Men and Romance

I have taken some heat for featuring both DocTurtle and Scrin’s read-a-log reviews of books as they seek an education in the romance genre, since it would appear to some that I’m erecting a massive turgid shrine to What The Penises Think of Romance.

Oh, so not so. What fascinates me personally about their responses are the fact that (a) men do not typically read a lot of romance and (b) being privvy to the reactions to a curious, intelligent dude reading a genre that is so often defined as “just for women” yields a very interesting personal dialogue as Scrin and SBiT Patrick share their thoughts with us. So I’m not squeeing with the glee that A Man has paid attention to us, preen, preen, preen for the peen.

Intelligent males asking for recommendations and then sharing their reactions opens our dialogue to include perspectives that, frankly, we don’t often enjoy. I’m not looking for validation of our collective enjoyment of romance but I am always eager to hear new opinions on the genre as readers of any gender are introduced to how good, how amazing, how truly enjoyable romance is.

So imagine my surprise and delight when I cranked up the inbox to find a very kind and warm letter from a gentleman named Charles who was very happy I was going to read Joan Wolf’s His Lordship’s Mistress because it was the book that introduced him to the genre. I asked if I could publish his letter, and he agreed.

17 February 2009

Dear SB Sarah,

I’m a man who’s been reading romance for over 25 years, and I was inspired to write to you for two reasons:  the space you’ve devoted recently to men reading romance, and your recent Valentine’s Day present of His Lordship’s Mistress.  That novel is responsible for my reading romance.

I was in a now-defunct bookstore in Boston after work one Friday afternoon, looking for something to read.  I passed by the romance section, and noticed that two entire shelves were filled with books with variations on the same brownish-red cover:  lo, the Signet Regency Romance series.  I don’t really remember why I was so intrigued by having an entire publishing line dedicated to a single topic:  perhaps it was because I was always running out of new things to read, and this ready availability appealed to me.  I bought two:  His Lordship’s Mistress and Joy Freeman’s A Suitable Match.  I went home, opened first a bottle of wine, and then “His Lordship’s Mistress.”

I won’t say anything about the plot, in case you haven’t read it yet.  But something about Jessica Andover captivated me; her story drew me in, and even moved me to tears.  As soon as I finished it, I started on “A Suitable Match”:  very different, but also a good read.  On Monday, I went back to the store and bought a few others.  The first one in this batch was horrible—in the “I’m so glad you raped me” tradition.  I was repelled, but read the others.  None was as good as “His Lordship’s Mistress,” but—rape notwithstanding—I was hooked.

A few years later, when I was about to enter graduate school, I culled my books, and gave about three hundred romances to a local nursing home.  I kept only my favorites—including the first two I ever bought.  And I have wondered, over the years, how my reading life would be different had I bought the rape book on that fateful Friday.  I certainly would not have reread it every year, as I do “His Lordship’s Mistress.”  Perhaps I would never have read another romance.  And that would have been a shame.  But thanks to Jessica Andover (and Joan Wolf), I have a reading life that is far more satisfying than it otherwise would have been.  (In the interests of full disclosure, I should add that thanks to reading romance, I also have an undying hatred for verbal forms of the word “cup.”)

I hope you enjoy “His Lordship’s Mistress” as much as I do.


I so want to buy Charles a bottle of wine, you have no idea. I asked Charles which books were some of his favorites, and y’all would not believe this list. From suspense to paranormal, historical to contemporary, Charles is one well-read romance reader, and his favorites are some of the best of the genre.

Thank you for writing, Charles, and for sharing your love letter to the genre.


Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    eaeaea says:

    That letter gives me the warm fuzzies.

    Thanks for sharing, Sarah.

  2. 2
    Tae says:

    I’m quite happy to see men reading romance novels.  My husband still looks at me a little funny because of my reading habit, though he has said perhaps he should read one.  I’m trying to figure out which one to give him.  I figure I’ll start out with the SF ones since he’s a SF reader. 

