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a masterpiece in pink
my love affair with the romance novel
by sarah ficke (@DameMystery)

We here at Intrepid love cool. We love chic, we love edgy, we love new.

Except me, and my dirty, dirty little secret. I love romance novels. Love them like I loved that theater student with the flowing blonde hair; like I love shiny jewelry, and chocolate mocha ice cream. At this point, you'll easily recognize this as the Bridget Jones complex, and while I don't spend my evenings alone in a flat with red wine and Jaime O'Neal on the stereo, I have been routinely parking myself in a laz-y-boy with a tall glass of lemonade and a stream of thick books with scandalously pink covers.

I blame the summer. Summer, which gains a golden tinge the moment you enter grade school. Summer, which means no school and no structure, just an adventurous trip to camp, a week at the beach, and a job serving ice cream and flirting with that cute surfer with the dirty-blonde hair. Summer has the unpredictable hidden around every corner, and that most titillating of things: free time.

Of course as an adult, summer is technically nothing special. Companies don't give their employees three months off to rest and rejuvenate. Even those in the education industry (like myself) end up with some kind of summer employment after they wave the kids goodbye for their three months of freedom.

Still, for most of us, childhood habits die hard. Most people take some kind of vacation in the summer, and not only because their children are out of school. Years of conditioning leave us feeling like we have a right to have the summer off - or at least a right to be lazy, leave work early, take long alcoholic lunches, and generally break with routine.

You can see the corresponding laxity in the entertainment industries. Look at the movies that have come out recently. Dukes of Hazzard? War of the Worlds? Must Love Dogs? These are movies that flourish in the summer, and a glance at the NY Times Best-seller lists will show a similar trend. Dean Koontz's Frankenstein: City Of Night, by Dean Koontz and Ed Gorman lurks near the top of the paperback list, Danielle Steele is holding her own, while Nora Roberts ranks in the top 15 on both the hardcover and paper back lists for two separate books (one written under pseudonym, J.D. Robb). Explosions, whether literal or metaphorical, rule from the opening of June to the close of August.

The truth is that romance novels, with their exotic locales, anachronistically antique time periods, and melodramatic plots, act as a virtual summer vacation. Take my most recent acquisition, a gem called The Mad Marquis. A woman, dressed in some form of lacy negligee that wouldn't be out of place at Victoria's Secret, but would certainly raise a few eyebrows in Victorian England, is provocatively caressing an ivy-covered wall with one knee, while a man who seems to have lost half of his shirt in a weight-lifting accident snuggles up behind her. What is his right hand doing? We really don't want to know. Trust me. If you read far enough, you'll find out, and probably get more information than you bargained for. Inside the book, the beautiful, but in some way quirky, heroine, falls in love with the darkly handsome and tortured hero, there's a nominal mystery plot to help things along, and everything ends happily ever after.

...Oh, and I forgot the large quantities of sex. Graphic sex that barely dropped the "porno" at the flimsy lace curtain that serves as a door. These are the elements that add up to the traditional romance novel, topped with a title that is practically guaranteed to refer to nobility, to seductiveness, and/or to some kind of passionate imperative like Surrender! Desire! Defy!

All those exclamation points just give me shivers.

Romance novels are, by definition, reactionary, formulaic, and somewhat trite. They challenge the mind, but only to feel, not to think. Nevertheless, books like this top the bestseller charts every summer. Women lying on a beach in New Jersey, surrounded by plastic shovels and sand-castle molds, using them to escape to more exotic beaches, real castles, and perhaps a hunt for buried treasure with the desperately handsome pirate king.

In a world where responsibility, weighing the options, considering risks, and planning for the future are crucial, romance novels provide a little mental vacation from clear-headed sanity - a vacation that takes place in a patently constructed world where even the flaws are perfect, and there is no anxiety over happy endings. We don't really want to hazard all our chances on love at first sight, or an impulsive trip to Ireland, or a marriage of convenience that might convert into a love match. But, we don't mind reading about it to experience vicariously the thrill of possibilities being explored, routines being broken, the ethos of summer vacation being embraced. It's addictive, and no matter how often I think I've given them up, when the temperature heats up I always end up with one more in my hands, and loving every steamy dreamy minute.

