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Exclusive: YOU Read Harlequin?! ME Too!

Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan of the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books blog defend the legitimacy of romance novels in their newly published Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels. After years of sifting through smut books in order to find the ones that are worth the $4.99 you’ll pay for it, these two ladies have created a humorous guidebook for the discerning smut reader. And since romance readers tend to fly through five of these books a week, having someone else sift through the junk is like clipping coupons before going to the grocery store; it just makes good economic sense.

Flavorpill: We’ve heard why people don’t like romance novels, but what is it that attracts people to them?

Sarah Wendell: People are attracted to romance novels for a number of factors. First, the best romance novels are, frankly, outstanding. Despite the genre being dismissed by many, there are books that feature narrative prose, complex characters, and incredibly nuanced plots housed merrily on the “romance” shelf of your bookstore. Once readers figure out how good it can be, it’s hard to go back. After all, what’s more fun than the experience of meeting someone, being attracted, realizing they’ve noticed you, and negotiating all that risky terrain of courtship? In a romance novel, you experience that apprehension, that joy, and that uncertainty, with the assurance of a happy ending. Happy endings are scarce anywhere else.

My co-author, Candy Tan, also pointed out on NPR that we’re culturally inculcated to reject or resist anything emotionally messy, even though we are bombarded with images that try to demand an emotional response from us as consumers. To that end, romance novels offer an optimistic venue in which to experience emotional reactions to our reading. The dog won’t die at the end; they won’t break up and be miserable for eternity. Happiness isn’t sexy or stylish or savvy, but it is priceless.

FP: If 1 in 5 people are reading romance novels, why will so few admit to it? (And do those 1 in 5 include dudes?)

SW: My theory is that 5 out of 5 people read romance — the other four just didn’t know they were reading one at the time. And yes, that 1 in 5 absolutely includes dudes. There are some intelligent men out there reading romance, if my email inbox is any indication.

Romance novelist and powerhouse Nora Roberts said in an interview that people don’t admit to reading romance novels because they feature relationships, emotions, and sex — the “hat trick of easy targets,” as she put it. She’s absolutely right. If answering the question, “What music do you like?” puts fear in the heart of anyone who has an American Idol finalist song on their iPod, imagine the reaction to “What books do you read?”

FP: What would we be surprised to know about folks who read these books?

SW: We’re intelligent, we’re not nearly as sexually frustrated and miserable as we’re made out to be, and we’re all very different from one another. In fact, often the only thing two women might have in common is their shared enjoyment of romance — but that gives them plenty to talk about!

FP: Beyond Heaving Bosoms is a sort of humorous treatise in defense of romance novels. Why do these books need defending?

SW: Because it’s still a logical question to ask, “Why are people ashamed of reading romances?” We wrote our book for the romance fans who adore the genre and are tired of taking crap for it. There’s plenty of crap, and we decided it was long past time to celebrate.

FP: You straddle the line between a comedic and an analytical tone. Why was it important to have both?

SW: Candy and I are both English majors with a long-standing habit of over-analyzing everything. It was never enough to say about a book, “This didn’t work for me.” We needed to know every micro-layer of why it didn’t work, and then locate that on a broader examination of similar books, possibly with dioramas made of recycled paper and Skittles. But we both also refrain from taking anything, including ourselves, too seriously. Hence the comic tone.

FP: Why should feminists read romance novels?

SW: It’s a 50-plus-year-old industry comprised mostly of women writers operating their own businesses and producing a genre about women’s self-actualization, pursuit of autonomy, and acquisition of sexual agency for an audience made mostly of women, who buy over $1.4 billion dollars worth of books a year. No, no, nothing feminist or even subversive about that.

FP: Fabio is easily the most recognizable name in the industry (maybe the only recognizable name for most). Who are some of the smart bitches we should know too?

SW: Whenever I am asked these questions my mind immediately goes blank, so after writing a few names, I turned to the folks on Twitter for more input. This is a dangerous question to ask romance fans. The shopping list can get monster-sized in a hurry. Behold: a list!

Nora Roberts, Lisa Kleypas, Kresley Cole, Gena Showalter, Emma Holly, Loretta Chase, Jennifer Crusie, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Sarah Mayberry, Judith McNaught, Julia Quinn, Sharon Shinn, Anne Stuart, Jude Deveraux, Lois McMaster Bujold,  Julie Garwood, Meljean Brook, Elizabeth Hoyt, Nalini Singh, Marjorie Liu, Laura Kinsale … I could keep going all damn night.

FP: For those who are romance novel virgins, what cherry poppin’ book do you recommend that will leave us breathless and aching for more?

SW: If you like contemporary books (i.e. set in the present): Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie. If you’re open to historical books: Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase. If you’re curious about paranormal romance: Bitten by Kelley Armstrong or Kresley Cole’s “Immortals After Dark” series.

If you’re a romance fan who lives in New York, be sure to check out Flavorpill pal Ron Hogan’s monthly Lady Jane’s Salon Night at Madame X.

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