Are Romance Novels Your ‘Guilty Pleasure’? They Shouldn’t Be

Romance readers are often taught to internalise shame for “wasting” their time with frivolous books instead of reading something worthy.

I love writing romance novels. It allows me to enter an alternate reality where things always work out in the end—and the possibility of that gives me hope even when there seems to be bad news wherever you look, like right now.

The characters I come up with are flawed because I find them to be the most interesting. It’s difficult being around a perfect person who does no wrong in real life, so why would I want them in my books? I put in extra effort to ensure there’s something ‘off’ about my protagonists—sometimes they have an unpredictable temper, at other times they are disorganised and messy. From what readers have told me, that’s what makes them relatable and even memorable. And my heroes aren’t alpha males or hot billionaires, because I find them unreal and annoying.

But I write across genres, and one thing I’ve noticed is that many people still consider reading romance to be a ‘guilty pleasure’. Something they want to consume in secret because they think it makes them look less intellectual.

I understand where they are coming from. Romance readers are often taught to internalise shame for “wasting” their time with frivolous books instead of reading something worthy.

I have loved reading romance novels since I first picked up one at a book fair when I was in I PUC (equivalent to Class XI). I wasn’t sure how they would be received at home so I wrapped it in a newspaper and read it and no one was any wiser. Although I had seen my aunt reading Mills and Boon paperbacks, it felt like there was something ‘grown up’ about them, something that I thought I wasn’t yet ready for.

When I was in college, my friends and I would pass around books by Julie Garwood, Nora Roberts and Judith McNaught to each other secretly, hoping our English teachers wouldn’t spot them and give us a hard time. No teacher told us outright not to read them, but there seemed to be a consensus that these books were “trashy”.

I did enjoy reading other genres such as crime and mystery but romance was my first love. When I started writing, it seemed natural that I would bring romance into most of my books, but the English Literature student in me kept looking over my shoulder constantly, like I was afraid of being ‘found out’. I wasn’t alone, I found later.

“A lot of genre and commercial fiction has suffered from being dismissed by cultural gatekeepers (especially in the 20th century). But in addition to the baggage of being commercial, romance also has a whiff of taboo about it. I think it’s because the genre focuses on women seeking and finding sexual pleasure,” said Deepanjana Pal, journalist and author of Hush a Bye Baby.

Pal believes that many people are forced to hide their romance novels because the genre privileges women’s desire.

“To even temporarily believe this could happen is labelled silly — maybe that’s why people read it on the sly,” she said.

While I’ve never felt any sort of shame at reading romance novels, there was maybe some apprehension about being judged by people for enjoying something as simple as a love story. But I soon stopped caring about what the world thought. One thing that helped was that reading on the Kindle has made the experience personal, unique to me.

Reading romance is absolute comfort for me. I fall back into it easily, smile at the banter, feel my own heartbeat quicken, and keep turning the page way past midnight, even though I know that the story will have a happy ending.

It helps that the world has also changed from the time I used to huddle at the back of my class and read a Mills & Boon novel. The heroines of today are stronger, independent and aspire to bigger things in life and the heroes have a dash of vulnerability to them, which only adds to their charm. In fact, many queer romances can also be helpful for people who are unsure of their own sexuality, or are unable to come out to those around them.

The language of publishing has also changed quite a lot in the years since I began writing romance. Many romances now can be classified into certain tropes that are advertised openly, so that the reader knows what they are getting into. This insight has come from my foray into self-publishing on Amazon, which is an entirely different ballgame from traditional publishing.

Milan Vohra, India’s first Mills & Boon author, whose most recent book was 2019’s Our Song, thinks that the judgmental attitude to romance is changing for the better now.

“There was always some good, some not-so-good writing in the genre. The real change is that people are far more comfortable in their own skin and know that in openly praising a good romance (on social media or by writing reviews), they aren’t seen as less in any way,” she said.

At a session on romance that I moderated at a lit fest earlier this year, I quoted the bestselling writer duo Christina Lauren: “Romance novels can influence how people treat each other, how we define love and how we accept others who are broken in ways that maybe we aren’t”. I think this perfectly encapsulates what romance novels have the power to do in today’s world.

“People have been conditioned for too long to attach guilt to pleasure. The world seems to attribute merit only to the depiction of pain and suffering”

- Milan Vohra

As a romance writer, I also find it liberating to write about people who know what they want and aren’t afraid to go after it. Writing these strong characters gives me the chance to lead many alternate lives.

As for thinking of romance as a guilty pleasure, Vohra finds the phrase itself quite revealing.

“It shows how people have been conditioned for too long to attach guilt to pleasure. The world seems to attribute merit only to the depiction of pain and suffering,” she said.

Getting over my hesitation in writing romance took a little time because I was too conscious of the people who would read them, especially the love scenes. But as I started writing more of these, I realised it has been empowering for me. It has also made my life as an author very rewarding, with the feedback from happy readers being the best part of the journey. Now I’m hoping that someday, my English teachers will enjoy them too, and not just in secret.