Caught Up in the Rapture



HOT STUFF: Mother of two boys, 4 and 6 years old, Wendell runs her website and reads and critiques the books she loves from her Montclair home, which allows her a flexible schedule for her children.

Sarah Wendell stole her first romance novel.

As a kid, poor eyesight had made learning to read difficult for Wendell. “I got it in my head that I wasn’t too smart,” she says. One day in high school, when she spotted her class valedictorian intently reading in the library, she wanted to know what thick paperback had her classmate so enraptured.

It was a romance novel.

When the valedictorian stepped away, Wendell seized the moment. “I started reading her book, then I checked it out of the library before she got out of the bathroom,” says Wendell.

She never talked to the valedictorian again, but that one innocent heist set Wendell on a career path. From her home in Montclair, Wendell, 36, runs Smart Bitches and Trashy Books, a website of reviews and criticism of romance novels.

Laugh all you want, but romance is serious stuff. Romantic fiction generates $1.36 billion in annual sales, according to the Romance Writers of America, and holds the largest share of the consumer book market.

Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitch’s Guide to Romance Novels, Wendell’s first book, published in 2009 with coauthor Candy Tan, has become required reading for courses at Princeton (Topics in American Literature: American Best Sellers) and DePaul University in Chicago (The Popular Romance Novel). Wendell also pens a column about romance every other week for Kirkus Reviews, an influential book review magazine and website. Her second book, Everything I Know About Love, I Learned from Romance Novels, was published in October.

“I take the romance genre very seriously, but I don’t take myself very seriously,” says Wendell, which is what makes Smart Bitches such a delight, even if you haven’t read a romance novel since you snuck glances at one you found in your grandmother’s beach bag. (The newer books are much better, more in line with the modern reader—no bodice ripping unless you go for a classic.)

Wendell grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. After college, she moved to Jersey City with her husband, Adam (her high school sweetheart), so she could attend graduate school at Drew University and he could attend NYU Law school.

“I wanted to write a feminist literary criticism of a romance novel by Jude Deveraux [New York Times best-selling author of more than 35 historical romance books] but was told that was inappropriate,” she says. So she dropped out and worked in the Drew University graduate admissions office instead.

In 1997, she started writing an online personal journal. “This was before there were blogs and blogging software, so I had to hand code,” she says. What she wrote was a hodgepodge, everything from long rambling essays to recipes for cat food.

Thanks to the cat-food recipes, she met Candy Tan, who came across Wendell’s site while looking for remedies for her sick kitten. After months of e-mailing, the two started talking about their love of romance novels and how “we were both English majors who took a lot of crap for liking them. So we took the power of our English degrees and wrote about what we loved and didn’t love about romance novels,” says Wendell. And Smart Bitches was born.

Wendell thought it would be a lark. Her husband thought otherwise and told her this would be her career.

He was right. Wendell quit her job in 2010 to focus on the web operation. (Tan is now an attorney.) The site gets between 300,000 and 400,000 visits a month and has readers in 160 countries.

Wendell and her husband moved to Montclair when she was pregnant with their first son. He’s now 6, her youngest, 4. They chose Montclair because it reminded them of the quaint Pittsburgh neighborhood where they grew up.

“The houses are the same age and the same look, and there are sidewalks and trees,” she says. “It’s a town with places to go shopping. You’re right next to a big metropolis but you don’t actually have to go there unless you work there.”

Wendell runs the website, and writes, from home. She loves her job but admits that sometimes defending romance is an uphill battle. “There is a lot of wonder about some of those covers,” she says. “There are lots of mullets in romance land. Heroes unbutton their shirts but tuck them in!”

But, she also says the genre is unfairly maligned and quickly dismissed because it’s “a genre that is written by, produced, purchased and consumed only by women.”

Wendell explores the redeeming values of romance novels in Everything I Know about Love, I Learned from Romance Novels, which started as an advice column on the Smart Bitches website. The book points out the strengths of the novels beyond silly covers: They are stories about strong women, who make positive changes to their lives; the heroines find happily ever after and readers know this will happen when they pick up the book.

“If you’re going to be the heroine of your own life, you need to figure out the best way for you to be the person that makes you most happy,” Wendell says.  “You are in charge. It’s your story. Get off your butt and get going.”

Wendell doesn’t see the genre losing its appeal anytime soon, especially with a country stuck in a long, economic funk.

“I know happiness is not sexy,” she says. “It’s much more fashionable to be miserable. But happiness is something that everyone values, and happiness is priceless. Romances are all about that happily ever after, and it’s easy to mock it, even though that’s what people are really looking for.”

 

Romance: It’s not all fiction

 Four things Sarah Wendell has learned from romance novels:

1. Romance is about you, but it’s not all about you. You have to value someone else’s happiness as much as you value your own—and vice versa.

2. Romance means a commitment to routine care and maintenance. A happy relationship means not taking your mate for granted, or assuming that he knows what you’re thinking. Big misunderstandings are to be avoided at any cost.

3. Romance means loving someone for who he is right now. You should know that you are loved without any requests or demands for change. Any man who says he would love you more if you were thinner, or taller, or better looking is not a person worth spending much time with.

4. Romance means believing you are worthy of a happy ending—and it means wanting to give one to someone else.


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