Earlier this month, Sunita wrote an opinion article posted on Dear Author that I found very thought provoking. She talked about the use of the word "escapism" in reference to romance novels, and the fact that it is all to often used in a derogatory sense. When a romance reader uses the term, she means something very different from what the anti-romance critic means. I know that I've used the term, but I don't think I fully considered what I meant when I said it. That's why I thought I had to talk about my romance reading experiences in a fresh light.
The term "escapism" implies that we want to escape from something, from a reality that we find unpleasant (or at the very least boring). In the case of the romance reader, the implication is that the reader is unsatisfied with her life and, in particular, her relationship(s). In other words, we're all lonely cat ladies or trapped in sexless relationships, and so we choose romance because it fills in the gap for us. This generalization is full of as much inaccuracy as it is condescension and pity. Allow me to use myself as an example. I'm a happy, optimistic person. I'm married to a man that I fell in love with seven years ago, who still makes me smile. I get kisses and penguins and milkshakes and back rubs. I'm very satisfied in that aspect of my life. Like other people, I get tired, I get bored, I have problems and frustrations. Reading is one way that I comfort myself, but it's not the only way. And comfort is also not the only reason that I read. I don't read because I'm unhappy, but rather for a complex set of reasons that changes every time I pick up a new novel
More than anything, I read to experience. One of the reasons that I often choose fantasy and paranormal books is because it allows me to experience new and unusual things that I will never get to experience firsthand. I will never meet a vampire or fight a dragon, and in reality I probably wouldn't want to. But experiencing them through a book is a rush, in a way. People that read horror and murder mysteries don't necessarily want to see gore in real life, and likely never will, but they do like to experience those things in book form. In books, no experience is barred to us, good or bad.
So, why would I turn to romance novels to experience love if I experience plenty of it in real life? The easy answer is: Because it's not the same thing. And it isn't. No two relationships are alike, in much the same way that no two people are alike. Every love story is different, because every (good) author writes original characters with well established personalities who fall in love in a different way from the way I found happiness.
Look, I would never want a dominate, possessive alpha-male as my partner, because I personally wouldn't function well in that type of relationship. But in the context of a book, I get to experience him in a way, by getting inside the mind and heart of a heroine who can appreciate and love him. I don't want to marry a cowboy and have eight babies with him. I don't want to be kidnapped and ravaged by pirates. I don't want a millionaire doctor with no time for me, or a poor small town boy who runs a struggling business. But somewhere out there, there are books with heroines who love horses and babies, or long for hot sweaty pirate sex, or are already rich anyhow. Or whatever. I become invested in her quest for romantic happiness, and it's fulfillment is one of the primary things I'm after when I read romance.
It's probably easy to understand why one would want to read about happiness, but that isn't all there is to romance. It has a dark side, sometimes an extremely dark side, which is less well understood. Granted, some readers stay away from the gritty stuff, but I honestly love it. What I love about J.R. Ward, for example, is that she's very good an beating the crap out of her hero and heroine, both emotionally and physically, before allowing them to find happiness. Hell, her best novel has rape, slavery, beating and mutilation, and the heroine is kidnapped and tortured--has her eyes sewn shut, in the first half alone. It's a rough, dark book that I love, beyond reason. Why? If readers read to experience, why would anyone want to experience all of that pain? I will admit openly that this is still something I'm learning, about myself and books in general. There's a cathartic quality that comes with watching characters have all of the worst possible things happen to them and nevertheless find bliss.
I'll conclude with the simple thought: Romance readers, whatever our faults, are not purely escapists. Rather, I believe the we're more than commonly open to new emotional experiences.