Today is Valentine’s Day, which is usually considered the most romantic of holidays, a day when our society celebrates monogamous, often heterosexual, love. It is no surprise, then, that romance novels become a topic of conversation this time of year. They are read by women, the recipients of most Valentine’s Day gifts and the people our society believes are obsessed with romantic love.
But the genre was rocked last week by the news that that successful romance novelist Jessica Blair was actually a pseudonym for 89-year-old white, cis, heterosexual man Bill Spence.
It is only “news” that Spence is the mind behind Jessica Blair’s novels because we assume that only women can write for women and that men would not want to.
Spence says that while writing these romance novels, “I have got to think in a female way” and “I just love doing it.” Both of these statements fly in the face of our assumptions about men and the heavily gendered rendering of the romance genre.
In the Daily Mail article on Spence, the author explains why he adopted the pseudonym two decades ago: “You do not say no to publishers. I was just very glad I had found someone who wanted to print my books, and it didn’t bother me at all that I’d been given a female name.” Why would it bother him? “I suppose some men may suppose their masculinity had been questioned, but it has never bothered me.”
Spence’s masculinity is a source of concern because romance novels are the most gendered of all literature genres. Romance has been derisively nicknamed “chick lit” or “mommy porn.” For a man to be a successful author of romance novels (which at 22 published Jessica Blair books, Spence is certainly successful), the implication is that he must shed his masculinity in order to be left with what is necessary to craft these tales: his feminine side.
Romance novels are both incredibly popular and extremely lucrative. In 2008, over 74 million people read romance novels, over 90% of them women. Since 2007, romance has been the number one genre in fiction novels. In 2011 the sale of romance fiction novels tallied $1.4 billion. The second and third closest categories in fiction novels – religious/inspirational and mystery – earned half that much. Science fiction only earned $579 million. Spence credits these numbers as one of the reasons he has continued to write romance for nearly twenty years: women love to read books and they read them in higher numbers.
Despite how lucrative and popular the genre is, though, one need only Google “in defense of romance” to see all the work that goes into defending their existence. Romance is silly, frivolous, lowbrow, sappy writing, say critics. “Trashy” and “guilty pleasure” are phrases often attached to the genre. When millions of women worldwide suddenly clamor for a book full of questionable writing and explicit sex scenes, media outlets responded by pathologizing women, treating them as anthropological subjects to be studied and understood, and feigned shock at the idea that women like to read about and have sex.
Anytime that women are the primary creators or consumers, gender becomes the main tool of analysis to describe that consumption. One aspect of male privilege is that men’s choices are more likely to be held up as “normal,” “obvious,” essentially genderless. As Maya Dusenbery has argued, in effect “men’s gender is rendered invisible” and “we have a really hard time seeing men as gendered beings.”
When we learned that Spence is a heterosexual man operating in a primarily feminine creative space, his gender was no longer invisible and he instantly became a gendered being. In turn, the very gendering of the entire genre was thrown into the spotlight and had to be addressed. Can a man’s masculinity remain intact if he dares to write romance novels? Can a man empathize with women and their desires and still be a man? It seems ridiculous to write those words in 2013 and yet the fragility of masculinity is still such a strong narrative in our culture no matter how false it may be.
I will leave you to chew on that. I’m off to read another romance novel on this most romantic of days. My girly, trashy, sappy heart loves them so.