The Role of Romance

When Ravna had worked for Vrinimi Org, she’d noticed customer interest in romance literature. It was probably the most idiosyncratic of all written art forms. No surprise there; when it was intelligible, romance lit gave more insight into an alien culture and psyche than anything this side of Transcendence.

– Vernor Vinge, The Children of the Sky

I had a cousin who was a published romance author. When she first wandered into the field – multiple pseudonyms and all – we teased her about it. My dad once expressed frustration, observing that somewhere behind all of the love-misunderstanding-hate-reconciliation stuff was a great spy story just dying to get out. He had a point; the stories were, in many ways, formulaic, and the most intriguing bits of action were often relegated to the background in favor of relationship angst.

I don’t remember how many books she published. I do remember, at one point, hearing they’d been translated into 54 languages. Formulaic or not – that’s a career to be proud of.

I don’t read all genres of romance. Mostly I stay with Regency, although occasionally I wander (usually with less satisfaction) into more modern settings. When I read Vinge’s passing remark, it occurred to me that the romances I read are saying something distinctly modern, despite the historical setting. There is a real wistfulness in the Regencies I read – the heroine is often dealing with a poor set of very limited options; but the hero, too, is hamstrung. Neither can really just let go and do what they want with their lives, although for different reasons. What they find in each other is not Mars/Venus Doris Day/Rock Hudson nonsense – but a kindred spirit, someone who intuitively understands, despite the superficial differences in circumstance.

This is a modern view of love, and I think it resonates particularly with modern women. (There’s a chicken-egg thing going on here. My cousin used to receive monthly newsletters telling her which types of stories were currently selling: strong heroines, dark heroes, kidnappings, etc. – the industry apparently spends a lot of time understanding its audience.) It’s not that nobody in Regency times ever felt understanding and equality in a marriage; but it wasn’t expected, and it wasn’t part of the cultural mythos around the institution.

These days many of us marry primarily for companionship. Marriage isn’t just about housekeeping and children anymore. Many people are looking for someone they can talk to – a best friend, really, and not just someone to cook or to shovel the driveway. They want True Love and Understanding. They want romance, unending, for the rest of their lives. They want a soul mate.

This is the kind of romance the Regencies I read are about.

(As an aside: I’ve been married for almost 10 years, and I would say I chose well; but what strikes me, even now, is how much the business side of the relationship is critical to happiness. My husband is my best friend, and he is very romantic; but one of the reasons we work so well together is that we agree on issues like money and future planning. Such issues are not romantic, and don’t often appear in romance novels – in Regencies, by the end at least, money is no object – but I don’t think any two people remain soul mates for long if they argue a lot over the day-to-day management of the home.)

I don’t write romance, at least not purely. My stuff tends to fall roughly into the category of “romantic suspense.” In truth, though, I only reject the “romance” label because I sometimes violate the standard tenet of most romance genres: The central couple ends up together. (Ignore Wuthering Heights – It may have officially been the first Gothic romance, but I didn’t find it the slightest bit romantic.) The other standard – that the central couple are both decent people, with similar ethics – I tend to follow. (One issue I’ve realized is that I often don’t have enough villains in my stories. I’m working on that, but my main people are always, always, always good.)

But, yeah, there is always a love story in there, even when I’m writing a murder mystery (which is what I’m doing for NaNoWriMo). And I tend to write love stories that reflect not our society as it is, but as I wish it were. That is the beauty of fiction: we can make the world just what we want it to be.

Vinge’s remark highlights the way in which contemporary fiction reflects both accepted social norms, and the ways in which social norms are evolving. Romance fiction focuses on the most fundamental of social norms: how we form relationships, and how we sustain them. Regardless of the setting of the story, the relationships reflect the society experienced by the author – the Regency I read is not about 18th British aristocracy; it’s about 21st century people (often very American, in specific ways) with 18th century trappings. All of these books are about today.

I’ve tried writing straight romance. I can’t do it. It’s given me tremendous respect for people like Nora Roberts. People tend to think romance is easy to write, in part because of the standard tenets I mentioned earlier. If there’s a guaranteed happily-ever-after at the end, how hard can it be to string together a plot behind it?

The answer: Pretty damn hard. Keeping the stories interesting, unusual, and eventful when you’ve already got a big chunk of your conclusion preordained is not easy. And don’t get me started on writing love scenes. I’ve become better at this – but it’s really, really difficult saying enough without getting so wordy you break the mood.

People make a career of this. My cousin did. She wrote a cookbook, and a trio of mysteries, and romance after romance after romance. She was successful because she worked incredibly hard with the ability she had. I was too young at the time to appreciate what she was doing – I would buy her books when I saw them, but I was always embarrassed – but now, as I look at my own work, perpetually unfinished, I can’t help but wish I had felt differently.

Although I suspect, had she given me advice, it would have been something along the lines of: Finish. Any fool can write; it’s finishing that makes a book.

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