Not your mama’s bodice rippers
There’s nothing more to romance novels than a mullet-sporting hero, a giddy heroine and a happily-after-ever—right? Not if you ask Sarah Wendell, better known as “Smart Bitch Sarah” from the popular (and hilarious) blog, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. On her website, Wendell critiques and gushes over plot lines, motifs and character development in romance novels. Her first book on the subject, Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels, has been assigned in courses at Yale and Princeton. Released this month, her new book—Everything I Know About Love I Learned from Romance Novels—explores how romance novels can inform our thoughts on courtship, self-confidence and modern relationships.
Wendell answered questions for BookPage about falling in love with romance novels, her research for the book and why the genre gets a bad rap.
In your book, you explain that the first romance novel you read was Midsummer Magic by Catherine Coulter. What about that book got you hooked on romance?
Ah, Midsummer Magic. It’s a bit difficult to explain all the reasons I love that book because some of them rest on the fact that, despite being published in the late '80s/early '90s period of historical romance, it has some points that make is distinct from the established tropes of romance at that time. This was the era from which the much-abhorred term "bodice ripper" came to be, and bodices were indeed ripped, and ripped often. I loved this book because it showed a hero and heroine who were sympathetic. I knew what was motivating each of them, even as they did some boneheaded and somewhat dastardly things in the name of preserving their independence.
I loved how strong the heroine was despite her limited options at times. I loved how determined the hero was to do the right thing, even when it was really awful. I had no idea there were strong and independent-minded characters in romance. Once I read one, I had to read more.
Even though the happy ending is a known conclusion, the journey to that happy ending is always different, and in the hands of a skilled storyteller, that journey is worth experiencing every time.
Why are romance novels so addictive? Even when we know the hero and heroine will get a happily ever after, we still keep turning the pages, again and again . . .
I think there are a couple of reasons for that. One: Real life does not come with the happily-ever-after guarantee. It’s wonderfully reassuring and frankly uplifting to read narratives where, no matter how bad it gets, you know that everything will be okay in the end. Two: Even though the happy ending is a known conclusion, the journey to that happy ending is always different, and in the hands of a skilled storyteller, that journey is worth experiencing every time.
What do you think is the most common misconception about romance novels?
That they’re not intelligent, or that the readers are not either. Romances are smart, insightful and valuable, and the women who read (and write!) them are just as intelligent and savvy.
In your interviews with some of the genre’s biggest authors, did you learn anything that truly surprised you?
Oh, yes. Robyn Carr’s comments pretty much summed up the book in four sentences. Eloisa James shared incredibly touching stories from her readers, as did Toni Blake. Jennifer Crusie, Nora Roberts, Christina Dodd and Theresa Medeiros explained the ingredients to a successful courtship in ways that revealed the strengths of their own stories but their very complex understanding of the genre and its role in women’s lives. The writers I interviewed absolutely understood how important romance fiction is to the women who read it, and the ways in which they expressed that understanding surprised me, but in an absolutely good way!
If you could wake up in a romance novel, what kind would it be? Regency? Western? Paranormal? . . . Harlequin Spice?
Can I be in a Regency house party with lots of long walks and really good meals and games and gossip? That would be fun for many weeks of entertainment. I don’t know that I’d love the foundation garments, but I’d survive!
You have read a lot of romance novels. (Care to guess how many??) After all those books, are you still learning lessons about love, intimacy and relationships from your reading?
I don’t think I can guess how many total! My gosh, I would forget a whole dozen or more. But yes, even after many, many, many romances, I am learning about courtship, intimacy and respect from the novels I read. Each novel presents a new account of how to fix what might go wrong, but more importantly, each one reminds me how fortunate I am that I am loved, and to make sure to demonstrate my own feelings to the people I care about. As Theresa Medeiros says in the book, “Never stop courting your spouse.” That’s some excellent advice right there.