Rom-Coms and Book Nerds: A Love Story
“Reader, I married him.” -Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
Skeletons in the Closet
This year I have been watching old episodes of Murder She Wrote, one of my favorite shows of all time. In Season 2, Episode 4, crime-solving goddess-in-chief Jessica Fletcher arrives at Crenshaw College to give a commencement speech, only to discover the Chair of the English Department is mired in scandal: her daughter, Daphne Clover, is a famous romance novelist. In the opening scene, a literature class sits cross-legged on the quad, debating the merit of romance novels such as Ms. Clover’s: “It’s trash! James Joyce, now that’s a real writer!” yells one male student. In a later scene, one male department member argues her novels should be “banned from the campus bookstore,” even though a female faculty member replies, “But that’s what the kids are reading these days.” Without getting into too much plot summary, the big reveal that helps Jess solve a murder at a department party is that the chair herself is the writer of the romance novels and only using her daughter’s name as a nom de plume to avoid humiliation. This plot twist reinforces, yet again, a truth I hoped was not universally acknowledged: some people consider reading, nevermind writing, romance as fluff and not Real, capital R, literature.
Although this “truth” has always rubbed me the wrong way, I, like the chair at Crenshaw College, have gone to great lengths to hide my literary skeletons in the closet. For example, I have looked down into my lukewarm coffee when my colleagues discuss the ingenuity of Huckleberry Finn (I still haven’t read it). I have also spent years learning how to virtue signal indignity about comma rules (Oxford comma! Gah, how awful! Let’s eat Grandma, ha, how funny!) even though I have spent decades writing with a comma splice habit. Honestly, the examples abound, and I have always been insecure that I don’t have a Masters, let alone a PhD, in English literature, like many of my colleagues. So, imagine my hesitation to admit that romance, also known as chick lit, or romantic comedies (“rom-coms”), is one of my favorite genres of literature. Imagine admitting to a department of academics that I love soaking in a hot tub in a face mask with my candles lit and a modern romance in hand to decompress after a hard day, or admitting that I loved Anna Karenina, not so much for the motifs, or plot structure, but for the love story…
Book Nerds and Soul Mates
I was hiding my bad romance with chick lit quite well until one afternoon about a year ago. Chatting casually in between classes with Margaret, a dear former student, she mentioned a book she was reading, The Hating Game by Sally Thorne, and we were off to the races for about twenty minutes talking about rom-coms we had recently read, and favorites including Emily Henry’s Book Lovers and People We Meet on Vacation. She then mentioned that she had a book for me to read, The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazlewood, but that Reagan, another one of my students, had the copy; the tattered paperback was making the rounds through their friend group.
And just like that, like any subculture, we found our people in each other: book nerds for rom-coms. Because of our common bond I was lucky enough to be invited into their book exchange circle by reading the paperbacks they shared with friends. And in our check-ins about these books, I noticed we weren’t only talking about the books; the pause in the hallway between classes and the catching up before and after school offered me a chance to ask how they were doing, and by hearing what they liked about rom-com stories and protagonists, I also learned more about them, and by extension, all my students.
In an interview with NPR, writer Colleen Hoover’s publicist noted: “Gen Z is a huge audience for romance. If you think about it, like millennials, their youth has been marked by global and social upset and unrest in many ways, so looking for a happily ever after or an emotional outlet in a book seems like a healthy way of coping.” Being book nerds with Margaret and Reagan has inspired me to re-think the value of reading for fun, territory well-covered by educators and writers such as Penny Kittle, through the lens of student well-being, relationships, and recovery.
Resisting the Attention Economy
I invited Reagan and Margaret to have breakfast with me over the holiday break to talk rom-coms, specifically the book we read together, Love on the Brain by Ali Hazlewood. To begin our chats, I asked them if they believe that reading chick lit, or rom-coms, helps with academic, or class reading in any way; while they noted that the content and plot structure might not challenge them in the same way as their academic reading, reading for fun, and in this case, reading modern romance, helps them read for longer than they do with their class texts. In other words, reading rom-coms helps them build their literacy stamina, and ultimately, their overall attention spans. “A good book holds my attention without me thinking it holds my attention,” Reagan noted, “the same way I get lost in TikTok, I can get lost in a good book.”
