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August 05, 2005

Male Romance Novels, by guest blogger Elaine Viets

Let’s talk about male romance novels.

You’ve read them. You just didn’t realize it. That’s because the critics call these books “gritty realism,” “hard-boiled,” or “scathing social satire.”

In these highly acclaimed mysteries, the hero is a broken-down forty-five-year-old man with no job and a drinking problem. A gorgeous twenty-five-year-old woman falls madly in love with him – and he doesn’t even have money.

Not in my book. There’s fiction, and then there’s fiction.

These are male romance novels. Most women are smart enough to know this doesn’t happen in real life. Too many men have this touchingly naive belief that beautiful young women will love them for their flabby bodies and fine minds.  Even smart men fall for this fantasy. I was lunching with a reporter friend who’s hard-boiled as a four-minute egg. He saw an old gentleman escorting a young woman with man-made mammaries and three thousand bucks worth of Versace.

“What do you think she sees in him?” my friend said. He really was puzzled.

“He’s rich and she’s pretty,” I said.

“How can you tell that?” he said, as we watched the flossy knockout settle into the old geezer’s Mercedes.

“Why else would a young woman date an old man?” I said. “She’s a material girl. She’s wearing more than you make in a week. Somebody has to buy it for her.”

Why couldn’t he see the obvious?  This man had a pile of high-powered journalism prizes, but he couldn’t figure that out. I’d worked a dress shop that catered to bimbos and learned that lesson in one week.

I think there’s a disconnect in the male psyche. When a younger man hits on me, my first reaction is: “What’s wrong with him? Does this guy have a mother complex?”

When a younger woman hits on the average male, his first thought is: “I am hot stuff.”

But the love-struck bimbo is only one character in the male romance novels. There are at least two more:

(1) The sensitive stripper with the heart of gold.
  In male romance novels, a sensitive stripper has been abandoned by a cruel husband. This sweet creature must support a child or an aging mother by working as an ecdysiast. Sometimes, she’s also working her way through school. She’s ashamed and hurting, but she has a family to support, and Mum needs an operation.

As a former reporter who actually knew strippers, I know this is pure male fantasy. Most strippers have boobs of silicone, not hearts of gold, and they’re supporting cocaine habits. The rest have figured out they can make more money taking off their clothes than keeping them on. Hard work is for the suckers stuffing twenties in their G-strings. Worse, from the male romance viewpoint, some of these women don’t like men at all. They prefer the love of a good woman.

(2) The psycho friend of the hero.
Another male romance favorite. In these novels, the hero is too noble to actually torture and kill anyone. Good thing he’s got a wacko best friend to do it for him. Then the hero can disapprove but still get the bad guys dead. The psycho friend has enough weaponry to invade Montana.

  I really like it when a minivan dad and his psycho friend take on a couple of hired killers. In these novels, Minivan Dad’s wife and/or children are being threatened, and the police are useless to save them. In that case, a good man has to kill to protect his family. Minivan Dad, with a little help from his pet psycho, blows away the bad guys. In a pinch, he may even save the psycho from certain death with his newfound shooting skills.

I grew up in split-level land, surrounded by Minivan Dads. They were nice guys who made great fathers and loving husbands. But the only thing they ever killed was crabgrass. Real Minivan Dads love reading about Minivan Dad and his psycho friend. It gives them hope that under their dull suburban exterior lurks a cool killer.

There are lots of guns and gore in the male romance novels, but they’re as sentimental as a royal wedding. If men want to buy books that cater to that fantasy, fine. It’s harmless, no worse than the women who read romance novels where hunks carry them off to satin-draped beds.

But here’s what gets me: Female romances are derided as fluff. Male romances are treated with respect. Even critics buy into the male romance. I can understand men critics falling for this claptrap.  They want it to be true. But what about women reviewers? What happened to your common sense? Didn’t your mamas teach you anything?

Please don’t tell me, “I never read cozies.” Or, “I don’t like chicklit. I prefer serious mysteries” – then name one of the big male romance novelists.

I’ve got news for you. My Dead-End Job series is more realistic. It shows the drudgery of minimum wage work. It has bimbos who milk rich old men for money, which really happens. It also has a few laughs and pastel covers, but don’t let those scare you. It’s social commentary wrapped in pink ribbons.

Let me break it to you gently, gentlemen. There are no sensitive strippers, Minivan Dads with psycho pals, or sweet young things with designer duds and fake boobs who fall in love with much older men – not unless the gray guys can advance their careers or keep them in style.

Bite the bullet, boys. Be a man and admit that  “Lord of the Rings” is gritty realism compared to your three favorite fantasies.

Should you read male romances? Of course. I do. I love them. I even take them to bed with me. I enjoy them all night long.

