Anyone who’s never read a so-called Romance Novel knows the standard cliché assumptions about what they’re all like.
Supposedly written by gushy, middle-aged, female authors in a highly romantic, sentimental, “True Confession” tone. Stories designed to entertain audiences overflowing with bored and frustrated housewives. Who may even have “jobs,” but certainly not “Serious Careers.” Featuring a Main Character who’s a bright, proactive, average-looking Woman telling the story in the first person. A tale about the trials and tribulations she suffers while trying to find herself a Decent Man among all the scumbags who seem to populate her world.
Exactly the kind of novel few male readers in their right minds would dare to buy in public. For fear of looking less masculine.
But don’t these simple-minded clichés overlook a more important universe of romance novels, which demonstrate appeal to both female and male readers?
Think of all the novels featuring Male Main Characters who tell readers about the Biggest Thing in their Lives. Namely, the compelling women whom they love, Pursue, Seek to possess. Maybe even succeed in possessing by the last page. It’s the women who are the Real Stars of these novels. And they are seen exclusively through the eyes of the men who adore them.
An example is my new novel THE WOMEN WHO MADE ME. Just published as an eBook by OC Press.
Robert Gardner is a Wall Street Shark. Languishing in Federal Prison for the many “Money Crimes” he committed during his lucrative Wall Street career. He tells readers about the two remarkable women who made all the difference in his life.
The first is his beautiful and worldly Aunt Martha. He develops a secret, overpowering love passion for her during high school. And loses himself in constant erotic dreams and fantasies about her. She is so much more than anything he ever imagined a woman could be. Finally, his fantasies come true when the two of them are stranded together in a motel room during a major blizzard. They then become a committed (if underground) love couple during his undergraduate years at Yale.
Years later, the second love of his life is the red-haired, Russian-born Svetlana Gusoff. Staff psychiatrist in the Manhattan Halfway House to which the Feds transfer Robert to complete the final months of his prison sentence. Her charm and insights help him unravel the tormenting network of guilt and shame arising from his Wall Street crimes. Causing him to have wildly romantic dreams about her, and to see her as the Goddess of His Salvation. While Svetlana comes to appreciate the things about Robert that made him the kind of man Aunt Martha could love.
So on the eve of his release from prison, they commit themselves to build a “Love Amid the Ruins” of an America shattered by the kind of crimes Robert was part of during his Wall Street career.
But note an important feature that can make this kind of novel equally appealing to both male and female readers. As much a Romance Novel for women as for men.
Robert may seem like the novel’s main character. After all, he tells the story in his own words. Talks a great deal about himself and what he’s feeling. He clearly regards himself as the center of his fictional world.
But Aunt Martha and Svetlana are the novel’s Real Stars. In all their alluring Female Mystery. Enhanced by the fact that they’re seen exclusively through Robert’s adoring eyes. Who (like all men, regardless of their macho pretenses) is totally clueless about women. He can never really “understand” them, but at least is savvy enough to realize that he can worship them in all their Female Glory. And let them Light Up his Life with their exhilarating presence.
Doesn’t this make Aunt Martha and Svetlana the kind of fictional women female readers find hard to resist?
An excellent example of this “through other people’s eyes” approach for presenting extraordinary women in fiction is the 1954 Joe Mankiewicz movie THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA (whose status among serious critics has reached such levels that it may properly be referred to as a “Film”).
Spanish dancer Maria Vargas becomes an international super-star movie queen after being discovered byHollywoodfilmmakers performing in a back-streetMadridnightclub. But her success isn’t just because of her obvious physical beauty (in the person of Ava Gardner) or dancing skills. For she overflows with a special kind of overpowering female mystery that seems to blossom when she’s in front of the camera and fascinates movie audiences to no end. And since she dies young, she takes the secret of this to her grave.
Mankiewicz chooses to tell Maria’s story entirely through the eyes of several very different men who are (for various reasons) bewitched by her. So we get to know her only from their varied perceptions of her at different points in her life. Which adds to the mystical qualities surrounding her. Causing the audience to see Maria as an enigmatic and ever-elusive Love Goddess, whom we may admire and desire but can never actually possess.
Meanwhile, Robert’s professional life in THE WOMEN WHO MADE ME shows him to be a definite Alpha Male. King of the Wall Street Jungle. Whose Go-For-It instincts make him very rich. Exactly the kind of NFL Super-Star type male readers can’t help admiring (even if only in secret). With his stature further enhanced in their eyes by the fact that he can love and possess two such extraordinary women as Aunt Martha and Svetlana.
So do we really need to be so hung up on the idea that Romance Novels are written only for female readers? Definitively no. Men and women alike should enjoy these stories of love and lust for the light they can shed on our world. And ourselves.