We looked back on our past jobs, dates, and relationships, and revisited what we had suffered, or perhaps been guilty of, or simply failed to notice. I also fell deeper in love with the romance genre. I spent the next five summers of my life reading every single historical romance I could get my hands on. Now I saw it clearly: I had written an entitled, abusive boss and excused his behavior by giving him a spanking fetish. In the end, I wrote a more romantic book. The feeling of wanting. While that was not true of all of them, I could see it was certainly true of some I had read.
STEP 7: THE GRAND GESTURE
In romance, the cataclysmic breakdown between the lovers leads to personal growth and change. Instead, I found they modeled female ambition, male vulnerability, enthusiastic consent. If they were suitable, there would be no plot. “What are you reading?” I ask her. The kind of book that made you weep, stay up all night, sharpen your knives. The question should have been: Did I live up to my own ideals? I wrote feverishly and polished relentlessly until I had a gleaming manuscript that borrowed from all of my favorite childhood tropes: a tortured duke, a marriage of convenience, a shattering secret, a stirring of hearts on a moonlit ride on a horse. I had always sensed this dynamic was unsettling, but I hadn’t been able to name why. What shook me about this book was the thrill of vicarious intimacy — the agonies and pleasures of falling in love on the page. The pleasure coupled with an implicit shame, as thick and murky as the humidity. We sometimes paw through the books, looking for snatches of words like “his thick, steely rod” and “her quivering mound.” I never imagined reading one myself. The presence of this kind of darkness in what I had previously thought were light and airy books was both revelatory and uncomfortable for me. I cast this choice as a painful concession of her autonomy rather than a “happily ever after.” I made her marriage a failure that left a gnawing, aching hole in both lovers until the heroine discovers that her husband — on the surface a wealthy, controlled, hard-hearted alpha male — is secretly submissive. I wrote about an 18th-century woman with an intense desire for power and personal agency, who, due to legal and financial circumstances, can only fulfill her ambitions by marrying. I wanted to write my own romance novel. These were not damsel-in-distress tales that rewarded toxic masculinity with unexamined true love. They at best excused — or at worst romanticized — sexual assault. It was too good. I made my heroine’s employer a woman. This was a literature of feminine rebellion, resistance and pleasure, sold covertly in Walmarts around the nation, their radicalism disguised by ladies in fluttering ballgowns. In romance, we call this “The Black Moment”: the point at which the factors that create both the attraction and the tension between the lovers becomes irreconcilable. I allowed my heroine to name the reasons for her rage and made my hero want to listen to her and believe her. 19, Romance
To receive the LARB Quarterly Journal, become a member or purchase a copy at your local bookstore. These books were not in contravention to feminism; they were in conversation with it. They valorized primogeniture, colonialism, white supremacy, misogyny. I can still remember how it felt: the sweat mingling with the chlorine drips of my hair. She only has eyes for this book. I made my hero aware of his unfathomable privilege as a wealthy man and a duke, and sensitive to the damage he could cause in exercising that privilege without care. I stared at the evidence of my biases and assumptions on the screen, and did something we can’t always do in real life: hit delete.
STEP 3: THE IMPOSSIBLE CONFLICT
If the path to permanent happiness came as easily as the initial attraction, romance literature would not exist. I didn’t go to camp. The smell of pretzel salt and cigarette smoke and the musk of a cheap well-loved paperback. The conflict in these books is animated not by the fact that the lovers should be together, but that they should not. It was, in fact, amazing. But also because it provides a space where we can examine courtship rituals, power within intimacy, both the light and dark sides of romantic love — and ask ourselves what we believe to be swoon-worthy. I had placed the burden on my heroine to be ferocious in a world stacked against her, but I had not placed a similar burden on my hero to use his considerable power to understand or relieve her struggle. Did I expect as much from myself as I expected of the literature I read? That night, I stole another historical romance from my grandmother’s bookshelf and read the whole thing in one frenzied gasp, practically choking for air. They must therefore find each other as terrifying and wrong as they do compelling. This was why reading them as a nine-year-old felt like discovering witchcraft. I realized then what was wrong with my romance novel. Seemingly insurmountable forces must stand in the way of their love. Worse, he employed her, and their affair took place with her entire future riding on his patronage. I was stressed out from work and wanted to read something happy and fun. I let the love of my life slip away. “It’s like porn, right?”
“Isn’t this, like, really dumb, though?”
“My mom says only trashy girls read these.”
I lacked the language to disagree, and would not have dared even if I had known what to say. It was too good. Just too good. The books I discovered as an adult were just as compulsively readable as I remembered. I read hundreds, if not thousands, of romance novels. It seemed to me that these books took the agonies of living as a femme in the 21st century — rape culture, sexual harassment, diminished opportunities for pay and advancement — and blew them up to their most dystopian extreme: a legal system in which only wealthy white men had rights. It only took one. And so I did what one does when one writes a novel: floundered, wrote in circles, quit a hundred times, and finally found the voice and the plot and the characters. I wanted to read that book. She is alone, but she is laughing so hard she’s actually wiping tears from beneath the foggy lenses of her glasses. But as a well-practiced juvenile paperback thief, I had read plenty of graphic sex in stolen Stephen King and James Michener novels. Outside my cousins are pretending to drown each other, but she doesn’t notice. Somehow I knew in my bones what was going to happen, and yet despite that sense, my heart was still in my throat. I fell hard and fast. This cooling grew into a freeze when I went to college and learned that the books I had devoured in my youth were not just thought of as trashy or distasteful but also considered problematic in ways I had not contemplated as a child. I sensed the unsuitability of these books in the mocking tones of friends who would side-eye my paperbacks, marvel at the covers. The cover is disguised with a jacket made out of faded pastel floral cotton.
