Highbrow

Who are romance readers?

 

A romance reader is often adjudged as being a single, cat lady in need of a man, or they’re someone who lacks romance in real life, or they are nice people, reading stupid books. Maya Rodale debunks these myths in her article, ‘Who Is the Romance Novel Reader?’ Contrary to the popular belief, the romance readers are educated, working women, averaging between ages 30-55, earning about $55,000 a year, successfully manage career and households and are usually in a relationship (Rodale 2016).

 

According to survey results from Romance Writers of America, 84 percent of romance readers are women and 16 percent are men — up from 9 percent a few years ago. The romance industry is large — more than half of the mass market paperbacks sold in the U.S. are romance — and its readership is vast as well (RWA 2015). Romance fiction is the most read genre, with the industry drawing $1.44 billion in sales in 2012, and sales are estimated to be $1.35 billion in 2013 (Patel 2014).

 

Romance is often considered a ‘lowbrow’ form of writing & readership. Who coined it first? No one knows. Maybe to understand this disdain attached to romance books and its readership, one must reflect on the last 200 years and the evolution of women’s fiction. I remember reading romances as a teenager, often covered in non-decrepit brown paper, to avoid being labeled as the ludicrous ‘romance reader’ or worse—an escapist. Even though it dawned on me that my reading material supposedly lacked in literary value and was colloquially termed as trash; I had no qualms in pursuing my happily ever after foraging.

 

Critic and literary historians have rationally subscribed to the view that readers are either highbrow or lowbrow. It’s usually believed that trained and untrained minds do not share the same taste when it comes to reading habits. The literary elite question the purpose of reading and the effect of lowbrow literature on ignorant minds.

 

Victor Nell, in his book, Lost In A Book, refutes this belief and labels it ‘The Elitist Fallacy’. According to him, the two groups of readers—highbrow or lowbrow, do not exist. He argues that a sophisticated reader will often enjoy deeply felt and delicately wrought literature; the same person is likely to lose themselves in a Harlequin romance during a long airplane journey (Nell, The Elitist Fallacy 1988).

 

As a child, when one first starts reading, the focus is on language and stringing the words correctly to form coherent meaning. A mature reader attains fluency in language and gains higher level of emotional engagement with the text. This is usually the tipping point where a young reader moves beyond the encouragement of parents and teachers and takes up reading as a voluntary habit (M. Wolf 2007). For me, this tipping point happened while reading Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie. The plot revolved around a regular sized woman, Min Dobbs, and her quest to avoid doughnuts & men pretending to be doughnuts. Min was smart, funny and real. This is when I fell in love with the idea of love. My point being, everyone has a tipping point when venturing into the magical world of books. What they end up reading depends a lot on who’s guiding them or where their natural affinity lies.

 

To better understand the romance reader, we must first understand the concept of ludic reading. Why romance readers read, what they read.

 

‘Ludic’ or ‘absorbed’ reading is often identified as a state in which readers become oblivious to the world around them, usually willingly. Some readers read like this, others can’t. For readers with the ability to become so absorbed in a book, aesthetic quality has little to do with enjoyment. The word Ludic comes from Latin Ludo, meaning ‘I play’. Ludic reading corresponds to the pleasure reading, reminding us that reading is a playful activity, is intrinsically motivated and usually engaged in for its own sake (Nell, The Insatiable Appetite 1988). It would be safe to say that romance readers are ludic readers to highlight the engagement and trance like absorption that can result during reading a great novel. This pleasure derives, in part, from novels’ intense components of emotion and fantasy, such that readers’ imaginative engagement with the story shapes who they understand themselves to be (Roach 2016).

 

In her book, Proust and the Squid, Maryanne Wolf craftily inserts an excerpt from Proust’s book, On Reading and asks the reader to read the text as fast as they can.