To Reagan, the ubiquitous “mindless scrolling through YouTube shorts” and getting lost in TikTok are the main challenges to her attention, and I am certain she is representative of her peers. For example, before our interview, Reagan, Margaret, and I all checked our screen time app on our iPhones, comparing our phone use as a way to lay the foundation for our digital distraction:
-Margaret: First pickup - 7am, 216 pickups throughout the day
-Reagan: First pickup - 12:06am, 211 pickups throughout the day
-Kate: First pickup - 5:52am, 110 pickups throughout the day
While I don’t think I am a total Luddite, I do love a good thrashing of social media, so I have been considering our dwindling attention span as a fait accompli since hearing an interview with artist Jenny Odell, author of How to Do Nothing: Resisting The Attention Economy. Odell teaches art at Stanford and studies the process of unplugging from routines that steal our attention, and therefore, subtract hours from the deeper creative process and relationships of which we are capable. According to Odell, “As the attention economy profits from keeping us trapped in a fearful present, we risk blindness to historical context at the same time that our attention is ripped from the physical reality of our surroundings.” In order to pay more attention, we must remain alert in our physical surroundings, which is a hard task when some of the biggest profits in the attention economy are made by social media companies, offering virtual connections through our screens, 24/7. But, as Margaret mentioned, “Reading rom-coms is an intentional way for me to get off my phone.”
Margaret’s self-awareness and ability to intentionally decide to switch from scrolling her phone to pleasure reading is helping her build a longer attention span and seems like a well-being argument for the consumption of rom-coms. Gloria Mark, author of Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness, and Productivity argues that practicing “meta-awareness of your actions, which is a powerful technique for bringing your attention and actions to a conscious level” helps you to make better choices with how you spend your time and where you focus, and therefore, creates better habits. Reading rom-coms can draw us out of our phones and into what Mark calls “negative space” in our day, or down time, “giving ourselves permission to do something that we know is non-taxing of our cognitive resources.”
And Margaret made another nod to the benefits of pleasure reading as practice, and routine: “If I view my class reading like it is a fun read, I can get through the book much easier. I pretend my class book is one I have read for fun, and then I think, ok, you can do this - you have done it before, and it is possible.” I suppose what she is discussing is endurance; like physical sports, we train to become stronger, and Margaret is drawing upon her hours reading rom-coms as training for the longer, more complicated academic texts. This all makes perfect sense: how can a student plunge from not reading at all, to analyzing classics like The Jungle? It would be much more challenging, and perhaps discouraging, which might create an unfortunate negative feedback loop for the student.
The Greatest Books
Ok, fine, so reading a good page turner is a way to do something replenishing for my cognition, but my whole life, I’ve heard romance novels referred to as “trash novels.” I still cringe when someone says this, even if they are being lighthearted, because after all, who decides what we read and teach, and what literature is great literature? Why did meeting Margaret and Reagan to talk about romance novels feel like a conspiracy, like we were getting away with something?
I am no academic or book critic (imposter syndrome rears her head again!), but I am currently teaching a classic of the Western canon, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, so I have a wonderful point of comparison and skin in the game of conversation about “the greatest books.” As we start our school year in the English course I teach, The Female Voice, we begin with Elizabeth Lesser’s essay in Cassandra Speaks: When Women Are the Storytellers, the Story Changes, called “The Greatest Books.” Lesser talks about herself as a high school student, loving reading but not encountering stories in her honors English classes that interested her and reflected her experience. Why? Of course, because most classics, or “greatest books,” are written by white men. She notes, “What about the books I loved? The ones about intimate relationships, women’s friendships, and emotional catharsis? Best not to mention those books in my honors English class. Even if they were beautifully written, they were chick lit; they were for girls. But I was a girl!”
Exactly—she was a girl. And I do believe Jane Eyre threads the needle for my students; a beautifully written text about a girl their age, and even across time, they can (hopefully) relate to her coming of age in a world rife with adult nonsense. One of my favorite questions to ask my students is, whose stories do we value, and why? And working with all girls, I want them to see themselves in the stories they read, mostly so they know their stories are valued. When they read modern rom-coms and journey through stories with “comfort characters,” as Reagan calls them, or young women who are facing similar challenges as them - romantic relationships, college journeys, first jobs, friend drama, etc. - they know they are reading in community, and not alone. As Lesser states, most Western classics are stories that help inform young people what it means to be human, but “from the perspective of men, or at least a certain kind of man and his experiences, struggles, physicality, desires, and values.”
