Why do women read romance novels? It's a question that's often been asked, explicitly or implicitly. Two groundbreaking 1980s studies, Janice Radway's anthropological Reading the Romance and Tania Modleski's more theoretical Loving With a Vengeance, suggested that romance novels provided women with compensatory fantasies. Patriarchy is depressing and oppressive for women, and romance novels understand that and provide a salve.
Other commenters have been more vicious. William Giraldi declared: "Romance novels—parochial by definition, ecumenical in ambition—teach a scurvy lesson: enslavement to the passions is a ticket to happiness." He concluded that the success of 50 Shades of Grey shows that, "We’re an infirm, ineffectual tribe still stuck in some sort of larval stage." Since the main readers of 50 Shades have been women, the conclusion seems to be that women read this sort of book because they are stunted. If reading romance is seen as deviant or pathological, then the attitude toward romance readers is either condescension or contempt: Romance readers are either poor souls who need help, or they're debased fools who should be scorned.
But why should romance be viewed as deviant? A 2008 survey found that, among adult readers, 18 percent listed romance as their preferred genre—more than listed sci-fi/fantasy. A 2012 estimate found romance was the single biggest money-making genre, with sales of $1.44 billion a year, almost double the next biggest seller, mystery, at $728.2 million. Given its popularity and centrality, the question shouldn't be about why women read romance. The question should be: Why don't men?
One answer is misogyny. Things associated with women are denigrated and seen as unmanly or unworthy. As Conseula Francis, an associate professor of English at the College of Charleston who studies romance novels, told me:
Because romance novels are so equated with women and femininity, and because we train boys and men to avoid as much as possible being associated at all with femininity, romance novels become something that is completely off limits. It just falls outside the realm of what is accepted.
Eric Selinger, executive editor of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, agrees with Francis. As a result of the stigma against romance, he says, even though he "was raised in a liberal, feminist home in the 1970s," and loved books like Little Women and Harriet the Spy, he was in his "mid-30s before romance novels even registered on my consciousness." Structural misogyny, Selinger concluded, "means that you have a situation where some men consciously avoid and mock romance novels, and for many others, like me, it just never even occurs to them to try one."
MEN ARE PUT OFF because of what romance novels symbolize, then, rather than by anything in romance novels themselves. That dovetails with my own experience as a (relatively recent) romance novel reader. Romance novels actually tend to be very welcoming of male viewpoints; many of them deliberately divide their point of view between the lead couple, so you're alternately in the head of male and female characters throughout. It's true that Christian Grey—the powerful, wealthy, and wounded bad boy—doesn't really appeal to me, but he's not so different from James Bond or Bruce Wayne, two characters who have substantial numbers of male fans.
Other men in romance novels are often appealingly vulnerable and fallible—they need and are interested in love, and in other people, in a way that the self-sufficient heroes of genre literature often are not. And, as Eric Selinger says, "The romance novels I like most are often ones that let me spend time with interesting, funny, snarky, or moving heroines." Romance is usually thought to be designed in a way that lets readers fall in love with attractive guys, but heterosexual romances tend to position people of every gender in a place where they get to fall in love with both attractive men and attractive women.
There is plenty for men to like in romance novels, if they can overcome misogynist stigma. So does that mean that more men should read romance novels?
Francis, at least, is ambivalent. Romance, she says:
is a community of women outside the view of other people. Romance novels get you into the secret club ... it's non-judgmental. It's a safe space. ... And part of the safety is that no one is looking at it. ... And to invite anyone in who isn't already in, is risky.
Romance writer Kathleen Gilles Seidel agrees that a larger male readership is not important to her. "In the '70s when I started reading Harlequins and in the '80s when I started writing them, the world of romance publishing was a female ghetto ... and I say that proudly; we loved it," she says. As far as male readers go, she adds:
I don’t know much, and I don’t need to know much. I write to women. When I think about a reader, she is always a woman. I never make any changes in a book to make it more appealing to men. I am not writing to men or for men so it is understandable why men might not care to read them.... If a man is entertained by the romances, great, I hope he reads them. If not, I hope he finds another genre that he enjoys.
Seidel includes the male point of view in her books not for the sake of men, but for women. "A romance takes its reader Someplace Else to be Someone Else. And what is more Other to a female reader than a man?" she says. Male point of view isn't meant to be convincing for men, but rather believable for women: as Seidel says, "believable and absolutely delicious."
WHILE MANY ROMANCE WRITERS may not be focused on, or even want, a male readership, that's not universally the case. One exception is Alex Beecroft, who writes m/m, or gay romance. M/m is primarily written by women for women. But, Beecroft says, "I definitely have male fans." Those fans, she adds, often tell her:
“I've always loved romance and I'm so delighted to find that there are romance books out there for men like me.” So my impression is that there's a thirst for m/m romance out there among male readers but that they often don't know that it exists at all (or—more lately—that if they do know it exists, they're worried it's going to be exploitative if written by women.)
Beecroft notes that she "keep[s] an eye out to make sure that I have gay men reading and enjoying my books because I feel that's a good indication that I am not being accidentally skeevy or exploitative." Seidel isn't interested in male readers, and therefore (perhaps) has fewer of them; Beecroft is actively interested in making sure that gay men are reading, and so it’s natural that she has more male readers. (Though it’s also true that gay men often have a different relationship to gendered norms than straight men have, and that may, in some cases, make them less reluctant to read romances.)
ANOTHER POSSIBLE EXPLANATION FOR why men don't read romance novels is that men don't read fiction, period. A 2007 NPR article reported that men make up only about 20 percent of fiction readers, and other studies confirm men's relative disinterest in fiction. A Romance Writers of America (RWA) 2014 study found that 16 percent of romance readers are men. That's up from 2011, when the number was 11 percent, and from 2008, when it was 9.5 percent. It's not clear if there's actually an increase or just statistical variation. In any case, romance is not all that out of line with other genres; a 2000 survey found that women were the majority in just about every genre, from espionage/thriller (69 percent), to mystery/detective (86 percent), to general (88 percent), to science fiction (52 percent). Instead of asking about why men don't read romance novels, the relevant question might be: Why do so few men read novels in general?
Still, there's no doubt that men do read fewer romances than women do. The fantasies of romance novels are gendered—but that doesn't mean they're pathological. Maybe the problem with romance isn't that women read it, or that men don't, but rather that romance is seen as a problem—a genre whose readers are somehow wrong, and must be explained.