotous old fashioned flowers, and bushes and gnarly trees.

Out of another I get a lovely view of the bay and a little private wharf belonging to the estate. There is a beautiful shaded lane that runs down there from the house. I always fancy I see people walking in these numerous paths and arbors, but John has cautioned me not to give way to fancy in the least. He says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency. So I try.

I think sometimes that if I were only well enough to write a little it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me.

The narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s late Victorian novella, The Yellow Wallpaper, is married to a physician who has prescribed the infamous “rest cure” for his wife – a remedy for supposed “nervous disorders” in women that prescribed complete confinement to bed for up to months at a time.   Weir Mitchell, who pioneered the “cure,” believed – as many men of his time did – that women could easily become mentally overtaxed and therefore hysterical from too much intellectual stimulation (or any work that took them beyond the domestic sphere of home and family).   While it seems insane now, the rest cure fit within a cultural paradigm that viewed women as vulnerable vessels for dangerous ideas.   Victorian women were often deemed better suited to reading than writing, and best suited to reading those things that would guide them toward moral restraint and feminine submission.

The moral dimensions of reading are as old as, well, reading (or in the olden days, listening), not only because we learn things from reading, but because some of our most important documents aim to shape our character in some way (politically, spiritually, etc.).   One of the great ironies, of course, is that Weir Mitchell, and all those like him, could not suppress the growing tide of women fiction writers, who, through the 19th century, were very well-read by women of the middle and upper classes, and who were exploring the limits and boundaries for women, both inside and outside their novels.   In fact, the Anglo-American tradition of women gathering over some domestic task like quilting to share a new novel of sentiment or sensation started in the 18th century and is still going strong, even if our places of reading and conversation have expanded and diversified considerably.   And the opportunities for subverting any messages of submissive cooperation were present from the beginning, too, albeit less overtly embraced than they are now.

The notion of Anglo-American women as consumers can be tied explicitly to the development of the middle class, but the idea of women as vessels into which moral teaching can and must be inculcated is at least as old as recorded history (the Bible, anyone?).   Together, woman as commercial consumer and woman as malleable vessel become woman as passive reader, an image that is as inaccurate as it is stubborn in our social subconscious.   I suspect that most, if not all, patriarchal societies are driven by some version of this image – of woman as receiver – and it winds through some of the most insistent concerns about what women are reading.   And Romance readers are well-versed in these sentiments, whether they come in the form of warnings about the effect of fantasy on the feminine mind, disapproval of what is viewed as morally repugnant sex, or suggestions that reading one kind of fiction is too limiting.   We may not consciously associate these concerns with the old moral worries about what women are reading, but that doesn’t mean they are without cultural power to induce guilt in women readers, or a sense that we have to downplay or apologize for what we read, hide it, even.

Reading has always had a moral dimension, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.   Some of our highest ideals are captured in prose, in fiction, even, and we certainly learn a great deal about what it means to be human, to belong to a society, to function among other societies, and the like, from reading.   But women have always borne a greater burden in the appraisal of moral correctness, being seen as simultaneously too weak of mind to resist “bad” ideas and not malleable enough of spirit to conform to “good” rules.   And for all that we have challenged and successfully transformed numerous aspects of patriarchal thinking, as long as we feel the need to excuse, apologize for, hide, or otherwise explain ourselves and our reading choices, we’re going to be limiting ourselves, not by what we read (or not), but by our unwillingness to unabashedly claim our right to read whatever the hell we want.

*From Jane, for the record, I have nothing against Mike Cane who sort of, kind of, inspired my first post because the Romance Apologia post is meant to be in jest.   He’s a good guy.   The comments of others inspired Janet’s post which is to explain the purpose of the Romance Apologia post.   Love ya, Mike, if you are reading this.

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

61 Comments

  1. Anion
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 05:53:53

    It will take some time to formulate my thoughts, but The Yellow Wallpaper is my favorite short story ever. Absolutely chilling–especially for a writer.

  2. Ann Somerville
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 06:26:20

    That people assign a moral dimension to what women read shouldn’t surprise anyone, since a moral dimension is assigned to everything a woman does or is. When Germaine Greer, of all people, can write an op ed piece in an allegedly serious British newspaper about how ghastly Michelle Obama’s acceptance speech dress was, I despair of the penis-bearing ever taking us seriously. We don’t even take ourselves seriously.

    For me, personally, I spent the first thirty or so years of my reading-capable life hoovering up everything, including a good deal of stuff read because I ought to, not because I wanted to. My bookshelves heave with books bought for study, curiosity and reference.

    Now, in the undoubted last half of my life, I read what I enjoy. I’ve done my bit. I’ve read more serious books than the average person, let alone the average man, will read in their lifetime. I honestly don’t give a monkey’s nipple what anyone thinks of what I write and what I read, and while I kinda wish I had the energy and interest to read more ‘worthy’ books than I do, the simple fact is, I don’t. I read non-fiction on the internet, I know how to look anything I don’t know, I’m au fait with current affairs and current opinions, and that’s enough. I did my intellectual Olympics, taking in the thoughts of dead white males, and now I’m working on the creative me, giving out the thoughts of a living white female.

    I suspect that most, if not all, patriarchal societies are driven by some version of this image – of woman as receiver

    More, woman as interpreter rather than creator – ironic since we make the babies. Women are not allowed to instigate, to ground break. Anything worthy we read or enjoy, should be made by men. Women only remake, repackage, and dumb down for our weakened intellects. The same is true for art as it is for literature, as for architecture and science as it is for quilting. Men want to keep Romance and other women-centric genres as non-serious subjects of derision because that fits in with their view that women can’t ever create anything truly unusual or new.

  3. Jessica
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 07:09:27

    Great post, Robin. Sorry in advance for the long reply, but here goes:

    I had never personally connected some of those dots, and your point that educated women who have been exposed the the canon do know exactly what they are missing is excellent, as is the point (echoing Jane’s) that in a phallocentric society, it’s nice to have an oasis of vagocentrism.

    (I kind of feel that way about my Jewish household. When people ask me why we don’t have a tree at Christmas, I point out that we are all exposed all the time to Christianity in our 99% Christian community — we can hardly avoid experiencing Christmas every time we leave the house — never mind turn on the TV — , which is fine, but gives rise to our desire to make our home an identifiably Jewish space).

    Women are never just women, of course — they’re women of a certain race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. I can see why you’ve bracketed race in this discussion, but I think the application of moral ideals to “femininity” is always stratified by race and class, among other things. So the idea that women are constitutionally unable to act on moral principle, for example, looks different when it’s directed at immigrant working class women, for example, versus educated middle class women. Some women historically have been excluded from the category “human”, never mind “defective moral agent”.

    I would also be interested to know to what extent the same critique (“you should be reading literature“) is directed at women of different economic classes, and educational levels, for example. Leisure, and fiction reading, as you point out, was for a long time a middle class luxury. The aa in my department, for example, has two jobs in addition to her full time gig with us. She doesn’t read, because she can’t. And if she did, I wonder if the criticism would be more along the lines of “shouldn’t you be earning money instead of spending it?”.

    I’m also curious about how we work the economic benefit to capital of women buying books into this discussion. Doesn’t female support of the trade paperback industry have to work in some way for patriarchy?

    You’ve got me thinking and procrastinating already and it;s not even 7:00am here! Thank you!

  4. Christina
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 08:15:27

    I don’t let anyone criticize me for my reading choices. I read whatever I want, even if one particular genre fills my bookshelves. But, I do chastise myself for neglecting to venture out of the romance area and look for other types of reading. Periodically, I’ll include a horror, historical or general fiction book(s) into my book buying/rental cycle so that I can experience different types of authors and storytelling.

