Men Who Read Romance

“It’s a good book. Have a go at it. Try it,” says Len Klumpp, his northern New South Welsh accent so broad I could be talking to Jeff Jarrett in Wolf Creek. Len is a former jackaroo who lives in Tamworth with his wife and kids—and he happens to read romance novels. “Bloody heaps of ’em,” as Len puts it, without a hint of reticence.

Thanks to the age of the internet, Len is no longer restricted by geography. He has found his community: “I’ll read a book and I’ll post it on Facebook and say how much I enjoyed reading it. Everybody knows that I read ’em. I don’t hide behind in the closet.”

Yet, even though Len enjoys mostly positive reactions when he talks about his love of novels sporting covers with “hunky males on ’em”, he recognises that many still look down their noses at romance. A special disdain is reserved for male readers of a genre that continues to be thought of as “girlie”.

“I got a message on Facebook, and it was just some random person … I sort of think it might have been someone who knew me and just made a false profile. And they abused me. They said, ‘Why don’t you start reading decent books instead of all these girlie bloody books you read. Grow-some-knackers,’ sort of thing, ‘and become a real man.’ ”

Len fired off a response: “The books I read are by talented authors like Rachel Johns, Fiona Palmer, Cathryn Hein, Alissa Callen and many more. Yes they may be called Rural Romance but that doesn’t make them soppy love stories. The characters are strong Australian women. They are full of love, hope, tragedy and good Aussie people who face everyday struggles with the land and themselves. They make me laugh, they make me cry and they make me feel.”

And if that doesn’t mesh with your idea of what a man is—Len could not care less.

“Even though things are changing, there’s still the perception that a man’s gotta be a man and macho … Tell you the truth, mate, some of those books really make me cry. You get right into the characters.”

Len is so persuasive in his advocacy of romance novels that he’s managed to convince other male friends to dip their toe. “So they started reading … and now they’re enjoying them.”

Yet no matter how much those other male friends enjoy romance books, they remain unlike Len in one important way. They are unwilling to admit to others that they read—and like—romance novels.

The average man who reads romance is like the Siberian tiger: unless he chooses to make himself known (usually because he’s about to attack) he is almost never spotted in his natural habitat. We know he exists, we sometimes even know that he is right there in front of us hiding behind a spruce/kindle, but he remains invisible.

Anecdotally, there is little doubt that there are many male readers of romance. But how many? Robust statistics are scarce. The most reliable figure comes from a Nielsen survey commissioned by the Romance Writers of America that found males make up 16% of romance readers.

While that does not sound like much, it needs to be remembered that there are more readers of romance novels than any other book genre in the world. Just over 1 in 5 adult novels and 1 in 4 ebook novels sold feature a chisel-jawed stud or flaxen-locked beauty on the cover. Romance is a billion-dollar business, easily the most popular book genre across the globe, and millions of men are in on it.

In many situations, economic clout equals power, and power eventually leads to acceptance. But that does not seem to be true for romance. A survey almost exclusively of female romance readers discovered that 88% felt that romance readers were looked down upon, while 51% had personally felt ashamed of reading romance. If they are the numbers for women, how much worse is the sense of shame—an emotion cultivated and foisted upon a person by outside forces—experienced by male readers?

It is a question contemplated by Dr Lisa Fletcher of the University of Tasmania. Fletcher is a rare academic: she has made popular fiction and the romance genre her scholarly focus. While her ivory tower peers are deconstructing Camus and Joyce, Fletcher is analysing Mills & Boon and Harlequin novels. With Australian colleagues, she has embarked a project with the backing of the Australian Research Council almost unheard of in literary scholarship: taking romance and romance readers seriously.

Fletcher identifies two types of prejudice concerning romance fiction. The first is a general boorish and snobbish “high literature” condescension: “You will always encounter the assumption—and it’s often a casual assumption—that popular romance fiction is trash. That it is equivalent to eating a box of chocolates rather than a gourmet meal.”

The second is a more specific set of stereotypes about gender: “women are interested in emotion and family and nurturing”, while men should be interested in “action, in strong male heroes, in very fast-paced spectacle-based narrative”.

These assumptions and stereotypes are so ingrained in culture, so casually and innocently perpetuated, that Fletcher thinks “we would be making a mistake to try to work out who we point the finger at; a whole range of institutions participate in this, including educational institutions, high schools and universities.”

Many people continue to hold fast to notions about what is acceptable behaviour from men as opposed to women, to the extent that men who may themselves be liberated of such baggage continue to be affected by family, friends and even strangers who consider some things to be “unmanly”.

Things like reading romance novels.

