Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels
Today we’re thrilled, thrilled I tell you, to invite to Argh Ink the hardest working woman in romance, Sarah Wendell, possibly the only person who knows absolutely everybody in the business well enough to call them “Honey.” She speaks, she blogs, she films, and she writes books. Her first book, written with her blog partner, Candy Tan, was Beyond Heaving Bosums, the Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels, and it was a huge success, so it’s not surprising that she’s back again, this time writing solo with Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels, in stores NOW.
Love that cover.
I hate interviews where the interviewer hasn’t read the book, don’t you? Well, this is one of them because the book isn’t out and Sarah didn’t send me one. Not that I’m bitter. So since I know nothing about this book, here’s the blurb:
Take a dashing hero with a heart of gold and a mullet of awesome. Add a heroine with a bustle and the will to kick major butt. Then include enough contrivances to keep them fighting while getting them alone and possibly without key pieces of clothing, and what do you have? A romance novel. What else? Enough lessons about life, love, and everything in between to help you with your own happily-ever-after.
♥ Romance means believing you are worthy of a happy ending
♥ Learning to tell the prince from the frog
♥ Real-life romance is still alive and kicking
♥ No matter how bad it is, at least you haven’t been kidnapped by a Scottish duke (probably)
Doesn’t that sound great? Boy, I wish I’d read it. You do, too, so you should go buy it. TODAY. Why? Let’s ask Sarah.
Jenny: Welcome, Sarah, we’re so glad to have you here at Argh. The place has needed some classing up.
Sarah: Class?! OH crap I am SO in the wrong place. And dude, if you’d wanted a copy, I’d have sent you one, but you already know everything. What would I have to teach you!?
Jenny: Well, not everything. I have questions. But before we start, I have to give the standard disclaimer that we’ve been friends for quite awhile, and you and my daughter, the Amazing Mollie, are partners in a company called Simple Progress that this is not a pitch for because you only take clients by referral. So my views may be, uh, biased. Especially since I haven’t read the book. (As I may have mentioned above, you didn’t send me a book. This is key to the interviewing process when the book is not yet published. But I forgive you.)
Sarah: Ooohhh RIGHT. Yeah. See, the sad thing is, as much as I love and adore and could spend hours talking about Other People’s Books (Like, for example, Agnes and the Hitman, which I loved) I am boy howdy horrible at remembering the proper order to do things to talk about my OWN book. Seriously. Bone Head. But yes, Mollie is my neighbor, along with 3/4ths of New York publishing professionals, I think. I’m forever running into publishing folks on the train. Mollie and I have business meetings in a diner, where we eat pie. One time, Mollie had cheesecake for dessert. After breakfast. Best meeting ever.
Jenny: That’s my kid. I raised her well. And now back to you. Your first claim to fame was the Smart Bitches blog which has, IMHO, some of the best reviews and discussions about romance on the net. What was the impetus behind the start of the blog? To defend the genre?
Sarah: Smart Bitches (and thank you for the compliment) started because Candy and I wanted to have a place where, as she put it, we could work the power of our English degrees on the genre we loved most – and the genre we were hellfire tired of taking crap about. Romance as a genre is awesome. Some of the books within it are outstanding. Others are outstanding pieces of poo. We wanted to talk about all of it, while also elevating the mullet as the quintessential hairstyle of the romance hero. Defending the genre came easily – we were both the subject of one too many well-meaning people saying “Oh, but you’re so smart! How come you read THOSE books?”
Jenny: Oh, those people. They’re the same ones who ask me when I’m going to write a real book. Karma will take care of them. The Smart Bitches blog led naturally to Heaving Bosums, often literally as there have been some incendiary discussions on there. Given the tendency of many readers to become outraged over any slight to romance novels, did you get any grief from people who felt you weren’t taking the genre seriously in your Guide to Romance? (It wouldn’t have been from me. I thought the book was hysterical. Of course, I READ that one.)
Sarah: Yes, we were told at one point that someone was going to get us banned. From what? The internet? My favorite is, “You Bitches have gone too far!” The Bosoms, as we call our first book, did cause some negative reactions, some from people who didn’t like the site and therefore didn’t like the book, and others who didn’t like that we were so jokey about a topic they took seriously. But on the other hand, the Bosoms has been on the syllabus at DePaul University, McDaniel College, Yale and Princeton. I think we did ok with the seriousness in that respect, and what college student wouldn’t enjoy reading about romance novels in a book that uses the word “crapmonkeys?”
Jenny: I seriously feel that the use of “crapmonkeys” would improve any college course. Along with “clusterfuck.” After Heaving Bosums, enflamed by your success, you plunged into your next book, this time flying solo. But this time, your thrust is different. (Is it me, or does all this sound dirty? No, it’s not me, it’s you.)