  5. joanne
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 08:36:46

    Still feeling that explaining one’s educational background, telling the history of what you’ve read and/or what you’ve experienced in the world of books BEFORE you say “and now I enjoy romance books” is more of a problem then the opinions of people that question what or who or what gender of author you read.

    1.4 billion dollars in 2007 was the quote I remember (from a Nora Roberts tv interview) on the amount of money spent on Romance Novels.

    That’s the power.
    That’s the permission.
    That’s enough said to shut up anyone who doesn’t have a clue about what’s making the publishing industry’s world go round.

    I also point to Jane’s #4 of “F@## You” to anyone who thinks I’m not reading what I’m suppose to be reading.

    I’ve fought all the battles for women’s rights that I’m going to fight. It’s your money, your time, your freedom of choice. Enjoy it and for those that have something to say about that choice: see Jane’s #4

  6. GrowlyCub
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 09:21:46

    I haven’t had anybody hassle me lately, but my reply would be ‘how many books have you read this year? I’ve read over 300 so far and there’s a month left.’

    My most aggravating experience in this matter is with my mother, who reproves me for reading ‘trash, while she’s merrily reading Pilcher, Steele and romance novels among her ‘literary fiction’, but since they come in hardcover from the library they cannot possibly be the same ‘trash’ I buy and read in paper back.

    While I concur with Robin’s analysis, I feel it’s not only romance readers apologizing and a phallocentric societal outlook but also other *women* undermining our efforts to be considered worthwhile readers that keep us from making progress.

    Women are trained to apologize. It’s the seemingly instinctive response to perceived attack and it’s occasionally hard to not react as deeply ingrained. I’m not convinced that ‘Fuck off’ is a viable answer, since that just seems to make us sound shrill (insert rant here on how a man who shouts is considered powerful, and a woman hysterical) rather than forceful.

    Mostly my personal answer to this is to not interact with those people who consider themselves superior to me because of their reading choices.

    I thought a comment re e-readers on a recent thread interesting because without the visual cues of cover and title, a bit of that automatic, presumptive ‘eww, trash’ may be mitigated and may eventually lead to a lessening of the stereotypes. It will be interesting to investigate that question 10 years down the road.

  7. Susanna Kearsley
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 09:47:41

    Just to prove we’re not the first ones to fight this particular fight, here’s an excerpt from Jane Austen’s “Defense of the Novel” that I posted a while back in that heated discussion about romance novels that sprang up on the blog “Obsidian Wings”…

    “Let us leave it to the Reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens, — there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. “I am no novel-reader — I seldom look into novels — Do not imagine that I often read novels — It is really very well for a novel.” — Such is the common cant. — “And what are you reading, Miss –?” “Oh! it is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language. Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.”

    You can read the whole thing at
    http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/janeart.html#dfensnovl,
    together with the explanation that in Austen’s day most of the writers of novels were women and most of the reviewers were men, “So in Jane Austen’s day, novels actually had something of the same reputation that mass-market romances do today”.

    The more things change…

    I find that, as I’ve aged, I’ve stopped apologizing for what I read or don’t read. My tastes are my own, and I slogged through enough awful stuff in my school years to feel that I’ve earned the right now to read what I enjoy.

  8. Jennifer Estep
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 09:52:26

    Frankly, as an English major, I got enough of “Great Books” in college. I even had a class called “Great Books,” of which I only enjoyed a couple. Moby Dick, Scarlet Letter, Great Gatsby … I’ve read all those and dozens more. Just thinking about Ulysses by James Joyce still makes me shudder.

    It’s probably because I read so many of these so-called “Great Books” in college that I enjoy genre fiction so much now. Because romance and mysteries and thrillers and fantasy books are fun. They’re entertaining. And that’s ultimately why I read — to be entertained. If I learn something along the way, great. But I still want a good story first and foremost.

    Plus, I like happy endings — and very few “Great Books” end well. Usually, everyone dies, commits suicide, is executed, or is trapped in a loveless marriage or some other horrible situation. The only “Great Book” I can think of right now that has a happy ending is Huck Finn, which is one of the few that I enjoyed.

    I don’t care what people think about what I’m reading. It’s my time and money, and I’ll use and spend it as I see fit.

  9. Natalie
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 09:57:13

    My husband is sometimes criticized for reading a lot of fantasy/SF by his mom, so women aren’t the only ones :)

    Personally, I just don’t pay attention. I read fiction for pleasure and in different genres. I think women just stop apologizing and continue vote with their dollars/pounds/euros as consumers.

  10. Sherry Thomas
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 10:11:50

    I only read Great Books.

    That is, any book that can hold my notoriously fickle attention for 400 hundred pages.

    I set aside unfinished romances, mysteries, SFF, lit fiction, etc. with equal frequency. Whatever the genre, exceptional-to-me books are rare.

  11. Katie Sheffield
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 10:19:46

    Actually, around these parts (“these parts” are a conservative Christian boarding academy my husband teaches at), boys are critiqued just as much as girls for their reading habits. Boys are critiqued for reading fantasy or science fiction, and girls are critiqued for paranormals and romance. It’s not as much a gender issue for these administrators (whom I disagree with, obviously) as it is a question of general trashiness.

    Also, when I hear reading complaints, I hear “boys don’t read at all” and “girls read trash.” Both of these are similar complaints, and fall under the general complaint of “nobody reads the classics anymore.” To these complainers, reading isn’t enough, unless you’re reaching the classics.

  12. (Jān)
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 11:40:57

    Great post Janet. The fact that many people still insist that what women read be held up to a moral standard angers me to no end. They becomes concerned if a romance novel contains something slightly unacceptable to them, be it an overly alpha hero or a too sexually forward woman, as if the readers are so easily influenced that the mere mention of something in a book would sway them to act differently. I’ve seen it everywhere, including in comments on Dear Author, and it’s insulting. Books for men are rarely held to those standards.

  13. Jill Sorenson
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 11:52:45

    until men have been as immersed in the vagina and its thought process as women have in the penis and its thought process, we cannot accuse women of being too limited in their reading

    Brava! Great post. This line is pure gold. Men immersed in the vagina! I love it.

  14. Ciar Cullen
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 11:53:29

    I’m not sure “books for men” aren’t judged. There may not be a website where non-romance reading guys chat about their favorite genre (perhaps fantasy), but I’ve heard plenty of people dismiss male reading as the equivalent of football fantasy. Because they are too stupid to care about anything else (that’s the subtext).

    If you’re a grown-up, you get to choose what you want to read, watch on television, etc. Hopefully by that time you’re also old enough not to worry about what people say regarding your choices.

    I try to encourage my young female relatives to try some nongenre and nonfiction. Not because I think they are making poor moral choices, but because I believe they will benefit from wider exposure to many kinds of literature.

  15. Jill Sorenson
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 12:01:15

    My comment got lost…

  16. Jill Sorenson
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 12:16:48

    Oh, there it is. Thanks!

  17. Tracy MacNish
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 12:38:55

    You know, it’s funny. I’ve been reading romance since I was 12, and writing it since my early 20′s. I’ve got three novels published and another on the way, and not once, not ever, has anyone criticized what I read or write.

    At least, not to my face.

    I see so many of these posts that defend romance and the women who read it, and so I recognize that obviously this is a problem – but I’ve yet to see it.

    Am I the only one who is blithely cruising through life without the crushing weight of others’ disapproval?

