Thoughts on Gender and Romance

I just DNFed a book by a male author, which has a small romance component. The novel is third person multiple POV about two boys and a girl. The girl definitely feels like an MPDG, with her quirky style, snappy comebacks, and the fact that she’s oh-so-high-and-unreachable. The interesting twist the story seems to put on that is that the other boy, not involved for the romance, also ends up being there just to help push the MC along a road to striving for more than he was born into. They are both plot points to promote his development: she’s aspirational and he gets fridged so as not to hold the guy back. (I’m not going to name the book here or in the comments because I had to spoil some things; stalk my GR or DM me if you want to know.) This whole mess got me thinking about romance written by men more broadly.

gif everything's uglier up close paper towns

I started digging through my GR to look at male authors’ books to see how I felt about the romance. The first thing I found is that I don’t read very many male authors, which, I suspect, is because there tends to less reliably be romance at all and, if it’s there, the odds increase that I won’t like it. Romance, for me, is almost crucial in a book. Sure, I don’t need it in absolutely everything (I mean, I loved The Martian, and that doesn’t have kissing), but I love interpersonal relationships and ones with kissing happen to be my favorites to read about. For a romance to be good, the characterization has to be on point, which is why I love them so much.

Looking through my favorites shelf for male authors, I didn’t find too many, and most of those books I love for something that’s not the romance. Let’s take The Perks of Being a Wallflower: great book, but the romance was my least favorite aspect. Same goes for Jay Kristoff’s Lotus War books; I don’t dislike the romance but I also was not invested in it at all. The Rest of Us Just Live Here and John Green novels are MPDG city.  I loved all of these books (well, not ALL of the John Green), but the romance let me down in every case.

gif no such thing as love zooey

In my brief survey of books read in the last year or so written by men, as well as my favorites shelf, here’s what I found:

  • Many books did not feature romance in any way.
  • In a number of the books with romance, the romance was my least favorite part of the book.
  • A lot of the better done ships never sailed; they remain a potential ship at the book’s close. These romances could be super shippy but romance is mostly just off to the side and not given much time.
  • Of the ones that I did ship, they are almost exclusively m/m relationships.

Now, to be perfectly clear, it’s not that I think male authors can’t write a good shippy romance because obviously it’s possible. But it does seem like that happens less often. I talked with Meg about this, as I do most things.

Capture

Men (in America anyway) get totally shafted by one particular double standard: they’re not supposed to have gushy feels. But they do.  Feelings happen. Men, however, often aren’t raised to know how to deal with them and are taught (by society’s gendered marketing and bullying) that anything about hearts and flowers and kissing is not for menfolk. Which is fucking ludicrous. If society didn’t tell men they shouldn’t be into that shit, most of the guys I know would be all over shippy stuff too. I mean, just look at the whole Brony thing: men have squishy insides that want to be released (that’s what he said).

is this a kissing book princess bride

The way that the romances in male-authored books often rub me the wrong way seem really telling about how society teaches men to view women. The women are simultaneously so hiiiiiiiiigh above them and not particularly pertinent to the story except as a sex object and life changer. The way that female characters look through a male character’s eyes is often so damn frustrating. It’s really no wonder that the romances that worked for me were m/m, because that has a whole different set of dynamics.

Both Grasshopper Jungle (which I enjoyed) and Cut Both Ways (which I loathed more than just about any other book ever) feature bisexual love triangles, so they make really interesting case studies for this. In both cases, the m/m relationship is complex and vibrant and shippable; the m/f relationships are bland, lackluster, flat. In both books, you don’t get to know the girl as well, because the guy is mostly interested in her as a sex object, where he’s into the dude for both sex AND actual bonding. Interestingly, Cut Both Ways is written by a woman, but she writes exclusively (so far anyway) in male POV, and Mesrobian prides herself on getting that voice right, so basically I’m including it anyway because her goal was to write a romance like a male author had written it.

gif boys are more important than girls

Because men are told not to be into romance, they probably have less experience reading and watching romances to be able to figure out what makes a good one. To pick on a series I do not like, The 5th Wave feels like it grabbed every terrible paranormal romance cliche like oh okay I hear this is what women are into. Men can enjoy books with a strong romance element, though I generally don’t get many young guys to admit to it. I mean, come on, my dad ADORES the Throne of Glass series and basically every romantic comedy  film ever created. I also recommend reading Sunil Patel’s post about his experience trying romance novels. There’s no reason I shouldn’t have a bunch of favorite romances written by men. But I don’t.

