When I read The Kiss Quotient last year, I was floored by how relatable Stella (the MC) was. I told my partner that if he wanted to understand how I think and feel, he needed to read this book. To my surprise, he did. He finished the whole book in a day.
And he liked it.
Romance is conventionally regarded as a “women’s genre”, often attracting the ridicule of many men (and women too) who see romance novels as formulaic, unnecessarily lusty, and poorly written. And, to be fair, maybe some books have rightfully earned those labels, thus painting the entire genre a frightful shade of blue in the eyes of the uninitiated.
So for me, as a writer of love stories, it’s extra exciting to see non-romance readers—especially men who don’t see themselves as readers who’d touch a romance novel—be open-minded and curious enough (both very attractive traits, in my opinion) to look past the stereotypes and find out for themselves.
Some fellow writers and readers helped me out with this post. They’ll jump in from time to time to share their thoughtful insights.
Painted with the blue brush
Romance is a huge genre, so based on probability alone, it’s reasonable to expect that low-quality or formulaic stories will work their way into the mix as writers and publishers strive to keep up with market demand. Though, personally, I take issue with the idea of stories being “low quality” or “formulaic”, because there’s more nuance to those labels than what they suggest.
When we call a story “low quality”, we need to consider the audience it’s intended for. You know that joke about buying your cat a fancy new toy only for her to play with the paper and ribbon it was wrapped in? If the audience doesn’t care about someone else’s definition of quality, then what good is it?
And then we get to “formulaic”, which is an interesting concept when you consider what defines a romance story. From About the Romance Genre (Romance Writers of America):
Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending… Romance novels may have any tone or style, be set in any place or time, and have varying levels of sensuality—ranging from sweet to extremely hot. These settings and distinctions of plot create specific subgenres within romance fiction.
I know I’ve heard some guys criticise romances for the predictability of two people falling in love, encountering some conflict, and then ending up happily ever after. For a story to be called a romance (in commercial terms), it certainly must follow a particular form, but to consider that a formula is kind of like criticising the dictionary for being, predictably, a book full of words and definitions.
But what about the lusty part? Are the dissenters right about all romances being trashy sex books? Haha, nope!
A.R. VAGNETTI (author of the Storm Series):
They have this misconception that all romance is smut. I absolutely hate that word. Now there are some sub-genres of romance where the whole book revolves around sex, and that’s fine for some, but I think in general, romance is about the growth of a relationship. You take a ride of twists and turns, ups and downs, and navigate the pitfalls and struggles of being a couple.
Contemporary romances have generally moved away from dated stereotypes to more realistic and modern relationships, which can feature challenges such as addiction, single parenting or domestic violence. Throw in suspense or historical events and that makes it even better.
What if blue really is the warmest colour?
Bros can learn a lot about their partners by reading romance. It can be hard to express a thought or feeling or desire in a conversation, because sometimes there’s so much to say and the words don’t do it justice.
There are so many stereotypes and misunderstandings about “what women want” from sex and relationships. And in all fairness, the confusing and ambiguous circumstances we encounter in real life can inadvertently reinforce those misconceptions.
The biggest misconception romance has debunked is that only men are sexual beings. That they alone crave the pleasures of sex. This is SO untrue. It is more that many women were taught to let men take the lead and not share what they like and dislike. This is one of the things I love about romances. Many feature confident women. They tell men what they want and expect pleasure and satisfaction.
Romance also disproves the fallacy that most women want a man to protect them. There are those romances, but I have read so many where the woman wanted a partner, not a white knight. They want someone to share adventures and disasters with, not someone to take care of her and fix all her problems.
Even when it’s pure fantasy, romance novels offer readers an insight into real-world wants and needs. By and large, ones written by women will naturally feature a woman’s perspective on shedloads of desires that men don’t always see or understand.
