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Few people realize how much courage it takes for a woman to open a romance novel in an airplane.
If conservatives worry that romance novels create unrealistic expectations and inappropriate sexual desire in their mostly female readership, perhaps some support for the genre can be found among their left wing rivals, the feminists? Romance readers have developed a battery of responses to such charges over the years, the most common one being that they can tell the difference between fantasy and reality. Smart Bitches Trashy Books (tagline: “all of the romance, none of the bullshit”), was founded in 2005 by romance readers Wendell and Candy Tan, who felt the prevailing kind of “milquetoast” romance reviews at more established sites weren’t as honest or as fun as they could be.
SBTB was catapulted into the ranks of influential book blogs in 2008 when it exposed the plagiarism habit of bestselling, longtime romance writer Cassie Edwards, a story picked up by the AP and major news outlets (Edwards was dropped by her publisher and her career never recovered).
The premise of Everything I Know is clear from its title: romance novels offer life lessons, especially about love and relationships. The publisher refers to Everything I Know as a “gift book”, and it is small in size (5 by 7 inches) and length (240 pages, but only if you count the 10 pages of hearts, X’s and O’s inexplicably appended at the end). Though Wendell is writing a “gift book,” not a work of theory or literary criticism, her specific claims deserve some scrutiny, particularly around the issue of reader engagement, which is central to her arguments on the genre’s behalf. I think many romance novels are a lesson in What Not to Do, because so many involve the same plotline: Eyes Meet, Love, BIG MISUNDERSTANDING, HEA. But if savvy readers come to the genre ready and able to suss out what’s just fantasy, what’s worth emulating, and what not to do, then romance novels aren’t actually teaching these readers anything new.
As respectful as Wendell is of romance readers, her strategy of sweeping generalization obscures the diversity of reader engagement with the genre. As a reader of Wendell’s own book, I found that my perspective, particularly as a feminist, often generated reactions different from what clearly Wendell intended. I obviously have my own pet criticisms of the genre, yet I read it frequently and with great pleasure. It’s time to stop evaluating romance novels in terms of their putative effects on (women) readers, and to pay more attention to their literary merit and ability to provide pure pleasure. Nothing makes clearer the way Wendell’s practical goal in Everything I Know is at odds with taking romance seriously as a literary genre than her attitude towards romances of the 1970 and 1980s. Romances were not one monolithic genre where every book written was in lock step with its sister publication.
Oddly enough, the rape-y, obsessive, I-hate-you-because-I-love-you, he-loves-me-so-it’s-okay romances that were popular (or at least crowded the shelves at the library and the used bookstore) when I was growing up showed me how wrong that sort of behavior is.
Given the book’s premise that romance novels teach life lessons, might we need a return of what Wendell calls the “rapetastic assclown hero”? Moreover, rape remains a prevalent trope across romance subgenres, as in the paranormal romance Dark Magic by Christine Feehan (2000), Sara Craven’s contemporary category romances The Innocent’s Surrender (2010), Forced Bride (2007), and Wife Against Her Will (2006), historical romances such as Anna Campbell’s Claiming the Courtesan (2007), and Christina Dodd’s In Bed With the Duke (2010), and, arguably, Meljean Brook’s steampunk romance “The Iron Duke” (2010).
Regardless of the perpetrator, sexual violence—the fear of it, the experience of it, and the physical, psychological, and social consequences of it, even, sometimes, the erotic fantasy of it—is a major thematic concern in romance, and it’s just too simplistic to claim that its development tracks popular social beliefs about sex and consent. All this is to say how complex the relationship is between the romance genre, the larger culture, and its readers, and how little of that complexity makes its way onto the pages of Everything I Know.
