Saturday, March 6, 2010

Evolution and the Romance Novel

Evolution and the Romance Novel

I am now about to venture on a strange path that has only ever been dimly lit - at least for me. I refer to the evolution of women (and implicitly, men) and the Romance Novel.

One of my - female - students once described the romance novel as 'porn for women', inplying that they occupy the same niche in the female psyche as girly pics for men.

Anthony Cox, Centre for Psychology & Computing, Dartmouth, Canada, and Maryanne Fisher, Department of Psychology, St Mary's University, Nova Scotia have analysed the romance novel in order to test evolutionary hypotheses about women.

They used 15,000 Harlequin novels (Mills and Boon in the UK) as their base data sets and checked for word use.

The five most common words used, in descending order were:
Love (840)
Bride (835)
Baby (696)
Man (672)
Marriage (612)

Other much used words were : Doctor, Cowboy, Night, Nurse, Boss, King, Knight, Rancher, Midwife, Bodyguard, Sheriff, Pirate.

Now evolutionary theory predicts that the sexual-specific strategy of women would suggest that they be interested in the following characteristics in a man:
Status, health, Commitment, Fertility.

Status is key because a high status man is better able to support her and her children.
Commitment clearly important - he has to stick around after the baby is born.
Health because a dead or sick man ain't much use as a provider or protector.
Fertility because, well, that's what it's all about.

If you look at the buzz words found in romance novels, they do tend to support evolutionary theory. Men are described by high status words (doctor, king, knight) or physically fit hero-words (cowboy, sheriff, bodyguard).

What is interesting is that the physical appearance of men (other than healthy, fit, fertile physical clues) is not of much relevence in the books. That is why men's body's are functional rather than elegant.

I was once told by a journalist that women like reading about the appearance of women, and looking at pictures of women (fashion, hair styles etc) and, of course, so do men but for other reasons. This is why women's magazines tend to have pictures of women on the front and so do men's magazine.

You know, we should be able to reduce this to a mathematical formula. I do maths. If so, I could write the perfect romance novel without understanding romance.

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

I dunno, John.

There's a lot of sheer idiocy and wildly bad decisions that end up with the heroine(if that's the right word) in the villain(hero 50% of the time)'s clutches. I hope you're up on Chaos Theory, you're going to need it. ;)

Seems like I read something once about a computer programed to write novels. I've always wondered how it handled dialog.

John Lambshead said...

Dear Pam
Dejah Thoris has been kidnapped again.......

Kate said...

Er. Are you prepared to do the same thing with Westerns? Or mil-fic? Or...

What you're hitting is that every genre has its built-in conventions. Romance novels reflect the fact that up until the last 50 years or so, women didn't get the option of succeeding on their own terms (I'm not going into the reasons for this), so their only real option was marrying success. We've still got cultural hangovers from centuries ago floating around in our languages, our place names, the things our parents teach us - which are mostly what their parents taught them, and so forth - so it's hardly surprising that romances reflect what's been the main career path for women for centuries.

If you did a similar analysis on any of the predominantly male genres, you'd find that they showed as virtues the things men have needed to succeed - the ability to persevere, strength, toughness, independence, loyalty.

Cultural history and how it impact the current era is a fascinating topic, and one that's largely left unexplored because of all the minefields it wanders through, more's the pity.

Oh, and just to throw a spanner into the works, science fiction and to a lesser extent fantasy are the fiction of the outliers and Bloom's diversity generators. How much does the genre reflect that culture?

Ori Pomerantz said...

You know, we should be able to reduce this to a mathematical formula. I do maths. If so, I could write the perfect romance novel without understanding romance.

John, how long have you been married to your wife (including the time after you decided to spend your lives together prior to the ceremony)? I'd say you probably understand romance a lot better than a Hollywood actor that was married 6 times, averaging 1.5 years per marriage.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


If it were possible to reduce love and life to a mathematical formula we would have done it by now.

The women writing romance are smart and supportive. Their organisation, RWAMerica and RWAustralia, groom their members for life as professional writers. The mid-list romance writer makes a better living than any other mid-list genre writer.

Writing romance is really hard. I've tried. I don't have the discipline.

Sometimes, I think men and women are so different, I wonder how the human race ever got this far.

John Lambshead said...

