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Smart B*tches, Trashy Books Unravel Romance Novels

Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan have helped romance readers discern the good smut from the bad for years with their blog Smart B*tches, Trashy Books. And now with their book Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels, they offer a guide through the heady world of the $5.99 novel and defend it with wit and intelligence.

So we asked these two smart readers about romance novels, and oh how they talked. So much, that we're breaking all their thoughtful answers into a five-part series. What's up first? Who reads these glossy books?

One out of five people read romance novels — who are these people?

Sarah: The truth is, behind the stereotypes, smart, savvy women read romance. It's a 60+-year-old industry of women operating independent businesses writing books consumed by an audience of women who spend $1.7 billion dollars a year. Two romance readers may have absolutely nothing in common except for the books they read, because romance readers are an incredibly diverse audience — no group of readers that supports a billion-dollar industry can be homogeneous. We're found across all ages, education levels, income levels, geographic locations and reading habits — and we all love romance novels.

Candy: The demographics for romance novel readers are all over the place, though there are strong trends. They overwhelmingly tend to be women, for example. They also tend to be voracious readers, period, and to be more highly-educated than the population at large. Other than that, it's hard to generalize.

You say, actually five out of five people read romance novels, what are some romances in disguise we've probably read? To see their answers,


Sarah: Every fictional narrative contains a romance element. Where would Bond be without the sexual tension? What horror thriller in general doesn't contain the romantic suspense to support the plot? Romance is one of the oldest narrative traditions, so it's everywhere.

There are few readers more diverse in their tastes than the women and men who read my site, so I asked them. From the readers of Smart B*tches, here are romances you might not have recognized:

Lois McMaster Bujold's books, like the Miles Vorkosigan series, especially A Civil Campaign; Patricia Gaffney's Mad Dash; Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series; William Brinkley's The Last Ship; Jean Auel's Earth's Children series; many of Philippa Gregory's historical novels; Lauren Willig's Pink Carnation series; and many of the novels you read in English class, including, and especially, Jane Austen — Pride and Prejudice is one of the best romances ever written.

Candy: Sarah's right about romance being an element to a lot of fiction and storytelling, but the modern romance genre is its own beast with a long, tangled past. If you've read Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice, you've read books that would qualify as romances if published today. A lot of the sturm und drang (storm and stress) of certain romance subgenres owe a debt to books like Wuthering Heights, for example.

Here's the thing: the plot set-up and conflict dictates the genre the book's most likely to be slapped with. Speculation involving science and technology? Sci-fi. Mystery or conundrum that needs to be solved? Mystery. Mystical other worlds involving magic? Fantasy., etc. And there's considerable bleed-through among the different genres: it's perfectly possible for a book to be both a science-fiction novel and a murder mystery. But what drives the emotional conflict? If it's romantic love, odds are high you're reading a romance novel. Sharon Shinn and Catherine Asaro have written plenty of novels in which the central driving emotional conflict was a romantic entanglement, even though the plot setting was science fiction.

Stay tuned tomorrow to read about what romance novels tell us about women, relationships, society.

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