    I feel like I still need a little validation for my romance reading.  Just this week, I had one friend tell me she was very surprised to find out I read romances since I didn’t seem the type.  The term “bodice rippers” came into the conversation and the awful man-titty covers.  I feel like just because I’m an intelligent woman, I should not have to defend my reading choices.  It demeans all women to have to do so.

  3. 3
    KatherineB says:

    It’s funny that the definition of romance as “just for women” gets my hackles up. It’s as if it’s being dismissed for such huge variety of weak reasons that I grit my teeth. That labelling frightens guys off as much as saying “chick flick” or “honey, I need some tampons, could you…?.

    The opposite idea would hold true, if I could actually think of any genre of fiction that is defined as “just for men”. Alas, I cannot, and perhaps suffragism and feminism has battered down the seals to those sacred tomes as well as they have in many area’s of “men’s only” activities.

    Does anyone know of any “men’s only” fiction I should be reading? I don’t really think there is any, as nothing is held sacred to “guys only” stereotyping. I mean, gals read everything. Crime, mystery, academic tomes, erotica, Playboy, Maxim….

    Anyways, I can only appluad the guys who have toed the line and can handle reading romance in stride, as a normal activity. As well they should.

  4. 4
    Fizz says:

    That’s lovely.

  5. 5
    ms bookjunkie says:

    Warm fuzzies here, also.

    I so want to know Charles’s list of favorites!

  6. 6
    ev says:

    I would love his lists of faves too.

    I think it is great that men are comfortable writing into you and letting us know that they are reading romance.

    I would love to know what they have told their friends? Do they make the same stupid comments that we hear when people find that we read romance? Do they pick on them or look at them funny? Inquiring minds want to know.

    As for those here that are unhappy with the recent events- do what i do and don’t read a blog if it isn’t of interest to you. No biggie.

  7. 7
    Courtney says:

    What a lovely letter to start off a rather dreary morning here in DC. I would LOVE to see his list of favorites!

    My hubby read a few romance novels. He really liked Welcome To Temptation and doesn’t get the whole historical fascination. Now, he mostly reads one if I have a recommendation for him; otherwise he sticks with the sci/fi fantasy stuff that he prefers.

    Personally, I’ve always gotten way more flack for reading and writing romance from other women rather than men. My sister and another dear friend look very condescendingly at reading romance. My sister just prefers different genres—mostly mysteries and thrillers so I don’t mind so much.

    My friend only reads literary fiction which mostly bores me to tears or leaves me depressed for days.  What I hate is the sort of “What a mental lightweight you must be since you read romance” attitude. The whole assumption that I must be stupid to read romance really pisses me off.

    And now I’m mad all over again at my poor friend!

  8. 8
    Betsy says:

    Dreamy!  I’d like to find out about his favorites list, too.

  9. 9
    Michele says:

    Sarah, I am a bit baffled as to why anyone would give flack for featuring men who read romance novels. Is there something wrong with that? Because in my not-so-humble opinion there is not. Personally, I love Doc Turtle and Scrin’s views on the novels they have been given to read.

    I also think there are many more male romance readers out there but I think they’re in hiding. Which is sad because no one should hide what they read. And if someone doesn’t like what you read then I say ‘whatever’ and under my breath call them a moron.

  10. 10
    JoanneL says:

    I love stories about how/when people started reading romance—- no matter what the reader’s gender is—- so thanks for that!

    To KatherienB I’m not sure there are ‘for men’ books you should be reading—- it’s all about romance for me—- but some ‘men’s fiction’ that I never hear women discuss are W.E.B. Griffin’s war & police books, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, The Executioner series by Don Pendleton and Westerns.

  11. 11
    skapusniak says:

    I read romance, and I happen to be male, however I can’t actually remember a time when I didn’t read romance, so I don’t have one of these stories for y’all.

    I assume my situation is just the sort of thing that happens when a third of the books in the house are romance, and you’re the sort of child who reads anything they can get their grubby little hands on voraciously; with parents who are relieved that they have something, *anything* that stops the little blighter from dismantling the furniture :)

  12. 12
    handyhunter says:

    I am a bit baffled as to why anyone would give flack for featuring men who read romance novels.

