Romance novels: an ‘old girls’ club

By Doug Mortimer

shutterstock paid romance love novel

If you have ever had a mortgage, you know what equity means.  You own your house in conjunction with your mortgage company.  The relative amount of skin in the game is each party’s equity.  It’s not difficult to understand.  If you put down 20% on your house and the mortgage company foots the rest of the price, then they have 80% equity in your home.  Go ahead and call yourself a homeowner but you’re not.  You’re more like a minority stockholder.

Somehow the concept of equity has been perverted in recent years.  According to wokenik social theory, if half the population is female, then half the cushy jobs should go to females.  This is not equity, it is a quota system.  I still remember a half-century or so ago when the concept of affirmative action was broached and its proponents insisted they were not demanding quotas.  Heaven forfend!

Well, now it’s come to that.  But it’s no longer a bad thing.  Now it’s a good thing.  Funny how that works out, isn’t it?  Is it possible to turn the tables, however?  Could men get away with demanding quotas in certain industries in the interest of equity?

A good place to start is an industry that is so oriented towards the female sex it has all but shut out the opposite sex.  I’m talking about publishing companies that specialize in romance novels.  That particular branch of the publishing industry is more female-friendly than a convention hall filled to the rafters with Xena: Warrior Princess fangirls.

According to the folks at Harlequin Publishing, 99% of the readers of romance novels are women, and most of them are long past nubility.  Perhaps readers isn’t the most apt word for these women.  Women who buy romance novels don’t just read them, they devour them!  To this day I still recall a visit I made decades ago to a shopping mall bookstore where I witnessed a middle-aged woman carefully carrying a towering stack of paperback romances and gingerly placing them on the counter – without spilling one!   She was literally buying them by the yard.

If you ever visit used paperback stores, you know most the stock fits into several predictable categories.  If you check out the space devoted to romance novels, I daresay you will find more square footage than for science fiction, mysteries, westerns, or any other popular paperback genre.  Most romance novels are traditional, but there are also various sub-genres.  Just as pornography caters to an array of fetishes, so do romance novels…interracial, lesbian, cowboys, nurses, time travel – even Amish!

Now I don’t object to the fact that 99% of the readership is female.  Equity in terms of readership would serve no purpose for the manosphere.  Besides, outside of school, you can’t command people to read books they don’t want to read.

But I do think men should demand equity in the writing of such novels.  There’s a lot of money to be made on this stuff.  In 2017, romance/erotica made $1.44 billion.  The second best-selling genre was crime/mystery at roughly half as much, $728.2 million.  So a male scribbler who mastered the formula of the romance genre could greatly enhance his income.

Another statistic says that 90% of the writers of romance novels are women.  It may be a surprise that even 10% of the writers are men, but you could never tell that by looking at the names of the authors.  One must look long and hard to find a romance bearing the name of a male author.

To be sure, pen names are used for a variety of reasons.  Some more high-toned female authors may use a pen name because they wouldn’t want their colleagues in academia to know that they dabble in such a low-status genre (though there are critics who assert that the only reason romance novels are lacking in prestige is because the genre is dominated by females).  So it’s understandable that men who write romance novels would use some sort of female pseudonym.  They don’t want their buddies to know what they’re doing, but more importantly, a prospective female reader might look askance at a paperback romance penned by a man.  How could a male author create a believable heroine?

Well, we could mention Leo Tolstoy (Anna Karenina), Gustave Flaubert (Madame Bovary), or Henry James (Daisy Miller) for a few, but those are examples of bona fide high-falutin’ literature read by both males and females.  Mass-market genre fiction, is another realm entirely.  So let’s ponder whether or not a male author can write to the romance market.

Except in cases of extreme narcissism, it takes two to tango in a romance novel.  Lesbian romances aside, the heroine must have some sort of man to pair off with.  The female authors have no trouble creating swains for their heroines.  Are any of these male characters believable?  How could a female author possibly create an authentic male character?

