Material Reading

In the early 80s my teenaged stepchildren returned to live with their mother, so my husband and I finally lived alone together for the first time since we were married. One source of stress on our marriage was relieved (although I immediately replaced it by going back to school for more graduate work). And then I discovered romance novels.

Now wait, don’t laugh….

Well, okay, I know you can’t stop now, but try to get hold of yourself in the next few minutes, willya? I’ll wait.

Now then.

Yes, it’s escapist, formulaic, pulp literature, on a par with James Bond and Westerns and cat mysteries all that stuff. But, you know, let’s be frank. Most romances have SEX in them. Not only that, they have LOVE in them. But best of all for our purposes, they have women LOVING SEX in them.

The great thing about reading is that it is not an entirely passive activity. The reader has to get the action from the page into her mind, and along the way she is likely to automatically add her own delicious details and skip lightly over the stuff she isn’t crazy about. The heroine’s voice is never going to remind a reader of her mother’s, and the reader isn’t going to notice that the hero has a funny mole right beside his knee.

In literature a kind of veil — partly created by the writer and partly created by the reader — can interpose itself between the reader and the kind of details that in a movie can distract more than they involve the viewer. This is especially true of the euphemistic kind of sex (aka “purple prose”) for which early romance novels were so laughably notorious. The participatory and abstraction characteristics of literature make it particularly valuable for women who are attempting to recover their libidos.

Another good aspect of romance novel sex as opposed to downright porn, filmed or written, is that it is ordinarily surrounded by enhancing events and circumstances that up the participatory ante for the reader. The sex scenes in most romance novels comprise very minor percentages of the actual text. A 350-page book might have 15 pages that describe sexual incidents, but those incidents will be surrounded by descriptions of unusual settings and romantic ambiance, emotional excitement, anticipation, foreplay and post-coital tenderness. In other words, some of the classic ingredients for getting and keeping a reluctant woman “in the mood.”

A couple of academic studies have indicated that the general public’s impression that the majority of romance readers are pitiful, uneducated, sex-starved spinsters (who can’t get themselves laid for love or money) is just plain wrong. The romance novel industry couldn’t be raking in over $1 billion+ a year under those circumstances. There just aren’t that many losers out there.

As a matter of fact, married women with hefty household incomes are the majority of romance consumers, and two categories are surprisingly well-represented in the reader population: middle class stay-at-home mothers and professionals in demanding, high-paying jobs. From my own experience in both of these situations, the one thing they both have in common is their stress levels. Engaging, non-complicated erotic escapism is precisely what many tense, distracted, “disembodied” women in these situations need. It’s therapy.

And it often works, at least on the sexual front. Studies show that married women who read romance novels have as much as two times more sex with their husbands, regardless of whether the books they read have explicit or minimal erotic content. And there are other aspects of romance novels that soothe the savage breasts of emotionally over-extended or circumstantially pressured women.

Jennifer Crusie, Ph. D., points out that romance fiction is “politically incorrect” to both sides of the spectrum, left and right, and it also challenges the 20th century critical establishment.

Yes, a lot of the writing in romance fiction is abysmal, but so is a lot of the writing in mystery, SF, and literary fiction, and only the romance gets condemned as an entire genre. But … any time anything is condemned wholeheartedly, it’s because it challenges the deeply held beliefs of those attacking it. … In fact, romance fiction has something in it to irritate anyone with rigid ideas of how life and literature should work and–most important–how women should act. It was then I realized why I loved romance fiction: it was not only entertaining and empowering, it seriously annoyed a lot of stuffed shirts. …

As anyone with a lit degree knows, the last time any author got away with a critically acclaimed happy ending was the nineteenth century. By the early twentieth century, Modernism–the school of thought that declared life was real, life was earnest, life was hopeless and so was literature–had taken over literary fiction completely. … Modernism has convinced us that suffering and losing is more valuable than suffering and winning. Romance fiction says that this isn’t necessarily so.