  18. Meljean
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 12:52:45

    I haven’t completely gathered all of my thoughts about this, which means that this will either be long and incoherent or short and incoherent, but my initial reaction is: this is why I’m so freaking glad that there is discussion and analysis of romance in this community.

    I don’t apologize for reading romance anymore, but — especially as a huge fan of the Presents line — I also can’t ignore that even though the books are written by women for women, the penis-view is celebrated within the text just as much as emotion is, so it never actually feels like an escape from it (“escape” is probably the wrong word). And I’m picking on Presents just because that’s what I’ve been reading a lot of lately, but I think it’s still true of many subgenres (particularly historical and paranormal). Although the HEA comes about through a recognition of the value of love and family, the transformative/healing presence of the heroine, and so on, she’s then put in a position where everything except emotions are defined by the hero: her status and her class, in particular, often her sexuality — and if she has an occupation or career that she will continue after marriage and the HEA, there is almost always the sense that the hero gives permission to continue with any role outside the home.

    Sometimes I do feel like apologizing for reading (and enjoying that) over and over. Not, I should clarify, that my problem is a heroine who chooses to stay at home (because that’s a choice she made) but that her role never seems to celebrate the mother/wife role except that it provides an heir to the patriarch of the family. So she’s got her tiny sphere of happiness and true love, but physically and socially, it’s still all about the penis-world.

    So she’s got a little vago-bubble, readers have got their vago-bubbles in the form of certain books and genres…except that the bubble does get bigger, I think, just by discussing and acknowledging what we like about romance and what makes us uncomfortable/angry. (This isn’t going to turn into a group hug, I swear.) Just that it’s a lot easier to NOT be apologetic for being the only one on the bus with man-titty on the cover if you know there are a bunch of other women reading and intelligently discussing the same book, even if it’s only online.

    The internet: one big vago-bubble.

  19. Meljean
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 12:55:42

    I think I used the p-word too many times in my post, and it was gobbled.

  20. rebyj
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 13:17:20

    Love the post, I grew up in a rather strict fundamentalist religion where I personally know women who got beaten for reading “trash”. Reading fiction makes a woman “want things she otherwise would never have heard of” ” it takes her away from the important task of being in submission to her husband and God” and ” it’s a tool satan uses to tempt righteous women away from God. (Yeah it still makes me puke too). The same thing was said about soap operas and fashion magazines.

    I know one woman who as a teen LOVED to read, she got married and her husband forbid her to read fiction and now she’s 50 years old, still married to the butthole even though he’s cheated (God forgave him don’t ya know) and hasn’t got to read much in over 30 years. If he has to go out of town she hits the library so fast and so hard Librarians’ heads spin. I still remember seeing her bruises when he found a couple of harlequins hidden in her closet about 20 years ago. It’s sad but it happens a lot in “gods”name .

    I got fussed at and yelled at but my ex wasn’t too bad about my reading. I took my kids to the library often and encouraged their reading and he liked having smart kids to show off. I had to keep it on the downlow though so as not to start a fight. Since my divorce , my reading has jumped up probably 500% in volume lol and so far their meanass, misogynist “God ” hasn’t struck me dead. Some day I hope to achieve a TBR pile, that’s my idea of heaven!

  21. Claudia Dain
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 13:45:47

    Tracy, I’m the same way. No one has ever said a word to me about what I read or write.

    I’ve given this so much thought over the years and have come to the conclusion that the reason no one is willing to beard this lion in her den is because I don’t apologize. I can’t remember being trained to do so, so think I likely wasn’t, and it’s not in my nature (yes, I am a woman!) to do so. My opinion is that when people sense you will fight back, they avoid taking you on in the first place.

    Of course, I also think that defending what I do with my life is a weak position to be in. I don’t defend and I don’t explain and I don’t need anyone’s approval or permission. You do what you do and I’ll do what I do. With *that* attitude, I’ve never had anyone take me on about anything! And I like it that way.

    It’s for these reasons that the original post feels like a beautifully expressed generalization to me and not the Truth. Certainly my grandmother, born in the 1890s, and my mother, born in the 1920s never experienced what was described. My grandmother was the daughter of Swedish farmers and emigrated to America, alone, as a 17 year old girl. She was not college educated. My mother was college educated as a nurse. I’m adopted, so this take-no-guff attitude probably isn’t genetic, but I do think it very well may be environmental. As my daughter is the same way, I like to think so.

  22. K. Z. Snow
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 13:46:00

    There are plenty of stinkers in the ranks of Great or Classic Lit’rature. I studied it for thirteen years.

    I’ve always encouraged kids to read — read, read, read — as long as their reading diet doesn’t consist entirely of “adult” material, chatroom babble, or sloppily composed text messages. All books written with a modicum of respect for the language have some value.

  23. MaryK
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 14:19:10

    @Claudia Dain: If you had been raised in a family that disapproved of “frivolous” reading, you’d have learned to defend, explain, and seek approval and permission. Behaviors learned in childhood are hard to overcome.

    My family is also fundamentalist, but their disapproval is a “crushing weight” and not violent. I think organized religion has a lot to answer for in the way it treats women on a basic level.

  24. Hortense Powdermaker
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 14:28:40

    Great essay, Janet. I agree that women seem to be judged more harshly for reading romance than men are for reading “thrillers” or mysteries (when both genres have their share of crap) because we live in a phallo-centric society. As Jennifer Crusie writes:

    Romance fiction was critically doomed the minute its writers said, “We’re going to make our central characters female, and they’re going to win” because our society still buys heavily into the female=secondary bias.

    But I think the vein of misogyny runs deeper. Romance is also dismissed because it is written primarily by women, who can't seem to convey emotions as well as men:

    Read of love and the emotions arising from it, and suddenly and surprisingly you realize that mostly you are reading novels written by men, not women, or so it seems. Now I’m not talking of fantasy romances — dashing executives and swooning young women — or bodice rippers, but of the mazy pleasantries and miseries of average people in common settings who unite, sometimes briefly, in triumph and tragedy. That’s the “love story” genre…Name the women who have written love stories, not romances, in recent years. Maybe some Alice Munro and Terry McMillan and a very few others. But men. Love stories, as opposed to romances, actually go back to the Greek tragedies. Certainly Shakespeare had a way with them.

    That's from Martin Arnold of the NY Times. He suggests that “love stories” by men illuminate the mysteries of peen-emo, and that's why women buy books like Message in a Bottle and Bridges of Madison County. They're windows into the male soul.

    Whereas women writers like Annie Proulx have nothing to offer.

    The comments at 17, 20, 21, and 22 illustrate Jessica's point (at 3):

    the application of moral ideals to “femininity” is always stratified by race and class, among other things

    -

    one of the other things being religion.

  25. Janet
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 15:12:47

    Wow, such great comments!

    Just a couple of comments myself here:

    @anion: The consensus seems to be that the Yellow Wallpaper’s narrator is suffering from post-partum depression, which IMO makes her treatment even more chilling. Of course, the Victorian physicians loved to perform autopsies on women in which they insisted that the uterus traveled around the female body, making women “hysterical” (drawing the link decidedly between Hyster and hysteria).

    @Ann Somerville: I definitely think the key is “taking ourselves seriously” and perhaps even faking a confidence that isn’t there in refusing to continue in the apologetic mode until that sensibility is as habituated as the impulse too apologize. I don’t see this so much as about men v. women but about *perspectives* that favor patriarchal interpretations of male and female roles, perspectives that women hold as jealously as men in many cases.

