A few days ago, I read a review at Dear Author of what may have been the first official "romance", "The Flame and the Flower". Go take a minute and read the review- I'll wait.
Done? Okay now: oh my God! Whoa! Joan/Sarah F. lays out some writing issues that, I'm sure, were painful to get through. Good for her, because I'm too focused on the plot. Wow. I know I think nothing is more romantic than starting off a relationship with some sexual violence. And I love that this happened to a teenager. This is exactly how I want my girls to start off their lives as adults. (Living off slave labor? Sounds downright idyllic.)
Don't get me wrong. I know there are people who genuinely enjoy bondage, dominance and sadomasochism. But the difference, to my mind, between that and what's going on here is that this character doesn't seem to be aroused by it. It sounds like she tried to flee being raped twice, and was only once successful. She ends up back with her rapist only because she's pregnant, not because she enjoyed it... because it was rape.
If this is indeed the book that birthed the romance genre, I understand why it has such a bad reputation. Still, as someone who wrote something that could be classified as romance, it stings a little to read this comment on Thea Atkinson's blog. I take hits on a regular basis for my feminism- in 2011!- so to know that I am walking into something that could make people think I have retro-femme ideas about how women should conduct themselves in the world makes my heart ache.
I know I'm not the only person with this sensitivity. At the end of 2010, I read "I Think I Love You" by Allison Pearson. I was assured that this was historical fiction, and it sort of was. It centered on a young Welsh-German girl whose life revolved around David Cassidy in the early 70s and who attended his ill-fated concert in England where many were injured and a few died. Fast forward a few decades, and we see our heroine grasp at a chance to meet Cassidy at last.
Historical fiction? Um, maybe, but I would actually think it was more "women's fiction" at this point. But there's more! At the end of the story, the main character ends up with the "second lead", and we know that they go on to have the HEA (Happily Ever After) that's one of the essentials in any romance. Their romance- yes, romance- is also loosely modeled on a certain fairy tale that authors have been using as a template for romance for at least four decades. "Women's fiction" might still be the best categorization, but someone could make a good argument for putting it in "romance".
This wasn't the only thing I read in the last twelve months that was more romantic than I thought it would be based on the editorial reviews- or even the genre it was marketed in; "Blindspot" and even "People of the Book" come to mind. Most of them were good books that I didn't mind reading after I discovered this, but I have to wonder why the publishers hid that, especially when, at least the last time I checked, romances were still selling best out of all genres, especially in e-books. These stories have genuine crossover appeal, and denying that serves to cheapen the genre and perpetuate the notion that romance or any story with romantic elements is ultimately inconsequential and can't carry a deeper theme.
I bet you're thinking my next move will be to outline my plot and defend my main character, but what's bugging me isn't what I like to write but what I like to read. I... like to read romance that doesn't insult my intelligence. I don't need to read it exclusively, but I shouldn't have to feel like every romance I read lowers my IQ by a point. *Of course* HEAs are not as clear cut in real life, but in real life baby boys don't usually survive attacks by serial killers with magical powers, vampires and werewolves don't save young girls from a life of mediocrity, historians do not and will not have the power to create a utopian world and, I'm sorry, Middle Earth does not exist. (Sadly, I realize this means there probably aren't dilithium crystals either.)
What I'm asking is this: am I obligated to feel that an amazing story of a group of people unified through different eras of time by the creation and salvation of a holy book was cheapened because the heroine ended up with something that looked like a Happily Ever After with a man whom I grew to respect and admire? Or am I shallow and inconsequential because I still think about some of the scenes in a historical romance and feel moved and even inspired by someone's commitment to a greater ideal- and person- in the face of adversity?
Here's an even better question: Is Vladimir Nabokov really a better inspiration to have than Judith Krantz? Because they both use sex in their stories, right? Only one wrote a riff on someone's destructive obsession with regaining his youth and another wrote about heroines overcoming early adversity to craft successful, independent lives. Nabokov's wasn't a romance though, so he wins, right?
The answer to all of the above is No. However we're moved or inspired, be it magical creatures, a dream of the future or simply an admirable character- fictional or otherwise- we should enjoy it. If we can't do that, then why read at all?