So someone was saying that there are chick books and guy books, and I was all “Nuh-unh!”, and they were all, “Yeah-huh!” And, of course, genre romance novels — which are indisputably read by a 99% female audience — came up as a datum against my theory. How can you say there’s no such thing as chick books, if there are books that only chicks read?

My argument is that marketing (in the broad sense) is a strong and powerful thing. Genre romance has been marketed exclusively to women very successfully, and has extensive trappings that make it difficult for a man to even think about reading one. But, I maintained, the actual content of genre romance novels should appeal across gender lines. If you could strip away the lurid covers and flowing fonts, and get people into the text without preconceptions, you’d get the same cross-gender enjoyment you get with other fiction.

At which point Kate Nepveu said, “Okay, so go read a genre romance, then.” And I was all, “Okay, fine, I will,” because a) saying I wouldn’t read one would obviously make my argument a lot less persuasive, but mostly because b) I thought my argument was correct.

Now, from long experience of reading gutter genres (science fiction, epic fantasy, superhero comics), my expectation of romance novels is that there’d be an awful lot of them that are utter crap, but some proportion of them that are actually quite good. But while I’ve got good filters in place for screening out the bad SF/fantasy/comics, I have no such filters in place for romance novels; one pink-covered book is the same as any other to me. Fortunately, Kate provided me with a short list of recommended books, from which I picked Julia Quinn’s Romancing Mister Bridgerton .

The first thing I discovered, when I got the package from Amazon, is that the marketing forces that genderize the readership of romance novels are incredibly strong. There’s no way I could actually read this book in public, and no way I could have made myself walk into a physical bookstore and buy it off the shelves. It’s not just the cover (which, except for the pink lettering and the inexplicable Fabio picture on the spine, is basically unobtrusive), it’s the whole bundle of “No Boys Allowed” signals the packaging gives off.

But that’s the packaging. The stuff inside the cover is a different thing. The book is set in 19th century upper-crust London, and has two subplots: The burgeoning romance between Penelope Featherington and Colin Bridgerton (which, okay, are silly names; but fantasy readers know better than to start throwing that stone), and the race to discover the secret identity of society gossip columnist Lady Whistledown. If you imagine a Jane Austen novel without all the depth (this is not a book that concerns itself much with issues of class or economics) and not as well-written, you’ve got a pretty good idea of what you’re looking at here.

Well, except for the “sensuality”, as the euphemism goes. One chapter ends at a clear place to discreetly fade to black, as the two main characters are together in a bedroom with obvious intentions. The next chapter, though, pretty much just keeps going from there, and it’s not until the following chapter that things continue where a non-genre reader would have expected, with a disheveled morning. It’s not that it’s gratuitous — if you’re writing a novel about a romantic relationship, the physical element really is a key part of it — but it is a bit surprising. Jane Austen didn’t write nearly as much about nipples.

So, now that I’ve read a genre romance, what do I think of my original theory? I think it’s absolutely dead-on accurate. I enjoyed this book a great deal, and stayed up late reading it. In fact, I’m actually kind of irritated, because this is part of an eight-book series, and I’d like to read the rest of them, but it would feel weird to do so, for all those marketing-related reasons. If some enterprising publisher would reissue them as straight historical novels, with more gender-neutral covers, though, I’d be right there.


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