What would a teenage boy learn about women from reading romance novels?
October 9, 2007 5:16 PM   Subscribe

What would a teenage boy learn about women from reading romance novels?

I'm writing a novel featuring a 17 year old punk rocker. The story is set in southern Ontario in 1990. The punk is a virgin, and is clueless about women -- he's basically Holden Caulfield in a Meatmen tee-shirt, so you could say his personality is a big part of the problem.

However, the punk is an avid reader. Although he usually favours sci-fi and Bukowski-style urban fiction, he finds a bunch of romance novel paperbacks in the garbage and decides to take them home to do some research (hiding the books from his mom, for obvious reasons). Assuming he gets through one or more of the books he finds, what would he most likely take away from the experience? Would he learn useful things? Would he laugh at some of the cliches in the writing? Might he be disappointed to see what women really fantasise about or expect from a man?

I'm looking forward to any and all feedback. I prefer serious responses, as this is (lazy) novel research, but I'm expecting at least a little snark.
posted by spoobnooble to Society & Culture (41 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
A lot depends on what genre of romance novels he's reading. Are they modern or historical romance (and if so, what era of history are they set in?), are they tame or are they "bodice-rippers," etc. etc... There's a lot of variation in romance novels out there.
posted by amyms at 5:22 PM on October 9, 2007

He would find out the unrealistic and unachievable visions of romance that women have.
posted by reenum at 5:25 PM on October 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've actually done this--read chick lit in the hopes of better understanding women. The book was really crappy, but if I learned anything it's that most girls, no matter how smart or pretty or whatever, have insecurities. They don't see themselves the way a 17-year-old boy might see them.
posted by mpls2 at 5:27 PM on October 9, 2007 [5 favorites]

I think mostly he would learn that moms read lame stuff, and then maybe be squicked out about his mom (or any mom, somebody's mom) reading it. Romance novels are, to teenagers, largely the province of housewives and other adults of limited imagination. Teens are label-aware; if he reads Bukowski he'd consider himself above those books, and since the largest province of romance is "historical" (especially the ones you find in the garage; possibly they actually grow there, like mold), I don't think he'd make much of a connection between the women in the books and any woman he might imagine himself having sex with. Those women wear much shorter skirts and don't spend as much time on the windswept moors.

Holden Caulfield didn't have MTV or the internet or the Victoria's Secret catalog; even the most clueless of virgins are far savvier than they were even 20 years ago. Now, pop culture as a whole, and the easy availability of internet porn, might have left him with a proto-asshole attitude toward women, and the romance novels might be a way to make that worse.

I think those books might have a more profound sexual impact on a 12- or 13-year-old punk, but by 17 they'd just reinforce the desire to not get old and boring.

A cache of Chick Lit might be interesting, though. Those tend to have younger urban women in them, which would be something he might find easier to relate to.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:36 PM on October 9, 2007 [4 favorites]

That they like men. A key thing guys have to learn.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:37 PM on October 9, 2007 [3 favorites]

He would learn that women like something called foreplay, and that kissing isn't just something you do until you start getting to the "let's have sex right now" part of the relationship.

Women love to be titillated and teased physically, and that leads to hot sex.

Purple prose, not so much.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 5:40 PM on October 9, 2007 [3 favorites]

17 is pretty old, and your protagonist sounds too sophisticated to really believe that he'll learn about women that way. I agree with Lyn Never that this would be more believable in a younger character. I think if he did read those books, he would have to pretend to himself that he had other motives in order to keep his dignity.

There's a teenage character in this novel who reads romance novels to research women. He's a supernatural creature, though, so he's more estranged from regular humans than a punk is.
posted by lemuria at 5:51 PM on October 9, 2007

As others have said, it depends on the kind of novel, and when it was published. Old style seventies/eighties bodice rippers had lots of euphemism-laden (think 'his manhood' meets 'her core') sex (sometimes bordering on rape, hence the 'ripper' label), and were both scary and titillating to my teenaged (female) mind. The super old school 'doctor/nurse' (as my grandma, a fan, called them) novels from fifties and sixties have little to no sex, but were often about the sweet and good girl seducing the grumpy mean (and rich!) doctor.