But I don’t respect them in the morning.
   – Elaine Viets

Vist Elaine's website for more information about her Dead End Job mystery series!



Elaine, this sooo needed to be said! Thanks.

Thanks Elaine for a much needed laugh out loud moment. I plan on printing this out for my Dad to read. He needs a clue. I haven't read any of your books but I plan to march right out this morning and pick up a few. Thanks for guest blogging.

Oh wow. You said so much today about gender bias, about why we write, about the marketing of women writers, things I have thought about many times. Thanks for a great start to my day.

Elaine, one of my favorite characters in the male romance novel:

Sad Ex-Wife who still loves Our Hero, but just can't live with him anymore(maybe his infrequent showers and squalid living conditions have something to do with that) and who is now Moving On with Boring Nice Guy who, we undertand, isn't as good in the sack as SE-W wishes.

Elaine and Nancy,

You are both giving me cause to keep a spray bottle of Windex next to my monitor.

My pet peeve is the 'girlfriend'. These guys need to do a better job with the girlfriends. I want to strangle Susan of Spenser fame.

Here is my pet peeve (and I love the male romance novels that Elaine so eloquently described) - why does the hero almost ALWAYS fall in love with a woman he meets while investigating the crime? She's either connected to the victim, connected to the primary suspect or IS the suspect. I was recently reading one of my favorite male authors (and one of the best in the business) and this happened 2 books in a row. Love the series, LOVE the author and I won't stop reading them but why?

My friend Kimberly (see above) and I just want to know what kind of shoes these heroes wear. They never tell us! But we always know what kind of car they drive. Great blog! You have spawned a whole private discussion and speculation about who you mean. Ha! Thanks for the laugh out loud. You are going on my TBR list too.

You go, girl! Since I'm a fan of your Dead End Job series, I expected no less from you than this articulate essay. Women certainly have this disconnect. It bothers me also when women decry romance novels by women yet embrace the male written romance novel like Bridges of Madison County, Sparks' books, etc. The male written romance never has two available people hooking up. Adultery seems to be a favorite theme.

Brava! I haven't laughed this hard since I watched lizard-faced Warren Beatty trying to put the moves on Halle Berry in "Bulworth." Hollywood has been in love with the Old Fart/Young Tart theme forever, so why shouldn't the crime writing boys milk the wet dream? I am a female who writes a male PI series, and my hero drives a beatup car, owns a cat and has a thing for older women. Damn. NOW I know what I have been doing wrong!

First time reading your blog, Lipstick Gals, and Elaine, you hooked me! Loved your comment about the men who think they're every woman's desire no matter how gross they look. That ol' double standard is still alive and well--men are "big guys" and women are "fat"-- way beyond annoying. Thanks for the great thoughts.


LOVE your books and am looking forward to the next series!

Here's another one of my favorites from the male romance: the mousy sexpot. She's usually a librarian (no kidding) and she hides her simmering passion behind glasses and a french braid. The hero unleashes the siren, who loses the glasses, lets down the flowing hair and becomes a real woman, all due to her overwhelming attraction to the middle-aged salesguy who is really solving an international art scam in his spare time.

I just saw this book at the beach in the hands of - you guessed it- middle-aged salesguy.

I was thankful he wasn't trying to wear a Speedo.

That which men love they elevate. Male romance novels, as defined so brilliantly here by Elaine. Baseball. Now, I love baseball, but I wouldn't compare it to the U.S. Consitution as one prominent historian did. Blues music. Again, I like it, but I don't think the ability to identify a riff is the mark of a life spent in admirable intellectual pursuits. It's music geekery.

Don't even get me started on "Field of Dreams." Ever notice that the father-son drama can be played at five-hankie level and no one talks about sentiment, but if a mother-daughter movie isn't based on the Medea paradigm, it's referred to sneeringly as a "chick flick."

I was once chided by a critic because my female character didn't experience any "chemistry" with a male character. I can't speak for the reviewer (a woman), but I don't have sexual chemistry with every man with whom I work in close proximity. If I did, I'd never get anything done.

A couple of notes, on top of a general "Hoo-yeah".

Think about this not just in genre fiction but in "serious literature" (a distinction I also find pretty questionable, but that's another subject). "For Whom the Bell Tolls", for example. Male romance novel all the way. Read it in high school English. So far as I can tell, EVERYONE read it in high school English. Presented to the reader as something you need to read because Hemingway is a genius and this is an Inspiring Universal Tale of The Human Spirit In Its Struggle For Freedom. If (if!) you read "The Yellow Wallpaper" for school, it was presented as a story about women, and the problems they had in marriage under a social system that no longer exists.

