The first time I heard a feminist definition of a romance novel (female author writes a book celebrating values of love, compassion, community, and friendship, with a female protagonist who fights for what she wants and gets it), I was hooked. Those books were for me.
Can romance novels create a new feminist dynamic? I don’t know. But women and men read romances for the hope they offer, the comfort they give, and the values they aspire to. That’s good enough for me. And if they help create a new feminist dynamic, well, that’s just icing on the cake.
But there’s more! I recently read an article by Kimberly Winston in the Washington Post that suggests that religion can be reinvented through romance novels—that because of the themes and values romance novels showcase, they can be considered sacred texts. Holy bodice ripper, Batman!
Vanessa Zoltan, a Harvard Divinity School graduate, has started a podcast called “Hot and Bothered,” which encourages listeners to write their own romance novels as a sacred practice. “For something to be sacred … it has to teach you to be better at loving,” she says. Zoltan hopes that the podcast will be a place where people can talk about what love is, whether that’s romantic love, friendship, or even hospitality.
Zoltan, 36, says many of the millennial generation have left the church, breaking with traditional religious practices because they want or need to create meaning in new ways.
“The church for many people is a gift, but for others, it is a place of trauma,” she said. For those people, she says, “we need to come up with new spiritual technologies.”
While at Harvard, Zoltan, who is culturally Jewish and a self-identified atheist, studied Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre as a sacred text. Then she co-founded “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text,” a podcast exploring the meaning of friendship, power, grief, integrity, and other themes of the J.K. Rowling novels. It’s one of iTunes’s most popular podcasts, with 9 million downloads a year.
She began the “Hot and Bothered” podcast project after the 2016 election, when she experienced panic attacks and lost sleep over the news. Relief came by reading romances—where good triumphs and love always wins. She read 27 romance novels in 60 days.
Then she started writing a romance novel of her own. Writing led to deep conversations about the nature of love, the value of fidelity, and the power of sacrifice.
But is writing a romance a sacred practice?
“For something to be sacred, it needs three things—faith, rigor, and community,” Zoltan says. Faith that the act of writing can bring real blessings, rigor in the commitment to write regularly, and community in the podcast’s listeners and team.
Zoltan doesn’t suggest that listeners write steamy scenes instead of going to church, temple, or mosque. But, she says, “[A]nything that makes you better at loving is a good thing.”
For the podcast, Zoltan will be joined by Julia Quinn and other writers who discuss a common romance trope on each episode: love at first sight, marriage of convenience, enemies to lovers, and so on. Listeners will be encouraged to write their own romances and to share their writing experience with others in small, local groups. The goal is to explore what is sacred about human relationships.
But can writing romance novels, even with faith, rigor, and community, provide the spiritual sustenance of traditional religions? Maybe. But only if it moves beyond individual fulfillment, says Brent Plate, who teaches courses on religion and popular culture at Hamilton College. “The old-school, churchgoing Christians, I think they’ll have to realize that their stories and rituals no longer meet the bodily and communal needs of people,” Plate said.
Whatcha think? With my own writing, I meet the criteria of faith, rigor, and community. (Thanks, guys!) Does that make my writing sacred? Perhaps. If only to me.
The podcast premieres in October and will appear weekly through the end of the year.