Sarah: Lord, I don’t thrust or plunge. I trip and fall down. Or walk around with toilet paper caught in my pantyhose like a really classy bridal train. I am here to class up the joint, aren’t I?
Jenny: And you’re doing a stellar job of it, too.
Sarah: Yes, this time the thrust is different. Everything I Know About Love, I Learned from Romance Novels, or, for the sake of Typo Prevention, EIKAL, is actually classified as a “gift book.” You’re meant, according to the publisher, to give it as a gift. I say get it as a gift for yourself if you’re a romance reader, because it is a celebration of the genre and everything we learn from it. And most importantly, it’s not me talking about romance novels. There’s some of me, but more of authors and romance readers talking about the books that are valuable to them.
Jenny: So it’s an anthology of wisdom from the smartest women in the world?
Sarah: Since you’re in it, YES! How’s that for flattery? Yes, there are so many readers and writers in this book all discussing the genre and the books they loved most and learned from — it’s kind of like listening to a really smart book club discussing a pile of excellent romance novels.
Jenny: Let’s talk about some specifics here. You’ve said that the book is light and breezy, written for fun, but it has some semi-serious themes, too. One thing it emphasizes is how important it is to be the heroine in your own life. I love that. Tell me more.
Sarah: Yup! Each chapter is dedicated to one specific lesson we learn from romance novels: we learn to recognize good partners. We learn to understand our own desires. We learn how to overcome obstacles and work through problems. But the first chapter is about how we learn to be the heroine of our own lives through romance novels. Behold: I quote my own book:
[R]omances teach readers that we should know ourselves, and value ourselves, in order to find happiness. Romance readers experience the repeated discovery of someone who not only fought for her happiness, but realized that she was worth the struggle. That’s the first lesson of romance novels, really: romance is found in how we treat ourselves.
Jenny: Okay, this I love.
Sarah: Each of us is the heroine of our own life, and while there are some heroines who we are better off not emulating, there are many others who are admirable because they truly learned what they were worth, and learned to appreciate themselves.
Jenny: I’m with you 100% on that. But you also say that the romance can identify what’s acceptable and not acceptable in a partner, and that’s where I start to go, “Uh, wait a minute.” I understand that you’re not talking about the span of romance since 1950 which would include the nurse-just-wants-a-doctor-to-marry genre, not to mention the sheik-and-the-little-woman subgenre and the eighties rape romance. But even just looking at the romances published in the last decade, you have a real span of hero characters in there, many of whom I wouldn’t take for a shiny nickel. So ‘splain yourself, Lucy: How do romances teach readers about which ones are the good guys?
Sarah: There surely are heroes who are one step into reality away from a mighty mighty restraining order. But a satisfying romance leads the reader to believe that, if the hero hasn’t appropriately atoned and acknowledged his own asshattery sufficiently, he will shortly. Convincing the reader in the happy for now or the happily ever after rests in part on believing that the characters will sustain one another’s happiness.
Jenny: Yes! That’s the toughest part of writing romances, writing the relationship so the reader believes that this one is going to last.
Sarah: We also want to believe that the hero has accepted the heroine for who she is, and I know I personally don’t enjoy romances where the characters have to change in ways that aren’t appropriate for them in order to satisfy the other. Several readers discussed the idea that they decided from reading of courtships that were extraordinary that they themselves shouldn’t settle for what others told them they should want – and ultimately they found what they themselves were looking for in a partner.
But we also learn by negative example. There are romances where the characters undo, recover from, or move away from negative relationships, and that’s the most concrete example of how we learn to recognize a good partner. Robyn Carr put it best in the book:
“I think the antithesis of the question is more important—what do we learn from romance novels that we shouldn’t get over? When our heroines walk away from lying, cheating, abusive relationships, our readers stand up and cheer! When our heroes fail to fall for mean, selfish, manipulative women, our readers applaud! Men and women in real life and in romance novels find themselves trapped in unhealthy, destructive relationships all the time, and when they choose to believe they deserve love, respect, and healthy, enduring relationships, when they reclaim their lives and demand only excellent treatment and a love they can fully trust, life is good. Readers are not only satisfied—they use those characters as role models.”
Jenny: Excellent point and good for Robyn Carr for putting it so well. Next question: I’m good with your thesis that good sex is essential to a happy relationship—hell, it’s essential to unhappy relationships, too—but I’m not sure that I buy that romance novels can help you there. A lot of the sex I’ve read has been, uh, unrealistic. Idealized even. How is that a help?
