A few months ago, I was visiting my family in upstate New York, and an all-too-familiar scene played out for what felt like the millionth time in my life. As I sat, nose-deep in my ereader, my brother-in-law walked in.
“What are you reading?” he asked, completely unaware of what a loaded question this was.
I immediately began to squirm. It was a harmless question and wasn’t meant to make me uncomfortable. There was no reason to lie to my brother-in-law. Instead, I decided would lay it all out and armor myself for the barrage of questions and shocked/amused looks that were sure to follow.
“Well,” I said, “it’s kind of embarrassing.” Actually, it wasn’t embarrassing—not anymore. It was just a pretty dull conversation for me to have by that point.
“Don’t worry about it!” he answered good-naturedly. “I read all sorts of stuff! Right now I’m reading a YA sci-fi novel!”
This buoyed my courage a little, so out it came:
“I’m reading a historical romance novel. It’s called Seized by Love.”
Mouth. Floor. Silence.
Then he replied, “Wow. Yeah…that IS embarrassing.”
Story of my life. Ever since I was a big-haired, acne-ridden junior high schooler, I’ve been reading historical romance novels. I’ve often wondered what first drew me to these little bits o’ paperback bliss, and I’ve come to one conclusion: Despite my awkwardness (which I’ve never gotten over) and my acne (which, thankfully, I have), I was a pretty mentally and emotionally mature kid by the time I reached junior high school; my body just had to catch up. And of course, as it is for many such kids, junior high was pure hell. I dealt with merciless bullying, had few friends, and attended a school that regarded me as a freak at best, and unworthy of protection and attention at worst.
And so I did what any rational, sane person would do: I sought an escape. I’d always loved to read, and my weekly trips to the library were even better than church. I’m sure I was probably drawn to that first romance by the shirtless hunk on the cover (my queerness is something I’d always known about myself; no major self-discovery needed there). After that first read, I was hooked, and I soon learned that the common perception of romance novels as porn couldn’t be more wrong. The sex was secondary to intricate plot development; the historical detail was often downright impressive. The writing styles could vary wildly; everything from scholarly to accessible, from poetic to practical.
Still, the common perception and accepted norm was—and still is—that men just don’t read romance novels. Romance novels, their covers featuring swelling bosoms and glistening pectorals, are thought to be a domain strictly reserved for “zeh ladies.” As a result, I used to read my romance novels with the cover face down on my desk or in my lap. When I put the book down, I always turned it over to conceal the cover. Many romance novels had the supposed disadvantage of bearing a vivid jewel-toned or pastel color; I remember reading Mountain Laurel by Jude Devereaux, and when my dad asked to see what I was reading, I had to show him the cover festooned with brightly colored flowers. I mean, this book looked like a muumuu. Disguising the romance novel became a mission for me. But never have I ever considered curbing my adoration of/obsession with them.
I now know, of course, that there are other men like me, other Dudes Who Read Romance. According to RWA (Romance Writers of America), men make up 16% of all romance readership. That’s a pretty significant number. In the end, romance novels are no more for women only than thrillers are only for men, or Harry Potter is only for children.
In fact, I’ve come to love the covers of romance novels, pastel colors, washboard abs and all. I don’t want the industry to start marketing toward men; too much of the world already does that. Though I’m never eager to have the, “Yes, I am a Dude, and Yes, I Read Romance Novels” conversation (mainly because it’s a boring one), I’m happy to hold up my romance novels when I read them now. Take a look, world, at this pink and purple cover! Look at the sheer ecstasy on that lady’s face! Look at the…gangplank…on that pirate! I am a proud Dude Who Reads Romance.
My only question is this: With 16% of all romance readers being of the male persuasion…where are all the other Dudes? Come on, fellas. Drop the shame and embarrassment! Embrace your inner heaving bosoms! You are not alone.
Are you—or do you know someone who identifies as—a Dude Who Reads Romance?