On Redemption Songs and Romance

On a recent episode of my new favorite podcast: Smart Podcast, Trashy Books, the hosts discussed romance fiction as resistance. They pointed out that many people belittle women’s escapist literature, romance and cozy mysteries, but not men’s, sci-fi and thrillers. (Of course, I know that many women enjoy sci-fi, etc.)

Why is one type of reading frivolous and contemptible while another is harmless or even admirable? Why is literature is only serious and praiseworthy when the ending is sad, depressing, miserable? Don’t we face enough defeat in daily life without having to fill our bookshelves with tales of ennui and gloom?

These women have a point: falling in love and being loved in return, despite our flaws and our beloved’s, that’s redemption, a peak experience available to all. Love is a victory, something even the goon squad in Washington, D.C. can’t take away from us. Holding onto hope, love, connection in troubled times—that’s an act of resistance. It’s not sufficient to defeat the evil in our midst, but it’s fuel for the fight.

The type of peak experience offered in sci-fi and fantasy stories, rounding up a motley band of resistance fighters to defeat a might sinister force—or the type in thrillers—using whiles and guile to penetrate a criminal organization and lop off its head—that’s available to few of us in real life.

Is only the unattainable worth reading about? Romance readers say no—and roll in that vicarious pleasure like horses rolling in the dust.

Another aspect of romance fiction that feels like resistance is the joyful celebration of women’s sexuality. In another episode of SPTB, one of the hosts posited a response to critics of romance fiction: “What is it about the female orgasm that bothers you?”

“Oh, romance novels are really just porn,” critics say. Nope. The good stuff revolves around determined, smart, problem-solving women, and the men who love them, treasure them, and give them earthquake orgasms. And yes, there are romance stories for everyone on the gender spectrum. Sex is part of finding one’s mate, for the vast majority of people, but it’s not the whole story, just like armed combat is not the whole story in, say, Star Wars.

So, yeah. There is something to reading romance as an act of defiance. To those who say I can’t be a woman of substance and still enjoy these tales, I raise my middle finger—and turn the page.

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