Perhaps you haven’t noticed it yet (you happy, happy creature) but romance is really not my genre. There are some exceptions, that’s true, but overall I find those ‘frilly’,’ pink’ or ‘purple’ novels silly at best, outrageously stupid and surprisingly primitive at worst. They are called female literature or chick lit but, in my very humble and very biased opinion they are hurtful to women, doing more evil than good, spreading clichés, one worse than the other, and justifying such importunate but pointless templates like ‘a stupid blonde’ or ‘a fiery redhead’.
After writing several nasty reviews of romantic fiction (because nothing makes my inner demon more active than a bad romance) I asked myself the crucial question: ‘why?’ It is important to know your reasons behind your own pet peeves, right? Looking for an answer I found that delightful page http://www.readaromancemonth.com/and started reading the opinions posted by different chick lit writers – because who would be better suited to persuade me that I’ve been completely wrong than successful romance authors ? However the more I read the less I liked their arguments.
The quotes, with my commentary and that of my fair Rameau, will constitute the other post. Now let me present eight things I really cannot forgive the romantic fiction.
1. Liberal splattering of adjectives. A detail and yet…if there’s any genre that’s soft on adjectives it’s romance. I admit I often find myself reading with an imaginary red pen in hand. Once you notice them, you can’t stop it and the more you read the more you laugh. Related to that is liberal splattering of adverbs which makes dialogues rather sloppy and action scenes somehow silly.
2. The Big Misunderstanding (and related to it: The Big Lie) – would there actually be any romance novels without a variation of The Big Misunderstanding? Duh, what a question – mission impossible, right? It bothers me even more when the said Misunderstanding is childish and stupid, something even kindergarten kids would solve during a three-minute honest discussion. I find it pathetic when it takes two completely adult and allegedly intelligent people an eternity of 100-200 pages to straighten things up . Example: He is rich and She thinks He is poor like Her. He doesn’t correct Her because there’s never a good opportunity and hey, He wants Her to like Him rather badly. Eventually She finds out and all the hell is let loose because (sigh) She feels cheated (sigh). Another example: He thinks She is a virgin and She is not. Eventually He finds out and storms out of her bed in a huff because, damn it, He counted on that tell-tale free blood sample to show around in his gentlemen’s club (rolleye). Silly? There are more sillier ‘problems’, believe me. I completely understand that in these times of premarital sex and mobile phones, it’s harder and harder to contrive a reason why two consenting adults who fancy each other shouldn’t just get together from the very beginning. So instead you’re fed improbable reasons for keeping the hero and the heroine apart, such as: He fancies her but She thinks they’re just friends and going to bed with Him will only destroy their friendship, or She starts off hating Him because She thinks he’s arrogant, but then She learns the Real Sweet Him – you see, He is just shy/socially inept/uncommonly honest.
3. Stock standard beauty in the leading characters. It seems the rules of the genre are only as narrow as the well-known Western Beauty Ideals. The leading man must be tall, muscled, relatively young and fit. The woman must be beddable, often in a plastic female news anchor kind of way, but like all well-socialized women living in real life Western culture, she must have something wrong with her; mind you nothing that would put a potential suitor off. (Unruly bedroom hair, lanky legs or curves are okay but facial warts, acne scars and alopecia are a no-no.) A problem related to that: chiseled/sculpted features and other appearance disasters. The authors of A Billion Wicked Thoughts analyzed the text of more than ten thousand romance novels published from 1983 to 2008 (I applaud their commitment!) to determine the most common descriptions of the hero’s physical appearance and ‘chiseled features’ won hands down. I am not an avid romance reader but I’ve met that expression often enough to started to hate it thoroughly, especially that there are sculptures and sculptures.
4. Outdated ideas about what women/men truly want and what makes them happy. A notion that success and happiness equals moving in together with the intent of spending the rest of one’s days in each other’s pocket, having children, dogs, cats, mortgages and bills till death do them part is still pretty much popular among romance writers. Unless we are talking about historical romance, it is very misleading. Whenever I get to the end of a romance novel featuring such an ending I think, “Well, that ain’t gonna last, no way.”
5.The disappearing storyline – to tell you the truth this drives me nuts in any genre. I want a real, original plot and everything important to be resolved, preferably within the confines of the book that I am reading. I hate cliffhangers and I hate when, being in the middle of a story, I am no longer sure what I am reading about.
