Last week I wrote about the vitality that male crit partners bring to your writing process. I admitted to my prejudices, that I thought men were mostly into political thrillers, sports biographies, and the like, and hinted that I was shocked to discover how many men were avid readers of romance novels; and a significant amount actually write romance novels. According to Romance Writers of America, 9% of romance readers are men. The genre generated $1.4 billion in sales in 2012 and was the top-performing category on the bestseller list, and yet it never gets the same coverage or respect in media as literary books do.
It got me thinking. Exactly what is a romance novel? The generic definition might be something along the lines of a plot that revolves around two people falling in love with an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending—a happily-ever-after? And the complete opposite of Gone Girl. (see my review)
However, consider stories like The Bourne Identity, The James Bond books, The Thomas Crown Affair: they meet a woman who goes along on their spy adventure and then wind up in some romantic setting that hints at a happily-ever-after. Interestingly, they are never marketed that way. Could this be about marketing?
I’ve been struggling to understand why romance novels are so universally disdained. Especially since it’s the most widely read genre. Why are people so reluctant to openly admit they love to read about love? It’s like a dirty little secret, and I’m not talking about Fifty Shades of Grey, which people unabashedly enjoyed, although I did hear the frequent comment about how it was convenient to read it on an eReader so no one could see that you were reading such trash. And yet, romance novels continue to be the most disdained of all genres. Often not just disdained or dismissed, but reviled with an unbridled hatred.
Is a romance novel a guilty pleasure, something to be ashamed of? Like the chocolate you keep hidden and never admit to indulging in? I realize that these male characters are often a gross stereotype—wealthy, good looking, all-powerful, great in bed, intelligent, and well adept at saving the lady in distress. They take the hero model to the extreme, and yes, we love it. Do they defy reality? Yes. But it’s fiction, not reality, and we all like a little escape from reality now and again. In fact, that’s the main reason I read.
I get that nobody wants to admit they’re reading about Fabio. Although the stories might be okay, I haven’t really read anything of that ilk, but I don’t look down on people who enjoy books like that. Not playing psychotherapist, I do however wonder if reading a romance novel is therapy for men, who are often expected to keep their feelings buried. The romance novel gives them the right to explore how they might express themselves more fully. I don’t think it’s because men don’t feel emotion, it’s just that they’ve been taught to not let it show.
Love is universally considered to be one of the most powerful feelings of humankind, an instinct to mate—biology teacher speaking here. We feel it’s tender pull in elementary school with that first crush. Middle school drags us crying and screaming through the halls of misunderstood love cues and interfering classmates, often escalating to dramatic heights when our love is unrequited. In college, or at that first job, we act impulsively, stupidly, attracted sometimes to the wrong person, making irrational choices based on sexual trappings. We kill for love, empty our bank accounts, walk away from our families and friends, all for the one we love. Finding that soul mate (I do dislike that expression, but it sums up our desires well), a partner who sees us and understands us for who we are and is willing to travel the path of life at our side is…well—absolutely intoxicating. We all want that.
In general, I still believe that a great story will attract readers no matter the genre, and good writing is the draw for any book. Often, romance novels are subpar when it comes to writing expertise, overwrought with cliches and stereotypical expressions which does contribute to the bad reputation. Not to mention the cover art which often advertises the denigration of both men and women. I guess it brings me back to that same old broken record. (I’m old enough to hear that ancient record player hissing at me.) We like what we like, and we should be unashamed about what we want to read, or write! In essence, I think it amounts to literary snobbery. Some of us think we’re better than others. And…we’re not. I liken it to the elitism of some film critics, they hold us to a higher standard, and what I would consider an arbitrary one. Who makes the rules for literature, for storytelling? Other than books that are meant to expose corruption or enlighten us academically, I think reading a good old-fashioned love story enriches everyone’s life. A guilty pleasure. An escape. For sure. C’mon! Who can really argue with that?