Modern romance novels are (mostly) less euphemism-laden, and less scary. You might want to check out some of the submission guidelines for various lines (usually posted on the publishers website), or one of the many 'how to write romance' books--they'll spell out what you could expect to find in a modern romance novel, such as: the hero shouldn't ever have sex with anyone else after he's met the heroine, what kind of sex is allowed (ie, he can go down on her for three pages, but if she reciprocates it's, ah, more implied...).

If you want to do some primary source research, there's tons of crap out there. My favorite review site for finding the better stuff is: Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.
posted by lovecrafty at 6:08 PM on October 9, 2007 [3 favorites]

I'm thinking of how he might start acting around women and what kind of comments he might say. Also, in the romance novels I've read the man usually takes the upper hand and doesn't take no for an answer. That would probably result in a real life problem.

P.S. Please be the first author to thank ask mefi!
posted by aetg at 6:12 PM on October 9, 2007

Ok. I admit it. I'm a huge fan of the 'ole Mills and Boon romances. I've read 6 this week.

In my defence, I'm also a literature student, and have been swapping between those and Salman Rushdie - so I can read better, and I can speak good too.

I'm unabashed about it - they are simple reading that are entertaining - and the cliches and bad euphemisms are no worse than in some "serious" literature - (Story of O - "He reached for her womb - physically impossible, no?)

Anyway - what men would learn about women from Mills and Boon (or similar romance novels)

- Women secretly play down their looks as they don't want to attract the devastatingly handsome male who is pursuing them.

- women secretly want a strong thigh-ed man, with a "hairy pelt" on his chest.

- there is always a reason for a woman to secretly marry her boss, no matter how implausible it may seem.

There's more, but I'm watching the west wing, and I'm pretty sure Charlie is about to be shot (I'm watching series one)... gripping stuff!
posted by jonathanstrange at 6:15 PM on October 9, 2007 [2 favorites]

I like your idea, but I think a really good story would have to include some misleading bullshit. I read a lot of Harlequins for a course in gender studies. There's a lot that pisses women off.

Do you know that you can request the plot requirements from Harlequin? They're quite explict as to what a novel must and must not contain.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 6:24 PM on October 9, 2007

jonathanstrange-- one of my favourite critics, F.X. Salda was adamant that we all read across the literary spectrum. He claimed (and I agree) that you can't understand and appreciate literature and the role it plays in society without reading everything.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 6:59 PM on October 9, 2007 [2 favorites]

I used to read my aunt's bodice-rippin' romance novels as a pre teen...some of them were fascinatingly porny to me. I first learned of cunnilingus through one particular book set in the 17th century that featured a dark and brooding Fabio type hero and his ever suffering, but earnest mistress.

One good thing that a young man might take away from reading cheesy romance novels is that fantasy and role playing in a relationship can be pretty awesome.
posted by pluckysparrow at 7:00 PM on October 9, 2007

OK, I actually dated a guy, briefly, in college who had gone to an all-boys private high school, and who told me (somewhat proudly) that he had read romance novels in order to learn how to treat women well. That last part is paraphrasing, but this actually happened to me. He was very sweet, and I'm sure I didn't appreciate him enough at the time.

So, what did he learn? Well, we didn't get to the bodice-ripping stage -- not nearly -- but he seemed to have picked up some kind of strange kissing technique. I didn't know much about kissing at the time, but I later ran across a description of a similar technique in, uh, a short fiction piece.

No, I am not going to describe it. Frankly, it weirded me out at the time, and it still weirds me out. Yes, it was just a kiss, but a weird kiss! E-mail me if you _must_ have specifics.

