Romance novels aren’t exactly celebrated for their realistic depictions of dating and sex. It can seem like any time two beautiful people walk into a room they’re instantly catapulted into the Orgasm Stratosphere, burning the house down from the sparks that ignite when their eyes chance to meet.
But that doesn’t mean romance has no bearing on actual life, where two people walk into a room, fumble awkwardly with their drinks, and somehow manage to avoid each other the entire night before stumbling home in a haze of vodka-soaked regret.
My name is Rebecca Brooks and I not only read romance novels, I write them. When I say romance, I mean erotic romance. The dirty stuff. Not just for fun, or escape, or sheer prurience, but because of what they teach about life. Yes, I think smut is enlightening. Here are 10 lessons I’ve learned.
1. You are in charge of your own orgasms.
Heroines in so-called trashy books don’t close their eyes and think of England. They’re active participants in their own lives and agents of their own pleasure. Harder, softer, to the left, right there -- romance novels are badass because they show women getting what they want.
Yes sex involves more than one person and so no, it’s not all about you. But it’s your body and your preferences. No one can magically deduce what those preferences are unless you make it known. This is because...
2. No one is a mind reader (no matter how great his abs).
Conflicts in romance novels range from complex emotional issues to petty mix-ups that can seem a little -- okay a lot -- contrived. (Some would say stupid. Here’s why I don’t.) But even when I’m so annoyed that I just want a character to pick up the damn phone and actually ask if it’s over instead of assuming the worst, I’m struck by an important reminder. Misunderstandings and misperceptions happen all the time. I can’t count on someone to know what I’m thinking or assume my view is clear. It doesn’t sound like rocket science but it’s so, so easy to forget.
3. Forgiveness: it’s not just a word.
When problems do arise, it can be hard to work through them. Romance characters overcome difficulties all the time. How do they do it? Apologies and forgiveness. It sounds cheesy but it’s the only way to go. The catch is that saying it and meaning it aren’t always the same. Like “I love you,” “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” are easy to say and hard to do. These are actions, not just words. They take effort and dedication.
4. You can’t see your own blind spots.
Characters, like people, don’t always exhibit the best judgment. When they can’t see what’s right in front of them -- like for instance, the need to apologize -- it’s time to turn to someone else for a little reality check. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all had a personal translator to indicate when those doe eyes mean "Do me right now"? Your friends might not always be right, but they’re worth listening to.
5. No one can be All The Things (again, no matter how great his abs).
Romance novels don’t take place on desert islands with nothing but sex in hot tubs and waterfalls flowing with champagne. Even that book, which I’m totally going to write so don’t steal it, would include something related to the world outside the affair. Characters busy falling head over heels still have friends and families and colleagues and other people who satisfy a range of emotional needs. Contrary to every message pounded into us about falling in love, The One (whatever that means) is never a substitute for the range of contacts and experiences a person needs to be fulfilled.
6. People who want to be with you (usually) act like it.
We all know the trope where the boy who chases on you on the playground does it because he likes you, and the man who scoffs to his friends “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me” will one day be down on one knee. But unless you actually like noogies and are determined to hold out for your own Mr. Darcy (good luck?), the best prospects are the ones that actually make it clear that you’re the bee's knees, the cat's meow, the greatest goddamn person on Earth.
I realize this sounds like I have high expectations. I do. All these romance novels I’ve read have given me the totally unreasonable belief that the people worth my time will treat me well.
7. Your tongue also works for talking.
There’s a common thread running through these points. They all have to do with communication. Romance may seem like it’s all about chemistry but even the dirtiest erotic romance doesn’t totally hinge on sex. It also includes catharsis. In Greek tragedies, catharsis is the moment when everyone has it out and finally starts to feel better (I’m paraphrasing Aristotle here). Secrets are revealed and issues resolved, allowing hero and heroine to move into their futures together with greater clarity, understanding, and togetherness. (Aw.)
Catharsis is based on doing one thing with your tongue: talking. When that happens, other tongue tricks are sure to follow.
8. Romance readers are better people. (Okay not really. But kind of. I wish.)
Seeing how characters grow and develop through catharsis can be helpful in real life. There was a study about how reading literary fiction increases empathy, making people more connected and emotionally aware. The study was pretty flawed and based on a limited conception of genre. But I still think fiction -- including romance -- engages readers’ empathy, the capacity to identify and share the emotions of others.
Am I saying that people who read romance novels are nicer, more connected, more likely to empathize, and all around better human beings? Sure! More seriously, one could do worse than spend some time getting to know the psychology of two (or more) people trying to work out how to be together in a complicated world. So many of us have few models for successful, loving relationships. Even those with positive examples could always use a few more.
9. Don’t yuck someone else’s yum.
There are as many examples of different kinds of romance as there are readers. If you can think it, there’s a writer who wants to write it and a reader who can’t wait to pick it up.
All of this can seem overwhelming. What do you mean there’s an entire market devoted to…I can’t even finish the sentence with something bizarre enough that some reader somewhere won’t go "Hey, that’s my favorite book!" But that’s the point. There’s diversity of sexual preferences in books because there’s diversity in real life. It’s is a reminder to be more open, less judgmental, maybe even a little adventurous.
(Note: obviously the fact that someone finds something sexy in a book doesn’t mean they want it in real life. But hey, reading is supposed to be fun.)
10. There may be guidelines but there are never any rules.
Genres like romance are often called out for following prescribed rules that, to the naysayer, are trite, predictable, and at odds with true literary merit. Blah blah snooze. Yes romance novels follow certain conventions. Newsflash: all storytelling does. There are as many ways to plot a romance as there are to fall in love. The more I read, the more I write, the more I realize that while we’re all stuck with certain parameters -- gravity, 24-hour days, the inability after a year to get "Let It Go" out of my head -- there aren’t, in fact, any rules.
What I’ve really learned from romance novels is that I can write whatever I want. I can read whatever I want. No one decides how I do my relationship. No one chooses how I get to be me.