I remember when I was a youngster, sneaking romance novels out of my auntie’s stash, reading a lot of too-good-to-be true sex scenes in romance novels. Like, there’s very little foreplay or the woman orgasms easily or it’s the couple’s first time together and they magically know each other’s physical hot buttons so sex is a total breeze. And I think that if you were reading those kinds of books and didn’t know any better, you’d end up with some unrealistic expectations for what sex should be like.
I feel compelled to mention here that it’s not all about the “woman’s perspective” as much as it is about the perspective of carefully crafted characters who have realistic human experiences. Due to the nature of this post, we’re looking at this through a heteronormatively gendered lens, but modern romance—and indeed modern fiction—is tending towards challenging those old boundaries.
CAIDYN (reviewer at @caidynsreads):
People read romance because it represents their wants/needs/interests in life. Perhaps it doesn’t fit their life exactly—some people like different kinks/niches that they don’t have in their day to day life—but it’s something that fits them.
I think that it’d be great if we could normalize people not having to be sexual but can be romantic. Or that it’s all cool if someone isn’t into that sort of thing. That’s what I’d like. I’m just tired of seeing romance as a reason why you should buy something. It doesn’t get me as a consumer. I usually find romantic subplots pointless. I read for good plots and romance just distracts me completely.
That said, one of my favorite books of 2019 was Serpent & Dove by Shelby Mahurin. It’s got a LOT of romance. And I really, really loved it. It was just a great read with amazing characters and plot, so I was able to get into the romance.
For me personally, reading and writing romance gave me a safe space to understand and explore my own needs and feelings within a romantic and sexual framework. This may be the case for many readers from all walks of life who, much like me and perhaps you, turn to books and media to help them comprehend themselves and their place in the world, or to simply get away from a reality that doesn’t gel with them.
I believe there should be an equal mix of diversity as it fills our society. As a reader/writer I prefer the fictional fantasy of my characters. I read to escape the harsh reality of life, while for others, having characters that are disabled, characters with mental or chronic illness is cathartic. And I think those dynamics in the romance genre are changing to fit those needs.
I think diversity in romance is fantastic and much needed. I have read many and enjoyed them. There is the fun mix of relatability as a woman and also learning something new, reading a different life view than my own. I believe these stories are important for society. When we understand people’s struggles, we are able to offer kindness and empathy better.
I know what it’s like to grow up being an avid reader, yet never encountering a character who looked like me or had the same background as me or who went through similar experiences as me. It’s a really empty feeling. So whenever I read a book by an #OwnVoices author, it means so much. It means I feel represented in an industry—in a form of entertainment—that I felt excluded from for a very long time. Making even more readers and authors feel more welcome—making them feel like they are part of this world—is a good thing.
Guys, take note: reading romance makes you sexy
Not just because it makes you look open-minded and secure enough in your manliness to read “a girl’s book”. And not just because it shows you don’t pander to stereotypes and what the men who do might think of you.
As for men, I admire those reading romance. This is someone who won’t be told by society what he should like and read. He is confident enough to read what he enjoys. He is his own person, that is admirable.
It’s because what you learn from modern romance novels gives you access to the secrets. Yes, the very same secrets that self-identified “clueless men” claim to be clueless about. They’re hardly mysterious, but hard to discern if you grew up in an age where toxic masculinity was the norm. These are the highly prized tools of interpersonal decency and desirable indecency that would make an encounter with anyone something worth writing home about.
Honestly, if I ever saw a guy reading a romance novel, it would give me so many happy feels. Even though some people think of just sex when they think of romance novels, I think one of the most important things that romance novels do is show the importance of communication. Some of the major plot points in romance novels are when the main characters are working through misunderstandings and having breakthroughs about their needs and wants. All of those are types of communication. So in a very real way, romance novels are showcasing the importance of communication in sex and relationships, and show how literally everything stems from having healthy communication.
I believe, men reading romance novels would greatly benefit their current or future relationships and maybe bring back a spark to a stale one. Romance novels are about so much more than just mind blowing sex. In some cases, it can be a real learning guide on how to avoid the pitfalls we all spiral into during a relationship. Like how we tend to jump to conclusions, making the mistake our partner thinks like us. Or burying our feelings, letting resentment build, until we reach a serious crossroads. The underlining message in all romance literature is learning to take a leap of faith, trust, and communicating with our partners. Everyone can benefit from that.
