Mar 25 2008
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A legitimate criticism of romance as serious literature is it’s often cavalier treatment of important life topics. Too often, war, separation, human indignity, are treated as plot devices, conflict mechanisms, and not given the attention and treatment those important issues deserve. How many romance books are thought provoking? How many challenge your personal concepts of right and wrong? How many portray multi hued individuals as both heroic and villianous? Surely within the umbrella of the romance genre, there is room for these books.
Now, this is not to say that I think we should be preached to. Nor am I saying that romance should be about more serious issues. What I am saying is that the lack of these types of books within the genre does not help its image as frivolous literature.
Let me provide some examples. I tend to shy away from books about war and terrorism and I think that either authors are not writing these books or publishers are not buying them because I’ve seen a decline. The Navy SEAL became, for a short time in romance literature, a shorthand for alpha male protector in the contemporary romance ouvre. The problem is that too many of our personal lives have been touched by soldiers in combat and therefore the ability to read these romantisized versions has become less easy.
On Sunday, the death toll in Iraq for American soliders turned 4000. It is more lives than was lost in 9-11. And as we passed the 4000 mark, the 4001 death will be quickly upon us. The death toll of soldiers doesn’t even begin to tell the story of loss. It doesn’t tell us of the loss of Iraqi life. Or the losses continue once the soldiers return homebound. Because mental illness is not one that is measured by CT Scans or MRIs or some other objective test, it is often dismissed as un important but a military task force reported that 38 percent of soldiers “report psychological concerns such as traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder after returning from deployment.”
So many books give male heroes a military background without having that experience mark them in some way. It is common for both contemporaries and historicals to feature these war heroes whose missions in battle have no affect on them when they return. Is that really plausible? I don’t believe so. Could anyone could live in combat zones with the mission of kill or be killed and come out unchanged?
There are a few books that deal with emotional traumas like Suzanne Enoch’s England’s Perfect Hero (Hero is a PTSD sufferer) or Carla Kelly’s Beau Crusoe (man stranded for five years). I am sure that there are others that I can’t recall at this point, but the majority of romances don’t deal with the consequences of choosing a particular backdrop such as experience in combat. It’s not dissimilar to discussions we had last week about the worldbuilding issues that are weak within the genre.
Take, for example, the villian. Almost all romances contain a villian. Some very bad, very evil character who thwarts the happiness of some character. Villians are caricatures at times and authors have employed different standard devices to show how truly bad they are. Villians usually have perverse sex (sometimes incestual sex). They often times treat women and animals poorly. They are infidelitous. The problem with using villians as a plot device is that it creates some hard and fast rules about the good and the bad. One thing that I appreciated about Joanna Bourne’s The Spymaster’s Lady was the portrayal that not all French were bad and not all English were good. Linda Howard’s villian in All the Queen’s Men killed people, wreaked havoc on lives, engaged in illegal arms trade, but all to save his daughter. It made him moderately redeemable.
It is not just with the war that romance trivializes important concepts. I stopped reading Christina Dodd because of her series of three adopted children and their search for each other. Dodd’s treatment of adoption in the book was cursory at best. I don’t know if she spent time talking to adopted children or reading books about adoption, but the characters lacked any emotional realism of the issue that could have been used effectively to move the emotional arc. However, in the first two books, it was clear to me that the topic of adoption was merely a plot device and not one that was going to be dealt with in any deeper emotional context. For me, as an adopted child, this trivialization of an important emotional and social topic was too demeaning. (I’ve since started reading Dodd again in her paranormal iteration because hers is a voice I enjoy).
The point that I am trying to make is that there are few romance books that take on serious social concerns and actually deal with those traumas. Instead of just giving a character a job or a backstory and not dealing with consequences, I want authors to choose deliberately. If you are going to make your character a soldier, ask if the soldier will have any post combat difficulties either in connecting with other people or coping with the day to day activities of life. If you are going to make a character adopted, why not use the issues of abandonment, separation, identity issues, to make a more poignant character arc. This is not to say a book can’t be frothy and light, even if the hero is a soldier. It just that I want, as Jan said last week, for authors to have thought about the repercussions of giving the hero that backdrop.
I don’t think world building is about explanations either. It’s about, as you say, adding the right amount of detail. But crucial to that detail is consistency. Writers don’t need to put the system of religion on a page unless it’s necessary for the reader to understand the story. But if a writer refers to anything religious, they’d darn well better think of the repercussions of the choice they’ve made.
In High Noon by Nora Roberts tries to address the issue of agoraphobia of the heroine’s mother and how that affects the romance between the hero and heroine. Kathleen O’Reilly tries to address the issue of loss in 9-11 in Sex, Straight Up. Can a New Yorker ever get past 9-11 when the city won’t let it. It was a very touching question.
I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for froth, fun, and entertainment. I love those books just as much as the next person. I am saying that the inability or unwillingness to really understand and tackle the serious issues that romance authors blithely use to further the action or create tension is a weakness in the genre. This, of course, is not an issue that is solely germane to romance. John Rickards, an acclaimed thriller writer, stated much the same thing about his own genre, urging his fellow authors to move beyond doing unspeakable things to children in writing just for the drama of it.
We’ve covered how crime can tear a family apart many times. There have been hundreds of books in which suspicion falls upon the wrong individual. I doubt there is anything more to say about the tragic loss of a child that hasn’t already been said.
I enjoy some emotional justice as much as the next person. In Lynne Connolly’s Rose and Richard series, Rose is a poor village girl who ends up marrying very well. At some point, Rose and her husband, the delicious Richard, return to Rose’s village with great pomp and circumstance, rubbing the locals’ collective nose in her good fortune. It’s a great scene. So I am not advocating for the removal of villians or the removal of emotional justice. I am advocating for more romances to tackle, seriously, hard issues and morally ambiguous characters. I think there is room under the tent for them and I think that those books would lend some grativas to the genre.