Q&A with the King of Audio Romance

I sit down with Joe Arden, the most prolific male narrator of romance audiobooks, to talk about sex, love, and how to be a better man.

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And we’re back! Hope you all had a fantastic holiday. I can’t say that 2021 has begun as auspiciously as I’d hoped (understatement of the year). But, with some luck, we can white-knuckle our way through the next few weeks back toward smoother waters.

This year, we begin with the first of The Mandate Letter Interview Series. Approximately every other week, I’ll be talking to folks who I think can offer us interesting perspectives on the current and future state of masculinity.

Before the new year, I wrote a profile piece for Men’s Health about Joe Arden, the most prolific male narrator of romance audiobooks. And considering much our initial conversation focused on the impact his work has on his own life and the importance of vulnerability (a topic I feel is of paramount importance to men), I thought sitting back down with the King of Audio Romance for our first Q&A would be a great place to start.

You might want to take a brief look at the aforementioned profile before digging in below. But by way of further background, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Joe and I know each other from our childhood years. However, I don’t know Joe as Joe per se. I was aware of the fact that my old friend was a successful audiobook narrator. However, it was only after publishing my Men’s Health article about starting a romance book club for men, that we reconnected and I was completely blown away by his wide-ranging influence in the world of sensual audio.

Part of the reason I wasn’t able to connect the dots was that he does his romance work anonymously. (Joe Arden is a pseudonym, hence the mask & glasses in his headshot). And while it began as a way to keep the books he read for kids/teens separate from the racier ones he did for adults, he now keeps it up primarily because his listeners prefer it that way (see the MH profile for more on that).

I happened to check back in with Joe at an exciting time. He’s fresh off winning a major industry award (SOVAS) for best romance/erotica narration (along with several colleagues). Not to mention the fact that fact the book he co-wrote with the Romance legend, Lauren Blakely, is about to hit the stands. How To Get Lucky debuts tomorrow.

Without further ado, my conversation with Joe Arden.

How did you get started narrating romance novels as Joe Arden?

So, my first entree to romance was sort of by accident. A production company I worked for on a regular basis (Audible Studios) asked me if I was interested in performing a book that was a series of homoerotic short stories. As far as the content went, I had no personal issue with that. But a lot of the audiobook work I had been doing up to that point under my real name was for a younger audience (Young Adult and Sci-Fi Fantasy books). So, I was concerned that people that were following me might get exposed to content that they might not be ready for in some way.

So I reached out to the production company, and I said I have no problem doing this but would you mind if I used a different name. They wrote me back immediately and said no, most of the authors are using fake names in this space as well, so by all means. Tell us what you want to use and we can record it that way. And the next thing I knew, a romance author (Elle Kennedy) contacted the company asking for me to do a book under that name, and she was a pretty big deal. That book got pretty good reach, and it sort of snowballed from there. The work kind of kept coming in, and all of a sudden I was doing more and more romance projects, so I kept that name for branding purposes. It was a ton of fun, and I've done over 400 now.

What do you think are some of the unique demands of being a romance narrator?

One of the specific demands of romance is that the characters’ emotional journeys are front and center, and all of the things that we keep hidden in our daily lives, particularly as men, are exposed because the narrative elements include your inner thoughts. It’s different from doing a romance film or falling in love on stage because you still keep all those feelings inside. You might have to show it with your eyes or project it in another way, but you're not saying it. Then you’re in these books and you just say it out loud. So you're expressing your feelings about this person in a very intimate and private way, with the full knowledge that the audience is listening to you. It creates this weird dynamic where we have to be free to explore that emotion, thinking that nobody is listening, while also knowing that they're out there for people to hear. 

Sex obviously plays a central role in romance novels. Tell me more about that aspect of the job.

Yeah, of course, you have to be able to talk candidly about sex and enjoy discussing the act of physically pleasuring yourself and somebody else, which is unique to this genre. And I hope this is something that just kind of grows to become a more normal part of our storytelling process. We as a society seem totally anesthetized to violence in our storytelling but are really puritanical when it comes to hearing about sex stories. That seems like a really strange thing that I think is a particularly American distinction. But it's also kind of a global phenomenon that violence is considered okay as entertainment but sex is wrong. I think humanity would be doing a lot better if we thought sex was fine and violence was anathema to good storytelling.

What was one of the things that surprised you after beginning to work in this genre?

