The first part of that statement is generally true. I have a problem with the second part. Before digging into the latter, though, we must address a core question: Why don’t men read romance?
My mother was a prolific reader of romance novels. She averaged perhaps a novel per week for five decades and kept only the ones she thought she might read again. When I left home, the bookshelf outside my basement bedroom contained around one thousand romance novels. Like my mother, I was a relentless reader. So, how many of her romance novels did I read? As it turns out, exactly zero. Popular psychology might claim that, as a boy, my DNA bent me toward science fiction and adventure novels, and if I had been a girl, my DNA would have pushed me toward romance novels.
I think this theory is mostly wrong.
Prior to two years ago when I announced that I had discovered romance novels, I do not recall a single instance in my life of a woman pointing me toward a pure romance novel and saying, “You should read that.” Not my mother. Not my favorite aunt. Not my sisters. Not my wife. And never had a man said to me, “I read this great romance novel; you should read it, too.” I literally cannot remember a single instance of either. Why is that?
I have a purely anecdotal, unverified opinion about why, so take it with a huge grain of salt. Here goes. Young children generally love similar books. By age six or seven, though, they begin to hear the siren’s call of certain genres that appeal to them. However, I believe they also hear strong spoken and unspoken messages about what genres are appropriate for their gender. Girls are nudged toward romance and drama. Boys are prodded toward adventure and science fiction. The message is clear: romance is feminine, and to read it challenges a boy’s masculinity. This scythe cuts both ways. Show me a woman who has loved science fiction since childhood and I will show you someone who has been wrongly told at some point and in so many words that she is odd.
Now, to the question of, “Why is this status quo not fine?” Again, I have an uneducated and unverified opinion, so consider it as you will. Romance novels at their hearts are stories of relationship dialogue. They show examples of two people kept apart by internal and external conflicts who come together through internal and external dialogue. Thus, girls who read romance novels attend a years long master class of what relationship dialogue looks like, what works best, and what is harmful. Boys, on the other hand, are schooled through their literature in the art of fixing dire problems using extreme and blunt measures.
Early in my marriage, whenever my wife and I had a disagreement, she would want to engage in extensive dialogue to examine the issue from all angles and work toward an agreeable reconciliation. I, on the other hand, just wanted to fix it. I just wanted a quick solution, which I thought could be obtained through complex logic arguments or grand gestures. In other words, I was wholly unprepared for reasonable relationship dialogue. It took me years to learn that sometimes I needed to shut up and listen sometimes and not ramrod solutions. It took me two decades to learn that the act of dialogue itself is usually the solution, because most disagreements begin as a failure of communication. (I’m looking at you, Mr. Darcy!)
Though anecdotal, I believe my experience generally describes a significant percentage of male/female relationships. Yes, there are many exceptions. However, I believe the rule of thumb that the average woman is better equipped for relationship dialogue than is the average man. I also believe that the disparity need not be as great as it is. I’m not foolish enough to think that simply reading romance novels erases our gender differences. However, I do wonder how much the lack of relationship dialogue training impacts boys. Since becoming a romance reader only late in life, I recognize how much I have benefited from what I have read in terms of my improved relationship dialogue.
If only I had started reading romance novels earlier. If only someone had said to me in my youth, “You should read this. It’s fine.”
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