Pop-Up: Origin Stories

I thought it would be fun to write some pop-culture-related stories for ye olde blogge, so I’m starting a blog column called Pop-Up, in which I wax long on various pop culture topics. This will probably be a sporadic feature, although I’ve already got a second topic idea, so we’ll see! For my first column, I’m going to talk about nostalgia for the teen lit of my youth!

A lot of romance writers will tell you the same story: they discovered romance because their mother/aunt/babysitter/etc. was a big romance reader.

That is not true for me. My mother reads a lot of heavy nonfiction. My female relatives read mostly of sci fi and literary fiction, if they read much at all. I have a degree in English literature, and wrote an interdisciplinary thesis about nonconformist women and intersectional feminism in literature. Where did my great love of romance novels come from?

I think I have the answer now!

When I was 11, back in the distant, pre-Internet time of 1991, I talked my mom, who worked full time, into letting me go to my town’s public library instead of the dread after school program after school. And there, I—and often some of my friends—did homework and also read. A lot. My friend Chris and I went to the children’s section after school every day for a few months, and when we finished our homework, we read through basically every YA novel the library had at the time. This was more or less limited to novels by Judy Blume and Loises Duncan and Lowry, some ancient Nancy Drew Mysteries, a whole lot of R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike thrillers, and a rotating rack of Sweet Valley High.

I mention all this to say that I was the prime age to be reading the books described in Gabrielle Moss’s delightful book Paperback Crush, which I finished reading this week. The book is part nostalgia and part criticism—YA from this era had a lot of affluent white girls—but what was interesting to me was that I finally made the connection between the teen romances I was reading in middle school and my love of romance novels. Like, I can draw a straight line from Sweet Valley High to Harlequin Presents.

I don’t remember a lot of the plots anymore, but I remember getting caught up in the antics of Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield when I was in sixth grade. (I was a Type A even back then, so I identified with the studious Elizabeth.) (I always identify with the Type As. Rachel on Glee, Amy on Brooklyn Nine Nine, Chidi on The Good Place, and so on. I keep a Leslie Knope Funko Pop on my desk because she is my patron saint.) And I remember the Jungle Prom and the Fiat and the over-the-top drama. It’s like a junior version of a category romance in terms of tropes and soap opera antics. And I think I loved those books at the time because sunny California felt pretty much as far from my home in suburban New Jersey as you could get. (By the way, I recently started listening to the Double Love podcast, in which two Irish ladies discuss each SVH book. It’s really fun. I recommend!)

I started reading romance again in my mid-twenties, and it started with a friend handing me a Nora Roberts novel, which I read in one sitting on a bus trip. It reminded me how reading doesn’t have to be an intellectual exercise every time, it could just be a few hours of fun escapism. Which is not that romances novels can’t be intellectual or challenging or great literature, because they definitely can be, but they can also just be engaging, enjoyable, escapist books, too. I finished that book and thought, “I forgot reading can be this much fun.” And then I went out and found more romance. The rest is history!

I mean, I read a lot of Danielle Steel as a teenager. One of my library friends and I used to take books from the massive Wall of Harlequins my hometown library had (several full bookcases of just category romances) and read the sexy bits aloud to each other. Another friend and I wrote our own SVH-esque teen romance series when we were 12 or 13. (Each book was, like, 10 pages, written long-hand on loose leaf paper. These were not sophisticated stories.) And I’ve always liked stories in which people fall in love. (I’m totally that person who sits on the couch and shouts “Kiss! Kiss!” at my TV when characters have tense romantic moments on TV.)

So then the very first novel I ever write a complete draft of was a teen romance novel based loosely on the character dynamics in a lot of the Christopher Pike books I’d read. I was seventeen when I wrote it. (The plot was basically that eight friends go on vacation together right after they graduate from high school and some of the pair up romantically and there’s a LOT of drama. Nobody was a victim of a grisly murder or anything, although I think I gave one of the characters cancer.)

Anyway, this is all to say that Paperback Crush is a really fun book that made me all kinds of nostalgic, and I heartily recommend it if you are of a certain age (namely pushing 40 and thinking a lot about the books of your formative years).