Monday, February 23, 2009

I'm Not Romantic

I've been known to buy a whole box of kid valentines, write sweet things on each and tape chocolates to them, then hide a few in my husband's work bag or business trip suitcase every now and then throughout the year. I've ordered a pizza with the pepperoni in the shape of a heart on Valentine's Day. And I've made heart-shaped meatloaf by hand. So maybe I am romantic. But I'm not big on sweet nothings and I tend toward the sarcastic when my husband gets mushy.

None of that is what this post is about. I mean romance as a literary genre, the modern version rather than products of the 19th century or languages derived from Latin, and I'm about to review a couple of romance novels next week so I wanted to get this part out of the way first so that it doesn't clutter up the review.

I've mentioned before that romance isn't one of my favorite genres as a reader, and my stock explanation for why is that what interests me more is the next part. That's really the reason why I don't write romance novels, though. I've actually tried. I plotted and wrote and found that the story I really wanted to tell was not how two people came to be attracted to one another, overcame obstacles, and then lived happily ever after, the end. I want to talk about what "happily ever after" means. I want to know about what happens five years in, or twenty-five. After that first flush of love, then what? And maybe from there the romance angle isn't even the most compelling part of the story for me.

There's no single thing that's true in every romance novel, of course. (Except, possibly, depending on your definition, the Happily Ever After, or HEA.) And many of the same themes in romance novels (and movies) also crop up in other genres. Besides, there's quite a bit of genre cross-over these days.

But, as a reader, there are some things I find frequently in romance novels that bug me and pull me out of the story:
  • A sense of inevitability about two people coming (and eventually staying) together.
  • A suggestion that sex (or a kiss, or a vow, depending on the author/story) cures all.
  • A heavy focus on the way one's loins react when someone special walks into a room.
  • Cliched language to describe all of this, especially body chemistry and reading things in others' eyes (mine don't have text boxes).

I'm reading along, right there in a high adrenaline life-or-death moment with the heroine when - bam! - the hero enters the scene for the first time. And you might know it immediately because her pulse quickens, she feels a sharp tug somewhere down deep inside her, she meets his eyes and time stands still, etc. Those moments take me out of a story and don't describe what the beginning of a relationship is like, for me.

I appreciate that everyone has a different experience with this. But I will say that I do think there's danger in over-romanticizing relationships. I think there's danger in sugar-coating what it takes to make a relationship work. I think that portraying a relationship as easy (once the external and/or internal conflicts have been resolved) is as disingenuous as the way mainstream porn portrays women and sex.

I started all this in response to the article Romance Is Not a Four Letter Word at Publisher's weekly and discussed here.

"There's something wrong with literature aimed at women?"

Not by me. (The same could be said of cozy mysteries, cookbooks, and lots of other genres that women buy more heavily than men. For me it's not the intended market, or the inclusion of a love story, just the style and language.)

"When someone tells me they don't read or don't like romances, I always ask them what romances they have read that caused them to dislike the genre. I think you can guess the most common response -- the person has never read a romance. Nope, they are just taking a snobbish attitude that they learned from others"

In my case, this isn't it. I have read romance novels: single title, category, sub-genre, etc. And they're just not for me, as a general rule (which is not to say that I don't make exceptions). See above re: style. Serious or funny, paranormal or historical, there are tropes I find commonly across the genre that annoy me and pull me out of the story. I like to lose myself in the story.

So these are the reasons why romance novels don't always work for me. (My comments about the dangers of over-idealizing relationships leading to unrealistic expectations notwithstanding.)

I also get annoyed by the frequent right-back-atcha-with-interest discrimination I see all over the place, including up there in the PW article and the comments that follow. From the article: "I started asking around and the feeling is the subject matter for book clubs must be deep (read boring) to be book club fodder. (Don't even get me started on Oprah's picks, I say let Gayle pick the books once in a while) They're supposed to be Book Clubs not Doom and Gloom Clubs. What about fun? What about enjoyment? What about characters actually caring about each other in a loving, adult fashion? Didn't these people ever hear about romance being combined with thrillers/suspense/paranormal/historical/humorous/erotic? What about variety being the spice of life??"

Um . . . not all literary fiction is deep and boring. Quite a bit of non-genre fiction is fun. What about enjoyment? Characters care about each other in other genres. There's even love in other genres (where a romance might be a significant part of the story arc but not necessarily the main one). And yes to variety. But where's the celebration of variety in suggesting that all literary/book club/non-romance fiction is boring, unfun, doom and gloom, and unenjoyable, with characters who don't care about one another in a "loving, adult fashion?"

How does this sort of attitude support the oft-repeated assertion that "romance readers/writers are some of the nicest people?" How does it do anything except further highlight unnecessary inter-genre tension?

Diana Gabaldon's books used to be marketed and sold primarily as genre romance, though her books don't really fit into traditional/strict demarcations of romance, historical fiction, or fantasy. She also doesn't do any of the things I listed above that annoy me. I know that bookstores need to know where to shelve titles, but I think there's a great deal of room for lowering barriers between genres and I think Gabaldon is a great example of doing so.

Do you know who really drives such change (or lack thereof)? It's readers. So many of us - us, meaning readers - pick up a thriller and expect something just like X, or a cozy mystery just like Y, or a romance novel just like Z. But completely different, of course, though it has to turn out the same way. As long as readers prefer books that follow templates, that's what editors and agents are going to be looking for, because that's what they can sell.

So there's a challenge for us - as readers - to be willing to try lots of new things and be specific with ourselves about what worked for us, what didn't, and why. And there's a challenge for us - as writers - to avoid the stereotypes, comfortable forms, and cliches of our chosen genres. I think the work will be stronger for it.

And we'll have less of this inter-genre bickering, too. Maybe I'll put cozy mysteries in my cross-hairs next. I love 'em. But I get so tired of reading about murder. There are other mysteries to solve, people! But murder sells, because we buy murder mysteries, and so on and so forth . . .

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