***

Donn Saylor was raised in a small town in the United States, the sort of place from which Judy Garland took flight in The Wizard of Oz and Steinbeck wrote about in The Grapes of Wrath.

“One thousand people. Super conservative,” says Donn. “A white-bred Midwestern community.”

From an early age, Donn knew he was different—and so did his peers, who bullied him mercilessly throughout his school years. He just didn’t match up to the “manly” expectations of kids who knew no better. His escape was reading.

One day when he was 12, Donn was at the community library, a place of refuge and comfort where most other boys dared not tread. The library’s entire canon consisted of “about 50 romance novels and maybe a couple of mysteries.” Curiosity got the better of Donn’s ingrained wariness; he took home his first romance novel.

“I knew I was gay—that was never a huge identity crisis for me, even though I didn’t have that sort of name to put to it … So what drew me to romance novels were the covers, because they were just so unabashedly sexual, and they were focused on the male character and not the female character. The female character was always wearing clothes. I mean, they may be ripped or off the shoulder, but the male was always bare-chested and tight pants, tight breeches, or a loin cloth or something. There was something so revealing and not pornographic, but sexually exciting about that.”

The male models may have caught Donn’s interest, but it was the comfort of the romance formula and the assurance of a happy ending that kept him coming back for more.

“I remember feeling really charmed—enchanted by it—because it was more than I expected. It was not just a trashy story. That there actually was kind of this love story, but also adventure … this journey.”

While Donn’s father, a blue-collar military man, read pulp western novels by authors like Louis L’Amour that were filled with swashbuckling heroes and weak-kneed women, his son was nose-deep in bodice rippers. Perhaps surprisingly for a man of his generation and background, Donn says that his father “really didn’t give a shit. He was just happy I was reading and I was interested in learning and books. Any kind of embarrassment I felt was not brought on by anybody in my family. It was just my embarrassment.”

But that embarrassment—a reflection of norms and values that children sponge up and internalise from a young age—was real enough.

“I do remember once, I was reading this book … There was nothing really graphic about the cover. There were no people, no images on it, but the cover was lavender and hot pink, festooned with all these lilies, and it was a very, very feminine-looking book. And I remember my dad asking me what I was reading, and I showed him the book, and he was just like, ‘Oh, is that good?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s really good.’ And that was just the end of the conversation, but I remember being so embarrassed because the book kind of looked like a feminine hygiene product.”

The irony of Donn’s sense of embarrassment only became apparent to him later in life—the fact that he and his father were the opposite sides of a gendered literary divide (supreme manliness vs. supreme womanliness) which, but for a cover, told much the same story.

“There’s some Old West historical romances I’ve read that, if it did have a guy—a fully clothed guy, and a horse with a gun drawn on the cover and a male author, but the story is exactly the same—it would be a completely different readership.”

Had he ripped the cover off that Jude Deveraux novel that looked like a feminine hygiene product, his dad may well have lapped it up—much as Len Klumpp’s friends enjoyed the “girlie” books he recommended.

Indeed, there’s every reason to think this isn’t just wishful thinking, but rather an image of what reading would look like if men weren’t so hung up on their “manly” reputation.

“One librarian did say to me once, ‘You’re one of only two guys in town who read these books,’” recalls Donn. “And she told me who the other guy was, and what’s interesting is he was an older guy, probably in his seventies then, and he was a friend of my dad’s. And he was very much just a retired, blue-collar guy, grandfather, and he was the only other guy in town that read these books. And I knew he was a friend of my dad. So I was like, ‘Ok, I’m in good company. Never would have expected that.’ ”

In the end, neither Donn nor Len expect that males will flock to romance novels anytime soon. But Len does have one piece of advice.

“Just say I’d never read any, and I’m just a normal male’s walked in [to a bookstore], you’d probably brush past ’em. I’d say a big percentage of males would say, ‘I’m not reading that, that’s girlie.’ They are misleading. You know the saying: don’t judge a book by its cover.”

Australians Love Refugees, Hate ‘Boat People’?

Avan Judd Stallard - Author

When it comes to ‘boat people’, majority Australian opinion is in check with government policy and government policy is in check with majority public opinion which holds that boats should be turned back, and anyone who gets through should be sent to mandatory indefinite offshore detention.

Verification of this claim is readily at hand. Simply poke your head out of your terrace house window and ask a passer-by, or stop the next car you see on the main drag of your town, or ask the bloke next door mowing the lawn. People are willing—eager, even—to express their opinions on ‘boat people’.

More rigorous data tells the same story. A Scanlon Foundation survey found that 41% of people surveyed wanted to either turn back the boats or keep the asylum seekers in permanent detention pending removal. Another 30% would allow only for temporary residence in Australia (the instability caused by temporary visas has been shown to cause serious mental health illnesses). Just 24% would allow for permanent residence.

