Romance in Fantasy: Love Is Not Dumb, It’s Dopamine
When the first discussions were had about what my feature piece might entail, it was tangentially related to an ongoing conversation about Romance in Fantasy. The gist of the whole thing was ‘We’ll tell ‘em why what they’re objecting to isn’t actually Romance’.
Simple enough, right? So I wrote the thing. It was all wrong; it was a crying woman wearing a lot of mascara. It was Wormtongue putting the pasty-faced creepo moves on Eowyn. So wrong. Bring wood and oil. Ugh.
So I wrote a different thing about romance in fantasy, and a different-different thing. All bad things.
And I think, Dear Reader, it’s because I’ve been writing around the elephant in the room. What I should be talking about, what we should be talking about, is already a national – international conversation: the conversation about women.
Women are why romance, all of it, anywhere, matters.
For me to explain why the treatment of romance as a theme in other genres is problematic, why I ask you reconsider your opinion (not your enjoyment) of romance, you have to understand some things about romance itself.
Here’s where my article veers far away from fantasy; like, so far that there are dead faces in the water and Gollum tells Sam and Frodo to stay away from the lights. One more word and you’ll be the farthest words you’ve ever been from the shire. Before we can talk about fantasy and sci-fi, we gotta dissect some long-dead subjects; just rip out their guts, throw ‘em on the floor and examine ‘em.
Plenty of people scoff when romance comes up – and plenty of them have never picked up a gen-u-ine romance. So how do we know, instinctively, to let go with the derisive laughter? Because it’s just sex? Bad sex, awkward sex, titillating sex. All the sex?
Oh ho! Clean; Christian; Inspirational. Sweet, Traditional – Not tonight, honey; I’ve got a headache. No sex to be had in these sub genres. Yes, there’s sex in romance, and there is plenty of not-sex. Surely this is well known by now, that women are writing meaningful stories outside the hokey-pokey stuff? It’s not 1990, after all…
It must be something else that evokes disgust.
Because Romance readers aren’t, uh, you know…very smart. (We’re the reason Trump got elected; did you see that post? Kidding! There were so many. Hillary Clinton recently labeled us as perpetuating abuse, to my everlasting disappointment.)
Not that it matters, because the readership of a genre is a fantastically Dark Ages way of conferring legitimacy (last I checked, genres don’t vet or offer applications for membership), but Romance readers include plenty of educated professionals. I’ll spare you the pie charts and polls (there’s a Dropbox full). Trust me, we have the best readers. The most reading. It’s tremendous. I daresay yuge. But why do we have to exonerate romance in any form with high incomes and bachelor’s degrees, when any reader can be a smart reader?
How smart can they be? It’s all formulaic. Any idiot can write it.
As an idiot who has written it, I can’t disagree. However, a recipe for cake is formulaic, but no one complains about it when they consistently open the oven to a mutha effin’ cake. What’s the formula of a Romance? A woman starring as the heroine of her own story. She is guaranteed a happy ending of her making. We know she won’t die, no children or horses will be harmed in the making. We know how it will end; it’s the journey we show up for. For once we can trust our heroine won’t be a punching bag, rape fodder, or a passive object. Whatever conflicts arise, by the last sentence before The End, a woman will be the winner. Yes, I admit any idiot can write this series of events. Making it visceral, believable, and emotionally weighty, on the other hand…Be my guest. Human intimacy is pretty much a sack full of guts, so let me know how it works out for you. Bring a tarp.
Well, that’s baby stuff. I want axes and peril, and no one should be safe. Everyone should be in danger of death and mutilation, loss of limbs or well-being at any moment.
I’m just going to point to all of human history and most of women’s history, and give you a minute. Women know about subjugation, oppression, lack of agency, lack of authority over our bodies and our lives. Abuse, mutilation, marginalization. Death. Jayne Anne Krentz, in her fantastic essay ‘Dangerous Men…’ wrote that throughout history men have represented the greatest danger faced by women. So when we have any storyline where men and women act as true partners, (or men/men, women/women – any partnership where a vulnerable half is made strong) it overcomes that age-old imbalance.