    @Jessica: You are so right about the many qualifications at work here that I didn’t acknowledge. I had a tough time writing this, trying to qualify things with “middle class” or “Anglo-American,” when at some points I simply felt I should be writing “white middle class women from England or America.” So instead of making it *so* qualified I decided to sketch some broader specifications, thinking that gender, race, class, geography, ethnicity, education level, etc. are all intersecting planes, and that while they interact differently in different situations and individuals (for example, I can imagine an African American woman arguing that she needs haven from a normative white perspective, perhaps even before the male perspective — and my personal belief is that class trumps all in the end), that at some level the category “female” shares a certain set of assumptions within a patriarchal culture. But absolutely, there are so many nuances that shift the terms and qualities of this issue that were simply beyond what I could do in an already too-long piece. BTW, have your read Lori Merish’s Sentimental Materialism: Gender, Commodity Culture, and Nineteenth-Century American Literature?

    @Susanna Kearsley: Thanks for posting that! There are many diatribes by late 18th and 19th century male critics about the “dreadful” books women were reading, and even George Eliot wrote a famous piece that has been the subject of much debate as to its intentions and insinuations.

    @Katie Sheffield: do you think it makes a difference that you’re talking about kids v. adults? Do you think the criticisms have anything to do with the fact that we tend to see kids as impressionable, no matter their gender? Or would it be the same, do you think, in regard to adults?

    @Meljean: I struggled a lot internally when writing this with the question of how much Romance was itself phallocentric (hope to miss the spam filter with that!), and OMG we could have a very long conversation on that question! I finally came to a place where I figured that the question of how phallocentric Romance is remains an open question, because some readers will find certain lines or books very celebratory of the big P as dominant, while other readers will find subversion of that perspective. And then there’s the question of whether certain books are simply forwarding phallocentric premises or re-interpreting them (which relates to the prior point, I think). Anyway, YES, I think that’s such an important point you raise, but I’m not quite sure how to resolve the issues you raise!

    @those of you who have never felt criticized for your reading choices: More power to you for refusing to let others define the quality of your experience! However, as much as I believe that we create our own reality, at some level in this collective reality we perceive there is an experience of gender bias that may not touch all of us directly or equally, but that is still visible, IMO. It’s like when someone from a racial minority will insist that they have never experienced racism. While that may be absolutely true, IMO it doesn’t invalidate the idea that there are culturally-programmed racial biases that infiltrate our society in myriad ways. Can we redefine these biases? Definitely. And sharing the ways each of us might find to do that can be very empowering, IMO. Because society is, ultimately, a collection of individuals, and how each of us claim our power will make a difference in the long run to what we value and embrace and project into society. But IMO we still have a bit of a ways to go before we can stop talking about gender, race, class, and other circumstantial differences as immaterial to social and political equity.

  26. Janet
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 15:22:49

    Oh, Hortense Powdermaker’s comment reminded me of one more point that occurred to me when reading the comments: men may be criticized for reading “stupid” stuff, but is that really compatible to the kinds of criticisms leveled against women and what we read? In other words, are people really worried about what all that (fill in the blank) is doing to the male mind? I mean, I sometimes wonder about all the blowing up of bodies and the other really hard-core violence in male-oriented cinema, but our society seems to blithely accept violence while freaking out at the barest hint (har har) of sexuality. IMO we seem MUCH more concerned as a society with how women are/aren’t/should be/might be influenced by what we read and see than we are about how men are/aren’t/should be/might be influenced by what they take in through films and books and the like. And that the nature of the concerns are quite different, as well.

    As for the issue of religion, one of the things I believe has happened since 9/11 is that America, at least, is much more conscious of religion as an operative category of ideology than we were a decade ago. How this is playing out — via the culture wars, the anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic sentiments, the normative dominance of Christianity, etc. — is mixed, but I wonder if religion is becoming the new race in America.

  27. Meljean
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 15:35:47

    I don’t think it can be easily resolved either, and I think there are many romances that could be read as either affirming the status quo or being subversive, depending on how you come at it.

    I think part of the problem is that even the terms used are so gender coded (emotion/intellect, for example) that it’s difficult not to fall into a trap of reinforcing socially constructed ideas of what belongs to a vago-centric and a penile-centric world, even when you’re (general “you”) are trying to argue that the assigned codes are … well, assigned. I cringe that I put “emotion” in the vago-bubble, because it feels like I’m oversimplifying and just reinforcing those artificial m/f codes (which I absolutely don’t want to do, yet end up doing anyway.)

  28. Claudia Dain
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 15:51:29

    Janet, I think you make a brilliant observation when pointing out that society is a collection of individuals and how claiming our power makes a difference for all.

    This is why I always make the point when I can that I have never been attacked and also never feel the urge to apologize; that is the only reason. It’s only that I want to be a tiny point of light for all the women who say, “This is how it always is with us; this is who we are.” Not all of us. There is hope in that, I think.

    Mary K: I was raised in a family that disapproved of “frivolous” reading. I first discovered romance novels at 22, the year after I graduated from college with a BA in English. I don’t dispute your perspective at all, just want to clarify. My innate nature is definitely at play here.

  29. Mike Cane
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 16:25:11

    Oh, don’t worry about me, I can take it. I’m just surprised this is still being discussed!

    Just today I came across a blog post that savaged the Twilight series of books. I know nothing about them except they feature vampires and are popular with a certain age group. Vampires aren’t my thing, though, so I doubt I’ll be reading them.

    What I said about that post in Twitter today is that the books could very well be junk, but I won’t condemn them. I’ve read *plenty* of junk in my life. Thousands and thousands of comic books (when they were still aimed primarily at children, back in the early 1960s, and then started moving older, to late 1970s).

    I think it’s better for people to read “junk” than *not read at all*. And one’s person’s “junk” is someone else’s gold. As you wisely put it:

    >>>That said, I believe that people read for many different reasons, and that depending on our stage in life, we are attracted to different kinds of reading.

    Did I *insist* Jane read other than just women? I don’t recall and am too lazy (and PC really is too weak) to go look. I hope I simply stated she was limiting herself by doing so. And I don’t believe I made any judgment about Romance.

    All that said — and all that’s been said by others — I still have to wonder if some of you would still feel the same about your favorite Romance books if you discovered the female name on the cover was actually a man doing the writing.

    See, for me, it’s the writing, not the writer. I hope that clarifies my position.

  30. Jill Sorenson
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 17:53:01

    I still have to wonder if some of you would still feel the same about your favorite Romance books if you discovered the female name on the cover was actually a man

    I wouldn’t burn them or throw a tantrum or anything, but I might feel a little weird. When I buy romance, I’m looking for a woman’s perspective. Can men write believable women? Sure. But I think women write/understand female fantasies better than men.

    Here’s another thing: women are a power minority. Having a man write under a female pen name is like cashing in on the advantages of being a woman without dealing with any of the disadvantages.

    I’m not saying it’s wrong to use a male/female pen name, or that I have a right to know the sex of an author…I just prefer to read books written by women.

  31. Heidi
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 20:59:49

    hmmm… my dh now tells people that I read porn because of the covers of some of my romances. And yes, some of them are erotica. I don’t really care. I was an ENGLISH MAJOR in college, and yes I intended the caps, and read all the “serious” literature (yuck) so I feel that I deserve a break. Anyone that had to read “Waverly” (and you know who you are) by one of the early English novelists – can’t remember the author — and god forbid, “Pamela,” the first novel, should forever after be allowed, no, ENCOURAGED, to read whatever the heck she wants. I even sometimes…gasp!…stop reading a book if it annoys or bores me. Yes, I do. So there.