STEP 6: THE BLACK MOMENT
That summer curdled into autumn and the country was suddenly wracked by a reckoning. That there are people who can understand what we want and ratify our deepest needs outside what is sanctioned by law or church or the overweening power of convention. Partly, it was the presence of sex on the page.
STEP 2: INSTALOVE
Romance readers sometimes complain about “instalove,” a common trope, in which the lovers in the story are so instantly besotted that there is no tension, only immediate, head-over-heels desire. I knew who I was and was confident in my opinions and taste. But this time, I was an adult woman with a bookshelf full of classics and prestige reads and years of wine-drenched book club discussions behind me. I began to reread the books I had grown up with, and realized that romance novels had not really changed; the culture had.
STEP 4: SECOND CHANCES
Ten years after disavowing romance novels, I gave in and bought one. And so I said nothing. She closes the book, moving it out of sight.
STEP 8: THE HAPPY ENDING
This is the only real rule in romance: the story has to end happily. It isn’t; it happened to me. This time, I read them with an eye to their politics, and I fell in love in a different way. In this context, sex scenes I had positioned as consensual now struck me as ethically dubious, if not predatory. Because it is joyous and light and sexy and thrilling, yes. I knew, firmly and without hesitation, that what I had just read was not trash. As an adolescent, that feeling of transgression was part of the appeal. Oh, it’s just trash.
STEP 5: THE “I LOVE YOU”
In every romance novel, there comes a point when one of the lovers realizes they are terminally and irreconcilably smitten, but does not yet realize they must change in order to become worthy of the object of their affection. A muscled, shirtless man looms over a woman in a torn teal dress in a field, surrounded by clouds. Often, this takes the form of a grand gesture. It also riffed on the feminist politics of the romance novelists I most admired as an adult, and their obsession with power dynamics. I needed to. But as I grew older and more self-conscious about who I was — my taste, my class, my body, my intelligence — the stigma around romance novels suddenly started to feel more real and threatening. Almost all of them were about female power in some sense, and many used history to criticize the present through the lens of the past. When she gets up to make dinner I snatch the book, and slide it out from beneath its disguise. When I was done, I liked my book. It felt like we were suddenly, as a society, unpacking courtship rituals, rethinking office politics, airing how much violence and coercion had been pushed aside, rationalized, and excused. I didn’t play sports. Suddenly, I was back to devouring historical romance novels. An outright admission that I read them as anything more than a lark or a joke would have said something about me that I did not want said. But it’s too good.”
These words will come to haunt me, but in that moment all I feel is avarice. My hero still gets his happy ending. The secret bookshelf. Inevitably, they would read the sexier bits aloud. SEPTEMBER 11, 2018
This short story appears in the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. I assumed that it was a technical problem with the plot and that feedback from agents and editors would help locate whatever eluded me. I sensed that this dismissal ignored the themes of female pleasure and empowerment that also ran through the books I had grown up with, but I couldn’t figure out how to talk about it. My grandmother sits in the screened porch in the damp August heat of Bradenton, Florida, smoking and drinking Pepsi with ice and reading a paperback novel. Locking the door and reading in the dark was the most delicious form of rebellion available to me at the time. In all the years I had spent agonizing over whether romance novels were sufficiently feminist, writing one made me see that I had been asking the wrong question. I have only seen her laugh like this a few times before, after a filthy joke or a salty story from her childhood. It was also impossible to put down. She jumps, startled at my presence even though I had been noisily pulling pretzels from a large plastic tub with my wet, pruny fingers and grinding them into dust with my molars. It’s called Whitney, My Love, and it’s a historical romance novel, or what my older cousin calls, in conspiratorial whispers, “one of Grandma’s sex books.” We have already discovered her secret stash, shoved into the lowest shelf of her bookcase. For me, the unsuitability of my newfound love was evident from that very first meeting: the cloth cover. I lived far away from my friends. But it’s too good. Most romances begin with a thunderclap of attraction, and mine is no different. And it’s just too good.”
Scarlett Peckham is a historical romance novelist and author of The Duke I Tempted. But something about it seemed off, and it bothered me in a way I could not quite put my finger on. This was their magic. They centered around women who demanded pleasure and agency. “Oh, it’s just trash. It is twilight. These books were clearly something I was not supposed to read, let alone like. Reading them as an adult felt like hearing a collective female primal scream. I knew I wanted mine to be fierce and feminist but also hilarious and compulsively readable. You couldn’t open your phone without seeing #MeToo. It was exciting, funny, sweet, heartbreaking, redemptive. Romance had definitely evolved, along with our changing ideas around consent, feminism, and inclusion, but they had always been working their way through the anxieties of womanhood and power. He is resting on one chiseled forearm, and her head is thrown back as she grips him in ecstasy, all in glorious, hand-painted technicolor. By asking more of him, I also asked more of myself. I want whatever is behind that faded cloth cover. They were something a grown woman with seven grandchildren had to read in secret. Someday, when I am sitting on a porch with a paperback, weeping with laughter, and my grandchild asks what I’m reading, I will say this: “It’s a romance novel about people who fall in love and become better for it. For me, that gesture was ripping up my book. It was A Week to Be Wicked by Tessa Dare, and it was hilarious and sexy and it kept me up all night. If I still felt a pang of desire every time I passed a racy cover at a bookstore, I marked it down to nostalgia. But now I believe he is worthy of it. These readers argue for the pleasures of a slow build, contending that such sudden ardor is impossible.
STEP 1: THE MEET-CUTE
It is 1994 and I am nine years old, wet from the pool. To save their love, they must battle their demons, see more clearly, and become braver. Something radical must happen to prove they have fundamentally changed. I was exploring the idea that power exchange within intimacy could be palliative for an intractable power imbalance outside of it.