Crusie believes that the “fairy tales” of current romance fiction provide correctives to the mythologies the culture has promoted to women in the past. In her most famous essay, Let Us Now Praise Scribbling Women she writes:

The literary tradition I was familiar with hailed female characters like Hester Prynne as great feminist heroines. You remember Hester, a woman who, after grasping at happiness and sexual fulfillment, realizes the error of her ways and spends the last sixty years of her life celibate and serving others so that when the townspeople who have reviled her gather round her deathbed, they say, “The Scarlet A? It stands for Able.”

[Insert disgusted eye-rolling here.]

As a child, I’d been looking for myself in fairy tales and finding only disappointments. If I’d been a boy, I could have found great role models in stories like “Jack & the Beanstalk,” with a protagonist who climbed to the top to get what he wanted, grabbed the prize, killed the giant, and came back home a hero. Jack’s story remains a great model for little boys, telling them to be active and quest for what they want in life and they will be rewarded. But what did I have as a girl? Well, I had Sleeping Beauty, who got everything she’d ever wanted because she looked really good unconscious. Or there was Snow White, who got everything she’d ever wanted because she looked really good unconscious. Or there was Cinderella, who should be given some credit for staying awake through her whole story, but who got everything she’d ever wanted because she had really small feet. The fairy tales I read as a child told me that boys’ stories were about doing and winning but that girls’ stories were about waiting and being won. Far from setting out on their own quests, women were the prizes in their own stories, and the less active they were–do NOT be a pushy, knife-wielding stepsister–the better their chances were of getting the castle and the crown.

So what? you say. Those are just stories for kids. Well, they’re that and a lot more. Folklorist Max Luthi says that fairy tales are “unreal but not untrue” because they deal with the greatest themes in literature and life, and much of genre fiction, grounded in myth, legend, and tale, retells those primal stories for adults. Fairy tales, Luthi says, promise the reader a just universe, and so do the genres. Mystery fiction promises a morally just universe, and speculative fiction promises an intellectually just universe, but romance fiction trumps all of these because it makes the greatest promise of all. It says that if you truly open yourself to other people, if you do the hardest thing of all which is to make yourself vulnerable and reach out for love and connection and everything that makes life as a human being worth living, you will be rewarded; it promises, in short, an emotionally just universe.

So it’s not just the sexual content, per se, that makes the imaginative landscape of romance novels so potentially valuable to a woman who is seeking to return to her fullest physical and emotional self. The relaxing escapist fantasies in these books are not just erotic, they’re often intellectual, political and cultural as well.

Although I very seldom read them anymore, I inhaled dozens of romances in the early 80s. I read them as most women do, fully aware of their basic absurdity but still engaged by their deeper meanings and effects. So during that period of our life things got a little better for my husband and me on the sex front, because at least the plumbing got some regular blood flow.

But there was still a basic disconnect between the physical arousal the books created in me and the prospect of sex with my husband. I was somewhat more interested in sex in general, but not necessarily sex with him.

You see the problem. I was only halfway back.

2 Responses to “Material Reading”

  1. SaneHubby Says:

    So a crude analogy presents itself: Porn is to men, as romance novels are to women. Both are fantasies, and both are consumed by people who know they are fantasies. Both can be hot … or boring.

    So with that crude analogy in mind (and yes, it is crude, I am well aware of the significant differences between visual and printed media), here is a suggestion for any husband and wife couple who might be reading these pages:

    The wife agrees to select a porn film that she thinks her husband will like, and watch it with her husband, with him free to get as turned on as he likes. She experiences what it’s like for him to get turned on with porn.

    In return, the husband agrees to select a romance novel that he thinks his wife will like, and he reads it together with his wife (or listens to it together, if it’s an audio book), with her free to get as turned on as she likes. He experiences what it’s like for her to get turned on with romance novels.

    In both cases, it’s the together part that is most crucial.

  2. Matt Says:

    I would love to read a good Romance Novel to my wife in bed each night before sleeping (or?) rather than watching TV. Any suggestions on one that would be good for that purpose?


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