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“Put down the books – and pick up reality”

Heaving bosoms are on the rise. As are throbbing members, quivering lips and steamy embraces. A spike in sales of romantic fiction – the oft-derided, flush-inducing page-turners that account for nearly half of all fiction titles in some parts of the developed world – are offering publishers a way to ride out the recession. The reason, it would seem, is that readers are no longer being judged by their covers. As the popularity of e-readers rockets, women are enjoying the anonymous thrill of a forbidden tryst without fear of disapproving glances.

“Dedicated e-readers and tablets allow readers to read whatever they like in public without giving anything away about what they are reading,” explained Gillian Green, editorial director of Rogue Romances (a new digital list from Ebury dedicated to romantic fiction) in an interview with The Guardian. She believes that the Kindle and its kin are the perfect way to subvert the “inherent snobbery towards romance as a genre in the UK”.

“In 1574, author Edward Hake declared that a woman who loved frivolous books would ‘smell of naughtiness even all her life after’”

But the uptick in romance reading is – according to some – having disastrous effects on women’s lives in the real world. On 4th July the British Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care published an article by relationship psychologist, journalist and agony aunt Susan Quilliam called  “‘He Seized Her In His Manly Arms And Bent His Lips To Hers’ – the surprising impact that romantic novels have on our work”. Quilliam said that “A huge number of the issues we see in our clinics and therapy rooms are influenced by romantic fiction” and warned that the “deep strand of escapism, perfectionism and idealisation” in the genre “promotes unreal expectations” and discourages “protection and contraception”. “Sometimes,” she concluded, “the kindest and wisest thing we can do for our clients is to encourage them to put down the books – and pick up reality.”

Some therapists in the States are equally concerned that romance novels are leading women to their couches. Back in May, the founder of LDS Life Coaching, Kimberly Sayer Giles, wrote an article in which she claimed that “romance novels can be as addictive as pornography”. According to the high profile Christian psychologist Dr Juli Slattery, their “entrancing but distorted messages” are making women “dangerously unbalanced” and incapable of conducting a healthy relationship.

Unsurprisingly, this proved to be social media catnip. Rebuttals piled in from bloggers such as Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches Trashy Books (strapline: “All of the romance, none of the bullshit”), who published ‘Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance’ in 2009. “There are terribly few places wherein women’s emotional experiences, personal troubles and intimate sexuality are portrayed favourably,” Wendell observed. “If romances are your preferred way to be entertained, more power to you.” When crime writer Jason Pinter created the satirical #romancekills hashtag on Twitter, hundreds of readers from across the world joined in. “2/3 of car wrecks are caused by drivers jackknifing when realizing they forgot to buy the new Nora Roberts,” tweeted writer Michaela Basham. “The Titanic hit that iceberg because the lookouts were too busy reading romance novels,” added literary agent Amy Boggs.

The overwhelming public defence of romantic literature was predictable. What was more surprising was that the old accusation that women can’t handle fiction continues to rear its misanthropic head in our supposedly enlightened times. The concept that the fairer sex plus scarlet letters equals moral depravity and unrealistic expectations has an eminent history. In 1574, author Edward Hake declared that a woman who loved frivolous books would “smell of naughtiness even all her life after”; almost 450 years later, we are apparently still clutching our handkerchiefs.

In the Western world, romance novels have been blamed for “dangerous unbalancing” of both genders since their inception; think of the bibliophile Don Quixote mistaking farm girls for noblewomen and windmills for giants. In the seventeenth century, “fictions”, as opposed to “histories”, were derided by critics as idle lies, and even when eighteenth-century novelists started to aim for increased realism and more insightful social comment, it was under the strict understanding that they must provide some improving moral framework within their pages; hence titles such as Samuel Richardson’s ‘Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded’ from 1741.

“Feminist writers regarded romantic fiction as either a ‘seductive trap’ or a ‘distraction’ diverting them from more worthwhile pursuits”

But women, it was made clear, were always in particular danger. The privacy, intimacy and imaginative excitement that resulted from reading any book, let alone a romance, was inimical to the dutiful, indoctrinated angel of the house. Novels themselves frequently carry warnings about their own tendency to produce unruly, oversexed and unweddable females, from the earnest tragedy of Madame Bovary to the playful tale of “wanton sex goddess” and domestic slattern Bridget Jones.