And so while August is running itself out, I'm content to curl up with my dirty secret and let the zeitgeist pass me by while my mind vacations in someone else's fictional life. September will be here soon enough.


Sarah Ficke will make sport for you, and laugh at you in her turn. She has channeled her obsession for books into a career as an English professor.

more about sarah ficke


student rampages through airport!
push for stronger security measures expected
by sarah ficke
topic: writing
published: 10.31.02

a curious paradox
or, why a literature major is the last person to ask about books.
by sarah ficke
topic: writing
published: 3.4.05


juli mccarthy
8.15.05 @ 12:12a

Mmmm, pirates...*swoon*

I, too, love romances, especially trashy ones. It's junk food for the brain, which occasionally needs a break from thinking real thoughts.

dan gonzalez
8.15.05 @ 12:29a

I quote the great Too Much Joy:

I'm just sittin' here waitin' for a train.
Tomorrow I'll be waitin' here again,
while the pirate in me is lost somewhere at sea...

I gotta beard! I gotta hold hoop in my ear.
It's time to rape and pillage

You perplexing women want the world and more. You want to marry and live with clean-cut admirals yet have earth-shattering heave-ho's with unkempt, smelly swashbucklers.

Can you be any less bi-polar? Can you please come clean or is outright confusion your goal?


juli mccarthy
8.15.05 @ 12:33a

is outright confusion your goal?

Shoot. He's on to us.

lisa r
8.15.05 @ 6:43a

Shoot. He's on to us.

Only partially. As long as he doesn't find out about how we lust after knights and cowboys when pirates are in short supply we're safe.

sarah ficke
8.15.05 @ 9:07a

And vikings. And scotsmen.

erik myers
8.15.05 @ 9:09a

Well.. that's out.

This is why I like to occasionally let loose a mighty, "Yarrrrrrrr!"

Now if only I had a hook for a hand.

erik myers
8.15.05 @ 9:09a

Ah.. but viking I can do.

tracey kelley
8.15.05 @ 10:39a

Swarthy Irishman! MY personal favorite.

And pirates? Mmmm - that's why Johnny Depp as Cap'n Jack Sparrow fulfilled thousands of fantasies.

I like a well-written romance novel, but haven't found any of late. I used to devour Harlequin Romances (Janet Dailey - Rock on, babe!)

I read Nora Roberts, though, and swear I could do it better. But I haven't yet, so I probably should just be quiet.

jael mchenry
8.15.05 @ 11:00a

I need to lend y'all my copy of The Cornish Heiress. It is a perfect example of just about all this stuff. Especially pirates.

The Western ones are occasionally fun too, when the hard-ridin' ranch owner takes a shy schoolmarmish wife... yeah, it's not about the plot, really.

tracey kelley
8.15.05 @ 11:18a

chick-a bow, chick-chick-a-bow...

sarah ficke
8.15.05 @ 11:22a

I read Nora Roberts, though, and swear I could do it better. But I haven't yet, so I probably should just be quiet.

Yeah, it's not the most polished writing out there, but it manages to get to me every time. know I could probably construct better sentences, but I don't know if I could play the reader's emotions the same way. It's a different kind of talent, I think. And writing sex scenes is just painfully difficult.

erik myers
8.15.05 @ 11:36a

It's because there are only so many valid euphimisms for that "turgid purple-headed warrior" that seems to .. errrr .. pop up so often.

heather millen
8.15.05 @ 12:07p

Somewhere around my freshman year in high school, when hormones were at an absolute peak, I was an AVID harlequin reader. It's been a long time since I've picked up one of these though. My literary junk food takes the form of "Fem Lit"--- a truly disgusting genre that I can't help but read when the summer sun beats down on my beachbound body.

