Confession: For most of my high school life, I wasn’t allowed to read Sweet Dreams and Sweet Valley High, which were the de rigueur series at that time. Of course, I wasn’t going to let parental permission get in the way of reading books that I had already been devouring since I was in the fourth grade. So I would hide the books at the back of my bookshelf, under the mattress, under my aunt’s mattress and anywhere I could think of that my mom wouldn’t look for.
Over the years, I added other kinds of romances to the mix. Mystery, with romance. Fantasy, with romance. I even read Marvel comic books because I shipped Kitty Pryde and Piotr Rasputin. Then I discovered historical romances. If my mother thought fourth grade was too young for Sweet Dreams, I knew she was going to have a fit over my reading Jude Deveraux in freshman year. So I was very careful. But with covers like these:
I soon found out I wasn’t the only one in hiding.
Because Fabio. And oysters.
I guess that’s what romance became for me, even beyond high school and the non-verbal lifting of my mother’s ban. It was a guilty pleasure, a dirty secret. These were the books that my friends and I hid behind makeshift dust jackets and later, behind mumbled lines and excuses, because sadly, the judgment went beyond the racy covers.
“So what are you reading?”
The next time around, I had made sure to answer David Eddings (high school) or Roland Barthes (college) and save my romance book recommendations for the few friends who could understand.
And there it was, the sad truth. I was ashamed to read romance—and by extension, to write it.
Here comes the writer, followed by the shame nun.
When I wrote Cover (Story) Girl for #romanceclass, I did it to challenge myself to finish a full-length novella. Maybe I didn’t want to admit it then, but I was hoping this was just something I could do for fun, because you know, I was still hell-bent on writing speculative fiction and praying that this new story was the one that was going to get published on Lightspeed.com.
I had no delusions I was going to write the great Filipino novel but even then, romance didn’t seem like a viable career path for someone who graduated with a Literature degree and found herself part of the UP National Writers Workshop once upon a time. The genre lacked the literariness that my mentors sought.
A friend said it was anti-feminine and gynocritics would have a field day. It was not serious fiction, as Wallace Stegner says,
“written by a different kind of writer and for a different audience. It differs in intention, in materials, in method, and in its final effect. If it entertains—as it must—it entertains at a higher intellectual and emotional level; if it deals in make-believe – as it likewise must—it creates a make-believe world in order to comment on the real one”—Stegner, Fiction: A Lens on Life, 1-2
Yeah, sure. I doubt if any of them would have looked at a novella set in Boracay about a local guy falling in love with a K-drama actress and proclaim it literary.
I was afraid of this reaction. Thankfully, no one has slapped me yet.
What was it about the genre that brought my shame out? Why was I quick to dismiss its value? Why do I cower before the condescension?
But #romanceclass reaffirmed how much I loved this genre. I wasn’t expecting it. It creeped up on me like a love confession between two characters at each others’ throats. In denial, one minute; loud and proud, the next. Even if I wasn’t a writer, I think I would have enjoyed just hanging out with these people and talking to them about tropes and recommendations. But because I was one, I wrote and I self-published and I became part of a community of supportive indie authors.
Then during the first event I had attended as a #romanceclass writer, I came face-to-face with the former Chair of my university’s Lit Department. Here was a man whose opinion I held in high regard. He was a Palanca Hall-of-Famer and a respected critic and yet he didn’t blink when I told him in halting words that I had written a romance. There was no judgment in his expression, only openness and delight to run into an old student. He dropped by our table and later during his opening remarks, even acknowledged #romanceclass and what we were doing (selling ebooks at a book fair, thanks to the audacity of Mina V. Esguerra).
So was my shame imagined? Or even projected?
I’ll never be entirely sure. I’m not naive enough to think that the genre doesn’t have its critics, who may feel that it perpetuates harmful stereotypes or that it should be excluded from literary criticism because of its perceived lack of social value. There is a lot of discourse waiting to happen (and should rightfully be the topic of a different essay), but does a disservice to romance writers and readers to ignore the nuances of the category as it is today.
What I am sure of now is this: romance is a beautiful thing. There are so many dynamic reading communities and groups that celebrate the genre. At #romanceclass, Mina leads books discussions on sub-genres and specific authors. Writers celebrate identity and sexuality with slowly-growing range and representation, through M/M stories, plus-sized heroines, second-chance romances and mommy lit. There are romantic suspense stories, romantic fantasies, even political dystopia, works that talk about issues that a non-romance reader may be surprised to find. Second to the romance, of course, but these issues are not absent. Here, women are writing their own stories, in their own way.
The possibilities seem endless for now. I want to tell my readers: Here’s a safe place. Find a story. There is no shame here. ☁