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Romance Choices Falsity: Alone and Miserable or Together and Happy

“One line from “My Brilliant Career” has always haunted me. At one point, Sybylla’s Aunt Gussie tells her, “Loneliness is a terrible price to pay for independence.” My teenage self thought that was an incredibly pithy observation, and I went right home to record it in my journal. When I hear it now, I think, “Huh?”

Where did this come from, this idea that in order to be complete, we women had to be alone? That by falling in love and making a commitment to another human being, we were somehow diminishing ourselves? That our choices were: A) Fall in love and be unhappy, or B) Remain alone and be happy. Why couldn’t we fall in love and be happy? Nope, sorry. Not one of the choices, according to the world where I grew up.

Thankfully, I think most of us saw through that message and fell in love anyway. I mean, it’s not like falling in love or not falling in love is a choice, right? We meet someone who loves and respects us as we are, someone who shares our hopes and dreams and desires, someone who makes our life better just by being in it, and what? We’re supposed to NOT love them? Especially when loving them and being loved in return is a big part of what makes us complete?”

Elizabeth Bevarly made this comment on the now defunct blog called Squawk Radio. It is a comment that has always disturbed me when I look over the thousands of romance books I’ve read and how few of them have memorable heroines. I have to wonder if it is because there is a prevailing sensibility that Bevarly simply articulated.

Heroines are often portrayed in isolation, no friends, often estranged from family or an orphan, teetering on the brink of financial ruin. They are depicted as sad sack individuals whose sexual identity was created for them out of one miserable experience with a man more interested in the growth of his own toenails than the satisfaction of his partner in bed. The whole driving motivation for the female is to achieve a better sense of completion through the love of a good man.

Bevarly says “Where did this come from, this idea that in order to be complete, we women had to be alone?” She goes on to say that “being loved in return is a big part of what makes us complete.”

This idea of completion is what the whole notion of feminism is against – the fulfillment of being a person of worth by having someone love you. The obverse then is that feminism does not allow you to be in love or be happy. The true teachings of feminism is an internal completion, having your life be fulfilling by you own accomplishments, your independence, your ability to survive emotionally and financially alone, without leaning on or relying upon another individual.

In Pat Gaffney’s Mad Dash (reviewed here), the heroine, Dash, relies too much on external completion in her search for fulfullment, whether it was her role as a daughter, a mother, a friend or a mentor. When some of those roles disintegrated, the role of “lover” was not enough. She had not yet come to grips with her need for independence as it butted against her dependence on others for emotional satisfaction. Perhaps that was the motivating force for her mid life crisis. Dash’s retreat from her husband to “find herself” truly does become a quest for internal fulfillment. Once she recognizes the source of discontent, it is easy to move back toward co-existence with her lover, her husband.

In contrast was the character in Gena Showalter’s Catch a Mate. The mother of the heroine suffers from a clinical psychosis. She caught her husband cheating on her and has allowed this one event to rule her entire life.

Yet it isn’t just the heroines mother who sends the message that completion and happiness are only brought on by the love of a good man.

Jillian, the heroine, does not want to forgive her father for cheating. Her brother addresses her.

Brent pinned her with a hard stare. "Don't you think it's time to bury the hatchet? Or do you want to end up like Mom, bitter and alone?–?

"And crazy,–? Brittany added sadly.

The theme of the book is that if Jilly doesn’t forgive a man and allow one into her life, she will be “bitter and alone”. When Anne, her former boss is confronted as to why she sold the business to Marcus and not Jilly, she replied

"You want the truth? I'll give it to you, but you're not going to like it.–? Anne settled deep into the couch and with a sigh, peered up at the slatted ceiling. "You would have ended up like me and I didn't want that for you.–?

She blinked in surprise. She didn't know what she'd expected to hear, but that wasn't it. "So what?–? she said, incredulous. "That's not for you to decide.–?

"Your bitterness toward men grows daily, Jillian. If you don't do something about it while you're still young, you are going to end up alone and miserable, more so than you are now. You'd always have wondered what could have been. You'd always have wondered where the years had gone.–?

But Anne now radiates a new zest for life because she has a hot young thing in her bed. Anne is achieving happiness through a man and urges subtly for Jilly to do the same.

When Jilly’s mother, who is emotionally ill, finally recognizes that she needs help, she does so because she wants some one to love her. She wants a man.

"There's more.–? Her mom drew in a long breath, as if bracing herself. She'd probably planned the speech all morning. "When you, Brent and Brittany said I had multiple personalities, well, it hurt. But it also helped me see myself through your eyes. I don't want to be the person who makes everyone around her miserable. I want a life and I want a man.–?

"Mom–"–?

"I'm not finished. I'm tired of being alone. Maybe if I get my emotions under control, someone will stick around and love me for who I am.–? By the time she finished, she was crying. "I'm sorry. The medicine hasn't kicked in yet.–?

Of course, reliance on a man was the source of her problems in the first place. The author fails to sell me on the idea that Jilly’s mom is ever going to be emotionally healthy because she simply does not want to be healthy for herself. Her healthiness or lack there of is dependent on validation by someone else.

Bevarly’s statement promotes the idea that being in love is the only cure for loneliness. She also holds as the greatest ideal of the eros love and discounts the love one might have as a friend, a mother, a mentor, a daughter.

A friend of mine said that the real paradox is how to function as part of whatever support system you have and still maintain independence. How the support system conflicts with the independence to create either loneliness or dependence is ultimately the question but not one that romances strongly explore.

The point is that interdependence instead of dependence reflects healthier emotional characters. Caroline Linden and Jo Goodman both do an excellent job presenting independent individuals who might be hurting. Healing, however, doesn’t come through the partner or through the ephemeral concept of love. True healing comes internally with the partner simply providing support. The love is based on mutual respect instead of dependence. It is more believable that the happy ever after endures.

If it is the intention of the author to reflect an unhealthy emotional relationship such as existed in Liz Carlyle’s Never Deceive a Duke, then it should be clear. If not, it leads this reader to believe that the authors are failing to ask the important questions regarding character development such as what would happen to this character if she did not meet and fall in love with the hero? What is the emotional makeup of this character? In relationship focused book, a character driven book, which is what romances purportedly are at their core, the author must exhibit a strong understanding of the emotional health of her characters so that growth or movement is articulated.

Bevarly says that the message of feminism is “our choices were: A) Fall in love and be unhappy, or B) Remain alone and be happy.” Instead the choice that Bevarly presents is “alone and miserable or together and happy.” (the latter being my interpretation of Bevarly’s argument). Bevarly offers the same limited choice, simply the obverse. Both opinions are both limiting. Bevarly presents the exact same fallacy. Falling in love does not automatically equal happiness just as much as being alone does not equal independence. Why can’t Romance be about true love without that love being the only route to happiness?

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

63 Comments

  1. Marc
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 08:32:58

    For one reason for another, it seems like it has to be one way or the other with love and feminism. The notion that one can’t be a feminist and still love is one that bugs me a whole lot.

    The 2nd wave of feminism often rejected love, due to the fact that a lot of hurt and misogyny came about because of it. I’d like to think that here in the 3rd wave, we’ve gotten away from that and have actually embraced love to make it into an angency of our own.

    Good book recommendation! I’ll pick it up!

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  2. CM
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 08:44:33

    Amen!

    In my experience, happiness had to come before the true love. I don’t think I could have fallen in love with someone else before I fell in love with myself. I think that true love is, at its core, selfish. We don’t love another person for all their good qualities: their intelligence, their wit, their body. I mean, we might admire a person for those good qualities. We might lust after him for precisely those reasons. But we love someone because we love ourselves when we’re around him. If you don’t love yourself in the first place, I don’t see how you can love another person. And if you need another person to love yourself, I don’t see how you can really love him. I don’t know if that makes any sense or not.

    I love my fiance, but I’m happy without him. I miss him when he’s not around–and we’ve had a long distance relationship for slightly over a year now, so I do know–but I don’t need him to be happy. If he dropped out of my life for whatever reason, I’d be hurt and angry but I wouldn’t be a smaller person. And in the end, I’d be happy again.

    I also think that it’s bogus to say that feminism is about being happy and alone. As far as I can tell, feminism is about leading a fulfilling life. And I’ve begun to realize that “feminism” is not just about what women can and can’t do. It’s damaging for women if men can’t take on child-care responsibilities. It’s damaging for women if men can’t be nurses, or pre-school teachers. And it’s damaging for women if men can’t (shock!) read romance novels.

    Loneliness is a terrible price to pay for independence. If that’s the price you think you have to pay, you’re shopping in the wrong store.

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  3. Emily
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 08:53:01

    Most people look at me very strangely when they learn I am a romance writer who is single and “not looking”.

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  4. Jessica Inclan
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 09:29:40

    Here’s the boggle: What is true love? You wrote, “Why can't Romance be about true love without that love being the only route to happiness?”

    I think that we have a long line of literature–think as far back as you’d like, but we can start with the 13th C–that have the idea of the parted twins, the soul mate, the Platonic ideal. The idea would be that there were three original creatures–the man/man, the woman/woman, the woman/man–and that “god” tore them in half and scattered them to the winds, the poor things searching forver for their parted other half. So with Tristan and Isolde, for instance, we have that idea that they will never be happy without the other, totally incomplete. Sure it started with magic, but their lives were forever marked by their need for the other.

    It would be all well and good if a female character could be so actualized to
    be competent and happy in her life, and oh, yeah, fall in love and then live the adjusted life. Frankly, I think I’d want to throttle that character out of either jealousy or boredom. I have to say there’s not much of a plot in that trajectory. Nothing drawing us to her. I actually don’t know a human who hasn’t had ups and downs in the balance of work, family, love, life, and to ask the characters of a novel to not have issues that compell them toward a love interest seems fantastic to me.

    Lizzy Bennett had issues–prejudice and, truly, a lot of pride herself. Jane Eyre had major low self esteem problems based on being an orphan, totally isolated, and rejected by family. Scarlett O’Hara has some borderline personality problems. Perhpas she scould even be called sociopathic. Helen of Troy, Juliet, Daisy from The Great Gatsby–which among them serves the purpose you write above? But which would you change?

    Jessica

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  5. Kerry Allen
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 09:32:30

    I agree with CM. You have to be a “complete” person before you have a healthy relationship. If you’re relying on another person to fill in your gaps, you’re a parasite, not a partner. Your relationships should enhance your life, not be your life.

    I’m single and not looking because I recognize I’m not fit to be with right now and any relationship I enter is going to be a disaster. I’m not putting myself (and my daughter) and some unsuspecting man through that just so I can say “I’m not alone.”

    (“Alone” is such a stupid way to put it, anyway. When was the last time I was alone? I’d give up a kidney for ten minutes of solitude!)

    I think in a romance novel, the point of the “complete” character is that he or she isn’t waiting around for someone else to give them a purpose. If the heroine wasn’t about to be broadsided by true love, would she have a story of her own, or is she just there as a hanger for the romance?

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  6. jaq
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 09:36:58

    I think true happiness comes from within– a certain honesty with yourself, striving to be better, being ‘centered’ spiritually (not necessarily religiously), a dedication to growth, and curiosity of all around you, not being afraid to passion (not just erotic/physical) for certain things/people, concepts, and fostering the enjoyment of simply/smaller pleasures, are just a few of the things I think helps brings that around. Plain ol liking yourself and your own company is a bigger. ‘Looking for love in all the wrong places’ ain’t just a catch phrase from an old popular song. Too many folks do this looking for love, acceptance, happiness externally without realizing the foundation for all of that has to be within yourself.

