Reading is an escape from life. Whatever we read, we enjoy a good book that draws us in, transports us to another place, time, or life than what we currently have. Romance readers read romance for a variety of reasons: they might be single and read it for the relationship and romance, they might be in an unhappy marriage and read it to see what they’re missing, they might enjoy the happy endings that are guaranteed. There are probably as many reasons to read romance as there are people who read it.
And there are people who read it, lest you think your guilty pleasure is something to actually feel guilty or ashamed about. Romance novels are a $1.4 billion industry, according to NPR, in a report from 2014. According to RWA, women make up 82% of romance buyers (other sources put this closer to 90-95%)- which means the other 18% are men, so don’t let anyone tell you men don’t enjoy a little romance from time to time. Also according to RWA, the average romance buyer is between the ages of 30 and 54 – I fall well outside that norm, though, as I began reading romances before I was even a teenager, and my grandmother also falls outside that norm, as a woman in her 80s who still enjoys a good romance.
There’s a short list of the most popular tropes, and several subgenres that tend to be the most popular, and combined with the certain happy ending, it begs the question: why is romance so popular? If the stories all use the same tropes, and cover the same mystery/erotic/sweet territory, and we already know the ending will be happy, what’s the point in reading it?
That’s a broad question, with a variety of answers.
So instead of covering the reasons it’s so popular, I decided to go a different route. I asked myself, what would the world be like if we didn’t have romance novels?
Romance novels, like all books, give us something we don’t have. Here’s just a few of the things it can give us:
- The ability to explore sexual fantasies
- The rush of new love, first kisses, and first times
- Permission to lust over another guy and swoon over him
- An opportunity to explore relationships other than your own, without giving up your own
So, when I asked myself what the world would be like without romance novels, the answers my imagination came up with included:
- There could be more failed relationships. Without romance novels, you might be more tempted to give up on a relationship when it gets hard. You might think boredom, stagnation, or tough times are indications that the relationship is doomed and you should just end it and start fresh with someone new.
- There could be more infidelity. Some people get a real high out of the newness of a new relationship: that first kiss, the first “I love you,” the first time you have sex, and all the other firsts. In a long-term, stable relationship, those news come and are gone for good. But while they might still want the newness, they also love their partner and don’t want to walk away. A romance novel can give them the best of both worlds: the stable, happy relationship with their partner, and the newness they crave – without risking their relationship or starting over again and again.
- There could be more dangerous romances. Consider the erotic romance subgenre. Tons of books all about the varying levels of kink – bondage, domination, orgies, polyamory. You can also explore same-sex relationships. All things that many are curious about but either afraid to try in real life or wouldn’t know how and where to find it if they did want to try it. Erotic romance novels allow you the freedom to explore all the kink you want – safely. You can indulge any and every fantasy under the sun, living out whatever turns you on, without any fear of consequences. Without it, curiosity might lead some people into some very dangerous situations. They could explore some of the more dangerous sides of kink (bondage and domination are the first to come to mind) with someone who either has little to no experience or real knowledge, or someone who takes advantage of their curiosity to hurt and abuse them in ways that aren’t supposed to be a part of it. It also gives people who are in a loving, committed relationship that they don’t want to leave and are otherwise happy in to explore those sexual fantasies that their partner may not be so interested in.
- People might give up on love. I have some great examples of real love that stands the test of time in my life – my parents have been married for 38 years, my grandparents for close to 70. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have that, though. There are a lot of people who grow up with single parents, who have a string of broken relationships behind them that could easily lead them to conclude that relationships can’t last, aren’t worth working at, or that they aren’t any good at them. Romance novels give us hope. They show us people who work hard to overcome the obstacles in the way of their relationships so that we can get to the happy ending we know is there. Some would say the happy ending that’s guaranteed makes it boring and pointless to read a romance, but I say that’s why the genre is so filled with hope. We know there will be a happy ending, so that means there has to be a way to work out the problems. And if there’s a way to work out the problems in a romance, then surely there’s a way to work them out in reality, too, right?
Now, of course, I don’t believe that romance novels are the sole reason we have happy marriages, solid relationships, and believe in love. Relationships and love were around long before the romance novel. But I do think, in today’s world, they serve a purpose beyond entertainment value. I’m sure we’d survive without them. There are self-help and relationship nonfiction books, of course. There are relationship counselors, radio and TV talk shows that offer advice and tips on relationships and love.
But romance novels offer the same things in a different way. They offer it in the context of an actual relationship, even if it is a fictional relationship. It’s not always easy to take the advice and suggestions we read in a book or hear on TV and figure out how to integrate them into our relationships. In a romance novel, you can find the same advice or suggestion framed as a scene in the book – a date, a conversation between two characters, a decision made. It’s an example of the advice in action, rather than a simple “do this.”
There are people who argue that romance novels are not reality, that people who expect to find in real life what they read in a romance novel are fooling themselves, expecting a fantasy or demanding too much. I suppose, depending on what we hold up as an example of this statement, that could be true. I mean, let’s face it, it’s unlikely any of us will be kidnapped by a savage Native American in Frontier America, or that most of us will meet a sexy, intelligent billionaire who falls madly in love with us.
But the rest? The respect, the compromise, the real, honest love? The idea that we can meet someone, or re-meet someone and build a solid relationship that lasts? The belief that with some effort and a real desire to make it work we can overcome any obstacle that stands in the way of our relationship? Those are the other things that we find in romance novels, and I don’t think it’s at all unreasonable to expect to find those in real life. In fact, I’d even argue that we absolutely should expect to find them, and that we shouldn’t settle for anything less.
I also think that in some cases, it’s best that we not find something outside a romance novel. Going back to the idea of the sexual fantasies you can explore through erotic romance, think about this: how many people might you have to have sex with in real life before you found someone who enjoyed the same things you fantasize about?
“But you don’t have to have sex with someone to find that out!” you might say.
Fair enough. So let’s try this: Are you comfortable asking someone on a first or second date if they want to engage in (insert kinky act here) with you? Yeah, I’m betting many of you said no. I hope you weren’t in a public place when you said that out loud.
That is my point. Whether it’s having sex with people or finding the courage to ask about a new partner’s sexual tastes, most of us don’t really want to go there. And in many cases, most of us don’t want to go there with the actual activity. We want to read about it, imagine it, but if actually presented with the opportunity to do it, not all of us would do it. Romance novels serve us well in these cases, because they allow us to have the same fantasy over and over, while changing things up in each book, so the fantasy stays fresh and exciting. It doesn’t have to loose it’s appeal, and we don’t have to have sex with people we don’t know or like or ask questions we really don’t want to ask. It also ensures that, for those that are in a relationship with someone who has no interest in that fantasy, that you can get your thrill without doing something risky to your relationship. You aren’t imagining a real person, but a fictional character – someone who is no threat to your relationship. You aren’t engaging in anything – emotional or physical – with a real person, so you aren’t cheating.
Tell me what you think. Do you think the world would be different without romance novels? Better or worse? I’d love to hear from you!