The thing was, he was so sincere in his belief that I would like it. And I'm sure it must have been something he learned from his self-guided literary study. Possibly there are people that would have enjoyed it.

He also sent me a very romantic poem, in Spanish, with the translation. Possibly also a technique gleaned from his reading. I hope my lack of appreciation didn't ruin him for some other, more deserving female.
posted by amtho at 7:15 PM on October 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

I vote that the answer would in part depend on how insightful your teenager is. By which I mean, would he be reading these novels believing that the way the characters act, feel, and think are how real women act, feel, and think? If so, he'll learn some probably very wrong things. If, however, he is reading them with the understanding that while most of them contain rather unrealistic characters, they are unrealistic characters that some women enjoy reading about, then he might be clever enough to pick up some useful knowledge.

I say this having once read through my now ex-wife's considerable collection of romance novels when there was nothing in the house to read. Clearly, from the preceding sentence, you can tell that I did not glean enough information from them.
posted by solotoro at 7:21 PM on October 9, 2007 [2 favorites]

I can't believe no one has pointed this one out yet:
He would discover that women have loins, and that these loins burn a lot
posted by Deathalicious at 7:26 PM on October 9, 2007 [3 favorites]

I have to say I learned a heck of a lot as a young boy when I ran across this book accidentally put out with the pulp romance novels at the local grocery store.
posted by mrbill at 7:30 PM on October 9, 2007

If it's set in 1990 then you're going to find a lot more of the bodice ripper type. The genre has come a long, long way in the last 15 years. There's a big difference, too, from someone like Laura Kinsale, who was writing in the late 80s, and from a secret baby cowboy Harlequin or a Jackie Collins book.

He would probably laugh at the cliches -- hell, I'm a member of Romance Writers of America and I laugh at some of the cliches. He will probably learn that the ladies like cunnilingus -- honestly, the cunnilingus is most always first in romance novels. He might think that all virgins have an orgasm their first time.

Would he be disappointed re: women's expectations? I think many romance novels aren't concerned with conquering a man or tricking him into a marriage as much as they are about a man and a woman (very heteronormative, romance novels are) entering into an equal relationship.

I could talk all day about the stigmatization of romance in the genre spectrum, but for now I'll just say this: the reason romance novels get a bad rap is because the audience is mostly women. The quality varies as much as it does in science fiction and fantasy -- yes, there's some dreck, but there are also very, very good books.

Hope this helps!
posted by sugarfish at 7:33 PM on October 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

What I learned from accidentally reading a couple of romance novels as a kid is:

* women actually think about sex
* women are actually insecure and not as strong as they always act

Unfortunately it took me until my 20s to actually remember all of this and put it to good use.
posted by wackybrit at 7:33 PM on October 9, 2007

He'd learn that high-spirited young women with beautiful bosoms and slim waists need to be taken by a big strong man. With whom said maiden will then fall in love. It's all very rape-fantasy, really.
posted by desuetude at 7:37 PM on October 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

sugarfish, excellent points about the stigma of genre...but the protagonist is finding paperbacks in his mom's garage in 1990.
posted by desuetude at 7:39 PM on October 9, 2007

Subby here. I'm checking the answers out every few hours or so. I do thank everyone for their continuing input (and yes, this thank-you note was prompted by aetg's comment up above. I'm not at all ungrateful, just a bit lazy.... )

FYI, the punk's reading of romance novels is meant as a one-time stab at information, kind of like how one of Clint Eastwood's grizzled army general characters is briefly shown reading Cosmo and other women's magazines in a desperate attempt to understand the opposite sex (this was in one of those army films Eastwood did in the eighties; I have no idea what the title was). The punk does actually have sex with a real-live girl in the following chapter. In the end the romance novels and the information don't have a lot to do with his final hook-up, but the idea here is that he is making efforts to understand girls despite his insecurities and teenage proto-crotchetiness, and this is one of his more creative albeit misguided attempts to do so.
posted by spoobnooble at 7:41 PM on October 9, 2007

No, no you aren't ungrateful!

