A whopping 25 percent of American adults did not read a single book in 2013, according to The Pew Research Center. In just over three decades, the number of non-reading adults has nearly tripled. This finding—that one quarter of American adults did not open a paperback, fire up a Kindle, or listen to an audiobook while driving in the car or commuting on the metro—is all the more surprising given the aforementioned technological advancements that have made reading more easily accessible and user-friendly.
There are, however, more women in America today reading romance novels. These women—mostly Southern, aged 30 to 54, half married and half single—support the billion dollar industry, according to the Houston-based nonprofit, Romance Writers of America (RWA). In 2012, romance fiction generated $1.48 billion in revenue, besting the next genre—religious and inspirational—by nearly double. The RWA also estimates that in 2008, nearly 75 million Americans read a romance novel.
Browse The New York Times bestseller page and one can’t help but notice that romantic fiction has become synonymous with The Times. This week, for instance, Diana Gabaldon’s Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, a time-traveling romance that takes place in the 18th and 21st Centuries, tops the list. In fifth place follows Elin Hilderbrand’s The Matchmaker, a story about how a Nantucket resident’s life is shaken by a tragic diagnosis and the return of her high school sweetheart. And in tenth place follows Emily Giffin’s The One and Only, a love story that takes place against a backdrop of Texas football.
Clearly, romance novel readership is on the rise.
The question is, “Why the sudden spike in popularity?” After all, romance novels have existed for hundreds of years. Just think of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Brontë‘s Jane Eyre, Daphne Du Maurier’s gothic romance, Rebecca, to name a few. And yet, the combined number of copies sold of these literary classics only makes up a fraction of the 100 million copies sold of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. A film adaptation of the series that has landed on The New York Times bestseller page more than 100 times will be released in theaters next February.
The first book of the erotic romance fiction trilogy, Fifty Shades of Grey, details the relationship between college senior, Anastasia “Ana” Steele, and handsome billionaire Christian Grey. Although the book is primarily known for its violent, graphic sex scenes, it also describes the emotional connection between Ana and Christian, apart from a purely sexual standpoint. For example, upon discovering that she is a virgin, Christian does not make her sign a contract that clarifies their relationship is purely sexual, not romantic. He lavishes Ana with gifts, introduces her to his family, and shares private information about his family life with her. This leaves the reader wondering if it’s possible for an actual romantic relationship to develop between the two. But because the sex becomes too violent, she leaves him. The next two books deal with the possibility of their relationship—a generous word—being rekindled. (Thank you, Wikipedia).
Everything about Fifty Shades is pure fantasy. It makes Twilight look like a nonfiction series. It’s about a billionaire who embodies all of the materialistic characteristics of the ideal man—wealthy, dominant, handsome—who just might actually like Ana romantically. In reality, there is a 99.9 percent chance that Christian would stop seeing Ana after their first or second sexual encounter. In reality, there is an absolutely zero percent chance that Christian could actually be a suitable, stable guy for her. And in reality, Ana would avoid Christian at all costs after participating in the type of violent sex described in the book. But Fifty Shades is fantasy, not reality. And while some critics attribute its popularity to the sex, it’s largely because women like reading about the emotional bond between the protagonists. The build up to the possibility of a relationship forming makes it exciting. Most men, on the other hand, are different.
Psychologist Dr. Julia Slattery, author of Finding the Hero in Your Husband, says there are similarities between what happens to a woman when she reads a romance novel and what happens to a man when he views pornography.
“There is a neurochemical element with men and visual porn, but an emotional element with women and these novels,” she writes.
Women experience a euphoric high when reading romance novels and men experience the same addicting chemical release when watching porn. It’s no wonder that women account for over 91 percent of the genre’s readership, or that Dr. Slattery is seeing more and more women addicted to these books. These books, she notes, do not have to be sexually explicit to work.
Why, then, does the boom in romance novels seem to be a newfound phenomenon?
First, publishers today can reach a global mass market. Harlequin, a Toronto-based company that publishes series romance and women’s fiction, releases an average of 120 titles per month in 29 different languages in 107 international markets on six continents. The grocery-aisle paperbacks include titles such as What a Sicilian Husband Wants, What the Greek Can’t Resist, The Italian’s Inexperienced Mistress, and The Shy Bride. The entertainment they provide is analogous to watching a soap opera, and takes the reader only an hour or two to read from start to finish. So while the women of Generation X grew up reading the literary romance classics, the women of Generation Y have more options to read fluffy stories.
These stories are becoming more and more mainstream as publishers shift from paperback to digital format. This change in the way we read is reminiscent of the shift from hardcover to paperback in 1972. Kathleen Woodiwiss’ The Flame and the Flower was the first book to appear in paperback, and much of its success is attributed to the shift. Similarly, many contemporary women are reading romance novels on their digital readers. Fifty Shades has sold millions of copies in digital format.
It must be pointed out that The Flame and the Flower, published in the 1970s, was an anomaly of its time. It revolutionized the romance genre, arguably influencing romance novels geared toward adults today. It graphically details the physical, and often violent, intimacy between the hero, Brandon, and the heroine, Heather. In this historical romance set in the 19th Century, Heather kills a man who tried to rape her. She flees the scene by boarding a ship near the London dockside, only to be mistaken for a prostitute and raped again, this time by the captain of the ship Brandon Birmingham. He realizes that she is not a prostitute and they fall in love. This is, again, not just unrealistic, it’s completely demeaning, but the chance of there being a relationship against all odds makes it a page-turner for some women.
Advocacy has also helped. Romance Writers of America—a group that advances the professional interests of romance writers through networking and advocacy—has fueled the rise in sales. With its hundreds of local, online, and special-interest chapters, annual conferences, and sponsorship of the romance publishing industry’s prestigious awards, it has been expanding since it was established in 1981. At the time, its founders became increasingly frustrated with the professional, esteemed writers who would drown out the voices of romance writers, believing that their material should not be taken seriously. That began to change, slowly but surely, with the founding of RWA. There is no doubt that it has been influential in the widespread availability of romance novels. For example, RWA convinced Harlequin to register copyrights for authors’ works and allow writers to keep and own their pseudonyms if they decided to switch publishers. Previously, this was not possible.
Easy-to-read and entertaining, accessible and addicting, it’s clear why more and more women are reading romance novels. These authors and publishers have tapped into a new niche of readers, and have made these light reads a mainstream source of entertainment.