by Sarah Burton

“Romance: A Novel Approach” is a class about the craft, theory, and writing of romance novels, about their impact on the reading public, and on wide-spread current and historical repudiation of the well (if often secretly) loved genre. Dangerous Books for Girls is the title of one of the class texts, written by romance author Maya Rodale. I hit the button to enroll so fast. I took the class, I loved the class, and I was excited to interview the professor and author who led the class. She is a contributor to the romance genre, herself: Jennifer Safrey. 

I sit in a huddle room at work, hoping no one wonders why I’m not at my desk, and wave at Jen across the internet via Zoom. 

“When did you start reading romance,” I start, “and when did you decide you wanted to teach it?” 

She nods, thinking back. “I started reading it very young. When I was in 6th grade, there was a girl in my class named Susanne. Silhouette had a teen line, and Susanne had a million of them and she handed them out to our class. When they were available to me, I just started buying teen romance. Fun fact: I ended up writing for Silhouette later. That same Silhouette logo is on my first romance books.” 

“In terms of teaching romance,” she continues, “I taught a community class here and there, and I saw the Emerson listing. I’m always cruising the job boards because my career is a freelance career. Emerson was there, and I applied because… this is stuff I know. I had an interview with them, and they hired me right away. Most of my teaching before this was adult education.”

The conversation turns to backgrounds, and I learn that Jen and I have something in common beyond a love of romance novels. 

“My mother was a high school English teacher for many, many, many years,” Jen says. “When she retired she was the Assistant Principal for Academics. My stepfather is the Head of the English Department in the same school. I almost feel like when you’re the kid of teachers, you always end up discussing books at the dinner table and critically analyzing everything.”

Reader, this is fact. My father: a book-hoarding former math professor. My stepmother: a retired English and rhetoric professor. My mother: devoured books like they gave her life. The literary analyses never ended. I am what I am for a reason.

“Our Scrabble games are cut-throat,” Jen says, laughing, “Like, Game-of-Thrones-level fierce.”

Confession time: I will not play Scrabble, because I’m both competitive at board games and very, very bad at them. The results are not good for anyone. 

“What impact do you think centering romance has on students who take the class, as well as on wider perceptions of the genre?” I ask Jen.

“Love and romance are at the heart of a majority of the art that is produced, in visual arts, songwriting, books… It’s either about love, or love is there,” Jen says. “It is a central human emotion. I don’t think you can have a piece of art with depth without love, either the loss or the celebration of it. It frustrates me that romance novels that take love and make it central are so maligned. I mean, you know, and I know, and we all know that it’s really because it’s women. Romance is by women for women. Now, it’s by women and many people in the LGBTQ community, and for all those people, and that makes the literary elite very nervous. There is a threshold of some kind that people in the literary world want you to be able to cross, somehow, and [they have] a frustration at self-publishing, and a frustration that women and romance writers can get this into the marketplace.”

Self-publishing can strengthen a more direct relationship between the author and the reader. Sometimes agents and publishers are successful because they choose manuscripts well, but sometimes—thanks to the rise of self-publishing, BookTok, and other forms of social media—authors don’t need to wait for their work to be chosen. That’s partly because of the secret many people don’t discuss: romance novels are lucrative.

“They’ve conveniently ignored that romance keeps the lights on in these businesses,” Jen continues. “It’s the genre that sells the majority of literature.”

Yet sales aren’t the sole reason to focus on the romance genre or its history. 

“There has been a history of discrimination against [romance novels], and a history of not letting women read, and a history of not letting women read what they want.” 

Following the thread of why society would discriminate against women reading what they want, we start to see the influence of romance novels. 

If society is made up of relationships, then, as Jen says, “The nature of romance is that it reflects the culture we’re living in. We can see if we read three romances from the 60s, three romances from the 70s, and three romances from the 80s how culture is changing, how marriage is shifting. You can see how perceptions of what love is or could be is shifting. Romance isn’t just necessarily for enjoyment, though that’s what we all read it for. It’s a strong reflection of where society is at any given point. A romance novel can almost be like a sociological document of what’s going on in general society at the time, even if you write historical. The attitudes of the hero and the heroine will be modern reflections.”

And to that, I say “Preach.” Except not out loud, because I’m busy soaking up arguments in defense of a genre I love.

“If you start to look at romance’s place in history and you start to look at romance as a barometer of where things are in society, I can’t think of anything more important to be in a college curriculum.”

At this standing-ovation moment, I sit, dumbfounded, because it’s true

“And the fact that they’re such fun books and they make people feel really good is really just a bonus. You can read an anthropological textbook, but it won’t be as fun, and you won’t get the layperson’s view,” Jen says.

Romance novels: fun, interesting, and educational, yet society derides them. 

“Why do you think there has been such a strong historical stigma against romance novels as valid work?” I ask. 

“Women and their contribution to society has long been discounted,” Jen says.

Well, that’s real.

“When women started reading these books it was dangerous,” she continues, “because now women had confirmed that there’s a possibility that exists beyond what they have. There’s a possibility to want more, and go after more, rather than sit and be thankful. Most importantly in romance, there’s a possibility of having a partner who supports you wanting more and going after more.

“Women wanted more than the life they were given, and that was, and still is, a very dangerous idea for a lot of society. We’ve always lived in a patriarchal society. If you have a genre of books that promotes what women could want, and how they could be happy, and how they could triumph, and how men would, frankly, have to change in order to let that happen.”

The text for class was called Dangerous Books for Girls because they were. 

“I’m not discounting men’s contribution to anything, of course,” Jen says. “We have amazing gay romances, now. It’s another situation where we’re expanding what it means to be happy.”

But that isn’t all. We touch on something I’ve wondered about for decades. Something about the strange preference snobbish people have for absorbing fictional misery.

“Those in charge are always going to think that giving ideas to those not in charge is dangerous. I don’t think people who criticize romance novels now have that in their conscious mind. They’ve been conditioned to think these are silly books,” Jen says, thoughtful. “I don’t understand… Why does it have literary value for love to be lost, but it doesn’t have literary value for people to work out their problems and be happy? I’ll occasionally read a sad girl novel. Those novels have value, but the value of the flip side needs to be recognized, as well. There’s a social idea that misery is good and happiness is pointless. So many people buy into that.” 

Then there are people who love to pick the worst in the prolific genre of romance, and, laughing, point to poorly written passages. 

But, as Jen says, “Like any other genre, some books are great, and some books are less great. But as a genre, it needs to be taken seriously. Love is the sole preoccupation of our lives, for many of us.”

A genre written off by society at large as fluffy and thoughtless, even disregarded by many of its readers, has a storied depth of history, influence, and rebellious dissent that buoys it upward (along with a cushy groundswell of profit). There’s more, of course. But, hey, take the class. Pick up a romance novel. And come back to read part two of “Romance Novels, Rebellion, and Literary Dissent: An Interview with Jennifer Safrey.”

Author Bio

Jennifer Safrey is a Professor at Emerson College and an author who writes contemporary romances and modern, feminist versions of characters we love from fairy stories.