Guilty of Not Reading Romance

By Poison Ivy,

Sixteen years ago, I acquired a romance by a favorite author, Linda Howard, and put it on my bookshelf. Yesterday, I finally read it. What the heck happened?

I’ve got one American classic, Ramona, by Helen Hunt Jackson, that has been on my to-be-read shelf at five addresses in four states. But that’s a book that would educate me more than entertain me, so it’s understandable that I still haven’t gotten around to reading it. The mother of the chairman of the English department when I was in college read all of Balzac when she was 80 years old. I always figured that when I reached that age (and I have a long way to go), I would do the same. So Ramona is still waiting. I am not surprised that The Brothers Karamazov has languished on my shelf for the past year or two, along with A Town Like Alice. These are all books that would be good for me, that would improve my intellect because they are not popular entertainment of today and thus are written in an idiom that will make me work a little. Of course I am delaying reading them. I have always preferred trash to treasure when it comes to books, and the easy read instead of the difficult. Not surprisingly, I’m not a fan of William Faulkner, and I’ve never bothered to try to read James Joyce’s Ulysses. (Although I did read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.)

Linda Howard writes hot, sexy books with tough guy heroes who fall madly in love with the feisty heroines. Nothing intellectual here. Why didn’t I read it when I got it? And not only that book, but five others by Linda Howard were sitting on my shelf. Three of them were sequels to Mackenzie’s Mountain, a romance I had just adored. The heroine of Mackenzie’s Mountain was a spirited problem-solver whose big heart salvaged the lives of the embittered hero and his unhappy son and turned a whole town around. So why wouldn’t I want to read the sequels to such an inspiring tale? I must have thought I wanted to, since I got these books. I just didn’t read them, any of them, until yesterday.

Also on my to-be-read shelf are a couple dozen books by several other favorite romance authors, all of whom I would recommend without reservation: Justine Davis, Alexandra Sellers, and Anne Stuart. I admire the intelligence and writing ability of these authors. I enjoyed their previous books immensely. Why haven’t I read their later books yet? They’re guaranteed to be good.

One answer is that these books are potentially so special to me that I have been saving them up for some moment when I can properly enjoy them. But it’s hard to believe that in sixteen years, that moment never arrived.

Another possible answer is that these books are escapist fiction that I simply couldn’t see myself running to during that period in my life. But if I look at my list of fiction that I read then (yes, I am nerdy enough to keep a list. I’ve been keeping it since I was 12), I read plenty of romances during those 16 years. Not the 30 to 50 per month I used to read in previous years, but still, plenty.

I must confess that I pretty much skimmed the books yesterday. I ignored background details and gorged on scenes between the heroes and heroines, and just pushed through to the end. Book after book. I did the same with a couple of books by another old favorite, Diana Palmer.

Maybe what happened is that I had had enough of that particular kind of category romance and I didn’t really know it. (A category romance is usually a numbered release within a named series; these were from Silhouette Books, in their Intimate Moments series.) These Linda Howard romances were not in any way a departure from her previous style or subject matter, although later, she branched out into single title releases that included more realistic elements. I had already been aware of the disappointment of reading books by an author whose focus had changed. This happened to me when Dorothy Eden, writer of some excellent contemporary Gothic romances, decided to write historical fiction instead. I read some of them, but I did not admire them or enjoy them. Still, I respect an author’s right to grow and change, even if I can’t or won’t follow her.

But in this instance, I suspect that I am the one who changed. One of the inevitable flaws of genre fiction, especially in action-packed fiction, is that there isn’t much room for ideas. Romances have to be fast-paced and focus on the heroine’s developing relationship with the hero. Everything else in a romance is just a version of window dressing. Heroines all tend to be similar, a sort of Everywoman. So are heroes. After a while, authors have rung about every possible change in the basic romance idea that is currently popular. That’s when the genre has to change or readers lose interest. Even though I wasn’t actively seeking other kinds of stories sixteen years ago, I was losing interest in the same old same old. And I never realized it until reading Linda Howard again yesterday crystallized it in my mind.

I read romances completely of my own volition, so I ought to know what I want. But we all get into reading ruts, or just buying ruts. Long after the thrill is gone, we’re still slogging through books that don’t offer us anything new. Or in my case, not bothering to read the books at all. Is this a problem? Not exactly. But why did I have these books sitting on the shelf all these years, making me feel sad because I apparently had no time to read them, or guilty because I never made the time to read them? I could have allowed myself to feel free about reading some other kind of book, whether a romance or something else. Come to think of it, this is a good argument for getting all my books from the public library. At some point library books have to be returned whether they’ve been read or not. Which then relieves me of the misery of having a permanent pile of books sitting around for years and years making me feel guilty.

After scanning in the covers of these books, I’ve come up with another, less intellectual reason why I didn’t read Mackenzie’s Mission when it came out: Lousy cover. Not only is it static, but the uniformed hero with his fancy airplane represent not one but two topics I don’t care to read about: The military, and airplanes. (In fact, as my family knows, I have taken a dread oath never to cross the threshold of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum again.) But then look at the cover of the original book in Linda Howard’s Mackenzie series, Mackenzie’s Mountain. Not only does the heroine have incredibly bad hair and a terrible blouse, but it looks like the hero has a mullet.

I’ve presented several possible reasons for ignoring a book for 16 years. I wonder which one is correct?