 

There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those . . . we spent with a favorite book. Everything that filled them for others, so it seemed, and that we dismissed as a vulgar obstacle to a divine pleasure: the game for which a friend would come to fetch us at the most interesting passage; the troublesome bee or sun ray that forced us to lift our eyes from the page or to change position; the provisions for the afternoon snack that we had been made to take along and that we left beside us on the bench without touching, while above our head the sun was diminishing in force in the blue sky; the dinner we had to return home for, and during which we thought only of going up immediately afterward to finish the interrupted chapter, all those things with which reading should have kept us from feeling anything but annoyance, on the contrary they have engraved in us so sweet a memory (so much more precious to our present judgment than what we read then with such love), that if we still happen today to leaf through those books of another time, it is for no other reason than that they are the only calendars we have kept of days that have vanished, and we hope to see reflected on their pages the dwellings and the ponds which no longer exist (M. Wolf 2007).

 

After reading the above text, Ms. Wolf asks the reader to analyze what they were thinking while reading the paragraph. She claims that Proust successfully conjures up the reader’s long-stored memories of books; the secret places they hid in, to read. Perhaps took them to the moments they spent reading underneath a tree, eating their favorite snack, completely lost in a trance; reading for the pleasure of reading (M. Wolf 2007).

 

Similarly, a romance reader has the ability of ‘Passing over’, a term used by theologian John Duane, describing a reader’s ability to step into the shoes of the character; be it a knight readying for battle, or how a heroine behaves, how an evildoer can regret a wrongdoing. The moment this happens; the reader is no longer limited by the confines of their own thinking.

 

When you read the above paragraph from Proust’s book, you engaged an array of cognitive processes like attention, memory, visuals, auditory and linguistic processes (M. Wolf 2007). Romance readers go through this process quite seamlessly. Even though, it is argued that romance fiction is repetitive and formulaic, but the reader simply wants the rush of familiar, yet elusive, euphoria that comes with finishing a great love story.

 

The good news for publishers is that romance readers are singularly voracious and loyal. A recent Nielsen study reported that around 15% of the genre’s fans buy new books at least once a week; 6% do so more than once per week. These core romance fans are avid readers who stay very loyal to the genre. Moreover, 25% of buyers read romance more than once a week, and nearly half do so at least once a week; only 20% read romance less than once a month (Nielsen 2015). Where an average American reads 12 books a year, a genre reader reads as many 20 titles in a single month (Ha 2016).

 

Considering the sheer volume of consumption of romance, why don’t more readers admit to reading them?

 

Perhaps the answer to this question can be found in the history of mass culture. Mass culture is a term that plays on the wide self-belief that there is an inverse relationship between the quality and quantity of culture. It has been deemed as being incorrect by G.H. Lewis who argues that there is no empirical evidence whatsoever that mass culture harms its consumers. (Lewis 1978). Since the sixteenth century, Western views of correct use of time and sinfulness of worldly pleasures have been powerfully influenced by religion, especially, Puritanism. The use of time and money, on anything not related to God-ly pursuits, was frowned upon and squandering away money for profane works of fiction was against the religious ethics. This belief has trickled down through centuries (Nell, Plague of Spirit, Death of Mind: Pleasure reading and the Social value System 1978). Women fiction was, and to an extent still is, given a cursory brush off.

 

These issues do affect the social and personal determinants of the romance reader’s choice of reading material and how they feel about this choice. Most romance readers see themselves as book addicts, like cigarette smokers, and feel compelled to justify their choices. Often believing that admitting to reading such books would alter how people perceive them, and run the risk of being tagged as ‘frivolous’. This is quite unfortunate because the idea of what is highbrow and lowbrow is skewed. Romance books are often labeled as trash, on the basis of being unoriginal, predictive, depraved or formulaic. While at the same time the same aesthetic is applauded as art, be it Titian’s Venus of Urbino or Bernini’s Rape of Persephone, where sexuality is celebrated or the repetitive reproduction of ‘Madonna & Child’ that held generations of artists in rapture. The interest or arousal boost one gets from such art is similar to what a romance reader derives from reading a novel. Yet, they are world apart as far as perceived literary value goes.

