My Take on Romance

[Originally posted on my blog.]


In an SF Novelists post, I made a mention of how a lot of romance novels don’t work for me because they’re often too focused on the hero and heroine, to the exclusion (or at least sidelining) of other characters. And that reminded me that I had some thoughts I’d meant to post, about why, despite giving it a good shot, I don’t think I’ll ever be a romance reader.

Before I get into those thoughts, however, let me say up front: the tl;dr version of this is not “romance novels suck.” Anyone using the comment thread to bash the genre wholesale will be invited to do their bashing elsewhere. This is about why I’m the wrong reader for the genre.

The reason, in short form, is this: I don’t find them all that romantic.

It has to do with where my own personal buttons are. I do not, for example, have much interest in the hornypants model of romance, where the connection between the hero and heroine (or hero and hero, heroine and heroine, or other combinations — this isn’t only a heterosexual or even monogamous thing) manifests first and foremost through their hormones. This is why the Imriel/Sidonie relationship in the second Kushiel trilogy didn’t do much for me, because they were so much about lust, and that just doesn’t engage my interest. Or, to pick a genre romance example rather than a fantasy-with-romance one, I eventually stopped reading Butterfly Swords because two pages after the main characters met, all they could think about when they looked at each other was physical attraction. That’s an important component, of course, but when it’s the chief signifier of compatability and connection, I’m not persuaded. It doesn’t make me believe in their relationship, not in the way I’m looking for.

So what do I find romantic? Shared interests and goals. Characters who have something in common (besides lust), something really important to them both. Then their relationship becomes a partnership, working together for something outside themselves. To put it in visual terms, I don’t want them to be standing face-to-face, looking only at each other; I want them standing side-by-side, looking at something else. I used to say that I like romance when it’s the B plot of a novel, rather than the A plot, but lately I’ve come to realize that’s a symptom of my personal inclinations, not the cause. The truth is that when the romance is the B plot, I find it more romantic.

The A plot, you see, gives me context and meaning for the romance. It shows me different sides of the characters, so that when they come together I have a better sense of who they are and why they matter to each other. This is why Phèdre and Joscelin work for me, and Imriel and Sidonie don’t; the foundation of that first partnership goes down to bedrock. When they dislike each other, it’s for well-grounded cultural reasons. When Joscelin hates Phèdre, it’s because he has reason to think she’s a traitor. When they begin working together, it’s for survival, and to strike back at their enemies, and their trust and inter-reliance grows out of that. As a result, when the really dramatic moments roll around — the moments where they decide to put each other ahead of something else — those moments hit harder because that something else? Really matters. To them both. And I therefore care about it a lot more.

I’ve read romances where one or both protagonists have the attitude of “you are the only thing in the world that matters to me.” That? Is not a button that works for me. I like characters who care about multiple things, and those things intertwine. It doesn’t always have to be fate-of-the-world level, either (though admittedly, as a fantasy reader I’m accustomed to plots with fairly high stakes). I very much like the Lydia/Wickham byplot in Pride and Prejudice, for example, and would love it even more if it was resolved by joint action between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. (Which, if I recall correctly, is the case in the Bride and Prejudice adaptation.) The higher the percentage of that kind of thing in the story, the more I’m likely to get invested in the romance — at least until you tip over the edge of “this is actually just about the A plot, and we’ve shoved a romance in there because we feel obligated to do so.”

I know romance novels do include that kind of thing. But it’s been a running dissatisfaction of mine, with virtually all the ones I’ve read, that I want more plot-plot to ground the romance-plot. I picked up Butterfly Swords because it was set in Tang Dynasty China, which, you know, awesome! But then it was all about the hornypants, and I’m sitting there going, “MOAR TANG CHINA NAO PLZ.” If the political side had been the plot, rather than a very neglected subplot, and the hero had been somebody invested in that plot rather than a random European outsider shoehorned into the setting (seriously, wtf), then, well, it would have been the book I was hoping to read. As it was, though, it was not for me.

I’m posting this because it’s been very enlightening for me to think through my expectations and the conventions of the genre (as seen through friends’ reviews, the Smart Bitches website, and the twenty or so romance novels I’ve read). The more I understand what I’m looking for in a story, the better I’m able to find stories I will like.

But I am definitely willing to take recommendations from those of you who are romance readers, of books you think are likely to supply what I’m looking for. Short form is, more plot = more good (though I will roll my eyes right out of my head if the characters are running for their lives from the bad guys and then stop in a stairwell or broom closet for random nookie). Also, I like stories where the protagonists have known each other for a while, rather than just having met; this, to me, is one of the big romantic selling points in Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin. My ideal of romance grows out of friendship and partnership, which both fare better when they’re given lots of context. Finally, because of my interests, I tend to gravitate more towards historicals or things with speculative elements, rather than contemporary realistic romance. But they’d better do their history or speculation well, or I’ll be kicked right out of the story.

Yeah, I know. I’m not asking for much at all. <g>