Romance in non-romantic fiction

This topic has been stewing around in the back of my head for a while now.  I hadn’t written about it because I really wanted to post something intelligent and thoughtful, and that seemed so difficult.  I also didn’t want to just put it off indefinitely, though, so finally I decided to jump in, even if it came out warty.  Disclaimer: this is primarily about straight romances, mostly because I’ve read a lot more of those so the patterns are more obvious to me.  There’s so much swirling around in my head even just with that that I doubt I’ll be able to fit it all in one post.  Probably I’ll just make a start on the parts that most preoccupy me today, and come back to other bits later.  

What I keep circling back to when I think about romance in non-romantic fiction is how compulsory romance seems, even in stories that aren’t about romance.  I feel as if it’s worse for women than for men – that not only is it rarer for female protagonists to have a story without romance, romance has to be a bigger part of their stories when it’s present.  Women are more defined by their relationships with men than the reverse.

For some reason this came to a head for me when I was reading Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl in Coldtown.  I felt a little bad for being so frustrated because I very much liked the book otherwise.  Now that I think about it, in fact, it’s probably because I liked the book otherwise that I got so hung up on the compulsory romance aspect.  Particularly, I was a big fan of the main character.  She’s clever and determined and compassionate and of course she winds up in a romance with the mysterious vampire guy.

It’s not that I objected to him, specifically.  I actually liked him as a character as well.  But after reading uncountable stories in which women just always wind up having (male) love interests, I snapped a little bit.  Why does she have to have a crush on him?  Why can’t she just be clever and determined and compassionate – and be complete without a love interest?

I don’t object to characters having romantic relationships in general.  (Some of my best friends have romantic relationships!)  People have romantic relationships; therefore, characters have romantic relationships.  It would be ridiculous if they didn’t.  It’s the ubiquity of it that bothers me, especially for women.  It’s as if there’s no comprehensible way for a woman to exist without being involved with a man.

This means that books without compulsory romance (especially for women) appear like oases in the desert.  Reason number two why I absolutely adore Dealing with Dragons and always have is that the main character is a princess who doesn’t have to get married.  And it’s not just that she doesn’t get married.  She doesn’t have a crush.  She doesn’t go adventuring with a guy and realize how great he is.*  There’s only one male character with whom she might conceivably have any kind of relationship, and she’s not interested in him.  It’s not even an emphatic lack of interest – she’s not rejecting him for any reason.  She’s just not interested, and she has other things to do.  I really have no words for how amazing, how refreshing, how completely delightful that is to me.

That’s sad.

It also leads me to something else that bothers me: usually, when characters (both men and women, but again, more so with women) don’t have any sort of romantic interest, it’s an emphatic lack of interest.  That is, they actively reject the possibility for some particular reason.  A highly non-scientific survey of my bookshelf suggests that for men it’s most often that their prior (female) love interest died.  Women’s (male) love interests are usually gone in some other way.**  But the possibility that a person (especially a woman) might just not be that interested in the people around them and have other things going on is practically unheard-of.

This drives me crazy.  Like I said, it’s not as if there’s anything wrong with any specific example of having a romance or pining for a lost love.  But frankly, I’d like a little more variety in my reading.  And sure, I can go searching for it – but it’d be awfully nice if I didn’t have to search.


* This does happen in the second book – that is, she goes adventuring with a guy, realizes how great he is, and marries him.  I know it’s not unreasonable.  Expecting people to never change and develop is just as unrealistic as expecting people to always have a romantic interest.  I still found it disappointing.  On the other hand, in the third book she goes on an adventure (while pregnant!) while her husband stays home to take care of the kingdom.  Which is pretty great, and couldn’t have happened if she hadn’t gotten married.  Second book is still my least-favorite.

** This probably says something (probably lots of somethings), though I’m not sure exactly what.  Female characters being killed off to serve as motivation for male characters is a well-documented trend in a variety of media, but the reverse doesn’t seem to happen as much.  Maybe it’s a bigger deal for a man to be unable to protect his love interest, but for a woman it’s a bigger deal to not be able to hold onto hers?

The great white sharks of the reading world

I just read a piece here about Scribd’s attempt at a Kindle-Unlimited-style subscription service for books and how Scribd’s lack of data, and possibly math and just plain attention, led to the service’s semi-downfall.  The article is interesting and fun – while I’m rather prone to philosophy, the nuts and bolts of the book business always intrigues* me.  However, it intrigues me in part because it’s not something I know much about, so I can’t really contribute to that discussion.

Instead, I want to talk about a line that stuck out to me, partly because it was funny and partly because it surprised me (and partly because I had to go look up some of the stuff in it): “Romance readers are the Great White Sharks of the reading world. They are the 80 in the 80/20 rule. They are the power in a power law.”

Okay, let’s be honest, comparing bookworms to great white sharks is just funny.  Thank you for that, Carolyn Jewel.  Also, it might just be that before I hit up Wikipedia I had no idea what the 80/20 rule and power law were, but something in that second part of the line (and possibly a primer from the great white shark comment) give me this sense of some immense, powerful force lurking out there, unbeknownst to most.  Maybe it’s less romantic if you know more about economics and what have you, but to me it’s a pretty cool image.  And even without the mystery of lurking in the darkness, you still get the sense of raw force, which is powerful.

And I’m going to stop geeking out over the craftsmanship of it and move on.  (Look, I’m an English nerd, you have to expect that kind of thing.**)

The author of the piece (Carolyn Jewel) says that the typical romance reader will go through four to five books a week, hence the shark comparison.  From what she says, Scribd wound up cutting nearly all the romance books from their service because people were reading them too much and costing Scribd too much money.  That surprised me.  I mean, there’s no particular reason I think romance readers wouldn’t read that much, I just didn’t know they did.  It made me curious – why is that?  I don’t really know any big romance readers (that I’m aware of), so I don’t know anyone I could ask.

Anyway, the voracity of romance readers apparently surprised Scribd, too.  Jewel suggests that it’s because they just weren’t paying attention – that since romance readers are primarily women, Scribd effectively dismissed the genre as being “for girls” rather than “real books” and didn’t put much more thought into it.  She never suggests they did it deliberately, which makes sense; many instances of prejudice aren’t deliberate.  People just don’t think about some group of people, and then something gets messed up.  (See: face-tracking software can’t see black people.)  It’s too bad Scribd handled it by wiping out their romance selection, though.  It may have been the only way to save their budget, and if so it’s understandable, but that’s a lot of disappointed readers.

But going back to Jewel’s theory on why it became a problem to begin with: I was happy to see someone else propose that some books are looked down on because of their readers.  It’s not as if I thought no one else had ever come up with the idea, but I hadn’t ever heard someone else say it.  On the other hand, I’ve already said I have my own prejudices when it comes to romance, and I have the nagging feeling that my surprise at how many books romance readers go through is the product of that.  Problematic.  Well, another day, another lesson.  I learned some interesting things, enjoyed a well-written line, and broadened my horizons a little.  Not bad for a few minutes’ reading.


* Intrigue?  “Nuts and bolts” is technically a compound subject and should thus take a plural verb, but on the other hand it’s also an idiom and thus weird.  Hm.  I mean, the obvious solution would be to just use a different expression, but where’s the fun in that?

** On a related note, the book How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by Stanley Fish is fantastic, and if you are also an English nerd, you should absolutely read it.  Hm, maybe I should re-read it…