This is not a hypothesis – I am genuinely asking this question. I wonder if there is a relationship between reading romance novels, empathy, and emotional maturity. Romance is among the highest-selling, most widely-read genres. I already believe that a good romance novel can be a vehicle for communicating important information to the reader. However, I was curious if reading the genre itself had any effect on the reader and their emotional state. It would be silly to ignore the possibilities for the societal good present within the genre just because we’re conditioned to write off these books as “fluff.” If immersing oneself in the genre can help them grow emotionally, maybe we should encourage people to put down Stephen King and pick up the latest Lisa Kleypas.
I recognize there are a lot of problems with my question. For one, correlation is not causation – just because someone is empathetic and reads romance novels does not mean that the romance novels caused that person’s empathy. How would you even measure something like this? There have been studies that claim reading fiction can be an avenue for increased empathy, but when I took a deeper dive into the methods for measuring this empathy, the studies came up short. Not to mention that all of the studies I looked at mostly referred to all fiction books instead of specific genre books.
Also, not all romance novels are the same. For example, “50 Shades of Grey” is not the same book as “The Love Hypothesis,” which is not the same book as “A Walk to Remember.” Obviously. While all of these stories fall under the umbrella of romance, they vary drastically. They are different in plot details, location, temporality, and sexual content. (For the record, I don’t believe any book by Nicholas Sparks is particularly “spicy,” and I’m not willing to read them all to confirm that).
Despite this range in content, almost all romance novels contain the same element: a Happily Ever After. By the end of the book’s run, the two main characters should be happily established in their relationship. It is up to the author to convince the reader why we want these two characters to fall in love and remain together. The tension in the story doesn’t come from the “will they or won’t they,” but from the “how will they?”
This unique structure is freeing. We can feel comforted knowing our characters will be able to handle whichever is thrown at them. If the book is well-written, we may learn something about ourselves. When reading a romance novel, we do not have to perform the additional emotional labor of worrying about our characters finding their way to each other. We know that if they break up, it’s temporary, and neither character will contract a fatal disease or be slain in battle in a sad instance of mistaken identity. These books make people happy in a world that can be everything but.
Reading is a fantastic escape that can allow us to expand our vocabularies and provide a nice distraction from our phones for a few hours. In addition, there appears to be evidence that reading can have numerous health and intellectual benefits, although I had difficulty tracking down some of that research. For example, I found several articles which suggested that reading could improve one’s sense of empathy, but this claim was not often backed up with evidence.
A study performed at Harvard University in 2013 suggested that reading fiction may be a possibility for improving “Theory of Mind” ability. According to the study I’m referencing, “Theory of Mind” is the ability to “attribute and reason about the mental states of others.”
I double-majored in biology and anthropology in undergrad, and several of my required courses discussed “theory of mind.” Specifically, we talked about how chimpanzees didn’t have it while we superior humans did. In those courses, “theory of mind” was defined as “the understanding that other people have thoughts about you that may not be the same as your own.”
Was that helpful? Good. If not, I’ll burn my anthropology degree in a cleansing fire and live under a rock or something. “Theory of mind” and empathy are not the same. Empathy is more about sharing someone else’s emotional state, whereas “theory of mind” is the ability to interpret it (check out this study for more information). The terms are not the same, but I wasn’t very lucky with my research for this topic, so I’ll use them interchangeably like the hack scientist I am.
Identifying with a character is a deeply empathic experience. Based on the books I have read and my experiences, I think that romance novels can make a reader more empathetic.
If I read a well-written romance novel, I can put words to feelings I’ve previously had difficulty expressing. For example, in the 1995 novel “Lord of Scoundrels” by Loretta Chase, the hero, Sebastian Ballister, is an emotionally immature man who bulldozes people in his way. This kind of character isn’t atypical for a romance novel. What was unique about this book was that Chase, and by extension, the heroine, Jessica Trent, do not disregard this behavior. Throughout the narrative, Chase shows that much of Sebastian’s behavior stems from a rough childhood rife with neglect and maternal abandonment. However, the narrative also shows the consequences of Sebastian’s actions and how his behavior negatively impacts his relationship with Jessica. It was refreshing to have an author implicitly say, “someone may act this way, but that does not mean it’s okay.”
