Friday, February 12, 2016

Do Women and Men Write About Love Differently?

In a recent essay in The New Yorker online's "Page-Turner" section called "The Ideal Marriage, According to Novels," author Adelle Waldman argues that there is a clear difference between the ways that men and women novelists write about love. Or, at least, men and women who pen literary fiction.

Women authors, Waldman suggests, depict love as a process of judging potential partners based on intelligence, intelligence of a specific kind: "The ideal mate, for Jane Austen's heroines, for Charlotte Brönte's, for George Eliot's, is someone intelligent enough to appreciate fully and respond deeply to their own intelligence, a partner for whom they feel not only desire but a sense of kinship, of intellectual and moral equality." In contrast, our most literarily lauded male writers "devote far less energy to considering the intelligence of their heroes' female love interests; instead, they tend to emphasize visceral attraction and feelings." A search for equality, she concludes, is a "much greater psychological driver" for female writers than it is for males.

Tolstoy's Kitty and Levin...
Waldman uses examples from only a handful of novels to explicate her argument—Eliot's Middlemarch, Austen's Sense and Sensibility, and Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels for the female side; Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Saul Bellow's Herzog, Philip Roth's "The Professor of Desire," and Karl Ove Knausgaard's autobiographical Min kamp novels for the male—so it is easy to find exceptions to her gendered rule. She even calls attention such exceptions herself, at least from the male side (Samuel Richardson, Thomas Hardy, Jonathan Franzen, Norman Rush). Yet these are the exceptions, she argues, for "even those male writers who are most attentive to love and sex tend to direct their attention elsewhere—to the face, the body—and to personality only in a loose sense." In sum, male writers depict love "as a profound, mysterious attraction," while women writers prefer show love "as a partnership with a like soul, a person uniquely capable of understanding one's inner life."

...or Dorothea Brooke and Will Ladislaw?
Does Waldman's framework fall apart if we try to apply it to romance novels? Some romance novels are deeply invested in the vision of love as a meeting of the minds, the discovery of an intellectual soul mate, the finding of an equal. Others, though, lean far more toward the "love as a mysterious, inexplicable attraction" pole. Still others draw on both discourses, suggesting that the most successful relationships occur when both inexplicable attraction and intellectual compatibility coexist.

I think you would agree that examples of all three can be found in romance novels written by women. And, I would argue, those written by men.

A few questions that I have, then, after reading romance through the lens of Waldman's argument:

• Are literary writers more bound by gender conventions than are romance writers, at least when it comes to the depiction of love?

• Are female romance writers who focus primarily on "love as mysterious, inexplicable attraction" drawing their models from male literary writers?

• Are female romance writers who embrace the purportedly male model simply reclaiming a type vision of love that was, for socially constructed reasons (patriarchy, sexism), until recently only permitted to male novelists?

• Which vision of love is more empowering for women?

• Are both visions a fantasy of sorts? Or is one more realistic than the other?

• Which vision of love do you, as a reader, prefer to find in your romance novels?

Photo credits:
Anna Karenina: WomenArts
Middlemarch: Pinterest


  1. Hello. As always, a very thought provoking post. I cannot answer all your questions.
    As I read not only romance novels but also literary fiction, I tend to agree that the 'love' part in literary fiction tends to be more formulaic than your average harlequin in the depiction of love. I have this impression that male 'serious' writers are uncomfortable wrinting about it.
    I think that women looking for a partner who does not only appreciate your body but also your intelligence is more empowering. Love is not only about attraction but also about having a good and friendly relationship and a little bit of personal interest. After all, Elizabeth Bennet sees Darcy in a different way after she sees Pemberley.
    I'm not sure which vision is more realistic. A lot of people seem to keep on thinking that you have to marry someone you feel you love in the middle of a lusty wave, no matter how terribly un-fitted that couple is. No surprise half the marriages end in divorce.
    I prefer the first one, of course, because otherwise the HEA is not believable for me. This is what I like to see: "Someone intelligent enough to appreciate fully and respond deeply to their own intelligence, a partner for whom they feel not only desire but a sense of kinship, of intellectual and moral equality".

  2. I do not think the "ineffable attraction" model is at all empowering to women. It is a model that can exist even when there is a profound difference in power and opportunities between the parties. It does not require a man to have a detailed understanding of his wife's needs and priorities, indeed it almost assumes that he can't possibly understand them. And that in turn encourages him to disregard them, and prevents him from seeing that there is any difference in power between the two people at all.

    From that point of view it is rather depressing that the author of this article could only come up with a few examples of male writers who deviated from this model. I hope the number may be increasing.

    That said, I have read some novels where it seemed to me that a marriage without much meeting of minds was nonetheless fulfilling to the woman, but that was only possible if the woman had plenty of outlets for her energy and intelligence, and sources of respect, other than her husband himself. A far-afield example might be The River Ki by Sawako Ariyoshi. This novel follows its heroine Hana through decades of marriage in the late 19th and early 20th century. She is rarely shown having detailed conversations with her husband, and indeed she often solves dilemmas without involving him. But she works tirelessly to promote her husband's political career and the status of her family, gaining a wide reputation as a skillful mediator, as a matchmaker, as a cultured, tasteful woman with skill in the arts.