My Sexy, Steamy Affair With Pulpy Romance Novels

Photo: Courtesy of Linda Barlow Books.
In 2008, my best friend began giving me romance paperbacks as gifts. At the time, I had just broken up with my first boyfriend and was becoming infamous in our social circle for leaving parties and drunkenly asking my friends why none of the men we knew wanted to make out with me. It was a dark time in my life and smutty novels were the first foothold out of my self-pity.

The first book I received, a copy of Barefoot and Pregnant? by Colleen Faulkner, featured two white people kissing in a canoe on the cover. My friend had written on the title page, “It could be worse.” We were freshmen in college and I was studying English literature, so Barefoot and Pregnant? was squeezed onto my dorm bookshelf between the Norton Anthologies and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. I believed that I was above it. I was studying 18th-century poetry! I didn’t have time to be aroused!

I wish I could say that the first time I actually read the book, my friends and I had taken turns reading the steamy parts aloud between swigs from a bottle of cheap wine. But no, I was kind of lonely one night after improv practice and simply read it in bed, cover to cover, alternating between sniffling about how undateable I apparently was and laughing at the author’s inability to use the word “penis.” That’s the first rule of paperback romance, by the way: There aren’t penises involved, only “members,” “manhoods,” and “rods.”

I told my best friend I had loved it, that Elise Montgomery had chosen Zane Keaton in the end despite the fact that he was but a muscular farmer. And we both had a good laugh about how formulaic the plot had been. I kept the book, but didn’t identify as a woman who now liked reading paperback smut. On my next birthday, my friend gave me a new one, admitting she had seen it at Walgreens and had thought of me. She wasn’t even reading them herself, but our tradition had begun. I was to receive and read at least one of these books a year. I started to love it.

I didn’t date men while I was in college (I attended a women’s college for hardcore nerds), so as the semesters flew by, the goofy subtitles on my paperbacks began to resonate with me. Every protagonist “had everything a girl could want — EXCEPT A MAN!” Though the idea that a sexual partner was the only thing that could complete these women was patriarchal pedagogy of the worst kind, the part of me that wasn’t militantly independent and streaking across campus covered in glitter (true story) knew that yearning well. I compartmentalized just wanting to kiss a boy by reading these paperbacks in my room, on the bus home, and even in the dining hall (although I distinctly remember hiding the covers behind napkin dispensers). I thanked Athena that I wasn’t a cis man who couldn’t hide being aroused in public. There’s something magical about women being able to read smut on public transportation and not having anything to show for it, except flushed cheeks.

My friend bought me the funniest books she could find, including an entire trilogy devoted to single mothers finding men who wanted to bone them and look after their babies. In my senior writing seminar, my favorite professor said romance paperbacks were incredibly difficult to write. “Imagine having to write a piece for an audience who already understands the culture more innately than you do, and each new iteration has to feel new and exciting while still sticking to the accepted tropes,” he said. Now that I think about it, he probably wrote paperback romances on the side.

Contemporary romance novels often center around a female protagonist who has a lot going on in her life, which I do appreciate. They’re always career-oriented, which is code for “works all night and just needs some good love-making to make her rearrange her priorities.” Sometimes, the women have busy day jobs, but are also single parents to cute little kids who are always secretly pining for a father figure. Beth Ehemann’s Cranberry Inn series is great for this reason. Her novels, Room For You, Room for More, and Room For Just a Little Bit More, are among my favorites — and not just because the titles are both a sexual double entendre and a summation of the plot (more kids!). A man named Brody (notice all the characters have millennial-era names) swoops into Kacie’s life with the intention of helping her raise her two children, and along the way they discover that — oh, hey, plot twist! — they also like to have sex in the rain!

The male hero in these books has what his female counterpart is missing. He’s way into hiking if she’s a city girl, or he has a lot of time on his hands to teach her son how to whittle soap or whatever. He is a MAN. (There is an entire series, don't you know, called Bad Boy Alphas.) The fantasy of the “perfect man” has remained unchanged for decades; and though the female protagonists in pulpy novels have gained careers and independence, they still want a man who can influence them in a specific way. If male characters in romance novels are flawed, their character weaknesses are always classically masculine: They’re easily frustrated, they refuse to ask for help or directions, and they like to be isolated in their fishing boats rather than make small talk at parties. Swoon, right?

After I graduated college, I continued to receive paperbacks from my friend, but the tone and content of the most popular novels began to change. When we began our weird, smutty tradition, most male heroes were either farmers, rock climbers, or carpenters. Nowadays, I only get books like Mountain Bear and Sheriff Bear, in which the heroes are still burly and masculine, but with the added bonus of quite literally turning into bears sometimes. It seems like every romance novel is now a paranormal romance, for which we can obviously thank Twilight.

Don’t get me wrong, these sci-fi romance books are funnier to receive and read. Milly Taiden’s Scaling Her Dragon is the story of exactly what you think it is, and it’s presumably influenced by the flux of furry porn available on the internet. My relationship with pulpy novels has changed because of the popularity of these novels. It’s easier for me to laugh off the act of reading them because they’re quotable and easy to present to visitors in my apartment as ironic, mid-twenties cultural ephemera.

Is there a part of me that still wants to read my dog-eared copies of the classics, like Lisa Kleypas’ Seduce Me at Sunrise, in which the first-kiss scene isn’t complicated by the fact that the male lead is going to turn into a fire-breathing lizard at some point? Sure. Sidenote: Don’t ever try to seduce me at sunrise. That sounds awful and I’d rather wash my acne cream off first.

I do have political qualms with reading novels meant to meaninglessly entertain straight women, but I also find pleasure in the idea that I’m enjoying stereotypically feminine media, often written for women by other women. Though it’s problematic to fantasize about a man entering one’s life and instantly sweeping all of one’s frivolous problems away, it is fun to enjoy the suggestion. I reserve my right to read a book about a man who gets off on washing a woman’s clothing by hand, using organic soap that he fashioned into the shape of a wild stallion, especially if I’m killing time at the laundromat, waiting for my stuff to dry.

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