    Heidi

  32. Jessa Slade
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 21:06:01

    Like a lot of you, I read the classics. I only liked Black Beauty :) Not a man’s or woman’s story, but a horse’s.

    I don’t much care who wrote it or what the subversive subtext is, if it’s a good story I’m happy. And I’m okay with apologizing/explaining romance; it’s a chance to convert the uninitiated.

    We (and by we I mean male and female, black and white and various brown, religious and non, LGBT or extra) aren’t yet equal and we’ll never be the same. I assume phallo- or vago-centric stories will always be around to explore the differences. And I’m okay with that.

    To geek out for a moment, Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.

  33. Ann Somerville
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 21:26:39

    I feel that I deserve a break.

    Amen, sistah

    I even sometimes…gasp!…stop reading a book if it annoys or bores me. Yes, I do. So there.

    You evil little rebel, you :)

  34. Janet
    Dec 02, 2008 @ 23:25:33

    @Claudia Dain: For me it’s a balance between recognizing my own social privileges (white, affluent upbringing, ridiculously overeducated) and the way they smooth my path and believing that personal empowerment is available to everyone. I believe that it is, but I also believe that those who have had a much rougher path than mine deserve to have their obstacles acknowledged. It’s a fine line between validating the force of social inequities and re-victimizing people by dooming them to being defined by those inequities, IMO.

    @Mike Cane: I can’t remember specific comments, so I don’t know what you said in the other thread. I just remember a few comments about that post around the “limiting yourself” view, and it sparked a conversation between me and Jane about how fiction that represents a female perspective can be a haven from a pretty phallocentric societal context in which most of us live and work. For me, at least, there’s a difference between limiting one’s reading choices and limiting oneself, which is what I was trying to distinguish in my post today.

    As to your question about male-authored Romance, I believe that gender perspective is not necessarily tied to the gender of the writer. Since I read across genders and areas of interest, I’m not so much attached to the gender of the author, as I am to the perspective I believe the book offers. But I do understand how some readers might feel otherwise and might feel ripped off by authors who, as Jill Sorenson put it, claim the advantages of being female for commercial gain, without suffering the social negatives of that gender role. It’s the flip side of one of the issues we were discussing last week, but no less important, IMO, in its possible impact on reader trust. I have no problem with male authors using female pen names, but if male authors *pose as women* to build reader trust that they are getting a woman’s perspective in their books, that strikes me as quite different.

  35. D-Day
    Dec 03, 2008 @ 01:27:26

    Janet – Great post! I love that you brought up the Yellow Wallpaper, what a great story that is. Your post made me think of a great counterpoint novel The Story of a Modern Woman, by Ella Hepworth Dixon. Because seriously, how awesome is this:

    Like Hepworth Dixon herself, the novel’s heroine Mary Erle is a woman writer struggling to make her living as a journalist in the 1880s. Forced by her father's sudden death to support herself, Mary Erle turns to writing three-penny-a-line fiction, works that (as her editor insists) must have a ball in the first volume, a picnic and a parting in the second, and an opportune death in the third.

    Written in the 1880′s for the “Ladies’ Pictorial” serial, it shows women struggling with what to write, what to read, and how intimately it ties in with who we are.

    Love this book.

  36. Ann Somerville’s Journal » Blog Archive » Editing women
    Dec 03, 2008 @ 04:03:19

    [...] And Robin/Janet of Dear Author has made a not entirely unrelated post : …am I imagining things, or is this insistence that we should be reading certain types of books… [...]

  37. Anita C.
    Dec 03, 2008 @ 05:29:13

    May I add my 2 cents, about Great Books? I have two shelves of them (they’re literally those Reader’s Digest faux leather ones!) and I have read some of them, and I do intend to read more. I’m afraid I hear in your wonderful freeing defiant words, above, that you’re not ashamed of what you read (that’s good) and you’re not ever intending to allow any dead white males’ works to entice you ever again (not so good). You’re happy to wallow in romance or SF/Fantasy, thrillers, mysteries, etc. and you’re never surfacing again. So there!

    Please reconsider. I love to wallow, too. R, SF, F, T and M make up a great percentage of my reading. But without the discipline of a professor and a test schedule it’s so easy to slip into bad habits – and I propose to you that reading only the easy stuff, the happy ending stuff, is a bad habit, and opens us up to the world’s criticism. I address this gentle criticism to both men and women. The non pleasure reading books I try to include a few times a month are not Cicero’s works, or Shakespeare’s, necessarily, but a biography, perhaps, or a literary book that sounds interesting, or perhaps a nonfiction book about politics. How can we claim a well-rounded reading life if we read only the books that repeat the stock romantic characters (well written, of course) and the stock romance plots (no matter how embellished, I believe Jayne Krentz once wrote that fiction encompasses only 7 plots, endlessly embelished in different ways).

    That is certainly not the way we’d want our children’s reading to develop as they pass from 1st to 12th grade. We want them to spread their wings and try a little of every kind of literary style. And even if they deceide they only want to read (and maybe write) SF for the rest of their days, choosing books occasionallly from a larger pool can only make them smarter, more well rounded, and more prepared to deal with the world.

    And I contend that it works the same way with us (middle-aged, female readers who got tired of The Little Minister, Great Expectatioins, Main Street, The Little Prince, My Antonia, The Red Badge of Courage, Pride and Prejudice, The Scarlett Letter). We’re free….and we can read what we want….and fuck you if you don’t like it……BUT….doesn’t it feel good to know we still have things to learn?

    In my late 20s, a dozen years after I rushed through Barrie’s “The Little Minister” because it was on my “bound for college” reading list, I accidently picked up this novel again one Tuesday night, in my livingroom. I only remembered the exciting romance between the handsome, humble (height-challlenged) Scots minister and the “lady” staying at the manor. They met secretly in the woods and worried that they’d be found out. It was a work night and I started it about 8pm. When I next looked up it was 4:30 am and I had to shower and leave for work in about 2 hours. And I was stiff and the house was cold. But I was so enchanted by the story all over again that I had to read the whole thing- not the romance, so much, but by the beauty of the words and, most of all, by all the social and political ramifications of the story. The deep cultural division between these two people I hadn’t realized before; the resentment of the parish members because of the careless actions of the rich English visitors who only came to the manor one month a year, yet caused havoc, made decisions that profoundly affected the farmers, and then repeated all the profits, which were sent back to the actual owners of the land, in London. I simply couldn’t beleive I’d missed all this political background and the implications, on my first read, but I’d been about 15 then, and only saw the love story.

    So, yes, I do approve of reading the Great Books, and rereading them, even, and encouraging our children, by our example, to read them. Our book club reads two classics a year, two nonfiction, and then eight novels (which is our favorite kind of book). But looking back over our 7 years of reading last month, it gave us a great deal of pride and accomplishment to read out the classics and the biographies we’d read these past years. Like an unhealthy person who’s incorporated a lot more fruits and vegatables in her diet in the last year, and has dropped 14 pounds, we don’t exactly remember exeriencing a lot of joy and fun as we read those books (ate all that cauliflower), but we sure like the pride and accomplishment we feel, and the sense of being better read and better educated about……say, the English landowner relationships that existed in the U.K. in the 18th century? And, by the way, hasn’t that issue come up a number of times in some of the regencies I’ve read? Yes, I do believe they have. I understand them a little better today than I would have at 20. And that’s a good thing.

  38. Ann Somerville
    Dec 03, 2008 @ 06:23:49

    That is certainly not the way we'd want our children's reading to develop as they pass from 1st to 12th grade.