Jessica Miller teaches philosophy at the University of Maine and blogs at Read React Review. Wendell relies on reader testimonials for her claim that romance readers learn the real lessons, but merely enjoy the fantasy, but then what do we do about readers who testify that romance has harmed them, just as critics like Quilliam and Slattery contend? Interestingly, a recent post at SBTB on the topic of the hymen led to the production of various reader testimonials in which the readers reported that they’d learned something that was incorrect from romance novels and at least one reader reported that she had been harmed by this. The column hosts discussions with widely varied opinions, and the format is a response to a single email request for advice. I wish this book had worked better for you, because we don’t see enough positive, critical explorations of the genre.
A lively account of life on the front lines in the fight against the world’s worst diseases. A terrific ten-year-old noir novel is given a new paperback edition on the occasion of its translation to the Hollywood screen.
She knows what everyone around her will think about both her and her choice of reading material.
This is supposed to answer both the conservative worry that women may gain unrealistic (and unfair) expectations of male partners, and the feminist charge that occasional fantasy refuge in a fictional hero’s strong arms will lead women to devalue their own real life independence.
Their website, “full of bitchery, snark, and honest reviews of why a book just sucked the big wang” served as a hipper alternative, capturing the zeitgeist of the era of do it yourself, independent blogger-reviewers. The critics who assume romance novels feature gorgeous, perfect people “meeting cute” and slipping effortlessly into a happily ever after are wrong: romance novels tell the stories of flawed people who struggle and face the same challenges as any average reader.


Making it even shorter is the formatting and numerous pull quotes in large font, magazine style.
Wendell herself admits that the lessons romance teaches are “things you likely learned as a child when you were taught how to treat other people.” In that case, it would be more accurate to say that romance novels reflect or deepen moral beliefs readers already hold. She hails Jamie of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, for example, as one of the top nine romance heroes ever written. For example, I was dismayed, not uplifted, by the situation of a reader who said, “I just need thirty minutes after work of reading Harlequin books and all the stress of the day is gone. That’s because romance novels, in my view, are no better or worse on these issues than any other literary genre. By placing the value of romance novels in their non-literary effects, as Everything I Know does, Wendell unwittingly capitulates to the age-old requirement that women must only read “improving” literature, and that romance books themselves are most properly evaluated not as novels, but as instruments of moral uplift.
In erotic romance, a booming subgenre, rape fantasy role play is increasingly common (Willing Victim by Cara McKenna, Beg Me by Shiloh Walker, My One by January Rowe, and Raw Desire by Kate Pearce, were all published in the past year). This is because, as a romance reader and therefore a member of her target audience, I’m too embarrassed. I had doubts about this project since its inception on the SBTB blog, and you’ve articulated my concerns perfectly, as well as much more. I’d have to say that SBTB was already one of the two or three most influential sites about romance before January 2008. You articulate quite pointedly some of the reasons I at times felt somewhat uncomfortable reading this book.
You’ve managed to pack in a ton of info and give readers a thoughtful overview of often-discussed topics in the romance genre. I don’t often agree with her about romance novels, but I love her relationship advice! It sounds like this book doesn’t hit the same notes, or fails to offer a range of ideas. When it comes to romance novels, society has always felt free to sit in judgment not only on the literature but on the reader herself. A 2007 Guardian article on the occasion of the one hundredth anniversary of UK romance publisher Mills&Boon, feminist writer Julie Bindel’s depiction of romance fiction as “misogynistic hate speech” that “depict[s] female submission to dominant heroes,” is typical. Sarah Wendell, who runs the popular romance website Smart Bitches Trashy Books, deploys this tactic in her new book Everything I Know About Love I Learned from Romance Novels when she complains in the introduction that, in contrast to romance readers, “You don’t see adult gamers being accused of an inability to discern when one is a real human driving a real car and when one is a yellow dinosaur driving a Mario Kart.” But her major strategy throughout the text is to concede that romance readers do learn from romance novels, while denying that what they learn is false or harmful. SBTB’s hallmark was the self-referential genre-savviness of Generation Y sprinkled with a liberal dose of the kind of tough love (aka “snark”) only a true devotee of a genre can master. Reading romance novels has a positive impact on readers’ lives, teaching them about everything from effective communication and mutual respect to being happy with themselves and enjoying sex. Confidence and accomplishment are hot damn sexy.” Because Everything I Know tries to be simultaneously a genre defense, a celebration, a self-help guide, and a relationship manual, its tone careens from stern to snarky to melodramatic.