6. Plot overshadowing the character development. It concerns mainly paranormal romance or urban fantasy with strong romantic story arcs. The plot of those novels is constructed in such a way that one dynamic scene is chasing the other – e.g. the heroine goes out for a walk/to a pub, is attacked, fights some baddies, is rescued by the main protagonist, they end up in bed (or against the wall) and right afterwards there is an explosion or another attack and they must flee for their lives while being chased by everybody and everything but a kitchen sink. Sometimes it seems to me that the whole book was written under the influence of very strong and illegal stimulants. When reading such an insanely fast-paced story I feel almost physically tired pretty soon and, after a while, I find out I know nothing about my characters, just how they look, what they wear and what weapon they use to defend themselves. Then I stop caring. Then I stop reading.
7. Sex scenes can feel cringe-worthy or boring or overlong; more often than not it happens because an author uses silly vocabulary and/or repeats some of the words at nauseam (‘her sex’ as an expression describing external female sexual organs should be banned worldwide) . Related to that is the omission of any contraceptive measures/protection against diseases which, especially in contemporary romances, I find simply criminal. Condoms/birth control/disease prevention discussions don’t have to be intrusive or long-winded, it’s enough the author suggests this and that to make me a happy reader and perhaps also to save a girl from some pretty ghastly experience.
8. Rape and/or abuse of a minor – I never, ever need to read about this in a romance or even an erotica novel of any kind. NEVER. If an author presents a rape or child abuse as something good and/or positive it is even worse – they lose me as a reader forever and I would love nothing more than reporting them to the police. I might read pink prose but still I have some principles.
Now as, believe it or not, there are some romance books I’ve enjoyed reading, let me tell you what such a novel should feature in order to make me interested and leave me satisfied.
- A romance book must feature a heroine or a hero I can relate to – I suppose I don’t need to explain why.
- The relationship between two main characters must feel real. Insta-love and its cousin, insta-lust, make me nauseous unless they are introduced and explained in a very logical, sensible manner (which is rare indeed). Magic tricks are out of question – I can’t and won’t buy it, not even in fairy tales. I am also not that fond of the ‘you-are-my-destiny’ crap. It is nothing else but an attempt to wriggle out of thinking about some original plot devices.
- A novel must have a proper plot. Actually I feel they should have a better plot than a book of other genre because usually it is darn pretty obvious from the very beginning that the main female character will somehow end up in bed/married/in permanent relationship with the main male character. If their route from point A to point Z is too fast/uneventful/predictable I get bored and then I write nasty reviews. With gifs and pictures to prove my point.
- World build is an important feature. A historical romance should be as historical as it is only possible, at least in my books. Fantasy doesn’t consist of just mentioning a dragon, a werewolf, a fairy and a vampire here and there while they act like your ordinary humans all the time. Sci-fi and steampunk must show clearly how much you love and appreciate the science and technology. If you make your heroine open a bottle of champagne with a corkscrew (a real blunder I found in one of the infamous Julie James romance novels) don’t count on my tolerance or understanding. Do your research properly – be sure that some anal nerds will comb your book looking for mistakes and then tear it apart.
- Sex scenes shouldn’t be treated as a plot, just condiment. Also, please kindly be careful with the names of different body parts and control the whole text so it doesn’t become too repetitive.
- A good romance book should meet the criteria of the Bechdel test unless there is a very strong, rational argument against it (e.g. the story is set in prison or in a place where females are non-existent). It is hardly demanding – give your female lead at least one female friend (it can be even her mother) and let them speak about normal life issues, not only their love lives and boyfriends/impossible boyfriends/desirable boyfriends. One scene is enough.
- A good sense of humour can cover a lot of mistakes and draw many readers, yours truly among them. If a romance novel makes me smile I am ready to forgive it a lot – I mean a lot. The same can be said about honest characters who are funny – that combination I often find simply irresistible even if the said character is a jerk.
- Finally the ending: if it has to be a HEA make it at least a bit real, adding several drops of pure acid to the overwhelming sweetness. Too much sugar spoils EVERY dessert, at least in my case.
In the next part of that mini series Rameau and I will comment on several chosen quotes in which different romance authors say what they like in romance and why they read romantic fiction. It will be published the following Monday (or at least we are planning to do so).