By now I’m sure the latest “Oh noes, women read romance!” article (Warning: article may cause eyerolling) has achieved it’s purpose and driven clicks to read yet another author’s ruminations on the poor damsels he perceives are in distress. Here again is a writer mesmerized by a woman reading a romance novel — You could read it, and marvel as he recounts the surprise he felt observing the reading material of choice of an apparently functional “woman” on his subway train, but you already know the drill: as he leered over her shoulder and sneered at the “sentimental, florid style of that genre,” it occurred to me that we’re pretty much doomed to constant repetitions of “thinkpieces” by writers trying to understand why someone so clearly not a shambling mess would stoop to what he perceives as low literary fare. After all, one can assume the writer prefers a more highbrow form, perhaps one in which noble men like him struggle to come to terms with the mediocrity of their lives. Basically anything else, so long as it follows noble people’s struggle, but literarily.
Then I realized the poor guy was probably wrestling with a deadline, and lacking the presence of a legitimate story in the news worthy of serious analysis in a capital “B” Business publication – say the latest sharp decline of Bitcoin’s value or potential fallout of that decline – the author did what any noble hero struggling with the constraints of time and imagination might do, and punted.
These “articles” on genre appeal – and romance’s appeal in particular – are to actual reporting “what hot dogs are to cuisine — quickly made, tasty, filling, temporarily satisfying, but with no nutritional value whatsoever.” as he so eloquently puts it. They’re nothing more than a couple hundred words dedicated mostly to stats and bullet points culled from a coffee break web search. Even given actual data on the significant economic success of the romance genre, and it’s popularity across cultural, political, and even gender divides, it remains stunning that seemingly intelligent (often male) writers can’t help but fall over themselves to deride its readers. They even go so far as to declare it a “guilty pleasure” with apparently no awareness of how well crafted many romances can be. He could have deigned to read one and actually examine their appeal, but with that pesky deadline looming perhaps he lacked the time? Barring that he could have examined our tendency to praise well-choreographed action over well-choreographed sex, but that’d involve not debasing sex and shaming those who enjoy reading about it.
Instead he wonders why women – “forty years after the women’s liberation movement, Roe vs. Wade and the pill have transformed [their] lives in the most dramatic of ways – continue to indulge in the fanciful tales of females so unlike them who live in fantasy worlds light years removed from their reality?” Why can’t they succor themselves with more highbrow fare? Clearly something must be missing in their lives; he can tell this is true, he found a goodreads.com quote. Perhaps if that poor woman next to him had only looked up from her iPad, she would have found the noble hero she was searching for in that tawdry prose right there, gazing into her lap on the 2 Line.
The choice of reading a romance novel is as much an “expression of distaste in hippie culture” (Seriously – he used the phrase hippie culture with no quotes, in utter seriousness, as if the moon was still in the Seventh House and that cool kid in the fringe jacket still wouldn’t pass him a marijuana cigarette) as the guy across the aisle – who’s shoulder wasn’t leaned over – reading the most recent George R. R. Martin book is due to “distaste” in how our anti-regency American culture once ruined all that wonderful tea. It’s certainly not an expression of distaste on par with recommending Jane Austen to adults. It may be true modern women have become unfamiliar with Austen in the 200 years since her death, but in fairness, it’s not as if she ever crafted a romance hero who speaks to women quite the way Mark Darcy did to Bridget Jones.
So we’re doomed to writers repeating this narrative. Over and over, there will be a class of author who fears his talents will be overlooked in favor of something they deem “lesser”. He’ll continue to ride the subway, alone and under deadline, until he sees someone he thinks he might connect with. Someone he perceives is as successful and intelligent as he is. Hoping to strike up a conversation he’ll peer longingly into this woman’s lap, only to be crushed to find her attention drawn not to him or even his publication, but to the latest best seller from Sylvia Day. And so he’ll trudge up to his office, and fulfill his deadline obligation with a sad, paternalistic rumination on the tragedy of her taste in prose not written by him, before staring out his window, and shedding a lonely tear.