In mid-2018, I was having a rough time and I got a bit depressed. It wasn’t the first time I’d experienced depression and it wouldn’t be the last. Like all the times before, my productivity nosedived and, along with it, my ability to find joy in the activities I would normally use to escape from stress or anxiety — in particular, reading.
For a person who has had their studies, their work, their dreams and even their identity tangled up in books in one way or another for as long as they can remember, this was an incredibly difficult reality to deal with. I’d pick up a book, start slogging through it and feel my mind coming apart like candyfloss in a hurricane. Two chapters in, I’d be dragging my eyes along the same sentences over and over again, trying to understand what they meant, trying to appreciate the artistry of them, trying to lose myself in the story or the prose or both… but I couldn’t.
I’d put a book down and leave it lying there with a bookmark optimistically poking out of it from somewhere within the first thirty pages and not touch it again for weeks, and then, when I did touch it, it was usually just to put it back onto the bookshelf because it was getting dusty and in the way.
My mind refused to connect. I felt as though books were presenting me with pointless challenges and I was too tired, too sad, too distracted to face them.
I kept trying to remedy the issue by reading books I’d always wanted to read or books by authors I was already in awe of or books that were highly recommended by people I respected or — cringe — books that had won awards or become runaway hits. None of it worked. My mind refused to connect. I felt as though books were presenting me with pointless challenges and I was too tired, too sad, too distracted to face them.
I don’t remember exactly what the stepping stones were that led me out of this awful place, but I suspect it started with an idle perusing of ebooks on Amazon, followed by a recommendation of a 99p deal, followed by me chuckling at an ebook cover featuring a partly clothed male torso and thinking, “Oh, what the hell. It might be entertaining?” and the next thing I knew I was reading my first ever mass-market romance novel.
Why had I never read one up until then? Of course I’d read novels involving romance, or even centred around it, but books that were explicitly marketed and categorised as romance had never interested me before. I’d never picked them up in bookstores or purposefully browsed them online.
Without consciously making a decision, I had, at some point in the distant past, reached the conclusion that romance novels were “just not my thing” and had never bothered to revisit this assumption. I’d dismissed an entire genre without actually meaning to. I could probably write a thesis about unconscious bias and internalised misogyny and passive snobbery inherited accidentally through academia, and issues around the way romance novels are marketed and the way their covers are often designed… but I’m here to talk about my process of discovery and change, not about how I got mired in these ideas that desperately needed changing in the first place. Besides, plenty of people have surely written that thesis already. Even the Wikipedia entry on mass-market romance notes how the genre is “popularly derided and critically ignored”, certainly in part because it’s “written almost exclusively by women for women”.
Anyway, so it’s 2018 and I’m reading the first novel I’ve ever read that has a topless (and headless — cropped, rather than decapitated) man on the front cover, knowing nothing about the author or the genre, and not caring much either, and then something amazing happens. I reach the middle of the book and I’m not bored yet. I find myself knowing what’s going to happen next, but craving to be proven right. Each turn away from the inevitable happily-ever-after (and when I say inevitable, I mean inevitable — it was literally promised in the blurb!) pushes my heart into my throat and forces me to read faster to get to a point where everything is back on track, and when I get there, and the characters fall into each others’ arms once again, my frantic mind is soothed. In no time at all, the book is finished and I’m high on the dopamine hit of the anticipated and satisfying HEA (happily ever after) and immediately buying the sequel.
I was lost in these stories, every single one of which was about love and hope against the odds.
To cut a long story short, within a couple of a weeks, it became apparent that I needed to sign up to Kindle Unlimited because my addiction was becoming too expensive, and I didn’t yet have the mental fortitude to drag myself out to a library. I was still depressed, still spending too much time in bed, but now, instead of staring at the ceiling and feeling like I was drowning in despair, I was lost in these stories, every single one of which was about love and hope against the odds. Within six months, I’d lost count of how many I’d read, but I’d wager it was close to a hundred, from contemporary to historical to paranormal, from vanilla sweet to face-meltingly steamy. For me, this was unprecedented. Prior to 2018, the most books I’d ever read in a year was probably around twenty-five, and that would be a year without any mental-health hiccups getting in the way of literary consumption.
I had always been a slow, deliberate, careful reader, trying to savour and appreciate each and every word, and perhaps that was part of the problem. Stumbling into romance was not only the “discovery” of a whole genre that I’d been overlooking, but also the discovery of a new way of reading: a quick, casual, relaxed approach that didn’t involve me hunched over a book and almost setting it on fire with the intensity of my focus, but rather just enjoying it like a big bag of popcorn, flicking through story after story, and harvesting these little hits of joy until I was able to haul myself back into the world, and to start reading all sorts of books using this newfound easy relationship with the text.
There is the possibility that this ease I found with reading romance was partly as a result of my prior unthinking dismissal of the genre, that I was judging the books by their covers and my expectations weren’t high, or that perhaps part of me didn’t feel like I “owed” them the same studious reverence I gave to other books, but I don’t think that’s all there is to it. I think, more importantly, it’s simply what all romance readers and writers have always known to be true: that there’s comfort in the tropes, in the formulae, in the guarantee of a happily ever after (or a “happy for now”). For a person who desperately needs that comfort, it can be a lifesaver, and a strong motivator to keep reading, even when your mind is in chaos and you’re tired and sad. Wrap that HEA up in a well-written story with strong characters and compelling plots and settings that spark the imagination and you’ve got some of the most satisfying and therapeutic reading imaginable.
And it’s not all popcorn fluff either. Sometimes it’s profound, devastating, enlightening, gut-punching stuff. Long-term romance readers know this well, of course, and part of me wishes I’d delved into the genre and become part of their ranks much sooner, but another part of me suspects that if I had been “into romance” beforehand, it might not have proven to be such an unexpectedly amazing tonic exactly when I needed it to be.
What I once wrote off as “predictability” is in fact an act of trust and care between author and reader.
It was like being in a leaky boat — if you’d allow me to indulge in a banal metaphor — and running ashore on a beautiful continent I never knew existed. Of course the residents of this continent have every right to scorn my ignorance, since they’ve been there the whole time, fully aware of how lovely and how real it all is, but the thrill of the “discovery” was an absolute balm to this book-weary reader.
And yes, I did have to abandon a few absolute shockers along the way, but fantastic books are in abundance and more than make up for any sifting that might need to be undertaken when you’ve done reading a favourite romance author’s entire backlist and are looking for your next fix.
I am a little ashamed, as a self-proclaimed “book person”, about how long it took me to stop overlooking this treasure trove of life-affirming stories. My favourite romance authors promise happiness and make me work just hard enough to reach it that I deeply appreciate it when it’s delivered, but not so hard that I become weary and give up before that happens. What I once wrote off as “predictability” is in fact an act of trust and care between author and reader. It’s a guarantee. It’s love. And even now when I’m back to reading a wide range of genres once again, I’ll never stop reaching for the romance to experience that.
I’d encourage anyone who finds themselves in a bit of a reading rut to try picking up something they’ve never given serious thought to reading before. You never know… you might just find your happily ever after.