Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Romance in Fiction: Helpful or Harmful?

I had a reality check the other day. I read part of a contemporary Christian historical fiction novel, which suddenly decided to jump to the romance genre about a third of the way in. It’s been so long since I’d read—even by mistake—anything of the kind that I feel I owe y’all an apology.

I’ve been trying to come to grips with what I actually believe about romance in fiction for a number of years now. I’ve already come to a handful of conclusions, very similar to those listed in this excellent blog post by young authoress Rachel Coker (go and read it!).

But to sum up my basic thoughts. Obviously a measure of romance is not only permissible, but expected in any good story. Redemptive history itself is a romance, ending with a wedding. On the other hand, the teen-girl demographic has a fair bit of caution to exercise in this regard—as I mentioned in my review of Rachel Heffington’s charming Fly Away Home, “My problem with the [romance] genre is that inviting twitter-patedness over fictional men doesn't seem like great training for keeping your head when it comes to real men.”

Somehow we have to balance these two things, however paradoxical that sounds. And I’m not just saying that, I think we see it pretty inescapably in Scripture. The constant refrain of the highly romantic Song of Solomon is a plea for young women not to stir up emotion before the right time.

We’ve heard a lot of advice on handling romantic plotlines from various people. Some of the advice has encouraged people to avoid fiction and/or romance altogether, but I have a hard time reconciling that with Scripture. Wiser advice has encouraged girls to simply avoid the kind of thing that they find troublesome, and if that’s the point you’re at, I’ve written a post I highly recommend to you, Reading in the House of Busirane, about how a dear (and frighteningly well-read) friend worked together with her mother to navigate possible difficulties. Also, I certainly would never recommend making romance of any kind the main staple of one's literary diet. That would be like living on dessert (ick!).

However, we don’t have a lot of advice—or even thought—about what a really good, solid, helpful romantic plot might look like in fiction. This is where my reality check came in. As the heroine of that novel goggled into her hero’s electrifying blue eyes between bouts of contrived bickering, I realised that my reading has, by and large, been at a pretty high level of quality for most of the last two or three years. And although most readers would rate the book as pretty tame, I realised that its flitter-pated silliness far outstripped anything I've recently complained about on this blog.

Over the last year or so, I’ve had the opportunity to think more deeply about the romance question. Part of this has involved struggling with the romantic subplot in my own novel, Pendragon's Heir. I knew I wanted the characters of my novel to try, though imperfectly, to apply the same principles I believe (about not stirring up emotions, keeping physical boundaries, seeking counsel, building a real friendship, and so on). At the same time, I had to acknowledge that my characters were different enough from me in background, temperament, and upbringing that their applications of these principles were going to look quite different than they might in my own life. It’s been a wonderful exercise in learning to appreciate the basics, and let go of narrow applications.

So, having taken this reality check, and begun to better appreciate the difference between principle and application, I have a few conclusions. 

I believe that a good fictional romance will teach its audience something about how love works. Maybe it'll show some common pitfalls. Or maybe it'll demonstrate what a really worthwhile spouse will look like. Jennifer Freitag’s novel Plenilune really impressed me on this account: it is among other things a wonderful illustration of the difference between a bad man and a good man. You’ve never seen the Mr Rochester-style dreamboat so thoroughly and powerfully dismantled.

Here are some things I’ve noticed in what I’d consider unwise and unhelpful romance plots. In those, there tends to be a lot of emphasis on galloping emotions and galloping pulses. Someone might tell the heroine, “Oh honey, you’re in love. You can’t fight that.” The hero will have intense blue eyes, or a crooked grin, or rumpled hair, or something, and you’ll hear all about it ad nauseam. The couple might bicker, or they might take one look at each other and drift helplessly into La-La Land, but either way their relationship seems more based on looks and infatuation than on any solid common goal or interests. Practicality and rationality never even gets a mention.

