In Defense of Bodice Ripping

Clearly this guy works out.


Hi, my name is Natalee, and I read romance novels.

I can hear it now. “Those books,” you sneer, “are full of misogynistic so-called heroes and simpering, spineless heroines that only perpetuate a negative stereotype of women. It’s anti-feminist.”

You are so, so, wrong.

Romance novels are the only genre of literature that is written by women, for women and about women. The heroines of today’s romance novel are anything but simpering and spineless. They are bold, brave, successful, smart, and witty, they never cower from the hero and come in all shapes, sizes, and ethnicities.

If you aren’t reading Romance novels, you likely know someone who is. Romance novels account for over $1.3 billion dollars in book sales, more than any other literary genre. According to Simba Informational Estimates for the year 2010, the next closest in high sales is the Christian/Inspirational genre at $755 million. Classic literary fiction only accounts for $455 million – not even half the romance revenue. According to the New York Times, romance novels are the “fastest-growing segment of the e-reader market”. The Romance Writers of America – the official non-profit trade association of romance writers – states on its website that “74.8 million people read at least one romance novel in 2008” and that “Romance readers are more likely than the general population to be currently married or living with a partner.” That blows that whole lonely-cat-lady-in-a-puffy-paint-sweatshirt” image of romance readers out of the water, doesn’t it?

I could sit here and throw statistics at you all day, but that wouldn’t really make my point. What I’d like to share with you is the personal story of a romance reader – my story.

It all started twenty years ago, when I was a fourteen year old girl. I had accompanied my mother to the Salvation Army thrift store at N.W. 10th and Penn one afternoon while killing time waiting to pick my dad up from work. It was a rainy day – the perfect kind for reading – and I, being the rabid bibliophile that I am, unfortunately had nothing on hand to read. So, I meandered back to the used book section and started browsing the selection. As is typical in any thrift store, most of the offerings were pulp or romance. Skimming through the collection, I saw a title that caught my eye. I would love to tell you what the title was, but I’ve forgotten it in the ensuing years. After reading the synopsis on the back cover, I knew that this was the book for me, despite having never read a romance novel before. The hero in the book had the same name and profession as a pop star I had a crush on at the time, and the idea of losing myself to the fantasy of a romance with him via a literary tale was irresistible. The book was one of the 200 or so page Harlequin series, so it took very little time to finish. The bedroom scenes were fairly tame, but it was the first time I’d ever read about the female orgasm, or heard a floral description of the male anatomy. To say I was intrigued would be an understatement.

I’m very fortunate that my mother never forbade me from reading any book I wanted to. I was reading true crime books at the age of ten, so she certainly was not going to ban me from reading romance. I became hooked very quickly, and since romance novels are cheap and available, it was easy and affordable to supply my “habit”. Through the years I have graduated from the simple, low-key Harlequin and Silhouette novels to full-blown erotica on occasion. My favorite of all the romance genres is the historical, especially those set in the Regency period. Not only do these novels satisfy my Anglophile curiosity about the customs of upper-class British society and the history of the day, but I also always enjoy a story about a strong heroine defying conventional roles.

Another recent favorite is the sub-genre known as paranormal/supernatural. These romance novels feature vampires, angels, ghosts and the like. Ironically enough, I’ve only recently read the one traditional romance novel that most girls and woman start out with: “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen. Sure, I’d seen the BBC movie version with (dreamy sigh) Colin Firth a million times, but I used to find the Victorian vernacular difficult to read. I’ve since read Ms. Austen’s entire collection and I adore the way she wrote her heroines and her wry dialogue.

Romance novels can actually be quite educational. Stop snickering, I’m serious! Any author worth their salt makes sure to research the background of their characters and the setting(s) the novel will take place in. The best books are the ones you can tell were well-researched. When you read them, you are transported to that place and time. You can “see” the scene unfolding in front of you. Romance novels are no different. Nora Roberts-one of the best-selling fiction authors of all time-performs detailed research for each one of her novels, (especially the crime novels she pens under the pseudonym, J.D. Robb for her “In Death” series.) If an author’s research is sloppy, their readers will call them on it. More than once I’ve known the correct answer to some random trivia question because I read it in a romance novel. If I stated that I learned a bit of history by reading “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes”, you wouldn’t bat an eye; but if I said I learned the same fact by reading a Loretta Chase novel, you would doubt my knowledge or ridicule me.

A romance novel is no different from any other kind of fiction, except than it appeals to a broader audience. I would consider the dime-store detective/crime noir books of the 30s and 40s to be rather trashy and misogynistic (and okay…fun) by today’s standards, but I would in no way use them to judge the great fictional crime novels by modern authors such as John Locke and Carl Hiaasen. Extend the same courtesy to the pulp romance of today.

