Romance novels are the biggest selling genre of fiction, primarily purchased by women. Even through the recession, when sales of other books were down, sales of romance novels kept on growing. When something is as successful as romance novels, there’s probably a solid reason that can be traced back to our nature as humans. And that reason could be that romance novels given women something they need, and do it in a way that the world around us cannot.
Maryanne Fisher is a psychologist who has studied romance novels, finding common elements in many of them that help to explain their appeal. At the beginning of the book Fisher finds that the male lead is generally a dashingly handsome cad, a rogue, but as he becomes captivated by the female lead he reforms his ways to become a faithful husband and committed mate by the end of the story. He goes from cad to dad, taking the reader along for the ride, falling in love vicariously for 180 pages, until they finish and move on to the next book to fall in love yet again.
In truth, Fisher writes, most men don’t usually undergo these sorts of radical transformations. Dads are dads and cads are cads, and seldom does a man change from one to the other. And the romance novels never delve into the long term nature of the relationship. By the end of the 180 pages, it’s time to move on to the next book, avoiding the messy topic of working through a long term relationship with a former cad.
Evolutionary psychologists have studied romance novels and found common elements that seem aligned with the interests of women seeking the perfect mate over the course of evolution. The words that appear most commonly in romance novel titles are centered around men who are wealthy, fit, fertile, and committed, features that would have been aligned with the reproductive interests of women through the last few million years of evolution. Perhaps the attraction for romance novels has deep roots in our past.
Nana Malone is a romance novelist whose books take a somewhat different route. As the author of Sultry In Stilettos (the latest for her contemporary In Stilettos series) and Betrayed (the latest in her paranormal Protectors series), Malone writes about strong women and using a broader color palette for her characters than might be found in most romance novels. “With each of my heroines it’s important that they be women I’d actually want to talk to and share a drink with,” said Malone. “They are real women, not Cinderellas.” Malone’s male characters are not necessarily cads becoming dads either. “For my heroes, while I like them to be strong, I don’t usually write alpha males,” she said. I love a beta male, the best friend or the guy next door.” One aspect of her novels doesn’t change though. “Regardless of the characters or plots or color palettes one truth reigns, romance is about the hope of finding love and that’s intoxicating. Readers want to believe that despite the adversity the writer throws at the characters, love will conquer all.” Whether the psychology is based in love, lust, or family goals, it seems, the romance novel remains on top.
Not knowing much about romance novels, I wondered if there might be a risk of unrealistic expectations by their readers if real life partners can’t live up to romance novel ideals. People who have studied this though seem to find the opposite, that readers of romance novels are actually happier overall. One reason might be that their stories are examples of positive psychology. By the end of the story, everything reliably works out. Stories like this can be reassuring, and train our mind to have positive expectations. And when we have positive expectations about the world, we tend to be happier. We have a compelling attraction for stories, psychologists have found, so maybe it’s a good thing if we are drawn to stories with happy endings, and keep on optimistically working toward happiness in our own lives.
Glenn Croston is the author of “The Real Story of Risk”, exploring the strange ways we see the many risks of our world, and how we can do better.