Archive for April, 2010

Men Reading Romantic Fiction

Respected journalist and frustrated romantic. Danuta Kean, had a toot about modern romantic novels in Tuesday’s Daily Mail, following the recent Romantic Novel of the Year Award.  Her particular beef is what we novelists have done to our heroes.  And there’s a poll at the Daily Mail’s website which says that, so far, 71% of people who bother to vote agree with her.  I’m still pondering that one and will possibly come back to it.

But what grabbed me was her reference to her own year as a judge, when we asked a group of men to read two or more of the short listed novels and come along and discuss them.  The jamboree under reference took place in my house and I was catering, so most of my attention in the early stages was focused on serving industrial sized shepherds pie and extracting corks.  My notes are therefore not comprehensive – but I did scribble down stuff that struck me at the time, and jolly interesting it is, if a bit grub-and-booze-stained. 

There were, I think, 9 men at supper.  They had each read at least two;  none of them had read all.  They ranged from 25 – 65, all of them read novels for fun but none of them was in the writing business.  The shortlisted books were:

  • A Good Voyage by Katharine Davies (Chatto and Windus) 
  • Love and Devotion by Erica James (Orion)
  • Small Island by Andrea Levy (Headline)
  • The Hornbeam Tree by Susan Lewis (Heinemann-Random House)
  • The Tenko Club by Elizabeth Noble (Hodder)
  • Ghost Heart by Cecilia Samartin (Bantam World     

From my notes, it is clear that overwhelmingly three things hit me at the time – 1) the guys’ trepidation at reading romantic fiction at all;  2) a feeling that they were spying while doing so;  and 3) what, if anything, they thought romantic.

1)      Trepidation is basically the Bertie Wooster Syndrome.  You may recall that Wooster, endeavouring to retrieve a letter from Gussie Fink-Nottle giving Madeleine Bassett the heave ho,  is surprised mid-burglary by Madeleine herself.  Unfortunately, he is clutching her photograph at the time.  Much moved, she tells him the story of Rose M Banks’s romantic best selling opus Mervyn Keene, Clubman, of whose hero the unfortunate Bertram reminds her.  She does so in a low voice, the reader will remember, ‘with a goodish amount of throb in it’.  What our guys feared, as they squared up to novels that women thought romantic, is encapsulated in the Wooster reaction.  

Well, it was difficult, of course, to know quite what comment to make.  I said ‘Oh, ah!’ but I felt at the time that it could have been improved on.  The fact is, I was feeling a bit stunned.  I had always known in a sort of vague, general way that Mrs Bingo wrote the world’s worst tripe – Bingo generally changes the subject nervously if anyone mentions the little woman’s output – but I had never supposed her capable of bilge like this.‘  Ah, nobody says it better than PG Wodehouse. 

2)     Spying – ‘I feel like a peeping Tom,’  one guy said at the time.   Others, generally the younger end, agreed.  Romantic novels, they felt, were girls’ locker room stuff and they didn’t really want to see in!   Older men tended to be more robust about the revelation of What Women Talk About, but professed themselves puzzled at the results.  ‘It all goes round and round but nobody does anything,’  said one.  ‘If the characters are not going to change something, why don’t they just stop picking at it and shut up?’  Small Island and Ghost Heart were largely but not entirely exempt from this, but A Good Voyage, a modern re-telling of Twelfth Night, was included.

3)    Romantic for Men?  All of our  book group said they had been moved by one or more romantic novels at some point, even if not these.  I couldn’t find one who was a fan of Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights and the Jane Austen afficionados weren’t in it for the romance.  But the Lady of the Camellias had a couple of supporters.  The only contemporary novel that anyone mentioned was Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, which one of the group thought was true heart-wringing stuff and a bloody good book into the bargain.  (I must say, I agree.)

One other oddity was that they were all easily distracted from character and plot into talking about the socio-political issues of  Small Island and Ghost Heart.  The former benefitted, since nobody thought racism was a good thing.  The latter, in some ways an elegy for pre-Castro Cuba, suffered from those who already had a political position, which was generally that Castro was better than his predecessor.  None of them enjoyed – as I did, profoundly – its utter longing for a Paradise lost.  

I see that at the time I concluded that our group  of male readers weren’t hostile to romantic fiction but :

  • they want less talk and more do
  • emotional hypchondria a no no
  • exclusively domestic and personal stories makes them feel claustrophobic
  • want something to be achieved, a mystery solved, or a point to be proved

But, I must say, not one of them, unlike Danuta, commented on the heroes’ sex appeal or lack of it.

Could it be that men and women are different?