This makes sense—but then it follows that if a reader holds pernicious or delusional moral beliefs (however we define those), given the sheer size of the genre, she can probably find some reinforcing of those bad moral beliefs in romance novels, too.
Certainly, Jamie has a devoted following, but many readers hated Outlander, stopping short at the page when Jamie beat the heroine with his belt, deriving erotic enjoyment from her pain and humiliation. All it takes is thirty minutes and then I’m ready to cook dinner.” Perhaps someone should be asking about the second shift here? A danger in uncritically wedding aesthetic to moral value is dramatically shrinking the pool of canonical, or even acceptable, books, something even the author of a “gift book” might be more worried about than Wendell seems to be, given that romance’s critics have been trying to shame its subject matter out of existence for a very long time. And I doubt we can call it a trend, but there seems to be more non-consensual sex perpetrated by the heroine in the last decade or so, as in Mary Jo Putney’s The Wild Child (2000), Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ This Heart of Mine (2002), Julia Quinn’s The Duke and I (2000), and Larissa Ione’s My Immortal Rider (2011). Many readers lament the way some romance novels use rape as a proving ground for a heroine’s toughness, or as a way to make a kick-ass heroine seem vulnerable.
It can shake us up, make us cry, elicit empathy, anger, joy, and fear, pleasure us, impart knowledge, and even offer a consequence-free playground for moral judgment.
Perhaps because I’m always thinking about why people fall in love, and what makes relationships work, the idea of marrying these two concepts (romance novels + relationship advice) appeals to me. I was trying to give the OLM reader a general sense of the Wendell’s history, not making a judgment in any way about that history. Bindel’s view is just the latest iteration of a consistent feminist antipathy towards romance novels as “dope for dupes,” expressions of patriarchal ideology.
Where Beyond Heaving Bosoms was suffused with a knowing, hip air, and a sense of ironic, if affectionate distance from its subject matter, Everything I Know is an earnest endeavor, dedicated to the genre boosterism for which Wendell, writing “straight from the heart,” is now best known.
And to the extent that romance novels do contain fantasy sex, perfect love, and the kind of triumphant overcoming of impossible odds that makes for a compelling narrative, romance readers, aware that it’s fantasy, can still be inspired, comforted, or moved in ways that make them better, wiser people.


Snippets from various novels appear without commentary, and the readers quoted tend to refer not to specific books but to the genre as a whole, as in “reading romance taught me…” The book is disorganized and often feels both disjointed and repetitive. Wendell recognizes that “part of the problem with romance novel sex is that it is so impossibly perfect, so incredibly over-the-top wonderful, that real sex can seem messy and awkward in comparison sometimes.” Given that many readers are introduced to romance novels as young teens, before they began having sex, how do they learn that gigantic, constantly erect penises and simultaneous, multiple orgasms each and every time are pure fantasy, but that mutual respect and pleasure are legitimate demands? For example, on her blog, Wendell reviewed Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy, a 1950 novel by a beloved grand dame of the genre, rereleased to great fanfare in 2009.
My own appreciation of this novel, with its strong, sensible heroine, Clare, was tempered by that scene, as well as by a later one in which Jamie violently forces himself on Clare. Wendell’s tendency to equate masculine and feminine gender-based oppression—“Both genders are told regularly they aren’t thin, bulky, hairless, hairy, svelte, muscular, or perfect enough”—doesn’t explain why physical attractiveness is such a vital concern for so many romance heroines, and so few heroes. They also complain that victims overcome the effects of rape too quickly, and, implausibly for many readers, through sex—sometimes rape role play sex—with the hero.
