Tuesday, February 7, 2017

What’s Love Got to Do With It?

Romance writers—particularly those who include erotic elements in their fiction—are in a unique position. In most other fiction genres, it’s a given that the writer isn’t doing everything her characters do. No one asks whether George R.R. Martin has fought in epic sword battles or ridden a dragon. Few people expect Sue Grafton to be running around solving horrific murders in her spare time. Science fiction writers aren’t expected to be space travelers and no one believes authors of historical fiction have lived hundreds of years in the past. Yet those of us who write romance and erotica are often asked if we’re writing from experience. It’s one of those “wink, wink, nudge, nudge, nowotimean” questions, asked either with prurient interest or, more often, with a bit of doubt and derision. And compounding those misconceptions is the idea that romance is somehow supposed to be based on real life.

I’m here both to give the doubters their “a-HA!” moment—and to snatch it away in the next breath. To burst a few bubbles and to confirm your wildest imaginings.

First of all, romance novels, even contemporary romances, are actually fantasy. There seems to be this idea that we’re “setting women up” for misery because we’re writing about unrealistic expectations. No, actually, we’re writing happily-ever-afters for readers who enjoy that particular fantasy. We (both readers and writers) are the romantics, the ones who are in love with love. We love watching the tension of will they or won’t they (and of course they will, or you’re doing it wrong). And that moment when they finally do? It puts the climax in climax.

That’s not to say that there are no happily-ever-afters in real life. But real love stories come with compromises about finances and arguments about housework, with dirty diapers and vomit, with boring day jobs and imperfections and not being in the mood and all the nitty-gritty of everyday life. But that’s not what our readers want to read about. The fantasy is that the romance is all-consuming and larger than life, and it leaves out (for the most part) the not-so-pleasant and the nitty-gritty. (And includes certain other things that are often larger than life. And last longer. Because we can.) The fact that we judge readers who enjoy this fantasy over fantasies about solving crime, or flying on dragons, or warp travel—well, let’s face it: it’s prejudice based on devaluing things that women like. (I won’t even get into how weird it is that men aren’t supposed to like love.)

Now for the “a-HA!” moment I promised you. I write love stories, but I’m not in love. I’m not married, I’m not in a relationship, and I don’t even date. My last long-term relationship ended five and a half years ago with the loss of my partner to inoperable cancer after five years of chronic illness and disability. So, to confirm what some suspect, here’s one writer who’s not doing any of the things she writes about.

But I also promised to snatch that “a-HA!” away from you. Even though I don’t have anyone in my life right now, I’m still writing from experience. When I write about falling in love and being overwhelmed with need for someone, that’s based on real-life emotion. When I write about BDSM, yes, I’m actually writing what I know. When I write about same-sex relationships (and opposite-sex relationships) and threesomes, I’ve got that covered too.

Not everyone who writes about these themes has the personal experience to draw on—nor do they have to. If they’re good writers, they’ve done the research to write about it in such a way that you believe they have. Just like George R.R. Martin can make you believe he’s flown on the back of a dragon.

So what’s love got to do with it? Nothing. And everything.

(It also happens to be one of my favorite songs from my senior year in high school.)

And also dragons. Because dragons.


Diane Burton said...

A great post, Jane. I think you really nailed it when you mentioned that women read romance (as opposed to men) and men are the ones insecure enough that they worry women will have too high expectations. Although I'm in a long-time (44 years) relationship, things haven't always been easy for Hubs and me. Health and employment issues, kids (enough said), etc. That's real life. Thank goodness for romances that take us out of real life and give us a little fantasy. I'm sorry you lost your partner, but what great memories you must have. Sometimes, memories make the best stories.

CJ Burright said...

Loved your post, Jane! I read to escape to other worlds and lives, not regurgitate all the humdrum everyday normalcy, whether it's romance or not. But I do dream about having a dragon...pretty sure no man can fulfill that particular fantasy, either. :)

SJ said...

Well said Jane, thank you!