Men don’t read romance novels, and if they do, they don’t admit it.
That statement is both truth and fiction, reality and myth. I am living proof. For context, the primary arc of a romance story is the development of a romantic relationship between two characters (or more) where the characters achieve a Happily Ever After. According to 2018 survey results from Romance Writers of America, only 16 percent of romance readers are men. Although statistics show that the average woman reads more books per year than does the average man, the difference does not remotely account for the statistical imbalance.
Why, then? Why do men generally eschew reading romance in favor of other genres? I am no sociologist, but that won’t stop me from playing one on the internet. Given that disclaimer, let me offer a few untrained observations on the subject of “why”.
During early childhood, boys and girls are exposed to similar stories. Mice and cookies, brown bears, cats in hats, and so on. As their appreciation for “story” takes hold, they turn their attention to more sophisticated tales. Disney Corporation expertly taps into this next level of sophistication with a library of classic films. What is the common thread among these films? You guessed it. They are love stories, pure and simple. Even if what the story portrays is not traditional romance, they all send the same message: Love conquers all. The underlying theme is one of cooperation: we are better together than we are apart.
From this common base, however, boys begin to deviate. The prevailing Western male culture begins taking hold as boys age into society. Boys are taught to prize tactical traits over cooperative ones. These include physical strength, emotional guardedness, competitiveness, individuality, a willingness to fight, a desire to win. Thus, while girls continue developing a more cooperative and connected mesh of relationships, boys are thrust into the hierarchy of the male social ladder. Once on the ladder, boys are taught three lessons:
- Your worth is dictated by your position on the ladder.
- You must identify who is above you on the ladder so you may challenge them.
- You must identify who is below you on the ladder so you may repress them.
Of course, this is a gross generalization, I know. However, it does express the world of adolescence experienced in some form by the bulk of Western males. The underlying message is, “Conquer or be conquered.” In this context, boys gravitate toward stories of adventure, battle, achievement, glory, and other themes that inform them how to survive on the ladder. Somewhere along the way, they all but abandon stories of romance. Why? As Leonard Cohen wrote, “Love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.” Love means surrendering. Love means turning loose of those prized traits, trading conquest for connection, competition for cooperation, winning for the wonder. It means offering vulnerability in the give-and-take dance of two souls. None of this seems particularly useful on the male social ladder, particularly in light of the behavior of societal leaders who drag this insidious ladder onto the world stage.
These prized traits, however, hide a terrible truth. Achievement through conquest leaves the individual more isolated, paranoid, and hardened as a result. These prized traits exact a terrible price.
The remedy? A return to those days of childhood when achievement came through cooperation and when love could surmount any barrier. Romance stories tend to feature some common elements. In particular, most romance novels see the characters become willingly vulnerable, bend toward one another’s dreams and desires, sacrifice self to cherish the other, and overcome all obstacles between them, all in the name of love.
When surveyed about which traits they prize in a boss, most workers do not list “ability to win” or “emotional guardedness”. Instead, they identify honesty, emotional intelligence, willingness to admit fault, self-awareness, and ability to make a personal connection. In other words, the opposite of those traits so prized on the male social ladder. Not surprisingly, surveys of the most desirable traits in a romantic partner feature this same list in some form.
Why should men read romance, then? Romance stories present an alternative view of the world that directly contradicts the lie of the male social ladder. Reading romance novels allows men to reshape their thinking, to undo destructive societal training, to return to the notions implicitly understood in childhood. This reshaping, undoing, and returning allows a man to step off a two-dimensional ladder into a three-dimensional matrix of interconnectedness. It allows him to put the prized male traits in proper perspective and bring new prized traits into the mix. It allows him to become a better leader. It allows him to become a better follower. It allows him to become more attuned to the one he cherishes most. It makes him a more active participant in the give-and-take dance of love, opening depths of relationship previously hidden from view.
In short, reading romance makes a man a better man. We should all strive to be better men. Our world, our families, and our lovers are all counting on it.