When weeks of coronavirus-induced depression became too much to handle, Geordie Lindemann did something few American men admit to: He bought his very first romance novel.
To be precise, it was an audiobook because he had a 10-hour-long road trip ahead of him. But Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient sucked him in, and when it finally spat him back out again, he had found enlightenment. And as any self-respecting Gen Zer would, he felt compelled to share his newfound knowledge in a Reddit post, which he titled “I’m a 23-year-old, straight man who has recently fallen in love with contemporary romance novels and I think that it is important for other men to try them as well. Here’s why.”
While his post quickly attracted more than 1,300 supportive comments, littered throughout were also barbed and vitriolic ones that questioned his sexuality. “There is a stigma that [reading romance novels] is unmasculine,” says Lindemann, who is pursuing a PhD in material sciences at the University of Michigan.
This explains, at least in part, why male readers have been noticeably absent from the genre’s 90-year history. However, the foundation of this stigma finally seems to be fracturing — and there are numerous men like Lindemann willing to go public to prove it.
Guys like Matt Buchman, a 62-year-old USA Today and Amazon bestselling thriller and romance author who writes under the name M.L. Buchman. He tells me that romance novels, at their core, are “amazing stories about how to be our best selves by connecting with another person.” Meanwhile, 28-year-old D.J. DeSmyter, a romance marketing manager at St. Martin’s Press, finds “something incredibly powerful about seeing healthy relationships in romance novels.” He calls romance an “incredibly human genre” because of the intimacy between the reader and the characters.
Adam Bowman, a 31-year-old behavioral health technician, adds, “When the term ‘romance novel’ comes to mind, people think of The Notebook and stories along those lines that are all saccharin, sap and swoons. But that’s just not the case.”
Bowman and other male romance readers are quick to acknowledge that the stigma against romance novels isn’t helped by the cover art that typically comes with them. As a result, any mention of the genre usually inspires mental images akin to Fabio the Warrior, shirtless and kneeling painlessly on a bed of roses with a woman whose costume hangs precariously from her nipples; Fabio the Pirate, shirtless and calmly sniffing his female companion’s hair as their ship sinks into the ocean; or Fabio the Peasant, curiously naked in a field with a fully-dressed woman aroused by hay.
But whatever cover comes to mind, Bowman wants guys to realize that there is so much more going on under those oiled pectorals and heaving bosoms — well, under the book covers, at least. “A lot of these books are extremely well-written with extremely good plots and characters… and very arousing sex scenes,” he says of the descriptive imagery that’s enough to make your grandma or mom break into prayer.
Speaking of mothers, journalist Avi Steinberg was introduced to the genre when his childhood friend started sneakily borrowing her mother’s romance novels so that she could read them together with Steinberg. “As a boy, I could kind of imagine the male sexual experience, but I had very little to go on to understand the female sexual experience,” he tells me. “[With a romance novel], it’s just explicit; it’s right there on the page.”
Now as an adult, Steinberg, whose first romance novel debuts in August, explains, “I feel like I’m getting so much intelligence from [reading romance novels]. As a male reader, these books provide a wider lens on women who are interested in men — they allow us to see a man from a woman’s perspective. I feel like I should be paying more money to get that information!”
For his part, Buchman thinks the takeaway from romance sex scenes is actually pretty simple: The woman’s pleasure is just as important as the man’s. (The romance novel’s focus on female pleasure also provides an excellent opportunity for men to form a better understanding of consent as well, according to Steinberg.)
The genre is frequently mocked as “trash,” “smut” or “porn for women” because of the inclusion of these sex scenes. But as Bowman points out, “The sex scenes lead to the intimacy between the main characters. It leads to growth and knowledge. They learn about each other in an intimate way that cannot be duplicated through everyday conversations and interactions.” As such, to his way of thinking, sex in romance novels doesn’t make it trash. Instead, these scenes help “normalize” a natural human interaction.
Plus, says Steinberg, “these books aren’t reducible to just sex.” He and other male readers have all been particularly moved by the positive depictions of masculinity therein. “They provide a positive model of masculinity that I wish I had growing up,” explains Bowman. He thinks that being exposed to romance novel heroes at a younger age “would have saved me a lot of time during my awkward years of trying to be something that I’m not.”
Bowman works at a rehab center for men in Indiana, and his daily interactions at work are a constant reminder of the deep damage caused by traditional masculine gender norms. He has seen patients who are trapped in vicious, unending cycles of addiction, unable to open up about the cause of their emotional trauma because the notion of “being a man” means not expressing pain.
“That’s one of the reasons why I love the heroes in these books so much — they’re so different from what I see on a daily basis,” he tells me. He specifically enjoys the trajectory of the heroes’ emotional development. At the beginning of the story, they reflect American masculinity as it is today. But by the end, “you can see him soften up, lighten up and open up to the heroine who is helping him get in touch with emotions that he hadn’t tapped into in years,” Bowman says.
The kind of romance hero that Bowman describes is becoming increasingly prevalent across the genre because authors like Buchman are making a concerted effort to create them. Buchman tells me that his goal is to always write stories of a “hopeful future” by writing men not as they are today but as “what the modern male can aspire to be.”
The romance industry subsists on this kind of hope. Per the Romance Writers of America (RWA), in order for a story to be considered a romance, it must fulfill two requirements: 1) the story’s plotline must focus on the romantic development between two characters; and 2) it must have a happy ending. It’s this latter element that seems to be a universal beacon to readers, regardless of gender. “The most magical thing about reading a romance book is that it can change my entire perspective for the day, or for the week,” says DeSmyter. He explains that when he finishes one, he is “almost always smiling and that’s a good feeling, especially during these times when there’s so much uncertainty, anger and hatred going around.”
To that end, during the 2008 Recession, readers got creative and turned to romance novels with such fervor that sales increased at a time when purchases of just about everything else, with the exception of condoms, were plummeting. But few of these romance readers were likely men, since a 2012 RWA survey found that only 9 percent of readers were male.
Now, as the pandemic continues to hang over our heads and the threat of another recession solidifies, people are once again desperate for messages of hope, however small — and once again, they’re turning to romance novels. In fact, Buchman notes that his fellow romance authors have reported seeing a significant increase in their book sales since the pandemic hit the U.S. And this time around, it seems like many of those readers are indeed male. Case in point: RWA’s most recent reader survey in 2017, found that male readership had jumped to 18 percent, doubling in the span of five years. What’s more, 73 percent of male respondents identified themselves as either “very frequent” or “frequent” romance novel readers.
Buchman is heartened by these figures as he believes it means there are now “hundreds of thousands” of avid American male romance readers.
After all, wanting hope and happiness — the core themes of the romance genre — is a universal human desire, not those of one gender exclusively. DeSmyter thinks if more people embrace this concept through reading romance novels, there’s a possibility it could transform into something much larger. “Romance novels have always been able to change the world,” he concludes. “More people just need to jump on the bandwagon.”