Saturday Salon: Views on Romance from a Historian, a Psychologist, and an Economist

I started the week getting grumpy at the British historian Simon Schama for his article on the PBS series Downton Abbey. I happen to love Downton Abbey; he doesn’t. That’s OK. He’s perfectly at liberty to turn up his nose at this classy but soapy drama about the aristocracy. Not everyone enjoys the shenanigans of hot lords. Certainly not Prof. Schama who thinks the series services “the instincts of cultural necrophilia.” Whatev. I think Simon should chill. It’s not like hot lords are still running the country.

But then he attacked Downton for being too cheerful, even suggesting that it was unrealistic for Matthew to return from World War I alive. Excuuuuse me, Simon. Yes, WWI was a hideous pointless slaughter, but not everyone was killed. Lots died and lots returned, some in better shape than others. If the writers of this fictional drama want a character to survive, that’s their prerogative.

And then he really pissed me off with this statement:

…history’s meant to be a bummer, not a stroll down memory lane. Done right, it delivers the tonic of tragedy, not the bromide of romance.

Fighting words. I bet I know what Simon thinks of romance novels.

The week ended on a more cheerful note with a piece at msn.com by writer and psychologist Debra Holland entitled Life Lessons from Romance Novels. She makes some very good points about how romance reading helps women. Plus you should see the book covers that illustrate her argument. Nicely chosen, Debra (or random MSN deputy editor). Is it possible you have ever visited The Ballroom?

And then there’s Jeremy Rifkin. Rifkin is an economist who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. He acts as an advisor to the European Union and several European governments of varying political persuasions. Without getting in too deep, he believes that individuals have to work together to solve the world’s problems. In The Empathic Civilization he discusses how psychological factors impact economic development. And – surprise, surprise – he says that romance novels have played their part in the historical growth of human empathy.

Women helped men learn how to love and express intimacy … In the Romantic schema–visited repeatedly in romance novels–the conquest is reversed. The hardened and insensitive male is wooed by the nurturance and affection of the female. She senses the intimate qualities long buried inside her mate and by creating a sense of trust and affection is able to bring them out–to melt his heart.

Rifkin sees women as teaching the male “empathy.” And, interestingly he credits the romance novel, going back to the eighteenth century, with not merely recording this female-male influence, but with actually causing it. He says reading novels provided the impetus for woman to demand more sensitivity in men.

I’ve grossly over-simplified Rifkin’s thesis, but I’m getting one clear message. Romance novels are good. Romance novels will solve the global economic crisis and bring about world peace. So what we need to do is get more men to read romance.

Do the men in your life read romance. And if not why not? What should we do to encourage men to read more romance, thus bringing about peace, prosperity, and the end of static cling?

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