I think that what I've learned working on these books and continue to learn working on these books is that I can be a better listener. One thing I see in every single one of these stories is that women are looking for a guy who listens and is genuinely interested in what another person has to say — and is considerate, makes decisions that put their feelings before his or her own feelings. Whether that's in the bedroom and going down on somebody and making sure that they orgasm, or whether that's buying them a piece of banana bread because you remembered a previous conversation when they said they really liked banana bread. And so you bring it to their office and make their day. Listen. Be considerate and put the feelings of somebody else in front of your own. 

Where do you think romance falls down when it comes to portraying authentic relationships?

Physically, almost every guy I have ever portrayed has a flat stomach, a cut jawline, and a big dick. So, readers have to know that we are operating in the space of fantasy. In good romance, there are other things that are front and center. Can you be emotionally honest with me? Can you put me first, and please me and want to be present with me? However, when done poorly, the emotional complexity can be reduced in romance novels. You see guys that are kind of two dimensional. And I'm not here to judge anybody's kink or place my own set of values on anybody else's fantasies or desires. But there are certain kinds of relationships that seem very gender reductive to me. And I don't think that they really progress us as a society. So, I do the best I can to find heroes that I think are three-dimensional and really appeal to some part of my actual personality. 

How has narrating over 415 romance novels helped you become a better lover, partner, etc.?

Primarily they have helped me become a better man for all of the women in my life including my family members. My stepsister is one that comes to mind, particularly. She confides in me and trusts me and loves me in a way that I was only capable of earning by immersing myself in what it must feel like to be her and to be a young woman right now in America. That is, being single and trying to navigate a career and love, and living on your own. I've never judged her. And I think that that's gone so far in allowing us to have a strong relationship.

As far as my own sex life goes, I have certainly developed a greater sense of deriving pleasure from my partner's pleasure. And I will say that the younger version of Joe did not care about that. I was too nervous sexually to think about that — which is ironic — because what I was nervous about was being good at it. As a result, I didn't think about how the other person actually felt. Now, unapologetically finding time to feel physical pleasure and bring somebody else physical pleasure is a great part of my week. And I encourage everybody to find a partner or partners that create a healthy, safe, exciting, and energetic space for you to give other people pleasure and feel your own physical pleasure.

Are there any other things that you would like to offer as advice to guys from the perspective of someone whose professional career hinges on the ability to tell stories about real intimacy?

So I think one of the problems is that men think of sexual stimulation as deriving from sexual organs whereas women derive sexual pleasure from their minds, or more specifically being taken away into another space of pleasure. And so I think we men who are in heterosexual relationships, could do a better job of creating intimate situations and recognizing that female pleasure comes from more than stimulating a clit or penetrating a vagina. And I'm pretty sure most of the women I've talked to would really appreciate it if more men understood that idea.

I can hear every woman, every romance author, every fan saying in my head, “Yeah, tell guys, it's not all about finding the clit and sticking something inside. I want to know the way you kiss me, touch me, look at me. The music we're listening to. The scent in the room. Are we even in a room? What kind of room?” All of that. Communicating better and more frequently about sex and sensuality also really really helps. Most guys don’t think about it this way but sending a text message at 10 o'clock in the morning might get your woman to come at 10 o'clock that night.

Where does Joe Arden go from here?

One of the things I'm trying to do with my platform in the romance audiobook space is to bring more legitimacy to romance writing in the larger literary world. I'm so tired of people denigrating the genre without any knowledge of what's going on. I’m somebody who's narrated over 700 books and read thousands in my life. I've read great books and terrible books in all sorts of genres, but that doesn’t make me think the genre is of lesser quality. But that’s what often happens with romance.

So what I hope is that people start to understand that good romance writing is just good writing, period. It doesn't come with a disclaimer, it doesn't come with a caveat, and good romance narration it's just good narration, period. So my dream is to win Best Male Narrator of the Year for a romance title because it would not only validate romance narration, but it would also validate romance writing. It would help get rid of the gender bias and the misogynistic stranglehold that public discourse has over the genre by continually saying it’s trashy. It's a form of slut-shaming. It's lazy, it comes from a place of total ignorance, and it needs to stop.


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Other Stuff to Check Out

📧 Fridays on the Olo is a rad newsletter by Alex Olshonsky that explores consciousness, mental health, and philosophy. It’s fair to say that I devour Alex’s weekly posts and just love the way he approaches these tough-to-get-your-arms-around topics with a sculptor’s precision and raw vulnerability rare among men. It doesn’t hurt that, like me, he has a keen interest in how masculinity is evolving in culture, and I’m proud to say that I bounce new Mandate Letter ideas off him every other week. If you’re looking for somewhere to start, read this article about his experience as a recovering addict. You won’t be disappointed.

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