I meant put a dedication in the book when you get it published ; )
posted by aetg at 8:06 PM on October 9, 2007

spoobnooble, re: I do thank everyone for their continuing input (and yes, this thank-you note was prompted by aetg's comment up above. I'm not at all ungrateful, just a bit lazy.... )

I think aetg was hinting that you should thank Ask Metafilter on the acknowledgement page(s) of your book (although in-thread thank yous are always welcome too).
posted by amyms at 8:08 PM on October 9, 2007

When I was a teenager, I didn't read dirty books to find out about women. I read them to find out about sex. Pop culture is full of messages on what women are like, and by age 17 a guy has soaked up plenty of them — even if he doesn't know much about women, he's likely to think he does. The real mysteries for a virgin that age are "How do I get laid?" and "What's it actually like?"

If his only source of information is romance novels, he's likely to have picked up the idea that simultaneous orgasms are a big deal. He's likely to be confused about what it takes to give a woman an orgasm. He may have some odd ideas about sexual negotiation — those books are long on impetuous couples falling into bed, and short on forethought or planning. In particular, he may have a hard time imagining how you're supposed to talk about birth control in the midst of all that UNCONTROLLABLE PASSION. He might also have odd ideas about how to flirt or seduce someone. Other people have mentioned the romance novel cliché where a bitter fight dissolves into sex, for instance.

Keep in mind, though, that sci-fi and Bukowski have their fair share of sex scenes. If my teenage years were any indication, he'd be more likely to be bookmarking the dirty scenes in his own book collection than scavenging through his mom's. (By the time I was 12, I thought I knew all about sex because I'd found the relevant scenes in Clan of the Cave Bear, and that one was in the school library....)

I guess my point is, while he might find a stash of romance novels interesting, any 17-year-old bookworm worth his salt will have some other sources of information too.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:09 PM on October 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Note to self: Must learn to preview more often.
posted by amyms at 8:09 PM on October 9, 2007

I was a tomboy-like creature that read a lot of literature and Tom Robbins and John Irving and Hunter S. Thompson and have never related to "typical" girls.

Stuck in a cabin in Wisconsin, all I had were two Harlequin romance books (something about a pirate and something by Joanna Lindsey) and then Flowers in the Attic series of books (yes, I know these aren't romance, but they were popular with the same set).

My teenage reaction was approximately: Ee gads! All the older women I saw reading these books while clucking their tongues at sex and violence in movies? Jeez. What's wrong with them? Yes, there's a lot of plot lead up, but damn, this stuff is nasty and graphic, even if some of it is implied. Is there somehow some double standard that if you read it, it's ok, but if it's on TV, it's fire and brimstone? No wonder guys think she's saying no with her mouth but yes with her eyes. Is everything a dominance/rape fantasy? Crap! Please, please, please don't let me grow old and turn into that. I'll never look at the old ladies with their books in the same way again. They're all dirty pervs. Ugh.

In retrospect, it's much like what I learned from watching daytime soap operas as well. And I've stuck with Stephen King and Terry Pratchett for my pulp ever since.
posted by Gucky at 8:32 PM on October 9, 2007

If you want him to learn at 17 make him a Mormon straight edge from Salt Lake City.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:50 PM on October 9, 2007

Silhouette Intimate Moments line came out in '83--and their Desire line a few years before that...I also had access to the videos in my dad's t-shirt drawer about that time. Quite a few of the plotlines of the contemporaries involved Vietnam vets. There are a few authors I still follow but they mostly do historicals... mid-90's check Alibris.
posted by brujita at 9:54 PM on October 9, 2007

one of Clint Eastwood's grizzled army general characters is briefly shown reading Cosmo and other women's magazines in a desperate attempt to understand the opposite sex (this was in one of those army films Eastwood did in the eighties; I have no idea what the title was).