Now (leaving aside the question of whether that social system is really gone) does this make any sense? Is the experience of guerrilla warfare actually universal in its relevance, and are family relationships actually a specialized topic, only of interest to certain people? Or are the experiences described in "The Yellow Wallpaper" (ignoring the fact that they happen to a woman) more likely to be relevant to MALE READERS in modern America?

Definitely the second. But it's never presented that way because the underlying assumption is: stories about exclusively male experiences Reveal Humanity. Stories about female experiences reveal only female experience, which just isn't very interesting.

(It may also be worth noting that none of the veterans I know are at all impressed with Hemingway. But that, too, is another topic.)

It always amazes me, the degree to which even smart people just let this go by.

All I can say is is a Hurley-esque, "Dude".

You are so very on target.

As a reader who enjoys books from all over the spectrum, I appreciate your take on this. Guys love the fantasy just as much as we do.

As a writer, one of my favorite comments from a reader was that I didn't have my female protagonist immediately fall into bed with the (somewhat suspect) male interest. He (my gay reader), said it was refreshing.

I supposed if I'd been writing a noir detective novel, I'd have been banned from the ol' boys club. Hee.

Also loved Laura's comment above re: "not having sexual chemistry with every man..." Wouldn't *that* be distracting?

Thanks for the great take on the boys' side of the fence. ::g::

Too True! Too True!

The well-armed psycho-sidekick is so bizarre. Where did mini-van Dad find this guy? But they keep popping up all over.

::peering out my side window to see if the neighbors have an arsenal in their garage::

Nope. All clear.

Elaine, I loved this! Minivan Dads...gotta love it.

I love reading your posts -- you've made me laugh out loud. You've also given me several new stereotypes, including the Mousy Sexpot and the Sad Ex-Wife. I love PJ Parrish's Old Fart/Young Tart.
As for Laura Lippman's comments about Hemmingway, he's the king of the male romance writers. His women are compliant cardboard.
Like Laura, I was surprised to learn how many real warriors despise this fake hero.
Anyway, thanks for letting me be part of Lipstick Chronicles -- Elaine Viets

Hold the phone... are you saying that if I get rich I'll have a chance at a stripper girlfriend even if I'm really old? Cool!

On a serious note, congrats on the hardcover transition Elaine!

". . . sentimental as a royal wedding." Now that's one I haven't heard before. That should win an opening line contest or something.

Beautiful, Elaine. Beautiful.
As to the question of where Minivan Dad acquired his psycho friend, I believe it was 'Nam. Or, to the upcoming generation of Male Romance Readers, Desert Storm. Which proves that war is good for something.

Wonderful post!

I haven't had to field any more innuendos about romances from the Beloved ever since I picked up his Clive Cussler and Wilbur Smith novels and was able to instantly point to purple prose (I still remember my eyebrows migrating heavenward when I read aloud Smith's passage on the outline of the heroine's dark cleft or something. Oh my.)

Well said, Elaine.

Your post, like your Dead-End Job series, is very funny and a real pleasure to read. I look forward to more!

Love the post, Elaine. The funny thing: Just a few months ago I read a mystery about a highly intellignet guy who falls for--of course--a stripper with a heart of gold and an adorable kid. And his mom and her cronies love her.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

No sensitive strippers? And here I thought I was the only person in the place who was de-sensitized.

Gosh, I really do need to re-form my worldview.

Sensative stripper? Never realized that CSI was a male romance show. :)

Seriously, good points all. Of course, I usually roll my eyes at the romance parts just like I do when the somewhat attractive woman of the cozy I'm reading catches the eye of the most handsome male ever known to human kind. Yep, seen those in mysteries, too.

Romance is everywhere whether we want it or not. At least now we're seeing both sides.

Your books are fantastic. But can you try writig a paranormal romance. With your talent I believe you can make it even you go on different genre. What do you think?

Some of us males have noticed this kind of book too.
My father taught us how to think, and we would practice on the adverts, spotting the false premises and associations. You know, "If you brush with Paste X, you'll get this gorgeous hunk/babe and the great body thrown in free!!"
Male romances were a cinch to spot after that. Great read or movie, but about as satisfying as candy-floss. LOTR's has far more realistic themes by comparisons, because the characters answer questions that are slightly wider ranging than, "Just how hot is this babe?" or "How many bullets are left in my clip?"
Having said that, being a Brit, when I lived in rural USA for 18 months, I was amazed at the number of men who were heavily armed and could kill deer with almost anything to hand. They could disappear into the woods noiselessly, and their freezers were stuffed with venison. Not a familiar scene to an urbanised Brit, and made the 'psycho-pal' a lot more plausible. Mind you, they were the politest people I've ever met, as long as you weren't a deer...

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