I’ve run across a certain amount of litcrit and feminist literature about romance novels. (Amazing how long most feminist litcrit wasn’t interested in what most women in America were reading.) Most of it has struck me as amazingly wrongheaded, but I didn’t have a better theory. Now I do.
Romance novels are fundamentally stories about natural law. They inherited this from their remote predecessors: fairy tales, knightly romances, operas, and those classical Greek comedies which always ended in a sacred marriage. (And the Bible and Shakespeare, of course.)
A standard romance always starts in one of two ways.
1. The situation is normal, but lacking something. “And it was very good… But it was not good for the man to be alone.”
2. The situation is bad, and requires drastic action to make things right. A eucatastrophe, even.
Through various vicissitudes, the hero and heroine either meet (and preferably, “meet cute” or in some very romantic way), or they become more closely involved with each other than they were before. The characters either misunderstand each other, are misunderstood and endangered by the whole rest of the world, or have some project or community which alternately draws them together and pulls them apart. Often, this includes pathos or even small doses of tragedy. Ultimately, however, all mysteries are solved, all obstacles and enemies removed or transformed or overcome, and all manner of things are well. The hero and heroine (and perhaps, all the other paired minor characters) join together in the sacred bonds of marriage. “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come!’”
Meanwhile, the feeling elicited in the reader is related to the classical catharsis, either through tears, laughter, or both. The reader also feels a deep sense of satisfaction in the rightness of the story and its outcome. Everything is now properly arranged.
However, this fairly standard sort of romance is very difficult to find nowadays. Somewhere along the way, the romance novelist and reader began to be more concerned with romantic feelings being excited in the reader rather than in the characters. There was always something a little troubling about this. But now, the matter has left behind flutters and fluff and gone somewhere more dangerous. Romance novels in most categories now seem to be more about sex scenes than anything else, and those scenes are considerably more explicit and unwholesome. It was sad enough when the hero and heroine simply had disordered ideas about love and sex ; now they’re kinky, too. That problem is not solved by the end.
The thing is, this kinky stuff isn’t just bad for the morals and psyches of the genre’s authors, readers, and publishers. It’s actually turning away from what makes romance work — what gives it power, what satisfies.Who wouldn’t want to live, for a little while, in a world which visibly has all made right? Who wouldn’t want to be an author with the power to reshape things “closer to the heart’s desire”?
And that is why romances have always sold like hotcakes, and been consumed like popcorn. Anything else is just an extra.
But then, said publishers really aren’t publishing romances anymore. It is almost all smut with romance trappings, or the profitable sideline of “chick lit” with hip little covers. Even those few books which are pure quill romance must have a cover marketing them as something else. They are concerned with the right marketing, but not with right and wrong.
I will say that the writing is probably better, on the whole, than it used to be. But then, it has to be, since it foregoes that sensation of making things come out right which trumped mere characterization and grammar. A bad writer with a good story and a trope with power can find readership. A bad writer with a bad story is dead in the water.
There is probably a great deal more to be said on this subject by those readers more versed in the genre than I, as I am truly a very casual romance reader. (Hence, my unhappiness over the current situation. I can’t buy the odd romance on impulse anymore without encountering a great deal of disgusting swill. Even researching matters doesn’t even help, as reviewers have often drunk the Kool-Aid.) I hope those readers will say what they think about my analysis.
Meanwhile, I have finished my slow reading of Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Sharing Knife: Beguilement, which is not only a good and original fantasy set in a far future, post-BadThings Ohio, but is also a romance in the classical sense. For good or ill.
The good thing is that the main characters are likable, and on the whole, they have the right ideas about love. Lots of interesting and touching things happen. Family and duty are important. There is also an important plot point involving a baby which could be construed as pro-life. (The funny thing is that apparently Bujold is pro-choice in theory, but she keeps being pro-life in her art.) Nothing works out easily, but it is clearly shown that good relationships require time, thought, and work, every day. That’s a wonderful point to make, especially in today’s society. The ending is very satisfying.
Now the bad news. I still have a lot of trouble believing that one character’s society can survive, considering how it’s set up. Bujold nods to the difficulties, but… it’s been going on like this for hundreds of years? No, sorry, not in Margaret Mead’s most fevered dreams. Humans don’t work that way. More to the point, I don’t know of any nomadic societies that do. Sexual morality is usually as strict in a mobile tribe as the rules and customs regarding touchy survival-oriented matters like water, fires, inheritance rights, and tent placement. As for the other analogous situation — whenever members of a military community are allowed to sleep around freely without social or command discouragement, they are sleeping around with outsiders or hangers-on, not members of their own units. Unit cohesion and tribal cohesion trumps all else, for survival’s sake.
There are a fair number of sex scenes, though most aren’t actually hugely explicit. But as is the wont of science fiction and fantasy novels written by highminded authors wishing to justify a little smut, these sex scenes are didactic. Now, this is supposedly done in the service of worldbuilding and characterization, but I have to say I was unconvinced by this motivation. Nah, this kind of stuff is always designed to indoctrinate young women and preach to the choir of the older ones.
To be honest, I didn’t expect Bujold to fall to the temptation. But then, pretty much every major female sf/f author does, sooner or later. (The only male writers I can remember succumbing to the temptation are Heinlein, and…Robinson? Maybe Delany? Oh, yeah, and John Norman, though he’s hardly the most flattering example.) Of course, all sf writers love to make their opinion known on every subject under the sun, and sex is something people have strong opinions about but few venues for discussion. But it seems a bit inattentive for characters to be making grand pronouncements about general principles while they should be paying attention to the task and person at hand, doesn’t it? And it’s never a pronouncement like, “These city folk don’t know how sex should be done — with a garland of wikiwiki plants hung over the bed to drive away evil spirits.” Noooo, it’s always some twentieth century person’s opinion on making whoopie, and it’s probably one that all their little friends agree with, but which makes many of their readers roll their eyes.
At least Bujold doesn’t have birth control herbs in convenient pill form on every table, like Mercedes Lackey. (And really, a lot of these flaws and doubtful bits are so standard to romantic sf/f that they probably count as tropes to many readers.) But man, was that didactic part lame.
Still, the book does have many virtues, and Bujold is a pleasant writer. I’m not sorry I bought the book, and I’ll be recommending it to Bujold enthusiasts who want to keep up, or people who read romances or romantic sf/f. I’m not sure I’d recommend it to first time readers of Bujold who don’t like romances as a starter book, as Chalion is better fantasy and the Vorkosigan stuff is better action, humor, and sf. Also, I think you should keep the younger readers away from a book that claims a woman’s sex life is hampered if she doesn’t play with herself. (Yeah, I’m sure that teenage girls need the encouragement, ’cause they don’t think about sex enough on their own.)
But in general, Beguilement is pleasant and interesting, and will probably appeal strongly to a lot of romance readers. For everyone else, this counts as one of Bujold’s long list of writing experiments — which may or may not pan out, but are always interesting. Just feel free to skip the didactic sex.