Also: romance novels are a way for teens and women to become more knowledgeable about sex and their bodies. Many young teens are too embarrassed to ask their mothers about the details of sex. Sure, we’re taught the basic biology, but that in no way prepares you for what to expect your first time, or any time afterward. We’re basically told that “Yes, it may hurt the first time”, and that’s about it. Through romance novels we can learn about things like having your mate use foreplay to prepare your body for intercourse and how to make it more enjoyable for both partners. This knowledge was invaluable during my first sexual experience. Having that vital knowledge helped me to not be afraid of what was happening with my body and to inform my partner (my then-boyfriend-now-husband) of what he could do to ease my discomfort.

Most romance novels do not promote promiscuity – they teach women to take control of their sexual wants and needs and share them with their partner. Reading romance novels at a young age didn’t make me want to have sex and give up my virginity early. In fact, the love stories themselves encouraged me to hold out until I found someone I loved and cared for who loved and cared for me in return.

I also learned that a man should love your intelligence, strength, and sense of humor in addition to your cup size. Reading these stories can allow a woman to explore fantasies in her mind that she would otherwise be too shy or intimidated to try or bring up with her partner. Many women have stated in online blogs and forums that reading romance novels has actually spiced up their sex lives by getting them thinking about sex and fantasizing about their partners while reading the love scenes between the hero and heroine. Women are more “mental” than “visual” when it comes to sexual stimulation from outside sources, so if it makes you feel better to call romance novels “porn for women” go ahead; just don’t be shocked when I call porn “romance novels for men.”

Lest you think all women that indulge in a romance novel habit have unrealistic expectations about relationships and men from reading this genre, let me assure you: we’re not that stupid.

We’re perfectly capable of separating fact from fiction in our lives. In fact, I would argue that more readers of J.R.R. Tolkien have a harder time separating fiction from reality than the average romance novel enthusiast. We don’t dress up, play games, or go to conventions as our favorite characters. Instead, we’re busy being mothers, wives, doctors, lawyers, IT techs (me), and leading normal, everyday lives. There’s nothing wrong with choosing the genre we love for escapism. We’re intelligent, capable women who just like to indulge in a little mind candy every now and then.

For further proof, allow me to direct you to the site, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. Their tagline reads: “all the romance, none of the bullshit”. “Smart Bitch” Sarah Wendell and her cohorts review and discuss various romance novels with honesty and wit. They will break down the good, the really, really bad and the fabulously great novels out there. They have even published their own novels about the subject of romance novels and what you can learn from them.

You don’t have to start reading these books for yourself (although, why not?!), but at least stop mocking those of us who do. The world is a mean enough place without having to defend my literary choices to someone who knows nothing about the subject. Oh! One last thing: if you actually are interested in checking out romance novel to see what I’m talking about, there is no greater novel I can recommend than “Lord of Scoundrels” by Loretta Chase. This book is considered in many circles to be the best romance novel ever written. You won’t regret it!


6 comments to “In Defense of Bodice Ripping”
  1. Hi Natalee. Great topic, great article and I commend you for defending your reading choices. I spent 8 years of my college career studying genre fiction and have a masters of professional writing (yes, that’s really a thing). That’s simply to say that I absolutely sympathize and when it comes to books, it’s really difficult to say that any one genre is not worthwhile, even if it’s not your cup of tea. Romance isn’t my cup of tea, but I’ve read some great romance novels. I always enjoyed Jude Deveraux.

    That said, I take issue with two points that are largely unrelated to your core message but I feel I must share. First, is that by virtue of being written by women, a book or genre is not automatically feminist. There are many females in the public and political eye today that prove on a daily basis that simply being female doesn’t make everything you say and do a feminist act. There is a great deal to criticize in the romance genre on this level and it’s a discussion that SHOULD be had. That does not mean that you or anyone should feel compelled to shun the entire genre. Romance novels–even bodice rippers–can be written for women by women and for the good of women (and I’m sure many are).

    My second issue is your attempt to justify your literary choices by disparaging another. I have a solid career, dress nicely, I’m well-spoken, socially competent and an excellent public speaker. I also play D&D on the weekends and love Tolkien. People who love to dress up and go to conventions are also mothers (one of my roleplaying companions), wives (me), doctors, lawyers, IT techs (my husband), and leading normal, everyday lives.

    Again, neither of those issues are central to your core point, but I did feel compelled to address them.

    • Oh, I agree. Actually, I could be considered a “nerd” myself. I’ve played D&D and RPGs, and love sci-fi. I would love nothing more than to dress up and go to Comic Con someday. I do see your point, and didn’t mean to offend in any way. I guess the point I was trying to make was that it seems that romance is one of the few genres of fiction that are judged so harshly by the public at large.

      Thank you so much for your feedback and excellent points. Much appreciated!

      • I’m glad to hear that and no offense taken. I figured that wasn’t your intention but wanted to make the point for anyone else who might read it that way. 🙂

  2. Natalee, I don’t read romance if I can help it, although being in OU’s professional writing program has definitely forced me to read outside my preferred genres, but I do understand its appeal and I’ve enjoyed that website, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, too!

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