Books

Beyond Heaving Bosoms, Indeed: Expert Guidance On Romance Titles

A book with the pages folded into a heart.
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[Ed. note: When I saw this article about how the titles of romance novels supposedly provide new insights into what women want from a mate, I knew right where to go for a response. I went to Sarah Wendell, editor of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, and one of my Favorite Pop-Culture Humans Of 2009. Why not go directly to the expert, right? Sarah was kind enough to share her thoughts. — Linda Holmes]

by Sarah Wendell

Stop the presses: Harlequin titles reveal our — by "our" I of course mean "women's" — evolutionary coding and psychological desire for ... wait for it, wait for it ... You sitting down? Good.

We prefer to mate with "a physically fit, financially secure man who will provide the resources needed to successfully raise a family."

In other news, ice is slippery, water is still wet, and those silly romance readers are once again looking for fantasy men. Pah.

I admit to being fascinated by title language in romances, particularly because until recently, I was turned off by the titles and found them insulting to me as a romance reader. But once I learned what lurked behind the titles and how they worked from a sales perspective, I learned that not only are Harlequin titles built around time-tested "hook words" that can either reveal or completely camoflauge the plot, but they serve to allow the fast-browsing romance reader to make quick decisions knowing that the plot elements she likes best are broadcast clearly by the title.

And why is it a big ol' DUH that women want to mate with fit, financially secure men who seek to help them raise a family? Because we have .05 seconds, most of us, to shop for books.

Seriously: consider the contemporary woman.

The contemporary woman, after the jump.

We are bombarded with pressures to live up to exactly the same standard as our fantastical mystery mate: we must be slim, we must not have muffin top, we must be successful and autonomous, and yet we must balance the working/mother relationship so as to offend the least number of people. AND we must do all of that at the same time, while balancing a myriad of responsibilities.

There is no mystery to the idea that the fantasy male is a response to all of the self-image challenges that women struggle with. Moreover, what could be more alluring, more powerful, more downright comforting than a man who, without judgment, says, "Don't worry about it. I've got it." To paraphrase New York Times best-selling author Lisa Kleypas, whether it's a broken pipe, a vacation in Tuscany, a late-night baby bottle or your sexual satisfaction, he's on it.

What baffles me is that any of this would be a surprise. Certainly it's not to any romance reader: a lifetime of reading narrative tales of successful courtship teaches us to value a partner who is a partner, someone who splits the unpleasant tasks and celebrates the joys equally, knowing that each person has contributed fairly.

This is not to say that contemporary men, particularly contemporary fathers, are not getting the job(s) done. Far from it: another aspect of the mythical fantasy male revealed in Harlequin titles is that, for many of us, the wonder male already exists. While popular media portrays fathers as absent, bumbling, stupid or abusive, most husbands and fathers of my acquaintance are more likely to share the sticky and smelly responsibilities and revel in them — just as they share in the wage-earning and home-building.

For that reason, plots abound, as these researchers discovered, featuring men who are doctors, and behind that, cowboys, in their list of occupations that appear most often. Doctors and cowboys are often alpha males who make decisions quickly and authoritatively, but also care for individuals who are weaker, sick, or bovine, depending on the case. It's not the presence of muscles on the cowboy doctor, it's how he uses them: both motifs embody strength and compassion, action and restraint in equal measure, revealing a sense of responsibility motivating the individual.

It's not at all the fact that the knight might need his armor polished that draws us, either. Knights are chivalrous figures who protect and defend — it's not hard to deconstruct why that would be a desirable aspect in a potential mate, considering how uncertain a woman might feel in the current political and economic environment, especially with the number of responsibilities that rest on her shoulders.

I remain fascinated by the lexicon of the Harlequin titles, both from a sales perspective (I cannot say I myself am driven to heights of rapture by the idea of bedding a tycoon, but I can say that a person with a sense of financial responsibility is hot damn sexy) and a psychological perspective. But I remain equally unsurprised that the top words, according to this article, were "Love," "Bride," "Baby," followed by "marriage, wedding, bride, groom and honeymoon." These words not only indicate commitment, but they also represent happiness, celebration, and joy. It is absolutely not a mystery that most people — not just romance readers — desire happiness.

To truly understand and properly theorize why these words and occupations and themes are so popular, I'd advise that the individuals investigating look not so much at the plots and vocabulary but at the roles they embody and the reader who seeks them out. I'm not terribly likely to read anything about The Doctoral Candidate and the Ravishing Researcher, unless said Ravishing Researcher schools the Doctoral Candidate in how to resist tired stereotypes.

Sarah Wendell is the co-founder and current mastermind of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, a romance blog devoted to the romance novel genre and the amazing men and women who read and write it. Smart Bitches specializes in reviewing romance novels, examining the history and the future of the genre, and questioning the enormous prevalence of bodacious pectorals adorning male cover models. Sarah is the co-author of Beyond Heaving Bosoms: the Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels.

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