In praise of trash

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In the spring of 1998, right out of college, I moved to New York to work in publishing, which seemed to be the only career suitable for a former English major. I had dreams of being an editorial assistant and spending my days combing through slush piles and writing cover copy, which was what low-level publishing flacks seemed to do in the movies, but I discovered that even editorial assistant jobs were hard to find. Most of the jobs I saw in the New York Times classifieds (which is how we job hunted back then) were for marketing assistants or sales assistants, jobs that dealt not with the beauty of words but with the ugliness of commerce.

I did manage to secure one editorial assistant interview. It was with Harlequin. My family, friends, and I treated it as a great joke. Of course I couldn't work for Harlequin. I was literary. I was going to work at Knopf or Farrar Straus. Nonetheless, I put on my gray interview suit and took the subway to the Harlequin offices. A very nice woman described the editorial assistant’s duties to me and gave me a huge pile of her favorite Harlequins to take home. Then came the big question:

"Who's your favorite romance writer?" she asked.

"Ummmm . . ." I thought for a moment. "Chrétien de Troyes."

"I don't think I've heard of that one before."

"He lived in 12th-century France. He was really great." This was true. I loved Chrétien de Troyes. His work had been the highlight of my medieval literature class. It was full of cool adventures and magical things, but there was also true equality between the male and female characters and, something even more rare, platonic friendship between a man and a woman. I barely saw that sort of thing in the 20th century. However—I also knew perfectly well that the concept of "romance" had evolved in the past 800 years, from a tale of magic and adventure to the story of true love. I was a little snot.

The editor was kind, so she did not call me an obnoxious twit to my face. It is perhaps unnecessary to say that I did not get the job. Instead, I ended up in the International Sales and Marketing department of Random House, where I spent the bulk of my time arranging for the shipment of Sweet Valley High teen romances to Australia and New Zealand. I got exactly what I deserved.

And actually, the thing was, since I was unemployed and had nothing better to do, I did dig into the pile of Harlequins. And at least one was actually really enjoyable. It was a time of great uncertainty for me—no job, new city, few friends, still mourning the end of college—but the unspoken contract between a romance writer and reader is that everything is always going to work out. Always. It's similar to the contract between the unspoken promise in a mystery or thriller that the bad guys will always get caught and the puzzle will be solved, but there's much more pleasure in a romance. It's not just the sex (and writing a sex scene is really hard to do, by the way; the romance's reputation for purple prose is not entirely undeserved). It's also food, and clothes, and interior design, and acts of kindness. At the end of a good romance, the two lead characters have brought out the best in each other.

About ten years later, I was in journalism school and looking for something to write a big, long story about for my masters project. I'd heard somewhere that romance was the only genre in publishing that was dominated by women, and that was the reason it was given so little respect. (It's probably the only instance in literary history where a man has to publish under a woman's name.) I thought that was something to hang a story on. So I started setting up interviews with romance writers and editors, and I started to read. And it was really fun!

Some, it was true, were better than others, and some actually made me want to throw up. Specifically the ones by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss, who is credited by scholars (yes, there are serious romance scholars) with creating the modern romance genre back in the 70s and credited by me for giving romance such a terrible reputation. Her books have angry, abusive heroes and stupid, submissive heroines and a lot of rape because the men are just so overwhelmed by the women's beauty that they can't control their lust. If that sort of shit was all that was available, I wouldn't have wanted to read romances, either.

Nobody writes like that anymore. At least I don't think so—there are so many romances published every year that it's hard to say definitely. (According to the Romance Writers of America, romances did $1.438 billion in sales in 2012, with a 16.7 percent share of the overall U.S. book market, larger than any other genre.) Most of the romances I've read are about men and women who are each other's equals. Which is still a really cool and rare thing. How often do you see it in literary fiction?

One romance writer told me that she believes the reason romances don't get as much respect as other genres, besides the fact that they're written by women and published by women in order to be read by women, is because of their emphasis on happiness and pleasure. It's maybe the same reason comedies aren't taken as seriously as dramas at the movies. If something is serious, it requires that you suffer through it. It's not the sort of entertainment you long for when you need to be comforted.

But who in a relationship or a marriage doesn't spend a lot of time thinking about everything that happens when two people come together or worrying about overcompensating for all the things you did wrong before or all that other stuff that keeps couples counselors in business? What is more serious than that?

There is a lot more to say about romances and publishing and high and low art and gender politics. But maybe you should start by reading one. There are some good recommendations here. The two romances I always recommend to people who ask are Fast Women by Jennifer Crusie and Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Crusie is a wonderful writer, funny and stylish, and Fast Women has a lot to say about what makes a good marriage. It's also a murder mystery. Outlander is a time travel/adventure/science fiction hybrid. It's about 600 pages. The first time I read it, I remained motionless on the couch for an entire day, except for turning pages and attending to bodily functions. Which is, I think, the highest compliment you can give to any book, regardless of genre.

Aimee Levitt writes about books every Friday.

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