    As for unhealthy relationship like the Liz Carlyle book mentioned. I haven’t read the book, but I wouldn’t have minded reading this. People are flawed and broken and sometimes they find their own happiness in a way others might find unhealthy or co-dependent, or enabling, or whatever. They in essence ‘complete’ each other, rather than compliment. The healthier relationship would be two complete parts/people, with flaws/weakness coming together as a pair and complimenting each other. The strenghts of one shoring up the weaknesses of the other and encouraging ‘change/growth’. The unhealthier relationship might be one where there are two halves, two incompletes, coming together in trying to form a whole but the strengths and weakness remain somewhat stagnant as this is the glue/the dependency that holds them together.

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  7. Marc
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 09:37:40

    KA is a wonderful point. In fact,it fits into one of my favorite quotes about love. “I don’t want to build my life around you, but I want to include you in the building of my life.” Too many people, it seems, always claim that the significant other “completes” them. They make me want to punch them for being so needy and pathetic.

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  8. Jane
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 09:38:31

    Jessica –

    First, none of the heroines save perhaps Lizzie Bennett, were actually part of romance stories. Second, the idea of “love” healing a person’s internal emotional wounds is what I would change. Did love heal Scarlett O’Hara? Of course not. Her inability to come to an emotionally healthy place was the impetus for Rhett’s leaving her. By the time she had come to some type of self actualization, he was done with her and he should have been.

    Lizzie Bennett’s overcoming her pride and Darcy overcoming his prejudice and vice versa where not done because “love” saved them but because, over the course of the book, circumstances and experience made them realize that these traits were holding them back.

    I find it sad that self actualized heroines or the path to self actualization is boring or lacking in “plot trajectory”. The path to self love should be explored more often. In Jessica Bird’s Billionaire Next Door, Sean O’Banyon is emotionally unwell. The heroine recognizes that and knows that her “love” isn’t enough to heal him and that if he does not heal, that there is no HEA for them.

    I think both characters can be unwell emotionally but the idea that I reject is that love is the healing force. It’s not.

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  9. Jessica Inclan
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 09:48:46

    I think that all the self help books do just what you want in terms of getting a person whole. But I don’t actually know a whole person, and have never read a character who is. The idea of getting whole in current litearature has often involved the outside of a person more than the inside. There was one novel I read as a teenager (god, I can’t remember what it is)–where the main character goes to Paris, loses weight, works for a fashion magazine, and then suddenly is remade, and able to find love that sucks and then love that doesn’t. I’m not sure if she ended “whole,” but I loved the outward transformation, hoping it was possible for me.

    Anyway, if I think back to My Brilliant Career, the film that started this discussion, I feel so sad. I loved that movie and yet, it made me ache. She gives up quite a lot for not too much more–and yet, there is that moment when she puts the manuscript in the mailbox in the dawn light. It is wonderful, but her life, of course, had to go on incomplete.

    For more along those lines, read the autobiographies of Janet Frame–she inspired the film An Angel at My Table. God!

    I guess my point is that I do not believe in a “whole” person–it’s the holy grail of personality and character–and I’ve yet to find someone who has grabbed it. And to expect chracters to walk around drinking out of it seems just as unlikely. However, it might not be boring to follow someone around looking for wholeness, stumbling along the way (nothing like a grail quest plot when all else fails).

    Iin terms of distinguishing romance from “other” lit, I don’t really do it. P and P is a romance, as is Jane Eyre–gothic perhpas. Romeo and Juliet–well, romance, too. The Great Gatsby is the great Americana romance. But it’s all the same thing, if you ask me.

    Jessica

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  10. Charlene Teglia
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 09:58:52

    As always, you bring up the most interesting topics. I think that romance by its nature is always going to focus on the happiness of commitment as opposed to the happiness of single life, but I know for sure that if you aren’t complete as an individual marriage won’t fix it. Getting married is likely to add a lot more stress to the problem, in fact. Especially if you’ve married somebody else who expects that ring to complete THEM and blames you when it doesn’t…

    In Sex and the Single Girl, Helen G. Brown says there’s single hell and married hell and it’s all hell. I think it’s more like there’s single life and married life and it’s all life – I wouldn’t call it hell. The thing is, wherever you go, there you are. You can go from single to married, and your problems come with you. Same for moving or changing jobs or getting published…if you aren’t happy now, you won’t be then. Because you’re the same you.

    That said, I do think that two individuals can come together and experience synergy, finding that the whole can be more than the sum of the parts. And romance at its best celebrates that, without diminishing the individuals or making their lives prior to True Love meaningless.

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  11. Jane
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 10:00:02

    The reason I made the romance novel distinction is because romance novels, as opposed to lit fic novels, are a) character driven books that b) feature two people falling in love. That’s the general structure of a romance novel. Too many romance novels present emotionally unwell characters (even if the author doesn’t consciously recognize the emotional ill health) healed by “love.” This presents a disturbing motif to me.

    I don’t believe that anyone is ever fully actualized, but movement toward that goal or recognition of that goal is a character arc that should be better explored.

    Like jaq, I don’t mind the unhealthy relationship. I commented that this didn’t bother me in the Carlyle book as much as it bothered Jayne. I felt that the characters were intentionally written to be emotionally unhealthy and that they weren’t going to be healed. The emotional plot trajectory was these two unhealthy needy characters coming together. But I felt that Carlyle understood that about her characters, that she was making a conscious choice to bring them together.

    Bevarly’s message is that feminism is limiting and that rejecting that is freeing but I find Bevarly’s argument to be just as limiting. It’s not that I think emotionally unwell characters should be excised from literature or from romance. I am wanting authors to ask themselves why they are doing certain things. Why is Showalter presenting this female character as choosing to become healthy so that she can be attractive to some man? What is the message or motif that Showalter is trying to present. I couldn’t figure it out.

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  12. CM
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 10:08:48

    You know, Jessica, those examples are not ones I would have picked to prove your point. In Jane Eyre, when she was dependent on Mr. Rochester, and thinking poorly about herself, she couldn’t really love him. But their relationship starts when she tells him she is his equal in the eyes of God, and it progresses only when Jane has built a satisfying life for herself–found a family, a calling, and become financially independent. This is hardly the annoying plotless book that you think it was; Jane had to come first, before she could settle down with Rochester.

    As for Pride & Prejudice, Lizzie can’t even begin to fall in love with Darcy before she realizes how foolish she is. It isn’t until she discovers her own pride and her wretched prejudice that she’s able to realize that unlike her sister Jane, she’s been seeing all the bad in the wrong people. After that, she’s able to open up and really love. Before that, her romantic relationship was with Wickham–a man who made her feel good about herself not because of who she was, but because of the people she could abuse to him.

    So yes, I think you can have admirable plots that show someone becoming centered on their own two feet before they learn to accept love.

    Like Jane, I don’t believe love heals wounds. I think love sometimes gives you the strength to heal your own wounds. I also think I’m “whole” and “complete,” but I don’t think I’m boring–or that my life has been boring, either. If I’d never been anywhere, or never experienced anything that pushed me, and pushed me hard, I’d never have grown as a person. I think “whole” and “complete” people are far more interesting than you give them credit for, and I think the journey that starts with a shattered person and ends with their healing is one of the most marvelous that I’ve ever seen.

    This is, I think, why coming-of-age stories are so incredibly powerful for all of us. Very few people start whole and centered. To experience it happen to another person is just amazing. And when you can combine that story about coming into yourself with a romance, without conflating the two–well, you’ve got a damn good story.

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  13. Jessica Inclan
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 10:13:17

    This discussion is very interesting to me. One is because when you think about the romance reading population and the ideas coming down the editing shoot from NY, the notion of someone “not” being saved by love is a rare one. There is a call for strong female characters, too, but there has to be that need somewhere inside her for her “mate.”

    In most of what I read in romance, I see characters trying to find themselves in some way, and as a romance novel (using the parameters that we do) tries to get two people together, there has to be reasons for them needing to get together with a person.

    So–maybe one had a bad childhood and the other an overbearing mother or a dead father. And somehow, when they meet Mr. or Ms. Right, something in their past is cancelled out or mitigated. I think we do form relationships to heal old wounds whether we want to or not, whether we’ve been in therapy or not. A character has to have motivation of some kind.

    Now, would I write up a character who is a total, utter, perhaps insane emotional mess looking for a man to fix her? No. I don’t want to know people like that either, but if someone wants to write about that person, fine because those people exist. And there is something satisfying in reading about a person who goes from complete and utter blobness to total happiness (fantasy!). My characters tend to cobble together their lives as best they can and wish for something more (like most of us) and then they can find it in their story because, as we know, a HEA is pretty crucial. In life, HEAs are harder to come by, and that’s why we have Shakespeare’s tragedies.

    Thanks for a thought provoking morning post, Jane!

    Jessica

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  14. Jessica Inclan
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 10:16:31

    CM wrote:

    This is hardly the annoying plotless book that you think it was; Jane had to come first, before she could settle down with Rochester

    I really didn’t want to suggest Jane Eyre is plotless. At all. But is she really whole at the end?

    In any case, I don’t want her changed, and my point was that it is a fantastic novel (though I am sure we could say she’s a bit co-dependent, but why bother).

    Jessica

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  15. CM
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 10:22:38

    Is she whole at the end? Maybe we’re really only disagreeing on what it means for a person to be “whole.”

    We can quibble about various things. I mean, I could argue that since I’m an atheist and Jane Eyre’s a book that focuses on religion, she’s not whole because she’s still relying on mummery. Or I could quibble about various other parts of her life, saying she let St. John push her around too much. But in general, she had a firm backbone and knew she could take care of herself.

    The point is that Jane found a satisfying life on her own, without Rochester, and she didn’t need him for anything–not to satisfy her demands for family, not for money, not for ANYTHING. She came to him because she wanted him, and nothing else. Is she perfect at the end? No. Is she whole? I think so.

    But how anyone could call Jane Eyre–Jane who runs off with nothing on her back, who builds herself up without Rochester, and comes back to him not because she needs him, but because she loves him–codependent really flabbergasts me. Codependent has to be something other than a code word for “in love.”

    Is there really any argument to be made in support of Jane Eyre’s codependence?

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  16. Jessica Inclan
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 10:27:15

    I don’t have my copy with me at my home office–or I could give it a good go. But as I said, Why bother!

    I am reminded of an ad that an MFA program uses in magazines. On the page is one of Emiily Dickinson’s best poems (I can’t remember which). And on top of the text of the poem are all the “current” comments a poet/teacher would give her. Like “vague reference–be specific.” And “You’ve shifted point of view–purpose?” And “rhyme uneven–fix.” That kind of thing.

    So I was truly just using a current term to look at a classic.

    Jessica

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  17. keishon
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 10:34:12

    Excellent post. A man is not a plan. Loving yourself should make one feel secure and whole. If loving someone elsemakes you feel complete thensomething is wrong. Pardon my mistakes I’m typing from myphone.

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  18. Rebecca Goings
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 11:08:14

    Why do you have to be “independent” to be “complete?”

    “Complete”, to me, means being fulfilled and happy. And some women are fulfilled and happy with a family, kids, etc. Becoming aware of your feelings for yourself is indeed the key here, but I don’t think you necessarily have to prove you love yourself by conquering the world on your own.

    I believe the “lonely” aspect comes in because we crave intimacy. We have friends and family, but they just cannot “touch” your soul like a lover can. The love you feel for friends and family is different than the love you feel for your mate.

