It's been a little while and I've been neglecting this blog (but then the Club hasn't exactly been having dozens of meetings since the last update), but I was reading Let Them Eat and was having a good rummage around my brain as to why romance novels annoyed me so much and I though I'd have it out once and for all, before the individual nit-picking overtook any sensible discussion of why I'm continuously disappointed in the genre:
1) I want it to show the diversity of love.
I want cultural differences. I want to be shown all the different sorts of relationships build across time and space (and all those fantasy lands). I want to see people conducting relationships in a way different from my own.
But instead, it only shows the same Perfect relationship in all times, in all places, in all settings. Instead of showing me cultural and personal variation, the audience is shown that all cultures and all Perfect Couples conduct their relationship more-or-less the same way and the setting is only wallpaper.
2) I want it to revel in imperfect love.
It's what always warms my heart. A relationship in all its little, bittersweet (but mostly sweet) imperfections. It's the little irritations that make it seem real and solid and human.
But instead, it only shows me more-or-less the same flawless relationship, where the Perfect Couple are simply telepathically perfect in bed, flawlessly work together and never, ever disagree trivially. True Love is shown to be completely effortless. For example, the hero, once he's found the heroine, is incapable of finding anyone (male or female) attractive ever again.
3) I want them to be honest.
The rhetoric around romance novels annoys me. The way the novel is discussed, reviewed, presented. It's the way the novel is presented as an examplar of Perfect Love as opposed to simply an instance of love, however flawed but true. It's not even presented as a fantasy, as something that is decidedly undesirable in reality. Kresley Cole's A Hunger Like No Other begins with what is essentially a rape fantasy. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having one and writing one, but it would be nice if she and the readers showed some self-awareness when it comes to discussing it. Perhaps I'm very used to the rhetoric of "safe, sane and consentual", but the framing of the relationship as desirable, as "true love" and the hero's actions as justified all repel me.
I am quite capable of saying that I like reading about imperfect, functioning but really-fucked-up relationships. Time Traveller's Wife is probably a prime example in which the narrative itself admits how really rather messed up the whole thing is. Though, to be fair, I'm not going to go read any reviews; It'll probably just annoy me.
4) I want the setting to do something more than just prop up and excuse the audience's desires for the same old configurations and the same old prejudices.
I want it to be well thought-out. I want it to not be built around the author's desire to write about a string of Alpha men in a series. And I really don't want to hear the same old about the Importance of Virginity.
Opinions, perceptions and manifestations of love and desire differ throughout the ages. I want to read about it. Really ties back into point-number-one.
But this feeds into a larger point about how work is gendered and the sheer invisibility of women in fantasy fiction doing anything else other than generically rebelling, being housewives or being "ladies." Though that said, this is slowly, slowly changing.
5) It seems to deny that people can have a complex sexuality.
It seems to deny that people can have quite a different sexuality than their regular selves. It seems to deny that nice, quiet people can be dominant in bed (or vice versa). The Hero's extreme Alpha personality is a sign of how dominant he is in bed. Less alpha men are shown to be less sexually capable and less dominant in the bedroom.
Perhaps I'm just rather too aware of how geeky the kinky community can be (being a regular reader of Mistress Matisse and Twisted Monk), but it irks me that as opposed to showing the complexities of human sexuality and how surprising it can be, romance novels are wont to confirm first impressions, as though we all wore our "bedroom face" on our sleeves. Equally, the paired trope in which the sexual self is seen as the True Self is highly problematic.