How “Romance Novels” Take the Romance out of Romance
by Alan Elsner
This may be my most controversial contribution. Please let me say upfront, I don’t wish to denigrate or dismiss the work of any of my fellow authors. Still, I feel a need to get these thoughts off my chest. As author of a novel called Romance Language, I’m often asked if I’d written a “romance novel.” My instinctive answer was to say “no” -- but I hadn’t actually read any romance fiction for many years so I went to the library and borrowed a stack. I must admit, I was quite surprised at what I read. Here are some general conclusions from my not-very-scientific survey:
1) Most romance novels take place either in a relatively few “historical” periods and venues. The most common are Regency England, featuring clones of Mr. Darcy; medieval England featuring knights in armor; Scotland, with kilted gentlemen growling “aye lassie” at frequent intervals; or contemporary America, usually in rural areas of the South, New England or the Pacific Northwest or in New York and L.A. Not many of these books happen in Reformation Germany or ancient Rome or Brazil or North Dakota for some reason.
2) The female protagonist, who is young, feisty and gorgeous, has been damaged by a childhood trauma such as the tragic loss of her parents. All alone in the world, she is proudly independent but distrustful of others. She longs for love but is also afraid to love.
3) The male protagonist is normally older and full of self-confidence, a prototypical alpha male who doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. He’s hunky but haughty. For all his sexual experience, he’ll soon find himself way out of his depth when this chit of a girl awakens feelings he’s never known.
4) The two experience an immediate mutual attraction. But they can’t immediately hook up because of some perceived barrier -- usually based on a misunderstanding.
5) Despite their initial dislike, the two are usually exchanging fluids by around page 60. This involves detailed and highly explicit descriptions of kissing, oral sex, mutual masturbation and full penetration. Both parties experience mind-blowing orgasms, described in excruciating detail.
6) An evil character emerges to threaten the two protagonists and their relationship, through social scheming or actual violence.
7) The hero rescues the heroine (or vice versa) and they engaged in even more mind-blowing sex, resulting in even more cataclysmic climaxes. Marriage and children soon follow and they live happily ever after.
I have nothing against such escapist fiction in principle. But I simply don’t find these books romantic. Let’s compare them for a moment to the grand-mommy of all romantic fiction, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In that wonderful book, the two leading characters share a strong physical attraction – but it is scarcely overwhelming or determinative. The real romance takes place in their heads as they change and grow and shape themselves for each other. It is only when Elizabeth Bennett perceives the true moral character of Mr. Darcy that she allows herself to love him. It is only when Darcy understands that he must win Elizabeth through his actions rather than just relying on his social rank that the relationship becomes possible.
I should note here that I don’t do explicit sex in my books. That’s not because I’m squeamish or repressed. Partly, it’s because it’s so easy to write bad sex scenes and so difficult to write good ones. In romance novels, these scenes are pretty much all alike, relying on strained metaphors while indulging in graphic anatomical detail. But mostly, it’s because I’m interested in love rather than in sex – and love takes place in the mind where it has to fight for its existence against all the other challenges presented by life.
In the romance novels I have read, love is expressed through sex and only through sex. The fact that the hero and the heroine can provide each other with tremendous orgasms becomes proof positive of their undeniable love. If the sex is that good, the love must be real. As for the historic settings for these books, they are usually little more than an excuse to dress the characters in period dress that can then be lovingly discarded in the sex scenes.
The true disservice that the “romance” genre does is that it sucks all the oxygen out of the room. It sets up expectations and lays down rules of what “romance” should be. Publishers expect writers to follow these rules. So do readers. Anyone trying to write a “real” love story involving real people grappling with real dilemmas is breaking the rules of the game.