What is it about romance?

Romance will not go away. Women readers (especially, but not exclusively) seem to have an insatiable appetite for love stories. This, despite decades of feminism, education and emancipation. Sure, we’re not there yet, and many of the younger generations seem to have forgotten the cause, but we’ve come a long way. Nevertheless, we are still held in thrall by the notion of true love.

I’ve always been an avid reader. When I was nine years old or so, I discovered and read a lot of Science Fiction. Heinlein, Clark and Asimov. Not to mention Star Trek. I was enamoured of adventure and heroism, science and technology, and the fantasy of a future beyond our knowing, perhaps better, perhaps more horrific than we could imagine. It was grand.

Then the hormones kicked in. Or perhaps it was some subtle societal force.

Without any conscious thought or intention, I was suddenly swept up in a lifelong romance with romance. I began to read Harlequins and Avons and others, with a growing passion for the exotic locals of historicals ( yes, England was exotic to little-old backwater Canada me) the important thing being: the torture and triumph of the heroine and hero, and of course the HEA. (I had dreams of my own knight in shining armour. He was a kind of alternate-alpha, a little more on the thin side, an intellectual and a misfit, but powerful and passionate nonetheless.)

As time went by, I grew up and became educated. Over- educated, some might say. My dreams and focus shifted to intellectual ideals and professional ambitions. My reading expanded to included mainstream and literary works. Sure, there were men in my life, aplenty, but they came and went (so to speak) and despite my growing worldliness in other respects, I think I held on to an idealized, unrealistic notion of men, love and relationships for a really, really (dysfunctionally) long time. But I learned.

An important part of my education (academically speaking) was the discovery and consumption whole of Jane Austen. (I was not one of those lucky English girls weaned on Georgette Heyer, as well. That is an addiction I saved for later life). I LOVED Jane Austen. Not that I exactly knew why. Still do.

Now I think it’s because Jane looked at love in the context of life and society, which is messy and inconvenient. She also looked at love in relation to the individual, and how that individual saw herself and her role in the context of life and society. And still, love triumphed. We got our HEA fix. And we got to feel smart and sophisticated at the same time.

And so, even though I gave them up for a long while, my appetite for romances continues. After a couple of somewhat abortive career attempts, I am now following my earliest dream and writing stories.

What kind of stories? Well, love stories, of course. Although my interest in Science Fiction, and to some degree Fantasy in the guise of the paranormal continues as well, I don’t feel capable, and for that matter terribly compelled to write those genres of fiction.

I write love stories. But, not conventional romances, since, as I’ve re-educated myself in the business of writing and publishing, I’ve learned that the rules governing the genre of romance are rather strict, notwithstanding all the variations. The beautiful, and I believe oft misunderstood, by a certain segment of the reading public, thing about the romance genre, however, is its pliability, its expandability, and its inclusiveness. It’s like Buddhism. This probably has something to do with its durability as well. A romance can be sweet or hot, long or short, historical, futuristic, spiritual or fantastical. It also can be simple and predictable, or anything but. There is no reason a romance cannot be complex and deep. It is after all, about human beings, relationships and society, and there’s nothing simple about that. That is what I love about romances. Reading them is like an on-going course in psychology and sociology. History and science optional.

Another reason romances are misunderstood, and sometimes reviled, is for the simple reason of the HEA: happily ever after endings. If you remove them, then romances are just stories. They can be mainstream, they can be tragic, even literary. So why do we insist upon the HEA? And why does this simple fact disqualify romance from consideration as serious literature. (This latter question is a problematic one, but one I think is not unrelated to the recent debates around sexism and publishing. It’s easy and convenient to dismiss.) HEA’s are not just about escape and fantasy. It’s also about hope. And that goes back to something fundamental about the human condition. The life we are given is challenging enough. We want our reading to provide us with a little perspective and encouragement.

I’ve heard people disparage romance because it’s formulaic. Well. It can be. Some of it has to be to meet the expectation of the loyal readers of specific imprints. Some of it isn’t at all, and yet the HEA tends to override any other, unique aspects of the story. And what’s wrong with a formula anyway. Recently I read (a member of the RWA, whose name I can’t remember) point out that many kinds of poetry, haiku for example, are also formulaic. And it is writing with finesse and originality within the constraints, expectations and traditions of that formula that we admire most, that is considered difficult. But no matter. Therein lies a rant, and since romance already has more fans than any other genre, we don’t need to convert anyone.

The stories that intrigue me and compel me to write, are stories about finding love, but explore this central aspect of the human condition in the context of (like my mentor and inspiration) real life. My Heroines are heroic, like all of us, but damaged. They, like us, are unfinished works, only part of the way along the messy journey that is life. My Heroes, likewise, are still learning and growing. Both of them are dealing with the contradictions and demands inherent in modern society. It is their struggles, and their progress along their individual journeys that make the stories compelling. Without doing this individual work, there is no prize. Life doesn’t always reward us so well for our hard work, but it’s helpful to remind us that nothing in life is free. Love, perhaps, most especially. Mostly, however, we value most what we have had to work for.

Despite the changes in society, nay, because of them, women and men are attempting to integrate a host of expectations about who and what to be that often doesn’t make sense. Women should be strong, smart, outspoken and independent. They should find fulfillment outside of the traditional roles of wife, homemaker, mother.

Men should be soft and nurturing, they should communicate their feelings and be good fathers, including changing diapers and pushing strollers.

But along with these new demands, we haven’t unloaded the old, traditional ones. We are hard wired, to some extent, to these traditional ways of being by instinct and hormones. We are also indoctrinated into these traditional needs and wants by our families, our society, the media.

If a woman is too strong, too outspoken or willing to forego relationship and family for personal expression or power, she is subject to criticism. If a man expresses his feelings and is nurturing, but fails to confront danger, rescue and protect, provide and use tools well, we disparage his manhood. It’s a tall order.

What is your typical hero/ine supposed to do?

Each of us experiences this mix of conflicting influences in a unique way. Some of us have crusading, trailblazing parents, others very traditional ones. Some of us were loved and cared for unconditionally, others were abused, neglected or abandoned, sometimes only because our parents were dealing with the same s**t that we are. We all have to find our way, regardless. Sometimes we do this by wanting what we think we cannot have. Sometimes we reject one notion and fully embrace another, even if it causes us sadness or longing. Some of us try to be everything, have everything, and suffer the consequences.

Therein lie the stories that I love to explore. We all struggle to find ourselves in this mire. And there’s no denying we’re still looking for love. We need identity, validation, courage, intimacy and belonging. We want both a legacy and a home and family. We need self-expression. We want to make a contribution. We crave spiritual understanding, whatever form that takes. We need money and want power. Sometimes we want justice or retribution. We all just want to be okay, whatever that means to each of us. It’s complicated. And it’s endlessly interesting.

2 thoughts on “What is it about romance?

  1. I think that at the end of the day, we all want books to have a good ending.Very few of us want to come to the end of a book and leave it feeling worse than when we started. It seems to be human nature to want to feel happy rather than sad. We need HEA to feel good about the book and ourselves. If it happens in a book then it allows us to dream, to hope that it can happen to us.

Leave a Reply