    Love goes far beyond the butterflies and rainbows stage. Anyone who’s been married for years can tell you this. But like a couple of old vines climbing a trellis, they soon become so intertwined, you cannot separate them without harming the other.

    In that way, you do give up some “independence” to be with someone, allowing them to make some decisions or kick some guy’s ass when you could have easily pepper sprayed them yourself… LOL But that’s the nature of a relationship, the give and take.

    Can that vine survive if you cut away the other one? The older you get, the longer you spend with your spouse/mate/s.o., that’s debatable. Many older couples die of broken hearts. But I think being so dependent on another living soul is a beautiful thing. It doesn’t cheapen yourself as a person, it merely means you’ve been able to make a deep, emotional bond with someone that transends your love for yourself.

    Love, by definition, is selfless.

    You can love yourself AND love another person and be totally co-dependent on them. Co-dependence is not always a “four-letter word.” Loving yourself does not necessarily = independence in life.

    ~~Becka

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  19. Teddy Pig
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 12:01:09

    There was one novel I read as a teenager (god, I can't remember what it is)-where the main character goes to Paris, loses weight, works for a fashion magazine, and then suddenly is remade, and able to find love that sucks and then love that doesn't. I'm not sure if she ended “whole,� but I loved the outward transformation, hoping it was possible for me.

    Sounds like the movie Sabrina with Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart.

    It would be all well and good if a female character could be so actualized to be competent and happy in her life, and oh, yeah, fall in love and then live the adjusted life. Frankly, I think I'd want to throttle that character out of either jealousy or boredom. I have to say there's not much of a plot in that trajectory. Nothing drawing us to her. I actually don't know a human who hasn't had ups and downs in the balance of work, family, love, life, and to ask the characters of a novel to not have issues that compell them toward a love interest seems fantastic to me.

    Amen!

    I think this has more to do with the love of a good myth versus the reality of daily life. The use of fantasy by healthy stable people as escape and entertainment. I really do not need any of the books I read to reflect the complexity or the reality of the world in which I live to be considered excellent by me. Which is a really good thing for Mr. Tolkien or Mr. Gaiman.

    I think the core of this discussion can be seen also in all those scared people so worried that violent video games and violent movies lead to innocent lives being lost to rampaging children hypnotized by the media into mindless murdering automatons and the eventual cultural chaos and the fall of the government.

    They won’t, but hey, I guess everyone needs something to bitch about.

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  20. Angela
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 12:13:25

    I have nothing to add except the fact that I frequently ask these types of questions in romance forums and it is rarely/em> welcomed. *g*

    But as a twentysomething singleton, I see first-hand the affects of people entering relationships to “heal” or “save” themselves when I look out the front door–and I know I don’t want that for myself.

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  21. Gwen
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 12:17:09

    Holy cow. To be honest, I never put this much thought into how I felt about love. I just figured if it happened, it happened. I’ve certainly been in love – several times. But I have never thought it was what I had to have to be happy.

    I have love, if not romance, in my life thru my large extended family and my daughter.

    Sometimes I miss companionship, but I don’t really miss romantic love. I don’t miss having to make the million little compromises one has to make to make room for another individual in your life.

    I think this post shows how we’ve forgotten to be our own best friends. That with more self-worth, more contentment, we tend to not get that unhappy or lonesome edge that can appear after being alone for a while.

    Romance novel characters don’t have to hate themselves to be interesting. Something for authors to think about.

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  22. Anonymous
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 12:56:50

    To me, life is about relationships not about acheivements. And if I am alone achieving economic success or what have you, and have no one to share it with–be it friend, family, or husband–then there is no real joy in that achievement. So, I don’t quite understand the traditional feminist ideal of total independence with no men anywhere around.

    How does having a relationship take away anything from what you do outside of that relationship? Sharing your ups and downs with someone is what makes you a human being…the need to connect and communicate. And love–which includes sexual intimacy–is a large part of what makes us human.

    For those who are unmarried and choose that path for independence, look closely at the relationships you value…friends, parents, siblings. Would you also cut them off because they get in the way of your independence? A good marriage or long-term relationship with a man enhances what life has to offer. Your family and friends will never know you as well as a spouse/long-term partner…and they can never offer the same level of support and encouragement, because the relationship will always have a certain amount of distance to it.

    Only someone who shares your bed, your bathroom, your kitchen, your total self can give truly fulfilling support in life. For those who are unmarried (or in a bad marriage), it is very hard to understand.

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  23. Stephanie
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 13:16:10

    Most people look at me very strangely when they learn I am a romance writer who is single and “not looking�.

    Ditto Emily. Not that I wouldn’t be perfectly happy to meet and fall in love – but it doesn’t drive me. I’m willing to accept a life with someone or a life without.

    I think the one thing that confident singles struggle with isn’t the loneliness. Lonely people tend to get themselves in relationships fast – even bad ones.

    It’s the perception by others that we’re missing something. That we’re only 1/2 complete.

    I understand why family and married friends wish I would fine someone. They’re happy in their relationships and want me to be happy too.

    It’s when I tell them I AM HAPPY. Really really happy… that I can see they don’t understand. I just don’t think it computes.

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  24. Nora Roberts
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 13:33:25

    I don’t think I have to be independent (of love) to be happy or fulfilled as an individual. I don’t believe being dependent–on some level–on another means I’m unhappy. I don’t think love completes me, but I know I’m happier with it. I think, for me, love–husband, children, family–centers me.

    And it’s a wonderful layer to the many layers that make a life.

    I do think love can heal. But it’s not the cure for every ill or problem.

    I don’t think one must have a lover to be complete any more than I think one must feel complete without one. We all have our specific needs, desires, hopes. They make us human.

    Obviously, I believe in the power of love, the joy of finding a mate and the fascinating journey of the romantic relationship. Otherwise, I wouldn’t write Romance. But the people inside that relationship have to interest me, too, and have my respect, or I’m not going to spend all that time and energy telling their story.

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  25. Stephanie
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 14:38:33

    it's a wonderful layer to the many layers that make a life.

    That’s what my sister in-law says. She thinks by missing out on family (something that I don’t know how much is in my control becuase I think love just happens) but she worries I’ll miss out on that.

    But there are trade offs.

    1. I get the remote whenever I want it.
    2. I’m open to anything that happens on a whim. A party, a vacation, a movie.
    3. I can sit all day on the couch and read and the “lazy” police NEVER bother me.
    4. Every mess I clean up is my own.

    Reasons why I would be open marriage.

    1. I think loving and being in love is awesome. It’s why I’m a romance author.
    2. I want someone to take out the trash. (Totally a man’s job imo)
    3. The layer thing.

    Because in life the more experiences the better. I do believe that. But some people will never have an opportunity to live alone. For me that’s been a tremendous experience.

    But I never go up to anyone and say… “Oh… you’ve never lived on your own… I’m sorry for you…. Let me see if I can find you an apartment.”

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  26. Robin
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 15:04:47

    So, I don't quite understand the traditional feminist ideal of total independence with no men anywhere around.

    I don’t think this has ever been a feminist ideal. In the very early days of political feminism — with the women who were literally struggling, protesting, getting arrested, and fighting for basic equality for women — men were seen as powerful oppressors. But that very early manifestation of the women’s movement was soon replaced by what I think is now the feminist ideal: that women have authentic choices to make about their own bodies and lives.

    I know it’s hard to believe that it was only the mid 60′s when contraception was made legal for single people, and the 80′s when marital rape was finally outlawed, but I think now the idea behind most political and academic feminism (certainly the mainstream) is to provide women with a level playing field from which to choose the path they desire for their lives, whether that be marriage, singledom, children, career, whatever. Because the freedom lies in the choice, not in the absence or presence of men.

    When it comes to Romance, no one is reading and enjoying the genre hoping that the two leads don’t end up together. We’re not reading the genre because we don’t believe in love or think committed relationships are bad. I think the question Jane’s asking (well, one of them) is whether it’s necessary to give the message within the genre that a relationship is *necessary* to bring happiness, and that if a woman remains alone, she must be lonely.

    That’s what I thought was the point of that quote Bevarly begins with, so the logic of her inferences doesn’t make total sense to me, but regardless, I think what Jane’s trying to put under discussion is the question of whether it’s necessary to have a romantic HEA that arrives with the message that alone is bad and together is good. Because that Showalter example really seems to imply that. I mean, here’s a woman who has been made clinically insane by disappointment in love, and her whole motivation for getting healthy is so ANOTHER man will love her. OMG.

    As to the issue of wholeness or perfection in characters, again I think we’re pushing the extremes here. IMO some of the most powerful Romances have featured flawed, difficult, struggling, troubled characters. I’m not sure where the idea that characters have to be boring and all Dr. Philled out to be happy came from, but I don’t think it’s necessary to do away with the idea that only in a romantic relationship can happiness exist. Jo Goodman, who Jane mentioned in her piece, writes some of the most wounded characters in Romance. And they fall deeply in love. But they’re not made better or healed because they fall in love; they become stronger because they seek the peace that healing brings. And they want to love and be loved in strength rather than weakness. Perhaps the other person gives them hope, or allows them to feel accepted, or provides financial support or physical safety. Regardless, they don’t end up dependent on the other person for their happiness — they end up better able to create happiness for themselves and participate in the happiness of a good strong relationship. That, I think, is the difference between co-dependency and interdependence. Interdependence is two independent people who depend on each other, whereas co-dependence is where two dependent people depend on each other. I love Romances that feature interdependence but tend to be disappointed when they offer co-dependence as the romantic ideal. Because I prefer characters who both have the freedom to make independent choices about what they want and don’t want in their lives, which goes back to that feminist ideal thing.

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  27. Jessica Inclan
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 15:24:08

    Robin wrote:

    Interdependence is two independent people who depend on each other, whereas co-dependence is where two dependent people depend on each other.

    Okay, this is very clear and really states something I could not articulate at all this morning due to a lack of caffeine.

    My feeling about Jane Eyre is that Rochester and she shifted–she was dependent upon him as an employee and he was dependent upon her at the end due to his physical ailments. Later, maybe, they became interdependent, but certainly not in the tale as we have it.

    Is that bad? I don’t think so. But being fully formed and whole happened to them both outside of the story. While in it, they were clearly working toward wholeness–and their love relationship helped them get there.

    Yikes! So much to think about today.

    Reading everything above in the past couple of hours, I can state here that I do want a romantic relationship in my life and always have wanted one. It has driven me. I feel it’s something that I want and will make me “more” complete.

    Now at age 45, I no longer believe that my relationship will make me whole, it just makes my life more the way I want it. But I need other things too–my children, my work, my writing, my friends, my hobbies. There’s a lot of pieces to the puzzle.

    But all of this is personal–relative–and to each her own, I say.

    A character in a romance doesn’t have as much time as a person does in a life–so some things are compressed, omitted, and it might seem that the relationship is the only thing that matters. When the writing stops, I always imagine the couple actually flourishing more because now they can relax and “become.” they probably watch some TV (if it’s not historical). They have to go about the business of living, which is not often the fodder for good fiction. The good part, the juicy part of their meeting, is what I want to write about.

    Anyway, I have hogged up too much space today, and I think I need to have a good long sabbatical from posting to this blog.

    Jessica Inclan

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  28. Nora Roberts
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 15:43:00

    ~But that very early manifestation of the women's movement was soon replaced by what I think is now the feminist ideal: that women have authentic choices to make about their own bodies and lives.~

    ~Interdependence is two independent people who depend on each other, whereas co-dependence is where two dependent people depend on each other.~

    Crap. I agree with Robin, again.