Remember, none of the female authors has the lived experience of maleness.  Personally, I hate that phrase “lived experience,” since it is redundant, unless you’re talking about vicarious experience.  Also, I don’t like it because it is almost always employed by someone complaining of having been marginalized.  Human marginalia are inevitable in any society, but you can’t come right out and say that.  Nevertheless, I’m going to wield the concept of lived experience, even though my use of the phrase reeks of patriarchy.  I confess to being an old white male or, if you prefer, a dead white male in training.

To most men, the hero of a romance novel is laughable.  He is almost always the answer to a woman’s prayers.  If he is not rich (though living in a mansion doesn’t hurt), he has great expectations.  If he is not drop-dead handsome, he is rugged and spends his time “doing manly things.”  But they’re the good kind of manly things.  He would never do chainsaw sculptures and sell them at flea markets.

He may have a drink now and then, some sort of expensive imported spirits, but he will never drink himself into a babbling stupor.  And he might enjoy an occasional sports event on the tube but he would never watch football nonstop all weekend, every weekend from September through December – and he certainly wouldn’t waste his time on a fantasy football league.

He will likely have an impressive set of wheels.  No, not a muscle car, but some sort of understated/overpriced import.  His dashboard will not be graced by a quivering topless hula dancer.  No fuzzy dice or air fresheners hanging from his rearview mirror.  And unlike his coarser brethren he would never think of keeping a Big Gulp cup in his car for an emergency piss bucket.

The male romance hero might seem to have it all…except for one thing.  He lacks a good woman (conveniently enough, the heroine) to complete him – his better half, as married folk were wont to say.

If he has some sort of deep, dark secret, so much the better.  I don’t mean that he is a serial rapist in remission or he suffers from chronic projectile diarrhea or seborrhea of the genitalia.  It has to be some romantic deep, dark secret.  Something that he shares with no one…but our heroine, who can help him bear his burden.

One example you might remember from high school English is Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.  Granted, we’re talking 1847, almost a century before the rise of the paperback, but it is an instructive example.

Jane Eyre’s employer, Mr. Rochester, is a brooder.  He has a good reason to brood, however.  He is already married to a nutter, albeit tucked away, who turns out to be a suicidal pyromaniac!

Brooding and moodiness are good traits for the male lead in a romance novel.  Charlotte’s sister Emily created an equally famous male brooder – remember Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights?  In fact, going all the way back to Hamlet, why do you think Ophelia found the moody Dane so attractive?  Of course, she went nuts in the process, but overdosing (five acts!) on brooding and moodiness will do that to a girl.

In a different medium, consider the case of James Dean.  He became a legend even though he only starred in three movies (Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden, and Giant).  But the moody S.O.B. brooded in every one of them!  Marlon Brando and Paul Newman deserve honorable mention in any cinematic brood-off, but they lived long enough to exhibit other forms of behavior.  I think Dean was fated to be the cinematic equivalent of a Byronic hero, so-called because the famed poet, George Gordon (Lord) Byron, a leading figure in the Romantic movement, was given to moody brooding.  Why do I say Dean was destined?  His middle name was Byron!

Dean was only 24 when he died; true, the bobbysoxers swooned over him, but they and he were a bit too young for romance fiction.  His fans, however, were future consumers of romance novels and he was on track to be a mature but moody man, an archetypal male lead in a romance novel.  But the brooder is not the only archetype.

Another good choice is the alpha male.  What female reader wouldn’t want one of them for a soul mate?  Think Rhett Butler/Clark Gable in Gone With the Wind.  Scarlett O’Hara sheds two husbands before she finally gets to Rhett Butler, a can-do kind of guy who stands up to her and calls her out on her narcissism.  The more a woman gabbles on about her independence, the more she is begging for a man to keep her in line…but she will never admit that to anyone, and maybe not to herself.  Rhett Butler is such a man.