sarah ficke
8.15.05 @ 12:28p

Is Fem Lit. the genre with girls in skirts holding martinis or shopping bags on the cover?

russ carr
8.15.05 @ 12:47p

I thought that was chick lit. Fem lit is for girls with pit hair and birkenstocks...

heather millen
8.15.05 @ 3:02p

Okay, maybe it is more chick lit. But Sarah has the cover NAILED. They also usually feature some sort of cartoonish manolo blahniks and perhaps a feather boa. They also share the pink cover of your beloved.

brian anderson
8.15.05 @ 3:10p

I actually commented to Sarah recently that there aren't as many books in bookstores aimed at men. "What DO men read?" she asked, and I quipped "Nothing" as a semi-serious answer.

Pulp SF is my garbage of choice. Once upon a time it was Tom Clancy.

sandra thompson
8.15.05 @ 4:26p

For the same reasons I physically cannot bring myself to watch soap operas, I cannot read romance novels.

When you grow up reading Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Shakespeare, Cavafy and all the great English and American literary giants you become a literary snob. All snobs have the same argument: it's an acquired taste.

Once you acquire it there's no going back.

lisa r
8.15.05 @ 8:57p

Heaven only knows what that makes me, then. I can go from reading Pride and Prejudice to reading one of J. D. Robb's (Nora Roberts' nom de plume) Eve Dallas installments without blinking an eye.

sarah ficke
8.15.05 @ 9:52p

Ah, but I love Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, and Charles Dickens. It's my job to love them, in fact. I just read them with different parts of my brain, I think.

brian anderson
8.16.05 @ 9:20a

Exactly. Just because you appreciate Bach's counterpoint doesn't mean you don't like a good visceral Clash.

jael mchenry
8.16.05 @ 9:53a

I do think there's just as much art in writing detective fiction and other "genre" work as there is in writing literature. There are good and bad examples of both, and you can't hold one to the standards of the other.

(Says the woman who just finished reading "Fletch Won" for at least the fifth time.)

tracey kelley
8.16.05 @ 10:16a

Oh, the mystery/detective layout is difficult, no question about it. Think of all the setups that need to be done.

I try hard not to be a snob, especially since I'm not built like that anyway. I agree with Jael - there are good and bad versions of all segments.

I personally love Maeve Binchy for the "softer" side of reading, because her character development is top notch.

brian anderson
8.16.05 @ 10:27a

Chandler's "Simple Art of Murder" is an essay well worth reading, just to see his thoughts on how difficult mysteries are to write (and his opinion that very, very few are fully satisfying); to him, a well-constructed genre piece *is* legit literature because it has to fulfil the same human issues.

That's the essay that also has the wonderful "Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid..." quote.

dave lentell
8.16.05 @ 12:01p

For those of you who've ever wished you could star in your own trashy romance novel, here's your chance.


Choose "mild" or "wild" - (I'm sure there are pirates in here somewhere)

I almost got one of these for the Mrs. - I thought it might be a good way to get her to stop reading this crap. But then I realized... she doesn't make fun of me for reading/buying comic books because she knows I'll make fun of her trashy romance novel habit. So, I decided to keep the peace and abandoned the idea. That and the $50 one of these things cost would buy a LOT of comic books.


jael mchenry
8.16.05 @ 2:02p

When I used to supervise writers, they almost got one of these for me. But I think it fell apart on the 'mild' vs. 'wild' decision.

They got me a nice leather book cover instead. Just as bookish, less... controversial.

sandra thompson
8.24.05 @ 8:33a

Oh, I didn't say I don't enjoy mysteries and sci-fi. I do, I do. I just cannot tolerate soap opera and romance.

anya werner
9.15.05 @ 12:37p

Romance novels may be much-maligned, but they also account for an incredible portion of the book publishing industry revenue. Chick lit, as well.

I am setting aside all my literary aspirations and working on a goal of writing one of these puppies...

sarah ficke
9.15.05 @ 12:57p

It's a fun thing to try, and harder than you might think.

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