The Katharine Papers

Stop Calling Romance Novels “Just” Love Stories—They’re So Much More

Content note: Contains brief discussion of sexual assault as a plot device.

What does it mean when people say romance novels are “just love stories”? Love is not “just” anything. It’s the best thing we’ve got on Earth. Acts done in love balance out the effects of greed and fear.

I think what people really mean when they disparage romance novels is that they’re about romantic love. And in our culture romantic love is almost always associated with women’s fantasies. Women want roses and chocolate; men want sex. That is, of course, baloney. Yet romance fiction carries a stigma, mostly rooted in misconceptions: romance novels are poorly written, they’re “mommy porn,” they reinscribe outdated notions of femininity that objectify women, and they’re unrealistic.

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You’re a Pro! 9 Utterly Irresistible Competence Kinks

Recently, I learned the term “competence kink.” For those of you who are also over thirty, not living in NYC or LA, and often totally unaware of things everybody else seems to know, I shall define it now: a competence kink is a profound attraction to people who are really, really good at something.

My first competence kink ever was not a hot man. (I will get to hot men in a moment.) It was a horse.

I was nine when I fell in love with the Black Stallion. He was exotic and powerful, an Arabian stallion of royal bloodlines. He was indomitably wild: only one boy could ride him, the boy to whom he gave his trust as well as his hero’s heart when shipwrecked on a desert island. He was huge and gorgeous: hands taller than any other racehorse, with a glossy black coat and ungovernable mane and tail. And he won all the time. All the time. To give other horses a chance at even coming close to him, racetrack officials would stuff lead into his saddle to weigh him down, and he’d still win. I adored this horse. He excelled at everything: beauty, strength, speed, friendship, courage, nobility of spirit, love. He was the first hero I ever worshipped.

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We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby…Haven’t We?

We in the modern era did not invent the female orgasm.

We didn’t invent sex, either.

I bet you’re thinking, “Duh.” Because, well, duh. But when people learn that I’m a professor of medieval history, they say the darnedest things. And when I tell them I’m also a romance novelist, it’s even crazier.

May I give you examples?

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Learning How To Love (Or, An About-Face Conversion)

 

Bless me, friends, for I have sinned.

For, until recently, I did not believe that opposites could attract.

Perhaps second only to the Cinderella trope, enemies-to-lovers is a foundational pier of the romance genre. Yet for three decades, when I watched or read a romance in which two vastly different people quarrel their way to True Love, I didn’t buy it. I laughed, I enjoyed, but I rarely believed the happily-ever-after would last long. Even one of the most famous plays in the English language—Much Ado About Nothing—didn’t move me.

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Cinderella Revisted (Or, Why I Teach the History of the Romance Novel to University Students)

Testimony: When I was young, I loved the Cinderella story.

What’s not to love? Poor, hardworking, warmhearted girl beaten down by life gets rich, handsome, powerful guy, and—bonus!—gets to thumb her nose at the mean girls. As sanitized by Disney, with the addition of adorable mice, it’s pure charm.

Then I went to college and became Aware.

Class. Race. Gender. I barely knew the words before I started studying history, literature, civil rights, and government at the university level. And I certainly didn’t know how I’d learned to swallow the insanity of inequality embedded in the fabric of this Great Nation—and in its every industry—without ever questioning it, especially the inequality of the sexes.

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