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Why I Don’t Read Romance

Why I Don’t Read Romance

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A Valentine’s Day Confession

I don’t read romance novels. That is, I usually don’t. I have, but I don’t do it as a rule. I know a lot of romance authors and I completely respect what they do, but I find the genre to be a minefield of problematic depictions that I just don’t care to navigate. Let me explain.

Now I’ll start by saying that I love a handful of books that could be classified as romance. I’ve read the Sookie Stackhouse novels all from cover-to-cover. I’ve read Shakespeare’s comedies, which pretty much all end in a wedding (with the exception of Love’s Labors Lost, which ends in death). I’ve read The Fault in Our Stars. I’m not adverse to love stories. My books all have love story sub-plots. The problem I find with the romance genre is, that in want of conflict to fill 50,000 words, authors fall back on unhealthy relationship behaviors that make the endings of these books really hard to get behind.

A Minefield of Problematic Romance

Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey are the obvious culprits, but they are not alone. They go on praised by so many because the romance audience has been conditioned to accept the unhealthy behaviors depicted within by decades of novels that came before them. Jealousy, stalking, and emotional abuse are common devices that romance writers use to show passion and drama and try to prove that these two are the one true pairing. I was asked to review a book last year that I read; I gently told the publicist she would rather I didn’t post about it, a romance where the nice guy turned out to be a demon and the jealous, abusive estranged friend got the girl. And I know this is bad romance and that there are plenty of other good romance authors out there, but trying to find a healthy romance is like playing Russian Roulette with a mostly-loaded gun.


Getting Personal

I have an incredibly healthy marriage. And it’s not because we don’t ever fight. My husband and I are best friends. We argue, sure, but we never raise our voices or swear at each other. We never make personal insults when we argue, and though there may be tears when we get into conflict, it’s not because we’ve dragged this on for days, fighting dirty to win—it’s because we’ve had a real moment of emotional honesty. We’ve never had a screaming fight like you see in the movies, and nobody has ever broken dishes or furniture during an argument. It’s not that we aren’t tempted to do any of these things, but we know that crossing that line is fruitless. It will only hurt us by getting in the way of open and mutually productive communication. And maybe that’s boring, but it’s love. There’s no jealousy or possessiveness. We have lives away from the home that we bring together every night. We trust each other to have friends of the opposite sex and to go places without the other. It’s not an adversarial relationship. We’re a team. We communicate on everything.

So maybe that’s why it bothers me so much to read unhealthy romance. Or maybe it’s because I teach high school and I know those kids who devour one book after another—those kids who are learning about friendship and setbacks and violence and love from between the covers of a library book. I don’t want those kids to read one toxic relationship after another and think, “This is what my life needs, someone like Christian Grey.”

Not even Jamie Dornan, fine as he is, should be allowed to treat a girl like Christian Grey treats Anna.

Not even Jamie Dornan, fine as he is, should be allowed to treat a girl like Christian Grey treats Anna.

A Question of Plot

And that’s why I don’t tend to read a book unless there’s something else going on. A Comedy of Errors has crazy twin shenanigans, The Fault in Our Stars has cancer, and Sookie Stackhouse, busy as she was with vampires, werewolves, and witches, never let the men in her life get away with treating her like crap, and she didn’t ever go back to Bill after he cheated on her (in the books.) What these titles have in common is that they have other things going on to fill out the story. The romance is an integral part of all of these stories, but we don’t need to fill two hundred pages with nothing but will-they won-they.

Red Flags

I briefly considered starting a club for “Women for Higher Standards in Romance,” but I have enough to read without having to screen books for this club. So instead here’s a brief litmus test.

Your Romance is Problematic If:
  1. He/She disrespects the boundaries of their love interest by showing up when asked not to or calling after being told to leave their pursuit alone.
  2. The couple is downright cruel, making personal attacks when they argue.
  3. Words are ever used to make the other party feel lesser due to their sex or sexuality: bitch, slut, whore are examples.
  4. They cheat to avoid commitment, but then learn the error of their ways and pledge loyalty.
  5. Someone is outwardly jealous, acting out when their love interest has a friendship with someone whose gender is their sexual preference.
  6. After being rejected, one party continues to perform surveillance on their love interest.
  7. Someone ends the relationship for one reason or another, but then acts unfairly when their love interest moves on.
  8. The phrase “you’re mine” is uttered unironically.
  9. There is ever physical violence between the couple outside of sparring in controlled training exercises.
  10. There is ever threat of physical violence between the couple.
  11. There is ever non-consensual sex. This includes getting someone drunk or impersonating someone else to gain consent.
  12. There are ever non-consensual  sexual acts. This includes pinning someone to a wall and forcing a kiss on them or fondling them after they’ve already pushed a hand away.
  13. Someone threatens suicide to get the other to stay.
  14. One or both parties regularly lie to each other.
  15. A party clearly in the wrong tries to use past trauma to guilt the other into resolving the fight, rather than admitting fault or apologizing.
  16. One partner tries to control the other, limiting what they eat, where they go, or who they see.
  17. There is a disparity of power that causes one party to be unable to consent to the relationship. This especially includes age (such as a seventeen year old girl with an immortal four times her age).

This list is not exhaustive, but it definitely rules out a large portion of the romance genre. Twilight hits a few items on this list, and Fifty Shades of Grey hits nearly all of them. I don’t have a problem with relationships like these being depicted in literature, but I do have a problem with the author and the fans pretending this is an enviable relationship and failing to recognize it for what it is: unhealthy.

So instead of normalizing this crap, let’s write good romance! Tell me, do you know of any titles that don’t flip the alarms on this list?

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