The Trouble with Romance

Most novels, while they can be fairly neatly classified within a certain genre, contain multiple elements of various categories, be it adventure, mystery, fantasy, historical, sci-fi – or more specific sub-genres like steampunk, urban fantasy, alternate history – the list goes on and on. On the one hand, it’s important to be able to give a succinct description of your book’s genre, even if you’d prefer to call it “an alternate steampunk science fantasy mystery with elements of political intrigue.” On the other hand, blending genres can be awesome. And those multiple elements usually make for a richer story. The key is to determine what genre best defines the major thrust of the storyline, and allow the other genre elements to bolster the main one.

But there’s one genre that carries a peculiar stigma, both as a supplementing sub-genre and especially as a category in its own right: romance. Part of that stigma may stem from the use of the term to refer to the “bodice-rippers” that would be more properly termed erotica. But even with content that’s non-explicit, the notion that a novel contains romantic elements can lead to perceptions that it’s somehow inferior to other, romance-free stories. This is especially true in science fiction circles, and is particularly the case when the author is a woman and potential readers/critics are male. A female writer is far more likely to lose credibility when she includes romance in her writing than if a male does so. It’s also likelier that her work will be classified as straight-up romance, whereas a male writer’s work with equal amounts of romance will be called science fiction or fantasy or whatever the main genre is. This is indicative of a wider problem that women tend to be held to much more exacting standard just to be considered on equal footing with men, but I’m not going to get too deep into feminist issues today (that’s for another time). What I’m addressing today is – what’s so terrible about romance?

I’m not innocent of this act of stigmatizing romance. I’m very picky about which romantic plots or subplots I enjoy. I have an almost zero tolerance for the stereotypical “rom-com” that involves two people with contrived circumstances keeping them apart, and equally contrived circumstances that bring them together. If there is romance, I prefer it as a sub-plot, with other storylines carrying the main part of the story. (To me, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the perfect date movie {it was in fact the first film my husband and I saw in a theater together.}) Is this aversion a knee-jerk rebellion against the stereotype that women only like boy-meets-girl stories? That’s probably one reason for it. The fact is, when a romance is well told, I’m quite as mushy about it as any rom-com loving woman. So it might be disingenuous to deny that part of myself.

Every one of my own novels has a romance, sometimes more than one. And they were some of my favorite parts to write. I did try to take great care to build them up realistically, as organic parts of the overall story, and as believable developments for those characters. Still, I resist attaching the category to my writing. It took me some time to admit that Other was YA fantasy romance, and not just YA fantasy, even though it’s a Beauty and the Beast story, for heaven’s sake! The plot revolves almost entirely around two characters falling in love against considerable odds. What is that if not a romance? And all my fairy tale re-tellings are based on stories with heavy romantic elements. Part of the reason I wrote them was to deepen those romances in a way that would be more realistic and perhaps somewhat subversive, but that doesn’t mean they’re not still romance.

Why do we continue to avoid or stigmatize it? Sometimes romance has no place in a story, and when it’s unnaturally tacked-on, it’s quite irritating. But most of the time, it makes sense to include two characters falling in love. It’s a very common element of real life, after all.  In young adult fiction, which deals so much with coming-of-age and all its complications, romance is almost essential.

Boys are often taught, both explicitly and implicitly, that anything with romantic elements is girl’s stuff. On the other hand, we have the recurring problem of female characters who exist solely to be the romantic interest, with no development or depth beyond that . That’s where I definitely take issue with romance – when it prevents women from being anything other than someone’s girlfriend or wife. Romance is one place where gender issues are pretty much inevitable, but that doesn’t mean we should eliminate it or ignore it. On the contrary, writing it well, with all its messiness and nuances and complexity, is what all responsible writers should do.