Reading is such a fundamental skill that it could mean so many things. You read e-mails and spreadsheets as well as novels, memoirs, histories, and more. In the context of this blog, when I say “read,” I mean “reading books” (because it is, after all, a book blog). But recently, I’ve gotten into discussions about preferred genres and why some readers prefer some over others, as well as why different readers have different preferences.
If you check out my list of reviewed books, you’ll probably find that only one out of four (if not fewer) is a contemporary read, and of these, perhaps half are straight up contemporary romance without some element of mystery or suspense in them. Outside of the books I review, I think you’d find that the numbers are more like 20% contemporary, and less than half of that if you eliminate the intrigue element (even factoring in my newfound love for small-town/cowboy romances). In contrast, my co-bloggers, Anne and Marian, read much, much more contemporary romance than I do.
I mentioned part of my love of historical romance in the introduction to my book review of Caroline Linden’s Love in the Time of Scandal, but a few offline and online discussions have made me decide to write about it here as well. So here goes nothing.
When I read a book, I categorize the experience in my head as “for fun” or “for learning.” Let me be clear that, as far as this post goes, I’m talking strictly about reading for fun.
Escapism and Happily Ever Afters
When I read for pure enjoyment, I’m usually looking for a healthy dose of escapism from the drama and ordinariness of life as I know it. Which is why, I guess, even though I’ve read many contemporary romances I enjoy, I don’t often go looking for them, especially if the setting is your generic big city. I think it’s just a question of wanting to be transported to a place where things are different.
By their very nature, science fiction, fantasy, and historical novels do exactly that. Even if it’s an urban fantasy or paranormal book where there are just a few things that aren’t grounded in reality as we know it, that’s enough to help me check out of the world (and check into the book) for a few hours. And I’ll admit that I just plain like the idea of magic and explainable unexplainable circumstances, skills, and phenomena.
Escapism is also why romance is a big part of what I read. I like reading books in these genres that are peppered liberally with romantic plot lines because it virtually guarantees some sort of happily ever after. And when I want to escape the real world, where HEAs are far from guaranteed, this is definitely a big must-have. I just plain like the idea of knowing before the story even starts that somehow, someway, things will work out in the end. Its why books with twisty endings, like E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars, hit me so hard I’m left virtually incoherent in the aftermath.
Not Your Ordinary Girls
But there’s another thing, and it’s something I’ve really only just put together, so forgive me if my thought processes are a bit on the raw side. When I pick up a romance novel that’s set in an alternate reality, in a different time period, or even a small town (because I’m a city girl through and through), I find that I’m better assured that the heroine is going to be someone special.
Some of the best historical fictions I’ve read, like Donna Woolfolk Cross’ Pope Joan, have featured women who broke the mold and made something of their lives. My favorite sci-fi, fantasy, and paranormal novels do the same—most, if not all, of them feature warrior women and alpha couples who kick some serious butt.
And I love modern Regencies because, as I’ve already mentioned, they tend to focus on and celebrate women who dare to be different or who are placed on the sidelines by society yet still are special enough to warrant being the heroines of a story. These are your wallflowers, your hoydens, your courtesans, your bluestockings, who are far from the simpering misses who seem to have made up the bulk of the women of marriageable age during that period.
When I pick up a small town romance, meanwhile, it’s with the knowledge that because they’re swimming in such a tiny pool, the heroines are usually big fishes in them. And what’s more, small-town heroines often have to contend with casual bigotry and biases, poverty, and the prospect of people getting injured (in the case of farming and ranching communities) on a daily basis. And that personal injury factor goes way up when I know I’m reading romantic suspense or a mystery or thriller.
In contrast, I feel like big-city contemporary romances (which seem to have flooded the market in the past few years, following the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey and its ilk) is like taking a risk of getting trapped into a “just an ordinary girl” kind of story, which is a personal pet peeve of mine. I’m reading to escape the people I know and maybe even myself; I don’t particularly want to read about someone who could just be one among their number.
What’s more, sometimes authors deliberately start out with heroines being “just an ordinary girl,” then have the readers discover right alongside her how special she really is. I appreciate that there are people who love the idea that the heroine could be like anyone they know, who love that slow unfolding of specialness. I’m just not one of those people, not when I’m reading to relax. I don’t want to go from page to page with the question “Is she special yet?” the way Bart Simpson asks “Are we there yet?” on a road trip. And it’s really just my personality that, yes, I am just that annoying about it when it isn’t immediately clear to me that the main character is somebody special.
Which leads me to my third and final point. I do read a lot of what I read out of a desire for wish fulfillment. The thing is romance is not my personal wish. I think this has a lot to do with upbringing. I grew up knowing two things: (1) love finds you if it’s meant to be and you know how to recognize it when you see it, and (2) you shouldn’t pin your hopes and aspirations in life on another person. That meant that I grew up not really caring if Prince Charming ever came to my house. If he was interesting enough, I’d come marching up to the castle and see if we couldn’t make a match of it. And that’s only if I got to have equal say in running the country.
Okay, maybe that’s going a little too far in terms of analogies. What I’m saying is, it’s never been enough for me for a romance novel to be about a love story and only about a love story. The characters need to accomplish something besides falling in love and accepting that love for me to get behind them. The bigger the stakes, the more points I tend to give them. Which is why I so enjoy kickass characters who save their worlds. Because my wish fulfillment is to make my mark on the world someway or other.
I should add at this point that I approached my love life accordingly, which surprises people because I married fairly early (at 24, and my hubby was also my first and only boyfriend, even if the relationship came after a serial dating spree). I didn’t go looking for love in real life. In fact, when we acknowledged our mutual attraction, I told the guy I didn’t know if I could invest enough of myself to make for a committed relationship because there were things I wanted to do, experiences I wanted to have. That he convinced me those things would be easier and the experiences richer with him along with me says more about him than about me, I think. But back to my point: I didn’t really look for romance in my own life and accepted it as a happy bonus when it occurred, and I treat reading the same way. Love is great, but do something more with your life than fall in love and get married.
This is not a judgment of people who just want to do that. Because if that floats your boat, that’s absolutely great for you. I’m just saying that those are waters my own little ship would sink in. And the beauty of something like reading is you get to indulge in whatever it is you’re into.
Does all this mean I’m not open to genres other than the ones I’ve listed as my favorites? Of course not! It’s just that my favorites are my favorites, and I’ve recently come to realize why they top my preferences.
So here’s a question, if you’ve read all this and gotten this far: What makes you read what you like to read?