Published: 30th April 2018
Romance isn't trash! And no matter what you say, editors, writers and students agree!
Ever been ridiculed for reading a romance novel? We find out from editors, authors and book lovers if this attitude towards timeless romance has changed over time
When 19-year-old Susmitha Manasa from St Francis College for Women, Hyderabad, is seen reading romance novels, she often faces snide remarks like, 'I did not know you are THAT type of a girl!'. "I mean, what do they even mean when they say 'that type of a girl’?" she snaps. When Manasi Singh, who is 21 and studies at Damodaram Sanjivayya National Law University, Visakhapatnam, is showered with taunts like 'Why would you read such trash?', she just smiles back, knowing that the person has no idea of what they are missing out on by calling romance 'trash'.
Such is the plight of many lovers of romance novels. Mind you, we are not talking about the lusty genre of Mills & Boon. We are talking about love that sometimes evades us all and hence, we try to find them in characters like Fitzwilliam Darcy, Rhett Butler, Heathcliff, and ohhh...the list is endless. But we forget how layered the novel itself can be. Who can claim to have read Gone With the Wind and not understand a thing or two about the American Civil War? Or Wuthering Heights and not come away bemused by the complexity of human nature? "One can see the evolution of society by merely observing romance novels of different eras," says Mansi. And rightly so!
We catch up with three women authors who have written novels that are very different from one another, but the theme of love features prominently in all of them and pick their brains to understand love, as we know it today. We also talk to three editors who give us a deeper insight into the world of romance genre itself.
Vashali Mathur, Penguin
Vaishali Mathur, Executive Editor and Head of Rights and Language Publishing, Penguin Random House India, feels that there is absolutely no stigma attached to either the writing or reading of the romance genre. In fact, "this genre now forms an important part of the publishing programme in any publishing house. It has been a perennial seller for the past decade," she says. And what makes this genre a bestseller, you ask? "Young readers relate to the situations and the characters in these books. Youngsters, who are exposed to relationships and breakups, find that these books reflect their lives," she points out. And even male romance authors like Durjoy Datta and Sudeep Nagarkar have a wide readership across male and female demographics. "These authors, over a period of time, have become the ‘go-to’ guides for relationships for their readers," concludes Vaishali.
Love is in the layers: There is no stigma attached to reading a romance novel
Now, here is an author who doesn't feel embarrassed if someone assumes that she has written a romance novel because "I enjoy them immensely and read them regularly along with other genres," says Tanaz Bhathena, author of A Girl Like That. This book effectively tells the story of 16-year-old Zarin Wadia, the girl whom your parents warned you against befriending. But her death reveals her many layers and in the process, reveals the true character of her friends as well. Take for example Mishal, who spews venom and is a classic example of how girls can turn on one another. In an era where we preach feminism and #GirlLove, we know characters like these still exist. And while explaining the complexity of Mishal, Bhathena, who was born in India, makes a crucial point. "Growing up, I was taught that girls were supposed to behave in a certain way. If a girl didn’t conform to those ‘rules’, I would see others — especially older women — criticise her, and I'd later see that criticism filter into the consciousness of younger women and girls. The prejudices you grow up with, which are often a byproduct of the way you were raised or the society you live in, can play a major role in how you behave, and this is true even today," says Bhathena.
Surina Jain, Fingerprint Publishing
When Surina Jain, Senior Copy Editor at Fingerprint! Publishing started reading, she too was told to read books that give more knowledge whenever she was found with a romance novel. But as people who have grown up on a diet of fairy tales, which almost always have a high dose of romance, it is inherent in us to take to the romance genre easily. But as reading is becoming an important part of growing up these days, the perspective and stigma around the genre is changing, she admits. "Romance too is evolving with time, right from the time of Jane Austen to The Malhotra Bride, the society has evolved and so has romance," says Jain. These books tend to offer much more perspective now more than ever.
A veteran of romance: Sundari Venkatraman has written 22 romance e-novels
Fifty-six-year-old Sundari Venkatraman has written 22 romance e-novels and is out with her first published, The Malhotra Bride. This book, which of course is a romance, is about the ambitious Sunita Rishi, her arranged marriage and how she finds love through it. The author herself has been writing in the romance genre for a while now, yet she is still met with either disappointment or silly giggles when she introduces herself as someone who writes in this genre. "Women still use pseudonyms today while writing in this genre because their families can't accept it," says the Kumbakonam-born author. And though she too was dissuaded from reading romance novels, she kept at it, even when people told her that it'll be difficult to read other kinds of books. Venkatraman is now the Brand Ambassador for Kindle Direct Publishing, Amazon's initiative that allows authors to independently publish their books. Talking about this genre, she says that she consciously tries to weave in social issues, which elevates the novel and teaches the reader a thing or two about life, "without sounding preachy, of course," she admits.
Arpitha Rao, Notion Press
The only way Arpitha Rao, the former senior editor at Notion Press, got to read romance novels was by visiting Eloor Library in T Nagar, Chennai (Remember the Sweet Valley High series and the Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen books?). And she knows now, just like she knew back then, that a romance novel is never just that. "Out of the 35 books an editor receives, 20 will be romances," Rao says, adding that Indian writers are heavily influenced by Bollywood fluff. Also, sometimes writers don't know the difference between romance and Mills & Boons. "We have to guide them in the right direction or ask them to tone it down," she laughs. She concludes by saying that there are two genres that sell the most — romance and business management books — with special emphasis on the former because, "we are all suckers for romance after all," she laughs.
Love, one of many: Today's love stories are not the 90s clichés
In Bhawna Tewari's futuristic novel Rise of Indistan: Beginning of a New End, romance might be a mere subplot, but it drives one of the main characters, Abhimanyu, to conclude the mission that the protagonist, Kanika, has started. And for Kanika, her career and her mission of bringing Pakistan and India on the same page is of utmost importance. This reflects the attitude of most of today's generation, feels Tewari, who is a senior manager at Global Benefits Group. "Love is not about waiting hours to catch a glimpse of a beloved or dying for the one you love," she says. People have their careers and friends, which form a very important part of life too. Therefore, today's love stories are not the 90s clichés; they are more real and layered. "I myself relate to modern romances more than I relate to those love stories of the bygone era," the 33-year-old admits. Similarly, romance too could be a subplot and not the theme as such, just like real life.
Students share their experiences of reading romance novels
Once I was reading Me Before You and a male friend of mine asked me why am I reading 'such a book'. Somehow, I convinced him to read the book and he actually liked it. Now, he actively reads romance novels. I really feel that one should start reading books of this genre because they are quick reads and make you happy
Hridaya Harjani, 21, IHM, Hyderabad
As a teenager, I used to read many romance novels and of course, I have been asked to read something ‘better’ or more informative. People told me that reading romance novels will deviate my mind, but I continued to read. These novels show the adversities that the people in love have to deal with and how ultimately, love will triumph over everything else
Aashika Jain, 20, Pendekanti Law College
My favourite romance novel is A Walk to Remember by Nicholas Sparks. When you chose to read romance novels, you also have to put up with questions like, ‘Why don’t you read something useful?’. I faced the same and many people ridiculed and made fun of me. But I never cared about them. For me, romance novels are an escape
Simran Harjani, 20, Aurora’s Degree and PG College
I have had ugly instances where people around me have passed comments and mocked me when they saw a romance novel in my hand. Without being bothered by their opinions, I continue to read them because I love reading cheesy lines, visualising picture-perfect scenes and blushing because of the characters, all of which leave you with a feel-good feeling
Sonali Kanodia, 23, homemaker