“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.”

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