The birth of the modern romance novel is generally considered to be in the early 1970s with the publication of The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss, but the first romance novel was actually Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson, published in 1740, followed by Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen published in 1813. Romance novels have been around for a quite a while and they have changed a great deal. So who reads them?
According to Romance Writers of America,64.6 million Americans read at least one romance novel in the past year, up from 51 million readers in 2002 and 41 million in 1998. Of those readers, 78% are women, 50% are married, and 42% have a bachelor’s degree or higher (I found these statistics here).
I found a good article the other day that attempted to answer the question: “Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?” The first argument, which is not the author’s opinion, is the tired old one that reading romance is deviant and that romance readers are either pathetic souls or debased fools. Another argument was structural misogyny, or the belief that romance novels are about women so men would have no interest in them. The article then offered a different take on the Why. Men don’t read fiction. The author quotes an NPR article that reported that men make up about 20 percent of fiction readers. According to RWA, they make up 22% of romance readers. Women are the majority readers for just about every genre of fiction. So, maybe men don’t read romance because they don’t read fiction that often. The men I know who have read romance novels have liked them.
Many of the women I know who read romance novels are smart, successful, liberated, modern females who find deep satisfaction in delving into entertaining stories about relationships that just happen to end with a happy ever after. There might be some intrigue, or a werewolf, or a time machine, too, or any one of tons of other elements that slide the romance into subgenres.
I read romance, to borrow the words of Susan Elizabeth Phillips, “because life’s too short to read depressing books.”