I’m a writer, and my stories usually carry more than their fair share of darkness. I don’t know why, that’s just the way they are. Then, I wrote a romance, a light-as-air, sweet-as-rock candy tale. And when that love story went out into the world a few months ago, I was pretty clear who my target audience was: women, of course. The gender who made the Mills & Boon imprint the monolith it is, who tear up at all the romantic parts in action movies (Blade Runner 2049 included), who still heap the ultimate accolade on a man by saying, “Oh, he’s so romantic.”
Then, a funny thing happened. Men read my book and wrote in – and their takes were interestingly male. You have to be a woman to know what I’m talking about here, but here`s the thing: they had read what was unabashedly chick-lit. They had skimmed through (or actually read word for word) a romance which featured breathless blurbs about hot kisses and a cover pic of a couple leaning in for a (also hot) kiss.
“Romances are not really my cup of tea”, said an army man reader. “But I picked up your book. And as I read it, I wondered, are these people for real?! But the build-up to each love scene was interestingly done… the male in me enjoyed that!” A young man wrote in to say: “I think it ought to be made into a screenplay for a movie… when I was reading it, I kept thinking of the Bollywood actors who can best portray the roles.” One (male) veteran journalist called it “a racy read.” A (male) writer, who lists Pride and Prejudice, Gone with the Wind and Dr Zhivago as some of his favourite romances, told me he basically never slots the books he reads into categories, and a well-written book is one which has a solid of the sub-plot within the romantic dressing of the main plot.
Then I asked the editor of this magazine what he thought of men reading romances. “I`m not sure men are entirely uncomfortable with reading romances,” he averred. “Certain kinds of romances, that is. And evolution probably has something to do with it.”
Actually, he is right and he is wrong. Not too many men read chick- lit of the kind written by Lauren Weisberger or Helen Fielding, but closer home, they do read Anuja Chauhan and the ebullient Chetan B. Both the latter best-selling authors are savvily marketed as purveyors of popular fiction, but the fact remains that love is the fulcrum around which their characters revolve.
Fun fact time now: the country`s top romance writers are almost all exclusively male. They go by the names of Ravinder Singh, Durjoy Datta and Sudeep Nagarkar. Now, are you telling me only one half of those who hold up the sky read Messrs Singh, Datta and Nagarkar? I wonder. But I have yet to spot even one man holding, far less reading, a book by the above-mentioned authors. Not one man, and I’ve looked hard, I assure you. Since we are imputing something subtle or not- so- subtle when we say men don`t want to be seen reading romances, I will make haste to say that men are every bit as romantic as women.
Think about it: the chap who writes devastatingly effective love letters? You know him, right? The guy who spent two years in college composing poetry that combined Anais Nin and Robert Frost? (yes, R Frost. Read his Putting In The Seed.) Yup, you know or have heard of him. The fellow who penned haikus to his indifferent girlfriend for months, then broke things up when he realised her indifference was because she couldn`t understand them? Come on, you know him! The men who take roses home to their wives on and off, just to see that look of surprised pleasure break out on her face? I know them and you know them, too. As for those dudes who are unabashedly sentimental, whose hearts break into pieces when their girl dumps them, men who cry quite a bit into their Old Monk, admit it: they are too numerous to name.
So why won`t most of the gallant sex, in India at least, be seen reading a romance? Evolution notwithstanding, it’s all about being a man. It’s that they are conditioned from early childhood to shy away from overt shows of sentiment, and they regard chick-flicks and chick-lit as overt-as-hell shows of sentiment. They can be persuaded to go for the former, especially if the chicks in those flicks are, well, comely lasses. They may even leaf through the latter, but not in public – because Real Men don’t read romances. Now, this could all be just a romantic daydream, but I’d love for men to prove me wrong.