    Maybe because that they’re men is emphasized quite a bit? And they’re given their own running commentary blog posts while female readers aren’t (excepting that the site is run by women, of course).  If this, “I am always eager to hear new opinions on the genre as readers of any gender are introduced to how good, how amazing, how truly enjoyable romance is,” is true, then why should it matter that they’re male? Why make that a selling point of the blog post(s)? Why don’t intelligent female readers get featured so prominently/with such excitement, or is it enough that there’s this site, DearAuthor, and likely a bunch of others that are written by women?

    I’m not trying to scare away male readers or saying they shouldn’t post or whatever, but I tend to think that when their guest reviews/postings are held up because they’re male, then, yeah, it sorta drifts into the ‘needing men for validation’ area. I have to admit the “oh, the men are here to validate the genre” thought did cross my mind when those posts went up… but it also goes against what this site is about, so I’ve been trying to ignore that part of my brain (except for right now, which is to say I can see where those criticisms are coming from).

    (Then I wonder if, say, the roles were reversed and a comic book blog run by men featured special posts for women readers if I’d have a problem with it. And, I don’t know, probably I wouldn’t have such a knee jerk reaction to that. Because there isn’t, to me, the same perception of needing women fans in order to gain respect for the medium, unlike with romance books and other, everyday feminist/female stuff.)

  13. 13
    Bhetti B says:

    This is you and Candy’s blog, Sarah. You can talk about whatever you want.  I don’t think you need to defend yourself; your attitude and respect for the romance genre is implicit. I think it’s judgemental and harsh to tell you off; maybe it’s just the consumerist attitude populating America that is dominating people’s ideas. You’re not a corporation who has promised us a certain blog with certain content all the time. I love the way you guys write and I love the way you run your ship.

    If you don’t post what’s interesting to you as a person, this blog will die. If you don’t feel like you have the freedom to say whatever you want to say, this blog will die. It will die because you would cease to love doing it. Yes, you have a certain audience from which accepting constrctive criticism is crucial. But, also, you must always experiment.

    As a reader, I trust you to be true to yourself which is what entertains me and what I love.

    I personally love any person’s perspective on Romance and find the exhibits from guys fascinating. It is a fact that men (and usually snobby women) don’t read romance, which is something that makes it invariably INTERESTING when they do. If you don’t like the fact a lot of romance readers find this fascinating, try and not to censor this blog due to a misplaced view that being interested in this somehow implies men’s opinions count for more, somehow violating pro-female beliefs. Let’s try and not be chauvinistic here.

    It’s probably more feminist to try and not judge each other, assuming we’re on the side of the evil male gender and that our motivations are impure (especially despite the mountains of evidence to the contrary in previous posts!).

  14. 14
    Cassie says:

    When my ex and I first moved in together, I brought boxes and boxes of books to his apartment. His first reaction? “You’re not putting those romances on my shelves!” Needless to say, the romances went on the shelves, and two years later we broke up. One of the reasons was his continual non-acceptance of my reading choices. It wasn’t enough that I read sci-fi and fantasy, but I read romance too! His literary-snob-heart couldn’t take it. And frankly, I’m better off without.

    I’m sending him this letter to show him that real men not only can accept romance, they can enjoy it!

  15. 15
    Michele says:

    handyhunter, I can see your point of view but I don’t agree with it. I don’t think that posting a male opinion of romance novels is saying that we need to have a man’s opinion to validate ourselves because if you’re a regular Smart Bitch reader you know that’s defintely not the case. I think it’s about posting a point of view that isn’t seen all that often to begin with.

  16. 16


    but some ‘men’s fiction’ that I never hear women discuss are W.E.B. Griffin’s war & police books, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, The Executioner series by Don Pendleton and Westerns.

    I love Jack Reacher and devoured the whole series as soon as I discovered The Killing Floor.  I also love Stephen Hunter’s Bob Lee Swagger and Barry Eisler’s John Rain.  Back in college I read all the early Destroyer novels by Murphy and Sapir with glee. 