And I’m sure she was kidding some of the time (at least I hope so, as when she sternly warns the reader that, “reading romances and taking them literally is definitely not the path to everlasting happiness”), but since the tone of Everything I Know is so inconsistent, it wasn’t easy to tell when. I doubt there is another literary genre so routinely judged by its purported effects on readers—except perhaps children’s literature, the significance of which I hardly need to spell out. Everything I Know takes the romance genre and its readers seriously, insisting that the genre’s central concerns—especially romantic love, sex, and relationships—are vital human interests that are often unfairly trivialized owing to their association with femininity. Variants of the word “happiness” appear about 150 times in Everything I Know, for instance—understandable, perhaps, in a book celebrating a genre that promises a “Happy Ever After,” but they tend to cover the same superficial ground regardless of what chapter they’re in: “Everyone deserves a happy-ever-after. The Grand Sophy, Wendell notes, “turned offensive to the point of horror” in its depiction of its Jewish villain, “demonstrating not only a repulsive prejudice but a use of lame stereotypical stock characters that detracted from the strengths of the novel.” There’s confirmation here, not correction, for the anti-Semitic reader. Like Outlander or The Grand Sophy, I think good literature—and that includes good romance fiction—actually inspires a variety of incompatible moral responses across readers and even within one reader, rather than a readily digestible ethical lesson or a universal romantic or erotic reaction. On the other hand, some readers appreciate that romance provides a safe space to explore rape as a role play fantasy. Some of the advice is offered in the voice of characters from romance novels (for example, Keely McKay, from Lorelei James’s Rough Riders series, offers sex tips, as in “darlin’, the only way to get that well-fucked feelin’ is to make it happen”).
What look like simplistic cliches when extracted, paraphrased in life-coach lingo, and held up for self-improvement look beautiful, intricate, and startling when they are left where they belong, in a well-written, original fictional narrative. I agree that it’s problematic to dismiss bodice rippers or paint all readers of rape fantasy with the same brush. Wendell’s claims are substantiated by an abundance of reader testimony, author interviews, and some industry-sponsored research. These particular cases expose the selectivity of Wendell’s interest in readers’ responses to romance.
There’s a growing audience for gay male romance (mostly straight women, a situation that raises its own set of difficult questions)—even Harlequin’s digital-first imprint, Carina, publishes it.
The genre undeniably provides multiple narratives of sexual violence from a female character’s point of view, in a way no other literary form does. This blurring of lines raises, for me, an uncomfortable echo of the criticism that women readers don’t bother distinguishing reality from fantasy. In her enthusiasm to defend romance, Wendell ends up doing a disservice to romance readers by minimizing both the diversity they bring to the books and the diversity of the books themselves. While Wendell undoubtedly chose the responses that best supported her own hypothesis, Everything I Know offers romance readers a unique platform for sharing the impact these novels have had on their lives. Yet same-sex romances are mentioned only once in Everything I Know: in a note in the chapter on heroes (“We Know More Than a Few Good Men”), Wendell says, basically, that the fact that almost all of her genre examples and her reader testimonials are heterosexual isn’t meant to imply that gay romances and readers don’t exist. Since the genre is overwhelming white (African American romance is typically considered a distinct subgenre, and is often shelved with other “black books” in bookstores) it would have been interesting to hear explicitly from non-white readers about how they negotiate these texts.
Wendell is the last person to agree with this, but if the genre’s value rests on its ability to teach us a set of life lessons found in most of its texts, then why bother reading more than a handful?
In “We Know Good Sex,” Wendell insists that romances are liberating for women because they celebrate female desire, and she’s right, but this reader is sorry that the strict parameters of feminine desire as constructed in the romance genre (namely, that the best sex is committed, monogamous, heterosexual sex, between two white people in love) go unacknowledged. For romance fans interested in what some of their favorite authors, like Nora Roberts and Jennifer Crusie, are thinking about when they write, and who are curious about first person testimonies form fellow fans, Everything I Know, sprinkled throughout with Wendell’s trademark humor, could well be a fun read. But both genre skeptics and romance readers seeking a nuanced account of the way romance novels and their readers interact would do better to look elsewhere.



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