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Monday, June 6, 2011

Why We Read Romance Novels

Why do we, and by we, I mean mostly women since women are the primary buyers and readers of the genre, read romance novels?  (For you men out there that read romance, please, let us know your perspectives.  I’m always eager to hear new takes on things.)

This is a hot topic, especially on Twitter lately, and one that has sharply divided opinions.  From those who read romance novels, general opinion states that all these claims against them are ridiculous.  From those who do not read romance novels, opinion usually falls into two categories: those who don’t care and those who are opposed to the genre’s existence.  For the purpose of discussion, I’ll bring up perspectives from both sides and give my comments after each.

The Just Another Genre Perspective

The pro-romance novel crowd argues simply that there is nothing different about romance novels than any other genre.  Action/Adventure explores excitement, other places, and well, exactly what the genre’s name implies, adventure.  Horror explores the dark side of the human and inhuman and fear.  Romance is just like these, except that it explores romantic love between people, usually a man and a woman, and all the permutations therein.  To condemn romance novels is unjust without also condemning all fiction.  For it falls to fiction to produce something beyond a person’s natural experience no matter the genre and transport them to another time, place, situation, or understanding.  How can one condemn love and allow fear or violence or any of the other things fiction presents its readers?  Isn’t love supposed to be a positive thing?  Aren’t we supposed to have more love in the world?

The counter arguments to this is that there are certain things one should not experience even in fiction, that fiction produces unrealistic mindsets, and that, for some, fiction as a whole is unhealthy.

The Twisted Perceptions Claim

Many say that romance novels give women an unreasonable expectation of men and relationships.  It is easy to forget that men are not perfect lovers, good at spontaneous shows of affection or romance, and that they certainly aren’t all so impressively endowed.  When our husbands, boyfriends, or fiancés don’t act as our romance heroes act, frustration can ensue, thus causing friction and creating problems in a relationship.

Do some women struggle with this?  Certainly.  But difficulty separating fiction from reality is a problem that goes well beyond romance novels.  Stories abound about people who actually believe they are Star Trek characters, vampires, or that everything we see is an illusion.  Many honestly expect a car to blow up if it flips, that they could win a gun fight without ever having touched a gun before, or that when someone who is truly in love consummates their relationship, things go beautifully and that good lovemaking is a natural instinct rather than something that must be learned.  In our culture, it’s easy to forget that problems aren’t solved in thirty minutes as the sitcoms would have us believe or that the world doesn’t just give us what we want like a good job, a ticket to college, or a date as many movies or TV shows portray.  It is important to remember that fiction is fiction, but that does not mean that a certain type of fiction is guaranteed to produce irrational or distorted perceptions.

The Titillation Factor

Ignoring the fact that romance is broken down into a wide variation of subgenres, many claim that romance contains graphic depictions of sex unnecessary to the story and for the sole purpose of titillation.  They say that romance novels are female pornography, one step shy of erotica, which I will not address today since it is its own genre with major differences from romance.  Since women are more aroused by words and emotions, written fiction elicits similar response in them as men who use images to elicit arousal.

From a purely story analysis, this claim must be taken book by book.  I have heard arguments from both groups about whether any sort of sexual or intensely sensual content should be allowed in romance.  Natasha Kern has an excellent article on the place of sensuality in romance that I highly recommend.  But for our current purposes, I’ll just address the need or lack of it for the story and development of characters.

In a book that focuses on an intimate, romantic relationship, sexuality or sensuality are impossible to ignore if one wishes to present anything resembling believability.  If authors completely avoided sensuality, we could not have a romance genre.  Instead, we would have a long series of novels about friendships or Galahads.  There is a reason Galahad never makes most people’s list of coolest knights.  Platonic love does not speak to the heart like romantic love does, and it is the way these stories touch the heart that most women consume romance novels by the dozen.

Where this debate really becomes interesting is when we start examining where that imaginary line is between acceptable and unnecessary.  The fact remains that without showing some sexuality or sensuality on the page, stories that include characters that struggle with some element that involves sex—as many real people do—could not be told.  For a reader to understand and believe a character’s development, they must see that development, not simply skip the crucial scene and drudge through the author trying to explain the change in boring exposition afterward.  Can romance authors write unnecessary sex into a book?  Yes, of course.  But that is why we must answer this question book by book.

The Replacing Your Husband or SO Problem

Some say people read romance to replace or ignore the problems with their significant other.   Most of what I’ve heard on this basically breaks down into urging that such people must toss out their romances and embrace the real relationship before them and especially deal with whatever problems are causing them to flee from their partner.  Women use romance heroes to fill the hole in their heart where distance, pain, and anger have developed for their significant other.

Now, I completely agree that we should actively seek to deepen and improve our relationships, especially those we’ve committed to the “til death do us part.”  However, in such instances, reading romances is more a symptom rather than the problem.  It’s like giving someone Tylenol for a painful rotted tooth rather than removing the tooth.

Along these lines, I’ve heard a lot on Twitter lately about a Dr. Juli Slattery who wrote, Finding the Hero in Your Husband, and claims that romance novels produce the same addictive drug in the brain as pornography produces in men.  I have a few concerns for what I’ve read regarding this.  First of all, the articles I’ve been able to find have been very vague and do not mention Dr. Slattery’s research or findings in any detail, not that I’m asking for the original scientific research papers.  As such, I find it hard to grasp what Dr. Slattery, or more accurately, the articles about her claims, founds her statement on.  Secondly, holding a minor in psychology and having studied neuroscience to a small extent, the use of the term “drug” makes me wary.  The brain produces neurochemicals, not drugs.  Additionally, each neurochemical functions in many processes.  So by saying that the brain produces an addictive neurochemical when a woman reads romance novels is also to state that whenever the brain produces that same neurochemical during other activities, it is also addictive.  This makes no sense to me.  I can only hope that the articles citing Dr. Slattery’s claims simply poorly stated or misunderstood her words.

In general, the idea that romance novels are inherently unhealthy or evil is excessively reactionary.  Like anything, they can be misused or the symptom of a greater problem.  But when you get down to it, they are just a type of story using the same elements as any other type of story: great characters, an interesting plot, and devices that elicit emotion and provoke thought in the reader, in short, stories intended to touch their audience’s heart.

Now what do you think?  Why do you think people read romance novels or should not read them?  What do you think of the perspectives I’ve mentioned above?  What others can you add that I did not include?


  1. Laura, what an insightful blog entry. Thanks for being brave and tackling such a hot topic.

    I love how you summed up your entry. I totally agree that romance novels are just another type of story, story being the key word. For a romance novel to be compelling, it must have the elements of a story: character, setting, and plot. And every romance novel I've read and loved had those elements done well. And, let's not forget brilliant writing. That's important, too.

    I'd like to think that my fascination with romance novels is no different from my husband's love of sports. In fact, we spend many evenings with him watching a baseball game and me reading my kindle. We both come away from those activities relaxed and refreshed. We were both entertained. Could we find better things to do with our time? Sure. Could we do something more important? Definitely. But we choose to relax sometimes and other times, we choose to do family activities and things to build our relationship and things for others. It's about balance.

    I'd say if a SO is feeling neglected because his gal constantly has her nose buried in a romance novel, maybe an argument could be made for her needing to take a time-out and focus on her SO so he feels loved and cared for. But if you've got good balance in your life between responsibilities and leisurely activities, then I think romance novels are just like any other form of entertainment.

    Thanks for the post, Laura. I really enjoyed it. And I, too, enjoyed Natasha Kern's article.

  2. I couldn't have said it better myself, Jessica. :)