Maybe the struggle is that some authors and some readers have lost sight of what romance was always meant to be: Better Together. Sex is not romance, so when someone condemns ‘romance’ but all the examples they offer read like the synopsis of an adult film, I’m stumped. It’s okay if you don’t want rumpy-pumpy in your reading; I get it. But let’s not conflate lust with emotional connection – two very different states of being. We’re talking two people each convinced they’re getting the better half of the deal, and while sex is a natural byproduct of this at times, it’s by no means the main event, or even necessary to romance.
This foundation is why we love bromance, too. We toss it about tongue-in-cheek, but consider what the word ‘bromance’ means at its essence: two (or more; no judgment) men who share a connection that enriches them, makes them, and those around them, stronger. They share a bond beyond simple friendship and perhaps even loyalty; an unnamable thread. A friendship Voltron. We love when they’re together on the page, we admire what they share, because we yearn for that sort of connection in our own lives. They accomplish together some great things they could never achieve by themselves.
Alone sucks sometimes. Alone is frozen Banquet meals and determining when you last showered via a sniff test. It’s okay, it’s functional, but it’s never launched a thousand ships or built a Taj Mahal – not because living for someone else is the pinnacle of fulfillment, but because under the right circumstances, someone else allowing us to stand on their shoulders to reach what once seemed impossible is the very heart of selfless love.
Any physical expression must come from this; otherwise its empty, puerile, and base. It’s gross, and we just want to say we’re running to the powder room and never come back, and change our number. New book; who dis? For this reason, I completely get some of the eye-rolling when romance in fantasy comes up. But if you’re clutching white-knuckled to the idea that this is romance, and this is why it has no place outside its own genre, you’re spreading an unfair prejudice.
Lindsay Buroker (who at one time had a romance disclaimer on her website, ostensibly to stave off hate) offers well-written, character driven romantic-fantasy. It’s refreshing that she’s open about the romance, but a downer that the mention of ‘romantic’ when applied to her books feels like a PEGI rating, cautioning readers away from something that in no way detracts from a quality novel. Two centuries on, it feels like women still need to apologize for what they write, no matter how well they do it. Or not write it at all to prove how far beyond ‘all that’ we’ve come. Worse? When authors outside the romance genre, on receiving criticism for romantic plotlines, apologize on our behalf. Very bottom-barrel worst? When an author neuters their story, something they conceived and loved enough to labor over, because they were afraid; because it just wasn’t worth a public shaming.
This is the heartbreaking part of romance in fiction. I wish those authors felt proud of their work, enough to defend themselves rather than condemn others. Enough to gently, civilly explain that preference and prejudice aren’t the same thing, even though we’ve been subtly encouraged to blur the line. But I know why they don’t, after a sound shaming of my own that resulted in having to quit two or three groups last month and part ways with people I thought respected me. It feels pretty lousy to be the punchline, and I can’t blame someone who doesn’t write romance for a living for wanting to be excluded.
If you care about books by women, fantasy, romance or otherwise, here’s why it matters how we talk about romance in any genre:
Mommy Porn. Cougar Bait. Bodice Ripper. Trash Book. Airhead Lit.
It’s hard to think of another genre where the derisive terms applied to that genre relate directly to the protagonist, the authorship, and the readership; to a gender. As Fantasy/Sci Fi readers, we’ve all taken our lumps for wizards and robots, for themes. But in the undermining of Romance, it’s a subtle character assassination of women by which their work is cheapened and made shameful. It doesn’t matter if it’s a man writing a romantic subplot in a fantasy novel; romance is wimmin’ stuff and not even very smart wimmin’ stuff.
Before you run out and blame the current Patriarchy just yet, this isn’t new. It’s how Romance became an Unmentionable in the first place. A woman in the 18th century exclusively read, was allowed to read sermons and conduct manuals (read:indoctrination); whatever reinforced her subservience and acceptance of her place in society. Romantic novels weren’t considered trash, they were considered dangerous, subversive. In an age when women couldn’t enter into business, own land, inherit money or property, deny their husband’s sexual advances, when any means of self-support legally belonged to her husband and he could (and did) take it from her, romantic novels introduced some troubling concepts. Between their pages women traveled (alone!), sought and achieved independence; God forbid, they had sexual desires beyond closing their eyes and thinking of England. They questioned and – worst of all, defied the men in their story. They were heroic.
