Bodice-rippers have a special allure.
Madison can be a hard place to live if you love romance novels. Admit to someone that you read bodice-rippers, and you'll likely receive one of a few expressions: the glare of outright contempt, the smirk of amused condescension or the frozen look that says, "I don't know how to react, but I am far too polite to be openly dismissive."
Meeting a romance reader is usually joyful, though. This is certainly the case with librarian Jane Jorgenson. There are no romance specialists in the Madison Public Library system, but if there were, she would probably hold the title. In addition to being a fan of the genre, she is responsible for the "romance edition" of Madison Library Insider, a monthly newsletter that suggests upcoming titles to library patrons. She is also a reviewer for Library Journal.
"I'm not sure I can say romance is my favorite genre, because I couldn't pick a favorite. I love mysteries, thrillers and science fiction and am currently big into nonfiction about historical crimes," she says.
Yet there's something that sets romance novels apart, Jorgenson notes.
"Romances are special. I've read romances since I was a tween, and I certainly enjoy a good, emotional love story," she says. "But what I've always been drawn to in these books is the fact that they are centered on the woman. In a lot of novels, the female characters are the object of the story...but in romance, the woman is the main character and the subject of her own story."
Jorgenson argues that romance novels' sharp focus on women is a major reason they've been maligned.
"Put simply, I think it all comes down to it being a genre that has typically been by and about women," she says.
In any case, romance novels are arguably one of the most successful products geared to women. They are a huge part of the publishing industry, generating more than a billion dollars in sales annually and topping many bestseller lists, according to the 2013 edition of Business of Consumer Book Publishing. In fact, the genre accounted for 16.7% of all commercial book sales in 2012.
As a librarian, Jorgenson doesn't defend romances in conversation so much as make patrons feel welcome.
"I often get interactions where a customer is sheepish about asking for a romance," she explains. "They've certainly felt the sting of someone out in the world judging their reading choices, and they're afraid to ask for fear of being sneered at, which is a shame."
Despite the stigma, the genre is popular among library patrons. Jorgenson points to library data showing that romances have a healthy circulation.
"It's hard to quantify the genre because many romance novels aren't categorized as such. But if you look at the bestsellers individually, we're reading them," Jorgenson says. "Even in Madison."