The thing about love…

NYT best-selling author, Tess Gerritsen, has an interesting post over at her blog today, talking about her move from writing romantic suspense to writing thrillers, and the reactions of readers – including some that were, shall we say, less than complimentary about her earlier romantic novels. Like many of the comments I’ve read and heard from non-romance readers about the genre, these weren’t ‘not my cup of tea’ type comments, but strong, destructive comments about the genre.

To me, this is another example of a phenomenon I’ve been observing for a while: the fact that some readers are extremely discomforted by books about love – and sometimes, discomforted to the extent that they attack them, as though they might be afraid of them. And it’s not just books – people in general seem to skirt away from the topic of love in conversations. Oh, we’ll talk about sex, divorce and infidelity along with politics and religion at dinner parties – but how often do people talk about love? When was the last time you had a meaningful, positive discussion about love?

My pondering over the past couple of years has brought me to the conclusion that, despite the strength of the emotion and its importance to us individually, collectively and as a society, we don’t have many useful, meaningful frameworks within which to conceptualise and discuss love – at least, not commonly known. We have Hallmark and Valentine’s Day cliches and the language of sex, but little beyond that in the common language. Some theorists, such as CS Lewis, have drawn on the Ancient Greek notions of eros, agape, philia, storge; the medieval notion of courtly love is explored by historians and literature professors; and biologists, psychologists and neuroscientists have researched various chemical, biological, and psychological responses to sexual attraction and interactions – but I don’t think any of these get, shall we say, to the heart of the matter: the complex, fascinating and potentially joyful experience of loving another and building a strong, committed, long-term relationship.

For some, there is a religious framework and purpose for love and commitment. However, as there are many of them, often different, and there are very many people who have no religious beliefs, but who love and have strong committed relationships, I don’t think the religious frameworks are universal ones.

The romance genre has love at its core. While the genre ranges from gritty realism to the most escapist fantasies, love is affirmed within every story – in the same way that other genres affirm other values important to our societies.

We have a reasonable understanding of physical courage, and a significant cultural respect for it: look at the ways we speak of military personnel, the language of sacrifice and honour and bravery. This understanding of courage is reflected and affirmed in many of our ‘male’ genres of books, movies and other stories – thrillers, adventure, fantasy and crime. We have analytical tools such as Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, and numerous archetypes in heroic stories that we recognise.

But what do we have for stories about love? Romantic tragedies and romantic comedies are represented in the literary canon, but few stories of positive, enriching, successful love. And when they do appear – well, what did your formal studies of Jane Austen concentrate on? Let me guess – social structures and mores of the period; use of language and wit in the text; narrative structure and style; the themes of pride and prejudice. Did anyone’s studies explore the heart of the stories: the development of the relationships between the leading characters, their emotional courage and vulnerability, the representations of love and emotional intimacy?

I suspect that this is one of the challenges that romantic fiction faces; while many of the stories show the depth, complexity and challenges of love, as a society we skirt away from actually discussing love, and our language for telling about it is inadequate – and often negative. Love makes us vulnerable; talking about love can also make us vulnerable – and for some, to avoid the discomfort, they mock it, disparage it, or ignore it.

A few weeks back, I wrote and submitted a workshop proposal for next year’s Romance Writers of America conference, to explore some of these issues and offer some thoughts. I won’t know until February whether the proposal will be accepted, but whether it is or not, I’ll keep exploring and discussing, because I think this is an important issue.

So, what do you believe about love? Does romantic fiction, at some level, affirm those beliefs or values for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

11 thoughts on “The thing about love…

  1. I remember, Bron, at a high school reunion a few years back, that when I said I wrote romance, one gal (I’ve known for a long time, but we aren’t friends) gave me a look like “Oh, pornography.” I think for many people, “love” is synonymous with “sex.” Sex, of course, is one of those things polite people don’t talk about in public. Clearly, if you’re writing romantic stories, it’s all about the sex—after all, it couldn’t be about anything deeper than that, right?