Sarah: Are we all going to have simultaneous orgasms that cause the earth to move? Ha. No. But yet we are also not so ignorant of our own anatomy that we’re surprised when the clitoris is not only discovered by our partners but put to efficient use. There certainly are unrealistic or idealized or frankly fantastical sex scenes out there. Tentacles, even! As I say in the book, “Part of the problem with romance novel sex is that it is so impossibly perfect, so incredibly over-the-top wonderful, that real sex can seem messy and awkward in comparison sometimes. This is likely because real sex is sometimes awkward and messy.”
But romances are one of the few venues in which women’s sexuality is portrayed positively – and at times as something that can be flawed but definitely fixable. Moreover, romances represent a safe space for women to consider different sexual practices, to explore concepts that they might not be ready to discover in their own lives, or have the ability to explore at all.
Jenny: That’s so true. I remember one conference I attended, where a woman stood up during a Q&A and announced that she’d been sexually abused as a child. I thought, No, please don’t share this. She said she was married to a wonderful man who was very understanding but sex had always been difficult for her even though he was very patient. And then she said, “But one day I read a romance novel.” She said reading in the genre gave her that safe space to tell herself that sex was good and fine and had made a huge difference in her marriage. And then she said, “And now my husband buys all my romance novels.” I cried. And you know me: not a crier. The genre really does make a difference.
Sarah: There’s a letter from an anonymous reader in EIKAL that will make you cry again. Similar themes – there are so few places where women can explore sex as something that is good and healthy and healing and intimate in good ways. And really, most people are curious about sex, as they should be!
Quoting myself again:
“You can experience between the book covers what you might not be quite ready to try underneath your own covers.” There’s tremendous power in that, and in having a private arena in which to consider one’s own sexuality, what turns one’s engine and what doesn’t work at all. We are not a culture that can discuss women’s sexual desire with honesty or even consideration or without involving an airbrush. Romances represent an entire narrative exploration of sexuality and intimacy, and the value of both of those things in a relationship.
Jenny: You’re right and I withdraw my snarky question. So here’s another one: You promise readers that romance novels can not only help them define “Happily Ever After,” it can show them how to get it now. I write romance novels and I don’t know how to get it now. (Again, sounds dirty. Again, I blame you.) Could you be a little more explicit on that one?
Sarah: Yup. And if you find a copy of the book, skip to the last chapter, because I provide a four (I think – I haven’t seen the finished copy either!) page summary of the whole book. You know, for people who like to skip to the end… like me. And the truth about Happily Ever Afters is that (a) they take a lot of work and (b) they are never ending. Happy Endings take a ton of effort, because they’re essentially ongoing courtship. There’s always another obstacle.
Jenny: That so true, about happy relationships needing constant work. I think that’s key to the success of a romance novel, that it was hard to get to that happy ending and they both had to work to get there.
Sarah: And real-life happily ever afters may not always be between two people who are presently together. I absolutely believe that, since each of us has to be the heroine of her own life, we can be happy with ourselves today and tomorrow, and afterward. The happily ever after isn’t just confined to two people riding off into the sunset – it’s about how you treat yourself, and other people who you love and who are important to you. You are part of your own happily ever after, in other words.
Jenny: And those are damn good other words. You have every romance writer who ever flirted with the bestseller list in there giving advice. I’m assuming that’s because you know where the bodies are buried?
Sarah: Well, I tried to email Jane Austen but it bounced. I honestly didn’t expect the degree of amazing contributions from the authors in the book. I know writers are busy people and didn’t expect to hear back from so many – but so many writers were eager to share not only what they found valuable about the genre but what their readers had commented on. Some of the reader stories shared by authors made me cry. Romances can be personally important to the women who read them, and authors have encountered stories of that importance in a variety of ways.
Jenny: I love the cover design, especially the cheeky way they scrawled your name under the 60s’ font title. The cover really captures the spirit of Smart Bitches in general and you in particular: bright, funny, irreverent, swinging, and partially clothed. Okay, not the last one. Is that how you see the book, too?
Sarah: I LOVE how cheeky it is, yes! And I’m so curious if I’ll ever see the illustration under the paper bag on an actual book. That is indeed how I see the book: a funny and positive celebration of the value and lessons of romance novels.
Jenny: Tell me what you want the Argh People to take away from this interview in fifty-nine words or less.
Sarah: There are so many readers and writers of romance who feel exactly the same way you do about the books you love – we all recognize the value and importance of romance. I’m so excited about this book, and proud of how it represents the best parts of the genre, and the community of women who create and read it.
Jenny: Thank you, Sarah Wendell, author of Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels, in stores TODAY, so go buy it. Yes, now. You won’t regret it. It sounds really good. (Not that I’d know . . .)