    Something must be wrong with me. I’m going to go lie down.

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  29. Bev(BB)
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 16:30:23

    Crap. I agree with Robin, again.

    Something must be wrong with me. I'm going to go lie down.

    ROTFL! For some reason that one just made my day. Thanks for the chuckle, Nora.

    Ahem. Snort. Snicker.

    Okay, attempting to be serious here and failing miserably but anyway, this discussion reminds me strongly of the post I did for Romancing the Blog a week or so ago about male points of view in romances. Reading through Jane’s points and all the comments, I can’t help wondering, again, about how hung up we are over romance being about women. Yeah, I know, we’re talking about the heroine’s development but I’m not even sure this is even a matter of whether we’re talking about her or him here.

    See, romances aren’t about ONE person. They are about two people. You want to talk about her development alone, go to the women’s fiction aisle and have at it all day long. Seriously.

    I’m not even talking about the differences between character drivent plots and action driven ones. I’m talking simply about the fact that romances as defined in today’s market are about two people interacting towards rather fairly defined goal. Now, that goal does have some leeway in it, sure, but it’s still pretty firm in most circles. So, what it may boil down to is simply this:

    Why can't Romance be about true love without that love being the only route to happiness?

    Hmm, maybe because if the readers came away with the odd feeling that, well, they lived happily ever after because it was true love while he went about his business and she went about hers, then said readers would probably scream bloody murder?

    I said probably.

    Just a thought . . .

    Now, granted, I also know that this is not everything Jane was getting at but we are talking about romances after all. And, no, that’s not a “no, they’re not brain surgery” comment. It’s a much more practical inquiry than that. What I’m asking is how can you remove one of the elements of the formula and expect it to still be romance? Namely, the 1+1 part. Romance exists because it resonates, not because it doesn’t. Sometimes you simply can’t fight basic human nature.

    Does this mean that Jane is wrong? No, but there is always going to be a major divide between the fantasy and reality and sometimes it is going to be larger than at others. Who is to say that this isn’t one of those times when reality loses out to the fantasy?

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  30. Jessica Inclan
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 17:16:18

    One last thing for Teddy–sorry, forgot to comment on it. It wasn’t Sabrina, but that WAS the Sabrina plot. It was a popular writer in the late 70′s, made into a TV movie of the week with Lindsay Wagner, I think. Probably many of you weren’t TV watchers at that early date! Judith Krantz? I will have to google.

    J

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  31. Robin
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 19:27:14

    Something must be wrong with me. I'm going to go lie down.

    As long as it’s you and not my weather pattern again, Iol.

    My feeling about Jane Eyre is that Rochester and she shifted-she was dependent upon him as an employee and he was dependent upon her at the end due to his physical ailments. Later, maybe, they became interdependent, but certainly not in the tale as we have it.

    I’ can’t read JE without it seeming like Jane and Rochester’s conversion narratives, so I’ve never really gotten into it as romantic. But I totally think Jane would be the dom.

    A character in a romance doesn't have as much time as a person does in a life-so some things are compressed, omitted, and it might seem that the relationship is the only thing that matters.

    I don’t know about other readers, but I actually cut fictional characters less slack for random stuff than I do real people. In RL, we are all SO multi-layered that a seemingly random action can usually be explained if you look at a person’s whole life. But even if you’re still baffled, it’s life, and the person is making the choice. In fiction, though, the rules are created by the author, and unless the character’s character is to act randomly or without reason, I tend to be more insistent on clarity of motive, etc.

    And I think it’s completely possible to have that in even short fiction. Take Jennifer Crusie’s early series books (and I haven’t’ read your books, Ms. Inclan, so this isn’t directed at you at all), for example. IMO they were some of the very best of her career, because they packed such an incredible amount into such a few pages, including characters who were engaged in several rich relationships outside of their romantic ones. They’re not perfect, not untroubled, but they’re not looking to be saved by love, either. And they’re not socially isolated. I think that sense of community among women in Romance is one of her biggest contributions to the genre. Even her modern fairy tale, Bet Me, features a very independent woman and an independent man who have problems — personality issues, as well — but who manage to fall deeply and passionately in love without either becoming absorbed in or dependent on the other.

    IMO one of the reasons that alpha heroes are so popular in Romance is that it’s fulfilling for women readers to see them made powerless or helpless by their love for the heroine (remember in Dream Man where Dane goes through labor and morning sickness with Marlie?). I think we women often love to see these big tough alpha guys as slaves to love. But I think the message is a little different when women are portrayed as helpless in the face of love, or powerless in its grips, especially when you contemplate how that sensibility has affected women in RL. I get that Romance is a fantasy, but I think that when certain things from RL make it into the genre, they can become more or less empowering than they are in RL. Forced seduction, for example, is often rehabilitated into something that makes a Romance heroine more powerful than she would be in RL. But having Romance heroines saved by love or made whole by a man doesn’t track that way for me — rather, it seems doubly disempowering. I’d just rather, as I said, see interdependence in a Romance HEA rather than co-dependence. And if you’ve got really damaged characters, like in Carlyle’s Never Deceive a Duke, I even think that can work for the couple when the love relationship is shown to be a gift that they both can choose and that allows each of them to heal individually within their union.

    In Romance, especially, where the end is already determined to some degree, I like to feel that the characters choose love, not because they’re afraid of being alone or are in love with love or because they need the other person’s approval to feel okay, but because they have the emotional capacity to recognize and love a separate person, which IMO takes a certain level of emotional independence.

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  32. Miki
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 19:45:02

    I see your point here, I really do. But I keep thinking that not all romance novels are like this. But the ones I keep thinking of that aren’t…well, they’re all written by Nora Roberts. :grin:

    Eve Dallas wasn’t “looking for love” and remains a very driven person. But she found something more with Roarke. I recently re-read the anthology Table for Two, and the one with the female chef comes to mind. She was an incredibly driven woman and remained one at the end of the story. Love kind of smacked her in the face – and if I remember correctly – she was a bit dismayed at the whole idea initially.

    There’s a lot that does fit the description you make – but really, are the men in those stories any different? So many are self-isolated, withdrawn, downright cold and manipulative, and the woman’s love heals them in some way.

    I always prefer those “tortured hero” stories – but really! Could we believe in reality that most of those relationships wouldn’t end up one step up from out-and-out obsessed? But there’s something in that “wounded bird” anology, I think, that makes us want to see the person healed and find that more.

    I guess I don’t always see this as “alone and miserable” or “together and happy” so much as I think humans are social animals. We in the collective are more happy and fulfilled when we have good relationships with other people – other, as in “soul mate”, yes, but also just other as in “friends”. Those we love enhance our lives and expand our experience – and with any luck – we bring the same to them. In the romance novel, we just happen to be celebrating that closeness for the “soul mate” type of connection with the other.

    And maybe, just maybe, because interaction with “others” also can lead to hurts or damage, we like to read the stories where those hurts are specifically addressed. She found love, so can I? He came through that horrible experience, so can my love (or brother or father)?

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  33. Bev(BB)
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 20:31:27

    I don't know about other readers, but I actually cut fictional characters less slack for random stuff than I do real people.

    And I think we probably should in most cases. Because let’s face it, someone is manipulating the outcome for the sole purposes of tugging on our heartstrings, one way or the other. There’s nothing sinister about that but . . . there is a certain responsibility to be true to the craft. What is being crafted varies depending upon what story is being told, however, and the one constant in romance is emotional realism.

    Never ever forget that and that part of romances is not fantasy. In fact, it’s probably truer than real life because we lie to ourselves and others all the time and get away with it even in our emotional reactions. When authors, particularly romance authors, portray character’s emotions on the page, they have a way of tapping into our innermost secrets and baring them to the world.

    Right or wrong.

    Does it sometimes make us uncomfortable because we have to digest things we don’t want to think about or worse feel? Hell, yeah. The good with the bad, remember.

    Of course, it’s easier when we agree with what the characters are doing while feeling all this emotional upheaval but that too is still part and parcel with getting wrapped up in the stories.

    Or not.

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  34. Robin
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 20:51:47

    What is being crafted varies depending upon what story is being told, however, and the one constant in romance is emotional realism.

    I think this *may* be true in the ideal, but not in the genre as executed. And I see the failure on several levels, from carrying out character and plot development consistently and logically, to communicating a sense of emotional authenticity for the characters and the reader as he/she experiences the book. Sure it has to feel realistic to hold the reader, but if Romance were really emotionally realistic, 50-whatever percent of its characters would be divorcing and deprived of their HEA.

    Now if an author can convince me that an f-ed up relationship works for the characters, then I’m willing to go there. But most often in these books where I feel that sense of f-ed upness, it doesn’t come off as emotionally realistic OR well-crafted. I don’t mind in the least being unsettled for characters who are majorly whacked but wonderfully crafted — after all, Kinsale’s Seize the Fire is one of my favorite Romances of all times, and those two are so far from an HEA in that last scene it’s hard to even imagine that for them. But I adored their story even as it pained me to read it.

    Fortunately or unfortunately, Romance isn’t just about portraying love; it’s also about idealizing it. So to me, the stakes become higher in terms of how relationships are portrayed. Sometimes they hold up a mirror of our own thoughts and beliefs, but they also convert, alter, and manipulate those beliefs for the purposes of achieving an HEA. And the idealized aspects of the genre are generally around the central love relationship, not all the peripheral relationships. Thus IMO even more reason to put some of that under the microscope.

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  35. Bev(BB)
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 20:54:12

    The reason I made the romance novel distinction is because romance novels, as opposed to lit fic novels, are a) character driven books that b) feature two people falling in love. That's the general structure of a romance novel. Too many romance novels present emotionally unwell characters (even if the author doesn't consciously recognize the emotional ill health) healed by “love.� This presents a disturbing motif to me.

    You know, I think I read way too many fantasy/adventure/mystery style romances because I never seem to think of the romances I read as being all that character driven books. If at all. Seriously. There’s just way too much “other” business going on.

    Okay, sure, the characters are sometimes extremely flawed but they’re either way too busy staying alive or, um, that other thing, you know, making love to spend extra long periods of time navel gazing. Well, it’s not like they don’t occasionally get around to making some life changes but that’s not normally the point of the story. And frankly that’s the way I like it and I also don’t believe I’m that odd in terms of a romance reader since the books I read are fairly popular.

    So, I say all that to get to this, what the heck is with this “too many romance novels” business? It’s not like the “I have to have someone” heroines are the only type of romances out there. There are others. Yes, maybe you have to hunt for them and maybe they’re not from the mainstream publishers but they are out there.

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  36. Bev(BB)
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 21:13:15

    Sure it has to feel realistic to hold the reader, but if Romance were really emotionally realistic, 50-whatever percent of its characters would be divorcing and deprived of their HEA.

    Robin, you’re still talking about actions not emotions, though, when you say they should’ve divorced. So, what you’re actually saying is that what you felt from the characters didn’t pan out in their actions. That’s not what emotional realism is about. The characters actions or lack thereof have nothing to do with it. It’s the heart tug pure and simple that counts here. Does it get you or not? Is it real or not? Are the emotions genuine for the reader regardless of the characters choices?

