Towards the end of her book, Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained, Maya Rodale sums up the problem with the current discourse surrounding the romance genre as a whole:
“Romance novels feature nuanced portrayals of female characters having adventures, making choices, and accepting themselves just as they are. When we say these stories are silly and unrealistic, we are telling young girls not to expect to be the heroines in their own lives.” (pg 180)
The rest of Rodale’s exploration of the history and development of the romance genre is exactly like the excerpt above: insightful, intelligent, unapologetic, and eminently quotable. (I would have used my Kindle’s highlight tool for the entire thing, but that seemed a little bit excessive in hindsight.) Rodale is the author of many successful historical romance novels (among them her Writing Girls series, which is one of my favourites) and she wrote Dangerous Books in part to address, head-on, the lack of critical acclaim and respect that most romance novels (and, indeed, most romance authors and readers as well) seem to get.
Stemming her own her graduate school research on women’s fiction and backed by extensive one-on-one interviews with romance industry insiders as well as two comprehensive surveys (one for romance readers and one for non-romance readers), Rodale grounds her book in historical details and demonstrates how the romance genre grew and evolved from the burgeoning publishing industry in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s incredibly well researched, drawing from a variety of academic sources and the aforementioned interviews and surveys. (Be still my academia lovin’ heart – there are even footnotes!)
Throughout the book, Rodale breaks down the stereotypes about romance novels, romance authors, and romance readers, highlighting over and over why “there is no room for guilt when reading for pleasure.” Covering everything from the actual covers of romance novels and the enduring appeal of Alpha heroes to the financial realities of many romance authors and the need to change the way we talk about fiction that is written by women, about women, for women – all in “a culture that doesn’t place much value on women.” Rodale’s book is also incredibly accessible; she writes as if she’s talking to and with her friends, with an easy conversational tone that conveys the passion she so clearly has for this topic. Additionally, all of her survey data is available on the website for the book, along with expertly designed infographics highlighting the results of those surveys.
I loved every minute of reading this book; even in the middle of writing my own MA thesis, when I was knee-deep in academic journal articles and book chapters (and when, you might assume, I wouldn’t want to touch another nonfiction, footnoted book with a ten-foot pole), I couldn’t wait to get back Dangerous Books for Girls. Moreover, I think this is an important book – a book that needs all the love and attention it can get. Because, as Rodale points out, the romance genre is “inextricably linked with the status of women in our society” and changing the perception of these novels may ultimately require also challenging and changing deeply held principles on gender roles and sexuality – a daunting task, to say the least.
If you love romance novels, if you’re indifferent, even if you dislike them (or especially if you dislike them), do yourself a favour and pick up Maya Rodale’s Dangerous Books for Girls. You’ll be surprised by how much you learn.
“Romance novels have been – and still are – the dangerous books that show women again and again that they’re worth it.”
[Photo Credit: Goodreads]