    See, I’ve been there, done that. I’m 46. I have three university degrees, one with an English major. I’m *done* with formal learning, and reading for anything but enjoyment. My reading habits have absolutely nothing to do with any child on the planet. I won’t read any more ‘classics’ just because it’s a good idea for kids to. I have no children, educate no children, and care not the least what parents of children think of my reading.

    Robin isn’t talking about what is good for children. She’s an adult (a highly educated one, just like me) talking to other adults. Why should we, as educated adults, force ourselves to reread what we already have read and understood. I am not going to spend the rest of my life going over past achievements. Life is simply too short.

    doesn't it feel good to know we still have things to learn?

    Anyone who is under the illusion that anything else is the case, is mentally deranged. But I don’t feel it’s the best use of my remaining years to revisit old challenges. I could reread Dickens, Eliot, the Brontes, and have a greater understanding now, I suppose. So what? How does that profit me? I won’t be any smarter, I won’t have created anything. I will have just forced myself to do something that may or may not be enjoyable, for little point. I would rather experience new stories, new ideas, new writers.

    As for happy endings being ‘bad’ for us – I lost the ability to enjoy wallowing in a miserable story when my brother died. I could no longer read poetry either. The reality of terrible grief made the idea of ‘enjoying’ fictional misery, and emotional depths torn from a poet’s soul, utterly repulsive to me. I read and write happy endings because there’s been far too much crap in my life. I honestly don’t give a damn if you think it’s a bad habit because who are you, who is anyone, to tell me something so harmless is ‘bad’? You’re actually proving Robin’s original point in your comments.

    reading only the easy stuff, the happy ending stuff, is a bad habit, and opens us up to the world's criticism.

    Men didn’t respect me when I read romances in the original medieval french. Why would they give a toss if I want to spend the rest of my life reading about pretty boys fucking?

  39. Nora Roberts
    Dec 03, 2008 @ 07:48:46

    Anita:

    I read across the board, however… I don’t read because it’s good for me, or because it’s an obligation. I don’t read to set an example to others. I’m a grown woman and I read to enjoy myself.

    I don’t think an adult choosing genre fiction, even exclusively, for her reading pleasure is a ‘bad habit’. I don’t think prefering books that end happily, that celebrate love, relationships, emotions is wallowing in ‘the easy stuff’.

    Bad habits? Easy stuff? I wonder what sort of direction that opinion might take to those of us, like me, who spend all day writing the genre.

    Here’s a bottom line for me, and what it always comes down to. Illiteracy is a stunning problem. With that single factor in mind, every book picked up and read for pleasure is a celebration. If that celebration is a Romance novel, time and time again it’s not a bad habit, but a personal yippee that the book and the reader exist. And that reader has very likely spent the day earning a living and/or taking care of a family and a household and is entitled to celebrate.

  40. CJ
    Dec 03, 2008 @ 09:26:52

    I’m going to jump in here and second Ms. Roberts. I’ll read whatever I want, and to hell with anyone who thinks they can judge me for it. I love to read, and I’ll read just about any good story I can get my hands on. But for me, that often includes romances. I love strong characters who grow and learn and get a freaking happy ending. I don’t always want to the classics, which are often depressing in outcome (“The Great Gatsby”, “The Count of Monte Cristo”). Life is depressing enough, and when I read, I’m looking for something to help distract from that. I’m not going to sit here and keep reading the classics, just because some people think I need to set an example for children.

    Are we telling children they have to read the classics? Unless it’s for school, we shouldn’t. We should let them read whatever they want, be it Harry Potter or “The Crucible”, and just be damn happy they’re reading at all.

  41. Stumbling Over Chaos :: And we’ll keep on linking ’til they take our linkiness away
    Dec 03, 2008 @ 10:03:08

    [...] very amusing Romance Apologia Scale on the Dear Author blog that I mentioned last week? Yesterday, Dear Author had an excellent (albeit lengthy) post that went further into the attitudes and beliefs behind Romance [...]

  42. Susanna Kearsley
    Dec 03, 2008 @ 10:05:04

    Anita, I do hear and understand what you are saying, but I’m afraid I’m with Nora.

    Lord of the Flies, Brave New World, and 1984 are considered “classics”, but having suffered through them all in one hellishly depressing year at school (during which the teachers were wondering why we students seemed so suicidal) I’ll admit I have no desire to re-read them.

    Not that I don’t read the “classics”, but I choose the ones that give me joy and pleasure, not the ones that — as you put it — taste like cauliflower…

    I also, as it happens, do read Cicero and Shakespeare for pleasure, along with the biographies and non-fiction books about politics that you mention, but then I’ve always been a little odd like that, and politics was my major at university :-)

    I think the message of your post is that we shouldn’t turn our backs on dead white writers altogether, and I don’t think anybody here is saying that we should.

    I think what we’re discussing is that, if we choose to read books that are written from a feminine perspective (whether by a male or female writer — Nevil Shute’s books and James Hilton’s have a feminine perspective, I would argue, and they all have happy endings, too), and books that deal with human interaction and relationships and leave us with a sense of satisfaction at the end…if this is what we choose to read, then that’s our choice, and we should be allowed to make it without being viewed as somehow lesser beings than we ought to be.

    As Sherry Thomas said upthread, what constitutes a “Great Book” is not how the academics rate it, but how it can draw you in, immerse you in the story so you lose all track of time while you are reading it.

    Those are the books I treasure, and the ones I want to read.

  43. Susanna Kearsley
    Dec 03, 2008 @ 10:23:31

    (OK, so Nevil Shute’s On the Beach doesn’t have a happy ending, but the other ones do! :-)

  44. GrowlyCub
    Dec 03, 2008 @ 10:28:59

    You all are so much more articulate in your replies to Anita. I’m afraid my initial reaction was to refer her to option 4 on the scale.

    I also do not have kids, and if I had, I’d much rather they read female-positive books (we could argue that there are indeed some romances that are not, but that’s a different topic) than so much of the misogynistic, phallocentric, female-has-to-be-submissive-and-has-no-worthwhile-opinion indoctrination that is called ‘literature’ which teaches people that only bad endings are acceptable in life and that if you are happy you are somehow morally suspect.

    If I want to be depressed, I turn on the news. No need to spend my free time reading so-called ‘Great Works’.

    I’m also over-educated – 2 master’s degrees (Teaching Foreign Language and Translation) and bits and pieces of 2 other degrees (Business Administration – okay that one was a mistake from my misspent youth and I was smart enough to give up on it, grin, and Genetics, in which I wish I could get a Ph. D., but there are no universities close enough with good programs and moving is not an option), because I do indeed believe in life-long learning. My current non-fiction reading is a textbook on Cell and Molecular Biology.

    By refusing to read fiction books that are of zero interest to me, I have not abdicated my efforts in life-long learning, I have focused them on where they will do *me* the most good and yes, I’ll feel a ‘great deal of pride and accomplishment’ when I’ve mastered the concepts in that 800 page tome and in between I’ll read 100s of great romance novels with nary a classic in sight besides Jane Austen.

  45. Jane
    Dec 03, 2008 @ 11:18:29

    How can we claim a well-rounded reading life if we read only the books that repeat the stock romantic characters (well written, of course) and the stock romance plots (no matter how embellished, I believe Jayne Krentz once wrote that fiction encompasses only 7 plots, endlessly embelished in different ways).