    Yeah, ideally, the author should be able to translate those emotions into actions that also make sense but not every single action is going to have the same interpretation for every single author or reader. I’ve read plenty of romances that had me there emotionally at the ending even though I also never thought they’d make it through the next week together much less forever. Literally thought they’d kill each other in two days. Like a lot of people I know in real life. The emotions coming off that page were real and identifiable and still made me hope for the best, though. Possibly against my better judgement but that may be the mark of a good writer.

    Or is Jane asking if that’s a bad thing?

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  37. Robin
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 21:20:22

    Robin, you're still talking about actions not emotions, though, when you say they should've divorced. So, what you're actually saying is that what you felt from the characters didn't pan out in their actions. That's not what emotional realism is about. The characters actions or lack thereof have nothing to do with it. It's the heart tug pure and simple that counts here. Does it get you or not? Is it real or not? Are the emotions genuine for the reader regardless of the characters choices?

    I don’t think you can separate the two. Especially in Romance, where the emotions are the main driver for the actions. Because you could rephrase my original comment to “if Romance were really emotionally realistic, more than half of these couples would be out of love with each other within 7 years,” which, of course, violates the HEA. And as a reader who doesn’t need the HEA in Romance, I can cut a lot of slack for the sake of “emotional realism.’ But I guess that depends on how each of us are defining that term, and that’s probably where the disagreement begins.

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  38. Robin
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 21:26:51

    I just have to post this link to Lydia Joyce’s blog post (written today): http://www.lydiajoyce.com/blog/?p=834

    I think it’s applicable to this discussion.

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  39. Jessica Inclan
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 21:52:12

    I am one sick puppy. I can’t stop looking in at this discussion.

    All I can say is thank you to all who have added their cents. I think that why we read romance or write romance is that we like the idea of romance. We want that “conversion,” that change, that moment where one gives over to the other.

    And so–damanged, tortured, co-dependent, old-school–our favorite characters lurch toward wholeness, using the other, not using the other, bettering themselves, selling themselves short. And we read on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. Oh, wait, that’s The Great Gatsby!

    Jessica

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  40. Robin
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 22:35:27

    We want that “conversion,� that change, that moment where one gives over to the other.

    I actually meant it literally — as two stories of religious conversion. Jane’s first, and then Rochester’s. And after Jane sees the light, so does he, at her hand (literally and figuratively). It’s just not a romantic book to me. Nor is Wuthering Heights, where Katherine basically has to die and transcend the burden of her own sexuality in order to have a stable relationship with Heathcliff. I’m glad others find them romantic, but I just don’t. Interesting, but not romantic in the way I find Pride and Prejudice romantic.

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  41. Janine
    Aug 07, 2007 @ 22:38:24

    I’ve been thinking about this subject all day, and the conclusion I’ve come to is that I don’t really care if the romantic relationship is healthy or dysfunctional, as long as the hero and heroine are better off at the end than they were in the beginning. I want believable and multi-dimensional characters in fresh situations, a good writing style and decent pacing. If I’ve got those four elements, I’m usually a happy camper.

    Oh, and The Great Gatsby? Maybe not a romance but surely a romantic book.

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  42. Tara Marie
    Aug 08, 2007 @ 04:32:06

    Fantastic post and discussion.

    I think there’s a line authors walk when they use the healing power of love plot. In and of itself love can’t simply heal, there needs to be some sort of process that perhaps love may be the catalyst for, but it can’t be the be all end all of a healing process.

    Love Robin’s definition of interdependence :)

    …it's fulfilling for women readers to see them [alphas] made powerless or helpless by their love for the heroine (remember in Dream Man where Dane goes through labor and morning sickness with Marlie?). I think we women often love to see these big tough alpha guys as slaves to love.

    Hmmm, interesting concept, and I agree it could be a strong motivation for liking Alpha heroes, but you’re example doesn’t necessarily work for me, I never thought Dane was a slave to love because Howard left me feeling he was more of an empath (remember Alex’s monologue about how solicitous Dane was with all women–he could leave a man bleeding on the side of the road to comfort a woman involved in an accident). Him being an empath kind of works with Marlies abilities–just my thought. Personally, I like a good Alpha grovel scene over a good slave to love one. A really good grovel usually leads to a great declaration of love :)

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  43. jaq
    Aug 08, 2007 @ 08:24:29

    Janine said: I’ve been thinking about this subject all day, and the conclusion I’ve come to is that I don’t really care if the romantic relationship is healthy of dysfunctional, as long as the hero and heroine are better off at the end than they were in the beginning. I want believable and multi-dimensional characters in fresh situations, a good writing style and a story and decent pacing. If I’ve got those four elements, I’m usually a happy camper.

    This pretty much sums it up for me 110%.

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  44. TaraGel
    Aug 08, 2007 @ 09:27:44

    Sorry I had trouble saving this comment. See below (after Jane’s response).

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  45. Jane
    Aug 08, 2007 @ 09:35:46

    Tara, what I objected to in your AccessRomance column was the idea that women could not write as smart as men. I felt like you made a gender based argument that male writers, on the whole, wrote better than female writers and that male writers wrote better women. I don’t believe that at all.

    I do think that the romance genre focuses too much on the development of the male character and not enough on the female character but to say that women aren’t asking the right questions of their characters and that men are is too broad a generalization not to mention a tad misogynistic.

    I think it was Gwen that said that this is too deep of analysis about love. It isn’t an analysis about love, but rather a look at the motifs that authors are portraying in their work. I.e., I haven’t bought a Bevarly book since she wrote what she did and I don’t think I can bring myself to buy another Showalter because the motifs that they seem to bring to their writing is that of a victimized woman made happy through love. The disturbing idea that the mother, who was made clinically crazy by her love for a man, would want to “heal” to be lovable by a man again, is one that I don’t care to read again.

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  46. TaraGel
    Aug 08, 2007 @ 09:39:33

    Interesting discussion. A few months back I posted on Access Romance’s blog a rant about not finding romance heroines very stimulating or memorable and finding smarter, more interesting heroines in the mystery genre. Ironically, I got lots of flack for that on this very website, but I think Jane understands my point and is at least partially making it as well here.

    She talks about how few of the romances she’s read have memorable heroines and posits that perhaps it’s because of this notion of love equaling completeness/happiness. I really wish there were more romances that espoused the view of what many of you here say: love should be another fulfilling element in an already full life. Too many romance heroines are depicted as broken and in need of fixing by love. I want to read books featuring happy (or at least satisfied) women who are taking care of their own business and loving themselves before a man sweeps into the picture.

    I also think if there were more of these kinds of stories, the folks who poo poo the sweeping gestures and larger than life characters (read: men) would find the genre as a whole to be more realistic.

    Perhaps I prefer heroines written by men because they don’t struggle with this riduculously pervasive idea that feminism is bad that women still have (i.e. “Oh of course I believe in equal pay, but I wouldn’t say I was a feminist!) Male authors, because of their inherent viewpoint of not having to consider this choice (since culturally men are expected to be happy either single or in a relationship), are free to create their female characters without this hangup.

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  47. TaraGel
    Aug 08, 2007 @ 09:47:12

    Jane, I was stuck in html editing/double-posting hell but I was trying to get to the point of why I argued that men seem to be writing smarter heroines (generally speaking). I think, as stated above, that this notion of love equaling completeness is just not a concept that males often espouse, thus they don’t write about soulmates very often (I guess Nicholas Sparks is the exception to the rule) and their female characters can have interesting lives, careers, family and friends and they don’t have to pale in comparison to or be swept aside by the grand romance.

    But maybe it’s a genre distinction…I go back and forth. Everything is supposed to pale in comparison to the romance in a romance novel of course. So maybe what I’m responding to in the male-driven mystery field is the fact that since romance is not supposed to be the main focus, I don’t have to feel like the author is suggesting it’s the big band-aid to misery. For a female sleuth, solving the crime is the big band-aid.

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  48. Read for Pleasure
    Aug 08, 2007 @ 10:46:34

    Cait London: At the Edge

    At the Edge feels strangely dated. Remember all the 1980s red-cover Silhouette romances with these themes?

    The isolated, powerless heroine is sometimes (even now) taken to such extremes that it seems to set up female dependence and long-suffering as the basis for a relationship. I think Jane on DearAuthor is right that the isolated heroine emphasizes a strange dichotomy of “Alone and Miserable or Together and Happy”. Fortunately, in At the Edge London puts her characters in isolation but doesn’t follow up with the rest of the trope…

  49. Bev(BB)
    Aug 08, 2007 @ 10:52:58

    I think it was Gwen that said that this is too deep of analysis about love. It isn't an analysis about love, but rather a look at the motifs that authors are portraying in their work. I.e., I haven't bought a Bevarly book since she wrote what she did and I don't think I can bring myself to buy another Showalter because the motifs that they seem to bring to their writing is that of a victimized woman made happy through love. The disturbing idea that the mother, who was made clinically crazy by her love for a man, would want to “heal� to be lovable by a man again, is one that I don't care to read again.

    But, Jane, what I’m not sure I understand is why this becomes an indictment against romances as a whole instead of simply a matter of personal choice to avoid that author again? The later I could understand because I’ve done it myself many times in the past. An author’s voice and choices in developing the romantic relationship simply didn’t work for me.

    And it’s not that I don’t agree with you about the concept at least with regards to real life but we are talking about fiction here. No, that’s not a cop-out. It’s a restatement of the fact that sometimes author’s voices and reader’s tastes do mesh in very odd ways that can’t be explained or described. There have times when I’ve run across situations and characters in romances that I’ve hated with a passion and as a result vowed never to read certain authors again. For the most part I’ve stuck to those vows with regards to the authors.

    The situations, though, are strickier.

    I guess it’s because it a lot more difficult for an author to win back a reader’s trust once they’ve lost it and that has to do with a certain comfort factor as much as anything else. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. But our perspectives with regards to situations do change and different authors can present the same basic situation in varying lights. Suddenly the same motivations and emotions seem completely different. Suddenly what made no sense before, makes sense. Suddenly we buy what we might not have bought before.

    Actions that I swore I’d never want to read again, I’m suddenly absorbed in reading. I won’t go so far as to say always liking but definitely reading. And feeling the emotions from. Understanding the emotions from. Identifying with the emotions.

    Is it false or real? I don’t know but I do know this, when I vow not to read an author because I don’t like the direction they take certain books I’m not passing judgement on their personal morality. I’m saying that my personal comfort level with that book and their writing style doesn’t mess. How they interpret those characters and their resulting actions are part of that style. That is something that is going to be consistent in a lot of their books. It is a choice that we as readers do have to make. Conciously.

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  50. RfP
    Aug 08, 2007 @ 12:24:41

    Nora Roberts: I believe in the power of love…. But the people inside that relationship have to interest me, too, and have my respect

    That says it very well.

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  51. sherry thomas
    Aug 08, 2007 @ 16:20:20

    Jane, this is a snippet from an old manuscript of mine.

    “Second, her perspective groom had to be of sound and benevolent character. Although a generous settlement and good pin money were essential to the welfare of her family, Louisa was not so completely altruistic as not to think of herself. Being a sharp and observant girl, she was quite doubtful of a woman's power to fundamentally change a man, once his initial ardor had cooled. Therefore, for the felicity of the remainder of her life, she planned to avoid a husband who needed strenuous reforms.”

    I wrote that story almost seven years ago. Even back then I firmly doubted the so-called “healing” power of love. Love cannot heal or change you. Love should hopefully make you see that you need to heal and change, and then you should hopefully undertake that journey yourself, the old-fashioned way.

