Getting My Hackles Up, Part 1: Realism in Romance

This is going to be the start of a multi-part series in which I examine (bitchily, natch) the various claims typically leveled against romance novels. Romances are unique in that it’s the only genre I know of associated with stupidity in the reader who enjoys them. Reading children’s books, thrillers, horror novels, science fiction, hell, even the lurid pulp novels of the 40s, 50s and 60s with titles like Nude Roller-Skating Venusians Attack! is generally regarded as acceptable, perhaps even ironic and hip, but once people find out you like romances—woo boy, you can pretty much bet on hearing several threadworn jokes about your IQ, or seeing somebody’s respect for your intellect drop several notches, if not bottom out completely. This happens even if you’re head of the class or a top-notch professional; I’d even argue that the drop in esteem is much more severe if you’re somebody who’s considered “smart” because people assume you should “know better”—an attitude that makes me want to “suggest gently” that they “stick their snobby opinion” up their “unwashed asses.”

Just about everyone takes potshots at romance readers, even if (actually especially if) the person has never read a romance novel. I’m tired of these assumptions, and I’m tired of the double standards. This particular tirade deals with the claim that romances are bad fiction because they’re so unrealistic—one of the most common accusations levelled against romance novels.

First of all, I think it’s fascinating that realism has somehow become the yardstick by which quality fiction should be judged. But then, this is only when it’s convenient, of course, and some types of non-realism are more acceptable than others. A book set in a world populated with three-foot-tall humanoids sporting large, hairy feet and immortal creatures with pointy ears who then band together to defeat an all-powerful evil overlord by hijacking a magic ring—yeah, THAT’s realistic, and worthy of worship that borders on the creepy. But a book about a mathematician having a stroke and falling in love with a Quaker woman? Good God, let’s torch this sumbitch, it’s far too unrealistic to be considered good fiction.

And you know: it’s fiction. As in, “not necessarily based on real life.” Let’s face it: just about all fiction has to follow a certain formula—an inherently unrealistic formula—for it to work. We expect the characters to grow and change, and we expect certain tasks to be accomplished. Even stream-of-consciousness books like The Sound and the Fury have a story arc, jumbled though it may be. But ultimately, what this means is that fiction is about closure, the kind of closure we rarely see in real life. There’s really no point in telling a story that goes something like “Bad shit happens, a good guy gets put on the case but gets his ass capped before he finds out anything meaningful, so the bad guy is still running making bad shit happen, and nothing has changed except a neat guy got shot full of holes.” That’d be a pretty badly-structured piece of fiction, though it might make a pretty interesting news story.

So assuming that you buy into my argument that fiction is about closure, I don’t see how one type of closure can somehow be deemed more realistic or more worthy than the other. Isn’t it all in the treatment of the subject matter and the skill of the author? I can certainly understand ripping apart a bad book because you don’t like it, and god knows I’ve read and reviewed my fair share of awful romance novels, but almost all critics of romance novels haven’t read extensively in the genre and, furthermore, don’t apply the same rigorous standards to the fiction they do read and enjoy. Making a sweeping statement like “Romance novels suck because they aren’t realistic” is along the same lines as saying “Food sucks because it contains calories.”

A claim very closely related to the “romance novels are unrealistic and therefore crappy” argument is that romance novels are actually harmful because they create unrealistic standards by which women judge all our relationships. A steady diet of romance novels, some people claim (and I’ve actually had conversations with these guys—they’re almost always men, by the way) means the reader will start expecting their partners to literally sweep them off their feet every night, or have washboard abs and massive penises that have the magic ability to confer 3.1412 orgasms per night to the lucky women utilizing them. They claim that romance novels are capable of creating long-lasting damage to our fragile little psyches and interpersonal relationships. Some even go as far as claiming that romance novels (together with feminism) are the main reason why divorce rates are as high as they are.

This reasoning is pretty much identical to the “HARRY POTTER WILL TURN YOUR CHILDREN INTO SATANISTS!” arguments pressed forward by some of the more colorful (read: MOTHERFUCKING CRAZY) flavors of Christian fundamentalism. It is particularly insulting because it assumes all women reading romances are either batshit looneytunes, or are thick as all hell. Either way, it assumes that women who read romances have completely lost touch with reality and are confusing fiction for real life, and that the stereotypical alpha hero with biceps the size of grapefruit is our beau ideal. I really doubt either claim can be true, given the extremely diverse population of romance readers and the varying states of our love lives (happily married to happily single and every shade in between), not to mention our extremely different tastes in men (frankly, I like mine skinny, smart and kinda goofy, not muscular, glowering and kinda shouty the way many romance novel heroes are).

And again, no other genre read by adults is assumed to create a similar break with reality in its readers. A guy who loves Tom Clancy, for example, is never warned about how those books might warp his expectations about his career in real life. “Watch out, Frank, if you read Hunt for Red October one more time you might really start to think you’re a submarine commander. I’ve seen it happen to more than one person. It’s an ugly way to go.”

Yes, I’m sure there are irritating twits whose unrealistic relationship expectations are bolstered by reading romance novels. In a world where Catcher in the Rye is allegedly a defining influence for high-profile murderers, anything is possible. Those people tend to be few and far between, though, and it comes down to a chicken-and-the-egg sort of argument, doesn’t it? Was the person a twit to begin with, or did the romance novels make her nuts?

Ultimately, I think love stories, specifically love stories that have happy endings, are worthy fictional subjects. Why shouldn’t they be? Really, I can’t think of any sort of topic that would be an inherently bad subject for fiction. Once upon a time, I might’ve said “a book in which a pedophile is presented in a sympathetic light,” but then there’s Lolita, one of the greatest books ever written.

Oh shit. Maybe I’m secretly a pedophile.

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Ranty McRant

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  1. 1
    Ratfactor says:

    Fuck me, I may have to start reading romance novels.  The writing here is consistantly causing liquids to shoot up my nose.  Most recent: aged port (ow!).

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