I bought my first romance novel only a few days after leaving my first girlfriend. I had been living in the UK for close to ten months on a year abroad, and then, of course, found myself ripped up at the roots, on the back end of a round-trip ticket back home. Like a buffer to reentry, between leaving England and returning to the United States, I spent a week in Ireland with my family, performing the tropes of recent heartbreak in the back of a rented van as I was driven from place to place. One of those places was a used bookstore, where I went in search of a copy of Ulysses and left instead with a copy of Johanna Lindsay’s The Devil Who Tamed Her.
The cover is pastel purple and features the torso of a woman in a white dress on a white horse. Most of her head, and particularly her face, have been cropped out of the frame, sensualizing her bare shoulder and leg but anonymizing her as well. Across a length of billowing tulle, it says “He loves a challenge...and she is an irresistible one.” The plot, as I remember it now, borrowed heavily from Taming of the Shrew, a surprisingly common theme in Regency romances in particular: a wild or unsuitable woman is encouraged into marriageable shape by a significantly more powerful man, often through a large income disparity and threats of physical restraint.
It’s difficult, then, to understand how this novel brought me any measure of comfort on that trip. What’s surprising, looking at photographs of myself from that time, are the ways in which I was actively, publicly trying out a queer identity: in our pictures from the Cliffs of Moher, I’m wearing a boy’s button down from Gap Kids; in another, from Dublin Pride, I have on someone else’s flat-brimmed hat. I had recently bought a skinny tie and suspenders in an attempt to approximate what I understood at the time as queer culture. Lindsay’s novel, and the novels like it that I found myself consuming by the boxful that summer, did not feature people who looked like me or relationships that looked like mine. As queer author Carmen Maria Machado said in a recent conversation with Kelly Link, I was in the uncomfortable position of “reconciling that the genres I love most were not interested in writing about me.”
Despite the erasure of—or at the very least, disinterest in—my identity, it is not true across the board that romance as a genre is indifferent to queer narratives. A number of articles over the years, including one from LAMBDA Literary, have chronicled the rising popularity of M/M romance—that is, male/male or gay romance stories. What is interesting about this subgenre, however, is that it is still catering to the same audience that has always consumed romance novels—an audience that a recent study from the Romance Writers of America identifies as overwhelmingly female, 30–55, middle-class, and most concentrated in the South. Josh Lanyon, author of M/M romance novels, argues that there is a “philosophical divide over whether M/M romance is in fact ‘gay’ romance” at all. A surprising amount of M/M romance is actually written by heterosexual women for the consumption of other women.
But despite my fumbling forays in to queer culture, I was never interested in M/M as a genre, though there were certainly more of those available at my local used bookstore than novels featuring queer women. Instead, here’s a partial list of things I was reading that summer—aggressively heterosexual novels with titles you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere outside of romance: Mine Till Midnight, Duchess by Night, Seduce Me at Sunrise, Night Pleasures, Married by Morning, To Catch an Heiress.
If these titles seem to have an unusual focus on the time of day, it’s because I discovered Lisa Kleypas, who wrote the Hathaway novels, each about a different member of the same sprawling family who is tempted, seduced, or married at twilight, sunrise, or in the morning. The novel I remember best featured the unsuitable romance between one of the Hathaway sisters and a gypsy with a dark past. Questionable racial commentary aside, what I found comforting about the novel—what so many women find comforting—was the inevitability of the romance. Tragedy, chronic illness, loneliness, class, are all treated with a kind of equal lightness.
At the time when I was reading these novels most intently, I had just finished a two-year course of study on the history of the novel. I was initially interested in Ulysses not only because I was in Ireland, but because I had been recently writing on trends in post-modernism and was interested in the influences Joyce had on the tradition. My papers from that year abroad examined the inherent, almost reflexive violence at the heart of the so-called American dream; Henry Miller’s eroticism and circularity; early twentieth century conceptions of women and femininity; Toni Morrison’s depictions of blackness. And I was reading queer literature as well: Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, for example, was one of the most beautiful, surprising books I had ever read—it was also one of the loneliest. Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker captured uncomfortable, exhausting, frenzied, melancholy in-between-ness of being both a young adult and a queer woman. I loved Julie Maroh’s Blue is the Warmest Color—the graphic novel and the movie—because it resonated deeply with my personal experiences of coming out and figuring out and falling in and out of love.
But perhaps part of my interest in romance novels came from the fact that everything else I was reading, as Kurt Vonnegut so frankly put it, was “all about what a bummer it is to be a human being.” I was newly out, but the literature I was familiar with and the new body of queer literature I was working my way through had taught me that my inheritance was loneliness, trauma, and violence—sexual violence, as in Hanya Yanigihara’s queer epic A Little Life, or physical violence, as the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting taught queers everywhere. Romance as a genre—with throbbing members and heaving bosoms and insistent but lighthearted heterosexuality—offered a kind of reprieve from that. And is it possible that the ridicule of the genre, which I too have been known to participate in, might stem from this lightness, often viewed as frivolity? Is it perhaps because this is a genre created by women, for women, and with a focus on women’s pleasure—a subject that even in the age of “Cat Person” is not depicted or even discussed frequently enough?
More and more queer novels are published all the time. The broad success of Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, which was nominated for a National Book Award, is only the most visible example. I’ll recommend a few of my other recent favorites here, in no particular order: Kristen Arnett’s Felt in the Jaw is a gorgeous portrait of what she described as the “contemporary lesbian domestic”; Jess Ardnt’s Large Animals opens an extremely smart dialogue on gender in the queer community; Suzette Mayr’s Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall is casual in its treatment of the protagonist’s lesbian identity but explicit in its portrayal of race in academia; Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching is mysterious, witchy, and very queer.
I read another novel recently, though: When Katie Met Cassidy by Camille Perri is a queer contemporary romance. Katie is a southern transplant, a lawyer, recently single; Cassidy is queer, a playboy (or boi?), always dressed in a suit. In some ways, it has very little in common with the romance novels I’m familiar with. First of all, it’s evidently written by someone who’s queer—a character at one point makes a joke about buying clothes from the boys section of the Gap, and much of the central drama (aside from the romance), revolves around the closing of the local lesbian bar, which has been a haven for the community—a familiar story for anyone following the recent closings of The Lex in San Francisco or The Dalloway in New York City, and the generally diminishing number of spaces for queer women. Katie’s sexual confusion feels genuine and is treated with respect by the author and the other characters alike. The cast of characters is diverse, complicated, and—as is the case in any lesbian community—intimately entangled. But underneath those trappings, it has a surprising amount in common with The Devil Who Tamed Her: an outsider to the queer community is introduced to its ways by someone with significantly more power and social capital, she’s whipped into marriageable (or at least U-Haul-able) shape, and in the process they fall in love. It has that sense of inevitability, that light but not trivializing treatment of past traumas, frank depictions of female pleasure, and maybe most important, reading it felt like being seen.
This month, I’ll have been with my partner for four years. In that time, I’ve settled into my queer identity—recognized that I don’t have to wear suspenders to look gay, consumed a lot of queer media. I’ve read fewer romance novels—the genre that never really wanted me in the first place—but I imagine that I could still get the same comfort from them that I found the summer I was grappling with my first real heartbreak, driving around Ireland, borrowing clothes.
Kit Haggard teaches at Emerson College, where she is the Senior Editorial Assistant at Ploughshares. Her work has appeared in the Kenyon Review, Electric Literature, and The Masters Review, among other places. She is the recipient of the Rex Warner Prize and the Nancy Lynn Schwartz Prize for Fiction.