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  52. Elizabeth Bevarly
    Aug 12, 2007 @ 12:04:23

    Boy, I really wish I hadn't been out of town last week. I would have loved to come into this conversation while it was still viable since Jane's blog uses one of my old ones to both open and close hers–and also, I feel, portrayed me unfairly as both an author and a woman. But I'm going to respond, even if it may be too late.

    I take the most exception to this paragraph: “Bevarly says that the message of feminism is “our choices were: A) Fall in love and be unhappy, or B) Remain alone and be happy.� Instead the choice that Bevarly presents is “alone and miserable or together and happy.� Bevarly offers the same limited choice, simply the obverse. Both opinions are both limiting. Bevarly presents the exact same fallacy. Falling in love does not automatically equal happiness just as much as being alone does not equal independence. Why can't Romance be about true love without that love being the only route to happiness?�

    First part of the paragraph first. I didn't say what you're saying I said AT ALL, as indicated by my use of the past tense in my statement, not the present tense. I said it WAS the Feminism of MY time (the 70s) that gave MY generation that choice. Could you please cite where *I* said our choices are “alone and miserable or together and happyâ€?? ‘Cause I sure as hell don't know where I said that. As for Romance, the literary genre, suggesting that true love is the only route to happiness, um, that's a cornerstone of Romance, the literary genre. Of course romance novels are going to promote the idea that people (both our heroines AND our heroes) won't be completely happy unless they find true love. The redeeming value of love, and equating love with happiness, has been a literary tradition for centuries. To suggest that women are going to get the idea from romance novels that the only way they're going to be happy is to be in a romantic relationship is like saying women who read romance novels are going to stay in an abusive relationship because they think they can change their partner. It's that “our readers can't distinguish fantasy from realityâ€? thing that drives me absolutely nuts.

    Look, I know I'm not the most popular author here at Dear Author, but I'd appreciate it if you guys would at least paint a fair picture of me. (The Avon Inspirational comment a while back, for example, was totally unfounded. If I were launching an Inspirational line, it would've been pretty fucking uninspiring, considering the fact that I'm an Atheist.) At no time did I say *I* think the ONLY way for a woman to be happy is to be in love with a man. To imply in your blog that that's my opinion is completely unfair. In the future, when you write about me (and I DO appreciate you keeping my name out there–and no, that wasn't sarcastic), could you at least double-check with me first to make sure what you're going to write is right? I’d appreciate that, too.

    Liz, whose husband, btw, IS a preschool teacher.

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  53. Robin
    Aug 12, 2007 @ 23:01:26

    Look, I know I'm not the most popular author here at Dear Author, but I'd appreciate it if you guys would at least paint a fair picture of me.

    I haven’t read any of your books, Ms. Bevarly, so I have no opinion of you one way or the other as an author. But I’m glad you weighed in, because I’ve always been curious about that particular column you wrote. Because I had a very similar reaction to Jane’s. I have a very different opinion of the state of Feminism in the 70s than you do, and I have a very different opinion of Romance. For example, you made the following statement in that column:

    Movies like “An Unmarried Woman� and “My Brilliant Career� (both of which I loved) told us in no uncertain terms that we had to make a choice: Either fall in love and remain personally unfulfilled forever, or live a solitary life and find complete personal satisfaction.

    Just to take one of those films, “An Unmarried Woman,” I didn’t take that message away from it at all. Rather, the message I got from that film was that Clayburgh’s character had to find herself as an *I* before she became part of another *we* — rather than jump back into a relationship in which she went back to all her old patterns and behaviors. In fact, I thought that film was so bold in the way it presented the idea that a woman *could be* happy outside marriage — that happiness was a choice that one undertook consciously and conscientiously. Not all the single women in that movie were happy, but Clayburgh’s character decides that *at that moment in her life — just out of a marriage* that she needed to have a measure of independence. Because her measure of happiness had always been that of a man’s — and that, IMO, is what she is trying to change. And I can absolutely see her character in a very happy relationship somewhere down the line.

    Of course this is all a matter of interpretation, which it seems to me is the point of this discussion. You made some statements — some very strong opinions — that several of us disagree with. I don’t see that at all as a sign of disrespect. As strong women, I would think we would be able to disagree strongly, too. I’m not sure where you perceive the unfair representation, but I certainly don’t intend any disrespect in my disagreement with your opinions. I just don’t find your views persuasive *for me*. I felt, as Jane did, that you were setting up a dichotomy as false as the one you were criticizing, regardless of whether you were talking about “then” or “now” — as the second half of your column was clearly concerned with the “now”:

    I hope society today is sending out clearer, better, messages to its young women, but sometimes I have to wonder. There is so much TV devoted to women who are willing to compete for marriage to a complete stranger.

    The way I read that, you were clearly interested in the “messages” of mass culture representations like reality television and, of course, films. Jane applied her interpretation of your comments to some examples she’s seen and is uncomfortable with in Romance. I don’t actually think she attributed to you the argument as it relates to Romance. But you did:

    As for Romance, the literary genre, suggesting that true love is the only route to happiness, um, that's a cornerstone of Romance, the literary genre. Of course romance novels are going to promote the idea that people (both our heroines AND our heroes) won't be completely happy unless they find true love.

    I know you go on to qualify that statement with this:

    To suggest that women are going to get the idea from romance novels that the only way they're going to be happy is to be in a romantic relationship is like saying women who read romance novels are going to stay in an abusive relationship because they think they can change their partner. It's that “our readers can't distinguish fantasy from reality� thing that drives me absolutely nuts.

    Okay. I see that on the one hand you are trying to say the women should be able to have it all, and that the way you viewed the Feminism of the 70s presented a certain message to *you* — I understand that. But where I think there’s some tension, and where I see the same kind of false dichotomy that Jane observed is in the idea that you can, on the one hand, assert that women aren’t getting certain messages from Romance, but they are from movies and TV. Or that Romance as a genre is offering the message that only through love can someone be happy, but you feel it is a misrepresentation to say that Jane attributed such a sentiment to you. I’m not trying to be facetious here, really I’m not. I’m simply a bit confused at your clarification, because to me it seems simply to dig in to the exact argument that you don’t want to be characterized as articulating.

    I don’t know if I can explain what I mean succinctly, but I’ll go back to the idea that if you are concerned with “messages” via the media, why does Romance get opted out of that? Now, I couldn’t agree with you more that the idea that women cannot distinguish fantasy from reality is horribly insulting. I hate that, too. But in the same way that you read a certain subtext from “An Unmarried Woman” or “My Brilliant Career,” why can’t any of us be reading certain subtexts in Romance? After all, this is a genre that represents women, is primarily concerned with the emotional lives of women, and is largely written by and for women. It absolutely has elements of fantasy, but it’s not ideologically neutral, and I think that’s what we are talking about here — and what you were talking about with your cinematic examples. And in the same way that we might not all agree about the messages those films you cited were sending, clearly there will be disagreement about the interpretation of certain messages we see in genre Romance. I disagree with Jane frequently, which IMO is fun, because at least we’re *talking* about the genre, not in confusing fantasy with reality, and not in resisting ideological brainwashing, but in looking more closely at a genre that takes as its subject the emotional happiness and well-being of women and men.

    And FWIW, I have a very different view of the “cornerstone” message of genre Romance. While I certainly agree with you that many Romances seem to imply that women will only be happy once they find true love, many, IMO, do not offer that message. I’ll never forget the end of Rangoon (and Avon book, BTW), for example; were Ram and Lysistrata happier in love? I’m not so sure. Love bound them, and it complicated them, and it changed them, and it incited their passion, but I had my questions about the happiness each character experienced because of that love.

    Thinking about choice, though, it seems to me that if choice is what’s primarily important, then *shouldn’t* our fantasies make room for that, too? Shouldn’t our idealized images of love provide for the empowerment of heroines to make autonomous choices, to have agency to find happiness in more than one place? I suppose it depends on what your particular fantasy is, but isn’t that one good reason to talk about all this to begin with?

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  54. Elizabeth Bevarly
    Aug 13, 2007 @ 07:59:01

    Hi, Robin.

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I do love the fact that my blog was able to generate such a lively, intelligent discussion again, even eight months after it was originally posted. But I also still feel it was at the expense of misrepresenting what I said in it.

    I reread my original blog before posting yesterday, and I reread it again just now. And I still don't understand how what I wrote could have been taken as me promoting the idea that the only way that a woman can find happiness is to fall in love with a man. All I said was that I resented the notion presented to me as an adolescent that the only way a woman can find happiness is to NOT fall in love with a man.

    I totally don't think anyone disagreeing with me is a sign of disrespect, and I, too, love intelligent debate. If I had indeed said what Jane is saying I said, and she disagreed with me, I never would have stepped in here. Hell, people have disagreed with my Squawk Radio blogs all over the ‘Net, and I've never jumped into the discussion, for the very reason that I respect their right to disagree with me.

    That's not what I took issue with here. What I took issue with is best represented by following statement that Jane made: “Instead the choice that Bevarly presents is ‘alone and miserable or together and happy.'â€? Jane even put that last part in quotes, as if it were something she were quoting me as saying, which is why I asked for a citation, because I never said it. Or, if I did, it certainly was taken out of context. All my blog said was that *I* thought my generation received certain messages from early feminism, and that I disagreed with them. I never went on to say that people have to be in love to be happy, but that's what Jane's blog was implying that I said.

    If people want to disagree with me about the state of Feminism in the 70s or the state of the Romance genre or the message of “An Unmarried Woman� (or the color of the sky, for that matter), I have absolutely no problem with it. But if people want to attribute feelings and beliefs and opinions to me that I simply do not have, then I have a problem. I said in a newspaper interview a decade ago that I like to think my characters are perfectly happy in their everyday lives before love enters into it, but that falling in love completes that happiness. (And again, it's the heroine AND the hero who always come to this conclusion.) My characters are never miserable without love.

    You do make a good point about my invoking the messages from pop culture references and then my invoking the reality/fantasy charge against romance readers. Perhaps that wasn't fair on my part. I did, however, say in my original blog that I and most women of my generation rejected the messages we received, and that I hope contemporary women will, too, which is something that romance readers also do when they read by staying grounded in reality.

    You close with this paragraph: “Thinking about choice, though, it seems to me that if choice is what's primarily important, then *shouldn't* our fantasies make room for that, too? Shouldn't our idealized images of love provide for the empowerment of heroines to make autonomous choices, to have agency to find happiness in more than one place? I suppose it depends on what your particular fantasy is, but isn't that one good reason to talk about all this to begin with?�

    I could not agree with you more. And I like to think that my books promote those very ideas. It isn't a disagreement with what I said that bothers me about Jane's blog. It's the fact that I never said what's in debate in the first place.

    Liz

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  55. Jane
    Aug 13, 2007 @ 08:24:25

    Ms. Bevarly,

    The quoted portion wasn’t meant to be a quotation of yours, but a summary of what I felt your thesis to be. It’s an editing error and I’ll certainly add a proviso in the article as that one sentence. However, I don’t see how one statement in the entirety of the column, when I started the article with three quoted paragraphs and linked to your Squawk Radio piece could be “failing to paint a fair picture of you.”

    I also don’t know why you presume that you are “not the most popular author here” as I think I’ve only mentioned you twice in the year and a half the blog has been in existence.

    I don’t necessarily believe that romance novels are intended to set the mores of the day or to provide guidance to young woman. Instead, I was exploring an idea that might explain why so few romance heroines held any long term significance for me. I had remembered your comment because it did resonate with me as something that might be an explanation as to why so many romances are constructed with the “true love is the only route to happiness” (your statement in the comments) theme, a theme that I think is tired and not really representative of contemporary relationships.