Whether the male lead is an alpha male or given to moodiness, true love never runs smooth.  There is always some major obstacle keeping the man and woman apart.  Eventually, the obstacle is cleared away and the man and woman are free to get together and commit.  In the case of Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff and Cathy do not consummate their relationship in the flesh, but the tale ends with their ghosts wandering the moors together.  (Interesting to note that a contemporary sub-genre of the romance novel is the paranormal romance novel.)

So we’re not talking about high school sweethearts who never dated anyone else, get married and remain married till one of them assumes room temperature many decades later.  That’s too easy.  Not a bad life, maybe even desirable, but not romantic.

Now it would be great if male authors drew upon their lived experience to create more realistic leading men.  I’d love to see a romantic leading man who plays beer pong, collects comic books, and has indelible skid marks on his underwear.  But would that appeal to the female readership?  Sad to say, I think not.  But that doesn’t mean aspiring male authors should give up.

For example, consider a romance novel about a man with a harridan of an ex-wife who has so haunted the man that he simply avoids the opposite sex…until he meets a NAWALT heroine…with a killer bod and season tickets for the Red Sox.

Or a story about a guy brooding over his inability to advance because his office politics is dominated by queen bees, quota queens, and other parasites, so he has totally soured on women…until he meets a NAWALT heroine…with a killer bod who owns a craft brewery that turns out a scintillating Double IPA.

Or he’s been violated by a divorce court judge and vows he will never get married again…until he meets a NAWALT heroine…with a killer bod and an extensive DVD library – including the complete works of Charles Bronson.

Unfortunately, there is no room for the avowed MGTOW in a romance novel.  Oh, he may be one at the beginning of the novel but by the end must repent and pair off with the heroine.  Riding off alone into the sunset may work just fine in westerns, but not in romance novels.

Considering the income potential of churning out romance novels, I think equity in the authorship of same is a course worth pursuing; however, I don’t think demanding equity in the writing of romance novels will avail us anything.  Remember, women’s rights are human rights but men’s rights usually appear with quotation marks around them (printed when written, air when oral).  So demonstrating/rioting in front of Harlequin Books HQ might get you on YouTube but it probably won’t get results.  There’s more than one way to assault a fortress, however.

Consider the possibility of writing under a female pen name.  If you have a unisex name like Terry or Leslie, you’ve got it made.  If not, then something dignified and mature, vaguely Ango-Saxon…like Nora Roberts, Johanna Lindsey, Julia Quinn, Jessica Bird, Julie Garwood…these are all good, but these names have been taken  Stay away from names like Appasionata or Hypatia.  Certainly not Zsa Zsa.  Nothing too ethnic – no LaKeisha Washington or Sadie Rabinowitz or Agnieszka Kowalski…unless you’re writing for an ethnic niche of the romance market.

It is improbable but not impossible for a man to write under his own name.  Consider the case of Nicholas Sparks, who wrote Nights in Rodanthe, which was filmed in 2008 with Richard Gere and Diane Lane.  A male pen name is not out of the question either.  One such author is Damon Suede.  Great pen name, but he specializes in male-on-male relationships.  If you’re lived experience doesn’t include same, probably best to pass on this market.

Truth to tell, there appears to be something of a homosexual subtext in the covers of romance novels.  Look at how many covers include a chiseled, bare-chested (but oddly hairless) male.  I suppose you could say this is to compensate for all the male-oriented publications that feature chesty females on the cover – “Tit for tat,” as Hardy used to say to Laurel.  But could it be that such covers are made to appeal to a secondary market – the closeted gay male?  (“Oh, I’m just buying them for my sister…she can’t get enough of these things.”)

So if you’re interested in penning a romance novel and, more importantly, getting it published, where to start?  Well, you could buy a copy of Writing a Romance Novel for Dummies, by Leslie Wainger, an Executive Editor at Harlequin Books.  (I assume the author means the dummy is the aspiring author, and is not implying that romance novels are for dummies, but you could read it either way.)

