The Red Pen of Doom

Conventional wisdom about writing is conventionally wrong.

Why every man MUST read a romance – and every woman a thriller

In college, wise men with Einstein hair stood in front of lecture halls to tell you literature isn’t really about verbs, adverbs and dangling modifiers. No. Beneath the surface, lit-rah-sure asks a fundamental question that some believe is just as important as religion or science.

That question is this: “What’s worth living for, and what’s worth dying for?”

Nine words.

But I’m not banging in the keyboard late at night, powered by industrial amounts of coffee, to channel those old men wearing corduroy jackets with patches on the elbows. My closet contains no corduroy whatsoever.

I’m here to talk about those nine words, and why it leads me to one inescapable conclusion: that I do, in fact, know how to spell “inescapable.” Bit surprising. Thought I’d muff that one.
Why every man MUST read a romance

Not to pick up girls. And not, if you’re married, to improve your odds of staying out of the dog house.

Every man should read a romance — and think about these things — for an entirely different reason. It’s the first part of the question, the “What’s worth living for?” part.

See, I could walk into (1) a cubicle farm, (2) factory break room or (3) sports bar and show any random 10 single men a photo from the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, and ask them — drunk or not — whether they would marry this swimsuit model. I’m only half kidding when I say nine of those men would shrug and say, “Sure.” Because we men can be stupid that way.

HOWEVER: We need to get over it, and start thinking about these sorts of things. And yes, a fine first step would be reading a romance novel. Watching a rom-com starring Matthew McConaughey, who’s last name is impossible to spell, does not count. Neither does  firing up Netflix for SEX AND THE CITY 3: SARA JESSICA PARKER SHOPS FOR PURSES IN PARIS.

You must read an actual romance novel, with words and sentences, though I’ll leave it up to you whether it involves Men in Kilts.

I’ve written a few things about romances. (See below.) And my thinking has evolved quite a bit, not just because I’ve met 5,092 romance authors and talked to them, using this thing I like to call the Series of Tubes.

On the surface, sure, romances are about relationships. How two people meet, how they fall in love, all that.

Beneath that, romances are often about a massively important choice: Who should you commit to and love?

Classics like PRIDE AND PREJUDICE feature a lot of talking, thinking and scheming  about who should get matched up with who. At first I thought this was a lot of gossipy gossip nonsense. But it’s not. These choices are hard, and they mirrored real life. Back then, who a woman married meant everything. It wasn’t like folks had a lot of career choices and birth control options. Could this man be a good provider for oh, eight or ten kids? You’re damned straight if I were a woman back then, I’d want to marry a handsome prince. Tell me that story. Let me live that dream, not the one where I die in squalor giving birth to child No. 9.

High stakes back then. High stakes now, and a big deal for everyone involved. Who should you marry and have kids with? Oh, that’s massive, especially before the invention of The Pill and no-fault divorce. Can’t think of a bigger decision, and it’s definitely worth thinking about, if not agonizing over at least as much as the average man obsesses about his fantasy football picks.

Most men I know are generally horrible at this. We tend not to talk about love and relationships with our buddies, our sisters, with anybody. A lot of us tend have the attitude, “What happens, happens.” Then two years later, they’re married to somebody they’ve either (a) dated since ninth grade or (b) met last Thursday and flew down to Vegas to get hitched. Four years later, they have two kids. Seven years later, they’re divorced. Not cool. Not smart.I know a lot of good, educated people who made bad choices and wound up like this.

I feel lucky. Also, my beautiful and brilliant wife devours novels like candy, including not just lit-rah-sure but romances of all shapes and sizes. So I know enough to be dangerous. I know that there are romances which really dive into the struggle to choose between two different partners. I know that it’s cheating to make one a villain and one a hero. Both choices must have merits and demerits. Thought I hate the stupid movies and books, TWILIGHT highlights this choice: the sparkly vampire or the hot werewolf? THE HUNGER GAMES — great book, great movie — also features this tough choice, and does it well. BRIDGET JONES‘S DIARY makes you think twice about the handsome bad boy and take a second look at Colin the Firth and his ugly Christmas sweater.

There’s a long list of stories diving into that decision. They’re worth reading, and watching, and talking about.

Because in the end, a lot of people figure out “What’s worth living for?” isn’t about money, fame or spending more time at the office. Life’s about your kids and family.

Pick wisely, men. Get all the help you can get, and not from your buddies, because they’ll say things like “Dude, the choice is obvious: Kelly the waitress with the sweet Mustang, unless you want to cruise around town in Sarah the lawyer and her hand-me-down minivan.”

Why every woman MUST read a thriller

Thrillers answer the second half of the question: “What’s worth dying for?”