If you have recommendations of really excellent dude-authored romances, I’m very down for that. Otherwise, please share any insights or thoughts you have.

12 responses to “Thoughts on Gender and Romance”

  1. Meg says:

    I don’t understand why we can’t all just embrace our emotions and cry it out and then group hug the world would probably be a much better place if people weren’t so repressed by social norms and their own conditioning. I mean seriously, some of the sappiest romantics I’ve ever known have been dudes but they would also probably die before admitting it publicly. THAT’S SO STRESSFUL AND WHY. This comment has no point really.
    Meg recently posted…How to Make Your Own Fantasy MapMy Profile

  2. Joanne Levy says:

    I fully admit that I’m a total romantic sap but have also been looking for a male-written romance because I feel like I want a really 100% legitimate male’s POV on a swoony romance. Not to say that women don’t write male POVs well, but there’s always that niggling worry that the woman writer is (consciously or unconsciously) writing it the way women readers WANT it to be. Does that make sense? As a pragmatic woman I want to see what thoughts/feelings a guy might have while transcribing or making up a romantic situation.
    The obvious choice is Nicholas Sparks, but I’ve actually never read one of his books because he seems like a…not very nice guy IRL. Though full disclosure: I’ve seen The Notebook and enjoyed it.
    Maybe your trouble with the books you’ve read so far is that the focus is not on the things you want to see–different perspectives.
    Like if you take a scene and have all players in it write what happened, you’ll get as many different perspective as there are people transcribing it.
    Do men see completely different things as romantic than we do? I’ve been with my husband for a million years but he will never understand why I think him putting a dish in the dishwasher is way more romantic than him buying me flowers.
    All this to say, I’m with you and would love to hear recs, too.
    Joanne Levy recently posted…How to Show Love to an AuthorMy Profile

    • Christina Franke says:

      That’s a good point. Maybe I only like the romanticized view of men from woman-authored novels. I wonder if they really do see these things differently, though it’s hard to get around women being there only to further his development in so many cases, not for her own story. Though I wonder if this happens to male characters and we just don’t care. Certainly the male characters aren’t generally shunted off to the side or killed off to accomplish development in a female character, but even that has happened a couple of times. Maybe part of it is a double standard of being okay with women getting our own back with MPDBs. Then again, I feel like male characters just don’t end up with that same vibe as often so I don’t know.

      Different perspectives is, I think, part of it. Romance is almost never a primary element in the male-authored stories. Is that because men are genuinely less interested in it or because that’s what society teaches men to be into? And I mean the whole culture of literary fiction awards men for writing about women in this cold, detached way and focusing on the ennui of being male.

      I think it’s more that everyone finds different things romantic. There was some book, Christian, I think, that a friend told me about that talked about the five love languages—that some people feel loved when acts of service are performed for them (dishes), some when they’re told that they’re loved, some when time is spent with them, some when they’re given presents (that’s the flowers), and I can’t remember the fifth one. I thought it was interesting. Based on the men in my life, they tend to be more into time and the words, though I wonder if this too is societal, since men aren’t raised to expect to receive presents in this culture and they’re taught that women should give them service as a matter of course.

      Basically it’s all complicated and I really don’t know but I wrote a post anyway because it was on my mind.

      • Joanne Levy says:

        It is complicated and I’m glad you brought it up because yeah, it’s stuff I think about, too. My husband can be very romantic but in his own way. Is it the swoony stuff I read in romance novels? Not usually, but that’s okay, I mean, I do have a library card. 😉

        But I do think that much of what we like in these novels is written by women for women because we know what we like. Maybe men just aren’t wired (or conditioned) to put that kind of focus on their stories and as you say, everyone finds different things romantic. Maybe where some writers get it right is in seamlessly making sure they put all 5 things in.