    Anita, I think this presupposes that well rounded reading is derived from fiction only. In fact, most people read non fiction more than they read fiction. They read news or work related printed matter. Further, reading is not the only way in which to gain “well roundedness.” I think that’s the point of Robin’s article (and it was slightly the point of my own last week).

    Most people I know who are readers consume massive amounts of printed material, some of it fiction, some of it non fiction. My worldview is not shaped solely by the reading I do for pleasure (if it is shaped that way at all). Given the diversity of opinion that I read on this blog alone, it seems that our worldviews are all very different even if we read the same books.

    I only watch a few television shows (mostly the Bravo reality competitions). Does that mean that I am not a well rounded tv watching person and what should I add and why? If not, why does my reading for pleasure material have to also be well rounded?

  46. Shiloh Walker
    Dec 03, 2008 @ 11:35:22

    How can we claim a well-rounded reading life if we read only the books that repeat the stock romantic characters (well written, of course) and the stock romance plots (no matter how embellished, I believe Jayne Krentz once wrote that fiction encompasses only 7 plots, endlessly embelished in different ways

    I don’t read to get well-rounded.

    I read for entertainment, for enjoyment, to research on occasion, to recharge my own creativity batteries, to relax. Yet I still manage to learn a great deal from the romance, fantasy and SF that make up most of my reading material.

    From time to time, I will read non-fic if it’s something in an area I’m researching.

    I skim news columns online. I read blogs. I read the Bible. I read medical/nursing related info when I remember. I read up on things like ADD since it looks like I’ve probably got one child (at least) showing those tendencies.

    These aren’t all necessarily things I want to read-some I read because I want to, some because I’m looking for a bit of info on particular topic, and some (like the nursing stuff) I read because I pretty much need to. Beyond these type of things, reading something just get well-rounded? I’m just not interested.

    I’m all for encouraging people to read if they want to expand their minds. But I’m also all for encouraging people to read just for enjoyment.

    That’s why I do it. My mind gets enough expanding just with living life.

  47. Shiloh Walker
    Dec 03, 2008 @ 11:40:50

    Here's a bottom line for me, and what it always comes down to. Illiteracy is a stunning problem. With that single factor in mind, every book picked up and read for pleasure is a celebration. If that celebration is a Romance novel, time and time again it's not a bad habit, but a personal yippee that the book and the reader exist. And that reader has very likely spent the day earning a living and/or taking care of a family and a household and is entitled to celebrate.

    Big, fat, highlighted and decorated ♦♦DITTO♦♦ coming from me.

  48. azteclady
    Dec 03, 2008 @ 12:39:38

    I don’t know, Anita. I have two monsters erm… kids. One is twenty and change, the other is about to turn sixteen.

    For years and years, starting when the firstborn was about eleven, the three of us would spend hours laying on top of my bed, each one reading a different book. My books? 99 out of a 100 were romances. The kids? Everything from ‘classics for kids’ (Jack London, Jules Verne, Ann Sewell, Louisa May Alcott) to fantasy and science fiction (Harry Potter, early Asimov shorts, CSLewis, etc.)

    Yesterday I was dusting my youngest’s bookshelves. She has Tamora Pierce, Homer, the Bible, Stephanie Meyer and many others there. She’s read the unabridged edition of Les Miserables as well as the Baby Sitters’ Club books.

    My son has read Asimov’s Chronology of the World from first to last page something like six times since I first got it (in fact, had to get him his own copy to take to college).

    And you know what? They have read–and still read–what they read because they enjoy it, just as I read what I enjoy.

  49. It’s bad all over. The publishing industry is no exception. | WriteBlack
    Dec 03, 2008 @ 21:11:05

    [...] Another entry in the growing field of romance apologetics [...]

  50. Persephone Green
    Dec 04, 2008 @ 01:07:48

    People have called me a lot worse than bookworm in my time. I had the reading skills of a high school student at age seven, but I didn’t want to read most adult-age fiction, only mystery ‘tween books and Babysitter’s Club, Bruce Coville, R. L. Stine or Sweet Valley stuff. It was a choice. On the other hand, encyclopedias of all subjects have been my bosom buddies since I was four. I’ve read far more non-fiction than fiction, and I’ve read a LOT of fiction.

    I always told myself that people who scorned women for reading books would be working in McDonald’s someday with no aspirations to move on, and I decided a long time ago to stop caring whether or not others approved of my reading habits.

    Sometimes, when we read short stories in high school, I really enjoyed them despite the fact that they were classics. I chose to read Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Brave New World, and while the endings (greatly) pissed me off, they were books I would have read anyway for the hell of it because the plots sold me. That being said, I can only take one or two depressing books per year now for the sake of my emotional health.

    A mandatory reading curriculum is only for those without the cognizance to value diversity in literature or the shrewdness to actively seek it out.

    As for ‘Great Literature,’ if one more person ever mentions Red Badge of Courage as a classic in front of me, I will find a way to shrivel their genitals.

  51. XandraG
    Dec 04, 2008 @ 11:06:48

    Telling me what to read is like telling me I should be engaging in the domestic pursuits because they’re so much more meaningful and high-minded than sullying myself with work outside the home. It’s patronizing and insulting.

    Anita’s post assumes that nothing can be learned from a book unless it’s been labeled a “classic” (by a white, privileged, male professor, hmm?). Please spare me. I’m not a half-wit. If I want to learn something, I’m well-equipped to use the internet or my public library or even, gasp, contacting a professional in the field. I don’t need to learn my whaling from Moby Dick when I can learn it from documented nonfiction (and watching “Whale Wars” on Animal Planet).

    I, too, have shelves full of Great Books. Most of ‘em have clinch covers. They’ve taught me many very valuable things about interpersonal dynamics, sexual tension between attracted partners, and the nature of that most mysterious and indefinable human emotion, Love. And they aren’t done teaching yet.

  52. Michelle
    Dec 04, 2008 @ 16:59:15

    I’m late to this party. I found Meljean’s comment so thought-provoking that I stopped reading the rest of the comments until today. Perhaps DA could address some of the points she raised about historicals/HP in a longer piece?

    I read tons and tons – lots of nonfiction and lots and lots of genre fiction(majority romance). I read to learn and to be entertained. The one genre that I have a huge bias against is lit fic. I’ve read lots of classics and find some have great stories buried under verbose language (I really liked Red Badge of Courage, but I may have viewed it more as a historical artefact than a story), but I just never read contemporary, literary fiction.

    So, does anyone have any great lit fic novel (I read more for story than style) to recommend? Have I missed any great stories by refusing to read “literary” novels assuming they’ll be hugely pretentious or worse? I can only think of 2 or 3 I’ve read in the past decade.

    I definitely have had lots of folks criticize my romance reading (and sometimes writing) habit. For the most part, I no longer internalize it, but I’m not completely free yet. Approval issues?

  53. Anita C.
    Dec 05, 2008 @ 05:58:18

    Hi, guys. It’s Anita C., the Great Books lover. Gone 3 days and I come back to a bit of a firestorm. Wow! And one from Nora Roberts, even! (Love ya, babe. Your novels are my true classics!)

    About me: I have no children – I don’t even LIKE children, OK? And, I don’t eat cauliflower, I confess. Nor did I lose 14 lbs this year, damn!

    To wit: “Anita's post assumes that nothing can be learned from a book unless it's been labeled a “classic” (by a white, privileged, male professor, hmm?).” Did not say or imply anything of the sort.

    To wit: “A mandatory reading curriculum is only for those without the cognizance to value diversity in literature or the shrewdness to actively seek it out.” Now, that’s true, and THAT’S where school children come in. They need reading guidance. In fact, didn’t I SAY that, and indicate that in adulthood they would be free to read what they liked, AFTER they’d had a taste of other kinds of writing that (as teenagers) they may not have been naturally drawn to. I meant to.