    But it’s true.  I can discuss these books with men and women and no one backs off and goes “Euuuwww!”  But if I try to interest non-romance readers in the latest Jayne Anne Krentz or Mary Balogh, the usual response is, well, “Euuuwww!” 

    It’s not that having men read romance validates us so much as it helps broaden our discussion base.  Every man who steps forward and says “I read romance, and I like it!” helps break down another stupid barrier.

  17. 17
    handyhunter says:

    because if you’re a regular Smart Bitch reader you know that’s defintely not the case.

    Yeah, I think I said as much in my previous post. :)

    I think it’s about posting a point of view that isn’t seen all that often to begin with.

    I think that’s the intention too. How it comes across. . .well, that’s another thing, sometimes.

  18. 18
    SB Sarah says:

    I see your point HandyHunter, though I would hope a familiarity with the site, its discourse, and our collective motivations in examining the genre speaks for itself in terms of explaining my motivation. Yet to a casual surfer it might read like I’m squeeing for the peen who validates us like a six-hour parking ticket.

    The root motivation of our site is to examine the romance genre and include without exception a close look at the good parts and the bad parts in equal measure. I think that means being honest that romance novels are packaged and marketed as books for women, even if we agree that they certainly are not. They appeal to a marketing concept of women’s interests, from the man titty cover images to the emotionally inflated cover copy. They are aimed at women.

    So to examine a male’s perspective is important to me because as women, to make a Sweeping Blanket Statement Whee!, we are taught to read across the canon, while men are not as much taught to do the same. Moreover, we are frequent readers of the genre and are accustomed to the tropes and stereotypical elements of the genre. Male readers who are unfamiliar with the genre are not: witness Scrin’s expectations that the intial sexual scenes between Fawn and Dag would make him uncomfortable, and DocTurtle’s surprised examination of the sexual tension in Sex, Straight Up. Having intelligent, and educated males exploring the genre with new eyes can open our eyes to elements we are so used to that we don’t necessarily see them any more. The lenses of male gender, male sexuality, and male sociology are not ones we can pretend to put on every now and again, and their experience pushed against their reaction to the books in my opinion yields a lot to think about.

    That said, I still review books, and I think your comments and reactions to books are in the comments of those entries or in others. I’d like to think that the voices of the readership are amply available in the mammoth comment threads, but if you think you are not heard, I want to know. The strength of the site here is in the community and the discourse, and not just in my desire to use extraneous exclamation points. !!

  19. 19

    I so want to buy Charles a bottle of wine, you have no idea.

    Me, too!

    Does he still live in Boston? If so, the Wine Emporium delivers…

    What a beautiful letter.

  20. 20
    hydecat says:

    I can think of one male-only (or male-dominated) genre that used to exist but doesn’t really anymore: the adventure. I’m working on a book about the 19th c. adventure genre right now, and I am constantly struck by a) how much it was geared towards men/boys, and b) how the genre has diffused into other sub-genres and gradually evaporated in the 20th century. Westerns still exist, and Sci-Fi can be classified as a kind of adventure, but books like Treasure Island or King Solomon’s Mines seem to have vanished, while other books that could be called “manly” have developed very diverse readerships (like thrillers and spy stories). Yet “women’s books” (romances) have retained their readership and grown even stronger. Fascinating, yes?

    That’s my 2 cents, anyway, and I’m still working out the whys and wherefors. I’d be interested to hear if anyone thinks that the adventure isn’t dead, or thinks that it isn’t just a masculine genre.

  21. 21
    MzSpell says:

    I respectfully submit that adventure books do continue to exist, they are merely re-marketed as teen and juvenile books, which are another area that seems to have some clear boundaries for some readers…as a librarian, I can’t tell you HOW many people think a book sounds interesting until they realize it’s not in the adult section.  It can take some fast talking to get them to try it anyway!

