It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything here and it’s past time I do so! I’ve been thinking lately a lot about Romance novels as a genre. Before the past couple years, it was not a genre I ever read — mostly, I admit, because of the ridicule heaped upon the genre and its readers in popular culture. The stigma against the genre (which is heavily gendered, since Romance has historically been written by women, for women) and its laughable covers and tropes just made it something I never really considered reading.

As it turns out, it was my loss. There are awful examples of the genre, certainly, as well as ones that are simply banal or silly. But this is true of any genre; and I’ve discovered that, like any genre, there are also wonderful examples that can tell us a lot about the human experience.

I was led to further think about the genre because of Vanessa Zoltan‘s Hot and Bothered podcast project this year. In this podcast, Zoltan (of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text fame) explores the reading and writing of Romance stories as a sacred practice. This seemed like a stretch to me at first, but she made a compelling argument that has left me with a lot to think about: In a world where over a third of women (and one sixth of men) report having experienced some form of sexualized violence, in which the #metoo movement has demonstrated just how pervasive workplace sexual harassment still is, and where women and men alike are increasingly objectified in media and dating culture, affirming the possibility of happy endings and writing them into being is an act of radical hope, faith, and resistance.

It’s a compelling idea and has made me rethink how I approach the genre. It’s caused me to think more deeply about the romance stories I read and what about them work — or don’t work — for me. What makes me cheer with Kermit arms and what makes me roll my eyes?

What worked for me? It’s not surprising that themes of belonging, growth, and people getting over themselves and manning- or womaning-up go over very well with me. What was more surprising is that this doesn’t necessarily have to be in situations I find appealing. The emotional and psychological payoff is more important than any kind of wish fulfillment. What didn’t work for me were stories where the attraction wasn’t justified by the story, where the characters were their own worst enemies, or where one of the characters (normally in this genre, the guy) is a Mary Sue. I guess basically what I’ve discovered is that while I do enjoy romance, the romance has to be narratively earned, it has to be built on something solid.

Anyway, I’m grateful for Vanessa Zoltan’s insight into the power of the Romance genre as a source of hope, goodness, and joy in the world. It made me see the genre in a different way and caused me to reflect more on my own attitudes towards it and the idea of hope-as-resistance more generally.