Similarly, a Lowy Institute poll on asylum seekers found that 71% of people thought the Australian government should turn back boats when it is safe to do so, and, failing that, 59% wanted offshore processing. Most polls are broadly consistent with these findings.

However, to confuse the situation, a poll by Essential Research found that 49% of people think boat people should be allowed to stay in Australia if they are found to be refugees—a minority of respondents, but still a significant level of support given the ongoing climate of antipathy.

This raises an important question: what percentage of ‘boat people’ seeking asylum in Australia are subsequently found to be refugees? Historically, the figure has varied year-to-year, but the range tends to stick within 70–95%. That is, the overwhelming majority of all ‘boat people’ are refugees.

Add these facts and poll findings together and a contradiction seemingly appears: most Australians support turning refugees away—the unavoidable consequence of turning boats back when most the ‘boat people’ are refugees—but a portion of those very same Australians think the ‘boat people’ (the ones they want turned back) should be allowed to stay in Australia. Welcome them on one hand, send them packing on the other.

Here’s how the discrepancy makes sense. The Essential Research survey found that 43% of people think most ‘boat people’ are not genuine refugees, and a further 25% don’t know one way or the other. In total, 68% of people are in the dark about the single-most important fact about the asylum seekers who come by boat—that most of them are refugees.

Consider this correlation: 61% of people think that the government’s approach to ‘boat people’ is either just right or too soft, and 68% of people are ill-informed about who ‘boat people’ are. This is not a coincidence.

What is clear is that Australians do not like ‘boat people’. But that finding is very specific and comes with a caveat: it turns out they have little issue with refugees generally. In fact, an overwhelming majority of Australians support the Australian refugee resettlement program that takes refugees who are assessed and placed by the UNHCR.

The Scanlon Foundation found that between 2010 and 2012 support for the program increased from 67% to 75%. To be clear, resettlement refugees come by plane, not boat.

What gives? Well, our politicians have known for years. It’s the boats, stupid.

Australians don’t fear refugees. They fear ‘boat people’. And if you want to know why—read this.

Captain Cook Graffiti Paints a Confused Picture

Avan Judd Stallard - Author

Ahead of Australia Day, the statue of Captain Cook in St Kilda, Melbourne, has been smeared with pink paint (never mind that the paint job is actually quite striking, and Cook makes a fine, if unexpected, dandy). The graffitiing of Cook memorials is part of a protest that has been going on for years.

Take the Cook statue in Hyde Park, Sydney. Paint bombs were thrown at it on Australia Day morning in 2013. More recently, on 26 August 2017, the same statute was graffitied with the words, “CHANGE THE DATE” and “NO PRIDE IN GENOCIDE”.

There is another well-known monument and memorial to Cook in Melbourne. Though Cook never lived in Australia (British settlement was not for nine years after his death in Hawaii), in 1934 his parents’ cottage was dismantled in North Yorkshire, loaded into barrels and shipped across the seas, where it was reassembled at Fitzroy Gardens.

In 2014, that cottage was vandalised three days before Australia Day. Fluorescent orange, green and yellow paint bombs coloured the brickwork and tiles. Black paint spelled out: “26th Jan Australia’s SHAME!!!” A penis or other human appendage may also have been depicted, though due to poor artistry that remains conjectural.

The year before, two days after Australia Day, the cottage was paint-bombed. Then on 4 February a message was painted on the wall: “Cappy Cook was a crook killer liar theif [and while I was going to put in brackets [sic] to suggest a misspelling, further research suggests the author of the graffiti was really quite clever, using the alternate 18th century spelling of thief from Cook’s time: theif)”.

These actions have proved wildly unpopular in the Australian mainstream, with denunciations across both popular and social media. Yet despite the continuing public interest in Cook, for many years the legend and status of Cook have been on the radar of revisionist cultural-theory academics.

This is part of a backlash against the Great Man History of the 20th century in which predominantly white male figures were credited with almost single-handedly advancing history.

For an unrelenting two hundred years, Cook was the poster boy of explorers.  In Australia, his image and legend were used to promote the greatness of the country. “Australia’s history began, when Captain Cook anchored in Botany Bay in 1770,” stated one poster from the 1950s.

A few years later, Australia’s most famous historian, Manning Clark, said something similar in the opening line of his monumental History of Australia: “Civilization did not begin in Australia until the last quarter of the eighteenth century.” He would later regret this.

In the 80s and 90s, the tide began to turn against Great Man History, which meant, given his symbolic value, it also turned against Cook. His name became attached to an altogether different aspect of our history—the dispossession, oppression and slaughter of Indigenous Australians. Australia’s Columbus suddenly became all too Columbus-like.