At any rate, here are the five fundamentals:

A sympathetic heroine
a strong, irresistible hero (extra credit for brooding…just my opinion)
emotional tension
an interesting, believable plot
and a happy ending (fairy tales can come true…it can happen to you…).

Just so we’re clear, we’re not talking rape culture.  it’s ravish culture.  Not ravage!  Ravish!  If you don’t understand the difference, you, sir, are no candidate for romance novel author.  Ironically enough, romance novels used to be called bodice rippers, but I wouldn’t utter that phrase today.

So don’t let all that lived experience go to waste when you could profit from it financially while fighting the good fight for equity in the world of romance novel authorship.

Or you could just sit at home and brood about it.

3 thoughts on “Romance novels: an ‘old girls’ club

  1. Thanks for the belly laughs, Doug.

    As I like to remind people, romantic love novels outsell all the world’s holy books combined. That’s because romantic love & chivalry is the dominant global religion today – just that people don’t recognise it as such. And all the high priests of this holy literature are, as Doug points out, women…… they write its scriptures, push to legislate the tenets of ‘respectful relationships’ in our legal structures, and dictate social conventions of expected male~female interaction.

    Without this genre there would be no gynocentrism, no feminism, and no need for a men’s rights movement.

    One element of romance novels Doug left out, that is worth mentioning, is the need for the male lover to have a weak side – a part of him that crumbles into masochistic submission before the radiant NAWALT. This was well summed up by Carol Siegal who gives an overview of Victorian women’s novels, quote:

    “A great deal of what [Victorian] women’s literary works had to say about gender relations may have been as disquieting as feminist political manifestos, and ironically so, in that the novels seem most anti-male in the very places where they most affirm a traditionally male vision of love. While women’s lyric poetry tended to reverse the conventional gender roles in love by representing the female speaker as the lover instead of the object of love, women’s fiction most frequently reproduced the images,so common in prior texts by men, of the self-abasing male lover and his exacting mistress. For example, in Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff declares himself Cathy’s slave; in Jane Eyre, Rochester’s desire for Jane is first inspired and then intensified by his physically dependent position; in Middlemarch, Will Ladislaw silently vows that Dorothea will always have him as her slave, his only claim to her love lies in how much he has suffered for her. In several Victorian novels by women, men must undego quasi-ritualized humiliation or punishment before being judged deserving of their lady’s attention. For instance, in Olive Schreiner’s Story of an African Farm, the fair Lyndall condescends to treat her admirers tenderly after one has been horsewhipped and the other has dressed himself in women’s clothes to wait on her. Although Victorian women’s novels do explore the emotional insecurities of the heroines, their apparent self-possession is also stressed, in marked contrast to their lovers’ displays of agony, desperation, and wounds.”

    Siegal suggests that male masochism and the dominatrix-like behavior of women in these writings is continuous with courtly love literature from the Middle Ages. And whilst some libertines self-consciously chose their lowly position in relation to women, the men described in Victorian women’s novels lacked such volition:

    “These texts also insist that the true measure of male love is lack of volition. While the heroines make choices that define them morally, the heroes are helplessly compelled by love, and not judged to love unless they are helpless. In this respect Victorian women’s fiction recovers the ethos so often expressed in medieval courtly romance that love must be “suffered as a destiny to be submitted to and not denied.” It also departs from the conventions of medieval romance in describing the helpless submission to love as an attribute of true manliness, and thus Victorian women’s fiction directly attacks the degeneration of chivalry into the self-conscious and controlled “gallantry” of eighteenth century libertines.”

    • “Cleaner than coal and cheaper than natural gas.” Brilliant! Enough there to create energy for a 1000 years. A lot of dictators actually do ban romantic love – Mao did for example, called it a Western bourgeoisie artefact….. he got that part right.