Men, you’re getting an inside view of women’s hopes, desires, and wishes. If your wife, girlfriend, or lover has a favourite romance author, it would be a good idea to read one or two of their books. Romances range from sweet and sensual to BDSM. Find out which stories she loves to read and why. Not only will you learn more about her and therefore become closer. I’m willing to bet things will become more fun in the bedroom as these books will open up discussions of romantic and sexual expectations.
With all these benefits, I can’t help but wonder if there may be other factors behind some of the male ire for romance. I’m definitely not qualified to comment on men’s business, and perhaps that’s why I’m prone to being curious: could some of the negativity come from shame and fear?
PsychCentral has this to say. From Male Sexual Shame and Objectification of Women:
Passage into manhood often exposes [boys] to humiliation during a period when openness and honesty aren’t allowed. They have to hide their feelings and natural instincts.
Romance novels centering on female experiences and sexuality typically come with a generous serve of emotional real-talk, often at point blank range. In my own experience, when I’ve been through my own phases of emotional fragility (a necessary part of growing up), I certainly found that kind of honesty and rawness extremely challenging and confronting.
Anecdotally, the men I know who have enthusiastically given romance a go (either to support a writer friend or to learn more about female perspectives) seem to demonstrate a lot of openness and comfort with their emotional and sexual selves—or at least a willingness to confront their discomforts and courageously own them.
Romantic literature can lead to improved sexual confidence, greater sexual activity and greater sexual experimentation. Surveys have demonstrated that many readers of the genre use romantic literature to foster a healthy monogamous relationship while vicariously fulfilling sexual desires. Women who read romance novels also reported that they did not negatively compare their real-life partners with fictional male protagonists or heroes. Which might be a fear some men harbour regarding romance novels.
Well, I do know one thing. Whenever my partner reads the romance books I read (or at least the parts that count), we both come away with a shared vocabulary and context for assessing and analysing our own relationship. We’re not immune to the problems that affect other relationships, and working through those problems—no matter what they are—always starts with the two of us on the same page.
This post was made possible by the experiences, knowledge and insights of the following people. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you all <3
Sarah Smith, author of Faker, If You Never Come Back, and the hotly anticipated Simmer Down, coming out 13 October 2020. Sarah is a copywriter turned author who wants to make the world a lovelier place, one kissing story at a time.
“Romance is just plain fun to read. It’s incredibly entertaining to read about these characters as they go through relatable issues, read their banter, get excited when they flirt and fall in love, and of course get amped up when the steamy parts happen.”
Caidyn (he/him, aroace, trans), the book omnivore and licensed social worker behind @caidynsreads, who names his all-time favourite book as American Gods by Neil Gaiman.
“I’d love to see more accurate trans, aro, and ace rep in romance. I’d be more likely to read it if that happened.”
DK Marie, author of Fairy Tale Lies, Love Songs and Taste of Passion. They’re a mixture of heart, heat, and humour. Brimming with confident heroines and kind heroes, all living, loving, and lusting in and around her hometown of Detroit, Michigan.
“Romance readers are the people who either believe in the Happily-Ever-After; they see the good in a world often overflowing with sadness and hardship. Or they are the ones needing an escape, something to lighten the weight of the day-to-day thrown at us. I fall into this category. Romance makes me feel lighter, hopeful.”
A.R. Vagnetti, author of the Storm Series, transporting readers into a fantastical world of paranormal romance where bold Alpha males will sacrifice anything for the strong, deeply scared, kickass females they love. Her latest book, Forbidden Storm, is now available across major e-retailers.
“No matter how damaged or rough your past, you can overcome, deal with, or completely conquer your personal demons with the love, trust, and support of your chosen partner. I wholeheartedly believe in the love conquers all scenario.”