YA Romance By Any Other Name

| Wednesday, January 2, 2013
Today's Tune: Hurt

Here are some statements I hear fairly frequently: Young adult lit is full of so much ROMANCE. Everything is romance romance romance. Interesting stories are ruined by romance. Girls spend too much time shipping or swooning and not enough time focusing on the IMPORTANT parts. Too many authors are latching on to genres that used to be GOOD (dystopian, science fiction) and turning them into stupid kissing books.

I have a few (okay, many) thoughts on this subject.

First: I'm not going to argue that there isn't a lot of repetitive, derivative, or poorly-crafted genre romance in the YA section. Of course there is. Not denying it at all. There are a lot of abusive, misogynist, and frankly rape-y relationships masquerading as "true love" floating out there. I'm not trying to convince anyone who dislikes romance as a genre that they should like it.

However, I do feel that there's a combination of factors going here -- 1) the assumption that the slightest hint of romantic tension means a YA book is "a romance," 2) pressure on female YA authors to portray relationships in certain ways, 3) a general sentiment of romance = for girls = stupid and boring, and 4) teenage girls being interested in crushes (literary or otherwise) means very bad things because having crushes apparently means they can't brain anymore or something.

I'm not saying that anyone who dislikes a romantic plot/subplot is being a misogynist jerk. There are many romantic storylines that I personally can't get behind for whatever reason, and that's fine. There are a number of readers for whom heterosexual romances just don't speak, as well. I also think there's a disconcerting and ever-present trend of feeding young women (most women, really) the idea that in order to be complete and taken care of, they need a male life partner. It's a damaging mindset and one that's most definitely worthy of criticism.

With that said, it does become ever-tiresome to me that if a lady writes a book containing even the slightest hint of romance, the book seems to be automatically lobbed into the "girly romance" pile. It doesn't matter how many male authors write books with significant sexual and romantic threads -- unless they SAY their book is a romance, it ain't a romance. Men have very DEEP THOUGHTS on humanity and philosophy and love, guys. But women who write about kissing? Bleh, more romance, YAWN. Doesn't matter that there are a dozen other storylines in the novel, all that matters is that she included romance, which means ROMANCE ROMANCE ROMANCE.

I regularly wonder about the pressure on female authors to not only amp up romantic elements in their stories, but make sure those romantic elements play out a certain way. It can be very difficult as a new author to step up to the plate with a book that doesn't fit neatly into expectations, and there can be significant pressure to change details to make something "more palatable" or "less upsetting" (translation: more kissing, more eye-gazing, less permanent break-ups or dying). I don't have the insider insight, and I'm not sure how much of this is conscious or not, but it's definitely there.

There also seems to me to be a significant focus on the "obsession" of teenage girls over their infamous "shipping wars." I've heard over and over that they spend all their time focusing on "Team Cute Boy" and that this means they're just being silly and missing out on MORE IMPORTANT THINGS. This always feels like "your sexuality is making you stupid" to me. I'm not saying some girls (and women) don't take things too far, but more often than not, it seems like a control thing.

I disapprove of not being able to dictate who you're attracted to! I don't like that you think about making out with fictional characters! I have no idea how this affects me at all, but apparently it's very important that you stop it and only care about things I say you're allowed to care about! You could be SAVING THE WORLD if you weren't writing fan fiction! LIKING BOYS GIVES YOU BRAIN DAMAGE.

Tell me again how this isn't another form of controlling female sexuality by making girls feel stupid and ashamed of it? I mean I can't remember the last time someone said that people were incapable of focusing on the other themes present in Star Wars because they thought Luke and Leia were hot together. Even after the twins thing came out.

Sigh. So. Yeah.

If romance really isn't your thing, that's cool, you know? If romance subplots are your least favorite, that's fine. But their inclusion does not render a book worthless or stupid or "another derivative romance YA." I'm right there with you in that I look forward to finding books with wonderful stories and great characters and different sorts of relationships. Just... can we stop ignoring the romantic plotlines in male-authored YA novels because their books have "more important" themes and acting as though any woman who dares write a makeout scene is subjecting you to the ABSOLUTE DREGS OF THE LITERARY PILE? Could we stop that, please?


{ Yael } at: January 2, 2013 at 6:50 AM said...

It's not that I mind romance (though it's never my favorite part of the book)--it's that I don't like how "the love interest" has become a staple in YA, to the point where most of them are downright boring. I want to see more books where he's "character" first and "love interest" second (Cinder). I want to see more GRADUAL romantic development (Chime), so that by the time the romance happens, you already know the characters and are actually cheering for them to be together. (Remember 10 or so years ago, when you had to wait 3 books before the characters kissed?) I want more complicated relationships (Liar), and for authors to give relationships an opportunity to fall through without making one of the love interests evil. But mostly, I would like to see the market become more open for books that don't have so much as a kiss. I think friendship is a much more interesting dynamic than romance, and I would like to see more of a focus on that.

(Also, for the record, I can think of a few examples of MALE protagonists who allow girls to impair their ability to not be idiots.)

{ S.E. Sinkhorn } at: January 2, 2013 at 7:56 AM said...

I agree that there's a lot of "not good" romance out there, and that there are lukewarm relationships that would be stronger with better characterization. I suppose my issue comes in when a romance IS well-written, or DOES have strong characterization, but people are still like "ew romance gross it ruins everything." But then they'll turn around and gush over Mr. Literary Guy whose book is teeming with his obsessive love, but that's "deep."

{ prerna pickett } at: January 2, 2013 at 9:07 AM said...

great points! I agree with all of it. There is danger in portraying the end-all be-all romance at times because young girls are impressionable and assume there's only one perfect person for them out there, which is so not true. But I also love a well-written, realistic romance and think there's nothing wrong with anyone wanting some more in their reading.

{ Andrew Leon } at: January 2, 2013 at 10:23 AM said...

I think part (a lot) of the problem is the readers, though. For instance, all I ever hear about Hunger Games (which I haven't (and am not going to) read)) is the stuff about the romance. Team pita bread or whatever or, um, that other team. It doesn't matter what else is in the book if all the readers can talk about is which guy the female lead should hook up with.
Just sayin'.

{ Stephanie Ingrid Sarah Kristan } at: January 2, 2013 at 10:28 AM said...

"If romance really isn't your thing, that's cool, you know? If romance subplots are your least favorite, that's fine. But their inclusion does not render a book worthless or stupid or "another derivative romance YA.""


Also, while we're not "ditto-ing" Yael's comment exactly, we do love and agree with the examples of good relationships that she gives (CINDER and CHIME).

{ gchisom } at: January 3, 2013 at 7:51 AM said...

Hi! Delurking here to say thank you so much for writing this, and I agree completely. I've felt for a while that there's a strand of criticism of YA that basically amounts to trivializing and belittling teenage girls for being passionate and enthusiastic about certain things, and especially about romance. And one of the things I remember most clearly about being a teenage girl is feeling belittled and trivialized, and that hurts. It gives girls the message that their thoughts and feelings don't matter, which seems to me to defeat the purpose of what YA lit should be trying to do.

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