In honour of Valentine's Day/Pal-entine's Day/Gal-entine's Day this month, I gathered together some of my favourite romances for a bookish stack.
A lot of my absolute faves ware on my e-reader – but I was still shocked to find that my stack was really horribly deficient. Most of the romances I've read are your stock-standard, white, boy/girl hetero stories. I'm honestly ashamed that I haven't made more of an effort to find more interesting and realistic types of stories in this genre, and it's made me think about how far behind I might be in other genres also.
Ultimately, it's made me think about the amazing stories I've missed – and how sad that is.
A romance stack including Love Stories by Trent Dalton; The Switch by Beth O'Leary; Jane In Love by Rachel Givney; The Flatshare by Beth O'Leary; Miss Austen by Gill Horby; and Bridgerton: The Duke and I by Julia Quinn. Photo: Madeleine Corbel, 2022.
In defence of romance
Before I think on this stack's shortcomings, I wanted to make a quick note on romance books. In my opinion, reading romance does not make you any less or any more of a 'reader' than the next person. So many people (past me included) think that reading romances makes you a stickler for a quick dopamine hit, or says something about your ability to handle 'meaningful' 'literary' fiction.
Emily Maguire, in this piece from The Guardian describes her feelings of shame as a reader as she discovered that many of the books she'd loved were 'objects of scorn and ridicule amongst serious readers'.
Many university and educational literary lists are compiled by men from a pool of male authors. There's no doubt been some effort recently to broaden these parameters – one of my favourite units in my undergraduate was 'Writing Women', where we had a full 12-week course on female authors across different cultures and in different histories. It was phenomenal, but why did there have to be a specific unit dedicated to their stories? Shouldn't their merit be spread across all courses? Across all 'educational' lists?
To conclude her piece, Maguire describes steadfastly sticking by her favourite books – she read every book on the educational list, but continued to read what she liked from a vast selection of authors and creators. She explains that the shame should not be with what you are choosing to read, whether that's Austen, Hemingway or Beth O'Leary.
According to Maguire, the true shame lies in 'lacking the ability to see that mind-expanding, heart-wrenching, world-changing thoughts and images can be found in all kinds of books, by all kinds of people in all kinds of forms, and found in all kinds of places'.
Expanding the reading list
I still have a way to go to live up to Maguire's standards, though. I believe it is my responsibility as a consumer of books and a participant in the independent book market to support all kinds of authors and all kinds of stories, and I think I'm constantly falling short.
Romance is one of those genres that's so easy to pick up for fun, without any regard to the cogs turning behind the pages or the acquisitions process responsible for choosing which stories deserve to be heard. Why haven't I read more from BIPOC writers? Why is this stack so overwhelmingly hetero?
In my very limited experience, it seems to be because of a combination of things: mostly through my own ignorance, but also in the way books are chosen and marketed. The industry needs to make a concentrated effort, together, to support these stories by acquiring them and affording them the space that white, hetero stories of this genre have been given for so long.
In this video, a sunny book nook provides her viewers with a list of 50 LGBTQI+ book recommendations. Video: YouTube, 2021.
I'm speaking as a white hetero person myself, so this is just my take on a very complicated and nuanced issue. I could never presume to speak for others – but I'm going to be more committed to learning.
In other news, I've been listening to the audiobook of Red, White & Royal Blue and it's one of the best romances I've ever read. I'm FULLY hooked and enjoying every raunchy second – can absolutely recommend.
This concludes my love letter to love books! Thanks a bunch, as always, for reading with me.