Dear Kate

You are missing the point of the article. Romance novels plumb in to sexual selection strategy, i.e. fundamental biology. That makes them a useful test of current hypothesese about human sexual selection strategy. Specific human strategies are the evolutionary product of the last five million years on the plains of Africa. 'Society' is irrelevent.

We know quite a bit about male sexual selection strategy sexual selection strategy as well. Men are visual. Hominids are unusual in that regard. Birds are also visual but the male has the sexual attractors. Mammals are usually smell-sensory and the female is the attractor. Hominids have a visual female attractor.

So you learn a great deal about male strategy from showing them pictures/videos of women and getting their reaction.


John Lambshead said...

Dear Pam

I recalled the fantasy wargame Horde of the Things, which is a parody of fantasy novels.

It has hero 'stands' that can feature a male or female figure. It also has heroines that are specifically female models on a hero stand swooning in his arms after being rescued.



John Lambshead said...

Dear Ori
I am not sure my wife would agree with you.
But we have been together since 1976 so I guess that proves somethng, although I am not sure what.

John Lambshead said...

Dear Rowena

I know, I was being a bit tounge in cheek suggesting romance could be reduced to a mathematical formula, playing up to the male geek image.

Writing Romance is very difficult because it has to appeal to some fundamental biological programing. I can't do it but some men seem able to.


John Lambshead said...

Dear Rowena

Men and women are very different. Hominids are highly sexually dimorphic compared to many other mammals.

It is down to the fact that: (i) women have to carry large big-headed babies for nine months and are vulnerable during this time, especially towards the end, (ii) human babies are born so early in their development that they are helpless for years, and (iii)women can have so few babies in their natural lifespan that great investment has to be put in the survival of each one.

These are all side effects of our large brain 'k-strategy'. Big brains have many disadvantages.


Sarah A. Hoyt said...


In the US at least, your theory of romance is at least twenty years out of date.

Yes, there are an awful lot of trashy romances that could be described as female porn. There is A LOT of fantasy that is that way too. However...

At the risk of offending any passing editors -- romance is one of the few fields in the US that has escaped the "I will improve the public's taste" editorial attitude. (Until recently at least. I'm getting very tired of every historical character being an undercover twentieth century feministy in disguise.) This means readers escaped thataway because there were still stories in Romance.

Nowadays, judging from the sampling I've been doing the last ten years, there is everything in Romance. There are romances that are more erotica than anything else; there are "sweet" romances that are kept at about Heyer's level, and where one kiss happens (if that.) There's mystery. There's fantasy. I'm sure there's science fiction, though it's hard to publish. There's historical (if I haven't yet recommended Madeleine Heyer I'm doing so now.)

Yes, there must be a romance, and in general it must end well (though some houses buck that trend) but your careful categorizations don't always apply. Some women are more powerful than their love interest, for ex.

Look, romance will never be my favorite genre. However, calling it "porn for women" is an oversimplification on the order of calling SF "Military porn for men" or perhaps "Machine porn."

The idea of reducing it to a formula is as demaning as if someone told you they were doing that to sf or fantasy.

There IS a program on the market Dramatic Pro that claims to have cracked the "formula" for mega bestsellers. At a low point I bought it, years ago. It might have done so, but I don't even UNDERSTAND what it's attempting to do, much less trying it. My brain kept shutting down and going "writing doesn't work that way!"

I don't hear of any bestsellers using it either, though perhaps they just don't admit to doing so. Perhaps J. K. Rowling got an early copy...

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

That's Madeleine HUNTER -- I have Heyer in the brain.

Anonymous said...


"Some women are more powerful than their love interest, for ex."

I think for women, it's closer to absolute than relative. Women want a strong man, not "stronger than me" and a high status man not necessarily "higher than me". Mind you, what a high status woman considers high status in a man is different that what a low status woman would consider high.

But I don't think women are looking for *superior to me*. I think they're looking for *good*.

Men have their own standards for attractive, and a stronger tendency to see two categories of the opposite gender: "this is permanent mate material" vs. "want to get in bed with."

I think men are also more likely to see a woman's status as competition, especially in the modern world where they are both fighting for status in the same category (professional respect and money), as opposed to, in a more primitive world, status in the male cohort and an entirely different status competition among the females. (And child cohort status struggles as well).