Despite popular mockery and academic criticism, it continues to outsell every genre, including Classic Literature, year after year. In 2014 alone, Americans spent 1.08 billion dollars on these books and it has sparked some the most popular, and most hated, franchises in the last ten years with no signs of slowing down. I’m, of course, talking about Romance: A genre I have spent my entire adult life avoiding like the plague.
Mention Nicholas Sparks and my eyes nearly roll out of my head. Any talk of “50 Shades of Grey” makes me cringe. Bring up “You Before Me” and I just about have a hernia. Romance has always been a genre that earned my skepticism and annoyance, if not flat-out scorn, depending on the book. Its appeal just never made sense to me.
Before I go any further, I feel like I should mention that I don’t actually think love stinks. I think Jamie and Claire in “Outlander” are the ultimate power couple, I’m happy Katniss ended up with Peta at the end of “Mockingjay,” and the only “Walking Dead” characters I still care about are Glen and Maggie, but those relationships all take place within a bigger story. It’s when the whole catalyst for a book or movie is romance that I don’t understand and its huge popularity flat out baffles me. So, like any modern day free-time scholar, I hit up Google to see if I could find some answers.
The first and least believable hypothesis I came across is that the appeal of romance boils down to biology. At first glance, it makes sense. Our culture teaches that women are relational creatures who want stable marriages with men that would provide for their children, as opposed to men who are said to be visual and supposedly have to be dragged into such relationships, so it makes sense that books designed for women would focus on romantic relationships that lead to commitment. A study that appeared in the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology in 2009 looked at 15,000 Harlequin romance novels and, just by the titles alone, concluded that women go to these novels because of the strong, financially secure heroes that could easily provide for and protect a family (“Friday Weird Science”). However, on a closer look, this idea falls apart.
For starters, the study itself doesn’t hold up. The words features in titles that feed into the marriage-and-baby hypothesis don’t actually show up that frequently. The most common word in this category, “Bride,” only showed up in 5.5% of the 15,000 titles. Other words such as “Baby,” “Marriage,” and “Husband,” showed up even less frequently. So, even though those were some of the most common words, I don’t think they were common enough to say these ideas are what draw women to romance. This also signals another issue with this hypothesis: there’s too much variety. The fact that there are so many subgenres signals that these books are written to appeal to multitudes of different women from different sub-cultural backgrounds. If the appeal was based on women’s biological need for marriage and children, there would be more consistency in the love interests’ personalities and backgrounds across the subgenres. Instead, each category speaks to different women’s taste and, to some extent, their desires and fantasies.
The second explanation, which I think holds more water, is that romance allows women to fantasize about what they desire from romantic partners, particularly when it comes to sex. This especially makes sense considering how expansive and, shall we say, creative the erotica genre is on Amazon has come to be. Not to mention the (rather unfortunate) overnight popularity of “50 Shades of Grey.” It’s no secret that our culture breaks into a moral panic whenever women, both famous celebrities and the girl next door, express any interest in anything remotely sexual (Ungar-Sargon). We, as a people, dislike the idea so much that we’ve created a whole slew of hateful names and terms for such women. So, why not retreat into the pages of a book to explore such desires free of any judgment?
There’s also the fact that there aren’t any real consequences with reading romantic fiction. Readers can run away with the hero, fall in love then shut the book or turn off their e-reader with no harm done. Many books are even written for such a purpose. A lot of romances feature heroines that are described in relatively little detail so that the reader can place herself in her shoes while, on the other hand, the hero is described in excruciating detail (Fisher). Stephanie Meyer has even said that’s why she wrote Bella as such a
lifeless pawn I mean a blank slate. It allows the reader to put themselves in her shoes and escape to Forks, Washington for a while.
As much as I think this theory has an element of truth, I think its applicability is rather limited. As popular as erotic fiction has become, it’s only one subgenre of romantic fiction and, while sex may be a part of the others, it’s typically only a very small portion of a story that focuses on much bigger elements of a relationship and life in general. There’s also the fact that half of romance readers are already married (Rodale). You can’t seriously tell me that most of those women are desperately looking to escape the relationship they already have. So, there has to be more to explain romance’s appeal to so many women. There must be a reason there are so many diverse stories, character backgrounds, and love interests, despite most of them ending in “Happily Ever After.” Turns out, the answer was right in front of my face: these are hopeful stories about women.
