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A 'Sweet, Savage' Passion For Romance

Jack Murnighan is the author of <em>Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature's 50 Greatest Hits.</em>
Jack Murnighan is the author of Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature's 50 Greatest Hits.

Any guy can tell you he loves romance, but how many men would admit to liking romance novels?

I simply can't resist reading lines from my guilty pleasure — Rosemary Rogers' Sweet Savage Love:

When I get to the end of a passage like that, I can only think: Dios mio!

I know I shouldn't be caught reading Rosemary Rogers, and there's no question that, midpage, I blush more than your average Jane Austen character. I'm a medievalist after all, so to me "romance" (from the Old French romant for story) used to mean a courtly tale of mounted knights and damsels in finery, not those pink-covered, florid, Fabio-emblazed paperbacks with titles like Surrender in Scarlet or My Gallant Enemy.

Back in my haughty grad-student ignorance, I looked down my pince-nez at the lot of them. I had seen the covers, read the titles, knew their popularity, but never cracked the spine of a single one.

But times have changed. Now, if I happen to be alone on the Greyhound and find an abandoned Harlequin or Silhouette, left in a tizzy by a lovelorn runaway, I quickly tuck it into my briefcase amid the papyri and incunabula to read furtively in my office, or in my lap during faculty meetings.

My colleagues might filibuster on, but I'll be far away, thrilled by stories of seduction, the literature of love — the very thought makes my heart go oingo boingo.

I wouldn't want to read romances all the time, of course, but still, all those smoking-hot virgins liquefying in the arms of their swarthy, unyielding seducers — that's excellent! I just can't believe these things were written by and for women.

See, I had always thought that the idea of coercing the fairer sex into abandonment stemmed more from the male than the female gray matter. A friend of mine once dreamed that he was a pagan god to whom a tribal culture would perform ritual female sacrifices, and silly me, I believed at the time that that was an archetypal guy fantasy. Not unlike the great late-teen realization that girls like sex too, the very thought that men and women were occasionally conjuring the same sugarplums made me feel much closer to my female compeers in general, and less like a creeping lust monster.

I'm aware, of course, that there's a cultural bias, and that if the women in my department were to see me with a copy of Sweet Savage Love under my arm, I wouldn't have many friends left. But freed of the ivory prison, things are different, so now you might well see a tweed-clad ectomorph flipping pages in the aisles of a Wal-Mart near you. And members of the jury, I won't be reading Field and Stream.

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Jack Murnighan