Why Romances are Good

I think romance is an unfairly reviled genre. That is not to say that romance films and novels don't have their share of awful examples, or that romance novels and films don't make their share of blunders.
"Where Romances Go Wrong" discusses those blunders. Before that, I want to defend the genre. I won't be criticizing it later because I think it is stupid. I will be criticizing it because I think it could be better.

The first argument against romances is that they are "escapist." I consider this the dumbest of the arguments. ALL writing is escapist, even so-called "realistic" fiction. The moment we pick up a book--fiction or non-fiction--we are "escaping" from the world around us.

That does not mean that we shut off our brains or that the world of the book becomes more or less important than our surroundings or that what happens in the book has no personal relevance to our daily lives. Whatever goes on while we read is very individual. People who read "true life" or "realistic" or "sad" (which is usually what people mean by "realistic") stories are not automatically more in touch with reality than people who read fantasy or "non-realistic" or happy stories. Lots of people read horror not because they think the events in the books will happen to them but to create a distance between themselves and the events.

It is possible, of course, that some people read sad stories because their own lives are sad. It is also entirely possible that many people read sad stories because their own lives AREN'T sad. The point is that there is not an automatic connection between the type of books one reads and the type of life one inhabits.

The second argument against romances is bound up in the first: romances are unrealistic. Now, I believe that what people really mean when they say, "Romances are unrealistic" is that romances are CONVENIENT. I will return to this business of convenience in the next post. But first I'm going to deal with the issue of "unrealism." Setting aside the issue of convenience, the censure "unrealistic" to far too many people means a happy ending. Romances end happily; therefore, they are unrealistic. There's some weird human assumption that insists that happy events and endings are somehow not as true-to-life as unhappy events and endings.

C.S. Lewis illustrates this weird human assumption in one of his apologetics. He compares the birth of a child to war. He points out that when one is talking about the happiness surrounding birth, literal-minded we-like-relativity-because-we-can-use-it-to-make-everybody-else's-lives-miserable types will say, "But that's just subjective" or "That's just your emotions" or "That's just what our patriarchal, pro-child society has taught you to think."

But if one mentions the trauma and horror of war, the miserable ones will instantly agree that yes, absolutely, "That is what war is REALLY like."

Anything good is relative. Anything bad is "reality."

Balderdash! say I. Emotion is emotion, good or bad or otherwise. Granted the sappy sweetness of Hallmark cards can grate after awhile. But the angst-ridden chest-beating of the miserables isn't much better and a lot less hard to ignore. Unhappy endings are no more likely than happy ones and although everybody dies, not everybody invests death with terror, foreboding and glum faces. The tendency to do so is as much an emotional construct as smiling glibly, quoting bad poetry and making everybody watch the end of Ghost (good movie, by the way). Dead is dead. Life is life.

I'm not saying that death and murder and war and a thousand other tragedies are supposed to be met with a shrug, any more than I am implying that birth, weddings, new jobs, great movies, good books, a new dress, a nice walk are supposed to be met with a grumpy "whatever." To move this from relativity into the territory of 18th/19th century classicism, I'm enough of a Jane Austen fan to believe in appropriate responses to appropriate events. And I believe those appropriate responses are, to a degree, taught. The body reacts. But the how of that reaction depends on our nature, our nurture and our choices within the confines of a civilized society. (And I happen to believe in civilization which separates me from the miserable types.)

If emotions are just emotions, and the "how" of emotions is taught, then writing books where people get married and are happy is no more or less "real" than writing books where people get divorced and hate each other and fight over the kids. In fact, I've read plenty of the latter that struck me as ridiculous beyond belief--everything was so CONVENIENT (more of that later).

Which brings me back to romances. One of the things I like about romances is that they are constructive. I've written earlier posts about how much of a cop-out I consider death (and instant breakups) in a story. I've killed off characters myself, but in general, I prefer to keep them alive because in general, I prefer to work out how my characters are going to solve a story's particular problem. To a degree, that's the fascination of fiction for me. I've always wanted to know what will happen next: after the prince kills the dragon, after Beast turns into the prince, after Cinderella fits the shoe onto her foot, after Rahab helps the spies. Getting there can be fun but how everything is going to work out later is part of the fun too. So it isn't that death and divorce aren't likely; it's that they are so dull.

Romances usually end with marriage. Romances don't ask, "What happens next?" What they do ask is, "How do the hero and heroine solve the problem which is keeping them from getting married? How will they overcome their pride or prejudice or whatever?"

That's not dull.

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