When Helen Graham slammed the door on her husband’s abuse and sexual advances in Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall, it was a seismic event that shook Victorian England. A woman had said No. In sermons and social guides (again, indoctrination) women like Helen had been displayed as cautionary tales who met unspeakable fates for their disobedience, risk taking, sexual desire and frailty.
In novels, these women were victorious.
This did something terrible: It got women thinking, and worse, acting on their ideas. They tested to see if these ideas applied in the real world.
If there was no way to stem the tide by preventing publication, the next logical step was to ridicule and marginalize the subject (women’s struggles), the protagonist (a woman), the author (a woman), and the readership…you see the pattern. At a time when reading was a family or group activity around the fire, no one wanted to be the idiot to bust out a novel everyone agreed was, without consciously knowing why, trash. Made commercially unpalatable by dominant opinion, romantic novels became something to hide away, sharing and discussion of them hindered by manufactured embarrassment. Two centuries later, we’re still hiding them under cooking magazines at the check-out; we’re still defending our authorship of them, and apologizing for bringing romance into other genres.
Fantasy and Sci-Fi have come a long way. Whatever distance is left to go, we can see and measure progress. Mark Lawrence treats ruthlessness as fact rather than contrivance, while Anna Smith Spark paints it into grim glass-shard poetry. Laura M Hughes’ lyrical-gothic heroine puts Poe and Shelley in their places. Josiah Bancroft engineers wonder and bona fide adventure in a world where women are as savvy – if not more so, than the gentlemen. Phil Tucker pretty much jerked my heart out of my body last week. Nicholas Eames? Bloody-effing-Rose, you guys! Men, men are writing strong women, not as supporting characters, but queens in their own right. Women are beginning to be read and promoted on equal footing with their male counterparts in Fantasy. We post photos of our books in airport shops and mainstream booksellers, displayed no differently than the rest. When someone puts forth the examples of our shame-tinged history, we’re quick to set the record straight – yes, it used to be that way, but times have changed. We’ve evolved. So why, when we discuss romantic themes in our fantasy, do we relegate it to thirty years in the past with no acknowledgement of its growth? A genre where racial, interracial, and LGBTQ+ stories were welcomed – and sought, years ago. Why the shade? Are we repeating that centuries-old condemnation meant to keep women stuff, and women, in their place?
But I don’t understand why every damn fantasy story has to have a romantic subplot. Hmph. Grumpy noises.
The Hanging Gardens; mix tapes; John Hammes inventing the garbage disposal for his overworked wife. Better Together has accomplished some amazing things throughout history.
But the reason romance makes us feel good is the least romantic reason of all: Science.
Ill-advised, unrequited, truncated, or eternal; love is not dumb, it’s dopamine. Maybe an author’s treatment of it didn’t set the serotonin into overdrive, but they meant to. Romance, love may not make us our best selves, as some authors claim; some of us are huge, irredeemable jerks all the time. But it makes us better. We eat with utensils, we bathe on something like a regular schedule. Suddenly we care a little if that dragon destroys the village, because now there’s someone living there who gives us the sense of Better Together. We don’t hate their stupid face; we kind of like it, and it makes us want to not suck at life.
Some readers like that good feeling. Some like it a lot – we’re not making peanuts over in the romance category; we’re unapologetic pushers of feel-good hormones. And some folks in other genres like a little reup now and then, too.
It’s okay to not read romance, to prefer it weren’t a theme in the books you choose. It’s not obligatory, nor is it a necessary element of a great story. But it has added amazing depth to some stories we love most. It’s also given a voice to women across three centuries – think on that.
I can’t tell you why what you’re reading, when you read these themes, isn’t really romance – it is. It’s entirely Better Together, even if the author was green or clumsy. Certainly I won’t presume to tell you why you should like it or even seek it out. But as a woman and an author, I can tell you why it matters.