    When I read Showalter’s book, I was struck anew by this idea. I was horrified to read about this character, so clearly mentally ill who, in the course of trying to find mental health, determined to do it so that she could find true happiness in the arms of a good man. Particularly when her mental illness was brought about by the infidelity of a man in the first place.

    You did state that “our choices were: A) Fall in love and be unhappy, or B) Remain alone and be happy.â€? and “Why couldn't we fall in love and be happy? Nope, sorry. Not one of the choices, according to the world where I grew up.”

    So the construct that I interpreted that you present is that you fall in love and be happy or you are alone and unhappy. “Thankfully, I think most of us saw through that message and fell in love anyway.”

    In your comments, you go on to state:

    As for Romance, the literary genre, suggesting that true love is the only route to happiness, um, that's a cornerstone of Romance, the literary genre. Of course romance novels are going to promote the idea . . .

    It seems to me that you are making the argument here, in the comments, as to what I argued against in the first place. If “true love is the only route to happiness” then if you have no love, you have no happiness. (my emphasis added).

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  56. Elizabeth Bevarly
    Aug 13, 2007 @ 09:42:04

    Hi, Jane.

    I appreciate your adding a proviso to the part of your blog where you quoted me as saying something I didn't, but I wish you hadn't quoted me incorrectly to begin with, since this discussion seems to have run its course and many who participated probably won't see the correction. As for the unfair picture, it wasn't the one sentence that made me think that–it was, as you said, numerous references to what was, essentially, an opinion piece on my part, and the repeated suggestion that *I* was the one putting forth a choice to today's women that I actually said I thought was the choice given to me as an adolescent.

    As for the “true love is the only route to happinessâ€? comment I made, I admit that that was a poor choice of words (or, at least, word, singular–â€?onlyâ€? shouldn't be in there at all), one I picked up from reading the ensuing discussion (I think). Anyway, I don't actually think “true love is the only route to happiness,â€? and I really don't think that many of today's romance novels promote that idea, either. I certainly hope my books don't convey that sentiment. (I don't think they do.) I should have given more thought and care to that comment before making it, and I apologize for the way I contradicted myself there. (Nevertheless, I do think it's kind of unrealistic to point to a genre whose purpose is to celebrate two people falling in love and question why falling in love is such a huge part of the happiness quotient.)

    However, in your statement that I said: “our choices were: A) Fall in love and be unhappy, or B) Remain alone and be happy.â€?  and “Why couldn't we fall in love and be happy? Nope, sorry. Not one of the choices, according to the world where I grew up,â€? I did indeed say that. But I prefaced it in my original blog with the question (and I quote *G*): “Where did this come from, this idea that in order to be complete, we women had to be alone? That by falling in love and making a commitment to another human being, we were somehow diminishing ourselves?â€?, something that makes the A) and B) choice comment a part of the postulation.

    Wow, did that paragraph make sense? Probably not. What I mean is that I feel there's an implication in your blog that says my blog promoted the A) and B) choice above when, actually, my blog was questioning why that seemed to be our choice when I was young. In the same way that you interpreted what I said in my blog, I interpreted what you said in yours. I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree on content. :o)

    As for my lack of popularity at DA, it isn't only references made by you that have indicated I'm not particularly esteemed here. There have been comments from readers of the blog as well that have indicated that. (Like many authors, I regularly Google myself to see what's being said about me on the Web. We especially love that Blog search feature Google now gives us. *G*) And please don't take that as whining. I don't like everyone in publishing and every book that arrives in stores, so I don't expect everyone to like me and mine. I do, however, expect–or at least hope for–an accurate depiction of me and my books when discussed, so that people can decide for themselves. In this instance, in my opinion, I don't think the depiction is accurate.

    Liz

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  57. Robin
    Aug 13, 2007 @ 13:03:32

    And I still don't understand how what I wrote could have been taken as me promoting the idea that the only way that a woman can find happiness is to fall in love with a man.

    For me, at least, it started with what I thought was a misrepresentation of the “message” of 70s feminism and resultant media messages (I’m younger than you, but I was alive during the late 70s, although not old enough to watch R rated films — so I watched them well after they were released). Honestly, it felt to me like you were setting up this incredibly absolutist equation on one side — that to be complete a woman had to be alone — only to reject it for love. So yeah, because the first equation seemed to me an exaggeration, I read the implication of its opposite as equally absolute (i.e. falling in love = happiness). Then there’s the mention of “better” and “clearer” messages, combined with the picture of Cinderella and the following paragraph:

    Thankfully, I think most of us saw through that message and fell in love anyway. I mean, it's not like falling in love or not falling in love is a choice, right? We meet someone who loves and respects us as we are, someone who shares our hopes and dreams and desires, someone who makes our life better just by being in it, and what? We're supposed to NOT love them? Especially when loving them and being loved in return is a big part of what makes us complete? [emphasis mine]

    Taken together, I definitely read your column as a celebration of alone = lonely and together = happy. I can appreciate that you’re saying you intended to make a more nuanced argument (and I really appreciate you commenting here and trying to explain better what you were saying — even if I’m still a little confused about that, lol) and if I take the last paragraph of your piece in isolation, I can see its foundation there. And I do know the sense of unfairness in holding a blog post to the same standards of, say, a full-blown essay. In the limitations of time and space, it’s tough to be perfectly clear and consistent (god knows I don’t reach that can’t maintain that level of cohesiveness when I blog!).

    I also realize you never stated the exact words of my conclusory interpretation, but to me that’s the difference between what you say on a superficial level and what you mean as interpreted by any particular reader. Just like you took the superficial texts of two films and interpreted them in a *what they meant* way with your own statements about the messages you received from them. I’m not arguing with what you say was your intent; I’m merely saying that I interpreted the *what you meant* part as different from what you are saying you were saying or intended to say or whatever. And FWIW, I never thought Jane was quoting you when she made that one statement to which you objected, even though I agree that it’s much clearer with the notation after it. I can’t account for other people’s ways of reading, but I knew at the time that she was using the quotes to mirror the formulation of your own words and explain her interpretation of what you were saying (aka what your column meant to her). In those instances I will generally use the single quotation (‘) to indicate that I’m not quoting verbatim.

    Nevertheless, I do think it's kind of unrealistic to point to a genre whose purpose is to celebrate two people falling in love and question why falling in love is such a huge part of the happiness quotient.

    Really? My first reaction to this statement was “huh?,” but given the translation problems we’ve had, I’m not sure where this is coming from. On one level, I guess, I feel there’s a sort of tension in what you’re saying between, on the one hand, wanting to recognize the importance of independence and equality for women, but on the other, wanting to celebrate a fairy tale message of love = eternal happiness, with some slippage as to whether you’re talking about the fantasy realm or reality. Kind of like, ‘yeah, I agree that women should be able to choose their path to personal happiness, but love is still the answer’ (and I’m not quoting you, merely inferring from your comments).

    Anyway, as to the content of the statement, I’ll go back to what I said earlier in the comments, which is that for me, the Romance I find the most compelling is that which doesn’t hold love up as the universal emotional band-aid or the personal savior, but rather as an emotional bond that helps create an environment of mutual support and respect in which a person feels safe to effect their own growth and personal happiness. That love is part of the journey toward that sense of individual completion, but that simply being married or having someone love you isn’t the end all, be all. And that especially for women it isn’t the thing that gives them an identity (aka ‘he loves me so I must be okay’). My favorite Romances are those like To Have and To Hold, where Sebastian and Rachel save themselves, but offer a profound understanding and acceptance to one another wherein that process becomes easier and more worth undertaking. Of course Romance is a celebration of great love, but as we know from all sorts of popular media messages, like the TV dating/marriage shows you referenced in your Squawk post, love can be offered up in the strangest and even most twisted of ways (I keep thinking of Joyce Carol Oates’s story “Where are you going, Where have you been?” — based, incidentally, on a Bob Dylan song). One of the things that has always puzzled me about Romance is how central the social and cultural images of women are to the genre but how little we really seem to seriously discuss them. Or that when we do discuss them we tend to degenerate into a debate about whether books affect readers, etc.

    If we were to all sit down around a cup of coffee or a well-mixed martini, I suspect we’d find a whole lot more common ground on these issues that we seem to have in the artificial environment of electronic communications. Because we all seem to be on the same page about the fact that media and our culture mirror and offer images and attitudes about gender roles, sexuality, and other aspects of our social and political identities. Where we may differ, though, is in how we each interpret some of those messages, and how our own interpretations then shape our general perspective. And I know that when you endeavor to blog about a viewpoint, it is very difficult to be wholly clear and consistent in such a short space of time, so again, I appreciate your attempts to clarify some of your points here. It may be that we simply have to agree on the idea that women should always be given authentic agency to choose, and beyond that, we may have different opinions on what constitutes the “best” choice.

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  58. Robin
    Aug 13, 2007 @ 13:47:17

    For some reason, I can’t get in to edit my comments, so I apologize for all the whacky formulations and grammatical inventions.

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  59. Elizabeth Bevarly
    Aug 13, 2007 @ 15:56:13

    I agree with you, Robin, that if we sat down to chat (and make mine a Johnnie Black and water, please *G*), we would find much to agree on. That, I think, is the thing I dislike most about the blogosphere–that its brevity often prevents full discourse, and its written medium makes it impossible for us to use the vocal inflections and facial expressions that are so important in dialogue. (At least for those of us who use both to express ourselves.)

    But I don't know what to add in further response that I haven't already said. All I intended to convey in my original blog was that I don't think women have to be alone to be complete, and that I'm happy the women's movement is sending out different messages to my nieces' generation than it did to mine. If readers took something else away from that, they took something else away from it. As for the Cinderella pic I used with the blog, I chose it because it was iconic, not necessarily because I buy into the Cinderella thing. (Especially since my take on the Cinderella thing isn't that Cinderella sat around waiting passively to be rescued. It was that she was ultimately rewarded with true love because she remained strong during a life of adversity.)

    In any event, I appreciate the opportunity to step into the conversation even if, I fear, my entry may have come too late. It was a lovely discussion. I just honestly don't know what else I can add to it at this point.

    Liz

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  60. Robin
    Aug 13, 2007 @ 16:37:21

    I'm happy the women's movement is sending out different messages to my nieces' generation than it did to mine.

    I definitely think we’re coming along in effecting our own equality and freedom, but I gotta say, I appreciate the courage of people like Andrea Dworkin and Betty Friedan and Kate Millett and Gloria Steinem and other feminist activists for their willingness to rock the boat and put themselves on the line for some of the basic equities women possess today. I certainly don’t have what it takes to fight that hard for change.

    As for the Cinderella pic I used with the blog, I chose it because it was iconic, not necessarily because I buy into the Cinderella thing. (Especially since my take on the Cinderella thing isn't that Cinderella sat around waiting passively to be rescued. It was that she was ultimately rewarded with true love because she remained strong during a life of adversity.)

    LOL, so I should refrain from starting on my pet peeve about how Romance promotes the idea that people have to *earn* love?!

    FWIW, I don’t think any discussion takes place too late; it just gives us more to think about for other conversations about the genre.

    As for the drink, Maker’s Mark, neat, for me, please.

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  61. RfP
    Aug 13, 2007 @ 17:23:25

    To suggest that women are going to get the idea from romance novels that the only way they're going to be happy is to be in a romantic relationship is like… “our readers can't distinguish fantasy from realityâ€?