Cook is now claimed by both camps. By the postmodern theorists who denounce the colonial age of which he was such an integral part, and by popular writers who continue to write laudatory books, articles and television shows announcing his greatness.

Today, the irony of targeting Cook monuments to denounce Australia Day and the colonial history of Australia is that Cook neither discovered nor settled the land. It is a common error.

A survey I conducted at a university among first-year Australian history students found that 43% of those students believed the British were the first Europeans to discover Australia, and 46% thought first discovery occurred in 1770 or later. In fact, it was the Dutch who did the most to discover Australia to Europe, starting in 1606.

The other irony is that Cook truly was a great man, certainly so far as his duties as a naval captain were concerned. He inspired his men, kept them alive in an era where half or more of one’s crew could be expected to perish on long voyages, and he entered and explored Antarctic waters besieged by icebergs in a big wooden ship—arguably the greatest feat of exploration in history.

Cappy Cook was not a crook, nor liar nor thief nor killer. He was an instrument of his time—and now a symbol with little relationship to his uses by patriots and anarchists alike.

Being Mocked for Mispronunciation

Avan Judd Stallard - Author

An aphorism did the rounds recently, and it struck a chord:

“Never make fun of somebody if they mispronounce a word. It means they learned it by reading.”

That’s been me all my life: mispronouncing words discovered exclusively through books. Sometimes I have discovered this through a gentle correction given quietly after the fact, or as part of a shared laugh over the gaffe, but not always.

The most unkind instance was when I was in law school. It was a constitutional law tutorial, compulsory and deadly boring. The word was “quorum”, which means the minimum number of members that must be present to start a valid meeting. It is pronounced kw-or-mm. I pronounced it kw-ere-mm, for I suppose I had never heard it spoken, having skipped the relevant (but mind-numbingly boring) lectures.

Many of my classmates snickered. A tall, blonde, athletic boy from a grammar school, who to this day makes me think of the Hitler youth, snickered the loudest. Being that I had to repeat the word many times in my little presentation, it got to the point that I stopped and asked the group: “What is so funny?”

The young Hitlerite decided to act as group spokesman. He took great pleasure in telling me that I was mispronouncing the word, and finished by asking if I had any sort of education whatsoever.

I glared at him, my fists balled, and I contemplated—quite seriously—leaping across the desk and punching him in the face, as would be voted appropriate by a quorum of Nannupians or public school ruffians of my ilk. But I knew it would cause more problems for me than him. Indeed, I would have been ejected from the law degree I so loathed. So the tutor interjected, and that was that.

That blonde boy was later accused of rape. Not a joke.

What’s the point? Well, it’s obvious. You can quietly and humbly correct someone’s pronunciation, and that is a kindness. You can together laugh at it all. But if you mock them to make them feel small and yourself big—then you are a coward and a tyrant. I’m pretty sure that that’s what that aphorism was trying to say.

The Great Spanish Coffee Swindle

Avan Judd Stallard - Author

Spaniards drink a lot of coffee—and I love their café cultura, it is central to life—but, Christ, is their coffee rough! Not every taza in every cafetería in every ciudad, but the overwhelming majority of coffee experiences in Spain are trials to be endured, the flavour bitter and burnt and retaining little that is recognisably coffee. And I just found out why: a diablo by the name of torrefacto.

Any half decent coffee has this in common: it is 100% coffee. Torrefacto coffee is only 80% coffee, or less. It’s like the way Australian chocolate is not all chocolate; I mean, there has to be some allowance for a percentage of cockroach, right?

Torrefacto refers to the process whereby sugar is added during the coffee bean roasting process. This is a Spanish practice going back about 80 years, when sugar began to be added to the roast of the beans for one very special reason: it gave the final product a long shelf life (by embalming the beans in a caramel sarcophagus) and ensured no wastage. An added bonus was that the cheaper sugar bulked out the coffee, like the way the British pump their meat full of water.

The problem is that torrefacto coffee tastes like … how would the Spanish put it … mierda, caca, popó? Which is to say, like someone has very carefully coated some green coffee beans with liquid faeces and then roasted it to a crisp, ground it, prepared it with an espresso machine and served it with a snappy vale. Oh, and apart from the fact that it tastes like shit, it may also be cancerous (the lesser of concerns here).

So, in short:

  • Coffee in Spain normally means torrefacto coffee –> means bitter shit-flavoured coffee.
  • When it isn’t torrefacto coffee, the beans in Spain are still burned to a dark char –> means bitter shit-flavoured coffee.

Silly Spain.

Loco Spain!

Ahh, Spain …

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