This is a story of another man who is utterly horrified to discover just how many women read romance novels. This time, the perplexed fellow in question is William Giraldi, a novelist and editor who has taken to the pages of the New Republic to tell us just how appalled he is by the popularity of the erotic novel “Fifty Shades of Grey” and the more general financial success of the genre.
“Romance novels are a billion-dollar-a-year industry and make up 46 percent of all mass-market paperbacks sold. There are claims of selling more than four books per second,” he moans. “How did the pabulum of ‘Fifty Shades’ manage to rise above such a mind-stinging preponderance of crap?”
The answer, Giraldi seems to think, is that we are dumb and sex-obsessed, the kind of unintelligent people who “would participate in the abnegating of their minds and the debauching of English just to feel some twitching in their trousers.”
Never mind that, according to a 2005 market research survey, 42 percent of romance novel readers have at least a bachelor’s degree. And never mind that it is entirely possible to be prim and proper with literature on a Monday and get up from a different sort of book with a slight flush on Tuesday — reading Barbara Cartland or Julia Quinn does not ruin one for the classics.
Here is a proposal Giraldi does not seem to have considered: Romance novels are attractive not just because they are a gratifying escape but also because they sometimes feel like a respite from from the significant hostility that a lot of literature shows women.
Literature absolutely can be a transporting experience, and there is no question that it is important to exercise your moral imagination by reaching beyond the boundaries of your own life. It is poor strategy, though, to hector women to read classics without acknowledging that the canon — which provides plenty of fantasy fulfillment for men and attention to their inner lives — can be an unnerving reminder of a past that for women is not always past.
Romance novels are a tonic, a form of reassurance that someone is interested in ordinary women’s inner lives and is rooting for us to resolve our conflicts about work, love and what we deserve from our relationships.