Or: Why there’s nothing wrong with listening to Romance audiobooks…
On Being a Romance Reader
As a romance audiobook listener, I sometimes feel like I’m not viewed as a “real reader”. If you ever shared this experience and/or want to know what this has to do with feminism, please read on.
I get the impression that many people believe the following:
#1 Audiobooks are not real books.
#2 Romance is just fluff.
Is this true? Are romance audiobooks the empty calories of reading? Does listening to them have no positive effect on you? Is it just a waste of your time and brain cells? And does science have any opinion on this?
In this part of my The Why and How of Audiobooks series I will take a detour. Let’s discuss the genre of romance!
While the tone in author forums indicates that authors and publishers view romance readers as a wild demanding horde of women who will run amok if not provided with enough reading material on a regular basis (1), the traditional view of them is of an older bored housewife whose husband does not satisfy her sufficiently. Either way, THE romance reader is not taken very seriously by anyone other than romance authors, it seems. Who in turn, aren’t take very serious as authors (2).
If you don’t believe this, let’s take a look at Nicholas Sparks. Some consider him the king of romance. He himself has stated prominently on his website that he is, in fact, not a romance author at all. And doesn’t it make you wonder why he feels it’s important to make that somewhat questionable distinction instead of embracing the huge romance market? And why does he say on his website that romance is distinguishable from his chosen genre of “love story fiction” because “romance novels have a general theme—’the taming of a man.’“? (3) There are so many things wrong with that statement. But we will just let it stand like that and take a step back to look at one more question:
Why is the one genre that is almost entirely comprised of female authors writing for female readers and gay authors writing for gay men the one that is marginalized like no other? Not just by men, mind you, but by women, too, who think that something that’s so female just can’t be as good as the things most men like.
Romance is hopeful
A poll in a big romance audiobooks group on Facebook (4) showed that, first and foremost, women like romance because, unlike most other genres, it lifts their mood. This is also beautifully described by Kristina Adams in Why I love Writing Romance (incidentally in regard to a Nicholas Sparks movie).
Whilst watching it, I felt an odd sense of comfort. The plot was predictable and the ending was bittersweet, but I still felt better after I’d finished watching it.
Romance novels usually touch on a topic of societal or personal concern, but they do so in the hopeful context that everyone can find their life partner and have a Happily Ever After. To some, this might seem superficial. But science has taught us that positivity is actually a strong motivator. Conversely, depression paralyzes. By weaving problems into their novels, romance authors achieve a balance between hopefulness and reflection. Scott Barry Haufman, Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology, says: “Hope is not just a feel-good emotion, but a dynamic cognitive motivational system.” (5)
Those viewing Romance as superfluous because it puts readers into a good mood have it the wrong way around. The hope those novels transport – that you can find a good place in a broken world – is something that activates the reader. Is the glum, brooding reader a more valuable member of society than the hopeful one?
Read anything, just read!
The thoughtful novels that show a detailed or different perspective on this world’s issues are important and necessary. They deserve the recognition they get. But a reader of literary novels is not superior to a reader of romance novels. And we should find our common ground as readers, not be elitists who marginalize those we share a passion for reading with.
Many romance readers – in the aforementioned poll this was the second most popular answer – read romance only as one of many genres. Seeing someone read romance does not imply that they aren’t well read in the conventional sense. And it is too easy to judge an entire genre by just a few bad examples. When someone says: “But this novel was clearly amazing!”, the reply is: “That’s the exception.” And this so very much tastes of jealousy and resentment. It’s just not necessary to give your own favorite genre more value by devaluing another reader’s preferred stories.
This is a good time to quote Sturgeon’s law (6):
I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud. Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.
90% of any genre is crap!
Love is an integral part of Everything. Many of the biggest stories of humanity are about love. And good romance novels carry a positive message about what relationships should be like.
Characters, especially men, in literary novels are often broken and they don’t do much about it. In Romance, I see more and more often how protagonists are expected to take responsibility for themselves. The love interest forces them to get their act together and become a better person. It is not love that fixes them, that is only the trigger to start acting responsibly and move forward. It’s an empowering message that you don’t have to go through life being screwed up, that you will have a happier and fulfilled life if you work on your personal issues. That you can take control.
Now, let’s go back to Nicholas Sparks and the taming of a man and follow it up with Guy Bergstrom’s article Romance novelists are a secret, epic army.
And the message is good. Romance novels don’t want men to be office drones, worried about TPS reports, or the moody, over-educated basket cases you read about in literary novels.
Romance novels want men of action and charm, packing swords if not guns, and sometimes guns and swords. Any man can learn this from hitting up the google for “romance novel covers.” IT IS AN EDUCATION.
And it is true. Some romance heroes are broken, some are grumpy or jaded. But when it comes down to it, they will all become active and fight for their woman – though in contemporary usually without guns or swords. They will also show personal growth just like the female protagonists. But they are never forced to change who they are as a person (unless, maybe, in very unsuccessful novels).
Keeping in mind how very many books an avid romance reader consumes per year, especially those listening to audiobooks, as well as the immense competition for authors in the romance genre, it is also safe to assume that romance novels indeed need to offer a lot more than a cookie-cutter love story between two cardboard characters. Romance readers are not such simple minds that a mere change of names and places would be enough. Every novel they read needs to be unique and have something special and different to offer. Otherwise many bad Amazon reviews will follow (you know, what with them being such a wild and demanding horde).
Listening to Romance
And how do audiobooks factor into all of this? That’s simple. As stated before, the romance reader is often an avid reader. But the romance reader is also often a mother and/or a career woman with very little time to sit down with a book. Audiobooks give us the freedom to enjoy the stories while commuting to work or cleaning the kitchen. We can continue being readers through life phases that leave us with very little time to sit down with a book.
And sometimes, like for me or for Alex Witt as per his article “Listening to Audiobooks Is Just As Good As Reading, If Not Better, So Back the Hell Off“, it turns into a lifestyle because you learn that audiobooks have so very many advantages over books and TV. They seamlessly fit into an active lifestyle and sometimes are the solution for everyday problems. The avid reader wants to enjoy books in any format and as much as possible. Audiobooks are not better than print or e-book. But they are the only way to read while you are folding laundry or jogging in the park.
And what is the bottom line?
Listening to 50 romance audiobooks a year makes you a kick-ass reader. What you read does not have less intrinsic value than what contemporary fiction readers with hardcover editions read. Your favorite independently published book is not by definition worse than the big publishing house’s bestseller. Embrace your status as a reader and be proud of it!
And if you want to know why audiobooks matter so much, make literature more accessible and are inclusive, read on here.
Have you ever experienced the feeling of not being taken serious as a reader because “you only read this genre / listen to audiobooks / read ebooks, that’s not real reading”? And how do you feel about the “taming of a man”? Let me know in a comment what you think.