The threatening power of aroused and undirected female sexuality has long been at the heart of these attacks. In ‘Women’s Reading in Britain 1750-1835: A Dangerous Recreation’ (2009), Jacqueline Pearson describes “the period’s constant elision of textuality and sexuality, especially in the case of women, whose reading is repeatedly figured as a sexual act or seen to reveal their sexual nature”. In 1791, German scholar Karl G Bauer warned that reading rousing novels could have very real consequences. “The lack of all physical movement while reading, combined with the forcible alternation of imagination and emotion,” he wrote, led to “slackness, mucous congestion, flatulence and constipation of the inner organs, which, as is well known, particularly in the female sex, actually affects the sexual parts.”

Think again, Quilliam; reading is in fact the ideal contraceptive. But, as this summer’s controversy proves, these are not solely the protestations of insecure men; women are equally vocal in their condemnation of these giddy romance readers. When Dr Johnson, who had at best an ambivalent attitude to female readers, visited one Mrs Sheridan in the 1770s, she assured him that she only allowed her daughter to read “unexceptional” books befitting fragile youthful morality. She urged her: “Turn your daughter loose into your library”, but it was the mother, bound by convention and only too aware of the value of reputation, who persisted as censor.

In more recent history, female censure has switched to the other extreme, accusing romance fans of passive conservatism. Dr Rosalind Gill, from the Gender Institute at the London School of Economics, says that in the 1960s and ’70s feminist writers regarded romantic fiction as either a “seductive trap” justifying women’s subordination to men, a “false consciousness” masking their real inequality, or a “distraction” diverting them from more worthwhile pursuits; “dope for dupes” as Germaine Greer put it in 1970.

However, July’s social media backlash evokes a more recent wave of feminist discourse, pioneered by texts such as Tania Modleski’s ‘Loving With a Vengeance’ (1982) and Janice Radway’s ‘Reading the Romance’ (1984). “Both books,” says Gill, “can be understood as part of a wider attempt to take popular cultural forms seriously, to resist double standards which operate to condemn or dismiss women’s genres, and to ‘rescue’ feminine forms as worthy of attention.” This is the tradition that urban romance novelist Amanda Bonilla enters when she blogs: “I can safely say that I don’t foam at the mouth or experience the DTs when I’m not reading a steamy sex scene. I don’t get the shakes and rock back and forth on the floor when my mind isn’t filled with visions of the quintessential alpha male seducing me against my better judgment. Reading is an escape. It’s fantasy brought to life in your mind… I wholeheartedly disagree with [Juli Slattery’s] assertions.”

In the foreword to ‘Women Who Read Are Dangerous’ (2005), a beautiful compilation of paintings, drawings, prints and photographs of women reading by artists from the Middle Ages to the present day, Karen Jay Fowler – author of ‘The Jane Austen Book Club’ – suggests that we are in fact afraid of women’s growing monopoly over reading; which is fuelled by, but not exclusive to, the popularity of romance. “The realisation that not just the majority, but the vast majority of readers are women – more than 80 per cent by some accounts,” she says, “has resulted in a flurry of articles […] Suddenly the crisis is not that women read, but that men don’t.” Could this be the deeper message of Quilliam’s exhortation that we should put down our books and pick up reality? “Soon,” speculates Fowler, “someone somewhere will notice that the problem can be solved not by getting boys to read more, but by getting girls to read less, and we will find ourselves right back where we used to find ourselves.”

If we ever left there in the first place. The very fact that women feel the need to hide the lurid covers of ‘One Dance With a Duke’ and ‘Twice Tempted By a Rogue’ shows that, to some degree, even dedicated romance readers are still wary of centuries’ worth of social disapproval. But surely the only possible answer to the claims of husbands, friends, academics and psychologists that romance novels result in frivolity, anti-feminism and nymphomania is for women to keep doing what they’re doing: reading. Whatever they want. At the same time as they work, play, fantasise and live perfectly healthy lives.

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