    At the same reunion, someone asked me why I wrote romance. Simple, fast answer: it’s the Happily Ever After. The fairy tale. To my way of thinking, what better affirms our lives than love? However, I also felt strange and awkward when called upon to defend my genre of choice. What a shame to feel that way, huh?

    Romance is not pornography. Romance is not just all about the sex.

    Interesting topic, Bron. Great discussions could come from it. Looking forward to coming back when I’m fully awake, coherent and caffiendated. 😀

  2. Love. I don’t know that there is a more frightening word in the world for some people. It’s the ultimate state of vulnerability, isn’t it?

    People do sneer at, jeer at, and disparage the emotion, and yet hasn’t every person in a relationship (hopefully) been on terms with it at some point or another?

    I refuse to believe that people have just fallen into bloodless, business-like emotional arrangements without experiencing all the roller-coaster of emotions that two can generally experience. Yet, when prodded to detail their romantic journey, they brush it off and look uncomfortable and embarassed as if that ridiculous period of emotional upheaval was a momentary aberration.

    “Fine. I fell in love. We have a relationship. That emotional foolishness is done. Let’s not talk about that anymore–business as usual.”

    If everyone is looking for love–how does it become shameful or embarassing when you find it? Why is it a control struggle to nurture it?

    When did love become dirty?

  3. My observation is that romance, as long as it ends in tragedy to one degree or another, is very much appreciated. Happy endings, on the other hand, are considered too pat, too neat–too unrealistic.

    Consider the movie Casablanca and how often is held up as the epitome of romantic film. Yes, it is a great movie, but romantic? Only in the tragic sense–neither Boggart nor Ingrid Bergman will be happy. Yeah yeah, they will comfort themselves with the knowledge that they sacrificed their happiness for the greater good, yadda yadda, but no happy ending for them.

    And critics and audiences alike applaud this as worthier than happiness.

    But if we are talking action/adventure, or a mystery, or a thriller, it’s all about the good guy getting the girl–and that is a requirement for those genres. The funny thing is how, even as they are called escapism fiction, they are never as derided as romance.

    Me, I don’t understand why, but I’ve seen it everywhere (starting with my family)

  4. Thanks Laura, Sherry and Azteclady for your thoughtful comments. Now I’m caffeinated for the morning, let’s see if I can get my brain coherent 🙂

    Laura wrote:
    I think for many people, “love” is synonymous with “sex.”

    Sex is one of the key frameworks, in the contemporary world, that are used to represent love, isn’t it? We mightn’t talk about our own sexual experiences in public, but the representation of love in our popular culture is very sexualised. Advertisements, TV, films, magazines – sexy people in sexy clothes (or out of sexy clothes!) are everywhere. And yes, sexuality is an important part of a relationship, but isn’t it the intimacy – emotional as well as physical – that’s the real importance, rather than the mechanics, or the physical studliness of the participants?

    Now, I think within the genre, within our books, authors mostly do explore the deeper aspects of intimacy – that’s one of the reasons that the genre is successful. However, our representations of the genre are also often sexualised. There’s nothing wrong – and a whole lot right – with sex, but I confess I personally cringe a little when some of our public face is all about the hunky, naked heroes. Yes, it’s fun, it’s good to have some visual splendour – but there’s a whole lot more to love than flesh, and I don’t think we ourselves – as a genre – are as good at representing those aspects, outside the pages of the books.

  5. Sherry wrote;
    Love. I don’t know that there is a more frightening word in the world for some people. It’s the ultimate state of vulnerability, isn’t it?

    Sherry, I suspect it’s that vulnerability that’s the problem. When we’re scared by something, we often either run away, ignore it, or attack it. It’s quite common to make ourselves feel bigger, better, more successful by putting the ‘other’ down – even if the ‘other’ is an idea or a feeling. ‘Love isn’t important, so it can’t affect me – I’m too strong’ – isn’t that one of the common mantras running through the minds of many romance heroes? (And more than a few people I’ve met…)

    When did love become dirty?

    Did it become dirty, or is it just that our language for talking about it, and our contemporary cultural representations of it, are predominantly sexual?