    To wit: “Anita, I think this presupposes that well rounded reading is derived from fiction only.” (from Jane. Is that you – the real Jane?) I in fact mentioned that our book club ratio is 8 fiction, 2 nonfiction, and 2 classics – per year, and gave examples of psychology, bios, etc, as good choices. (And I do a lot of reading in a year, more than just the 12 book group choices.)

    Now I’m going to say something that will REALLY get you stirred up (if you weren’t already)!

    I’m very appreciative of the thoughtful responses above, especially from those who obviously love romance novels and read them avidly, but also went on to mention the other reading you do, how you choose those other books (or magazines or reviews or textbooks), what they contribute to your life and even how they (if they do) intermingle and refresh you as you return to romance reading.

    To the rest of you – who gave me a drubbing for venturing to suggest the value and rewards of expanding the types of books you read (if only a small percentage), I MUST BE COURAGEOUS and stand by my original posting. Romance novels, by their very nature, follow an almost unvarying structure (boy meets girl…..) Writing skill comes in masking or making us forget the structure, and enchanting us so much with the story that we forget its formulaic aspects (are you with me on this, Nora?).

    I won’t back down from my position that we as grownup, educated woman need to open our reading horizons, if only a bit, and allow some other kinds of fiction messages to reach us. I’m speaking from personal experience – I went through 5 or 6 years of reading nothing but romances – NOTHING! I finally woke up to the fact that I was using my escape into the pages of a romance novel as a drug, to avoid dealing with the messiness and unhappiness of my own life. That’s the source of my own strong feelings about striving for balance.

    As for the reader who made this angry comment, whom I evidently infuriated, it sounds like she’s got a whole lot of people and issues pushing at her back; and I suggest she escape these people not only by plunging into the fantasy world of a romance novel at every opportunity, but that she practice the F word every day for 30 minutes, til she gets the nerve to use it. Good luck to her.
    *********
    “Telling me what to read is like telling me I should be engaging in the domestic pursuits because they're so much more meaningful and high-minded than sullying myself with work outside the home. It's patronizing and insulting.”
    *********
    I want to make plain that I loved Jane’s questionnaire and the later essay on the same subject. Very thoughtful and with a lot of good points. I too had a college prof who said “Never be assumed of anything you read.” I just think that those of us who are drowning ourslves in romance, sex, and happy endings to the exclusion of other types of fiction are losing a great opportunity to connect with characters who aren’t as pretty or well educated, or who may not ever see that Prince Charming appear on the horizon. Those books have many things to teach us, as well.

  54. Nora Roberts
    Dec 05, 2008 @ 07:12:54

    Anita, all stories are, to some extent, formulaic. I read a lot of Mysteries. No one ever says hey, you shouldn’t be reading all those Mysteries–and certainly a Mystery novel is based on a structure just as a Romance is.

    ~I won't back down from my position that we as grownup, educated woman need to open our reading horizons, if only a bit, and allow some other kinds of fiction messages to reach us. ~

    See, I have a problem with the word ‘need’. I don’t think grown women should be told they ‘need’ to open their reading horizons. This feels like a lecture, and turns reading into an obligation. I believe they should be entitled to and respected enough to make their own choices. Your choice may be different than mine. Neither are wrong.

    You said you felt, after reading exclusively Romance for a time, you were using it as a drug. That’s you. That’s not everyone else, and I don’t think you should assume others have the same needs or reactions you do.

    ~Those books have many things to teach us, as well.~

    Maybe they do. But reading, as an adult, doesn’t have to be a lesson. It can be simply a pleasure.

  55. GrowlyCub
    Dec 05, 2008 @ 07:24:00

    I’m speaking from personal experience – I went through 5 or 6 years of reading nothing but romances – NOTHING! I finally woke up to the fact that I was using my escape into the pages of a romance novel as a drug, to avoid dealing with the messiness and unhappiness of my own life.

    It’s always a really *bad* idea to infer that just because one feels or behaves in a certain way that the same applies to anybody but oneself.

    I feel very sorry for you because in spite of all your ‘horizon-opening’ literature reading, your world view is so narrow.

  56. Ann Somerville
    Dec 05, 2008 @ 07:29:41

    As for the reader who made this angry comment, whom I evidently infuriated, it sounds like she's got a whole lot of people and issues pushing at her back; and I suggest she escape these people not only by plunging into the fantasy world of a romance novel at every opportunity, but that she practice the F word every day for 30 minutes, til she gets the nerve to use it.

    Anita, spare us the amateur psychoanalysis, will you? It’s patronising and makes you look like a tool.

    I’m so pleased you managed to get out of your Romance-drugged hell and now wander the world evangelising the message of Read Worthy Books, but since your list of worthy books is almost exclusively by dead white men, I’ll pass, because I did dead white men already. Now I want to write about pretty live men screwing. To be honest, that’s no one’s business but mine. That’s me, the well-educated adult female who has no difficulty saying ‘fuck you’ to anyone.

    I just think that those of us who are drowning ourslves in romance, sex, and happy endings to the exclusion of other types of fiction are losing a great opportunity to connect with characters who aren't as pretty or well educated, or who may not ever see that Prince Charming appear on the horizon.

    I’ll take answer no. 4.

    No – I’ll say it out loud. Fuck you. And that high horse you rode in, too. You and Germaine Greer both.

  57. Gennita Low
    Dec 05, 2008 @ 09:03:57

    Anita,

    We all have our own life experiences and we’re all different. While you may think reading romance is a drug during bad times in your life, some of us may be reading romances and getting something else out of it. I see nothing wrong with reading romances during personal challenging times, by the way; our genre is meant to be uplifting and positive.

    My question to judgmental people would be to ask them why they don’t widen their horizons and read romances instead of judging the readers who love them? Because I think “grown up, educated people” should be open-minded about widening their horizons and allowing the idea that reading is not just about collecting mental medals.

  58. azteclady
    Dec 05, 2008 @ 09:07:01

    Anita sayeth,(bolding mine)

    we as grownup, educated woman need to open our reading horizons, if only a bit, and allow some other kinds of fiction messages to reach us.

    Why?

    I mean, doesn’t that statement presuppose that we grownup, educated women have already allowed a whole lot of other messages–fiction and otherwise–into our minds?

    So why would we need to do anything we don’t chose to do? Don’t get it, myself.

    But hey, it makes you happy to force yourself to widen your reading horizons, more power to you.

    Me, I’ll make my own choices, thank you very much for your (unsolicited) input.

  59. Jane
    Dec 05, 2008 @ 09:20:49

    @Anita C.: Yes, it is me Jane, of Dear Author. I think that the idea that there are other types of fiction than romance that can teach us things also presupposes that we are learning things from romance novels. Robin and I have engaged in spirited debate whether romance novels actually perpetuate societal customs, norm them, or merely reflect them. I am of the latter opinion. To the extent that you can learn anything from fiction requires more than one reading experience. It requires study and analysis and to that end, I am not interested in spending my time deconstructing the Iliad even if I had enjoyed reading it.

    I view reading as a pleasure activity and nothing more and I don’t think that reading has to serve as anything more than that.

  60. TL Boehm
    Dec 18, 2008 @ 13:39:33

    I wholeheartedly agree. We should be able to read across genres as we desire.

  61. black hattitude
    Sep 11, 2009 @ 02:49:26

    Great post. This line is pure gold.

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