Even though I’m a 20-something writer living in Brooklyn, ye olde birthplace of bookish pretension, I’ve never been a very good literary snob. I read (and liked) The DaVinci Code, have a soft spot for James Patterson, and just last month became one of the dozen or so adult American males to have read Clay Aiken’s memoir cover-to-cover. (It was a long train ride, okay?) In short, I’ve tried hard to accept the fact that better-than-average books can be found in all genres, at all points along the cultural spectrum.

But when the good folks at TheGloss asked me to read and review three dime-store romance novels – and see what I could learn about women along the way – I recoiled. Romance novels? The things they sell next to the Sour Skittles in grocery store checkout lines? The ones my writer friend calls “soft porn with adverbs”? Those books are for horny Midwestern preteens and women in loveless marriages. I wasn’t sure I could finish three romance novels, much less find actionable love advice in them.

It didn’t help that when the novels arrived in the mail, the first book out of the box – 2009’s Hidden Fire, the third book in a series of romances written by a former schoolteacher named Jo Davis – looked every bit as cheesy as I’d feared. On the front cover was a torso shot of a tanned, shirtless fireman with abs out of a P90X commercial, hovering over the tagline “Some fires should never be put out…” On the back cover, a short synopsis introduced me to the abdominally-blessed firefighter Julian Salvatore and his love interest, the defense attorney Grace McKenna, a “beautiful ice queen” who joins Salvatore to solve a series of murders committed by a dark figure from his past.
Curiosity prevailed, and I pulled the second and third books from the mailer. The second was a historical romance called Promise Me Tonight, which was set by author Sara Lindsey in the 18th-century English aristocracy. The third, Nalini Singh’s Slave to Sensation, was a so-called “paranormal” romance that features members of two futuristic races of quasi-humans boinking each other with their alien-parts – Avatar meets the Spice Channel. (The recent explosion of the paranormal romance genre, according to my editor, is almost entirely Twilight’s fault.) All three featured semi-nude figures on their covers, and all three weighed in at around 300 pages.

Before I review these books properly, let’s get this part out of the way: by and large, romance novels are not examples of smooth, well-wrought prose. Each of these books had its moments, but much of the actual writing seems to have been done in small, windowless rooms at the Stephanie Meyer Center for Awkward Phraseology. In novels like these, modifiers dangle helplessly, sentences collapse under the weight of triple- and quadruple-adjective chains, and occasionally, authors literally give up on their own metaphors. (From Hidden Fire: “IV in her left hand. Cast and sling on her right arm. She was a boneless chicken with broken wings. No, one broken wing. Except if you’re boneless, they can’t be broken. Whatever.”)

Then there are the sex scenes, which are usually objectionable on both form and content grounds. (Even if you can untangle a fragment like “hot jets of cream bathing her womb for endless seconds,” it’s still sort of gross.) The sex scenes in Slave to Seduction, the paranormal romance, were spruced up by the fact that its male protagonist, a member of the Changeling race, can turn into a leopard at will – making the whole thing sort of a raunchy Animorphs. The sex in Promise Me Tonight was indistinguishable from modern erotica, except that the characters tore off each others’ petticoats and breeches instead of tube-tops and jeans. In all three books, I learned dozens of new, clinical-sounding synonyms for the female genitalia. (“Moist channel,” anyone?)

As for the books’ actual content, I have to say: I didn’t hate it. I went into Operation Romance Novel expecting the worst, and was pleasantly surprised to find zippy narratives, well-rendered characters, even an unexpected plot device or two. Sure, the storylines are boilerplate – guy meets girl, sparks fly, an emotional/logistical/legal barrier arises to keep guy and girl apart, guy and girl team up to remove said barrier and have lots of sex along the way – but that was the précis of Romeo and Juliet, too. If the Capulet/Montague setup worked for Shakespeare, it can work for Promise Me Tonight author Sara Lindsey, a “lifelong bibliophile currently studying to receive my degree in library and information science.”

What’s more, some of what I found in the three romance novels I read was actually fairly instructional – the sorts of insights into the female psyche you only get by watching The View or reading back issues of Redbook. Three examples:

1) To women, all men look like DIY projects.
In the beginnings of all three novels, one protagonist is described as being constitutionally incapable of a long-term romantic commitment. Julian Salvatore, the “sexy rogue” of Station Five, was molested as a child, leaving him with a crippling fear of emotional intimacy. In Slave to Seduction, the female lead is the stunted one – Sascha Duncan is a Psy, a member of a Spock-like alien race that has been conditioned to feel no human emotions. (Or, as Singh puts it, “Getting a Psy to open up was like trying to get a Snow-Dancer to turn into a Leopard.”) James Sheffield, the dashing aristocrat from Promise Me Tonight, ended a fight with his grandfather by swearing never to marry. This is the set-up for all three novels – main characters who absolutely refuse to fall in love. Until they do.
I’ve always thought that what appealed to women about romance novels were the rippled abs and passionate embraces. But it occurred to me that this stuff might be the genre’s actual draw – the heartwarming stories of macho, emotionally-walled men being convinced to open up and admit that love is possible. Maybe this is what women really want from their relationships – an emotional obstacle course, a chance to turn “no, never” into “yes, always.” If we want to give women a real thrill, maybe we should tell them how vulnerable they make us feel. Is your channel moist yet?

2) The best offense is a hot ex.
In Hidden Fire, Grace McKenna spends most of her time fighting off advances from Julian Salvatore, the hunky firefighter with a gift for wordsmithery. (At one point, he describes Grace as “five-feet-eleven delectable inches of cream-your-boxer-briefs temptation.”) None of Julian’s seduction methods seem to be working until he runs into his ex-girlfriend Carmelita. Julian greets Carmelita warmly, touching her and calling her “dulce,” at which point Grace becomes homicidally jealous. “He gives all of his women pet names?” she thinks. “Well wasn’t that fucking precious?” After the Carmelita episode, Grace can’t keep her hands off Julian, and the two end up doing the dirty on the hood of his Porsche. Lesson: a frightened woman is a motivated woman, so keep the ex around – preferably with a pet name in a foreign language.

3) Nothing feels as good as hot looks.
The romance novel, like the porn movie, is composed of Platonic physical ideals. Every guy is tall, dark, and well-hung, every bra is a lacy DD, and all sexual chemistry is immediate and overwhelming. This manic physical atmosphere overrides all other plot elements – fairly frequently, the authors will interrupt a bit of serious dialogue to tell us that “her nipples went hard” or “he felt his knob throbbing in his pants.”

In romance novels, this sexual tension is what allows for the characters’ emotional growth – Grace McKenna’s rack, not her equipoise, is what makes Julian Salvatore open up. And in the books’ final chapters, when the couples live happily ever after, it’s not because they’ve gone on Lexapro or had a therapist sift through their Freudian hangups. It’s because they’ve had some really good sex.

So, after putting down the last romance novel, I decided not to work on my emotional vulnerability after all. Instead, I’m working on my obliques. If I do enough crunches, maybe I’ll be hot enough for a woman to want to melt my cold, cold heart.