February is the month of love. Not just for libraries – though it is Library Lovers’ Month – but it’s also that time of the year that doting husbands buy their devoted wives chocolates to appease the wrath of St Valentine, the price of red roses rises exponentially, and your crazy cat loving aunt devours romance novels by the boat load.
But that’s not quite true. I mean, St Valentine does hunger for the blood of star crossed lovers, but the part about the crazy cat lady with the romance novels? That’s actually a very common misconception. When most people think about the type of people who read romance novels they picture sad, lonely women who are a little on the eccentric side and as for the novels themselves? Well, the common perception is that they’re cheap, nasty, trashy books that publishing houses publish under duress. The truth is rather far from any of these ‘facts’.
Romance novels make up a third of all mass market fiction novels sold worldwide, which is more than all other genres combined. It is a billion dollar industry. This is likely because of how diverse romance novels tend to be. Sure, they all have a love story that’s central to the plot but otherwise, they’re as different as you can get. Crime and thrillers, Sci-Fi and fantasy, historical or contemporary, Westerns and Steampunk – romance novels cover all the bases.
If you think that the main characters are going to be a swooning damsel in distress and a hulking bear of a man who has conveniently lost his shirt, you may be pleasantly surprised by what you’ll find. There is increasing demand for queer protagonists, as well as characters of colour, people with disabilities, and relationships that defy the monogamist norm. Even when the main characters are a heterosexual couple, the characters generally have more depth than in the bodice rippers of old.
And yes, predominately it is women who read romance novels, but roughly 18% of readers identify as male. There didn’t seem to be statistics for non-binary or gender diverse readers but I have to assume that they’d make up a good few percent as well. As for the assumption that they’re only read by old spinsters or bored housewives, a recent survey showed that 35% of romance readers are aged between 18 and 34.
Romance novels aren’t for everyone and I’m not suggesting that they’re going to start winning Pulitzer Prizes anytime soon, but then again, neither is James Patterson. I just don’t think that they should be the target of as much ridicule as they generally are. At the end of the day, reading is about enjoying yourself; losing yourself in a little escapism. If a sweet and sappy or hot and steamy romance novel does it for you, then more power to you, I say!