    I confess I’m not up-to-date with recent movies/TV shows, but in the popular ones I’ve seen, there’s not a lot of heroes – or heroines – actually articulating their feelings 🙂

  6. My observation is that romance, as long as it ends in tragedy to one degree or another, is very much appreciated.

    Ah yes, (Bron says, with her tongue in her cheek) It’s the ultimate avoidance of commitment, isn’t it? You can just hear most of the guys, and some of the girls, in the movie theatre breathing a deep sigh of relief…

    But seriously… tragedy does serve to engage our emotions, and emotional involvement is an important aspect of the whole story-telling experience. However, why is it harder to engage people’s emotions in positive stories?

    And critics and audiences alike applaud this as worthier than happiness.

    The critical (and fashionable) aversion to happiness seems to have arisen in the 20th century, perhaps as a result of wars, depression, famine and all the other tragedies we’ve faced and that our academics and intellectuals are immersed in studying. Politics, conflict, power, climate – these issues are Important. Significant. Worthy Of Debate. And they are – but, at the same time, the focus on the Big Issues misses the point that these things are important because they affect the lives of ordinary humans, and threaten the richness and possibilities that those lives should have. (And with my tongue back on my cheek, dare I say that some of the posturing that goes on seems to be along the lines of My Issue is Bigger than Yours – when we all know it’s not the size of the issue that counts, but what it does to people… )

    The whole ‘escapism’ explanation – that’s one of my soap-box topics. There’s a blog post bubbling in my head about it, that might appear sometime soon. So I’ll be brief here: I don’t read romance – or any genre fiction – for ‘escape’. ‘Escape’ implies there is no connection with reality, that it is not Important. I read fiction for entertainment, for pleasure, for interest – and, even in the most fantastic stories, for the affirmation and positive representation of human values that are important to me.

  7. what did your formal studies of Jane Austen concentrate on?

    This is interesting. When I studied P&P, it was at an all-girls high school, and we did examine the ideas of marriage and romantic love. However, I’m not sure if the same would’ve been done in a coed school–in fact, I’m not sure they’d offer P&P as a class topic at all.

    I think we’re more comfortable expressing uplifting romantic love in film. People still talk snidely about “chick flicks” but I think they’re much more tolerant of them. Maybe this is because most people can be cajoled into sitting through a film they’re not that keen on (and therefore discover that maybe the film is actually not bad), whereas it’s hard to force someone to sit down and read a book they have no interest in trying.

  8. I think we’re more comfortable expressing uplifting romantic love in film.

    Do you think that’s because we watch it, Kat? The only words are in dialogue, and if that’s kept tight, then there’s not so much ‘text’ to sit through. Plus there’s the often visual aesthetics of beautiful people to make it more enjoyable 🙂

  9. I think that, as an audience, we demand more authenticity from film that we don’t necessarily with text. Maybe it’s because as readers we’re given much more leeway to imagine a story and be able to force it to be what we want. I also think that sometimes in novels there’s a temptation to be overly florid to compensate for the lack of visual help, which is not necessary in film. There’s beauty in silence and sparseness, which I don’t think is commonly found in romance (genre) fiction.

    Also, women are more likely/able to force their partners to watch a romantic film than to read a romance novel. (And yes, I suppose the good-looking actors help, but that has its own pitfalls because someone I find madly appealing may not flutter anyone else’s pulse.) And finally, I may be wrong, but I suspect that even a mediocre romantic film will get more reviews and publicity than a bestselling mass market romance.

  10. Bron, I was reading a program transcript at Lingua Franca, and this reminded me of your post:

    Undoubtedly the most common non-anatomical English application for ‘heart’ is within the context of love… Perhaps we use heart language to make up for the devaluation or dilution of meaning for the word ‘love’… The word fails us by not measuring depth, describing hues or differentiating between types of love… We have devalued the word ‘love’ by using it promiscuously so it is fortunate that we have our heart language to act as surrogate – to buttress, shape and colour it.

  11. Kat, thanks for that link! It’s a fascinating article, with a lot to it – I’ll have to go back and read it a time or two, more, I think.

    Wouldn’t it be good if we had more words for love…

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