Before law school, I was a serious reader who read serious books by seriously intelligent authors. So were all of my friends, as far as I knew. Bestseller lists were generally a guide to what not to read. And, to get really specific, I was not a genre fiction reader. Oh, don’t get me wrong: during middle school, I engaged in some fantasy reading—you know, just to check things out. I enjoyed it, but there was a limit to how many quests through pseudo–medieval Europe I could tolerate, and dragons just seemed like such silly subject matter.
Mysteries: Too trite. Science fiction, aside from Douglas Adams: Played out better for me on a movie screen than in my own head as a reader. It was all formula, formula, formula—which was readily available through broadcast television, so why would I waste my precious reading time on such pabulum when there was so much written high-art waiting to be digested?
Oh, how the mighty snob falls.
When I started law school, I was in my thirties and it was then, for the first time in my life, that I gave up reading for pleasure. Perhaps it began as a lack of time, but something about law school itself and reading case law day in and day out began to change me as a reader. I developed an inability to connect with any book that I picked up, no matter the length, subject matter or author. I was devastated. A part of my very soul began to shrivel up!
Fundamentally, literary fiction is about engaging with reality and examining the human condition with all of its pains and some of its pleasures. Law school, in its own way, is an examination of the human condition—without any of its pleasures.
Frankly speaking, dear reader: I needed an escape.
My escape came from around an unexpected corner. In 2008, my best friend Eva sheepishly admitted to reading some young adult novel that had become her personal obsession. (She is one of those serious readers of serious books I mentioned earlier.) She began with “I know this isn’t your thing, but…” and I listened as she loosely described Twilight without giving up the plot. I was intrigued. My reader’s soul was intrigued. I was home from winter break, exhausted from finals, and looking to be passively entertained, so I thought, why not?
I picked Twilight up. I read it. I finished it. And then I devoured the next three books.
And after reading the series twice, I tried reading other young-adult paranormal books, but nothing came close to the satisfaction I got from reading about the romance between Edward and Bella. I knew I had to step it up somehow. I knew I needed to be bold.
So, naturally, I snuck into the romance section of my local book seller. If I could have worn a disguise involving wigs and big sunglasses, I would have. Fortunately for me, at the Park Slope Barnes and Noble, the romance section bleeds right into the poetry section, so I decided to lurk at the end of the romance alphabet, in case any of my friends and neighbors spotted me. Nervous about looking like a potential shoplifter, I couldn’t pay close attention to detail, so only boldly-colored, simply-designed spines caught my eye. So it was that I ended up with a J.R. Ward book.
And there began my love affair with the Black Dagger Brotherhood. It was an uncomfortable seduction; I had a hard time swallowing the idea of vampires that listened to Hip Hop and spoke some pseudo-ghetto slang, but by the time Beth, the female protagonist said, “Touch me,” I realized I was willing to put up with a bit of cheese. I devoured the series greedily and began looking for new paranormal romance novels to read. I read about vampires, werewolves, fallen angels, and fairies falling in love in an alternate universe that resembled our own.
(Caveat: I still draw the line at reading about dragons. They are just too silly, in my opinion.)
I realized what my soul had been missing: a good story. And I had found multitudes. I was able to fall in love with reading all over again. While the writing cannot be described as highbrow, the good writers create strongly believable alternative worlds with dynamic characters and cunning plots. It’s good storytelling. And novels at heart should be about good story telling.
One common assumption about genre fiction—specifically, romance novels (and I must admit that I was party to this uncharitable line of thinking when I bothered to think about romance novels at all)—is that readers develop unrealistic expectations that inhibit the formation of healthy relationships. Yes, particularly with regards to male sexual performance. But the implication there is that readers are unable to discern reality from fiction.
As Sarah Wendell, the co-founder of Smart Bitches, Trashy Novels, notes: “You don’t see adult gamers being accused of an inability to discern when one is a human driving a real car and when one is a yellow dinosaur driving a Mario Kart, but romance readers hear about unrealistic expectations of men almost constantly.” Science fiction and fantasy are generally more respected as an escapist experience than the romance genre.
I posit that the problem owes more to the book covers (heaving bosoms; sweaty, naked male chests) than to the actual content.
A good story is essentially about conflict resolution. And while there are no surprises as to how a romance or even a paranormal romance novel is going to end, the formula of romance novels can also provide a framework for the reader to examine some of the painful truths of the human condition, while promising safety and security in its happily-ever-after.
It took me months to come out to my friends as a paranormal romance reader. Yeah, some of them made fun of me. One even started calling my new-found literary love ‘vampire porn.’ But I’ve gotten over it, and myself, and I am a better reader for it.
There’s nothing wrong with escaping reality from time to time with genre fiction, and a good story is a gift to humanity. I’m still the same intelligent woman I was three years ago, and I am remain a very serious reader of very serious books, but sometimes I need a formula. And a fallen angel or two. And the security of a happy ending, in these less-than-secure times.
If only they would do something about those embarrassing covers.
Frankie Angelo is a Southern California native. She’s worked in retail and chemistry, yet somehow ended up with a law degree. She’s lived in San Francisco and NYC, and currently resides in Los Angeles. Although she’s licensed to practice law, she spends most of her working hours helping children solve algebraic expressions. She’s currently attempting to write a novel, reading voraciously (which interferes with the novel writing) and hopes to adopt a dog soon.