 

The fact that romance readers read really fast tends to suggest that they merely skim the text and do not sink between the lines, as a non-fiction reader would. To ascertain the credibility of this assumption, we must examine the relationship between reading speed and ludic reading. Reading speed is a function of text and comprehension. In a lab experiment, Nell engaged a group of readers to read three paragraphs of increasing difficulty, while pressing a buzzer at regular intervals. It would be an obvious assumption that readers pressed the buzzer more promptly while reading easier text, considering that it requires lesser attention. It would be a wrong assumption. The experiment threw light on the fact that as the difficulty of the text increased, the reader’s speed decreased and they became more susceptible to outside disturbances. This happened because comprehension failed to take hold of the reader’s attention and left them somewhat akin to a tourist who is listening to a news broadcast in a foreign language (Nell, Reading ability and reading habits 1978). Romance readers usually read fast because they understand the language of romance narrative, and not because the reading material is sub-par or lowbrow.

 

So, if the constraints of religious ethics were removed and a highbrow reader was marooned on a deserted island with bundles of romance novels, their covers stripped off, would the highbrow reader succumb to reading for pleasure, relaxation and reading trance? Your guess is as good as mine.

 

In my opinion, romance readers do themselves disservice by relegating their reading choices to trashy or lowbrow. Reading is a gift and an acquired skill. It should be able to serve us in a spectrum of ways. A reader can oscillate between complex, beautifully written literary works and just as well-written, poignant tales of love, without having to justify their choices. The debate between highbrow and lowbrow literature has been raging for centuries. The lines between the two have been blurring as the middlebrow literature is emerging. The romance reader, meanwhile, is lost in their kindle, away from all judgment and is enjoying a thrilling, imaginary ride.

 

William Faulkner once famously said, “Perhaps they were right putting love into books. Perhaps it could not live anywhere else.”

 

Perhaps he was right.

 

Anumeha Gokhale

MPub 2017

Works Cited

Ha, Thu-Huong. Maverick women writers are upending the book industry and selling millions in the process. 07 22, 2016. https://qz.com/711924/maverick-women-are-upending-the-book-industry-and-selling-millions-in-the-process/ (accessed 10 25, 2017).

Lewis, G. H. “The Sociology of Popular Culture George H. Lewis.” Sage Publications, 1978.

Nell, Victor. “Plague of Spirit, Death of Mind: Pleasure reading and the Social value System.” In Lost in a Book, by Victor Nell, 26-30. Yale University Press, 1978.

Nell, Victor. “Reading ability and reading habits.” In Lost in a book, by Victor Nell, 84-97. Yale University Press, 1978.

Nell, Victor. “The Elitist Fallacy.” In Lost In A Book, by Victor Nell, 4-6. Yale University Press, 1988.

Nell, Victor. “The Insatiable Appetite.” In Lost In A Book, by Victor Nell, 2. Yale University Press, 1988.

Nielsen. LITERARY LIAISONS: WHO’S READING ROMANCE BOOKS? 10 08, 2015. http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/news/2015/literary-liaisons-whos-reading-romance-books.html (accessed 10 25, 2017).

Patel, Sital S. Read lowbrow fiction in public: Novels like ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ spark sales on e-readers. 07 22, 2014. http://blogs.marketwatch.com/themargin/2014/07/25/romance-novels-like-fifty-shades-of-grey-ignite-sales-on-e-readers/?link=instory (accessed 10 25, 2017).

Roach, Catherine M. ” Going Native: When the Academic Is (Also) the Fan.” In Happily Ever After – The Romance Story in Popular Culture, by Catherine M. Roach, 28-32. Indiana University Press, 2016.

Rodale, Maya. Who Is the Romance Novel Reader? 05 07, 2016. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/maya-rodale/who-is-the-the-romance-novel-reader_b_7192588.html (accessed 10 24, 2017).

RWA. Romance Writers of America – Romance Statistics. 2015. https://www.rwa.org/p/cm/ld/fid=580 (accessed 09 28, 2017).

Wolf, Marryanne. “The ‘Natural History’ of Reading Development.” In Proust and the Squid, by Maryanne Wolf, 108-33. HarperCollins, 2007.

Wolf, Maryanne. “Reading Lessons From Proust And The Squid.” In Proust and the Squid, by Mayanne Wolf, 3-17. HarpeerCollins Publishers, 2007.