If you answer the call to serve — as a firefighter or homicide detective, a Marine or a smokejumper, a coal miner or logger — there’s a chance you’ll die on the job. And if somebody breaks into your home and threatens your wife and kids with a gun, it’s your job to take a bullet and take the guy out while you’re family gets away safe. This is how men think, and it is something that we talk about. It’s also why we tend to be obsessed with violent sports like football, MMA and hockey. (WWE, however, is fake and lame.) To men, these things are practice for real life.

The question is, how often do you roll the dice?

You can’t run around pretending to be Superman, spending your nights cruising dark alleys looking for muggers and rapists to duel to the death. (That’s because Superman is kind of a dipstick, invincible and annoying. Batman, now, is the man. You can go ahead and pretend to be him.)  Yet you can’t be a complete nancypants, either, running from every fight and challenge.

When do you decide something is worth dying for?

Thrillers answer that question in a visceral way, with the stakes raised as high as they go.

  • Should you answer the call of your country and fight a war, taking the lives of other young men with families of their own, and possibly coming home in a body bag yourself — even if you suspect the war is wrong?
  • If a serial killer kidnaps your daughter, do you put your faith in the cops — or turn your CIA training loose and go after the whackjob yourself, despite the risk? Liam Neeson votes for hunting down whackjob kidnappers.
  • Should your family suffer under the oppressive fist of a planet-destroying dictatorship, or will you risk your freedom and life by joining the rebellion, which probably has the same chance of victory as the Mariner’s have of winning the World Series?
  • When the only hope to save the world is to get on an armored space shuttle with Bruce Willis, fly to an asteroid, drill deep inside and set off a nuclear explosion, will you go on that suicide mission, knowing that you probably won’t come back, or will you stay behind to enjoy one last week of picnics and bottles of Riesling with Liv Tyler before the world goes kaboom?

Just as betrayal is a common theme in romances, it’s also a huge element to thrillers. Because there’s nothing worse than doing dangerous, deadly work for a boss who is secretly an evil jerk. Not only did you get duped, but you did dangerous things, maybe violent and murderous things, for the wrong reason. That tends to piss men off.

Even though it’s a cliche, there’s truth to the typical action movie nonsense about a lone wolf detective / Green Beret / assassin who’s weary and retired from the game. It takes a lot to convince him that he should return to work, because he doesn’t fully believe that all the suffering and sacrifice is worth it. He’s seen too many good people die already. Often, the story proves him right. He’s a cog in the machine, a machine that will use him up and throw him away. Is that worth dying for? Probably not.

Action movies and thrillers are about the need to make that choice decisively and wisely. There’s no “I’ll go halfway with you on this assault the Death Star thing.” There is no halfway. You only die once, except in Bond movies, thought I’m not exactly sure why Bond gets to die twice. I do know this: Bond has terrible taste in women. Are they beautiful? Sure. But after they sleep with him, they all turn up dead. EVERY TIME.

Not your usual sitcom nonsense

All this is why romances and thrillers can be epic. The stakes are high. The emotions are visceral. It’s not the usual nonsense you see in a sitcom every night, where Bart Simpson shoplifts for the first time and in 30 minutes learns the important life lesson that stealing is wrong, wrong, wrong. Roll credits.

Harry Potter is really one big long thriller about whether Harry will get Voldemort — a serial killer who happens to be a wizard — before Voldemort gets him.

STAR WARS takes an unexpected twist, with a father sacrificing his life to save his son and free a galaxy from oppression. I expected the new Death Star to simply get blown up in an even fancier explosion than the first time. I did not expect Darth the Vader to toss Emperor Wrinkly Face of the Lightning Fingers down an endless shaft. A father’s love turned out to be the biggest deal in the end. Interesting, though having Darth Vader be a sad old man with a wussy voice was a let-down. J.J. Abrams, I have faith that you’ll do better.

There’s a reason why many thrillers start out with a family being slaughtered and the lone survivor setting out to avenge them. You’re taking away what’s worth living for, and that leads the hero answer the question of what’s worth dying for.Your wife and kids mattered. You can’t let that slide. And you won’t.

Thrillers aren’t as compelling when the hero is aloof and the mission has nothing to do with his emotions, family or country, when it’s just a job where the hero is busy looking cool while wearing sunglasses and shooting guns. There’s nothing behind it. It’s flat and empty.

Everybody wants something worth living for, to dedicate themselves wholly and completely to something, because otherwise, what’s the point of waking up, fighting traffic and slaving away in a cubicle for thirty years until you die, right? People get that. It’s why people become obsessive fans of the Green Bay Packers or STAR TREK, why people dedicate themselves to politics, religion or a cause. Some folks divert this urge into collecting every Beanie Baby every made. Don’t.