That was Heartbreak Ridge from '86. Great film.
posted by mrbill at 10:10 PM on October 9, 2007

He would learn that he's not wanted. Too young, too alternative. He would also learn that he's a male stereotype:

he usually favours sci-fi and Bukowski-style urban fiction

This is true of me but at the same time you can't overlook my love of Virginia Woolf and Anais Nin. And what about my preference for modern Japanese authors and distaste for South American ones? Hm.. doesn't map to any pay gender stereotypes, necessarily, does it?

If you paint him too thin in this regard, he'll be the equivalent of a female character who reads nothing but historical romance and Barbara Kingsolver. What would you think of such a female character in a novel written by a man? You'd think she was a dumb broad and a cheap stereotype.

Author beware!
posted by scarabic at 10:30 PM on October 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

pay gender stereotypes

That's pat gender stereotypes
posted by scarabic at 10:30 PM on October 9, 2007

I mentioned this thread to a friend of mine, and his answer was: "He would learn that women have heaving bosoms."
posted by amyms at 11:07 PM on October 9, 2007

He's going to learn that women love nothing more than a strong male who will act with no explanations and who will prove them wrong again and again. And he'll be possibly more misinformed than before.
posted by MadamM at 11:13 PM on October 9, 2007

if he read "My secret garden" he'd realize plenty of women's fantasies are as varied and vivid as men's. I'd be more interested in reading what he learned from a book like that...
posted by debu at 2:12 AM on October 10, 2007

Great prose piece for character exploration. The best answer was Lyn Never. except she the great about the internet, it slipped her mind that the setting was 90ish. I second that your character should learn little if anything from this effort; most likely coming away regarding it as a social study from an initially earnest approach. As a member of a subculture and a budding bookworm he would indeed presume he is above that stuff and he would realize so by skimming the the first two books or so. (not to debase the whole genre, pulp is pulp). As for trying the kiss tricks and foreplay, I think a virgin is much too inexperienced to ritualize the first deed. Or have too low a confidence(implicit in the consultation of books) to rouse her with his kisses. Unlees you want your novel to go that route.
posted by Student of Man at 3:21 AM on October 10, 2007

One of my best friends in high school is now a best-selling romance writer. Back then, she was fascinated with the genre and talked about it all the time. She told her friends that the first thing you should do with a romance is to flip to page 100. Because that's right around where the sex-scene is.

I don't know if that's true or not (or if it was true back then -- 80s), but it was a fun idea and I thought it might be fun in your novel, too.
posted by grumblebee at 6:53 AM on October 10, 2007

It totally depends on what books they are, what the sub-genre is, etc.

On the good side, he might learn some of what women consider romantic or attractive in a man. This could give him a way of seeing who he could grow into. Heroes, even in 1990, came in a few different flavors and it wasn't as one-note as you might think.

On the bad side, it could give him some unrealistic expectations about sex in much the same way that porn would. But he'd learn more about foreplay than most.

In the absolute worst case, he could read the sort of books where the woman gives up everything in pursuit of love, and that's the right thing. He could think that love means those things-- that once person gives up everything
posted by Mozzie at 9:52 AM on October 10, 2007

(Holy crap, grumblebee. Now I like you even more. Meg Cabot is a goddess! I started another of her teen romances this morning, actually.)
posted by sugarfish at 7:44 AM on October 12, 2007

He would learn only about fantasies, not about reality. This could be an excellent plot or character point.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:32 PM on October 12, 2007

I read wilbur smith novels when I was like 13. They were kind of racy in parts. I read voraciously at that age although im not sure I got anything positive in the sense you want from these. At worst it reinforces the feeling that theres an imaginary divide between how you are and how these things work. ie you think you know how they work but as much as you can imagine yourself in that role in reality you cant bring the two things together.
posted by browolf at 10:53 AM on October 29, 2007

« Older How do I deal with my tendonitis without failing...   |   Fixing a freezer. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.