        One of the things I really like in my romances is bro banter–like when a bunch of guys joke around and rib each other. Nora Roberts is great at that (I’m thinking particularly of her Sea Swept series about the brothers, oh and that one about the Inn) and JR Ward to a certain extent, too (though hers are sometimes very contrived) so I’d love to see a dude write a m/f romance also with a side order of bros. I’d plunk my money down in a heartbeat.
        Joanne Levy recently posted…How to Show Love to an AuthorMy Profile

  3. This is a super thought-provoking post!

    I often like male-written romances (or more often NON-romances) more than classic “chick” (gag, I hate that term but am blanking on something more appropriate) romances, simply because I am not a romance person AT ALL and anything too touchy-feely tends to make me cranky… which probably goes to prove your point that male-written romances might often be done with that “hearts and flowers and kissing is not for menfolk” attitude. That said, I’m also often frustrated by the flat, cliché lady characters in guy POV, guy author books… and if it’s obvious to Don’t You Dare Hug Me Louise that a romantic interest is really just a boring object, it must be SUPER annoying to people who are more astute about that kind of thing than me.

    To your “Men (in America anyway) get totally shafted by one particular double standard: they’re not supposed to have gushy feels. But they do,” point: My husband it totally a romantic at heart. One of his favorite movies is Kate & Leopold, for heaven’s sake. He reads/watches a lot of Star Trek and any time we talk about it he’s going on about who’s married whom and all the fun gender/sex politics going on, but last time I heard him talk about it with a bro it was all about the special effects in the most recent movie.
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  4. MUCH MARSHMALLOW, oh I love it. This is really interesting and makes me want to look at my own shelves. I agree about guys wanting mushy stuff and expressing their feelings, Chris loves romantic comedies and Disney movies as much as I do and I think it’s awesome. There is a total double standard though, and it definitely comes out in fiction like you said. Hmm. Out of my favorites list, there is only one male author that I think writes good romance mixed in with his books, and it’s for an adult hist fic, Lord of the Silver Bow. It’s a trilogy retelling of the Trojan War and it is ship city. I thought The Nethergrim had a nice crush dynamic, but it’s MG so no real romance. But it was sweet and not a girls on pedestals thing at least. Same with Serafina and the Black Cloak. This is astounding, I honestly didn’t realize how few male authors I read (as I peruse my GR). Romance is crucial for me as well, and I’m going to pay extra attention to the next book I read by a male author. Thanks for posting this interesting discussion!
    Morgan @ Gone with the Words recently posted…Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My Spring TBRMy Profile

  5. Leah says:

    I think I know what book you’re talking about, and I felt the exact same way! The fridged character was my favorite and I was so heartbroken that his purpose was only to get the MC to grow.

  6. JoJo says:

    You’re spot on when you point out that if a male character is a male who is attracted to women his relationship with a female love interest who is only there just to be the love interest isn’t going to be as complex as his relationship may be with another fully-formed male character. I think it’s part of why slash behemoth that it is. It’s often taking the more interesting relationship and going even deeper (also what he said). The same is of course true for the ladies. Middle school me always thought Daria and Jane to end up together, which made their huge fight over a boy particularly horrible.

  7. […] Christina from A Reader of Fictions gives us some thoughts on gender and romance. […]

  8. Rachel says:

    This is SUCH a fantastic post. I’ve felt the same way for a while but couldn’t eloquently put my thoughts into words. Mostly because I couldn’t pinpoint what it was about male writing that usually either makes the romance feel flat for me, makes me not actually care about the characters, or oddly makes it difficult for me to relate to the romance, because however the romance is portrayed usually feels alien to me and “other”. There’s just a disconnect.

    I’ve stalked through my own Goodreads to try and find books by male authors with a romance element that I loved, I thought I wasn’t going to find any (I also read A LOT more female than male authors), but the only ones I could come across were We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach, and The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. Now, these are not without their own problems – I don’t madly ship either of the relationships, but I did relate to how they were written. I had problems with We All Looked Up, but they weren’t to do with the romance, and The Rosie Project worked for me because it was Sheldon Cooper in literature format.

    I don’t “get” John Green’s romances in general, and any male authored romance elements I’ve read lately all seem to have the same voice, even the ones for adults. I recently picked up the A to Z of You and Me, which is a short book, and there was nothing “wrong” with it, but the romance had an adult-John-Green-feel. I don’t know whether all males genuinely have a 500-Days-of-Summer notion about love, or if just the ones who write about it do, or if it’s just the most popular style to write in at the moment, but there is a serious lack of variety.

    I don’t have the same problem with female written, male POV. I have enjoyed many female written male POVs, but on the inside I wonder if I’m lying to myself, because part of the reason I seek out male POV is 1. for the duality of the story, but 2. to get inside a guy’s head. I’m getting into a guy’s head, that’s actually inside a female’s head, and therefore it’s not really the same thing, is it? R xx

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