If women like it, it must be stupid”. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately.
It started with the Jennifer Weiner/Jodi Picoult/Jonathen Franzen story and the fact that “The New York Times really does review more fiction by men than by women. Far more. Over about two years, from June 29, 2008 to August 27, 2010, the Times reviewed 545 works of fiction—338, or 62 percent, were by men. During that period, 101 books got the “one-two punch” of a review in both the daily Times and the Sunday Book Review—72 of them were by men.”
They do point out that this doesn’t take into account how much of all published fiction is written by women versus men, but as we all know, romance is the biggest selling genre and I’m pretty sure women publish more fiction than men. Not only that, when women writers do get reviewed by the NYT, it’s never romance (someone mentioned Nora got reviewed there once).
Picoult and Weiner made several points not just about reviews by the NYT but that in general fiction written by women does not get the same respect as fiction written by men. It also interested me that the article noted “Nick Hornby, Jonathan Tropper, Carl Hiaasen, David Nicholls...all of these guys write what I'd call commercial books, even beach books, books about relationships and romance and families. All of them would be considered chick lit writers if they were girls.”
Then I read another blog article by Katherine Buetner which referenced Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance, a sociological study of romance readers published in 1984. She conducted interviews in a midwestern town with forty-two romance readers, asking them about their reading motives, habits, and rewards. Radway found that the women she studied devoted themselves to nurturing their families, but received insufficient devotion or nurturance in return. In romances the women found not only escape (remember that word) from the difficult and boring routines of their lives but also a hero who supplied “the tenderness and admiring attention that they have learned not to expect. Specifically, she suggests that romance novels teach their readers to create fantasies that will render their unsatisfying marital relationships more satisfying by applying the rules of the hero’s “transformation” to their husbands: he rarely shows me tenderness, but because he does show it occasionally, he must secretly feel it all the time; those moments are the only moments when he allows himself to show it, but knowing that tenderness exists should be enough.”
Holy crap. Okay, that was 1984 but still, it seems to be saying that romance teaches women to create fantasies to escape from real life – from real, unsatisfying life.
First of all – WTF? Is that a fantasy? Do we expect men to show tenderness and affection all the time? Jeebus. I know my husband loves me, pretty sure he loves me a lot – but hell yeah, he doesn’t show his tenderness and affection all that often. Though I do get a kiss goodbye every morning, without fail. I’d say that’s more like teaching reality, rather than teaching a fantasy.
Second, not all readers of romance are married. And the ones who are, aren’t necessarily unsatisfied in their marital relationship. And...well I could go on and on about the flaws in this research but that’s already been covered elsewhere.
And third - what's wrong with escaping from real life for a while?
What I don’t understand is all this fascination with the reasons women have for reading romance. I Googled “why women read romance” and found pages and pages of hits. Then I Googled “why men read science fiction” and found – nothing. I searched “why men read westerns”, and “why men read adventure” and again – nothing. I Googled simply “why men read” – nothing. Perhaps they don’t. If they do, nobody cares to analyze why or what they’re reading. Ha! Then I Googled “why men read fiction” and the second thing that came up was a blog article by Jason Pinter called “Why Men Don’t Read”. It seemed to prove my point, however when I read the article, he’s discussing a publishing bias against men and the difficulty publishing books that men would read, which leads to a dearth of books that would interest men. Hmm. Interesting. Considering most of the books the NYT reviews are written by men.
In fairness I also Googled “why women read mysteries” – again, nothing.
So...the preoccupation with why women read romance seems to be based on the assumption that romance is unworthy and romance readers (primarily women) are intellectually inferior. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, there was a cultural belief that women were intellectually inferior to men and men believed women would be harmed by reading fiction. And here we are in the 21st Century and it seems that things haven’t changed all that much.
Why do women read romance?
There are two main reasons I read anything: to be entertained, or to learn something. In many cases, reading serves both purposes.
I noted the word “escape” above because romance novels are often called “escapist”, with the idea that the reader needs to escape her world by retreating into the world of the novel. Yet literary fiction isn’t described this way, which implies that readers are getting something more out of it than just “an escape.”
But what’s wrong with escaping your real life for a while to immerse yourself in a different world? That’s entertainment. It’s watching a movie or television show or listening to a concert. But the term is pejorative. It implies there is no learning.
I believe there can be much more than just escaping when women read romance. As I say on my blog, “I believe in the power of romance stories to portray strong, loving, romantic, sexual relationships that succeed, and to celebrate strength, courage, honour, and love. I believe love, romance and sex teach us about ourselves, about each other and about relationships, and break down barriers and boundaries.” So I believe that reading romance does serve the purposes of both entertaining and educating.
Furthermore, why does romance get knocked as a form of escapist entertainment? And this applies not just to books, but to movies – ever hear the term chick flick? Readers of mysteries, crime thrillers, watchers of those types of movies don’t earn the same derision as those who read romance or watch chick flicks. Could it be because they’re primarily...women?
I am deeply interested in the study of romance as literature — but I am NOT interested in the question of why women read romance. I don’t even want to hear that question any more. Nobody is asking “What do readers get out of reading Steven King?” or “Who are the people who read Nicholas Sparks and why do they read his books?” so why do they ask it about the books that women write (and read)? We need to explore romance as a fiction genre without cultural stereotypes and biases about who reads it and why.