Another year, another man who is utterly horrified to discover just how many American women read romance novels. This time, the perplexed fellow in question is William Giraldi, a novelist and editor who has taken to the pages of the New Republic to tell us just how appalled he is by the popularity of the erotic novel “Fifty Shades of Grey” and the more general financial success of the genre.
“Romance novels are a billion-dollar-a-year industry and make up 46 percent of all mass-market paperbacks sold in America; the publishing company Harlequin claims that half of its customers buys 30 of its novels every month; it also claims to sell more than four books per second,” he moans. “How did the pabulum of ‘Fifty Shades’ manage to rise above such a mind-stinging preponderance of crap?”
(Giraldi also tells us that “romance novels, like racists, tend to be the same wherever you turn,” an idea that demonstrates a stunning lack of familiarity with both racists and romance novels. I am relieved to work for a publication that does not share his prejudices.)
The answer, Giraldi seems to think, is that we are dumb and sex-obsessed, the kind of unintelligent people who “would participate in the abnegating of their minds and the debauching of English just to feel some twitching in their trousers.”
Never mind that, according to a 2005 market research survey, 42 percent of romance novel readers have at least a bachelor’s degree. And never mind that it is entirely possible to be prim and proper with literature on a Monday and get up from a different sort of book with a slight flush on Tuesday — reading Barbara Cartland or Julia Quinn does not ruin one for the classics.
Here is a proposal Giraldi does not seem to have considered: Romance novels are attractive not just because they are a gratifying escape but also because they sometimes feel like a respite from from the significant hostility that a lot of literature shows women.
As Maria Bustillos put it in a 2012 essay, even when they are limited by the periods in which they are written, “Romance novels are feminist documents. They’re written almost exclusively by women, for women, and are concerned with women: their relations in family, love and marriage, their place in society and the world, and their dreams for the future.”
Let’s think about the novels Giraldi has suggested we ought to pick up for our own self-improvement. Sure, “Clarissa” may be an important entry in the development of the epistolary novel. But that does not necessarily mean that it is fun to slog through almost six hundred pages of a woman undergoing terrible torments at the hands of her family and suitors just to prove that virtue exists.
Ditto for “Adam Bede,” a novel in which the big romantic gesture at the end involves a woman getting exiled from her home country rather than executed. Maybe, contrary to the Marquis de Sade, the Eugénies of the world want to figure out their own sexuality independent of both the teachings of their “imbecile parents” and the lectures of various Dolmancés.
Literature absolutely can be a transporting experience, and there is no question that it is important to exercise your moral imagination by reaching beyond the boundaries of your own life. It is poor strategy, though, to hector women to read classics without acknowledging that the canon — which provides plenty of fantasy fulfillment for men and attention to their inner lives — can be an unnerving reminder of a past that for women is not always past.
Reading the greats may be improving, and it is often hugely entertaining. But sometimes even the most dedicated grubber needs a fortifying dose of rewarding fantasy before heading back toward that which has been deemed serious and worthy. Romance novels are a tonic, a form of reassurance that someone is interested in ordinary women’s inner lives and is rooting for us to resolve our conflicts about work, love and what we deserve from our relationships.
In fact, I think they make some champions of the classics uncomfortable precisely for pointing out subjects sidelined in the canon, for standing as a reminder that the titans of literature have not captured everyone’s interests and concerns. God forbid that women actually ask for anything from the man Giraldi describes in his piece whose wife has discovered the “Fifty Shades” novels: “a cardiac catastrophe in waiting, someone who’d been perfectly content to pass his evenings with TV and pizza. But then along came these blasted books and wrecked his American right to glut and sloth.”
“Fifty Shades of Grey” is a poorly written book, with unnerving ideas about what constitutes romance or appropriate boundaries even in a relationship involving kinky sex. The sales for it, though, suggest not that women are stupid, but that there is a huge market out there, and even inferior products can succeed when they do not have a lot of competition. Women and women’s fiction — both erotic and literary — deserve better than E.L. James. And we deserve better than William Giraldi’s snide lectures, too.