2.10.2015

“Top Ten Tuesday:” Let me complain to you about romance novels.

The discussion this week over at The Broke and the Bookish is romance novels. Specifically, why do they suck? And how can they do better?

I am not a big romance novel reader . . . but I COULD be, if all of these things didn't suck about romance novels. It is possible for a story primarily about love and romance to be an amazing, gripping, moving, story. I love Jane Austen. But mostly . . . modern romance novels suck. Sorry.

The Number One reason romance novels suck: Terrible writing.

This is a problem throughout genre fiction. Somehow there seems to be an idea that because "what the reader wants" is just a love story, or zombies, or a murder, or space cowboys, or elves, or whatever, that the prose doesn't have to be good. WRONG. I mean, yes, a couple times a month after a really bad day at work, I sit down with a big glass of wine and whatever crappy romance is available on the Kindle for $0.99. I then proceed to mock it mercilessly. (One day I will live-tweet my reading of a crappy romance novel. It will be epic. You are all invited.)

So, I guess, if the romance industry's bar to clear is "readable enough to give someone a good laugh — at least they've spent $0.99 on it!" then OK they've cleared that bar. But if their bar is actually publishing good stuff? NOPE.

Way to improve: Try to publish good prose. Try.

Number Two: Actually this may be #1. It's close. REGRESSIVE GENDER POLITICS. Ohhh, this one makes me ill.



First of all unless you read an explicitly LGBTQ novel all of the characters are, without exception, absolutely perfectly straight. There is no questioning of gender roles. Women are feminine, very feminine; men are masculine, very masculine. There is no playing, there is no blurring, there is very little even stepping outside of stereotype. Women are interested in clothes and makeup and family and maaaaybe their job (but always less than they are interested in romance); men are interested in cars and sex. Unless it's a period romance; then it's horses and sex. And maybe Going Off to War and playing a mean hand of whist. Or something.

Occasionally there is a cute nod to women having outside interests, and this is usually a Big Thing that is Shocking and is played up to prove how Different and Intelligent the female lead is. Usually she likes to occasionally read a book. Often this book is something by the Brontes, which proves how well-read the heroine is. Then the romance author proceeds to spout hackneyed thoughts about Jane Eyre or whatever and places them in the mouth of the character.

Women never question relationships that seem abusive, and lordy lordy, do these relationships often seem abusive. The more abusive, the more romantic. 50 Shades of Abuse and Twilight are  great (awful) examples of this. Often the Bronte-reading intelligent heroine draws romantic comparisons between the male lead and Heathcliff, which, if you've actually read Wuthering Heights, is 50 shades of fucked up.

Oh, and then and then and THEN, the same romance novelists will try to be all progressive and feminist by writing a piece of historical fiction set in, say, 1800, where the female lead has conventionally modern politics and this is supposed to prove how independent and feisty she is.

I mean, I appreciate the effort to write any feminist character, at all ever, but if you want to write a  "historical" romance novel where the female lead is discovering feminism and women's suffrage and equality, set it, you know, at the very earliest in maybe the 1880s, and more ideally thirty years later, and actually, you know what?

...It'd be really great to see some envelope-pushing feminists in contemporary fiction. It's way too easy for modern readers to be all, "yay, women's rights, woohoo!" when the rights in question are voting and property ownership because the novel is set 150 years ago. I want a romantic hero crusading for abortion rights or against rape culture. What I don't want is to be jerked out of my willing suspension of disbelief when multiple characters from 1820 are remarkably forward-thinking.

I could go on but I wanted this to be a quick top ten list and this is not working out so hot.

How to fix this? I suggest a law where no one who doesn't have basic literacy in abuse and the oppression of women should be allowed to write romance novels. There could be an essay-based test, like the AP exams. I would support this.

Number Three: Bad romance. You'd think romance novels would be the one place you could find good romance, right? Wrong.

It is often unclear why the leads are attracted to each other. Male lead: self-absorbed and emo. Female lead: self-absorbed and petty. FIREWORKS ENSUE.

I like romantic tension, but not for REALLY STUPID REASONS. If you really have that much trouble talking to each other, your future marriage is doomed. DOOMED I SAY.

How to fix this: Thinking about Point Two might help. Try not writing every character as a mass of cliches. That could improve things.

Number Four: Bad Sex. Again, you'd think one could find good sex in romance novels? Hah. HahahahahahAHHAHAH.

I don't mind if the sex is put behind a an authorial curtain (in fact I prefer this; I like lots of innuendo but only very little explicit...icity (is that a word?), but I really hate cliched euphemisms. Either write around or be specific but for the love of god no pulsing members or opening flowers. NO JUST NO.

Also see point two. Because this comes into play full force here, and it is icky. ICKY.

Also all of the woman have body types totally unlike my own, and the men are universally turned on by attributes I don't have, so when I finish reading a sex scene I feel simultaneously squicked out and unattractive. "The flat curve of [my] stomach" is never and will never be. Nor my "slim waist." Or "Long, narrow thighs," or . . . etc.

I am getting tired of writing now so I will stop, also I can't stand the thought of writing "member" again, ever.

Ways to improve: Ugh. Um, try writing sex scenes with consent, with exploration, and with all body types. Please.

Number Five: Abrupt and unsatisfying endings. 

I hate romances that just end with the characters getting together. Hate hate hate (I make exceptions for Jane Austen, I suppose). I want to see their relationship mature a little. And no, I don't mean a "ten years later!" flash forward that gives me one scene of them surrounded with happy children. No. Real character development, please.

Ways to improve: Oh, lots. Instead of making the sequels about a secondary character in the first novel going through the same exact arc, maybe make the sequels about the same characters working out their relationship in interesting and character-building ways. Or let them get together halfway through, and spend the remainder of the book working out their issues. Or . . . lots of things.

If anyone has any recommendations for good romance novels for me to read on my intermittent wine-and-romance-novel date, I am all ears.