It’s been several years since I’ve read “Lord of Scoundrels,” but I still remember it favorably and would happily recommend it to other people looking for a satisfying read. I enjoyed reading a book about two people growing together and challenging each other. Making the relationship work between Sebastian and Jessica was not easy, but it was the kind of work worth doing. It was a subtle reminder that any relationship has its challenges, but the joy you feel from that relationship makes the hard work worthwhile.
Compare this book to the “50 Shades of Grey” trilogy by E.L. James. Full disclosure: I dislike these books. I think the series suffers from substandard writing, lack of imagination, and uneven pacing. I’ve disliked this trilogy since I first read it a decade ago and thought, “This is it? This is what everyone is going crazy for?” Reading this book made me feel like I was in an alternate universe in which the rules of normal human behavior and literacy no longer applied. I have spent too much of my life thinking about these crap books and the mean-spirited author who wrote them, but I do want to talk about a few things. People more eloquent than I have devoted hours of their life to genuinely analyzing this text and explaining how it came into being, so I’ll direct you to this video by Dan Olson. If you’re unsatisfied with my critique, then you can head to his stuff.
As “50 Shades of Grey” was a wildly popular book within the romance genre, it is worth analyzing, especially since I’m curious if it and other books like it have helped readers develop emotionally. As a human being capable of rational thought, I object to the romantic relationship between Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey. At best, Christian Grey is a stereotype of a rich, powerful, attractive man who gets everything he wants by being rich, powerful, and attractive. At worst, Christian Grey is an aggressive, violent, petulant man-child who preys on naïve young women. Christian is like so many other romantic protagonists, including Sebastian from “Lord of Scoundrels,” except E.L. James has no interest in condemning his behavior beyond suggesting that people who enjoy BDSM suffer from mental illness.
The relationship between Anastasia and Christian is fraught with tension because Anastasia never seems to know what will set him off in a fit of rage. Yet, she consistently pushes him for more of an emotional commitment beyond his comfort level. Honestly, the books are difficult to read because the relationship between the two main characters is dark. There is constant conflict between the two that is never resolved beyond gratuitous sex scenes or lavish gifts. Their dynamic is abusive, with Christian often perpetuating that violence.
And yet, these books have topped best-seller lists around the world. The series was adapted into a critically-panned trilogy of films (I’m guessing the only trilogy which drove the main actress to whiskey shots to get through filming). As much as I criticize this franchise for being devoid of artistic merit, there is no doubt that the books and films have been seen by millions of people and have impacted culture. Though I’m not entirely sure what that impact is and if it was good or not. What I can say, and the reason that I spoke so much about this series, is that I do not want to put myself in the shoes of either Christian or Anastasia.
I know that there are people like Christian and Anastasia – emotionally-immature adults who never learn from their mistakes and are doomed to repeat the same fights over and over again. There is nothing aspirational about these characters. When I read this book, I didn’t feel like I’d learned anything about myself or other people. I certainly wasn’t more empathetic. These books are the literary equivalent of a brain-eating amoeba.
Like I said earlier, the romance genre may be popular, but it is also nuanced, and not all of these books are the same. I think romance novels are unfairly criticized for the elements that make them so profoundly wonderful. I will always appreciate a book where the female character is placed front and center. I think that the stories where the main female characters’ dreams have value and affect the course of the tale aren’t just interesting but vital to literature. It is why women love romance novels. It’s not just the happy ending but the reminder that you, a fully-formed human independent of anyone else, matter. You matter; you deserve love, and you are worthy of a happily ever after.
The romance genre should make a greater effort to be more inclusive. Through inclusivity, we will have more opportunities to be exposed to diverse perspectives, something that is essential for our personal growth. It’s easy to make fun of books like “Ice Planet Barbarians,” but I can say that by becoming a fan of that series, I have been exposed to a more diverse group of romance novelists. This has renewed my interest in the genre and encouraged me to speak up about the importance of inclusivity.
Thus, I do not think that all romance novels are the perfect tools for becoming more empathetic. However, I think that when intelligent, considerate people write romance novels, it is a radical statement that affirms the inherent worthiness of their characters. Every person deserves the opportunity to see themselves as someone worthy of love. And by extension, it is crucial that we see people who are different from us as equally worthy of love.
With that spirit in mind, I would like to list a few romance novels that I hope to get around to reading over the next couple of months to continue my “empathetic education”:
Friends, let me know what you think about the genre. Do you think I was too harsh about some books? Or are there any books within the genre that have positively impacted your life? Share them below because I would love to hear about them.