(Note: I recently read *another* opinion piece on romance novels that was poorly informed. The author has since apologized, for which I truly think he deserves a great deal of credit, but in his apology, he claims that he finds modern women reading romance novels to be counterintuitive. This statement, along with his blanket assessment of the quality of romance novels, reveals more about his ignorance of the genre than anything else. Fortunately, ignorance is a solvable problem. Here’s my response. It won’t make much sense if you haven’t read the original piece.)
The other day, I was riding the train to work, and I saw a young man sitting in the seat in front of me. He was well-dressed and carrying a leather briefcase, and he had neatly combed brown hair and a close shave, so I naturally assumed he must have a well-paying job and a higher-than-average intellect. He was also very attractive—the kind of man I might have wanted to marry someday. He was reading something on an electronic device, and I decided it wouldn’t be an egregious invasion of his privacy if I craned over his shoulder to see what it was. I expected him to be perusing the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, or perhaps The Economist. Imagine my shock when I found he was reading a thriller!
I could tell it was a thriller by the staccato prose and the vivid descriptions of torture and gruesome killings. Clearly this man must be dissatisfied with the mundanity of his white-collar life. Clearly he must yearn for simpler, more violent solutions to the complex problems he must face every day. I suspected he wished he could pack a Glock in his suit coat and brutally murder everyone with whom he engaged in unfavorable contract negotiations.
With a shock of dismay, I realized I knew many men just like him: good-looking, wealthy men with big stock portfolios and upwardly mobile careers that nonetheless liked to read about the hyper-sexualized spy-slash-good-cop heroes and casual violence one so often finds in thrillers. This man must long for a relationship with one of the beautiful-yet-needy damsels in distress those heroes were perpetually rescuing.
Any hope I had of starting a relationship with the stranger perished. How could he ever appreciate someone like me—someone with a job and the ability to think for myself? It was like my mother always said. No man was ever going to fall in love with me while I insisted on wearing pantsuits to work. As I sat back in my seat, consumed with hopelessness, another, more disturbing thought occurred to me. What if he had noticed me looking over his shoulder—would he be angry? Would he respond with the kind of violence he so clearly valued reading? He no longer seemed like the placid sort of man I might have a relationship with—he seemed dangerous.
My own destination was many stops away, but I decided to get off at the next one, just to be safe. The train came to a stop, the brakes squealing, and I pulled myself out of my seat, resolutely looking away from the man’s e-reader. To my terror, he stood up, too. Should I leave? Stay? As I vacillated, the man turned. He saw me. He smiled, and I could only manage a weak nod in return. This was it. He was going to bash my head in on the back of the hideous red plastic seat—
—but no. He was only offering his seat to an elderly gentleman who’d just boarded the train. I sat back down and returned to my romance novel, which featured a vampire huntress staking blood-sucking villains in Victorian England—and falling in love with one of her prey. Sexy stuff, and the vampire hero seemed to appreciate strong women. Too bad it was only a novel.
(For the record, I think romance novels serve as far more than “escapism,” but I’ve already written about that here. And in case you missed my point, I think the way people are portrayed in works of fiction—any fiction—is important. Also, thrillers are awesome. But making blanket assumptions about whole groups of people based on their reading habits, especially while also making highly generalized judgements about the books in question? That's just plain silly.)