    I agree with you that women can distinguish between fiction and reality. At the same time, I think there’s a strongly norming element to the “happily ever after”s in most romance. (And norming can be confining in a genre in which many readers strongly enjoy identifying with the protagonists.)

    There’s the “ever” part of the happily ever after, in which couples marry after knowing each other for a very short time. Is immediate marriage really necessary to signal that their love is true?

    Why does it have to be forever? It can be true even if it’s not permanent. Particularly for young protagonists, I’d prefer to see them together but not promising forever. I’m satisfied with a happy ending to this phase of their lives; no need to show me more. In fact I was taught in school not to end a story with “The End” or an epilogue, because both of those stop the reader’s imagination from engaging with the possibilities. I still write like that :)

    Then there’s the miracle baby, and the epilogue with kids. Are kids so necessary to happiness and true love that they must be added to the story against all odds (infertility, etc)? In my reading, many romances portray children as key to love and happiness; some chick lit and the occasional romance portrays parenting as a strain; but it’s rare to find a couple who either accept or choose childlessness. (Crusie’s Bet Me being the obvious exception.)

    If I may twist your phrase, I think romance’s tendency to suggest “that true love [as shown in these social rituals] is the route to happiness” is worth more discussion. Because in some ways romance is very conservative about relationships and mores; the genre is full of these normative portrayals of how “true love = happiness” plays out in society. I think that’s a major reason for the growth of chick lit–there are readers who want less definite, less “marry ASAP, pop out the kids” style plots. (I’m somewhere between, BTW.)

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  62. Elizabeth Bevarly
    Aug 14, 2007 @ 09:16:31

    I totally agree with you, Robin. I keep getting the feeling that folks think I don't identify myself as a feminist, and that's not true. As many problems as I had with some of the early messages, I was always a banner-carrying feminist (I even had a subscription to Ms. magazine when I was twelve). I have an uncle who, before even saying hello to me when we meet, engages me in some kind of feminist debate because he knows how strongly I feel about women's issues. When I vote, it's with my two X chromosomes. I do still think we have a long way to go, but thankfully, we have some strong women who are still fighting the good fight. (We need more, though.)

    On earning, love, that's actually a literary tradition that goes back centuries, too. :o) Not that I believe that, either, but it IS something that's been written about for thousands of years. Romance is rife with such traditions. (I did my independent study paper on the Romantic period in 19th century literature and later used it for an RWR piece about how SEP’s IT HAD TO BE YOU fulfilled all the requirements of that literary movement. *G*)

    RfP, you make many good points, and I honestly can't disagree with any of them. But it occurs to me as I read over all of these replies again that, really, none of us is being fair to the Romance genre. Every book is different, and every writer is different, and every writer is going to bring to her books the things that are important to her. Simply by virtue of being drawn to write Romance, we're going to be the type of people who believe in the redeeming value of love, and we're going to be the type to believe that love IS an integral part of happiness. If we didn't believe that, we wouldn't be writing Romance. We wouldn't be reading it, either, quite frankly. If one doesn't believe that love is an essential part of happiness, then why is one reading Romance novels in the first place? Seems to me that if we didn't believe on some level that love contributes to our basic happiness, we'd roll our eyes at Romance novels and say, “Yeah, right,� and go to the mainstream fiction section of the store where there isn't any happiness. (Smiling here. Invoking sardonic tone of voice. *G*)

    And the things we writers experience in our lives are inevitably going to find their way into our books. When I and my sisters-in-law were all trying to get pregnant and having babies, I wrote about women who were trying to get pregnant or having babies. Having lost my father to Alzheimer's, I found myself writing about that in the book I just completed. Having a husband who was a stay-at-home dad for several years, I suddenly had a hero who was a stay-at-home dad. Writers who have gone through divorce or the death of a spouse may write about those things. And it's that diversity and richness of experiences and beliefs and opinions that makes the genre so much broader than any of the other genres out there.

    I don't think it's even conscious on our part, really. Speaking for myself, when I have a book bumping around in my brain, there's never a point where I think, “What do I want the message of this book to be?� Or “What do I envision as the theme?� There are just characters and situations in my head that need to be written about, and they're all a result of whatever is happening in my life, or what has happened before, or what I think/feel/believe/hope for.

    At the risk of sounding arrogant (which I think anyone who presumes to write something they think others will be interested in reading is *G*), when a writer sits down to write that first book, she isn't thinking of her readers. She's thinking of herself. Of the story she wants to read that hasn't been written yet. I think that stays true even after the first book. When you get right down to it, we writers aren't writing for our readers. We're writing for ourselves. And we're hoping others will like what we like for ourselves and join us on the ride.

    So to look to the genre for a universality in the area of messages or themes is kind of impossible. Because there are hundreds of people writing in this genre, and they're all different, so they're all bringing something different to their books. And those differences are going to be defined by what each person feels and thinks and believes and experiences. So why not just read the books and authors you love and simply enjoy the pleasure of the story?

    Sorry for the sudden rambling discourse. Blame it on the English degree. :o) And I seem to have contradicted myself again by saying we shouldn't look for a common thread in Romance, but that somehow, we're all united by a belief that love and happiness have something in common.

    I think perhaps I need more coffee. :o)

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  63. Robin
    Aug 15, 2007 @ 15:10:26

    On earning, love, that's actually a literary tradition that goes back centuries, too. :o) Not that I believe that, either, but it IS something that's been written about for thousands of years. Romance is rife with such traditions. (I did my independent study paper on the Romantic period in 19th century literature and later used it for an RWR piece about how SEP's IT HAD TO BE YOU fulfilled all the requirements of that literary movement. *G*)

    I have to admit that the last time I had any serious one-on-ones with the Romantics was while I was studying for my PhD exams many moons ago, so I’m definitely rusty when it comes to them. If you’re talking about English Romanticism, though, I honestly can’t recall romantic love as reward. Individual rights and freedoms, anxiety over the Industrial Revolution, the clash of faith and science, the role of the (male) poet in society, yes. But I don’t really associate romantic love as a reward until the sentimental/domestic literature of the mid (Victorian) 19th century, at which point things fluctuate between satiric representations of love and morality plays (embodied well, IMO, by the wonderful Shamela by Fielding and its play on Richardson’s bleak Pamela). The infusion of morality into the equation, the idea that virtue = virginity, is exactly the kind of thing I object to in contemporary genre Romance. That, for example, if a woman sleeps with too many men, she’s a slut (and therefore the villainess), or if a woman doesn’t want children she’s a shrew (and therefore the villainess), or if a woman wants a career and a relationship she’s selfish (one of the long-standing complaints that some readers make about Eve Dallas, btw).

    Where I do see the kind of parallel you’re talking about, though, is in classical Comedy, where you often have a pair of lover-protagonists who overcome a series of obstacles and antagonists, with a marriage at the end. But within their historical and literary context, I think those tales are less about love and more about societal stability, fecundity, and political allegory. Not that marriage hasn’t been traditionally associated with social stability, and I think you can really see that in Romance, especially where the couple have to battle some sort of degeneracy in the older generation, but again, I see these as more on the level of society than as “virtue rewarded” for the individual lovers. Or rather that the type of virtue rewarded I often flinch at in Romance is tied more directly to the moralizing in sentimental fiction from the 19th century (The Yellow Wallpaper, say) — the idea that there are certain virtuous characteristics of women and that if she wants love she must reach certain standards of morality (i.e. virginity, desire to have children, etc.). That’s where things get sticky for me. But then I have fundamental problems with associating certain societal standards of morality with personal worth to begin with. Even while I accept that certain behaviors must be rewarded and deterred within the context of a social contract and civil society, I tend to see those as more practical than romantic. Like in fairy tales — isn’t Disney basically the innovator of the “someday my prince will come” fantasy? I always view traditional fairy tales as more focused on social norming (e.g. don’t wander off by yourselves, children, lest you get eaten by a wolf or baked in an oven).

    I’m curious about your project, though, especially since I find SEP one of the most interesting combinations of conservative and progressive values in her writing. Feel free to explain your project in more detail; it sounds very interesting from the hint you provided here. Especially since I’m so rusty on literary Romanticism.

    Simply by virtue of being drawn to write Romance, we're going to be the type of people who believe in the redeeming value of love, and we're going to be the type to believe that love IS an integral part of happiness.

    I think the kind of distinction some of us are trying to draw here can only be communicated through an extensive analysis of many Romance novels. But taking Jane’s mention of the Showalter excerpts, there’s an example of a character who seems to me to define her worth based on whether a man loves her. In other words, her sense of happiness is connected directly to the *external approval* of a man. I’ve read books with heroines end up with guys who in RL would be labeled batterers, but who are happy to be completely overwhelmed by a so-called “alpha” male and who portray the image of a woman basically “battered by love.” That makes me very uncomfortable.

    I don’t think anyone who enjoys Romance rejects the power of love or the happiness that the couple enjoys in their life together. But I think there’s a tendency in the genre to suggest that characters (especially women) can ONLY be happy if they’re loved by a romantic partner — that their lives are only worthwhile if they’re in a relationship. I think love can offer incredible things to people, including a sense of unconditional support for personal growth. But I am uncomfortable with the message that one can be *made happy* by love, which IMO is not only illusory, but it’s not very healthy. Who wants to be in a relationship with someone who only feels worthy if you love them? IMO that cheats both partners.

    I don't think it's even conscious on our part, really. Speaking for myself, when I have a book bumping around in my brain, there's never a point where I think, “What do I want the message of this book to be?� Or “What do I envision as the theme?� There are just characters and situations in my head that need to be written about, and they're all a result of whatever is happening in my life, or what has happened before, or what I think/feel/believe/hope for.

    I don’t care how intentional of a writer someone is, no one can control everything that appears in their writing, so I agree with you that many things are communicated unconsciously into fiction. And many things are interpreted a certain way because of a unique mix of reader and book; readers bring our own stuff to books, and books present things beyond their authors’ intention. That’s why I pay little attention to what authors intended when I read.

    That said, though, I really do wish there was more mindfulness in genre Romance — more reflection on the part of authors on both the craft level and the content level. I think we’d see fewer stereotypes and more innovation. And just to be clear, I’m NOT talking about paying attention to what readers want. IMO the genre is already TOO focused on meeting reader expectations (to its detriment, btw). I’m talking about authors being attentive to what they want to express in their books, to ensuring coherence of character, plot, and theme, and to thinking about tropes they want to use and how they’re being used. Because let me tell you: as a reader, I can enjoy a book with a message that IMO is reactionary if the book is thoughtful and consistent than I can enjoy a book that accords more directly with my own values but that is inconsistent, incoherent, and sloppily crafted. And quite honestly, I tend to get the most irritated by the “message” of a book when it seems sort of “mindlessly” presented (i.e. not really thought out by the author). Yes I know I can’t always tell as a reader whether a book is thought out by its author, but in general, I do think thoughtful books are recognizable as such. Judith Ivory’s Black Silk, for example, reads like an incredibly thoughtful book. So does Patricia Gaffney’s new book Mad Dash. I have no idea what the actual writing process is like for either author, but their work *feels* consciously crafted to me. And I like that; I trust that as a reader, and I’m more likely to go on a journey when I feel like I’ve been invited into a fictional world that has been created with respect and care. Sort of like how I want a chef in my favorite restaurants to put a dish together with consideration of the individual ingredients, a sense of how they will marry in the dish, and the conscious attention to the overall effect of the culinary experience.

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