Great stories — in movies and novels — speak to this need to matter, to belong, to put a stamp on life, to give your all, even if it’s bonkers.

And truly great stories take us deeper.

Harry the Hedonist will argue that lovers leave you, husbands divorce you, kids randomly get leukemia, and in the end, we all die, so pass the wine and live it up.

Isaac the Idealist says you should dedicate yourself to great ideas and institutions, which are the only things that last.

Ned the Nihilist  trumps THAT with “Nothing truly lasts. Institutions don’t care about you and even a killer asteroid, nuclear war or homicidal robots from the future fail to destroy us, the sun will eventually turn into a red giant, doing a burnt-toast number on earth before ruining THE ENTIRE NEIGHBORHOOD by going supernova.”

Do I have video? Yes I do.

But if nothing truly lasts, there’s no point in sacrificing friends and family for an institution or an idea. Be good to others. Do the right thing. Love with all your heart. Or use two cows on a silly blog to explain all of politics and philosophy. (The world explained by TWO COWS)

These questions are tough, interesting and complicated — and every tough, complicated problem has an easy, simple to understand wrong answer.

You can get into these kinds of questions with romances and thrillers in a way that Philosophy 402 classes simply can’t touch. Because if you put human faces and names behind the ideas, and real emotions, the neat logic about the deontological notion of equal treatment versus the greatest good for the greatest number — all that abstraction turns to dust.

Also, take it from Plato and every dictatorship on the planet: literature and stories are the most powerful, and dangerous, way to talk about ideas. That’s why evil governments burn books and censor movies.

So men, read a romance.

Pick something that won an award, or one with Fabio on the cover. But grab one. And don’t buy one at Barnes and Noble, because I know you won’t do it. Ask your women friends for their favorites, read the back covers and pick your favorite of the bunch. Also, hear me know and believe me later in the week: romance novels are more interesting, and useful, than reading Cosmo when you’re waiting in the doctor’s office, despite all the tempting headlines. (Secret truth: every edition of Cosmo is actually the same. They swap out the covers, change the headlines of the stories and NOBODY NOTICES.)

Women, find a thriller. Hopefully one by Barry Eisler or Lee Child, who should be sending me kickbacks.

Then start a literary knife fight in the comment section about Men in Kilts versus Haunted Homicide Detectives Who Are Allergic to Razors.


This is Guy Bergstrom the writer, not the Guy Bergstrom in Stockholm or the guy in Minnesota who sells real estate or whatever. Separate guys. Kthxbai.

Guy Bergstrom. Photo by Suhyoon Cho.

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.


About Guy Bergstrom

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot.

68 comments on “Why every man MUST read a romance – and every woman a thriller

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  4. Brooke Howard
    August 7, 2015

    I came across a fact a number of years ago that a sizeable percentage of the market for romance novels is elderly men. I’ve always thought that was a sweet thing.


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  12. Rudy Owens
    June 16, 2014

    Let’s see. Fabio just visited Whole Foods in West Seattle. News story. Check. Women posing with blond Italian with huge grins. Check. Good article. Check.


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  48. Marti
    April 19, 2012

    Thanks for inviting me over to read your blog! I really enjoyed this article. I’ve just started working on an idea for a novel and this advice will help me claify the plot!


  49. Ann Lee Miller
    April 19, 2012

    Excellent post.

    I picked up a Robert Liparulo’s thriller, Comes a Horseman, and couldn’t put it down. The writing was that good. Seriously. But I write coming of age/romance, and that’s what I usually read.

    Guys, if you want to get off easy on the read-a-romance assignment, pick up a Charles Martin book.He writes stories about hiking out of a plane crash in the wilderness, a perilous canoe trip down the St. John’s river, that kind of thing. But underneath, they’re love stories. The tales are exquisitely told, and the characters travel with you for years.

    Martin puts entirely too little kissing in his books if you ask me. Which brings up another gender observation. Guys aren’t really anti-making out, they just prefer to do it over reading about it. I’m just sayin’…


    • Guy
      April 19, 2012

      All true. Thanks for commenting!


  50. David Michael Williams
    April 18, 2012

    “What’s worth living for, and what’s worth dying for?” Well said.

    Great article and plenty of food for thought. But rather than pick up the pulp that’s out there for either genre, I’d rather ferret out books that contain the best of both worlds…novels that contain testosterone-saturated scenes and estrogen-enriched excerpts.


  51. Diana Stevan
    April 18, 2012

    Wow! Now I know why I’ve subscribed to your blog. You are such a wonderful writer. You’ve managed to distill the key differences in the genres that appeal to each sex and why. Before reading your article, I’m ashamed to admit I was quite dismissive of thrillers, even though the ones I’ve read over the years have been entertaining. I somehow missed the whole – what’s worth fighting for, risking your life. I didn’t stop to think about the bigger picture. I just went along for the ride. Thanks for spelling it all out so clearly.