    Sorry, off the topic of men reading romance….but through13 seems like an appropriate spam word for a tangent about reading teen books, no?

  22. 22
    Estelle Chauvelin says:

    as nothing is held sacred to “guys only” stereotyping. I mean, gals read everything. Crime, mystery, academic tomes, erotica, Playboy, Maxim….

    At a forum for a gaming magazine that I read, I apparently created quite a shock in a conversation about books we “judged by their covers,” as in what did we pick up just because we liked the cover and did it deliver.  My contribution?  Flashman, which I picked up because of the Canadian cover while I was on vacation and kept reading back in the States even though I never thought the covers here were as nice, and as a (when I started) teenage straight girl I wasn’t wild about carrying books with pictures of scantly-clad women on them to school.  It turned out that at least one of the other posters had never thought of teenage girls reading Flashman, although it sounded less like he couldn’t imagine women reading them ever as like he couldn’t imagine the combination of teenage and female describing a fan of Flashy.

    I would imagine that ties in with Hydecat’s suggestion that the most male-dominated genre might be the 19th century adventure.

  23. 23
    Terry Odell says:

    My romances are more mystery or action adventure, but they’re definitely housed in the romance section of the bookstore.  A while back, I was in a mixed-gender on line critique group, and the subject of romance came up.  One gentleman said, “I’ve never been able to get past page 10 of a romance.”  I pointed out that he was reading page 151 of mine and had yet to indicate he was having trouble in any of his crits.  He was surprised to learn how broad the genre really is, and how much it’s changed.

    I like the male approach because the majority seem to have that blanket dismissal of the genre.  And I always appreciate the XY input, because we’re all writing male and female characters, and I think we all want to get them ‘right.’

    I think I glow a little brighter when I get feedback from a guy who’s enjoyed my books.  Of course, the ones who say, “I was pleasantly surprised to find out how good it was” get under my skin a bit, but at least they’re admitting they liked it.  (I will confess hubby falls into the above category)

  24. 24
    Janicu says:

    I’m highly amused by “preen, preen, preen for the peen”. I hadn’t thought of those posts like that before. Just thought: Oh look, a rare sighting: male romance reader (who admits it publicly). And it is interesting to also read newbie romance reader’s thoughts. I never saw it as validating the genre. Oh well. Everyone brings their own perceptions to the table.

  25. 25

    I agree with handyhunter. I’m always a little wary about commenting here now because I don’t want to be perceived as a whiner, when I’m completely in love with the vast majority of things about this site.

    It’s nice to get an outsider’s POV of the genre, but I think there is just as much resistance to reading romance among some women is there is for men in general. I know that when I picked up my first Heyer from my sister’s bedroom, after having bounced off a few of her chick lit novels before, I was incredibly wary, and slightly ashamed. I thought I would be confronted with arrogant alpha males of the type I avoid in real life like the plague, anti-feminist gender stereotypes, rape as romance, too many sex scenes, and possibly poor writing. The only reason I took the risk and kept a fairly open mind was because of this site and others like it.

    In conclusion, not that it’s my site or anything, I’d like to hear from women who have been resistant to reading romantic fiction getting into the genre.

  26. 26
    Jessa Slade says:

    thanks to reading romance, I also have an undying hatred for verbal forms of the word “cup.”)

    Which just goes to show that romance-reading men are smarter, sexier and funnier than non-romance-reading men.

  27. 27

    A handful of semi-random thoughts:

    Others have mentioned the “men’s action/adventure” category (the Executioner, the Destroyer, various others).  It’s a diminishing market, though, and—as most of this readership likely knows—Gold Eagle, the last remaining publishing imprint devoted exclusively to men’s a/a, is owned by . . . Harlequin.  Or Harlequin’s corporate parent, anyhow.

    The demise of men’s a/a may in large part be a by-product of the catastrophic implosion of the ID (“independent distribution”) retail channel for paperbacks.  I rather think the lion’s share of men’s a/a moved via spinners in truck stops and 7-11s and Stuckey’s along the nation’s interstates, and those spinners (and the local drivers who stocked them and knew what would sell in those stores) have long since vanished.  Nowadays, there’s no retail market channel for books that’s really capable of targeting male readers that narrowly, and without that channel, the market for “men’s a/a” has fizzled.