The hero might be the tortured outcast of society, scorned by the heroine’s uppity friends and relations, whom she defies in order to run away with him. Or, he might be the dark and saturnine owner of a gigantic mansion covering half the planet, through which he stalks our heroine like a hunter. Either way, he’s always pushing boundaries, whether they’re set by the heroine or by her stodgy society.

Next to this, a really good romance is not just much more satisfying to read, it’s also much more believable. I love a romance...

...in which a callow young man in love comes to realise that his beloved would be better off with another, whether it's because that other is a better man than himself (as in Phantastes) or because even though the other is a weakling, he's still the one she loves (as in Midwinter) or even because he realises she simply isn't a woman of great character (as in Sir Nigel).

...in which two old enemies are fooled into loving each other, not fatuously but faults and all, calling themselves “too wise to woo peaceably" (as in Much Ado About Nothing).

...or in which a frightened woman is rescued by a laughing cavalier at whose side she becomes the fearless and deadly Lady Spitcat, queen-adventuress of a war-torn planet (as in Plenilune).

I like romances founded in something deeper than sparks and daydreams. I love romances in which two people with very real differences must come together and learn to work for a common cause. I like romances where when difficulty arises it doesn’t play out in fruitless bickering but in real self-sacrifice and love. I like romances where the hero and heroine have believable flaws, but still attempt to demonstrate wisdom and graciousness to each other. I like romances where the hero respects the laws of God and man. I like romances where the dark and saturnine man turns out, every now and then, to be the villain. I like romances where the characters are stronger and wiser together than apart, and where the love itself may grow from youthful infatuation to mature profundity.

Let’s have more of that kind of romance, and you will never hear me complain.


Joy said...

YES! Hallelujah, for your post, Suzannah. I agree with you all the way through ^_^.

It is funny, but my novel writing has helped me reevaluate the whole issue of romance in fiction as well, struggling to come to a healthy balance! :)

Rachel Heffington said...

"Right-ho, Prissy!"
I think, obviously, romance is part of life. I think it's a necessary part of life. But I do think it can be handled nauseatingly or nicely, and for me to truly think it worthwhile, the character need to realize this twitterpation won't last forever. I most prefer romance when it has grown slowly between two friends who are deeply aware of the faults of the other. Anne and Gilbert, anyone?

Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

Whoops. My current protagonist is dark-complected. Does that disqualify me? :)

No, seriously—I like what you've said here. I do like a good romantic element to a plot (though I find I prefer books where the romance is just one element of the plot, rather than the whole thing), but as you said, how much better when it's a good romance. Nothing is more annoying than the constant-bickering thing! I really liked what you did with the romance in Pendragon's Heir; it made an eminent amount of sense, yet still managed to be quite romantic. (I owe you an email with much more to say on Pendragon's Heir; will try to get to that today or tomorrow!)

It's a funny coincidence, but I was recently thinking about writing a blog post on a couple of my pet peeves in fictional romance, things where I try to go against the grain a little just because they've been beaten into hopeless clich├ęs. Perhaps I shall...

Suzannah said...

Joy - writing a novel is really a moral exercise, I think! Not only do you have to think through whether what your characters are doing is correct or not, and how you are going to deal out the consequences, and how far you should personally go in depicting the evil, but you also have to work overtime to distinguish between principles and applications. Is X, Y, or Z really something that everyone in all cultures should apply--or is it just a distinctive of one's own tribe? A wise distinctive, perhaps, but no more?

Those of us who don't fall into the trap of worldliness still have to make sure we don't fall into the trap of mindless conformity to applications.

Rachel - twitterpation, what a delightful word :D. Anne and Gilbert are another great example. I think too little is made of the role of friendship in romance--I was watching NORTH AND SOUTH with my family last night and wondering how well the hero and heroine really would get on with a relationship built on arguments and smouldering looks, once the first spark evaporates. All the real couples I know have a common cause and a deep friendship.