    • Guy
      April 18, 2012

      Thanks. I am half kidding around. There’s a lot of romantic suspense novels and thrillers with love subplots and mixtures just about wherever you want to look – but it’s useful to think about pure forms and why they appeal to different folks. And it’s fun to kid around about it instead of deconstructing texts in terms of dialectical materialism and the post-post-modern poetry of the proletariat.

      Also, some of the crude Apatow comedies actually have deep bromance plots. Interesting.


  52. juliabarrett
    April 18, 2012

    I agree. I read both romance and thrillers – and even though I am a woman, I didn’t read romance until 4 years ago. However, my very macho husband now reads an occasional romance – that I recommend, of course. Why? Insight and emotion.
    We all love thrillers – Die Hard, The Terminator, 3 Days of the Condor, Frequency – but at the heart of all these thrillers is a love story. Not only must the hero overcome the evil villain, the hero must win/save/sacrifice for his love.
    Both sub-genres share the same premise – How much are you willing to sacrifice for what you really want, or what you really need?


    • Guy
      April 18, 2012

      I’m with you and your husband. A ton of explosions and car chases are boring unless I care about the characters. Though thrillers and action movies are my favorites, most are bad at this. Cardboard characters.


  53. Sara Flower
    April 18, 2012

    I’m more like a guy when it comes to movies and books. I stray away from romances most of the time. Thrillers are my specialty. But it’s true that reading a REAL romance can certainly teach us something important. Maybe if I had of read Pride and Prejudice and the like when I was younger, I might have made wiser relationship choices.

    Great post about what we can all learn from good fiction.


    • Guy
      April 18, 2012

      Though they did not believe in paragraphs back then, some classics are worth reading. Check out Amanda’s vlog, Old White Guys Lit — hilarious AND interesting. She reads the classics so you don’t have to.


      • Sara Flower
        April 19, 2012

        Sounds good. I will have to check it out. 🙂


  54. Mayumi
    April 18, 2012

    As per usual, lots for writers – and readers – to think about, here. (And now I *KNOW* my novel doesn’t fit into the romance genre. Blergh.)

    One of the great things about reading outside our typical writing zones is that it shows us how to incorporate not just techniques but ideas broached by those other genres into our own stories, making them more well-rounded and real. Even in a science fiction epic, you can’t have battle without human (or at the very least character) conflict, such as the war dilemma you describe above. Similarly, a romance can’t be about only happy-happiness or sexy-sex all of the time, without delving into the emotional conflict created by choice or circumstance. (Thanks for mentioning PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, by the way. It doesn’t resonate with me quite like SENSE AND SENSIBILITY does, but it’s still a great piece of classical “chick lit” that every man should read!)

    And even when we choose to write in a particular genre, whatever that may be, the reading of other genres done well (though I personally enjoy the crossover provided by Hammett’s THE THIN MAN) can offer insight into how to write emotional impact when it’s not within the confines of our own specific genre. Science fiction is an excellent world-builder; thrillers know tension; romances know scene setting.

    Thanks again for some very thought-provoking analysis! 🙂


    • Guy
      April 18, 2012

      Thanks for reading, and posting another thoughtful comment – always interesting to see what you have to say.


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  56. Jaye
    April 18, 2012

    I think you nailed it. In every novel I enjoy (unfortunately not in every one I read) I find characters striving for something bigger than themselves. I used to ask my son, after he’d read a novel or watched a movie that excited him, So, what did the character want? Then we had some interesting conversations about desire and the motives behind them and what’s worth wanting in the first place. I like to think those novels contributed in some way to the decent man he is today.


    • Guy
      April 18, 2012

      All true. The best stories challenge you. Toughest choices aren’t between good and bad but between two goods or two bads, which the DROID keeps trying to spell as bass.


      • jillinabox
        April 19, 2012

        Uh huh, uh huh, nodding at this comment, laughed hard at this post. Stories about good vs bad, black vs white drive me mad – usually simplistic and dull. I am interested in the grey, the in-between, the hard-no-obvious-answer stuff. What’s worth living for and what’s worth dying for, indeed. Thanks for a terrific post.


  57. Amber West
    April 18, 2012

    Love this.


  58. writeanne
    April 18, 2012

    Fabulous post – love the videos – esp first one.


    • Guy
      April 18, 2012

      Glad you liked it, and thanks for stopping by.


  59. Sam Kearns
    April 18, 2012

    Brilliant article, I really enjoyed it.


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