    I agree with MzSpell that “old-fashioned” adventure novels are alive and well, but my own sense is that most of them now manifest as “tie-in” fiction—novels attached to franchises from Star Trek to CSI to Indiana Jones to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc. etc. (as well as to author brands, as witness V. C. Andrews, Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum, and James Patterson).  I’m not sure of the numbers, but I suspect that tie-ins as a whole have the largest paperback fiction market share after romance itself.  These books are the lineal descendants of the pulp-era serials (the Shadow, Doc Savage, Zorro, etc.), although at the same time they’ve evolved and matured much as the romance genre itself has.

    And of course, there’ve been adventure novels marketed to women readers—though perhaps not well marketed; I’m thinking in specific of the late and short-lived Silhouette Bombshell line, which is one of the avenues I’ve followed into the romance/“women’s fiction” world.  As a recent arrival here, I’d be curious as to how those books were viewed and discussed in this space; if someone can point me at relevant archive-posts, I’d be much obliged.

  28. 28
    darlynne says:

    shewhohashope, I was resistant to reading romantic fiction. Although I read Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart in my teens, as an adult, I was much too sophisticated/intelligent/whatever to read anything that smacked of romance. I can still recall, with a great deal of shame, my “I can’t believe you read that, you’re so smart” comment to a colleague when I learned she read romance novels. My road to romance is a story for another time.

    I have to agree with SBSarah: the comments section should make it very clear that female readers are very well represented here, and that many of us did not initially embrace this genre we now love.

  29. 29
    Lori S. says:

    In conclusion, not that it’s my site or anything, I’d like to hear from women who have been resistant to reading romantic fiction getting into the genre.

    I used to be one of those women.

    For the first three decades of my life, I was a full-fledged romance snob.  NEVER read romance.  Ever. 

    I’ll spare you the long and winding road of my path of romance discovery, but I will say that I owe oodles of thanks to one of my co-workers who cajoled me into trying my first romance novel. 

    Now my shelves are packed (well, they’re actually overflowing) with romances of nearly every genre.  And I thank my friend and co-worker for prodding me along.

  30. 30

    In conclusion, not that it’s my site or anything, I’d like to hear from women who have been resistant to reading romantic fiction getting into the genre.—shewhohashope

    But here’s the thing, we already do hear that story, frequently, from the largely female commentators.  So many times here I have read women say something like, “I was afraid to read romance because people would sneer at me or I thought all those bad stereotypes of the genre were true!” or “I used to hide my romance reading because ____ but now I proudly display my romance reading.” We women here at SBTB have all heard some variation on this theme or even had personal experience with it.  From the covers to the copy, there are so many things that we women can feel embarrassed by and ashamed about in Romance—even if we know we don’t need to feel that way!

    But to get an outside perspective, a different narative entirely, well, that is interesting and also, I think, part of what makes SBTB full of win and awesome.  The Smart Bitches here are constantly pushing the boundaries of the old Romance genre stereotypes to help the world see just how fantastic a genre it is.  Whether they’re pointing out that we don’t all wear fanny packs or that the genre really isn’t
    girl porn, the Bitches are there in the trenches.  I don’t see the male featured commentators as being “preen for the peen,” but I do see them as being one more sledge hammer blow to the wall of stereotypes that keeps so many people from giving a Romance novel a try. 

    And I guess because I enjoy some things that have been male dominated subjects and activities where the lone female voice can big a big damn shock for people, I hate to think of making long time or even new male readers of the genre feel like they are unwelcome in this Bastion of Female-Centric fiction. If the genders in this conversation were reversed, I would be beyond pissed off and hurt.  I would certainly scuttle back into my shell of secrecy.  Anyway, I have come to think—especially after reading this here blog—that Romance is not women’s fiction, it’s people’s fiction.

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