It always makes me cringe when people say romance novels are porn. I mean, some romance novels are, in fact, porn. There is a wide range from “paper-thin plot wrapped around scenes of genitals being combined with other body parts in a variety of inventive fashions” to “the characters kiss a shocking three times.” But the latter category exists, and it is not because women as a whole get off on chaste confessions of love.
In my opinion, the purpose of a romance novel qua romance novel is to elicit in the reader the emotion of new relationship energy (or NRE, because I hate typing), in much the same way that porn elicits in the reader the emotion of sexual arousal. Naturally, these go together quite well (as do sexual arousal and NRE in real life). But they are separable and often separated.
A romance novel plotline goes through the entire process of new relationship energy: meeting someone; discovering their good qualities; wondering if they’re into you; finally having them commit to you. However, romance novels heighten the NRE by including lots of ludicrous things that do not generally happen in real life, e.g. billionaire cowboys, secret babies, conversions of troubled atheists by the power of your steadfast love and wholesome beauty. (This is, of course, similar to porn: real life contains extremely few reverse gangbangs consisting solely of conventionally attractive nineteen-year-olds.)
Romance novels also offer a sense of safety. You know that– no matter how dark the climax seems– the heroine and the hero are going to get together. Real-life NRE is full of uncertainty: sadly, many people fail to recognize your many charms, and those that do sometimes turn out, upon reflection, to be mean or boring or prone to cutting off people’s heads and storing them in the basement. However, a happily ever after is a genre convention of romance novels; if there’s no happily ever after, it’s not– by the Romance Writers of America definition– a romance. (Yes, this does mean that Romeo and Juliet is not, technically speaking, a romance.) You know that the hero’s commitmentphobia will turn out to be a misunderstanding, his gruffness will turn out to be caused by his dark and troubled past, and the fact that he doesn’t seem to be into the heroine will turn out to be because she smells so good that he’s constantly on edge trying not to suck all her blood. The sense of safety means that a lot of things that are wildly unpleasant in real life– such as being rejected– instead enjoyably heighten the suspense.
One thing which puzzles me very much about romance novels is that there doesn’t seem to be a version with men as the target audience. After all, there is a version of porn with women as the target audience (page 98-101 of the romance novel, or chapter three of the fanfic). I understand that there is significant stigma around men consuming romantic media, but capitalism is really good at the thing it does. Why hasn’t capitalism produced a genre of romances festooned with enough dead bodies and half-naked women that men can feel comfortable consuming it without it impugning their masculinity?
(Okay, the movie Deadpool. But why aren’t there, like, five hundred thousand versions of the movie Deadpool?)
Perhaps men as a group do not desire to read romance novels? I’ve seen people express this belief but I think it’s incorrect. First of all, men do experience NRE and find it quite enjoyable, so presumably men would also enjoy simulated NRE. Second of all, I know lots of men who claimed not to be interested in romances, but became passionately invested in them once they found the right sort of romance. For instance, they might have believed that they didn’t like romance because they think romantic comedies are kind of boring and stupid, but show them Hermione/Luna fanfiction and suddenly they’re awake at four AM going “but I HAVE to see how this fake marriage fic is going to turn out!”
Of course, this makes perfect sense. People find that different things trigger their simulated NRE. Continuing the porn analogy: if you’re vanilla and the only kind of porn you were ever exposed to was Kink.com, you’d probably think porn was repulsive and mean and maybe you’d say you don’t like porn at all. But that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t enjoy the hell out of loving, affectionate lesbian porn. I myself find that the average romance novel leaves me cold: the heroes are often a hypermasculine alpha male archetype that I find approximately as sexy as a potted plant, and I sometimes feel too much of an urge to slip the heroine a domestic-violence hotline number to be really invested in the relationship. Fortunately, I have also read Pride and Prejudice, which stars Darcy The Socially Awkward Penguin, and (on a less highbrow note) a truly mind-boggling number of fanfics starring shy coffeeshop employees who can’t confess their feelings to each other.
In conclusion: men, if you think you don’t like romance, consider the possibility that you have been reading the wrong romance, and maybe you’d enjoy the hell out of the movie Deadpool or Jane Austen or A Civil Campaign or something.
(If you do like A Civil Campaign, it’s a pastiche of Georgette Heyer IN SPAAAAACE, so you would probably like her books too.)