Cover of romance novel
Cover of romance novel

The other morning on my subway commute I sat next to an attractive young blonde woman who was reading something on her iPad. She was very well-dressed, carrying a Prada bag with tastefully applied make-up -- indeed, she exuded an unmistakable air of affluence, material success and even authority. I suspected she worked as a highly-paid Wall Street attorney or stockbroker or something of that ilk. So, I was curious to see what she was poring over. The Wall Street Journal perhaps? The New York Times? The Economist?

Quite the contrary; rather, she was mesmerized by a romance novel -- I could tell because I spied a few paragraphs written in the sentimental, florid style of that genre. It occurred to me that the relative anonymity of an iPad (i.e., in place of a paperback featuring an absurdly cartoonish cover illustration of a muscular he-man embracing a beautiful ingénue) spared her any embarrassment over her choice of reading matter. After all, romance novels fall into the same sordid category as soft porn, violent comic books and anything written by Stephen King in the realm of literary "guilty pleasures."

Then I realized that I have known many women who devour these romance novels -- smart, attractive, successful, 'liberated,' modern females who nonetheless find some kind of deep satisfaction and vicarious thrill from delving into hyper-romantic, contrived and extremely unrealistic tales of handsome, manly heroes falling in love with virginal women, enduring a series of adventures, then inexorably ending in a happy resolution.

These 'romance' stories are to literature what hot dogs are to cuisine -- quickly made, tasty, filling, temporarily satisfying, but with no nutritional value whatsoever. Yet, the genre remains enormously popular.

Consider some of these sobering statistics from the good folks at the Romance Writers of America (RWA):

*More than 9,000 romance titles were released in 2012, yielding sales of about $1.44 billion (more than triple the revenues generated by classic literary fiction), making it the biggest portion of the U.S. consumer market at 16.7 percent.

*Some 75 million people in the country read at least one romance novel in 2008, but most are long-time dedicated consumers of the genre.

*More than 90 percent of the market are women (okay, that's not at all surprising).

*Readers are typically women between the ages 30 and 54 who are themselves involved in a romantic relationship (betraying the stereotype that only lonely women long for these tales of love and adventure).

*Almost 40 percent of romance book consumers have an annual income of between $50,000 and $99,900 (placing them firmly in the middle class and even upper middle class).

I had thought that romance novels accounted for a very small fringe corner of the literary market – so I was quite surprised that this segment has such enormous popularity. Now that books are transitioning from the dying hardback and paperback forms to e-books, romance novels have made the change effortlessly; in fact, they represent the fastest-growing parts of the digital market, far ahead of general fiction, mystery and science fiction, according to Bowker, an industry research firm.

The most famous purveyor of romance novels is probably Toronto-based Harlequin Enterprises which generates hundreds of millions of dollars annually from book sales. The most well-known romance writer might have been Dame Barbara Cartland, the English woman who died only about twelve years ago at the age of 98. Throughout her long life, Cartland produced more than 700 novels which have reportedly sold as many as 1 billion copies around the world, which would make her one of the most prolific and successful authors ever.

Although Dame Cartland had a rather messy personal life herself, she nonetheless applied Victorian-era morality to her books – that is, only a chaste kiss between the protagonists, and generally no sexually explicit scenes. Princess Diana herself reportedly devoured Cartland’s tales of innocent romance. Granted, the contemporary romance genre has moved far from Dame Cartland’s squeamishness about sex, with female lead characters who are strong, independent and hardly virginal – but at their core, they remain true to her original vision of simple love stories that always lead to happiness.

But I must wonder why so many women – forty years after the women’s liberation movement, Roe vs. Wade and the pill have transformed the lives of women in the most dramatic of ways – continue to indulge in the fanciful tales of females so unlike them who live in fantasy worlds light years removed from their reality?

I’m not sure if the immense popularity of romance novels represents a kind of ‘repudiation’ of the women’s lib movement, but clearly something is missing in the lives and experiences of tens of millions (maybe even hundreds or millions) of contemporary ladies. An anonymous female reviewer at said of the genre: “Romance novels offer an escape from daily life with the belief that true love really exists.”

A romance author named Donna Hatch who focuses on the Regency period (early 19th century Britain) explained the appeal of such books this way: “Regency men were civilized and treated women with courtesy. When a lady entered the room, gentlemen stood, doffed their hats, curtailed their language, offered an arm, bowed, and a hundred other little things I wish men still did today. But they were also very athletic; they hunted, raced, fenced, boxed, rode horses. They were manly. Strong. Noble. Resolute. Honorable. And that is why I love them!”

Mrs. Hatch may have expressed the secret (or not-so-secret?) desires and attitudes of untold millions of her peers – that is, in the early 21st century, have women grown tired of the burdens and expectations that the ‘freedoms’ they have gained impart upon them? Is this a rejection of modern feminism? An expression of distaste of the hippie culture which essentially destroyed all traditional forms or behavior in the western world? Do women long for days of old when men were masculine gentlemen and women were feminine and protected as precious treasures and regarded as possessions?

Perhaps most women (even the ones who get lost in romance novels) do not want to go all the way back – but it is obvious, they are unhappy with how the world has turned out in the contemporary era.

Still, I would suggest that if someone is enamored with romantic novels, one should perhaps eschew the contemporary books and read the beautiful, deep and moving works of 19th century women authors like Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters – they combined romanticism with cold hard reality and profound insights in humanity.

Please see addendum.