We Are Not What We Read

Article by Alex Landragin  /
The Wheeler Centre /
July 13, 2011 /
Click here to view original /

It’s perhaps the most common controversy in the world of ideas: how does the content of art and literature change us? Do representations of violence and sex corrupt us? Is porn bad for us? And what about … romance novels?

A couple of weeks ago, writer and relationships columnist Susan Quilliam published an essay on the potentially harmful effect reading romance novels might have on their readers, who are predominantly women. The headline-grabbing essay echoed claims reported in early June by a Christian psychologist that she was treating “more and more women who are clinically addicted to romantic books”, and that these books were the cause of some of their relationship dissatisfactions.

The essay has sparked widespread debate. Strangely, a good deal of the discussion seems to hinge on… condom use. But the discourse about romance fiction more broadly seems to mirror the debate on how pornography affects men: do these representations of sex and romance – as the case may be – diminish their users?

Melbourne academic Lauren Rosewarne has another take. She objects to the presumption that consumers of art and entertainment should be such easy touches. “I don’t doubt for a moment that romance novels provide problematic information about sex,” she writes for The Conversation. “But to pretend that the only message, or even just the strongest message received, comes from steamy paperbacks is simplistic at best and conservatively deceptive at worst.”