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Why we read romances in secret

Romances are not considered good literature. How are the genre's readers, and popular and prolific writers like Andaleeb Wajid, navigating this space?

Despite being looked down upon, Romance as a genre is still very popular
Despite being looked down upon, Romance as a genre is still very popular (Photo by Roman Synkevych on Unsplash)

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It's common to feel guilty while picking up a Romance novel, like Mills and Boon. They're read in empty corridors of libraries; they're covered in newspapers to hide from prying eyes. Women read them in bed, on the bus, in the bathroom. Men don't admit to reading them.

Andaleeb Wajid, whose novel, Maybe This Time, released in January on Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing, says it was much the same for her when she was introduced to the genre through a Mills and Boon book, when she was 17. She bought it from a book fair when her mother wasn't looking.

Soon, she started borrowing them from libraries, and she and her friends would read them one by one. She studied English Literature in college in Bengaluru, but without being told, she knew her professors wouldn't approve of her reading these Romances. It was not "good literature." It was trash; it was shallow; it was stupid. She would be better off reading James Joyce or Leo Tolstoy or Charles Dickens. Things all readers of contemporary Romance are taught early.

Now, in her forties, and after a decade of writing, Wajid has published 26 novels, several of which are Romances. She’s also written in a new Romance anthology, Forever Yours, which came out on 24th February.

Maybe This Time is the third book in Wajid’s series, ‘Reluctant Romances’. At the time of writing this article, it was ranked #13 in Romance Collections and Anthologies on the Kindle Store. Previously, her Jasmine Villa series (2019, self-published) about three sisters and the Destination Weddings series (2019-2021, self-published), about a group of wedding planners who find their happily-ever-afters while organizing other people's weddings, also found tremendous success. In 2021, six of her novels were published — two with Penguin (All Drama, No Queen and Mirror, Mirror) and four self-published — Only You, Loving You, Accidentally Married, and A Taste of Midnight.

According to an article in Bookriot in 2021, Romance is the best-selling genre in the US, making approximately 1.44 billion dollars per year in sales. According to Quartz, 70% of all e-books sold in 2017 were Romances. A romance novel is believed to be bought every 2 seconds in the UK. It's a business that is picking up in India as well. What these numbers prove is that as a Romance reader, you are not alone and there’s nothing to be ashamed of. There are more people reading Romances than you can imagine. They’re just not talking about it (still!).

Despite this mass (and largely furtive) popularity, there are several reasons Romances are looked down upon. In Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained (2015, self-published), Romance writer Maya Rodale says, "(Romances) celebrate women who get out of the house and do all the things that, traditionally, young ladies and good girls don't do… Most scandalous of all, these books are by women, for women, and about women in a culture that doesn't place much value on women."

There’s also of course the genre’s unabashed exploration of sex, especially female sexual desire.

Mirror, Mirror was published in 2021 through Penguin's Duckbill imprint
Mirror, Mirror was published in 2021 through Penguin's Duckbill imprint

There are two sides to this discomfort. As a writer, when Wajid started out, she was not very comfortable writing Romances, especially because she didn’t want to get it wrong. "I had to overcome this inherent feeling of awkwardness. Because talking about love is fine, but it can get awkward when it comes to some of the steamier scenes. And I didn't want that. I didn't want my readers to cringe and think, ‘This is not at all sexy’. So it was a bit of a struggle," she says. For the reader, it does not help that Romance novels have often had men and women in very little clothing on the covers: no one wants to be seen reading them.

The relatively new e-reader and e-book market has helped the genre significantly. It was a cost-effective way for writers like Wajid to self-publish when the publishing companies wouldn’t take them on – Wajid, who frequently writes two or more novels a year, found it difficult to convince publishers to accept them all. Many people discouraged her, but she wanted more published books, readers, and control. "As a writer, my first instinct is to get people to read my books. And that I make money out of it is even more wonderful. And these two objectives, self publishing fulfills for me very satisfyingly," she says. "Traditional publishing doesn't pay for mid-list authors like me,” she adds. For readers, reading through the gadget and the anonymity of the virtual e-book market help with privacy. In his newsletter, Ron Charles of the Washington Post quotes Mark Isero of the Kindle Classroom Project as saying, “They (Middle-school students) may have had years of shame as far as their reading level or what kinds of books that they like to read,” which makes them turn to e-readers for the privacy it offers them. Romance readers might feel the same way.

Wajid is a strong, and interesting case for the popularity of Romances. Yet, initially, Wajid felt she was disadvantaged because of her own lack of experience in the dating world. She was only 19 when she married, 20 when she had her first child. She had missed out on several things she wanted to write about. "There were small things I didn't know — like what it's like to work in an office, have colleagues, to meet them, to talk to them," she says. However, this only made her more determined to write about the kind of people she did know — urban, educated, Muslims, and she reached out to her friends to find out about their dating life.

It wasn't a conscious political stance to keep Muslim protagonists, but it did end up becoming a strong USP for her: several reviews of her work mention how readers relate to her work because the places and the characters are familiar.In fact, her books, like most Romances, manage to traverse the complex path between relatability and aspiration very well. "Many Muslim girls finish college and get married and don't have the freedom to create (their own) financial independence. I wanted the stories to give a real picture of real people but also be an aspiration for younger girls reading this," Wajid says.

Shreemayee Das writes on entertainment, education, and relationships. She is based in Mumbai, and posts as @weepli on Instagram and Twitter.

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