In these previous weeks we’ve posted two parts of our Romance Debate. Part one explained why my blogging partner doesn’t like the genre and part two had us mocking together some reasons romance authors give in defence of romance. Now it’s my turn to explain why I like the genre.
I grew up reading it. Well, I grew up watching my Mum read Harlequins night after night and then when I was old enough to read fluently myself, I started “borrowing” her books and reading them myself. I can still remember the cover image of a safe age-difference kink book where the heroine was a successful surgeon at twenty-seven but could pass for a seventeen-year-old. This obviously was an inconvenient problem for the eight or ten years older neighbour-hero who thought he was attracted to a teenager half his age.
I don’t remember the name of the author or the title of the book but I do remember the characters and the story. Some of the scenes are still vivid in my mind twenty years later. I remember the strong and capable heroine who was also mischievous if not catty because she didn’t voluntarily tell him her real age. I remember my heart aching for the hero who thought he wanted something he shouldn’t and couldn’t ever have. I remember feeling a lot of things.
That’s why I love romance still today. It’s because of the characters, the emotional connection, and because of the story. As much as I like the books I read to have a plot, I also firmly believe in having the right characters to tell the right story. Would we love Harry Potter books if they’d been about Dudley instead?
I expect many things from the romance novels I read and those qualities are the exact same things I look for in other genres. I expect great world building from scifi books, wonderful plots from fantasy books, brilliant characterisations from mystery novels, and social commentary from general literature. I can also find these things in good romance novels.
There’s a lot of silliness and bad books between those covers depicting happy couples, but there’s equal tripe in other genres. The difference is that those other genres aren’t slammed as a whole because they’re written by men. Romance is predominantly written by women. About women. For women. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that’s reason enough to dismiss a genre.
The really funny thing is, looking at Anachronist’s list of eight reasons for not liking romance, I agree with most of them. I agree that there are authors—in all genres—who love their adjectives a little too much. I agree that The Big Misunderstanding trope should die in a fire because too many authors have abused it and too few have done it justice. I agree that the heroes and heroines should come in all shapes and forms and not just unbelievably beautiful and slim. I agree that it’s bad when the plot overshadows character development just as I agree it’s terrible when the plot disappears altogether. I agree that most sex scenes in published romance books are dreadful and that I could read better smut for free online. I also agree that romance as a genre needs to take the next step to reinvent itself and include new ideas about happiness.
I think the mandated Happily Ever After (HEA) ending actually holds the genre back. Where are the romance books for people who don’t want to get married but want to have everything else? Where are the romance books for people who only want each other but not children? Where are the romances for people who really love each other but are healthier apart? Where are the romances for older couples and happily divorced people who find love again? Where are the platonic romances?
The one thing on that list of eight I don’t agree on is the limitation for rape and abuse of a minor. I don’t want these serious subjects trivialised—as they are too often—but I do think they’re strong plot and character development elements when done right. They’re too important subjects to be ignored completely and I do think it’s better to talk about them than to remain silent and cultivate the harmful taboos. An author writing badly about abuse and being called on it is better than no one ever writing about it and victims thinking they’re all alone in the world. This, however, requires for readers to remain vigilant and honest.
As for what to expect from a romance novel, I stumble on the first item on Anachronist’s list. I don’t need to relate to the hero or the heroine. I’ve never needed to feel like I’m part of the main story; I can empathise with the characters from afar. This isn’t strictly true when I read other genres, but with romance, I never need to imagine myself there staring deep into his or her eyes. I wouldn’t mind imagining myself somewhere in the story, in a part that has not been written, but I guess that makes me the voyeur of the equation.
I agree that the relationship between the two (or more) characters should feel real. This is why I think HEA is a hindrance. What if the author can’t redeem the badly behaved character and the mandatory (well, not quite) I love yous fall flat? Wouldn’t it be better for her to dump the cheater or him to leave her for someone who appreciates him for who he is? I don’t believe in the safety net of a HEA or that it gives an author freedom to explore difficult subjects, I think it limits the author and the story they can tell. Aiming for a fixed point always limits the angle.
Plot is preferred in all books, but there are authors who can make pure character studies work—and no, non-stop smut eroticas don’t count. Sometimes in romance a plot is replaced with a conflict, which makes things difficult for contemporary romances where the historical rules don’t apply anymore. Single parent romances are a thing these days and hiding a pregnancy without ever telling the dad is just cruel. Unless he’s an abuser or a rapist, in which case the romance is with the step-dad or step-mum to be. At least I hope it is.
I hold romance novels to the same standard I hold all fantasy and scifi books: If you’re creating a world of your own, then create it. Build the world and make sure it works. Ensure it’s believable and detailed enough to convince careful scrutiny. A single parasol with gadgets doesn’t actually make the book steampunk.
The Bechdel test is good for indicating the disparity of genders in fiction and films, but as I said earlier about rape, abuse, and HEA even, I don’t believe in limiting the author with arbitrary rules. Do I wish most books and films would pass the test? Sure, but do I think authors should be forced to write their books with this particular standard in mind? No.
As you can see, Anachronist and I agree on lots of things—including humour making a book more palatable—just not about our prejudices on romance. I expect a lot from a romance book, but I do think that a story describing the human condition—including people falling in love—and concentrating on the characterisations is just as important as those dark novels scrutinising the end of human life or the wonderful stories bringing human imagination alive in science fiction or fantasy.