In the course of writing The Book, I’ve done a lot of thinking about why I read romance, and what it is that I’m looking for when I read romance. After spending way too much time contemplating my reaction to romances, I came to the conclusion that I love romance reading because I like being induced by a skilled writer to feel and empathize with the characters, to care about what happens to them, with the unwavering reassurance that no matter how bad it gets, how scary, how awful, how heartbreaking, it will all be ok in the end. There will be a happy ending.
However, a recent trend, and by trend I mean, ‘I’ve read this technique in a few books and it’s pissing me off,’ is profoundly upsetting me, and I am ranting about it.
There are a couple of tv shows, particularly the crime dramas, that I have lost patience with because the writers were relying on cheap and easy methods to demand an emotional response from the viewer, methods I could not tolerate because they were weak and easy, and because they, if I could indulge in a moment of presuming the writers’ motivations, demonstrated little respect for my intelligence, my sensitivity, and my ability to care about the plight of adults.
Of course, it’s tv, and generally the set in my living room doesn’t stand up when I sit down, proclaiming to one and all that I am to be presented with the finest in erudite entertainment. Unless, of course, I am watching Thirteen or my local PBS affiliate, because then it is usually “Game on, Bitch. Hope you brought your brain with you.” Most of the time, when I watch tv, I am hoping to engage in entertainment, not in having my heart handed to me by thoughtless and inappropriate pathos in the dramatic narrative.
That thoughtless pathos has made its way into romance of late, and I have to say: stop. Stop it. Stop it right fucking now.
Stop using the unresolved and shabbily revealed death, injury, and irrevocable harm of children for dramatic impact in your stories.
Knock it the hell off already.
Romance novels are not hour long television shows that can introduce a secondary story and forget to give it closure. I have higher expectations of romance than I do of most tv shows, which is why I am presuming to write an open letter to writers of romance to beg them to back away from the same cheap, easy, thoughtless pathos.
It is not entertaining nor enjoyable to read about horrible, hideous, dreadful things happening to children, particularly when that backstory is used as the slowly-developed basis for a rather grumpy or wounded character, but even more specifically when the big theraputic reveal of the reason behind the emotional wound is at the end of the goddam book.
For example, I could not review The Secret Passion of Simon Blackwell no matter how many times I sat down to write it, even though it was a book I should have loved. It touched on all my favorite romance tropes: wounded hero! Secret passions! Hidden depths! Rar!
But (spoilers alert) what was the secret passion of Simon Blackwell?
More like secret pain that was revealed in the last few pages of the book: his children and first wife were killed in a fire, and his last memories of his toddler son are of the boy crying for him because Simon had scolded him, then gone out to tend to the horses. While he was gone, the building his family was in caught fire, and his family died.
I can’t even think about it without feeling ill. That final twisting of the emotional screw in the last pages completely dissolves the happy ending for me. Grief is not the feeling I want when finishing a romance.
This is not to say that hearty emotional damage has no place in romance. That’s not my point at all. What infuriates me is what I call The Cheap and Easy Hurt Child Pathos. Specifically, I hate the placement of that pathos in the backstory of a character, so that it is revealed in full in a big historically anachronistic therapy session so the character can get over it just in time for the happy ending – leaving me, the reader, just beginning to deal with the fallout of the mental image. No happy ending. Just grief.
It absolutely enrages me. Books hit the wall for this reason. I could love every other element of a book, but one dose of The Cheap and Easy Hurt Child Pathos drops a book any number of grade levels, and I feel more like warning people, “OMG, Prepare to have your heart thrown at you” than examining what worked, because what didn’t work left me feeling fucking terrible. I can’t review a book when it means giving away the ending and discussing how much it depressed me.
So please, consider this a plea from the sensitive reader: don’t think of the children. I know in historical times, children were kept in horrible conditions, and certainly there are numerous examples of how children in the backstory of a character helped craft the hero or heroine that readers loved, but the last-minute denouement of cheap and easy pathos to reveal and heal the character’s pain over a hurt or lost child comes at the expense of this reader’s happy ending. Please. Don’t think of the children.