Entertainment Books Books killing love?
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Books killing love?

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The romance genre is the publishing world’s biggest and fastest growing book market with an estimated 75 million readers annually, but do these tales of powerful, brooding men satisfying their lover’s every whim simply set up women for discontent in the real world?

“I think these books can be a problem in relationships,” says Rosalie Pattenden a Melbourne psychologist with 30 years’ experience in relationship counselling.

When a British psychologist suggested that the romance genre was responsible for damaging relationships a few years ago, it created intense debate around among readers and publishers around the world.

“Once you’re past that romantic phase of falling in love, these books can enhance ideas that relationships should be like that forever.

“If women are unhappy in their relationship, romance novels can add fuel to the thought that their partner doesn’t measure up.

“This is judging their partner by impossible standards and men can feel terribly undermined by this.”

Sarah Morgan 38, agrees, “I’m a big fan of the romance genre,” she says, “and I have noticed that sometimes I fall completely in lust with a male character and then compare my husband to him and can’t help but feel this deep urge to be loved as much as the woman in the book.

“It’s completely unfair to my husband I know, and I have to remind myself that it’s just fantasy…but it can still take me a day or so to shake the thought that maybe I missed out on a grand love story.”

When a British psychologist suggested that the romance genre was responsible for damaging relationships a few years ago, it created intense debate around among readers and publishers around the world.

“I would argue that a huge number of the issues we see in our clinics and therapy rooms are influenced by romantic fiction,” the psychologist, Susan Quilliam, wrote in the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Healthcare.

“What we see … is more likely to be influenced by Mills and Boon than by the Family Planning Association,” she said, adding that “(a) deep strand of escapism, perfectionism and idealisation runs through the genre”.

“People said that about Pride and Prejudice back in the day,” says a bemused Kate Cuthbert, publisher with Escape, a division of Harlequin Australia.

“It’s a misogynistic belief to think that women can’t distinguish between fantasy and reality,” she said.

“It’s like saying that men who read crime thrillers or Stephen King novels are likely to go out and start killing people.

“The relationships in contemporary romance novels are about mutual respect, and men who legitimately care about their partners, and that carries through to the bedroom.”

What about Fifty Shades of Grey, the biggest selling book of all time? Was mutual respect depicted in its tale of a dominating man who needed to beat his young partner to gain sexual gratification?

“It’s not a romance novel,” Cuthbert says, “It’s an erotic novel.

“And yes, for many women the idea that they give up their autonomy to a man who then takes care of her is very appealing.”

Less appealing perhaps is the possibility of unwanted pregnancy and STDs (research shows condoms are mentioned in only about 12 per cent of sex scenes) unrealistic expectations of sex and relationship breakdown which psychologist Susan Quilliam says can result from being swept up in the romance of these stories.

“Yes, (fans) say that they can distinguish fact from fantasy, but when it comes to making life decisions, are they not much more tempted to let their heart dictate simply because they are romance fans?”

Regardless of the debate women are still flocking to read romance.

Mills and Boon sell 130 million books across the world each year – equating to one book sale every four seconds.

In 2012 Penguin Books Australia launched its Destiny Romance digital imprint to cater to the local demand for ebook romance.

“Our readers are voracious,” says Destiny publisher, Sarah Fairhall. “We publish two ebooks a month and the demand is overwhelming.”

The advent of digital publishing has allowed women greater freedom to read publicly without displaying their fiction choices to the world.

So why is romance such a popular genre, bringing in $1.5 billion in sales in the US last year?

Australian romance author, and president of the Romance Writers of Australia, Nikki Logan says women read romance “partly for the emotional rush. The emotional expression, emotional experience and the highs and lows that come with the romantic journey.”

“If a romance novel is well written, readers will empathise with the characters, immerse in their world and crisis, and willingly go on a journey for the emotional charge that is the happy ending.”

Escape publisher Kate Cuthbert agrees, “Romance is the literature of optimism in a time when there is an awful lot of pessimism around,” she said.