A tattered, torn and worn-out copy of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” sits on a re-stocking shelf in the Harold B. Lee Library, waiting to be re-shelved to its original home in the literature section on the fifth floor.
Published 132 years after its original release, this 1945 edition came to BYU at the climax of World War II. As the oldest of around 25 copies of the same title in the BYU library, it’s no surprise that this book has been checked out 204 times since the library started keeping count in the mid-1970s.
“You’d be pretty surprised how many novels we re-shelve that are written by women and for women. The volume of people checking out these kinds of books is astonishing,” said Sara Jenkins, a BYU library employee for the past three years. “I see more traffic with some of these girly books than I see for ‘Lord of the Rings’ or ‘Star Wars.'”
Often referred to as “romance novels,” “chick-lit,” or “girly books,” the popularity of women’s literature has reached a fever pitch. With a healthy blend of old authors (Austen, Bronte) and new authors (a la Stephenie Meyer), it’s hard for anyone — readers and publishers alike — to ignore the craze. But some wonder if there is any negative side effects that come with the territory.
“Some aspects of a good romance novel is fast-paced action, humor, some slight heart tugging, overcoming odds, steamy scenes and a powerful heroine,” says a top-reviewer at goodreads.com, a social networking book-review website that boasts more than 5.2 million members. The reviewer, who asked to remain anonymous, has read and reviewed nearly 3,500 books herself. “Romance novels offer an escape from daily life with the belief that true love really exists.”
This is a formula publishers know all too well. According to data collected by BookScan, a company dedicated to recording point-of-sales data for book sales, romance novel purchases have increased markedly over the years. In a most recent study, “Pride and Prejudice” sold 110,000 physical copies in a single year, about 40,000 more copies than the No. 1 New York Times bestseller. This information alone prompted Penguin, a national publishing house, to spend $500,000 on a new campaign promoting Austen novels.
Not to be left in the dust, other publishers have followed suit. Harlequin and Bantam have increased production of their own romance line of novels as well. All this doesn’t even account for book sales on e-readers. Not just a national trend, women’s novels have even cropped up in smaller cities. Take, for example, the popularity of the “Twilight” Series, which is especially a hit in Utah Valley because its author is an alumna of BYU.
“We have at least 16 copies of ‘Twilight,'” said Kellie Bollenbach, a BYU library employee. “As you can see, ‘Twilight’ has been on shelves since 2005, and even now, six years later, we only have one copy that isn’t checked out.”
While many in the valley have counted themselves among those waiting in line to purchase the next book in the “Twilight” series, there are those who worry about the psychological and addictive impacts that these novels have on readers.
“‘Twilight’ is the gateway drug,” said Greta Ballif, a senior studying English. “There’s something to be said about the addictive qualities of these types of books. Everyone is aware that the draw is the sexual tension. It’s watered-down sexual experience. Many of these books function in this way. It’s no wonder women are burning through these books just like that.”
Ballif said that, especially in LDS culture, it’s dangerous to read some of the racier romance novels.
“These books are more graphic than some movies,” she said. “And they prompt women to develop unrealistic expectations of relationships. After reading these books, standards collapse.”
The concern isn’t merely from females either. In the past, many males have been accused of getting lost in the fantasy world of videogames, especially the popular computer-based game “World of Warcraft.” Girlfriends and wives have shown public displeasure in their significant others’ videogame addiction. But some men say women participate in their fair share of fantasy addictions.
“My wife complains that I play ‘Madden’ or ‘Call of Duty,’ but she sits and reads these romance novels all day,” said Al Acosta, who recently relocated from Provo to Dallas. “At least everyone knows that my fantasy world consists of one day playing for an NFL team. Who knows what kind of messed up fantasies about relationships she is getting caught up in?”
Acosta said his wife recently purchased an e-reader, partly so she wouldn’t have to show anyone what she was reading in public. And she’s not the only one. AllRomance.com, the largest dedicated online retailer of digital romance novels, saw sales soar over 2010, reporting a 215 percent growth in business.
“A lot of people are conscious of what they read in public because they’re scared of being judged,” said Amy Carlson, a sophomore at BYU. “I’ll read ‘Twilight’ and some other novels, but Danielle Steele, for example, would probably make me feel inappropriate. I wouldn’t read her, period.”
Even when reading Jane Austen’s novels, considered tame in comparison to some authors, Carlson’s brother still manages to give her a hard time.
“He’ll say, ‘By reading Austen, it only creates a perfect man in your head that you’ll never meet because he doesn’t exist,'” she said. “I’ve never had a boyfriend but I almost let myself get into a relationship because of those strong feelings I get when reading some of these novels. It’s hard not to hope for a good guy to come around.”
Gail Newbold, a professor of journalism at BYU, questioned whether or not romance novels actually have an effect on their readers in her master’s thesis on the subject. Her conclusions found there were few differences in the way heavy readers of “bodice rippers,” as Newbold calls them, view their relationships with a significant other.
“There were only two significant differences between heavy romance readers and non-readers,” she said. “Heavy readers were more prone to expect more passion and more humor in a relationship. Although, we did find that younger readers were more heavily affected than older readers in general.”