And my female teaching colleagues prove that it is not just teenagers who need comfort characters. Several of us are members of Book of the Month, and if one of us picks the monthly romance offering, our choice is usually followed up with a qualifier: “Oh, I just read [X book] and need a break now” or “Things have been so heavy, I just need something light.” Yet I notice that more and more, as we navigate, both personally and professionally, the post-pandemic landscape, we have all gravitated towards the emotional catharsis of rom-coms, and discussing them draws us together. My friend Liesl just started working again after staying home to raise three daughters, and she said, when she was a stay at home mom, she felt a pressure to read heavy, intellectual books to prove she was still smart and academic; however, now that she teaches English, she has the ethos to read the books she wants to, like rom-coms. When listening to her, I thought, yes, we need a book club dedicated to reading and sharing the books we want to, in a shame-free zone, embracing stories that are fun, and maybe in their levity, a bit healing. Hence, the Marigolds Book Club was born, and we now meet monthly to read and discuss fun, rom-com style books, which, as Megan Griffin writes in The Sacred Rituals of Writing and Reading, is actually more about being together as a community than reading. Maybe the “greatest books” are just the books that make us feel seen, heard, and help us navigate the slings and arrows of being a complex human, and in our case, a complex woman.
Maybe the “greatest books” are just the books that make us feel seen, heard, and help us navigate the slings and arrows of being a complex human, and in our case, a complex woman.
All the Single Ladies
There is no doubt rom-coms are also having a cultural moment, whether in the form of Netflix shows such as Bridgerton and Never Have I Ever or blockbuster hits such as Ticket to Paradise. In her Cosmopolitan magazine article “Big-Budget Rom-Coms Are Back and Honestly Thank God,” writer Emma Baty charmingly notes, “Will this be just another way to capitalize on our emotions? Maybe. But you know what? Take my money!” Part of the appeal is that rom-coms celebrate all of us, including those of us who are not married, and still seeking our perfect match. I am also curious about empathy, self-love, and romance; do the protagonists of rom-com novels offer examples and guidance on how to care for others, and ourselves, especially as young women like my students date and fall in love?
I asked Reagan and Margaret to talk about what they learn, as single young women, from rom-coms. “Similar to being friends with someone; you can learn from their experience as well. Reading a book about someone’s experience, for example, getting a divorce, allows me to understand divorce so much more,” says Reagan, and this bridge into diverse experiences and points of view feels significant. I too am grateful for the inclusiveness of the romance genre, in terms of sexual orientation and race; although some of the criticism of #BookTok is that most of its best selling darlings are from white authors, I have noticed personally that when perusing the rom-com genre, it’s finally not a given that all characters are straight, white, and wealthy.
And, not to my surprise, we only got about ten minutes into our first discussion before the girls brought up Colleen Hoover and the darker side of romance portrayed in her novel It Ends with Us. It is impossible to chat with teenagers about books (or anything, really) without hearing the phrase “I saw it on #TikTok,” and, although I am not personally on TikTok, I can only imagine the power of millions of shares. In Hoover’s novel, which, thanks in part to going viral on #BookTok has broken bestseller sales records, a young woman named Lily Bloom confronts physical and emotional abuse in her relationship. The appeal, according to Margaret and Reagan, is that their peer group faces similar challenges in terms of dating violence: “I definitely felt that emotional aspect, especially looking back at what I accepted in my last relationship. And I should not have allowed what I did, and reading books like It Ends with Us gives girls an example of someone fighting back, and also a conversation starter about what we should or should not be putting up with,” Reagan told me. According to the Center for Disease Control, 1 in 12 adolescents experience physical dating violence, and therefore, if a romance novel can start conversations and raise awareness, then it is essential reading. As Margaret says, “When I read these books, I learn you can persevere through the difficult times…even though times can be tough in relationships, you can find a way to navigate them…and that is helpful.”
And She Lived Happily Ever After
My husband has a great phrase that I hear in my head all the time: both things can be true. Very few things in life are black and white—I can love reading rom-coms and giggling with students over their twists and turns AND love teaching the canon, or classic literature.
Also, I need to be kind to myself. As I read Jane Eyre, I have been thinking a lot about resistance and refusal. Jane says, famously, that she “resisted all the way.” When I meet with Margaret and Reagan to talk about rom-coms, what really matters more than the books we read is that we, just like Jane, are engaging in our own little refusal to be too busy for one another, so I owe rom-coms a debt of gratitude for making me laugh, for helping me escape when life outside has seemed just a little too much, and for giving me the most valuable gift of all–time. I am grateful for time with both my students and my dear teaching colleagues and friends. In fact, I have realized while writing this post that I’m not really even writing about rom-coms in the end, but about resisting the urge to sell myself short, because I intuit a value in these stories, for myself, my students, and my friends. And I need to value that soft skill, my inner knowing, as well as my skeletons in the closet, more than I do.
And, as Oscar Wilde, one of the Great Writers, once said: “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.”
Kate Schenck is currently burning a nutmeg candle and watching All Creatures Great and Small on PBS.