The problem with romantic fiction

Alright, so… romantic fiction?  Yay or nay?  As a reader, they’re my favorite kind of books to lose myself in and, as an aspiring writer, romance is, by far, my go-to topic.  Trying to find good romance novels to read… Well, that’s a challenge.  Why?  Because a big majority of romantic fiction out there just downright sucks.

So we’re all familiar with “bodice ripper” novels of the 80s, right?  Handsome, muscular man in tight pants and an open shirt passionately clutching a raven-haired vixen in a antebellum-style dress, her breasts prominently pushed out and on display?  All of the books had a similar premise – a handsome earl who thunders across the moors on his white steed to save the damsel in distress from her punishing uncle or horrible stepfather or that awful, older gentleman to which she is betrothed but to whom she could not *gasp* even imagine sacrificing her virtue.  She would think that this delicious stranger was repugnant, of course, but then his confidence and dashing looks would wear her down and he’d eventually be allowed beneath her corset and petticoats.  Fast-forward to now and we have much the same, but as a modern woman, I have to ask one simple question:  WHY IN THE WORLD DO THESE WOMEN NEED SAVING?

Right now, my beef is with pretty much every book I’ve ever read by Debbie Macomber.  Because she’s sold, oh, like 23432982323 books, I keep giving her novels a chance. (Some people never learn.) I check one out based on its pretty cover and flowing description, cuddle down beneath the covers, and, five minutes later, the disappointment settles in, sinking like a rock in my stomach as I choke my way through the rest of chapter 2.  Completely fooled again!  The “heroine” (and I use that term lightly because she sure isn’t the type of woman I would admire) is usually naive, definitely a virgin, and often simple-minded.  Completely weak-willed, unsure of what to to and often prone to tears at the slightest provocation.  It always takes a strong man (usually a rancher of some type with a crappy attitude) to set her straight.  By the time I’m 20% into any one of these books, I’m frustrated to no end and absolutely befuddled by this.  Why do women continue to buy these books, thereby promoting the idea that the fiction they want to read involves a man who has to fly in with his superhero cape or his private jet or his F-350 dually and save her since she is obviously incapable of doing it on her own???

There is an antithesis to the pathetic damsel, of course. (Thank God!) I’ve had the pleasure recently of reading books by Victoria Dahl, Katie Lane, and Jaci Burton.  These women are set apart from many others in their field because, while their characters are open to falling in love, the heroine isn’t broken, weak, and waiting for a man to come in and fix her problems.  Yeah, her car may be a wreck and she’s got $22 to her name, but she’s making it.  She’s fine. In fact, if someone implies otherwise, that unfortunate soul might get the toe end of a cowboy boot to the genitals.  And if the handsome hero flies into the picture in his vintage sports car and offers to make everything right with a simple flash of his white teeth and an outstretched hand, she’ll probably spit in his eye and turn her back on him, regardless of his eight-pack abs and twinkling green eyes.  Dahl, Lane, and Burton write about women who aren’t lost and broken without a man to love them.  Their female characters are all headstrong and are going places, not sitting on the sidelines waiting for life to begin.  The men that find them merely round them out and add another layer to their already rich lives.  The heroine will be as big of a spitfire at the end of the book as she was in the beginning – she’ll just happen to have a hottie warming her bed now.

Another area that I don’t often dip my toes into is Christian fiction.  My reasoning is simple – the characters are all too perfect and there are often rarely any REAL flaws.  I read a book recently that was pretty decent, though.  I was attracted by its cover (it had a vintage radio on it!) and read the whole thing through.  90% of it was fine.  My biggest beef was that the heroine was a 32-year-old virgin.  Now, I have no problem with virgins; I was one once.  For the purposes of the story, though, she had to be Christ-like to find a similarly-minded male to love her.  He wasn’t a virgin, of course, but he had repented of his sins.  Even though I liked the book overall, that little portion left a bad taste in my mouth.  Why must the women in these novels be pure? People who find their way to Christ come from all backgrounds and plenty of them, myself included, had notches in their bedposts when they did.  Does the fact that the woman has had previous sexual encounters make her less desirable to God or to the hero of the story? Does the author believe that those who are reading the book can’t possibly accept that the heroine had a sex life?

My final point of irritation is with books with titles that start with “The Billionaire and…” or “The Millionaire’s …” I get it – money is an attractive feature.  It’s nice to have money.  We all wish we had more.  But so many of these books feature men with enough money to buy most of the Eastern seaboard and that’s really the main characteristic that attracts the heroine to him.  Anyone who’s bothered with 50 Shades of Grey (and for full disclosure, my experience with these “books” consists of reading bits and pieces from a digital copy until I have to stop because I’m howling from laughter. Who knew erotic fiction was so funny?!) knows that Christian Grey has, like, 9000 skajillion dollars.  (Which, coincidentally, is also the number of brain cells Ana loses every time she references her inner goddess.) Again, the man swoops in with a wire transfer and saves the heroine, a poor single mother who lives in a studio apartment and has to eat dry packets of ramen noodles since her water was turned off.  In these books, it’s like the authors have just checked out completely.  Give the guy a great personality?  Why?  He has a Platinum American Express!

The bottom line is this – I like reality.  Yes, I like for my romance novels to end with a pretty red bow where everyone is happy, but I prefer some cuts and scrapes and maybe some huge sinkholes along the way. (Oh, and angst. LOTS AND LOTS OF SOUL-SUCKING ANGST.) Life isn’t perfect and the readers of these novels aren’t perfect, either. All some of these books serve to do is to instill in the modern woman a belief that she is somehow broken because of her imperfect past.  To the women who read those books and feel that way, romantic fiction can be inspiring and beautiful if you know where to find it (start with the aforementioned Dahl, Lane, and Burton!)  We all want to get lost in the stories of happily ever after, but aren’t they much more satisfying when the character is a little less like a nun you knew once and more like the woman you see in the mirror?


6 thoughts on “The problem with romantic fiction

  1. I’ve been exploring the romance genre a lot lately. While I can easily get sucked into a story, a good number them I stop reading part of the way through. I too have read parts of 50 shades online. I had to laugh when I read he made $100,000 an hour. Really? I was howling for a while about that. I agree that I like angst in romance too, but sometimes it’s very formulaic. Oftentimes, I see a pattern of guy meets girl, guy has to work hard for girl, guy and girl are in love, something happens and they are in a fight/break up, some catastrophic event happens, and they are back together. It’s not even suspenseful. But still, I will pick up the romance novels because I do find those ones that suck me in.

    • I love other people who realize how ridiculous 50 Shades is. It’s just a mess of words and I refuse to see EL James as a real author. Nope. Never! I love romance novels so much, but I’m getting pickier and pickier with what I read. And now that everyone is self-publishing, it’s sometimes horrifying what I end up finding myself reading!

    • You don’t get lost in romance novels? *gasp* I’m shocked! 😉 I’m pretty positive they’re not your cup of tea, but I’m glad you get what I mean. Women don’t have to be written so pathetically all the time. URGH!

  2. Pingback: A writer’s struggle: exploring spirituality in characters without boring the reader to tears | At the corner of 14th & Oak

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