Over the years, romance has gotten the bad rap for being about helpless damsels who constantly need to be saved, but the more I think about it, the more I think this is pretty unfair. There are plenty of helpless, useless, downright aggravating women in other genres, but their genres aren’t given nearly as hard of a time for it. Many people who read and write romance cite the popularity of terrible titles for the reputation, which, given just how truly terrible hot-button romance titles have been in recent years, I’m inclined to believe them. These authors and reads also talk about how most romance novels today feature working women, emphasize the importance of economic independence, and, in a world of hook-ups and dating apps, there are still good men worth waiting for (Bateman). There’s also the fact that romance fiction reinforces the validity of women’s wants and needs in a time when something so basic and universal is politicized and sometimes even villainized (Crusie). If a woman wants to advance her career, she’s somehow neglecting her family. If she wants to focus on being a mother, she’s too dependent on her husband’s paycheck. If she wants marriage but doesn’t want kids, she’s selfish. If she has a checkered past, no matter the reason, she’s “broken” and unworthy of love. Romance, as a huge, diverse, and ever-changing genre, takes all of that, throws it to the wind and tells the reader that truly happy ending are possible, but in our increasingly cynical culture, that hope is seen as a bad thing.
One argument against romance that I’ve heard repeatedly, and that I even believed until doing this research, is that such hope is unrealistic. It’s much more believable for stories to end in some element of tragedy. However, life isn’t just made up of tragedy any more than it’s made up purely of happy endings. Well-written romance (and yes, by now, I’ve read a few for research’s sake) aren’t usually made up only of happy things, anyway. They tackle complicated real-world issues in the context of a developing romantic relationship and, more often than not, the protagonist and her lover triumph together over these issues the end. This results in a reoccurring theme that crosses sub-genre and audience distinctions alike: “We can be happy. Regardless of who we are or where we’ve been, we’re worthy of love, redemption, and personally fulfillment. Happy endings are real.”
That raises an interesting question: when did the idea of happy endings in the real world become something so unbelievable that reading about it became something to be mocked and scorned? That’s a question that will take more soul searching and research than I have left in this article to explore.
So, after all this reading, research, and thought, can I say I like romance? Absolutely not. I still prefer my books filled with magic, explosions, action, new worlds and concepts, and mystery. And the “You Before Me”-induced hernia is still a real possibility, let me assure you. However, I can see the appeal of the genre itself. It lets women explore sides of themselves and walks of life that are often either considered taboo or they have limited access to. A reader can pick up a romance novel and explore how love and courtship work on the other side of the world or in an Amish community, my grandmother’s personal favorite, or they can figure out what turns them on. More often, however, they can catch a glimpse of the world in a brighter, hopeful light. They can imagine endings where women, who might be very much like them, can find love, happiness, and fulfillment in a larger culture that’s constantly telling that such desires are unrealistic or impossible. It’s hope such as this that makes both the romance reader and writer worthy of admiration rather than scorn, even if their tastes might differ from our own.
I only got to really explore three reasons why women read romance, but I’m sure there must be more. Leave a comment below with the reasons you like or dislike romance, regardless of your gender. I’d love to see what you think!
Fisher, Maryanne Ph.D. “How Much Do Romance Novels Reflect Women’s Desires?” Psychology Today. 16 July 2010. Web. 01 July 2016.
Bateman, Freddie. “Why is the Romance Genre so Popular?” Linkedin. 15 May 2015. Web. 01 July 2016.
“Romance Reader Statistics.” Romance Writers of America. 2014. Web. 01 July 2016.
Rodale, Maya. “Who is the Romance Novel Reader?” The Huffington Post. 07 May 2016. Web. 02 July 2016.
Crusie, Jennifer. “Romancing Reality: The Power of Romance Fiction to Reinforce and Re-Envision the Real.” Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres. Number 1-2, 1997: 81-83. Jennycruise.com. Web. 03 July 2016.
Ungar-Sargon, Matya. “Can You Enjoy Romance Fiction and be a Feminist?” Aeon.co. 25 Sept 2015. Web. 03 July 2016.
“Friday Weird Science: The Evolutionary Psychology of the Romance Novel.” Scienctopia.org. 21 Dec 2012. Web. 03 July 2016.
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Article originally featured on tabbyafae.com on July 28 2016.