Elisabeth - haha, no, you can have a dark protagonist, as long as his disposition is sunny, or martial, or jovial, or mercurial. :P

I also very quickly get tired of books where the romance is the only plot. Please, let there be something else. From the Christian perspective, the man is the leader and the woman is the helpmeet, and so the relationship is intended to be less an end in itself than a team to work on something bigger. Which is why I think romance works so much better as a subplot--it needs to be about something bigger.

I'm so glad you liked that aspect of PENDRAGON'S HEIR; I did wonder if it was a bit bicker-heavy. Can't wait to hear other thoughts :). And I'd love to read your post on pet peeves in fictional romance!

hopeinbrazil said...

Lovely post, Suzannah! As a young wife I read a steady stream of Christian romances, but as I began to read more classics, I lost interest in the fluffy romances. The best writers (Trollope, Austen, etc.) ruin you for the mediocre ones.

Suzannah said...

They do, don't they, Hope? I don't want to sit around scolding people for reading fluffy romances, but there's such a wide, wide world of classics out there. Hopefully we can entice them into reading some. :)

Christina Baehr said...

Yay! You know, I have mixed feelings about Louisa May Alcott, but as a young woman I appreciated what she did with the romance in Rose in Bloom. Rose went past her impulse to 'reform' her charming cousin Charlie. Then, when she turned down a worthier young man because of the lack of romantic fireworks between them, he doggedly went to work to make a name for himself and incidentally won her respect and romantic interest. I'd have to reread it to see if it still stands up to criticism, and I'm sure it has some of Alcott's typical flaws, but it was quite healthy for me at the time.

I loved the romance in the draft of your novel. At first I thought "oh no, here we go again - conflict chemistry" (my term for romantic bickering) but I was delighted with the way the relationship grew. And may I say, you did a none too shabby job of subverting some romantic cliches yourself...

Christina Baehr said...

Well written, well conceived literary romance should make us more delighted, more appreciative of what God has wrought - more in wonder of "the excellent mystery". Good romance makes me feel more grateful for my husband and his vision and care. Stay away from the stuff that gets all of its thrill from the risky, illicit, uncertain...those things only bring misery in marriage. But still, it's not all chicken noodle soup - we can relish the perilous, world-defying adventure of a marriage made and lived for God's glory!

Jill Stengl said...

Totally guilty of addiciton to fluffy romance books during my twenties and well into my thirties. I even wrote and published sixteen short novels and even shorter novellas before the genre totally palled on me. Many of my friends are still writing for the major Christian publishing houses, and I have trouble writing honest yet kind reviews . . . so I usually give four or five stars and keep my mouth shut. I would rather be a kind friend than an honest critic, when it comes right down to it--I know how much a bad review hurts.
My daughter taught me to appreciate quality literature, and last winter, at her urging, I wrote my first historical novel that is not a genre romance, although it has romance in it. (Joy read it!) :-) I figure it is never too late to learn!

Suzannah said...

Christina, I so agree! Do you have any favourites from your preferred kind of romance to share?

Mrs Stengl, I have a hard time trusting anything that comes from major Christian publishing houses for just this reason--I feel that they're focusing almost exclusively on fluffy romance. So thrilled to read your daughter's books. I'm really hoping to get the opportunity to read your most recent book soon, too!

Jill Stengl said...

And having seen the snippets you've posted, I look forward to reading your book!

Sadly, I agree with you about the CBA houses. More and more, it is all about the money--and readers demand fluff.

I'm glad you're enjoying Anne Elisabeth's books. Each book in her series is better than the one before. Wish I could do that! Heh.

Kim Marsh said...

Being neither female nor a reader of romance fiction I have held back from commenting but I have felt for a long time that it should be compulsory for everyone of both sexes contemplating married to read Georgette Heyer's A.Civil Contract.
yours Kim Marsh

Suzannah said...

Mrs Stengl, your interest is very kind! I think my book is going to be worth reading, and I can't wait to share it with the world :).

Kim, I just read up on that Heyer book on Goodreads, and it looks REALLY interesting. Thanks so much for the rec!


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